Most Christians today believe that three days after he had been killed, Jesus' dead physical body literally came back to life and walked out of the tomb. Is this what Christianity originally taught? Let's take a look at what the New Testament writings actually say.
The New Testament writings contain two separate, opposite and contradictory viewpoints concerning resurrection. The earliest and, I might add, the most authoritative accounts of resurrection state that resurrection is in the "spirit" and not in the "flesh." An account that was written much later declares that resurrection is in the "flesh" and not in the "spirit". Since these statements are directly contradictory to each other, obviously they both can't be right. Which version of resurrection is true? Which should we accept?
The twenty fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke contains the most explicit statement supporting a literal, physical, fleshly viewpoint.
"And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit. And he said unto them, Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have."- Luke 24:36-39 (KJV)
According to this account, Jesus appeared to the Apostles after his own death. They wondered whether they were seeing a "spirit". Jesus assured them that he is not a "spirit"... "a spirit hath not flesh and bones" as you see that Jesus had. Clearly this passage teaches that the resurrection of Jesus was not in "spirit"... instead it was in "flesh". This passage is one of the primary reasons why most churches throughout Christian history adopted a literal, physical, fleshly interpretation of resurrection.
The New Testament also contains other passages which state that resurrection has nothing to do with "flesh"... that it's reality is "spirit". In 1 Corinthians 15 the Apostle Paul gives us the first written explanation of resurrection in all of the Christian writings. This letter not only is the first written commentary on resurrection in all of Paul's writings but, since Paul's entire body of writings were written years before the Gospels were composed, it's also the first written explanation of resurrection in all of the New Testament writings. Also, since it comes from Paul himself, it's one of the most authoritative statements on resurrection in the entire Bible.
In 1 Corinthians 15, in answer to the question: "How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?" Paul begins his commentary on resurrection by explaining that there are different kinds of bodies. He tells us:
"For not all flesh is alike, but there is one kind for men, another for animals, another for birds and another for fish. There are celestial bodies (the kind of bodies people will have in heaven) and there are terrestrial (EPIGEIOS= the kind of body we have here on earth) bodies."
Paul continues by using the analogy of a seed to explain that we are transformed at death from one bodily form to another. He says:
"What you sow [a seed] does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body which is to be... So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable... It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Lo! I tell you a mystery... we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye."-1 Corinthians 15 (RSV )
Paul was trying to explain that when a seed is planted, what grows out of that seed is not the same seed that was planted. It is "changed" into something different and better. The seed grows into a plant or a tree.
According to Paul, the same thing happens when we die. We are "changed" into something different and better. Paul explains : "It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body (PNEUMOS SOMA= spirit body)."-1 Corinthians 15 (RSV)
"WE... WOULD PREFER TO BE AWAY
FROM THE BODY"
Paul also wrote a second letter to the Corinthians. Evidently these new Christians were still having difficulty grasping Paul's doctrine of resurrection, so he gave them a second explaination... this time in more detail.
Speaking again of what happens to a person when they die, Paul wrote:
"Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands... as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would PREFER to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done in the body, whether good or bad." -2 Corinthians 5 (NIV)
Later, towards the end of his ministry, after enduring hardships for many long years, Paul again wrote that he too was looking forward to the time when he would die and leave his body behind. He wrote:
"I am torn two ways: what I should like is to depart and be with Christ... but for your sake there is greater need for me to stay on in the body." -Philippians 1:23 (NEB)And again, shortly before he was beheaded. Paul wrote:
"the time of my release is here." -2 Timothy 4:6 (IB)
Notice what Paul is saying here. He says that when a person dies, they leave their body behind and go to be with the Lord in heaven. Notice also that Paul says that we should "PREFER" to be away from the body and at home with the Lord". In a later passage Paul comments that he was happily anticipating his own death.
The Apostle Peter made a similar statement just before he was crucified. Speaking of his own immanently impending death, Peter wrote:
"I think it right, as long as I am in the body, to arouse you by way of reminder, since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ showed me..." - 2 Peter 1:13 (RSV)
Peter knew that he was soon going to be executed. He refers to his own death as "the putting off of my body." Peter knew that when he died, he was going to leave his body behind and go to heaven in the spirit.
Speaking of Jesus' death and resurrection the Apostle Peter explains that Christ was "put to death in the flesh (SARX), but made alive in the Spirit (PNEUMA)." -1 Peter 3:18 (IB)
Peter taught that when Jesus' fleshly body died... he was raised "in the Spirit".
Can you see what Paul and Peter are saying in these passages? When the "physical body" dies, the "spiritual body" survives. The spirit leaves the body and goes to be with our Lord in heaven. They both explain that this is something that is so wonderful that not only should we not fear death, but we should joyously look forward to it. In fact, Paul says that we should "prefer" it.
