Do bodies go to heaven?

  • March 28, 2008

My friend Eleanor and I went to the garden show, exploring things of the Earth, how they grow and flourish. Eleanor, who’s battling illness, said she’s been wondering about the resurrection of the body.

A few weeks before, I went to a New Age funeral. The prayers rejoiced in the dead man’s liberation from the body, and his soul’s freedom through all eternity, no longer weighed down by matter. I’d remarked afterwards to Eleanor that this was an attractive faith, with its sense of the beauty and perpetual progress of the soul. But different from Christian faith, for which bodily resurrection is a fundamental belief. Eleanor’s response: “That’s right, we say in the creed we believe in the resurrection of the body. But what could that mean? How could I believe in that?”

My father, himself wrestling with questions of life and death, was chatting with my mother recently, and the teaching about the resurrection of the body arose. Half-jokingly, he said, “how’s He going to do that? And where will He put us all?” Maybe that’s what all those empty planets are for.

Through all its history, Christianity has been confronted, even tempted, by the belief that the soul — that part of us which is spiritual, non-material — is good and eternal, but the body is temporary, unimportant, even bad. From docetism (the teaching that Jesus’ human body was only a kind of cloak He put on and took off again) to gnosticism (a complex system, prevalent during early-church times, which saw salvation as the soul’s liberation from matter), the idea that only the spiritual dimension is worthy and lasting has from the beginning tried to insert itself into Christian teaching. I believe it’s an idea many of us hold, without necessarily stopping to think about it.

Theologically, the Catholic Church has always ultimately rejected such beliefs, though in practice it’s been hard to shake the notion. Many communities and movements have risen up that, in one way or another, feed the soul at the body’s expense. Christian notions of celibacy and marriage haven’t always been free from a sense that only by rejecting the body, with its pleasures, desires and pains, can the soul come to God; that our spiritual selves are good in God’s eyes, whereas our bodily selves are at best tolerated and at worst punished. Our society’s exaltation of the body, what it can do, the pleasures it can know, is in part a reaction to this.

Christianity doesn’t see life as “for” the soul and “against” the body, as though they were mutually exclusive goods. God meets us in both, and especially in the union between the two. What would change if we really loved and respected the body (not idolizing or disdaining it) as beloved by God and destined for eternal life with Him? (For one thing, it has a lot to do with how we understand sacraments — in which the spiritual is always expressed and received through the physical. And it deeply affects our understanding of sexuality. Topics for future columns.)

Are our bodies on speaking terms with our souls? Can we even imagine our bodies transfigured, glorified, beautiful without the pain, touched by eternity? Particularly if our body has been a place of great suffering, or another’s body has inflicted great suffering. The other day, I noticed the face of a woman, absorbed in listening to her dance instructor. Her skin was glistening, eyes dancing and shining. Her soul illumined her body like a flame; she was lit up, transfigured. Her teacher’s face was equally alive, as though there were a communion which changed them both. I felt I was glimpsing how the risen body might look, when pain and death fall away leaving only joy and beauty. I suspect such glimpses are flung everywhere around us.

We’re into our second week of celebrating Christ’s Resurrection in the flesh.  We read the stories of His meetings with friends, after His death.  He feeds their bodies and eats with them.  They recognize Him but find Him somehow different.  He carries in His flesh the wounds by which He died, yet these are different too, transformed, no longer marks of pain but now marks of glory.  His body really died, but has really been brought into new life beyond death.  That’s why the empty tomb is critical.  If Christ is not raised, we are the most pitiable of people (cf 1 Cor 15); if He is, then He’s revealing our destiny.

It’s hard for any of us to believe.  Eleanor actually paid attention to it, and is wrestling with the teaching.  Perhaps more important than understanding intellectually is to try it on and see what happens.  This affects how we treat our bodies, and each other’s bodies.  It affects where we’re ready to see and know God.  It affects how we approach suffering and death.  Ultimately, it’s an Easter way of living, and what does our world need more than the real Alleluia of Easter?

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