Christianity is based on the historicity of a miracle, that of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from a Jerusalem tomb two millennia ago. That event is why we celebrate Easter as the holiest of Christian celebrations and Sunday as the Christian Sabbath. Our faith depends on Christ’s resurrection, His victory over sin and death. Too often, however, modern Christians express uncertainty about the implications of Christ’s resurrection as it relates to the final resurrection at the second coming of Christ.
Part of our problem is that we still try to read Scripture in terms of philosophical distinctions that are rooted in the Enlightenment’s revival of Greek philosophy. We use Scriptural terminology, but understand it, at times, in terms of non-Scriptural definitions, making God’s Word less, not more, understandable.
Greek thinking saw body and spirit as foreign elements only temporarily linked in life. Real freedom was escaping, through abstract ideas and eventually through death, from the body into what it saw as the real: spirit, or idea. Scripture does speak in terms of both body and soul, but its use of the term soul is not equivalent with the Greek use of spirit. If you think in terms of a deceased person’s soul as being in an ethereal, pure, and somewhat ghost-like existence, you are thinking in Greek, not Biblical terms. The Bible’s use of the term soul refers to the fact that he is created a person, not that he has an ethereal spirit inside his physical body. When a soul goes to heaven, it means the person goes to heaven. The soul in heaven is a real person, though without a body.
Greek thinking made matter a lower state of being than spirit. To the extent that we envision heaven as a less-than-material place, we follow Greek modes of thought. When speaking of our resurrection, Paul did say that God would change “our vile body” (Phil. 3:21). The word vile in that text here means humbled, of low estate. Paul is referring to our earthly bodies as humbled in the fall, in a low estate because of sin and the curse. But Paul’s reference to our humbled bodies in that text also looks forward to when God will change them from their humbled state to be “like unto his glorious body.”
Eschatology deals with the doctrines of the last times. But God reveals end times, not for our curiosity, nor even for their study in isolation, but to give us perspective and hope. Last things are also not without preceding things. History is linear, moving toward its culmination in the purpose of God. Eschatology involves more than curiosity about end times, but also the direction of history toward those end times. Eschatology involves not just the final chapter, but the outworking of history leading up to that conclusion. Part of our eschatology must be our understanding of the resurrection of the dead at the second coming and the creation of the new heavens and the new earth. Our end-time thinking must then dictate our present realization of the hope that is ours in God’s predestined climax to human history.
In his magnificent statement to the Corinthian church on the importance of the resurrection of the dead, Paul made clear that if Christ was not bodily raised from the dead our hope and even our faith itself is in vain (2 Cor. 15:17). He also told the Ephesians, that God “hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6). God has caused us to sit with honor with the King at His Throne! God has called us to exercise power “in heavenly places in Christ Jesus,” to proclaim the power of His resurrection in us. We are called to sit with the King to do more than enjoy our personal salvation; we are called to live and move in terms of God’s power and purpose in the totality of our thinking and being.
Our understanding of last things must be in the context of our understanding of God’s creation and providence and His revelation of His will from the beginning of the world, for He does not change (Mal. 3:6). God made the world and man, and pronounced them very good. Man’s sin has polluted both his creation (including his body) and his soul with sin. God’s grace, however, has predestined both the world and man to be redeemed and re-created (Rom. 8:16-23; 2 Cor. 15:12-58; Rev. 21:1-5). This redemption has been revealed throughout history. Man’s purpose was clearly stated in the Creation Mandate, which was given as a blessing (Gen. 1:26-28) because man was created with the privilege of exercising dominion under God. It was basic to the covenant that God promised to Abraham and his heirs. Moses gave the people God’s laws and the understanding that obedience meant blessing and sin meant judgment. The Great Commission opened up the covenant blessing to all the world. The writings of Paul and John, in particular, give us a clear picture of the end times and our bodily resurrection.
As beautiful as it is, the world we see is not the world as God created it. It was cursed (Gen. 3) and later destroyed by the Flood. What we see is the regrowth on top of mud and volcanic debris. This symbol of judgment will also be redeemed as part of the new creation (Rev. 21:1-5). This new creation began with the resurrection of Jesus Christ, continues as the Spirit makes men into “new Creatures in Christ” and will continue through the millennium. It will climax, however, with our bodily resurrection and the creation of the new heaven and the new earth.
