When experts argue, it is often hard for laypeople to sort out what really matters from the finer details of the debate. CHRISTIANITY TODAY asked senior editor J. I. Packer to tell our readers what is at stake in the debate between Murray Harris and his critics. This article is a sidebar to our news report:

The bodily rising from the dead of our Lord Jesus Christ is as crucial to Christianity as is the cross itself. Easter Day, when Christians traditionally tell each other “The Lord is risen!” is the highest of the high spots of the Christian year. Paul pointed to Jesus’ resurrection as proof of his divine identity (Rom. 1:4), of the reality of atonement through his death (1 Cor. 15:17), and of the certainty that he will return for judgment (Acts 17:31). No Christian beliefs are more basic. A muddled witness to the nature and significance of the Resurrection must therefore be most damaging.

The meaning of change

In 1985, Murray Harris criticized England’s bishop of Durham for muddling the resurrection witness by affirming Jesus’ risenness while denying the empty tomb. Since 1987, Norman Geisler has been attacking Murray Harris for muddling this witness by affirming that Jesus’ body was so changed in the event of his rising as to be henceforth invisible to human eyes, being no longer material, in the sense in which our present bodies are material.

Harris holds that in the resurrection appearances, Jesus resumed flesh, bones, a digestive system, and solid visibility as before, for the purpose of showing his disciples that he was the identical person who had been crucified (Luke 24:36–43, etc.). It is Harris’s view that this is what the relevant Scriptures most naturally imply. Geisler contends that though the risen Jesus was certainly able to become invisible at will, any denial that flesh, bones, and a digestive system were part of his permanent make-up obscures the bodily character of his risen life in a way that is unacceptably unorthodox, if not indeed positively heretical.

Details of the debate

The following points may be helpful.

1. What is at issue is the mode and details of Jesus’ bodily resurrection, not the fact of it. Harris still negates the bishop of Durham’s denial that Jesus rose in the flesh; his present concern is only to explicate that rising.

2. Teachers are free to explore any line of thought compatible with their institution’s basis of faith, and the teacher who holds no opinions that his peers might challenge is rare indeed.

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3. The nature of resurrection bodies is so mysterious, being right outside our present experience, that any theories about it must be tentative at best.

4. Harris’s hypothesis does, in fact, fit all the relevant texts comfortably, as Harris, a highly skilled exegete, is able to show. It is not the only hypothesis that will fit these texts, but it cannot be dismissed as unbiblical.

5. Harris’s hypothesis is not new: major scholars from Brooke Foss Westcott to George Ladd have maintained it during the past century, without their orthodoxy being questioned. It would seem therefore to merit careful consideration as a serious option rather than summary dismissal as an unorthodox freak.

6. In stating any position, the meaning of individual words and phrases must be determined by reference to the position as a whole. Harris has come under fire for a loose use of words, but there was never any lack of precision in his overall view.

7. A Christian opinion is orthodox if it squares with Scripture and with the consensus of the world church, as expressed in creeds, confessions, and a common mind. The essentials of orthodoxy on the Resurrection are that on the third day Jesus, who died on the cross, came forth bodily from the tomb and was exalted to the Father’s throne, never to die again; that he showed himself repeatedly to his disciples during the 40 days preceding his ascension; and that in heaven his human body, however changed, along with his human mind, remains integral to his being forever. By this standard, both Harris and Geisler appear to be orthodox, and both of them equally so.

8. Harris’s orthodoxy on the Resurrection has already been affirmed after inquiry both by the Evangelical Free Church of America, at whose seminary he teaches, and by his peers in Trinity Evangelical Divinity School itself. It is not now being challenged for the first time.

9. Harris’s affirmation of the permanence of our Lord’s glorified body negates the doctrine of such bodies as Jehovah’s Witnesses, who affirm the entire dissolution of Jesus’ body after his resurrection. To accuse Harris of teaching cultic doctrine because his way of spelling out his affirmation matches one detail of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ ideas is unjust to Harris and confusing to the church.

An ancient debate

The present controversy is in many ways a rerun of an ancient debate.

During the second, third, and fourth centuries A.D., there were two opposing schools of thought regarding the nature of the future resurrection body. The Western, or Latin, school stressed the identity between the body that is buried and the body that is raised. At the resurrection, the material particles that composed the earthly body at the time of death will be reassembled by God’s power to form the glorified flesh of the resurrection body. This view was formulated in opposition to pagans who disparaged the body and Gnostics who despised anything material. The corresponding creedal statement was “I believe in the resurrection of the flesh.” Tertullian, a distinguished lawyer from North Africa, was the most noteworthy advocate of this position.

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The other school, the Eastern, or Greek, emphasized the complete transformation that occurs when the body is raised. At the resurrection, the whole person, soul and body, is radically changed so as to form what Paul calls a “spiritual body,” a body responsive to the spirit and suited to heaven. This view opposed the Docetists, who denied the reality of any resurrection, and the Latin School, with its materialistic view of resurrection. Those who espoused this belief favored the creed that affirmed, “I believe in the resurrection of the body,” or “I believe in the resurrection of the dead.” Origen, an Alexandrian exegete and polymath, was the principal exponent of their view.

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