When I gave a talk recently at the Institute of Catholic Culture on the subject of the Second Coming, I was I asked to describe what our resurrected bodies will be like.
St. Paul writes to the Philippians of the glory that our currently lowly bodies will one day enjoy:
He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified Body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself (Phil 3:19).
I once spoke with an older woman who wasn't all that pleased to hear that her body was going to rise and be joined again to her soul. "Oh, Father, you don't mean this old decrepit body, do you? If my body has to rise, I'm hoping for an improved model!"
I think most of us can relate to the desire that our current body be improved. And it surely will be. Notice that the passage above says that our lowly (weak, diseased, and often overweight) bodies will be changed and will reflect the glory of the resurrected body of Jesus. Yes, this old general issue clunker is going to be upgraded to a luxury model; I'm headed for first class.
When we recall the four last things (death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell), we ought to consider for a moment what Scripture and Tradition have to say about what our resurrected bodies will be like.
Now an important starting point in discussing this matter is a little humility. The fact is, a lot of what I am going to say here is speculation — but it is not wild speculation; it is rooted in Scripture. However, Scripture is describing things that are somewhat mysterious and difficult to reduce to words. Further, Scripture does not always provide as much detail as we might like. Sometimes we are left to infer qualities of the resurrected body based only on scriptural texts whose main purpose is something else (the resurrection of Jesus).
For example, in one passage Jesus is described as appearing and disappearing at will in a room with locked doors. The point of the text is to tell us that He appeared, not necessarily to convey that the resurrected body has something we have come to call "agility" (see below). The text does not elaborate further, so we are left to note things about Jesus' resurrected body and then apply them to our own. It is not wrong to do this, for Paul above says that our resurrected bodies will have qualities that conform to Jesus' resurrected body. But the point is that the biblical texts do not elaborate on this or other qualities in a detailed manner and so we are left to speculate and make inferences.
St. John the Apostle expresses some of the humility we should bring to this discussion:
Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be like. But We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is (1 Jn 3:2).
I do not interpret John to mean that we know nothing, for if that were the case he would negate other Scriptures. Rather, I interpret him to mean that we do not fully grasp the meaning of what we are discussing, and that much of it is mysterious. Some things are known and revealed but much more is unknown and far beyond what we have yet experienced.
With the need for humility in mind, let's consider some of what we might be able to say of the qualities of a resurrected body. Perhaps it is well that we start with the most thorough passage in the New Testament on this subject and then list the seven traditional qualities of a resurrected body.
St. Paul writes of the resurrected body in First Corinthians:
But someone will ask, "How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?" How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body … The splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another … The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.
If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So it is written: "The first man Adam became a living being"; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man …
Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed — in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory." "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" (1 Cor 15:35-55 selectae)
Using this and other passages we can distinguish the seven traditional qualities of a resurrected body. Here we will allow our source to be St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica. For each quality I've included a link to the corresponding section of the Summa.
The very same body that falls in death will rise to be glorified; we will not get a different body. St. Thomas says, "For we cannot call it resurrection unless the soul return to the same body, since resurrection is a second rising, and the same thing rises that falls: wherefore resurrection regards the body which after death falls rather than the soul which after death lives. And consequently if it be not the same body which the soul resumes, it will not be a resurrection, but rather the assuming of a new body" (Suppl. Q. 79.1).
The same body rises and so there is continuity. But there is also development and a shining forth of a new glory and of capabilities that our bodies do not currently enjoy.
This does not mean that the body will necessarily be identical in every way. As St. Paul says, our current bodies are like the seed. A seed does not have all the fully developed qualities of the mature plant, but it does have them in seed form. Similarly, our current body is linked to our resurrected body causally and essentially, though not all the qualities of the resurrected body are currently operative. St. Thomas goes on to say, "A comparison does not apply to every particular, but to some. For in the sowing of grain, the grain sown and the grain that is born thereof are neither identical, nor of the same condition, since it was first sown without a husk, yet is born with one: and the body will rise again identically the same, but of a different condition, since it was mortal and will rise in immortality (Ibid).
Scripture attests that the same body that dies will also rise. Job said, "And after my flesh has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes — I, and not another" (Job 19:26-27). And to the Apostles, shocked at His resurrection, Jesus said, "Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have" (Lk 24:39).
Hence the same body rises and so there is continuity. But there is also development and a shining forth of a new glory and of capabilities that our bodies do not currently enjoy.
We will retain all of the parts of our current bodies. This means every physical part of our body, even the less noble parts (e.g. intestines). It is clear from the Gospel that Jesus ate, even after the resurrection. He ate a fish while in their company (Lk 24:43). He also ate with the disciples in Emmaus (Lk 24:30). He ate breakfast with them at the lake shore (Jn 21:12). Hence it follows that even less noble parts of our body will rise, for eating and digestion are still functions of a resurrected body. St. Thomas argues (I think rightly) that food will not be necessary to the resurrected body (Suppl. Q. 81.4), but it is clearly possible to eat, for Christ demonstrated it.
St. Thomas reasons that every aspect of our bodies will rise since the soul is the form of the body. That is, the body has the faculties it has due to some aspect of the soul. The soul has something to say and hence the body has the capacity to talk and write and engage in other forms of communication. The soul has the capacity to do detailed work and hence the body has complex faculties such as delicate and nimble fingers, arms and so forth, to carry out this work. Now body is thus apt for the capacities of the soul, though now imperfectly, but then even more perfectly (cf Summa Suppl. Q. 80.1).
