Every year at Easter, we, in one accord with the saints throughout the ages, declare, “He is risen indeed!”—the wondrous truth that two-thousand years ago, a Jewish man was dead for three days before He paced out of the tomb. Though the phrase He is risen! is recited annually in most Bible-believing churches in America, I suspect that many Christians find it difficult to articulate the abiding significance of the resurrection of Christ, particularly on a personal level. That is, they find it difficult to answer the question, What does the resurrection mean for me?
As with most redemptive elements of the Christian religion, the resurrection of Christ confers upon its beneficiaries a present and a future status. Presently and spiritually, the resurrection raises Christians to newness of life (Rom. 6:4) and seats them in the heavenly places with Christ (Eph. 2:6). His vindication serves as the foundation for the judicial status of righteousness received by those who trust Him alone for salvation (Rom. 4:25). This is what theologians define as the “already/not yet” tension that characterizes the New Testament, or what Herman Ridderbos defined as Paul’s inaugurated eschatology. In the Old Testament sense of redemptive history, the “day of the Lord” was a one-step event bifurcating the old age and the new age. In one sense, Paul splits the day of the Lord in half and applies it to the first and second comings of Christ. At the first coming, the new age was inaugurated. For Christians, the judgment aspect of the day of the Lord has already passed, God’s wrath having been poured out on Christ, who died in place of His people. In another sense, however, the day of the Lord remains not yet for us—it is still a future event to be fulfilled in the second coming of Christ. The second, consummate day of the Lord is characterized by judgment and resurrection; more accurately, it is a resurrection unto judgment. The resurrection that characterizes this event is a bodily resurrection wherein the bodies of believers, who have already been judged in Christ on the cross, will rise to new life in the new heaven and earth because God’s wrath against them has been satisfied. Those who are outside of Christ, however, will be raised bodily to eternal judgment, to the everlasting wrath of God, for their sins are not covered by Christ. The resurrection that characterizes this event is a bodily resurrection.
This is how the early church understood the resurrection that will take place in the second advent. I remember when I came to the realization that the “resurrection of the body” at the end of the Apostles’ Creed refers not to Christ, but to Christians:
I believe in the Holy Ghost;
the holy catholic church;
the communion of saints;
the forgiveness of sins;
the resurrection of the body;
and the life everlasting.
This creedal acknowledgment means that for those believers who die before the second advent of Jesus Christ, their souls will experience a blessed reunion with their bodies, albeit without the corruption and decay felt so acutely in this life (Rom. 8:23). The Apostle Paul articulated a correlation between this body-soul reunion and the resurrection of Christ Himself:
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. (1 Cor. 15:12–19)
Polemically, Paul is describing to the confused church in Corinth the logical conclusion of doubting the future bodily resurrection of Christians. His reasoning goes like this:
- To deny that Christians will be resurrected is to deny that Christ was resurrected.
- To deny that Christ was resurrected is to reckon our faith futile.
- If our faith is futile, then we are still in our sins.
- If we who trust in Christ are still in our sins, then those who have already died in Christ have perished, and we will experience the same fate.
- This means that those who are in Christ are of all people the most to be pitied, because they will die in their sins.
- Moreover, if Christ has not been raised, we have lied about God in saying that Christ has been raised.
The logical consequences of doubting the bodily resurrection of Christians are steep. For Paul, the resurrection of the body is not adiaphora—an indifferent matter—but a vital aspect of the totality of redemption. Nothing less than salvation is at stake here.