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Christ’s Resurrection: Bodily or Only Spiritual?

Some atheists reject the resurrection accounts because they say the first Christians only believed that Christ’s spirit rose from the dead. They then explain all the evidence for the resurrection as grief-induced visions or hallucinations while Jesus’ body rotted away in the tomb. For example, atheist Dan Barker claims:

It is perfectly consistent with Christian theology to think that the spirit of Jesus, not his body, was awakened from the grave, as Christians today believe that the spirit of Grandpa has gone to heaven while his body rots in the ground. In fact, just a few verses later Paul confirms this: “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” The physical body is not important to Christian theology (294-295).

The earliest testimony we have about the Resurrection comes from St. Paul’s letters, and they describe Jesus undergoing a bodily resurrection from the dead. Barker tries to get around this fact by claiming Paul used a Greek word for Jesus’ resurrection that refers only to the resurrection of the spirit rather than the resurrection of the body. Specifically, he claims Paul used the word egeiro, which means simply “rise” or “wake up” and that “Paul did not use the word ‘resurrection’ (anastasisanistemi) here, though he certainly knew it.”

However, St. Paul says Jesus was “designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection [Greek, anastaseos] from the dead” (Rom. 1:4). So, contra Barker, Paul does describe Jesus rising from the dead with a form of the Greek word anastasis. Moreover, Paul uses egeiro and anastasis interchangeably when speaking about the relationship between our future resurrection from the dead and the reality of Christ’s resurrection:

Now, if Christ is preached as raised [egegertai] from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection [anastasis] of the dead? But if there is no resurrection [anastasis] of the dead, then Christ has not been raised [egegertai]. If Christ has not been raised [egegertai], then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain (1 Cor. 15:12-14).

Paul’s argument is simple: if we do not rise from the dead, then Christ didn’t rise from the dead. But Christ did rise from the dead, so we can have confidence that we too will rise from the dead.

When it comes to Barker’s citation of 1 Corinthians 15:50 (“Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God”) and Paul’s general use of the term “spiritual body,” we have to remember what Paul was up against in Corinth. Pauline scholar John Zeisler believes that Paul was trying to convince people that the resurrection of the dead was not a mere reanimation of one’s corpse. For Paul, the “spiritual body” in the Resurrection “seems to mean something like ‘outward form,’ or ‘embodiment’ or perhaps better the way in which the person is conveyed and expressed . . . a resurrection of the whole person, involving embodiment but not physical embodiment” (98).

A similar explanation applies to 1 Peter 3:18, where Peter says Christ was “put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.” Jehovah’s Witnesses often cite this text to deny Christ’s bodily resurrection, but as New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says, “The ‘flesh/spirit’ antithesis of 3:18 and 4:6 sounds to modern western ears as though it stands for our ‘physical/non-physical’ distinction; but this would take us down the wrong path.” These verses simply mean that Jesus no longer has a corruptible and mortal body like ours (or “flesh and blood body”). Instead, Jesus has a body infused with supernatural power, or spirit, that makes it “incorruptible” without being immaterial.

Likewise, when Paul says, “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,” he is using a “Semitism,” or a Jewish way of speaking about the natural state of humanity apart from the grace of God. We can’t inherit the kingdom without being moved by God’s spirit, but that doesn’t mean we will only be spirits. Spiritual in this context refers to a thing’s orientation as opposed to its substance. It’s like when we say the Bible is a “spiritual book” or when Paul says, “He who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one” (1 Cor. 2:15).

The subjects in these statements are not ghostly apparitions but books and people that are ordered toward the will of God. St. Augustine says, “As the Spirit, when it serves the flesh, is not improperly said to be carnal, so the flesh, when it serves the spirit, will rightly be called spiritual—not because it is changed into spirit, as some suppose who misinterpret the text” (13.20).

Barker also claims Paul cannot be talking about a bodily resurrection, because he describes Jesus “appearing” to the disciples in 1 Corinthians 15. Barker asserts, “the word ‘appeared’ in this passage is also ambiguous and does not require a physical presence. The word ophthe, from the verb horao, is used for both physical sight as well as spiritual visions” (Godless, 295). Barker then gives two examples that he believes prove that Paul is talking about the disciples having a purely spiritual vision of Jesus.

