Before leaving the subject of the resurrection of the body and taking up that of the final judgment, there are two further matters that I would like to address. The first of these concerns is an interesting and instructive debate that has surfaced within the broader evangelical community on the nature of the resurrection body. Though I am not so much interested in the details of this debate and all of its complications, it does provide an occasion for further reflection on the Bible’s teaching. The second of these matters has to do with a number of frequently posed questions about the resurrection of the body. These questions are often of a pastoral nature and legitimately arise within the context of reflecting upon death and the expectation of the resurrection at the last day. Admittedly, some of these questions press for answers which are not clearly given to us in the Scriptures. Nonetheless, they need to be acknowledged and addressed to some extent, even when complete answers are not always able to be given.
A RECENT DEBATE
Some of the issues relating to the subject of the resurrection of the body have been highlighted in a recent debate within North American evangelism. This debate, widely reported in the Christian press, provides an interesting test case on the doctrine of the resurrection.1 Though a number of parties have played a role in this debate, the two most important antagonists have been Murray J. Harris, professor of New Testament exegesis and theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois, and Norman Geisler, dean of Southern Evangelical Seminary, Charlotte, North Carolina. Not only has Geisler charged that Harris’ doctrine is heretical, but he has also been joined by a number of cult-watching groups that have compared Harris’ views with those of the cults, particularly the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In a number of works on the subject of the resurrection, Harris has described the resurrection body of Jesus as being “immaterial,” “non-fleshly” and “invisible.”2 Though Harris maintains that Jesus’ resurrection body retains its essential humanity, even becoming visible and fleshly at will (for example, in the accounts of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to the disciples), he insists that the glorified body of Christ is significantly different in kind than the pre-resurrection body. The personal identity of Jesus Christ, according to Harris, is not imperiled, but through the resurrection the body of Christ has undergone a significant change. To say that the body of the risen Christ is fleshly or comprised of “flesh and bone” diminishes the significance of the glorification that occurred through His resurrection, according to Harris.3 Furthermore, based upon his reading of 2 Corinthians 5, Harris argues that believers receive a “resurrection body” during the intermediate state, while their physical bodies remain in the grave. When Christ returns, all believers, whether living or dead, will undergo a resurrection of the body in which their physical bodies will be transformed or raised from the grave as spiritual bodies like that of Christ.4
In his criticisms of Harris’ position, Geisler objects both to Harris’ teaching that believers will receive a kind of interim resurrection body between death and resurrection at the last day and to his teaching that the resurrection body is non-fleshly or immaterial.5
With respect to Harris’ suggestion that believers receive a kind of interim resurrection body between the time of death and resurrection at the return of Christ, Geisler claims that this is inconsistent with the biblical testimony that the resurrection of the body occurs at the time of Christ’s return. Geisler also notes that, in the passage to which Harris appeals for his idea of an interim resurrection body, 2 Corinthians 5:1–9, the believer’s circumstance at death is one that is variously described as being “naked” (v. 3), “unclothed” (v. 4), or “absent from the body” (v. 8). These descriptions correspond to the common teaching of Scripture that, in the period between death and resurrection at the time of Christ's return, the believer is in a provisional state of fellowship with the Lord awaiting the future resurrection of the body.
With respect to Harris’ view of the nature of the resurrection body, Geisler objects particularly to three distinct emphases: that the resurrection body of Christ is immaterial, that it is not numerically identical with his pre-resurrection body,6 and that it is not a part of observable history.7 According to Geisler, the biblical testimony and the confessions of the historic Christian church require that we affirm the material, the flesh-and-blood-nature, of the resurrection body. The continuity between the present and resurrection body, furthermore, requires that we speak of the same body which dies being raised from the dead. When, for example, in 1 Corinthians 15:35–44, we read of the seed which dies and subsequently bears fruit, then we can only conclude that there is a numerical identity between the body which is sown in dishonor and raised in glory.B Furthermore, though it may be true that we do not acknowledge the truth of the resurrection apart from faith — it is not observable to the naked eye in that sense — this does not mean that the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances of Christ are non-observable features of some kind of trans-or non-historical reality.
