Reprinted from Heaven with permission of Tyndale Publishers.
The major Christian creeds state, "I believe in the resurrection of the body." But I have found in many conversations that Christians tend to spiritualize the resurrection of the dead, effectively denying it. They don't reject it as a doctrine, but they deny its essential meaning: a permanent return to a physical existence in a physical universe.
Of Americans who believe in a resurrection of the dead, two-thirds believe they will not have bodies after the resurrection. But this is self-contradictory. A non-physical resurrection is like a sunless sunrise. There's no such thing.
Resurrection means that we will have bodies. If we didn't have bodies, we wouldn't be resurrected!
The biblical doctrine of the resurrection of the dead begins with the human body but extends far beyond it. R. A. Torrey writes, "We will not be disembodied spirits in the world to come, but redeemed spirits, in redeemed bodies, in redeemed universe." If we don't get it right on the resurrection of the body, we'll get nothing else right. It's therefore critical that we not merely affirm the resurrection of the dead as a point of doctrine but that we understand the meaning of the resurrection we affirm.
Genesis 2:7 says, "The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being." The Hebrew word for "living being" is nephesh, often translated "soul." The point at which Adam became nephesh is when God joined his body (dust) and spirit (breath) together. Adam was not a living human being until he had both material (physical) and immaterial (spiritual) components. Thus, the
essence of humanity is not just spirit, but spirit joined with body. Your body does not merely house the real you-it is as much a part of who you are as your spirit.
If this idea seems wrong to us, it's because we have been deeply influenced by Christoplatonism. From a christoplatonic perspective, our souls merely occupy our bodies, like a hermit crab inhabits a seashell, and our souls could naturally-or even ideally-live in a disembodied state.
It's no coincidence that the apostle Paul's detailed defense of the physical resurrection of the dead was written to the church at Corinth. More than any other New Testament Christians, the Corinthian believers were immersed in the Greek philosophies of Platonism and dualism, which perceived a dichotomy between the spiritual and the physical. The biblical view of human nature, however, is radically different. Scripture indicates that God designed our bodies to be an integral part of our total being. Our physical bodies are an essential aspect of who we are, not just shells for our spirits to inhabit.
Death is an abnormal condition because it tears apart what God created and joined together. God intended for our bodies to last as long as our souls. Those who believe in Platonism or in preexistent spirits see a disembodied soul as natural and even desirable. The Bible sees it as unnatural and undesirable. We are unified beings. That's why the bodily resurrection of the dead is so vital. And that's why Job rejoiced that in his flesh he would see God (Job 19:26).
When God sent Jesus to die, it was for our bodies as well as our spirits. He came to redeem not just "the breath of life" (spirit) but also "the dust of the ground" (body). When we die, it isn't that our real self goes to the intermediate Heaven and our fake self goes to the grave; it's that part of us goes to the intermediate Heaven and part goes to the grave to await our bodily resurrection. We will never be all that God intended for us to be until body and spirit are again joined in resurrection. (If we do have physical forms in the intermediate state, clearly they will not be our original or ultimate bodies.)
Any views of the afterlife that settle for less than a bodily resurrection-including Christoplatonism, reincarnation, and transmigration of the soul-are explicitly unchristian. The early church waged major doctrinal wars against Gnosticism and Manichaeism, dualistic worldviews that associated God with the spiritual realm of light and Satan with the physical world of darkness. These heresies contradicted the biblical account that says God was pleased with the entire physical realm, all of which he created and called "very good" (Genesis 1:31). The truth of Christ's resurrection repudiated the philosophies of Gnosticism and Manichaeism. Nevertheless, two thousand years later, these persistent heresies have managed to take hostage our modern theology of Heaven.
Our incorrect thinking about bodily resurrection stems from our failure to understand the environment in which resurrected people will live-the New Earth. Anthony Hoekema is right: "Resurrected bodies are not intended just to float in space, or to flit from cloud to cloud. They call for a new earth on which to live and to work, glorifying God. The doctrine of the resurrection of the body, in fact makes no sense whatever apart from the doctrine of the new earth."
Paul says that if Christ didn't rise from the dead, we're still in our sins (1 Corin thians 15:17)-meaning we'd be bound for Hell, not Heaven. Paul doesn't just say that if there's no Heaven, the Christian life is futile. He's says that if there's no resurrection of the dead, then the hope of Christianity is an illusion, and we're to be pitied for placing our faith in Christ. Paul has no interest in a Heaven that's merely for human spirits. Ultimately, there is no Heaven for human spirits unless Heaven is also for human bodies.Wishful thinking is not the reason why, deep in our hearts, we desire a resurrected life on a resurrected Earth instead of a disembodied existence in a spiritual realm. Rather, it is precisely because God intends for us to be raised to new life on the New Earth that we desire it. It is God who created us to desire what we are made for. It is God who "set eternity in the hearts of men" (Ecclesiastes 3:11). It is God who designed us to live on Earth and to desire the earthly life. And it is our bodily resurrection that will allow us to return to an earthly life--this time freed from sin and the Curse.
That's God's idea, not ours. Our desires simply correspond to God's intentions, because he implanted his intentions into us in the form of our desires.
"Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" (2 Corinthians 5:17). Becoming a new creation sounds as if it involves a radical change, and indeed it does. But though we become new people when we come to Christ, we still remain the same people.
When I came to Christ as a high school student, I became a new person, yet I was still the same person I'd always been. My mother saw a lot ofchanges, but she still recognized me. She still said, "Good morning, Randy," not "Who are you?" I was still Randy Alcorn, though a substantially transformed Randy Alcorn. This same Randy will undergo another change at death, and yet another change at the resurrection of the dead. But through all the changes I will still be who I was and who I am. There will be continuity from this life to the next. I will be able to say with Job, "In my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes-I, and not another" (Job 19:26-27).
Conversion does not mean eliminating the old but transforming it. Despite the radical changes that occur through salvation, death, and resurrection, we remain who we are. We have the same history, appearance, memory, interests, and skills. This is the principle of redemptive continuity. God will not scrap his original creation and start over. Instead, he will take his fallen, corrupted children and restore, refresh, and renew us to our original design.