Man’s problem is not his body, as in Greek thought. Man’s problem is not metaphysical, but moral; he is a sinner. In Eden, man was made flesh and blood in perfect righteousness to serve God in His creation. Man’s rebellion spoiled both body and soul, and even the original creation in the Flood. It was Christ’s incarnation in human flesh that began the change. His victory over sin and death on the first Easter Sunday made God’s restoration certain. His resurrection defeated both spiritual and physical death, and His victory will one day be given us when we, too, are raised from the dead.
The resurrection of Jesus cannot be denied, but neither can it be limited to Him or His body (1 Cor. 15:12-19). It is the basis of our faith that we will be raised, that He is “the firstfruits of them that slept” (v. 20). Christ’s resurrection ensures our own (vs.12-27).
Again, we must consciously dispel from our thinking the Greek separation of spirit as superior and body or matter as supposedly inferior. Such thinking leads us to think of heaven as an ethereal, dream-like world. If you have ever caught yourself thinking that heaven may be rather boring, you are likely envisioning a very “spiritualized” heaven, i.e., one of pagan Greek mythology. The eternity God has in store for His saints is in a very real place, with a very real existence.
In Romans 8:10-11 Paul tells us that though sin makes us dead, the Spirit is life and that as He raised Christ, He will also “quicken your mortal bodies.” After His resurrection, Christ made a point of demonstrating that He was not a spirit. He ate with the disciples, and made Thomas feel His wounds (after just eight days they would have still been wounds, not healed scars). The resurrected Jesus was and is flesh and blood. Likewise, our redemption will not be complete until it culminates in the victory over the last enemy, death (2 Cor. 15:26). The fullness of the Spirit’s work in us will come when He resurrects our flesh from the dead.
Our present bodies are distorted by sin and the entropy and destructive mutations it introduced. Our present bodies are only a poor image of what our resurrection bodies will be (1 Cor. 15:35-44). Paul compares the difference to that between a seed and its plant (vs. 36-38). Our flesh will have a new material form compatible with and befitting our celestial home (vs. 39-44). This final victory, this climactic restoration, awaits the second coming when the old physical creation in which we now live will be melted away and reformed into a new physical creation (2 Peter 3: 10-14). Once again, it will be very good.
A question naturally arises as to the deceased saints’ present dwelling place. Christ promised the thief on the cross that he would that day be in paradise (Lk. 23:39-44), an obvious allusion to a place much like Eden. It was, note, a place, not a state of being; the thief would “be” with Christ “in” paradise. The believing thief was to be with Christ immediately after death. Previously, our Lord had declared at once that He was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and that He was not the God of the dead but of the living. These patriarchs, then, are truly living; they have life in paradise. Their souls, their persons, are very much alive. When we die, we go to paradise, or heaven, which is a predecessor to the eternal, the new heaven and the new earth “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:2).
Our eschatology must include our bodily resurrection. It is the climax of our redemption and human history. It is the final application of Christ’s atonement to human history and hence God’s conclusion to His complete redemption. We must, moreover, see our present responsibility in terms of this certain future historical event. Holiness is how we are set apart to God. Holiness is not a neo-platonic escape into the “spirit” as ethereal or abstract. Holiness involves our relationship to God, to others, and to His world because God’s purpose in time and eternity involves all of His creation. Our role, awaiting the final consummation of history, is faithfulness to the law of the Creator and Sustainer of all things.
Each Sunday we celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the dead. We rest in God’s care for us and in the finished work of Jesus Christ. That work, though finished in the sense that it is accomplished, has yet to be fully revealed, except in the Word of God to those who read and understand (Rev. 1:3).
In sum, all the creation and its creatures are God’s. Sin shall be judged and hell is everlasting, but God will reclaim and restore the creation and His elect and we shall be with Him, as he revealed to John, where “there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat on the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful” (Rev. 21:4b-5).