The resurrection of believers to immortality at Christ’s appearing is the hope of all Christians. It’s not surprising, then, that when the apostle Paul heard some members of the church in Corinth were denying the resurrection, he challenged their misperceptions.
Paul first rehearsed the gospel message, which they believed, that Christ had been resurrected. Paul reviewed how the crucified Jesus was laid in the tomb a dead corpse, but three days later was bodily resurrected to glory (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). He then explained that Christ was raised to life as our forerunner—pointing the way to our future resurrection at his appearing (verses 4, 20-23).
Paul validated the truth of Christ’s resurrection by referring to more than 500 witnesses to whom Jesus appeared after he rose to life. Most of the witnesses were still alive when he wrote his letter (verses 5-7). Christ had also appeared to the apostles and to Paul himself (verse 8). The fact that so many people saw Jesus this side of his grave confirmed he had been raised bodily, though Paul didn’t make an issue of this in the chapter.
But he did tell the Corinthians it was foolishness — with absurd consequences for Christian faith — to doubt a future resurrection of believers, since they believed Christ had been raised from the grave. To disbelieve in a resurrection was to logically deny that Christ himself had been resurrected. If Christ had not been resurrected, believers would not have any hope. Christ’s resurrection guarantees that believers will also be resurrected, Paul told them.
Paul’s message about the resurrection of believers is thoroughly Christ-centered. He explains that the work of God through Christ in his life, death and raising him to life enables the future resurrection of believers, leading to the defeat of death itself (verses 22-26, 54-57).
Paul had steadfastly preached this good news — that Christ had been raised to life and that believers would also be resurrected at his appearing. In an earlier letter, Paul wrote: “We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” (1 Thessalonians 4:14). Such a promise was “according to the Lord’s word” (verse 15).
The church, following the hope and promise of Jesus in the Scriptures, has taught a belief in the resurrection throughout its history. The Nicene Creed of A.D. 381 says, “We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life to come.” The Apostle’s Creed of around A.D. 750 says, “I believe in…the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.”
Resurrection body question
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul responded to the Corinthians’ specific disbelief of and mistaken view about the bodily resurrection: “But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?’” (verse 35). The issue was how the resurrection would work, namely what kind of body, if any, would those raised to life receive. The Corinthians wrongly thought Paul was teaching it was the same kind of mortal, sinful body they possessed in this life.
What need is there for a body in the resurrection, they wondered, especially the present corrupt body? Had they not already achieved the goal of spiritual salvation and actually needed to get rid of their body? In the words of theologian Gordon D. Fee: “The Corinthians are convinced that by the gift of the Spirit, and especially the manifestation of tongues, they have already entered into the spiritual, ‘heavenly’ existence that is to be. Only the body to be sloughed off at death, lies between them and their ultimate spirituality.”1
The Corinthians had not understood that the resurrection body would be of a higher and different order than the present physical body. This new “spiritual” body would be necessary for life with God in the kingdom.
Paul used a farming example to point to the greater glory of the resurrection body over our present physical body, appealing to the difference between a seed and the plant that grows from it. The seed may “die,” or cease to exist, but the body — the plant — that comes from it is much more magnificent.
“When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else,” Paul wrote (verse 37). We can’t predict what our resurrection body will be like by pointing to our present physical body’s characteristics, but we know that it will be of vastly greater glory, as is the oak tree in comparison to its seed, the acorn.
We can have faith that the resurrection body, having glorious life without end, will make our eternal life much more splendid than our present physical life. Paul wrote: “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” (verses 42-43).
The resurrection body will not be a clone or exact replica of our physical body, Paul is saying. Nor is the body we receive at the resurrection composed of the identical atoms of the physical body we had in this earthly life, which decayed or was destroyed at death. (If that were so, which body would we receive – our body at age 2, 20, 45, or 75?) The two kinds of bodies will be as different in quality and glory as is the beautiful butterfly that emerges from the cocoon that previously housed a lowly worm.
Natural and spiritual bodies
There is no use to speculate on exactly what our resurrection body or immortal life will look like. However, we may say some general things about the major difference between the two types of bodies.
