Concerning the Continued Bodily Existence of Our Lord
The core message of the Christian faith is the life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and imminent return of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:1-7); this whole Gospel message itself gravitates around the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. If Jesus has not been raised, then we are lost in our sins, our faith is in vain, and we of all people are most pitiable (1 Corinthians 15:12-20). And yet in many parts of modern “Christendom,” especially within Evangelicalism, and even among the Lord’s people, the importance and nature of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and the hope of bodily resurrection of believers in Him has been downplayed or neglected. The reasons for such lack of emphasis are legion, involving everything from the continued influence of Greek philosophy and Gnosticism to the overtly “heavenly” emphasis found in the songbook. As a result critical truths of the Gospel, held consistently and firmly by those of “orthodox” Christian belief for generations, has been missed or neglected. Of these none have proven as controversial as whether the Lord Jesus continues to exist in heaven in the resurrection body. In this treatise we shall contend that the Lord Jesus remains in His resurrection body to this day; we shall seek to prove this abundantly from the pages of Scripture.
The Historical Narrative
The story of Jesus’ resurrection is set forth in Matthew 28:1-20, Mark 16:1-20, Luke 24:1-53, John 20:1-21:20, and Acts 1:1-11. We will highlight certain aspects of the story to illustrate our purposes below.
Jesus’ soul/spirit/divinity did not die. At no point in the narrative is it suggested that God the Son died or that Jesus’ soul/spirit died. In Luke 23:43 Jesus assured the thief on the cross of being with Him today in “Paradise”; Peter would insist on Psalm 16:9-11 as David testifying to the resurrection of Jesus: whereas David’s tomb (and ostensibly his body within it) remained in Jerusalem to that day, and so he was not talking of himself, but someone to come, thus Jesus’ soul was not left in “Hades”, but returned to His body which was raised from the dead (Acts 2:25-32). The New Testament provides no confidence for any view which would suggest Jesus suffered spiritual death at any point in His existence; the citation of Psalm 22:1 in Matthew 27:46 need not be true in fact but in perception (and as a reference to the whole Psalm), and if God the Son were to be truly separated from God the Father and God the Holy Spirit in any way for any amount of time, God would no longer be one in relational unity but truly three gods as the pagans and the Muslims allege (contra John 17:20-23). Not for nothing does the text say that “Jesus yielded up His spirit” (Matthew 27:50); His spirit did not die, but experienced the spiritual state of the afterlife until the day of resurrection. Thus resurrection cannot be mere spiritual illumination, enlightenment, or even transformation; Jesus spent time in pure spirit form for a short period of time, and then experienced the resurrection.
Resurrection, by definition, involved the resuscitation of the physical body. Matthew provides a bizarre detail in Matthew 27:52-53, claiming that holy ones came out of the tombs when Jesus was raised, entered Jerusalem, and appeared to many. This claim engenders more questions than it may answer; nevertheless, it again reinforces how within Second Temple Judaism, resurrection was understood first and foremost as the resuscitation/reanimation of the physical body.
The tomb was empty. The Evangelists emphasize the first evidence of the resurrection is the empty tomb. Mary, Peter, and John see the tomb empty; Peter and John note how the grave cloth lay on the ground with the face cloth folded by itself, hardly the behavior of people stealing a corpse in the dead of night (John 20:1-7). Not only is the body not there, but the reason why it is not there is firmly declared by the angel: Jesus is not there, for He is risen (Matthew 28:6).
Similarity and Dissimilarity. Within their narratives the Evangelists note points of similarity and dissimilarity regarding Jesus from before and after the resurrection. The women and disciples perceive Him as Jesus (Luke 24:40-43, John 20:16). And yet neither the women nor the disciples recognize Him immediately; He is able to enter locked rooms, and seems to move between places at speeds not feasible by any human means of the age (Luke 24:16, John 20:26). Granted, there were times in His previous life when Jesus miraculously escaped from crowds (e.g. Luke 4:30, John 8:59); but this seems to be of a different order, perhaps suggesting Jesus had transcended the space-time continuum.
Jesus’ resurrection body was incontrovertibly substantial. The disciples were invited to touch Jesus, to place their hands in His wounds; He ate in their midst, explicitly saying He was not a spirit but had flesh and bones (Luke 24:40-43, John 20:24-29). We have good reason to believe Jesus’ resurrection body was transformed physicality (a la Wright’s “transphysical”; cf. 1 Corinthians 15:50-58, Philippians 3:21), yet sufficiently “physical” to be able to be touched, to consume food, and to be treated as fully human.
