Apologetics,  Jesus' Resurrection,  Theology

Jesus’ Resurrection: Traditional vs. Transitional

Introduction

One of my favorite topics to study in the Bible is the resurrection of Jesus. Of course, it is central to our faith, so that makes sense. However, both personally and academically, the study holds great interest to me, especially in regards to its historicity. My final paper in grad school was on the Pauline Apologetic For The Resurrection from 1 Cor. 15, and it is my studies on the resurrection that most helped me when dealing with a phase of intense doubt about the truth of Christianity in my early 20s. I am convinced that the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection is an important topic, and one that needs to be brought to local congregations more than it has been. However, there are abundant resources for this topic available online and in the literature, so I’m not interested in rehashing that here at the moment. For those interested in researching that topic, I’d recommend any of the books by William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, or Michael Licona, as well as N.T. Wright’s massive study for those willing to do some deeper research. Reasonable Faith by Dr. Craig is probably the best online source for studies on the resurrection, and of course there a number of lectures available by the aforementioned scholars on Youtube and elsewhere.

While there are plenty of defenses of the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection, discussions on some of the finer details of his resurrection are not as abundant. We may discuss our own resurrection, especially in relation to e.g. 1 Corinthians 15, but we don’t talk as much about what happened to Jesus himself when he rose from the dead. We know he was dead and that he rose, and we know he appeared to his disciples, but beyond defending the event as historical, church teaching tends to be vague. I think this is unfortunate; to the extent that our own resurrection is based upon the resurrection of Jesus, there is value for the Christian in understanding what happened when he rose from the dead. While we may not be able to understand everything, that does not mean we are unable to understand anything. More importantly perhaps, the vagueness in our teaching on this point has led to misunderstandings about the event itself, which tends to have a trickle-down effect on other doctrines. For these reasons and more, I’d like to attempt to clear up one such misunderstanding here.

The Central Question

Perhaps the greatest question for us as Christians when considering Jesus’ resurrection is this: with what kind of body did Jesus come out of the tomb? The traditional view has been that Jesus awoke from death in his glorified resurrected form. As far back as Augustine and Aquinas, this has been the view generally espoused by Christians. According to this view, when Jesus rose on that first Easter Sunday, he rose in his incorruptible, imperishable form. The process was complete.

However, not everyone has been convinced of this. Some have argued that, while Jesus did in fact rise from the dead, he did not come out of the tomb in his incorruptible form, but had to wait until his ascension to receive the incorruptible, glorified body. The body that came out of the tomb was not really “resurrected” so much as revivified; it was alive, but not yet changed. As far as I know, this is not an ancient view, and for whatever my experience is worth, it’s not a commonly held view today. Nevertheless, it is one I have run into multiple times, so I think it is worth considering. In fact, it is the view that F. LaGard Smith takes in his book on the afterlife. [1] Perhaps this view has a more technical name, but for the purposes of this writing, I will refer to it as the “transitional view” – the view that upon resurrection, Jesus was in a transitional state, awaiting the actual change and glorification of the body at ascension.

This, then, is the central question here: when Jesus rose from the dead, did he come out of the tomb in his incorruptible resurrected body, or simply a revivified body that would be changed at a later point?

Arguments For The Transitional View

Proponents of the transitional view of Jesus’ resurrection make a number of different arguments to support their claim. Before we analyze those arguments, I want to first lay out some of the arguments I have heard as I understand them, so we can better analyze the view later on. There are a number of nuanced arguments which we could get into, but I want to focus on the main points I’ve personally encountered, which can be broken up into two basic categories: anecdotal and doctrinal. Let’s consider each part in turn.

Anecdotal Arguments

The anecdotal arguments rely on certain anecdotes in the gospels, which seem out of place or unexpected if Jesus’ body was raised incorruptible. For example, in John 20:25ff, we see that Jesus still had the marks of the crucifixion on his body after he was risen. Additionally, in Luke 24:42-43, we see Jesus eating fish. Occurrences such as these are recorded here and elsewhere in the gospels.

From the transitional point of view, these things seem out of place for a incorruptible resurrected body. Presumably, if the body was raised incorruptible and glorified, it would not longer have marks of injury from the crucifixion, since it would have been healed of any infirmity. Likewise, we would not expect the resurrection body to have need of any food, so it seems odd to see Jesus eating fish (or anything, for that matter) with his disciples.

