The Dead Will Rise
“Do you believe that, after you die, your physical body will be resurrected someday?” When asked that question a few years ago only 36 percent of a large survey group answered yes. By contrast, 63 percent were “absolutely certain that Jesus died and physically rose from the dead.” Statistics suggest that a strong majority of Americans believe that Jesus rose from the dead. But only a minority believe that they will experience a resurrection. More strikingly, less than 60 percent of evangelical Protestants who profess a born-again faith have confidence in a personal resurrection. Albert Mohler, commenting on these numbers, says they are “evidence of the doctrinal evasiveness of today’s churches.” He goes on to say that “the vast majority of Americans simply have no idea that the Bible clearly teaches a doctrine of personal resurrection and that the claim is central to the Gospel itself.” 1
The modern misunderstanding and under appreciation of the resurrection is a tragedy. If Christ is not raised, Christianity is empty because it cannot deliver the eternal, embodied lives that we desire (1 Cor. 15:14, 17). Those who adhere to the Christian religion without expecting a personal resurrection “are of all men the most pitiable” (v. 19).
For the biblical writers from Moses (Ex. 3:6; cf. Matt. 22:29–32), Job (Job 19:26), and David (2 Sam. 12:23) to Peter (1 Pet. 1:3), Paul (Phil. 3:21), and Jesus (Luke 20:34–38), fellowship with God in resurrected bodies is the terminus of God’s promise to be with his people. God’s original approval of body-and-soul humans (Gen. 1:31) makes a strong point: full restoration from the fall has not happened until God’s children enjoy intimate camaraderie with God and other humans in the flesh. The Bible’s message of hope is grounded in the expectation of restored humanity, body and soul.
Will the Dead Rise?
The biblical doctrine of the resurrection has always been a cultural faux pas. The view of the ancient Greeks (Acts 17:32), the Sadducees contemporary with Jesus (Matt. 22:23; Acts 23:32), and modern materialists reflect the assumptions many people have about the life to come: either the spirit eternally outlives the body or both the spirit and body are destroyed at death. By contrast both the Old Testament (Isa. 26:19; Dan. 12:2–3), and especially the New Testament teach that at the return of Jesus the bodies of all people will be re-created in order to stand before his seat of judgment.2
It is easy to understand why, when insisting on a doctrine that was unpopular (if not unheard of), misunderstood, counter-intuitive, and foreign to experience, the biblical writers grounded the doctrine of the general resurrection in the resurrection of Jesus (see 1 Cor. 15:1–18). God has “begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3). To Paul the resurrection of Christ was “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3).
In the classic text on the resurrection, 1 Corinthians 15, Paul both declares and defends the bodily resurrection of Jesus. His strongest proof is the testimony of still-living witnesses. The church at Corinth was quite removed from the events of Passion Week. Like subsequent Bible readers, many Corinthian Christians were Gentiles who had never been to Jerusalem and had never met Christ in the flesh. But Paul doesn’t just adjure them (or us) to believe that Christ had risen “because I told you so.” For those interested in doing the research, hundreds of people could personally confirm that what Jesus announced beforehand had indeed come to pass: after dying, Christ arose (Matt. 20:19; cf. 27:63). These eyewitnesses saw Jesus of Nazareth—a man the Roman government confirmed to be dead (Mark 15:44–45)—walking, talking, eating, and teaching. Christ did not rise from the dead “in a corner” (Acts 26:23, 26)—in the shadows of obscurity—but on a public stage under Rome’s watchful eye. Christ’s death and resurrection were a “public spectacle” (Col. 2:15), an open-door triumph over the principalities and powers of darkness and death. To Paul, and many others of his day, denying the resurrection would have been as unseemly as denying the Holocaust, the stories of thousands of living witnesses notwithstanding.
Paul adds to the testimony of the eyewitnesses the changed lives of himself and the other apostles. Paul offers this puzzle over his changed behavior: how could a person who so vehemently “persecuted the church of God” now labor for Christ “more abundantly” than anyone else (1 Cor. 15:9–10)? The only solution is to grant that Jesus—whom Paul first believed to have died as an antichrist—appeared to him in the splendor of resurrection glory (Acts 26:12–18). The testimony of the other apostles was similar (cf. Luke 24:11 with Luke 24; 36–42). Prior to the resurrection the disciples were fearful and reticent. After Jesus arose they demonstrated unexpected boldness and faithfulness. Only the resurrection can explain why Paul and the other disciples would “stand in jeopardy every hour” (1 Cor. 15:30), dying daily (v. 31).
