However, a very subtle and seemingly palatable twist on the resurrection of Christ is also always presented at this time, with the central theme being this: Yes, Christ rose, but He rose spiritually and not bodily. His body remained in the grave, but His spirit ascended to the Father. Another idea advanced is that Christ only rose in the hearts of the disciples and they went about preaching the spirit of Jesus to all who would listen. In other words, Jesus did not physically rise from the dead and further, there was no need or reason for his actual body to come out the grave.
So what is the big deal about bodily resurrection? Does it matter if Jesus physically rose or is the same work of God accomplished if He just spiritually rose? If not, why not?
If the physical resurrection of Jesus is proclaimed in the Scriptures, then it is obviously important. Further, if what commentator R.C. Lensky says is true – that the worst forms of wickedness consist in perversions of the truth – then there must be a reason the enemy of mankind and the critics of Christianity want to deny bodily resurrection.
To understand why Jesus had to bodily rise from the grave, we need to examine the nature of man and what really happened at the fall recorded in Genesis 3. Once this is done, pulling together the spiritual ramifications of denying the bodily resurrection of Christ isn’t too hard, and helps us understand Paul’s stance in 1 Corinthians 15:15-16, which says: “For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.”
The Nature of Man
Tackling a real elephant of a question: what is the make-up of man? Without a doubt, there are many different perspectives on the nature of man, some of them plausible and others quite bizarre. A few of the more common concepts are these:
- Materialism – humans have a material body but nothing else. All is just a manifestation of matter.
- Idealism – the reverse of materialism – humans only have an immaterial dimension, and the body is nothing more than a mirage to the non-material mind.
- Monism – just as one side of a coin is the same substance as the other side of the same coin, so humans are made up of a body and soul that are the same substance – really just the same thing.
- Dualism – the body and soul are separate components that run in parallel to each other, but never really interact.
- Trichotomy – a person has a separate body, soul, and spirit. With the body, a person is world-conscious; with the soul, they are self-conscious; and with the spirit, they are God-conscious.
Dualism is the favorite pick of Gnostics and others like them (Christian Science) who say it really doesn’t matter what you do in the body, because it’s only the immaterial dimension that counts where spiritual excellence is concerned. Needless to say, the Bible in no way affirms this stance. For example, in 1 Corinthians 6:18, Paul writes: “Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body.”
Trichotomy is on the right track, but needs to be modified slightly. A person has a body, soul, and spirit, but they are all unified in one person, with the fancy word for this unity being hylomorphism. When God breathed life into man in Genesis 2:7, there was a unity of dust (body) and God’s breath giving life to the unified person. Paul touches on this cohesive concept in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 when he says, “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Although there isn’t time to go into it, this concept is much like how the Trinity is composed – not three different physical gods (Trichotomy), or everything is ultimately God (monism or pantheism) or one god manifesting in three different ways (modalism), but three persons in one unified essence.
If you’re still struggling with this, think of it this way: if man were not a unity between the material and immaterial, then murdering a human body would not be wrong. After all, the immaterial still lives on, so what’s the big deal in murdering just the outer shell? But God does indeed condemn murder (Genesis 9:6), indicating that the body is part of the image of God that he was created in.
So man’s nature includes an inseparable physical dimension that he will never permanently be without. Let’s now see how that nature was rocked by sin.
What Happened in the Garden
After God created Adam in his unified body/soul/spirit entity and put him in the garden, He gave him one prohibition: “The Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.’” (Genesis 2:15-16). God told Adam if he ate of the tree, he would die. Die? In what way?
Adam would experience death in two ways – both physically and spiritually. Death in the garden equated to a broken relationship with God, which was spiritual death, and also the eventual death of the physical body. Some have asked if Adam would have lived forever had he not sinned (and propagated that sin to everyone else). The answer is Yes. The Hebrew word for “die” in verse 16 is muwth, which can mean to die prematurely from neglect of wise or moral conduct. Adam would have never experienced physical and spiritual death had he not sinned, but he did and as Paul wrote in Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death”.
That’s the arrangement – you sin, you die. You experience separation from God (spiritual death) and your body ages and dies in a physical manner. Both were consequences of the fall and both have to be undone because, as we’ve already seen, man’s nature involves an inseparable unity between the material and the immaterial. Man cannot just be partly saved – it’s all or nothing.
The Conquest of Sin
Now is it beginning to make sense why Jesus had to by physically and bodily resurrected from the grave – why just a spiritual resurrection won’t do? If Jesus didn’t conquer the grave in a physical body, then sin and Satan won in the garden and God lost. The blow sin dealt Adam remains. Unless Jesus came bodily out of the grave, then the sting of sin still retains its power and we are all still in our sins (the effect) as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:17. The physical death brought about by the devil and Adam’s own choice would not be reversed and we would not have the promise of eternal physical life.
But Jesus was raised in a physical body and because of this we have the promise that we will be granted glorified physical bodies as well, and thus retain the unity of essence that was built-in by the first creation act of God. Christ is the first fruits of this resurrection of the just as Paul states in 1 Corinthians 15:20. And just what is the significance of that statement?
A Jewish harvest typically consisted of three phases: the first fruits, the general harvest, and then the gleanings. The first fruits proved that the crop was good and that everything following it would be good also. Jesus, as the first fruits of the resurrection of the just, provides proof and confidence that sin has been overcome, and that the unified material/immaterial nature of man will experience triumph over the power of sin and the devil.
This is why the bodily resurrection of Jesus matters. This is why a Jesus that was just spiritually raised or just exists in the hearts and minds of His disciples falls short of providing real victory over the tragedy experienced in the Garden. But thankfully, Jesus came out of another garden in triumph – what the first Adam lost, the last Adam retrieved.
“See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” (Luke 24:39). Because of this fact, we know that we will be like him, just as Paul promises in 1 Corinthians 15:49: “Just as we have borne the image of the earthy, we will also bear the image of the heavenly.”
Thank God for that!