In accordance with the Apostles’ Creed I believe in the resurrection of the body. Having said that, however, I am aware that there is much confusion over the issue, and my “confession”, unadorned, requires elaboration and explanation.
A Modern View
For instance, I have just read (July 2010) Driscoll and Breshears’ (D/B) chapter on resurrection in “Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe” and am left with a feeling of great unease. On page 280, seeking correctly to distinguish between revivification and resurrection, they write: “Unlike revivification, resurrection teaches that someone dies and returns to physical life forever, or what the Bible calls eternal life, patterned after Jesus’ death and resurrection.” As it stands that statement prompts at least three basic questions: (1) where does the Bible teach that we return to physical life?; (2) where are we left with the impression in Scripture that physical life lasts forever and is eternal?; (3) where does the Bible suggest that our resurrection is patterned after Jesus’ death and resurrection? On page 281 while our authors correctly teach the separation of body and soul immediately after death, they then refer to the eventual re-uniting of our body and soul. Though we might agree with this at first blush, a little reflection makes us realize that even this idea prompts questions and requires clarification.
The Redemption of Creation
The questions I have just raised in the previous paragraph are important for the simple reason that if the statement is allowed to stand as D/B have expressed it, it leads immediately to the presently popular idea that the whole creation will also be ‘resurrected’, regenerated and redeemed. For instance, D/B tell us on page 72 that the book of Genesis describes how God began his rescue mission to save his sin-marred world (cf. pp.82,140,178, etc.) making it possible for Jesus “to establish his throne on the earth and rule over his kingdom, which extends to all creation” (p.302). Here they are to some extent following writers like Harris (RI, pp.165ff., GG, pp. 245-252), N.T.Wright (Challenge, where he refers to cosmic liberation, p.172, Colossians, pp.76f., while on p.76 Wright talks OT-style of restoration, on p.77 he posits a brand new creation), and C.J.H.Wright (The Mission of God), who link the resurrection of Jesus with creation. Now, since I have sought in a number of articles posted on this website to show that this is false to the Bible, it is imperative to re-address the issue.
Two Sorts of Resurrection
Before going further, it is vital for us to be aware of the fact that there are basically two sorts of resurrection. First, there is the restoration of a dead body to resumption and continuation of life in the flesh. The resurrection recorded in John 11 is a case in point, though there are others (e.g. 1 K. 17:17-24; 2 K. 4:32-36; Luke 8:49-55). Jesus raised his friend Lazarus after he had been dead four days and was on the verge of decomposition. After Jesus himself had suffered death by crucifixion he too was restored and resumed his life in the flesh (Luke 24:39) in accordance with his prediction (John 10:17f.). However, even within this category there was a fundamental difference between the resurrections of Lazarus and Jesus: whereas the former died again, Paul tells us explicitly that Jesus rose never to die again (which is different from saying that he was immortal). The reason he gives for this is that death no longer had dominion over him (Rom. 6:9; Rev. 1:18.). Why was this so? Acts 2:24 is relevant but hardly provides the answer we are looking for. However, the solution to this apparent enigma is not far to seek: it must lie in the fact that Jesus should not have died at all. In contrast with the first Adam who had been promised (eternal) life if he kept the commandment but failed (Gen. 2:17), Jesus had pleased his Father by keeping the entire law (cf. Lev. 18:5; John 8:46; Mt. 3:15; 19:16-21). Having done so, he had inherited life when he received the promised Spirit at his baptism (Mt. 3:13-17). But in accordance with the plan of salvation by which God intended that he alone should be the Saviour of man (e.g. Isa. 45:22-25), he had freely laid down his life (given his flesh, Col. 1:22; 1 Pet. 3:18; Phil. 2:5-11) for his friends (John 10; 15:13). In this scenario, since he had not sinned, death for him was not wages (Rom. 5:12; 6:23) and therefore, if the requirements of justice were to be met, demanded reversal (cf. Rom. 3:26; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:12-14). This was achieved by resurrection. Having spilt his blood once to effect redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14), there was no longer any need for him to die again (cf. Heb. 9:24-28).
Second, the word “resurrection” in the NT is not always confined solely to rising again from the dead. It often involves, as Harris, for example, maintains, not only resurrection but also in its full-orbed NT sense exaltation, ascension (RI, p.93, GG, p.103) and one might even add transformation and heavenly session (Rev. 3:21). So it is important to understand what each reference to resurrection means, and only the context can determine that.
