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Resurrection in Paul

By:  Erick Nelson
Last Updated:  July 27, 2003

I must again point out that entire books have been written about Paul and his views regarding the  resurrection of Jesus Christ.  I am under no illusion that I have adequately covered the terrain here, and I have no wish to construct a lengthy analysis of this topic.  I do, however, want to lay out the arguments as clearly and succinctly as I can.

It is universally acknowledged that the Apostle Paul wrote Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Philippians, and so this is a good place to start. What were his views about the resurrection of Christ?

The Resurrection of Jesus

One argument for the MG Theory, outlined in an earlier chapter, runs as follows:

Argument from Paul's Description of Our Resurrection

  1. Our 'resurrection' (as described by Paul) will be a spiritual, not a physical, continuation of our existence.

  2. Jesus' resurrection is the model for our own.

  3. (thus, knowing the mode of our resurrection will tell us the mode of Jesus')

   So, Jesus' resurrection was spiritual, not physical

I agree with premises #2 and #3, and agree that the conclusion follows from the premises.  I dispute premise #1.

Resurrection in the New Testament World

First, it is commonly understood that the notion of "resurrection" is one of the things that separated the Pharisees from the Sadducees (the Pharisees believed in it). Their view was that of a bodily resurrection. Bodies coming out of the graves.  The presumption is that Paul would share that view.  In addition, the very (Greek) word anastasis used to describe this denotes a bodily resurrection.

Next, it is indeed clear that Paul and other writers see Jesus' resurrection as the "first fruits" of our own, not something which only happened to Jesus.  Statements which tell us what kind of resurrection we should expect also give us information about the author's conception of Jesus' resurrection (premise #3). 

N.T. Wright puts this well:

Already we see an important point emerging.  For the first-century Jew, resurrection was not a general term for "life after death."  It was one point on a spectrum of beliefs about life after death.  (Wright Vol 2, p 113)

There is no evidence for Jews of our period [the first century] using the word resurrection to denote something essentially nonconcrete.  (Wright Vol 2, p 115)

Similarly, the commentaries certainly recognize that a bodily resurrection is claimed.

In any case, he knows that some Corinthians deny the resurrection of the body.  This denial, it seems was due to their concept of the body as a hindrance to the soul's activity, - a characteristic Greek and Platonic concept.  Paul answers by declaring that the bodily resurrection of Christ, which lies at the very heart of the apostolic preaching, is a fact duly attested by chosen witnesses.  (Jerome 272-3)

the Apostles deals with the difficulties attending a materialistic conception of the resurrected body that the Corinthians had probably acquired from Jewish speculation on the subject.  The resurrected body will be transformed into a perfect instrument for the new conditions of the life of glory.  (Jerome 273)

Statements regarding the future resurrection in Jewish literature, and in the gospels, always imply a bodily resurrection.  The burden of proof would be on the one who disputes this.

Transformation Resurrection

Then how does Spong conclude that Jesus' resurrection is spiritual only?  He does so by committing a logical fallacy: called the 'false dilemma'. He says that Jesus' resurrection must either be a resuscitation of a corpse or a spiritual event that has nothing to do with the body.  He avoids the third possibility: that the claim of Jesus' resurrection is that Jesus' own body was transformed

Let's see for ourselves how this works out in more detail, looking at the classic resurrection passage, 1 Cor 15.  Paul here explicitly teaches the "transformation" resurrection of the body. He goes out of his way to provide an explanation about Jesus' resurrection.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures . . .

But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.

But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the first fruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. . .

But someone may ask, "How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?" How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. . .

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.

I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, 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. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.

This in a sustained argument about the reality and nature of Jesus' resurrection. The main points are:

  1. The truth of the gospel hinges on the reality of Jesus' resurrection - to disprove Jesus' resurrection would be to falsify the gospel.
  2. Jesus' resurrection is of the same mode as our own (future) resurrection. (If there is no resurrection, then Jesus wasn't raised; he is the first occurrence of our own resurrection)
  3. The nature of the resurrection is that of the transformation of the mortal body. Rather than being either a revitalized corpse on the one hand, or a disembodied spirit on the other, the resurrection body clearly has continuity with the mortal body, but has taken on different characteristics. "It" is sown perishable; "it" is raised imperishable. Rather than the removal of the spirit from the body, the body is described as "clothed" with imperishable attributes.

Our Bodies

What is a "spiritual body"?  This seems at first like a contradiction in terms.  Body is physical, extended, tangible, etc.  Spirit is not.  Paul's statement, in fact, seems to first utter a tautology (it is sown a "physical body") and then a contradiction (it is raised a "spiritual body")!  What goes on here? 

it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.

The NIV does well to translate the first one "natural" body.  The translators might have translated the second item "supernatural" body, because that is the contrast Paul is drawing.  One reason  they might have resisted this is "spiritual" loosely implies direction by the "Spirit", which would be somewhat obscured under the other rendering.

Earlier in that same letter, Paul had said, in an extended commentary about bodies (he uses the term 8 times in 7 verses), and within that context it is natural to interpret the resurrection as applying to the body.

"The body is not made for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself ... " (1 Cor 6:15+)

What does Paul have to do, explicitly say that our bodies will be transformed? He does:

"We eagerly await for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies." (Rom 8:23)
". . will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body" (Phil 3:21)

Side Note

Interestingly enough, John Dominic Crossan, who has no motive for attributing literalness to Paul's view, was forced in his rather famous popular work about Jesus, by the obvious evidence to agree that Paul taught the bodily resurrection.  He only doubts whether this should be normative for all of first century Christianity.  Crossan says,

"During the winter of 53 or 54 AD . . Paul was writing to the church he had founded at Corinth and defending the possibility and actuality of bodily resurrection. . . . For Paul, in any case, bodily resurrection is the only way that Jesus' continued presence can be expressed. . . . The question is not what it is that Paul means, because that is surely clear enough. The question is whether he speaks for all Christians then and thereafter. Is resurrection, so understood, the only way or just one of the ways to express faith in the continuing power and presence of Jesus in the world?" (Jesus - a Revolutionary Biography p 165; emphasis mine)

Objections and Answers

The issue of Jesus' resurrection is central to the MG dispute.  Crossan accepts that for Paul, Jesus' resurrection is a bodily one.  For Borg, Jesus lived on in a spiritual state (not just in the memory of his followers) and interacted with people as the 'post-Easter' Jesus, but his body did not come back to life in any sense. 

Objection.  Spong definitely holds to a spiritual survival view.  At least he tries to argue for it, giving his own twist to 1 Cor 15.  See this, and an additional explanation by Mark Allan Powell, in "Evidence in Favor of the MG Theory" > Resurrection in Paul

Answer.  The above section serves as the 'Answer' to these objections.