By George E. Ladd
We have seen in our chapter on the intermediate state that the Israelites had no doctrine of the immortality of the soul or of its salvation. We meet in the Old Testament only a few glimmers of the Hebrews' confidence that their God was the master of death and therefore even death could not break the fellowship that God's people had enjoyed with him while living in the flesh.
There is, however, more to be said. There emerges clearly in the Old Testament the confidence in resurrection. Since bodily existence is essential to man, we find a few references to the hope of bodily resurrection. This first appears in Isaiah, although in somewhat ambiguous words: "He will swallow up death forever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth; for the Lord has spoken" (Isa. 25:8). Resurrection appears in an unambiguous form in Daniel. "And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt" (Dan. 12:2).
Intertestamental Judaism developed this hope in bodily resurrection, but it is not our purpose to tell this story here. Those who are interested will find it spelled out in my book, I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus (Eerdmans, 1975).
When we come to the New Testament, we find the hope of some kind of blessed existence after death more clearly spelled out (see chapter 3). However, this is not the goal of salvation, and even the New Testament leaves us with many unanswered questions. Since bodiliness is essential to human existence, salvation means the salvation of the whole man. "But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself" (Phil. 3:20-21).
In the New Testament, the idea and hope of resurrection centers altogether in the resurrection of Jesus. The gospels record that on three occasions Jesus raised the dead (the daughter of Jairus, the son of the widow of Nain, and Lazarus). However, these were not resurrections but resuscitations: the dead were brought back to physical, mortal existence, and presumably, after a normal span of years, succumbed again to death. But not so with the resurrection of Jesus. His resurrection means that he has "abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel" (II Tim. 1:10).
The gospels tell us that Jesus tried to prepare his disciples for his forthcoming death and subsequent resurrection. After Peter's confession of Jesus' messiahship at Caesarea Philippi "he began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again" (Mark 8:31; cf. 9:31; 10:34, etc.). One may well ask if this is true, why the disciples were so utterly crushed when Jesus was seized, condemned, and crucified. The answer is that the contemporary Jewish idea of the Messiah did not make room for dying. The idea of Messiah derives from Isaiah 11 which includes the promise, "he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked" (Isa. 11:4). "Messiah" means "anointed one," that is, the promised, anointed, conquering Davidic King. His mission would be to slay the wicked, not be slain by them. It is of primary importance to realize that the Jews did not interpret the picture of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 as the Messiah. The fact is that this chapter nowhere calls the Suffering One the Messiah. The Jewish idea of Messiah appears clearly in the Gospel of John. After the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, the people thronged around him to "take him by force and make him king" (John 6:15). A man with such marvelous powers could surely lead the Jews in a victorious conquest over the Roman armies.
It is a simple psychological fact that people do not learn lessons until they are ready for them. So Jesus' disciples never understood his death until after the resurrection, for the cross was, and remains, "a stumbling block to the Jews" (I Cor. 1: 23). Thus the record in the gospels is psychologically sound.
We must emphasize that Jesus' resurrection was not a resuscitation--that is, a return to physical, mortal life. We have already quoted Paul to the effect that the resurrection of Jesus means the emergence of eternal life and immortality on the plane of history. No one saw Jesus rise from the dead. He appeared to his disciples; they saw him after his resurrection. But no one witnessed the actual resurrection, and this is, as we shall see, because the resurrection transcends all normal "historical" experience.
The earliest account of the resurrection appearances is that of the apostle Paul:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also tome. (ICor. 15:3-8)
Not all of these appearances are described in the gospels, especially the appearances to James and to the five hundred. We are here interested primarily in the appearance to Paul on the Damascus Road. There are three accounts of this appearance which differ in some details but agree in the central facts (Acts 9:1-9; 22:6-11; 26:12-18). These accounts tell us that Jesus appeared to Paul in a manifestation of brilliance and glory, and out of the light came a voice which identified itself as Jesus. In other words, Jesus appeared to Paul in what theologians call a theophany--an appearance of God. It may be called an objective vision: it was a vision because the main visual element was brilliance or glory; however, it was objective in that it did not occur in Paul's mind, but outside of him. Attempts have been made to explain this vision on the basis of our knowledge of parapsychology, but such attempts are futile. The vision to Paul transcends all scientific explanation.
The point that Paul is making in his account of the resurrection appearances is that it was the same Jesus who appeared to him who appeared to the other disciples. We are not required to think that Paul means to say that the form of the appearances was the same, for as we shall see, they were not. Furthermore, when Paul emphasizes the burial of Jesus, he must have in mind the empty tomb; otherwise there would be no point in mentioning that Jesus was buried.
