A Physical Resurrection?

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas - Caravaggio

I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that all of you who choose to attend a church this Sunday (Easter) will hear a sermon about Jesus’ physical resurrection. To be fair, the gospels do allude (somewhat) to a physical resurrection, talking about the body not being in the tomb, but the gospels are not our earliest accounts of resurrection understandings. For that we must go to 1 Corinthians 15:35-50:

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come” Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory.

So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam become a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven.

What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.

Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. There is no gray area here for Paul.

Now, I fully recognize that this is Paul’s understanding of how resurrection works, but it is our earliest account, being at least a decade earlier than the earliest gospel account. Moreover, Paul seems to have no understanding of a physical resurrection of Jesus, though he proclaims confidently in 15:12-17 that Christ has indeed raised from the dead.

So, what do we do about the clear discrepancy between the gospel accounts and Paul? Both perspectives are represented in the text, yet only one has widespread acceptance. I, for one, tend to side with Paul on this one, seeing that his text is much earlier and likely represents an earlier strand of tradition than do the gospels.

How do you reconcile the two texts? If you choose to side with the gospels why do do so? Is it simply because it is what you have always been taught? Would Easter be any less meaningful if you did not believe in a physical resurrection? If so, how and why?

P.S. While I tend to prefer Paul’s understanding of “resurrection,” I do tend to disagree with his concept of “kingdom of God.” I am aware how those two concepts intercept in this text and how one’s understanding of one could easily change her understanding of the other.

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6 thoughts on “A Physical Resurrection?

  1. Ok, I’ll play the “fundamentalist advocate” here. The only way I can reconcile the later gospel accounts would be to say that Paul was never one of the inner twelve. Maybe the twelve needed the “physical” appearance as sort of a “kick start” to what needed to be done once the spirit of Christ was received. After all they were hiding in fear after the death of Jesus. With that said I believe the lack of a physical resurrection for me cannot change the significance of Easter. For me, Thomas aka Didymus sums it up in John 20:28 with the phrase “My Lord and my God!” Believing in the resurrection, celebration of Christ on Easter is about understanding the fulfillment and manifestation of God in Jesus which Didymus finally gets, along with the twelve, and hopefully us today.

      1. It’s not really fair to suggest that anyone who believes in a physical resurrection is a fundamentalist. It seems to me that there is much more evidence for the physical resurrection of Jesus than not, and I am certainly no fundamentalist. That said, I also say that Jesus is my Lord either way. Whatever happened that day (let’s face it, we don’t have any extant records of testimonies from anyone who was actually there) was miraculous, powerful, history-changing, and life changing for all those who believe in Christ.

        1. I agree that believing in a physical resurrection does not necessitate that one is a “fundamentalist.” I do wonder what you mean by “there is much more evidence for the physical resurrection of Jesus than not.” Are you speaking to the number of gospel accounts, even though they were mostly copying each other? Are you referring to the fact that we have not found “the bones of Jesus” yet? Are you referring to some Roman rumors that Jesus’ followers took the body in the middle of the night to “prove” that he had risen from the dead? Just wondering.

          Also, where does empirical science come into the picture when talking about “evidence” for the physical resurrection or not of Jesus?

          And, yes, Randall, whatever did happen that day (or maybe more accurately, in the years that preceded that day) was life-changing for the followers of Jesus. Of that, I have no doubt.

  2. An earlier passage in 1 Cor. 15 (vv. 3-8) suggests to me that Jesus had a physical body witnessed by a substantial group of people. This tradition that Paul says has been handed down to him also lends credibility to the Gospel accounts, particularly the Thomas episode. Paul states in the passage you quoted that the physical body is raised as a spiritual body, so the physical is actually raised even though it is raised as a fundamentally different kind of body, a spiritual one. This reconciles with the Gospel account of Jesus walking through the walls while also inviting Thomas to physically touch him. Perhaps it’s a spiritual body with physical attributes (not necessarily flesh and blood), and fundamentally different from our definition of a body. This is consistent with Paul’s encouragement of the Thessalonians when he tells them that we will physically be caught up along with the “dead in Christ” (1 Thess. 4). Because flesh and blood can’t inherit eternal life, something will have to change about us before being forever with the Lord. Paul describes it as the perishable putting on imperishability (cool word!).

    I don’t completely understand how this passage precludes a bodily resurrection, or how it is in tension with the Gospel accounts. I followed your logic up to that point, but I couldn’t make this leap with you because of the reasons I listed above about the nature of the resurrection body. Do I understand you to mean that there was still a physical body in the tomb when Jesus appeared to his followers as risen? That seems untenable to me, but this is a new idea for me, so help me understand.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

    1. Re: 1 Cor 15:3-8 – I think it is incorrect to assume that just because Paul says that Jesus “appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time” means that it must have been in a physical body. Most of the appearances/visions in the Bible are either of a spiritual nature or are ambiguous about the physicality/spirituality of the object/person being seen. Moreover, Paul’s vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus reads to me as a completely spiritual vision. Thus, Jesus appearing to all of these people in a spiritual sense would be in line with Paul’s expressed experience with and understanding of Jesus.

      I’m glad that you brought up Jesus walking through locked doors and yet still “physical” enough for Thomas to touch him in John 20. That is a rather enjoyable passage. I read this passage as an example of the gospel writers acknowledging the tension in Jesus traditions. Certainly by the time John was compiled (ca. 90CE), multiple traditions about the death and resurrection of Jesus had emerged with some arguing for a bodily resurrection and others for a spiritual one. Perhaps the author(s) of John is trying to get at “a spiritual body with physical attributes” that is “fundamentally different from our definition of a body,” but even if he was does that mean that we have to accept that reading?

      I read 1 Cor 15 as precluding a bodily resurrection because of how adamant Paul is about the physical and spiritual being so completely different. He says in very clear terms, “it is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.” He does not push for a part physical/part spiritual body. For the difference for Paul between the two “bodies” is as markedly different as he understands Adam and Christ to be, one is a man of dust and the other a man of heaven. Likewise, for Paul physical equals perishable and spiritual equals imperishable. He worked carefully to build this dichotomy, so I think to read him faithfully we have to maintain that dichotomy. Asserting that when Paul said a spiritual body is raised he actually meant a spiritual body with physical attributes seems a bit of base. I think you can clearly argue the author John may have been pushing that understanding, but I don’t think we can read that into Paul.

      Further, I think Paul is focused on Christ, not Jesus, if you understand the distinction I am making. Paul does not seem to care much about the man Jesus, but instead cares about the Christ. Thus, it wouldn’t matter much what happened to Jesus’ physical body. It was “sown” when it died, but something categorically different, it seems Paul is saying, “rose” in its place. This fits firmly within his consistent choosing of the “spiritual” over the “physical” (a spiritual vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus, his redefinition of the seed of Abraham as not meaning physical descendants, Sarah as representative of the “Jerusalem above” as opposed to the “present Jerusalem,” which Hagar represents, etc.).

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