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. Saunders was the founding pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls, VA. He now serves as Pastor of St. Agnes in Arlington, VA and as the Episcopal Vicar of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Arlington.

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