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The Nature of Resurrection

By Gary F. Zeolla

Did Jesus rise bodily from the grave? And will there be a bodily resurrection of people in general? Most Christians today would answer "yes" to both of these questions. But there are those who believe otherwise.

The first to deny the Christian doctrine of a bodily resurrection were the Gnostics of the first through third centuries. Many involved in the New Age Movement today hold views similar to the early Gnostics. And the modern-day group know as Jehovah's Witnesses deny the bodily resurrection of Christ.

This subject will be investigated by first looking at Gnosticism and the post-apostolic Church. It will then evaluate the position of Jehovah's Witnesses in the light of the Bible.


Gnosticism was the first major heresy Christianity had to combat. It began in the first century. Paul's letter to the Colossians and the epistles of John reflect the struggles these apostles had with "incipient gnosticism."

Gnosticism became full-blown in the second century. One major question the Gnostics and the Church Fathers were at odds over was, "What is the nature of resurrection?"(1)

Resurrection in Gnosticism

Kurt Rudolph explains the concept of resurrection in gnosticism, "For the Gnostic any resurrection of the dead was excluded from the outset; the flesh or the substance is destined to perish. 'There is no resurrection of the flesh, but only of the soul', say the so-called Archonites, a late Gnostic group in Palestine."(2)

What exactly was meant by a "resurrection of the soul" is not always clear. Different Gnostics groups probably had different conceptions. However, one thing is clear and was universal in Gnostic groups - they all denied the idea of a PHYSICAL resurrection of Jesus and of people in general.(3)

Elaine Pagels writes:
Another group of Gnostics, called Sethites because they identified themselves as sons of Seth, the third child of Adam and Eve, say the disciples, deluded by "a very great error," imagined that Christ had risen from the dead in bodily form. But the risen Christ appeared to "a few of these disciples, who he recognized were capable of understanding such great mysteries," and taught them to understand his resurrection in spiritual, not physical, terms.(4)

Pagels explains the reason for this denial of a bodily resurrection, "For the Gnostics stood close to the Greek philosophic tradition (and, for that matter, to Hindu and Buddhist tradition) that regards the human spirit as residing "in" a body - as if the actual person were some sort of disembodied being who uses the body as an instrument but does not identify with it."(5)

This belief stemmed from the idea that matter was inherently sinful while spirit was inherently good.(6) The Gospel of Thomas states, "Indeed, I am amazed at how this great wealth (the spirit) has made its home in this poverty (the body)."(7) For Gnostics, Greeks, and others with this attitude, a bodily resurrection would be a re-entrapment of the "good" spirit within the "evil" body. Thus, in Paul's speech at Athens, "when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked" (Acts 17:32).

Gnostic Gospels

ScrollTo support their ideas, various Gnostic sects wrote their own gospels. Some of these gospels claim to contain "secret teachings" Jesus gave to the apostles. These secret teachings were known as "gnosis" - hence "gnosticism."(8)

Other Gnostic gospels claim to be records of teachings Jesus gave to people other than the twelve apostles when he appeared to them in visions. Examples of Gnostic gospels are: The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Philip, The Gospel of Mary and The Gospel of Truth.(9)

These Gnostic gospels are part of what is known as the Apocrypha of the New Testament. These are, "Books dating from the second century and later which, being judged by the church to be spurious, were not accepted into the canon of the New Testament."(10)

And further,
For the most part these apocryphal books were deliberate fabrications. It was a common practice, especially among the Gnostics, to propagate heretical doctrines by means of writings composed in the name of revered Apostles .... It is evident, for instance, that the authors of the non-canonical Gospels had no information about the life of Jesus apart from that given them in the NT [New Testament] records. Everything they add is derived from their own fancy or their peculiar doctrines.(11)

Resurrection and the Church Fathers

So the Gnostics denied the physical resurrection of Christ and of people in general. But what did the Church Fathers believe?

Ignatius (d.117 AD) was a disciple of the apostle John. In his epistle to the Smyrnaeans Ignatius wrote, "For I know and believe that He [Jesus] was IN THE FLESH EVEN AFTER THE RESURRECTION."(12)

In his epistle to the Romans, Ignatius proclaims Jesus, "... was TRULY born and ate and drank, was TRULY persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was TRULY crucified and died ... was TRULY RAISED FROM THE DEAD, His Father having raised Him, who IN LIKE FASHION WILL RAISE US ALSO who believe on Him."(13)

Papias (60-130 AD) was another disciple of John.(14) Only fragments of his writings still survive today. However, St. Jerome (345-420) knew of Papias and his teachings.