Thus Paul believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, although his resurrected state was one of glory instead of the weakness of his physical existence.
That Paul's experience involves a theophany or an objective vision agrees with what Paul says about the risen Christ. "The first Adam became a living being; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit" (I Cor. 15:45). "Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father" (Rom. 6:4). He "will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body" (Phil. 3:21).
The appearances recorded in the gospels appear to be of a very different sort, Matthew records that as the women were leaving the tomb after seeing the angel, Jesus met them "and they took hold of his feet and worshiped him" (Matt. 28:9). Luke records that two disciples an the road to Emmaus recognized him in the act of breaking bread (Luke 24: 30-31). Luke further records that Jesus told his disciples to handle his body, to be assured that he was not an apparition: "for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have" (Luke 24:40). John records that the disciples were gathered in an upper roam, "the doors being shut, for fear of the Jews" (John 20:19), when Jesus apparently appeared from nowhere and stood in their midst. There follows the famous story of doubting Thomas who was invited to feel Jesus' wounds in his hands and the spear thrust in his side. The record does not say that Thomas did so, but obviously it was possible or Jesus would not have invited it.
The point is that while Paul's experience must be classified as "an objective vision"--the appearance of the glorified Christ--the gospels emphasize Jesus' corporeality. One solution which probably most of my readers will hold is that Jesus was glorified at the time of his ascension. This is possible. However, for reasons which we cannot spell out here, it is equally possible that Jesus rose from the grave in his glorified body, that he appeared in this glory to Paul, but that the appearances recorded in the gospels are condescensions to the earth-bound senses of the disciples (see Ladd, I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus, pp. 127f.). We must remember that the disciples, in spite of Jesus' teaching, were not expecting to see him. All their hopes were incarcerated in the tomb with the dead body of Jesus.
We can imagine their situation if some of us attended the funeral of a friend, saw his casket lowered into the ground, only to be confronted by him face to face three days later. I fear most of us would conclude that our deceased friend had a twin brother whom we had never before seen.
The three facts which emerge from the accounts in the gospels are these: identity. This is the main point. The resurrected Jesus was the same Jesus who was crucified and buried. Continuity. Jesus was raised in bodily form which was capable of making an impact on the physical senses. As we shall see, Paul insists on the bodily nature of the resurrection. Discontinuity. While he was raised in bodily form, it was not the same body. It was a transformed body which possessed new powers. One scholar has expressed it: he was at once sufficiently corporeal to show his wounds and sufficiently immaterial to pass through closed doors. Perhaps this is not an accurate statement. If in his resurrection Christ became a "lifegiving spirit" (I Cor. 15:45), we may understand that at the time of the resurrection Jesus passed into the invisible spiritual world. The basic underlying assumption of the whole Bible is that such a world exists. "Now faith . . . is the conviction of things not seen" (Heb. 11:1). The Bible assumes that we are surrounded by the invisible world of God. From it, Jesus was able to appear to people in history, either by way of a glorious theophany, or in more corporeal ways. The conclusion is that "this same Jesus" is today with all of his people in the Spirit and could make himself visible in any way and at any place and at any time he might choose. Jesus was raised in bodily form, but he possessed powers which transcended the ordinary world of time and space.
Perhaps it may seem to the reader that we are devoting too much time to an exposition of Jesus' resurrection when our main concern is the eschatological resurrection of the saints at the end of the age. The reason for this can be readily seen when we recognize that the resurrection of Jesus was itself an eschatological event. By this we mean to say that the resurrection of Jesus was not an isolated event in the midst of history; it was itself the beginning of the eschatological resurrection.
This can be established by numerous passages. Jesus is called the "first-born from the dead" (Col. 1:18). This means not only that Jesus was the first to rise from the dead (Acts 26:23), but as such, he stands at the head of a new order of existence-resurrection life.
This fact can also be seen in the experience of the early church. Acts tells us that the Sadducees were "annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead" (4: 2). This at first is puzzling. It is a historical commonplace that of the Jews, the Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead, while the Sadducees denied this doctrine (see Acts 23:7-8). However, they lived together and did not quarrel over points of doctrine like the resurrection of the dead. The fact is, there was a wide variety of views in Judaism about the resurrection (see Ladd, I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus) . Why then should it trouble the Sadducees that these disciples of Jesus--this new messianic sect--were preaching resurrection?
The answer is found in the fact that the disciples were not preaching a doctrine, a mere hope for the future. They were proclaiming an event in the present which guaranteed the future. They were preaching in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. Now resurrection was no longer merely a future event, a doctrine, a hope; it had happened in their very midst. If their proclamation was true, it provided an unanswerable denial of the Sadducees' doctrine.
