By Conrad Gempf
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 physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.
1 Corinthians 15:42-44
A “spiritual body” almost seems like a contradiction in terms—and it kind of is—but it’s a phrase Paul using when talking to the church at Corinth about our future state. The Corinthians probably had a Greek Platonic notion about the immortality of the soul—that at death the spirit of a person separates from the body, the physical stuff that “imprisoned” them and held them back.
Jews and Christians don’t think like that. Jews and Christians believe instead in the resurrection of the body—that a whole human being includes the body. But Paul is also clear that, when we are in Paradise, it won’t simply be with a reconstituted human body that we had; we will get a new body.
We won’t be spirits floating around as in the “immortality of the soul” scenario. It will be a new kind of body, though, which we tend to call a resurrection body, but Paul here calls a spiritual body. It’s a new kind of physical, because the new heavens and the new earth demand a new kind of physics.
What will this body be like? Well, it will be imperishable in itself, apparently. Not even Adam pre-fall was imperishable; it appears he needed the tree of life to keep him going. When will this happen? 1 Corinthians 15 again:
I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
1 Cor. 15:50-52
Note that Lazarus and other people that Jesus (and others) brought back from the dead in the Bible do not seem to have been given imperishable resurrection bodies. No one believes that the widow of Nain’s son, or Jairus’s daughter, or even good old Lazarus are still hanging around somewhere keeping their identities a secret. (Although that sounds like the basis for a fun novel!) They were kind of resuscitated rather than resurrected—they died again.
But here’s something interesting. In Philippians, Paul says this:
But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who… will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
So we will be changed and will have a new, resurrection body; and our future bodies will be like Jesus’ current, glorious body.
But when Jesus was born in the manger, didn’t he have an ordinary lowly body like ours? When will Jesus have gotten a glorious resurrection body? Likely it will have been at his resurrection, no? Jesus’ resurrection is the “first fruits of the age to come”—and therefore, perhaps, our first glimpse of what is to come for us.
Now, it must be said that these are mysteries, and probably beyond our understanding at the moment … through a glass darkly, and all that (1 Cor 13:12), but it does not seem unreasonable to suppose that, just as the incarnate Jesus started with a body like our earthly bodies, capable of wounds and death, so the resurrected incarnate Jesus has a resurrection body like ours, and that glorious/resurrection/spiritual body is what Philippians is talking about.
This allows us to wonder how many of the things that were characteristic of Jesus after Easter, besides the imperishability, will be characteristic of us when our bodies are transformed and changed in the twinkling of an eye to be “like his.” Perhaps having a spiritual body rather than a physical body gives us a different relationship with the physical world and will allow us to similarly be able to enter rooms that are closed up and with the doors barred.
We don’t know, of course. But it is fun to think about. What it will really be like will surely be better and more surprising than anything we can imagine now.
Conrad Gempf is an author and Lecturer in New Testament at the London School of Theology. This question of Paul’s use of the term “spiritual body” came out of an episode of the Next Step Podcast: Season 3, Episode 9, Joy to the Word.