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The Reality of the Resurrection

George C. Hammond

I meet a lot of folks who don't really believe in the reality of the resurrection. I am talking about Christians—even Orthodox Presbyterians. They believe many things that they read in their Bibles, but not that there will be a resurrection of the dead.

Many folks say they believe in Christ's resurrection. But you can find out very quickly whether or not they really believe in Christ's resurrection by asking them a simple question: Where do you hope to spend eternity?

Too many Christians, I'm afraid, would answer, "In heaven." But that answer, if it is without qualification, belies a belief in the resurrection.

Body and Soul

In the early church, a group of heretics called Docetists did not believe in the Incarnation. They believed that the Son of God only looked like a man—he didn't actually become one. This meant that he only appeared to die on the cross. And then, of course, he did not actually rise from the dead.

This is very different from biblical doctrine. God carefully and lovingly formed our bodies, as well as our souls (Gen. 2:7; Ps. 139:13). It was sin, not physical matter, that brought corruption and death to humanity (Gen. 3:17-19; Rom. 5:12). The Son of God became man to redeem us from our sin and all of its consequences (Rom. 6:23). Jesus came to save us—not merely our souls, but us, body and soul.

We don't always think in these terms. We have been affected by liberalism, which has returned to the notion that the "pure" state of being is one of disembodiment in heaven. The apostles faced and fought against this very idea. Paul had to deal with Hymenaeus and Philetus, who were telling people that the resurrection had already taken place (2 Tim. 2:17-18). Since the deceased were not walking around on earth again, these teachers must have been trying to convince people that the resurrection was a "spiritual" event, not a physical, bodily one.

But Paul insists that the bodily resurrection of the dead is a necessary component of the Christian faith. "Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.... For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins" (1 Cor. 15:12-13, 16-17).

We are united to Christ such that, just as Christ has been raised, so too will we be raised. But if people are never raised from the dead, then Jesus was never raised. Faith in a dead man is futile, and we are still lost in our sins.

Flesh and Spirit

"But I thought we were to have a spiritual body," you may say. You would not be entirely wrong, but we have to define our terms. As the New Testament writers (and especially Paul) use the terms, flesh and spirit often have less to do with a division within man (i.e., corporeal and incorporeal) than with the manner of life in different ages. Flesh is the word used to characterize life in the present creation, which has been subjected to futility and corrupted by sin. Spirit is the word used to characterize life in the new creation, of which Christ in his resurrection is the firstfruits.

Understanding this can help make some puzzling passages in the New Testament become clear. For example, Christ was "put to death in the flesh but made alive in the Spirit" (1 Pet. 3:18). Does this mean that Christ was not bodily resurrected, that he had a "spiritual" body?

If spiritual refers to something nonphysical, the answer is no. After his resurrection, Jesus said to his disciples, "See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have" (Luke 24:39). His body was different, "spiritual" in the sense that it was now a part of (and in fact the pattern for) the physical creation in the age to come. And our bodies are patterned exactly after his:

So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is 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 [literally "soulish," referring to the first creation] body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, "The first man Adam became a living being [literally "living soul," again referring to the first creation]"; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. (1 Cor. 15:42-45)

When Jesus Had a Body

I often hear people talking about a time in the past "when Jesus had a body." The thinking seems to be that when he ascended, he shed his humanity, or at least his body, and returned to his pristine deity. But that is not what the Bible teaches.

The Bible tells us that the Son of God actually came "in the flesh" (John 1:14; 1 John 4:2). He really and truly, not merely apparently, became a man—a man who was a part of this creation. He suffered and died, really and bodily, as a man. He rose again from the dead, really and bodily, as a man. And he ascended into heaven, really and bodily, as a man. This man is God. But the Son of God is also a man (1 Tim. 2:5; 1 Cor. 15:47)—is a man; not was a man.

Why do so many people misunderstand this? There are two reasons. The first is Hebrews 5:7, "In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications." We mistakenly infer that since Jesus is no longer "in the flesh," he no longer has a human body. But this verse refers to the time when Jesus was a part of this creation—a creation of which he is no longer a part, for in his physical, bodily resurrection, he is now a part (and the start) of the new creation. That he is no longer "in the flesh" does not mean that he no longer has a body (see Romans 8:9-11 in the NASB or ESV).

The second reason, I fear, is that theological liberalism has had more influence on us than we would like to imagine. The resurrection of the body seems incredible to us.

Every Christian ought to memorize the magnificent answer to the Shorter Catechism, Q. 21: "The only Redeemer of God's elect is the Lord Jesus Christ, who, being the eternal Son of God, became man, and so was, and continueth to be, God and man in two distinct natures, and one person, forever."

A Reminder from the Past

This year, as we are drawn to reflect again on the reality of Christ's resurrection, we ought to reflect on the reality of our own coming resurrection. I quote extensively from John Murray, the first systematic theologian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church:

The redemption which Christ has secured for his people is redemption not only from sin but also from all its consequences. Death is the wages of sin.... It is to dishonour Christ and to undermine the nature of the Christian hope to substitute the blessedness upon which believers enter at death for the glory [of the resurrection] that is to be revealed....

One of the heresies which has afflicted the Christian church and has been successful in polluting the stream of Christian thought from the first century of our era to the present is the heresy of regarding matter, that is, material substance, as the source of evil....

Another form in which this heresy appeared is to regard salvation as consisting in the emancipation of the soul ... [from] the body.... This conception can be made to appear very beautiful and "spiritual," but it is just "beautiful paganism." It is a straight thrust at the biblical doctrine that God created man with body and soul and that he was very good....

... But whenever the focus of interest ... becomes the immortality of the soul, then there is a grave deflection from the biblical doctrine of immortal life and bliss. The biblical doctrine of "immortality," if we may use that term, is the doctrine of glorification. And glorification is resurrection. (Redemption Accomplished and Applied, 174-81)

Because Jesus rose from the dead, one day we will rise too. Our destiny is not to float about in an ethereal, disembodied state, but to live on a renewed earth (Isa. 65-66; Rev. 21:1) in a resurrected body, as solid and real as Christ's resurrected body. The apostle Peter wrote that God "has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (1 Pet. 1:3).

Do you believe in the reality of the resurrection?

The author is pastor of Bethel OPC in Leesburg, Va. Reprinted from New Horizons, April 2006.

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