“How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” — 1 Corinthians 15:35
In the decades I’ve been a Christian — since I was a kid — I’ve spent hours and hours pondering the question of heaven… the afterlife… ‘eternity’… It hasn’t always been good for me, it’s hard to get your head around especially if your speculation is fuelled by TV shows picturing heaven as a sort of disembodied ‘float around in the clouds’ spiritual reality.
That has been a pretty damaging picture of our future; and one Paul is keen to address in 1 Corinthians 15 as he writes about the topic of resurrection; not just the resurrection of Jesus, but our resurrection.
A little Greek philosophy
He’s not a huge fan of some of the ways people ask the question in verse 35 but that’s not because it’s not an important question, it’s because in the culture he is responding to there are some ideas about bodies that he has to respond to; the question he quotes is a sort of mocking or sneering question about Christian hope. A sneering built from some ancient ideas about the world, and existence. If you don’t want to know about Greek philosophers then jump to the next heading!
In Greek culture, and amongst the leading thinkers of Corinth, people had been influenced by Plato’s understanding of the spiritual and material realities — Plato died a few hundred years before Paul wrote to the Corinthians, but he’d had this idea that the physical world is a poor shadow of the ideal ‘spiritual’ world and enlightenment or ‘success’ meant escaping the physical world into the ideal; if you bought this idea the idea of a physical resurrection after death seemed a bit silly; you’d mock it, you’d say ‘a body, ha!’
After Plato came Aristotle, and his understanding of the physical world was that matter existed in a sort of constant sense but was always pushing towards something like a form tied to its purpose. Any object was a mix of substance and form, the ‘form’ holds the matter together, but the substance is where an object’s potential is located. For Aristotle any substantial change (like resurrection) where an object (like a person) comes into, or passes out of, existence, it (or they) changes substance and form, so a dead person would lose the ‘soul’ that had held the body together; or a seed, like an acorn, undergoes a change towards something inherent to the end goal of the substance of the acorn… so, he said, an acorn always has in it the potential to become a tree but this would be a move towards what an object actually is, he wrote, in his Metaphysics (book 9, section 1050b) “therefore all imperishable things are actual;” that is the actual ‘final form’ of an object is this permanent imperishable version.
If there was no sense that the resurrection was possible, or that people are imperishable, in substance or form, then it’d be hard for a Greek thinker to say a person meaningfully exists after death, and they’d — whether fans of Plato or Aristotle — have all sorts of questions and issues with this idea (which is why Greek thinkers laugh at Paul when he mentions the resurrection in Athens in Acts 17).
We have our own ideas about death and what it means (and whether there’s a soul), and our culture’s response to somebody talking about resurrection, without miraculous, Spirit-created belief in the resurrection, is to ask scoffing questions like ‘oh yeah, how does that work, will my body pass through walls? Will I sleep on a cloud?’… the idea of belief in the resurrection of a dead body has always been implausible, but Paul has some pretty great answers to Greek thinkers and their questions, and a pretty amazing picture of what life beyond death looks like.
Jesus, the resurrection, and us
When Paul talks about resurrection, like when John talks about resurrection in Revelation 21-22, he isn’t talking about a pie in the sky ‘spiritual’ or ‘heavenly’ future, but a future where the spiritual and physical are brought together in a way that reveals the true nature of reality to us. When Paul talks about resurrection bodies he is talking about physical bodies, resurrected in the same way Jesus was resurrected. He’s playing with some of Aristotle’s ideas but turning Greek thinking on its head.
When I spent those hours contemplating this stuff as a kid it just blew my mind; and it still does! And rightly so!
Here are some of the things Paul says about the resurrection that directly respond to the world views of the people he’s writing to.
He starts by confounding the Aristotelian idea that if a thing dies it is no longer the same thing.
He does this by talking about plants and their relationship to their seed. The purpose of our humanity is resurrection and when that happens our humanity isn’t gone but fruitful, Paul points out there’s a problem with the views of both Plato and Aristotle; they’re missing that God is involved in the process of creating and re-creating… change is divinely authored just as matter, and forms, and ideals, are all divinely authored. Change isn’t just about us humans working towards some sort of ideal, or about
“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. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. “ —1 Corinthians 15:36-40
There’s a substantial change to our resurrected bodies, imperishability is not an inherent thing to our current bodies.
For us to be raised, something big needs to change, and that change needs to come from a source that is inherently imperishable. It needs to come from God. Paul disagrees with Aristotle — our bodies aren’t resurrected because they are inherently imperishable; they were perishable, and God intervenes to change them. Dramatically.
“So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.” — 1 Corinthians 15:42-44
This is an act of re-creation (but not one that does away with us, the ‘real’ us, it substantially changes us). An act of re-creation that comes through re-birth as children of Jesus. The firstfruits of the resurrection. The first person to take on a resurrected body. One of the massive implications of the resurrection of Jesus and his body being an example of the sort of body we’ll be raised with is that he is still in that body. Jesus took on humanity for eternity. Which, in itself, is mind blowing.
What’s more mind blowing is that in him we see the template for our future humanity.
Just as Adam was ‘made in the image of God’ and we are born in the image of Adam, the image of God, Jesus is the image of God — and we are re-born, and re-created in his image. Paul is talking here about the re-creation of all things and the transformation of our humanity; a truly substantial change — but not one that eradicates who we are. This is a marvel, and confounds ancient Greek, ancient Jewish, and modern Aussie thinking.
“If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So it is written: “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.” — 1 Corinthians 15:44-49
We’re looking forward to a pretty dramatic, but totally physical change.
This is a change of substance, but not of form — a change so that our flesh and blood is changed from mortal to immortal; perishable to imperishable; dust to glory; earthly to heavenly. Where Plato taught people should escape the body and be freed into some Spiritual realm, and Aristotle taught that our substance didn’t change, just the form, Paul has this picture of the body becoming Spiritual, and our form not changing but our substance being radically altered (it’s funny how much these Greek thinkers got right and how many categories they shared with Paul). And these changes are big and necessary for us to share in the victory of Jesus; and in his resurrection.
“I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, 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
We’ll still be us. Just different.
Exactly how different is close to incomprehensible. Exactly what it will be like to live in heavenly, glorified, bodies is almost beyond comprehension; that’s why thinking about it will almost always bend our heads in funny ways. C.S Lewis wrote about this in his excellent sermon, the Weight of Glory, where he talks, too, about how the Spirit being alive in us now as a ‘deposit’ is beginning this process of resurrection — or giving us a taste of imperishable life. He says the danger is that we’ll be consumed with speculating about our own immortality and what this will be like, so much that we forget to look at the people around us and ponder theirs!
“I can think of at least one such use. It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”
A thought very much consistent with Paul’s motivations for life as a follower of Jesus (1 Corinthians 9) and with how he says we should live in response to the resurrection, as those who are tasting the resurrection already by the Spirit.
“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” — 1 Corinthians 15:58
Nathan Campbell – Campus Pastor, South Bank