The Bible’s grand story is not complete without the bodily resurrection of God’s people. It is blessedly true that the spirits of our loved believers who die before the return of Jesus will immediately be welcomed into his blessed presence upon death. But Jesus did not come merely to provide a detour around death for his people. He came to destroy death.
31:2. At the last day, such of the saints as are found alive, shall not sleep, but be changed; and all the dead shall be raised up with the selfsame bodies, and none other; although with different qualities, which shall be united again to their souls forever.
(1 Corinthians 15:51, 52; 1 Thessalonians 4:17; Job 19:26, 27; 1 Corinthians 15:42, 43)
31:3. The bodies of the unjust shall, by the power of Christ, be raised to dishonour; the bodies of the just, by his Spirit, unto honour, and be made conformable to his own glorious body.
(Acts 24:15; John 5:28, 29; Philippians 3:21)
Second London Confession, 31:2–3
It was a cold, gray February afternoon when we buried my grandfather. The ground was still muddy from the snow that had melted earlier in the week. Every tree was bare. The small crowd under the tent shivered against the cold as the national guard officers folded the American flag they would present to my grandmother. But into the sorrow, the gathering of family members and friends read the Apostle’s Creed from the tiny bulletins issued to them by the Methodist minister: “…I believe in the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting, Amen.” I was struck by the power of that ancient Christian confession against that bleak backdrop. It was also struck by how few funerals I attend ever even mention the hope of bodily resurrection.
In most funerals I attend, and in most popular discussions about death I observe, the focus of the Christian hope falls almost exclusively on what theologians call “the intermediate state:” the promise that upon death, the believer’s spirit leaves the body behind to dwell in the presence of Jesus in heaven. On the one hand, this emphasis is perfectly reasonable, since it is the immediate hope of all the saints who die before the Lord’s return. We are right to celebrate Jesus’ assurance that, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43) We rejoice that “the spirits of the righteous” are now “made perfect” in the heavenly assembly (Heb 12:23) . We find unspeakable comfort in the truth that to be away from the body is to be at home with the Lord, that for the believers, to die is gain, and that it really is better by far to depart and to be with Christ (2 Cor 5:6; Phil 1:21, 23).
But while our immortal spirit’s reception into heaven is the believer’s immediate hope, the Bible teaches that it is not our ultimate hope. As wonderful as the intermediate state will be, it is, well, intermediate. An even great future awaits the people of Jesus! A hope even richer, more thrilling, more satisfying. It takes the whole story of the Bible to understand this audacious Christian confession: I believe in the resurrection of the body.
“To the Dust You Shall Return”
The Bible’s first two chapters map out God’s design for human life: embodied human beings made in his image, living forever in fellowship with him in a perfect, physical creation. This, God says, is “very good.” (Gen 1:31). But by Genesis 3, the rebellion of those image-bearers has destroyed God’s beautiful design. Sin’s consequences are not only spiritual and moral, but physical: the once-submissive creation now rebels against its former caretakers, and bodily life is now marked by pain, sickness, weariness, and, ultimately, death. The man formed from the dust, made to live forever in face-to-face fellowship with God, must now return to the dust (Gen 3:19). The relentless recitation of the deaths proceeding from Adam in Genesis 5 bears grim witness to the awful wages of sin, and to the unyielding truthfulness of God’s Word: “in the the day that you eat of it, you will surely die (Gen 2:17; Rom 6:23).”
These opening acts in the biblical drama remind us that there is nothing “natural” about death. Death instead is an “enemy” (1 Cor 15:26), a sinister intruder on God’s good design for human life. The Genesis patriarchs wept over the bodies of their dead loved ones for good reason (Gen 23:2), and so do we. All human beings—whether they affirm the Bible’s account of reality or not—instinctively know that death is not the way it was meant to be. I can see it in the “gone but not forgotten” memorial decals on the pickup trucks in my hometown. You can sense it in the feverish attempts to stave off the aging process in fitness centers and cosmetic products. I can hear it in the quavering voice of the old bluegrass singer Ralph Stanley, pleading: “O death, won’t you spare me over til another year, won’t you spare me over til another year…”
The apostle Paul tells us that these are all so many manifestations of creation’s “groaning” under the unnatural curse of death; we long to be “set free from [our] bondage to corruption (Rom 8:21).” But will anyone hear these groans? Can anyone deliver us from death?
“…Those Who Sleep in the Dust of the Earth Shall Awake”
Yes! Standing in the ruins of Eden, God not only pronounces judgment, but promises salvation: “I will put enmity between you and the woman,” God tells the Serpent, “and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Gen 3:15). God did not disclose the details of his plan, but he made it clear that he would one day restore the beautiful kingdom our sin had destroyed, and deal with the awful curse of death itself.
For the rest of the Old Testament, God’s people cling to the persistent, if shadowy, hope that Yahweh would overcome death for them. One catches the patriarchs’ hope beyond the grave in their insistence on securing burial plots in the land of promise (Heb 11:22). We hear it also in Job’s confession that, “after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another…” (Job 19:26–27)
The prophet Isaiah foresaw a day when the Lord would spread a feast for his people on Mount Zion, and “will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. 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 25:6–8).” Near the end of the Old Testament, Daniel articulates God’s coming victory over death explicitly in terms of a bodily resurrection: “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. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever (Dan 12:2–3).” By the time Jesus comforts Martha at the grave of Lazarus, it seems Daniel’s expectation has taken hold among God’s people: when Jesus tells Mary that “your brother will rise again,” Martha immediately responds “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” (John 11:23–24)
One thing this brief survey indicates is that, the saints of old longed for more than a strictly spiritual “life after death.” Rather, they looked forward to the complete undoing of death, in a glorious, bodily resurrection at the end of history. They did not know that before that could happen, Someone would first blaze a trail through death, right smack in the middle of history.