[K:NWTS 6/2 (Sep 1991) 43-57]

The Resurrection Feud: A Review Article

Norman L. Geisler. The Battle for the Resurrection Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1989, 224 pp., $10.95 paper. ISBN: 0-8407-3035-7.

Murray J. Harris. From Grave to Glory Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990, 493 pp., $19.95 paper. ISBN: 0-310-51991-8.

Feuding Kin

"'Do you now believe that Christ's resurrection body was a literal, physical body?' While firmly believing that the same physical body of Jesus that had been buried was raised from the dead, I was reluctant to answer with an unqualified 'Yes' because the resurrection body of Jesus clearly had properties that were not true of a mortal, physical body." This query with response is found on p. 357 of Murray Harris's recent book and illustrates the controversy between him and Norman Geisler.

Trinity Evangelical Seminary is not the place where you would expect a denial of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ so it may be a surprise to the reader that Geisler, formerly of that institution, is accusing the seminary of laxity in this regard. Harris is a tenured professor of this school. Historically, the Trinity apologetic has centered around arguments about Jesus' bodily resurrection. The name John W. Montgomery readily comes to mind in this regard.

This review article cannot concern itself with the weakness of such an apologetic method, but it is probably fair to say that the apologetic question is a major issue for Geisler who feels that this is "The Battle for the Resurrection" (the title of his recent book). Geisler finds the historical verifiability of a risen Jesus hard to square with a risen Jesus who is essentially invisible. If the body of the risen Jesus can be regarded as a different body than one in which he suffered, then additional problems of identity and what is being verified emerge (Battle, p.36). He has used the analogy of the "Battle for the Bible" in describing the significance of the current conflict. It seems to be a strained analogy unless one is closely tied to a resurrection-centered apologetic. One irony of the perceived conflict is that it began with Murray Harris defending his version of the evangelical view against a liberal bishop in England.

Harris's recent book (From Grave to Glory) is a more refined product than Geisler's. He demonstrates a certain ease in using the Greek language and tries to get all the data on the table. Geisler, on the other hand, appears a bit ham-handed in treating Harris's position. He could acknowledge the qualified nature of Harris's statements, but instead he tends to present the worst-case interpretation of Harris. This naturally leads Harris to feel rather abused by Geisler. Here is an example of how differently a position can be presented: "Some, like professor Murray Harris, even go so far as to say that believers receive their new resurrection bodies at death, while their material bodies are obviously still in the graves" (Battle, p. 105).

"For Paul, the spiritual body was not simply a state of his 'inner man' at the time of his death. It was not a case merely of the appearance at death of an already formed but concealed spiritual body, but of the acceleration and completion of a process by which the spiritual body was already being formed inwardly. This is not to imply that bodily resurrection is progressive, but it is to assert that Paul regarded resurrection not as a creatio ex nihilo, a sudden divine operation unrelated to the past, but as the fulfillment of spiritual processes begun at regeneration. That Paul could regard the spiritual body as a future gift given by God (2Co 5:1) did not prevent his viewing it as being created by God within man (cf. 2Co 3:18). From one point of view it will come by outward investiture; from another point of view it will come by inward transformation. As the result of the final convulsion of resurrection, the butterfly of the spiritual body will emerge from the chrysalis of the 'inward man'" (Grave, p. 204).

"As the inner man is continually renewed and progressively transformed into the image of Christ (2Co 3:18), as he becomes more and more responsive to the Spirit of God, at the same time this spiritual body is being progressively formed within the believer" (Grave, p. 205).

These last quotations show that Harris has a way of leaving things ambiguous and making statements that raise red flags. Unnecessary ambiguities are not easily tolerated and one suspects that Harris at times has a fondness for ambiguity that verges on methodology. To some, it may come across as proof that we are in the presence of a real exegete with scholarly integrity rather than a simplistic dogmatician. For this reviewer, it appeared as a failure to be clear when a controversy was well under way. Geisler's oversimplifications of Harris become more understandable in this light, if not justified. At the beginning of this review we presented the question Geisler put to Harris in the interest of clarity. It is not a question whether Christ presently has a mortal physical body with the same properties that body had prior to his resurrection. It is simply a question about a physical body. If a definition of "physical" is needed, it might have been supplied at the outset. Instead, Geisler (and the reader) gets a "yes and no" answer and is then forced to piece together a concept from statements in Harris. Geisler's characterizations might have been prevented by clarity on Harris's part.