Furthermore, when we look at Jesus’ appearances to the disciples immediately following his resurrection but prior to his ascension, they seem fairly normal. Certainly, there are some oddities such as people not recognizing Jesus (Lk. 24:15-16; Jn. 20:14) or Jesus appearing behind locked doors (Jn. 20:19), but for the most part, these seem to be bodily, corporeal experiences. On the other hand, when the post-ascension Jesus appears to Paul in Acts 9 on the road to Damascus, the experience is very different. There is a blinding light and a voice, and Paul is left blinded by the encounter. Proponents of the transitional view see such a distinction as unexpected, if the resurrected body was the same pre-ascension as it was post-ascension.

Doctrinal Argument

These anecdotal arguments matter and need to be analyzed, but perhaps the central argument of the transitional view relies not on anecdotes but on a direct teaching found in 1 Cor. 15:50. In this passage, Paul clearly states that “flesh and blood” cannot inherit God’s kingdom – in other words, “flesh and blood” can’t enter into eternity. What is perishable cannot inherit what is imperishable. There must be a change (v.52).

Bearing that in mind, proponents of the transitional view will then turn to Luke 24:39. Jesus says, “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” Jesus uses the words, “flesh and bones,” suggesting that the body he is in at that moment has both.

In addition to these points, we see in John 20:17 that Mary was “clinging” to Jesus, who presumably had very recently vacated the tomb, and Jesus tells her not to do this, because “I have not yet ascended to the Father.”

So, the argument is then made that, since flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God, and Jesus says that he has flesh and bones, then it necessarily follows that Jesus’ body prior to ascension was not prepared for the imperishable Kingdom, and thus would need to be changed. Based upon the encounter with Mary, and the other anecdotal points mentioned previously, it is further argued that Jesus’ body encountered this change at his ascension.

There are more issues we could deal with, and perhaps some nuances that proponents might hold to, but for my current purposes I think this is enough to analyze the transitional view fairly. When the doctrinal argument and the anecdotal arguments are put together, proponents of the transitional view believe they have a compelling case. But do they?

Critical Analysis Of The Transitional View

Before I get into the analysis, let me say up front that I do not believe the transitional view is correct, nor that it does justice to the resurrection of Christ. I’ll explain more on that later as I make a positive argument for my own view, but for now let us evaluate the arguments from the transitional viewpoint.

First, I’d like to consider the core argument for this view – the issue of “flesh and blood” as seen in 1 Corinthians 15:50. The misunderstanding surrounding this verse is a good case study in one of the difficulties in properly interpreting scripture. Sometimes, the so-called “plain reading of the text” is not the correct reading of the text. What seems plain to us may in fact be a misunderstanding, because a “plain reading” can easily lack cultural or linguistic details which impact the meaning intended by the author. This isn’t always the case, of course; I only mean we should be cautious. The “plain reading” of this verse and the verse in Luke 24 might lead one to the transitional view, but once we dig in a bit more deeply, we can see why this view is mistaken.

The key to this argument for the transitional view is found in the phrase, “flesh and blood.” To better understand the meaning of this phrase, let’s look at a few other places in scripture where it is used.

Matthew 16:17: “And Jesus answered him, ‘blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.'”

Galatians 1:15-16: “But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone…”
[That last word, “anyone,” is actually “flesh and blood” in the Greek.]

Ephesians 6:12: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against rulers, against authorities, against cosmic powers over this present darkness, against spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

From these examples, I think it is clear that the phrase “flesh and blood” is an idiomatic expression referring not to specific anatomical elements of the body – literal flesh and literal blood – but rather, the phrase refers to mortal man in general. In fact, in his book “Figures Of Speech Used In The Bible,” E.W. Bullinger says this expression is used, “for the human nature as distinct from the Divine Nature: or for the body of man as animal, mortal, and corruptible.” [2]

Once this phrase is properly understood, then, the problem just breaks down in relation to Luke 24:39. First, notice that in Luke 24, Jesus does not say that he “flesh and blood” but “flesh and bones,” so Jesus himself is actually using a different expression in the Greek. It is similar, but different from all other usages. Why use that expression instead of the phrase, “flesh and blood”? The reason is clear in the context. Looking back at vv.36-37, we see that the disciples are startled and frightened, thinking they are seeing a ghost! They are convinced that Jesus is dead, and they are seeing his spirit come back to visit them from the afterlife. In order to show them that, no, he is not a ghost or a spirit, he tells them, “look, I’ve got flesh and bones” – in other words, I’ve got a body, I’m tangible, you can touch me. He follows this by eating the fish, which again is a sign to them. It’s not necessary to assume Jesus needed the fish to eat, but rather he eats it for the purpose of showing that he can do what an immaterial spirit cannot do.

