The Resurrection Body
Scripture - 1 Corinthians 15:35-49
Let us delight in the word of the Lord, & meditate on God’s teachings, day & night.
Imagine you are standing outside a car showroom, a hundred or so years from now. An advertisement has brought you & lots of others to see a new type of car. It is different from all that went before, the slogan said.
“It looks pretty much the same to me,” one person says. “Well, it is similar,” replies another, “but the engine seems different somehow.”
The inventor makes a short speech. “I know it may look like an ordinary car,” he says, “but what makes this one totally different is what it runs on. We have developed a new fuel, nothing to do with oil or gasoline. It is clean, it is safe, & there are limitless supplies. And because of the type of fuel, the engine will never wear out. This car is going to last forever.”
Now, that is a fantasy, of course – or perhaps not, since you never know what inventions are going to come next. After all, who in 1922 would have predicted the jet engine or the microchip? But it gets us to the point of this dense & hugely important discussion. What sort of body will the resurrection produce? And what will it ‘run’ on?
We may as well skip to the heart of Paul’s discussion. The verse has puzzled people many times in the past, & still does. In verse 44, Paul contrasts the two types of bodies, the present one & the resurrection one. It is sown a physical body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. The words he uses are technical & tricky. Many versions (including the NRSV) translate these words as physical body & spiritual body, but this is highly misleading. That is as though the difference between the old car & the new one was that, whereas the old one was made of steel, the new one is made of something quite different – plastic or wood, or some not-yet-invented metal alloy. If you go that route, you may well end up saying, as others have done, that Paul is making a simple contrast between what we call a ‘body,’ that is a physical object, & what we might call a ghost, a ‘spiritual’ object in the sense of ‘non-physical.’ But that is exactly what he is not saying!
The contrast he is making is between a body animated by one type of life & a body animated by another type. The difference between them is found, if you will, in what the two bodies run on. The present body is animated by the normal life which all humans share.
The word Paul uses for this often means ‘soul’; he means it in the sense of the ordinary life-force on which we all depend in this present body, the ordinary energy that keeps us breathing & our blood circulating. But the body that we shall be given in the resurrection is to be animated by God’s own spirit. This is what Paul says in a simpler passage, Romans 8:10-11: If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.
But when the Spirit creates a new body, it will not wear out. Here, in order to make the illustration of the new car really work, we would have to say that the new fuel will not only preserve the engine forever, but all of the parts. That would be straining even a fantasy a bit far. But we need to say something like that to do justice to what Paul has written here.
Paul does in fact think that the resurrection body will be a different kind of thing to the present one, because in verses 51-52, & again in Philippians 3, he declares that Christians who have not died at the moment when Jesus returns as Lord will need to be changed. But the contrast he then makes between the present body in itself, & the future body in itself, is not the contrast between ‘natural’ & ‘spiritual.’ That, as we have seen, has to do with what energizes these two bodies, what they run on. The contrast between the two bodies in themselves is stated in verses 42-43. It is the contrast between corruption (our present bodies fall sick, bits wear out, we decay, die, & return to dust) & incorruption (the new body will not do any of those things). It is the contrast between shame (we know we were made for more than this decaying, corrupting life, & we are ashamed of our frailty & death) & honor (the new body will be perfect, with nothing to be ashamed of). It is the contrast between weakness & power.
Let us now stand back from the detail in the middle of our reading & see how the whole argument works.
The first point – verses 35-38 – introduces the idea of the seed which is sown looking like one thing & which comes up looking quite different. Paul does not of course mean that when you bury a body in the ground, a new one “grows” like a plant from its seed. The point he is making is simply that we understand the principle of transformation, of a new body in continuity with the old yet somehow different. And he emphasizes particularly that this happens through the action of God: God gives it a body. That is the first thing to grasp: the resurrection is the work of God the creator, & it will involve transformation – not merely resuscitation, as though the seed, after a while underground, were to emerge as a seed again.
The second point – verses 39-41 – states: that we are all used to diverse types of physical matter, all the way from the fish in the sea to the stars in the sky. When Paul speaks of some of these physical objects having glory, he means of course ‘brightness’; but this does not mean he is preparing us for the idea that people raised from the dead will shine like light bulbs. When he describes the new body as having glory, it is in contrast to “shame” or “humiliation”, not to “darkness.” His point is simply to note that there are many types of created physical objects, each with its own properties.
Throughout our reading thus far, Paul has been echoing Genesis 1, where God creates the sun, the moon, & the stars, & particularly trees & plants that have their seed within them. The underlying theme of the whole chapter, remember, is a new creation, a new Genesis: God will complete the project he began at the beginning, & in the process he will reverse & undo the effects of human rebellion, especially death itself, the great enemy that drags God’s beautiful world down into decay & destruction. Paul will now move to the climax of Genesis 1, the creation of human beings in God’s own image. As with Jesus’ resurrection, so with ours: this will not be a strange distortion of our original humanity but will be the very thing we were created for in the first place.
Paul’s last point – verses 42-49 – bring him to the heart of the matter. The ultimate contrast between the present body & the future one is between two basic types of humanness. God already has the new model in store, he says, waiting to bring it out for all at the proper time – though, of course, the prototype, the resurrected body of Jesus himself, has already been revealed.
Paul’s word for the place where God keeps things safe before unveiling them at the proper time is of course “heaven.” When he speaks of the “earthly” humanity & the “heavenly” humanity, he does not mean we will ‘go to heaven’ to become the new type. Rather, God will bring this new humanity, our new bodies, from heaven to earth, transforming the present bodies of Christians who are still alive, & raising the dead to the same renewed, eternal, glorious body.
This is the hope set before us in the resurrection; & it is all based, of course, on the fact that Jesus himself, the Messiah, already possesses the new type of body. He is the man from heaven; &, as we have borne the image of the old, corruptible humanity, so we will bear the image of Jesus himself. The overall point of our reading today is that in the resurrection of Jesus the power of the creator God was at work to bring about the renewal of the world, & that through the work of the Holy Spirit this same creator God will give new, glorious, eternal bodily life to all who profess faith in Jesus.