Perhaps the most critical issue that emerges in the context of this debate between Harris and Geisler has to do with the confessions of the historic Christian church. Do these confessions tell us anything about the resurrection and the nature of the resurrection body that might help to clarify this debate and determine whose view lies closer to the truth? Since I have in previous articles dealt with the biblical witness regarding the resurrection of the body, I will restrict myself in evaluating this debate to an appeal to the historic creeds of the churches.
In my judgment, the confessions do provide us with considerable help at this point and generally tend to favor the position espoused by Geisler in this debate. Most of us are familiar with the article in the Apostles’ Creed that says, “I believe in...the resurrection of the body.” What we often do not know, however, is that the historic language of this Creed was that of the resurrection of the flesh.9 The language with which we are familiar, though unobjectionable and true in its own right, only became the received text of the Creed in 1543. In the original language of this Creed, the church deliberately sought to oppose any gnosticizing or spiritualizing tendency to minimize the reality of the resurrection. The Belgic Confession, one of the great confessions of the Protestant Reformation, affirms that “all the dead shall be raised out of the earth, and their souls joined and united with their proper bodies in which they formerly lived” (Article 37, emphasis mine). In the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, Article 4, “Of the resurrection of Christ,” declares:
Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s nature, wherewith he ascended into heaven, and there sits, until he returns to judge all men at the last day (emphasis mine).10
Similarly, the Westminster Larger Catechism, in its exposition of the resurrection of Christ, declares the following:
Christ was exalted in his resurrection, in that, not having seen corruption in death...and having the very same body in which he suffered, with the essential properties thereof (but without mortality, and other common infirmities belonging to this life), really united to his soul, he rose again from the dead the third day by his own power” (Q. & A. 52, emphasis mine). A cursory reading of these classic confessional statements regarding the resurrection of the body, particularly the resurrection of Christ, clearly shows their teaching to be that the resurrection body is substantially the same as the present body, at least in so far as it is material or flesh and blood. The properties belonging naturally to the body remain true of the resurrection body, though all of those features of the “body of our humiliation” (Phil. 3:21) that are owing to sin and God’s curse are utterly removed. The viewpoint espoused by Harris, in other words, can find little or no support in the language and viewpoint of the historic confessions of the church. Consequently, the evidence seems to support the argument of Geisler that Harris’ position deviates significantly from the orthodoxy of the historic church. To teach that the resurrection body is immaterial, that it is not comprised of flesh and blood, that it is not the same or proper body of the dead, now raised in glory, and that it is unobservable and invisible — to teach anyone, let alone all, of these emphases, is to compromise in important ways the doctrine of Scripture and the church1!
PASTORAL QUESTIONS REGARDING THE RESURRECTION OF THE BODY
When we consider the Bible’s teaching regarding the resurrection of the body, many pastoral questions arise. Most believers, when they face the reality of their own death or the death of fellow believers, confront questions of a pastoral character that are unavoidable. Rather than ignore these questions, I would like to concl ude our treatment of the resurrection of the body by identifying some of these questions and offering tentative answers. There is, of course, great risk that, in asking and answering these questions, we go beyond what is taught in the Scriptures. However, many of these questions may be answered in terms of the Bible’s teaching we have summarized and those “good and necessary” consequences that follow from its teaching.
How should we treat the body of deceased believers?
One question that often surfaces in the face of the death of believers is: how should we treat or regard the body of deceased believers? Sometimes this question arises in the context of considering cremation or other alternatives to burial. On other is provoked by the way some people comfort fellow believers at a funeral home viewing with such words as, “This is not your loved one, but only a body.” When this kind of comfort is extended to believers, it is prompted by a genuine desire to assure those who mourn that death does not disrupt the fellowship we have with Christ, but ushers believers into the presence of the Lord with whom they are now “at home.” However, it suggests something about the body of the person who has died that may not be altogether consistent with the hope for the resurrection of the body.
