By Evan Kardaras, Sub-Deacon at St. Mary & St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church, Bexley, Australia.
If we go to heaven will we still have a body? If so what will this body look like? These are some questions that may come to mind when contemplating eternal life. These questions are not new. Believers and non-believers alike have pondered these and similar questions from the earliest days of Christianity.
It’s a universal tenet of Christendom that there will be a resurrection of the dead and a final judgement. At this judgement there will be a separation of the righteous from the wicked and each group will be allotted it’s own particular ‘home’ for all eternity, either heaven or hell. But what will this glorified body look like? Will it be physical or spiritual?
This paper will focus on addressing the physical aspect of our glorified body, using the writings from the Early Church Fathers.
The main biblical text that the Fathers use to explain the future heavenly state is chapter 15 from St Paul’s first Epistle to the Corinthians specifically verses 42-44.
“So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. 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 body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.”
We’ll start by looking at what St John Chrysostom says about this particular text:
“It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.” – 1 Corinthians 15:44. Is our present body not spiritual as well? Yes it is, but then it will be more so. For now the grace of the Holy Spirit often leaves people who commit great sins, and even if he remains, the life of the flesh depends on the soul, with the result that the Spirit plays no part. But after the resurrection this will no longer be so, because then the Spirit will dwell permanently in the flesh of the righteous and the victory will be his, even while the soul is also alive.” – St John Chrysostom, Homilies on 1 Corinthians.
In this particular text St John Chrysostom compares the future spiritual body that the righteous will have in heaven with the earthly physical body. He says “Is our present body not spiritual as well?” By this he is making a direct comparison between the body of a spiritual person on earth and the spiritual body the righteous will have in heaven. St John doesn’t indicate a massive gulf between the two. He indicates the main differences as being that in heaven the Holy Spirit will no longer leave a person, as it did on earth, when a person committed great sins. He says in: “the resurrection this will no longer be so, because then the Spirit will dwell permanently in the flesh of the righteous and the victory will be his”. Here we see that he uses the term flesh to demonstrate that the same flesh we have here on earth will also be a participant in the future life, with the difference that those who are worthy of the heavenly life will no longer experience a separation from God due to sin, as there will be no more opportunities for sin in heaven. The righteous will be forever united in love with a spiritual body/flesh in the kingdom of heaven.
Let us now have a look at a passage written by St Augustine.
“As the Spirit, when it serves the flesh, is not improperly said to be carnal, so the flesh, when it serves the spirit, will rightly be called spiritual—not because changed into spirit, as some suppose who misinterpret the text, “What is sown a natural body rises a spiritual body,” but because it will be so subject to the spirit that, with a marvelous pliancy of perfect obedience, it will accept the infallible law of its indissoluble immortality, putting aside every feeling of fatigue, every shadow of suffering, every sign of slowing down. This “spiritual body” will not only be better than any body on earth in perfect health but will surpass even that of Adam or Eve before their sin.” – Augustine of Hippo, City of God, Book XIII, Chapter 20.
In this passage St Augustine is challenging a misconception he encountered in his ministry. Some misinterpreted a text from 1 Corinthians regarding the ‘spiritual body’ as meaning the body would no longer be a physical body. The particular passage that can mislead some people is from 1 Corinthians 15:50. it is as follows: “Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption.”
St Augustine corrects this error by stating the spiritual body will indeed be a physical body. The difference being that the body will be truly subject to the spirit, in total obedience. This means “it will accept the infallible law of its indissoluble immortality, putting aside every feeling of fatigue, every shadow of suffering, every sign of slowing down”. In other words the body through it’s submission to the spirit will ‘put off incorruption’ and thus will shed its previous ability to experience fatigue, suffering, and the heaviness of sin. He concludes by saying the heavenly body will be far better than any body on earth, in perfect health, surpassing the pre-lapsarian condition of our forefather Adam.
