Your outside doesn’t matter. It’s all about what’s on the inside. All that matters is what we do for Christ.” Growing up in church, I often heard these phrases and others like them. The well-meaning motivation in saying such things is to get Christians in a consumerist, self-absorbed, sensual culture to look beyond what is transitory toward the eternal. I’m grateful, really, to have had spiritual leaders help me focus on what’s unseen. But there is a danger to any theology that, in an attempt to correct self-worship, unintentionally sends the message that the physical—especially our bodies—is unimportant.
Jesus had a body, not accidentally or incidentally, but because God loves human bodies.
Our bodies, the Bible tells us, matter. We see this first in Genesis, which teaches that human bodies are not mere vessels for spirits or accidents of fate but an essential part of what it means be an image-bearer of the Almighty. God, Moses says, sculpted our bodies from the dust of the ground and breathed into them the breath of life (Gen. 2:7).
And in the opening pages of the New Testament, where after centuries of divine silence and what must have seemed like fragile promises, the Son of God entered the world. He did so not as a disembodied spirit but as a fully human person—first as a fragile baby and then as a suffering, crucified, and resurrected Lord. Jesus had a body, not accidentally or incidentally, but because God loves human bodies. And today Jesus Himself still has a body in heaven, where He is seated at the right hand of the Father.
Fallen, but Resurrected
Part of the reason many Christians feel uncertain and discomforted is that we experience the effects of broken bodies in a fallen world. And there is a certain shame, rooted in Eden, that wants to hide or cover up our earthiness. Perhaps nobody understood this more than Paul, who suffered from mysterious maladies and spoke of the dichotomy between his renewed inner spirit and his fallen, broken body. He describes human life as “treasure in earthen vessels” (2 Corinthians 4:7). What is happening on the inside is a metaphor for what is happening on the outside. “We who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Corinthians 4:11). We evangelicals often confuse the term “flesh” with our physical bodies. But Scripture typically uses the term to refer to our carnal, base desires that, because of Christ’s death and resurrection, have been crucified.
The treasure is a renewed and revived inner life, the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit. The earthen vessel, however, is a body that still reminds Paul daily of the painful effects of the fall. But the promise is that our bodies will one day match the resurrection happening within. This is what Paul means when he says, “We do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16). That inner renewal reminds us of what we will one day experience as whole people: renewal, restoration, and resurrection.
You will notice Paul doesn’t say that he cannot wait for the time when he can cast off his “earthen vessel” and be free of his body. Rather, he longs for the time when his body will be renewed: “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God … For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling … not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:1-4 ESV).
Gnosticism teaches that the “real you” is trapped in a kind of earthy fallen vessel but will one day escape. The Bible, however, has way better news: Our bodies, which were created good but became corrupted by sin, will be restored and remade. Paul even intimates that our heavenly selves will be more real than what we see today—not disembodied spirits floating in the ether. It’s not that we’ll be unclothed but further clothed in a world that will be more real and more physical than it is now. The death that slowly ravages our bodies through disease, chronic pain, and diminished capacity has been swallowed up by Christ’s triumph over the enemy (1 Corinthians 15:54). The shame we carry from living in imperfect bodies is replaced by hope in the knowledge that one day these humble vessels will be as they should.
Our bodies, which were created good but became corrupted by sin, will be restored and remade.
This is an important and, sadly, neglected teaching among many evangelicals today. Yes, Jesus did come to save souls, but He died and rose again to save our bodies as well. Our physical lives are not incidental to the gospel narrative but central. Our bodies are good because God created them—and of such great value that Jesus gave His own body so ours might one day be restored.
The In-Between and Future Bodies
We might be tempted to downplay this theology because of certain statements of Paul’s, such as his preference “to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). The apostle is referring to what happens to departed saints in the time we now live in—after Jesus’ first coming and before His second. Writing to the Corinthians, Paul was describing two imminent possibilities: continuing to live or dying and entering a temporarily disembodied state in heaven with Jesus. Until Jesus returns in the final resurrection, departed saints are separated from their bodies. We tend to think of this condition as the final state of God’s redeemed people, but it is not. It’s a temporary state, in the space between Christ’s first advent and His second, as we long for the consummation of all things. This is, I think, where Christians get their misconceptions about heaven. If we die before the second coming, we are grateful to be spiritually in the presence of God, but we should ultimately desire our final, fully perfected state—because physical bodies are part of God’s beautiful design, and they are good.
Yes, Jesus did come to save souls, but He died and rose again to save our bodies as well.
Dwelling only on this kind of ethereal state also affects the way we think about heaven, as if it’s sort of unreal and wispy instead of physical and real. But our future state will be even more real than the life we experience now in a corrupted cosmos. There is a beautiful paragraph at the end of C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle that sums this up well:
But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read; which goes on forever; in which every chapter is better than the one before.
This chapter of our human existence—dwelling in a human body made by God but broken by the fall—will one day give way to the next chapter, which will be so much better than what came before. This we can long for with eager anticipation, enjoying those tiny glimpses of God’s good design that we experience now but awaiting our fullest human experience to come.
Which is why faithful followers of Jesus cannot succumb to a spiritualism that sees bodies as bad. Ignoring the Bible’s good news about our bodies affects the way we engage with ourselves and our neighbors. We can easily spiritualize away real issues and end up with an incomplete definition of what it means to be human. We are also in danger of ignoring the command to care for and steward our bodies well. But if our bodies are good gifts from God, then caring for (but not idolizing) them, as we’re commanded to do (1 Corinthians 6:19-20), is an act of worship in anticipation of that day when full care, full healing, full resurrection is complete.
Illustration by Adam Cruft