St. Paul begins his teaching on the resurrection body this way:
But some one will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ You foolish man! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.— 1 Cor. 15:35–36.
Ever the diplomat, Paul first calls the questioner a fool and then refers him back to Jesus and the metaphor of the grain of wheat. But notice that when Jesus used that metaphor, He was talking as much about His own Death and Resurrection as about the general resurrection of believers. In other words, if we want to know more about the resurrection and the spiritual body, we can look at Jesus’ resurrection body, and that will give us some clues about our own.
Beholding the Glory
In general, Jesus’ human life was a veiling of His glory, as He humbled Himself to take on true humanity (see Phil. 2:6–11). However, the apostles saw His glory in a very direct way on two occasions. One was the Transfiguration, and the other, of course, was His Resurrection.
We read in the Gospels that, on one occasion, Jesus took Peter, James, and John up to a mountainous place to pray. While they were there, they saw a momentary revelation of Jesus’ glory. He appeared to them to be emanating light, His face shining like the sun, and His garments as bright as light. They saw Him talking with Elijah and Moses, indicating that they were on holy ground.
This was a foreshadowing of His resurrection body, but all it really tells us is that His body was luminous — that is, glorified. Because Jesus Christ is the one person in whom two natures are united — divinity united to humanity — His divine nature glorified His humanity so that, in reality, He didn’t need to wait for resurrection for His body to be glorified, since He was without sin and did not need salvation.
Clues About Our Future Body
Therefore, it is Jesus’ Resurrection that gives us the most clues about our own future resurrection body. This is not to say that we can assume that our spiritual bodies will be exactly like Jesus’ raised body in every way. We just don’t know that for sure. But it’s safe to assume that since He is “the first-born from the dead” (that is, the first to experience resurrection; Col. 1:18), and since His Resurrection makes ours possible, there must be some clues about our spiritual body in Jesus’ body after the Resurrection. Incidentally, this is why the Church has always insisted that Jesus was raised bodily.
But when we look at the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ Resurrection appearances, we often get conflicting messages. At first, the disciples don’t recognize Him (John 20:14–15; 21:4). In the beautiful account of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–35; cf. Mark 16:12), these followers of Jesus listen to Him teach as they walk for miles on the road, but they don’t recognize Him until He breaks the bread. On the other hand, when Luke’s Gospel tells us that some disciples thought they were seeing a ghost, I take that to mean they did recognize Him but, knowing He had died, assumed He was a ghost. This is not a statement about what He looked like, but an acknowledgment that they knew who He was.
On at least one occasion, He didn’t want to be touched (John 20:17), and He seemed to be able to walk through walls (John 20:19, 26, and possibly Luke 24:36). At other times, He could be touched, as disciples clung to His feet (Matt. 28:9), and He even encouraged them to touch Him to see that He was tangible. Finally, it’s not for nothing that the Gospel writers go out of their way to tell us that Jesus ate after His Resurrection (Luke 24:41–43; see John 21:12–13). Again, this was to emphasize that His Resurrection was not spiritual only, but also physical — that is, He rose bodily. He rose, not only with His body, but also with the wounds from His Passion (John 20:20).
St. Jerome on Bodily Resurrection
St. Jerome warns us not to take the miraculous nature of the post-Resurrection appearances as any evidence of an ethereal or phantasmal Jesus. He was raised with a solid body, Jerome assures us, and His ability to walk through walls or to inhibit people’s ability to recognize Him were functions of the same miraculous power that allowed Him to walk on water before His Passion (Letter 108, To Eustochium).
St. Jerome answers those who want to see in the Gospels a spiritualized kind of Resurrection by referring to Jesus’ words in Luke 24:39: “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.” Then Jerome comments: “You hear him speak of bones and flesh, of feet and hands; and yet you want to palm off on me the bubbles and airy nothings of which the Stoics rave!”
At this point, we should not assume that those aspects of Jesus’ post-Resurrection nature that we would consider miraculous (such as popping into a locked room) will apply to us in the resurrection life. What we can say is that we will be raised with a solid, tangible body, perfected beyond the reach of sickness or weakness, yet perhaps even retaining some scars from our experiences in this life.
Forty Days & Beyond
Jesus remained on earth, continuing His ministry in His resurrection body, for forty days. The apostles certainly saw and experienced more than they would later write about. So even though the Scriptures don’t give us a lot to go on so far, the fact that all of the apostles and the early Church Fathers insisted on the reality of a bodily resurrection of Jesus must mean something. This was not the wishful thinking of a bunch of dreamers. And it could not be a fabricated myth, since there were too many people around who were eyewitnesses to the truth.
At the end of that forty-day period, Jesus ascended to the Father. In other words, He transferred Himself to the spiritual realm. But He did not shed His humanity or slough off His body, like a snake shedding its skin. He entered the spiritual realm with His whole humanity intact, including His body. He exists to this day (and to eternity) with His two natures, divine and human, and His human body exists in the spiritual realm. This is why it’s called a spiritual body — because the resurrected body is made ready for the spiritual realm of the Kingdom of Heaven.
But Jesus did not leave us without access to His body here on earth. Every time we receive the Eucharist, we receive the Body and Blood of the Lord. And the Eucharist is not simply a memorial of something that happened 1,986 years ago. It’s something that continues to happen now, and continues to bless recipients with grace, because the Body and Blood of Jesus are present not only on the altar — they live even now at the right hand of the Father.
You see, all of this is connected. The body of Christ that hung on the Cross is the body of Christ that rose from the tomb, is the body of Christ that ascended to the Father, and is the Body of Christ that is presented on the altar and that makes those who receive it into the Body of Christ, the Church. And this is why we bow and genuflect before the consecrated elements: we are not bowing to statues, icons, or symbols; we bow to the Real Presence of Christ in His Body and Blood, at the same time both here on earth and in the Kingdom of Heaven.
This article is an excerpt from Dr. Papandrea’s latest book, What REALLY Happens After We Die (There Will Be Hugs in Heaven). It is available as an ebook or paperback from Sophia Institute Press.