Few passages in Scripture are more well-known yet more misunderstood than John 3:1-8 and 1 Corinthians 15:35-58 which deal respectively with spiritual regeneration and bodily transformation.
In the latter passage where Paul is trying to answer the questions he has himself posed regarding how the dead are raised and with what kind of body they come, he begins with well-known, easily understood illustrations intended to demonstrate that, despite being genetically identical, seeds, full-grown plants and bodies differ. He then adds that there are both earthly and heavenly bodies which also differ but possess their own unique kind of glory.
So, by establishing in verses 36-39 that seeds die and differ from the plants/bodies they produce and that there is variation among the different species, Paul is really stating what must have been obvious to his readers and he does not bother to illustrate his point. Had he been looking for an analogy, he might well have resorted to the truly marvellous metamorphosis of the butterfly, but he did not. In the course of my reading, however, I have come across writers who do use this analogy in ways that suggest that they do not fully appreciate what Scripture is teaching.
For example, in his book Classic Christianity (p.78) Bob George uses the butterfly to illustrate the new birth as follows:
“Being made into a new creation is like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. Originally an earth-bound crawling creature, a caterpillar weaves a cocoon and is totally immersed in it. Then a marvelous process takes place, called a metamorphosis. Finally, a totally new creature – a butterfly – emerges. Once ground-bound, the butterfly can now soar above the earth. It can now view life from the sky downward.”
Unfortunately, what George has tried to do is use a physical analogy to illustrate a spiritual change, and it doesn’t work. The fact is that the butterfly is not “a totally new creature”. All that has happened to it is that it has undergone a physical change in form like a seed which becomes a plant or a body. If this is so, its illustrative and apologetic value for the Christian is very limited. As far as atheists are concerned, it comes well short of proving the existence of God and of undermining their belief in naturalistic evolution. Moreover, it must be added that one who experiences spiritual regeneration through faith in Christ remains physically the same like the butterfly. He will not be “a totally a new creature” in the biblical sense until he has died, decayed and undergone resurrection transformation.
This brings us to Michael Green who in his book You Must Be Joking uses the metamorphosis of the butterfly to illustrate the resurrection of Jesus and says that Jesus’ body emerged from the grave clothes as a butterfly emerges from its chrysalis (pp.121f.). Again, though the illustration is superficially apt, it is important to realize that what Green as a good Anglican is intent on proving is that Jesus underwent a bodily transformation at his resurrection. Apart from the fact that this has a very dubious foundation in Scripture, his use of the totally physical or natural metamorphosis of a butterfly undermines his argument that Jesus’ fleshly body had undergone the necessary change, in kind as opposed to form, to prepare it for heaven (1 Cor. 15:50-53). The point is this: Green is among the many who contend, quite contrary to the evidence in my view, that when Jesus emerged from the tomb he had been corporeally transformed even though Jesus himself explicitly maintained that he was still flesh (Luke 24:39). In fact, if he was still physical flesh like the butterfly, he could not have been changed in the way Green says he was. After all, apart from his visibility, audibility, tangibility and manifest lack of glory, he ate material food (Luke 24:41-43), and these were all signs that he had retained his first Adamic nature. While they proved his genuinely physical resurrection on the one hand, they indicated that he had not yet ascended on the other (John 20:17), and hence, according to Paul, had not yet undergone the universally necessary change for entry into heaven (1 Cor. 15:53). Bluntly, he had not yet undergone bodily glorification as he had when Paul ‘saw’ him on the road to Damascus (Acts 26:19; 1 Cor. 9:1).
It is here that there is serious misunderstanding. The reason is that it is assumed that resurrection involves not merely bodily but fleshly continuity. This is required by the so-called Fall from original perfection characteristic of Augustinian theology. But Paul implicitly denies this idea, first, by insisting that what is naturally perishable cannot inherit what is naturally imperishable and, second, that the temporal earthly body is intrinsically different, different in kind, that is, from the eternal heavenly body. The difference is basically that between dust and spirit (1 Cor. 15:42-49).
