A non material body?

Theology / Biblical Studies

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Here’s an argument I’ve seen from time to time in theological circles, but it never becomes more plausible, no matter how many times I see it.

One of the apparently embarrassing doctrines of Christianity is the resurrection of the dead. That dead people could return to physical life by a miracle of God is utterly absurd to many. Apparently it’s absurd to a number of people who say they believe the teaching of the New Testament as well. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example say that they believe in an immaterial invisible “spiritual” resurrection. Mind you, they only had to start teaching that when Jesus failed to return in 1914 as the WatchTower society predicted, so they had to start saying that He did…. invisibly! But what about the resurrection that was supposed to happen? Well, they said, that is happening too. Invisibly.

Then there is a wee group called “full preterists,” who also believe in an invisible, immaterial resurrection, that started happening in AD70 or thereabouts. We will never again have a physical body, say these people, and we will be better off as non physical beings forever.

But how do people like this who claim to adhere to the teaching of the New Testament get around what the New Testament says, namely that there will be a bodily resurrection? Well, here’s one way. They point out that 1 Corinthians chapter 15 says that we currently have a “natural” body, but at the resurrection we will have a “spiritual” body, showing that we will be immaterial.

This view of the biblical teaching has literally nothing going for it. In the first place, a body that is not physical is not a body, just like a drink that’s not liquid is not a drink.

But secondly, this view involves importing highly dualistic concepts into texts that really don’t contain them at all. The assumption being made is that the word “spiritual” just means “immaterial.” But in the writing of the Apostle Paul who wrote 1 Corinthians, we know this is just not true at all. In fact, we can see this in 1 Corinthians itself. have a look at 1 Corinthians 2:14-15

The natural (psuchikos) man does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual (pneumatikos) man makes judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgment.

The Greek words for “natural” and “spiritual” here are psuchikos and pneumatikos, respectively, the same words used in 1 Corinthians 15 when talking about the present natural body and the future spiritual body. Notice that the Apostle Paul is talking about living people in 1 Corinthians 2. What is the difference between the natural man and the spiritual man? Is one physical, and the other immaterial? This is clearly not what is meant. But if this is so, why should we assume that “spiritual” means “immaterial” when it comes to the resurrection?

The contrast in 1 Corinthians 15 is not one of physical and immaterial. It is one of “mortal” and “immortal.” “Corrupt” and “incorruptible.” Spirituality is about being right relation with your creator, not about being made of different stuff.

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{ 18 comments… add one }
  • James Rea January 27, 2010, 1:20 am

    Glenn

    I would take issue with your last sentence here. I followed and agreed with all you wrote until right at the death (pun intended) when you appeared to do a u-turn. A post-resurrection body will be made of ‘spirit’, or ‘different stuff’, according to 1Cor 15. Jesus went to some lengths to show his resurrected body had physical presence yet could perform such feats as materialising out of no-where. In 1 Cor 2 Paul is clearly talking in the present tense and it looks as though he puts forward that the in-dwelling Holy Spirit gives a believer the ‘spirituality’ to discern spiritual things. So, the cross provides a spiritual existence yet we still die, but are counted as ones who will become eternal through our bodily resurrection at Jesus’s return. Is this what you meant, or do you believe we are ‘resurrected’ on a declaration of faith as your last line suggests?

    Just need a bijou word of clarification here for me. Cheers.

  • Glenn January 27, 2010, 10:15 am

    James, the resurrection body is physical, which is what I meant when I referred to “stuff.” You say that 1 Corinthians 15 actually teaches that the resurrection body will be made of spirit, but it actually doesn’t say this. It says that the body will be spiritual, but the fact that we ourselves can be spiritual now illustrates that this doesn’t mean non-physical.

    I think it’s a snag for a lot of people. They see a reference to spiritual and misread it as saying that the body will be made of spirit, which is a flat contradiction in terms. If something is “a spirit” then it’s not a body.

  • Giles March 9, 2014, 8:06 pm

    I remember at college studying Ryle’s “The Concept of Mind” and being instantly converted from Mind Body dualism. Maybe he influenced you too? However it does seem to me now that one could conceive of a exchanging this physical body for a hologramatic body if one wants to posit an immaterial intermediate state between death and ressurection. I’m not saying one should but I think the notion is not incoherent.

  • Giles March 9, 2014, 8:10 pm

    If you want to say that wouldn’t be a body, then call it a soul (though one needn’t propose it as a ghost in our machine), I think it would still be coherent.

  • Glenn March 9, 2014, 8:22 pm

    I haven’t read Ryle actually. However Peter Van Inwagen and Kevin Corcoran are materialists who propose a physical intermediate state, which I found fascinating. From memory, PVI suggests that God takes the body at death, leaving behind a replica(!), which Corcoran suggests that God creates a physical body that splits away at death.

