Was Jesus Raised as a Spirit Creature?
Dialoguing With Jehovah’s Witnesses on 1 Corinthians 15:44-50
by Robert M. Bowman, Jr. and Brian A. Onken
from the Witnessing Tips column in the Christian Research Journal, Summer 1987, Volume 10, Number 1, page 7. The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is Elliot Miller.
When witnessing to those who are trapped in a false belief system, one is often confronted with “prooftexts” from the Bible misinterpreted so as to appear to support their erroneous view. The Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) are particularly well-trained to present such misinterpretations of Scripture in a way that makes their arguments seem very plausible. The Christian must learn to redirect the conversation continually back to the context of biblical teaching. A representation of how such a dialogue may progress will be given here.
A good example of this problem is the JWs’ use of biblical prooftexts to argue that Jesus was not raised with His physical body, but instead was recreated as a mere spirit and only appeared in materialized bodies to the disciples for their sake. By far the passage to which they appeal most often in this connection is 1 Corinthians 15:44-50.
In particular, the JWs focus on the statement that “flesh and blood cannot inherit God’s kingdom” (15:50; all quotations from the New World Translation [NWT]). They reason that Jesus must have given up flesh-and-blood physical existence in order to inherit God’s kingdom. The Christian can begin his response by pointing out that Paul does not stop halfway through the verse, but continues by saying that “neither does corruption inherit incorruption.” This parallel statement shows that Paul’s point is that it is the corruption (perishability) due to sin, not our being human, that prevents “flesh and blood” (an idiom for mortal humanity) from inheriting God’s kingdom.
For further clarification the next two verses (51-52) should be read, emphasizing Paul’s statement (which he stated twice) that “we shall all be changed.” The Christian should then point out the different views that are held as to the way in which this “change” occurs. The JWs believe the “anointed class” of Christians (a special class of heaven-bound Christians which they limit to 144,000) will be “changed” like Jesus by exchanging their physical bodies for immaterial “spirit bodies,” while the “great crowd” (a larger class of saved people who will live on earth forever) will be raised with perfect physical bodies. Orthodox Christianity, on the other hand, teaches that all Christians will receive the same kind of resurrection body as Jesus (Phil. 3:21), a physical body transformed and glorified to be sinless and immortal. The question must be posed at this point, which view does the Bible here support? Is incorruption and therefore God’s kingdom gained, according to this passage, by taking off the physical body, or by putting immortality on it?
Once the JW has agreed that that is the question, he should be directed to verse 53: “For this which is corruptible must put on incorruption, and this which is mortal must put on immortality.” By emphasizing Paul’s words “put on,” you can help the Witness to see that we must put on to our humanity incorruption and immortality, not that we must stop being human, to inherit God’s kingdom. Therefore, it was not necessary for Jesus to give up his physical existence, as the JWs teach.
At this point, the JW may back up to verse 44, “if there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual one,” to argue that Jesus and the “anointed class” must have “spiritual bodies,” which JWs interpret to mean immaterial bodies composed of spirit. In reply, he may be asked to read 1 Corinthians 2:14-15, which says that “a physical man does not receive the things of God,” but that “the spiritual man examines indeed all things.” The JW should agree that what Paul means is that a physical man without God’s Spirit will not accept the truth of God’s word. Yet the contrast here is between the exact same two words (in Greek as well as in English, as can be shown using the JWs’ Kingdom Interlinear Translation if necessary). Clearly, the “spiritual” man in this text has not ceased to have physical existence; the point is that the ultimate source of his life is different from that of the (merely) physical man. In like manner the “spiritual” body of 1 Corinthians 15:44 is not an immaterial body, but one that is energized or enlivened by the Spirit in a way that it was not beforehand. And so this verse also is a prooftext for, and not against, the physical resurrection of Jesus.
The JW may then appeal in this passage to verse 45, where Paul says that “the last Adam [Christ] became a life-giving spirit.” However, Christians do not deny that Christ is a spirit; they deny that He is a mere spirit, without any physical body. The issue being discussed in 1 Corinthians 15:45 is not the substance of Christ’s resurrection body, but the source of its life, as verse 47 makes clear. Adam’s life was natural, from earth; Christ’s life was supernatural, from heaven. Indeed, “natural” and “supernatural” are excellent translations of the words which the NWT renders “physical” and “spiritual.”
That Paul cannot be saying that Jesus is a mere spirit can be verified from Luke 24:39, where Jesus says that “a spirit does not have flesh and bones just as YOU behold that I have.” This statement and 1 Corinthians 15:45 cannot both be true unless Jesus means that He is not a mere spirit and Paul means that Jesus is a man whose life is spiritual rather than natural.
The teachings of JWs, because they are built upon a foundation of prooftexts torn from their contexts, cannot stand up to a careful examination of whole passages of Scripture. For this reason, JWs typically do not work their way patiently through a passage of Scripture, as we have outlined above. Instead, they tend to flit from prooftext to prooftext in a kind of “shotgun” approach. So Christians seeking to witness to JWs should be prepared to respond either by giving a brief answer to the new prooftext and then returning to the original passage under discussion, or else ask the JW to wait and finish working though one passage before jumping to another. In this way, they can maintain some focus to the conversation and thereby confront the Jehovah’s Witness more effectively with the true sense of biblical teaching.
Finally, the Christian should be prepared to follow up a discussion of 1 Corinthians 15 with several other passages of Scripture (such as Luke 24:39, already cited) where the physical resurrection of Jesus is unequivocally stated. Acts 17:31 and 1 Timothy 2:5 both state that the risen Christ is “a man.” Peter cited as proof that the Messiah would rise from the dead David’s prophetic statement, “even my flesh will reside in hope” (Acts 2:26, cf. 2:29-31) — which could not be true of Jesus unless His flesh rose from the dead. In Matthew 28:6, the angel offered as proof that Jesus was risen the fact that the tomb was empty — which of course was irrelevant if His body was not raised.
These and other passages testify unmistakably to the physical resurrection of Jesus from the dead.