There is no denying that the metamorphosis of the butterfly is one of nature’s wonders, but from a Christian point of view it provides a flawed illustration of resurrection transformation. The problem is that if Jesus, though spiritually regenerate, was still flesh (Luke 24:39), he could not as such inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15:50). Just as Jesus says we must, that is, by divine design (dei), be spiritually born again (John 3:7), so Paul says that we must (dei) all be corporeally changed (1 Cor. 15:53). If the necessity is universal and Jesus had not yet ascended (John 20:17), then his still fleshly body had not changed at all. It had simply been healed, restored and raised, scars and all. (1* See my Two ‘Natural’ Necessities) The problem with the butterfly is that, despite its change in form, it is never more than an ordinary butterfly that undergoes its own unique process of development. It permanently remains, however, one of God’s natural creatures adapted and confined to this world. By contrast, at his ascension Jesus’ body of flesh was necessarily replaced by a body of glory and was different in kind (Phil. 3:21, cf. 1 Cor. 15:47-49). Looked at from a somewhat different angle, we might simply say that his incarnation was reversed (cf. John 3:13) and he regained the glory he had before the foundation of the earth (John 17:5).
The Resurrection of Jesus and of the Believer
At this point it is vital for us to distinguish between the resurrection of Jesus and that of the believer. It is often said that the former provides the model or paradigm of the latter’s, but both Peter (Acts 2:29-35) and Paul (Acts 13:36) make it indubitably clear that this is not the case. They differentiate definitively between Jesus who did not experience corruption (decay) and David who did. In other words, it is David who provides the model of the resurrection of the dead and decayed, and they constitute the majority of us. What is true is that the resurrection of Jesus is the ground of the believer’s resurrection (1 Cor. 15:20-23), but it provides neither its manner nor its model. For, how can a body that has undergone decay be restored and raised like that of Jesus? As Paul makes crystal clear, while resurrection transformation is common and necessary to both the dead and the living (1 Cor. 15:51-53), the gospels indicate that the resurrection of Jesus occurred separately from his transformation. It was a two-stage affair like the conversion regeneration of the disciples who were believers before the resurrection but were not born again till Pentecost when the Spirit was poured out (John 7:39). First, like Lazarus and others Jesus rose fully restored as he had predicted (John 2:19-21; 10:17f.) but since he had already gained life by keeping the law, unlike Lazarus he was never to die again when he rose (Rom. 6:9; Rev. 1:18). In fact, the only reason why he died at all was not to earn wages but in order to make voluntary atonement for his sheep (Acts 2:23f.). Looked at from this perspective we can say that in his unique case death and hence resurrection were aberrations or deviations from normality. Had he not freely died, he would never have experienced resurrection at all. This can only mean that resurrection (from the grave) was not essential to his incarnate life. By contrast, transformation, like regeneration, is a divine necessity. Both are ‘natural’ necessities to those who are naturally flesh. Thus, later, in order to inherit his eternal heavenly kingdom (cf. Luke 1:32f., etc.), Jesus necessarily had to ascend. And it was then that he was transformed. In this way he provided the paradigm of the ascension transformation of the saints at the end of history who do not die and so do not experience resurrection. If we argue against all the evidence noted above that Jesus was changed at his re-appearance from the grave, then we are forced to make two inferences: first, that his transformation dispensed with his physical resurrection and, second, that it rendered his ascension redundant and turned it into mere drama. (The idea held by many that he made sporadic appearances from heaven during the interlude between his resurrection and his ascension is surely contrary to the evidence.) This clearly undermines the gospel.
