The Great Christian Doctrine of the Resurrection of the Body
In the apostle's creed, we say "I believe in the resurrection of the body." This is a very important Christian doctrine that is essential to a proper understanding of our salvation. Salvation does not only involve our souls--it involves our whole person, and thus our bodies as well. If we neglect this truth, we will only have a partial view of our salvation. Thus, the future resurrection of our bodies, called "glorification," is very much worth our exploration. To neglect this truth is to neglect one of the central doctrines of the Bible and Christian faith.
A brief overview of glorification
Before examining the nature of our resurrection bodies, let us orient ourselves to this truth with a general overview of our glorification. When a believer dies their soul is separated from their body and immediately goes to be with Christ in heaven. 2 Corinthians 5:8 says that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Then, at the Second Coming of Christ, the bodies of all believers who have died will be resurrected and reunited with their souls (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17; 1 Corinthians 15:52). Immediately after this, the believers who are still alive at Christ's return will have their bodies transformed, and they will be brought up to the sky with Christ and the believers of old.
Since the resurrection of the body occurs at the return of Christ, this means that all Christians will be glorified together. We all came to faith at different times and lived at different times, but we will all be glorified together (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17; Hebrews 11:39). This is a very meaningful truth. Finally, it is very significant to know that we are glorified with Christ, as well as with all believers of all ages (Romans 8:17). Christ is already glorified (Acts 2:33-36; Philippians 3:21), however our glorification at His return to the earth in power and great glory "will coincide with the final act of the Father in the exaltation and glorification of the Son."
What will our bodies be like?
Now that we have a general overview of what happens in glorification, let us take an in-depth look at the nature of our resurrection bodies. The Bible teaches that our bodies will be like Christ's, they will be physical, and they will be the same body we had on earth--but transformed into a more glorious existence.
Our bodies will be like Christ's. The Bible teaches that Christ's resurrection body is the pattern of our resurrection body. In Philippians 3:20-21, we read "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." First, notice that Christ still has His body. Sometimes we fall into some vague notion that Christ stopped being human when He ascended into heaven. That is not true. He will remain human and in His body forever. This verse speaks of "the body of [Christ's] glory." Second, recognize that Christ is already glorified. This verse speaks of "the body of His glory." Third, we are not yet glorified. Our bodies are now in a "humble state." Fourth, when Christ returns we will be glorified. Fifth, this glorification consists in our present bodies being transformed into the likeness of Christ's glorious body. In other words, we will be given bodies like Christ's. This is also taught in 1 Corinthians 15:49: "And just as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly."
Our resurrection bodies will be physical. Next, we must understand that our bodies will be physical. Scripture teaches this in many ways. First, remember that Christ's resurrection body is the pattern of our resurrection body. We know that Christ was raised in a physical body because the disciples ate with Him after the resurrection (Acts 10:41) and touched Him (Matthew 28:9; see also John 20:27). Also, Jesus outright declared that His resurrection body was physical and can be touched: "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" (Luke 24:39; see also Acts 13:33-37). Since Christ's resurrection is the pattern of our resurrection, we will therefore be raised in a physical body as well. Second, the very use of the term body in regards to our resurrected state clearly teaches that it will be physical: "who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory." It would be a contradiction to speak of a non-physical body.
Second Corinthians 5:1-4 also very clearly teaches a physical resurrection: "For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven; inasmuch as we, having put it on, shall not be found naked. For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed, but to be clothed, in order that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life."
First, Paul's terminology about the resurrection body clearly teaches a physical resurrection. He calls it "a building from God," "a house," and "dwelling." Second, he says that we will "put it on" and thus "not be found naked." In this context, what can "found naked" mean other than "found without our physical bodies"? Since our resurrected body is "put on" and keeps us from "being found naked," it must be physical. Third, his comparison with our bodies in their mortal state with them in their immortal state reveals his physical understanding of the resurrection body. Just as our bodies are currently a "tent" (because they are physical), so also the resurrection body will "clothe" us (and thus be physical). Just as our mortal bodies are a "house" (because they are physical), so also our resurrection body is an immortal "house" and "dwelling" (and thus will be physical).
