Was Christ raised as an angelic spirit?
Summary: The Watchtower Society teaches that Jesus Christ ceased to exist as a human being when he died and that he was “raised” from the dead as an immaterial spirit or angelic being. However, the proof texts the Society uses to support this doctrine do not teach it and the rest of the New Testament is very clear that Christ was raised from the dead in a glorified human body.
This article is one of a series of articles explaining in detail the doctrines of Jehovah’s Witnesses and showing why those teachings are not in harmony with the facts and teachings of the Bible. For an overview, see our article on what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe.
What the Watchtower Teaches
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus Christ did not rise physically from the dead. The body that died and that was laid in the tomb never came back to life. Jesus died as a human being but was “raised” as an angelic being, an immaterial spirit creature. When Jesus was raised from the dead, according to the Watchtower’s reasoning, he went back to having a spirit body “like the one Jesus had before he came to earth…. It was a body like the angels have, a spirit body.”1 This is also the kind of body that Jehovah’s Witnesses teach will be given to the small class of “anointed” individuals who will live in heaven with Christ.2 The vast majority of human beings who are resurrected will not have the same kind of body as Christ and will not have immortality. The Watchtower Society defines immortal and incorruptible life as “eternal life in a spirit body that cannot be destroyed and does not decay.”3 Only “the anointed” will have such bodies. As for their present, human bodies, “Their bodies will likely be disposed of in the same manner that Jesus’ body was removed.”4
The Watchtower offered a convenient summary of its main arguments for this understanding of Jesus’ resurrection in its 1988 Bible encyclopedia:
Jehovah God evidently disposed of Jesus’ fleshly body in his own way (possibly disintegrating it into the atoms of which it was constituted). (Lu 24:2, 3, 22, 23; Joh 20:2) Jesus did not take back his fleshly body and thereby cancel out the ransom for which it was given. The apostle Peter testifies that Christ went into heaven, the realm of spirits, not flesh, “he being put to death in the flesh, but being made alive in the spirit.” (1Pe 3:18) Before his ascension to heaven Christ, as a mighty, immortal spirit person, did materialize various fleshly bodies to suit the occasion, for the purpose of giving to his disciples visible, palpable evidence of his resurrection.5
The Watchtower makes four key claims in support of its doctrine, all presented briefly in the above paragraph: (1) Christ could not have been raised in his physical body without canceling the ransom. This is the Watchtower’s main theological rationale for the doctrine. (2) 1 Peter 3:18 means that Christ was resurrected as a spirit being. This is one of the Watchtower’s main proof text for the doctrine. (3) Jesus’ dead human body was not in the tomb because God disposed of it in some way. (4) Jesus’ appearances to his disciples were in physical bodies temporarily materialized for the sake of convincing them he had been resurrected.
In the previous article in this series, we have already responded thoroughly to the Watchtower’s theological argument that Jesus could not have been raised with his human body because that would have negated the ransom.6 In this article, we will survey the major passages in the New Testament on the subject of Jesus’ resurrection. Along the way, we will consider briefly other arguments Jehovah’s Witnesses advance in defense of their position.
Jesus’ Resurrection in the Gospel of Luke
All four Gospels agree that Jesus’ body was laid in a tomb just outside Jerusalem, that the tomb was sealed with a stone, and that around dawn on the first day of the week women found the stone rolled away and the body no longer in the tomb (Matt. 27:57-28:7; Mark 15:43-16:7; Luke 23:50-24:3; John 19:38-20:4). Matthew, Mark, and Luke report that one or two angels appeared to the women and told them that Jesus was not there because he had risen: “He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay” (Matt. 28:6; cf. Mark 16:6b; Luke 24:5-7, 22-23). The natural meaning of these accounts is that Jesus’ human body, which had been killed and buried, had come back to life.7 In first-century Jewish culture, to speak of a man dying, being buried, and being raised from the dead, with his body no longer in the tomb, could mean only one thing: that man was now alive.
Luke’s account of Jesus’ appearances to his disciples confirms this understanding. When Jesus joined two disciples as they were walking to Emmaus, “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (Luke 24:15b-16). Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that the inability of the disciples to recognize Jesus at first shows he was appearing to them in different, temporarily materialized bodies that did not look like his human body. However, Luke’s statement that the disciples’ “eyes were kept from recognizing him” uses a passive verb, a common biblical idiom for referring to God’s actions.8 In short, God prevented the disciples from recognizing Jesus at first, which means they would have recognized him immediately had God not kept them from doing so. Later, when Jesus broke bread and gave it to the two men, “their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” (24:31a).