Regarding the first category of resurrection involving physical restoration, it must surely be obvious that the vast majority of us who die and are buried to rot in the grave fail to follow the pattern of Jesus. His resurrection was clearly exceptional and to that extent resembled the circumcision of Abraham (Rom. 4). Indeed, both Peter in Acts 2:25-35 and Paul in Acts 13:34-37 draw particular attention to this and point out that the majority of us, in fact all who fail to live till the end of the world, follow the pattern of resurrection to be experienced by David. The difference is that whereas David died and decayed, Jesus rose from the grave and, though still flesh, avoided corruption (decay, decomposition). In other words, whereas the body of David will not be raised until the general resurrection, Jesus, having already been raised directly from the dead had of necessity to ascend into heaven to avoid the natural corruption that affects all created things (Rom. 1:20; 8:18-25; Heb. 1:10-12; 12:27, etc.). Thus as Paul, echoing John 3:1-8, points out in 1 Corinthians 15:50-54, flesh and blood cannot by nature inherit the kingdom of God. This being the case, all without exception, whether undergoing death and resurrection like Jesus and the end-time saints or not, have to be changed. (See further my Two ‘Natural’ Necessities.)
The Nature of the Resurrected Body
This, however, raises the question about the nature of the resurrected body. Again to state the obvious, David who died and whose body decomposed has clearly lost his corrupted flesh forever (cf. 2 Cor. 5:1, that is, unless he can somehow undergo another physical birth or re-incarnation, cf. John 3:4). In view of this, it is scarcely surprising that Paul stresses the fact that the body with which he and his like will eventually be endowed at the resurrection will not be flesh (animated dust) like that of the first Adam at all. It will be what he calls a “spiritual” or supernatural body. It will be like that of Jesus, who as incarnate was also of necessity changed like all his fellows. It will thus be a body of glory like his (Phil. 3:21, cf. Rom. 8:30; 9:23; Heb. 2:10-18; 1 John 3:2). So while all believers throughout history will be resurrected (saved) on the basis of the work of Jesus (2 Cor. 4:14), they do not and cannot follow exactly the pattern he established. (After all, as the early Christians were well aware, 1 Thes. 4:13, many of their fellow believers had already died and decomposed long before Jesus rose again let alone returned.) That is reserved to the saints still alive at the end of the age (1 Cor. 15:50-52a).
To clarify the issue still further, it is evident that while for David resurrection involves as it were only one action that is transformation resurrection, the “full-orbed” (Harris) resurrection of Jesus was a two-stage affair. First, he was physically restored to life in the flesh as Lazarus was (Luke 24:39), but then, since he was not to die again, he ascended (cf. John 20:17; Luke 24:50f.; Acts 1:9-11) and was transformed and glorified (Acts 2:36).
There is, however, a problem. Many moderns especially evangelicals of all persuasions including the Reformed, Premillennialists, Dispensationalists and the like think along different lines which admittedly have a long history. They believe on the basis of very questionable evidence that when Jesus rose from the dead, his body was transformed into a body of glory whose appearances confirmed the disciples’ faith that he was still alive. This surely implies a denial of physical resurrection on the one hand and renders the ascension redundant on the other. Indeed, the ascension is reduced to mere drama simply indicating the termination of Jesus’ appearances on earth. Apart from noting texts like Luke 24:39 and John 20:26-29 which suggest a different story, we are bound to ask what the basis of this view is. The answer, as was hinted at above, is that they accept the false worldview inherited from Augustine of Hippo (d.430) even if they have not accepted every aspect of his theology. So what does this worldview involve?
