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Christ’s Resurrection: Bodily or Only Spiritual?

Several passages in the New Testament only make sense in light of a bodily resurrection

Trent Horn

Some atheists reject the resurrection accounts because they say the first Christians only believed that Christ’s spirit rose from the dead. They then explain all the evidence for the resurrection as grief-induced visions or hallucinations while Jesus’ body rotted away in the tomb. For example, atheist Dan Barker claims:

It is perfectly consistent with Christian theology to think that the spirit of Jesus, not his body, was awakened from the grave, as Christians today believe that the spirit of Grandpa has gone to heaven while his body rots in the ground. In fact, just a few verses later Paul confirms this: “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” The physical body is not important to Christian theology (294-295).

The earliest testimony we have about the Resurrection comes from St. Paul’s letters, and they describe Jesus undergoing a bodily resurrection from the dead. Barker tries to get around this fact by claiming Paul used a Greek word for Jesus’ resurrection that refers only to the resurrection of the spirit rather than the resurrection of the body. Specifically, he claims Paul used the word egeiro, which means simply “rise” or “wake up” and that “Paul did not use the word ‘resurrection’ (anastasis, anistemi) here, though he certainly knew it.”

However, St. Paul says Jesus was “designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection [Greek, anastaseos] from the dead” (Rom. 1:4). So, contra Barker, Paul does describe Jesus rising from the dead with a form of the Greek word anastasis. Moreover, Paul uses egeiro and anastasis interchangeably when speaking about the relationship between our future resurrection from the dead and the reality of Christ’s resurrection:

Now, if Christ is preached as raised [egegertai] from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection [anastasis] of the dead? But if there is no resurrection [anastasis] of the dead, then Christ has not been raised [egegertai]. If Christ has not been raised [egegertai], then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain (1 Cor. 15:12-14).

Paul’s argument is simple: if we do not rise from the dead, then Christ didn’t rise from the dead. But Christ did rise from the dead, so we can have confidence that we too will rise from the dead.

When it comes to Barker’s citation of 1 Corinthians 15:50 (“Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God”) and Paul’s general use of the term “spiritual body,” we have to remember what Paul was up against in Corinth. Pauline scholar John Zeisler believes that Paul was trying to convince people that the resurrection of the dead was not a mere reanimation of one’s corpse. For Paul, the “spiritual body” in the Resurrection “seems to mean something like ‘outward form,’ or ‘embodiment’ or perhaps better the way in which the person is conveyed and expressed . . . a resurrection of the whole person, involving embodiment but not physical embodiment” (98).

A similar explanation applies to 1 Peter 3:18, where Peter says Christ was “put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.” Jehovah’s Witnesses often cite this text to deny Christ’s bodily resurrection, but as New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says, “The ‘flesh/spirit’ antithesis of 3:18 and 4:6 sounds to modern western ears as though it stands for our ‘physical/non-physical’ distinction; but this would take us down the wrong path.” These verses simply mean that Jesus no longer has a corruptible and mortal body like ours (or “flesh and blood body”). Instead, Jesus has a body infused with supernatural power, or spirit, that makes it “incorruptible” without being immaterial.

Likewise, when Paul says, “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,” he is using a “Semitism,” or a Jewish way of speaking about the natural state of humanity apart from the grace of God. We can’t inherit the kingdom without being moved by God’s spirit, but that doesn’t mean we will only be spirits. Spiritual in this context refers to a thing’s orientation as opposed to its substance. It’s like when we say the Bible is a “spiritual book” or when Paul says, “He who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one” (1 Cor. 2:15).

The subjects in these statements are not ghostly apparitions but books and people that are ordered toward the will of God. St. Augustine says, “As the Spirit, when it serves the flesh, is not improperly said to be carnal, so the flesh, when it serves the spirit, will rightly be called spiritual—not because it is changed into spirit, as some suppose who misinterpret the text” (13.20).

Barker also claims Paul cannot be talking about a bodily resurrection, because he describes Jesus “appearing” to the disciples in 1 Corinthians 15. Barker asserts, “the word ‘appeared’ in this passage is also ambiguous and does not require a physical presence. The word ophthe, from the verb horao, is used for both physical sight as well as spiritual visions” (Godless, 295). Barker then gives two examples that he believes prove that Paul is talking about the disciples having a purely spiritual vision of Jesus.

The first involves Luke’s description of how a man from Macedonia appeared (opthe) to Paul in a vision (Acts 16:9-10). The second involves the “appearances” of Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:3). Barker asks the reader, “Did Moses and Elijah appear physically to Peter? Shall we start looking for their empty tombs? This is obviously some kind of visionary appearance” (295).

But Barker’s argument doesn’t work because a person can “appear” to someone without being a ghost or spirit. For example, I might ask my wife, “Are you going to make an appearance at our party tonight?” without expecting her to materialize out of thin air. In the incident with the Macedonian, Luke makes it clear that he’s talking about a dream Paul had because he says, “a vision appeared to Paul in the night” (Acts 16:9). But when Paul and the other New Testament authors talk about Jesus appearing to the disciples, they don’t describe those appearances as being part of a vision or dream.

For example, Luke describes the disciples saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!”  Luke uses the word opthe to describe this appearance but in the proceeding verses he describes Jesus appearing in an explicitly embodied form. Jesus tells the Apostles, “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39).

Barker’s use of Moses and Elijah appearing on the Mount of Transfiguration backfires because the text does not describe a purely visionary experience. 2 Kings 2:11 tells us Elijah went up alive into heaven and Jude 9 alludes to a Jewish legend about Moses’ body being taken up to heaven. Peter even declares that he will build a tent for Moses and Elijah (Matt. 19:4), which would be a strange thing to do if these men did not have physical bodies.

Finally, Paul was a Pharisee so he believed in a future, bodily resurrection. But unlike the unconverted Pharisees, Paul taught that our bodies would be transformed so that they will resemble Jesus’ glorified resurrection body. For example, he told the Philippians, “we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (3:21). He told the Church at Rome, “If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit that dwells in you” (8:11). This expectation would not make sense unless the first Christians believed Jesus’ body was gloriously reigning in heaven rather than rotting away in a tomb outside of Jerusalem.

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