There’s nothing certain in life except death and taxes, goes the old saying. We might be able to deal with taxes by making more money or getting government to lower them… but death? What can we do about death? Nothing.
That’s why the hope of all Christians is to live again — and live forever—by a resurrection from death, an event the Bible says is to occur at Jesus Christ’s return. But this brings up an intriguing question: What kind of body will God provide for us? If you’ve ever wondered about this, you are not the first. There’s a discussion of the “body question” in the New Testament where the apostle Paul tried to enlighten his parishioners in Corinth.
In this letter, after explaining that the dead in Christ would be resurrected to immortal life, Paul asked: “But someone may ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?’” (1 Corinthians 15:35).
If we are Christians who believe in the resurrection of the dead, then we already believe, by faith, that with God all things are possible — that, though we die, we will live again in the resurrection. I got to thinking of a fascinating analogy from nature that might help us see that all things are possible with God — the dead can live again! I’m speaking of nature’s marvel of metamorphosis. The word simply means “change of form.”1
A stunning marvel
If you know anything about the life history of a moth or butterfly, you know it undergoes metamorphosis. It gets a completely new body. You can see this for yourself. Take the eggs of a moth or butterfly — let us say, tobacco hornworm eggs (about the size of a pinhead) — and place them on leaves that they would eat.
Watch over time as the eggs hatch into larvae, each measuring about half an inch in length. The larvae will grow as they gorge themselves on the leaves. At full maturity about three weeks after hatching, the caterpillar larvae will be about three inches long.
Each hornworm will then wrap itself in a cocoon that it creates under a thin layer of soil. After a time, the chrysalis with its brown color and varnished-like finish will begin cracking and out will struggle, not a worm, but a completely different life form — a Carolina Sphinx moth.
One form of life, with a distinctive caterpillar body and nature, will have metamorphosed or changed into a new form of life, a moth. This “death” of the hornworm, its intermediate existence in a cocoon and then the “resurrection” of a moth is a profound and moving sight to see!
What happens in a chrysalis?
Have you ever thought of a butterfly as a caterpillar with wings? Think again. What happens inside a chrysalis is a wonder of creation, and a striking analogy for the transformation from mortality to immortality that is the hope of all Christians.
When the caterpillar has eaten enough, it finds somewhere safe and spins itself a cocoon. It then molts its outer skin, secreting a new covering that is much thicker and stronger. In this form it cannot eat, excrete and usually does not move. To all outside appearances it looks dead. But it is far from lifeless. Inside, a miracle of transformation begins to take place.
The first thing that happens is that most of the caterpillar’s old body disintegrates. Enzymes are released that digest all the caterpillar tissue, so that the caterpillar is converted into a rich organic soup. It digests itself from the inside out—a process called “histolysis.” However, not all the old tissue is destroyed. In a number of places in the insect’s body are collections of special embryonic cells, called “imaginal buds” or “histoblasts.” Until now they played no part in the insect’s life. These cells start developing early in the caterpillar’s life, but then they stall, remaining inert in the caterpillar’s body. As soon as metamorphosis gets under way, these cells start growing again.
The job of these imaginal bud cells is to supervise the building of a new body out of the soup that the insect’s digestive juices have made of the old larval body. One will become a wing; others form the legs, the antennae and all the organs of the adult butterfly. In this way, the entire internal contents of the caterpillar — the muscles, the digestive system, even the heart and nervous system — is totally rebuilt.
What eventually emerges out of the chrysalis is not just a caterpillar with wings. It is a new creature, no longer confined to crawling around and preoccupied with eating. Although the potential to become a butterfly is inherent in the caterpillar’s old body, the change cannot happen until the old creature in effect dies. Then, and only then, the wonderful process of metamorphosis begins to unfold, until eventually, a totally new kind of creature emerges from the “tomb.”
Borne aloft on its beautiful wings, the butterfly can experience life in a way a caterpillar could not begin to imagine.
