Almost all people have an instinct that life must continue after death. When someone dies, you often hear people who don’t have any connection with a particular faith say things such as, “She is with her parents” or He is with his wife” or “Now, he is at peace.” The unspoken belief is that the person continues to exist although no one explains what they mean.
In Africa, those who die are buried on the family compounds. Traditionally, it was believed that the dead take on a new way of being as spirits. These spirits are watchful over their families and do good things for them. Customary before drinking something, a person pours the first sips on the ground as a libation for the ancestors.
The early Israelites thought the dead took on a shadow-like existence in Sheol. Belief in the Resurrection of the Body gradually developed among the Jews. The Sadducees considered only the oldest five books to be Scripture. They did not accept the Resurrection. The Pharisees believed in the Resurrection of the body.
Today’s first reading is from the Second Book of Maccabees, a later book of the Bible. The Syrians occupied Judea and tried to suppress the Jewish religion with its customs such as not eating pork. The seven brothers and their mother are not afraid to die because they hope in the Resurrection of the Body.
In today’s Gospel, the Sadducees try to trap Jesus by posing a complicated situation which was intended to ridicule the idea of the resurrection of the body. Deuteronomy 25:5 legislated that, if a man died childless, his brother should marry the man’s widow in order to raise up descendants for him. The Sadducees presented a case where a woman who married seven brothers in succession, without any offspring. Whose wife would she be at the resurrection of the body?
Jesus cleverly referred them to a passage in the book of Exodus, one of the books that the Sadducees accepted. God tells Moses, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” (Ex 3:6). God spoke in the present not the past. Jesus declares: “God is not the God of the dead but of the living. All are alive for Him” (Lk 20:38).
We may not think of the Resurrection of the body very often or even death, except when it affects our loved ones. The early Christians were very conscious of the resurrection of the body. Paul refers to it frequently in his letters. An important text is the fifteenth chapter of the First Letter to the Corinthians. Both the Apostles’ Creed (late 2nd century) and the Nicene-Constantinople Creed (325-381), proclaimed in the Sunday liturgy, affirm, “I believe in the Resurrection of the Body.”
St. Thomas Aquinas reflects St Paul’s association of the general resurrection of the body with Christ’s Resurrection:
He chose both to die and to rise. He chose to die to cleanse us from sin… But He chose to rise to free us from death: ‘Christ is risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep. For by a man came death and by a man the resurrection of the dead’ (1 Cor 15:20-21)…
The effect of the resurrection of Christ in regard to our liberation from the dead we shall achieve at the end of the world, when we shall all rise by the power of Christ…
‘If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen again. And if Christ be not risen again then is our preaching vain and our faith vain’ (1 Cor 15:13-14). It is, then, a necessary tenet of our faith to believe there will be a resurrection of the dead (Summa Contra Gentiles, IV, 79).
For Thomas the soul and body form a composite which is the person. While the Catholic faith affirms that the soul is immortal, Thomas asserts that ultimately the soul must be reunited with the body: “The soul is naturally united to the body… it is the form of the body. It is, then, contrary to the nature of the soul to be without the body… It must once again be united to the body; and this is to rise again (Summa Contra Gentiles, IV, 79).
Thomas argues that the soul would not have perfect happiness without the body:
Ultimate happiness is the perfection of the happy one. Therefore, anyone to whom some perfection is wanting does not yet have perfect happiness because his desire is not entirely at rest, for every imperfect thing naturally desires to achieve its perfection. But the soul separated from the body is in a way imperfect, as is every part existing outside of the whole, for the soul is necessarily a part of human nature. Therefore, man cannot achieve his ultimate happiness unless the soul be once again united to the body… (Summa Contra Gentiles, IV, 79).
Thomas recognizes that there is no natural argument for the resurrection of the body. The resurrection depends solely on God’s power: “Since the divine power remains the same even when things are corrupted, it can restore the corrupted to integrity” and “The principle of resurrection is not natural. It is caused by divine power alone… For the Son of God assumed human nature to restore it. Therefore, what is a defect of nature [death] will be restored in all, and so all will return from death to life” (Summa Contra Gentiles, IV, 81).
In his instruction on the Creed, Thomas considers the effects of belief in the resurrection of the body:
Firstly, it takes away the sorrow which we feel for the departed. It is impossible for one not to grieve over the death of a relative or friend; but the hope that such a one will rise again greatly tempers the pain of parting, as St. Paul says: “And we will not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you be not sorrowful, as others who have no hope” [1 Thes 4:12].
Secondly, it takes away the fear of death. If one does not hope in another and better life after death, then without doubt one is greatly in fear of death and would willingly commit any crime rather than suffer death. But because we believe in another life which will be ours after death, we do not fear death, nor would we do anything wrong through fear of it: “That, through death He might destroy him who had the empire of death, that is to say, the devil, and might deliver those who through fear of death were all their life subject to bondage” [Hb 2:14].
Thirdly, it makes us watchful and careful to live uprightly. If, however, this life in which we live were all, we would not have this great incentive to live well, for whatever we do would be of little importance, since it would be regulated not by eternity, but by brief, determined time. But we believe that we shall receive eternal rewards in the resurrection for whatsoever we do here. Hence, we are anxious to do good: “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” [1 Cor 15:19].
Finally, it withdraws us from evil. Just as the hope of reward urges us to do good, so also the fear of punishment, which we believe is reserved for wicked deeds, keeps us from evil: “But they who have done good things shall come forth unto the resurrection of life; but they who have done evil, unto the resurrection of judgment” [Jn 5:29].
A document of the Congregation for the Faith, Letter on Certain Questions Concerning Eschatology (May 17, 1979) cautions against “arbitrary imaginative representations” but affirms:
Christians must firmly hold the two following essential points: on the one hand they must believe in the fundamental continuity, thanks to the power of the Holy Spirit, between our present life in Christ and the future life (charity is the law of the Kingdom of God and our charity on earth will be the measure of our sharing in God's glory in heaven); on the other hand they must be clearly aware of the radical break between the present life and the future one, due to the fact that the economy of faith will be replaced by the economy of fullness of life: we shall be with Christ and "we shall see God" (cf. 1 Jn 3:2), and it is in these promises and marvellous mysteries that our hope essentially consists.
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P