The eschatological character of Jesus' resurrection is most clearly seen in Paul's affirmation that his resurrection was "the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep" (I Cor. 15: 20). "First fruits" means very little to the American city dweller. However, in ancient Palestine it carried a vivid meaning. The first fruits was the actual beginning of the harvest which was offered in sacrifice to God for granting a new harvest. It was not hope; it was not promise; it was the actual beginning of the harvest, which was immediately followed by the full harvest.
So Jesus' resurrection bears the character of first fruits. Although it was not immediately followed by the resurrection of the saints, it still bears the character of an eschatological event. If we may speak inelegantly, God has split off a portion to the eschatological resurrection and planted it in the midst of history.
This means two things. It is the resurrection of Christ that guarantees the the resurrection of believers. Resurrection has become more than a hope; it has become an event. Everything depends upon this event. "If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God....If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished" (I Cor. 15:14-18). Here is an astonishing statement. Can one believe in God and still not believe in the resurrection of Jesus? Does not scripture itself say that "whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him" (Heb 11:6)? Why does faith in God depend on belief in the resurrection of Jesus?
The answer is clear. The God of the Bible is not an aloof deity far removed from man; he is the God who has come near to men in a long series of historical visitations. One scholar has described the God of the Old Testament as "The God who comes." The New Testament record is that this self-revelation of God has come to its fullest degree in the incarnation--in his Word spoken to us in his Son. "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us." Jesus came in the name of the Father claiming to be the Lord over diseas--he healed all kinds of illness; over Satan--he cast out demons; over nature--he stilled the storm. But if Christ is not risen, he is not the Lord of death. Death has the last word, and the entire succession of revelatory events recorded in the Bible is a sackgasse--a dead-end street ending in a tomb.
Christ as first fruits of the resurrection means a second thing. It not only assures our resurrection; it tells us that our resurrection will be like his. When he comes in power and glory, he "will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself" (Phil. 3:21). This means that "what is mortal may be swallowed up by life" (II Cor. 5:4).
The question remains: what kind of a body will we have in the resurrection? We have seen that in both Paul and the Gospels, while the resurrected mode of Jesus' existence appears in a different light, three elements are essential: bodiliness, continuity, discontinuity.
We art fortunate to have from Paul's pen a rather lengthy discussion of this very problem. In I Corinthians 15 he deals with one of the questions the Corinthians had raised. "How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?" (I Cor. 15:35). Paul rebukes the questioners rather sharply, "Fool" (I Cor. 15: 36). It is not entirely clear what the nature of Paul's opponents was. It may have been on either of two fronts, or possibly on both at once. Paul may have been refuting an overly crass emphasis on the physical nature of the resurrection. We know from contemporary literature that some Jews held to a very crude idea of the resurrection (see Ladd, I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus, p. 53), and there appears to have been a "Peter" party, i.e., a Jewish faction in Corinth (see 1:12). However, it is more likely that the problem was with the Greeks who were offended by the idea of resurrection. We know that many Greeks believed in the "salvation" of the soul, but this meant escape from the body. They viewed the body not as something actually evil, but as something that interfered with the cultivation of the soul. The wise man is he who disciplines and controls his body in the cultivation of the soul. The idea of personal immortality would have caused no offense to Greeks, but the idea of bodily resurrection was not a truth they could easily accept.
Paul has already argued that the resurrection of believers is completely dependent on the resurrect]on of Christ (15:3-19). Now he turns to the further question the nature of the resurrection body. His first answer is that it will be a body that is different from the physical body. He argues this by establishing that there are different kinds of body. The stalk of green grain that sprouts from the ground is very different in appearance from the apparently lifeless seed planted in the ground. But between the two, in spite of the obvious difference, there is clearly some inexplicable continuity. The solution to this is found in the words, "But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body" (15:38). So there is a physical body and a resurrection body. They are not the same kind of body; there is difference--discontinuity. But there is also continuity. No see--no stalk. No physical body--no resurrection body.
Secondly, simple observation proves that there are different kinds of fleshly bodies--one for men, another for animals, another for birds, another for fish. There are many bodies on earth and there are bodies in the sky--the sun, moon, and the stars. But there is obviously a difference in these heavenly bodies. The glory of the sun and moon is vastly greater than the glory of the stars.
Then Paul gives us the nearest thing to a description of the resurrection body to be found in the corpus of Scripture: "What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power" (15:42-43). The resurrection body will be imperishable, glorious, powerful. Who ever heard of an imperishable body? Every body known on earth is weak and perishable. The new body will be one suited to the life of the world to come.
