There are three destinations for souls once we die, two permanent, one temporary.
That would be hell, heaven, and purgatory. Traditionally, there has also been a sort of fourth, a limbo for unbaptized infants.
For sake of simplicity, let’s focus on those souls that end up in heaven, either directly or via the detour of purgatory. Those souls remain in heaven while their bodies continue to decay in the grave while others live out their lives and join them. Once we reach the real end of the elongated ‘end times’ in which we are presently living the Church teaches that there will be a general resurrection of all bodies. Here’s the question: why?
In a previous article, I examined why we had bodies in the first place. The body, it turns out, is necessary for the operation of the soul, especially its faculties of free will. Rational beings who can not only freely choose but choose one thing and then change their mind about it, find a body quite useful for this discursive process of discovery and decision.
But in heaven the days of choosing are over. The saints have chosen and God has chosen them for Himself. The saints won’t need food and marital relations are unlikely in heaven, as Matthew 22:30 indicates. (For more on that see here.) Moreover, their souls as pure spirits, presumably unencumbered by bodies, could move about most freely. So why bother bringing their bodies back?
But this is to kind of bury the lede as they say. The point is the souls of the saints are already in heaven. They made it. They escaped the fires of hell. Most importantly, they are with God, beholding the beatific vision—an experience for which, notably, bodies are unnecessary. (For more, check out the Summa Theologica here and here.)
So again, for those of us who make it to heaven, why do we get our bodies back? It suggests something is lacking in the experience of heaven we would already have.
There are two big answers to this question.
The first overall answer lies the rich theology of restoration that is centered on Christ. This teaching, rooted in Scripture and articulated by Church Fathers like Irenaeus and St. Augustine, holds that Christ, in reversing the curse of original sin and redeeming a fallen world, restored all things to their original goodness. This is based on such New Testament texts as 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 and Ephesians 1:8-10:
In all wisdom and insight, He has made known to us the mystery of His will in accord with his favor that He set forth in Him as a plan for the fullness of times, to sum up all things in Christ, in heaven and on earth.
In the recreated new heavens and new earth, of which we read in Revelation, it would be most weird indeed if the pinnacle of creation—the human being—in which the lower material and the higher spiritual realms were united in one, was not fully resurrected. To be half of what we once were, disembodied spirits flitting about would indeed seem odd. The resurrection of the body affirms its original goodness. It’s not a matter of heavenly necessity, but it is most fitting for the plan of redemption.
But there is a second answer to this question and it addresses each of us on a more personal level. In the Summa, Aquinas writes that the soul without the body is in an unnatural state. To deprive it of a body is to deprive it of its perfection in nature. Citing Job 19:25-26, Aquinas suggests that the body is a sort of clothing or adornment for the soul. Again, the thinking here is rooted in a sense of beauty and fittingness, not bare necessities.
Ultimately the theology of universal restoration and the individual restoration for which we all yearn are tied together. The Church teaches that in the Fall, the natural harmony that existed between the soul and the body was severed. The lower passions, rather than letting themselves be steered to higher purposes by the soul, instead dragged us down to more material pursuits and pleasures.
In heaven, this harmony will be completely restored. The Church teaches that the bodies of the saints will have four qualities. These include a certain bright translucency, known as clarity; the ability to transport itself anywhere, or agility; the inability to suffer pain, or impassibility. Body and soul will be so united that the body will also have a fourth quality, subtlety:
The body participates in the soul’s more perfect and spiritual life to such an extent that it becomes itself like a spirit. We see this quality exemplified in the fact that Christ passed through material objects (Catholic Encyclopedia).
There is a certain joy that must come from such unity and harmony between body and soul. The soul that flits about as a disembodied spirit certainly seems a less happy one than the soul that is so in control of its body that it can transport it anywhere instantly at will (agility) or walk through walls (subtlety). We have a word for such unhappy souls: ghosts.
As for the beatific vision itself, it is true that physical eyes are not needed for that. But, they are needed to see how God’s glory is reflected in all the things and corporeal persons around Him, most notably in the resurrected body of Christ. So, there is a sense in which the body enhances the experience of the beatific vision. As Aquinas puts it, “Yet our body will have a certain beatitude from seeing God in sensible creatures: and especially in Christ’s body.”
All this will, according to St. Augustine, magnify the joy the saints experience in heaven:
And in what incorruptible body will they more suitably rejoice than in that in which they groaned when it was corruptible? For thus they shall not feel that dire craving which Virgil, in imitation of Plato, has ascribed to them when he says that they wish to return again to their bodies. They shall not, I say, feel this desire to return to their bodies, since they shall have those bodies to which a return was desired, and shall, indeed, be in such thorough possession of them, that they shall never lose them even for the briefest moment, nor ever lay them down in death (City of God, 22.26).
Our God is a God of abundance and plenty. As Christ Himself said, I am come that they may have life, and may have it more abundantly (John 10:10). This is what the resurrection of the body is all about: the joy of abundant life that awaits the saints in heaven.