Our churches maintain a strange silence about the resurrection.
I don't mean that we are silent about Jesus' resurrection, especially around Easter time. Like the Early Church, we affirm it wholeheartedly. But unlike the Early Church, we often consider it as God's chief miracle in a showcase of other miracles without being able to articulate why it is significance for us. I'm not inferring that we are silent about "life after death" or "going to heaven when you die" either.
While the New Testament affirms that a Christian is safe with the Lord at death (Romans 8:38-40, Philippians 1:23-24, 2 Corinthians 5:6-8), we often use sources other than the Bible - such as gospel songs and hymns - to paint pictures that go beyond what the Bible actually says happens when we die.
But being safe with the Lord at death is not the ultimate hope of Christians. Our ultimate hope is the future resurrection from the dead at Christ's return. We, like our Lord before us, will be raised from the dead. This final hope is what we are strangely silent about in our churches.
We need a good dose of the apostle Paul to loosen our silent tongues on the connection between Jesus' resurrection and our own. Paul clearly states this connection in 1 Corinthians 15:20-21: "But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead" (NASB).
Paul didn't say that Jesus rose from the dead so "we don't have to die" or so "our souls can go to heaven when we die." Rather, his language of "first fruits" implies that there will be "later fruits" of the same type - what happened to Christ will happen to those who have died "in Christ."
First Corinthians 15:23-28 shows these "later fruits" will be harvested all at once in the resurrection of all of God's people when Christ returns. This is when Death, as the last enemy, is finally destroyed, God's everlasting kingdom is fully established, and God becomes "all in all."
In 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, Paul noted a necessary connection between Christ's resurrection and our own. This reminds us that Christ's story is our story. We visually depict this truth at baptism when we are "buried" under the waters of baptism and "rise" from them to new life (Romans 6:4). It's a promissory enactment of our later death and final resurrection.
While the Gospels do have differences in their accounts of the resurrection, all four tell Christ's story in a similar way. They all affirm that an empty tomb existed, and that the One buried in the tomb was raised. They also portray Jesus' risen body as capable of being grasped and touched (Matthew 28:9, John 20:17, 27). Luke even describes it as one of "flesh and bones" (24:39) and depicts the risen Christ eating in front of and with his disciples (Acts 1:4, 24:41-43)
But our gospels certainly do not portray Jesus as simply a revived corpse. Clearly, Jesus' body had undergone a genuine transformation.
In Luke and John the risen Lord suddenly appeared in the midst of his disciples fully embodied (Luke 24:36, John 20:19, 26) and in Luke he just as suddenly disappeared (24:31). While we don't know all of the details, Christ's resurrection in these gospels includes a complete transformation of Jesus' body even though it somehow remained a concrete, material, flesh-and-blood body.
If this is what happened to Jesus, how can something like this happen to us, particularly when Paul described the future resurrected body as a "spiritual body" (1 Corinthians 15:44)?
When Paul used the word "spiritual" in this context, it did not refer to the materials our risen bodies will be made of, as though he were describing a thin, wispy, ghost-like thing. Rather, he used "spiritual" to refer to the Holy Spirit's transformation of our current bodies, which are ravaged by the effects of sin. So by "spiritual body" Paul meant a material body wholly transformed by and filled with the Spirit, making it appropriate for the new creation, the kingdom of God.
"Now wait a minute," someone might say, "Paul says that 'flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable' (1 Corinthians 15:50, NASB). So how can we compare our story to Jesus' story when His risen, transformed body was one of 'flesh and bones' (Luke 24:39)?"
When Paul used the phrase "flesh and blood" in 1 Corinthians 15:50, he wasn't discussing those who have died. He used the same phrase in Galatians 1:16 where he said that after God revealed his Son to him, he did not "immediately consult with flesh and blood" (NASB). In neither place was he focusing on the materials composing human bodies.
In Matthew 16:17 (NASB), "flesh and blood" is a way to refer to frail living human beings. So in 1 Corinthians 15:50 Paul refers to two different groups: living "flesh and blood" human beings and "perishable" dead human beings. Neither of these two groups can inherit the kingdom of God . . . unless they are transformed and made fit to do so at Christ's return.
The first group can be transformed by "putting on immortality" over their untransformed bodies, and the second will do so by putting on "imperishability" over their perishable or corrupted bodies (1 Corinthians 15:53-55). Only then will the final victory over death be achieved (15:55, 15:26), and God will become "all in all" (15:28).
According to Paul, what happened to Jesus will happen to us. The God who, by the Spirit, raised Jesus and transformed His body will also raise and transform our bodies so they are conformed to the form of Jesus' own risen body (Philippians 3:21). So for Christians, while we are indeed safe with the Lord between our deaths and the final resurrection, our ultimate hope isn't going to heaven when we die. Our ultimate hope is the transformation of our bodies into concrete material bodies so filled with the Spirit that they are appropriate for the new creation God is bringing.
My mom had severe rheumatoid arthritis. Although she had 20 surgeries in 19 years, her joints remained disfigured until she died. When I meet her in God's new creation, I won't mingle my thin wispy soul with hers. I'll throw my arms around her transformed body and together we'll join all creation in praising the God who is "all in all." This is because Jesus' resurrection is the model for our resurrection, and is therefore the source of our ultimate hope. And it's time we broke our strange silence about it in the church.
Andy Johnson is professor of New Testament at Nazarene Theological Seminary. He lives in Overland Park, Kansas, with his with his wife and two sons, and attends Overland Park Church of the Nazarene.
Holiness Today, March/April 2006