Paul next begins to deal with much more serious objections — the sort a Greek philosopher might ask — beginning with, “With what kind of [dead] body do they come?” After all, the ancients weren’t stupid. They knew that the body rotted away. If there’s to be a resurrection, what replaces the decayed corpse? How could such a thing be re-animated?
(1Co 15:35-41 ESV) But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” 36 You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38 But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. 39 For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. 40 There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is of one kind, and the glory of the earthly is of another. 41 There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory.
Paul does not give much in the way of detail regarding our resurrection bodies. Rather, he analogizes to several things to illustrate that a body can “die” and come back in a new a better form. A grain of wheat goes into the ground and rises up a new plant. There are, he says,”heavenly bodies and earthly bodies” — and all with glory but with different kinds of glory. In short, we’ll have bodies but different kinds of bodies.
N.T. Wright has probably thought more about the implications of the resurrection than any other living theologian. He sees Paul as recapitulating the Creation in his description of the general resurrection.
A glance through Genesis 1–2 reveals how many of its major themes are alluded to in Paul’s present argument. The creator God made the heavens and the earth, and filled both with his creatures; Paul mentions these two categories in verse 40, and uses a discussion of them to distinguish the first Adam from the final one. The powerful divine wind, or spirit, moved over the waters, and the divine breath or spirit also animated Adam and Eve; the life-giving activity of both the creator and Jesus is seen by Paul in terms of the pneuma, the spirit, wind or breath (verses 44–6).
The creator made the lights in heaven, which Paul mentions in verse 41. He created plants bearing fruit containing seed, so that more plants could be produced; Paul makes this a major theme in verses 36–8, and then draws on the language of ‘sowing’ in verses 42–4. The creator made every kind of bird, animal and fish; Paul brings them, too, into his argument (verses 39–40). At the climax of Genesis 1, the creator made human beings in his own image, to have dominion over the rest of creation, and in Genesis 2 he entrusted Adam in particular with responsibility for naming the animals; for Paul, too, the climax of the story is the recreation of humankind through the life-giving activity of the final Adam, whose image will be borne by all who belong to him. This is indeed a deliberate and careful theology of new Genesis, of creation renewed.
Within this, Paul is mounting a step-by-step argument so that by the time we get to verse 49 we can see the full meaning of what he is saying. He will not say, right out, ‘the new body will be like that of Jesus’, though that, as in Philippians 3:21, is where he intends to arrive. He argues first for discontinuity within continuity: the plant is not the same thing as the seed, and yet is derived from it by the creator’s power (verses 36–8). There are in any case different types of physicality throughout creation, each with its own special properties and dignity (verses 39–41). This constitutes the first subsection of his argument (b1 in our schema); Paul is setting up categories from the created order to provide a template of understanding for the new creation, to which he then turns.
The new, resurrected body will be in continuity and discontinuity with the present one, not least because the present one is ‘corruptible’ whereas the new one will be ‘incorruptible’ (as he will emphasize in the final paragraph of the chapter). This will be because the new body will be brought into being, and held in incorruptible being, by the Spirit of the creator God, as a result of the life-giving work of the final Adam.
N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003), 341.
(1Co 15:42-44 ESV) So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. 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.
The majesty of Paul’s language elevates exponentially as he delves more deeply into the topic. We are by nature perishable, in dishonor (at death), weak, natural. We die, and there is nothing pretty and glorious about death. Death is the enemy of God.
But for the saved, God will raise us imperishable, in glory, in power, with a “spiritual body.” And before we get to “spiritual body,” notice this: we are not innately imperishable. We are by nature perishable. We are mortal. Immortality is a gift of God given to the saved. The damned die. The Revelation refer to the damned as suffering a “second death.” Rev. 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8. But it’s death, not immortality, for the damned. They remain perishable.
Now, one of the major points argued by Wright (and others) is that “spiritual body” does not mean “body made out of spirit” but a “body activated by the Spirit.” And that’s an important point.
But the deeper, underlying point is that adjectives of this type, Greek adjectives ending in –ikos, do not describe the material out of which things are made, but the power or energy which animates them. It is the difference between asking on the one hand ‘is this a wooden ship or an iron ship?’ (the material from which it is made) and asking on the other ‘is this a steam ship or a sailing ship?’ (the energy which empowers it). Paul is talking about the present body, which is animated by the normal human psychē (the life-force we all possess here and now, which gets us through the present life but is ultimately powerless against illness, injury, decay and death), and the future body which is animated by God’s pneuma, God’s breath of new life, the energizing power of God’s new creation.
This is why, in a further phrase which became controversial as early as the mid-second century, Paul declares that ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit God’s kingdom’. He doesn’t mean that physicality will be abolished. ‘Flesh and blood’ is a technical term for that which is corruptible, transient, heading for death. The contrast, again, is not between what we call physical and what we call non-physical, but between corruptible physicality on the one hand and non-corruptible physicality on the other.
This underlies the remarkable concluding verse of 1 Corinthians 15, to which we shall return. For Paul, the bodily resurrection does not leave us saying ‘so that’s all right; we shall go, at the last, to join Jesus in a non-bodily, Platonic heaven’, but ‘so, then, since the person you are and the world God has made will be gloriously reaffirmed in God’s eventual future, you must be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the Lord’s work, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.’ Belief in the bodily resurrection includes the belief that what is done in the present in the body, by the power of the Spirit, will be reaffirmed in the eventual future, in ways at which we can presently only guess.
Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007), 168–169.
In short, “spiritual body” does not mean “body made of spirit” but “body activated by the Spirit.” Paul’s earlier analogies comparing our present bodies to our resurrected bodies are all comparisons of physical to physical, never physical to something made of spirit. Rather, Paul’s point is that our new bodies will be of surpassing glory, immortal, all by the power of the Spirit.