“We Believe in the Resurrection of the Body”: Reflections on 1 Corinthians 15, Part 5

35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” 36 How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. 38 But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. 39 Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. 40 There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. 41 The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.

42 So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power;44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.

If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. 45 So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. 46 The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. 47 The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. 48 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. 49 And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.

50 I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.

–1 Corinthians 15.35-50 (NIV)

Today’s passage gets at the heart of Paul’s teaching about the resurrection of the body, at least about the nature of the resurrected body. Paul tells us that at the resurrection of the dead, our mortal, corruptible body will be raised and transformed into a spiritual body. This, by the way, is why Christians have traditionally buried their dead. We believe that our mortal, corruptible bodies are awaiting their radical transformation and that God will indeed raise our remains on the Last Day and transform them into his promised new resurrection bodies. In fact, in earlier times, when it was possible, the Christian dead were buried facing east because it was believed that it was from the east that Christ would reappear at his promised Second Coming. On a personal note, this is why I have decided against having my own body cremated because I want my death and burial to be a silent last statement of my faith and hope in the new creation. Please don’t misunderstand. Can God raise and transform cremated bodies? Of course. Can God raise and transform bodies that have been blown to smithereens and completely lost to us? Of course. So it isn’t like we have to have our bodies buried for them to be raised. Rather, Christian burial is another tangible sign and symbol for our resurrection faith and each Christian must decide how he or she wants his or her corpse disposed. My point here is that as Christians we need to think about this and not be mindless in our decision because a particular method of disposing our dead human body happens to be in vogue at the time.

Getting back to Paul’s discussion of the resurrected body, due to some English translations of the Greek words Paul uses (like the NIV passage above), there has been confusion about what Paul is talking about when he talks about getting a “spiritual body.” The Greek Paul uses for this term, soma pneumatikon, doesn’t mean a disembodied spirit, but rather a body that is transformed and given life by the spirit, specifically God’s Holy Spirit, because the Spirit is life and without the Spirit there is no life. Unlike our earthly bodies which are animated and given life by flesh and blood and a life-force that we commonly call “the soul,” our resurrected spiritual bodies will be indestructible and impervious to the kinds of things to which our mortal bodies are susceptible. What Paul is telling us is this. If we are going to live in the new creation when it comes in full, we are going to need bodies that are suited for our new environment and those bodies, our spiritual bodies, will be animated and given life by the Spirit. Bodies there will be in the new creation (a continuity from our current mortal existence), but they will be radically transformed bodies (the discontinuity that will be part of the promised new creation). That is why Paul tells us flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, i.e., the new creation when it comes in full. Our mortal bodies are corruptible and subject to decay and death. Hence they are incompatible to live in the new creation because there will be no more death, decay, or corruptibility. As Paul says, our mortal bodies come from the dust of the earth (recall how God created Adam from the earth, cf. Genesis 3.19) and are therefore perishable. Our new bodies are fashioned after Jesus, the man from heaven, and like Jesus’ resurrection body, so too will our new bodies be imperishable when we are reunited with them when Jesus reappears in great power and glory to consummate the new creation that began with his death and resurrection.

This explains why Paul attempts to tell us about our resurrected bodies through analogy in the beginning of our passage today. Like the seed that is transformed into a plant or like Jesus’ resurrected body that had to first undergo a radical transformation, so too our mortal bodies must be transformed into that which is imperishable. Again, bodies and physicality there will be in the new creation. But it will also be of a radically different order. If you understand this, it will change the way your read the resurrection accounts of Jesus as well as the accounts of his transfiguration. What the gospel writers are attempting to tell us–and the appear to be struggling mightily to do so because they don’t quite seem to have the language for it because Jesus’ resurrection was so unexpected–is to look at Jesus’ resurrected body as a prototype for our own future resurrection bodies. In the resurrection narratives in Luke and John, for example, Jesus eats with his disciples and they can touch him. But he also can appear suddenly in a locked room and hide his appearance from them when he wants to. Continuity but also radical discontinuity.

So what does this mean for us? It is clear that Paul has in mind the creation narratives of Genesis as he writes the Corinthians about all this. Therefore, this means creation matters and that it is our eternal destiny, not heaven. Heaven there is, but it is not our final destiny. Instead, heaven–God’s space or dimension–is the place where we go to enjoy a season of rest with our Lord and where God is keeping our promised resurrected and transformed bodies safe for us until the day he fully consummates the redemptive and healing plan he inaugurated in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Among other things, this means we need to take care of our bodies right here and now because the promise of resurrection reminds us that bodies are important to God, and therefore they should be important to us. As Paul reminded the Corinthians earlier in this letter, even our mortal bodies house God’s very Spirit (cf. 1 Corinthians 3.16), albeit incompletely. But as Paul reminds us here, one day the imperfect (flesh and blood) will be gone and the Spirit will be the source of life for our perfect bodies forever in God’s new creation. I cannot speak for you, but this prospect is much more exciting and appealing to me than the thought of living forever as a disembodied spirit. It means there will be new work to do and new opportunities to bring God glory. It means that we can look forward to an even more beautiful world once the dimensions of heaven and earth are fused together. If there is such breathtaking beauty in God’s present but fallen world, how much more beauty and goodness will there be in the new creation in all its perfection?

What about you? How does the hope and promise of a new resurrection body affect you and your hope (or does it)? How might it affect how you live your life right now, knowing that God’s creation is important to God? How might the hope and promise of new creation help you deal with the afflictions of your own body or the bodies of your loved ones? Think deeply on these things and ask God to bless you with the wisdom and grace to understand and embrace his promised inheritance to you.