by Hank Hanegraaff
Do believers receive resurrected bodies when they die or when Christ returns?
This is a question I encountered frequently after the death of my father. Family members and friends wanted to know whether my dad had become a disembodied soul, or whether he had received his resurrection body the moment he died.
Dr. Norman Geisler, Dean of Southern Evangelical Seminary, points out in his book, The Battle for the Resurrection (Thomas Nelson, 1992), that those who teach that believers receive their resurrection bodies at the moment of death often do so as a result of misunderstanding or misinterpreting the following words in Paul's second letter to the Corinthians:
"Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
"Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad" (2 Corinthians 5:1-10).
The argument is typically framed in the following manner. Far from being "found naked" (v. 3) when we die, Paul promises that God will give us "an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands" (v. 1). Thus, it is presumed that either we receive another body in place of the body that is being buried or else we receive an intermediate body until our present bodies are raised at the second coming of Christ.
To determine Paul's meaning, we need to apply a basic principle in the art and science of biblical interpretation called the principle of scriptural harmony. Simply stated, this principle, also known as the analogy of faith, means that individual passages of Scripture must always be harmonized with Scripture as a whole. An isolated passage should never be interpreted in such a way as to conflict with other passages. What appears to be cloudy should be interpreted in light of what is crystal-clear. The biblical interpreter must keep in mind that all of Scripture, though communicated through various human instruments, has a single author: God. And God does not contradict himself.
Thus, to determine what 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 means, we need to consider this passage in light of both the immediate and broader context of Scripture. In doing so we are led to the inevitable conclusion that believers receive their resurrected bodies at the second coming of Christ, not when they die.
First and foremost, as noted by Geisler, the passage under consideration, as well as the rest of Scripture, clearly refers to the moment of death as one of disembodiment, not of re-embodiment. In the immediate context, Paul refers to death as being "naked" (v. 3) or "away from the body" (v. 8). Why would he dread being naked if he were going to receive another body at the moment of death? Says Geisler, "Speaking of death as disembodiment ('absent from the body') and as an undesirable experience makes little sense if that is the moment of one's ultimate triumph with a resurrection body" (see 2 Corinthians 5:1, 4; 1 Corinthians 15:50-58 NKJV). In fact, in verse eight, Paul makes it crystal-clear that being "at home with the Lord" is tantamount to being "away from the body" (see also Philippians 1:23; Hebrews 12:23; Revelation 6:9).
Furthermore, Scripture teaches that believers are not resurrected until the second coming of Christ. Paul explicitly says that when the Lord comes down from heaven, "the dead in Christ will rise first" (1 Thessalonians 4:16).
If believers received their resurrected bodies at the moment of death, they obviously could not receive them at Christ's second coming. According to theologian Millard Erickson in his book Christian Theology (Baker Book House, 1985), saying that believers receive their immortal bodies at the moment of death, while their mortal bodies are still in the grave, is tantamount to saying that the resurrection has already come. Erickson points out that Paul describes such notions as "godless chatter" and explicitly condemns Hymenaeus and Philetus for saying that the resurrection had already taken place (see 2 Timothy 2:16-18).
Finally, our eternal bodies correspond directly with the bodies we now possess. As Christ rose in the same physical body in which he died, so we will be raised in the same physical bodies in which we die. In other words, our resurrection bodies are not second bodies; rather, they are our present bodies transformed. As Geisler explains:
"Upon death the physical body is still in the grave. But the resurrection of the physical body cannot occur while the physical body is still in the grave. If it did, then there would be no continuity between what died (the physical body) and what rose. But Paul declared that 'the body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable.' He repeats, 'It is sown, it is raised' (1 Corinthians 15:42-43). That is to say, the body that dies is the very same one to come back to life. Further, resurrection is described by Jesus as the time when 'all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out' (John 5:28). So while their bodies are in the grave, they are not being raised, and when they are raised their bodies are no longer in the grave. One cannot have it both ways. Resurrection cannot occur while someone's body is still in the grave" (emphasis in original).
Scripture describes the moment of death as disembodiment, not re-embodiment. Paul makes it clear that being at home with the Lord is tantamount to being "away from the body." Further, if believers received their resurrected bodies at the moment of death, they obviously could not receive them at the second coming of Christ, as Scripture teaches. And finally, there is a one-to-one correspondence between the body when it dies and the body when it rises. Thus, our resurrection bodies are not second bodies, but our present bodies transformed.
One day, the very body of my father that I watched being lowered into the ground will rise from its grave. On that day, Dad's body will no longer be dominated by natural proclivities; instead, he will have a supernatural, spiritual body, which is physical but dominated by the Holy Spirit and set free from slavery to sin -- "an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands." Apart from that hope, there is no hope. "If the dead are not raised," says Paul, "let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die" (1 Corinthians 15:32).
Adapted from chapter eleven of Hank Hanegraaff's Resurrection (Word Publishing, 2000).
-- Hank Hanegraaff