Our five senses are vital to us for living in this created world. Arguably they are not equally important, but tasting and smelling play an important role in enhancing and adding variety to life. The sense of smell of course is absolutely fundamental to the animal world and without it many animals couldn’t function. Not only would wolves and the like be seriously incapacitated in hunting, they would not be able to reproduce (cf. Jer. 2:23f.).
The ability to see, hear and touch indicates that humans are physically alive. This is made apparent by what occurs at Sinai when the Israelites received the law of Moses. In pointing up the contrast between Mount Sinai, which symbolizes the old covenant, and Mount Zion, which symbolizes the new, with reference to the former the author of Hebrews highlights touching, seeing and hearing (12:18-21). From this we are meant to infer that the old covenant relates to this created material world in which we presently live and to the flesh or our unregenerate nature in particular. Of course, as is implied by the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem and the spirits of the righteous made perfect, heaven is differently constituted. It is a spiritual kingdom not a physical one. Elsewhere it is made evident that this city is physically invisible. Otherwise expressed, the true temple (Heb. 8:2) exists on the other side of the curtain of our flesh (Heb. 6:19f.; 10:19f.) in the heavenly places (Heb. 9:11f.,24). Indeed, from 11:3 we draw the conclusion that the real, heavenly or eternal world is spiritual, the throne (Mt. 5:34) or house of God (John 14:2) who himself is spirit (John 4:24).
It is worth adding at this point that the law that was inscribed on stone as opposed to the heart, and its sign, fleshly circumcision, were noteworthy for their visibility and inherent transience (Heb. 8:13; 2 Cor. 3:11f.) in a fading world which was slowly but surely giving way to an invisible and imperishable one (1 Pet. 1:3f., cf. Rom. 8:24f.). Indeed, Scripture underlines the fact that the law ceases to operate at death for both the race (Mt. 5:18) and the individual (cf. Rom. 4:15; 7:2,8). Paul differentiates strongly between the two covenants in 2 Corinthians 3 and the author of Hebrews in chapter 8. While the old covenant operated in this present world with particular reference to the flesh, the new or eternal covenant relates to the world to come, to heaven itself and the spiritual or glorified body that will become ours when we are finally and fully conformed to the image of Christ morally, corporeally and generically (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18; Phil. 3:21). The new covenant involves an invisible hope, eternal life and the presence of God (cf. Rom. 8:24f.; Heb. 7:19).
1 John 1:1-3
Elsewhere, seeing, hearing and touching are delineated explicitly as a group most obviously in 1 John 1:1-3. The implication of this is that as John Stott indicates in his commentary that it is the risen Lord who reveals himself to his disciples. His fleshly body is real, that is, physical (cf. Luke 24:39) precisely because he was heard, seen and touched (p.69). Stott adds appropriately that this historical Jesus is the same person as the eternal Word. In light of this it is to be regretted that elsewhere Stott arrives at the strange conclusion that Jesus was transformed at his resurrection (see especially his The Contemporary Christian, ch. 4). Just how Jesus could be at once real flesh and blood, visible, audible and tangible and at the same time transformed, that is, corporeally fitted for heaven with a spiritual body (1 Cor. 15:44), is more than a little difficult to understand. (1* If as according to the Chalcedonian Creed Jesus had two natures at one and the same time, apart from the fact that he was never truly incarnate his transformation would appear to be superfluous. Or at least his human nature was apparently swallowed up, absorbed by or merged into his divine nature. Shades of Nirvana! By contrast, what Scripture surely teaches is that as the eternal Word he became man, John 1:14. As such he met the condition of life, which was righteousness obtained by keeping the law, and was perfected in the image of God, Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3. So it is as the Lamb that he sits at the right hand of God, Rev. 22:1, etc.)
Paul makes the situation crystal clear when he says that flesh and blood cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. He goes further and asserts that the inherently perishable cannot inherit the imperishable and that transformation is a necessity of nature or, otherwise expressed, divinely ordained (1 Cor. 15:50-53), an integral part of God’s plan of salvation.
