Resurrection Series Part 8: Resurrection In Non-bodily form?

Welcome to part 8 of the Resurrection series. You can find all preceding parts here. Today, we will be talking about the objection that Jesus' resurrection was in non-bodily form.

To discredit the miracle of the Resurrection, however, many today claim that Jesus’ appearances were in non-bodily form; consequently, when the Scriptures mention the bodily resurrection of Jesus, critics claim that it is an embellishment added in as the events about Jesus were fading into the past. To answer this charge, let’s examine the Scriptures first. Throughout his epistles, Paul preached a bodily resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15:4, Paul states (in the creed), “He was buried… he was raised,” signifying that “what goes down must come up.” Paul mentions this four additional times in that same chapter. Philippians 3:21 also mentions the bodily Resurrection of Jesus: “who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.” This does not indicate an elimination of our bodies, but a transformation of them. Romans 8:11 states, “But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.” This indicates that Jesus’ body was also mortal before His Resurrection. Likewise, in Colossians 2:9, Paul states, “For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily…” Jesus is not an intangible being; He has a body, and this body was raised from the dead! In Acts 13:34-37, Paul says that Jesus’ body did not decay like David’s did; but it was raised and there were many witnesses to this event. Additionally, Acts 9, 22, and 26 describe Paul’s conversion experience in differing ways, but this is not sufficient evidence to show that Paul did not believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ. In fact, there were other witnesses who saw the light and heard the voice; this was not just an isolated instance in Paul’s mind. Furthermore, if critics wish to use Paul’s experience to support visions, they must also take Paul’s testimony in Acts 13 of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Paul had a post-ascension experience which may account for the difference between this and the appearances of Jesus to the disciples. Apparently, Luke didn’t see a problem with these differences, because he recorded both! But the critic cannot use this point to claim that the Resurrection story evolved over time; for Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written prior to Acts and they all record a bodily resurrection. Using this logic, if man is progressing at all, he is “devolving,” not evolving! But even Peter preached a bodily Resurrection of Jesus. In Acts 2:25-32, Peter preaches the bodily resurrection of Christ when he says that Jesus’ body did not decay like David’s did. He pointed out that God raised Him up and that this was a fulfillment of the prophesy in Psalm 16:10. Peter further reports later in Acts that Jesus ate and drank with the disciples; this is why Jesus said, “Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have” (Luke 24:39). In addition, all four Gospels speak of this bodily Resurrection. All four Gospels mention the empty tomb; if the tomb was empty – as is attested by history – then this implies a bodily Resurrection. Also, the disciples and others touched the Resurrected Christ, and both Luke and John record that Jesus ate with his disciples. Jesus Himself said, “‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up’” (John 2:19) when referring to His body. Therefore, we not only have multiple testimonies of the bodily Resurrection of Christ, but we also have it being preached at the earliest stages of Christianity. Additionally, in the writings of the authors of the time, we do not see a contrary view to the bodily Resurrection of Christ.

Still, the critics use several New Testament passages to support their view of a non-bodily Resurrection. The first one is John 21:12 which states, “None of the disciples ventured to question Jesus: ‘Who are you?’ knowing that it was the Lord.” If the disciples did not recognize Jesus, doesn’t this imply a non-bodily Resurrection? Not necessarily; the immortal body of Christ may have been slightly different: “Although John testifies that Jesus’ body was raised from the dead and had scars from his crucifixion there is reason to believe that there were some differences in the way Jesus looked, since he also claims that Jesus’ body was now immortal. These differences may explain a degree of uncertainty, yet his disciples knew it was [H]im. But we must also remember that John relays this appearance in light of clearly speaking of a bodily resurrection just one chapter earlier, when reporting the empty tomb and Jesus’ invitation to Thomas to touch [H]is resurrection body (20:27-28)” (page 158).

Another passage of difficulty is Matthew 28:17: “When they saw him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful.” Why did the disciples doubt if they had seen the Resurrected Christ? Many scholars believe that this word is better translated as “hesitate.” Who were the doubters and why did they doubt? Some of them may have been people other than the Twelve, who “were seeing Jesus for the first time” (page 238). If it were the Twelve, then this would not be problematic; they would be merely experiencing what many of us would were we in their situation. If someone today died and then suddenly appeared before you, you would have mixed-emotions of joy and doubt: “Is this really him [or her]? How can this be? People do not come back from death” (page 239). It is, however, perfectly clear that Matthew does believe in a bodily resurrection; just a few verses earlier, he speaks of the angels appearing to the woman and saying that Jesus “is not here; He is risen” (see Matthew 28:5-10). Additionally, it is possible that those who doubted Jesus were from Galilee, a city about a few days walk from Jerusalem which had merely heard of Jesus’ crucifixion, not personally witnessed it.