The Believer’s Transformation
The bodily transformation, like the spiritual regeneration, that the believer undergoes is much more radical than a butterfly metamorphosis; it involves a change in nature from flesh to spirit (1 Cor. 15:42-46), a change from a body of humiliation (cf. Phil. 2:7f.) to a body of glory (Phil. 3:21), in other words a change in kind not merely in form (1 Cor. 15:44). At this point the temple provides an appropriate analogy. In its natural state the “hand-made” temple (cheiropoietos, Mark 14:58) is subject to both decay and destruction and is replaced by one that is “not made by hand” (acheiropoietos. Cf. John 2:19f.; 1 Peter 2:4-8). Likewise the fleshly or natural body of the believer which is also “hand-made” (Job 10:8, etc.) and hence naturally mortal and corruptible is totally replaced by one that is “not made by hand” (2 Cor. 5:1). (2* See my Manufactured Or Not So.)
To pinpoint the issue at stake, while there is continuity of body, there is definite discontinuity of flesh. In the words of Dunn, whereas soma (body) can cross the boundary of the ages, sarx (flesh) belongs firmly to this present age (p.391). Looked at from a slightly different perspective, though the believer remains the same person, he becomes corporeally or somatically different in kind. Paul puts the issue in a nutshell in 1 Corinthians 15:50 where he says that flesh and blood cannot (by nature) inherit the kingdom of God. And since the perishable (corruption, decay) cannot inherit the imperishable (incorruption), it must by divine necessity be changed. The plain fact is that the butterfly, despite its manifestly marvellous metamorphosis, is perishable through and through. In the final analysis, it is in principle nothing more than a perennially earthbound natural physical phenomenon.
The Butterfly Misleading
Used as an illustration of regeneration, of Jesus’ resurrection and of Christian transformation the butterfly is dangerously misleading and, in view of some of the false deductions made from 1 Corinthians 15 especially, better avoided. It can easily give the impression that we simply evolve by a naturalistic process till we arrive physically perfected in heaven. (3* See, for example, the highly compromising language of Stott in comment on Romans 8, p.240, and my John Stott on the Putative Resurrection Transformation of Jesus.) This is not what either Jesus or Paul is suggesting. Rather in the words of Gordon Fee in comment on the two parts of verse 50 we must say: “Together they declare most decisively that the body in its present physical expression cannot inherit the heavenly existence of vv.47-49” (p.798). This is surely Paul’s basic theme from verse 42 through to 54. The change is not natural (verses 36-38) but supernatural, not partial but total, not earthly but heavenly, not terrestrial but spiritual, not evolutionary but revolutionary, not superficial but radical. When we see this, we also see that butterflies are inherently incapable of providing an adequate analogy.
But Paul is not alone in his views. In 1:1:23, Peter says in very similar words regarding the new birth what Paul says in 15:42 regarding the resurrection. He states categorically that believers have been born again “not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (cf. 1 John 3:9). Bluntly, a perishable physical seed cannot produce an imperishable spiritual body fit for eternity. (4* John Stott’s contention in Understanding the Bible, p.134, that our resurrected bodies will be as different as the plant is from the seed out of which it grows falls well short of the mark.) The point is that unlike the natural metamorphosis of the butterfly the process of Christian transformation far from being merely natural is supernatural on both the spiritual and corporeal levels. Jesus plainly indicates in John 3:1-8 that while we remain physically the same when we are born again, we are changed spiritually. Again, John points out in 1:13 that we are born of different fathers. The seed of an ordinary or natural man decides our physical birth, but it is the ‘seed’ of our eternal God which determines our second or spiritual birth. According to Paul we even have different mothers: the earthly and the heavenly Jerusalems are categorically different (Gal. 4:25f.)! What is born of the flesh (nature) is flesh (natural), what is born of the Spirit is spirit (John 3:6, cf. 1 Cor. 15:48). Corruptible flesh dies either naturally as in animals and innocent babies or as a result of sin (Rom. 5:12). (5* It needs to be observed that even the incarnate Jesus would eventually have died if he had remained untransformed on the earth. After all, he visibly aged, John 8:57, and aging leads inevitably to death, 2 Cor. 4:16; Heb. 8:13.) So, if man is to survive death, he can only do so as spirit (Rom. 8:10). (6* 1 Pet. 3:18, cf. 4:1,6; Col. 1:22, would appear to prove conclusively that Jesus’ death was only physical. At his resurrection his spirit, which he had committed to the care of his Father, Luke 23:46, returned to his fleshly body like that of the daughter of Jairus, Luke 8:55). His ascension therefore must involve bodily transformation to enable his regenerate spirit to live forever clothed in a spiritual body (1 Cor. 15:44, cf. 2 Cor. 5:1-5) or a body of glory (Rom. 8:30; Phil. 3:21). So again it must be stressed that while there is continuity of body, there is patent discontinuity of flesh. As merely earthly creatures, butterflies all die and undergo permanent decay.