Upon the basis of our understanding of the Bible’s teaching regarding the resurrection, it would seem to follow that Christians ought to treat the body of a deceased believer with the utmost respect and care. The way we view and handle, even the way in which we lovingly commit the body of a believer to the grave by way of a committal service, should testify to our convictions about the resurrection of the body. Though I do not wish here to go into the whole question of the legitimacy of cremation, it should not surprise us that this practice in modern times has its roots often in an unbelieving denial of the resurrection of the body. Furthermore, to say that the body of a believer is only a body, that it is in no respect to be identified with the one who has died, is perhaps misleading. Because our redemption includes the restoration and reintegration of soul and body, the body remains an essential part of our identity. The comfort which is ours in the face of death is not simply that we go to be with the Lord, but that we anticipate seeing God “in our flesh” (ct. Job 19:26).
Support for this way of regarding the bodies of deceased believers is found in a remarkable statement in the Westminster Larger Catechism (Q. &A. 86). Speaking of the communion in glory of Christ and those who are united to Him, this Catechism makes the following affirmation: The communion in glory with Christ, which the members of the invisible church enjoy immediately after death, is, in that their souls are then made perfect in holiness, and received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies, which even in death continue united to Christ, and rest in their graves as in their beds, till at the last day they be again united to their souls.
Will the resurrection body be recognizably our own?
A question that sometimes arises in connection with the resurrection of the body and the final state is: will the resurrection body be recognizable? Sometimes it is maintained that there will be no recognition of fellow believers in the new heavens and earth because this would be incompatible with the unimpaired joy of the final state. The recognition of one another, so it is argued, would require the sad remembrance of sins committed in this present life and call attention to the absence of some who were not saved. Furthermore, some appeal to Jesus’ teaching in the gospels that in the kingdom of heaven “they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matt. 22:30). If there were such continuity between the present and resurrection body that believers would be recognizable to each other, then this would not only imply the remembrance of the sins and shortcomings of this life, but it would also distract from the kind of exclusive attachment to Christ, surpassing all earthly relationships (including marriage and family relationships) as we now experience them. Doesn’t the language of this passage — they “are like the angels” — require the conclusion that the resurrection body will be so unlike the present body as to be unrecognizable?
None of these arguments, however, can withstand careful scrutiny. When Jesus speaks, for example, of believers in the resurrection being “like the angels,” the point of comparison given in the context has to do with marriage and marriage relationships. Because there will be neither marrying nor giving in marriage, those who are raised in the resurrection will be in this sense like the angels. This should not be understood however, to deny the continuing reality of the created difference between male and female. Nor does it require the conclusion that the personal identity of believers, including their bodily form and uniqueness, will be substantially altered. The biblical testimony regarding the resurrection appearances of our Lord Jesus Christ convincingly demonstrates that He was recognizable to the disciples. To maintain that the resurrection body would not be recognizably or identifiably our own militates against the biblical teaching of continuity between the present and resurrection body. Strictly speaking, were believers in the resurrection unrecognizable to one another in the wholeness of their persons, they would literally cease to be the persons they presently are! This would mean that, in the resurrection, our persons are not restored or healed, but replaced by persons whose identity and form is wholly different than our present identity and form.12
Undoubtedly, it is difficult for us to imagine how believers can enjoy fellowship with each other in the eternal state, recognizing each other in the state of glorification, without their joy being impaired by the remembrance of sin in this present life. It is also somewhat difficult to imagine a circumstance in which, though family and marriage relationships in this life are not forgotten or unknown in the life to come, the institutions of marriage and family do not continue as they now exist. But these difficulties notwithstanding, there are ample biblical and confessional reasons to insist that in the resurrection there will be a mutual recognition and fellowship among believers and with Christ that will be the perfection, not the denial, of this present life.
