I once heard a funeral sermon which said basically the dead person in front of us is just a corpse now and the body doesn’t matter at all. The soul is immortal and that lives on, the body is just dust. We very often confuse belief in the resurrection with belief in an afterlife. Belief in the afterlife is in no way specifically Christian, but is common to many religions (although the Jews came to it very late). It certainly does not require the resurrection of Christ. Likewise, the immortality of the soul is a pagan Greek philosophical idea rather than Biblical one but we have often confused the resurrection with that.
When Paul writes about the resurrection of our bodies he means neither of those things. We have seen already that in order to speak meaningfully of the experience he and the apostles had had of the Risen Jesus, he had to invent a whole new type of language. What Paul and the evangelists are talking about is a one-off event and although it finds echoes in the Old Testament there is no single text which could be said to predict the resurrection of Jesus. Rather in the light of the resurrection, Jewish Christians started to read the whole of the Old Testament in a new way.
Thus, when Paul refers to the final resurrection of believers he means neither simply the afterlife or the soul’s immortality. He means rather that our future resurrection is part of the restoration of all creation. A major issue behind 1 Cor. 15 is that some Corinthians seem to deny that they will rise from the dead, or at least to say it is not important. This is not the same in their thinking as denying the resurrection of Christ. Paul goes on the offensive and shows that if they deny that resurrection of Christ means they too will rise from the dead, then they ultimately deny that Christ is risen. Christ did not just rise as a personal victory over death, but in order to bring everyone with him. This is a major pastoral issue today. If formerly Catholics seemed over-concerned with what happens after death, we find that now they often have little concern and only the vaguest ideas. And then, as now, people question how the resurrection of the dead could be possible.
Paul stresses that we are not merely talking about resuscitation of a corpse: “resurrection” will be more of a “transformation”. If there were only a spiritual afterlife, then God would be ignoring his creation. Paul uses the analogy that what is put in the ground as a seed and what comes up when the seed germinates are not exactly the same thing, but that there is an essential identity between the two and that the one cannot exist without the other.
The doctrine of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary is a good stone on which to sharpen the knife here. If the Assumption was the feast of Our Lady’s soul entering Heaven, no Christian could have the slightest objection to it, and probably no Hindu, Buddhist or animist would either. But it is precisely the doctrine that she goes body and soul into the presence of God that rams home what Paul teaches about the resurrection and what the creed says about the resurrection of the body.
This is by no means an easy topic, but reflection, prayer and study do pay dividends here. If at times preachers have tended to criticise people because they lived as though there were going to be no judgement, Paul takes the more positive approach and berates the Corinthians for living as though there were no resurrection. They seemed to have lots of spiritual gifts, but these were not always exercised well or in charity. Paul held up to them the beautiful, but nevertheless disturbing truth that whatever blessings they have now, they are just a taste of what is to come. Rather than be content just with that they should live always in the hope of greater things – the resurrection of the body – and therefore with a certain humility about their present lives.
For more about the Catholic understanding of life after death and the resurrection we look forward to, read the Catechism of the Catholic Church 998 – 1019 on the resurrection of believers.
© Fr. John Hemer, used with permission.