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Definition

Resurrection refers to the raising of the dead, although not just in terms of mere bodily reanimation. Biblically it may refer to either spiritual or physical transformation, the former concurrent with regeneration and the latter with re-embodiment on the last day.

Summary

This essay explores the biblical hope of resurrection: how it is foreshadowed in the Old Testament (esp. Dan 12), and further anticipated or proclaimed in the New Testament. The theological significance of the relationship between Jesus’ physical resurrection and the resurrection experience(s) of believers, as well as the nature of the resurrection body is then examined, particularly in relation to the concept of an immediate resurrection at death.

As the closing words of the Apostle’s Creed remind us, orthodox Christianity has always affirmed “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” Indeed, these are two crucial and related facets of Christian hope or eschatology. In biblical thought, death is not a welcome friend that ushers us into the “wide blue yonder.” Rather, death is the last enemy which, though already conquered by Jesus, awaits its final defeat on the coming day when God destroy “the covering [or shroud] that is cast over all peoples … [and] swallow up death forever” (Isa 25:7–8a; cf. 1Cor 15:54–57). What Christians ultimately hope for, therefore, is not a disembodied existence in an extraterrestrial place called heaven, but resurrection life in a new (i.e. renewed) creation, where “God himself will be with them as their God” (Rev 21:3). And this prospect of eternal life (life of the age to come) has been secured “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1Pet 1:3). Indeed, as the Apostle Paul underlines, the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of believers are inextricably linked (1Cor 15:12–28).

The Hope of Resurrection Foreshadowed

The Old Testament has relatively little to say about the hope of resurrection, but God is clearly presented as sovereign over both life and death. The latter is attested in the song of Moses, where God claims to both “kill and … make alive” (Deut 32: 39), and in a similar vein in the song of Hannah, who acknowledges that “the LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.” (1Sam 2:6). Both the sequence (kill[s] … make/brings alive) and parallelism (kills/brings down to Sheol … brings to life/raises up) suggest that God’s power to raise the dead is on view here, rather than simply an ability to rescue wounded or sick people from a premature death. Neither Moses nor Hannah is claiming that God has raised the dead or will do so; only that such is within his sovereign power, should it be deemed desirable or necessary (cf. Gen 22:5; Heb 11:19). While neither speaker had personal experience of such power to raise the dead, this was subsequently demonstrated through both Elijah and Elisha (cf. 1Kgs 17:17–24; 2Kgs 4:18–37; 13:20–21). Thus at least the germ of resurrection hope is arguably reflected in early Israelite theology and experience.

Much more explicit resurrection language is expressed in subsequent OT books, such as Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel. While Isaiah 25:7–9 may be employing the idea of death’s abolition metaphorically, the imagery seems to suggest more than national restoration in 26:19; given the marked contrast with the fate of the wicked in 26:14, individual resurrection is arguably on view. However, this is plainly not the case in Ezekiel 37, where the resurrection of the dry bones portrays Israel’s physical restoration from metaphorical death in exile. Even so, the rhetorical force of Ezekiel’s reassurance here is largely dependent on the plausibility of the idea: resurrection would be an inappropriate and unpersuasive metaphor if it were considered utterly impossible. But however the concept is employed by Isaiah and Ezekiel, there is little doubt over its significance in Daniel 12. Here those “awakened” are physically dead (“sleep in the dust of the earth”), resurrection has eternal consequences (“some awake to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt”), and the faithful (“wise/those who turn many to righteousness”) are gloriously transformed (“shine … like stars”). While arguably falling short of the universal eschatological prospect envisaged in subsequent Jewish and Christian thought, this text unquestionably reflects the most developed Old Testament support for “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”

The Prospect of Resurrection Anticipated 

During the intertestamental period belief in a future resurrection of the dead became more widely embraced within Judaism. Clearly there were some, like the Sadducees, who resisted the idea (Mark 12:18–27; Acts 23:8; cf. Sirach 38:21), not only because they considered it absurd but because they found no support for such teaching in the Law of Moses (i.e. the Pentateuch). However, other evidence from the Hellenistic era (e.g., the Greek translation of the relevant Old Testament texts; explicit mention in 2 Maccabees; implicit attestation in the Wisdom of Solomon, 1 Enoch and other Jewish texts) and the New Testament (e.g., Luke 14:14; John 11:24; Acts 23:6–9) suggests that the idea of a physical resurrection as an eschatological event had become a fairly standard Jewish belief by the first century. Accordingly, for many if not most Jews, Jesus’ teaching on resurrection would have been radical or unintelligible only insofar as it anticipated such an event prior to the last day (e.g., Mark 9:9–10; Luke 24:45–46; John 2:19–20; 5:24–26; 20:9).