  • Doug Wilkinson July 25, 2014, 12:46 pm

    I think the point you’re confused on is the idea that spiritual isn’t physical. In Paul’s time spiritual things were most definitely physical. Platonists may have convinced us since then that this is not correct (and almost all modern Christian theology that I’ve found is based on such Platonic assumptions), but this was not Paul’s point of view. In Paul’s day a person had a spirit as a real, physical part of his identity. If his spirit (having been renovated by contact with God’s spirit indwelling the body) went to be in heaven, because flesh and blood are not suitable for heaven, then it would be his real, physical body doing so. It’s really not a hard concept. It just means using the terminology as a Stoic would as opposed to a Platonist.

  • Glenn July 25, 2014, 3:20 pm

    Doug, I wasn’t expressing confusion at all. What I am saying is that Paul’s own use of the term “spiritual” in general should guide our interpretation of a particular instance of that usage in Paul’s writing.

    Now, there are some people who, I think, are confused by the term “spiritual body,” thinking that it implies something that’s not physical in any ordinary sense. But I’m not one of them.

  • Doug Wilkinson July 25, 2014, 10:26 pm

    Paul’s use of the term should have been reasonably clear to the people that were reading his epistles. In that generation, Stoic cosmology ruled the day. There is no reason I have found to deviate from their basic understanding that pneumas was physical (just like the Hebrew concept of spirit is directly tied to the breath of God or wind). That was their ordinary sense of the word. Just because we’ve changed cosmologies doesn’t change what they thought, even if it doesn’t intuitively make sense to us. The influence of Platonism in Christianity is widespread. It will take a lot of conscious effort to weed it out.

  • Glenn July 26, 2014, 10:52 am

    Doug, I could just be a bit slow this morning, but it’s not completely clear to me what you’re saying. If you’re saying that there is in fact a physical entity called a spirit, and the resurrection body will have properties like those of the spirit, then where is this spirit?

    Paul, as best I can tell, was neither Stoic nor platonist, but thoroughly hebraic in his thought. But the point I’ve tried to drive home here is that the term “spiritual,” for Paul, never had anything to do with what a thing is made of.

  • Doug Wilkinson July 26, 2014, 1:33 pm

  • Glenn July 26, 2014, 1:42 pm

    Thanks for the reading suggestions, Doug. Just quickly though, are you saying that in truth – in reality – there is a physical thing called the spirit, and that the resurrection body will have characteristics that are like this thing called the spirit?

  • Doug Wilkinson July 26, 2014, 2:17 pm

    I think there is a great deal of mystery involved regarding spiritual things. In the scripture the characters were deeply invested in apotheosis. That is the process by which excellent people (by power or quality) become stars when they die. It is the concept behind all of the “lucifer” language, which is occasionally translated “morning star”, but always simply refers to becoming the planet Venus. So, in their world when you died you became like a star in the heavens, with better people being brighter stars. We see this language in not only Daniel 12 but 1st Cor. 15. It was a cosmology that they understood and accepted as common sense, but we see it as odd and obviously wrong. The problem is that all of scripture includes cosmological condescension, meaning that God condescends to talk to the target audience according to the cosmology of their day. But, we know scientifically that some of it was wrong. That causes all sorts of problems when it comes to trying to use scripture to develop systematic theology when we define that as a scientifically tight proposal but using ancient language.

    So, I’d say that I don’t know what spirit is made of. If human knowledge of science were ever perfected and God felt like giving us additional scripture then I suppose he could explain the whole thing to us. But, I doubt this will happen. I think it’s fascinating that the Stoic cosmology of all things being physical is much closer to what modern physicists accept than the Platonic system that most church doctrine was based on (the exception being Eastern Orthodox Church). Likewise, I think it’s fascinating that the only way to get into some sort of gnostic crisis about a “spiritual resurrection” is if you assume a Platonic cosmology. Gnostics weren’t Stoic, so if you come at cosmology from that basic approach (though obviously with some mystery given our understanding of physics) it’s impossible to be accused of a gnostic proposal. Since I think it is clear that Paul understood pneumas to be physical, and he clearly said that flesh and blood are not suitable for heaven, I don’t think that it causes any crisis from his point of view to say that a person’s pneumas will be resurrected to heaven. This would represent a real, physical, individual body in heaven that is suitable for engaging God directly. That’s the closest scripture comes to telling us what will happen. John, who walked with Christ in his ministry, saw him crucified, saw him resurrected, walked with him for 40 days afterwards, and then saw him ascend on a cloud, said clearly that we don’t know what we’ll be like when we get to heaven. The only thing we know is that we will be like him. I think it’s arrogant to demand more than that.

    Doug

  • Glenn July 26, 2014, 2:22 pm

    “when we get to heaven.”

    I’m thinking that this may be a big part of why we don’t think about this in the same way. Going to heaven just isn’t, as far as I can tell, a biblical hope at all.