The Augustinian Worldview
It is traditionally believed that when God first brought creation into being, he made it perfect. (1* See e.g. E.Andrews, Who Made God? pp.242ff., to whom I refer in my Creation and/or Evolution; A.T.B.McGowan, p.46, in The Forgotten Christ, ed. Clark. I have subjected part of this book to criticism in an additional note to my essay Did Jesus Rise Physically From The Grave?.). One of the arguments used to support this is that since God is perfect, his work also had to be perfect. Unfortunately, this is a false inference which is variously contradicted throughout the Bible. For example, Scripture constantly distinguishes between the Creator and the creation, the eternal and the temporal, to the detriment of the latter (e.g. Ps. 90:2; 102:25-27; Isa. 40:6-8; 51:6). Next, whatever is “made by hand” (e.g. Ps. 102:25; Isa. 45:12; 48:13) is inferior to what is “not made by hand” (e.g. Heb. 9:11,24. See further my Manufactured Or Not So.). This is true especially of the hand-made body of dust (Job 10:8f.; Ps. 119:73) as compared with the spiritual body referred to by Paul (1 Cor. 15:45-49; 2 Cor. 5:1). Then Hebrews tells us that the builder has more honour than the building (3:3) and that the shakable creation will finally give way to the unshakable (12:26-29). I could go on but my point has been made. What I am implying is that creation is naturally destructible and corruptible as Paul seems to be saying in Romans 8:18-25. God brought creation into being in hope of something better, that is, an invisible hope that endures for eternity like God himself. In the final analysis the temporary material creation served and continues to serve an eternal goal and purpose which we see eventually fulfilled at the end of the book of Revelation.
According to Genesis 1, creation, far from being perfect, was merely “good”, that is useful like Eve’s “apple” which was good for eating (kalos, Gen. 2:9; 3:6). Like the Promised Land (Ex. 3:8; Num. 14:7), it was impermanent (Heb. 3 & 4) and served a temporary purpose. Since it had a beginning, it had an intended end (terminus), quite unlike the Creator himself who had neither (cf. Ps. 102:25-27; Heb. 7:3). However, in positing a once perfect world at the beginning, Augustinians have clearly confused the end with the beginning and in effect destroyed creation’s initial teleological nature. By turning the Bible on its head they have left it with nowhere to go. If Adam was originally righteous he must have been born again (2:17; Lev.18:5)! Hence his probation was pointless. In this situation, Augustinians have devised what is in effect a different plan of salvation. They tell us that after being created perfect, creation was ruined or cursed by the sin and “Fall” of Adam despite the fact that Adam who failed to keep the commandment by which righteousness is gained (Rom. 2:13; 1 John 3:7) was never righteous, holy and perfect in the first place. They thus posit not merely the redemption of man made in the image of God but of his physical body along with the entire material creation itself. Alternatively expressed, since sin was the cause of creation’s ruin, Jesus’ physical resurrection transformation means that creation likewise can be redeemed. (See e.g. Harris, RI, pp.165-171; GG, pp.245-252.) The problem is that there is no evident connection between Jesus’ resurrection and creation in the Bible. As we have seen, (a) Jesus’ resurrection met the demands of justice; (b) creation was doomed from the start; its beginning implied its end (Gen. 1:1; Heb. 12:27; 2 Pet. 3:10, etc.); (c) Jesus died and rose again to bring man made in the divine image to glory (Heb. 2:10ff., etc.). There is not the slightest suggestion that he died to redeem dust (cf. 1 Cor. 15:42-55). Initially, creation, including Adam who symbolized the flesh, had no covenant guarantee, and even when it had one, it was only until the plan of human salvation was complete (Gen. 8:22, cf. Jer. 31:35-37; 33:19-22). Both Isaiah 51:6 and 54:10, to go no further, clearly signal the eventual end of creation if not by a flood (cf. Luke 17:28-30). The reason why man as flesh is transient (James 1:10f.; 4:14) is that creation as a whole is transient (cf. Isa. 51:6; Heb. 1:11; etc.). (2* See my Did God Make a Covenant with Creation?, The Transience of Creation.)
The True View
The truth, however, is that perfection (maturity, completeness, cf. James 1:4) which characterizes God alone (Mt. 5:48) was the original goal and it was premised on an imperfect or immature start. Simply stated the baby is the father of the man! On the one hand the material creation (including man according to the flesh) was subjected by divine design to corruption and futility and intended only to serve as a temporary tool before being finally dispensed with. On the other hand, it was geared to the production of a harvest of the children of God (cf. Rom. 8:19-21) who yearn for adoption, the redemption of their bodies (not their flesh) and the attainment of an invisible hope (Rom. 8:24f.). Since Adam signifies both man as race and as individual, and is creation in miniature, we can see immediately that just we are (pro)created, develop and reach maturity only to decline through age and wear until we die (cf. Mt. 6:19f.; Luke 12:33), so does creation itself (Heb. 1:11, cf. Col. 2:22). If it is replied by Augustinians that all this stems from sin, one has only to point out while freely acknowledging sin to be an exacerbating factor that the evidence of Scripture against this view is massive.
