Concomitants of the Second Advent: The Resurrection of the Body
The Bible's teaching about the future may be divided into two broad areas, individual and general eschatology. Individual eschatology, as the language suggests, addresses the Bible's teaching about what happens to individuals, particularly believers, in the state between death and resurrection at the end of the age. General eschatology addresses the Bible's teaching on the future in general or in terms of the unfolding of the Triune God's purposes in history, leading up to the return of Christ at the end of the age.
This article will take up immediately those events that will accompany the return of Christ. In my study of these events, I am using the phrase chosen by Charles Hodge in his Systematic Theology to describe them — the concomitants of the second advent.1 Though this language is not the kind we might use over the counter at the coffee shop, it nicely captures the idea: we are looking at those events that, according to the Scriptures, will occur in the company of Christ's return at the end of the age. When Christ returns, the Bible teaches that His reign as King will be consummated by means of a series of great acts of redemption and judgment. These events will draw this present age to a close and introduce the consummation of God's purposes in the new heavens and earth. They will precede the final and enduring state of God's kingdom.
The events or concomitants of Christ's return that we will consider are these: the resurrection of the dead, the just and the unjust; the final judgment by Christ of all men; the punishment of the unbelieving and wicked in hell; and the creation of a new heavens and earth. As we do so, we shall have to be especially careful to remember: our hope for the future is one that is born out of and nurtured by the Word of God. When we stray from the sure path laid out for us in the Word, we are bound to go off in directions that are speculative and uncertain. If this is true for the future in general, it is most particularly true when it comes to the kinds of events that we will now be considering.
The Biblical Focus upon the Resurrection
The first great event or concomitant of Christ's return at the end of the age will be the resurrection of the dead, including the just and the unjust.
The biblical expectation for the future of believers is not exclusively or even primarily focused upon what is often called the intermediate state. Though the Bible teaches that the believer's fellowship with Christ cannot be broken, even by death itself, and that at death the believer will begin to enjoy a more intimate and direct fellowship with Christ (compare 2 Corinthians 5:1-9), its teaching regarding the believer's future focuses primarily upon the resurrection of the body at the last day. In the biblical view of the believer's future, the emphasis falls not upon the "immortality of the soul," but upon the restoration and renewal of the whole person, body and soul, in a renewed state of integrity within the context of a new heavens and earth. The biblical promise for the future directs the believer to the resurrection, when both body and soul will be granted immortality.
This is, in fact, one of the distinctive features of the biblical view of the future and of the salvation that is obtained for us in Christ.2 The biblical view of the world begins with the conviction that the Triune God created man as a "living soul," taken from the dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7). Man's creatureliness in its wholeness and integrity, therefore, always includes the body which was created originally good. Redemption from the curse of God against sin likewise addresses the whole of man's need, body and soul. This is the reason the Heidelberg Catechism speaks, for example, of the believer's comfort in terms of belonging to Christ "with body and soul." Redemption does not deny the integrity and goodness of creation; it rather brings the healing and renewal of creation. The same Lord who forgives all our sins is the One who "heals all our diseases," including that sickness of body and soul that leads to death (Psalm 103:3). For this reason, no biblical picture of the believer's future may fail to include as a central part of it the promise of the resurrection of the body.
The Timing of the Resurrection
Though this expectation is commonly acknowledged by Christian believers whose doctrine is normed by the teaching of Scripture, there is another question that is often disputed — the question of the timing of the resurrection. As we have seen in previous articles, premillennialism teaches that the resurrection of the just will occur at the time of Christ's coming before the millennium and that the resurrection of the unjust will not occur until after the millennium, at least one thousand years later. In this understanding, there will be at least two distinct resurrections, one of the just and the other of the unjust, separated in time by the period of the millennium.3
The most decisive objection against this separation in time between these two resurrections is its incompatibility with the common association in the Scriptures of the resurrection of both the just and the unjust. In one of the few direct references to the resurrection in the Old Testament, Daniel 12:2, we read that "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." In this passage, the resurrection of believer and unbeliever are closely linked. A similar linking of the resurrection of the just and the unjust is reflected in Jesus' words to His disciples in John 5:28-29:
Do not marvel at this; 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 judgment.
These words speak of an hour in which all who are in the tombs will hear the voice of the Son, the righteous as well as the unrighteous. The simplest reading of this passage would indicate that Jesus is speaking here of one great event in which all of the dead will be raised for the purpose of judgment. Though some premillennialists suggest that this reference to an hour might include a long period of time — appealing to the use of "hour" in verse 25 of the same chapter where it refers to the period in which the spiritually dead shall be brought to life — its meaning in these verses is parallel to its common meaning in the Gospel of John (compare e.g.: 7:30; 8:20; 12:23; 13:1; 16:21; 17:1). It refers to a distinct period in which God's purposes will be fulfilled. As in other Scripture passages (compare Acts 24:14-15; Matthew 16:27; 25:31-33; 2 Corinthians 5:10), the teaching of this passage clearly confirms that the resurrection of all the dead, believers and unbelievers alike, will occur at a single point of time in the future at the close of the age.
