Heavenly Bodies: On the Resurrection of the Flesh

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The resurrection of the dead is among the central tenets of Catholicism, and indeed of any branch of “mere” Christianity which could be called “orthodox” [1]. It is the central point of the Gospels, that Christ came to die and then that he rose again from the dead; it is a point mentioned both in connection with Christ and then again with us in the historic creeds. And indeed, it is a central enough point that St. Paul tells us,

“Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:12-15).

The general resurrection is thus intimately connected to the other doctrines—and speculations—concerning eschatology. Our bodies are intimately a part of us—and if our souls are to be separated from our bodies at death, then we are incomplete until body and soul are reunited in the resurrection. As Dante Alighieri writes in his Divine Comedy,

When, glorious and sanctified, our flesh
Is reassumed, then shall our persons be
More pleasing by their being all complete;
For will increase whate’er bestows on us
Of light gratuitous the Good Supreme,
Light which enables us to look on Him;
Therefore the vision must perforce increase,
Increase the ardour which from that is kindled,
Increase the radiance which from this proceeds.
But even as a coal that sends forth flame,
And by its vivid whiteness overpowers it
So that its own appearance it maintains,
Thus the effulgence that surrounds us now
Shall be o’erpowered in aspect by the flesh,
Which still to-day the earth doth cover up;
Nor can so great a splendour weary us,
For strong will be the organs of the body
To everything which hath the power to please us.”
(Paridiso, Canto XIV, Longfellow Translation)

Thus, the beatific vision of heaven—and for that matter the torment of hell—will prove ever grater to us when we are whole, body and soul. We may “experience” these as souls, but that experience is not complete when we lack our bodies, through which we experience the world.

Here is a speculative answer as to why that may be. As Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches us, all that is in our minds is first experienced through the five senses (ST I.84.6). Now, our souls may be separated from our bodies at death [2], with the result being that we have in heaven mind and memory and intellect and even will, but not those things which are proper to the body such as the senses. It seems to me that, deprived of the sense, we cannot gain new experiences in their proper entirety.

I’m not necessarily citing this book here, but I generally recommend reading Mortimer J. Adler.

What does this mean heaven will be like for us? Perhaps we can look to the angels—though it seems to me that we don’t actually know much about their experiences of heaven. Again, we have deduced that they do not learn in the same way that we do: rather, they are able to instantly grasp and understand new knowledge, conveyed not so much be sense as by intuition. Will our intellects be heightened in this manner? It is certainly within the realm of possibility, and would speculate that this must be so if we are to judge the angels themselves (see 1 Corinthians 6:3). Perhaps we will experience a heightening of this sort, and then we can apply these heightened intellects to intuit heaven’s joy: but again this is not so much an experiencing of heaven as an understanding of it. It would be good, and exceedingly so, even under these conditions, but how would we experience that goodness? Perhaps through memories of the good things we experienced in this life, but elevated and perfected by heavenly grace [3].

Yet, without our bodies, are we really experiencing the fullness of heaven, or is the whole thing little more than a dream-like state until the resurrection [4]? Reunited with our bodies, we may finally actually experience heaven, and in so doing move beyond memory and imagination to actually participate in the real thing. It is one thing to understand the joy of heaven, and even to have that as our single thought, to take delight in it as it fills our minds, our souls; it is another thing still to be fully present in heaven, to experience it and delight in the experience.

Speculation aside, we are told another thing about our bodies in heaven:

“But some one will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ You foolish man! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body….So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-44).

From this, and from the resurrection accounts of the Gospels, we can draw a few conclusions about our bodies in heaven:

  1. These bodies will in fact be our bodies, that is, they will be the body we have on earth, albeit perfected. For example, Christ’s risen body still retained the wounds of his crucifixion (John 20:24-29). The resurrection is not a repudiation of earthly man, but rather it is his completion and perfection.
  2. Our risen bodies will be whole. Each of us will have our entire body restored to us (Luke 12:17).
  3. The bodies in their perfection are “spiritual bodies” [5]. Saint Augustine explains in his City of God that this means they are perfected beyond even what our first ancestors (Adam and Eve) had in the garden before the Fall and the entrance of Original Sin. For example, Adam and Eve still required sustenance (e.g. the tree of life, Genesis 2:9, 16), but our resurrected bodies will not. One result of this is that our risen bodies will be immortal.
  4. Our risen and glorified bodies will be impassible. This means that they will be incorruptible (1 Corinthians 15:42) but that they will also be free from inconveniences, such as the pain of heat or cold or physical barriers (John 20:19).
  5. Our glorified bodies will shine with brightness (or glory). They will have different degrees of glory (1 Corinthians 15:39-42).
  6. Our bodies will have perfect agility. This means that we will be able to move with the swiftness of thought, and so space will prove no barrier to our movements. The body can move instantly to any place the soul desires.
  7. The risen body will be absolutely obedient to the soul, and the intellect will govern the will. This obedience is called “subtility,” and was among the gifts enjoyed by Adam and Eve before the Fall but since then lost.

Suffice it to say that the resurrection is something to look forward to (as the Nicene Creed states), and this as a joyous part of the life in the world to come.

—-Footnotes—-
[1] Orthodox: here I mean that there are certain doctrines which the various branches and schisms of Christianity have traditionally held in common. I will not list all examples here, but some include the doctrine of the Trinity, or that Christ was both true God and true man, or that He died and then on the third day resurrected from death to life. Basically, anything contained in the historic creeds, and a few other points of doctrine or common morality.

[2] This is certainly the bulk of opinion among Catholic thinkers. I suppose that the Orthodox opinion of a general dormition until the resurrection would be one alternative to this. The idea of form (soul) without matter (body) is a difficult one to fathom, so I won’t attempt to discuss it much more here.