Romans 8:21-23 also teaches a physical resurrection. First, Paul teaches that we are waiting for "the redemption of our bodies" (v. 23). Our bodies are not going to be thrown away. They are going to be renewed, restored, revitalized. How glorious! Second, notice the context. Paul is teaching that the whole creation is currently subject to decay and corruption. Then he says that "the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption." As John Piper has said, "The creation is not destined for annihilation. It is destined for liberation." Thus, the physical creation will last forever--in its renewed state. Since our bodies are part of creation, we must conclude that they also will be transformed and yet remain physical.
In John 6:39-40, Jesus affirms the physical resurrection of believers: "And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me, I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him, may have eternal life; and I Myself will raise him up on the last day." What a glorious truth that Christ Himself will be the one to raise us! How powerful He must be!
We also read of the physical resurrection of the body in the Old Testament: "And many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt" (Daniel 12:2). Likewise, we read in Job: "I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will take His stand on the earth. Even after my skin is destroyed, yet from my flesh I shall see God; Whom I myself shall behold, and whom my eyes shall see and not another. My heart faints within Me" (Job 19:25-27).
But how are we to understand verses like 1 Corinthians 15:44, which says we will be raised with a spiritual body? "It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body" (1 Cor. 15:44). Virtually all commentators agree that "spiritual" does not mean "made out of spirit," but "directed by the Spirit." It is just like when we say someone is a "spiritual" person. Paul uses the word in this way in 1 Cor. 2:15: "The spiritual man judges all things..." Clearly Paul does not mean "non-physical and invisible man" here but "man filled with and directed by the Spirit." And look at 10:3-4, where Paul says that in the wilderness Israel ate "spiritual food" and drank "spiritual drink" from a "spiritual rock." Does Paul mean to say that these things were not physical? Obviously not! The fact that they ate this food and drank this water indicates that it had to be physical. And the phrase "spiritual rock" solidifies the argument, for Paul clearly does not mean to say "non-physical rock." He means that these things were sent from above and were under God's direction. And that's what He means when he says we will have "spiritual bodies." Further, "non-physical body" is a contradiction in terms. If it is a body, it must be physical. If it is not physical, then it is not a body. Thus, "spiritual body" is not referring to a change from physical to non-physical, but a change from our lowly state to our glorified state where the Spirit will fully fill and direct our bodies.
But what about the statement that "Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God" (v. 50)? Does this mean that believers will not experience a physical resurrection? No, because if Paul had wanted to say this, he would have used the phrase "flesh and bone," which carried the meaning of physicality. Instead, the phrase that Paul does use ("flesh and blood") carries with it no denial of physicality but is actually a Jewish idiom for our bodies in their present, sinful and corruptible state. So this phrase in no way implies that we will not have physical resurrected bodies. Paul is saying that our bodies in their present mode of existence--sinful and subject to decay--must first be changed into a form that is not subject to decay and sin before they can enter the kingdom of God. Is this not the meaning of his very next phrase: "...nor does corruption inherit incorruption"? And have we not already seen many passages where Paul clearly teaches that the resurrection body will be physical? In this verse, Paul is simply saying that our current, corruptible bodies must be changed into glorified, incorruptible bodies before they can be taken into the kingdom of God.
We will have the same bodies, yet they will be changed. It is essential to understand that we will be resurrected with the same bodies we had on earth, yet they will also be transformed so that they are exceedingly glorious. We must hold onto the two truths that there will be a continuity with our old bodies and yet a transformation. As humans, we are not just spiritual, but physical. Our bodies are a very important part of our identity--they are part of who we are. Therefore, if we deny that we are raised with the same bodies we had on earth, we are denying a significant part of our identity. But if we deny that our resurrected bodies are improved, we are left with the depressing idea that we will forever be subject to the weaknesses we now have, such as sickness, fatigue, etc. Because our future resurrection affirms the continuity of our identity, the improvement of our abilities, and the elimination of our weaknesses, it is a very precious hope indeed.
We will have the same bodies. There are many Scriptural reasons for believing that we will be raised with the same body that died. First, Christ was raised in the same body He had before He died. We know this because the tomb was empty (Luke 24:1-6) and because His resurrected body retained scars from the crucifixion (John 20:25, 27). Since Christ's resurrection is the pattern that our resurrection will follow, then we will also be raised with the same body.