Summary Criticisms

Review articles in The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (September 1990) debate whether Geisler or Harris is more correct in their understanding of the resurrection. Geisler can be said to favor the continuity emphasis in defining the relationship between the body that is sown in death and raised in glory. Harris, when compared with Geisler, would emphasize discontinuity. With this generalization in mind, we define our criticism of the two men as follows.

1. Geisler has a propensity toward a literalism which reduces the mysterious realities (mysterious to earthdwellers at least) of the new creation to the known realities of the first creation. An example of this propensity is Geisler's treatment of 1 Cor. 6:13).

2. Harris has a propensity toward unnecessary ambiguity (see above). This ambiguity attempts to deal with the mystery which Geisler reduces, but leaves doors open for an unwarranted emphasis on discontinuity. Harris also occasionally tries to get behind texts in a dubious way. In describing some texts as possible accommodations, he seeks a more basic reality. An example of unwarranted discontinuity is his hesitancy to use the word "physical" in connection with resurrection. He emphasizes sameness of personality (as distinct from material) to affirm continuity between the Christ that died and the Christ that was raised. An example of trying to get behind the text is Harris's view of Christ's ascension. An example of dangerous dualism is Harris's view of the New Creation.

3. A common propensity or fault in both authors is to focus too much on the ontology of the resurrection. A failure to consider Reformed sources more seriously has left the two combatants on a dark battle field. Both authors reject a rigorous "particle view" of continuity as necessary to a real bodily resurrection, but because neither work from a clear view of organic unity, both are stuck defining their views with respect to the degree they differ from a particle view. In addition, both define "spiritual body" in mainly anthropological terms rather than the pneumatological-eschatological way in which Geerhardus Vos has interpreted 1 Cor. 15:44. The result is that both authors fail to capture the richness of what the resurrection means, although Harris seems to do better than Geisler in pointing to some of the eschatological new creation significance embodied in the resurrection. Still, his analysis lacks the elegant and complex unity of Vos's thought.

The question of whether Murray Harris is orthodox or not becomes more complicated for the Reformed theologian, since neither he nor Geisler operate within the same rich context of meaning that is found in the Westminster school of apologetics, philosophy and eschatology. There are troublesome statements to be found in Harris. The ambiguity is probably a reflection of the man's own sincerity and orthodox desires. It must be remembered that it was his work defending the resurrection that brought on this "in house" controversy. A sincere man can still hold a dangerous position, however. Harris's ambiguity is frustrating and dangerous in its tendency. Whatever ambiguity results from purely semantic flexibility does not negate a semantic stubbornness in such matters, even if every academic question should not become a matter of confessional subscription.

Specific Texts and Issues

I. 1 Corinthians 6:13 and Pauline ethics

Though philosophic motives often color the background and meaning of terms that are used, we dare not avoid the text of Scripture in shaping our arguments. In this regard, a more detailed consideration of texts would have helped both theologians. Geisler's weakness is exemplified in his treatment of 1 Cor. 6:13 (Battle, p. 121).

Geisler simply dismisses the clear force of this text, i.e., that there will be an anatomical-physiological change in the future body of the believer. He views the destruction of food and stomach as something God does through the process of death. An implication of this interpretation would be that food and stomach do not stay destroyed when the resurrection occurs. An additional consideration for Geisler is that Jesus was able to eat after his resurrection, though there was no evidence that he needed to do so.

Whatever mysteries exist about how Jesus ate food with his resurrection body, it is not necessary to assume he possessed the same sort of anatomical systems and laws of physiology that existed prior to his death. Jesus' eating was to make a simple point—he was not a ghost. Trying to prove something about resurrection biology from the text is overextending the passage.