As further evidence Paul could have mentioned the various resurrections in the Old Testament (1 Kings 17:21–22; 2 Kings 4:32–35; 13:21) and the New Testament (Luke 8:49–56; John 11:38–44; Matt. 27:50–53), the mystery of the empty tomb, the otherwise inexplicable advance of the church, and the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit.3 Beyond reasonable doubt, “Christ is risen from the dead and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20).4 As I write, in early spring in the Midwest, most trees and shrubs have yet to bloom. But some, like the forsythia, are a “firstfruit.” Like Christ’s resurrection, they pledge that a long, dark winter is almost over. A time of new life is coming! This is the logic of Jesus’ apostles. “If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11). By faith “we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him” (1 John 3:2); he will “transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body” (Phil. 3:21).
How Will the Dead Rise?
The idea of a bodily resurrection seems a foreign concept. Calvin admits, “There is nothing more at variance with human reason than this article of faith.”5 And yet, says Paul, we see illustrations of the resurrection all around us. A sort of resurrection happens every time a seed is planted. To those who make light of the resurrection on the ground that “resurrections don’t happen,” Paul is strong: “Foolish one, what you sow is not made alive unless it dies” (1 Cor. 15:36). For a seed to become a new plant it must not remain as a seed; it must decay and undergo a change in attributes. In the same way, for a human body to become something new it must not remain as it is. In the ordinary case the body must die. It must be planted in the ground and decay. With this analogy Paul makes two main points.
Resurrection Bodies Will Be Similar to the Bodies of This Present Age
Paul writes, “To each seed its own body” (v. 38). The body, planted in the ground at death, is like a seed. The fully mature, flowering tree realized at the resurrection will be in every way superior to the seed, but it will be identifiably based on the template of the original body. A corn seed does not yield an oak tree. Christ’s empty grave indicates the “substantial identity between His body that was buried and His resurrection body.”6
To anticipate material from a later chapter, the continuity of resurrection bodies with our current “natural” bodies (v. 44) suggests also a great continuity in the age to come with the kinds of lives we live now. In the future age God’s children will have eyes to take in the majesty of the new heavens and earth, ears to listen to the pleasant sounds of the restored creation, and hands and feet to cultivate the earth (see Gen. 2:5).
Resurrected Bodies Will Be Different from Bodies of This Present Age
The dead will be raised according to a change in attributes (1 Cor. 15:42–54). After Christ’s resurrection his friends could still tell: “It is the Lord!” (John 21:7). But they could not doubt that he had changed. He now entered rooms through shut doors (John 20:26). Paul uses technical, often misunderstood language to describe this change. “The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. 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” (1 Cor. 15:42–44).
The contrast of which Paul speaks is precisely not between being physical and non-physical. Paul’s argument, in fact, is that in the age to come resurrected believers will be more truly physical than they are now, more well-tuned to the multifaceted physicality of the world, like the body of the second Adam (v. 45). In this life, believers are governed by an ever-renewing spiritual life, but they do not have transformed spiritual bodies to match. Presently believers live transformed spiritual lives in heavy, corrupted, dishonorable bodies. In the age to come believers’ bodies, while physical, will be perfectly suited to their spiritual life in Christ. When Paul says that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (v. 50), he is not saying that in the kingdom of the coming age believers will not have flesh and blood. He’s saying that our present bodies must “all be changed . . . corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality (vv. 51, 53).
We need to be changed. We don’t need to prove this. We get uncomfortable looking in a mirror; how could we look into the blazing majesty of God without being first changed? God’s Old Testament demand of flawless sacrifices anticipated the spotless Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world. But it also suggests the way in which God will transform—not only through sanctification but much more through glorification—the bodies and souls of believers so that in the age to come they will have “no spot or wrinkle or any such . . . blemish” (Eph. 5:27). Jesus describes believers who have “attain[ed] that age, and the resurrection from the dead” as being “equal to the angels and are sons of God, beings sons of the resurrection” (Luke 20:35–36). By this Jesus meant that resurrected bodies are not subject to decay nor are they able (for there is no need) to sexually reproduce. Their very physical bodies will be perfectly suited to the blissful conditions of eternal shalom.
What Difference Does This Make?
The implications of the resurrection might seem obvious. But Paul ends his grand resurrection chapter with a few vital takeaways.
Believers Anticipate a Fully Embodied Eternity
Jesus’ teaching on the resurrection “is shaped by one great principle, that the kingdom of God and the salvation it brings cannot stop short of the complete reclaiming of men, body as well as soul, from death, nor of their complete equipment for the consummate fellowship with God in heaven.”7 God’s promise of eternal fellowship is made to humans, not merely to souls. The deep desire of humanity—the culmination of God’s promise—is to commune with God to the fullest capacity of our humanity. The fulfillment of this promise requires resurrected bodies. “The raising of the body marks, as it were, the final admission of the completely restored man into the enjoyment of the fatherly love of God.”8
The Resurrection Removes Death’s Sting and Cancels the Grave’s Victory
Death leaves a permanent sting when it strikes a person who seemed to have no interest in Christ and no known aspirations for eternal fellowship with God. Hollow indeed is the sound of earth striking the wooden coffin containing the remains of a person who left this life negligent of God’s will for happily entering the life to come. Hades seems victorious.
But when Paul writes about God’s promise to resurrect the bodies of believers he describes it as a victory over death (1 Cor. 15:54), an annulling of death’s victory (v. 55). Christ came to earth to subdue enemies, those things which are out of order in God’s world, the last of which is death (1 Cor. 15:25). In some ways Christ has already put death under his feet. He has conquered it in his own resurrection. He has turned death into the servant of believers; death for believers is a sort of resurrection, an “entering into eternal life.”9 When Christ returns death itself will be no more.
The Resurrection Steels Believers to Persevere in Meaningful Labor
Because of the resurrection life that Christ brings, all of our actions have implications that outlast this life. The resurrection rescues believers from the fear that our mundane tasks are nothing but vanity (v. 58). In the age to come, saints will rest “from their labors,” but “their works follow them” (Rev. 14:13). The resurrection urges us to pursue the myriad activities we can do “in the Lord” while avoiding works that are truly vain.
One day our flesh and blood will be reunited to the earth; we all will either gradually wear out or die suddenly and unexpectedly. The only suitable redemption from that state is the very redemption promised in Scripture, the resurrection of the body.
1.What is notable about the data that indicate that people believe in the resurrection of Jesus but not in the resurrection of themselves?
2.Why is Paul so negative about a sort of Christianity minus the resurrection of the body? (See, e.g., 1 Cor. 15:14–19.)
3.Why do the biblical authors so closely connect the general resurrection with Jesus’ resurrection?
4. Note how they do so in texts like 1 Peter 1:3, Romans 8:11, 1 John 3:2, and Philippians 3:21.
5. Read 1 Corinthians 15:35–49 and interact with Paul’s illustration of a seed.
6. How does this illustration support our understanding that resurrected bodies will be both similar to and different from our current bodies?
7. How does both this similarity and dissimilarity encourage you?
1. Al Mohler, “Do Christians Still Believe in the Resurrection of the Body?,” April 7, 2006, http://www.albertmohler.com/blog_read.php?id=600. Other polls show higher numbers of belief. “The Ipsos Reid survey (2006), commissioned by CanWest and Global News, found that a strong majority in both Canada (73%) and the United States (78%) indicated they believed Jesus Christ ‘died on the cross and was resurrected to eternal life.’” Lifesight News, accessed November 6, 2017, http://www.lifesitenews.com/ldn/2006/apr/06041905.html.
2. While the Bible’s emphasis is on the resurrection of the redeemed, it also insists that the unsaved too will stand before God in the flesh (Mark 9:43–48; Matt. 10:20; John 5:29).
3. See John Calvin, Institutes, 1.7.4–5.
4. For an excellent, brief defense of the resurrection see Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), 209–21.
5. Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989), 2:46.
6. Geerhardus Vos, Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos,ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980),320.
8. Ibid., 320.
9. Heidelberg Catechism,Q/A 42 (cf. John 5:24; Phil. 1:23; Rom. 7:24–25).
Rev. William Boekestein happily serves Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, MI. He has written several books, including Why Christ Came: 31 Meditations on the Incarnation (with Joel Beeke).