It is also interesting to note that, in the passage most often cited by pre-millennialists in support of their view of the millennium and two distinct resurrections, one before and one after the millennium, there is evidence that the resurrection and judgment will include all people, the believer and unbeliever alike. In Revelation 20:1-15, the vision of the final "great white throne judgment" that will occur after the millennium portrays "the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne" (v. 12). These dead not only include the great and small, but also all those whom the vision goes on to say were "given up" by the sea, death and Hades. All of these dead are then judged, "every one of them according to their deeds" (v. 13). As a consequence of this judgment, death and Hades, and "anyone's name (that) was not found written in the book of life," are thrown into the lake of fire, the second death. The description of the resurrection and judgment given in this vision clearly implies that all people are embraced and only those among them whose names are written in the Lamb's book of life are saved from the lake of fire. Were the vision only describing the resurrection and judgment of those whose names were not written in the book of life, the language describing this vision would be confusing at best, misleading at worst.
In addition to these passages that clearly associate the resurrection of the just and the unjust, there are also passages which teach that the resurrection of believers will occur on the last day, when Christ will be revealed from heaven and the sound of the trumpet will be heard. The obvious implication of this language is that this event will conclude the present age. With the resurrection of the believer, the last great event which brings to a close Christ's work of redemption in His children will be accomplished. In John 6:40, Jesus assures His disciples that He came in fulfillment of His Father's will and purpose, and that it was His Father's will "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" (emphasis mine). In the passage which speaks of the rapture, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, the coming of Christ and the resurrection of believers are associated with the call of the Archangel and the sound of the trumpet (v. 16; compare Matthew 24:31; 1 Corinthians 15:52). The implication of these and other passages seems to be that, when Christ comes and the dead in Christ are raised, this will mark the close of the present age and introduce the glory of the age to come (compare Philippians 3:20-21; 1 Corinthians 15:23).
Oftentimes, pre-millennialists who insist upon two resurrections separated in time will appeal to the language of 1 Thessalonians 4:16 and 1 Corinthians 15:23-24 in support of their position. These passages describe a certain precedence and order among the events of Christ's coming, the resurrection of believers, and the coming of the end of the age. This precedence and order, according to the premillennialist, confirms the distinction between two resurrections. However, neither of these passages affords a convincing case for this position. When the apostle Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:16 speaks of the dead in Christ rising first, a contrast is not being drawn between the resurrection of believers and of unbelievers. Rather, a contrast is being drawn between the resurrection of the dead, those who have fallen asleep in Jesus, and the rapture of believers who are still living at the time of Christ's coming. Far from being excluded from the benefit of Christ's coming, those who have fallen asleep in Him will have a kind of pre-eminence — they will rise first. Furthermore, as we have previously argued, the order described in 1 Corinthians 15:23-24 — "Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ's at His coming, then comes the end" — is not an order that allows for an intervening period of one thousand years between Christ's coming and the end. The events described, though they occur in a definite order, are events that comprise one great complex of events at the end of the age.
There is, accordingly, no Scriptural basis for the teaching that the resurrection of the just and the unjust will be separated in time.
The Author of the Resurrection
The more important and difficult questions relating to the Bible's teaching regarding the resurrection have to do with its author and nature. Who will be responsible for raising the dead at the end of the age? And, when we read that the dead will be raised prior to the judgment, how are we to understand this event? In what sense will even the unjust be raised from the dead? What will be the nature of the resurrection body?
It needs to be admitted that the Bible does not provide a complete description and answer to all of these and other questions.4 Some things are clearly taught for the encouragement and comfort of believers. Other things remain to an extent shrouded in mystery. Here the words of 1 Corinthians 2:9 (from Isaiah 64:4 and 65:17) need to be borne in mind:
Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and which have not entered the heart of man, all that God has prepared for those who love Him.
Though the Old Testament includes explicit references to the resurrection of believers (Isaiah 26:19; Daniel 12:2), and though the expectation of the resurrection follows from all that the Lord promises His covenant people in the way of life and blessing,5 it is only in the New Testament that the full light of the gospel promise of the resurrection shines. This should not surprise us, since the biblical teaching and hope for the resurrection is securely founded upon the great redemptive accomplishments of Christ in His death, resurrection and ascension to the Father's right hand. As believers are united with Christ, they come to enjoy Him and all His blessings, most notably victory over death and the sure confidence of the resurrection of the body.
In spite of this clear focus upon Christ's resurrection and the believer's share in it, the New Testament makes it clear that the Author of this resurrection is the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Each Person of the Trinity plays an integral part in the granting of resurrection life to those who belong to Christ. When Jesus responds to the Sadducean denial of the resurrection, He ascribes the power to grant resurrection life to God:
You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures, or the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.
