What is the Resurrection of the Dead?

Q: At Easter we celebrate that Jesus rose from the dead. In the Creed, we believe in the “resurrection of the dead.” Could you better explain these beliefs?

In the Gospels, Jesus had predicted three times that He would be arrested by the chief priests and scribes, suffer, be condemned to death, and be crucified; however, He also predicted that He would be “raised up” on the “third day” (cf. Mt 16:21, 17:22-23, 20:17-19). The predictions came true. On Easter Sunday morning, when Mary Magdalene and other women, St. Peter and St. John went to the tomb, they found it empty. The angel proclaimed, “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, the one who was crucified. He has been raised up; he is not here” (Mk 16:6). Jesus had risen, body and soul, from the dead.

Later, Jesus appeared to the apostles and others. He would appear and disappear suddenly. He could be embraced (Mt 28:9). He shows the wound marks of His hands and side to the apostles, and invited St. Thomas to examine them with his fingers (Jn 20:19ff). He was not always easily recognizable, as in the appearance to Mary Magdalene (Jn 20:11ff) or to the apostles by the Sea of Galilee (Jn 21:1ff). Jesus also shared meals with His apostles (Jn 21:9ff, Lk 24:36ff) and other disciples (Lk 23:13). In all, Jesus affirmed He was not some ghost or some ancient image of “Night of the Living Dead.” Jesus said, “Look at my hands and my feet; it is really I. Touch me, and see that a ghost does not have flesh and bones as I do” (Lk 24:29).

Therefore, through the resurrection, our Lord has a radically transformed or glorified existence. Glorification means that Jesus was fully and perfectly spiritualized and divinized without loss of His humanity.

We believe that we too will share this glorification. When we die, our soul stands before God in the particular judgment, and we have to account for our lives — good and bad, omissions and commissions. God will then judge the soul worthy of heaven, hell or purgatory.

At the end of time — the time of our Lord’s second coming and the general judgment — we too will share in the resurrection of the dead, or body. At that time, Christ will transform the bodies of the righteous and make them like His own glorified body. St. Paul addressed this issue: “Perhaps someone will say, ‘How are the dead to be raised up? What kind of body will they have?’ A nonsensical question! The seed you sow does not germinate unless it dies. So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown in the earth is subject to decay, what rises is incorruptible. What is sown is ignoble, what rises is glorious. Weakness is sown, strength rises up. A natural body is put down and a spiritual body comes up” (1 Cor 15:35-36, 42-44).

The bodies of the faithful will be transfigured to the pattern of the risen Christ. Traditionally, theology has described these glorified and perfected bodies as having the characteristics of identity, entirety, and immortality. Moreover, they will also have four “transcendent qualities:” “impassibility,” or freedom from physical evil, death, sickness, and pain; “clarity,” or freedom from defects and an endowment with beauty and radiance; “agility,” whereby the soul moves the body and there is freedom of motion; and “subtility,” whereby the body is completely spiritualized under the dominion of the soul. The Catechism teaches, “After the universal judgment, the righteous will reign for ever with Christ, glorified in body and soul” (No. 1042).

What about the bodies of the souls of the damned in Hell? These bodies will have identity, entirety, and immortality, but not the four transcendent qualities. They will have the condition necessary for suffering the eternal punishment of Hell, but not the glorification of the Lord shared by those in Heaven.

Nevertheless, we must admit that this “glorification” exceeds our understanding and even our imagination. We believe it because Christ promised this resurrection of the body: “For an hour is coming in which all those in their tombs shall hear His voice and come forth. Those who have done right shall rise to live; the evildoers shall rise to be damned” (Jn 5:28-29).

Editor’s note: This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.

Fr. William Saunders

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Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders's work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).

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  • Roscoe Bonsweenie

    “He could be embraced (Mt 28:9). ”

    Would love to see some theology about when he could NOT be embraced, John 20:17: Jesus said to her, “Stop holding on to me”

    Also, doesn’t the fact that Jesus says he is not a ghost imply that there are ghosts?

    Fr. Saunders, looks like this could be a good topic for the Institute of Catholic Culture.

  • cordy fan

    If you read Aquinas on this in the Supplement to the Summa Theologica, he states that each person will rise at their peak age or what would have been their peak age if they died as infants. Each person has a physical peak on earth at a certain age. First when young, they are moving toward that peak then after they reach it, they begin to decline physically. When we rise, all we get their peak age back. Hence Christ died and rose at around His peak. I say ” around” because this peak theory would explain why several people did not recognize Him at first but then they did. His peak therefore was slightly younger or older than His death age so when He rose His face was slightly off from what people had been used to maybe by six years or so either way…whichever is really our peak…late twenties or late thirties.

  • bill b

    Probably many good souls go to Purgatory because the epistle of James says, ” In many things we all offend”. Those who go straight to Heaven are perhaps either stunningly good or fortunate like a person who dies right after Baptism when an infant or very young. The hell bound go straight there. Hopefully Christ meant “many” go to hell subjectively and relative to His antecedent will that all men be saved as opposed to many in the sense of the majority. Luke 13:24…” Strive to enter by the narrow gate; for many, I say to you, shall seek to enter, and shall not be able.”. We know there are many in Heaven from Revelation 7:9…”After this I saw a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and tribes, and peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne, and in sight of the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands”.

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