  • Doug Wilkinson July 26, 2014, 2:49 pm

    “Going to heaven just isn’t, as far as I can tell, a biblical hope at all.”

    That would indeed cause a problem. How far back can you trace the Wright/Alcorn approach to heaven on earth? I’d suggest that it’s a fairly new invention borrowed from chiliasm, which was roundly criticized by the early church – especially the Amillennialists.

    Doug

  • Glenn July 26, 2014, 8:05 pm

    Doug, I’ve held this view for years now – as have many, many others. When NT Wright’s book surprised by hope came out, I had a mixed reaction. Part of me thought “great, with Wright’s support I bet more people will come to see that this is the biblical view.” But part of me though “Oh great, now people will assume that those of us who had already seen this in Scripture are really just jumping on the NT Wright bandwagon.” The latter concern is confirmed in the fact that people are actually calling it “the Wright/Alcorn approach”!

    In modern history this is a view with a rich history. Various Protestant groups and offshoot groups have held the view, including Adventist groups and also some more sectarian offshoot groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. But it had adherents among the Anabaptists and numerous theologians who today are categorised as “mortalists,” believe – as I do – that we are physical creatures who do not have a conscious existence after death (a view sometimes called “soul sleep”). But quite apart from the question of the intermediate state, I think the bodily resurrection to bodily life was the Christian view in the beginning.

    For example, the book of Genesis refers to the physical world around us as the heavens and the New Earth. And in his Epistles, St Peter refers to our future home by talking about a new heaven and a new earth – namely, a physical existence in a restored creation. Tertullian in the second and third centuries spoke of the “resurrection of the flesh,” a term that was normal for Christians to use, indicating that they believed in the resurrection of a very real, corporeal, tangible body, albeit glorified.

    Over time this doctrine has always existed, but alongside an increasingly loud concept of heaven that came to take centre stage. If the doctrine was opposed “especially” by amillennialists, that would only be because amillennialists were the vast majority of the church. But I would be interested in taking a look at some of the criticisms you have in mind. As you can probably guess, however, my response would simply be that such critics are wrong.

  • Jim April 19, 2015, 10:06 pm

    Troels Engberg-Pedersen’s Cosmology and Self in the Apostle Paul – The Material Spirit makes interesting reading from Doug’s list. He seems to advocate an infusion of God’s pneuma that is so intrinsically part of the believer that it is as good as physical. Just as the ‘psychic’ man is an insoluble combination of body and the enlivening breath of God to become a living soul, so the ‘pneumatic’ man has the additional and indivisible portion of God’s pneuma.

    Clearly, Paul appears to indicate that spiritual bodies = material ones. But if flesh and blood do not inherit the kingdom of God, are perishable, corruptible, then what is the nature of the physical body that is eternal?

    We live in times, as did Paul, in which we can see the ‘now, but not yet’ things of God. We get glimpses of the life to come in miracles, healings, peace, freedom from the ensnaring power of sin, but the fullness is yet to be revealed. Creation is still groaning awaiting the full revelation of the sons of God; Jesus has still to return and renew all things.

    So, in simple terms, our sarx/flesh is animated by oxygen distributed by blood – this is what defines being alive through blood in the flesh in our current Adamic state (now). So, if that nature can’t inherit eternal life (yet to come), it will be clothed with something else ie man remains physical but will become animated some other way – Spirit.

    I think the conclusion is how we conceive of what it means to be ‘spirit bodied’ or fully pneumatikos in nature. We have a glimpse of being fully pneumatikos in nature when we live more and more submitted to the leading of the Holy Spirit, but we are still held back from experiencing the post-resurrection fullness in this fleshly fallen sarx nature. After resurrection, we are brought to life and maintained in that new existence not by blood (the old created order) but by the Holy Spirit whose power raised Jesus – a new, more glorious form of man, still embodied, but without recourse to its original psychic means of life – completely pneumatikos.

    This reading of Paul’s pre- and post-resurrection anthropology would seem to make most scriptural sense to me. I’m struggling to understand what alternatives exist for the physicalist.

  • Paul Lucas July 13, 2015, 9:52 pm

    Glenn, what is your view about the present state (post-ascension) of Jesus’ resurrection body? Physical or non-physical?

  • James Cordero November 9, 2015, 12:46 pm

    Jim of 4-19-15, Jeez that was a very helpful, effective commentary. Thank you. Have understood the Spirit to be the life principle that 1. animates the physical body and with Christ, 2. regenerates the whole person. The Spirit sustains both the physical and the moral, ethical and orientational aspects of life. And as Glenn has maintained, doesn’t refer to an ontological status at all. Your outlook on the unacceptability of ” flesh and blood ” really closed the loop on a hazy mindset I’d had. You’ve made knowing in part far more satisfying.

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