That this is so Paul makes inescapably apparent when he avers that even those at the end of history who do not die and undergo resurrection in the same manner as Jesus nonetheless have to be changed (1 Cor. 15:51-53). Even for them as for Jesus a body of glory or what Paul calls a spiritual body is a necessity as well as a blessing. The argument that Jesus was glorified in the flesh is plainly denied by Scripture. (2* The nearest to this was surely his transfiguration when his Father bore testimony to him, 2 Pet. 1:17.) Why then is it held so tenaciously by many Christians? The answer lies in the clearly false idea inherited from Augustine of Hippo that sin is the problem. Even in the 21st century evangelical Christians who purportedly believe in the authority of Scripture are still touting the notions of original sin, fall, cosmic curse, redemption and restoration. The evidence for these is hard to find for God of set purpose subjected the material creation to futility from the start as Genesis 1:1 implies. If the visible creation had a beginning, it will surely have an end (2 Cor. 4:18; Heb. 12:27). And we who are physically creation in miniature are subject by nature quite apart from sin to corruption (Rom. 8:20; Heb. 1:11). Jesus’ own subjection to the aging process puts this beyond doubt.
So what does the NT teach? Like the OT before it, it insists that creation which has a beginning (Gen. 1:1) and therefore an end (Gen. 8:22) is naturally corruptible and subject to an inexorable aging process (Ps. 102:25-27). Of course, Romans 8:18-25 like Hebrews 1:10-12 teaches this, but traditional dogma as opposed to biblical doctrine disallows it. The fact is that sin is neither referred to nor implied here and Paul clearly assumes that he himself is going to heaven when he dies (2 Tim. 4:18), not to a renewed material creation which tradition tells us has been ruined by sin. (3* On this see e.g. my A Brief Review of ‘The Mission of God’ by C.J.H.Wright.)
It may be claimed at this point that Isaiah in particular saw things differently and anticipated either a transformed creation or a totally new one (Isa. 65:17ff.; 66:22f.). In reply to this it is necessary to point out that Isaiah was an OT prophet and was not a recipient of the revelation that Jesus brought. In other words, while he understood earthly things he had little understanding of heavenly things (John 3:31; 8:23). When Jesus came, he re-interpreted or clarified what the prophets had tried so hard to appreciate (1 Pet. 1:10-12). Certainly it is true that 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1 refer to the new heavens and new earth, but again careful scrutiny makes it clear that they are not referring to a renewal of the present creation as many assume. After all, righteousness dwells in heaven which is the throne of God (2 Pet. 3:13, cf. Mt. 6:10,33). In any case even the OT entertained the idea of two ages in that it anticipated the coming of God or the eternal Messiah. The NT is more explicit as Matthew 12:32; Luke 20:34-36, Ephesians 1:21 and various other references make clear. Thus we have the present age and the one to come (Rom. 8:18; 2 Cor. 4:17, etc.). The difference is that between the eternal heaven and the temporal earth.
What is clear from all this is that seeing, hearing and touching all relate to this present material world. A visible, audible and tangible incarnate Jesus belonged very much to this world. In a word, he was still flesh as he himself explicitly stated (Luke 24:39). But at his ascension he was changed in order to inherit the eternal blessings of David and to sit at God’s right hand (1 Cor. 15:50-53). No longer was he as man a little lower than the angels (Heb. 2:7,9) but as the first-born they now worshipped him as Lord (Heb. 1:6).
Elsewhere Paul emphasizes the difference between the visible physical and the invisible spiritual by pointing up the character of the law and circumcision. In Romans 2:29f. he differentiates between the outward and inward (cf. 2 Cor. 4:16), in 2 Corinthians 3:6 between the letter and the spirit (cf. 2 Cor. 3:6), in Ephesians 2:11 and Colossians 2:11 between the physical (what is made by hand) and the spiritual (what is not made by hand) and in Philippians between the physical (flesh) and the real (spiritual).
Seeing, hearing and touching Jesus constitutes the essence of Doubting Thomas’ meticulous examination of Jesus after his resurrection from the dead. Doubter though he was, Thomas was nonetheless convinced by the undeniable evidence that his own careful scrutiny elicited. His conclusion that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead and that he was God though still in the flesh was the positive reaction that Jesus clearly approved of and intended. As a consequence, while Jesus underlined the importance of Thomas’ conclusion that he was God in person despite his obvious human nature (flesh and blood) by asserting that those who believed on the basis of Thomas’ own testimony, that is, without seeing for themselves were blessed. This of course highlights the basis of our faith which along with the word itself (Rom. 10:17) is built on credible eyewitness testimony (cf. 2 Cor. 5:7). We are justified by faith, not by the works of the visible law.
