The world in which Christianity arose affirmed the immortality of the soul, a cornerstone of Greek philosophy. Platonic arguments for the soul's innate immortality have influenced views about life after death from Gnosticism to the New Age movement today. The soul's immortality was a central tenet in Kant's philosophy and this was echoed in the triad of Protestant liberalism—the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the immortality of the soul.
But biblical faith has always insisted on something very different. God's ultimate purpose for all his human creatures, for the lost as well as for the redeemed (John 5:29; Acts 24:15), is not an eternal, incorporeal existence but rather the resurrection of the body. This concept has been offensive to human reason from the beginning, as Paul found out when he preached about Jesus and the Resurrection to the philosophers of Mars Hill (Acts 17:22-34).
Yet belief in the bodily resurrection is so basic that it was included in the Apostles' Creed.
Why make such a fuss about the body? Because of three key moments in the history of salvation: Creation, Incarnation, and Redemption.
When God first created the material world, and human beings within it from the dust of the earth, he pronounced his work "very good." God did not create human beings as ghost-like creatures but as embodied souls. The resurrection of the body affirms the goodness of God's original creation, and recognizes that the basic human problem is not finitude but fallenness. It also declares that God will make good and bring to perfection the human project he began in the Garden of Eden.
The Incarnation teaches that the eternal Son of God entered so deeply into our human reality that he did not shun the virgin's womb, nor the evildoer's cross. This same one, Jesus Christ, also rose again in his body "on the third day."
Jesus' bodily resurrection is the guarantee of our own future resurrection. He rose literally, physically, historically, and in a body that was no less visible and tangible than those of his very earthy disciples, though remarkably transformed nonetheless. All of this gives us reason to hope that "when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is"
(1 John 3:2). Despite the persistence of sin, death, and decay, we can live with confidence and hope that God's Kingdom will indeed come in a way that ends these miseries.
At Jesus' second coming, God will complete the restoration work he has already begun. He will redeem our bodies as well as our souls. Indeed, the entire cosmos will be gathered up in a new unity—that is, an ultimate healing, reconciliation, and bringing together of all things in Christ (Eph. 1:10).
What will our resurrection bodies be like? This question was already asked in 1 Corinthians 15:35. God does not give us a complete answer, but we do know that our new, glorified bodies will be imperishable. No more cancer, no more drownings, no more holocausts.
Our bodies will also be spiritual (Greek, pneumatikos). This word does not mean nonphysical, but rather bodies "transformed by and adopted to the new world of God's Spirit" (George E. Ladd). They also will be recognizable, but, like Jesus' risen body, so utterly transformed that we shall be aware of the differences as well as the sameness.
Most Christians believe that between death and the resurrection we shall indeed live in God's presence in conscious awareness of the Lord and others who have gone before us. This is wonderful, but it is not the end of the journey. In some ways, it is only the prelude to the main event that will begin in earnest on "that great getting-up morning" and that will include the new heavens and the new earth, the marriage banquet of the Lamb, the defanging of Satan, and the abolition of sin and sorrow forever.
Timothy George is dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and an executive editor of Christianity Today.