The Resurrection of the Body
Jesus’ resurrection was not a return to our life here as we know it. It was a transformation into a new life. The Old Testament view of human life is that it is an inseparable body spirit combination. It is not a spirit inhabiting a body, two different things co-existing. The Hebrew word ‘nephesh’ means ‘soul, self, life, creature, person, appetite, mind, living being, desire, emotion, passion, that which breathes, the breathing substance or being, soul, the inner being of human beings’. In Hebrew thought animals have ‘nephesh’, plants do not. This is different from the Greek view of the soul inhabiting the body. It is different from animism in which everything has a spirit. This is the basis of spiritualistic based traditional religions throughout the world, for example, in pre-Christian Africa and among native American Indians.
In the Book of Ezekiel chapter 37 the prophet is transported in the Spirit and given a vision of a battlefield in a valley, strewn with the dry, dusty skeletons of Jerusalem’s fallen army. ‘Son of Man, can these bones live?’ God tells him to command the bones to live again. Ezekiel does as God says (telling his silent audience to “Hear the word of the Lord!”), and as his voice echoes through the valley, the earth begins to shake. The scattered bones reassemble themselves, and are covered with knotted lines of sinew. Over them grow new layers of flesh, skin, and hair. The breath of God, carried by the wind, blows over the bodies, and just as breath animated Adam, so too do the rebuilt bodies lying on the dust of the battlefield rise up, awake. By the power of God, “a great and immense army” now stands on its feet. Israel will rise again. This is a vision of the stage by stage reconstitution of the People of God. It is not actual resurrection to another life.
In Matthew and Mark’s Gospels there is the resuscitation by Jesus of Jairus’ daughter and in Luke’s Gospel the resuscitation of the son of the widow of Nain. John’s Gospel has the resuscitation of Lazarus. These were not resurrections. The account of the dead saints who emerged from their tombs at the hour of Jesus’ death is found in Matthew’s Gospel. It is of different character apparently not having been instigated directly by Jesus Himself. In the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus, Moses and Elijah appear with him. They are not in physical bodies but they are identifiable as Moses and Elijah. They not hallucinations. As Jesus put it, in Matthew’s Gospel ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. God is not the God of the dead, but of the living’.
Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians chapter 15 is where the best guidance on the resurrection of the body is to be found in the New Testament. ‘For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born’.
There were objectors to the preaching of the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of the body. Paul simply argues in a circular fashion that if there was no resurrection, Jesus could not have been raised and if not, he himself is talking nonsense, he is a fraud and living for nothing. But then he affirms: ‘But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep’.
Next Paul answers the question ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?’ ‘So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, 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 it is written: The first man Adam became a living being; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man. I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
Paul offers the analogy of the planting of seeds in the ground. You plant a bulb in the late year and a few weeks later it has bloomed as a crocus, daffodil or tulip. Simples. Its essence and potential to become a beautiful spring flower is contained in its unspectacular bulb. So every seed that becomes something wonderful. Over many years a seed may become a great tree, sown in plenty they may become golden fields of wheat or corn.
Paul deals with the physical reality of the person raised from the dead. It is not a spirit as in spiritualism. It is not a disembodied entity. It is connected to the creative origin of all life and so is eternal. Paul thinks that Christians share in Christ’s resurrection even though it is different from ours. He himself met the Risen Jesus. It was not a resuscitated corpse that he met.
There was a tradition in Judaism of expectation of general resurrection from the dead, either of everyone to face judgement or only of the righteous. Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew’s Gospel reflects this. Christian resurrection for Paul is equated with eternal salvation in Jesus Christ. You take your identity, Faith, character and goodness with you. You do not take your money, house, car and possessions. You become what you are at your best, not at your worst.
Immortality is a human concept and a human related idea. It refers to memory in the human race, human society, the human condition. Bill Shankly said to Jock Stein after Celtic won the European Cup in 1967 ‘John, you will be immortal now’. Christian resurrection is totally different. Christianity is based on resurrection, and the belief that on the Day of Resurrection, Jesus defeated death once and for all. More than that, He had the power to extend His new life to others, allowing them to share in His resurrected life. This is why, once the early persecutions of the Christians were underway, the Romans went to great lengths to discourage the belief in bodily resurrection. According to the Christian historian Eusebius, one group of Christians executed by the Romans had their corpses left to rot for a week unburied (so that they would be denied proper funerals). The remains were then cremated, and finally dumped into the Rhone River. As the ashes washed downstream, one of the overseers remarked aloud, “Now let us see if they will rise again!”
People are cremated today. What happens to them? There was a time when Christians would not be cremated because of their belief in the resurrection of the body. Now it is common practice. Think of all the people who have ever lived, and what has become of most of them over the past 200,000 years. Their tombs are lost, their bones long gone, consumed by predators, floods, landslides, at the mercy of the elements, or perhaps lying beneath the foundations of modern cities. With a very few exceptions (such as the Pharaoh Tutankhamen, whose untouched tomb was discovered in 1922, some 3,200 years after he was laid to rest) the inevitable, natural process of decay has degenerated the remains of anyone who lived more than a few centuries ago.
Atheists are right to point out that this poses a serious problem for most Christians alive now, who hope for resurrection and eternal life in the future. Our remains might one day be scattered across the planet, be consumed by worms, fertilise the grass, be consumed by cows, and be consumed in turn by eaters of hamburgers. Some people are unfortunate enough to be bombed into smithereens, burnt to a cinder, drowned and lost at sea. Some people disappear and are never seen again. If Christians really believe in the resurrection of the body, and wish to convince atheists that death is not the end of life, they must find a satisfying answer to this question. Explaining the "mechanics" of resurrection indeed poses a formidable challenge. Matthew Allen Newland offers a scientific explanation based on up to date physics.
According to physics’ ‘entanglement theory’, particles may somehow remain united, regardless of the amount of space separating them. It is conceivable that a particular living body could continue on in some form, even after it has died and its component particles have decayed and/or physically separated. Entanglement theory also suggests that particular events leave a lasting “mark” upon their subjects, right down to the subatomic level. The point simply put is that we hang together at sub-atomic level even after death. And so we can be resurrected.
The resurrection of the body and the life everlasting are taken together in The Apostles Creed. This is not a mistake. The reason for the resurrection of the body is everlasting life. In John’s Gospel 5 : 24 Jesus says “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. St Paul wrote in Romans 8:1 ‘Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,’
Jesus has revealed Himself to many throughout the last 2000 years. Christians say that they have met him, know him, love him, serve him. They say that he lives in them, leads and inspires them and that they live in and for him. This is the essence, heart, soul and core of Christianity. And it is not less. Paul himself is the most obvious example of someone who lived without Jesus Christ and became someone in whom Jesus Christ lived. So it is for you and for me. ‘I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see’. We live in Christ and he lives in us. This is our witness and testimony to the end of our days and into the promised life of heaven. The resurrection of the body is your resurrection. You will still be you. This is the Christian Gospel Good News contribution to human knowledge. The unique answer to all the mysteries and unknowns of human existence, in Jesus Christ our Risen Lord.