Jerome writes, "This Papias is said to have promulgated the Jewish tradition of a Millennium, and he is followed by Irenaeus, Apollinarius and the others, who say that after the resurrection THE LORD WILL REIGN IN THE FLESH with the saints(15 - compare Col 2:8-11).

Irenaeus (120-203 AD) recorded a list of the doctrines included in the "Rule of Faith." These doctrines were considered to be the most important ones the Church "received from the apostles and their disciples."

A part of the "Rule of Faith" was the teaching of, "... the resurrection from the dead, and the INCARNATE [IN FLESH] ASCENSION into heaven of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and in his future manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father to sum up all things and TO RAISE ANEW ALL FLESH OF THE WHOLE HUMAN RACE."(16)

This claim that the apostles taught "all flesh" will be raised is collaborated by "The Apostle's Creed." It states,

"I believe ...
In the resurrection of the flesh."


So the post-apostolic Christians believed in the bodily resurrection of Christ and of people in general. But what does the Bible teach? The Scriptures hold up the nature of Christ's resurrection as a paradigm for the nature of the resurrection of others (1Cor 15:1-20; Phil 3:21). So what was the nature of Christ's resurrection?

This question will be answered by first looking at the position of Jehovah's Witnesses (JWs). Although JWs believe in the bodily resurrection of people in general, they deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Instead, they believe that He arose with a "spiritual" (immaterial) body.(18)

Scriptures Cited by the Watchtower

The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society is the organization JWs belong to. The Watchtower (WT) cites several Scriptures in support of the belief in an immaterial resurrection of Christ. Following is a discussion of the WT's interpretation of these verses.

1Corinthians 15:44: Paul writes about the human body, "It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body."

To the WT, "spiritual" always means immaterial or non-physical.(19) But is this what the word means? In 1Cor 15:35-44, Paul is saying the resurrected body is similar to but not identical with our present bodies. "Spiritual" indicates a newness but not a complete change from our current bodies.

1Corinthians 15:50: "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God."

The WT interprets this sentence to mean, "Only spirit persons with spiritual bodies can live in heaven."(20) It is important to remember that for JWs "spiritual" always means "immaterial" or non-physical. So to them if Jesus was raised with a physical body (with "flesh and blood") He could not have ascended into heaven.

But does "flesh and blood" actually mean "physical?" Craig Blomberg explains, "'flesh and blood' was a standard Semantic idiom for frail mortal existence; if Paul were denying the physical nature of the resurrection body he would more probably have used the common idiom, "flesh and bones."(21)

So all Paul is saying is that before ascending into heaven, "this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality" (1Cor 15:53).

Acts 10:40,41: "Him [Jesus] God raised up on the third day, and showed Him openly, not to all the people, but to witnesses chosen before by God, even to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead."

The WT comments, "Why did not others see him too? Because he was a spirit creature and when, as angels had done in the past, he materialized fleshly bodies to make himself visible, he did so only in the presence of his disciples."22)

But there is an easier explanation for why others did not see Jesus. He simply did not come into their sight of vision! And remember, over 500 did see Him (1Cor 15:6).

Hebrews 10:10: "we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all."

The WT claims, "Having given up his flesh for the life of the world, Christ could never take it up again and become a man once more."(23) However, Jesus does not need to "become a man once more" - He never ceased to be one! Thirty years after the resurrection, Paul still referred to Jesus as "the MAN Christ Jesus" (1Tim 2:5; see also Acts 17:31).

1Peter 3:18: "For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit ..."

This verse is the first part of a sentence which extends through verse 20. W.A. Criswell comments on this passage, "This passage is one of the most difficult to interpret in the Bible, there being more than 90 variations of interpretation attempted by Christian scholars since the second century."(24)

One of the reasons for this difficulty is an ambiguity in the Greek text of the last phrase. Should it be translated, "by the Spirit" - "in the Spirit" or "in the spirit?" The WT's Bible (The New World Translation) has the latter translation.(25)

The WT's comment on verse 18 is, "At his resurrection from the dead, Jesus was brought forth from the dead with a spirit body."(26) This comment depends on two presuppositions: the rendering of the NWT is correct and "spirit" must always refer to something that is immaterial. Both these assumptions are questionable.