The apostle Paul likewise in 2 Corinthians 1:9 describes believers as those who should not trust in themselves but "in God who raises the dead."
In other passages, the resurrection of the dead is ascribed especially to the power and work of Christ. In John 5, a passage we considered in the previous section, it is the Son of God who together with the Father calls the dead from their tombs and grants them life (vv. 21, 25, 28-29). This authority to raise the dead is, according to the teaching of Christ, a prerogative granted to Him by the Father and a fruit of His saving work (John 6:38-40, 44-45; 11:25-26). Furthermore, the Holy Spirit, who applies and communicates the benefits of Christ's saving work, gives believers a foretaste and share in the power of Christ's resurrection. The same Spirit "who raised Jesus from the dead" dwells in believers and grants life to their "mortal bodies" also (Romans 8:11).
Thus, as believers share in the benefits which are theirs in fellowship with Christ, they are promised the gift of resurrection from the dead, a gift which the Father is pleased to grant through the Son and in the power of the life-giving Spirit.
This, of course, leaves us with the crucial question yet to be answered: what is it to be raised from the dead? What is the nature of the resurrection body, so far as this is disclosed to us in the Scriptures? If the return of Christ will be accompanied by the resurrection of the dead, the just and the unjust alike, and if the resurrection of believers in fellowship with Christ is a gracious work of the Triune God, it remains to be seen what the Scriptures teach about the character of this event.
The hope of Christian believers for the future is not only that they will experience unbroken fellowship with Christ in the state intermediate between death and resurrection, but also that they will be given a share in the power of Christ's resurrection from the dead. All believers look forward to the great day of resurrection, when all who belong to Christ will have a part in His resurrection victory and be given bodies like His glorious body.
This event, the resurrection of the dead, will occur at the time of Christ's second advent, when He comes to judge the living and the dead at the end of the age. For believers, the resurrection of the body will be a climactic participation in the great saving work of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In the resurrection, believers will be granted the fulness of indestructible life in communion with God. What believers today experience in part, as a kind of downpayment upon their full inheritance which is still to come — fellowship with God the Father through Christ and in the presence of His indwelling Spirit — will then be fully enjoyed.
The Nature of the Resurrection
There are two ways by which we can arrive at an answer to this question. One way would be to focus upon the accounts of Christ's resurrection to see what they might tell us about the resurrection. Since the believer's resurrection body will be fashioned after the pattern of Christ's glorious body (Philippians 3:20-21), this is one legitimate way to proceed. Another way would be to consider those passages that speak rather directly of the nature of the resurrection body. In what follows, I will follow both of these ways, though the second will receive greater attention.
Careful study of the accounts of Christ's resurrection and subsequent appearances to His disciples allows us to draw some conclusions regarding the nature of the resurrection body. The accounts of the resurrection, for example, consistently witness to the fact that the tomb in which the Lord's body was laid was, by virtue of His being raised from the dead, now empty (Matthew 28:6; Mark 16:6; Luke 24:3, 6; John 20:1-10). The same body in which the Lord suffered and was crucified is now raised and glorified. The truth of the empty tomb authenticates the conviction that the resurrection was not a spiritual event separable from what happened to Jesus' body in the tomb. There is a genuine continuity between Jesus' pre-resurrection and post-resurrection body (not bodies).
Consequently, when the risen Lord appeared to His disciples after the resurrection, they were able (despite their perplexity and initial unbelief at times) to recognize Him, identify the marks of His crucifixion, and even enjoy a meal with Him (compare Matthew 28:9, 17; Mark 16:9-14; Luke 24:11, 16, 31; John 20:19-23, 27-29). In the account in the Gospel of Luke, all doubt as to the reality of the Lord's resurrection body is removed, when we read the Lord's words of rebuke to His startled and frightened disciples who "thought that they were seeing a spirit":
Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 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.
Though we need to beware the temptation to draw too many hard and fast conclusions from these accounts, it does seem clear that, whatever the differences between the glorified and pre-resurrection body of Christ, there is a substantial and real continuity/similarity.6
In addition to these accounts of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, there are a few passages that speak more directly of the nature of the resurrection body. In 2 Timothy 2:18, there seems to be an allusion to false teachers in the early church who taught that the resurrection had "already taken place." These teachers apparently spiritualized the resurrection and were confusing the faith of many. The apostle Paul likewise makes an important comment on the resurrection in Philippians 3:20-21:
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.
This passage not only establishes the important principle that the believer's resurrection body will be conformed to Christ's, but it also contrasts the humble condition of our present bodies with the glorious condition that will be ours in the resurrection. Our present bodies exhibit all the marks of sin and God's curse — they are weak, decaying, fragile and temporary. Our resurrected bodies will exhibit all of the marks and benefits of Christ's saving work — they will be strong, incorruptible, indestructible and enduring.
