What is a “spiritual” body?

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What happens after we die?  I confess to being curious, and I know I’m not alone.  The Bible, however, doesn’t give enough detail to satisfy all our questions.  What we know from Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 15, as seen in previous posts, is that there will be some form of physical resurrection of the faithful.  Some of the believers in Corinth were denying such a resurrection, and Paul had to set them straight.

But his words may sound confusing.  Doesn’t he seem to say, in the very same chapter, that the afterlife will be non-physical?  Isn’t that what he means by saying we will eventually have “spiritual” bodies?  Here’s the passage in question:

It’s the same with the resurrection of the dead: a rotting body is put into the ground, but what is raised won’t ever decay.  It’s degraded when it’s put into the ground, but it’s raised in glory.  It’s weak when it’s put into the ground, but it’s raised in power.  It’s a physical body when it’s put into the ground, but it’s raised as a spiritual body.  If there’s a physical body, there’s also a spiritual body.  (1 Cor 15:42-44, CEB)

When we hear the word “spiritual,” we’re apt to think “non-corporeal.”  But it’s quite likely that the Corinthians would have heard something very different.

A brief but necessary detour into Paul’s Greek: the words translated in the above passage as “physical” and “spiritual” are psychikos and pneumatikos, respectively, from the words meaning “soul” (psyche) and spirit (pneuma).  Much of the way we think of a human “soul” comes more from Greek philosophy than the Bible; biblically, soul is something more like a life-principle that even animals possess.

Paul’s contrast, therefore, is not about what the two kinds of bodies are “made of” but, in a sense, what powers them: is it the ordinary kind of life that God gave to all living creatures, or is it the life of the spirit?  And yes, as Paul will say shortly, there will be physical differences — but that doesn’t seem to be his point here.  See, for example, 1 Corinthians 2:14, where psychikos is translated as “unspiritual” (CEB, NRSV) or “without the Spirit” (NIV) — in that passage, the word surely can’t mean merely “physical,” which should make us cautious about understanding 15:44 that way.

Moreover, the Corinthians were probably pretty fond of the word pneumatikos: to them, it was a proud self-designation for those who were spiritually elite, who believed they had already received the fullness of God’s spiritual gifts and blessings (I imagine them having t-shirts printed, with an arrow pointing to the side, and the words “I’m with psychikos” emblazoned across the chest).

Many of the problems in the church seemed to be tied to this kind of arrogant belief.  So imagine their dismay to hear Paul suggest that they won’t be truly and fully pneumatikos — “spiritual” — until after the resurrection.  That would have been a bitter pill indeed.

In short, though the nature of the resurrection body will somehow be different from the one we have now, it will still be a physical body.  Better looking?  Maybe — or perhaps we’ll finally see beauty for what it really is.  Stronger, more energetic?  I certainly hope so; I love C. S. Lewis’ image of people running without tiring, and even swimming up waterfalls in Aslan’s Country.

But whatever the case, I believe we will finally experience the kind of life intended by God for his good and physical creation.