Resurrection Appearances of Christ

Empty tombThe WT teaches, "Following his resurrection, Jesus did not always appear in the same body of flesh (perhaps to reinforce in their minds the fact that he was then a spirit) and so he was not immediately recognized even by his close associates." John 20:14,15; 21:4-7 and Luke 24:30,31 are cited.(27)

But was the failure to immediately recognize Jesus actually because Jesus was appearing in different bodies? Each passage needs to be looked at carefully.

John 20:11-18: In the case of Mary Magdalene, it says twice in the passage she was weeping (vv. 13,15). When Jesus spoke her name, she had to turn around in order to be facing Him (v.16). A woman with tear-filled eyes is not very likely to recognize someone she isn't even looking at! And remember, she expected to find Jesus in a horizontal, not vertical position (Mark 16:1).

John 21:1-14: As for the episode at the Sea of Tiberias, the disciples are in the middle of the lake while Jesus is standing on the shore (verses 3,4). Also, it was daybreak (verse 4). This would mean the light was still dim and possibly haze was rising from the lake. Further, the disciples were exhausted and frustrated from working all night to no avail (verse 3). With these conditions, it is easy to understand why the disciples had trouble recognizing Jesus.

Luke 24:13-32: On the road to Emmaus, the reason the disciples did not recognize Jesus was, "their eyes were restrained, so that they did not know Him" (v.16). They "knew Him" when, "their eyes were opened" (verse 31; compare Gen 21:19).

Bodily Resurrection

So there are major problems with the way the WT interprets each of the verses it cites in an attempt to uphold the "spiritual" resurrection theory. But are there passages in the Bible which teach Jesus was resurrected bodily? Further, was this body the same one in which He was crucified? Following are some important verses.

John 2:18-22: At the start of His ministry Jesus predicted, "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up." John explains, "He was speaking of the temple of HIS BODY."

John 20:26-29: Upon appearing to "doubting" Thomas, Jesus challenged him to, "Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not unbelieving, but believing." Thomas' reaction was to say to Jesus, "My Lord and my God!"

Acts 2:22-31: Peter preaches about Jesus, "His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption." This non-corruption of Jesus' body contrasts with the remains of David (v.29).

Colossians 2:9: "For in Him [Christ] DWELLS all the fullness of the Godhead BODILY." This verse was written 30 years after the resurrection; but note the present tense "dwells."

Jesus with open armsLuke 24:33-43: And finally, when Jesus appeared to the disciples they were frightened because they thought they were seeing a spirit (v.37). Jesus calmed them by declaring in verse 39:

"Behold my hands and my feet that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have."

To study more on the teachings of the Church Fathers, see the items listed at Church History Books: Books-A-Million Recommendations.

Footnotes: Note: All emphases in quotes are added.
All Scripture references from: The New King James Version. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982, unless otherwise indicated.
1The term "Church Fathers" refers to, "The church leaders of the period immediately following the New Testament era." Millard J. Erickson, Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986), p. 32.
2Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), p. 190.
3Ibid., pp.189-195.
4Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1979), p. 26.
5Ibid., p. 32.
6J. W. Drane, "Gnosticism" in New International Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), p. 393.
7quoted in Pagels, p. 32
8"Gnosis" is from the Greek word for "knowledge." The Apostle John argues against the need to know such "secret teachings" in 1John 2:27.
9Pagels, pp. 25, 26.
10Erickson, p. 13.
11Vergilius Ferm, Encyclopedia of Religion (Secaucus, NJ: Poplar Books, 1945), p. 31.
12J.B. Lightfoot, and J.R. Harmer eds., The Apostolic Fathers (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988), p. 157.
13Ibid., p. 148.
14Elgin Moyer, Wycliffe Biographical Dictionary of the Church, revised by Earle Cairns (Chicago: Moody, 1982), p. 314.
15Lightfoot, p. 532.
16J. Stevenson, A New Eusebius, revised by W.H.C. Frend (London: SPCK, 1987), pp. 111, 112.
17Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom: Vol. I, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), p. 45.
18You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1989), p. 145.
19Ibid., p. 144.
20Ibid., p. 144
21Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Downer's Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1987), p. 109.
22Reasoning From the Scriptures (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1989), p. 334.
23Live Forever, p. 143.
24W.A. Criswell, ed., The Believers Study Bible: NKJV (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), p. 1770.
25The New World Translation (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1984).
26Reasoning, p. 334.
27Reasoning, p. 335.

"We are more sure to arise out of our graves
than out of our beds."
Thomas Watson

Books and eBooks by Gary F. Zeolla, the Director of Darkness to Light

The above article was published in Darkness to Light newsletter
and posted on this Web site in 1996.

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