Christians ask their leaders, “What is the resurrection of the dead?” They often respond by talking about Jesus rising from the dead missing the question altogether.
The resurrection of the dead is an elementary teaching of Christ (Heb 6:2). The resurrection of the dead is the rising of bodies on the last day (John 5:28–29; 6:39–40). According to Paul, those who reject the resurrection reject the resurrection of Christ (1 Cor 15:12–19). The resurrection is so essential to faith that Paul proclaimed, “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain” (1 Cor 15:13–14 NASB).
There are four possible options for the resurrection body: a physical body, a celestial body, a ghostly spirit body, or a supernatural body. What is the nature of the resurrected body?
The Bodily Resurrection from the Dead
The Greek word anastasis, αναστασις, means “resurrection,” and this word is central to this teaching. There are forty occurrences of the word anastasis in the NT and three in the Greek OT (LXX). The biblical texts exclusively used the word anastasis for resurrection — a bodily rising to a new life from death. The final resurrection consists of bodies rising from death to life. The apostle Paul defended and defined the resurrection as the body rising from death to life (1 Cor 15:12, 13, 21, 42). Death is the separation of the spirit from the body, and resurrection is the reunion of spirit to the body (1 Thess 4:16; Jas 2:26). The spirit is immortal, and the body is mortal (1 Cor 15:51–55).
How will the dead rise on the last day? Jesus declared, “Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28–29 NASB; cf. 5:19–29). According to Jesus, humanity must fear God because God is able to destroy body and soul in Hell (Matt 10:28; cf. 5:29–30). Because Jesus has authority to judge and call forth the dead to life, Jesus is the bread of life who gives eternal life (John 6:26–58). Christ proclaimed, “For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:40 NASB). Jesus revealed that He is the resurrection and the life to those who believe even if one dies (John 11:25). The numerous references to eternal life and glorification of the body throughout the Bible are referring to the resurrection on the last day and not the initial entrance into a heavenly paradise that occurs at death.
Mortal Bodies Will Rise and Put on Immortality
The part of a human that is mortal is the body and not the spirit. The body is perishable because it can decay. For this reason, the perishable “flesh and blood” cannot enter the kingdom of God until the body puts on immortality. The Scriptures reveal that perishable bodies will put on the imperishable. Mortal bodies will rise from the dead and put on immortality (1 Cor 15:50–55).
Paul reported, “But someone will say, ‘How are the dead raised? And with what kind of body do they come?’” (1 Cor 15:35 NASB). Paul explained,
Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. (1 Cor 15:51–53 NASB)
The spirit will reunite with the body, and the body will also become immortal (1 Thess 4:16; cf. Jas 2:26). Paul encouraged, “But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom 8:11 NASB). The body changes from mortal into a glorious body in the twinkling of an eye (1 Cor 15:51–53). For this reason, the faithful are further clothed in immortality. The Apostle depicted, “For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed but to be clothed, so that what is mortal will be swallowed up by life” (2 Cor 5:4 NASB). These passages affirm that Christians will rise in their mortal bodies and put on immortality. Christians know this transformation into a body like Christ’s resurrected body as glorification (Phil 3:21).
More than Living as an Immortal Soul
As Christ rose, Christians will rise (Rom 8:11). Paul explained, “Now God has not only raised the Lord, but will also raise us up through His power” (1 Cor 6:14 NASB). Paul noted that Jesus Christ will return and “will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that he has even to subject all things to himself” (Phil 3:21 NASB; cf. Rom 6:5; 1 John 3:3).
Jesus’s resurrection is the first fruits — the beginning — of the coming resurrection (1 Cor 15:20–22). Jesus revealed that He did not come back as a spirit but rose “flesh and bones” (Luke 24:39–42). Jesus rose with his scars (John 20:20, 27). He ascended bodily into Heaven (Acts 1:9–11). Christ is presently the fullness of deity bodily (Col 2:9). Jesus’s resurrection is the first of the better resurrection that is better than all the other miraculous risings of the dead (Heb 11:35). He is the first fruits of the resurrection because no one previously rose like him. For this reason, Jesus is the firstborn of the dead (Col 1:18; Rev 1:5).