There is more to be said, however. Again in Luke 24 Jesus himself takes the initiative when he appears to a group of his disciples along with the eleven. Here he is at pains to dispel any idea that he is a mere spirit by inviting them to see, touch and obviously to hear. He draws their attention to his visible flesh and bones, shows them his hands and feet (presumably with their scars) and then significantly, as if to add confirming proof, he asks them for something to eat (cf. Acts 10:41). When he raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead, he himself had verified the fact that she was physically alive by telling her parents to feed her (Luke 8:55).
It is unfortunate to say the least that the plain teaching of Luke 24:39 does not always serve its intended purpose of providing convincing proof of the physical resurrection of Jesus (cf. Acts 1:3). Why? Because under the influence of false presuppositions, it is inadequately interpreted, virtually denied. Even so able a scholar as Marshall is guilty of making some strangely convoluted comments at this point. For example, on the basis of inadequate evidence he says (pp.898f.) that it is as a supernatural visitor that the risen Jesus is portrayed. If this is the case, then Jesus has not been physically raised but spiritually transformed. Yet while on the one hand Marshall can stress the physical reality of the risen Jesus (p.900), on the other he acknowledges that this leads to an apparent contradiction with Paul’s dictum that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 15:50). (4* Cf. e.g. Harris, p.392 who refers to those who think in terms of ‘glorified flesh’, p.393, a contradiction in terms if ever there was one, and opts for that view himself on page 415. Just as devotees of Chalcedon argue for a two-natured Jesus on earth, so they argue for a two-natured Jesus in heaven! If they are correct, then Jesus has both a body of dust and a spiritual body at one and the same time. Neither Jesus, John 3:6, nor Paul will tolerate such an idea. Paul indicates indisputably that the bodies are successive not contemporaneous, 1 Cor. 15:45-49. In Always Reforming Reymond uses the term ‘two-natured’ to refer to Christ, e.g. p.123. In discussion of the idea of Jesus having two minds one human and the other divine, he recognizes that it “comes perilously close to overturning the one person character of Jesus”, p.111. It is a pity that he does not see that Chalcedon as such does this when it posits two natures. See further my Still Docetic and The Ecclesiastical Christ.) Like so many others Marshall has imbibed the clearly erroneous view that Jesus was transformed when he rose from the dead. (5* On this, see my John Stott on the Putative Resurrection Transformation of Jesus and Did Jesus Rise Physically From The Grave?.) The so-called evidence for this is most unconvincing and inevitably conflicts with what is taught elsewhere. One has only to compare Luke 24:39 with Matthew 14:26 when Jesus walked on the sea to realize that physical miracles fall well short of proving a change in Jesus’ human nature. After all, even Peter walked briefly on water and went through locked doors on occasion (Acts 5:19; 12:10). He was certainly not transformed. In fact, at a later date near his death he referred explicitly to the putting off of this earthly tent or body (2 Pet. 1:14).
The plain fact is that Jesus was not changed or transformed until his ascension. Paul makes the situation crystal clear, first, by stating that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven and, secondly, that like the new birth (Gk dei, John 3:7), transformation is a natural necessity (Gk dei, 1 Cor. 15:53) for entry into the kingdom of God. Apart from it we would all inevitably grow older and eventually die (cf. Heb. 8:13). And if we have any doubts about Jesus, I would draw the reader’s attention to references such as Luke 2:42, 3:23 and John 8:57. In other words, transformation is a necessity of nature for all who are flesh, and the incarnate Jesus was no exception. If he was, he was docetic, that is, he only appeared to be a man. Marshall’s apparent contradiction disappears once the notion of our Lord’s resurrection transformation from the dead is denied. Paul and Luke are in harmony, not at loggerheads.
This point is underscored by yet another apparent contradiction found by some writers in John 20. In contrast with his invitation to Doubting Thomas to touch him, Jesus seems to do the exact opposite when he encounters Mary Magdalene. He tells her firmly not to hang on to him which in itself implies his genuine physicality. The only reasonable inference from his reaction is that he was about to ascend and undergo transformation (John 20:17). In light of this we conclude that he is gently telling Mary that she cannot keep him physically with her. Having accomplished the work his Father gave him to do he has of necessity to complete his journey to heaven (John 8:14; 13:3; 16:28, cf. Luke 9:31,51). It may well be asked at this point why he has to ascend at all if he has already been glorified and proved capable of living supernaturally here on earth. Clearly the idea that he was glorified after his resurrection renders the ascension redundant, and reduces it to little more than drama (cf. Harris, G. to G. p.423). Like Geisler, I smell deception here. But more to the point it seems to eviscerate Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 15:50-53 of its intended significance. Indeed, it suggests a docetic Jesus who unlike the rest of mankind is an exception to the universal rule of ascension transformation just as he was according to Augustinian orthodoxy to the new birth. No longer can Jesus serve as the paradigm of those who ascend to heaven without dying.