But St Augustine was not the only Father that challenged this misconception. St Irenaeus, an earlier 2nd century Church Father had already challenged this error two centuries prior to St Augustine. Let us see what St Irenaeus has to say on this matter.
“The apostle expresses this thought [that unregenerate persons are properly called carnal and unspiritual] in another context: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. This is the passage cited by all the heretics in their perverse attempt to show that what God has created [i.e., the flesh] is not saved. They do not see that, as I have shown, the perfect man consists of three elements, flesh, soul, and spirit. One of these, namely, spirit, saves and forms; another, namely, flesh, is saved and formed; and the third, soul, stands between the two, sometimes following the spirit and being raised up by it, sometimes consenting to the flesh and falling into earthly lusts. Therefore, all those who lack the element that saves and forms are properly called flesh and blood since they do not have the spirit in them. That is why our Lord calls such persons “dead”: Leave the dead to bury their own dead (Luke 9:60), he says, since they do not have the life-giving spirit. But all those who fear God, believing in the coming of his Son and by faith allowing the Spirit to dwell in their hearts, will properly be called pure (Matt 5:8) and spiritual (1 Cor 2:15) and alive to God (Rom 6:11) since they have the Spirit of the Father, who purifies them and raises them up to the life of God. For just as our Lord testifies that the flesh is weak, so he says that the spirit is willing (Matt 26:41), which means capable of doing whatever it wills. If, therefore, one adds the willingness of the spirit, as if it were a goad, to the weakness of the flesh, what is strong must necessarily overcome what is weak, and the weakness of the flesh must be swallowed up by the strength of the spirit. Such a person will no longer be fleshly but spiritual because of his communion with the Spirit… Since, therefore, we cannot be saved without the Spirit of God, the apostle exhorts us to preserve this Spirit by faith and a chaste way of life. He is afraid that we may fail to participate in the Holy Spirit and so lose the kingdom of heaven, and so he cries aloud that flesh and blood by themselves cannot possess the kingdom of God…” – St Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, 184.108.40.206–4, 10.2, 11.1–12.1, 13.2–3, SC 153:106–11, 114–16, 120–22, 130–32, 134–40, 166–70.
St Irenaeus is extremely clear in this passage. He states that the heretics of his time tried to undermine the resurrection of the dead and salvation of the whole human person (body, soul and spirit) by using the passage from 1 Corinthians 15:50. The heretics misinterpreted the passage that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” and thus undermined the incarnation and salvation of the whole human person. St Irenaeus corrects their error by helping them understand the correct context of this passage. He highlights that a person who loves God in this life and is born of the Spirit can be called ‘spiritual’. He says: “such a person will no longer be fleshly but spiritual because of his communion with the Spirit”. This doesn’t mean of course that a person who is called ‘spiritual’ through their relationship with God and love for Him ceases to be human and becomes a spirit. Otherwise all the holy people we know must be spirits! What it does mean is that the corrupted human nature can be renewed through Christ and can become a partaker of the future heavenly life. St Irenaeus understands that the term ‘flesh’ in scripture can denote a person without the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work in their lives; this person cannot be saved. He states: “therefore, all those who lack the element that saves and forms are properly called flesh and blood since they do not have the spirit in them.” But he also states that this problem can be resolved in and through Christ: “if, therefore, one adds the willingness of the spirit, as if it were a goad, to the weakness of the flesh, what is strong must necessarily overcome what is weak, and the weakness of the flesh must be swallowed up by the strength of the spirit.” St Irenaeus also says that St Paul was: “afraid that we may fail to participate in the Holy Spirit and so lose the kingdom of heaven, and so he cries aloud that flesh and blood by themselves cannot possess the kingdom of God…” What can be clearer than this last sentence? ‘Flesh and blood’ being unable to inherit the heavenly kingdom in the 1 Corinthians 15:50 means fallen man without the regeneration of the Holy Spirit cannot be saved. It doesn’t mean the whole man body, soul and spirit will not partake of the heavenly life.