A similar contrast is drawn in 2 Corinthians 5:1-9, where the believer's present body is described as an "earthly tent" that, after it is dissolved or torn down, is replaced by a "building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens" (v. 1). This passage then goes on to utilize another metaphor for the difference between the present body and the resurrection body. Just as the present body compares to the resurrection body as an earthly tent to a heavenly building, so it compares to the resurrection body as a being-clothed-with-mortality to a putting-on-the-clothing-of-immortality.
However, the one passage which most extensively draws the contrasts between the present body and the resurrection body is 1 Corinthians 15:35-49. Because of the importance of this passage to our understanding of the nature of the resurrection body, I will quote it in full and then make some observations based upon it.
But someone will say, "How are the dead raised? And with what kind of body do they come?" You fool! That which you sow does not come to life unless it dies; and that which you sow, you do not sow the body which is to be, but a bare grain, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body just as He wished, and to each of the seeds a body of its own. All flesh is not the same flesh, but there is one flesh of men, and another flesh of beasts, and another flesh of birds, and another of fish. There are also heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one, and the glory of the earthly is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; 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. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So also it is written, "The first man, Adam, became a living soul." The last Adam became a life-giving spirit. However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural; then the spiritual. The first man is from the earth, earthy; the second man is from heaven. As is the earthy, so also are those who are earthy; and as is the heavenly, so also are those who are heavenly. And just as we have borne the image of the earth, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.
Without pretending to exhaust the complexity and richness of this passage, there are several themes that relate to the primary question with which the apostle Paul is concerned — "with what kind of body do they (those raised from the dead) come?"
- First, the apostle uses the metaphor of the seed that is sown and its eventual germination and bringing forth of fruit to illustrate the connection between the present body and the resurrection body. However great the difference between the seed sown and the fruit that it eventually bears, the seed and the fruit are of one kind. Accordingly, the apostle elaborates at some length upon the obvious differences in the kinds of flesh that distinguish various creatures. The resurrection of the body is likened to the dying of a seed in order that it might thereby come to life in the form of its fruit. This means that the resurrection body is of a distinctively human kind. When God raises believers from the dead, their bodies, however new and changed, remain distinctively and peculiarly human, according to their kind.
- Second, a series of contrasts are drawn between what the apostle terms this natural or earthly body and the spiritual or heavenly body. These terms are not used to draw a contrast between a body that is made up of "material stuff" with a body that is made up of "spiritual stuff," as if to suggest that the resurrection body will be immaterial or non-fleshly. Rather, they are used to sharply distinguish the present body as one which belongs to the present age which is passing away and under the curse of God, and the resurrection body which belongs to the life of the Spirit in the age to come. The distinction is not between material and immaterial bodies, but between two kinds of bodies that answer to the present age and the age to come. Consequently, as we shall see in a third observation below, the apostle bases his description of these two bodies upon the two respective heads of humanity — the first man, Adam, and the second man, Christ.
What is especially important for our purpose is to note the kinds of contrasts that are drawn between the natural and the spiritual body. Four contrasts are drawn. The earthly body of this present age is sown perishable, the heavenly body of the age to come is raised imperishable. When death, the final enemy, has been defeated and the consequences of sin and God's curse have been removed, the liability of the body to perishing, to decay and corruption, to dissolution, will be vanquished. The earthly body is sown in dishonor, the heavenly body will be raised in glory. By contrast to the tarnished and dimmed condition of the present body, the resurrection body will be splendid and striking. The earthly body is sown in weakness, the resurrection body will be raised in power. The fragility and vulnerability to destruction of the present body will be replaced by the enduring and indestructible power of the resurrection body. And finally, the present body is natural, the resurrection body is heavenly. All of these contrasts together combine to paint a striking picture of the glory of the resurrection body with which believers will be clothed at the last day. This body will be of a human kind, to be sure, but not like anything believers have seen or known in this life — a body no longer ravaged by sin and its consequences, a body that will be a fit and enduring building in which to dwell and enjoy unbroken (and unbreakable) fellowship with Christ and those who are His.
- Third, in the closing section of this passage, the apostle bases his description of these respective bodies upon the contrast between the two original bearers of these bodies — the first man, Adam, and the second man Christ. There is an intimate and close correspondence between the first man, Adam, who is "from the earth," and the earthly bodies of those who bear his image. Likewise, there is an intimate and close correspondence between the second man, Christ, who is "from heaven," and the heavenly bodies of those who bear His image. Adam and Christ represent two humanities. The first humanity is under the dominion and liability of sin — meaning, it is subject to perishing, dishonor, weakness and death. The second humanity is under the dominion and blessing of salvation — meaning, it is the recipient of imperishability, glory, power and never-ending life.