The first involves Luke’s description of how a man from Macedonia appeared (opthe) to Paul in a vision (Acts 16:9-10). The second involves the “appearances” of Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:3). Barker asks the reader, “Did Moses and Elijah appear physically to Peter? Shall we start looking for their empty tombs? This is obviously some kind of visionary appearance” (295).

But Barker’s argument doesn’t work because a person can “appear” to someone without being a ghost or spirit. For example, I might ask my wife, “Are you going to make an appearance at our party tonight?” without expecting her to materialize out of thin air. In the incident with the Macedonian, Luke makes it clear that he’s talking about a dream Paul had because he says, “a vision appeared to Paul in the night” (Acts 16:9). But when Paul and the other New Testament authors talk about Jesus appearing to the disciples, they don’t describe those appearances as being part of a vision or dream.

For example, Luke describes the disciples saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!”  Luke uses the word opthe to describe this appearance but in the proceeding verses he describes Jesus appearing in an explicitly embodied form. Jesus tells the Apostles, “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39).

Barker’s use of Moses and Elijah appearing on the Mount of Transfiguration backfires because the text does not describe a purely visionary experience. 2 Kings 2:11 tells us Elijah went up alive into heaven and Jude 9 alludes to a Jewish legend about Moses’ body being taken up to heaven. Peter even declares that he will build a tent for Moses and Elijah (Matt. 19:4), which would be a strange thing to do if these men did not have physical bodies.

Finally, Paul was a Pharisee so he believed in a future, bodily resurrection. But unlike the unconverted Pharisees, Paul taught that our bodies would be transformed so that they will resemble Jesus’ glorified resurrection body. For example, he told the Philippians, “we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (3:21). He told the Church at Rome, “If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit that dwells in you” (8:11). This expectation would not make sense unless the first Christians believed Jesus’ body was gloriously reigning in heaven rather than rotting away in a tomb outside of Jerusalem.

Trent Horn

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Trent Horn holds a Master’s degree in Theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville and is currently an apologist and speaker for Catholic Answers. He specializes in training pro-lifers to intelligently and compassionately engage pro-choice advocates in genuine dialogue. He recently released his first book, titled Answering Atheism: How to Make the Case for God with Logic and Charity. Follow Trent at his blog, TrentHorn.com.

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  • Scott Lynch

    Are there any non-gnostic early Christians that denied the bodily resurrection? The amount of mental gymnastics you have to do to think that somehow the early Christians (who accepted the Gospel of John as authoritative) believed in a merely spiritual resurrection is mind-boggling.

    At that point, you are better off positing a conspiracy theory and suggesting ill-will.

    • Scott Lynch

      P.S. Trent Horn has been hitting them out of the park lately! I loved the recent article on subsidiarity.

  • The quote from Dan Barker doesn't say he rejects the resurrection accounts because the first Christians only believed that Christ’s spirit rose from the dead.

    Ok, some theists believe Jesus was god who had a body but the body wasn't god, the human part only, but god doesn't have parts so, no part of god was this body, but Jesus is god so the body is god, even though it isn't. Anyway God cannot die, he is immaterial and outside time and space, but Jesus died and that matters cause Jesus is God, even though no part of God was Jesus. But Jesus died and then by "grace" the body wasn't dead later, but walking around. Obviously, this means that humans don't need to go to hell because an ancestor ate fruit that it was wrong for them to eat, even though they couldn't know it was wrong because you only have knowledge of what's wrong if you eat the fruit. So it was their fault, and obviously all their descendants are tainted by that sin, (which harmed no one). So they have to burn in hell forever, but not really burn, just separated from god, which is why it is called a lake of fire.

