What do we mean by the “resurrection of the dead”?

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. Matthew 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” (Mark 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 (Matthew 28:9).  He showed the wound marks of His hands and side to the apostles, and invited St. Thomas to examine them with his fingers (John 20:19ff).  He was not always easily recognizable, as in the appearance to Mary Magdalene (John 20:11ff) or to the apostles by the Sea of Galilee (John 21:1ff).  Jesus also shared meals with His apostles (John 21:9ff, Luke 24:36ff) and other disciples (Luke 23:13).  In all, Jesus affirmed He was not some ghost or some resuscitated corpse:  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” (Luke 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.

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.  The body, committed to the earth, will decay.

At the end of time, however, we too will share in the resurrection of the dead, also known as the resurrection of the 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”  (I Corinthians 15:35-36, 42-44).  The Fourth Lateran Council consequently (1215) decreed, Christ “will come at the end of the world… and all will rise with their own bodies which they now have so that they may receive according to their works, whether good or bad.”

At this time, through the power of Christ’s resurrection, the just shall rise, the souls shall be reunited with their bodies, and their bodies will be glorified–  radically transformed and made superior to their present condition.  The bodies of the wicked and “godless” will also rise again in incorruptibility and immortality, but they will not be glorified; rather, these bodies will rise as they had on earth, but more in the sense of an identity rather than an amalgamation of parts at any one time.

Traditionally, theology has described the glorified and perfected bodies as having the characteristics of identity, entirety, and immortality.  The bodies of the saints– the faithful in heaven and purgatory– 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.  These transcendent qualities actually capture the substance of St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians:  what is corrupt rises to incorruption; what is ignoble, to glory; what is weakness, to strength; and what is a natural body, to a spiritual body.

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” (John 5:28-29).