Jesus ascended in the resurrection body. The book of Acts began by describing Jesus’ ascension: He had appeared to His disciples as alive many times and taught them regarding the Kingdom; after a final message, Jesus was “taken up,” and a cloud received Him out of their sight (Acts 1:1-9). Two angels then appeared to encourage the disciples, assuring them how Jesus would return from heaven “in the like manner” as they had seen Him received up into heaven (Acts 1:10-11).
At no point in the narrative are we told that Jesus divested Himself of His resurrection body. From the moment of His resurrection through His ascension Jesus is spoken of as appearing to people in the resurrection body.
Evidence for Jesus’ Continued Existence in the Resurrection Body
From the above we have seen Jesus as raised in the body and ascended in the resurrection body. Let us now consider the New Testament evidence demonstrating Jesus’ continued existence in that resurrection body since His ascension.
Jesus as the “Son of Man”. Throughout the Gospels Jesus’ favorite oblique way of speaking regarding Himself is to speak of the “Son of Man.” “Son of Man” represents a good Hebraic idiom; “son of” is a way of denoting a relationship, and at its basic level of meaning “Son of man” means a human, as seen in the equivalent parallelism of Psalm 8:4:
What is man, that thou art mindful of him? / And the son of man, that thou visitest him?
Yet without a doubt Jesus’ use of the “Son of Man” is informed by its use in Daniel 7:13-14:
I saw in the night-visions, and, behold, there came with the clouds of heaven one like unto a son of man, and he came even to the ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and languages should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.
The Danielic “Son of Man” has Messianic connotations for certain, something well understood not only by Jesus but also His opponents (cf. Matthew 26:63-66). Therefore, when Jesus speaks of Himself as the “Son of Man,” He does not merely speak of His humanity, but speaks also of this Messianic role, the one who would receive the everlasting dominion. Nevertheless, even if “Son of Man” means more than “human” when used in reference to Jesus, there is no basis from the New Testament to suggest it means anything less. If anything, Jesus’ resurrection more fully explains how anyone “like a son of man” could enter the heavenly realm and obtain an eternal Kingdom: as we shall see, once Jesus died for sin, death no longer has any power over Him, and so He can continue to live for eternity in the resurrection body as the Son of Man (cf. Romans 6:1-11).
Not only does the Danielic “Son of Man” feature prominently in Jesus’ self-conception and ministry, He will also speak of Himself as the “Son of Man” in demonstrably post-ascension contexts: as in the Kingdom and in returning in Judgment (Matthew 13:41, 16:27-28, 19:28, 24:27, 30, 37, 39, 44, 25:31, 26:64, Mark 8:38, 13:26, 14:62, Luke 9:26, 12:40, 17:22, 24, 26, 30, 18:8, 21:27, 36, 22:69, John 6:62). In this way Jesus expected to remain human after His resurrection and ascension.
Throughout the Bible a human is defined quite specifically as a person made in God’s image with a body and soul/spirit (Genesis 1:26-27, 2:7). We have no Biblical basis to suggest that a person’s disembodied soul/spirit is still reckoned to be a human being. Thus, if Jesus remains the Son of Man and thus human, and Jesus thus remains in the resurrection body, both the Son of God and the Son of Man, to this day.
Stephen’s Witness. It is written in Acts 7:55-56:
But [Stephen], being full of the Holy Spirit, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, and said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God.”
Stephen is about to be martyred for his witness for Jesus. Luke first explained what Stephen saw: a vision of God’s glory and Jesus standing on the right hand of God (Acts 7:55). Luke then records Stephen’s actual words; we do well to note that Stephen calls Jesus “the Son of Man” in this instance. We are to understand a direct association between Acts 7:55-56 and Matthew 26:63/Mark 14:62/Luke 22:69: as Jesus stood before the Sanhedrin and was condemned to death and spoke of the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, so now Stephen stands before the Sanhedrin, about to be killed by its members, but spoke of actually seeing the Son of Man at the right hand of God, and all it would imply based on Psalm 110:1 and Daniel 7:13-14. Nevertheless, Stephen well understood what “Son of Man” meant, and he testified that he saw Jesus as the Son of Man, the Human One, well after His ascension into heaven. Stephen thus bears witness of Jesus’ continuing existence in the resurrection body after His ascension.