    But again, because there was lots of blood when Jesus died, Christians can be washed in that blood, not literally, but spiritually, so they don't burn (metaphorically) and live forever in heaven with god, where they will sin no more, even though they have the free will to. They don't need to do anything because Jesus paid the price. But his payment actually doesn't work unless they do what they have to. We don't know what it is, maybe it is be a good person, maybe it is feeling bad about being bad. Maybe none of that matters and you just need to believe Jesus died for your sins. but you really have to believe it, even if you can't. In which case you burn in hell because even though you say you can't believe, you can. Or maybe you need to go to church and eat a wafer which turns into Jesus's body, which to repeat, is not a "spiritual" body but a real flesh body. That for 2000 years people have been ingesting, so its like, Jesus' body grows and when a priest does his thing a cracker becomes that body and goes into you. But all the real Jesus body is still there and it isn't a spiritual body, but flesh. But if you do none of this an die in the womb you're saved anyway. Or you aren't, and God damns billions who never have a chance to do the unclear thing they need to do to be saved.

    We get it, we just don't believe it.

    • Jim the Scott

      >The quote from Dan Barker doesn't say he rejects the resurrection accounts because the first Christians only believed that Christ’s spirit rose from the dead.

      No he makes goofy positive claims about Christian theology no Catholic, Eastern Orthodox or classic Protestant would make. That is a problem.

      >Ok, some theists believe Jesus was god who had a body but the body wasn't god, the human part only, but god doesn't have parts so, no part of god was this body, but Jesus is god so the body is god, even though it isn't. Anyway God cannot die, he is immaterial and outside time and space, but Jesus died and that matters cause Jesus is God, even though no part of God was Jesus. But Jesus died and then by "grace" the body wasn't dead later, but walking around.

      So basically when I corrected you on yer mistakes regarding the incarnation in the past you just ignored me? Disappointing...you are better than this.

      The Personhood of Jesus is divine and the divine nature united to his human nature is divine. Nobody claims his human nature is divine nor are we monophysites who claim the natures mix. Why is this hard?

      > Obviously, this means that humans don't need to go to hell because an ancestor ate fruit that it was wrong for them to eat, even though they couldn't know it was wrong because you only have knowledge of what's wrong if you eat the fruit.

      No Adam and Eve disobeyed God which is a serious act, they did so with sufficient reflection and with full consent of their wills which they had greater control of being in a state of original innocence/grace & God who perfectly knew their hearts, minds and will justly judged and condemned them.

      >So it was their fault, and obviously all their descendants are tainted by that sin, (which harmed no one).

      Here so that you might formulate more informed objections.
      https://www.catholic.org/encyclopedia/view.php?id=8782

      QUOTE"It is unjust, says another objection, that from the sin of one man should result the decadence of the whole human race. This would have weight if we took this decadence in the same sense that Luther took it, i.e. human reason incapable of understanding even moral truths, free will destroyed, the very substance of man changed into evil.

      But according to Catholic theology man has not lost his natural faculties : by the sin of Adam he has been deprived only of the Divine gifts to which his nature had no strict right, the complete mastery of his passions, exemption from death, sanctifying grace, the vision of God in the next life. The Creator, whose gifts were not due to the human race, had the right to bestow them on such conditions as He wished and to make their conservation depend on the fidelity of the head of the family. A prince can confer a hereditary dignity on condition that the recipient remains loyal, and that, in case of his rebelling, this dignity shall be taken from him and, in consequence, from his descendants. It is not, however, intelligible that the prince, on account of a fault committed by a father, should order the hands and feet of all the descendants of the guilty man to be cut off immediately after their birth. This comparison represents the doctrine of Luther which we in no way defend. The doctrine of the Church supposes no sensible or afflictive punishment in the next world for children who die with nothing but original sin on their souls, but only the privation of the sight of God [Denz., n. 1526 (1389)].END QUOTE

      > So they have to burn in hell forever, but not really burn, just separated from god, which is why it is called a lake of fire.

      I don't understand the need for fundamentalism and kneejerk hyper-literalism here?

      >But again, because there was lots of blood when Jesus died, Christians can be washed in that blood, not literally, but spiritually, so they don't burn (metaphorically) and live forever in heaven with god, where they will sin no more, even though they have the free will to. They don't need to do anything because Jesus paid the price. But his payment actually doesn't work unless they do what they have to. We don't know what it is, maybe it is be a good person, maybe it is feeling bad about being bad. Maybe none of that matters and you just need to believe Jesus died for your sins. but you really have to believe it, even if you can't.

