Christians around the world celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This unique, historical event is foundational to Christianity. In fact, the apostle Paul says,
And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor. 15:17–19)
Christians are not the only ones who believe in the resurrection. Jehovah’s Witnesses also claim that Jesus rose from the dead. However, Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses understand the resurrection of Jesus from the dead very differently.
It is often the case, when dealing with contemporary cults, that they will use the same language as Christians, but they mean very different things. One way to expose this confusion is to ask questions. One of the most important questions in your arsenal is the clarifying question “What do you mean by that?” Applying this question to the resurrection, we need to ask, “What do they mean by ‘Jesus rose from the dead’?”
What you will find out is that Jehovah’s Witnesses take the resurrection of Jesus to be non-physical. Jesus’ physical body did not rise; He only rose as a spirit being. Conversely, Christians hold that Jesus rose physically from the dead. The same body that died on the cross is the same body that rose three days later, leaving an empty tomb.
Let’s be clear. Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot both be right. Jesus either physically rose from the dead, or He did not. To settle this issue, we need to go straight to the text of Scripture. Specifically, let’s examine two passages that explicitly affirm the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus. John records a heated exchange between some of the Jewish leaders and Jesus:
So the Jews said to Him, “What sign do You show us for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?” But He was speaking about the temple of His body. (John 2:18–21)
Read these words carefully. Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” What were the Jews going to destroy? Jesus’ body. What was Jesus going to raise up after three days? Jesus’ body. This is a clear admission from Jesus that His physical body would be resurrected.
Furthermore, Jesus referring to His body as a temple is consistent with Paul’s writing. He says, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19–20).
Luke provides an even stronger testimony to the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus. Ironically, this comes from the resurrected Jesus Himself.
And He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Touch Me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet. (Luke 24:38–40)
Here Jesus is explicitly pointing out that His resurrected body is not merely an immaterial spirit. First, He tells them it is I myself. He is belaboring the point that it is Jesus standing before them. It’s not a spiritual version of Jesus. It is the same Jesus that they walked, talked, and ate with throughout His ministry.
Second, He tells them His resurrected body is made of flesh and bones, not just made to look like it is flesh and bones. Jesus then provides two evidences for the disciples. The first evidence is that He presents His hands and feet to properly examine. He tells them to touch and see. Is there a reason why Jesus “shows them His hands and His feet”? The answer is, yes. Jesus was showing the disciples the very scars His resurrected body retained from the crucifixion. In fact, when you read the parallel account in John’s Gospel, Jesus “showed them His hands and His side” (John 20:20). As proof of His bodily resurrection, Jesus shows His disciples the place His body was pierced with a spear.
The second evidence is in the following two verses. Luke writes, “And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, He said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave Him a piece of broiled fish, and He took it and ate before them” (Luke 24:41–43). Did you catch that? Jesus demonstrates that His body is made of flesh and bones by eating a flesh-and-bones fish right in front of them. This seemingly trivial detail about Jesus eating lunch is incredibly significant to the question of the nature of Jesus’ body. It is not a coincidence that Luke includes this detail within the context of this story.
Your Witness friend might reply that angels are also able to eat by manifesting themselves in physical form (Gen. 18:8). This is true, but it misses the point. Jesus explicitly tells them that He is not merely a spirit, and He provides evidence of this by getting them to touch His body and by eating in front of them. What more could He do to display that this is the same physical body that left the tomb empty?
Jehovah’s Witnesses like to point to a few verses in support of their claim. Their go-to proof text for the non-physical resurrection is 1 Corinthians 15:42–44. Here Paul is contrasting the earthly body with the resurrected body. The earthly body is perishable, dishonorable, weak, and natural. The resurrected body is imperishable, glorious, powerful, and spiritual.
So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural [psychikos] body; it is raised a spiritual [pneumatikos] body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. (1 Cor. 15:42–44)
Your Jehovah’s Witness friend will say, “See, Paul describes our present, earthly bodies as ‘natural,’ and our future, resurrected bodies as ‘spiritual.’” However, they wrongly assume that natural and spiritual mean physical and nonphysical, respectively. The question is: What does Paul mean by the terms “natural” and “spiritual”?
Paul uses the exact same words earlier in his first letter to the Corinthians. He writes,
The natural [psychikos] person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual [pneumatikos] person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. (1 Cor. 2:14–15)
Notice the natural person does not mean a physical person, but rather a person oriented toward human nature or soul. In fact, psychikos, which is translated “natural,” literally means soul-ish. Similarly, the spiritual person does not mean a non-physical, spirit person. Rather, it’s a person oriented toward the Spirit. Paul is contrasting soul-led persons with Spirit-led persons. The contrast is not one of physicality, but of orientation.
Therefore, Paul is explaining that the future resurrected body will be freed from slavery to the weak, mortal, dishonorable, sinful human nature. The resurrected body will be led, sustained, empowered, and made glorious by the Spirit. As Christians, we believe in a future bodily, physical, spiritual resurrection, because this is what the New Testament teaches.
[Article updated and expanded on 4/26/16.]