Life after Death (part 1) The resurrection of the body

The Apostles Creed

“I believe in the Resurrection of the Body.” This is what billions of Christians have confidently affirmed Sunday by Sunday over the years, as they have said the Apostles Creed. Many, without the clear Christian faith that gave rise to the Creed, have no such confidence. So the heterodox Rousseau, an 18th century Enlightenment philosopher, said: “He who pretends to face death without fear is a liar.” Of course, Christians believe death is the enemy, but along with the Apostle Paul it is our “last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15.26) for it has been conquered; and there is hope now for the other side of death. Nevertheless Christian believers still thank God for, and pray for, those involved in modern medicine who courageously are currently trying to fight death being caused by the coronavirus, and who are trying to produce healthy bodies (as Jesus miraculously produced in his earthly ministry). But science is not solving the problem of death, life’s one certainty. It is just postponing death, not defeating it.

Of course, if you really believe it is true that when our minds and bodies cease to function, death is the end, there are social consequences. For if you believe that there is nothing in terms of ultimate value, “only triviality for a moment, and then nothing" as the atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell said in the 20th century, you will be tempted to say, “let us just satisfy our physical wants and cravings, ‘for tomorrow we die’” (see 1 Corinthains 15.32). But there is a wonderful solution to the problem of death. As J I Packer writes:

“Christianity stands out. Alone among the world’s faiths and ‘isms’ it views death as conquered. For Christian faith is hope resting on fact – namely, the fact that Jesus rose bodily from the grave and now lives eternally in heaven. The hope is that when Jesus comes back – the day when history stops and this world ends – he ‘will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself’ (Phil 3.21). This hope embraces all who have died in Christ as well as Christians alive at his appearing: ‘for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment’ (John 5.28-29). And the raising of the body means the restoring of the person – not just part of me, but all of me – to active, creative and undying life, for God and with God.”

The three stages

Let me try to explain that more fully. The result of human sin means that everyone of us born into this world needs to be “remade” to be as God intended us to be. The Bible uses such concepts as “salvation”, “redemption”, “new birth” and so on to refer to what is needed. But God’s gift of salvation has three tenses.

First, there is freedom from the penalty of sin (referred to as “justification”). That is when by faith in Jesus Christ, who died paying your penalty, you have a new relationship with God, in fact “peace with God” (Romans 5.1). Secondly, there is a life-time process (referred to as “sanctification”) of learning to conquer the power of sin. That is when the Holy Spirit enables you (but with ups and downs) to become more like Christ. Then, thirdly, there is the raising of believers from the dead, when Jesus returns and history stops (referred to as “glorification”). That is when God completes this process of salvation by freeing you from the presence of sin. God does that not by the gift of the old body somehow repaired, but by an entirely new glorified body. This new body will be altogether transformed.

Of course, this is necessarily beyond our finite human understanding; but the gist of what will happen is not totally beyond our imagination. Paul has earlier reminded the Corinthians of the reality that, as he puts it:

“now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face [when Jesus returns]” (1 Cor 13.12).

But we do see something. Take Paul’s teaching in 1 Cor 15.35-57:

“someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or some other grain … So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is 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 … I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, not does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’
‘O death, where is your victory?
O death where is your sting?’

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

What happens when I die?

First, if you “confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10.9). So God will have ready for you a perfect transformed body. Most of us are aware that our bodies are not perfect; and some of us have major physical problems to deal with, especially as we get older. And some, of course, have serious physical challenges from birth. How wonderful to know that our bodies will be transformed:

“we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Cor 15.51-2).

There are no exceptions! God has perfect bodies in store for all of us on resurrection day.

So, secondly, you will positively not be a disembodied spirit or soul. The early Christians had to learn, and we have to learn today, that the body is essential to human identity. Created as good, your body will be transformed. And you cannot do what you like with it now. 2 Corinthians 5.10 says:

“we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or ill.”

We remember the origin of sin came through disordered bodily desire – for fruit (Genesis 3.6)! But we must remember, too, that “if we confess our sins, he [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins” (1 John 1.9).

But, thirdly, what about the intermediate state between the day of dying and Christ’s return? Paul seems to have little worry. Regarding his day of death, he had a desire “to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1.13). He also spoke of the resurrection at the future return of Christ like this: “so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4.17). So whatever we experience after death it is being “with Christ". It is similar to what Jesus teaches about our day of death and what follows in John 14.1-3: 

“ Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”

So Jesus is saying that death is not like a leap into the dark, but like a journey to a prepared place. And then Jesus reassures us by saying: “I will come again and will take you to myself.” As John Stott writes:

“The primary reference is to his personal return in power and glory, which herald the general resurrection and our final state. But it seems legitimate to find a secondary reference to death, at which it may be said that Christ comes to take us to himself … Christ is to be our destination as well as our escort. He comes to take us, and he takes us to himself.”

“Encourage one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4.18). May we follow Paul’s advice to the Thessalonians on the Bible’s teaching on this subject.

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