St Jerome also agrees entirely with this interpretation as seen in this passage:
“Let us by no means scorn the flesh, but let us reject its works. Let us not despise the body that will reign in heaven with Christ. “Flesh and blood can obtain no part in the kingdom of God.” This does not refer to flesh and blood as such but to the works of the flesh.” – St Jerome, Homily 54 on Psslm 143
This passage is concise and extremely clear. When St Pauls says: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” he doesn’t mean our physical bodies. It’s the works of the ‘flesh’ or the fallen man that disqualify a person from eternal life. As St Jerome said: “Let us not despise the body that will reign in heaven with Christ”.
Let us now have a look at a passage from St Gregory the Theologian:
“If any assert that He has now put off His holy flesh, and that His Godhead is stripped of the body, and deny that He is now with His body and will come again with it, let him not see the glory of His Coming. For where is His body now, if not with Him Who assumed it? For it is not laid by in the sun, according to the babble of the Manichæans, that it should be honoured by a dishonour; nor was it poured forth into the air and dissolved, as is the nature of a voice or the flow of an odour, or the course of a lightning flash that never stands. Where in that case were His being handled after the Resurrection, or His being seen hereafter by them that pierced Him, for Godhead is in its nature invisible. Nay; He will come with His body—so I have learnt—such as He was seen by His Disciples in the Mount, or as he shewed Himself for a moment, when his Godhead overpowered the carnality.” – St Gregory the Theologian, Letter 105, 5.
Here St Gregory wants to make clear that our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ had a true human body, and that he ascended with this body into heaven. He says that Christ will return (for the final judgement) with the same body he had at the resurrection. He says it’s the same body that was “handled after the Resurrection”, implying when St Thomas touched our Lord’s wounds, that will come again at the ends of days. Why did our Lord incarnate and become the God-Man? And why did he ascend with His physical glorified body? Without a doubt this was to heal our human nature and also allow it to rise at the last judgement and be a partaker of the future life in a glorified resurrected state of being.
Let us now move onto the a passage by Methodius an early 4th century bishop.
“But if any one were to think that the earthy image is the flesh itself, but the heavenly image some other spiritual body besides the flesh; let him first consider that Christ, the heavenly man, when He appeared, bore the same form of limbs and the same image of flesh as ours, through which also He, who was not man, became man, that as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Corinthians 15:22) For if He bore flesh for any other reason than that of setting the flesh free, and raising it up, why did He bear flesh superfluously, as He purposed neither to save it, nor to raise it up? But the Son of God does nothing superfluously. He did not then take the form of a servant uselessly, but to raise it up and save it. For He truly was made man, and died, and not in mere appearance, but that He might truly be shown to be the first begotten from the dead, changing the earthy into the heavenly, and the mortal into the immortal.” – Methodius (+311AD), From the Discourse on the Resurrection, Chapter XIII.
Methodius takes a very interesting approach that follows on well after the text above from St Gregory the Theologian. He directly correlates the Incarnation with the idea of the glorified body being indeed a physical body. He says that if we think that “the heavenly image” is “some other spiritual body besides the flesh” then why did Jesus become man to save the flesh? In his exact words “For if He bore flesh for any other reason than that of setting the flesh free, and raising it up, why did He bear flesh superfluously, as He purposed neither to save it, nor to raise it up?” Methodius sees a very clear correlation between the Incarnation and our heavenly body being indeed a physical body. If Christ became man to save mankind and took on a human body, then indeed this body must be a partaker of the heavenly life. Thus through the Incarnation our Lord completed that which we could not do ourselves, “changing the earthy into the heavenly, and the mortal into the immortal.”
So far it has been demonstrated quite clearly that these Early Church Fathers have an exalted view of the body. They unanimously agree that the future glorified heavenly body will not be just a ‘spirit’, but rather that it will be a complete human person, body soul and spirit, in a glorified state. We will indeed have our bodies in heaven. Our bodies won’t be dissolved and become ‘spirits’, but they will indeed be glorified spiritual bodies, completely restored human persons.
