One of the most sophisticated arguments against the traditional belief that Jesus rose bodily from the dead and that the tomb was empty on Easter morning, centers on a reading of 1 Corinthians 15:42-45. It contends that the apostle Paul, who apparently never met the mortal Jesus and who wasn’t present for the resurrected Savior’s pre-ascension visits with his surviving original apostles, understood the risen body of Jesus Christ to be an immaterial one, not the physical body that Jesus had during his earthly ministry.
If this claim were true, it would be of enormous importance. For Paul, as for the other apostles and for the Savior himself, the Resurrection of Jesus is the miracle the confirms the claims of Christ (see, for example, Matthew 12:38-40; 16:1-4; John 2:18-21; Acts 2:23-32; 10:39-43; 13:28-39; 17:2-3, 30-32; Romans 1:4). But almost all scholars believe Paul’s letters to have been written before the writing of the four New Testament Gospels — which, if true, makes him the earliest known author to refer to the Resurrection of Jesus.
Did he, though, understand that event in a fundamentally different way from the writers of the four Gospels? Strikingly, although the Gospels are very clear that the tomb of Jesus was empty on Easter Sunday, and although they are replete with accounts of disciples seeing the risen Lord, hearing him, walking with him, even touching him and seeing him eat, Paul wasn’t even a Christian at the time, and he never mentions an empty tomb.
Had he not heard about an empty tomb? Arguments from silence are notoriously weak, of course, and it’s easy to think of other reasonable explanations for his silence on the matter.
Usually, for instance, he was writing to local Christian congregations about pressing issues that didn’t revolve around the precise nature of the Resurrection. And anyway, the people to whom he was writing were typically those whom he himself had already taught and converted, and it’s entirely possible that he had told them the story of the empty tomb and that his letters presumed it.
But, argues the evangelical New Testament historian Michael Licona, the claim that Paul believed Christ’s Resurrection to have been immaterial rather than physical seems unsustainable on other grounds. For one thing, as the great British New Testament scholar N.T. Wright argues in his impressive 2003 book “The Resurrection of the Son of God,” Jewish understanding of the concept of resurrection during the time just before and after Jesus always connected it with the return to life of dead physical bodies, the revivification of — to put it starkly — of corpses. Conceivably, Paul could have rejected that doctrine. But there’s no obvious evidence of such rejection.
In passages such as Romans 8:11 and Philippians 3:21, Paul plainly regards the resurrection of Jesus as a model for the future resurrection of all humankind. Accordingly, we can reason back from his comment about general resurrection at 1 Corinthians 15:42-54 to his understanding of the resurrection of Jesus.
Significantly, a careful reading of 1 Corinthians 15:42-44 shows that what is “sown” and what is “raised” is the same thing, just as the “seed” of 15:36-38, to which Paul compares our bodies, is the same thing that “dies” and then is “quickened,” or “made alive.” Likewise, in 15:53-54, it is “this corruptible” that “must put on incorruption,” and “this mortal” that “must put on incorruption.” This strongly implies the resurrection of the dead body, not merely an incorporeal existence after death.
Perhaps the most important verse to be considered is 1 Corinthians 15:44, which distinguishes the “natural body” of mortality from the “spiritual body” of the resurrection. Some argue that these terms contrast a material body from an immaterial one. But a survey of 11 centuries of Greek usage fails to find a single instance where the word “psychikon” (translated as “natural” in the King James Bible) means “physical” or “material,” nor even one case where the word “pneumatikon” (King James “spiritual”) means “immaterial.” Rather, it refers to a state of being connected with and reflecting the Spirit of God.
In other words, Paul cannot be recruited as a witness against Easter’s glorious news that the tomb of Jesus was empty.
The argument in this column is substantially drawn from Michael Licona’s fuller and more detailed discussion, “Paul on the Nature of the Resurrection Body,” in “Buried Hope or Risen Savior? The Search for the Jesus Tomb” (B&H Academic, Nashville, 2008), edited by Charles L. Quarles, which I recommend.