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While this sacred event impacts virtually every aspect of the Christian life, once a year the church specifically recognizes its most holy day: Resurrection Day, or Easter Sunday. At this time (and leading up to it), we recall many events in the life of Christ. From his sufferings, to his crucifixion, to the empty tomb, and everything in between, it is truly a sacred memorial. The Resurrection was the culmination of Jesus’ ministry, and it announced that both sin and death had truly been conquered.
While most believers would agree on this point, there is much confusion about another part of the Resurrection: the way in which Jesus returned from the dead. Did he come back as an immaterial spirit? Did he come back with the same body he had, or was this perhaps a different body altogether? More than that, we might wonder how he presently exists in heaven.
I recall a meeting with fellow Christian educators I had several years back. When we were sharing some of the things our students were studying, I told them how fascinated my classes had been about Jesus’ resurrection body. I said, “the students are blown away that Jesus came back from the dead with a transformed body; they had never been taught about this!” Apparently, the dozen or so adults in the room with me had not been taught about it either. My excitement was immediately dampened by blank stares and awkward silence.
The plain truth is that many within the church have either been given bad information on these issues or have not investigated them at all.
Tragic as this is, there is nothing surprising about it. As I continue to find, the plain teachings of Scripture often take a back seat to the perspectives coming from all manner of “religious professionals.” In other words, what many pastors, professors, and theologians teach about certain topics often differs from what is obvious within the Bible. Jesus’ resurrection body is another one of those places. Some teach that Jesus rose with the identical body that he went to the grave with, and that is incorrect. Some teach that he rose without a body at all and was some type of incorporeal “spirit,” and that is unimaginably incorrect. Still, there are others who go part of the way but fall short of the truth.
For example, take one of the most powerful voices in modern Christian apologetics. When asked about how Jesus returned from the dead, William Lane Craig accurately assured his questioner that he came back with a body. As opposed to those who claim that Jesus came back without physical form (as will we, they contend), Craig astutely responded as follows: “The present body must be freed of its corruptibility, not its materiality, in order for it to be fit for God’s eternal dominion.” Yes, absolutely right!
Unfortunately, he does not stop there. Inexplicably—and as so many thinkers tend to do—Craig goes on to trample over his previous view in high style. While he was so adamant that Jesus’ resurrection body was thoroughly tangible in nature, he changes his tune when describing what it is like at the present time. To do his response justice, I have included the entire paragraph:
“So how should we conceive of Christ’s resurrection body today? Christ in his exalted state still has a human nature; he did not ‘enter back into God’s own existence.’ But Christ has exited this four-dimensional space-time continuum. Therefore, perhaps we might say that his human nature does not now manifest itself corporeally. Compare a tuning fork which is plucked and begins to hum. If the vibrating fork is placed in a vacuum jar, though it continues to vibrate, it does not manifest itself by a humming noise because there is no medium to carry its vibrations. Similarly, Christ’s human nature, no longer immersed in spacetime, does not manifest itself as a body. But someday Christ will return and re-enter our four-dimensional space-time continuum, and then his body will become manifest. In the new heavens and the new earth Christ will be corporeally present to his people. Christ, then, has a human nature which is manifested as his physical resurrection body when he exists in a spatio-temporal universe.”
Four-dimensional space-time continuum . . . spatio-temporal universe . . . vacuum jars and tuning forks? Here I thought we were talking about Jesus’ resurrection body! You might be wondering why Craig goes through such intellectual gymnastics on this issue. I mean, why invoke the deep matters of physics and cosmology in order create a spin on what is so obvious in the Scriptures?
As I frequently point out within my writings (because it is really important), all of this comes down to the fascination that church theologians have had throughout history with Greek philosophy, particularly the Platonic variety. In almost every imaginable way, this results in a depreciation of the physical world and an elevation of the “immaterial” or “spiritual” realities. To Craig, a permanently embodied Jesus (or angels, God, etc.) would throw a giant wrench into the whole machine. As in Plato’s theory of Forms, immaterial realities are the highest and most perfect states of being; they most accurately reflect reality. Things like physical worlds, tangible embodiment, and the like, are necessarily inferior to those things lacking physicality. God—being the perfect and ideal being—cannot possibly be eternally connected to any type of material concepts.
