In ancient Egypt, Pharaohs drove their slaves to build huge pyramids to house their dead bodies. They filled these tombs with immense treasures of gold and all kinds of utensils that might be of service in their coming life. They cultivated the art of embalming, so that their bodies could be preserved for thousands of years with the least possible amount of decay. It's as if they thought that by taking such elaborate precautions, they could be prepared for the life to come. Apparently, they believed that their souls would one day return into those mummified bodies, and they wanted everything to be ready.
This is a stark contrast with the attitude expressed by Jesus. One of His disciples asked him, "Let me first go bury my father." Jesus said, "Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead" (Matthew 8:21-22, Luke 9:59-60). For Jesus, the dead body was of no consequence.
For Christians, the focus is not meant to be on the body that has died, but on the spirit that rises into the coming life. For two thousand years, Christians have been nourished by the hope that their loved ones who have died are happy in heaven with the Lord, not lying cold and dead in the ground. Nevertheless, some people believe that the resurrection will be a resurrection of the physical body that lies in the grave, and that when a person dies the soul remains unconscious for years or centuries until Christ comes again and brings all the bodies out of the grave and reawakens the souls that are sleeping within those bodies. Yet it is not only more comforting to picture a person rising immediately into the next life after death, but it is also more in keeping with the teachings of the Bible.
Jesus tells of a poor man Lazarus and his rich neighbor who both died. The rich man ended up in hell, while Lazarus went up to heaven. (Luke 16: 22-24) Both of them came into the next life immediately after death. There was no hint here of a long wait to come back into their bodies, for the rich man's brothers were still alive on earth.
When Jesus was on the cross He promised one of the thieves, "Today you will be with Me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). Jesus did not say, "Just wait twenty centuries or more, and I will fix up your body again."
Since we rise immediately after death, people who have died are in the spiritual world, and they can be seen by those whose spiritual sight is open. For example, when Peter, James and John had their eyes opened to see Jesus in His glory, they also saw Moses and Elijah, who were clearly not in their graves. When Saul went to the witch of En Dor, he spoke with the spirit of Samuel who appeared as an old man (1 Samuel 28: 3-19), and Lazarus found himself in the bosom of Abraham in heaven (Luke 16:22-24). In fact, when Jesus said to the Sadducees that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the God of the living, not the dead, the clear implication is that Abramam, Isaac and Jacob had already risen from death into life (Matthew 22:31-32; Mark 12:26-27; Luke 20:37-38). He is "the God of the Living," not "the God of the dead who will centuries later come back to life."
Angels have sometimes appeared to people whose eyes were opened to see them. Very often, the Bible says that these angels are people. For example, we read that three men appeared to Abraham (Genesis 18: 2), and that when Jacob wrestled with an angel he wrestled with a man (Genesis 32: 24). Likewise, the angels were people who appeared to Joshua (Joshua 5: 13-14), Manoah and his wife (Judges 13: 6-11), Ezekiel (Ezekiel 9: 2-3,11; 10: 2-3,6), Daniel (Daniel 9: 21; 10: 5; 12: 6-7), Zechariah (Zechariah 1:8,11), and the women at the sepulcher (Mark 16: 5; Luke 24: 4). The Bible says these angels were people, and clearly none of them were still in the grave.
The Bible teaches that we rise with a different body than the one that is placed in the grave. "There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body" (1 Corinthians 15: 44). The natural body is what is "sown" in the grave, and the spiritual body is what is raised up (1 Corinthians 15: 37, 42-44). People on earth have an earthly body, while people in heaven have a spiritual, heavenly body (1 Corinthians 15: 46-49). The fact that people in the spiritual world have a spiritual body is evident from the appearance of angels mentioned above. For example, Saul recognized Samuel after his death because he had a body similar to the body he had on earth. Clearly it was Samuel's spiritual body, since his physical body was still in grave, and it was his spirit (1 Samuel 28:13) that had risen and was conversing with Saul.
The fact that there is a spiritual body is also clear from the story of Lazarus and the rich man. After death Lazarus was in the bosom of Abraham; the rich man lifted his eyes, and asked that Lazarus might dip his finger in water to cool his tongue (Luke 16: 22-24).
