When it comes to the afterlife, millions of faithful, Mass-going Catholics seem to think that their souls alone count. I have heard Miraculous-medal-wearing Catholics say they cannot wait to be in heaven with the Lord, yet dismiss the notion that our bodies might be part of that bliss. It’s our souls that are important, they say confidently. Conservative Catholics wring their hands over The Da Vinci Code and The Gospel of Judas but have no problem thinking their souls will waft away after death and they’ll be free of their pesky bodies forever. Aided by a raft of Hallmark cards, the prevailing attitude seems to be that our bodies are just anchors temporarily weighing us down.
This ideathat matter is bad and only our spirits are worthwhileis a heresy that church leaders have tried to hammer out of the Christian faith from its earliest days. It’s Gnosticism, pure and simple.
Why doesn’t bodily resurrection interest, much less delight, people who are otherwise devout? What’s not to like?
Accepting Our Resurrection
From the beginning, notes the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Christian faith in the resurrection [of the body] has met with incomprehension and opposition. On no point does the Christian faith encounter more opposition than on the resurrection of the body’ (St. Augustine). It is very commonly accepted that the life of the human person continues in a spiritual fashion after death. But how can we believe that this body, so clearly mortal, could rise to everlasting life?
There are many reasons why Christians cannot easily accept the doctrine. Most obviously, it flies in the face of physics, biology and chemistry. How can something that has died be made to live again? How can cells that have disintegrated and scattered revivify? Yet lots of other things Catholics believe are similarly hard for science to explainthe real presence, the virgin birth and more.
Another aspect of the teaching challenges the imagination: how will the resurrection of the body happen? A boy born with no arm gets a transplant from a girl who died; whose arm is it once the last trumpet has sounded? A woman dies at age 88; is her resurrection body that of her 88-year-old self, her 29-year-old self or something completely different? A human body decays, feeds grass and mushrooms: at the second coming, will raised but incomplete bodies wander around, zapping the foliage to get their molecules back?
Just as we can’t grasp the real presence with logic, we will never understand how our glorified bodies will be at the end of time. The how of our resurrection, says the catechism, exceeds our imagination and understanding; it is accessible only to faith. Many Catholics tutored in Aquinas can accept the faith for all defects supplying, where the feeble senses fail response when it comes to Jesus. Yet most of us still have trouble with our own bodily resurrection.
Perhaps we shy away from the teaching because it is about the future, not the past. We have a record, however debatable, of Jesus’ death and resurrection. With apologies to the authors of the Left Behind series of novels, no such document exists about our own bodies in the last days.
Or maybe, deep down, we resist the resurrection because this miracle is about us, not them: not Jesus, not Mary, not the saints. We are the ones who will be transfigured, in a way we cannot remotely understand now, and that is scary.
Maybe it is because it’s so hard to love our bodies, fickle time bombs as they are, broken and failing and, yes, imprisoning. Old and ill people can be swiftly forgiven for looking toward an eternity without a body that has become a burden and a chore for them.
But anyone who remembers the best things about having a bodyshushing down a ski slope, learning the right way to kick a soccer ball, smelling a newborn baby’s head, to say nothing of other delightscan find great hope and relief in the promise of a glorified body. If the risen Jesus could walk through walls and show up when and where he chose, how could our own raised bodies possibly be a hindrance in the country of salvation? How could they do anything but enhance our experience of God?
For people whose bodies betray and confine themand that’s all of us, eventuallythe church points to a torture victim whose body was nearly ripped apart. Jesus, whose body did not stay in the tomb for long, turns what seems like a prison into freedomand in our flesh we shall see God.