The question is central to his books The Resurrection of the Son of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, Vol. 3) and Surprised by Hope. Surprised by Hope is written at a more popular level and is a great read (although I disagree with his conclusions regarding the nature of hell). The Resurrection of the Son of God is a mere 740 pages, and as you can imagine, quite thorough. It answers many questions barely touched on in Surprised by Hope.
But for the sake of this post, I quote from and comment on an essay by Wright that summarizes his conclusions, “Mind, Spirit, Soul and Body: All for One and One for All—Reflections on Paul’s Anthropology in His Complex Contexts,” found in Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978-2013 (2013), 464–465 —
[In 1 Cor 15] we face the problem of the disastrous translation of the RSV, perpetuated in the NRSV, where we find the contrasting present and future bodies translated as ‘physical body’ and ‘spiritual body’ (15:44, 46). Generations of liberal readers have said, triumphantly, that Paul clearly thinks the resurrection body is spiritual rather than physical, so there’s no need for an empty tomb. But that’s emphatically not the point.
Most modern Christians have ignored these key passages:
(Phi 3:20-21 ESV) 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 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.
(1Co 15:49 ESV) 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.
(1Jo 3:2 ESV) 2 Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.
Quite plainly, the Bible teaches that Christians will be resurrected just as Jesus was and that our bodies will “be like his glorious body” and so “we shall be like him,” which will allow us to “see him as he is.” In short, we will finally, completely, and utterly “bear the image of the man in heaven.”
After his resurrection, Jesus was not a disembodied soul floating in the blessed ether of heaven. He walked the earth. He ate food. He bore the scars of his crucifixion.
But he also walked through doors. He was unrecognizable to his closest friends, except when he wished to be recognized. He could rise up into the air!
The Gospel writers plainly record that his body was different in amazing ways, but they make no effort to explain what happened. We aren’t told what all Jesus’s new body could and couldn’t do — but it was plainly a vast improvement over the standard model. (And I am counting on this.)
So when we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on Easter, one reason we celebrate is —
(1Co 15:21-23 ESV) 21 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.
— because our resurrection will be just like that of Jesus. No one will be likely to roll a stone in front of our graves and post Roman guards there, but just as Jesus walked out of his tomb, so will we. And our confidence in this hope stems from the fact that if God could raise Jesus, he can raise us.
And because the resurrection is in some sense a bodily resurrection (“bodily” to be more carefully defined shortly), of course there was an empty tomb. Jesus’ soul didn’t float up to heaven leaving his body behind. This is not the meaning of “resurrection.” Rather, the NT concept of a resurrection comes from such OT passages as —
(Dan 12:2-3 ESV) 2 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. 3 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.
Daniel doesn’t picture disembodied souls floating off to heaven, but then neither does he envision that our new bodies will be the same as our old ones.
(Job 19:25-27 ESV) For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
26 And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
yet in my flesh I shall see God,
27 whom I shall see for myself,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
My heart faints within me!
(Isa 26:19 ESV) 19 Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead.
The OT passages where Paul finds his teaching are about a bodily resurrection (but not our old bodies).
Wright continues —
For Paul, as for all Jews, Christians and indeed pagans until the rise of the Gnostics in the second century, the word ‘resurrection’ was about bodies. When pagans rejected ‘resurrection’, that’s what they were rejecting.
The Greeks believed in an afterlife, in fact, ruled by the god Hades in which the dead existed as wisps — little more than disembodied memories. The Wikipedia explains,
In the Greek underworld, the souls of the dead still existed but they are insubstantial and they flitted around the underworld with no sense of purpose. The dead within the Homeric Underworld lack menos, or strength, and therefore they cannot influence those on earth. They also lack phrenes, or wit, and are heedless of what goes on around them and on the earth above them. …
The Greeks accepted the existence of the soul after death, but saw this afterlife as meaningless. In the underworld, the identity of a dead person still existed, but it had no strength or true influence. Rather, the continuation of the existence of the soul in the Underworld was considered a remembrance of the fact that the dead person had existed, and while the soul still existed, it was inactive. However, the price of death was considered a great one. Homer believed that the best possible existence for humans was to never be born at all, or die soon after birth, because the greatness of life could never balance the price of death. The Greek gods only rewarded heroes who were still living; heroes that died were ignored in the afterlife. However, it was considered very important to the Greeks to honor the dead and was seen as a type of piety. Those who did not respect the dead opened themselves to the punishment of the gods – for example, Odysseus ensured Ajax’s burial, or the gods would be angered.
The Greeks believed in a disembodied afterlife, purposeless and joyless, except for the great heroes of history, to whom the gods gave immortality and life in Elysia. Except for the rare hero, the afterlife would be so miserable that the great poet Homer thought it better to never have been born.
This explains the amazement of the philosophers in Athens at Paul’s teaching of the resurrection of the dead. They already believed in the afterlife, but considered it a curse. The idea of an embodied, joyful afterlife was utterly foreign to the Greek mind. After all, most Greeks were influenced by Plato to consider the body as wicked and the soul holy. Why would the gods preserve the imperfect, flawed, corrupt body? How could blessedness and the body co-exist?
But, of course, in 1 Cor 15:44, 46 Paul does speak of our having a “spiritual” (pneumatikos) body in contrast to a natural or physical (psychikos) body. We Westerners tend to read “spiritual” as meaning “made out of spirit” and psychikos (from psychē) as meaning “natural” or “physical,” but Wright explains,
Paul’s language here, using Greek adjectives ending in –ikos, is not about the substance of which the body is composed, but about the driving force that animates it. It’s the difference between, on the one hand, a ship made of steel or timber, and a ship powered by sail or steam. For Paul, the psychē [soul, often used in the same sense as the human “spirit” or mortal life] is the breath of life, the vital spark, the thing that animates the body in the present life. The pneuma [Spirit] is the thing that animates the resurrection body. This is where the link is made: the pneuma is already given to the believer as the arrabon, the down payment, of what is to come, since the Spirit who raised the Messiah from the dead will give life to the mortal bodies of those who belong to the Messiah (Romans 8:9–11). In Paul’s discussion, the psychē is simply the life-force of ordinary mortals in the present world, emphatically not a substance which, as a second and non-material element of the person, will then carry that person’s existence forward through the intermediate state and on to resurrection itself. On the contrary: the psychikos body is mortal and corruptible. The new, immortal self will be the resurrection body animated by God’s pneuma, the true Temple of the living God (or rather, one particular outpost, or as it were franchise, of that Temple).
In fact, the NT, consistent with the OT passages previously quoted, treats immortality as a gift from God to some, as opposed to the Platonic/Greek idea that humans contain “souls” that are innately immortal. For example,
(Rom 2:6-7 ESV) 6 He will render to each one according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life;
(1Co 15:53-54 ESV) 53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”
(1Ti 6:15b-16 ESV) he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16 who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.
Over and over, we’re told that God alone is by nature immortal, and so we are by nature mortal. God gives immortality to his children.
Wow! The Medieval church and most modern Christians have adopted a view of the afterlife that has much more to do with Plato and Greek philosophy than the scriptures.
We’ve take the Greek myths of the afterlife and given them Christian names. We’ve replaced gehenna with Hades, redefined “heaven” to mean Elysia — the Elysium Fields — and redefined Christians as the Greek heroes who lives in Elysian bliss. Satan has become the god Hades, ruling over the damned rather than burning in the eternal lake of fire. All we lack is Charon to ferry us over the River Styx.
[I couldn’t resist a chance to play a little Styx.]
To be continued