On some level it seems we should keep our speculation within limits. The Summa goes into matters that I think are highly speculative; you can read some of these speculations by clicking on the link above. Personally I think we should refrain from trying to ask questions such as whether hair and nails will grow or what bodily fluids will still be necessary and why. For example: Will latrines be needed in Heaven or will food be perfectly absorbed and nothing wasted? We just have to stop at a certain point and say that we just have no business knowing this sort of thing and it is purely speculative to discuss it. The bottom line is that the body shall rise, whole and complete. Its functions will be perfected and will be perfectly appropriate for the soul. But as for the intimate details, we ought to realize that humility is our best posture.
What about age, gender, and other physical characteristics? Our bodies will be youthful and will retain our original gender. Youthful here does not necessarily mean 21 years old. In the Philippians text that began this post, Paul says that our glorified bodies will be conformed to Christ's glorified body. Jesus' body rose at the age of 30-33 years. Elsewhere, St. Paul exhorts Christians to persevere: "Until we all meet into the unity of faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the age of the fullness of Christ" (Eph 4:13). Hence it would seem that Christ's resurrected body is the perfect age.
St. Augustine also speculates that because Christ rose again of youthful age (about 30), others also will rise again of a youthful age (cf De Civ. Dei xxii).
All of the resurrection appearances make it clear that though still recognizable, His appearance was somehow changed — and this is a mystery.
St. Thomas further notes, "Man will rise again without any defect of human nature, because as God founded human nature without a defect, even so will He restore it without defect. Now human nature has a twofold defect. First, because it has not yet attained to its ultimate perfection. Secondly, because it has already gone back from its ultimate perfection. The first defect is found in children, the second in the aged: and consequently in each of these human nature will be brought by the resurrection to the state of its ultimate perfection which is in the youthful age, at which the movement of growth terminates, and from which the movement of decrease begins" (Suppl. Q. 81.1).
Further, since gender is part of human perfection, all will rise according to their current gender. Other qualities such as height and hair color will also be retained, it would seem, since this diversity is part of man's perfection.
Here, too, we have to realize that merely picturing Jesus as a 33-year-old man is not sufficient. All of the resurrection appearances make it clear that though still recognizable, His appearance was somehow changed — and this is a mystery. Further, the heavenly description of Jesus is far from simple to decode in manners of age and appearance:
And among the lampstands was someone "like a son of man," dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance (Rev 1:12-18).
Hence we must avoid oversimplifications when we speak of how our resurrected bodies will appear. We cannot simply project current human realities into Heaven and think that we understand what a resurrected body will look like in terms of age, stature, and other physical qualities. Those qualities are there but they are expressed at a higher level.
We will be immune from death and pain. Scripture states this clearly:
The dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality (1 Cor 15:52-53).
He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death' or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away (Rev 21:4).
St. Thomas goes on at some length in the Summa, and you can read this by clicking on the link above.
Our bodies will be free from the things that restrain them now. Subtlety refers to the capacity of the resurrected body to be completely conformed to the capacities of the soul. St. Thomas says of this quality, "the term 'subtlety' has been transferred to those bodies which are most perfectly subject to their form, and are most fully perfected thereby … For just as a subtle thing is said to be penetrative, for the reason that it reaches to the inmost part of a thing, so is an intellect said to be subtle because it reaches to the insight of the intrinsic principles and the hidden natural properties of a thing. In like manner a person is said to have subtle sight, because he is able to perceive by sight things of the smallest size: and the same applies to the other senses. Accordingly, people have differed by ascribing subtlety to the glorified bodies in different ways" (Suppl. Q. 83.1).
In other words, the body is perfected because the soul is perfected. The resurrected body is fully conformed to the soul. In my current lowly body, though I may wish to go to Vienna in a few moments to hear an opera, my body cannot pull that off. My current body cannot instantly be somewhere else on the planet. I have to exert effort and expend time to get there. After the resurrection, Jesus could appear and disappear in a room despite the closed doors; he could simply be where he wanted instantly. Before his resurrection he had to take long physical journeys (cf Jn 19:20, 26). This quality is very closely related to agility, which we consider next.
We will have complete freedom of movement. Our souls will direct our bodies without hindrance. St. Thomas says, "The glorified body will be altogether subject to the glorified soul, so that not only will there be nothing in it to resist the will of the spirit … from the glorified soul there will flow into the body a certain perfection, whereby it will become adapted to that subjection … Now the soul is united to body not only as its form, but also as its mover; and in both ways the glorified body must be most perfectly subject to the glorified soul." We have already referred Jesus' ability, in His glorified body, to be anywhere at once, unhindered by things such as locked doors. Consider these other description of the agility of the resurrected body:
As they talked [on the road to Emmaus] and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them (Lk 24:15).
Then their eyes were opened and they recognized Jesus, and he disappeared from their sight (Lk 24:31).
While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you" (Lk 24:36).
The glory of our souls will be visible in our bodies. We will be beautiful and radiant. It is written in the Scriptures:
The just shall shine as the sun in the kingdom of their Father (Mt 13:43).
The just shall shine, and shall run to and fro like sparks among the reeds (Wis 3:7).
The body in sown in dishonor, it shall rise in glory (1 Cor 15:43).
Msgr. Charles Pope. "What Will Our Resurrected Bodies Be Like?" Spiritual Direction (April 19, 2022).
Reprinted with permission from the author. Image credit: Charles de La Fosse, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Monsignor Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian, a vibrant parish community in Washington, DC. A native of Chicago with a bachelor degree in computer science, his interest in the priesthood stemmed from his experience as a church musician. He attended Mount Saint Mary's Seminary and was ordained in 1989. A pastor since 2000, he also has led Bible studies in the U.S. Congress and at the White House in past years.Copyright © 2022 Spiritual Direction
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