But will our glorified heavenly bodies have any properties that our current bodies have here on earth? St John Damascene uses Christ as an example when speaking of the glorified body. He uses our Lord’s appearance to the apostles after the resurrection as an example.
“Handle Me and see, the Lord said to His own disciples when they were thinking that they saw a spirit, that it is I Myself, and that I am not changed (Luke 24:37) for a spirit has not flesh or bones, as you see Me have. And when He had said this He showed them His hands and His side, and stretched them forward for Thomas to touch. (John 20:27) Is not this sufficient to establish belief in the resurrection of bodies?” – John Damascene, An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Chapter 27 Concerning the Resurrection.
St John here uses the passage where Thomas touches the resurrected body of our Lord. He directly chooses this particular passage as a proof that our bodies will indeed be resurrected. Our Lord says “a spirit has not flesh or bones, as you see Me have. And when He had said this He showed them His hands and His side”. We then see Thomas touch the glorified body of our Lord. Why did our Lord Jesus allow this? It was clearly to prove to Thomas that He had risen from the dead, but also as a demonstration, as pointed out by St John, that when we resurrect from the dead we will indeed have a glorified physical body with ‘flesh and bones’, that can indeed be touched, as our Lord said and demonstrated.
This is extremely important for us to understand. To deny the physical aspect of our Lord would be to deny the Incarnation. It is a universal tenet of all Christendom that Jesus ascended to heaven in the flesh. This flesh was touched by Thomas, and our Lord made it clear that his flesh was indeed physical flesh and not only of a spiritual essence. As our Lord stated: “a spirit has not flesh or bones, as you see Me have”. What is unique to the glorified body and indeed a mystery, is that although it is physical it is also spiritual and thus our Lord can appear and disappear in a room where the door was shut, while at the same time being able to be touched by Thomas and to also eat food as shown in the Gospel of St Luke 24:41-43. It is indeed a physical glorified body that the righteous will have in heaven, but a body that has been glorified and united to God in the Spirit.
Another Church Father that devoted more energy on this topic is Tertullian. He devoted several chapters on this particular topic in his book ‘On the Resurrection of the Flesh’ (Chapter 55-63). Below are some relevant excerpts from this work in support of what have been stated thus far in this paper.
In talking about the death of the body and it’s resurrection he states:
“For precisely as it [the body] perishes, if it does not rise again, so also does it equally perish even if it does rise again, on the supposition that it is lost in the change. It will as much fail of a future existence, as if it did not rise again at all. And how absurd is it to rise again for the purpose of not having a being, when it had it in its power not to rise again, and so lose its being— because it had already begun its non-existence!” – Chapter 55
Tertullian here is challenging the idea that the body ceases to be a true body in the resurrection. He states it would be absurd to resurrect the body if it were to change to such a degree that it was no longer a body. He says if it’s already ceased to be a body in death, why resurrect if it were to cease being a body in the future life?
“For how absurd, and in truth how unjust, and in both respects how unworthy of God, for one substance to do the work, and another to reap the reward: that this flesh of ours should be torn by martyrdom, and another wear the crown; or, on the other hand, that this flesh of ours should wallow in uncleanness, and another receive the condemnation! Is it not better to renounce all faith at once in the hope of the resurrection, than to trifle with the wisdom and justice of God?” – Chapter 56
Here Tertullian again counts it absurdity to say that the physical body won’t be a partaker of the resurrection. He states that if the body was a participant in good works it would be unfair if it did not also be a partaker in the rewards of the future life. He goes so far as to say we might as well renounce faith in the hope of the resurrection if we don’t believe that we will have a physical body in heaven.
