Was Jesus’ Resurrection Physical Or Merely Spiritual?

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central doctrine of the Christian Faith. My whole way of life is either worthwhile or worthless depending on whether Jesus rose from the dead. As the Apostle Paul put it so many centuries ago “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”- 1 Corinthians 15:14-19

In other words, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, if it did not occur, we Christians are wasting our time. It also means we’re in trouble with God because we’ve been misrepresenting him. On the other hand, if Jesus did rise from the dead, then we are not wasting our time and we are preaching the truth about God.

There have been many theories to try to explain the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection (i.e The Empty Tomb, The Post-mortem Appearances, The Origin Of The Disciple’s Belief) such as the Swoon Theory, The Stolen Body Theory, The Wrong Tomb Theory, The Hallucination Theory and some others. These theories are proposed by non-Christians who try to explain the evidence for Jesus’ empty tomb and post-mortem appearances within a Non-Christian framework. After all, if they accept that Jesus rose from the dead, then Christianity is true. A lot of implications flow from accepting the resurrection hypothesis. If Jesus rose from the dead (after claiming to be God) then that means that God put His stamp of approval on everything Jesus said and did. God would never raise a blasphemer and a heretic, which is exactly what Jesus would be if his claims were false. If Jesus rose from the dead, then that's like God putting His stamp of approval on everything Jesus said and did.

I believe in angels and demons. Why? Because Jesus taught that they existed and He rose from the dead. I believe in Heaven and Hell? Why? Because Jesus taught that people were going to one of those two places after we die. I believe the Exodus happened. Why? Again, Jesus taught that it happened. The self-understanding of Jesus and the Resurrection can indirectly justify so many Christian beliefs evidentially. It's yet another reason why its so pivotal. God would not raise a heretic and blasphemer. He would not give new life to a wretched, unrepentant sinner. Since Christ rose, we can have confidence that He wasn't a blasphemer or a heretic when He claimed to be God, and we also can have confidence in other things He taught as truth (e.g the existence of angels, demons, Heaven, Hell, and some Old Testament events). It also means that God exists since a genuine resurrection would be a miracle, and miracles can’t happen unless God exists.

That’s why skeptics feel so compelled to offer these theories to try to get around the evidence. However, there is another theory offered by some. I don’t mind it. We should definitely not conclude that something supernatural has happened unless we’ve exhausted all possible naturalistic explanations and find them not to work. Nevertheless, some theories are so bizarre and clearly ad-hoc (e.g The Twin Theory) that it’s obvious that the theory was raised merely to avoid the conclusion “He is risen!”.

I’m going to talk about a theory that Atheist’s don’t ever raise, and you’ll see why they never raise this theory in a moment. Some people claim that Jesus’ resurrection was not a bodily, physical resurrection, but that it was merely spiritual. In other words, these new age people will argue that Jesus merely appeared as a ghostly figure to his disciples. But I find this view very implausible, and even quite bizarre.

Here are my reasons for disavowing the spiritual resurrection view.

The Gospels Clearly Describe Jesus As Having A Physical Body

After the resurrection, Jesus was able to eat (Luke 24:42-43).  He showed people His hands and feet with the nail prints in them (Luke 24:39; John 20:27), and people even grabbed His feet and worshipped Him (Matthew. 28:9).  As the reports of Jesus' resurrection were spreading, Thomas, who was doubting the resurrection of Christ, said, "Unless I shall see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe." (John 20:25).  Later, Jesus appeared to Thomas and said to him, "Reach here your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand, and put it into My side; and be not unbelieving, but believing." (John 20:27).

If Jesus' body had not risen, then He would not have feet and hands with the same holes of the nails of the crucifixion. Consider the following verses as further evidence that the disciples believed His body was physically resurrected:

*"When therefore it was evening, on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst, and said to them, "Peace be with you."  And when He had said this, He showed them both His hands and His side. The disciples therefore rejoiced when they saw the Lord." - John 20:19-20.

* "And He said to them, "Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?  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 24:38-39 (emphasis mine)

Did the gospel writers believe they were merely seeing the spirit of Jesus, or did they believe they saw Him in a physical, resurrection body? You tell me. How do you make sense of these passages on the spiritual resurrection view?

Objection: Paul Taught A Spiritual Resurrection, The Gospels Are Embellishments Of The Original Resurrection Doctrine.

Some argue that since Paul’s epistles were written prior to the gospels, that therefore this is a result of later, legendary development. That is to say, there are passages in Paul’s epistles that seem to suggest that Paul believed in a spiritual resurrection, but as the preaching of the resurrection went on and on, the story got embellished until we end up with a bodily resurrection appearing in the gospels. What are those verses? Well, 1 Corinthians 15:42-44 seems to argue for a spiritual resurrection.

“So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised 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 natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.”