      Adams you really are better than this. This is no better than the Fundie anti-evolutionist who kvetches about Apes not giving birth to children or makes goofy claims because the sun is shrinking it couldn't really be billions of years old otherwise it would have originally filled the solar system or some such ignorant nonsense. Ridicule by itself isn't really the same as criticism.

      > In which case you burn in hell because even though you say you can't believe, you can. Or maybe you need to go to church and eat a wafer which turns into Jesus's body, which to repeat, is not a "spiritual" body but a real flesh body. That for 2000 years people have been ingesting, so its like, Jesus' body grows and when a priest does his thing a cracker becomes that body and goes into you. But all the real Jesus body is still there and it isn't a spiritual body, but flesh. But if you do none of this an die in the womb you're saved anyway. Or you aren't, and God damns billions who never have a chance to do the unclear thing they need to do to be saved.

      Really I am disappointed I expect this from GHF or MR or Pain or the rest of that peanut gallery..

      >We get it, we just don't believe it.

      Based on what you have written here only half of that statement is true IMHO.

  • WCB

    Wikipedia - Decetists

    Docetism is broadly defined as any teaching that claims that Jesus' body was either absent or illusory.[11] The term 'docetic' is rather nebulous.[12][13] Two varieties were widely known. In one version, as in Marcionism,
    Christ was so divine that he could not have been human, since God
    lacked a material body, which therefore could not physically suffer.
    Jesus only appeared to be a flesh-and-blood man; his body was a
    phantasm. Other groups who were accused of docetism held that Jesus was a
    man in the flesh, but Christ was a separate entity who entered Jesus's
    body in the form of a dove at his baptism, empowered him to perform
    miracles, and abandoned him upon his death on the cross.

    Not all early Christians believed Jesus was flesh and blood. Some early Gnostics seem to also believe Jesus was not the same as flesh and blood men.s.

    • Mark

      Not all early Christians believed Jesus was flesh and blood. Some early
      Gnostics seem to also believe Jesus was not the same as flesh and blood
      men.

      Gnotics were as Christian as Mormons or Buddhist. Because they share so many similar beliefs to Buddism, some scholars argue it had to be a Buddhist influenced cult. They believed in multiple Gods. They didn't believe God created the world, that was a lie. The material world is an evil realm created by demiurge. They didn't believe in reason as a source of knowledge, relied on personal transcendental esoteric experience. They don't seek salvation. Gnostics were opposed to morality and ethic codes such as the 10 commandments. Some gnostics believed Jesus was a false prophet that perverted John the Baptist Gnostic teachings. I could go on. But saying "not all early Christians believed" and equivocating Gostics with orthodox Chrstianity as has been preserved by the Catholic Church is fallacious. This is what happens when you get history lessons from the bowels of Reddit.

  • WCB

    Atheists do not believe in the resurrection. We have 5 contradictory accounts that demonstrate that there was no real information about any of this, just these anonymous tales that can't be reconciled. Since atheists find the idea of God to be so full of contradictions, incoherent claims, and problems, God is not a viable proposition. A miraculous resurrection is then, also rather unlikely. the question then is, how did all of these contradictory resurrection tall tales begin.

    Since it is well know bereavement hallucinations are quite common, it is possible that a few early such hallucinations were reported and started rumors about Jesus visiting his mourners. It is quite possible knowing what we know about such things. later anonymous writers hearing about these rumors, second or third hand wrote their fantasies based on that and nothing more. Based of FOAF tale like rumors. A Friend Of A Friend tale with no actual basis in fact.

    This answers the question posed to atheists. "How do you explain these gospels if Jesus was not indeed resurrected?".

    • Mark

      We have 5 contradictory accounts that demonstrate that there was no real information about any of this, just these anonymous tales that
      can't be reconciled.

      Care to cite them? Have you performed the save scrutiny of these accounts as you have for St. Paul, St. James, and the four gospel accounts.

