In my previous article on the resurrection of the body, I noted several general features of the Scripture’s teaching regarding this event. The hope of Christian believers for the future is not only that they will experience unbroken fellowship with Christ in the state intermediate between death and resurrection, but also that they will be given a share in the power of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. All believers look forward to the great day of resurrection, when all who belong to Christ will have a part in His resurrection victory and be given bodies like His glorious body.
This event, the resurrection of the dead, will occur at the time of Christ’s second advent, when He comes to judge the living and the dead at the end of the age. For believers, the resurrection of the body will be a climactic participation in the great saving work of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In the resurrection, believers will be granted the fulness of indestructible life in communion with God. What believers today experience in part, as a kind of downpayment upon their full inheritance which is still to come — fellowship with God the Father through Christ and in the presence of His indwelling Spirit — will then be fully enjoyed.
However, I concluded that article by acknowledging that this compels the crucial question: what is it to be raised from dead? What will be the nature of the resurrection body, so far as this is disclosed to us in the Scriptures?
There are two ways by which we can arrive at an answer to this question. One way would be to focus upon the accounts of Christ’s resurrection to see what they might tell us about the resurrection. Since the believer’s resurrection body will be fashioned after the pattern of Christ’s glorious body (Phil. 3:20–21), this is one legitimate way to proceed. Another way would be to consider those passages that speak rather directly of the nature of the resurrection body. In what follows, I will follow both of these ways, though the second will receive greater attention.
THE NATURE OF THE RESURRECTION
Careful study of the accounts of Christ’s resurrection and subsequent appearances to His disciples allows us to draw some conclusions regarding the nature of the resurrection body. The accounts of the resurrection, for example, consistently witness to the fact that the tomb in which the Lord’s body was laid was, by virtue of His being raised from the dead, now empty (Matt. 28:6; Mark 16:6; Luke 24:3, 6; John 20:1–10). The same body in which the Lord suffered and was crucified is now raised and glorified. The truth of the empty tomb authenticates the conviction that the resurrection was not a spiritual event separable from what happened to Jesus’ body in the tomb. There is a genuine continuity between Jesus’ pre-resurrection and post-resurrection body (not bodies).
Consequently, when the risen Lord appeared to His disciples after the resurrection, they were able (despite their perplexity and initial unbelief at times) to recognize Him, identify the marks of His crucifixion, and even enjoy a meal with Him (compare Matt. 28:9, 17; Mark 16:9–14; Luke 24:11, 16, 31; John 20:19–23, 27–29). In the account in the Gospel of Luke, all doubt as to the reality of the Lord’s resurrection body is removed, when we read the Lord’s words of rebuke to His startled and frightened disciples who “thought that they were seeing a spirit”:
Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have (w. 38–39).
Though we need to beware the temptation to draw too many hard and fast conclusions from these accounts, it does seem clear that, whatever the differences between the glorified and pre-resurrection body of Christ, there is a substantial and real continuity/similarity.1
In addition to these accounts of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, there are a few passages that speak more directly of the nature of the resurrection body. In 2 Timothy 2:18, there seems to be an allusion to false teachers in the early church who taught that the resurrection had “already taken place.” These teachers apparently spiritualized the resurrection and were confusing the faith of many. The apostle Paul likewise makes an important comment on the resurrection in Philippians 3:20–21 :
For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.
This passage not only establishes the important principle that the believer’s resurrection body will be conformed to Christ’s, but it also contrasts the humble condition of our present bodies with the glorious condition that will be ours in the resurrection. Our present bodies exhibit all the marks of sin and God’s curse — they are weak, decaying, fragile and temporary. Our resurrected bodies will exhibit all of the marks and benefits of Christ’s saving work — they will be strong, incorruptible, indestructible and enduring.
A similar contrast is drawn in 2 Corinthians 5:1–9, where the believer’s present body is described as an “earthly tent” that, after it is dissolved or torn down, is replaced by a “building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (v. 1). This passage then goes on to utilize another metaphor for the difference between the present body and the resurrection body, just as the present body compares to the resurrection body as an earthly tent to a heavenly building, so it compares to the resurrection body as a being clothed-with-mortality to a putting-on-the-clothing-of-immortality. However, the one passage which most extensively draws the contrasts between the present body and the resurrection body is 1 Corinthians 15:35–49. Because of the importance of this passage to our understanding of the nature of the resurrection body, I will quote it in full and then make some observations base upon it.
But someone will say, “How are the dead raised? And with what kind of body do they come?” You fool! That which you sow does not come to life unless it dies; and that which you sow, you do not sow the body which is to be, but a bare grain, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body just as He wished, and to each of the seeds a body of its own. All flesh is not the same flesh, but there is one flesh of men, and another flesh of beasts, and another flesh of birds, and another of fish. There are also heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one, and the glory of the earthly is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So also it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living soul.” The last Adam became a life-giving spirit. However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural; then the spiritual. The first man is from the earth, earthy; the second man is from heaven. As is the earthy, so also are those who are earthy; and as is the heavenly, so also are those who are heavenly. And just as we have borne the image of the earth, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.
