Christians think differently about physical bodies to many other cultures and philosophies. We see this played out in Paul’s interaction at the Areopagus (Acts 17), as well as nowadays with our Hindu friends, for example.
In many traditions and religions, people aim for some form of escape from this world to a transcendent, purely ‘spiritual’ place which somehow leaves behind the ugliness of the ‘material’. While Christians acknowledge the devastating impact of rebellion against God on every part of the creation, we must not overstate the ‘evil’ of the material world. That is, we must be careful that an acknowledgment of the problem does not cause us to pursue a goal of complete detachment from all things physical or material.
The Bible is very clear about the state of our fallen world, and at the same time, the significance of the physical in God’s good purposes. Right from the beginning, God states that what he has created was ‘good’ and ‘very good’ (Gen 1). There is goodness in God’s physical creation, and although marred by rebellion (see Genesis 3 onwards), that goodness is still evident in God’s creation pointing to the Creator as the One to be praised for ever and ever (e.g. Psa 19:1). When the Son of God took on human flesh, he affirmed the fundamental goodness of creation (John 1:14).
There is perhaps no more significant aspect of this than the physicality of the resurrection that we are promised as followers of Jesus (see Matt 22:30-31; Luke 14:14; 1 Cor 15:52; 1 Thess 4:16, etc.). Not only does resurrection itself necessarily imply physicality – that which was once dead coming back to life – but the New Testament pattern of Christ’s physical resurrection assuring our physical resurrection (1 Cor 15:20-23) gives us a very good reason to be mindful of our physical bodies, even in the here and now. The apostle Paul asks the question: ‘Don’t you know that your bodies are a part of Christ’s body?’ (1 Cor 6:15). The question implies the answer: ‘you should!’ Our physicality is important, because we are physical, embodied creatures. This means we ought to be mindful of what we do physically. It matters, because our physical actions reveal the spiritual state of our hearts.
But there’s more: our future in the world to come is also physical. In Philippians 3 and Romans 8 we can see how we are awaiting Jesus’ glorious return with bated breath, for that wonderful day when we will have glorious bodies like Jesus himself. The physical difficulties we face now are incomparable to the physical glory that is coming with Jesus. It is no accident that this glory manifests itself for us ‘in the redemption of our bodies’ (Rom 8:23). The logic of the apostle here is of renewal and restoration, not casting off the physical as evil in order to transcend to a purely ‘spiritual’ resurrection.
The New Testament writings are undergirded by the physical nature of the resurrection of Jesus. We follow our Master in both his death and his resurrection – we die to our sin, to be raised to live for Christ. Just as Jesus is raised physically – and the historical accounts of the Gospels go into painstaking detail to show the physicality of Jesus’ resurrection – so we too will be physically raised. I particularly love the final two chapters of John’s Gospel, where the resurrected Jesus has physical interactions with historical people, in order to leave no doubt as to his physical resurrection. He asks Thomas to touch the wounds inflicted on him in his torture and crucifixion (John 20:27), he converses and eats with his close friends (John 21), and he does this on numerous occasions in numerous locations. There is something different about Jesus’ resurrected body, but there is no doubt that it is physical. And so, his ascension into heaven is also not just spiritual, but physical (Acts 1:9). In the same way that he ascended physically into heaven, he will descend physically to earth to judge the living and the dead (Acts 1:11; 17:31).
Finally, Jesus’ prayer in John 17:15-21 shows us how our problems in the material world are not insurmountable, nor are they what we should be trying to run away from. Jesus is praying to his Father, and his request is that his followers would be protected from the evil one, that is, Satan. Jesus does not ask for his followers to be detached or removed from the world, but rather protected in order that they might engage with the world, without falling prey to the world’s deception. Followers of Jesus are to engage a world that is fragile, hurting, and biting out of fear, to give them the life-giving message of the gospel. And don’t miss that Jesus doesn’t just pray for his close friends, but for us too – ‘I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message…’ (v. 20). We too are called to live in the world without being of the world, sharing in the struggles of the material world while at the same time enjoying and holding out fellowship with Christ by his Spirit.
Yes, rebellion against God means so much brokenness in this world. Yes, the world is clearly not functioning as it did in the creation narrative where God looked at what he had made and called it ‘very good.’ And yet, the Bible speaks to us of a very real hope. The hope that finds its definitive proof in the death and physical resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. The world is evil because of a separation from its life source, not because the material is subservient to the spiritual. God’s salvation plan has very physical elements. We will be raised physically, and until that day we ought to live in this material world, captured by the God of the Bible and telling others how they too can be made right with God through Jesus and have a physical resurrection even after death.