Peter and Paul showed us that there is a reason for cultivating spiritual qualities in our lives. They taught that when we die, that's not the end. In fact, it's just a new beginning. When we die we go to receive our "reward in heaven."-Matthew 5:12 (KJV)
Peter and Paul's explanation of resurrection is totally consistent both with the Jewish Writings and with the Baha'i Writings: In the Jewish Book of Ecclesiastes we read:
"Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return to God who gave it."-Ecclesiastes 12:7 (KJV)
In the Baha'i Writings there are many passages that explain what happens when a person dies. Here are just a couple:
"I have made death a messenger of joy to thee. Wherefore dost thou grieve?" -Hidden Words of Baha'u'llah #32
In the Book of Gleanings Baha'u'llah writes:
"And now concerning thy question regarding the soul of man and its survival after death.
Know thou of a truth that the soul, after its separation from the body, will continue to progress until it attaineth the presence of God, in a state and condition which neither the revolution of ages and centuries, nor the changes and chances of this world, can alter. It will endure as long as the Kingdom of God, His sovereignty, His dominion and power will endure. It will manifest the signs of God and His attributes, and will reveal His loving-kindness and bounty. The movement of My Pen is stilled when it attempteth to befittingly describe the loftiness and glory of so exalted a station. The honor with which the Hand of Mercy will invest the soul is such as no tongue can adequately reveal, nor any other earthly agency describe. Blessed is the soul which, at the hour of its separation from the body, is sanctified from the vain imaginings of the peoples of the world. Such a soul liveth and moveth in accordance with the Will of its Creator, and entereth the all-highest Paradise. The Maids of Heaven, inmates of the loftiest mansions, will circle around it, and the Prophets of God and His chosen ones will seek its companionship..." -Baha'u'llah: Gleanings, page 155
JESUS' DEATH AND
The principle of "spiritual" resurrection is also clearly illustrated in the Gospel accounts of Jesus' death. Three of the four Gospels record what could be the most famous death in history.
As Jesus was dying on the cross he exclaimed:
"Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit (PNEUMA): and having said thus, he gave up the ghost (EKPNEO= the PNEUMA departed)."-Luke 23:46 (KJV)In Matthew it says:
"when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit (PNEUMOS)."-Matthew 27:50 (NIV)And finally, in the Gospel of John, Jesus said:
"'It is finished.' with that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit."-John 19:30 (NIV)
These passages seem to be clear enough. When Jesus died, his body returned to the earth while his spirit "returned unto the Lord who gave it."
Another statement from the Book of James confirms these viewpoints. James wrote that when the spirit leaves the body:
"the body without the spirit is dead." -James 2:26 (KJV)
When we look again at 1 Corinthians 15, we see that Paul continues his commentary on resurrection by next explaining how Jesus "rose again from the dead."
"For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive... Thus it is written, 'The first man Adam became a living being'; the last Adam [who was Jesus] became a life-giving spirit (PNEUMA)... flesh and blood (SARX and HAEMA) cannot... inherit the kingdom of God." (RSV)
In his letters, Paul repeatedly refers to Christ's resurrection. However this passage from 1 Corinthians 15 is the only explicit explanation of Jesus' resurrection in all of Paul's writings. According to Paul, when Jesus died, he "became a life-giving spirit."
The Apostle Peter also only explains the resurrection of Jesus one time in
all of his writings. Peter wrote that
"put to death in the flesh (SARX),
but made alive in the Spirit
(PNEUMA)." -1 Peter 3:18 (IB)
Notice what Peter and Paul are saying here. Nowhere in any of their writings do Peter or Paul ever state that the resurrection of Christ was fleshly or physical. Nowhere in their writings will you find any empty tomb stories. Why not? It's because Peter and Paul never taught such things. Peter taught that when Jesus' fleshly body died... he was raised "in the Spirit"... while Paul taught that after Jesus was killed he "became a life-giving spirit." The other non-authoritative accounts of resurrection that clearly contradict Peter and Paul were written years after Peter and Paul had both been executed.
The Baha'i writings agree with Peter and Paul's explanations of resurrection. The Baha'i Writings tell us that:
"The resurrections of the Divine manifestations are not of the body. All Their states, Their conditions, Their expressions, Their parables and Their instructions have a spiritual and divine signification, and have no connection with material things." -Some Answered Questions p.103
Some literal minded people may still rightly ask, "if the resurrection of Jesus was not physical... then how can his appearances after his resurrection be explained?"
Let's begin examining this question by taking a look at what Paul wrote about Jesus' appearances after his death. In First Corinthians 15 again, Paul provides us with the first list ever compiled of people who saw the resurrected Christ. Keep in mind that this letter is the first... the oldest mention of resurrection in all of the New Testament writings.
In his list Paul wrote that Jesus
"appeared to Cephas (Peter) , then to the twelve . Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time... Then he appeared to James , then to all the Apostles . Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me (Paul)." -1 Corinthians 15:5-8 (RSV)
The resurrected Jesus also appeared to Paul.
What's unusual about this list is that Paul names himself as one of Jesus' resurrection eyewitnesses. This is surprising because Paul never met Jesus... at least not in the flesh. Paul's dramatic conversion to Christianity on the road to Damascus didn't take place until years after the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Christ.
