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The Resurrection of the Body

“The only-begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ, who will come at the end of time to judge the living and the dead and to reward all according to their deeds, both the reprobate and the elect, all of whom will rise with their own proper bodies which they now bear, so that they may receive according to their deeds, whether good or evil.”

This dogmatic decision of the Fourth Lateran Council, held in the year A.D. 1215, will serve as the authority and guide in what we shall say about the resurrection of the body.

We must begin by saying that the doctrine of the resurrection is an object of faith. Natural reason can neither prove nor disprove it. Thomas Aquinas says, “The resurrection, simply speaking, is miraculous and only relatively natural.” Therefore, as natural reason deals only with the series of natural causes and effects, whereas faith deals also with the series of miraculous causes and effects, only those who accept the authority of the Teaching Church can accept the resurrection of the body with certitude.

We have given the dogmatic decision of the Lateran Council because it is the fullest expression of the doctrine that is now of divine faith. The Apostles’ Creed contained the words sarkos anastasin (“the resurrection of the flesh”). In the Nicene Creed (drawn up by the Council of Constantinople in 381) this was changed to the phrase anastasin nekrwn (“the resurrection of the dead“). The two phrases denote the same doctrine, but the change of the phrase resurrection of the flesh into the resurrection of the dead had two advantages.

First, it was more scriptural: The phrase resurrection of the flesh is nowhere to be found in the New Testament, but the phrase resurrection of the dead is found again and again, either incidentally or equivalently.

The second advantage was that the phrase resurrection of the flesh did not satisfactorily silence those who thought that there need be no physical death antecedent to the glorification of the body. Milleniarists, who dreamt of a heaven on earth, were not inclined to believe that they could enter this heaven only through the gate of death. This wrong view was more directly countered by the phrase resurrection of the dead than by the phrase resurrection of the flesh. Yet both creeds meant to define the doctrine of the resurrection of the flesh or body from death to everlasting life. 

The Lateran dogma includes two doctrines: (1) the resurrection of all mankind and (2) the resurrection of the identical body of each person. The full doctrine of the resurrection contains these two points, but, as the general resurrection is not commonly denied and, moreover, may be taken to be included in the resurrection of the identical body, we shall explain and discuss the latter doctrine alone. 

It is the de fide doctrine of the Catholic Church that all men shall not only rise again with a body but shall rise again with the same body they have had on earth. For the moment we may remark that, according to this doctrine, the good and wicked will alike arise with their bodies. To be committed again to a body will not be either a supernatural punishment or a supernatural reward, but will be the supernatural accomplishment of a natural desire and state.

The body that each human being will possess forever will be his own body that he now has. It will not be his own merely because after the resurrection it will belong to him and to no one else; it will not be a body that is given to him; it will be his own present body which will be given back to him. But it is not yet de fide how much is meant by the phrase “their own proper bodies that they now bear.” Catholic theologians here are found to differ.

There is a group that holds that the resurrection of the body does not mean that the soul will be reunited to any particle of matter that belonged to its former body. The body that the human being will possess will be called the “same” body because it will be quickened by the same soul. For these theologians, identity of the soul suffices for identity of the body. 

The larger group of theologians, following Aquinas, declares that mere identity of soul is not sufficient for identity of body. The soul must be reunited to at least some of the matter that once essentially belonged to it. . . . 

We now pass from the witness of Scripture to the witness of reason to the resurrection of the body. It is significant that in replying to the Sadducees our Lord said, “You err not knowing the scriptures nor the power of God” (Matt. 22:29). In other words, the revelation of Scripture is helped out by what our reason tells us of the omnipotent power of God. In discussing these principles of human reason Aquinas will be our guide. 

(1) The first principle of reason is that the soul, as an intellectual and therefore simple substance, is naturally incorruptible and immortal (Summa Theologica 1:75:6). 

(2) The second principle of reason is that the soul is not man (ST 1:75: 4). Even in the common speech of the people, that quarry of sound thinking, man is not said to be a soul but to have a soul. 

(3) The third principle of reason is that as man is not a soul, man is a soul and body. In other words, the body belongs essentially and not accidentally to the personality of man. It is well nigh incredible how common is a certain mild form of Manicheism, which seems to depreciate the human body as almost the sole source of sin, instead of being but a joint source and perhaps the lesser source in union with the soul. . . .

(4) The fourth principle of reason is the goodness not only of the body but of matter. Those who, in order to deny the resurrection of the body, are obliged to deny the goodness of matter, must find themselves in opposition to modern science, on two counts:  

First, modern science, by its own definition, is mostly, if not wholly, concerned with what it perceives by the five senses-in other words, with matter. Now, unless matter is essentially good, then modern science is mostly evil. 

Secondly, if science is the knowledge of what comes to us through our bodily senses, and in the next world we have not bodily senses because we have not a body, then the next world will have no science. . . .

(5) The fifth principle of reason is that the soul is the causa efficiens of the body from the moment of its union to the body (ST Supp. 80:1). When the soul is reunited to such a part of its body as will allow us to call it the same body, we may well see an instantaneous recapitulation of the formative process. Cytology seems to tell us that the really living essential of the unit-cell is almost infinitesimally small. 

Yet that microcosm has within it the power to form the macrocosm of the finished organism. If it is only acceleration of motion that we need for the full acceptance of the resurrection or re-formation of the body in modes akin to the formation of the body, science has now given us that almost frictionless multiplying gear which has no limit save the adhesive power of the gear metal. 

(6) Perhaps in this hard matter of the bodily resurrection some hope of recalling men to unity may be found in the condition of the risen body. Theology lays it down that not the substance of the body but only its condition shall be changed. Body will not become spirit, but, while remaining body, it will become pliant and obedient to the spirit. Time and space will still remain. Some of the soul’s supremacy over time and space will be given by the soul as a dowry to the body. 

One last thought may end this defense of the immortality of man in terms of the resurrection of man’s body. When once the doctrine of the divinity of the Son and thus of Jesus Christ was officially defined, the Church was almost more intent on safeguarding his humanity than his divinity. The Oriental disregard for human freedom and personality made little account of denying the human will and therefore the human freedom of Christ. But the Church understood that the sacred humanity could not be kept with the denial of a human will and freedom and that ultimately, though the divinity of Jesus Christ did not rest on his humanity, man’s belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ did and does rest on the belief in his humanity. 

In a kindred way the Church is certain that, while the immortality of the soul does not rest on the resurrection of the body, man’s belief in one may be imperiled by his disbelief of the other. For this reason the Church seems more concerned for the lesser than for the greater, for the sheath than for the sword, for the husk than for the kernel. Yet it is not in any mistaken view of the scale of values but in a consciousness that what is of less importance may be in greater danger of being overlooked; and that the whole orb of truth, which the Church is commissioned to teach, must find a place not for what is most and best, but for what is all.

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