In Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright says, in the first century, “resurrection meant bodies.” (p. 36)
While this was not considered unusual for most of human recorded history (especially those who didn’t believe in resurrection), it seems to be for many of us today (especially for those of us who claim most passionately to believe in resurrection).
For most the last 2000 years, Christians collected relics, protected bones and worried whether God could sufficiently re-created someone out of ashes burned in cremation. Today, our problem tends to be the opposite.
We think that everlasting life is simply about souls. Some kind of spiritual stuff that exists eternally (really only the Greeks, eastern religion and Mormons believe that officially) and is injected into bodies who someday will “shuffle off this mortal coil” (But for an interesting take on that phrase from Hamlet, and how most of us confuse what it means, see this vs. this)
But much of this confusion is actually alleviated when we reconsider the scriptures. In the scriptures, the ultimate hope of Christians is not that we are going to have our souls sent to heaven when we die to live there eternally, but that “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:5)
And many, many times, we can read passage like this and come to exactly the wrong conclusion.
To use a different example to make the same point: The old beautiful King James Version of the Bible says in John 3:16, “whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” The him, of course, is Jesus and the good news we are told is that our life will be “everlasting.” But think about that for a second. Is that really good news?
Quite frankly, an eternity of the life that most of us lead is not offering much. Would you want most of the parts of this life to be everlasting?
Everlasting taxes and traffic
Everlasting debt and disappointments,
Everlasting pimples and problems,
Everlasting insecurities and inhibitions,
Everlasting war and worry?
(Would you even want ever-lasting sermons and worship services?)
If life simply lasts forever and it is not changed, then what value is that?
But the Greek word behind the KJV’s everlasting is far more than "never-ending”. The word denotes more of a unique, imperishable, quality. The everlasting life of God is not only life that lasts forever, but life of a different kind which is available now and lasts forever. In short, it is this life…transformed and made new. It is created life, re-created (2 Corinthians 5:17, Romans 8:18-24).
This is what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:42-53, as he describes the new resurrected life, concluding this part of the argument in v. 50-52: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.
And when that happens, Paul writes, death will be defeated. Not the triumph of the soul, but the transformation of the whole of a human into a being who now lives in the new creation. (“We are saved not as souls, but as wholes,” Wright says, p. 199). A being that is like the being-Jesus after he was raised from the dead, “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:49).
This leads us to better understand that resurrection is not resuscitation. It is not just a continuation of this life. To be resurrected is not to be revived after flat lining. So Lazarus, who had been dead for three days wasn’t literally resurrected in John 11. He was resuscitated. He was given back his current life.
When Jesus was resurrected, he was given a new, fully eternal life that was both consistent with who he had been, but was also different. His body bore the scars of his crucifixion, he could eat fish and touch his disciples, but he also could appear in locked rooms, was unrecognizable without faith, and disappeared at a moment’s notice.
It was the same body, but different. Like a seed is both same and different than the plant that it produces (1 Cor 15:37). And like the way that we humans change out every physical bit of us, every atom and molecule over a period of seven years or so. As Wright writes, “I am physically a totally different person now from the person I was ten years ago. And yet I am still me” (p. 157).
And that “still but transformed me” in the “still but transformed world” is what the hope of the resurrection and promise of the new creation is all about.
(For more on this see, Wright, Surprised by Hope, pages 159-163: “Rethinking Resurrection Today: Who, Where, What, Why, When and How”)