Another troublesome passage to some critics is Galatians 1:16 where Paul states that God was pleased “to reveal His Son in me,” interpreting this to mean that Paul had an inward experience as opposed to that reported in Acts. However, Paul strongly hints at bodily resurrection in many of his other writings; one such example is Acts 13:30-37: “But God raised Him from the dead. He was seen for many days by those who came up with Him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are His witnesses to the people…. ‘You will not allow Your Holy One to see corruption.’ For David, after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell asleep, was buried with his fathers, and saw corruption; but He whom God raised up saw no corruption.” Since Paul is definitely not implying a non-bodily Resurrection in the Galatians passage, it is possible that he is referring to his spiritual growth during his three years away from the disciples following his “Damascus Road” experience.

1 Peter 3:18 is another passage pointed to by the critics in favor of the non-bodily Resurrection of Christ; this passage speaks of Jesus who was “put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.” Most of the skeptics who hail this passage as an objection to the Resurrection do not believe that Peter wrote it, but that it was written in “the final quarter of the first century” (page 239). This would mean that the disciples first taught a non-bodily resurrection of Christ; however, to accept this view would mean, as stated earlier, that the story of the Resurrection is “devolving” instead of evolving –Jesus would have had a spirit body first and then a physical body, denying the very essence of what the disciples believed and preached.

But what about Mark 16:7, which states, “He is going ahead of you to Galilee”? Skeptics argue that this could be interpreted as “he is leading you” by His spirit, and therefore, it was not a bodily resurrection. However, most translations interpret this phrase as “going ahead,” not “leading you.” But even if the passage did point to the skeptics’ interpretation, this would not imply that the disciples would see a vision upon reaching Galilee. Further proof against this idea can be found just one verse before, where the angel states very clearly that Jesus has risen from the dead in bodily form (and therefore the tomb is empty). “Thus it is poor exegesis to assign an alternate definition to a word to make it fit with a visionary appearance and heavily strains the text” (page 239), especially when “going ahead” is the more common translation.

Critics often like to point to 1 Corinthians 15:37-50, a passage in which they say that Paul is comparing the natural body and the spiritual body in resurrection. However, Paul is not talking about a natural body versus a spiritual body, as critics claim; rather, he is referring to a body that is “holy and has spiritual appetites to one that is weak and has both fleshly and sinful appetites” (page 240). If Paul had meant a natural verses a spiritual body “a better Greek word was available to him, one which he had just used a few chapters earlier in a similar contrast, even using a seed analogy as he does in chapter 15 (1 Corinthians 9:3-10)” (page 240). Here is what Paul says in verse 11: “If we sowed spiritual things in you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?” Why didn’t Paul use the Greek word for “material” in chapter 15 if he really wished to convey the natural versus the spiritual resurrection? The point is that Paul is not speaking of the natural body versus the spiritual body in 1 Corinthians 15.

Furthermore, other places in the New Testament and intertestamental writings, use the same Greek term to mean “natural” as in “the nature of man as opposed to the spiritual” (page 240). In fact, nowhere else in the New Testament is the term used to mean something that is material. For example, James uses the term to mean natural when comparing the wisdom from above and the wisdom from the world: “This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic” (James 3:15). Jude 1:19 uses the term for those who “live by ‘natural instinct’ .... not having the Holy Spirit” (page 240). Additionally, The Book of Maccabees uses the term to mean both “heartily” (referring to feelings of grief or warmth) and “bodily appetite.” In addition, Paul uses the same Greek word to refer to the “spiritual,” and he does this four times – three times in 1 Corinthians, and once in Galatians. All of these cases refer to the spiritually mature. As we can see, Paul never uses the term to refer to the immaterial body. Likewise, the term appears only three times elsewhere and it never refers to the immaterial. The term is not found in the LXX (Septuagint) or any other intertestimental writings; and the term appears only twenty-one times in the Apostolic Fathers’ writings, but only six of these give any indication that they might mean immaterial (though the meaning is not clear). Every one of these cases refer to “the sense of being of God,” and none of them suggest the immaterialness of Jesus’ resurrected body. Furthermore, Paul’s statement that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” simply refers to the mortal body – this was a Jewish expression that every Jew understood. Therefore, we can safely conclude that Jesus’ resurrected body was not immaterial.


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