At this point Jesus “vanished from their sight” (24:31b). The Watchtower argues that Jesus’ ability to appear and disappear suddenly proves the bodies in which he appeared were just temporary.9 In actuality, all Jesus’ disappearance indicates is that a supernatural power was at work in him. The historic Christian view of Jesus’ resurrection is not that he returned to the same mortal, limited physical condition that he had before his death, but that his body was resurrected, made immortal, and glorified with new properties that we do not yet fully understand. The ability to appear or disappear suddenly may be one of those properties, or it may simply be a miracle appropriate to the situation.
When the two men returned to tell the other disciples in Jerusalem what had happened, “Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, ‘Peace to you!’ But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit” (Luke 24:36-37). The Watchtower has commented on this statement, “Humans cannot see spirits, so the disciples evidently thought they were seeing an apparition or a vision. (Compare Mark 6:49, 50.)”10 However, Mark 6:49 uses the Greek word phantasma, which denotes an apparition or ghost, whereas Luke uses the Greek word pneuma, in context meaning an immaterial being. We know this is what Luke means because he goes on to report how Jesus responded to their misunderstanding:
And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. (Luke 24:38-40)
Jesus explicitly denied that he was “a spirit,” and he explained that “a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” It is hard to imagine a more explicit denial of the claim that Jesus was “resurrected” as a spirit. He then invited the disciples to examine his hands and feet, no doubt to show them the marks left behind by the nails used to crucify him (a point stated explicitly in John 20:19-27). This detail flatly contradicts the Watchtower’s claim that Jesus appeared in temporarily materialized bodies that were not his own body and that did not even look like him. If Jesus did not rise from the dead in the same body that was crucified, appearing in a body that had scars from the nails driven through his hands and feet seems quite deceptive.
Jesus’ Resurrection in the Gospel of John
The Gospel of John’s account of Jesus’ resurrection and appearances emphatically confirms that indeed Jesus rose physically from the grave. Jesus’ body was buried in a tomb, but on the first day of the week the tomb was discovered empty (John 19:38-20:4). Jesus appeared that morning to Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-18) and later that evening to the men disciples, to whom he showed his hands and side where the nails and spear had left marks (20:19-20, cf. 19:34). When Thomas, who was not there at the time, heard about it, he stated that he would not believe unless he also saw the marks in Jesus’ body (20:24-25). A week later, Jesus appeared again, and showed Thomas his hands and side, inviting Thomas to touch the marks (20:26-27). All of these elements, similar again to those we saw in Luke 24, confirm the physical nature of Jesus’ resurrection body, and it requires an unusually creative, forced reading of the passage to conclude otherwise.
Jehovah’s Witnesses do, however, claim to find some evidence in the passage to support their view that Jesus had been resurrected as a spirit rather than as a human being. They point out that Mary Magdalene failed to recognize Jesus at first (John 20:14-16), and that likewise the men disciples on one occasion failed to recognize Jesus at first (John 21:4-7). The Witnesses infer from this fact that Jesus’ body did not look the same as it had before he died. The Witnesses conclude that the body in which he appeared on these occasions was a temporary body materialized for the purpose of communicating with human beings.
These inferences are unwarranted. In both instances where Jesus’ disciples failed to recognize him at first, John carefully tells us factors that can account for their confusion without resorting to the theory that his body looked like someone else. Mary Magdalene was standing outside the tomb in the early morning, probably before full light (John 20:1, 11). She was distraught with grief and crying (John 20:11, 13, 15). When she first saw Jesus, she was not looking directly at him; only when he said her name did she turn to face him directly (John 20:14, 16). Given all the physical and psychological factors, it would have been surprising if she had recognized Jesus immediately! In the other occurrence, the disciples were in a fishing boat at dawn and saw Jesus standing on the shore about a hundred yards away (John 21:4, 8). Again, it is quite understandable that they would not have recognized him at first in such a situation.
Resurrection in Paul’s Writings
The apostle Paul made frequent reference to Jesus’ resurrection in his epistles.11 His most extended treatment of the subject of the resurrection comes in 1 Corinthians 15. Paul begins by making four statements about Christ:
that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
that he was buried,
that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,
and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve (1 Cor. 15:3-5).
The sequence of these four affirmations is both chronological and logical. The mention of Christ’s burial, coming between his death and resurrection, confirms that Jesus really had died and that he really left the tomb alive. Any theory that denies the resurrection of the body that had been laid in the tomb negates Paul’s argument. It was the Dead and Buried One who rose from the dead.
To the Greek mind, however, resurrection was impossible. Given the corrupt nature of the human body and its mortality and weakness, the idea of resurrection seemed not only absurd but undesirable. This perspective on resurrection thus prompted some of the Corinthians to ask skeptical questions: “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” (1 Cor. 15:35). Paul focuses on these concerns in his response, stressing the differences between the resurrection state and the mortal state. Jehovah’s Witnesses misunderstand this focus and emphasis as denying that the mortal body will be resurrected.
