‘But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” How foolish!’ (1 Corinthians 15:35-36)
Since childhood, one of my favourite 20th-century paintings has been Stanley Spencer’s celebrated The Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard, where numerous, ordinary-looking people are depicted as happily emerging from their graves in an idyllic Berkshire village by the Thames. Even as a youngster, brought up in a non-Christian home, I was fascinated by the scene, and remember posing the above two questions to myself.
Foolish questions they may be, but whether asked by sneering sceptics or concerned believers – or from mere curiosity – they are still top of the list whenever the topic of the resurrection of the dead is up for discussion. Of course, the Apostle Paul doesn’t answer foolish questions, but he does go to considerable lengths in 1 Corinthians 15 to explain precisely why it is foolish to ask them.
Some members of the Corinthian church were still infected with the Greek idea that matter was essentially evil and that death consequently liberated the soul from the body. But Paul taught them the biblical truth that God had created man to be both body and soul from the very beginning – and had declared this, his crowning work, to be ‘very good’. Death entered God’s perfect world only as a result of Adam’s sin and served as the enemy of both God and man by tearing body and soul apart.
1 Corinthians 15 is the great chapter of the resurrection. Paul here insists that Christ has overcome sin and all its consequences through his atoning death upon the cross. All must be restored according to God’s original plan. Therefore, the bodies and souls of all the saved must, and will, be ultimately reunited on the day that Christ returns to usher in a new and perfect cosmos. Christ’s physical resurrection from the dead is the ‘firstfruits’ of this general resurrection, and it is impossible to conceive of the one without the other.
How are the dead raised?
So, let’s come to our first question: ‘How are the dead raised?’ The question is not one of process but of possibility. Isn’t it simply absurd to speak of the resurrection of bodies that have long since turned to dust, and whose every constituent atom has subsequently passed through numerous other organisms?
I suppose Paul’s first response might be contained in the previous verse: ‘There are some who are ignorant of God – I say this to your shame.’ (1 Corinthians 15:34) Why should a God who creates out of nothing, not be able to recreate out of something? It has often occurred to me that if we can believe the very first verse of the Bible, we shouldn’t really have any problem believing anything that follows.
Foreknown, predestined, called, justified and glorified (Romans 8:29-30) – this is the unstoppable march of God’s grace in the unfolding lives of each one of his believing people. Why then should we question the possibility of the last link in this glorious chain, especially when we have experienced the wonderful life-giving truth of those that precede it? No wonder Paul calls the question foolish. He might have said worse.
But Paul goes on to assume that most likely there is a basic misconception in the question. Many people imagine, Christians among them, that the New Testament posits a kind of Cookham Churchyard resurrection, with believers emerging, clothed in their shrouds, and looking much the same as they did when they died, apart from perhaps a little more colour in their cheeks.
Paul, however, appeals at this point to his readers’ mundane experience. He says, ‘When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed’ and ‘God gives it a body as he has determined.’ (1 Corinthians 15:37-38) The plant that emerges from the seed will look nothing like the seed. So, Paul implies, don’t think of the general resurrection too simplistically. Don’t be embarrassed by the clear promise of the resurrection of the dead simply because you mistakenly believe the Bible teaches a fairy-tale version of it.
With what kind of body?
This leads us on to our second question: ‘With what kind of body will they come?’ This question may well seem more innocent, but Paul still calls it ‘foolish’, probably because, despite the attempts of many, and the certainty of some, it cannot be fully answered.
The fact is, our resurrection bodies will be very different from the ones we now possess. They will be no longer ‘perishable’, ‘mortal’, ‘dishonourable’, ‘weak’, ‘natural’ and ‘earthly’, but ‘imperishable’, ‘immortal’, ‘glorious’, ‘powerful’, ‘spiritual’ and ‘heavenly’ (1 Corinthians 15:42-53). This will be our glorification.
At this point, we should be guided by the words of another apostle: ‘Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.’ (1 John 3:2) At first sight, the two parts of this statement might seem contradictory. John appears to be saying we can’t know what our resurrection bodies will be like because that information has not yet been revealed. On the other hand, we shall be like Christ, and we do know what his resurrection body was like. Right? Well, let’s be careful.
It is certainly true that our glorified bodies will be like Christ’s. He ‘will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.’ (Philippians 3:21) But exactly what a glorified body is like ‘has not yet been made known’. Confusion arises because it is often assumed that how Jesus appeared to the disciples during the 40 days following his resurrection is substantially how he now appears since his ascension into glory.
But does the biblical evidence point in that direction? As Jesus’ command to Mary outside the empty tomb suggests – ‘Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.’ (John 20:17) – he knew the process of his glorious exaltation was far from complete, his first prayer in the Upper Room yet to be answered (John 17:1-5).
Consider also that a true apostle had to be a witness of Christ’s resurrection (Acts 1:22). Paul qualified because, as he tells us, ‘last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born’ (1 Corinthians 15:8). And yet the post-ascension appearance of the risen Christ to Paul was very different from his pre-ascension appearances to the Eleven (Acts 26:13-16).
The Eleven needed to be convinced that this was indeed the same Jesus they had known, loved and followed for the past three years, raised bodily from the dead. They needed to recognise him, see him eating, and be astonished at his wounds (Luke 24:36-44; John 20:19-29). Paul needed none of these things, and neither do we (John 20:29).
This same Jesus
As the apostles were told at the ascension, ‘This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven’ (Acts 1:11). But the appearance of ‘this same Jesus’ on that dramatic day when ‘every eye will see him’, may well be very different (Revelation 1:7-18).
And yet, despite all this, it is still staggeringly true that ‘when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.’ We may have been considering ‘foolish’ questions but reflecting on them just a little should surely cause us to be lost in wonder, love and praise.