What about the resurrection of bodies that have been utterly destroyed?
In the light of a number of my comments in the preceding, there may be some who are asking the question: what about the resurrection of bodies that have been utterly destroyed? If the resurrection body is in substantial continuity with the present body, if it is the “self-same body,” to use the language of the Westminster Confession of Faith, how can that be in the case of bodies that have been utterly destroyed through one or another means? Indeed, the decay of the body after death, its return to the dust whence it came, compels the conclusion that, in many cases, the resurrection of the body represents a kind of act on God's part that is tantamount to a new creation out of nothing.
If I may be permitted the use of some rather abstract language at this juncture, the difficulty this question poses has to do with whether the material “particles” or constituents of the present body must be identical with those of the resurrection body. Nothing in the biblical doctrine of the resurrection of the body requires that this be the case. It may be the case — after all, it is certainly possible that God could form the resurrection body from the same, identical particles as the present body. But this need not be the case in order for there to be a substantial and personal identity between the resurrection body and the body of the present. If I may be permitted this comparison, we commonly regard our bodies as the self-same bodies, even though they undergo considerable change because of age and infirmities, even being comprised of wholly new cells every number of years! If our present bodies are one and the same with our bodies many years ago, then there does not seem to be any problem with an affirmation of the resurrection of the proper bodies of those whose earthly bodies have been wholly destroyed.
What about the bodies of unborn children, infants or those who die prematurely?
Another question that can arise in a pastoral context among believers is: what about the bodies of unborn children, or of infants and others who die prematurely? This question is related to a more fundamental question, namely, are believers justified in being confident of the salvation of their children?13 However, I will restrict my comments to the issue of the resurrection of the bodies of such children. With respect to the resurrection of the body, the specific focus of this question is upon the kind of body with which such children will be raised. Though these children die in a state of immature development, physically and otherwise, will they be raised bodily in maturity?
If believers may be confident of the salvation of such children, then it follows that they too will share in the resurrection of the body. Furthermore, since the final state is one of complete perfection and glorification, it must be the case that all who share in this perfection, including that aspect of it known as the resurrection, will do so in a state of full maturity. There will not be anything, in the final state of God’s eternal kingdom, like the process of growth and maturation as we now know it. Just as they will neither marry nor be given in marriage, so there will be no distinction between adult and child, between mature and immature, at least not as we now know these distinctions. Hard as it may be for us to imagine or conceive, we should be confident as believers that we will enjoy fellowship with all the saints, including those children who die under the circumstances described, in the fullness of mature and perfected life.
What about the bodies of those with severe physical and mental impairments?
One final question that is of a pastoral nature respecting the resurrection of the body is: what about the bodies of those with severe physical and mental impairments? Obviously, this is a question that many believers cannot but ask, when they and fellow believers witness the ravages of sin and the curse upon these bodies of our humiliation.
To this question, we have an answer in the familiar words of Psalm 103:2–3, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget none of His benefits; Who pardons all your iniquities, Who heals all your diseases.” When the Lord wipes away every tear from our eye, when He expels from His sanctified creation every remainder of sin and its curse, when He grants us bodies like unto the glorified body of the Lord Jesus Christ—then we may be confident that the resurrection body, raised in glory, will be beautiful in appearance and form, rid of every defect and impairment which sin and the curse have brought. Though it is unwise to speculate carelessly about all the features of the resurrection body, it seems to me to follow from the biblical testimony that these bodies will be altogether lovely in every appropriate sense. What that means precisely, no one knows. But that it will be so seems undeniable.
With these pastoral questions addressed, we come to the close of our consideration of the biblical teaching regarding the resurrection of the body. Without a doubt, we have not been able to do this teaching justice. The testimony of the Scriptures to the certainty of the resurrection is clear. However, many things are not told us that we might like to know. It may even be that, in addressing some of these pastoral questions, I have exceeded the boundaries of what is given to us to know in the Scriptures.