Paul begins his answers to the Corinthian skeptics by giving them three analogies. The resurrection body is different from the mortal body in ways analogous to the differences between a seed and a full-grown plant, between different kinds of creatures of flesh, and between earthly bodies and heavenly bodies such as the sun, moon, and stars (1 Cor. 15:36-41). He then articulates four contrasts between the resurrection body and the mortal body. Our present body is “sown” with corruption, dishonor, weakness, “a natural body,” but it will be “raised” with incorruption, glory, and power, “a spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:42b-44a).
Paul’s contrast between the “natural” (psuchikos) and “spiritual” (pneumatikos) body is sometimes misunderstood to be a contrast between human and angelic beings, or physical bodies and what Jehovah’s Witnesses call “spirit bodies.” However, there is a big difference between what Paul means by a “spiritual body” and what Jehovah’s Witnesses mean by a “spirit body.” We get some help understanding Paul’s language here from a passage earlier in the same epistle, in which Paul contrasts the “natural” man with the “spiritual” one (1 Cor. 2:14-15). Both are human beings, and indeed both are living right now, but the “spiritual” person accepts what the Spirit has revealed while the “natural” person does not. Obviously, in this context the “spiritual” person is not an angel or other non-physical being with a “spirit” body or nature. Rather, the “spiritual” person is a human being but one that has been made alive and transformed on the inside by the Spirit. Similarly, Paul uses these same two words in 1 Corinthians 15 to describe the human body in two different conditions, not to contrast human with non-human bodies. The “natural body” is one that is limited by mortality and is corrupt, shameful, and weak; the “spiritual” body is one that is made alive and transformed by the Spirit and is incorruptible, glorious, and powerful.
It is in this context that we should understand verse 45, one of the Watchtower’s proof texts for its doctrine: “And thus it is written, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living soul; the last Adam a life-giving spirit’” (1 Cor. 15:45, literal trans.). The words translated “soul” (psuchē) and “spirit” (pneuma) here are the Greek nouns from which the adjectives “natural” (psuchikos) and “spiritual” (pneumatikos) derive. In this context (unlike that of Luke 24:39) the risen Christ is called a “spirit,” but the meaning here is a man whose life is supernaturally perfected and glorified, fully revealing the divine Spirit. We know this for two reasons in addition to Paul’s usage of “natural” and “spiritual.” First, the risen Christ is called “the last Adam,” meaning the head of redeemed humanity. Second, Paul goes on almost immediately to refer to the risen Christ explicitly as a man: “The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man [anthrōpos] is from heaven” (1 Cor. 15:47). Here “the second man” is another reference to Christ in contrast to Adam, “the first man.” Christ came from heaven (where in his divine nature he was and remained spirit), uniting himself with our mortal human nature, in order to bring the spiritual life and glory of heaven with him into the human race for its redemption and glorification.
Paul then writes:
I tell you this, brothers:
flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God,
nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable (1 Cor. 15:50).
Jehovah’s Witnesses frequently quote the clause “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” as if it meant self-evidently that Christ could not have gone to heaven with a physical, human body. Although the Watchtower does occasionally quote the entire verse, it is quite common both in its publications and in Jehovah’s Witness argumentation to find only this clause quoted.12 Even when the last clause of verse 50 is quoted, the Watchtower ignores it. The two parallel clauses (typical of Hebraic parallelism) should be taken together and each line allowed to inform our reading of the other. Paul’s whole statement makes clear that the reason why “flesh and blood cannot inherit God’s kingdom” is that it is perishable or corruptible, not that it is human. “Flesh and blood” here is an idiom, found especially in Jewish literature later than the Old Testament, for human beings in their fallen, mortal, corruptible state (e.g., Sirach 14:18; 17:31; Matt. 16:17; Gal. 1:16). What fallen human beings need is not to cease being human but to become incorruptible and immortal. Paul therefore goes on to write the following:
For this perishable body must put on the imperishable,
and this mortal body must put on immortality (1 Cor. 15:53).
According to Paul, God’s solution to the problem of our bodies being perishable and mortal is not to abandon those bodies to death permanently but to superimpose imperishability and immortality on our mortal bodies. The mortal body will put on immortality. It cannot do that if the mortal body is forever destroyed and not brought back to life. What Paul says God will do for the bodies of believers in the future is the same thing that happened to the human body of Jesus Christ: his mortal body was brought back to life and given incorruptibility and immortality.
1 Peter 3:18
The Watchtower’s doctrine about the nature of Jesus’ resurrection is not based on the Gospel narratives. Indeed, those narratives pose serious, sustained problems for their doctrine. Nor is it based on Paul’s extended theological treatment in 1 Corinthians 15, despite the Watchtower’s penchant for taking a few statements from that passage out of context. Instead, it is based on an a priori theological argument, which we showed in a previous article was unbiblical, that Jesus could not have been raised with human life because he gave it up as the ransom sacrifice.