Paul’s Witness. The Apostle Paul insisted upon his standing as an eyewitness of the Lord Jesus in 1 Corinthians 9:1, 15:8. The New Testament does not record Paul as seeing Jesus at all during His life, death, or resurrection. The first time Paul is confronted by Jesus is in the vision on the road to Damascus as recorded in Acts 9:1-9 and retold in Acts 22:3-11, 26:12-18. We have some assurance that Paul speaks of this particular episode in 1 Corinthians 15:8: he saw Jesus “last of all,” as one “untimely born,” an ektromati, literally a miscarriage, one born out of due time.
While Paul recognized the temporal difference between his witness of Jesus and those who came before him, he yet nevertheless insisted that his witness was of equal worth and standing as all those who came before. We can know for certain that all the witnesses Paul mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:4-7 saw Jesus in the resurrection body; they are otherwise attested in Matthew 28:1-20, Mark 16:1-6, Luke 24:1-53, and John 20:1-21:25. If they all saw Jesus in the resurrection body, and Paul is an equal witness to them, then Paul must have seen Jesus in the resurrection body as well, even though he saw Him long after his ascension. By considering himself a witness of Jesus in the resurrection, Paul affirmed Jesus’ continuing existence in the resurrection body after His ascension.
Romans 6:1-11. As it is written:
What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. We who died to sin, how shall we any longer live therein? Or are ye ignorant that all we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him through baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection; knowing this, that our old man was crucified with him, that the body of sin might be done away, that so we should no longer be in bondage to sin; for he that hath died is justified from sin. But if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him; knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death no more hath dominion over him. For the death that he died, he died unto sin once: but the life that he liveth, he liveth unto God. Even so reckon ye also yourselves to be dead unto sin, but alive unto God in Christ Jesus.
While Paul here does speak of baptism as a type of resurrection, the ground of its power is in Jesus’ actual, substantive death and resurrection. We have already affirmed that at no point did Jesus’ divinity or soul/spirit die; therefore, the only thing which died or even could die was Jesus’ body. If Jesus divested Himself of His resurrection body and returned to His form as the pre-Incarnate Word (cf. John 1:1), Romans 6:1-11 makes no sense whatsoever. Jesus dies no more because He died to sin; death no longer has dominion over Him (Romans 6:9-10); this was never true of God the Son per se, since God is immortal. It can only refer to Jesus’ humanity. And so when Paul speaks of Jesus as (presently) living in this life He lives to God (Romans 6:10), it must center on His resurrected body, the only “part” of Jesus to truly experience death. In this way Paul also explains how Jesus can continue to serve as Lord for generation after generation: death no longer has power over Him in His resurrection body, and so not only does He endure perpetually within it, we as Christians have the hope of sharing in that perpetuity when our bodies are raised from the dead on the final day (Romans 6:5). Paul’s exposition in Romans 6:1-11 depends upon Jesus’ continuing existence in His resurrection body.
Philippians 3:20-21. As it is written:
For our citizenship is in heaven; whence also we wait for a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: who shall fashion anew the body of our humiliation, that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, according to the working whereby he is able even to subject all things unto himself.
Throughout Philippians 3:1-21 Paul has centered his hope on the resurrection from the dead. As he concludes this part of the message Paul spoke of our confidence as Christians, that Christ will return one day and will transform our lowly bodies to be conformed to the body of His glory, and He will do so through the power which He is presently using to subject things to Himself (Philippians 3:21). Paul here expects us to become then as He is now, a message thoroughly consistent with John’s expectation in 1 John 3:2 (since, as we have seen above from Matthew 25:31 and Acts 1:11, Jesus will return as He came, and as the Son of Man). As in Romans 6:1-11, so in Philippians 3:21: Paul’s exposition depends on Jesus’ continuing existence in His resurrection body.
1 Timothy 2:5. As it is written:
For there is one God, one mediator also between God and men, himself man, Christ Jesus.
By common confession Paul wrote his first letter to Timothy sometime in the early 60s. Paul spoke to Timothy of Jesus as the Mediator between God and men, a role He is able to uniquely fulfill since He is Himself “man,” anthropos in Greek, the word used to speak generically of us as humans. Thus, in 1 Timothy 2:5, Paul spoke of Jesus as human in the present tense, as a continuing reality. As mentioned earlier, a mere spirit/soul is not a human; a human is a person, body and soul/spirit. Thus Paul again confirms Jesus’ continuing existence in His resurrection body over 30 years after His ascension.
