Whenever Christians celebrate Easter, they celebrate Christ’s “resurrection from the dead.” Others, too, had risen from the dead (1 Kings 17:17-24, 2 Kings 4:32-37.) Theologians typically distinguish Jesus’ resurrection from others in this way:
“When Jesus raised these three people (Lazarus, Jairus’ daughter, and the widow’s son of Nain), they were not resurrected into their glorified bodies. However, when Jesus rose from the dead, He was resurrected into His glorified body. The same body Jesus died in was the same body He was raised in; however, it was His resurrected, glorified body. The three people Jesus raised from the dead were not raised with their glorified bodies. In the future, all believers will be raised in their glorified bodies.”
The relationship between physical bodies and “glorified bodies” (whatever those are) has caused a lot of confusion about the meaning of “resurrection of the dead.” Let’s look at the issue another way.
The physical resuscitations or revivals wrought by the likes of Elijah, Elisha, and Jesus, on the one hand, and Jesus’ own resurrection, on the other hand, are often referred to by the same expression: raised from the dead. Christians presume that Jesus’ resurrection occurred in the form of his physical body (hence, the empty tomb), not unlike the dead bodies that were thrown out of their tombs that waited for three days until Jesus resurrected so that they too could “rise up” and go into town to tell the tale (Matt 27:51-53). Lazarus had also come out of his grave, but BEFORE Jesus had been raised. And yet, in one of Paul’s letters, Christ is referred to as “the first-born from the dead” (Col 1:18.) So, if Lazarus had been “raised from the dead” before Jesus’ resurrection, then how can Christ be described as the FIRST from the dead? Apparently, there are different meanings of “death” and “dead.”
Many did not understand what Jesus meant by being “raised from the dead” (Mark 9:10, 31,32, John 8:51-53) even though they had witnessed many times Jesus’ physical revivals or resuscitations, which means that Jesus meant something other than physical revival by that phrase. A clue to Christ’s meaning is found in the way that that word “dead” is used in the New Testament (NT.)
The term “dead” does not typically refer to a corpse. It often means “cut off” or “separated from.” When Paul says to be “dead to sin” (Rom 6:11), he means to be “cut off” or “separated” from sin. An individual can also be considered “dead” in terms of his or her relationship to God. We see this said of a woman who although physically alive is “dead” because she puts no hope in God (1 Tim 5:6.) In the parable of the Rich Man (Luke 16), both the poor beggar Lazarus (not the same Lazarus that Jesus revived) and the rich man die and are buried (Luke 16:22). While their physical remains laid in the Earth, Lazarus was escorted by angels to “Abraham’s side,” i.e., Paradise, and the rich man went to Hades where he remained conscious and aware even though he no longer occupied a physical body. In Hades, the rich man is separated from Heaven “by a great chasm” (Luke 16:26) and is among “the dead” (Luke 16:30,31.) The “dead know nothing” (Eccl 9:5) not because they are cut off from consciousness or awareness but because they are divorced from God (sometimes called “the Living.”)
The physical body plays no role in the “resurrection of the dead” for “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 15:50), and that kingdom is the final destination of the resurrected. As Paul once asked, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” (1 Cor 15:35.) He responds by distinguishing between a physical body and a spirit body. Christ’s resurrection body is that of a spirit, not of a human being (1 Cor 15:45.) Christ’s ascension into Heaven (Acts 1:9,10) could not have occurred with his physical body even though, to all outward appearances, the resurrected Jesus looked human (as do spirits who materialize in the biblical record.) Whereas “spiritual death” is the separation of a spirit from God (1 Tim 5:6, Luke 16:26, 30,31), “physical death” is the separation of the spirit body from the physical body (Eccl 12:6, Matt 27:50, Luke 23:46, John 19:30, James 2:26.) The great fourth/fifth-century Christian philosopher Augustine put it this way: “The death that men fear is the separation of the soul from the body; the death that men do not fear is the separation of the soul from God.”
Jesus did not leave the tomb on the third day because he was never in it. Once he died on the cross, he exited the physical body as a spirit (“he gave up the ghost.”) The physical body was no longer of any use. Clues as to what happened next are found in parts of the NT. His visit to “the spirits in prison” after his death on the cross (1 Peter 3:18,19) could not have been accomplished in his physical body, which continued to be seen on Earth at that time (John 19:37,38). Paul had referenced this as “descending first into the lower parts of the Earth (i.e., Hades)” and then “ascending” from there (Eph 4:9.) Such an ascent was performed by Christ as a spirit, and in this sense Christ “rose from the dead,” that is, “rose from among those spirits separated from God.”
His subsequent appearances to the disciples were not unlike the way spirits appeared to human beings elsewhere in the Bible—they look just like us. But remember that the disciples at that time were no more the wiser about the meaning of “resurrection of the dead” than they had been before Jesus’ crucifixion (Mark 9:10,32.) Thus, Jesus could not have appeared to them in the way that he had appeared, say, at his ascension in Acts 1 or to Paul in brilliant white light (Acts 9:3.) Instead, he had to be recognizable to them, and so the marks of the crucifixion wounds and the physicality of his appearance were meant not only to “calm the fears” of the disciples who saw him (Luke 24:37,38) but also to “prove” to them that it “was really him” (Luke 24:39; John 20:25-27.) Jesus’ insistence that “a spirit does not have flesh and bone, as you see I have” (Luke 24:39) was one more attempt on his part to calm and convince them, for they were still in the dark about the meaning of “resurrection of the dead.” It was not until Christ had spent time with them after his resurrection and initial appearance to them that they began “to get it” (Luke 24:44-48). The wounds are no longer present at his ascension in Acts 1.
Christ’s status as “first born from the dead” refers to Christ “the spirit” (not the human being) who was the first spirit from among the spiritually dead in Hades to ascend from there with the purpose of encouraging the dead in Hades to follow his example. He “conquered Death” (1 Cor 15:55) not by reviving his physical dead body in the tomb but by vanquishing the hostile dead in Hades (Col 2:13-15) and overcoming their power by ascending from there: “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death [on the cross] he might break the power of him who holds the power of death [separation from God]—that is, the devil” (Heb 2:14.) The devil is the key figure who brings about “death” or separation from God.
The dead are conscious, sentient beings, whether here (1 Tim 5:6) or in the hereafter (Luke 16:30,31, 1 Pet 3:18,19) and not entombed physical bodies waiting “to be raised in glory.” Being “raised from the dead” referred to a change in attitude toward God, a turning away from “sin” and a turning to God (repenting), which has nothing to do with the resuscitation of a dead physical body. Thus, the Colossians, once coming to know Christ, were said to be “raised from the dead” although their departure from the Earth through physical death had not yet taken place (Col 2:12).
With this in mind, we can discern at least two meanings of “resurrection of the dead” in the NT: 1) Christ’s resurrection “from among the dead” (Eph 4:9, 1 Peter 3:18,19); and 2) those who give their allegiance to Christ and God are thus raised from the dead.
Some early Christians (e.g., Origen) taught that the Devil or Satan (other names for “the dead”) had been equally affected by Christ’s Redemption—it was a Universal Redemption, which was a part of Jewish Messianic expectation (Isa 24:22) and the point of his descent into Hades. This line of thinking harks back to early Jewish belief in the fall of the angels from Heaven who became the demons and devils of Hell; their former residency in Heaven had not been forgotten by God and they, like erring children, would be given an opportunity to return home through the act of a Messiah. But this line of thinking was later anathematized at the Second Church Council of Constantinople in 553 in favor of eternal (without-end) damnation, which seems to make a mockery of Christ’s descent into Hades.