Is the Body “Just a Shell”? Funerals and the Resurrection of the Body

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This morning after his bath, my little boy stuck his pruney feet up in the air and said, “Feet!” I kissed his feet and said, “I love your feet! I love all of you.” Touch is a powerful expression of love. The first time that I held the hand of my now-wife, it was electric, charged with the passion of youth. And if by God’s grace we grow old and pruney like my son’s feet, I’ll still cherish her touch. These are precious reminders of what we all know in our hearts: human love is embodied because humans were created as a unified body and soul.

An Incomplete Picture

Compare this to what I have heard at several funerals: That body is just a shell; the real them is in heaven with God, and someday you will see them again. I’ll never forget what my grandmother said when someone told her this after my grandfather’s funeral: “It may be a shell, but it was the shell I loved for all these years.” I can hear someone saying, “Well, actually, what you really loved was the person inside the body, not the body itself.” It all sounds very spiritual.

To diminish the importance of the body is to diminish the Christian hope.

It’s common for Christians to bemoan “these old bodies” and perhaps add, “Someday, we’ll be set free from them.” In contrast, we speak frequently about the eternal salvation of our “never-dying souls.” We say, “God only cares about one thing: the salvation of souls.” Or, “You are on this earth for one reason: to save souls.” In Merriam-Webster, the third definition of “soul” is “a person’s total self.” But I suspect that most people have in mind the first definition: “the immaterial essence,” the part of man that is not physical.

There’s a measure of truth in all of this, but it’s an incomplete picture. And unless it’s understood in light of other vital truths, it becomes a dangerous picture.

“Not That We Would Be Unclothed”

The incompleteness of the familiar picture above can be illustrated by 2 Corinthians 5. It is common to quote 2 Corinthians 5:8 at funerals: “we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” But if we back up just a few verses, we find that this passage is about the resurrection of the body.

In verse 4, Paul writes, “while we are still in this tent [our human body], we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed [without a human body], but that we would be further clothed [in our resurrection body], so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Cor. 5:4). In 1 Corinthians 15, the great chapter on how the resurrection of Jesus’s body guarantees the future resurrection of our own bodies, Paul uses the same metaphor of the mortal being swallowed up by life:

For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:52–55).

Paul insists that a soul without a body is like a man without clothes—naked!

The resurrection body, not a disembodied life in the clouds, is what Paul meant by the “heavenly dwelling” that will replace “our earthly home.” He even insists that a soul without a body is like a man without clothes—naked! If we bemoan “these old bodies,” it is “not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed” (2 Cor. 5:4) in new, incorruptible bodies. God did not create Adam without a body, and he does not intend for us to be disembodied souls. Perhaps this is why there are very few verses that describe our disembodied life in the intermediate state between death and the bodily resurrection, while there are countless verses that call us to place our hope in the coming resurrection.

I Believe in the Resurrection of the Body

In the Apostles’ Creed, Christians confess, “I believe in the resurrection of the body,” not “I believe in the salvation of never-dying souls.” Of course, God does save our souls (both in the sense of our “total self” and our “immaterial essence”), so we do not need to be afraid of this language (1 Pet. 1:9). But if our emphasis is on the salvation of our immaterial soul to the neglect of the bodily resurrection, we are out of harmony with “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Our thinking is more Gnostic than Christian.

To diminish the importance of the body is really to diminish the Christian hope. At the center of our faith is the bodily incarnation of Jesus, the bodily death of Jesus, and the bodily resurrection of Jesus. In the Apostles’ Creed, we confess that Jesus was “crucified, dead and buried: He descended to the dead.” This means that the Son of God who assumed a full human nature, body and soul, died like every other human being: his body was buried, his soul departed to the place of the dead. Then, “the third day he rose again from the dead.” His soul was reunited with his body, and he put death and the grave under his feet.

Because we confess, “He rose again,” we also confess, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.”

Because we confess, “He rose again,” we also confess, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” We will not remain in the intermediate state as disembodied souls any more than Jesus did. To think otherwise is to fundamentally misunderstand redemption. Christ’s resurrection is the firstfruits of those who have died in Christ. When we taste the first apple of the season and find it crisp and sweet, it assures us of a bountiful harvest to follow. Likewise, Christ’s resurrection assures us that all who are in Christ will rise again one day unto eternal life. We will again walk and talk with our loved ones and kiss their hands and feet as we once did. We will walk with them in new, physical bodies on this physical earth.

Funerals: A Time to Honor the Body

In Chapter 13 of The City of God, Augustine gives “Reasons for Burying the Bodies of the Saints.” He explains that Christians care for the bodies of the dead because the body is part of man’s very nature and precious to God:

The bodies of the dead are not … to be despised and left unburied; least of all the bodies of the righteous and faithful, which have been used by the Holy Spirit as His organs and instruments for all good works. For if the dress of a father, or his ring, or anything he wore, be precious to his children, in proportion to the love they bore him, with how much more reason ought we to care for the bodies of those we love, which they wore far more closely and intimately than any clothing! For the body is not an extraneous ornament or aid, but a part of man’s very nature.

The body is not an extraneous ornament or aid—not just a shell—but a part of man’s very nature. At funerals, Christians should not say, “That’s just a shell.” It’s cheap comfort, and it risks causing grieving loved ones to suppress the part of them that is crushed by thoughts like, “He will never touch me again.” Instead, we should do our best to provide full-orbed Christian hope. Consider saying something like this: “We mourn the death of our loved one, and we will miss their physical presence in our lives. But we do not mourn as others who have no hope. Our loved one is with the Lord, conscious in the presence of God, beholding his beauty. And because of the resurrection of Jesus’s own body, we have confidence that someday all who are asleep in Christ will be raised again. The day is coming when heaven will come to earth, and we will walk and talk with our loved ones again in new bodies on a new earth, together forever with our King.”

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.