Home » The Bible and Beyond » Blog » Jesus’s Resurrection: Spiritual or Physical?

Jesus’s Resurrection: Spiritual or Physical?

by Dr. Hal Taussig

Two hands raised in supplication that appear to be holding the sun

Here’s another take on the meaning of ‘resurrection.’ (See last month’s “What did Mary Experience at the Empty Tomb?”)

By and large, the Bible is quite clear. Before I get to the distinction between the biblical writing and a popular modern American revision, I need to state several sidebar dimensions of this biblical position.

Sidebar 1: The heart of the resurrection discussion for at least the last two centuries has focused on the authentic letters of Paul.

Sidebar 2: A key to this debate is Paul’s distinction between “spiritual bodies” and “physical bodies.”

Sidebar 3: Strangely enough, the debate of the past two centuries has to do with conservative/fundamentalist Christianity’s rejection of Paul’s affirmation of spiritual bodies and spiritual resurrections, as well as its own assertion of physical bodies and physical resurrections.

Sidebar 4: The Bible is not completely of one accord; it has a few disagreements with itself.

Ok. The very central assertion of Paul, most of the New Testament, and the many additional writings of the first two centuries about the resurrection of the body is that there is powerful bodily resurrection—based mainly in Jesus stories and assertions—but it is fully about a spiritual bodily resurrection. That is, Paul and others straightforwardly reject physical resurrection, and celebrate in a core way a present, socially real, and future spiritual bodily resurrection.

A present, socially real, and future spiritual bodily resurrection

I grant you that most modern people and some post-modern people of the 21st century immediately have no idea what celebrating a present spiritual bodily resurrection might mean. To get there, let’s look at some quotations from Paul on resurrection of the body.

Someone may ask: How do the dead rise, and what body do they have? …  When you sow, it is not the body that will be. … Sown a mortal body, it rises immortal; sown disfigured, it rises beautiful; sown weak, it rises strong; sown a human body, it rises a spiritual body. As surely as there is a human body, there is also a spiritual body. (I Corinthians 15:35,38,42-44, Open English Bible and A New New Testament)

About spiritual gifts….I tell you plainly… one who speaks under the spirit of God is able to say ‘Jesus is Lord’ …..Gifts differ, but the spirit is the same…gifts of healing…workings of wonders….…Together you are the body of Christ, and individually its parts. (I Corinthians 12:1,3,4,5,7,8,11,27 Open English Bible and A New New Testament)

There are many more quotations, and the work of spirit is a central part of the early Jesus people who were with and came after Jesus. Another translation (NLT) of verse 12:27 is: “All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it.” It is clear that the body of Christ of is a key reality of real human bodies, both as individuals and as confident social bodies.

From chapter 15, the raised (resurrected) bodies are spiritual bodies. Paul speaks of dead people (in the plural) who are raised. So we see resurrected spiritual bodies as primarily collective and social.

Out of context: a physical and individual resurrection

The next surprise to take into account is how many Christians of the 19th through early 21st centuries have strikingly asserted that resurrection is—contrary to Paul and most of the New Testament—physical and individual. There is one particular quotation used out of context that seals the deal for this belief system: “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is pointless….If our hope in Christ has been for this life only, we are of all people most pitiable…” (I Corinthians 15: 17,19).

By snipping this particular part of Paul from I Corinthians and then adding (something not from Paul), the insistence that what matters most about Christian resurrection is physical and heavenly, conservative/fundamentalist Christians in the past two centuries have developed a non-biblical image of resurrection.  This ignores the way Paul and most early Christ people understood resurrection—as a social, collective, and spiritual project that is profoundly this-worldly! 

To put it more positively, Paul, most early Christ people, and a great many Christians over the past thousand years saw resurrection as a huge, this-worldly, social, cultural, intimately communal, and mutual set of movements. This more thorough and shared social resurrection has, in our day, a wonderful chance to make spiritual resurrection participatory, loving, and open to the world.

I do not mean to rule out on-going dimensions of spiritual, social, and collective resurrection that also thinks about cosmic afterlife. I simply want to draw attention to how much damage conservative/fundamentalist Christianity’s proposal for only physical resurrection does to Paul’s affirmation of spiritual bodies and spiritual bodily resurrection, and the way the Bible frames spiritual and mutual resurrection.

Benefits of the shared and reciprocal resurrection

You see, this loss of Paul and other early Christ people’s shared and reciprocal resurrection in our day is a huge and injurious mutilation of the larger religious world and historical Christianity. By advancing a manipulative defensive posture, conservative/fundamentalist Christians attempt to obscure a larger imaginative dimension of Christianity, drowning out the lively, open-ended conceptions of early Christ people in the first two centuries. Some of the Christianities of the 19th-through-early-21st- century western era have now entered a kind of dogmatic regulation which refuses to hear Paul, the New Testament, and recent new discoveries of early Christ writings.

The spiritual, present, collective understanding of resurrection has special longer-term promise for integrity, imagination, community, and new frameworks for divine presence. Spiritual bodily resurrection allows communities and individuals to develop an actual practice of resurrection in day-to-day life, including societal and community practice of peace and non-violence.