Without pretending to exhaust the complexity and richness of this passage, there are several themes that relate to the primary question with which the apostle Paul is concerned — “with what kind of body do they [those raised from the dead] come?”
First, the apostle uses the metaphor of the seed that is sown and its eventual germination and bringing forth of fruit to illustrate the connection between the present body and the resurrection body. However great the difference between the seed sown and the fruit that it eventually bears, the seed and the fruit are of one kind. Accordingly, the apostle elaborates at some length upon the obvious differences in the kinds of flesh that distinguish various creatures. The resurrection of the body is likened to the dying of a seed in order that it might thereby come to life in the form of its fruit. This means that the resurrection body is of a distinctively human kind. When God raises believers from the dead, their bodies, however new and changed, remain distinctively and peculiarly human, according to their kind.
Second, a series of contrasts are drawn between what the apostle terms this natural or earthly body and the spiritual or heavenly body. These terms are not used to draw a contrast between a body that is made up of “material stuff” with a body that is made up of “spiritual stuff,” as if to suggest that the resurrection body will be immaterial or non-fleshly. Rather, they are used to sharply distinguish the present body as one which belongs to the present age which is passing away and under the curse of God, and the resurrection body which belongs to the life of the Spirit in the age to come. The distinction is not between material and immaterial bodies, but between two kinds of bodies that answer to the present age and the age to come. Consequently, as we shall see in a third observation below, the apostle bases his description of these two bodies upon the two respective heads of humanity — the first man, Adam, and the second man, Christ.
What is especially important for our purpose is to note the kinds of contrasts that are drawn between the natural and the spiritual body. Four contrasts are drawn. The earthly body of this present age is sown perishable, the heavenly body of the age to come is raised imperishable. When death, the final enemy, has been defeated and the consequences of sin and God’s curse have been removed, the liability of the body to perishing, to decay and corruption, to dissolution, will be vanquished. The earthly body is sown in dishonor, the heavenly body will be raised in glory. By contrast to the tarnished and dimmed condition of the present body, the resurrection body will be splendid and striking. The earthly body is sown in weakness, the resurrection body will be raised in power. The fragility and vulnerability to destruction of the present body will be replaced by the enduring and indestructible power of the resurrection body. And finally, the present body is natural, the resurrection body is heavenly. All of these contrasts together combine to paint a striking picture of the glory of the resurrection body with which believers will be clothed at the last day. This body will be of a human kind, to be sure, but not like anything believers have seen or known in this life — a body no longer ravaged by sin and its consequences, a body that will be a fit and enduring building in which to dwell and enjoy unbroken (and unbreakable) fellowship with Christ and those who are His.
Third, in the closing section of this passage, the apostle bases his description of these respective bodies upon the contrast between the two original bearers of these bodies the first man, Adam, and the second man Christ. There is an intimate and close correspondence between the first man, Adam, who is “from the earth,” and the earthly bodies of those who bear his image. Likewise, there is an intimate and close correspondence between the second man, Christ, who is “from heaven,” and the heavenly bodies of those who bear His image. Adam and Christ represent two humanities. The first humanity is under the dominion and liability of sin — meaning, it is subject to perishing, dishonor, weakness and death. The second humanity is under the dominion and blessing of salvation meaning, it is the recipient of imperishability, glory, power and never-ending life. This passage, though in a more extensive and detailed manner, confirms the teaching of the Scriptures on the nature of the resurrection. When Christ returns at the end of the age, the dead will be raised. Some, the unjust and unbelieving, will be raised unto judgment. Others, the just and believing, those who belong to Christ, will be raised unto glory. The nature of this resurrection will be like a seed that is sown and dies, and is raised, according to its kind, in newness of life. The resurrection body of believers will be conformed to the glory of Christ’s. This body will not be wholly dissimilar to the present body. There will be similarity and continuity. It will be the body as it has now been raised or glorified, not an altogether new and unrelated body. Furthermore, it will be a real body, material and fleshly, not immaterial and spiritual in a sense that denies the continuity between the present body and the resurrection body. However, it will be a body so conformed to the image and glory of Christ that no vestige of the power and destructive effects of sin will remain. As the apostle so eloquently puts it at the close of 1 Corinthians 15:
But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (vv. 54–57).
THE RESURRECTION/RENEWAL OF ALL THINGS
One of the concomitants of the second advent of Christ is the renewal of all things, the cleansing of this sin-cursed creation and the recreation of a new heaven and earth. Though we will have occasion in a forthcoming article to consider this event, the relation of the resurrection of the body to this renewal of the creation merits brief attention here. The kind of continuity between the pre-and post-resurrection body of the believer that we have discussed in the preceding finds its counterpart in the continuity between the present and the renewed creation.