This passage, though in a more extensive and detailed manner, confirms the teaching of the Scriptures on the nature of the resurrection. When Christ returns at the end of the age, the dead will be raised. Some, the unjust and unbelieving, will be raised unto judgment. Others, the just and believing, those who belong to Christ, will be raised unto glory. The nature of this resurrection will be like a seed that is sown and dies, and is raised, according to its kind, in newness of life. The resurrection body of believers will be conformed to the glory of Christ's. This body will not be wholly dissimilar to the present body. There will be similarity and continuity. It will be the body as it has now been raised or glorified, not an altogether new and unrelated body. Furthermore, it will be a real body, material and fleshly, not immaterial and spiritual in a sense that denies the continuity between the present body and the resurrection body. However, it will be a body so conformed to the image and glory of Christ that no vestige of the power and destructive effects of sin will remain. As the apostle so eloquently puts it at the close of 1 Corinthians 15:
But 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?" The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Resurrection/Renewal of All Things
One of the concomitants of the second advent of Christ is the renewal of all things, the cleansing of this sin-cursed creation and the recreation of a new heaven and earth. The kind of continuity between the pre- and post-resurrection body of the believer that we have discussed, finds its counterpart in the continuity between the present and the renewed creation.
In the biblical understanding of the future, the resurrection glory of the believer will coincide with what might be called the resurrection glory of the new creation. Not only do these realities coincide, but they are also closely linked in their significance. If the salvation of believers includes the restoration of body and soul to a state of integrity and wholeness, then it must also include the full restoration of the creation. Just as man was originally formed from the dust of the earth and placed within the creation-temple of God in which he was called to serve and glorify the Creator, so also will man in redemption be restored to a place of life and service, under the headship and dominion of the second Adam, in a newly cleansed creation temple.
For this reason, Romans 8:18-23 describes the creation as being under the same "slavery of corruption" that afflicts believers in their present bodies of humiliation. The term used to describe the corruption of creation in Romans 8 is used in 1 Corinthians 15:42, 50 to describe the corruption of the body. Accordingly, the creation's present groaning under the power and curse of sin mirrors the groaning of the believer. The creation itself likewise waits eagerly for the revelation of the sons of God, because the redemption of God's children is a redemption in which the creation itself participates! The future liberation of creation from its present corruption and bondage will only occur in conjunction with the believer's liberation from corruption and death. The link between the resurrection of the believer and the renewal of the creation is an intimate one. The renewal of the creation is the only context or environment within which the resurrection glory of believers in fellowship with Christ can be appreciated and understood. Without the glorification of the creation, the glorification of the new humanity in Christ would be an isolated and strange event.
This intimate link between the believer's resurrection and the renewal of the creation allows us to see the unity between what we have called individual and general eschatology. It also joins together the salvation of the church and her members with the great events of cosmic renewal that will accompany Christ's return at the end of the age. Indeed, there is a legitimate sense in which the justification and sanctification of the believer find their parallels in the justification and sanctification of the heavens and earth in the new creation. Just as the Lord declared the first creation in its state of integrity very good (Genesis 1:31), so the renewed creation will be worthy of the same judgment. And just as the first creation was perfect and holy in its consecration to the Lord, so the renewed creation will be one "wherein dwells righteousness" (compare 2 Peter 3:10-13). Justified and sanctified saints will dwell then in a justified and sanctified creation. A people holy unto the Lord, a royal priesthood, will enjoy fellowship with the Lord in the sanctuary of His renewed creation.7
There are two further matters that I would still like to address regarding the resurrection of the body.
- The first matter concerns a recent debate within North American evangelicalism regarding the resurrection of the body, a debate provoked by the writings of Murray J. Harris, professor of New Testament exegesis and theology at Trinity International University. This debate has raised afresh and is illustrative of a number of important questions regarding the resurrection of the body.
- The second matter has to do with some of the pastoral questions that often arise in connection with the biblical teaching regarding the resurrection. These questions, among others, are: What do the Reformed confessions say about the resurrection of the body? What implications does the confession of the resurrection have for the way Christian believers should treat and regard the bodies of those who are deceased? Will the resurrection body be sufficiently similar to our present bodies that they will be recognizably ours? What about the resurrection of bodies which have been utterly destroyed through cremation or some other means? And what about the resurrection of those who die in infancy or whose bodies (and minds) were deformed or handicapped through illness and disease?
Though I would not pretend or promise to be able to answer all of these questions, some of them need to be at least considered before we take up the next concomitant of the second advent of Christ, the final judgment.
A Recent Debate
Some of the issues relating to the subject of the resurrection of the body have been highlighted in a recent debate within North American evangelism. This debate, widely reported in the Christian press, provides an interesting test case on the doctrine of the resurrection.8 Though a number of parties have played a role in this debate, the two most important antagonists have been Murray J. Harris, professor of New Testament exegesis and theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois, and Norman Geisler, dean of Southern Evangelical Seminary, Charlotte, North Carolina. Not only has Geisler charged that Harris' doctrine is heretical, but he has also been joined by a number of cult-watching groups that have compared Harris' views with those of the cults, particularly the Jehovah's Witnesses.