Paul sums this up by saying, "It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body" (15:44). It is impossible to translate literally the Greek words Paul uses; they make no sense in English: "it is sown a soulish body." By this Paul means to say it is a body animated by and adapted only to the life of the human soul (psyche). It cannot be a body made of psyche. In the same way the resurrection body is a "spiritual" body--not a body made of spirit, but a body transformed by and adapted to the new world of God's Spirit. In view of these facts, the best translation for the soulish body is "physical," that is, a body like our present weak, decaying, doomed-to-death physical body. Some people think that unless one believes in a "physical" resurrected body, he does not really believe the Bible. The real issue is: is the resurrection a resurrection of the body? And here Paul leaves us in no doubt.
But again, there is both continuity and discontinuity. The new body has something in common with the physical body; Paul does not tell us what this is. But the risen, glorified Christ met Paul on the Damascus road, spoke to him, and enabled Paul to recognize that it really was Jesus, now risen from the dead.
The important thing is that the resurrection body will be like Jesus' resurrection body. "The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven" (15:47). It is not altogether clear what Paul means by the last phrase, whether he is referring to the incarnation, or the resurrection, or the Second Coming of Christ. In the present context it seems best to understand Paul to be referring to the resurrection. In his resurrection and exaltation he returned to heaven--the invisible realm of God's existence--and from this heavenly realm he appeared to the disciples during the forty days, and later to Paul on the Damascus Road. In our earthly bodies we, like Adam, are men of dust-weak, perishable. In the resurrection we shall "bear the image of the man from heaven" (15:49).
It is clear from other Scriptures that the resurrection of the saints occurs at the parousia (Second Coming) of Christ. Paul makes this clear in I Thessalonians: "For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel's call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first" (I Thess. 4:16). That the dead rise "first" is not said with reference to the rest of the dead. The fact is, Paul nowhere in his letters mentions the resurrection of non-saints. "First" means that the dead saints are raised before the living saints are caught up to be with the Lord.
This is paralleled by the resurrection of the saints and of the martyrs in Revelation 20. Revelation 19:11-16 pictures the second coming of Christ in terms of a conqueror. He is seen riding a white horse--a battle charger--riding to destroy Antichrist and those who had followed him. Thus, after the second coming of Christ occurs the first resurrection. Revelation 20:4 designates more than one group of people. John saw first those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus. He saw also those who had not worshiped the beast and its image--apparently believers who had escaped persecution. The dead come to life again and rejoice with Christ a thousand years (20: 4). Then after the millennial reign of Christ they continue on into the age to come, still in their renewed bodies, in a renewed heaven and earth.
Another event which occurs simultaneously with the resurrection of the saints is what we call the rapture. Paul says in I Thessalonians that immediately after the resurrection of the dead in Christ, "Then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so shall we always be with the Lord" (4:17). The word "rapture" comes from the Latin for "we shall be caught up"-rapiemur. The catching up of the living saints to meet the Lord in the air is Paul's way of describing the transformation of the living saints when they put on their spiritual bodies like the dead in resurrection without passing through death.
Paul says the same thing in different words in I Corinthians 15:
We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed; in a moment in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality. Then shall come to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory." (15:51-54)
Resurrection for the dead saints; rapture for the living saints. Thus shall all the saints of all ages enter the life of the age to come.
One problem in the Pauline correspondence is the complete silence on the fate of unbelievers. Paul so closely links the resurrection of saints with the resurrection of Christ that it would be easy to conclude that Paul views the fate of the wicked to be left in the grave.
However, other scriptures are not silent on this point. Acts 24:15 quotes Paul as saying that "there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust." The Gospel of John is a further witness to the resurrection of all men. Jesus is quoted as saying, "do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment" (5:28-29). We are reminded of Daniel 12:2 where some are raised "to everlasting life" and some "to shame and everlasting contempt." It is impossible to say with any certainty that Daniel and John anticipate two resurrections. The most one can say is that both anticipate resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous, the former to blessing, and the latter to judgment and condemnation.
However, Revelation 20 clearly anticipates two resurrections. The first resurrection occurs immediately after the victorious Second Coming of Christ and is followed by the millennium. This is called the "first resurrection" (20: 6) and issues in life. After the millennial reign of Christ, John sees a great white throne before which the earth and sky fled away, "and I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne" (20:12), "and the sea gave up the dead in it, death and Hades gave up the dead in them" (20:13) that they might be judged before the great white throne. John does not so designate it, but we must think of this as the second resurrection. However, Scripture is entirely silent as to the nature of this resurrection or the mode of existence of those raised. This is on of the dark places in Scripture where speculation is no virtue. The one thing that is clear is that the second resurrection is one of judgment which leads to the second death.