Cover from Out of the Silent Planet. In the boat is Ransom with a hross (plural hrossa).

[3] Here I am reminded of a passage from C. S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet, in which the main character (Ransom) questions the alien hrossa about their mating rituals. The hross which he questions explains that they mate for a single season of life. Ransom asks whether there is pleasure for them, and if so how they can bear to remember it without returning to it. The surprised hross replies that there is as much pleasure in the memory as in the thing itself, and that only in memory can pleasure be completed.

[4] Perhaps there may be something to the Orthodox interpretation, and yet we need not give up the Catholic interpretation to get there!

[5] Note that the fact that the glorified body is a “spiritual body” does not necessarily mean it won’t be “material.” The body s still the matter of which the soul is the form.

Nicene Guy

Nicene Guy

JC is a cradle Catholic, and somewhat of a traditionalist conservative. He earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Texas at Austin in the summer of 2014. He is currently a tenure-track assistant professor of physics at a university in the deep south. He is a lay member of the Order of Preachers. JC has been happily married since June of 2010. He and his lovely wife have had two children born into their family, one daughter and one son; they hope to have a few more. He has at times questioned – and more often still been questioned about – his Faith, but he has never wandered far from the Church, nor from our Lord. “To whom else would I go?”

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7 thoughts on “Heavenly Bodies: On the Resurrection of the Flesh”

  1. Avatar

    This is probably one of your most interesting posts, JC It will take a while to form
    a suitable balance. Thank you.

  2. Avatar

    I will now try for suitable balance.

    “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; …”
    1 Cor 15

    JC, IMHO this almost sounds like blasphemy and has nothing to do with God
    redeeming our souls. For Paul to link his own theological speculation on the
    back of an historical event that changed the world is like saying the ‘good news”
    is not only have you been saved from your sins, but I think,we should all think,
    that you get an upgrade in the body that caused them all.

    ” Light which enables us to look on Him; Therefore the vision must perforce increase,

    Blessed are the pure of heart for (ONLY) they shall see God. Matt 5:8

    ” For strong will be the organs of the body. To everything which hath the power to please us.”

    And yet, in your take,the one organ that we prize the most will be a useless appendage of form. For: “Neither shall they marry nor be given in marriage.”

    “ Thus, the beatific vision of heaven—and for that matter the torment of hell—will prove ever grater to us when we are whole, body and soul. We may “experience” these as souls, but that experience is not complete when we lack our bodies, through which we experience the world.”

    I can’t believe you are referencing Dante; this sounds like a threat from ISIS. This is an orthodox interpretation of what is most likely a metaphor spoken to people who were into stoning women. It was the kind of justification the church used to order the Inquisition and make it conform to hell.

    “ Here is a speculative answer as to why that may be. As Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches us, all that is in our minds is first experienced through the five senses
    (ST I.84.6).”

    Augustine believed that rocks were solid and static. We now know they are not. . One of the four human imperfections as spoken of in the Bahagavad-gita is: our senses are imperfect. He puts a lot of weight into the senses without taking into account that the mind skewers this import with prejudices and imaginings all of its own making.

    “ …but not those things which are proper to the body such as the senses. It seems to me that, deprived of the sense, we cannot gain new experiences in
    their proper entirety.”

    Yet, he never imagined a Hellen Keller. Who would build a doctrine and have others elaborate it to a status of Truth based on the prefix “ It seems to me …”?
    If Newton ended his Laws with ‘ and this is the end point of physics’ – and people believed him – you and I would not be in contact because this media probably would not have been invented.

    “Will our intellects be heightened in this manner? It is certainly within the realm of possibility, and would speculate that this must be so if we are to judge the angels themselves (see 1 Corinthians 6:3).”

    You mean the angels up there are … sinning !!!!!!! Oh my,my.

    1. “ … For example, Christ’s risen body still retained the wounds of his crucifixion.

    This image and that of His transfiguration and ascension were for our earthly eyes to see,otherwise they would have not been able to be reported so as to increase our faith.

    2. Our risen bodies will be whole. Each of us will have our entire body restored to us. Luke 12:17).

    This is a parable in Luke about avarice and has nothing to do with the premise.

    6 Our bodies will have perfect agility. This means that we will be able to move with the swiftness of thought, and so space will prove no barrier to our movements. The body can move instantly to any place the soul desires.

    This is a description of quantum physics and worm holes, already an accepted scientific speculation?

    “ But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body…. 1 Corinthians 15

    Finally … an unintentional (?) reference to a gospel – and HERE is where all
    your fine efforts to promote this idea bears fruit. In Matt 10: 41-42 Jesus clearly talks about what storing up “treasure in heaven “ is all about. One gets a reward. However, people win the lottery and go broke, they spend it all, use it up. This
    is not what heaven is about. It is not the end point of our spiritual striving. If you
    think a prophet or righteous persons reward is something to crow about then
    you don’t understand the soul’s (sans body) true home. In the Bahagavad-gita (which came first by the way) it talks of having a suitable body to enjoy and not, that which we earned in this life. So yes, you do get another temporary body that will be transported to heavenly abodes designed specifically for you to enjoy … until what you earned is used up and then it’s back to this mortal plane to try again – hopefully as a more enlightened soul –for the brass ring.

    Thanks for taking it on the chin, JC. This, I believe, is how Catholic theologians in the future will elevate the transmigration of souls to a most probable explanation on this subject and make it one of the “central tenants” of our faith.

    1. Avatar

      If it becomes one of your faith’s “central tenants”, will it pay by the week or by the month? Or will it be more transitory, as in a species of celestial AirBnB?

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