Naturally, this must apply to Jesus as well, since he is both one with the Father (Jn. 10:30) and fully divine. Sure, we can believe that Jesus had a body during his extremely brief time on earth, but certainly not before or after. He must have existed in the “ideal form” (meaning, as an immaterial entity) both before the Incarnation and after the Ascension. It must be this way, for Craig’s (and many other people’s) worldview dictates that it is so.
But let’s get back to the matter at hand. If you can get through his response, these are the key takeaways from this awkward bowl of word salad.
- Jesus has a human nature but does not truly possess a tangible body.
- Jesus only temporarily manifests a body (i.e. appears to have one) when he enters our realm, time, universe, etc.
In short, the whole “Jesus has a body” thing is an epic show: an illusion used to make us think something that doesn’t match reality. It is not just we who are fooled, of course, but the biblical writers were as well. According to every single biblical text, Jesus not only rose with a transformed, tangible body, but he retained that body after the Ascension.
Speaking of the risen Lord, the apostle Paul clearly recorded that he returned with a transformed body (1 Cor. 15:35-49). We also know this to be the case because none of Jesus’ followers recognized him based on his appearance alone. Not Mary Magdalene (Jn. 20:15), or the apostles (Jn. 21:4, 11), or other disciples (Lk. 24:13-35), or anyone else who met him after the Resurrection. His identity was always determined chiefly by his actions and/or miracles, not by his appearance.
Further, we know that Jesus was able to eat (Lk. 24:41-43) after the Resurrection, and he was touched on numerous occasions (Mt. 28:9, Lk. 24:39). While some have also attempted to explain away these events as well, there can be little doubt of what they are telling us: Jesus had a real, honest to goodness body.
It is also clearly implied that Jesus left our world with this “spiritual body,” and that he would return with it as well. The two angels that appeared (physically, I might add) directly following the Ascension told those who were present: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). So, if Jesus drifted out of our “four-dimensional space-time continuum” and now lives as an unembodied being in heaven (as Craig mentioned), then the biblical authors and those observing Jesus after the Resurrection had it dead wrong.
Worse, believing that Jesus exists in such a way is another case of special pleading. Even though Jesus always appeared with his transformed body, and it was directly stated that he would return with it, we are supposed to believe that he otherwise exists as a disembodied person. This same reasoning is applied by those who want to turn the angels into immaterial beings, so why not do it to Jesus as well? Hey, at least these thinkers are consistent!
This is not to say that there are not theologians who accurately depict Jesus’ bodily existence. I have learned a great deal about these matters from scholars like Gordon Fee, Ben Witherington III, and though I differ with him on certain related things, N.T. Wright is very good on the nature of the resurrection body in general. There certainly are other thinkers (particularly in antiquity) who adhere to the biblical information we have about Jesus’ resurrection body and refuse to compromise it because of their sketchy philosophical or scientific perspectives. However, there are too few of these people instructing us, and there are too many on the other side who are.
Based on the biblical teachings about Jesus’ post-resurrection body, we can deduce the following things:
- Jesus indeed had a real, tangible body that was a glorious and transformed version of his earthly body.
- Though he still appeared in similar manner to human beings, he had been changed to the extent that he was not immediately recognizable.
- Jesus still exists with this “spiritual body,” and he will return in just the way he left.
- Notions that Jesus returned as an immaterial spirit, or with the identical body that was laid in the tomb, are demonstrably false and are the product of either simple misunderstanding or purposeful deceit.
If it is indeed true that Jesus conquered the grave through the reception of a glorified body, we are left to wonder: what can this tell us about both the angelic beings and the future of humankind?
Once again, that will have to wait until next time.
For more on these issues, and a host of other interesting phenomena, see my new book God Made the Aliens.
Craig, William Lane. “Jesus’ Body.” Reasonable Faith. Mar. 09, 2009. https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/question-answer/jesus-body
Rossiter, Brian M. God Made the Aliens: Making Sense of Extraterrestrial Contact. Amazon, 2018. https://www.amazon.com/God-Made-Aliens-Extraterrestrial-Contact-ebook/dp/B07JVCRV8D/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=