So, how could Paul have been a resurrection eyewitness? One clue which helps us to understand this apparent contradiction is found in the book of Acts where it says that when Jesus "appeared" to Paul... it was a "heavenly vision" (OURANIO OPTASIA), "a light from heaven." -Acts 26:13 (IB)
If, as Peter and Paul taught, Jesus was resurrected "in the Spirit" and if Paul saw the resurrected Christ, not in the flesh, but spiritually in a "heavenly vision"... then why would anyone assume that his appearances to the other resurrection eyewitnesses wouldn't also the same?
For example, Sunday morning when the women followers of Jesus went to the tomb the New Testament account says that they saw angels. These angels are clearly identified in this passage as "a vision" (OPTASIAN). -Luke 24:23
Later, when Christ appeared to two of his disciples on the road "they didn't recognize him". Then, when they finally realized who he was, "he vanished out of their sight". -Luke 24:31 (LNT)
Even later, the ""Disciples were meeting behind locked doors... when suddenly Jesus was "standing there." -John 20:19 (LNT) Can a physical body suddenly appear in a locked room? No? Can a "heavenly vision"? Yes.
Another statement from the gospel of Mark offers one explanation of these sightings. Here it says that after his death Jesus "appeared in another form (ETERA MORPHE) to two of them, as they were walking into the country." -Mark 16:12 (RSV)
In what form could Jesus suddenly appear and then, just as suddenly "vanish"? What kind of body can "suddenly" appear in a locked room? Physical bodies can't... but then again, that's not what Paul saw was it? When Paul saw the resurrected Christ, it was not in the flesh, it was in "another form," it was a "heavenly vision".
THE OTHER RESURRECTION STORIES IN THE
Most people don't know that the Bible actually contains quite a few resurrection stories. For example, in the Old Testament there's a story of a widow's son who was resurrected by Elijah. (1 Kings 17:17-22) Elsewhere, there are stories of a Schunammite's son and an unnamed man who were resurrected by Elishah. (2 Kings 4:32-53 & 13:20)
In the New Testament, Jairus' daughter, another widow's son and Lazarus were resurrected by Jesus. (Mt 9:23-25, Luke 7:11-15 & John 11:43) Dorcas was resurrected by Peter (Acts 9:36-40) and Eutychus was resurrected by Paul. (Acts 20:9) And this isn't even the entire list.
In the Gospel of Matthew we are told that, at the time of Jesus resurrection, "many bodies of the saints... came out of the graves... went into the holy city, and appeared unto many." -Matthew 27:52 (KJV) Why is there no mention of this incredible event in Jewish history? How many resurrected Jewish saints were there walking around Jerusalem at this time? Hundreds? Thousands? What did the resurrected "saints" do in the "holy city" and where did they go when they left? Or did they leave? Did they die? Or could they still be there... living somewhere today in modern Jerusalem? Was this a literal resurrection? Or was this a "heavenly vision" too? No one knows for certain, the Bible doesn't say.
In the story of Jesus' transfiguration, it says that Elijah and Moses appeared with him on the mountainside. Moses obviously must have been resurrected from the dead too, because, although he had died twelve centuries before... there he was, alive and talking with Jesus. When the disciples saw these two other men of God, they asked Jesus whether they should prepare "three booths (or shelters) here, one for You and one for Moses and one for Elijah"? This, of course, would not have been necessary, since Moses and Elijah were never physically there. Jesus later told them to "Tell no one the vision (ORAMA= supernatural vision)". -Matthew 17:9 (RSV)
Apparently the appearance of Moses and Elijah with Jesus on the mountainside was so realistic that even eyewitnesses couldn't see that it was a "vision". Jesus had to explain it to them before they could understand.
In the story where Jesus resurrected Lazarus from the dead, he offers this additional insight into his teachings on resurrection. Jesus said:
"I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die." -John 11:25
Was Jesus speaking literally here, in terms of physical bodies? If he was, then this would mean that all the believers up until that time who had died had already been physically raised from the dead. It also would mean that hundreds of millions of "living" Christians since that time never really died and are still living somewhere here on the earth today!
When teachings such as these are interpreted literally, they become little more than "mythology." However, when they are understood spiritually, they help us to "understand" the inner reality of resurrection as Peter and Paul taught it.
Paul clearly taught that what "is sown a physical body... is raised a spiritual body". And Peter couldn't be more explicit when he wrote that when Christ "died in the flesh" he was resurrected "in the spirit".
This authoritative Christian viewpoint is in complete agreement with the
Baha'i interpretation of resurrection. Abdu'l-Baha wrote:
resurrections of the Divine Manifestations are not of the body. All Their
states, Their conditions, Their acts, the things They have established, Their
teachings, Their expressions, Their parables and Their instructions have
a spiritual and divine signification, and have no connection with material
EXAMINE YOURSELVES... TEST
The Apostle Paul advised people who consider themselves to be Christian to: "examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves." -2 Corinthians 13:5 (NIV)
And he also warns: "Do you still hold fast the gospel as I preached it to you? If not, your conversion was in vain?" -1 Corinthians 15:2 (NEB)