In a number of works on the subject of the resurrection, Harris has described the resurrection body of Jesus as being "immaterial," "non-fleshly" and "invisible."9 Though Harris maintains that Jesus' resurrection body retains its essential humanity, even becoming visible and fleshly at will (for example, in the accounts of Jesus' post-resurrection appearances to the disciples), he insists that the glorified body of Christ is significantly different in kind than the pre-resurrection body. The personal identity of Jesus Christ, according to Harris, is not imperiled, but through the resurrection the body of Christ has undergone a significant change. To say that the body of the risen Christ is fleshly or comprised of "flesh and bone" diminishes the significance of the glorification that occurred through His resurrection, according to Harris.10 Furthermore, based upon his reading of 2 Corinthians 5, Harris argues that believers receive a "resurrection body" during the intermediate state, while their physical bodies remain in the grave. When Christ returns, all believers, whether living or dead, will undergo a resurrection of the body in which their physical bodies will be transformed or raised from the grave as spiritual bodies like that of Christ.11
In his criticisms of Harris' position, Geisler objects both to Harris' teaching that believers will receive a kind of interim resurrection body between death and resurrection at the last day and to his teaching that the resurrection body is non-fleshly or immaterial.12
With respect to Harris' suggestion that believers receive a kind of interim resurrection body between the time of death and resurrection at the return of Christ, Geisler claims that this is inconsistent with the biblical testimony that the resurrection of the body occurs at the time of Christ's return. Geisler also notes that, in the passage to which Harris appeals for his idea of an interim resurrection body, 2 Corinthians 5:1-9, the believer's circumstance at death is one that is variously described as being "naked" (v. 3), "unclothed" (v. 4), or "absent from the body" (v. 8). These descriptions correspond to the common teaching of Scripture that, in the period between death and resurrection at the time of Christ's return, the believer is in a provisional state of fellowship with the Lord awaiting the future resurrection of the body.
With respect to Harris' view of the nature of the resurrection body, Geisler objects particularly to three distinct emphases: that the resurrection body of Christ is immaterial, that it is not numerically identical with his pre-resurrection body,13 and that it is not a part of observable history."14 According to Geisler, the biblical testimony and the confessions of the historic Christian church require that we affirm the material, the flesh-and-blood-nature, of the resurrection body. The continuity between the present and resurrection body, furthermore, requires that we speak of the same body which dies being raised from the dead. When, for example, in 1 Corinthians 15:35-44, we read of the seed which dies and subsequently bears fruit, then we can only conclude that there is a numerical identity between the body which is sown in dishonor and raised in glory.15 Furthermore, though it may be true that we do not acknowledge the truth of the resurrection apart from faith — it is not observable to the naked eye in that sense — this does not mean that the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances of Christ are non-observable features of some kind of trans- or non-historical reality.
Perhaps the most critical issue that emerges in the context of this debate between Harris and Geisler has to do with the confessions of the historic Christian church. Do these confessions tell us anything about the resurrection and the nature of the resurrection body that might help to clarify this debate and determine whose view lies closer to the truth?
In my judgment, the confessions do provide us with considerable help at this point and generally tend to favor the position espoused by Geisler in this debate. Most of us are familiar with the article in the Apostles' Creed that says, "I believe in ... the resurrection of the body." What we often do not know, however, is that the historic language of this Creed was that of the resurrection of the flesh.16 The language with which we are familiar, though unobjectionable and true in its own right, only became the received text of the Creed in 1543. In the original language of this Creed, the church deliberately sought to oppose any gnosticizing or spiritualizing tendency to minimize the reality of the resurrection. The Belgic Confession, one of the great confessions of the Protestant Reformation, affirms that "all the dead shall be raised out of the earth, and their souls joined and united with their proper bodies in which they formerly lived" (Article 37, emphasis mine). In the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, Article 4, "Of the resurrection of Christ," declares:
Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of man's nature, wherewith he ascended into heaven, and there sits, until he returns to judge all men at the last day (emphasis mine).17
Similarly, the Westminster Larger Catechism, in its exposition of the resurrection of Christ, declares the following:
Christ was exalted in his resurrection, in that, not having seen corruption in death ... and having the very same body in which he suffered, with the essential properties thereof (but without mortality, and other common infirmities belonging to this life), really united to his soul, he rose again from the dead the third day by his own power."
