Pastor Mark Peters, at North Shore Alliance Church, made the assertion in his resurrection Sunday message that Jesus has a human body presently. He said that there was no point in Jesus' ascension in which he transferred from a physical existence to a disembodied one. The assertion of Christ’s continuous body is in line with a swath of theology I’ve encountered in the past few years which is ardently attempting to illuminate the embodied nature of the biblical life and of the biblical afterlife. My Columbia Bible College professors were among my influences, and some of them pointed to N.T. Wright, a Scottish theologian. He seems to be championing or at least popularizing this focus on embodied spirituality by his emphasis on the resurrection.
Faithful living, now, has to do with physical bodies, social ethics, and one’s relationship with the earth. The life to come will also be embodied. We will have bodies and we will have a world. The Christian hope is not escape from the body, but rather, resurrection with new bodies, these bodies having continuous aspects with the old body but also some discontinuous aspects with the old body – no more death, for example.
Affirming the body is important to me because it safeguards against assumptions, which can be harmful. Assuming that the body has no “eternal significance” – ultimately no value – can set one in the theological ground of ancient Gnosticism. Gnosticism was contemporary with the new testament writings and is contended against by the apostle Paul and succeeding Church leaders. It teaches, among other things, that everything physical is evil. One natural subsidiary belief to this was that Jesus' body was not really a body and that he was not really born, as that would have corrupted him with the physical. Indeed, if everything physical is evil, then this is a necessary belief.
But the evilness of the physical body is not a Hebrew or Christian assumption. It can be said that scripture emphatically affirms the physical while condemning the “flesh” (σάρξ, sarx in Greek). So what is the “flesh?” This was my qualm against affirming the value of the physical: It does seem that the apostle Paul condemns the physical when he condemns “flesh.” Is Paul saying that the body is evil? Are body and flesh the same, in scripture?
A closer look at “flesh” reveals that it’s a more nuanced term than just “body”. It certainly can mean body (2 John 1:7). Used by apostles, however, it more commonly refers to wrong desires, like lust or greed, for example (Gal 5:16). Interestingly, it can also refer to self-righteousness. Consider, for example, Paul’s use of the word in Philippians 3:4-6 where he equates “confidence in the flesh” to his Benjamite Jewish heritage, his Pharisaic training, his record of zealotry, and his adherence to Law. He takes a moment then to call this ethnic elitism and self-righteousness futile and “count [it] as loss” (3:7-8). So, taking this seriously, we have to widen our understanding of flesh to include even self-righteousness.
A working definition of flesh could be: Destructively conditioned human nature. This is essentially the same as what is meant by the more oft used “sinful nature”. Flesh refers not precisely to the organic human body – for which there is the Greek word “soma,” σῶμα. Rather, flesh, σάρξ refers to a principle at work in humans, entangled with the body but not equivalent to it.
Paul’s writings regularly pit this flesh against the Spirit (Rom 13:14; Gal 5:16; Eph 2:3). Note, however, that “spirit” and “spiritual” does not mean disembodied. In each instance where the apostles call the people to live by the Spirit, implicitly assumed is that they are able (by God’s grace) to live by the Spirit in their bodies. It follows then, that scripture’s flesh/Spirit dichotomy is not physical/ethereal, or material/immaterial. Rather, to live by the flesh is to live by destructively conditioned human nature, and to live by the Spirit is to live in the new life provided by Christ’s resurrection. The dichotomy highlights the alternative modes in we may live. Both modes, however, are absolutely embodied. Even life by the Spirit is, and will always be, in a body. Beyond death, there will be resurrection, and you will again have a body in which to live by the Spirit. The organic human body is a miracle of God’s design which in creation he valuated as “good” (Gen 1:31). Flesh, however, is an aberration which has been overcome and subsumed in Christ’s death of it and resurrection from it.
