Central to the hope of the early church was the bodily resurrection of the dead at the return of Jesus in glory.
Biblical Christianity is a forward-looking faith, and integral to its doctrine of salvation is the future resurrection of the dead, which also will mean the commencement of the New Creation. And in the New Testament, this hope is linked to two events: the past resurrection of Jesus and his future return at the end of the age. And salvation remains incomplete without it.
Unfortunately, over the centuries, this basic hope has been shoved into the background to make way for ideas alien to the Bible. This is due to many factors, but especially to the assimilation of key pagan beliefs to Christian teaching, and very often, popular ideas about the afterlife have more in common with Neoplatonism and Gnosticism than with the apostolic tradition.
Writing to the Romans, Paul declared that if the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead dwells in us, then He that “raised Christ Jesus from among the dead will quicken even our death-doomed bodies.” Here, the future “quickening” of our bodies is connected to the past resurrection of Jesus – (Romans 8:9-11).
We possess “death-doomed bodies,” not because they are physical, but because we are condemned to bondage, decay, and death by sin. Even though we are indwelt by the Spirit, because of Adam’s transgression, we remain subject to death. If God is to redeem us and recover all that was lost, salvation must include the body. Likewise, the creation itself was also condemned by Adam’s sin to corruption, and therefore, must also be redeemed.
Because we have the Spirit of God, it attests that we are “coheirs” with His Son. We, therefore, will be “glorified together with him.” Even the creation itself is “ardently awaiting” that day, for like humanity, it has been subjected to “vanity” and longs for deliverance.
On that coming day, the “creation itself will be freed from the bondage of decay into the freedom of the glory of the sons of God.” The possession of the Spirit is the “first-fruit” of the future life, therefore, we also “ardently await the adoption, the redemption of our body.” Paul is talking about the bodily resurrection and new creation – (Romans 8:15-23).
In Corinth, some believers denied the future resurrection. Paul responded by reminding the Corinthians of the gospel that he first delivered to them – “How that Christ died for our sins, and was buried, and that he has been raised on the third day.” But if there is no future resurrection, then “even Christ has not been raised,” and if not, then the gospel is void, the apostles all lied, and we are all “yet in our sins,” without hope, and “most to be pitied.” Thus, once again, Paul links the future resurrection of believers with the past resurrection of Jesus – (1 Corinthians 15:1-20).
The resurrection of Jesus is the “first fruit of them who have fallen asleep.” Just as death came through Adam, so the “raising of the dead comes through one man, and in Christ, all be made alive.” This will occur at the “arrival” of Jesus when he consummates the kingdom, subjugates all his enemies, and especially, the “last enemy, death.” With his arrival, death itself will cease – (1 Corinthians 15:20-28).
Resurrection does not mean the resuscitation of “death-doomed bodies,” nor does it mean living in a disembodied state. Our present body is “sown in corruption but will be raised in incorruption.” It will be a body fitted for life in the Spirit. Paul did not see bodily existence as incompatible with the Spirit. The difference is the kind of body one has, whether a “body of the soul” or a “body of the spirit.” And just as we now bear the “image of the man of the earth,” Adam, so we will “bear the image of the man of heaven,” Jesus.
And when he does “arrive,” believers who remain alive will be transformed, and those who have died will be raised from the dead to receive “immortality…for whenever this mortal will clothe itself with immortality, then will be brought to pass the saying, ‘Death has been swallowed up victoriously’,” for death will cease forevermore – (1 Corinthians 15:50-57).
When the Thessalonians expressed grief over the deaths of fellow believers, Paul reminded them that we were not without hope. If we “believe that Jesus died and rose again, so God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep through Jesus.” At his “arrival,” Jesus will descend from heaven and the “dead in Christ will rise first.” After that, both the living and now resurrected saints together will “meet” him as he descends from heaven, and so, “evermore we will be with the Lord.”
As in Corinth, so also in Thessalonica, Paul connected the future resurrection to the past raising of Jesus from the dead, and to his “arrival” at the end of the age. And again, he portrayed it as a collective event; all believers will be raised at his “arrival” from heaven.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul demonstrated just how foundational to his faith this hope was. Having counted all things as loss for the sake of Christ, his life became centered on pursuing him – “if by any means I may attain to the resurrection from among the dead.” If he did not participate in the future resurrection, his salvation would remain incomplete – (Philippians 3:10-11).
Thus, the Christian hope of salvation lies in the future. While upon repentance our sins are forgiven and we become “heirs with Christ,” the final realization of that hope remains incomplete until the return of Jesus at the end of the age. On that day, dead believers will be resurrected, those remaining alive on the earth will be transformed, and together all saints will then be with Jesus forevermore. And with the resurrection of the dead, the New Creation will commence.