It is important to stress another matter. If Jesus was transformed when he appeared to his disciples, he was already glorified, invisible and in his eternal state which is ipso facto permanent (cf. 2 Cor. 4:18). The truth of this can easily be demonstrated.
First, Paul claimed to have seen Jesus (1 Cor. 9:1), that is on his way to Damascus when he received his heavenly vision (Acts 26:19). Whatever he means by this he does not mean that he had physically seen him in his fleshly state but as glorified. When Moses in the OT wished to see the glory of God he had to be put into the cleft of a rock and covered by the hand of God for protection (Ex. 33:17-23). Why? Because to see God was to invite inevitable death (cf. Gen. 16:13; 32:30) since God is a consuming fire (Dt. 9:24, cf. 1 Tim. 6:16; Heb. 12:29). In Paul’s case blindness intervened and presumably gave him the necessary temporary protection from the blinding light to which he was exposed. His blindness both physical and spiritual was not relieved until he was baptized by Ananias after which we know that he was very much alive.
Next, Jesus prayed that his disciples should see his glory, that is, his majesty and splendour in heaven not on earth (John 17:24, cf. Isa. 33:17; 66:18).
Apart from Paul’s vision, we must also take into account John’s vision in the book of Revelation where Jesus appears as a consuming fire in the generic image of God (Rev. 1:12-17; 2:18; 19:11-21). His very return to rescue his people (John 14:3; Heb. 9:28) will involve a fiery judgement on those who rejected him (2 Thes. 1:8; 2:8). The premillennialist idea that Jesus will return in the flesh to reign on the earth for a thousand years is so absurd as to be hardly worth refuting.
I conclude that factoring in the biblical teaching on visibility, audibility and tangibility puts permanent paid to the traditional idea that Jesus was glorified in the flesh and ascended to heaven in that state. It is based on a serious misunderstanding of the evidence and results in complete distortion of the nature of the material creation. For, if Jesus was indeed physically transformed and glorified at his resurrection from the dead, the argument propounded by writers such as Stott (ch. 4), Harris (pp.245-252) and Chris Wright that the obviously temporal physical universe can be likewise transformed would appear to hold. (6* See e.g. my The Transience of Creation, The Destruction of the Material Creation, etc.) But Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 15:50-53, not to mention passages like Hebrews 12:27 and 2 Peter 3:7,10-12, to go no further, renders this view impossible. (7* See my Will Creation Be Redeemed?, The Essence of the Case Against the Redemption of Creation.)
Once more I must point out that these damning ideas arise from the Augustinian worldview which is falsely dominated by sin and cosmic curse. The truth is that all material things are transient (subjected to futility, Rom. 8:20) by nature, by divine decree, quite apart from sin (cf. Heb. 12:27). The physically visible is intrinsically impermanent as God intended (2 Cor. 4:16-18). Sin only exacerbates the situation. Yet even the sinless but incarnate Jesus had to be transformed at his ascension for the simple reason that as flesh he was growing older and heading for inevitable death by decay like the rest of the animal world (Heb. 1:10-12, cf. Mt. 6:19f.; Col. 2:22). If not, he was different from all other men and women and hence docetic, thereby bringing his very incarnation into question. Indeed, it was doubtless Jesus’ ascension that enabled Paul to pen 1 Corinthians 15:50-54. There he presents us with two sorts of resurrection ascension, the one of the dead (v.52b) and the other of the living (v.51). Jesus, rather like Abraham who was a father in two senses, experienced and served after a fashion as the paradigm of both: he rose from the dead and was transformed alive at his ascension.
J.R.W.Stott, The Contemporary Christian, Leicester, 1992.
M.Harris, From Grave to Glory, Grand Rapids, 1990.
I.Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke, Exeter, 1978.
R.Reymond in Always Reforming ed. A.T.B.McGowan, Leicester, 2006.
C.J.H.Wright, The Mission of God, Nottingham, 2006.