Perhaps enough has been said, however, to appreciate afresh the hope of which the apostle Peter speaks in 1 Peter 1:3–5:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, re~ served in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
1. For a brief and popular account of the debate, see: “Trinity Prof Attacked for Resurrection Teaching,” Christianity Today 36/13 (April 5, 1993), p. 62; and “The Mother of All Muddles,” Christianity Today 37/4 (April 5, 1993), pp. 62–66. It should be observed that Harris has been exonerated of the charge of heresy by his institution, denomination (Evangelical Free), and a committee of evangelical theologians.
2. Harris has written extensively on the subject of the resurrection, the following sources being most important: Raised Immortal: Resurrection and Immortality in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985); Easter in Durham: Bishop Jenkins and the Resurrection (Exeter: Paternoster, 1985); and From Grave to Glory (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990).
3. The following statements from Harris’ Raised Immortal are fairly representative of his view: “An analysis of the Gospels suggests that the risen body of Jesus was unlike his pre-Easter body in some important respects. To begin with he was no longer bound by material or spatial limitations” (p. 53); “The Resurrection marked his entrance upon a spiritual mode of existence, or, to borrow Pauline terminology, his acquisition of a ‘spiritual body,’ which was both immaterial and invisible yet capable of interaction with the world of time and space” (pp. 57–8).
4. Raised Immortal, pp. 44,100.
5. I am summarizing Geisler’s criticism of Harris’ view from the following of his writings: The Battle for the Resurrection (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1989); and “In Defense of the Resurrection: A Reply to Criticisms, A Review Article,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 34/2 (June, 1991), pp. 243–61.
6. Though this language tends to be rather abstract and obscure, the point Geisler is making is that the body of the risen Christ is not another body than the one in which He was crucified. Though through the resurrection this body has been glorified, it remains the same (numerically identical) body.
7. "In Defense of the Resurrection," pp. 247–8.
8. This is what Geisler has in mind when he uses the awkward expression, “the numerical identity” of the pre-and post-resurrection body. He is not insisting that the body in each instance be made up of the same material “particles,” though this is possible and held by some Christian theologians. He is only insisting that it is the same body, that there is an identity of person, also bodily, between the believer before and after he undergoes the resurrection of the body 9. In the Latin versions of the Creed, the term is carnis. In the Greek versions, the term is sarx. See: Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, Vol. II (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House reprint, 1931), pp. 45–56.
10. Mark A. Noll, ed, Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformation (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991), p. 214.
11. This being the case, it is troubling to note that, even so trustworthy an expositor of biblical truth as J.I Packer, maintains that Harris’ view is “orthodox” and in accord with “Scripture and with the consensus of the world church” (“The Mother of All Muddles,” p. 64). In this observation, Packer glosses over the language of the confessions that I have cited above, especially the language which speaks of the “proper” or “same” body. as well as of the “flesh and bones” of the risen Christ. This is the language of historic confessional orthodoxy and it is precisely this language that Harris seems to repudiate.
12. See: William Hendriksen, The Bible on the Life Hereafter (Grand Rapids: Baker. 1959), pp.66–70; I. Aspinwall Hodge, Recognition after Death (New York: American Tract Society, 1889). In his interesting little book, Hodge addresses this pastoral question and convincingly shows that communion with the Lord and with each other depends upon our unique identities as persons comprised of soul and body. Some Bible passages seem to imply rather clearly that this is the case: Luke 16:19–31; Matt. 8:11; I Thess. 2:19–20; Isa. 14:12.
13. For an affirmation of the salvation of the children of believing parents, see the Canons of Dort, 1,17. The Westminster Confession speaks differently (though not contradictorily) of the salvation of “elect infants” in Chap. X,iii.
Dr. Venema teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, IN.