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The Resurrection of the Body

A defense of the immortality of man

"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.

1. We must begin by saying that the doctrine of the resurrection is an object of faith. Natural reason can neither prove nor disprove it. St. Thomas says (4 Dist. 43 Qu. I Art. Qua. 3), "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, the resurrection of the body can be accepted with certitude only by those who accept the authority of the Teaching Church.

2. We have given the dogmatic decision of the Lateran Council because it is the fullest expression of the doctrine which 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, A.D. 381) this was changed into the phrase anastasin nekron (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.

Two distinct doctrines

3. The Lateran dogma includes two doctrines: (a) the resurrection of all mankind and (b) 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.

4. It is then 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.

You'll get the same body back

5. Moreover, the body which each human being will possess forever will be his own body which 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. So much is de fide for a Roman Catholic. But it is not yet de fide how much is meant by the phrase "their own proper bodies which they now bear." Catholic theologians here are found to differ.

(a) There is a group who hold that the resurrection of the body does not mean that the soul will be re-united to any particle of matter which belonged to its former body. The body which 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.

(b) The larger group of theologians, following St. Thomas, declare that mere identity of soul is not sufficient for identity of body. The soul must be re-united to at least some of the matter that once essentially belonged to it.

The witness of reason

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. Here more explicitly than elsewhere St. Thomas will be our guide.

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

(b) The second principle of reason is that the soul is not man (1a Qu. 75, Art. 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.

(c) 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.

Accidents aren't accidental

From these exaggerations, and consequent contradiction, we are spared by the Catholic doctrine that the body is essentially good and is essentially joined to the soul as part of the human personality. St. Thomas has summed up the value of this in these words:
"If the resurrection of the body is scorned it is not easy, nay it is hard, to hold the immortality of the soul. For it is evident that the soul is joined to the body naturally; since to be separated from it is against nature and is accidental [per accidens]. Hence the soul separated from the body is imperfect as long as it is without the body.

"But it is impossible that what is natural and essential [per se] should be finite, as it were, nothing, whereas what is unnatural and accidental should be infinite. This would be the case if the soul were to endure without the body. Hence the Neo-Platonists who admitted immortality supposed reincarnation, but this is heretical. Hence if the dead do not rise again our only hope would be in this life" (see 1 Cor. 15).
(d) 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!

(e) 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 (Supp. Qu. 80, Art. I). 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.

(f) 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. The Church, in thus seeming to cherish the lesser doctrine more than the greater, is keeping her own customary way. 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.

Disbelief will do you in

In a kindred way the Church is certain that, while the immortality of the soul does not rest on the resurrection of the body, yet 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.

-- Fr. Vincent McNabb, O.P.