      Since it is well know bereavement hallucinations are quite common, it is possible that a few early such hallucinations were reported and started rumors about Jesus visiting his mourners.

      St. Paul is the earliest writing of the resurrection. He was not in bereavement. Mass hallucinations are a made-up phenomenon made by skeptics who cannot come up with a better criticism.

      • Bemyguest

        The scientific literature shows Mass Hallucination is impossible. Hallucinations are subjective phenomena and individually experienced. They might as well plead for a psychic connection between the Apostles.

      • Jim the Scott

        The scientific literature shows Mass Hallucination is impossible. Hallucinations are subjective phenomena and individually experienced. They might as well plead for a psychic connection between the Apostles.

        • David Nickol

          Mark: Mass hallucination is a made-up phenomenon made by skeptics who cannot come up with a better criticism.

          Jim the Scott: The scientific literature shows Mass Hallucination is impossible.

          The original comment by WCB to which you and Mark reply did not assert anything about mass hallucinations. He said:

          Since it is well know bereavement hallucinations are quite common, it is possible that a few early such hallucinations were reported and started rumors about Jesus visiting his mourners.

          In this scenario, a few individuals separately could account for the idea of a resurrection, elaborated on as passed down orally.

          Check here for an interesting interview that I just found with John P. Meier about the Resurrection. Here's the most pertinent section:

          Q: What do you think happened to Jesus’ body?

          A: The true Jesus who had died rose in the fullness of his humanity into the full presence of God. That is, I think, the essence of belief in the Resurrection. What the relationship of that risen body is to the body that was laid in the tomb is first of all not something that is historically verifiable. It is not subject to historical research at all.

          Indeed, theologians among themselves disagree on that question. The fundamentalists would almost have a rather crass resuscitation view. Most traditional Christians have at least read Paul, First Corinthians 15 about the necessary transformation, as well as the Resurrection appearance narratives in the Gospels. They think in terms of transformation as well as continuity.

          Thus the risen body of Jesus is indeed in continuity with the body laid to rest in the tomb. But nevertheless it has undergone radical transformation as a glorified, risen body. It is no longer of this world of time and space and not subject to its laws….There is a whole range of speculative possibilities about the precise relationship of the risen Jesus to the body laid in the tomb. As a person trying to pursue historical work, that is something beyond what I can investigate

          • Jim the Scott

            >The original comment by WCB to which you and Mark reply did not assert anything about mass hallucinations. He said:Since it is well know bereavement hallucinations are quite common, it is possible that a few early such hallucinations were reported and started rumors about Jesus visiting his mourners.

            Except the visitations where reported in the NT documents in groups for the most part.

            >In this scenario, a few individuals separately could account for the idea of a resurrection, elaborated on as passed down orally.

            Except this is just the recycled legends theory or the Gospels where made up whole cloth theory which would be simpler. Why would we need these individual hallucinations and why would they move people to believe?

            When Mary saw Our Lord at the Tomb the Apostles where not quick to believe her I think. Also they might accept she saw a ghost.

            >Check here for an interesting interview that I just found with John P. Meier about the Resurrection. Here's the most pertinent section:

            Well I don't know that he is right about wither it is historically verifiable or not. I would have to look into some philosophy of history and I have too much natural theology on my plate.

            I do believe either Craig or NT Wright might have dialoged or debated Meier on this but I will have to dig threw a lot of my books to find it.

            You are right thought. It is interesting.

          • Mark

            What the relationship of that risen body is to the body that was laid in the tomb is first of all not something that is historically verifiable. It is not subject to historical research at all.

            Bodily resurrection would have been falsifiable and therefore historical evidence could have, or better yet should have existed that could falsify the testimony of a bodily resurrection. I agree if no body exists it cannot be historically verifiable. However, if a body exists or existed the testimonies can be, but historically important, it could have been falsifiable. 1st century Jewish burial customs and crucifixion customs are historically verifiable. The NT testimonies are in accord with this historically verifiable custom. The no-resurrection alternate theories I've seen presented about what really happened to the body do not.

    • Raymond

      My response to that question is "don't know, don't care".

  • Philip Rand

    Israel was bodily resurrected in 1948.