Second, this is also evident from the very meaning of the term "resurrection of the dead" (1 Corinthians 15:13, etc.). This phrase means: that which is dead (namely, our body) is made alive. If the same body that died is not the body that was raised, Paul could not call it the "resurrection of the dead." It would not be a resurrection at all.
Third, we read that "the dead will be raised" (1 Cor. 15:52). John Piper comments on this verse: "If God meant to start all over with no continuity between the body I have now and the one I will have, why would Paul say `the dead will be raised'? Why would he not say, `the dead will not be raised...and so God will start from scratch'? He did not say that, because it is not true."
Fourth, Philippians 3:21 says that it is our earthly body which is transformed into conformity with Christ's body, not a different body that is created from scratch.
Fifth, Paul's statement "it is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body" (1 Corinthians 15:42) establishes that there is a continuity between our current body and our resurrected body, for it is the same "it" in both cases.
Sixth, verse 53 indicates that the same body we have now (which is mortal), will become immortal: "For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality."
You may be wondering how God could raise the same body that died when most people have been dead for thousands of years and their bodies have decayed to such an extent that the original body seems entirely gone. Wayne Grudem responds to this that "we must simply say that God can keep track of enough of the elements from each body to form a ‘seed' from which to form a new body (see Gen. 50:25; Job 19:26; Ezek. 37:1-14; Heb. 11:22)."
We will have transformed bodies. In 1 Corinthians 15:35-37, it may appear as if Paul is teaching that we are raised with a different body than which we had on earth: "...what you sow is not made alive unless it dies. And what you sow, you do not sow the body that shall be, but mere grain." But upon examining the whole context, we see that Paul is not denying that it will be the same body. Instead, he is affirming that our resurrected bodies will be made better than the state they are now in.
This passage is actually very clear that our resurrected bodies will be the same ones that we had on earth. First, Paul teaches a continuity between our bodies now and in the resurrected state by using the analogy from agriculture. He compares the resurrection of the body to the growth of a plant from a seed. The plant that results is definitely much better than the seed, just as our resurrection bodies will be better than those we have now. But there is also a real continuity between the seed and the plant, for they are the same organism. The same seed that was sown becomes the plant that grows. Likewise, the same body we have now becomes our resurrected body. But just as the plant is a result of the seed being transformed into something with better capacities and qualities, so also our resurrected bodies will be the transformation of our current bodies into a body with better qualities and capacities. Thus, when Paul says that we do not yet have the body that shall be, he means that our current bodies are not yet in their glorified and improved state (see verses 42-44).
Paul also affirms that the resurrection involves the transformation of our current bodies in 1 Corinthians 15:51-52. "Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed." John Piper comments: "He said two things: the dead will be raised (that teaches continuity); and the dead will be changed (they will be made imperishable and immortal). The old body will become a new body. But it will still be your body. There will be continuity. God is able to do what we cannot imagine. The resurrection is not described in terms of a totally new creation but in terms of a change of the old creation. We shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye."
In what sense will our bodies be transformed? Paul tells us in verse 42-44. He says that our current bodies are weak, perishable, unglorified, and natural. But in the resurrection state they will be powerful, imperishable, glorious, and spiritual (see verses 42-44). Our bodies will be powerful--they will not be subject to stress or fatigue or weakness. Our bodies will be imperishable--they will not get sick, die, age, or become injured. Our bodies will be spiritual--they will be fully oriented to and filled with the Holy Spirit. And our bodies will be glorious. Wayne Grudem comments on the wonder of this truth: "Because the word `glory' is so frequently used in Scripture of the bright shining radiance that surrounds the presence of God himself, this term suggests that there will also be a kind of brightness or radiance surrounding our bodies that will be an appropriate outward evidence of the position of exaltation and rule over all creation that God has given us. This is also suggested in Matthew 13:43, where Jesus says, `Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.' Similarly, we read in Daniel's vision, `And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever' (Daniel 12:3)." Our bodies will shine like the sun as they reflect the majestic glory of Christ and God! How glorious!
