When we think about our hope for the afterlife, we tend to imagine our souls living forever in heavenly bliss while our bodies just rot away to nothingness. We usually believe that our souls are our true selves, and our bodies are just shells that we will shrug off at death, never to be encumbered by them again.
But that’s not actually what our faith teaches. Sure, we hope that our souls will be with God in heaven after we die, but disembodied bliss is not our ultimate hope as Catholics. Rather, as we profess in the Nicene Creed every Sunday at Mass, we ultimately “look forward to the resurrection of the dead,” and that means bodily resurrection.
See, when Jesus comes again at the end of human history, the dead will rise and get their bodies back just like he did. Those who are in heaven will remain in heavenly bliss, but it will then be a bodily, physical bliss, not just bliss for their souls. The Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church are very clear about this (1 Corinthians 15:20-23, 1 Thessalonians 4:14-16, CCC 990).
Now, in my experience, this teaching often raises two questions, and we need to know how to answer them: Why will God do this, and how will he do it? We all have an obligation to evangelize (Ad Gentes 23) and to be ready “to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15), so let’s take these questions one by one and see what we can say about them.
Why We Will Rise
First, we have the “why.” The basic idea here is that God created us as unions of body and soul, so that’s how he wants us to be for all eternity. See, death wasn’t his original plan. He didn’t intend for us to shrug off our bodies at the end of our lives and then continue on as disembodied spirits.
Rather, he wanted Adam and Eve and all of their descendants to live forever with both their bodies and their souls, and death simply came in as a result of original sin (CCC 1008, Romans 5:12). Our first parents messed up God’s plan when they disobeyed him, so he now has to restore the bodies we lose when we die.
How We Will Rise
That’s fairly straightforward, but the “how” is a bit more complicated. If our bodies rot in their graves after we die, how can we get them back at Jesus’ second coming? Or what about people who are cremated or whose bodies are totally decimated (like in a nuclear explosion)? How can they get their bodies back?
The key here, I would suggest, is that our bodies are actually a lot more fluid than we normally imagine them to be. To understand what I mean, consider the fact that your body’s cells are almost constantly dying and being replaced. Some take longer than others, but throughout a normal lifetime, almost every cell in your body will die and be replaced many, many times over.
This means that what makes our bodies our bodies isn’t the matter they’re composed of. That matter constantly comes and goes. Instead, the important thing is that our bodies are united to our souls and share in the life of the soul. And if that’s the case, if our bodies can undergo multiple near-complete recyclings of cells in one lifetime, then God can surely create new bodies that will truly be our bodies.
What Our Resurrected Life Will Be Like
And when we get those new bodies, they’re going to be way better than our old ones. We don’t know exactly what life in the resurrection of the dead will look like, but we do know that through God’s grace, it will be completely devoid of suffering (Revelation 21:4).
Beyond that, we can try to speculate a bit, but for the most part, trying to understand it is like a blind man trying to understand what a rainbow is like, or a deaf man trying to understand what music is like. Our intellects are limited to what we experience and what we can extrapolate from those experiences, but the resurrection will be so far above and beyond anything we’ve ever experienced in this life that we simply can’t imagine what it will be like.
God’s plan is like nothing that any human being has ever imagined or conceived of (1 Corinthians 2:9), so we shouldn’t waste our energy trying to do the impossible. Instead, we should hold firm to the little bit he’s revealed to us and do everything we can to reach our ultimate goal of heavenly bliss with him in the resurrection of the dead.