So, this phrase Jesus uses in Luke 24 is simply not related at all to what Paul is talking about in 1 Cor. 15:50. Paul’s point is that this corruptible body, as it is, cannot inherit the kingdom of God. It cannot go into eternity with God as it is – for us to receive our eternal reward, we must be changed or transformed as Paul says. That is referencing a bodily change, in which this corruptible body is changed into an incorruptible body. Indeed, Paul specifically uses the Greek word for body (soma) throughout 1 Cor. 15 in reference to the resurrection body. So, in the resurrection we will have a body, though it is changed and transformed. Thanks to that change, our bodies will be able to inherit God’s glorious Kingdom.

Jesus’ point, on the other hand, has nothing to do with being corruptible or purely mortal. His expression is purely intended to show the disciples that he is not a ghost. He is the resurrected Lord, and has been bodily resurrected from the dead. Once we understand the phrases used and the contexts in which we find them, the issue dissolves entirely.

What, then, are we to make of the anecdotal points? As for the appearance to Paul, he connects his appearance with the appearances of the other disciples in 1 Cor. 15:3-8, so at least in Paul’s mind, his experience is on the same level with the other disciples. He makes no distinction himself between them. Even if they are significantly different appearances in terms of mode, however, it is not necessary to assume that this is the only way Christ could have appeared at this point – it only shows that he chose to appear that way to Paul, for whatever reason he might have had.

What, then, about the wounds in Jesus’ body? This is any interesting question, but there are many ways to answer it while still maintaining that Christ was in his final resurrected form. As we’ve already seen, Jesus was interested in showing the disciples not only that he was bodily risen, but also that this was the same Jesus, so the wounds would be helpful in that regard. Additionally, there may be a theological reason for Jesus maintaining the wounds. Thomas Aquinas, the famous 13th century theologian, responded thus:

I answered that, it was fitting for Christ’s soul at His Resurrection to resume the body with its scars. In the first place, for Christ’s own glory. For Bede says on Luke 24:40 that He kept his scars not from inability to heal them, ‘but to wear them as an everlasting trophy of His victory.’ Hence Augustine says (De Civ. Dei xxii): ‘Perhaps in that kingdom we shall see on the bodies of the Martyrs the traces of the wounds which they bore for Christ’s name: because it will not be a deformity, but a dignity in them; and a certain kind of beauty will shine in them…[3]

This view, as with any view regarding the continuity of Jesus’ wounds, is not expressly stated in scripture, but my point is simply to offer some different options for explaining the anecdotal evidence without an appeal to the transitional view. The transitional view simply is not necessary, neither for making sense of the doctrine which is taught, nor for making sense of the appearances of Jesus.

Defending The Traditional View

Even if the transitional view does not hold, that does not mean that traditional view (that Jesus was resurrected in his glorified resurrection body) is necessarily the correct one. We will still need some positive arguments for this view based on scripture. There are several positive reasons based on scripture, but two specific points stand out.

Firstfruits Of The Resurrection

First, consider what is written in 1 Corinthians 15:20-23. There is an important word which is used twice in this passage – “firstfruits.” Two scriptural concepts are included in this word. First, we may think of e.g. Leviticus 23:10 where we see that God called for people to bring the “firstfruits” of the harvest; that is to say, they were expected to give to God first, off the top, not from what’s leftover, so that it indicates the best. The second concept, however, is that the firstfruits are representative of what would come later. The Greek word for firstfruits (aparch√©), “refers to a first sample of an agricultural crop that indicates the nature and quality of the rest of the crop.” [4] So, when you look at the firstfruits, you get an idea of what to expect in the whole crop. If the firstfruits look good, you’d expect the rest to be good; if it looks withered and weak, you may rightfully worry about what is to come. Likewise, if the firstfruits are apples, you’re going to get apples, not oranges or bananas.

Therefore, what Paul is teaching us here is that Jesus Christ is not just the best, because he’s the first, but more importantly I think, that he is indicative of what is to come. In fact, Paul reiterates this point in Philippians 3:20-21:

“But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” [Emphasis mine]

We will be transformed to be like Jesus, because he is the firstfruits of the resurrection. Christ is, in a sense, the prototype, or perhaps a better word for us would be “exemplar.” As John also says in 1 John 3:2, the resurrection has not happened yet, but when it does, we know we will be like Jesus. That is because Jesus is the firstfruits of the resurrection. He is the first to experience the resurrection God will bring about on the last day. With that in mind, consider what Paul also tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:42-44:

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 natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.