Geisler's argument that the stomach and food are destroyed by death ignores the structure of Pauline argumentation. It is this argumentation that has a parallel in 1 Cor. 13:10. Pauline ethics are grounded in the eschatology of what we are in Christ and what our ultimate destiny in Christ is. The current age is temporary and passing away. Therefore this world is to be used in service of the age to come and not sought as an intrinsic value. This explains the apostle's advice to remain single (1 Cor. 7), his utilitarian view of spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12-14) and his willingness to give up the pleasing food which God himself designed for good use in this creation. Geisler does not develop his argument, but if we were to do this for him, it would simply be that death relativizes the value of earthly things. Though containing a grain of truth, this moves Geisler more toward Stoicism than the eschatological ethics in Paul's thinking. Though Paul's concern moves from eating to fornication, his argument continues with an eschatological new creation basis. This is different from the kind of creation ordinance argument that Jesus used to forbid divorce. Fornication is unfitting because it creates unions that are not compatible with the special union we have with Christ in his resurrection. Instead of putting asunder an earthly marriage union, fornication unlawfully contends with our union in Christ.

Because ontology controls Geisler's thinking, Pauline eschatology gets lost in the process. Geisler's concern for continuity, though laudable, lets a philosophic continuity displace a biblical-eschatological continuity.

II. Harris's Use of Language

A regular source of conflict between exegetes and systematic theologians is the fluidity of language. The same words can be used with different senses. Words used as technical theological terms may have somewhat different meanings from Scripture and may even differ in meaning within the Bible. When this fluidity is not recognized or dealt with, ambiguity results and this in turn allows for distortion or concealment of one's position. 

Very near the end of the book (Grave, p. 405). Harris makes this observation: "It will thus be clear that I am using the terms material and immaterial in a popular, not a philosophical sense. In reference to bodies, material means "physical" or "fleshly," and immaterial means "nonphysical" or "nonfleshly". But from a philosophical standpoint, any kind of human body, whether physical or spiritual, is "material" in the sense that it has a particular "form" behind which lies "substance" or "matter." 

The problem is that Harris is not clear in his use of language. In the context of this quotation, he seems to be saying that Jesus does in fact possess a material body (philosophically speaking), but that when he appears to earthlings his body is presented in a material mode (popularly speaking) so that it can be touched and seen (which would not otherwise be possible). This distinction of uses comes near the end of his book and is an awkward distinction at best. Such a distinction may be clear to Harris, but it is wishful thinking to expect the reader to immediately see his different intentions. 

Harris is grappling with limitations in human language to express transcendent realities and mysteries. He might be more sensitive to mystery at this point than Geisler is; however confused language usage is no real solution. When we come to Harris's view of the ascension, we see a discontentment with simply letting the ordinary historical account present this mystery. It seems that Harris wants to get "behind" the text. He treats texts regarding the ascension as accommodations to human weakness. There seems to be a public ascension over against a "real" ascension.

Geisler does not deal much with the ascension. Perhaps Harris has delineated his views more fully since Geisler's book appeared. In any event, Harris adopts some ideas about the ascension which ignore a rather plain understanding of Jn. 20:17. He wants to make the event forty days after Easter a "dramatization" or "parable" (see Grave, p. 180, et. al.) which can be seen of his exaltation to the right hand. The implication is that Jesus actually lived at the right hand of God in heaven during the forty days after his resurrection and that his appearances are local visits, so to speak. The ascension that is visible in Acts 1 simply marks a change in Jesus' policy of appearing. This view replaces a redemptive-historically defined movement with ontological speculation about where Jesus lived during the forty days while he was not making appearances. As such it demonstrates a tendency to try and get "behind the appearances." The public ascension becomes a condescension to human finitude.

The timing of the ascension and manner of its occurrence may well contain condescension elements, but that does not prove that it (i.e., the ascension of Acts 1) is not the "essential" ascension into heaven. The significance of Harris's position here is twofold. First, it confirms our observation that he has a tendency to get more profound than the ordinary data of the text. We get a dualism of ascension an sich ("in itself") and ascension as phenomenal. Second, his interpretation complicates the relationship of the ascension to Pentecost with the eschatologically significant detail of Christ's receiving the promise of the Father prior to pouring this gift out on the church (Acts 2:33). The ontology of Christ's post-resurrection existence becomes more significant than the soteriology of redemptive-historical development in Harris's construction of the ascension.

