What will people be like in the world to come? Will those who are saved be resurrected with physical bodies like the present ones, or will they receive radically different, immaterial bodies? Will they be the same people who existed on earth, or will they be completely different?
The ethereal vision of Paradise was inspired more by Greek philosophical dualism (the idea that humans have physical bodies and immaterial souls) than by biblical holistic realism. The Greeks regarded the material components of this world as evil. Their aim was to reach a spiritual realm where their souls, liberated from the prison of physical bodies and the material world, would enjoy eternal bliss.
The Bible, however, affirms the goodness of God’s physical creation. It says that God saw that all the physical things He had created were good (Genesis 1:10, 18, 21, 25, 31). The purpose of redemption is not the liberation of spiritual souls from the bondage of physical bodies but the restoration of the whole creation to its original perfection. The “new heavens” and “new earth” that the Bible promises are not a remote and inconsequential world somewhere off in space (Isaiah 65:17; Revelation 21:1). Rather, they are the present earth restored to its original perfection.
Physical or spiritual?
Will people in the new world receive physical bodies like their present ones, or will they receive radically different spiritual (nonmaterial) ones? Paul discussed this very question: “Someone may ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?’ . . . What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body” (1 Corinthians 15:35–38).
In other words, just as God gives a body to each kind of seed that is sown, so He will give a body to each person who is buried.
Paul developed the analogy of the seed further by giving us a clear description of the continuity and discontinuity between the present and future bodies. In 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 physical body, it is raised a spiritual body” (verses 42–44, RSV).*
Here, Paul used four contrasts to explain the difference between our present bodies and our future resurrection bodies.
- First, our present bodies are perishable, subject to sickness and death, whereas our resurrection bodies will be imperishable, no longer liable to sickness and death.
- Second, our present bodies experience the dishonor of being lowered into a grave, whereas our resurrection bodies will experience the glory of an inner and outward transformation.
- Third, our present bodies are weak, whereas our resurrection bodies will be filled with boundless energy.
- And fourth, our present bodies are physical, whereas our resurrection bodies will be spiritual.
This last contrast has led some Christians to conclude that our resurrection bodies will be spiritual in the sense that they will consist of a nonphysical, nonmaterial substance: the so-called soul. Did Paul believe—and does the Bible teach—that in the world to come believers will receive bodies that are totally devoid of any physical substance?
The “spiritual” resurrected body
That Paul did not consider “spiritual” to mean nonphysical is evidenced by his use of the same two words “physical” (psychikos) and “spiritual” (pneumatikos) with reference to this present life. He said, “The unspiritual [physical (psychikos)] man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual [pneumatikos] man judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one” (1 Corinthians 2:14, 15, RSV).
It is obvious that in this passage the expression “spiritual man” does not mean a nonphysical person. Rather, it means someone who is guided by the Holy Spirit in contrast to someone who is guided by natural impulses. Paul called the resurrection body “spiritual” because it is ruled by the Holy Spirit rather than by carnal impulses. This is not an anthropological dualism between a “physical” and a “spiritual” nature but a moral distinction between a life led by the Holy Spirit and one controlled by sinful desires.
In another place Paul wrote, “You are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you” (Romans 8:9, RSV). Obviously, he did not intend the phrase “not in the flesh” to mean that the people to whom he was writing had discarded their physical bodies. Rather, he meant that even in this present life they were guided by spiritual rather than worldly values.
These insights help us to understand Paul’s statement that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 15:50). This statement simply notes the absence of the natural sinful inclinations of the present life because the redeemed will be led fully by the Spirit.
The resurrection of the body
In the biblical holistic view of human nature, the term body is simply a synonym for “person.” For example, when Paul told believers to present their “bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God,” he was clearly thinking of the whole person (Romans 12:1, RSV). Consequently, to believe in the resurrection and translation of the body means to believe that my whole human self—the human being that I am—will be restored to life again. It means that I will not be someone different from the person I am now. In short, it means that God has committed Himself to preserving my individuality, personality, and character.
The Bible assures us of the preservation of our identities through the suggestive imagery of “books” where our names, thoughts, attitudes, and actions are recorded (Philippians 4:3; Revelation 3:5). In Scripture, a name stands for character or personality, as indicated by the various names used to portray God’s character. This suggests that God preserves an accurate picture of the character of each person who ever lived on this planet.
Each believer develops his or her own unique character as a result of the struggles, defeats, disappointments, victories, and growth in grace he or she experiences. This means that the possibility of multiple “replication” of people at the resurrection—all looking, acting, and thinking alike—is inconceivable. As there are no two persons with the same DNA, so there are no two people with the same character.
Some practical implications
To believe in the resurrection of the body, then, means to believe that we will be able to recognize our loved ones. Often, when we meet elementary or high-school classmates after 30 years, we don’t recognize them until they begin to talk. Then we realize who they are because their personalities have not changed. They are still the same people we knew many years before. The same principle applies to the recognition of our resurrected loved ones. We will recognize them, not because they’ll look as young or as old as when we last saw them, but because God will have preserved and resurrected their unique personalities.
This implies also that we are now forming the distinct personalities and characters that will be ours throughout eternity. This important truth summons us to cultivate all the powers that God has given us in order to develop characters that are fit to serve God not only in this world but also in the next.
Summing up, then: People in the world to come will have physical bodies like the present ones but without the liabilities of sin, sickness, and death. God doesn’t intend to remove defects from His original material creation by remaking it of a different, nonphysical, “spiritual” substance. Instead, He will restore the whole creation to its original, material perfection. What was “very good” at Creation will also be “very good” at the final restoration.