Lack of New Testament Contradiction. We have seen the witness of Jesus, the Evangelists, Stephen, and Paul, all of whom attest to Jesus’ continuing existence in the resurrection body after His ascension. We must also note the conspicuous lack of any explicit declaration to the contrary. In no New Testament passage is it declared or even suggested that Jesus divested Himself of His resurrection body when He ascended to the Father or at some point afterward. In no New Testament passage do we hear of a glorification or transformation of Jesus at any point after His resurrection until this day; the text throughout speaks of the moment of transformation and glorification as happening when He is raised from the dead.
From all of this evidence we do well to conclude that Jesus remains in His resurrection body to this day, and will continue to live in His resurrection body until at least the end of Judgment, if not beyond.
With such abundant Biblical evidence and no explicit word which might confuse or contradict the matter, how has such a position become so controversial? We will consider many common concerns and attempt to address them.
A “new doctrine.” Many, upon hearing these things, are concerned that they represent some kind of “new” doctrine, an innovation.
While hearing this may be new to many people, the belief is not itself new. The belief of Jesus as continuing to exist in the resurrection body was affirmed by Christians upholding “orthodoxy” for generations. Even medieval theologians and devotional authors presumed it. For most of the history of Christianity it remained prevalent; it has only been downplayed or neglected within the past few generations. If you do not trust my witness, it is something which Roger Olson, a noted historian of Christian denominations, has noted as well.
We could easily argue that it is the belief that somehow at some point Jesus divested Himself of His body is the new innovation, a Gnostic-esque heresy. May we all be as the Bereans and judge doctrinal presentations by what is written in the Scriptures, not on our impression of what is old or new (cf. Acts 17:10-11).
Theological Concerns. In much of Evangelicalism and among the Lord’s people great emphasis has been placed on Jesus’ divinity and standing as the Son of God. Attempts to insist on Jesus’ humanity are often looked upon with skepticism, often unfairly labeled as associated with the doctrines of Jehovah’s Witnesses or some other such group. In such a climate, consideration of Jesus as remaining in the resurrection body is bound to cause theological concerns, as if one is negating Jesus’ divinity. God is spirit, after all (John 4:24), and we often associate the spiritual realm with heaven, and since in 1 Corinthians 15:50 flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God, how can Jesus have a body in heaven?
We will address 1 Corinthians 15:50 in greater detail below, but for the time being we do well to note that both Enoch and Elijah were translated into heaven bodily (Genesis 5:24, 2 Kings 2:11-12). Our understanding of the spiritual realm is very limited; not enough has been revealed to so definitively declare that Jesus could not remain in His resurrection body in heaven, and anyways, one would still have to contend with all of the evidence given above.
Accepting Jesus’ continuing existence in His resurrection body need not negate or lessen the truth that Jesus remains fully God. Paul affirmed that Jesus was declared the Son of God in the resurrection (Romans 1:4). While we must be careful lest we drift into heresies by which we emphasize Jesus’ humanity over His divinity, as in Adoptionism, Arianism, or as the Jehovah’s Witnesses did and do, we must be equally careful lest we emphasize Jesus’ divinity over His humanity, which is just as heretical, as the Gnostics and Christian Scientists and others did and do. If anything, the latter proves more pernicious: John had to explicitly warn against those who denied the bodily existence of Jesus (1 John 4:1-4, 2 John 1:5-10).
In reality, it is hard for us to imagine how Jesus could be both fully God and fully man. It is the mystery of the Incarnation, that moment when the Word became flesh, and Jesus became Immanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:21-25, John 1:1, 14, 18). But if we accept on faith that Jesus lived in this life as fully God and fully human, there is nothing to stop us to accept that Jesus continues to exist in the resurrection body as fully God and fully human. There is nothing about Jesus in the resurrection body that would not prove equally problematic in terms of Jesus’ Incarnation. Furthermore, the Scriptures never speak of Jesus returning to the same form as He existed before the Incarnation; it is an assumption, an inference being imposed upon the text without any Scriptural warrant to justify it.