The body we have in the spiritual world is not the body that we put into the grave. The Bible says that our physical body is corruptible and mortal, which means that it does not last, but rots and dies. "Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither does corruption inherit incorruption" (1 Corinthians 15: 50). "We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out" (1 Timothy 6:7). When we go to our eternal home "then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it" (Ecclesiastes 12:5, 7; compare Genesis 3:19). So our earthly body cannot go to heaven, but when we put off our physical body, our corruptible and mortal life is changed into an incorruptible and immortal life (1 Corinthians 15: 53-54). Evidently when Paul said this, some people were wondering if everyone would sleep a long time in the grave before the resurrection, for Paul reassures people that we will not all sleep, and that it will not take ages but will happen immediately, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet, that is, when we die.
One of the ways that Jesus teaches us about the life after death is by saying, "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain" (John 12: 24; compare Matthew 13:31; Mark 4:31; Luke 13:19). This is very similar to the analogy that Paul uses: "Someone will say, 'How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?' Foolish one, what you sow is not made alive unless it dies. And what you sow, you do not sow that body that shall be, but mere grain—perhaps wheat or some other grain. But God gives it a body as he pleases, and to each seed its own body." (1 Corinthians 15: 35-38)
When a seed is put into the ground, the outer husk of this seed simply rots away. But within that seed is a germ of life that is raised up with a completely new plant or body around it. Paul says very clearly here that the body which is raised is not the body which is put into the ground. Furthermore, when the farmer plants his seed, it immediately begins growing. It does not remain dormant in the ground for centuries before a new life begins. Likewise, when our bodies are buried in the ground, the germ of life within each of us is immediately raised up clothed with a new body appropriate for the spiritual world.
Those who believe in a resurrection of the physical body may quote passages to support that belief, but an examination of those passages will show that this is not the teaching of the passages themselves, but is an assumption that is read into them.
Job says, "For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin [worms] destroy this [body], yet in my flesh shall I see God" (Job 19:25,26, King James Version). Some people have assumed that the "latter day" means the end of the world, and that "worms destroying this body" means the body rotting in the grave. In fact, the original Hebrew does not mention either "worms" or "body". A more accurate translation is: "And after my skin is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh shall I see God…" (New King James Version).
Job was not talking about his body rotting in the grave, but about the fact that his skin was already virtually destroyed by the boils that covered him from head to foot (Job 2:7, 19:20). When he said, "in my flesh I shall see God," he was not talking about some future time when his body would be resurrected, but he was saying that he would see God before he died, while he was still alive in the body he had. At the end of the book of Job God did appear to Job, and Job said, " I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You" (Job 42:5). And so the prophecy was fulfilled, that in his flesh he would see God. We can also see that God redeemed him at that time, for we are told, "The Lord accepted Job. And the Lord restored Job's losses…. Indeed the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before" (Job 42:9-10). The same chapter shows us what Job meant by "the latter day," for we read, "Now the Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning" (Job 42:12).
Taken in context, this passage says nothing at all about the resurrection of the physical body centuries later, yet it has been taken as a primary passage supporting that concept.
In one passage Jesus says that He will raise people up "at the last day" (John 6: 39-54). From that passage alone, we would not know whether He meant "the last day of the world" or "the last day of their earthly lives." In a similar way, Jesus says in the previous chapter, "The hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth" (John 5: 28, 19). The context shows He was speaking not of a resurrection still centuries distant, but in the present tense. "The Father raises up the dead, and gives life to them…. The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live" (John 5: 21, 25). Clearly, this resurrection was already taking place. Consequently, when Martha spoke of her brother Lazarus remaining in the tomb until "the resurrection at the last day," Jesus corrected her by saying, "I am the resurrection and the life," implying that the resurrection was present. Jesus continued, "He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die." When we view the teachings about being raised at "the last day" in this context, it becomes clear that it must mean "the last day of their lives."
There are two different ways in which the Lord brings us from death into life. Every person who dies is brought to life in the spiritual world, either in heaven like Lazarus or in hell like the rich man. Our body dies but our spirit lives on in the next life. There's another way in which the Lord brings us from death into life: he brings us out of evil, which is spiritual death, and gives us heavenly life. Many passages in the Bible that speak of resurrection are referring to the second kind of resurrection, which is coming from an evil state into a good one (see Romans 6:4; Ephesians 2:1, 5-6; Colossians 2:12; 3:1). So for example, we read, "He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies" (Romans 8:11). Taken out of context, this might seem like a reference to physical resurrection. But the context shows that is referring to giving us spiritual life while we are still alive on this earth, for the passage says, " If Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness…. If you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live" (Romans 8:10, 13). Sometimes a misunderstanding of the Bible arises from confusing these two kinds of resurrection.