These verses do not leave room for a transitional resurrection state. Though Paul talks about the disembodied state 2 Cor. 5:1-5, there is no mention of a transitional state between being raised and receiving the glorified body. In fact, if you look at 1 Cor. 15:51-52, Paul says we will all be changed, and that this will happen “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.” Our resurrection is not a long drawn-out event, nor is there any space for a chrysalis-like state as Smith suggests happened to Jesus [5]. The perishable, dishonorable, and week mortal body is raised imperishable, honorable, and powerful.

Therefore, if it is the case that our resurrection is based upon the resurrection of Jesus (and we have seen that it is), and our resurrection there is not transitional resurrected state (and we have seen that it is not), then there is no reason to believe that Christ’s resurrection was any different. Christ, too, was raised in his glorified resurrected body. When he walked out of the tomb, there was no unfinished business. The resurrection was fully complete, and he was in his fully-resurrected body.

Victory Over Death

In addition to this, we see in scripture that in resurrection, one is victorious over death. This imagery shows up multiple times throughout the New Testament writings. Both in 1 Cor. 15:54 and in 2 Cor. 5:4, Paul uses the imagery of death being swallowed up in life. In Romans 6:9, Paul tells us that “Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.” In his resurrection, Jesus defeated the dominion of death. Paul lays this out clearly in 2 Tim. 1:10, where he says that Christ, “abolished death.”

So what we see from the overall testimony of scripture is that Jesus was, at his resurrection – not his ascension – victorious over death. Resurrection is the point at which death is defeated. That is part of why the symbolism of baptism works – because once you come out of the water (in which you are buried into Christ), you are being raised to a new life, just as Christ came out of the tomb to a new life. If Christ was not really resurrected to a new life, but only “revivified” to some kind of transitional state, then he wasn’t actually victorious over death at his resurrection! He still had to wait to have victory over death through his ascension, in which case the symbolism of baptism just falls apart.

But there is no suggestion of this anywhere in scripture. All passages we have in scripture present Jesus Christ as victorious because he is the risen Lord, not because he is the ascended Lord. Baptism, likewise, is connected to his death and resurrection, but never to his ascension. The ascension is connected to his return, and perhaps in Ephesians 4 there is an allusion to its connection to giving gifts to the church, but no where in scripture is the ascension connected to his victory over death. That is clearly connected to the resurrection itself.

Additionally, if Jesus was simply revivified rather than truly resurrected, then Jesus was not really the first to experience it, since plenty of other people had been revivified as well. We may think of the woman’s son with Elisha (1 Kings 17:17-24), and of course Lazarus (John 11), and a number of others who were raised from the dead in this sense. These cases were not resuscitations, but actually revivifications – the body was fully dead and was given its life back. But these people were not victorious over death. If Jesus wasn’t actually victorious over death, then his resurrection is merely another example of such an event.

Yet, as we have seen, Christ is called the firstfruits, and also in Revelation 1:5, he is even called the “firstborn of the dead.” This only makes sense in light of Jesus’ resurrection being different from anything that had ever happened before, that has happened since. Jesus was not simply resuscitated (as some skeptics have claimed), nor only revivified, but actually resurrected to an imperishable life in the glorified resurrected body.

We have, then, several strong, scriptural reasons to hold to the traditional view that Jesus Christ was victorious over death at his resurrection, raised in his imperishable, honorable, powerful, spiritual body. When Jesus came out of the tomb, he came out to immortal, imperishable, eternal life. This is the most natural and most powerful explanation of what we read in the text. And – glory to God! – because of this, we can expect the same at our resurrection. For those who are in Christ, who have the same Spirit which raised him from the dead living inside of us, we too will be changed, transformed, and made like Jesus. We will be resurrected into new, glorious, eternal life.

What It Means For Us

For many people, a debate between the transitional view and the traditional view appears largely irrelevant. After all, both sides agree Jesus rose from the dead and defeated death at some point, so surely this is all just theological minutiae that doesn’t matter all that much. However, there are some important implications that follow from the traditional view which we do not get if we take the transitional view – implications which impact our hope and expectation regarding our resurrection, and even our Christian life in the here and now.