When our bodies are raised, death will be totally defeated.
Paul writes "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'" (1 Cor. 15:54-55). This makes evident to us another reason the resurrection of the body is so important: If there is no resurrection of the body, then death is not defeated. John Murray comments on this: "The redemption which Christ has secured for his people is redemption not only from sin but also from all its [penalties]. Death is the wages of sin and the death of believers does not deliver them from death. The last enemy [1 Cor. 15:26], death, has not yet been destroyed; it has not yet been swallowed up in victory. Hence glorification has in view the destruction of death itself." Thus, Christ must raise believers from the dead if He is to fully claim the victory He won over death at His resurrection, and if He is to fully deliver us from the penalty of our sins. We would not have full salvation if our bodies were not raised from the dead. Let us praise Christ for everything that He does to fully conquer evil, including His swallowing death up in victory at the resurrection.
The resurrection is tied up with the renewal of creation.
Since it is true that our bodies will be raised physically, then the new creation must be physical as well. Often we think of eternal life in heaven as existing in a spiritual realm forever. But that is not the whole truth. Eternity will involve the physical creation as well as the spiritual realm. As we saw earlier, Paul teaches this in Romans 8:20-23, where he says that "creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God." Revelation 21:1 says there will be "a new heaven and a new earth." The next verse seems to indicate that in the eternal state there will be a joining of heaven and earth, for it speaks of the city of new Jerusalem coming "down out of heaven" to the earth. It says that God Himself will dwell among His people in the New Jerusalem. Can you imagine what it will be like to live forever with Christ not only having access to heaven, but to a renewed physical universe as well?! This universe is huge--perhaps we will be given the opportunity to explore it to the farthest depths in the new creation. What a glorious thing this will be!
The passages which speak of the heavens and earth passing away (2 Peter 3:10; Revelation 21:1) we should understand to mean that their present condition will pass away, not that they will be entirely done away with so that God can start from scratch (this is what we saw in Romans 8:21 "the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption"). Also, the passages which speak of there being a new heavens and new earth (such as Revelation 21:1) indicate that there will be a significant renewal and transformation of creation, but do not seem to require the idea that God will start over from scratch. Again, we saw in Romans 8:21 that God will not start over from scratch: "creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God." Just as it is with our resurrection bodies, there will be a wonderful transformation and newness to creation, but there will also be a continuity with the original creation.
The bodies of unbelievers will also be raised.
The glorification of believers will be a glorious thing! But if we stopped here our study would be incomplete. It is important to understand that it is not only Christians who will experience the resurrection of their bodies. All people will have their bodies raised. The difference is that Christians will have their bodies raised to everlasting glory; non-Christians will have their bodies raised to everlasting destruction.
There are many passages which teach that both believers and unbelievers will be raised. Acts 24:15 says, "There shall certainly be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked." Paul tells us how he applies this truth in the next verse: "In view of this, I also do my best to maintain always a blameless conscience both before God and before men." John 5:28-29 says, "For an hour is coming , in which all who are in the tombs shall hear His voice, and shall come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgement." Unbelievers will thus suffer eternal punishment in their bodies, in hell: "And do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matthew 10:28).
The hope of the resurrection of our bodies is a very important Christian truth. Paul was very distressed that some people in the Corinthian church did not believe it (1 Corinthians 15:12-19). It is very distressing that in our day, this truth is often ignored. May this article help eradicate the neglect of our future resurrection.
1. John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, p. 177.
2. John Piper, The Purifying Power of Living by Faith in Future Grace (Portlund, OR: Multnomah Press, 1995), p. 377.
3. Piper, p. 372.
4. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 834.
5. Piper, p. 372. One may try to argue that in verse 52 when Paul says "the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed," he is only meaning that those who are alive at the time of Christ's return will be changed. If this is the case, it does not alter the fact that the dead will be raised with transformed bodies. In verse 51 Paul had just said "we shall all be changed." Also, the fact that the dead are "raised imperishable" in itself makes clear that a change will occur--the change to imperishability.
6. Grudem, p. 833.
7. Murray, p. 175.
All Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, by the Lockman Foundation.