Friday, February 15, 2013

The Spiritual Resurrection Body

One of the biggest challenges to understanding the Scriptures is understanding what the biblical text meant to those for whom it was written. It is very easy to superimpose our own ideas onto the text and filter the Scriptures through our own interpretative grid rather than understand what the inspired author actually meant. As an illustration of this point, consider Paul's description of the resurrection body in 1 Corinthians 15:44:

It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.
According to Paul, the resurrection body will not be a "natural" body; it will be a "spiritual" body. What does this mean?

To my ears, natural vs spiritual sounds like material vs immaterial. That's because my conceptual worldview is the legacy of classical western civilization, where Greek philosophical categories are dominant. So when I think of something that is "spiritual," I automatically associate that word with something non-material or non-physical.

But the issue is, would those same categories have been defined that way for Paul? Is that how he looked at the world? Or would natural vs spiritual have meant something else to him? I would like to suggest that those terms meant something different to Paul than to us.

In 1 Cor. 15:44, Paul says that the body is sown a natural body (Greek ψυχικός, psychikos) and raised a spiritual body (Greek πνευματικός, pneumatikos). The former term means "pert. to the life of the natural world and whatever belongs to it, in contrast to the realm of experience whose central characteristic is πνεῦμα, natural, unspiritual, worldly."  And the latter term means "having to do with the (divine) spirit, caused by or filled with the (divine) spirit, pert./corresponding to the (divine) spirit." 

So on the basis of these definitions, the issue is not our modern categories of "material vs immaterial" but instead the natural world and what belongs to it in contrast with that caused by or filled with the Spirit.

We can illustrate the distinction between these concepts by considering a text from earlier in 1 Corinthians, in a passage in which Paul reflects on Israel's experiences in the wilderness:

For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual (pneumatikos) food, and all drank the same spiritual (pneumatikos) drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. (1 Corinthians 10:1-4)
In this text Paul describes the food and water that the Israelites consumed in the wilderness as "spiritual" (pneumatikos) food and drink. Question: was the food and water the Israelites drank immaterial? Of course not. It was so material in fact that the food could stick between their teeth (Numbers 11:33)! So the manna, quail, and water were material, but they were not natural. They were not provided by or caused by natural means but by supernatural means, by the Spirit of God. That is why Paul described this food as spiritual.

Likewise, in 1 Cor. 15:44, when Paul says that the resurrection body is not natural but spiritual, he is not speaking to the conceptions of material vs immaterial, but rather to the issue of causation. Our resurrection body will not be naturally caused, but spiritually caused. It will be a body caused by and animated by the Holy Spirit. This is precisely what Paul says in Romans 8:11: "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." The resurrection body is spiritual because it is given life through the Holy Spirit.

There are many other dimensions would could explore relative to Paul's conception of natural vs spiritual (creation and the fall; the present age vs the eschaton), but hopefully this brief discussion will help clarify the perspective of Paul as he described the resurrection body. If the resurrection appearances of Jesus are any indication of what our resurrection bodies will be like as Paul depicted them, then it is a mistake to think in material vs immaterial terms. But it is helpful to think in natural vs spiritual terms, a body raised supernaturally, and a body that while material is not subject to the limitations of the natural order.


  1. Great article, Shane. The same juxtaposition between natural and spiritual is used in 1 Cor. 2:12-16 (esp. vv. 14, 15). Clearly, it is not material vs. immaterial.

    The points you have made here have a good deal to do with my interest in the study of disabilities theology. Olivia has bowel/bladder problems and cannot feel her feet because her spinal cord is damaged. What implications do your thoughts have(besides pie in the sky "all will be perfect") for her resurrected body? I don't intend to go where the Bible does not go; but I tend to think that the Bible goes a little further in the realm of resurrection than we have historically probed.

  2. Great question, Ryan. I think there are connections to be drawn here between the OT concept of shalom as wholeness. The eschaton will be the time when new creation and new bodies (and for that matter, new relationships) will be whole, as God all along intended.

    And yes, I have developed a more "earthy" sense of the eschaton, though for many years I over-reacted to premillennialism to the point I would have almost qualified as a gnostic! :-)

    1. Shane, what are your thoughts on the meaning behind "new earth"? Why say new heaven AND earth? What picture(s) do you have in your mind of that time? I've been reading Cottrell and others recently regarding this topic. The ghost-like spirits sitting on clouds has been a prominent (subsconsciously maybe) concept for many.