At funerals, it is not unusual to hear someone say, “He has received his new body.” I certainly understand the impulse to say comforting and encouraging things for the sake of those who are grieving. Furthermore, I don’t believe every cliché or platitude, which has no basis in Scripture, needs to be corrected or addressed. However, we must make sure our words don’t undermine the truth of the Gospel.
Body and Spirit
There shouldn’t be any controversy about the word, “body.” The word “body” refers to something that is physical, tangible, and material. A person’s present body is what is being buried in the grave. It is the aspect of the person that has died. Everyone can likely agree on that much.
The word, “spirit,” on the other hand, refers to the invisible and immaterial aspect of a person. Both in Hebrew and Greek, the word we translate, “spirit” also means, “wind” or “breath.” The spirit comes from God and invisibly animates and gives life to our material bodies. A person has died when there is no longer “spirit” or “breath” in their body (see James 2:26).
It is natural to ask, of course, what happens to the spirit when it departs from the body? It may surprise you to know, Scripture says very little on this point. The writer of Ecclesiastes said, “The dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7). The Apostle Paul described death as, departing to “be with Christ.” Encouragingly, he added that doing so would be, “far better” (Philippians 1:23) than continuing to live in his present situation.
The spirit returns to the Lord. That is what Scripture says. However, it does not say departed spirits have received new bodies. In fact, to claim they have already received new bodies is to implicitly deny the next—and most important part—of our Christian story.
Resurrection of the Body
The hope of the Gospel is not that our spirits will go to a blissful ethereal realm, free from the trappings of physical bodies, for eternity. That is what many ancient religions and philosophies taught. However, that is not what Jesus or the apostles taught. The Christian hope has always been in the resurrection of the dead (Acts 26:6-8).
When Jesus and the apostles described “resurrection,” they were describing dead bodies coming alive again. That is what the word, “resurrection” means. Paul wrote, “He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Romans 8:11). Read that one more time. God will give “life to your mortal bodies.” The same body that is buried in the grave will be redeemed when God gives life to it in the resurrection.
The resurrection, in which God will give “life to your mortal bodies,” has not happened yet. To say the resurrection has already happened, or that it will never happen, is heresy. In other words, it is a teaching that is contrary to the fundamental truth of the Gospel. In fact, denying the future bodily resurrection was one of the first heresies to be condemned in the early church.
Two men, Hymenaeus and Philetus, taught that the resurrection of the dead had already happened. Paul said their talk was like “gangrene,” ruining those who listened, and leading people into ungodliness (see 2 Timothy 2:14-19). There were also teachers who, because they lacked the spiritual imagination to picture what the resurrection body would be like, denied the coming resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:12). Paul warned Christians that keeping company with these teachers would corrupt their morals (1 Corinthians 15:33).
Isn’t that a little harsh? Why did Paul believe the doctrine of bodily resurrection was so important? What does future resurrection have to do with living a moral and godly life?
The Lord is FOR the Body
There were many people in the ancient world whose thinking had been shaped by philosophers like Plato. They believed the physical body was unimportant, corrupted, and disposable. This sort of thinking eventually crept into Christian circles and became part of the heresy we call, “gnosticism.” Sadly, this thinking is still prevalent in Christian circles today.
When people believe their material bodies are relatively unimportant or hopelessly corrupt, it isn’t hard to see why they might use their bodies in sinful ways. Apparently, some in Corinth were making similar arguments to defend sexual immorality. They said things like, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both” (1 Corinthians 6:13, NIV). In other words, they believed that fulfilling their sexual appetites was just like eating food and it didn’t matter because their bodies were meant for destruction anyway.
Paul responded to their argument by saying, “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.” Don’t miss this point, the body is “for the Lord and the Lord for the body.” The Lord is not against your body. He is heavily invested in the use and destiny of your body. Paul is making a resurrection argument, saying, “God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power” (1 Corinthians 6:14).
Because of the coming resurrection, our bodies are sacred. They are the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). If these bodies are meant only to return to dust, who cares what we do with them? But if the Lord plans to raise them up on the Last Day, then how we use our bodies truly matters.
A Spiritual Body
Perhaps what makes some people believe we will receive a new body immediately when we die, rather than at Christ’s second coming, is a misunderstanding of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul has several phrases that can easily be misunderstood.
First, the context of 1 Corinthians 15 is Paul’s argument, Christians will experience the same sort of resurrection Jesus experienced (vs. 12-20). Jesus’ crucified and buried body was raised and transformed. Paul argues that we will similarly be resurrected and transformed.
According to Paul, when our body is raised and transformed, it will be “spiritual” and “heavenly,” no longer “flesh and blood.” Understandably, some assume these phrases mean our transformed body will not be physical or tangible. However, if this were the case, resurrection would be completely superfluous. Why raise a physical body just to dematerialize it?
Pay careful attention to the contrast Paul is making. Our present bodies are “natural” and “earthly.” He isn’t talking about them being visible, material, or tangible. He is talking about them being weak, from the dust, and susceptible to sin and death. These bodies are the result of “natural” procreation and they are in desperate need of transformation.
Our new bodies, by contrast, will be the result of the Spirit’s work. That is why they are called “spiritual.” It is not because they will cease to be physical, but because God will give life to our mortal bodies through the Spirit (Romans 8:11). These new bodies will be heavenly, because rather than just being of the dust, power from heaven will give them immortality. Our new bodies will not have the same “flesh and blood” weakness they have now.
Our new bodies will be new, glorious, powerful, immortal, imperishable, and undefiled. The power behind this resurrection will come from heaven through the Spirit, making our new bodies heavenly and spiritual. So, your new body will not be the same as your present body, but it will be a transformed version of this one.
Resurrection doesn’t happen when we die. Resurrection will happen when Jesus comes again (1 Thessalonians 4:16). Death is not the conclusion in the Christian story. Death is the problem in the Christian story.
I completely understand the desire for closure when someone dies. However, resolution is so much better than mere closure. We have to wait and be patient for Jesus to truly resolve the problem of death. We are waiting for death to be destroyed (1 Corinthians 15:26). Jesus will undo all of the damage death has done to God’s people. That is the Good News!
It may seem like no big deal to say someone has “received their new body” when they die, but it undermines the Christian message. When a Christian dies, we should understand that death has temporarily interrupted their bodily existence. However, Jesus will someday raise the bodies of the dead, transform his people so they are immortal, and thereby destroy death forever!
This message brings the greatest comfort of all, because it is true.
I love you and God loves you,