However, as well as anticipating a spiritual resurrection for his followers (John 5:25) and an imminent physical resurrection for himself (Luke 9:21–22), Jesus clearly endorsed the more traditional concept as well: an eschatological resurrection of the dead (Luke 11:31–32; 20:34–38; John 5:28–29; 6:39–58; cf. John 12:48). Indeed, such an event is prefigured in some of his miracles, most notably the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:35–43), the widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7:11–17), and his friend Lazarus (John 11:1–44). While none of these constitutes resurrection in the fullest biblical sense (i.e., being raised to immortal life), like their Old Testament counterparts they foreshadow this eschatological reality. As such, it is arguably problematic to construe the latter as being anything less than a reanimation of the dead involving significant continuity between their natural (mortal) and their spiritual (immortal) bodies. Such a conclusion is further suggested by Paul’s anticipation of “the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:23), as well as the resurrection body of Jesus himself (John 20:27).

The Fact of Resurrection Proclaimed

For New Testament authors, Jesus’ resurrection is not only archetypal, but guarantees the future resurrection of believers (Acts 26:23; 1Cor 6:14; 15:20, 23; 2Cor 4:14; Col 1:18; Rev 1:5), who are united to him both in his death and resurrection (Rom 5:9–11; 6:3–5, 8–11; 8:11; Col 2:12; 3:1; cf. Rev 20:4–6). While in some measure Christians experience the future now (i.e., the life of the coming age), the complete and untarnished reality awaits the last day, when “the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (1Cor 15:52). This and other New Testament passages (e.g., Acts 24:14–15; 1Thess 4:16–17; Phil 3:20–21; Rev 20:11–15) plainly associate the future resurrection of the dead with the Lord’s return and the final judgment. The idea of an immediate post-mortem resurrection experience is difficult to correlate with this. Advocates of an instantaneous “resurrection” must therefore look elsewhere to defend such a concept (principally, 2Cor 5:1–10), and conclude that over time the apostle Paul must have changed his mind. The main difficulty with this, however, is that Paul’s teaching on this matter is consistent across all his letters—including those written after 2 Corinthians, such as Romans and Philippians. Moreover, 2 Corinthians 5 is not indisputably suggesting that believers receive their resurrected bodies the moment they die. The loss of our earthly tent (mortal body) and the acquisition of our eternal house (resurrection body) are not necessarily simultaneous, especially if “being at home with the Lord” (2Cor 5:8) equates with “being away from the body” (2Cor 5:6) or being “unclothed” (2Cor 5:4). Thus understood, Paul has two post-mortem scenarios in mind in this passage: our final, resurrected state (2Cor 5:1–5), and our interim, disembodied state prior to this (2Cor 5:6–9). While the nature of the latter (being with the Lord) allows Paul somewhat reluctantly to welcome death, his ultimate Christian hope is to be clothed with his heavenly dwelling (the immortal clothing of his resurrection body). Paul provides his most detailed discussion of the latter in his earlier letter.

The Nature of the Resurrection Body and Life Everlasting

In response to the cynicism of resurrection skeptics in the Corinthian church, Paul reflects on the nature of the resurrection body in 1 Corinthians 15:35–57. While not denying some degree of continuity with the natural body, Paul’s emphasis here is clearly on the discontinuity between the mortal body inherited from the first Adam and the immortal body secured through the second Adam. He illustrates such by noting:

  • The difference between the seed sown and the plant produced (vv. 37–38);
  • The different types of ‘flesh’ and ‘bodies’ even in the natural realm (vv.39–41).

He then underlines the differences between the natural and the spiritual body in vv. 42–49 as follows:

  • The body buried (“sown”) is perishable, but raised imperishable.
  • The body is buried in dishonor, but is raised in glory.
  • The body is sown (buried) in weakness, but is raised in power.

In short, the resurrection body will be like that of Christ (1Cor 15:49; cf. Phil 3:20–21).

Paul is not suggesting that resurrection or “spiritual” bodies will be non-physical, but rather that the natural body inherited from Adam is unsuitable for an eternal inheritance because it is subject to decay (1Cor 15:50). This is why everyone must undergo change—even those who have not experienced death before the last day must undergo the kind of transformation effected through resurrection to be suitably “attired” for their eternal inheritance (vv.51–53). While Paul is clearly thinking here only in terms of Christians, it is clear from elsewhere that he understood the eschatological resurrection and final judgment to encompass all humanity (Rom 2:5–16; Acts 17:31; 24:15). What kind of body the resurrected wicked will have is nowhere spelt out, but presumably it must likewise be suitable for their eternal fate, however this is understood.

Further Reading

In relation to Biblical Theology

  • Anthony Hoekema
  • Richard Longenecker (ed.)
  • Life in the Face of Death: The Resurrection Message of the New Testament
  • Paul R. Williamson
  • N. T. (Tom) Wright

In relation to contemporary debates

  • Murray J. Harris
  • From Grave to Glory: Resurrection and Immortality in the New Testament
  • Purchase: Amazon
  • Review: JETS
  • Richard Middleton
    • A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology
  • Paul R. Williamson
  • Tom Wright

This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA 3.0 US), allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.