The Bible emphasises that the reward of the righteous will be at the resurrection, at the coming of Christ (1 Thes. 4:16). The resurrection of the responsible dead (see Study 4.8) will be the first thing Christ will do; this will be followed by the judgment. If the ‘soul’ went to heaven at death there would be no need for the resurrection. Paul said that if there is no resurrection, then all effort to be obedient to God is pointless (1 Cor. 15:32). Surely he would not have reasoned like this if he believed that he would also be rewarded with his ‘soul’ going to heaven at death? The implication is that he believed the resurrection of the body to be the only form of reward. Christ encouraged us with the expectation that the recompense for faithful living now would be at “the resurrection” (Lk. 14:14).
At his return, Christ “will transform our lowly body, that it may be conformed to his glorious body” (Phil. 3:20,21). As he now has a literal bodily form, energised purely by Spirit rather than blood, so we will share a similar reward. Those who have died and decomposed to dust will “awake and sing” (Is. 26:19). At the judgment we will receive a recompense for how we have lived this life in a bodily form (2 Cor. 5:10). Those who have lived an unspiritual life will be left with their present mortal body, which will then rot back to dust; whilst those who in their lives have tried to overcome the unspiritual mind with that of the Spirit “will reap from it a harvest of eternal life” (Gal. 6:8 R.E.B.) in the form of a Spirit-filled body.
There is ample further evidence that the reward of the righteous will be in a bodily form. Once this is accepted, the vital importance of the resurrection should be apparent. Our present body clearly ceases to exist at death; if we can only experience eternal life and immortality in a bodily form, it follows that death must be a state of unconsciousness, until such time as our body is re-created and then given God’s nature.
The whole of 1 Cor. 15 speaks in detail of the resurrection; it will always repay careful reading. 1 Cor. 15:35-44 explains how that as a seed is sown and then emerges from the ground to be given a body by God, so the dead will likewise rise, to be rewarded with a body. As Christ rose from the grave and had his mortal body changed to an immortalised body, so the true believer will share his reward (Phil. 3:21). Through baptism we associate ourselves with Christ’s death and resurrection, showing our belief that we too will share the reward which he received through his resurrection (Rom. 6:3-5). Through sharing in his sufferings now, we will also share his reward: “carrying about (now) in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body” (2 Cor. 4:10). “He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit” (Rom. 8:11). With this hope, we therefore wait for “the redemption of our body” (Rom. 8:23), through that body being immortalised.
This hope of a literal bodily reward has been understood by God’s people from earliest times. Abraham was promised that he, personally, would inherit the land of Canaan forever, as surely as he had walked up and down in it (Gen. 13:17; see Study 3.4). His faith in those promises would have necessitated his belief that his body would somehow, at a future date, be revived and made immortal, so that this would be possible.
Job clearly expressed his understanding of how, despite his body being eaten by worms in the grave, he would, in a bodily form, receive his reward: “My redeemer lives, and...shall stand at last on the earth: and after my skin is destroyed, ... in my flesh (or bodily form) I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:25-27). Isaiah’s hope was identical: “My dead body shall...arise” (Is. 26:19).
Very similar words are found in the account of the death of
Lazarus, a personal friend of Jesus. Instead of comforting the man’s sisters
by saying that his soul had gone to heaven, the Lord Jesus spoke of the day
of resurrection: “Your brother will rise again”. The immediate response of
Lazarus’ sister Martha shows how much this was appreciated by the early
Christians: “Martha said to him, I know that he will rise again in the
resurrection at the last day” (Jn. 11:23,24). Like Job, she did not
understand death to be the gateway to a life of bliss in heaven, but,
instead, looked forward to a resurrection “at the last day” ( cf. Job’s “at
last”). The Lord promises: “Everyone who has heard and learned from the
Father...I will raise him up at the last day” (Jn. 6:44,45).