In my last post I quoted the Episcopal bishop who said that “we don’t know what happened to Jesus after his death,” referring to an understanding that the physical resurrection of Christ is not necessary for the Christian faith. That is a befuddling statement for any Christian to make. Scripture tells us exactly what happened to Christ, and the reality that his physical body was indeed both raised and glorified:
John 2:19-22 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he spoke of the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken.
Luke 24:2-3 And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body
John 20:20, 27-28 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord… Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”
Luke 24:36-43 As they were saying this, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you.” But they were startled and frightened, and supposed that they saw a spirit. And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do questionings rise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they still disbelieved for joy, and wondered, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them.
One passage of Scripture that can sometimes be puzzling and get people a bit off track is found in 1 Corinthians 15:35,42-50 where St. Paul writes “ But some one will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come? …. So is it with the resurrection of the dead. 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. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. I tell you this, brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.”
While this passage is not used in general to deny the resurrection of Christ, it can be used by some to profess a belief that Christ’s body is somehow transformed into something no longer human; that he somehow transcends humanity itself. This is problematic in many ways, but especially in understanding that Christ continues to make intercession for humanity in the heavenly sanctuary (Hebrews 9:24-26) and this intercession is possible because he is truly one of us.
The root of this misunderstanding I believe is in a failure to understand the way Scripture uses the terms “spiritual” and “flesh.” “Spiritual” does not necessarily refer to something which has no material substance, but rather that which is under the dominion of the Holy Spirit. Jesus clearly has a physical body the apostles can see and touch after the resurrection. So what is a “spiritual” body? A physical, resurrected body is spiritual in that it is controlled by the Spirit of God, not because it is void of the material.
In the same way, St. Paul uses the term “flesh” to indicate our fallen human nature. In Romans 7:4-5 he says “Likewise, my brethren, you have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God. While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.” In Romans 8:7-11 he says “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, indeed it cannot; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if the Spirit of God really dwells in you. Any one who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit who dwells in you.”
When St. Paul tells the Romans they are “not in the flesh” he certainly doesn’t mean they no longer have bodies. He is telling them they are now under the dominion of the Holy Spirit, not their fallen human nature.
His reference to the “flesh” would not only include our physical bodies but our minds as well, as they too are an aspect of our human nature. He writes in Ephesians 2:3 that “Among these we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of body and mind, and so we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind,” and in Romans 8:4-5 that “in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.”
In consistently reading St. Paul and the rest of Sacred Scripture, the reference to “flesh and blood” not being able to inherit the kingdom is not telling us that our resurrected bodies will not be physical. He is telling us our resurrected bodies will no longer be subject to our fallen human nature. And it will be our own physical bodies that we know now, but glorified. The Catechism in answering the question of “how do the dead rise” tells us in paragraph CCC999, “How? Christ is raised with his own body: ‘See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself’; but he did not return to an earthly life. So, in him, ‘all of them will rise again with their own bodies which they now bear,’ but Christ ‘will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body,’ into a ‘spiritual body.’”
In some Christian groups there has been a tendency to drift towards Gnosticism and its corresponding view that the flesh is “evil.” As Catholics we recall Genesis 1:31 which tells us that “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” While both our physical and spiritual nature have been wounded by original sin and are in need of repair and healing, we are called to respect our physical nature as the “good” that God created. As we express when we recite the Nicene creed together, “ I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”