by Dr. Daniel Keating
These are not merely academic questions. Some years ago, when leading a Bible study for college students, a young Catholic woman asked me just these questions. It seemed to her that it would be far simpler just to "be with God" in our souls, free from the body.
Why, she asked, does Jesus speak about raising the dead from the grave (Jn 5:28-29), and why should this be important to us? For her part, she was happy to do away with the body in the next life. I was grateful for her honest question—they led to an engaging discussion on our hope in the resurrection with thirty-some students listening in attentively.
As Christians, we do in fact believe in the resurrection of the body, as the Apostles' Creed states. What is the foundation of this belief? The foundation is the clear and abundant testimony of Scripture.
The Old Testament already witnesses to the resurrection of the dead (e.g., Dn 12:1-3), but we will begin by looking at what Jesus had to say. In the Gospel of John chapter five, Jesus predicts the day when all the dead will respond to his voice and come forth from their tombs to receive the reward: "Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment" (Jn 5:27-28). When the Sadducees (who did not believe in the resurrection of the body) came to challenge Jesus on just this point, Jesus boldly upholds the resurrection: "And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? He is not God of the dead, but of the living'" (Mt 22:31-32).
When we turn to the Acts of the Apostles, it is clear that the resurrection of Jesus bodily from the grave was a core part of the preaching of the early church. Peter makes Jesus' resurrection the central point of his preaching to a Jewish audience on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:22-36). Paul does the same when preaching to a Gentile audience in Athens. In fact, Paul was dismissed by many in his audience because he spoke about the resurrection from the dead: "Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked; but others said, We will hear you again about this'" (Acts 17:32).
But it is Paul who speaks most frequently about our hope in the resurrection of the body. In his letter to the Romans, he says succinctly: "For if we have been united with [Jesus] in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his" (Rom 6:5). When writing to the Philippians, he speaks about the transformation of our present bodily state into a more glorious one: "But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself"(Phil 3:20).
Paul's most developed teaching on the resurrection appears in his first letter to the Corinthians, where he devotes an entire chapter to this topic (chapter fifteen). Paul is clear: if we deny the resurrection of the dead, then Christ himself can't have risen from the dead. But if Christ didn't rise from the dead, then we have not been redeemed and we are still in our sins.
We should be clear: our belief in the resurrection of the body is not the same as bringing a dead corpse back to this earthly life. When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead (Jn 11), Lazarus returned to normal life in this world and he ultimately had to die again. But when Jesus rose from the dead, he entered into an entirely new bodily state and he will never die again.
This is why Paul calls Christ's resurrection the "firstfruits" of the new creation. Christ has already been raised; we who believe in him and die in his grace will also rise anew to the same kind of life.
What will this new body be like? We do not fully know. But we have one example, and that is Jesus himself.
From the stories of his appearances after his resurrection we can glean certain insights about the resurrected body. First, Jesus had a real bodythe resurrection appearances go out of their way to make clear that he was not a phantom, nor a ghost, nor just an appearance in the sky. His closest followers touched him, they put their fingers in his side, and they ate a meal with him on the beach!
Nonetheless, Jesus' glorified body did not have the same characteristics of his pre-resurrected body. For one thing, his disciples and followers did not recognize him unless he made himself known (e.g., Mary Magdalene and the two disciples on the road to Emmaus). For another, Jesus could walk through walls and appear suddenly in a roomand then vanish from sight (see Lk 24:36-51). Clearly his resurrected body had new properties.
Paul explains that the mortal body that we now have is different in quality from the one that will be raised (see 1 Cor 15:42-49). Exactly what the new body will be like has not yet been revealed. As John says, "Beloved, we are God's children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is" (1 Jn 3:2). But we can be sure that our new bodies will be imperishable, as Paul says: "For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality" (1 Cor 15:52-53). As the Catechism confirms, how the resurrection of our bodies will happen "exceeds our imagination and understanding; it is accessible only to faith" (no. 1000). But we can be confident that the very power that raised Jesus from the dead will also see to the renewal and transformation of our bodies on the last day.
Let's return now to our original question: Why have a body at all? Why should we want to hope for the resurrection of our bodies?
The answer is found in the original purpose of God: he created us as human beings composed of body and soul.
And as we learn from Genesis, he looked upon the man and woman he had made and saw that "it was very good" (Gn 1:31). Our bodies are not evilthey do not represent a flaw in God's design. When Christ came to redeem us, he didn't only redeem our spiritual part; he came to redeem our entire nature, body and soul. This is why the risen Christ represents in himself the firstfruits of our destiny: he has experienced what awaits us all.
Paul says the same thing: the fullness of our redemption awaits the resurrection of our bodies. "We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved" (Rom 8:22-24).
This passage shows that God's full plan involves not only the resurrection of our bodies but the transformation of the entire created order, what Scripture calls "a new heavens and a new earth" (see Rev 21:1).
The Christian understanding of "salvation" or "redemption" is not a flight from the body or from this material world. It is the full and perfect renewal of the world in Christ, and this includes the resurrection of our bodies. For those who die in a state of grace, they are "with the Lord" in their souls (either in a state of purification or perfection), and this is a blessed reality.
But it is not all that we hope for. The final goal is the full redemption of the human race, both body and soul, in a renewed created order. This is our hope and it is a glorious thing. This is why we confess our faith in the resurrection of the body.
Dr. Daniel Keating
Dr. Daniel Keating is associate professor of theology at Sacred Heart.