In 1 Corinthians 15 is Paul teaching a spiritual, non-physical Resurrection? If so, does that mean the Gospel accounts are products or later, legendary embellishment?
Why is the definition of Resurrection in the New Testament such a desperately debated topic? I think the answer to that is that if one could prove that the Resurrection belief was meant to be purely spiritual or metaphorical in nature, they could potentially make certain that the Gospel accounts were products of legendary embellishment. How would they prove this? They would, of course, go straight to the earliest source. Virtually all New Testament scholars agree that the earliest source for the Resurrection belief is the creed Paul cites in 1 Corinthians 15. If Paul reveals a spiritual Resurrection here, then it follows that the body of the risen Jesus should be interpreted as spiritual also.
Let’s quote the passage that provides the earliest mention of the Resurrection of Jesus,
Now I would remind you, brothers,[a] of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed (1 Corinthians 15:1-11).
The focal point of the skeptic’s argument is how Paul describes the future resurrection body of believers further along.
But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. 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. 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.
So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”;[e] the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall[f] also bear the image of the man of heaven (1 Corinthians 15:35-49 ESV).
According to skeptics, Paul is equating our future resurrection bodies with Jesus’ resurrection body. He defines our future bodies as spiritual, which stands in stark contrast to the depictions in the Gospel accounts. Therefore, Jesus’ resurrection body must be spiritual also and the Gospel accounts a product of legendary evolution. Is this what Paul meant to say? Let’s take a closer look.
The word Paul uses for “body” can only be defined as something physical.
A mistake many of us make when uncovering the meaning of Scripture is to see the English translation as the bottom ground and to treat everything else as a supplement. The problem is that, in passages like these, the English translation could potentially cause us to misinterpret what Paul means by “body.” In English, the word “body” contains a vast array of definitions, not all of a physical nature. We should reach for the Greek translation first. In Greek, the word Paul uses for “body” is soma. In Robert Gundry’s Soma in Biblical Theology, Gundry notes that in other Greek literature of the period, soma is only used to refer to a physical body or the physical essence of a body, whether it be a living body or a corpse. There is not a single instance in the Greek literature of the time where soma is used to refer to anything but a physical body. If Paul intends to refer to something entirely non-physical, he would be the first writer of his time to do so, leaving his audience completely befuddled!
The analogies Paul makes only make sense in terms of a physical resurrection.
Paul utilizes various analogies to bodies dying and rising anew in the natural to help us understand the difference between our natural body and “spiritual” body. In the first paragraph, Paul points to a seed that is sown in the earth and the plant it produces. They are one and the same, but the seed that “dies” in the ground is turned into a plant. The seed doesn’t die and produce something non-physical, like a belief, spirit, or metaphor, but something that is tangible and which produces effects that can be seen and felt in the physical (shade, oxygen, beauty).
Another analogy Paul gives is of the various physical bodies on earth that are created for different kinds of existence. Once more, Paul is noting that the bodies are different, however, they are still one and the same in the same way a caterpillar and a butterfly are one and the same.
Paul would not have needed to defend the Resurrection if he agreed that it was non-physical.
It was the physicalism of the Jewish idea of resurrection that the Corinthians had an issue with. A spiritual resurrection would have encountered little to no opposition, especially to the Gentiles. Paul would have had no problem preaching a disembodied spirit, for that was what they already believed or, perhaps more accurately, wanted to believe. It makes no sense in the social context of the period to conclude that the physical resurrection tradition was a legendary development. If anything, we should have seen it move from physical to spiritual, to remove that stumbling block and to make Christianity less of an offence. After all, it was the opponents of Christianity that sought to undermine the Resurrection by reminding people of the body’s corruption. Celsus quoting Heraclitus stated,
“The soul may have everlasting life, but corpses, as Heraclitus said, ‘ought to be thrown away as worse than dung.'”
There is also the rise of the doctrine of Docetism, which taught that Christ’s body was not human, but rather a spiritual, celestial body so that Christ’s sufferings were merely apparent. This can only be explained as a response to the physicalism of the early belief of the Resurrection. Because our Corinthian passage is the earliest source we have, dating to a few years following the crucifixion, that says a lot about how Paul’s audience understood him. The belief of a physical resurrection was the primitive belief, for if it were not, the offence of Docetism would be non-existent and the doctrine of a physical resurrection as an apologetic would have been counterproductive to their mission, both to Jews and pagans (although Jews believed in a physical resurrection, they did not believe in an individual physical resurrection). A physical resurrection simply does not reflect the evolution of ideas we would expect if it were meant to be spiritual. It would have stayed that way or else eventually faded out into obscurity.