Baptism

One major difference between the transitional view and the traditional view is the impact each has on our understanding of baptism. I have already dealt with this some earlier, but I want to take an extra bit of space to emphasize this point. We are told that baptism is a symbol of what Jesus did in his death, burial, and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-4; Col. 2:11-12). In fact, it not only symbolizes that reality, but we find that, in baptism, we participate in that with him – in this symbolic burial, we find solidarity with the salvific act of our Savior. As we go into the water, the old self dies, and as we rise from the water, having put on Christ (Gal. 3:26-27), we are made into a new creation even now by his power (2 Cor. 5:17-18).

Yet, if, at his resurrection, Jesus simply came out revivified but still very much mortal, then the symbolism of baptism is lacking. If Jesus body did not become new until his ascension, then surely baptism should also include a connection to that event. It would have been easy to associate the rising out of the water with Jesus’ rising into the clouds of glory, but we find no such connection in scripture. Instead, we find it repeatedly connected to being raised with Christ into new life. We come out of the water not into his ascension, but into his resurrection.

Thus, the traditional view of Jesus has implications even for the meaning of baptism. When obey the Great Commission and call on people to be baptized, we are calling on them to join in Jesus’ death and resurrection. We are calling them into the very saving work that Jesus did both in his death and his rising from that death. We are calling them to join with Jesus and receive what he offers. Only the traditional view maintains the force of that call.

Resurrection Hope

Furthermore, if it is true that Jesus’ resurrection is the exemplar for our own, then we can look at Jesus’ resurrection and get at least a glimpse of what resurrected life will be like (something that cannot be done on the transitional view). Certainly, we want to be careful not to make too much of every resurrection appearance, since it’s difficult to say whether everything we read about is simply descriptive, or actually normative – something we can expect ourselves. 1 John 3:2 tells us that we should expect to be like Jesus, yet it also tells us that there are unknown elements, since the general resurrection has obviously not occurred yet. With that caveat in place, it is still useful to see some of what Jesus did following his resurrection, and what this may tell us about our own.

There are a number of things Jesus did in his resurrection body that suggest abilities beyond what his previous mortal body possessed. For example, Jesus appears behind locked doors (John 20:26). He appears in locations far away without traversing the distance in between (Luke 24:30-36). Whatever we make of his remaining wounds, it is clear they did not bother him (Luke 24:40; John 20:27). This is just a glimpse at what his resurrection body was capable of, but even in that glimpse, we find ourselves amazed! I find it entirely plausible that we may have the same abilities in our resurrection body as well, since Jesus is our exemplar in resurrection.

Again, it’s difficult to know how much of this is descriptive rather than normative. Jesus’ situation was unique in at least one major aspect – his resurrection body did not coincide with the “new heavens and new earth” which both Peter and John reference (2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1). In our resurrection, we will inhabit a new creation (Rom. 8:18-23), so the world may work in such a radically different way that these abilities seem trivial in comparison. At any rate, I do believe this gives us a taste of what is to come, and when combined with the wonderful promises of 1 Cor. 15:42-49, we see an incredible picture of what God promises those who follow him.

Conclusion

The resurrection of Jesus is the central event of the Christian faith. Everything hangs on it. As Paul says in 1 Cor. 15:14-19, if Christ was not raised, then we who follow him are without hope and should be pitied above all. However, he continues with those powerful words of 1 Cor. 15:20 – “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Jesus has already experienced what so many of us fear: death. We are afraid to die. We don’t want to cut off the relationships and joys of existence. We know that life is good and valuable and important, and we often wish we did not have to go through those dark doors.

Jesus has already been through that. But the most beautiful truth is that he did not stop there. He experienced death for us so that he give life to us. He rose from the dead, victorious over death, never to die again. He came out from the tomb, immortal, imperishable, powerful, and glorious. He came out of the tomb having taken the sting of sin and death, defeating it, and now freely offers to us that same victory. Hallelujah, what a Savior!

References:

[1] F. LaGard Smith, After Life: A Glimpse of Eternity Beyond Death’s Door. pp.59-62

[2] E. W. Bullinger, Figures Of Speech Used In The Bible: Explained And Illustrated. p.644-45

[3] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae III, Q.54, Art. 4. See: http://newadvent.org/summa/4054.htm#article4

[4] ESV Bible Study Notes on 1 Cor. 15:20

[5] F. LaGard Smith, ibid. p.61

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