By Elias Ayala (MDiv & M.A.T.)
The center piece of the Christian faith is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without the resurrection Christianity as a religious movement would have died at its very conception. As the apostle Paul famously wrote: “…and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is without foundation, and so is your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14). For this reason, the resurrection of Jesus is an indispensable feature of the Christian religion and on this very point there are few who would disagree. However, what does it mean to say that Jesus was “raised from the dead?” Is the Christian claim that Jesus was raised as a “spirit” being? Was there any true continuity between the Jesus who walked the hills of Galilee, or is he substantially different in the mode of existence that he now holds as a resurrected man? These are important questions since they touch on the issue of the “nature” of resurrection in general and our future resurrection as believers. Furthermore, these questions have important apologetical significance given the denial of some groups of the bodily resurrection of Jesus (an example would be the Jehovah’s Witnesses).
The biblical position on this issue is that Jesus was in fact raised “bodily” from the dead. This fact is established on a number of grounds. First, the Jewish conception of “resurrection” was that it was a bodily and physical reality. This differentiated the Jewish conception of life after death from their pagan counterparts. The popular notion that there were countless parallels between the Jews/Christians and pagans on this issue is factually false. The Jewish/Christian notions of resurrection stood in utter opposition to that of the ancient Mediterranean world. Especially within the Greco-Roman context, the concept of resurrection was utterly denied as implausible and undesired. According to the words of New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, “In so far as the ancient non-Jewish world had a Bible, its Old Testament was Homer. And in so far as Homer has anything to say about resurrection, he was quite blunt: It doesn’t happen.”1 Perhaps this was the reason why Paul said in 1 Corinthians 1:23: “but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.” Why would a crucified Christ be foolishness to the Greeks? The Greeks worshiped strength, and Christ’s strength was robed in humility. Or better still, why would a resurrected Christ be foolishness to the Greeks? Because “everyone knew”, resurrections didn’t happen.
Biblically speaking, why think that the resurrection of Jesus was bodily? First, the bodily nature of Jesus resurrection was made clear by the fact that after Jesus was raised, he interacted physically and tangibly with others. When he appeared to doubting Thomas, he told him to “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side” (John 20:27). Or again, Jesus told his disciples, “Look at my hands and feet, it is I myself! Touch me and see” (Luke 24:39). Jesus resurrected body clearly had flesh and bones (These are physical and bodily). Jesus said, “Touch me and see; a spirit does not have flesh and bone as you see I have” (Luke 24:39).
It is quite clear from both the historical context of what Jews and Christians believed about resurrection and what the biblical data explicitly states, that the nature of Jesus resurrection was that it was physical, bodily. Indeed, the tomb where Jesus’ body was placed was empty. Why seek the “living” among the dead, he is risen, he is risen indeed. This glorious truth is connected to other important biblical truths pertaining to the gospel. For just as Christ has been raised, we too will be raised, indeed we have the hope of resurrection for our bodies in the future, and the down payment of that promise was that God raised Jesus from the dead.
1. N.T. Wright, Resurrection of the Son of God. Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2003. (Kindle Edition, Location 859).