Some skeptics of orthodox Christianity argue that the New Testament writers never meant to communicate that Jesus physically rose from the dead. Instead, Jesus rose in a spiritual and immaterial sense. But can this point of view be defended from Scripture? Theologian Norman Geisler does not think so. He continues his case from the Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics:
Jesus’ Body Was Recognized. The usual words for ‘seeing’ (horao, theoreo) and ‘recognizing’ (epiginosko) physical objects were used over and over again of Christ in his resurrection state (see Matt. 28:7, 17; Mark 16:7; Luke 24:24; John 20:14; 1 Cor. 9:1). Occasionally Jesus was not initially recognized by some of the disciples, some perhaps supernatural. Luke says of one occasion that ‘their eyes were prevented from recognizing him’ (24:16) and later ‘their eyes were opened and they recognized him’ (vs. 31). However, often there were purely natural factors, such as their perplexity (Luke 24:17–21), sorrow (John 20:11–15), the dimness of the light (John 20:14–15), the visual distance (John 21:4), the suddenness of Jesus’ appearance (Luke 24:36–37), the different clothes he had on (John 19:23–24; 20:6–8), or their spiritual dullness (Luke 24:25–26) and disbelief (John 20:24–25). In every case the difficulty was temporary. Before the appearances were over there remained absolutely no doubts in their minds that Christ had arisen in a literal, material body.
Jesus’ Body Could Be Seen and Heard. Jesus’ resurrection body could not only be touched and handled, it could also be seen and heard. Matthew says that ‘when they saw him, they worshiped him’ (Matt. 28:17). The Emmaus disciples recognized him while eating together (Luke 24:31), perhaps from his bodily movements (cf. vs. 35). The Greek term for recognize (epiginosko) means ‘to know, to understand, or to recognize.’ It is a normal term for recognizing a physical object (Mark 6:33, 54; Acts 3:10). Mary may have recognized Jesus from the tone of his voice (John 20:15–16). Thomas recognized him, probably even before he touched the crucifixion scars (John 20:27–28). During the forty-day period, all the disciples saw and heard him, and experienced the ‘convincing proofs’ that he was alive (Acts 1:3; cf. 4:2, 20).
Resurrection Is Out from among Dead. Resurrection in the New Testament is often described as ‘from (ek) the dead’ (cf. Mark 9:9; Luke 24:46; John 2:22; Acts 3:15; Rom. 4:24; 1 Cor. 15:12). Literally, this Greek word ek means Jesus was resurrected ‘out from among’ the dead bodies, that is, from the grave where corpses are buried (Acts 13:29–30). These same words are used to describe Lazarus’s being raised ‘from the dead’ (John 12:1). In this case there is no doubt that he came out of the grave in the same body in which he was buried. Thus, resurrection was of a physical corpse out of a tomb or graveyard. As Gundry correctly noted, ‘for one who had been a Pharisee, such phraseology could carry only one meaning—physical resurrection’ (Gundry, 177).
Sōma Always Means a Physical Body. When used of an individual human being, the word body (sōma) always means a physical body in the New Testament. There are no exceptions to this usage in the New Testament. Paul uses sōma of the resurrection body of Christ (1 Cor. 15:42–44), thus indicating his belief that it was a physical body. The definitive exegetical work on sōma was done by Gundry (ibid.). As evidence of the physical nature of the resurrection body, he points to ‘Paul’s exceptionless use of sōma for a physical body’ (Gundry, 168). Thus he concludes that ‘the consistent and exclusive use of sōma for the physical body in anthropological contexts resists dematerialization of the resurrection, whether by idealism or by existentialism’ (ibid.).
For those who think Paul should have used another word to express physical resurrection, Robert Gundry responds: ‘Paul uses sōma precisely because the physicality of the resurrection is central to his soteriology’ (Gundry, 169). This consistent use of the word sōma for a physical body is one more confirmation that the resurrection body of Christ was a literal, material body.
The Tomb Was Vacated. Joined with the appearances of the same crucified Jesus, the empty tomb provides strong support of the physical nature of the resurrection body of Christ. The angels declared, ‘he is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay’ (Matt. 28:6). Since it was a literal, material body that was placed there, and since that same physical body had come alive, it follows that the resurrection body was that same material body that died.
The Grave Clothes Were Unwrapped. When Peter entered the tomb he ‘saw strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen’ (John 20:6–7). Certainly, if thieves had stolen it, they would not have taken time to take off and fold the head cloth. Nor if Jesus had vaporized through the grave clothes would the head cloth have been in a separate place all folded up by itself. These details reveal the truth that the material body of Jesus that had once laid there had been restored to life (Acts 13:29–30). John was so convinced by this evidence of a physical resurrection that when he saw it he believed Jesus had risen, though he had not yet seen him (John 20:8).
More can be said, but it seems abundantly clear that the New Testament writers definitely had a physical resurrection in mind. Making the opposite case requires a person to ignore or distort numerous New Testament passages beyond recognition.