Mortal to immortal in resurrection
I’m going to suggest an analogy between metamorphosis in nature and the “metamorphosis” in resurrection that will occur to humans when Christ breaks into our history in visible glory and power.
I don’t mean to say that the resurrection is like natural metamorphoses. The worm and the metamorphosed butterfly and moth are physical and mortal creatures. They both die. In the hornworm’s pupa stage, its caterpillar structures are reorganized and replaced by those typical of the Carolina Sphinx moth. But our metamorphosis at Christ’s return will occur because God gives us a transformed, spiritual body, not another mortal or physical body that develops out of the old physical body. The dead in Christ will be called forth by the power of God and given new bodies. This will be the mother of all metamorphoses!
Nevertheless, natural metamorphosis is intriguing in that it can point beyond itself to God’s work with us in the resurrection. The worm ceases to be a worm and lies dormant in a pupal cell in which it finds new, metamorphosed life as a moth or butterfly. We human beings first live a physical, mortal human life. Then we die, awaiting the coming of the Lord, at which time we will receive spiritual bodies.
Thinking about the “new body”
So what kind of bodies will God provide for us in the resurrection? Paul answered the question by explaining the process with the help of another analogy from the natural world: “What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else” (verses 36-37).
Yes, that is a marvel. A field of wheat from a handful of seeds. A large oak tree coming from a tiny acorn! A worm buried in a tomb-like cocoon reappears as a different life form, with a totally different body. That’s analogous to what will happen to us in the resurrection of the dead. Paul explains: “The body that is sown is perishable [our present state], it is raised imperishable… it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body” (verses 43-44).
The metamorphosed body we are to receive will be a “spiritual body.” Paul didn’t say we receive a nonmaterial, spirit body, but a “spiritual body.” What did he mean by the phrase? The Greek word is pneumatikos, like in a pneumatic or air-filled tire. Pneumatikos, “spiritual,” means, in a general sense, to exist in a manner corresponding with or appropriate to the Spirit. That doesn’t tell us anything specific about the make-up of spiritual bodies.
Another apostle, John, also understood that there’s no explaining what our metamorphosed bodies or life will be like in the resurrection except in general terms: “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
Our post-resurrection “spiritual” existence will be decisively different from our present fleshly, earthly existence. A singular continuity will exist within this fundamental discontinuity. We will still be ourselves “on the other side,” but fully regenerated in nature and immortal in body.
New bodies for old
What will our changed — metamorphosed — new bodies have that they do not possess now? Paul explains: “Listen, I tell you a mystery…. The dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:50-53). The mortal will be covered with immortality. There is continuity, but also fundamental discontinuity.
Resurrection bodies will be imperishable and immortal. None of our present fleshly weaknesses will exist. Never to be tired. Never to be thirsty or hungry. Never to be sick and in pain. Never to suffer from anxieties and fears. Never to sin. Never to die.
Paul knew what it meant to suffer deprivation and pain in this temporal, physical body, which is our present heritage. He longed to rest in peace, waiting for the resurrection:
If the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands…. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. (2 Corinthians 5:1-4)
The book of Revelation exults in this time after the resurrection, when we will have new bodies: “God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (21:3-4). God’s gift to us of a new spiritual and immortal body and a mind and heart regenerated and perfected through Christ and in the Holy Spirit will make all this possible.
Physical human bodies grow old and infirm, become sick and pained, decay and die. The Bible testifies that in the resurrection we will receive a new body from God that will give us true and eternal freedom and joy:
All creation anticipates the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pangs of childbirth right up to the present time. And even we Christians, although we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, also groan to be released from pain and suffering. We, too, wait anxiously for that day when God will give us our full rights as his children, including the new bodies he has promised us. (Romans 8:21-23, New Living Translation)
A new body in which to live forever in a restored world, where nothing will ever go wrong again. It is indeed the mother of all changes!
1 The Random House Dictionary of the English Language defines metamorphosis in biological terms as a “profound change in form from one stage to the next in the life history of an organism.”