The faithful will not receive another body but God will transform their bodies. Jesus rose in His body transformed and became glorious. Paul presented the earthly body as a seed that is sown and rises in body (1 Cor 15:36–38, 42–44). The bodies of the faithful will rise and become imperishable, glorious, powerful, spiritual, and heavenly (1 Cor 15:42–50). These are the same qualities as Jesus’s resurrection body.
Jesus’s resurrection body was spiritual and heavenly, yet His raised body was “flesh and bones,” material rather than immaterial. Paul described two stages of the body the first as soulish from psuchikos, ψυχικος, and the second as spiritual from pneumatikos, πνευματικος (1 Cor 15:44). Paul was describing the earthly body as “soulish” and “natural” as God breathed life into Adam and Adam became “a living soul” (Gen 2:7 LXX). The Holy Spirit gives life to the next body (1 Cor 6:14). The first body is natural and lives by breath. The second body is the resurrection body that is a tangible, physical, and yet a spiritual body. The raised body of each person will put on immortality and not put off the body (1 Cor 15:53; 2 Cor 5:4). Paul revealed that “flesh and blood” cannot inherit the kingdom of God until the mortal body changes and puts on immortality (1 Cor 15:50, 53). Each person is an immortal spirit but mortal in body. For this reason, the mortal body must put on immortality. This is the hope of the resurrection.
In NIGTC, Thiselton observed only three possible views for the nature of the resurrection excluding the physical body (cf. 1 Cor 15). These options include either a transcendent body of celestial matter, a nonphysical body of spiritual matter, or a supernatural body — physical and animated by God’s Spirit. In other words, the options are a celestial body, a ghost body, or supernatural body. The first two options are contrary to the nature of Christ’s resurrection. Jesus rose in His body that God glorified Jesus’s body to become supernatural — not a spirit with a spirit body. Jesus did not become a ghost when He ascended, but remained the fullness of Deity bodily (Col 2:9). The Scriptures present that the resurrection body is the rising of each person’s mortal body from death to put on immortality. In this way, the body rises and becomes spiritual and heavenly like Christ’s body in the resurrection. Furthermore, some have imagined the resurrected body as a ghost body or even a fleshly body, but the Scriptures present the flesh-and-bone body will rise to glorification and put on the spiritual and immortal. The physical resurrected body is clothed in the spiritual.
Why Many Have Rejected the Resurrection
The Corinthian church had problems that challenged the resurrection. The church’s problems included sexual sins that disregard the holiness of the Spirit dwelling in the believer’s body, and thus they disregarded the body and a coming resurrection (1 Cor 6:12–15a; 15:30–34). In NIGTC, Thiselton observed that the resurrection corroborates the need for changes in one’s ethical life (1 Cor 15:32–33). The NT affirmed the necessity of faith in the resurrection to live in holiness (Rom 6:5–14; 8:11–13; 1 Cor 6:13–15a; 1 John 3:2–3). From the Greco-Roman perspective, what one did in the body does not ultimately matter, because when one dies, they ascend as spirits to another place and no longer need the body. Paul specifically countered this error and pleaded that the body does matter. Paul urged Christians to live holy lives as the Holy Spirit dwells within them (1 Cor 6:11–14). Paul also revealed that the Holy Spirit will raise the body to new life just as the Spirit raised Jesus’s body back to life (Rom 8:11).
The philosophies of the Epicureans and the Stoics most likely affected the faith of the church at Corinth (Acts 17:18–18:11). In An Introduction to the New Testament, Carson and Moo noted that Greek paganism and Hellenistic Judaism affected the church. In ECB, Barton explained that one could expect disagreement in Corinth over the doctrine of the resurrection. Hellenistic and Jewish views of the afterlife varied (cf. 1 Cor 1:22–25). Not far from Corinth, Paul first confronted the Greek position against the resurrection. Some in Athens mocked the resurrection of the dead when Paul proclaimed that God will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom God raised from the dead as assurance (Acts 17:18, 30–32). After preaching at the Areopagus in Athens, Paul came to Corinth proclaiming the Gospel that established the church at Corinth (Acts 17:18–20; 18:1–16). Within the influence of Athens, Corinth could hear the competing ideologies of Stoic and Epicurean “wisdom.”