O. & A. 52, emphasis mine
A cursory reading of these classic confessional statements regarding the resurrection of the body, particularly the resurrection of Christ, clearly shows their teaching to be that the resurrection body is substantially the same as the present body, at least in so far as it is material or flesh and blood. The properties belonging naturally to the body remain true of the resurrection body, though all of those features of the "body of our humiliation" (Philippians 3:21) that are owing to sin and God's curse are utterly removed. The viewpoint espoused by Harris, in other words, can find little or no support in the language and viewpoint of the historic confessions of the church. Consequently, the evidence seems to support the argument of Geisler that Harris' position deviates significantly from the orthodoxy of the historic church. To teach that the resurrection body is immaterial, that it is not comprised of flesh and blood, that it is not the same or proper body of the dead, now raised in glory, and that it is unobservable and invisible — to teach any one, let alone all, of these emphases, is to compromise in important ways the doctrine of Scripture and the church.18
Pastoral Questions Regarding the Resurrection of the Body
When we consider the Bible's teaching regarding the resurrection of the body, many pastoral questions arise. Most believers, when they face the reality of their own death or the death of fellow believers, confront questions of a pastoral character that are unavoidable. Rather than ignore these questions, I would like to conclude our treatment of the resurrection of the body by identifying some of these questions and offering tentative answers. There is, of course, great risk that, in asking and answering these questions, we go beyond what is taught in the Scriptures. However, many of these questions may be answered in terms of the Bible's teaching we have summarized and those "good and necessary" consequences that follow from its teaching.
How Should We Treat the Body of Deceased Believers?
One question that often surfaces in the face of the death of believers is: how should we treat or regard the body of deceased believers? Sometimes this question arises in the context of considering cremation or other alternatives to burial. On other occasions this question is provoked by the way some people comfort fellow believers at a funeral home viewing with such words as, "This is not your loved one, but only a body." When this kind of comfort is extended to believers, it is prompted by a genuine desire to assure those who mourn that death does not disrupt the fellowship we have with Christ, but ushers believers into the presence of the Lord with whom they are now "at home." However, it suggests something about the body of the person who has died that may not be altogether consistent with the hope for the resurrection of the body.
Upon the basis of our understanding of the Bible's teaching regarding the resurrection, it would seem to follow that Christians ought to treat the body of a deceased believer with the utmost respect and care. The way we view and handle, even the way in which we lovingly commit the body of a believer to the grave by way of a committal service, should testify to our convictions about the resurrection of the body. Though I do not wish here to go into the whole question of the legitimacy of cremation, it should not surprise us that this practice in modern times has its roots often in an unbelieving denial of the resurrection of the body. Furthermore, to say that the body of a believer is only a body, that it is in no respect to be identified with the one who has died, is perhaps misleading. Because our redemption includes the restoration and reintegration of soul and body, the body remains an essential part of our identity. The comfort which is ours in the face of death is not simply that we go to be with the Lord, but that we anticipate seeing God "in our flesh" (cf. Job 19:26).
Support for this way of regarding the bodies of deceased believers is found in a remarkable statement in the Westminster Larger Catechism (Q. &A. 86). Speaking of the communion in glory of Christ and those who are united to Him, this Catechism makes the following affirmation:
The communion in glory with Christ, which the members of the invisible church enjoy immediately after death, is, in that their souls are then made perfect in holiness, and received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies, which even in death continue united to Christ, and rest in their graves as in their beds, till at the last day they be again united to their souls.
Will the Resurrection Body be Recognizably Our Own?
A question that sometimes arises in connection with the resurrection of the body and the final state is: will the resurrection body be recognizable? Sometimes it is maintained that there will be no recognition of fellow believers in the new heavens and earth because this would be incompatible with the unimpaired joy of the final state. The recognition of one another, so it is argued, would require the sad remembrance of sins committed in this present life and call attention to the absence of some who were not saved. Furthermore, some appeal to Jesus' teaching in the gospels that in the kingdom of heaven "they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven" (Matthew 22:30). If there were such continuity between the present and resurrection body that believers would be recognizable to each other, then this would not only imply the remembrance of the sins and shortcomings of this life, but it would also distract from the kind of exclusive attachment to Christ, surpassing all earthly relationships (including marriage and family relationships) as we now experience them. Doesn't the language of this passage — they "are like the angels" — require the conclusion that the resurrection body will be so unlike the present body as to be unrecognizable?
None of these arguments, however, can withstand careful scrutiny. When Jesus speaks, for example, of believers in the resurrection being "like the angels," the point of comparison given in the context has to do with marriage and marriage relationships. Because there will be neither marrying nor giving in marriage, those who are raised in the resurrection will be in this sense like the angels. This should not be understood, however, to deny the continuing reality of the created difference between male and female. Nor does it require the conclusion that the personal identity of believers, including their bodily form and uniqueness, will be substantially altered. The biblical testimony regarding the resurrection appearances of our Lord Jesus Christ convincingly demonstrates that He was recognizable to the disciples. To maintain that the resurrection body would not be recognizably or identifiably our own militates against the biblical teaching of continuity between the present and resurrection body. Strictly speaking, were believers in the resurrection unrecognizable to one another in the wholeness of their persons, they would literally cease to be the persons they presently are! This would mean that, in the resurrection, our persons are not restored or healed, but replaced by persons whose identity and form is wholly different than our present identity and form.19
Undoubtedly, it is difficult for us to imagine how believers can enjoy fellowship with each other in the eternal state, recognizing each other in the state of glorification, without their joy being impaired by the remembrance of sin in this present life. It is also somewhat difficult to imagine a circumstance in which, though family and marriage relationships in this life are not forgotten or unknown in the life to come, the institutions of marriage and family do not continue as they now exist. But these difficulties notwithstanding, there are ample biblical and confessional reasons to insist that in the resurrection there will be a mutual recognition and fellowship among believers and with Christ that will be the perfection, not the denial, of this present life.
