Will we have physical bodies in our next lives? And will we recognise our friends and loved ones? Samuele Bacchiocchi says Yes.
What will people be like in the world to come?
Will they have 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 different?
The ethereal vision we have today of Paradise has been inspired more by Greek philosophical dualism (the idea that humans have physical bodies and immaterial souls) than by the Bible.
The ancient 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?
So will people in the new world receive physical or spiritual (non-material) bodies? 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: “What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour, 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 dishonour 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 non-physical, non-material substance: the so-called soul.
The “Spiritual” Resurrected Body
But Paul did not consider “spiritual” to mean non-physical. This is evidenced by his use of the 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 non-physical 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 they were guided by spiritual rather than worldly values.
These insights help us to better understand Paul’s statement that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 15:50). It simply notes the absence of the natural sinful inclinations of the present life because we will be led fully by the Spirit.
The Resurrection Of The Body
In the biblical 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 of the body means to believe that my whole human self—the human being that I am—will be restored to life. 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 (see 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 their own unique character as a result of the struggles, defeats, disappointments, victories and growth in grace they experience. 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 recognise our loved ones in heaven. Often, when we meet primary or high-school classmates after 30 years, we don’t recognise them until they begin to talk. Then we realise 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 recognise 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 means we need to be developing 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, non-physical, “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.
What Happens To Our Bodies When We Die?
Genesis 2:7 gives the formula for the creation of human beings: “The Lord God formed the man [Adam] from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” the King James Version says that after God breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life, “man became a living soul” (emphasis added).
This “soul” (KJV) or “living being” (NIV) is the entire finished product in God’s creation of human beings. it includes both “the dust of the ground,” which is the body, and the “breath of life,” which is the life-force that makes this body alive. Dust plus breath equals a living being.
As God told Adam and Eve, “for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19). So when we die, “the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it” (ecclesiastes 12:7). Dust minus spirit (breath) equals death. So when our physical bodies return to the earth on our deaths, we sleep the sleep of death (John 11:11–14), only to be resurrected at Jesus’ second coming.
* Scriptures quoted from RSV are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, 1971 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. Used by permission.