Greek philosophy opposed the resurrection of the dead (Acts 17:32). Middle Platonism gained predominance in the first century BC and remained into the first and second century AD. Gnosticism arose as a blend of Platonism and Christianity. The ancient classical world accepted the Platonic view of death in which disembodied spirits go to live in the afterlife as the final state. In The Resurrection of the Son of God, Wright reported numerous sources demonstrating that the ancient classical world strongly believed that the dead do not resurrect. Wright noted that the Greek term anastasis for “resurrection” did not include the Platonic concept of disembodied spirits in afterlife. He expressed, “Lots of things could happen to the dead in the beliefs of pagan antiquity, but resurrection was not among the available options.”
Jewish views of the afterlife varied among Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. Resurrection was the mainstream belief of the Jews (cf. John 11). Paul’s faith in the resurrection split the Jewish council between the Sadducees and the Pharisees (Acts 23:6–10). Luke reported that the Pharisees believed in the resurrection and the Sadducees did not (Acts 23:8). Josephus presented the same divide between the Sadducees and Pharisees. He also noted that the Essenes believed in immortal souls and that bodies corrupted (J.W. 2.8.11). The Pharisees were the leaders of mainstream Jewish views, and the belief in resurrection was most common among the Jews. The Jews expected the resurrection because the OT taught the resurrection (Job 19:25–27; Dan 12:2; Hos 6:2). Isaiah revealed, “Your dead will live; Their corpses will rise. You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy, For your dew is as the dew of the dawn, And the earth will give birth to the departed spirits” (Isa 26:19 NASB).
The early Christian writers extensively defended the resurrection of the mortal body putting on immortality contrary to any concept of a disembodied spirit or an astral body as an eternal state of life. These writers include Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Tatian, and Athenagorus.
Rising at the Coming of the Lord
The spirits of the dead live with Christ until the resurrection (2 Cor 5:6–8; Phil 1:23). The bodies of those who die are “asleep.” Paul did not include the spirit sleeping. Paul revealed, “Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” (1 Cor 15:51–52 NASB).
At resurrection, the spirits return to their restored and recreated bodies. For this reason, Christians hope (1 Thess 4:13–18). Paul explained, “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus” (1 Thess 4:14). How does Jesus’s resurrection imply that God will bring back those who sleep in Christ? The body “sleeps” being dead. Jesus also died, went to paradise, and He returned in spirit to His body in His resurrection. Likewise, when Christ comes, God brings the spirits to unite with their bodies to rise. Like Christ, the resurrected will ascend to God on the last day to receive their reward (1 Thess 4:15). Paul observed, “The dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thess 4:16b). Those who reject the resurrection cannot explain how the dead sleep or explain their waiting for eternal life if they already received eternal life.
The resurrection is a rising of mortal bodies from the dead just as Christ rose “flesh and bones” to put on immortality by transforming into spiritual bodies (1 Cor 15:50–53). Paul declared that God will raise Christians like Christ. Because Christ is the first fruits of the resurrection, Christians expect the resurrection — the bodily rising of the dead. On the last day, the mortal body transforms from an earthly body into an imperishable, glorious, powerful, spiritual, and heavenly body just as the nature of Christ’s resurrection body. For this reason, the apostle Paul reflected,
And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it. (Rom 8:23–25 NASB)
Furthermore, Christians will live in a state that is the likeness of nature as the resurrected body. Peter declared, “But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet 3:13 NASB; cf. Isa 65:17–18; 66:22–23; Heb 11:16; Rev 21:1).
Barton, Stephen C. “1 Corinthians.” Eerdmans Commentary of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.
Carson, D.A. and Douglas J. Moo. “1 and 2 Corinthians.” An Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.
Fee, Gordon D. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. New International Commentary New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987.
Ferguson, Everett. Early Backgrounds of Early Christianity. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.
Thiselton, Anthony C. The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013.
Wright, Nicholas Thomas. The Resurrection of the Son of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003. Kindle edition.