We all want to live beyond the 70 or 80 years most of us are allotted on this earth. We all want to believe that there is something beyond this life. All religions offer some hope for the afterlife, whether it is the Greek concept of existence in the spiritual underworld or the Hindu teaching of reincarnation.
Christianity is unique in that it teaches that just as Jesus died and rose again in a body of flesh and bone, so the resurrection of believers will be like his own resurrection. Here's what Paul teaches in Romans:
"But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken [bring to life] your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you." (Romans 7:11)
First-Century Christians believed that if they died, they were going to be raised again. However, they were sure that Jesus was going to come back before they died a natural death. Paul the Apostle told them to comfort each other with the knowledge that Jesus was going to come back and awaken their fellow believers who had “fallen asleep,” and those who were still alive would be caught up together with them in the clouds to be with the Lord forever.
But as time went on and Jesus didn't return, Paul (or whoever was writing the epistles) had to revise the story a bit to comfort believers about Uncle Titus and Aunt Cleo, who had been “asleep” a very, very long time, and were rotting in their graves.
So Paul the Apostle writes in 2 Corinthians 5 that there was nothing to worry about, because those dead relatives weren't actually sleeping at all; they were already present with the Lord. He explains that there is a spiritual body which has been prepared for believers in heaven, to which they go and inhabit when they die.
Paul leads up to this particular conclusion by encouraging believers not to grow fainthearted, because “though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.” Why were they growing fainthearted? Because Jesus didn't show up when he said he would, and people were seeing their fellow Christians kick the bucket just like everyone else. Paul then goes on to say that if “this tent” (meaning our earthly body) is dissolved, we have “a building of God” (a heavenly body), eternal in the heavens.
To remove any doubt about what he means, he goes on to say, “For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven,” and that if we are present in the body we are absent from the Lord, and if we are absent from the body, we are present with the Lord. (I Cor. 5:2-6)
Wow. That kind of changes things. Having a spiritual body prepared in the heavens for us eliminates the need for a resurrection altogether. I thought that the “good news” in a nutshell was that our sinful, corruptible bodies would be raised incorruptible just like Jesus' body was.
So now the question is, “If God could merely create new, perfect heavenly bodies for us to inhabit immediately after we die, then why would Jesus need to die on the cross, and then raise up his own body, in the first place?
The two descriptions of the resurrection don't match. In fact, the idea of a new body expressed in 2 Corinthians is not even a “resurrection.” It's the transfer of a soul from one body to another. How could the Holy Spirit allow there to be such a direct contradiction about the “blessed hope” of the Christian faith? It has to be one or the other.
Do those who die in the faith lie asleep in the grave until they are resurrected in a glorified, incorruptible human body of flesh and bone, or are they immediately transported into the presence of God to inhabit a body made of spiritual stuff awaiting them in the heavens? It can't be both, and yet the Bible whipsaws us back and forth between two irreconcilable concepts without so much as an attempt to reconcile the vast difference.
When Christians are faced with this kind of conflict, they invoke the “It's a mystery” clause, or the “God's ways are above our ways” clause, which, with the wave of a hand, eliminates the need to explain or understand anything. In fact, they say that to attempt to explain something so profound and so heavenly would be foolish for us ignorant, earthbound humans to try to do.
But it shouldn't be surprising that the Bible is confusing about the nature of the “resurrected” body of the believer when it isn't at all clear about the nature of the resurrected body of Jesus himself. From New Testament accounts, it's difficult to determine whether the risen Christ inhabited a real body or was just a phantom.
Once when Jesus appeared to the apostles, they were afraid, thinking he was a spirit. But he comforted them by eating, saying, “A spirit doesn't have flesh and bone as you see me have.” (Luke 24:39)
On another occasion, to prove he was real flesh and bone and not just a ghost, he encouraged the unbelieving Thomas to put his finger into the nail prints of his hands and thrust his hand into his side. After feeling these flesh wounds and being convinced, Thomas proclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:26-28)
There we have it. Proof positive that Jesus rose from the dead. Thomas felt his wounds. It was a real body of flesh and bone, and not an apparition. Or was it?
Here's the fly in the ointment of the resurrected body story, though. It turns out that the gospel of Mark tells us that on another occasion Jesus appeared to a group of men who were walking along the road. In the story, the men did not recognize him because it says “he appeared in a different form.” (Mark 16:12)
So, if Jesus is like a shape-shifter who can take on “another form” at will, what's the purpose of eating in front of the disciples, or forcing them to touch his wounds to prove that he has risen in a real human body? Taking on another form” would simply invalidate the proof you just gave that your body was real flesh and bone. It actually doesn't really exist at all. It only appears to be a real body. It's just an illusion, an elaborate hoax.
Indeed, there is also something very puzzling about the fact that every time the resurrected Jesus shows up, no one recognizes him, no matter how many times they've seen him before. Hmmm.
After the episode with Thomas, Jesus showed up on the shore a few days later while they were out fishing. Remarkably, the disciples didn't recognize him, even though they were close enough to hear him ask if they had caught any fish. (As a surfer, I can tell you that that isn't too far out in the water at all.) Which leads me to ask, Was there nothing that distinguished the risen Jesus from an ordinary human being? Was there nothing that would make him recognizable within shouting distance? Nothing at all?
One day the disciples are afraid they're seeing a spirit. Another day, he looks like a typical bystander on the beach. The idea that someone would ever forget the face or the form of his leader who had risen from the dead after seeing him up close at least three times, to me, is preposterous.