When Christ returns, the dead will rise — they will be resurrected. “With what body do they come?” some ask. Will their atoms be re-assembled? Will there be male and female? Will we recognize one another? Will we look young, or old? Many other questions are asked.
It is understandable that we ask. But it is also understandable that we cannot understand what immortal life will be like, just as a fetus cannot understand what adult life is like, or a blind person has difficulty in understanding color. Perhaps being glorified will be like entering new dimensions that we have never known before. We do not have the words to describe it because our words are based on our experiences in this age. Just as we cannot describe the aroma of coffee, we cannot describe our future life.
Scripture does not give us a detailed description of what life will be like when we have glorified bodies. It tells us 1) that we will be with God forever and 2) that all who trust in Christ will find it to be an immensely enjoyable life. We will enter our Master’s happiness, and in his presence there are pleasures forevermore. We will never be bored, for we finite beings will always have new things to learn and enjoy about God’s infinite goodness.
Scripture also tells us that when Christ returns, we will be like him (1 John 3:2). Paul tells us that our bodies will be changed when the final trumpet sounds (1 Corinthians 15:51-52). This brings us back to the question of what our bodies will be like.
There are two approaches to this question. The first is to ask what kind of body Jesus had after his resurrection, and the second is to see what Paul wrote about our bodies in the resurrection. We have limited information about both, but we can see how they might fit together.
The resurrected Jesus
After his resurrection, Jesus could be recognized as Jesus. Special intervention was needed to prevent two disciples from recognizing him (Luke 24:16). Jesus had flesh and bones, and some (but not all) of the marks of crucifixion (v. 39). He could be touched, and he could eat. He could also appear in locked rooms, or ascend into heaven (John 20:19-20; Acts 1:9).
But is this the way Jesus now is? Is there a five-foot-six-inch body of flesh and bones somewhere in outer space? Is Jesus normally invisible, or does his body shine in glory, or does he look like a lamb that has been slain — a lamb with seven horns and seven eyes? (Revelation 5:6). Or are all of these appearances merely appearances, not necessarily a permanent shape or form?
Here are some basic facts: First, the tomb was empty and the body of Jesus was gone. Second, resurrected Jesus had a body, although that body had some extraordinary properties. One way to connect these two facts is to conclude that the body of Jesus was brought back to life and changed. The new Jesus had physical continuity with the old Jesus, but there were important differences.
I do not believe that Jesus has to remain visible to our eyes. When he appeared, his body reflected photons; when he disappeared, it did not. Yet in both states, Jesus had a body. He inhabits eternity, and he does not have to conform to the finite electromagnetic quantum world that we are able to investigate. For that reason, I do not believe that Jesus’ body has to conform to the dimensions that we know.
Our questions about “size” and “location” are based on limits that probably do not apply to Jesus Christ. Such questions may make no more sense than asking what purple smells like — we are asking about a condition with terminology that is not suited for that condition.
Paul tells us that we will be changed — metamorphosed (1 Corinthians 15:51). The body will then be imperishable, immortal, glorious, powerful and spiritual (verses 42-44, 53). But it will be a body, and it will have some continuity with the old body.
Paul compares this change to the sprouting of a seed (v. 37). A tree does not look like an acorn, but it has physical continuity with the acorn. A butterfly looks nothing like a caterpillar, but it has physical continuity with it. Our metamorphosis may involve an even more dramatic change in what we are like. We cannot predict what it will be like any more than we can predict whether some unfamiliar seed will grow into a tree, or a flower.
The point is that there is continuity as well as change. The old body is not abandoned, nor is it totally kept. We do not worry about reassembling all of the atoms that were once part of our bodies (that would be impossible, for bodies decompose after death and their atoms become incorporated into other things, sometimes of other people’s bodies). But Paul still talks about the resurrection of the body.
He expects to find the tombs empty and the bones all gone. I do not know how this works, and I suspect it involves realities I know nothing about. Lacking any further information, I simply have to accept what Paul was inspired to write: the body will be raised, and it will have new qualities.
Some may ask, What is a spiritual body? Isn’t that a contradiction of terms? Paul is talking about a body that is different from the bodies we know, but he is not talking about a body that is “made” of spirit. In verse 44, when he says that our current bodies are “natural,” he uses the Greek word psychikos, which is the adjective form of the word psyche, or soul. He is not talking about a body made out of soul, but a body that is characterized in some way by the soul.
Similarly, when he says the body will become a spiritual body, he uses the word pneumatikos, the adjective form of pneuma, or spirit. He is not talking about a body made out of spirit any more than he is talking about a body made out of soul. But the body will be characterized by spirit, perhaps in the same way that a spiritual person is (Galatians 6:1), with an ability to understand spiritual things. We will not understand what this body is like until it is given to us.
Why bother with the body?
Why does God bother with our bodies? Wouldn’t it be simpler to take our spirits to heaven and live forever with the Lord without any need for a resurrection? I do not claim to have a complete answer. I do know that God created physical matter, and it is therefore good. God did not make it just to destroy it later. He will keep the physical world in a renewed form, in a new heavens and new earth.
The physical body is not some evil thing that we need to escape from (as many non-Christians have taught). Jesus had a physical body, and there was nothing wrong with that. Jesus was made flesh for the very purpose of redeeming all things (Colossians 1:19-20). God is not abandoning the physical world — he is rescuing it. Romans 8:21 tells us that the physical creation will be liberated from its bondage when we are transformed into glory. This salvation involves the “redemption of our bodies” (v. 23).
Our bodies will be redeemed, not discarded. Our bodies will be raised immortal and imperishable, freed from the decay that affects the physical world today. Christ has made it possible, as shown in his own resurrection with a body that transcends the limits of space and time.
The fact that the physical world will be redeemed, the fact that our bodies will be raised, means that we should value the physical world that God has placed us in and made us part of. We are to care for the creation and care for our bodies. We have environmental concerns and health concerns; we have interests in the biological and physical sciences. We are not to abandon the world we live in, but we are to improve it in whatever small ways we can.
Similarly, we are not to abandon the social world we live in, but are to improve it when we can, working against evil and promoting justice. The fact that our bodies will be redeemed and raised emphasizes our need to be involved in the world in a positive way. We are not escapists, merely biding time until time ends, but we are involved, letting Christ live in us and grow in us until we are raised with him in glory and we see him as he is and we share in his eternal joy.