“If, they say, it be actually the selfsame substance which is recalled to life with all its form, and lineaments, and quality, then why not with all its other characteristics? Then the blind, and the lame, and the palsied, and whoever else may have passed away with any conspicuous mark, will return again with the same. What now is the fact, although you in the greatness of your conceit thus disdain to accept from God so vast a grace? Does it not happen that, when you now admit the salvation of only the soul, you ascribe it to men at the cost of half their nature? What is the good of believing in the resurrection, unless your faith embraces the whole of it? If the flesh is to be repaired after its dissolution, much more will it be restored after some violent injury. Greater cases prescribe rules for lesser ones. Is not the amputation or the crushing of a limb the death of that limb? Now, if the death of the whole person is rescinded by its resurrection, what must we say of the death of a part of him? If we are changed for glory, how much more for integrity! Any loss sustained by our bodies is an accident to them, but their entirety is their natural property. In this condition we are born. Even if we become injured in the womb, this is loss suffered by what is already a human being. Natural condition is prior to injury. As life is bestowed by God, so is it restored by Him. As we are when we receive it, so are we when we recover it.” – Chapter 57
In this passage Tertullian once again demonstrates the dignity of the body in stating it will resurrect healed of any ailments and deformities a person may had has in their physical bodies on earth. He states that if God can raise the dead he can obviously restore the natural properties of human nature in the glorified heavenly body.
“Now, when you contend that the flesh will still have to undergo the same sufferings, if the same flesh be said to have to rise again, you rashly set up nature against her Lord, and impiously contrast her law against His grace; as if it were not permitted the Lord God both to change nature, and to preserve her, without subjection to a law. How is it, then, that we read, “With men these things are impossible, but with God all things are possible;” Matthew 19:26 and again, “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise?” 1 Corinthians 1:27 Let me ask you, if you were to manumit your slave (seeing that the same flesh and soul will remain to him, which once were exposed to the whip, and the fetter, and the stripes), will it therefore be fit for him to undergo the same old sufferings? I trow not. He is instead thereof honoured with the grace of the white robe, and the favour of the gold ring, and the name and tribe as well as table of his patron. Give, then, the same prerogative to God, by virtue of such a change, of reforming our condition, not our nature, by taking away from it all sufferings, and surrounding it with safeguards of protection. Thus our flesh shall remain even after the resurrection— so far indeed susceptible of suffering, as it is the flesh, and the same flesh too; but at the same time impassible, inasmuch as it has been liberated by the Lord for the very end and purpose of being no longer capable of enduring suffering.” – Chapter 57
This is indeed an amazing passage. Tertullian states that although we will have a resurrected glorified body in heaven there won’t be physical sufferings in heaven. What is amazing though is that he goes so far to say that “our flesh shall remain even after the resurrection— so far indeed susceptible of suffering, as it is the flesh, and the same flesh too; but at the same time impassible, inasmuch as it has been liberated by the Lord for the very end and purpose of being no longer capable of enduring suffering”. He wanted to demonstrate with as much emphasis as possible, that our heavenly body will indeed be real flesh, to the point of saying that it can still suffer in heaven as it is indeed flesh, but that it wont suffer as it “impassible, inasmuch as it has been liberated by the Lord for the very end and purpose of being no longer capable of enduring suffering”. He shows so clearly that it will be a real physical body, able to experience touch and with feeling, but without the possibility of suffering as it has been healed and liberated from corruption by the Lord. In Chapter 58 Tertullian continues to give further demonstrations of the reality of the physical body being indeed a true body with feeling.
Tertullian then focuses on the passage by the Lord Jesus that man shall be equal to the angels (Luke 20:36). Tertullian helps clarify any misconceptions that may arise through this statement:
“Christ said not, “They shall be angels,” in order not to repeal their existence as men; but He said, “They shall be equal unto the angels,” that He might preserve their humanity unimpaired. When He ascribed an angelic likeness to the flesh, He took not from it its proper substance. And so the flesh shall rise again, wholly in every man, in its own identity, in its absolute integrity.” – Chapter 62,63.
Here he makes clear once again that partakers of the heavenly life will indeed have their physical body in its fullness. They shall be like the angels in that their focus will now be on worshiping the Lord and enjoying His presence for all eternity. They will also be like the angels as they will be clothed with the garb of immortality and will have put of corruption.