Jesus is our paradigm. He took on human nature, even the flesh which we also are born into. He took it on, lived it and died with it. What follows is not his escape from the body into ethereal existence, but rather his RESURRECTION – my professor Jerry Pauls would drive this home often and I’ve come to share the value. Jesus' body now is the same body, “but different,” as Pastor Peters says (refer again to his sermon). The body now resurrected is continuous with his old body. Notably, it had the same scars. His disciples could feel them (John 20:26). It was a body that still ate and presumably thus still needed food, or at least enjoyed it (Luke 24:30, John 21:15). By no means did Jesus’ overcoming of evil entail the shedding of the physical. No indeed. Rather, the triumph of Christ entails redemption of the physical – the body made good in creation and resurrected in Christ.
Hear this from N.T. Wright, the prolific Scottish theologian: “Jesus died in order to make us not rescued nonentities, but restored human beings with a vocation to play a vital part in God’s purposes for the world.”
Pastor Mark makes the point that Jesus remains human and this qualifies him to sustain, even now, his high priestly role of mediating for humanity before God (Heb 4:11-13). Christ’s humanity is continuous. Remember that Jesus looks forward to when he will partake of the fruit of the vine again with his disciples, showing that Jesus will still be human when he returns (Luke 22:18). The Son of Man most directly means, the “human,” and that should not be overlooked when considering what that title means. Jesus is the new humanity. Humanity 2.0, still very much embodied and also spiritual.
From scripture, we can know some things about the resurrection body that Christ has and which his followers will also. It will be raised “in incorruptibility” (1 Cor 15:42). The resurrection will not need to die again, nor will it be given to the impulses of the old destructively conditioned humanity, nor will it know any kind of entropy. The new body is a re-creation of our old body; consider Philippians 3:21, “[Christ] shall change our vile body that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.” Our new body will be like unto the body of Christ. It will forever be bound to the Spirit in the same way the earth-made-new will be forever fastened to heaven. The new body will be incorruptible and will be forever spiritual rather than fleshly. This does not mean that it will be immaterial rather than physical but rather that it will be Spirit-empowered, rather than motivated by destructively conditioned human nature.
Is it not an exciting aspect, then, of the Christian gospel, that we will rise again with pure bodies, which will be like Jesus' body? What is broken and “vile” of our body now will not need to continue with us after we participate in Christ’s death and resurrection.
Other aspects of the resurrected body can be mused on. Note for example that Jesus' resurrection body seemed to be able to disappear and reappear places. While not disembodied, he was mysteriously mobile. I might suggest that this could be explained by thinking of heaven as an augmenting dimension.
Could heaven be an additional dimension to the ones we are limited to now? This would follow nicely from that Jesus seems to speak of heaven as being present though invisible. He says also that “the Kingdom of Heaven is near” and “within you” or “in your midst” (Matt 10:7, Luke 17:21). What if it’s just one dimension removed – one above? Perhaps Jesus’ resurrection body could kind of just slip in and out of that dimension. The experience of heaven and the empowerment of the Spirit could be considered an augmentation of the physical experience with that of an additional dimension (rather than an escape from the physical into the ethereal). I’m wondering if the language of additional dimensions – which the investigations of physicists seem to be revealing are actual things – could be a way of explaining what 2000 years ago had no language. But that’s not critical to the point.
The point remains that Jesus resurrected body is continuous with his pre-death existence in that it is still a body but discontinuous in that it is no longer subject to death and that it seemed to have capacity not given even to his own pre-resurrection body. Perhaps this additional capacity is access to heaven as another dimension. Perhaps not. In any case, it’s a body but its better, immortality being key among the perks.
The Christian hope is resurrection with our Lord. Scriptures assures us that it will be embodied as our Lord is embodied. Paul writes, “For if we have become identified with him in the likeness of his death, certainly also we will be identified with him in the likeness of his resurrection” (Rom 6:5). John writes, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that whenever he is revealed we will be like him, because we will see him just as he is.” (1 John 3:2). Understand that the Christian’s reception of the likeness of Christ has a great deal to do with the resurrection that he embodies. This has always been critical to the Christian faith. It’s problematic that ever the Church shied away from resurrection in favour of detached escapism. The classic image of an escape to heaven where we will play harps on clouds – that is an anemic vision of our continuity in Christ. Rather, we will be resurrected, folks, and we will drink wine with Jesus. (and the Kingdom of God will have come on earth as it is in heaven).