For years too much emphasis has been placed on Jesus as the Son of God and not nearly enough on Jesus as the Son of Man and all that demands. We must return to the Biblical balance and affirm both equally; when we do so, we recognize there is no theological difficulty with Jesus remaining fully God and yet also fully human in His resurrection body.
Spiritual Bodies and 1 Corinthians 15:50. On account of the strong “heaven” and “spiritual” emphasis within Evangelicalism and even among the Lord’s people, the bodily element of the resurrection has been neglected or downplayed in many circles. Many look at 1 Corinthians 15:35-50 and in it see a justification for believing in a “spiritual body,” often in contrast to anything physically substantive, and “proven” by 1 Corinthians 15:50a, Paul’s declaration that flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.
There are many difficult and confusing aspects of 1 Corinthians 15:35-58, and we may not be able to make complete sense of everything. Nevertheless, Paul clearly expected Jesus’ resurrection to be the model and example for what all believers in Him will experience on the final day (1 Corinthians 15:20-28). In 1 Corinthians 15:44-46 Paul makes a contrast between the present body as a psuchikos body, and the body in the resurrection as a pneumatikos body. These terms are often translated as “natural” and “spiritual,” which leads to such interpretations as the above, since people all too easily put the emphasis on the “natural” or “spiritual” form. And yet Paul provides a bit of explanation: the psuchikos body we currently have is directly associated with Adam in Genesis 2:7, in which God breathed the breath of life into Adam, and he became a living “soul” (in Greek, psuche). The psuche is here considered the life force within us; therefore, the “psychical” body is enlivened/empowered by the psuche. The corresponding parallel would mean that the “pneumatical” body is enlivened/empowered by the pneuma, or “spirit”, perhaps the Holy Spirit. Thus Paul is not speaking of some ethereal spirit form; he speaks of a body, the pneumatical body indeed, but no less a body.
And so we come to 1 Corinthians 15:50a:
Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God…
On its own it would seem rather damning to any hope of redemption of the body. But this fragment of a verse is not on its own:
Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I tell you a mystery: We all shall not sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?”
The sting of death is sin; and the power of sin is the law: but thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:50-57).
“Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom,” yes, but also “neither doth corruption inherit incorruption” (1 Corinthians 15:50). Paul then speaks of a mystery, of what will happen: we will all be changed (1 Corinthians 15:51-52a). In this change we will be raised incorruptible: this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality, and then death will be fully overcome (1 Corinthians 15:52b-57). It is not our spirit or soul which is mortal and corruptible, but our bodies; thus our bodies will be transformed for immortality and incorruption.
But what of the physical body? It is transformed, yes, but not eliminated. No passage in the New Testament speaks or even frames the discussion of the transformation of resurrection in terms of the destruction or elimination of the physical body. All such discussions of transformation envision it in terms of enhancement, not of reduction. The corruptible body “puts on” incorruption; this mortal body shall “put on” immortality. We yearn, not to be unclothed, but further clothed (2 Corinthians 5:1-4).
Therefore, yes, this present flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God, since we remain mortal and corruptible. But on the resurrection day, this mortal and corruptible flesh and blood will be raised and then transformed to be incorruptible and immortal, and will be able to inherit the Kingdom of God, just like Jesus, on the day of His resurrection, was raised and then transformed to be incorruptible and immortal, and inherited the Kingdom of God and still reigns over it.
There is much we do not and cannot yet understand about the resurrection body (1 John 3:2). Nevertheless, we have confidence we will be like Jesus: He did not become some entirely non-physical, non-substantive “spiritual body,” but a transformed body which could yet be touched and could eat in this plane of existence, and so it will be for us. No, corruptible flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God; but the new heavens and the new earth are reserved for those who obtain the resurrection of life and its attendant resurrection body (John 5:28-29, Revelation 21:1-22:6)!
We have explored the Scriptures surrounding Jesus’ resurrection and continued existence after the resurrection. We have seen from the historical narratives and later doctrinal expositions how Jesus and the Apostles provided strong evidence for Jesus’ continued existence in His resurrection body during the forty days after His resurrection, for years after His ascension, and by all accounts will continue until at least the day of Judgment if not beyond in the resurrection body. We have addressed various concerns regarding this doctrine and have found all detractions wanting. May we recognize and affirm that Jesus continues to serve as Lord in His resurrection body, the Son of God and Son of Man, and eagerly await His return so that we may become like Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry