This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.
“It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.” 1 Corinthians 15:44
I used to teach history at a private Christian school. Like many schools in the classical education movement, we couldn’t afford our own building and had to rent from a church. One day as I was walking to my classroom, I stumbled over a piece of paper in the hallway. Stooping to pick it up, I saw that it was a hand-out from one of the church’s Sunday school classes, titled “Ten Great Doctrines of the Bible.”
I found myself intrigued. I knew that the church had Gnostic leanings, so I was curious to see how they would handle the doctrine of bodily resurrection. However, as I scanned the Ten Great Doctrines of the Bible I soon discovered that the doctrine had not made it onto the list.
Well, I thought, maybe resurrection is mentioned under something else, like salvation. Reading the section on salvation, I saw these words: “Salvation deals with the afterlife, heaven, hell, and whether or not it is safe to die.”
After that I decided to try the doctrine of “Future Things.” Maybe resurrection would make an appearance here. However, echoing the section on salvation, the paper said that the doctrine of future things dealt with “the end of the world, and eternity.”
I stood there in the hallway reflecting on the words, as students filed past me into their classes. How sad, I thought, that the entire Christian hope had been collapsed into fire assurance. How strange that salvation was being reduced to escaping to heaven for eternity and that the teachers of this class had not found it necessary to even mention the hope of bodily resurrection.
It would be nice to be able to say that the teachers at this church were an anomaly within the evangelical tradition. However, the truth is that this Sunday School class reflected a widespread move within the evangelical church towards a belief structure that is more Gnostic than Christian.
No Physical Bodies?
I began this series on Gnosticism and Evangelicalism by sharing a Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll which found that among those who consider themselves to be ‘born again’, only 59% answered yes to the question: “Do you believe that, after you die, your physical body will be resurrected someday?” Reflecting on the pole, Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, commented, “I continually am confronted by Christians, even active members of major churches, who have never heard this taught in their local congregations.”
Mohler is not alone. Many pastors find that their congregations are completely illiterate when it comes to the doctrine of our future bodily resurrection. Although Christ’s physical resurrection is affirmed and celebrated every Easter, when it comes to our own resurrection it is often assumed that this is simply shorthand for salvation – a salvation that does not culminate in the renewal of the body, but involves some sort of eternal disembodiment. This is implicit in the section ‘What is Death?’ from McGuffey’s New Fourth Eclectic Reader of 1868.
“How beautiful will brother be
When God shall give him wings,
Above this dying world to flee,
And live with heavenly things!
The idea here – and which can also be found in countless 19th century hymns – is that the goal of salvation is to flee from this world, and those things associated with it (including, of course, materiality). For example, in his 1974 publication, Where on Earth is Heaven?, Arthur Travis stated, “The fact is, we shall not live in physical bodies after death. …we shall not need or desire the things associated with our present physical bodies, simply because we shall not possess physical bodies in heaven.” Travis was followed by Leon Morris who wrote in his commentary on Revelation, “…we must not understand that the heavenly city will be as material as present earthly cities.”
Radio broadcaster Tony Alamo made this explicit in his article ‘The Art of Spiritual Communication,’ when he wrote, “The way we communicate with the material world is with our bodies. The way we communicate with the spiritual world is with our spirit.”
These ideas derive more from Gnosticism and Platonism than orthodox Christianity. Plato, like many other Greek thinkers, saw the body as a tomb or a prison-house. In an excellent article titled ‘Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead?’, Oscar Cullmann contrasted this Greek and Gnostic notion of the body with that of the Christian and Jewish understanding:
If we want to understand the Christian faith in the Resurrection, we must completely disregard the Greek thought that the material, the bodily, the corporeal is bad and must be destroyed, so that the death of the body would not be in any sense a destruction of the true life. For Christian (and Jewish) thinking the death of the body is also destruction of God-created life. No distinction is made: even the life of our body is true life; death is the destruction of all life created by God. Therefore it is death and not the body which must be conquered by the Resurrection…. The Greek doctrine of immortality and the Christian hope in the resurrection differ so radically because Greek thought has such an entirely different interpretation of creation. The Jewish and Christian interpretation of creation excludes the whole Greek dualism of body and soul. For indeed the visible, the corporeal, is just as truly God’s creation as the visible. God is the maker of the body. The body is not the soul’s prison, but rather a temple, as Paul says (I Corinthians 6:19): the temple of the Holy Spirit! The basic distinction lies here. Body and soul are not opposites. God finds the corporeal ‘good’ after He has created it.
Confusing Orthodoxy with Innovation
So ingrained have these Gnostic ideas become that orthodox theology now strikes many as strange and innovative. Although we may still consider Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to be the only canonical gospels, our theology often more resembles the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas.
When N.T. Wright offered his magisterial defence of the resurrection in his 2003 publication, The Resurrection of the Son of God, I remember reading of one pastor who was inspired by the book to preach a sermon on the future hope that God would one day raise the bodies of all believers. Afterward the sermon someone came up to him and asked what this new-fangled teaching was all about, as if the doctrine of resurrection was an innovation to the Christian tradition.
In 2008 when N.T. Wright published another book, Surprised by Hope, setting forth the historic Christian hope of physical resurrection and popularizing some of the ideas he had covered in The Resurrection of the Son of God, ABC news ran a curious report on it. They referred to Wright’s idea that “God will literally remake our physical bodies” as “a radical departure from traditional belief.” Think about how extraordinary this statement is. Though the Apostles’ Creed professes belief in “the resurrection of the body”, and though the Nicene Creed contains the statement, “We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come”, this doctrine is now assumed to be not just a departure from traditional Christian belief, but a radical departure from it.
As this suggests, the secular community now routinely assumes that a Platonic doctrine of disembodiment is the traditional Christian hope. To give another example, in the book Death and the Afterlife, biochemical researcher Brian Innes observed that “current orthodox Christianity no longer holds to the belief in physical resurrection, preferring the concept of the eternal existence of the soul, although some creeds still cling to the old ideas.”
The secular community can perhaps be excused for failing to understand Christian orthodoxy. What is really scandalous is the way Platonic ideas about the body have infected the church.
The “Spiritual Body” Will be Physical
Part of the problem hinges on a misunderstanding of St. Paul’s words in his first letter to the Christians in Corinth. Paul opened chapter 15 with a defence of our blessed Lord’s resurrection against those who were denying it (1 Cor. 15:1-19; 29-34). But Paul’s mind moved naturally from Christ’s resurrection to the resurrection of all believers (15:20-28; 50-58). Thus, the chapter ends with the famous promise that we will be changed in the twinkling of an eye at the last trumpet (15:52).
In the middle of this discussion about resurrection, the apostle applied himself to a question that some people had apparently been asking, namely what will the resurrection body be like? His answer to this question occupies the middle section of the chapter from verses 35-49. The tricky words occur in verse 44 when Paul is contrasting our present bodies with our future resurrection bodies. Paul writes, “It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.”
Given the associations we have with the term ‘spiritual’, it has been easy for many people to assume that the antithesis Paul is talking about here is between a physical body and a non-physical body. For example, in their book Heaven: A History, McDannel and Lang contend that
The resurrected bodies of Pauline thought are not material but “spiritual.” The bodies of those Christians who happen to be alive at the time of the resurrection will be changed “in a twinkling of an eye” into spiritual beings that are immortal….The physical body (in contrast to the resurrected body) may be compared to a tent or garment where the ego, the soul, lives. According to Paul, God will prepare another home or garment for the soul after the death of the body.
Many of our translations of 1 Corinthians 15 do make it seem that Paul is contrasting a natural physical body with an incorporeal spiritual body. For example, the Revised Standard Version even makes this assumption explicit when it translates verse 44 to read: “It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.” However, this is to completely misunderstand the Greek. In his book Surprised by Hope, Tom Wright explains this passage from the original Greek:
“He speaks of two sorts of body, the present one and the future one. He uses two key adjectives to describe these two bodies. Unfortunately, many translations get him radically wrong at this point, leading to the widespread supposition that for Paul the new body would be a spiritual body in the sense of a nonmaterial body, a body that in Jesus’s case wouldn’t have left an empty tomb behind it…. The contrast he is making is not between what we would mean by a present physical body and what we would mean by a future spiritual one, but between a present body animated by the normal human soul and a future body animated by God’s spirit…. Resurrection, we must never cease to remind ourselves, did not mean going to heaven or escaping death or having a glorious and noble post-mortem existence but rather coming to bodily life again after bodily death….”
The first word, psychikos, does not in any case mean anything like ‘physical’ in our sense. For Greek speakers of Paul’s day, the psyché, from which the word derives, means the soul, not the body.
But the deeper, underlying point is that adjectives of this type, Greek adjectives ending in –ikos, describe not the material out of which things are made but the power or energy that animates them. It is the different between asking, on the one hand, “Is this a wooden ship or an iron ship?” (the material from which it is made) and asking, on the other, “Is this a steamship or a sailing ship?” (the energy that powers it). Paul is talking about the present body, which is animated by the normal human psyché (the life force we all possess here and now, which gets us through the present life but is ultimately powerless against illness, injury, decay, and death), and the future body, which is animated by God’s pneuma, God’s breath of new life, the energizing power of God’s new creation.
This is why, in a further phrase that became controversial as early as the mid-second century, Paul declares that ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit God’s Kingdom.” He doesn’t mean that physicality will be abolished. “Flesh and blood” is a technical term for that which is corruptible, transient, heading for death. The contrast, again, is not between what we call physical and what we can nonphysical but between corruptible physicality, on the one hand, and incorruptible physicality, on the other.
The early church, which spoke Greek as its native tongue, understood these distinctions. In fact, the distinction between physical resurrection and a purely ‘spiritual’ nonphysical resurrection was absolutely central in dividing the true Christians from heretics like the ancient Gnostics. It was the early Christian’s understanding of physical resurrection which, perhaps more than any other doctrine, served to polarize the church of the canonical tradition from the anti-creational orientation of the Gnostics.
Not only Irenaeus, but Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, the writers of the Didache, Justin Martyr, Tertullian and many other early Christian writers went to great lengths to make clear that the bodies of departed Christians will be raised in a way comparative to the resurrection of our Blessed Lord. This doctrine found expression in the Nicene Creed and was reaffirmed in frequent Christian polemics against the Gnostics.
Far from matter and spirit being in competition with one another, the Christian doctrine of resurrection points towards the grand consecration of creation. It points to a time when our physical bodies will be taken up and transformed by God’s spirit to be everything they were meant to be (and more) before sin entered the picture. While the resurrection body will be many things that we cannot even now imagine (1 Cor. 2:9), we can be sure of this: it will be physical.
Two Rival Theological Understandings
Because the doctrine of bodily resurrection has so often been sidestepped for a Platonic doctrine of the soul’s immortality, and because it is often assumed that we will enjoy immortality in a disembodied state, Christian thinkers have often assumed that there is something unspiritual about our material existence. Instead of seeing the great antithesis between the spiritual and the material, we fall into the error of seeing the great metaphysical divide being between the spiritual and the material.
This false dualism, which Randy Alcorn calls ‘Christoplatonism’ in his excellent book Heaven, has had a huge impact on our understanding of death. The notion that the dead are in heaven waiting for their resurrection bodies has largely been eclipsed by the false idea that going to heaven is itself the primary Christian hope. This has had a major impact on Christian funeral liturgies.
In his 2009 publication The Christian Funeral, Thomas Long explored some of the subtle theological shifts that have occurred in Christian funeral rites. He wrote that a “disembodied, quasi-gnostic cluster of customs and ceremonies” now surround the Christian funeral. This network of ‘quasi-gnostic’ customs exists in tension to the more traditional elements which also pervade funeral liturgy. To quote from Long,
“Often today two rival theological understandings battle it out for the soul of the funeral. To put it starkly, on the one hand, there is the gospel. The one who has died is an embodied person, a saint ‘traveling on’ to God, continuing the baptismal journey toward the hope of the resurrection of the body and God’s promise to make all things new. On the other hand, there is a more ‘spiritualized,’ perhaps even gnostic, understanding of death. The body is ‘just a shell,’ and the immortal soul of the deceased has now been released to become a spiritual presence among us, available through inspiration and active memory. In this view, the body, no longer of any use, is disposed of, but the ‘real person’ is now a disembodied spirit. It is therefore not the deceased who is traveling, but the mourners, on an intrapsychic journey from sorrow to stability.”
Should we be concerned that these unbiblical ideas have been influencing the evangelical community? I think so. One of the reasons for this is that getting resurrection right has enormous practical ramifications in our day to day lives. But that will be the topic of a future article.