Resurrection Body: Physical or Spiritual?

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White Rss Body

Was Jesus’ resurrection body physical or spiritual? Or don’t those categories apply to what remains, after all, a mystery?

In Salvation Means Creation Healed I argue for the literal physicality of Jesus’ resurrection body. My point is to rebut the strong tendency in many churches to view Jesus after the resurrection as mere spirit—even as “a ghost,” as someone recently said in a Sunday School class. This despite everything that Jesus himself said and did, post-resurrection!

Yet to call Jesus’ resurrection body physical does raise questions. My friend Prof. David Bauer at Asbury Seminary suggested I read Wilbert W. White’s little book from 1923, The Resurrection Body “According to the Scriptures” (New York: George H. Doran, 1923, 90 pp.), which I did.

It’s a delightful and affirming book. I like much of what White says and the way he handles the relevant Scriptures. He interacts with the New Physics that was emerging at that time (relativity and quantum mechanics). I myself have sometimes pondered possible connections between quantum physics and Jesus’ resurrection and other matters of Christian belief. (I have a chapter on this in my 1995 book EarthCurrents, titled “Quantum Mystery.”)

I liked and affirm these statements by White:

“While it is true that the body of the resurrection is a different body, it is also equally true that it is the same body. . . . Lazarus was reanimated. Jesus was resurrected” (p. 16).

“The Old Testament is not brought into evidence in present-day apologetics as it deserves to be used” (36-37). Yes. When it comes to the importance of the created order and the land, I find the Old Testament to be foundational and essential. Hence I devote quite a bit of space to that in Salvation Means Creation Healed.

I especially liked this sentence, and have already quoted it a couple of times: “The resurrection of Jesus is the New Testament unit of power” (83).

What Happens to Atoms?

White says the resurrection body “is not the literal body of the grave reconstructed, whether by using all, or many, or a few or even one, of the old material atoms” (25-26). I think that’s probably true. On the other hand, how do we know? This can be affirmed only as a matter of opinion, not of sure hermeneutics. Who knows what happens to the “material atoms” in the resurrection—which after all are a form of organized energy? (John Wesley says that “no part of creation” will be destroyed.)

Also, I think White goes beyond Scripture in emphasizing the dissimilarity between Jesus’ physical body and his resurrection body. White says, “Every glorified body is in occasional connection with a single physical body just as really as my body to-day is in occasional connection with the body of my childhood” (26). I have no idea what “occasional connection” means here, but to me it doesn’t communicate anything definite.

Similarly, on p. 27 White says, “a man’s body of glory is his own body under the law of identity.” I am not aware of any “law of identity,” certainly not in Scripture. This is a speculative philosophical construct.

Commenting on John 20:19-23, White writes that Jesus “proved to them that the body of the resurrection was the same body in a real sense by showing them His hands and His side. He proved to them that it was a different in real sense by coming into the room in a supernatural manner.” It’s not clear however just what “a real sense” means here.

In sum: I agree with everything White says which is based on good inductive study of Scripture. But where White gets into speculation (which is unavoidable), I think he tips too far toward what I call over-spiritualization.

Yet if he and I were to have a good conversation on the matter (preferably over coffee), I think our views would be very close!

Laws of Physics?

David Bauer tells me, “Bob Traina used to object to speaking of a ‘physical resurrection,’ since Jesus’ resurrected body was not subject to the laws of physics (passing in and out of rooms, appearing and disappearing, etc.).”

But look again at the New Testament record. It appears Jesus’ resurrection body was subject to the “laws of physics” in some respects. He ate food, apparently wore real physical clothes, and seems to have be subject to the law of gravity. At least until the moment of his ascension!

Rather than saying Jesus’ resurrection body was “not subject to the laws of physics,” it better reflects the biblical record to say Jesus could easily at will transcend physical limitations when it suited his purposes.

Think again of the ascension! It was a bodily ascension just as much as the bodily resurrection weeks earlier.

Jesus did not leave his body behind when he ascended to the Father, where he now lives and reigns and intercedes for us and his world.

“He must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:25-26).

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International Representative, Manchester Wesley Research Centre in Manchester, England. Formerly professor of the history and theology of mission, Asbury Theological Seminary (1996-2006); Professor of Wesley Studies, Tyndale Seminary, Toronto, 2007-2012. Has taught and pastored in São Paulo, Brazil; Detroit, Michigan; and Chicago, Illinois. Dr. Snyder’s main interest is in the power and relevance of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom for the world today and tomorrow. Works include The Problem of Wineskins, Community of the King, and most recently, Jesus and Pocahontas: Gospel, Mission, and National Myth.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Good article Howard. N.T. Wright – I can’t remember where – writes about the difference between the natural body (soma psychikon) and the spiritual body (soma pneumatikon) in 1 Corinthians 15. The suffix, ikon in the two words refers to the energy that animates something, not what that thing is comprised of. This carries over into the English. A pneumatic drill is not made of air but rather is powered by compressed air; an electric drill is not made of electricity but rather is powered by the flow of electricity. In the same way, the spiritual body of the resurrected believer will be empowered in ways we can only try to imagine by the Spirit of God.

  2. Howard,

    I think from what I see here that we have a lot of biblical theology thoughts in common. I have recently written a book tracing twenty major themes from early in the Bible until late in the Bible. I offer biblical support for a bigger gospel, a bigger salvation, a bigger transformation, a bigger restoration of all things than can be found in the all-too-common “Say the sinner’s prayer and pick up your ticket to heaven” message. I will look forward to exploring your ideas further.

    You can take a quick peak about my book and even read a sample chapter at http://livingthefullbible.com/ If you would like to follow up with me in any way, there is contact information on that website.

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