This seems to suggest that people go down into the graves as physical bodies (i.e “natural bodies”) but come up as ghosts (i.e “spiritual bodies). What’s worse is that Paul goes on to say “I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” (1 Corinthians 15:50).

So although the gospel authors portray the resurrection in physical terms, Paul’s epistles do not. The gospels are embellishments of the resurrection doctrine that originated at the very start of Christianity. Since Jesus’ resurrection body is an archetype of our resurrection bodies, if our resurrection bodies are immaterial, then so was Jesus’ resurrection body.

There are several problems with this view. For one, the gospels are extremely early. We have very good reasons to believe that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and the book of Acts were all written prior to 62. A.D. How do we know? Well, for example, Acts does not mention the deaths of James (Jesus’ brother) in 62, Paul in 64, and Peter in A.D 65. These are such crucial events that the author of Acts surely would have included if Acts had been written after these events occurred. I mean, Paul was the main character in Acts! Do we honestly expect Luke to chronicle Paul’s entire ministry and neglect to mention that he was beheaded by Nero? Would we expect a book, the theme of which is the early Christian church, to neglect to tell us about the horrific death of one of Jesus’ main disciples!? This is absurd. Acts, therefore, must have been written prior to A.D 60. We also know that Acts was part of a two part work written by Luke. Luke wrote the book of Acts prior to writing his gospel, so that means that the gospel of Luke dates back even earlier. And many scholars believe that Luke borrowed some material from Mark and Matthew, so that would mean that these two gospels had to have been written no later than the early 50s! That’s just 20 years after Jesus’ death!

There’s no possible way that legend could develop that quickly! A.N Sherwin Wright of Oxford University did a study at the rate of which legends grew up in the ancient world...and he concluded that the passage of 2 generations of time was not even enough for legend to grow up and wipe out a core of historical truth. But we don't have 2 generations of time here! We only have 2 decades! How is it that 2 decades is enough for the disciples to forget that Jesus was a specter instead of a risen savior? I just can’t believe that they would forget such a big detail like that in such a short amount of time! This is clearly not an embellishment on the part of the gospel authors.

But what about Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians? Let’s consider two words of interest that Paul employs in this passage, psychikos and pneumatikos (these are Greek words). Speaking of our body, Paul writes “It is sown a natural (psychikos) body, it is raised a spiritual (pneumatikos) body.” (1 Corinthians 15:44). What does Paul mean by these two Greek words? To find the answer, we’ll first need to turn to an earlier point in this exact same letter. In 2:14-15, Paul writes “The natural (psychikos) person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.  The spiritual (pneumatikos) person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one.” Right here, we see that Paul contrasts the natural and the spiritual man. I.e The unsaved heathens who follow all of their fleshly and sinful desires and the Christian who lives His life lead by the third person of The Holy Trinity. These are exactly the same words that Paul employs in 15:44 when he talks about sowing a seed. He compares the differences between natural (psychikos) body VS. the spiritual (pneumatikos) body. In other words, the Apostle Paul answers his Corinthian readers regarding their question about what the resurrection body will be like by saying that our body goes down into the grave with all of its evil, sinful desries (i.e “it is sown a natural body”) but that when God resurrects us, we will not have those sinful desires anymore. Our sin nature will be gone, and we will be able to easily follow the desires of The Holy Spirit (i.e “it is raised a spiritual body”). In another place, Paul talks about our future bodies having a connection to the physical bodies we currently possess. Further on in 1 Corinthians 15, The Apostle Paul tells us that our bodies will be “changed” (verse 52). He also states this clearly in Philippians 2:21 that Christ “will transform the body of our humble state”. In Romans 8:21, The Holy Spirit “will also give life to your mortal bodies”. Therefore, at least 3 other places in Paul’s letters tell us that our “mortal” and “humble” bodies will be “changed”, “transformed”, and “raised”.

On this basis, I think it’s safe to conclude that Paul did not have some disembodied state in mind when he spoke of a “spiritual body”. I do believe that The Bible teaches we will existed in a disembodied state prior to the resurrection (see Luke 23:41-43, 1 Corinthians 5), but this is not what Paul is taking about here.

If Paul wanted to tell his readers that the bodies we will have when we were raised, He could have chosen another word, a much better word. Sarkikos. Sarkikos means fleshly, material, physical, corporeal. He uses this term in 1 Corinthians 9:11:  If we have sown spiritual (pneumatikos) things among you, is it too much if we reap material (sarkikos) things from you?”

But what about Paul saying that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom?” What you have to understand is that the term “flesh and blood” was an idiom in ancient Judaism, a figure of speech. It meant a moral man. Someone who was mortal. In this context, Paul’s statement makes perfect sense. We cannot live eternally with the bodies we currently have. We have to have them transformed in order to live forever. If they’re not transformed, then they’ll grow old and die. This is what Paul meant.