Though we’ve had thousands of years to create a deep theology of resurrection, we have for some reason reduced the concept to a fraction of what it is. The Bible writers understood resurrection to be a whole lot more than what we teach. When Jesus was resurrected from the dead, it sent theological shockwaves throughout the world. The early church was now trying to figure out not only what resurrection meant for Jesus, but what it meant for them, too; for they saw resurrection as a foretaste of something that they were also to experience someday.
Today we’ve reduced resurrection to the idea that we need to get saved so that when we die we can go to Heaven to be with God. This is Christianity 101, right? While this teaching is true, it’s not exactly what resurrection is. N.T. Wright (who has done a massive amount of work on this topic) refers to dying and going to heaven not as resurrection itself, but as an intermediate state that takes place along the way to the fullness of resurrection.
The book of Revelation speaks, as do many Jewish writings of the period, of the dead waiting patiently, and sometimes not so patiently, for the time when they will finally be raised to new life. This intermediate state, in fact, is more or less a constant feature of resurrection belief both Jewish and Christian. (Wright, N. T. Surprised by Hope. p. 162.)
One only need to remember that Jesus told the thief on the cross next to him, “today you will be with me in paradise,” (Lk 23:43) to see that there is an immediate phase of existence with God following death. Or we can note that both Moses and Elijah visited Jesus during the transfiguration as another proof of the afterlife.
But in the end, resurrection is more than this. It is, as Wright goes on to explain it, “Life after life after death.” (Ibid, p. 169.) That’s what it was for Jesus, right? Jesus was physically alive, then died and was spiritually alive, but then was physically alive again. He experienced life after life after death. The story didn’t just end in the grave or the spiritual realm.
And so Paul, too, believed that our story wouldn’t end in the grave and that resurrection was not simply a disembodied spiritual life with God in Heaven. He believed that just as the Holy Spirit raised Christ from the dead into a new physical body, so would we be raised by the Holy Spirit from the dead into a new physical body. Paul believed Jesus was coming back to “transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Philip 3:21). He goes on elsewhere to elaborate on this theology, saying, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Ro 6:5).
A resurrection like His? As though we too will return to physical life? It should start to become clear to us at this point that we have sharply truncated our understanding of the resurrection; for Paul apparently did not believe that all that awaited us after death was a spiritual state. No; Jesus’ resurrection was foreshadowing something much more than that. The end is much more glorious than we thought and we’ve missed it because somehow resurrection is easier to believe from a metaphysical standpoint: We move from physical life to spiritual life—from matter to energy. We’re willing to understand resurrection on those terms. Sure, it may be a supernatural thought, but at least it has followable logic that enlightened people might be willing to believe in.
But again, that’s truncated theology; for Paul believed that we would move from physical bodies to spiritual bodies and back to physical bodies. In one of his longer chapters on the subject, Paul goes on in 1 Corinthians 15 to give us more details. He tells us that our current bodies are perishable, dishonorable, weak, natural, and mortal seeds, that when planted in the ground, shall yield something imperishable, glorious, powerful, spiritual, and immortal. Acts 2:31 and 13:37 confirm this, claiming that Jesus’ resurrected body did not see corruption. And so, from a Biblical perspective, we are trading in these flesh-and-blood bodies for something that can inherit the Kingdom of God—for something that death has no reign over.
And perhaps Jesus gives us a bit of a glimpse as to how these new resurrected bodies will operate. Often when we think of the resurrected Jesus walking around and communing with His disciples, we think of His spirit simply returning to His body and walking around like nothing ever happened. But actually, a lot of the stories that follow His resurrection show Him living and operating in rather strange ways. N.T. Wright points out that,
Indeed, he appears as a human being with a body that in some ways is quite normal and can be mistaken for a gardener or a fellow traveler on the road. Yet the stories also contain—and this marks them out as among the most mysterious stories ever written—definite signs that this body has been transformed. It is clearly physical: it uses up (so to speak) the matter of the crucified body; hence the empty tomb. But, equally, it comes and goes through locked doors; it is not always recognized; and in the end it disappears into God’s space, that is, “heaven,” through the thin curtain that in much Jewish thought separates God’s space from human space. This kind of account is without precedent. No biblical texts predict that the resurrection will involve this kind of body. No speculative theology had laid this trail for the evangelists to follow… (Wright, N. T. Surprised by Hope. p. 55.)
This sounds just as strange to us as it did to the disciples, which is why Jesus had to reassure them, “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” (Lk 24:39). He then goes on to eat a broiled fish (Lk 24:42-43), which a vast number of scholars believe Jesus did “as further proof that he stands before them in the flesh.” (Shelly Matthews. “Fleshly Resurrection, Authority Claims, and the Scriptural Practices of Lukan Christianity.” Journal of Biblical Literature. Vol. 136, no. 1, 2017, p. 167.)
But what kind of physical body is this that seems able to enter into the spiritual realm of Heaven? How does Jesus walk through the thin curtain separating God’s space from human space?
Might we experience some of the same abilities with our resurrected bodies? If so, then Jesus’ rebuke to the Sadducees was a rebuke many of us need as well: we truly “know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Mk 12:24).