The Resurrection of the Body

by Herman Bavinck

The first event that follows the appearance of Christ is the resurrection of the dead. This event is not the result of an evolution of bodies in general or of the resurrection body implanted in believers by regeneration and sacrament in particular but the effect of an omnipotent, creative act of God (Matt. 22:29; 1 Cor. 6:14; 15:38; 2 Cor. 1:9). The Father specifically carries out this work by the Son, whom he has “granted … to have life in himself” (John 5:26; 6:27, 39, 44; 1 Cor. 6:14; 2 Cor. 4:14; 1 Thess. 4:14). He is the resurrection and the life, the firstborn of the dead (John 11:25; Acts 26:23; 1 Cor. 15:20; Col. 1:18; Rev. 1:5), and must of necessity, therefore, bring about the resurrection of his own (John 6:39–40; 1 Cor. 15:20–23, 47–49). Undoubtedly Scripture teaches a general resurrection, a resurrection not only of believers but also of unbelievers and of all human beings (Dan. 12:2; Matt. 5:29–30; 10:28; John 5:29; Acts 24:15; Rev. 20:12–13), and attributes this resurrection to Christ as well (John 5:29). But it very rarely speaks of this general resurrection, the reason being that it is very differently related to Christ than the resurrection of believers. The resurrection of the dead in general is only obliquely a fruit of the work of Christ. It has become a necessity only because a temporal death has occurred; and this temporal death is separated from eternal death by God’s gracious intervention. Originally the punishment of sin was death in its full scope and severity. But because, out of the fallen human race, God chose for himself a community for eternal life, he immediately delayed temporal death already in the case of Adam and Eve, allowed them to reproduce themselves from generation to generation, and only at the end of the ages consigns those who have disobeyed his law and his gospel to eternal perdition. The general resurrection, therefore, serves only to restore in all human beings the temporary rupture of the bond between soul and body—a rupture that occurred only with a view toward grace in Christ—to place them all before the judgment seat of God as human beings, in soul and body, and to let them hear the verdict from his mouth. The Father also brings about this general resurrection through Christ, because he gave not only life to the Son but also the authority to execute judgment, and this judgment must strike the whole person, in both soul and body (John 5:27–29).

The resurrection of the dead in general, therefore, is primarily a judicial act of God. But for believers this act is filled with abundant consolation. In Scripture, the resurrection of the believing community is everywhere in the foreground, so much so that sometimes the resurrection of all human beings is even left out of consideration or deliberately omitted (Job 19:25–27; Ps. 73:23–26; Isa. 26:19–20; Ezek. 37; Hos. 6:2; 13:14; Mark 12:25; 2 Cor. 5; Phil. 3:11; 1 Thess. 4:16). This is the real, the true resurrection won directly by Christ, for it is not just a reunion of soul and body, but also an act of vivification, a renewal. It is an event in which believers, united in soul and body, enter into communion with Christ and are being re-created after God’s image (Rom. 8:11, 29; Phil. 3:21). For that reason Paul has the resurrection of believers coincide with the transformation of those who are left alive. The latter will have no advantage over the former, for the resurrection will take place prior to the transformation, and together they will go forth to meet the Lord in the air (1 Cor. 15:51–52; 2 Cor. 5:2, 4; 1 Thess. 4:15–17).

In this resurrection the identity of the resurrection body with the body that has died will be preserved. In the case of the resurrections that occur in the Old and New Testaments, the dead body is reanimated. Jesus arose with the same body in which he suffered on the cross and which was laid in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. At the time of Jesus’s death many bodies of the saints were raised and came forth from their tombs (Matt. 27:52). In the resurrection of the last day, all who are in the tombs will hear Jesus’s voice and come forth (John 5:28–29). According to Rev. 20:13, the dead will return to earth from the tombs, from the sea, from the realm of the dead and hades. And Paul teaches that the resurrection body proceeds from the body that has died, just as from the grain that has been sown God raises up new grain (1 Cor. 15:36ff.).

In the Christian religion this identity of the resurrection body with the body that was laid aside at death is of great significance. In this respect it is, in the first place, diametrically opposed to all dualistic theories according to which the body is merely an incidental dwelling place or prison of the soul. The essence of a human being consists above all in the most intimate union of soul and body in a single personality. The soul by nature belongs to the body, and the body by nature belongs to the soul. Although the soul does not itself create the body, it nevertheless has its own body. The continuity of an individual human being is maintained as much in the identity of the body as in the identity of the soul.