Finally, Harris's treatment of the New Creation provides an additional case of the use of dualistic language which he makes no attempt to resolve, despite significant theological consequences. 

Harris seems to have some awareness of the two-age model that Vos and others have elaborated. He states: "In the present age or in the overlap of the ages believers are being progressively transformed into the image of Christ" (Grave, p. 230). 

Despite this comment, one wonders how much control this insight has on his thinking. One section of his book is called "New Creation or Renewed Creation" (p. 248). He asks "what relation do the 'new heavens and new earth' (Isa 65:17; 2Pe 3:13; Rev 21:1) bear to the old heavens and earth? Will the universe attain its God-appointed destiny by being transformed or by being replaced?" (pp. 248-49). 

At first Harris seems to reject annihilationism: "We have seen from Romans 8 that creation's destiny is release from decay, not annihilation" (p. 250). Still, Harris wants to entertain ambivalence by retaining "both approaches" (release and annihilation?). He sees a relationship between the ambiguous change creation will undergo and the kind of change physical bodies will undergo in the resurrection. The issue of continuity becomes crucial and hence is one Geisler brings up in the controversy. Harris can acknowledge continuity to Jesus' resurrection body with the pre-resurrection body, but feels believers have no similar claim of continuity (decay and natural processes set in). Harris's closing statement on this motif is not reassuring: "But precisely how God will bring in the new heaven and earth is not clear, whether after subjugation or after annihilation, whether by transformation or by replacement" (Grave, p. 252). 

We have here an intentional ambiguity or dualism which is not without danger. Harris may cry foul for being misrepresented, but must bear some fault himself when his statements go two directions at once and one direction is unorthodox. When the New Testament uses the word "new" whether it be "new man", "new creation", or "new heavens and earth" the idea is to focus on newness of life and not newness of substance. Change obviously is required in the term but the eschatology of First and Last, Old and New is what gives such terms their power. This opens the way for us to consider something of the way in which Reformed thought approaches such problems without pretending to exhaust their mystery.

III. Harris and Geisler in the Reformed Perspective

A. Particle continuity vs. organic unity

There are two issues that one faces in a discussion of resurrection. Harris quite clearly and correctly notes that one type of resurrection is simply a reanimation of a dead corpse to the type of life that was enjoyed prior to death. The other type of resurrection entails a dramatic transformation to a new quality of life that is no longer vulnerable to death. In applying the two creation motif to our resurrection concepts, we could say that simple reanimation, without transformation, is a type of miracle that is defined in first creation terms. Normal breathing and blood circulation are restored; normal eating meets normal nutritional needs. The transforming resurrection, however, is harder to define in first creation terms because it is fitted to the realities of the new creation. Harris would say it is fitted to the "ecology" of heaven. Earthly food then is used to a different purpose than nutrition by Jesus. It is not necessary for life-nurture. Rather, it is an instrument of demonstrating a truth about Jesus' reality.

Since we are limited to using first creation concepts and words for the mysterious realities of the new and heavenly creation, we are faced with a problem of continuity at the outset. The difference between Harris and Geisler seems to be the degree to which they depart from a "particle view" of continuity when describing the physical continuity or discontinuity of the body sown and the body that is raised. For Harris the same personality is what counts. No doubt Geisler would agree that there must be the same personality, but he would also insist that there must be some sameness of substance. Geisler's view of continuity then includes personality plus substance. Harris seems to suggest that sameness of substance is not necessary to any degree. In the case of Jesus, there was some sameness as a result of the fact that his body did not have time to decay, even then, the sameness of substance between Jesus' body sown and raised is relative. Harris would maintain that for believers, the sameness of substance is not part of the continuity in their pro- and post-resurrection bodies. A number of practical problems (e.g., cannibalism) suggests how same substance arguments would not work for believers. For Harris, the logic of this position is that death's destruction of the human body removes the continuity.