Our present bodies are physical, like an animal’s, subject to decay and death, and sinful. The resurrection body will possess a different order of life—immortal and imperishable. In Paul’s words, “It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body” (verse 44)—not a “spirit” body, but a spiritual body in the sense of being appropriate for the life of the age to come. The believers’ new body in the resurrection will be “spiritual” — not immaterial, but spiritual in the sense of having been created by God to bear the likeness of Christ’s glorified body, transformed and “adapted to the life of the Spirit in the coming age.”2 The new body will be real; believers will not be bodiless ghosts or specters.
Paul contrasts Adam and Jesus to underscore the difference between our present body and our resurrection body. “As was the earthly man [Adam], so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man [Jesus], so also are those who are of heaven” (verse 48). Those who are in Christ when he appears will have a resurrection body and life in Jesus, not Adam’s form and being. “Just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man” (verse 49). The Lord, said Paul, “will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:21).
Not subject to death
This means our resurrection body will not be perishable flesh and blood as we know it now—not dependent on food, oxygen, and water for life. Paul was dogmatic: “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).
At the Lord’s appearing, our mortal bodies will be transformed into immortal bodies that are eternal and not subject to death and decay. Hear Paul as he tells the Corinthians: “I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed — in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet [a metaphor signaling the future appearing of Christ]. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” (verses 51-52).
Our being raised bodily to immortality is our joyous and sustaining hope as Christians. In Paul’s words: “When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality,” at the appearing of Christ, “then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory’” (verse 54).
Is our brain all there is to who we are?
Nobel Laureate Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of the DNA molecule, has written that we “are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules…nothing but a pack of neurons.”3 Vilayanor S. Ramachandran, a renowned neuroscientist, claims: “All the richness of our mental life—all our feelings, our emotions, our thoughts…our religious sentiments…[our] own intimate private self — is simply the activity of…our brains. There is nothing else.”4
Neuroscientists do not find evidence of a distinct mind or “soul” when they do their research. They only see “brain work”—the firing of neurons when we think, emote or are engaged in a creative activity. Further, when a person’s brain is injured, his or her ability to reason, relate to others and create can be impaired, depending on the injury. On such visible evidence, scientists and philosophers naturally conclude that this is all there is to who we are — brain, neurons and body.
Christians believe that the essence of what a human being is—call it mind, self, being or “soul”—survives the death of the body and brain. Jesus said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matthew 10:28), thereby distinguishing between physical body (including the brain) and the essence of personhood—our conscious being.
Scientists such as Gerald L. Schroeder (God According to God) and best-selling author on Christian topics, Dinesh D’Souza (Life After Death: The Evidence and What’s So Great About Christianity), provide a number of analogies to help us think outside the box about a parallel existence of both brain and mind—our consciousness.
Think of the brain as the radio receiver and radio waves as the mind. If the radio is turned off, one might conclude that radio waves don’t exist. But turn on the radio and tune it to a station, perhaps playing a piece of music, and the existence of radio waves suddenly becomes evident. For the radio waves to be manifest, we must turn on the radio receiver. Turn the radio off or smash it, and there is only silence. Now, the radio waves appear not to exist. The radio doesn’t create the radio waves, but they can’t be played for us to hear without it being turned on and in working order.
Let’s look at the analogy of a DVD of a movie. For the contents of the DVD to be seen, it must be played through a computer’s hardware or DVD player. Smash the computer or player and the movie disappears as though it didn’t exist. But the DVD contents do still exist and can be played on another computer or DVD player.
In a similar way, the mind is impaired if the brain is impaired, and the mind disappears from our view if the brain dies and decays. But it is not hard to see that a mind could be “played” again if given a different body by the God who created us in the first place.
Dr. Schroeder explains what the real conundrum is about the mind-brain connection: “The puzzle of the mind-brain interface is not in the recording and biochemical storage of the incoming sensory data. That is brainwork… The puzzle is in the replay. There is no hint in the brain of how you hear or see what you have heard or seen…. The location of that perception is the puzzle.”5
The promise of Christ in the Scriptures is that a person’s mind or soul will be “brought back” by the power of God, despite the death and decay of the present physical body. God will provide a new and glorious body for us in the resurrection.
1 Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians. New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 778.
2 Ibid., 788.
3 Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul (New York: Touchstone, 1994), p. 3.
4 V.S. Ramachandran, A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness (New York: Pearson Education, 2004), p. 3.
5 Gerald L. Schroeder, God According to God: A Physicist Proves We’ve Been Wrong About God All Along (New York: Harper One, 2009), pp. 151-152.