In the second place, Christ’s redemption is not a second, new creation but a re-creation. Things would have been much simpler if God had destroyed the entire fallen world and replaced it with a completely new one. But it was his good pleasure to raise the fallen world up again and to free from sin the same humanity that sinned. This deliverance consists in the reality that Christ delivers his believing community from all sin and from all the consequences of sin,2 and therefore causes it to completely triumph over death as well. Death is the last enemy to be annihilated. And the power of Christ is revealed in the fact that he not only gives eternal life to his own but in consequence also raises them on the last day. The rebirth by water and Spirit finds its completion in the rebirth of all things (Matt. 19:28). Spiritual redemption from sin is only fully completed in bodily redemption at the end of time. Christ is a complete Savior: just as he first appeared to establish the kingdom of heaven in the hearts of believers, so he will one day come again to give it visible shape and make his absolute power over sin and death incontrovertibly manifest before all creatures and bring about its acknowledgment. “Corporeality is the end of the ways of God” (Leiblichkeit ist das Ende der Wege Gottes).

Directly connected with this truth is the care of the dead. Cremation is not to be rejected because it is assumed to limit the omnipotence of God and make the resurrection an impossibility. Nevertheless, it is of pagan origin; it was never a custom in Israel or in Christian nations, and it militates against Christian mores. Burial, on the other hand, is much more nearly in harmony with Scripture, creed, history, and liturgy; with the doctrine of the image of God that is also manifest in the body; with the doctrine of death as a punishment for sin; and with the respect that is due to the dead and the resurrection on the last day. Christians do not, like the Egyptians, artificially preserve corpses; nor do they mechanically destroy them, as many people desire today. But they entrust them to the earth’s bosom and let them rest until the day of the resurrection.

The Christian church and Christian theology, accordingly, vigorously maintained the identity of the resurrection body with the body that had died. It frequently swung over to another extreme and not only confessed the resurrection of the flesh but even at times taught that in the resurrection the totality of matter (totalitas materiae) that once belonged to a body was assembled by God from all corners of the earth and brought back, in the same manner and measure as was once there, to the various parts of the body. But this notion is open to serious objections.

First, it leads to a variety of subtle and curious inquiries that are of no value for the doctrine of the resurrection. The question that is then pursued is whether the hair and the nails, the blood and the gall, the semen and the urine, the intestines and the genitals will all rise again and be composed of the same—in number and kind—atoms of which they were composed in this life. In the case of the physically handicapped, people who lacked one or more parts, and in the case of children who died in infancy and sometimes even before birth, this idea led to no little embarrassment. In all these and similar cases, whether they wanted to or not, people had to resort to the assumption that resurrection bodies would be augmented with components that did not belong to them earlier. Hence the resurrection cannot consist in a return to and the vivification of “the totality of matter.”

Second, physiology teaches that the human body, like all organisms, is subject to a constant process of metabolism, so that after a period of seven years not a single particle would still be present of those that made up the substance of the body before that time. The chemicals of which our bodies consist, like oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and so on, are the same as those that are found in other creatures around us, but they constantly change. This change is sufficient proof that the identity of human bodies cannot consist in that they are always composed of the same chemicals in number. It is enough that they consist of the same chemicals in kind.

Third, this is reinforced by the many kinds of metamorphoses that nature exhibits in all its domains. As a result of the impact of air, water, heat, and the like, plants are transformed into peat and coal, carbons into diamond, clay into clay stone, and rock into fertile soil. In the plant and animal world, within the limits of the various species, there is endless variety. And during the time of its existence, every organism undergoes a series of changes. The maggot becomes a fly; every larva passes from an undeveloped into a more developed state; an embryo passes through various stages and then arrives at extrauterine existence; the caterpillar becomes a pupa and then a butterfly, and so on. We do not know what it is that remains the same under all these metamorphoses. Both matter and form change. In the whole organism there seems to be nothing stable. Still the identity is maintained, an identity that is therefore independent of the coarse mass of materials, its transformation, and its quantity.

[573] If we now relate these facts to what Scripture teaches us about the resurrection, we see a chance to maintain the substantial unity as well as the qualitative distinction between the present and the future body. For strictly speaking, Scripture does not teach the resurrection of the flesh, but of the body. From the resurrections Scripture reports and from the resurrection of Christ, we may indeed—not as far as the form and manner is concerned but as to the essence of it—draw conclusions about the resurrection of the dead in the last days. For in the case of all these resurrections, the body still existed as a whole, and Christ’s body had not even been given over to corruption (Acts 2:31). But the bodies of those who rise in the parousia are totally decomposed and scattered in all sorts of ways and have passed into other creatures. In this case we can hardly speak of flesh in a literal sense, for flesh is always animated. That which is no longer alive and animated therefore also ceases to be flesh and returns to dust (Gen. 3:19). Job can indeed say—assuming now that this translation is correct—that from his flesh he will see God (19:26), and after his resurrection Jesus can testify that a spirit has no flesh and bones as he had (Luke 24:39).

