One mistake a lot of people make is to assume that Christians have always believed the same Gospel. If we look more closely, however, we can see evidence in the New Testament itself that suggests the resurrection story has evolved significantly, especially in the early decades of the Church. A good way to highlight this evolution is to compare the resurrection stories about Jesus with the story of the resurrection of Lazarus.
The story of Lazarus is a good benchmark to use because it is contemporary with the story of Jesus, it’s an orthodox Christian story, and it reflects the popular cultural understanding of what “resurrection” meant in real-world terms. When we look at the story of Lazarus, then, what do we find? First of all, they have to remove the stone from in front of the tomb so that Lazarus can come out. Secondly, when he does come out, he’s bound hand-and-foot in the burial wrappings, and has to have someone help him out of them. Lastly, when the wrappings come off, hey look! It’s the man they buried.
The resurrection of Lazarus is just what you would expect a literal, physical resurrection to be. Bringing someone back from the dead means that the same body whose lungs quit breathing and whose heart stopped beating and whose muscles stopped moving suddenly resume all those functions again. They never could walk through doors before, so they can’t do so now. They can’t simply pass through their bindings before, so they can’t do so now. They couldn’t change their appearance before, so… well, you get the idea.
According to the modern Christian understanding, the resurrection of Jesus was supposed to be a literal, physical resurrection. The body that was buried is the body that was raised. The Jesus who died is the same Jesus who rose. We’re supposed to be able to reach out and physically touch him, if he actually shows up. And yet, none of that is really true. The Gospels are full of stories that are plainly ghost stories, about a Jesus who could walk through doors, and change his appearances so that even his closest friends could not recognize him. And notice, too, that when the angel(s) came down and rolled away the stone, they were exposing a tomb that was already empty. According to the story, neither the burial wrappings nor the stone were any obstacle to his departure.
In the earliest epistles, the Apostle Paul explains that this is because Jesus was raised in a spiritual body, and goes on to argue, at some length, that the body you bury is not the body that gets resurrected. “Flesh and blood,” he tells us, “cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” The resurrection of Jesus is the kind of resurrection that gives rise to questions like, “How are the dead raised?” and “With what kind of body do they come?” precisely because it is not the kind of literal, physical resurrection resurrection that Lazarus is supposed to have had.
Since that time, of course, Christians have decided that Jesus really was literally, physically raised from the dead, and so, in typical Christian fashion, they simply included that in their theology, without ever rejecting the earlier, conflicting notion of a spiritual resurrection. The literal, physical resurrection is somehow also a spiritual resurrection, and the spiritual resurrection is somehow physical—despite Paul’s explicit admonition about flesh and blood. Sure, that’s a troubling inconsistency, but then that’s what faith is all about: overlooking the inconsistencies and just trusting that God will make it all turn out all right some day.
Meanwhile, the evidence remains. The resurrection of Lazarus shows us what a real, literal, physical resurrection was supposed to look like, and the resurrection stories are nothing like that at all. The original Gospels were about a spiritual resurrection, and the Gospel evolved away from that because believers themselves found it ultimately unconvincing.