The transformation aspect of the body raises a different question about continuity. If mere living brings changes in our substantial constitution, what are we to say about the renewed resurrection body? Continuity is problematic on several levels and each needs to be kept distinct for the sake of clarity. 

It helps to begin with consideration of a "simple" reanimation type of resurrection (cf. Lazarus) as the best place to focus on the problem of continuity caused by decay. The reanimation of Lazarus reintroduces him to the world of first creation with human biology and its processes of growth and death. Within this world, the changes an organism experiences by way of growth do not change its organic unity. This growth begins at conception and so the whole being is within the seed. This provides a way out of the "same substance" problem because it is a dilemma that exits while we yet live and grow. There is a continuity of organic structure in which different particles participate over time.

With this in mind, we note that there is no reason a single cell of a person could not be reassembled from its original "particles". This could be done without prejudice to having a single cell of other persons being similarly reconstituted. There are, after all, multitudes of cells at any single time in one person, let alone over a lifetime. We know that complex forms develop from single cells, taking substance from the environment as they grow and divide. It is therefore possible to have real physical continuity between a decayed body and one that is raised later, even if that real continuity begins with only one cell. Any human being is simultaneously one person and at one with the rest of creation. He is organically distinct and separate while materially interrelated with the rest of creation. This observation also fits with the science we understand governing the first creation.

However, the mystery of the resurrection transformation forces us to enter a caveat. If our resurrection body lacks some normal organs (e.g., stomach, 1 Cor.6:13) as well as genetic deformity, then continuity of the body sown and raised is not to be found in a perfectly identical genetic code which survives. There is an obvious transformation from earthly to heavenly that our science is not capable of explaining. Cell division and DNA dynamics can only illustrate how organic continuity is possible between a body that is sown and a body that is reanimated. Furthermore, the mystery of the feeding of the 5000 is another illustration where normal cell science cannot explain a "growth" miracle of God. The point remains that this miracle is not a creation ex nihilo, nor are we given the impression that the food multiplication is creation out of something essentially different.

If Harris simply indicated that real physical continuity and personal continuity exists between the bodies of the believers who die and the bodies that are raised, without trying to solve or explain the mystery, it would be sufficient. Instead he seems to say that such continuity does not exist at all in a meaningful way.

B. Spiritual Body and 1 Corinthians 15

Harris's book has more to offer in textual analysis than Geisler's, but could have profited from a more serious interaction with the material of Geerhardus Vos and Richard Gaffin. Vos gets an entry in the bibliography and Gaffin gets that plus a footnote. Harris touches on most of the elements these men have presented, but he does not see the structure of Pauline thought with the same clarity. To demonstrate this point, it is helpful to examine interpretations of a crucial text in the controversy, viz, 1 Cor. 15:44.

It is possible to find passages where Geisler and Harris agree on the meaning of the term "spiritual body," even though Harris may not consistently adhere to a non-metaphysical limitation. Note:

GEISLER: "In addition to the physical nature of the resurrection body, evangelicals have also affirmed its immortal and imperishable dimension (1 Corinthians 15:42f.), because it is a body dominated by the spirit (soma pnuematikon, see I Cor. 15:44)" (Battle, p. 41). "A 'spiritual' body denotes an immortal one, not an immaterial one. A 'spiritual' body is one dominated by the spirit, not one devoid of matter. The Greek word pneumatikos (translated 'spiritual' here) means a body directed by the spirit, as opposed to one under the domination of the flesh" (p. 109).

HARRIS: "...because Greek adjectives ending in -ikos carry a functional or ethical meaning..., it is preferable to understand pneumatikos in the sense 'animated and guided by the spirit [pneuma],' with the spirit as the organizing or governing principle. This 'spirit' could be the Spirit of God but more probably is the human spirit as revitalized by the divine Spirit" (Grave, p. 195). 

In contrast, we find Vos moving in another direction. 