For example, Ezekiel had a vision of dry bones that were brought together, had flesh put on them and were brought to life. Some people have taken this as a description of how our bodies will be reassembled at the time of resurrection. But in fact, the dry bones that appeared in that vision were not dead people. Rather, the Lord said to Ezekiel that these bones represented the people of Israel, who felt like "dry bones" because they were in captivity (Ezekiel 37:11). The Lord bringing the bones of out of their graves was a symbol of His promise to bring the people of Israel back from their captivity into their own land. It was not a prophecy of a physical resurrection.
Something similar is meant by Isaiah's prophecy, "Shake yourself from the dust; arise, and sit down, O Jerusalem" (Isaiah 52: 2), and Daniel's words: "And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt" (Daniel 12:2; compare 1 Kings 16:2). Paul says, "Awake, you who sleep, arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light" (Ephesians 5: 14). This does not refer to people who are physically dead and a physical resurrection, but to those who are spiritually dead and their regeneration.
The Bible says that Jesus was the "first born from the dead" (Romans 8:18). Some people have taken this to mean that no one was ever raised from the dead before Jesus was. This would imply that all who died prior to Jesus remained asleep in the ground at least until after His resurrection. But this is a distortion of that teaching. Often being "first" does not mean first in time, but first in importance, as when Jesus speaks of the first commandment (Mark 12:29; Matthew 22:38), and when He says that "the first shall be last and the last shall be first" (Mark 9:35; 10:31, Matthew 19:30; 20:16) Jesus is not only said to be the first born from the dead, but also the first born of every creature (Romans 8:15). He is said to be first born because he existed from eternity and created all things, and because he is pre-eminent among all that have been raised from the dead (Romans 8: 16-18; compare John 1:1-9). When Jesus was about to be raised from the dead, He prayed, "And now, O Father, glorify Me with Your own self with the glory which I had with You before the world was" (John 17:5). Jesus said, "Before Abraham was, I am" (John 8:58), so there was no need for Abraham to wait in the grave for centuries to be raised to life, and Jesus could be first among the dead even though others had died and were raised before Him.
There are many stories of people who were raised from the dead by Jesus and the prophets before him (Luke 7:11-16; 8:41-56; Matthew 9:18-26; Mark 5:22-43; John 11:1-54; 1 Kings 17:17-23; 2 Kings 4:32-37; 13: 21; Acts 9:37-40; 20:9-12). When Jesus worked the miracle of raising someone from the dead, the person's physical body came back to life. Some people have assumed from this that all resurrection will involve the physical body coming back to life. This assumption is unwarranted. When those who died were brought back to life in the physical body, the physical body was never made immortal or incorruptible. All of those people soon left their physical bodies in the grave once more. Furthermore, in every case those who were brought back to life were resurrected within a few days of having died. We are never given an example of someone being brought back to life after thousands of years of sleep in grave. If Jesus had wanted us to think that resurrection happens after thousands of years in the grave, He could have raised Abraham or David from the dead. Instead, He raised people who had just died, to show that resurrection takes place soon after death, and the life of the soul continues even when the life of the body ends.
Jesus' resurrection shows the pattern which ours will follow, yet there must also be a difference. Some have thought that we will rise with our physical bodies because Jesus rose with His. But if leaving behind the physical body makes us different from Christ, staying in the grave for centuries would make our resurrection even less like His. Jesus repeatedly told His disciples that He would rise on the third day (Matthew 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; 27:63; Luke 9:22; 18:33; 24:7; 24:46; Mark 8:31), and Scripture also shows that what is true of Him in this case will also be true of us. "After two days will He revive us; on the third day He will raise us up, and we shall live in His sight" (Hosea 6:2). "Today you will be with Me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). At the same time, Jesus taught that for the rest of us the spirit would rise without the body when He said, "A spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have" (Luke 24:39).
After Jesus rose from the tomb, the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many. (Matthew 27:52-53). This passage is not explicit. Were their physical bodies raised, or their spiritual bodies? How long had they been "sleeping"--centuries, or just a few days? What happened to those saints afterwards? Where are they now? Does the holy city mean the Jerusalem in this world, or the new Jerusalem in heaven (Revelation 21:2; 22:19)? This passage clearly shows that the Lord's resurrection brings resurrection to others, but it does not give us any reason to expect centuries of sleep before our resurrection.
Eternal life is not something that is waiting for us in the distant future. There is no reason to think that we have to wait for a long time, for Jesus tells us that for those who accept the life He gives, the kingdom of heaven is already within them (Luke 17:21), and they have already begun living eternally (John 5:24, 17:2, 1 John 5: 11, 12, 20). That life is not interrupted by death, but rather becomes more abundant and complete.