Someone may question why our Lord Jesus said in Matthew 22:30: “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels of God in heaven.” What does He mean by this? In context of the whole passage he is trying to say we won’t be having sex to reproduce in heaven. We won’t be getting married. We will be like the angels in that our heavenly life will be one of unceasing worship and praise. We will be like the angels in worshiping God for all eternity.
We further clarify this passage by looking at another passage from the scriptures. In the Gospel of St John 3:5 we read: “Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Here our Lord is clearly saying that if we are not regenerated by the Holy Spirit in Baptism we are simply ‘flesh’; fallen unregenerated beings. If on the other hand we are “born of water and the Spirit” then we can say that we are ‘spirit’, in other words we are renewed beings and can “enter the kingdom of God”. If we are baptised, “born of water and the Spirit” do we all of a sudden become a ‘spirit’? Do we cease to be human? Of course not. We become spiritual beings with our whole bodies (body, soul and spirit). Thus “that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” We are still human but become spiritual beings with our whole being renewed in and through Christ.
A brilliant modern Coptic Orthodox Patristic Scholar and Theologian, Abouna Tadros Malaty, who has written commentaries on almost every book of the Holy Bible is also in full agreeance with the Early Church Fathers. As a Patristic Scholar he has assimilated their thought into his own writings. Below are some passages from his Commentary on 1 Corinthians that demonstrate his unity in spirit and thought with the Early Church Fathers.
““Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption” 1 Corinthians 15:50… By the “flesh and blood” he means, not the body itself, but what is mortal and corrupt in it, and all traces of sin; our corrupt body cannot enjoy the divine kingdom in its present condition… “It is raised a spiritual body”, perfect, and in no need of outer help, like food, drink, air, etc.; [it] does not submit to death; [it] has a spiritual existence, and spiritual provisions…. The ‘spiritual body’, on the other hand, does not mean ‘a spirit’, as the spirit has no body… In the resurrection, the body will be clothed by glory, to become like the body of the Lord Christ risen from the dead; by which it can go through the earthly hurdles, pass through the air, and shines with splendour reflected on it from that of the Lord Christ. As children of Adam, borne in his likeness, and submit to what he was submitted, Now, as we unite with the heavenly, we would equally enjoy His likeness.” – Abouna Tadros Malaty, Commentary on 1 Corinthians, Page 509, 508, 501.
Abouna Tadros says clearly that “flesh and blood” does not mean “the body itself, but what is mortal and corrupt in it, and all traces of sin”. He continues “our corrupt body cannot enjoy the divine kingdom in its present condition.” He also makes it quite clear that the ‘spiritual body’… does not mean ‘a spirit’, as the spirit has no body.” And he concludes that “In the resurrection, the body will be clothed by glory, to become like the body of the Lord Christ risen from the dead.” He is totally in agreeance with the Early Church Fathers. We will indeed have a physical glorified body, it won’t be simply a spirit, but will resemble our Lord’s glorified body after the resurrection.
Without a doubt if we were to survey the plethora of writings of the Early Church Fathers and modern Coptic Orthodox Patristic Theologians we would find greater evidence to suggest that the heavenly body will indeed be a physical body that has been healed from the corruption of the fall and become a truly glorious body, at once material and also spiritual.
My own opinion is that it is impossible to deny the physicality of the human body in heaven. If “God became man so that man may become God” as stated by St Athanasius, and the Word Incarnate, Jesus Christ, ascended into heaven with a very physical (yet also very spiritual) glorified body, then all this was a necessary consequence of God’s love. God wants man to enjoy and experience heaven as a whole person, not only as a spirit. If the body was not a real body, or man was to enjoy heaven only as a spirit then there would be absolutely no need for the Incarnation. If though God did become man, then He did this to allow the whole man (body, soul, spirit) to be a participant of the heavenly life as a gift of his love.