The National Catholic Review
Please stop being Gnostic. Yes, you, the person reading these words. You’re bringing me downliterally. You see, I had hoped after death to rise. Physically. I hope very much the church’s constant teaching is true: that at the end of time, we’ll be raised bodily. The resurrection of the body has been nonnegotiable doctrine for all Christians for two millennia, but I’ve yet to meet one Christian who believes in it fervently. Reciting the Nicene Creed, the passage between the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting doesn’t seem to make an impression. It is the red-headed stepchild of that creed, given lip service but not really embraced. I know one priest who slurs over the phrase in every Mass he says.

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.

Laura Sheahen is senior religion editor at Beliefnet.com

Comments

Warren More | 4/9/2007 - 11:59am
Despite Ms. Shehans scolding, I thinkk it's still ok to have a little trouble with a full body resurrection. Karl Rahner taught us, theo-talk is often analogy and metaphor, and most often, divine truth is far greater in its differences than in its similarities to the words we use and ideas we employ. So it is when we hear "resurrection of body, soul, and spitit", for some of us it's a reference to, and a way of speaking about, the whole person; his/her entire life and history has come to fufillment and final validity in eternal life. That's a long way from a literal body resurrection.

And speaking of the virgin birth, it's probably ok too,that some of us suspect a little embellishment and male politics involved here also.

However much fun to argue, it seems doubtful that any of this matters to the everyday, living, holy mystery we call God.

John C. Moore | 3/31/2007 - 10:56pm
I agree whole-heartedly with Laura Sheahen’s appreciation of the resurrection of the body, but she has her creeds mixed up. The passage she quotes is from the Apostles’ Creed and not the Nicene Creed–an easy mistake to make. Regrettably, the Nicene Creed doesn’t mention the resurrection of the body, although it does rebut Gnosticism with “he suffered, died, and was buried.”

Even more regrettable is the omission of the “communion of saints” from the Nicene Creed, surely one of the most beautiful doctrines of our faith–that we’re all in this together, the living and the dead, offering one another support, praying for and to one another. It is also an excellent bridge to other cultures that revere their continuing relationship with their dead.

Finally, speculating about the mechanics of the resurrection is surely a fruitless enterprise, but we might note that all God needs to reconstruct our bodies is a bit of our DNA.

Marie Rehbein | 3/23/2007 - 8:27am
I have read elsewhere of the possiblity that our current physical form is largely the result of an electromagnetic framework into which our various cells fit themselves. I also recently heard that no matter our chronological age, no cell in our bodies is ever more than ten years old. Perhaps the resurrection of the body amounts to nothing more than the resurrection of this framework and a new supply of cells.

Bob Ritchie | 3/24/2007 - 10:52am
I would like to see Laura elaborate on this subject from the standpoint of what if the bones of Christ were found and the identification was postive and without argument? Would her faith end with the discovery? Does the fear of this prevent some people, priests included, from believing in the resurrection of the body? Are they smart to be fearful?

Recently in Faith in Focus