In the biblical understanding of the future, the resurrection glory of the believer will coincide with what might be called the resurrection glory of the new creation. Not only do these realities coincide, but they are also closely linked in their significance. If the salvation of believers includes the restoration of body and soul to a state of integrity and wholeness, then it must also include the full restoration of the creation. Just as man was originally formed from the dust of the earth and placed within the creation-temple of God in which he was called to serve and glorify the Creator, so also will man in redemption be restored to a place of life and service, under the headship and dominion of the second Adam, in a newly cleansed creation temple.
For this reason, Romans 8:18–23 describes the creation as being under the same “slavery of corruption” that afflicts believers in their present bodies of humiliation. The term used to describe the corruption of creation in Romans 8 is used in 1 Corinthians 15:42, 50 to describe the corruption of the body. Accordingly, the creation’s present groaning under the power and curse of sin mirrors the groaning of the believer. The creation itself likewise waits eagerly for the revelation of the sons of God, because the redemption of God’s children is a redemption in which the creation itself participates! The future liberation of creation from its present corruption and bondage will only occur in conjunction with the believer’s liberation from corruption and death. The link between the resurrection of the believer and the renewal of the creation is an intimate one. The renewal of the creation is the only context or environment within which the resurrection glory of believers in fellowship with Christ can be appreciated and understood. Without the glorification of the creation, the glorification of the new humanity in Christ would be an isolated and strange event.
This intimate link between the believer’s resurrection and the renewal of the creation allows us to see the unity between what we have called individual and general eschatology. It also joins together the salvation of the church and her members with the great events of cosmic renewal that will accompany Christ’s return at the end of the age. Indeed, there is a legitimate sense in which the justification and sanctification of the believer find their parallels in the justification and sanctification of the heavens and earth in the new creation. Just as the Lord declared the first creation in its state of integrity very good (Gen. 1:31), so the renewed creation will be worthy of the same judgment. And just as the first creation was perfect and holy in its consecration to the Lord, so the renewed creation will be one “wherein dwells righteousness” (compare 2 Pet. 3:10–13). Justified and sanctified saints will dwell then in a justified and sanctified creation. A people holy unto the Lord, a royal priesthood, will enjoy fellowship with the Lord in the sanctuary of His renewed creation.2
There are two further matters that I would still like to address regarding the resurrection of the body. The first matter concerns a recent debate within North American evangelicalism regarding the resurrection of the body, a debate provoked by the writings of Murray J. Harris, professor of New Testament exegesis and theology at Trinity International University. This debate has raised afresh and is illustrative of a number of important questions regarding the resurrection of the body. The second matter has to do with some of the pastoral questions that often arise in connection with the biblical teaching regarding the resurrection. These questions, among others, are: What do the Reformed confessions say about the resurrection of the body? What implications does the confession of the resurrection have for the way Christian believers should treat and regard the bodies of those who are deceased? Will the resurrection body be sufficiently similar to our present bodies that they will be recognizably ours? What about the resurrection of bodies which have been utterly destroyed through cremation or some other means? And what about the resurrection of those who die in infancy or whose bodies (and minds) were deformed or handicapped through illness and disease?
Though I would not pretend or promise to be able to answer all of these questions, some of them need to be at least considered before we take up the next concomitant of the second advent of Christ, the final judgment.
1. Some of these differences are suggested in the accounts in the Gospel of John. When Mary Magadalene first recognized the risen Lord and clung to Him, John records the Lord’s words to her, “Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” Subsequently, when the disciples were gathered on the evening of the day of Christ’s resurrection and “the doors were shut…for fear of the Jews,” Jesus suddenly comes and stands in their midst. Similarly, in the other accounts of Jesus’ resurrection appearances, He comes and goes at will. Too much should not be made of these accounts, so far as the nature of Christ’s resurrection body is concerned. The circumstances are unique. Christ is in a transitional period between the time of His resurrection and ascension/glorification at the Father’s right hand. However, these accounts allow us to see that it is the same Jesus who died that is now alive. And yet, He now exists in the glory and power of the resurrection. I will return to some of these questions in a subsequent article.
2. In a previous article, I noted that Norman Shepherd in his article, “The Resurrections of Revelation 20” (Westminster Theological Journal 37/1 [Fall, 1974]. pp. 34–43), links the first resurrection enjoyed by believers in fellowship with Christ with the implied second resurrection which he takes to be the creation of the new heavens and earth. This linking of two resurrections, one of the believer and the other of the creation itself is warranted by the teaching of passages like Romans 8:18–23 (compare 2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1; 1 Cor. 15:42, 50).
Dr. Venema teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, IN.