However, this is still not sufficient to prove the resurrection of the flesh in the strict sense of this word. For though the flesh of which Job’s body consisted was indeed the substratum for the resurrection body, it did not for that reason form the substance of it. And Jesus arose with the same body in which he died and which had not even seen corruption, and he remained moreover in a transitional state up until his ascension, so that he could still eat food as well. Paul certainly teaches very clearly that flesh and blood, being perishable, cannot inherit the kingdom of God, which is imperishable (1 Cor. 15:50). Holsten, Holtzmann, and others have altogether mistakenly inferred from this that, according to Paul, the deceased body does not rise at all, and that the actual resurrection occurs already at the time of a person’s death. For the apostle expressly attests to his faith in the bodily resurrection and defends it against those in the church of Corinth who denied it, both in the case of Jesus and that of believers. And he is also thoroughly convinced that the very same body that is laid in the grave is raised again in the resurrection. At the same time he asserts that the resurrection is not a rehabilitation but a reformation.The body rises, not as a body of flesh and blood—weak, perishable, mortal—but as a body that is clothed in imperishability and glory. While the body composed of flesh and blood is the seed from which the resurrection body springs (1 Cor. 15:35–38), there is nevertheless a big difference between the two. Even on earth there is a lot of difference in kinds of “flesh,” in the case of organic beings, and in “substance,” in the case of inorganic creatures (vv. 39–41). Similarly, there is an important difference between the present body and the future body, as is evident from the contrast between Adam and Christ (vv. 42–49). The first is a natural body (σωμα ψυχικον, sōma psychikon) composed of flesh and blood, a body that is subject to change and animated by a soul (ψυχη, psychē), but the latter is a spiritual body (σωμα πνευματικον, sōma pneumatikon). Though it is a true body, it is no longer controlled by a soul but by the spirit (πνευμα, pneuma). It is no longer composed of flesh and blood; it is above the sex life (Matt. 22:30) and the need for food and drink (1 Cor. 6:13). In these respects it is distinguished even from the body that humans possessed before the fall; it is immortal, imperishable, spiritualized, and glorified (1 Cor. 15:42ff.; Phil. 3:21).

Therefore, according to Paul, the identity of the resurrection body with the body entrusted to the earth is independent of body mass and its constant change. All organisms, including human bodies, are composed of the same materials in kind, not in number. And therefore it is absolutely not necessary for the resurrection body to consist of the same atoms in terms of number as those of which it consisted when it was laid in the grave. But for the resurrection body’s identity with the flesh-and-blood body laid in the grave, it is required that it have the same organization and shape, the same basic configuration and type, which marked it here as the body of a specific person. In all the metamorphoses to which all creatures are subject, their identity and continuity are preserved. While after death the bodies of humans may disintegrate and, in terms of their material mass, pass into all sorts of other organisms, on earth something remains of them that constitutes the substratum of the resurrection body. Just what that is we do not know and will never be able to discover. But the oddness of this fact vanishes the moment we consider that the ultimate components of things are totally unknown to us. Even the most minute atom is still amenable to analysis. Chemical analysis continues endlessly but never reaches the utterly simple. Still, in the case of all organisms and therefore also in the case of the human body, there has to be something that keeps its identity in the ever-ongoing process of metamorphosis. Then what is so absurd about believing that such an “organic mold” or “pattern of individuality” of the body remains even after death to serve as “seed” for the resurrection body? For, according to Scripture, it is a fact that the resurrection body does not, along with the blessed, come down from heaven, nor is it composed of nonmaterial (geestelijke) or celestial elements. The resurrection body does not come from heaven but from the earth. It is not a self-generated product of the spirit (pneuma) or the soul (psychē) but arises from the body that was laid in the grave at death. Accordingly, it is not spiritual in the sense that its substance is spirit (pneuma), but it is and remains material. That matter, however, is no longer organized into perishable flesh and blood but into a glorified body.


From Reformed Dogmatics by Herman Bavinck

By Topic


By Scripture

Old Testament









1 Samuel

2 Samuel

1 Kings

2 Kings

1 Chronicles

2 Chronicles








Song of Solomon


















New Testament







1 Corinthians

2 Corinthians





1 Thessalonians

2 Thessalonians

1 Timothy

2 Timothy





1 Peter

2 Peter

1 John

2 John

3 John



By Author

Latest Links