Monday, May 10, 2010

Overcoming an Objection to Physical Resurrection

One of the stumbling blocks to Christians fully embracing the biblical teaching of physical resurrection lies right in Paul's exposition of the importance of resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. Verses 42-43 read,
So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.
The stumbling point is in the contrast between "natural" and "spiritual." In post-Enlightenment rationalistic thought, "natural" means material, physical, and "spiritual" means non-material, non-physical. So even though we'll affirm the reality of resurrection because it's there in the Bible, the really relevant teaching to us is "to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord" (2 Cor. 5:8). Being reunited with the body seems mostly anticlimactic.

But this is a misreading of the words "natural" and "spiritual." "Natural" is Greek ψυχικον, psychikon; it refers not to the substance of which the body is composed, but rather the nature of the motivating force behind that body's activity. The "natural" body's activity is driven by the human psyche--i.e., the mind. Similarly, the "spiritual" body does not refer to the substance (or lack of it) of which that body is composed. The Greek word is πνευματικον, pneumatikon; the motivating force behind that body's activity is the Spirit of God. Paul is not saying, "It is sown a physical body, it is raised a non-material body"; he's saying, "It is sown a mentally-motivated body, it is raised a Spiritually-motivated body."

The main difference between the natural body and the spiritual body is not that the spiritual body is immaterial; it is that the spiritual body is imperishable, glorious, powerful, and motivated by God's Spirit. The main physical aspect of this resurrection body is that it is incorruptible, not subject to decay; but then, the entire creation will be incorruptible as well: "the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God" (Romans 8:21).  Once again, we are confronted not with disembodied spirits sitting on clouds with harps, but with a renewed physical creation. The picture is more like Adam and Eve pre-fall than it is like what we generally think of as ghosts or spirits--or even, dare I say, the mental pictures most of us have involving heaven.

As I write this, I can look out my window on a beautiful spring day. The sun is shining, the trees are in bloom--I really should get outside today. I'm blessed to live in a place where I can see at least a little of the beauty of nature. But think of the difference in my perspective, if I think on the one hand, "This is beautiful, but temporary and corrupt. The real thing God has for me waits on the other side of death, or the Rapture. One glad morning, when this life is o'er, I'll fly away," or if I think on the other hand, "This is beautiful, and in some sense, this is the home God has given me forever. God is going to remake it, reshape it, remove the sting of sin and death; I may leave it for a while, but eventually I will be brought back, and therefore, in some sense, I am an eternal being in an eternal place."

If you are a disciple of Jesus, then today think of yourself as an eternal being in an eternal place, and see if it doesn't change your perspective on things.

[HT: N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope.]