I believe the reason this sort of progression is assumed by skeptics today is that a physical resurrection from the dead is much too surreal and unbelievable. On the other hand, we can easier explain a spiritual resurrection appearance as a product of mental delusion. If we think that way, surely the ancients did so too? The problem is that the ancients didn’t share that same view so we should not anachronistically impose our modern perception onto them. To the ancients, it was all about doctrine. We cannot mock the ancients for being people who would supposedly believe in any kind of superstition only to turn around and criticize them for being ignorant of our way of thinking and what we prioritize. They had something different in mind and we need to step into their shoes to discover what they meant.
The word Paul uses for “Resurrection” is only defined as a physical resurrection.
The word Paul uses for “Resurrection” is Anastasis. It is used 44 times throughout the New Testament and is only used to refer to a physical resurrection from the dead. Let’s look at a couple of examples,
And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation (John 5:29).
Martha saith unto him, I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day. (John 11:24).
Then came to him certain of the Sadducees, which deny that there is any resurrection; and they asked him…. (Luke 20:27).
And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter (Acts 17:32).
For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit: but the Pharisees confess both (Acts 23:8)
And declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead (Romans 1:4).
What does Paul mean by “spiritual body”?
With all of this in mind, can we determine what Paul meant when he described our future bodies as “spiritual”? To this, a skeptic may argue something like, “If the Bible says it then you need to take it seriously. When Paul says ‘spiritual,’ he means it’s a spiritual body.” We would agree that we must take the Bible at its word. But do we have the same idea of spiritual as Paul? I believe a contextual study shows that our immediate interpretation is somewhat off the mark. Notice how Paul uses the word in 1 Corinthians 3:1-3,
And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able. For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?
It appears that Paul’s usage of “spiritual” does not reflect the kind of celestial, immaterial or disembodied being we imagine. The word Paul uses here and in 1 Cor 15 is pneumatikos. This is a Greek word that, according to the New Testament Greek lexicon, means,
relating to the human spirit, or rational soul, as part of the man which is akin to God and serves as his instrument or organ
- that which possesses the nature of the rational soul (bold mine)
belonging to a spirit, or a being higher than man but inferior to God
Paul did not use the word “spiritual” to define the material make up of the body. Instead, he used it to describe who the body belonged to or, more accurately, who the body was yielded to. When Paul speaks of the resurrection body as “spiritual,” he means that it is possessed and guided by the Holy Spirit, not literally made up of spiritual, immaterial matter (although we can determine that our resurrection bodies won’t be identical to our earthly bodies, they are still physical and able to interact with the world the same way ours can (i.e. eating and drinking as Jesus did)). Here’s another verse where it is used.
Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.(Galatians 6:1).
By reading into Paul’s words the idea of an immaterial body, it is the skeptics who are not taking the Scripture seriously, for they are imposing today’s notions of a word onto those of two-thousand years ago.
The Defeat of Death Can Only Be Explained By a Physical Resurrection
In this same passage, Paul states that the resurrection and transformation he has attempted to describe thus far will result in the defeat of death itself. He speaks of the corrupted body “putting on” the incorruptible body.
Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? (1 Corinthians 15:51-55)
This proclamation is not an isolated case in 1 Corinthians. Paul states the same in Philippians 3:21 where he likens our future resurrection body to the glorified body of Jesus,
Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.
Could one say that death has been defeated if the body is still in the grave?
A physical, bodily resurrection is an offence to our 21st-century understanding, therefore, attempts like these to prove that a physical resurrection was not what the author of the epistles had in mind are used even today. Remove the physicality of the resurrection and it can be treated as something that can mean anything to anyone. Some theories as to what the Resurrection could mean are pleasant enough, perhaps even inspiring, but we must ask: is an inspiring story enough to keep a movement alive after suffering persecution and estrangement? Why would a fictional story be offensive enough to cause such a revolt? Is it enough to create a movement at all? What, exactly, made Christianity unique, and why did it not simply fade into obscurity? Let’s keep these questions in mind as we continue our investigation.
For further reading on this subject, William Lane Craig has written a thorough and detailed defence here.