Consistent with the lack of serious attention to the biblical teaching on the subject, one of the Watchtower’s main proof texts is in a passage of the New Testament that is not principally about Jesus’ resurrection. Quite apart from what 1 Peter 3:18 might be saying about Jesus’ resurrection, this verse is part of what many scholars would rank as the most controversial and difficult passage to understand in the New Testament (1 Peter 3:18-4:6). Verse 19 in particular, which refers to Christ making a proclamation to “the spirits in prison,” has been the focus of great debate throughout church history. Here is how verse 18 reads in the ESV:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit (1 Peter 3:18).
It would not be feasible in this article to attempt even to explain all of the major interpretive questions in the passage, let alone to try to answer all of them adequately. Instead, let us ask whether verse 18 clearly teaches what the Watchtower claims. The Society presupposes that Peter’s contrast between flesh and spirit here is referring to two different kinds of beings—physical beings (humans) and non-physical beings (spirits). At best that is a possible interpretation, but it is neither the only plausible interpretation nor the most likely one. Peter did not say that Christ was put to death as a man and made alive as a spirit, a statement that would have unambiguously agreed with the Watchtower’s doctrine.
A clue to Peter’s meaning may be found in the fact that the words translated “in the flesh” (σαρκί) and “in the spirit” (πνεύματι) occur again together later in the same passage:
Now it was for this very purpose that the gospel was preached to those who are now dead, so that though they were judged in the flesh [σαρκί] by human standards they may live spiritually [πνεύματι] by God’s standards (1 Pet. 4:6 NET).
This statement comes at the end of the difficult passage and is itself one of the most hotly debated verses in the Bible. However, most likely Peter is talking about human beings living “spiritually” in this life according to God’s standards, not about living after their death as nonhuman spirits. This interpretation is strongly supported by Peter’s earlier statement that “whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God” (1 Pet. 4:1b-2). Peter is talking about two kinds of human life: One in which the physical desires and standards of life in the flesh dominate, and another in which spiritual life and divine standards rule.
Now that we can see this is the direction Peter’s thought is going, we can take another look at 1 Peter 3:18. The idea is not that Christ died as a man and was brought to life as a spirit. Rather, the idea is that Christ died in mortal, fleshly weakness and came to life in immortal, spiritual power. He died with our fallen condition and came to life with the restored and glorified condition that we need to live forever with God.
However we answer the various controversial interpretive questions that arise in 1 Peter 3:18-4:6, we ought to interpret what Peter says about Jesus’ resurrection in light of the lengthy passages in the Gospels and in 1 Corinthians 15 in which the theme of resurrection is thoroughly presented. Those passages, as we have seen, make it abundantly clear that Christ’s dead body rose from the grave to immortal, glorified life. The hope that Christians have of eternal life free from all concern about suffering and death rests on the foundation of Christ’s victory over death. To deny that Christ rose from the dead with his human nature (including his body) to immortal life is to deny that Christ conquered death on our behalf. If Christ was re-created as an angelic spirit, he did not conquer death but only did an end-run around it. That is not the hope of the true Christian gospel.
1. Listening to the Great Teacher (Watchtower, 1971), 172. See also “Resurrection,” in Reasoning from the Scriptures (Watchtower, 1989), 334; “The Resurrection of Jesus—Its Meaning for Us,” Watchtower (Nov. 15, 2014): 4.
2. “‘I Have Hope toward God,’” Watchtower (Dec. 2017): 11.
3. “Guide by God’s Spirit in the First Century and Today,” Watchtower (Simplified) (Dec. 15, 2011): 26.
4. “‘Your Deliverance Is Getting Near!’” Watchtower (Simplified) (July 15, 2015): 19.
5. “Flesh,” in Insight on the Scriptures (Watchtower, 1988), 1:841.
7. On Jesus’ resurrection in the Gospels, see also Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman Jr., Sense and Nonsense about Heaven and Hell (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 63-69.
8. Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 437-38.
9. “Identifying the Resurrected,” Watchtower (April 15, 1963): 235; “Did Jesus Really Ascend into Heaven?” Watchtower (Sept. 22, 1972): 7.
10. “Resurrection,” in Reasoning, 335.
11. For what follows about Paul’s teaching on Jesus’ resurrection, see Boa and Bowman, Sense and Nonsense about Heaven and Hell, 70-78.
12. E.g., “Ascension,” and “Resurrection,” in Insight on the Scriptures (1988), 1:187; 2:790; “Resurrection,” in Reasoning (1989), 336; “‘Desirable Things’ Are Filling Jehovah’s House,” Watchtower (Jan. 15, 2000): 15; “You Can Live Forever,” Watchtower (Oct. 1, 2006): 6; “‘Your Deliverance Is Getting Near’!” (2015): 14. This is not an exhaustive list of citations.