VOS: "1 Cor. xv. 42-49 contrasts the two bodies that belong to the preeschatological and the eschatological states successively. The former is characterized as psuchikon, the latter as pneumatikon. This adjective pneumatikon expresses the quality of the body in the eschatological state. Every thought of immaterialness, or etherealness or absence of physical density ought to be kept carefully removed from the term. Whatever in regard to such qualifications may or may not be involved; it is certain that such traits, if existing, are not described here by the adjective in question...Paul means to characterize the resurrection-state as the state in which the Pneuma rules" (Pauline Eschatology, pp. 166-67). 

That Vos means Holy Spirit is clear when he emphasizes the need to capitalize the word to avoid misunderstanding.

 From these citations, we see that both Geisler and Harris are hung up on anthropology to some extent. Where allowance is given for the possibility that the Holy Spirit is in view in the term "spiritual body", this is far too weak a concession to help gain the proper perspective. In the controversy between Geisler and Harris, the term "spiritual body" exercises more control than I think they realize, and so it becomes important to get the right interpretation of the expression. Harris's analysis even has a gnostic sound to it: "A physical or 'soulish' body, that is, a body animated and controlled by the psyche (soul) is sown, and a spiritual body, a body animated and controlled by the pneuma (spirit) will be raised up" (Grave, p. 192).

Vos directs us away from anthropology per se and places two Adams before us, each with their respective animating life principles. These two men are the source of anthropological insight which is shaped by eschatology.

Vos does not expend a great deal of time proving from a lexicon that Pneuma here refers to the Holy Spirit. It is this insight which makes Pauline eschatology intelligible. What could spiritual food and spiritual drink mean in 1 Cor. 10 if we lacked a doctrine of the Holy Spirit? The use of anthropological categories quickly degenerates into metaphysics. Hence Harris seems to get metaphysical capital out of the expression "spiritual body" even though he explicitly denies he means some kind of spiritual substance. "Jesus of Nazareth himself actually rose from the dead in a spiritual body, for the body that is to be does not share in 'flesh and blood"' (Grave, Harris's letter to Geisler, p. 358). "Jesus was no longer bound by material or space limitations (e.g. John 20:19, 26), his essential state was one of invisibility and therefore immateriality (Luke 24:31, 36) and he could materialize and therefore be localized at will...The resurrection marked Jesus' entrance upon a spiritual mode of existence, or to borrow Paul's expression, his acquisition of a 'spiritual body"' (Grave, Archer quoting Harris, pp. 360-61).

At this point, I have a bit of misgiving about concluding that our Lord's resurrection body was or is essentially immaterial—which is what Harris seems to be saying here. To my mind, the term 'spiritual body' implies a different sort of material than that which we humans now possess in our physical bodies (Grave, Archer commenting while defending Harris, p. 361).


The differences between Geisler and Harris can come across as a profitless squabble about words and mysteries about which we have little certainty. Taken in a charitable reading, Harris can be seen as orthodox but unclear in his manner of expression. For Reformed believers, however, these two works demonstrate how skewed exegesis becomes when it is governed by apologetic concerns that ignore the large Biblical-theological contours of Scriptural teaching. The two-age construction of which Harris seems vaguely aware is something Vos places at the beginning of his work, The Pauline Eschatology: This deeply ingrained structure may be found to dominate Pauline ethics. The real church battles of today center in gender issues. It is the ability to relate first creation ethics and new creation ethics that is of crying importance. Vos can help us here because his view of resurrection and eschatology avoids metaphysical speculation. Even the categories of Reformed theologies have been looked at in new ways because of this profound eschatology Vos finds in the New Testament (e.g., the ordo salutis, cf. Richard Gaffin's work). As a result, what Harris and Geisler have produced will not be nearly so useful in the pulpit as what Vos has provided. Indeed, Vos's insights are so rich, they must be delivered in measured doses. This brings us full circle to Geisler's interests and a most interesting question with which to close. What is the relationship of eschatology and resurrection to apologetics? More to the point, has not the resurrection of Jesus Christ proven the limits of present human reasoning even as it gives us meaning?

—Stuart Jones