The resurrection of the dead is an elementary teaching of Christ (Heb 6:2). An in-depth study can reveal more or even uncover holes in understanding this biblical teaching. Many have rejected the resurrection of bodies on the last day for a belief in immortality of bodiless spirits as eternal life. 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).
The Greek word anastasis, αναστασις, means “resurrection,” and this word is central to this study. 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 the resurrection — 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. The spirit is immortal, and the body is mortal.
How will the dead come forth from the tombs at 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; 5:19–29). 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 glory throughout the Bible are referring to the resurrection on the last day and not the initial entrance into heavenly paradise that occurs at death.
Mortal Bodies Will Rise and Put on Immortality
The only part of a human that is mortal is the body 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. However, the Scriptures reveal that perishable bodies will put on the imperishable. Mortal bodies will rise from the dead and put on immortality. 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. Paul also 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). There is no change of body from mortal to a glorious but a change of the body in the twinkling of 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.
Resurrection: More than an Eternal Soul or an Astral Body
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 of the final 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 still 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). 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). “Flesh and blood” is also an idiom referring to the mortal human (Matt 16:18; Gal 1:16). Each person is an immortal spirit but mortal in body. For this reason, the mortal body must put on immortality.
The faithful will not receive another body but God will transform their bodies. Jesus rose in his body transformed and 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 psuchikos, ψυχικος, and the second as pneumatikos, πνευματικος (1 Cor 15:44). Paul was describing the earthly body as “soulish” in Greek and “natural” as God breathed life into Adam and Adam became “a living soul” (Gen 2:7 LXX). The second body is the resurrection body that is a tangible and spiritual body. This is when the mortal body puts on immortality (1 Cor 15:53; 2 Cor 5:4).
Why Many Have Rejected the Resurrection
The Corinthian church had problems that challenged the resurrection. In An Introduction to the New Testament, Carson and Moo observed that Roman patronage and social climbing caused divisions (1 Cor 1; 11). 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 resurrection (1 Cor 6:12–15a; 15:30–34). In NIGNT, 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 (1 Cor 6:11–14).
The philosophies of Epicureans and Stoics most likely affected the faith of the church at Corinth (Acts 17:18–18:11). Carson and Moo also 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. There were various Hellenistic and Jewish views of the afterlife as “Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom” (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 raised a man from the dead as assurance of judgment (Acts 17:18, 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 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. 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, and he noted that the Essenes believed in the immortal soul and bodies corrupted (J.W. 2.8.11). The Pharisees influenced the mainstream of Jewish views, so the belief in resurrection was most common. The Jews expected the resurrection because the OT and NT 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 also extensively defended the resurrection of the mortal body into immortality against any concept of disembodied spirit or 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 resurrection (2 Cor 5:6–8; Phil 1:23). The bodies of those who die are “asleep.” Paul did not include the spirit sleeping in this concept. 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 bodies. For this reason, Christians hope (1 Thess 4:13). 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 raised bodies. 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 and why they wait for eternal life if they already have received eternal life.
In NIGNT, Thiselton observed that there are only three possible views for the nature of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. These options include either a transcendent body of astral matter, a nonphysical body of spiritual matter, or a supernatural body that is physical and further animated by God’s Spirit. The first two options are contrary to Christ’s resurrection. 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 in his resurrection.
The resurrection is a rising of mortal bodies from the dead that transform into supernatural bodies just as Christ rose “flesh and bones.” In the transformation of resurrection, Paul revealed, “For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality” (1 Cor 15:53 NASB). For this reason, 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. Heb 11:16). According to Jesus, humanity must also fear God because God is able to destroy body and soul in Hell (Matt 10:28; cf. 5:29–30).
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 — because Christ rose. 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)
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.