What about the Resurrection of Bodies That Have Been Utterly Destroyed?
In the light of a number of my comments in the preceding, there may be some who are asking the question: what about the resurrection of bodies that have been utterly destroyed? If the resurrection body is in substantial continuity with the present body, if it is the "self-same body," to use the language of the Westminster Confession of Faith, how can that be in the case of bodies that have been utterly destroyed through one or another means? Indeed, the decay of the body after death, its return to the dust whence it came, compels the conclusion that, in many cases, the resurrection of the body represents a kind of act on God's part that is tantamount to a new creation out of nothing.
If I may be permitted the use of some rather abstract language at this juncture, the difficulty this question poses has to do with whether the material "particles" or constituents of the present body must be identical with those of the resurrection body. Nothing in the biblical doctrine of the resurrection of the body requires that this be the case. It may be the case — after all, it is certainly possible that God could form the resurrection body from the same, identical particles as the present body. But this need not be the case in order for there to be a substantial and personal identity between the resurrection body and the body of the present. If I may be permitted this comparison, we commonly regard our bodies as the selfsame bodies, even though they undergo considerable change because of age and infirmities, even being comprised of wholly new cells every number of years! If our present bodies are one and the same with our bodies many years ago, then there does not seem to be any problem with an affirmation of the resurrection of the proper bodies of those whose earthly bodies have been wholly destroyed.
What about the Bodies of Unborn Children, Infants, or Those Who Die Prematurely?
Another question that can arise in a pastoral context among believers is: what about the bodies of unborn children, or of infants and others who die prematurely? This question is related to a more fundamental question, namely, are believers justified in being confident of the salvation of their children?20 However, I will restrict my comments to the issue of the resurrection of the bodies of such children. With respect to the resurrection of the body, the specific focus of this question is upon the kind of body with which such children will be raised. Though these children die in a state of immature development, physically and otherwise, will they be raised bodily in maturity?
If believers may be confident of the salvation of such children, then it follows that they too will share in the resurrection of the body. Furthermore, since the final state is one of complete perfection and glorification, it must be the case that all who share in this perfection, including that aspect of it known as the resurrection, will do so in a state of full maturity. There will not be anything, in the final state of God's eternal kingdom, like the process of growth and maturation as we now know it. Just as they will neither marry nor be given in marriage, so there will be no distinction between adult and child, between mature and immature, at least not as we now know these distinctions. Hard as it may be for us to imagine or conceive, we should be confident as believers that we will enjoy fellowship with all the saints, including those children who die under the circumstances described, in the fullness of mature and perfected life.
What about the Bodies of Those with Severe Physical and Mental Impairments?
One final question that is of a pastoral nature respecting the resurrection of the body is: what about the bodies of those with severe physical and mental impairments? Obviously, this is a question that many believers cannot but ask, when they and fellow believers witness the ravages of sin and the curse upon these bodies of our humiliation.
To this question, we have an answer in the familiar words of Psalm 103:2-3,
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget none of His benefits; Who pardons all your iniquities, Who heals all your diseases.
When the Lord wipes away every tear from our eye, when He expels from His sanctified creation every remainder of sin and its curse, when He grants us bodies like unto the glorified body of the Lord Jesus Christ then we may be confident that the resurrection body, raised in glory, will be beautiful in appearance and form, rid of every defect and impairment which sin and the curse have brought. Though it is unwise to speculate carelessly about all the features of the resurrection body, it seems to me to follow from the biblical testimony that these bodies will be altogether lovely in every appropriate sense. What that means precisely, no one knows. But that it will be so seems undeniable.
With these pastoral questions addressed, we come to the close of our consideration of the biblical teaching regarding the resurrection of the body. Without a doubt, we have not been able to do this teaching justice. The testimony of the Scriptures to the certainty of the resurrection is clear. However, many things are not told us that we might like to know. It may even be that, in addressing some of these pastoral questions, I have exceeded the boundaries of what is given to us to know in the Scriptures.
Perhaps enough has been said, however, to appreciate afresh the hope of which the apostle Peter speaks in 1 Peter 1:3-5:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.