First, it needs to be recognized that in critical passages like John 3:1-8; Romans 8:18-25 and 1 Corinthians 15:45-49 sin is not in evidence at all but is in true Augustinian fashion read into them. For instance, we are frequently told that behind Romans 8:18-25 lies Genesis 3:17-19. While this is traditionally and constantly asserted, it has to my knowledge never been substantiated. Second, other evidence apart, the entire letter to the Hebrews militates against the Augustinian view. It is hard indeed to circumvent teaching like 1:10-12, 6:7f. and 12:26-29. While 2 Peter 3:7,10-12 point up the eventual combustion of the created universe, modern science tells the same story. But there is another issue of crucial importance in the modern era. What I have called the true view above clearly points to evolution if not Darwinism, the development of man from (animal) flesh to spirit. By contrast traditional church dogma which begins with perfection either denies it or insidiously, that is contrary to their denial of the natural corruptibility of creation, accommodates it.
The Resurrection Body
Since all created visible, that is, physical things (Rom. 1:20) are according to the Bible destined for removal (Heb. 12:27), it is clear that the spiritual body of which Paul speaks is not physical (dust). So when D/B maintain as indicated above that when someone dies resurrection involves the return to physical life forever, they must be profoundly mistaken. Physical life as opposed to corporeal life is by definition temporal and intrinsically incapable of becoming eternal. As Paul says, the perishable cannot inherit the imperishable (1 Cor. 15:50b). This has nothing to do with sin. It stems from the nature of things. The difference between the spiritual Creator and his temporal material creation points unerringly to the fact that man though flesh is nonetheless created in the image of God. In sum, he is in contrast with the rest of the animal creation fundamentally dualistic. (3* See my Biblical Dualism.) In view of the fact that many Christians like N.T.Wright rail against dualism (e.g. Challenge, p.179, cf. 144) it must be stressed that biblical dualism is not to be equated with Greek dualism. For the Greeks material things were evil and the body was the prison house of the soul; for Christians dualism simply asserts the temporal nature of the visible material (2 Cor. 4:18). When we see this, it immediately becomes apparent that the reason why the resurrected Jesus had of necessity to ascend to heaven was to escape physical corruption. (4* See further my Escape.) So long as he remained on earth he continued to get older (cf. Luke 3:23, cf. Ps. 102:27). His flesh (Luke 24:39), like ours, belonged to this age not the age to come. Since he was visible (1 John 1:1), he was hence inherently corruptible. Thus, like all his fellows, he had to be changed. In other words, the idea that he was glorified at his resurrection is based on fallacious Augustinian reasoning about the nature of creation. (For Augustine who was obsessed by sin, everything, not least sex, was saturated with sin. See my Augustine: Asset or Liability?) In the flesh it was impossible for the incarnate Jesus to inherit the eternal blessings of David. Furthermore, once the days of his flesh (cf. Heb. 5:7) were over it was impossible for him to return to earth to reign in the manner D/B suggest. Apart from telling Pilate that his kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36), he had clearly undergone permanent transformation at his ascension, passed through the heavens (Heb. 4:14) and experienced permanent separation from sinners (Heb. 7:26). Having already dealt with sin (Heb. 9:28), he had regained the glory he had with the Father before the world began (John 17:5). So far from having a body of glory immediately after his resurrection, he prayed that his people should see his glory in heaven (John 17:24).
The Second Advent
But there is yet another basic point to make. Once he had separated himself from this world, from sinners in particular and re-entered what is for us the world to come, it was impossible for him to return least of all in the flesh. Whereas he had been flesh “for a little while” (Heb. 2:7,9), he had now been permanently transformed and glorified.
