Paul is insistent, not only that all Christians will be resurrected when Jesus returns, but also that this resurrection will be a bodily resurrection. The resurrected body will be gloriously transformed versions of our present bodies, but bodies nonetheless — in fact, bodies that are like the body Jesus had when he was resurrected.
So why was this so important to Paul? Well–
1. Denying the resurrection
Jesus left an empty tomb, and so will we. But the modern teaching of nearly all churches is that our “souls” will go to heaven, leaving our bodies in the grave. And if that’s the case, why are we insistent on the empty tomb? Why not take the position that Jesus wasn’t bodily resurrected but his soul went to heaven. Why can’t the appearances of Jesus be appearances by his soul — his ghost or spirit?
And that’s exactly the position of some liberal Christians — and others who deny the resurrection.
Do you see the problem? Our churches are teaching the same thing that many who deny the resurrection teach — because we deny the general resurrection. We are much more comfortable talking about souls going immediately to heaven than about bodies rising from the grave.
Now, some — including NT Wright — teach that the bodily resurrection is about “life after life after death.” That is, we die, we are preserved in heaven somehow, and then we return to our bodies, which are resurrected on Judgment Day. And the Churches of Christ have historically taught something similar — except we assume that we arise from our graves as disembodied souls still, to leave the earth that is about to be burned. Wright believes that we arise from our graves in redeemed bodies that will live in the New Heavens and New Earth — which are in fact the original heavens and earth, except they’ll be purified and redeemed and renewed.
Others, myself included, believe that God exists outside of time — as we experience time — and so when we die, to enter the presence of God is also to leave time as we experience it. Hence, it’s entirely possible that all who die arrive at the resurrection at once — having (from their perspective) not waited one second for the end of the age. That makes a lot of sense to me. From the perspective of those who live, the dead appear to be sleeping, but the dead experience no delay. They do not pass Go! They go straight to Judgment.
Now even under that interpretation, the deceased person will be separate from his body until Jesus returns. God solves this by allowing the deceased to pass straight to Judgment Day, but even then, for what may only be seconds, the soul and the body are separate. After all, God does not move our bodies directly to Judgment. They, quite obviously, remain in the grave. Hence, there is a sense in which God transports some part of us — our memories, our personalities — miraculously from our dead bodies to heaven, to be reconnected with our re-animated, reconstituted, resurrected bodies at the Second Coming.
I think it happens very quickly for the dead, but for those of us left behind, we can fairly think in terms of “souls” being in heaven pending Judgment, but we should not think of these souls having to wait for their reward. They receive their reward immediately upon death.
But the key lesson here is the necessity of believing that our resurrection will be like that of Jesus — or else we open the scriptures up to interpretations that challenge the empty tomb of Jesus. After all, if Christians won’t leave empty tombs, neither did Jesus.
(Phi 3:20-21 ESV) 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.
2. Christian dualism
The fact that we will have bodies in the resurrection completely contradicts a Platonic or Gnostic view of the world. Christianity has absorbed many attitudes toward the body and the Creation from pagan Hellenistic philosophy.
Plato taught a type of dualism that radically separated the good and the spiritual from the evil and the physical. Francis Schaeffer liked to explain this in terms of stories. The Greeks understood the world to have two stories —
Good, holy, spiritual, intangible, abstract
Evil, corrupt, earthly, tangible, physical
Many who were converted to Christianity retained elements of the Grecian worldview. Hence, they struggled to accept that Jesus could have been both fully God and fully human. Many decided that he was “born” with a spiritual body that left no footprints.
Or they decided that Jesus was “resurrected” as a ghost. His glorified self that went to heaven could not have had a tangible, physical body.
The Gnostics were Platonic Christians who, in the Second and later centuries, taught that God is honored by our giving up physical pleasures and even more so by our self-imposed sufferings. This led to a theology that treated sex as wrong, even between married people, and that honored Christians who lived in the desert as hermits. (And many other errors.)
Among contemporary Churches of Christ, Gnostic attitudes show up here and there. For example, the idea that some places are more “holy” than others denies the holiness of the creation. Therefore, there is nothing inherently wrong in eating together in the church building. It is not too “holy” to accommodate a meal.
After all, we could eat together in the woods. Why is Yosemite less holy than the church building. I’ve been to both, and I found being in Yosemite more spiritually moving than most church services. So why is it okay to eat together in the beauty of a national park but not in the building?
Well, because for us to feel that we are being truly “spiritual” in church, we have to convince ourselves that there is something holy and spiritual about the building, or else we couldn’t have paid for it with church funds or held communion there — a very Gnostic way of looking at things — as though Jesus could only be worshiped in a space that is separate from the created world — a world that he loves enough to die for.
Just so, our instrumental music arguments are often Gnostic. They are Gnostic, for example, when we speak ill of instruments as earthly and physical, whereas our voices are not. And, of course, our voices make sounds using air blown through very physical vocal chords — very much like a saxophone, where air is blown through a reed (which is why we so love saxophone music. At a subconscious level, it sounds more human that most other instruments).
And we are a bit Gnostic when we refuse to combine the Lord’s Supper with the Love Feast or agape. We seem to want to spiritualize the Lord’s Supper by minimizing the physical elements — bread and wine — and maximizing the intangible: the communion meditation, the blessing, reading the Bible during communion — rather than enjoying a fellowship meal, having fellowship with other Christians by talking to each other, and having enough bread and wine (or Welch’s) to be real food and drink.
I’ve had readers get upset when I reminded them that the bread in the First Century would have been freshly cooked in the woodfire oven of the hosts of the assembly. After all, they were meeting in someone’s home — and so the host would have cooked the bread right there, and part of the communion experience would have been the aroma of fresh bread mixed with the aroma of a freshly opened bottle of wine. (The alcohol greatly increases the intensity of the wine’s aroma.) The communion would have been a highly sensual experience. And some readers judged this a bad thing. And they were coming from a Gnostic attitude, that is, they figured that physical, earthly flavors and aromas of the supper would have been contrary to its spiritual purpose. And so now you know why most churches buy the most flavorless, dry bread they can. Physical pleasures don’t honor a spiritual God — even though he came to earth as a physical person who enjoyed sensual meals with other physical persons — and Jesus preached countless parables about eating a banquet with a King.
Of far more importance, is our attitude toward the afterlife. We teach that the earth will be destroyed, and the saved will escape this destruction by leaving our bodies behind and flying off to heaven as disembodied souls. But the true teaching of scripture is that the heavens and earth made by God will be renewed — made new — when heaven and earth combine so that God will come to reign on earth.
(Rev 21:1-4 ESV) Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
(Rev 21:5 ESV) 5 And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
(Rev 22:1-6 ESV) ESV Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. 3 No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”
So we see that the theme of scripture is not preparing to leave the Creation, but preparing to live in a renewed, redeemed Creation — as renewed, redeemed people.