Let me just riff, for a moment on the dangers of thinking otherwise. If you don’t believe that God cares about the body, then you cannot really affirm that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and have no basis for self-care (1 Cor 6:19). Your body is just a vestige of a failed order waiting to be shed. You can’t celebrate your body or be grateful for your body if you consider it that way. I implore you to consider the “flesh” to be destructive but know that the Bible holds out hope for the body beyond the “flesh.” I think there is a very Christian way of being appreciative of the body without being narcissistic or “worldly.”
Secondly, it’s harmful to neglect scripture’s endorsement of the body because you will inevitably start thinking of people as a soul/husk split. This is where the Church endorsed Gnosticism and hasn’t shaken it yet. We’ve chopped people up into soul – the important part – and everything else. We’re all about “saving souls” and may in the process forget bodies (Mind you – I do affirm the good heart behind “saving souls” mission. I simply think it can be improved upon). The more holistic truth is that God saves PEOPLE. We are en-fleshed souls, as my professor, Gareth Brandt said often, and we’re meant to be that way. Though there may be a time between our death and resurrection when we exist in disembodied form, the full expression of our personhood is in our body, and that’s why resurrection is such a gift. Christians are to care – as God does – for the whole person. To love others involves honouring their embodied human-ness, and not just treating them as a soul waiting to escape to the right place.
Another technical note: “soul” is absolutely used in scripture, but it may have become misconstrued over time. Soul, or “ψυχή” can mean breath or animating force. Its use in scripture appears to refer to one’s inmost identity or deepest self. Biblewebapp’s Greek lexicon offers the definition among others, “the seat of the feelings, desires, affections, aversions.” “Soul” could also be translated “self”. (What good would it be to gain the whole world but lose your self?). It does not need to necessarily refer to a detachable spirit.
I concede of course, that there’s basis to understand that souls may exist apart from the body for a time, but this is not the ultimate hope. The ultimate hope is that those souls will be given an embodied existence – like Jesus Christ. The disembodied souls of Revelation 6:9, appear to be in suspense. They are told to “rest for a little while longer” (v11). The souls, yes, seem to be dis-embodied at this time but their fulfillment was clearly not achieved in their having escaped the body. Their fulfilment is still pending. They await something more. In other places, scripture uses sleep language to refer to those who have died but not been resurrected. Paul seems to make the point in 1 Corinthians 15:18-20, to paraphrase, “they have fallen asleep in Christ but it’s OK because they will rise as Christ has risen.” In this light, I’m fine with the usage of “saving souls” language so long as we understand that that would mean saving a person’s deepest self, and understand that that saving is not achieved in escape from the body. The saving of a soul – a deepest self – is accomplished in Christ’s defeat of the flesh, forgiveness of sins, and offering of new resurrected existence.
So, what does this mean for your loved ones who have fallen asleep in Christ? I think it means that they’re doing just fine, and they await resurrection.
Thirdly among the problems of neglecting hope of resurrection is that we’ve made heaven and the afterlife unattractive by narrowing the image of heaven in favour of disembodied escapism. I’ve heard quite a few atheists now suggest that heaven is not for them because it looks boring. Perhaps part of the problem is that they’ve presented with the wrong version of what Christian hope is.
The forgiveness of sins we preach is for reconciliation with God and for participation in Christ’s resurrection. This is our gospel. This is an embodied and not detached reality. I hope to pair this blog with another concerning the continuity of the world-made-new because that point is very much connected to this one but for now, it must suffice to point out that resurrection must remain a critical tenet of Christian hope and we must understand that resurrection is embodied. We will not be blissfully floating ghosts; we will be restored humans.
We will have continued embodied existence with its rhythms, its joys, its community and its responsibilities (and presumably new ones). These will each have been purged of their present excess, deficit, and corruption – purged by Christ’s death and resurrection. We die and lose the corruptions, and rise again with Christ without them and with perfect union with the Spirit, while also in a new body.
I find the embodied-ness of Christian hope compelling – much more so than an image of an afterlife that has severed the soul from the body. Discovering that scripture preaches resurrection makes me excited about my faith, and grateful for the invested attention of God to the world and the body. These he originally made good and has restored to himself in Christ. Quoting 1 John again, “We know that whenever he is revealed we will be like him, because we will see him just as he is” (3:2).