All this is made even plainer by Paul’s insistence in 1 Corinthians 15:47-49 that the basic composition of the natural and the spiritual bodies is different. Dust is carefully and unmistakably differentiated from spirit. While the former is perishable since it stems from Adam (man) who was formed in the (temporal) ground, the latter is imperishable because it stems from the (eternal) heaven. As his children we are necessarily destined to share God’s generic nature (1 Pet. 4:6; 2 Pet. 1:4), and like Jesus we eventually receive a spiritual body of glory like his (Phil. 3:21, cf. John 17:5,24).
It is important to note that it is widely denied by those who are conditioned by the Augustinian worldview that the redeemed or restored body is composed of spirit. Thinking that creation was originally perfect but was marred by sin and is now “fallen”, they argue that the heavenly, still physical, restored body is not composed of but is now completely motivated by the spirit. This, however, was the intention even in this life on earth as Genesis 1:26-28 make clear, but the exercise of dominion proved a failure in all cases but that of Jesus.
The Body of Jesus
This raises the question of Jesus himself. When we consider that he successfully exercised dominion throughout his earthly life, just as we are compelled to ask if he underwent the new birth so we must ask if his body needed to be changed? In view of what he himself implies in John 20:17 and what Paul says especially in 1 Corinthians 15:50 and 53, it did. To deny this is to deny his incarnation and humiliation (Phil. 2:7). As with the new birth, change is divinely and universally decreed (note the dei in both John 3:7 and 1 Cor. 15:53). Jesus was anxious that his disciples should see his glory (John 17:24) which being invisible (cf. 2 Cor. 4:18) was obviously not seen on earth. So the widely held idea that he was changed at his resurrection despite his express assertion that he was still flesh (Luke 24:39) and hence incapable, according to Paul, of inheriting the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15:50), is obviously wrong. If change is universally necessary, on the assumption that he was genuinely incarnate, it was as necessary in Jesus’ case as in any other. (7* See further my Two ‘Natural’ Necessities.)
To sum up, Jesus was no butterfly.* Just as he underwent transformation from spirit to flesh at his incarnation, so he underwent transformation from flesh to spirit at his ascension (John 3:13; 6:62f.; 17:5; Eph. 4:9f.). He did not take his flesh to heaven as even a careful reading of Acts 1:1-11 in light of 1 Corinthians 15 makes clear. The point being made by Luke is that he will return from heaven implicitly in the glory of God to rescue his own (John 14:3). That is our blessed hope (Tit. 2:13).
* Unlike Tithonus the lover of Aurora in classical mythology he was not changed into a grasshopper either. As Paul indicates in 2 Timothy 1:10, he brought both immortality and incorruption to light.
(See further my essays Was Jesus Born Again?, When Was Jesus Transformed?, Did Jesus Rise Physically From The Grave?, Creation Corruptible By Nature , Death and Corruption, Some Arguments Against Original Sin, etc.)
J.D.G.Dunn, Romans, Dallas, 1988.
G.D.Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Grand Rapids, 1987.
Bob George, Classic Christianity, Oregon, 1989, Crowborough, UK, 1994.
M.Green, You Must Be Joking in omnibus edition, London, 1997.
J.R.W.Stott, BST Romans, Leicester, 1994.
J.R.W.Stott, Understanding The Bible, rev.ed., Homebush West, 1984.