To say this of course prompts questions about his second coming. The Bible makes it clear that Christ will return in his glory and that of the Father (Luke 9:26, etc.) as Moses returned to Egypt to rescue the people still in bondage there (cf. Rom. 8:21; Heb. 9:28). Paul makes it absolutely clear that he will not return in the flesh as D/B and some Premillennialists teach. Indeed, the apostle states categorically in Acts 13:34 that he will no more return to corruption. This can only mean that he will never again come into contact with this created world (see further my No Return to Corruption). In any case, according to the book of Revelation when he comes creation will flee away from his presence (Rev. 6:14; 16:20; 20:11; 21:1, cf. Heb. 12:26-29; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12). After all, he will return “in flaming fire” (2 Thes. 1:7) for God is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:29)
The Redemption of Creation
If all this is true, then the idea that creation will be redeemed, renewed, transformed or regenerated to make it fit for the King must be rejected with rigour and dispatch. While the somewhat materialistic OT, which spoke of earthly things (John 3:31, cf. 8:23 and note John 3:10), might lend credence to such an idea, the NT on the basis of the revelation and re-interpretation brought by Jesus spiritualized creation and spoke of new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells (cf. Mt. 6:10), a heavenly country / city / temple / kingdom (see espec. Heb. 11:8-16; 12:22f.; 13:14; Rev. 21:22, cf. Gal. 4:26). In light of all this we are bound to conclude that contemporary versions of the Bible in contrast with the KJV are wrong when they translate the word ktisis as ‘creation’ rather than ‘creature’ especially in Romans 8:21. (See my Romans 8:18-25.) Creation will never be redeemed for the simple reason that it is superfluous. It was always meant to give way to the invisible hope of glory or heaven itself. The latter already exists and has done so eternally.
All in all, I am forced to conclude that D/B like many others are seriously astray in much of what they suggest all Christians should believe. At the end of the day, the simple statement believed by many of our forebears that we go to heaven when we die stands firm despite D/B’s denial (p.422. See also my A Brief Critique of ‘Surprised by Hope’ by Tom Wright.) When we do, we shall say goodbye forever to bondage to the flesh and finally escape from this evil age (cf. Gal. 1:4; Ps. 90:15). And for this we thank our heavenly Father who in his grace and mercy will accept us on account of Christ into his own house (John 14:1-3, etc.).
Finally, to answer directly the three questions prompted by D/B’s assertion in my second paragraph, I have to say (a) we shall never return to physical as opposed to corporeal life (cf. Rom. 8:23; 1 Cor. 15:45-49; (b) the Bible denies the very possibility of physical life lasting forever; and (c) our resurrection is patterned after that of David not that of Jesus unless we are still alive at the second coming (1 Cor. 15:51f.).
Like all created things the flesh is visible (Rom. 1:20), therefore material/physical (Rom. 1:20), therefore temporary (2 Cor. 4:18), therefore unprofitable (John 6:63), therefore mortal/destructible (Rom. 1:23; 2 Cor. 4:11); therefore corruptible/perishable (Rom. 8:18-25; Gal. 6:8; Heb. 1:10-12), therefore combustible (Heb. 12:27; James 5:3; 2 Thes. 2:8) therefore susceptible to disappearance (Acts 1:9) like the old covenant to which it belongs (Heb. 8:13). We shall never see Jesus in the flesh (cf. John 20:29) but we shall see him in his glory (John 17:24). And that his glory is not fleshly would seem to be evident from the fact that it is the same as he had before the creation of the world when there was no flesh.
Spiritual birth/Spiritual resurrection
If, having undergone a temporal physical birth (from the earth), we must according to Jesus undergo an eternal spiritual birth (from above), it follows inexorably that our resurrection will be spiritual. In other words, our body in heaven will be a spiritual not a physical body, as Paul says. In a nutshell, a spiritual birth requires a spiritual resurrection.
The Resurrection Transformation of Jesus and the Redemption of Creation
Various writers argue that since Jesus was glorified at the resurrection of his flesh (and therefore had glorified flesh even though there is no such animal!), creation itself can be redeemed and glorified. This is contrary to the plain teaching of the NT which pervasively teaches the corruptibility of all created things. Nowhere is there a link made between the resurrection of Christ and the redemption of creation. The combustion of the cosmos is indelibly etched in the pages of Scripture. Romans 8:18-25 which is nowadays subject to highly questionable translation and interpretation is unique in the teaching of Paul who everywhere assumes that he will go to heaven.
E.Andrews, Who Made God? Darlington, 2009.
S.Clark, ed., The Forgotten Christ, Nottingham, 2007.
Mark Driscoll & Gerry Breshears, Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe, Wheaton, 2010.
M.Harris, Raised Immortal, Basingstoke, 1983.
From Grave to Glory, Grand Rapids, 1990.
C.J.H.Wright, The Mission of God, Nottingham, 2006.
N.T.Wright, The Challenge of Jesus, Downers Grove, 1999.
Colossians and Philemon, Leicester/Grand Rapids, 1986.