Friday, November 5, 2010

The resurrection of the flesh -- the most commonly denied dogma

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Luke 20:27-38
Some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection, came forward and put this question to Jesus…
“On no point does the Christian faith encounter more opposition than on the resurrection of the body”
So writes St. Augustine (cf. En. In Ps. 88,5), and the point is re-affirmed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 996) –  “It is very commonly accepted that the life of the human person continues in a spiritual fashion after death. But how can we believe that this body, so clearly mortal, could rise to everlasting life?”
First, we must consider whether the body which is raised is identical with the mortal body we now possess. We will not delve into the very important and interesting theological speculation regarding the qualities of the risen body, but will simply consider the identity of the resurrected body – that it is the very same body as was separated from the soul in death.
Second, we will consider the most popular objection against the resurrection of the body – whether a cannibal will be resurrect in his own body. The question of cannibalism gathers several issues together: First, how can both the cannibal and his victim rise, since the cannibal has consumed the other’s flesh? Second, what if a bear eats a man and then a man eats that bear? Third, what about organ donors? Fourth, what about children who die when only just barely conceived, how will they have enough matter for a resurrected body? Many many other questions besides are answered in the course of discussing the more basic question of cannibalism and the resurrection – we will even see what happens to all our excess fingernail and hair clippings!

Our material bodies will be reunited to our immaterial souls
“We believe in the true resurrection of this flesh that we now possess” (Council of Lyons II: DS 854). Based on many Scriptural texts, the Church affirms that this very body, which dies, will one day be raised up. In the resurrection, we will not be given a different body; the same body will be returned, but it will be renewed and transformed.
The body will change, but it will still remain itself. In every true change, something remains and something changes – thus, when a piece of metal is melted, many of its properties are changed, but there is an underlying identity which remains; hence we can say that the metal is heated (it does not cease to be what it is when it is heated). Consider a different example – when a piece of wood is burnt to ashes, many of its properties are changes, and even its underlying identity is changed; it is no longer a piece of wood, but is now only ash. In this second case, what remains is only the matter; not the identity of the object itself. Finally, another example – when God creates a soul there is no true change; for there was nothing before, nothing old remains, but a whole new thing is created (likewise, if an animal soul goes out of existence, there is no change; it simply ceases to be).
In the general resurrection, our bodies will be changed and transformed; but they will still be ours and they will still be bodies – which means that they will still be physical and material, though also glorified and “spiritual”. The human body will never be a pure spirit! The human body will, necessarily, remain a body; which means it will not be a spirit or a soul, but will be material/physical.
Moreover, it will not be that our souls will be united to bodies newly created; the resurrection is just that, REsurrection! The souls is REunited to the body – which means it is not a new/different body, but the very same body to which it had once been united and which was once alive. It will be this very flesh which is raised up – “In my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes; I, and not another.” (Job 19:26-27) For more on the Scriptural witness to the general resurrection, see Msgr. Pope’s post --
Consider the words of a young St. Thomas, “It is necessary for the selfsame man to rise again; and this is effected by the selfsame soul being united to the selfsame body. For otherwise there would be no resurrection properly speaking, if the same man were not reformed. Hence to maintain that he who rises again is not the selfsame man is heretical, since it is contrary to the truth of Scripture which proclaims the resurrection.” (ST Supplement, q.79, a.2)
The cannibal objection
The objection of cannibalism is properly dealt with in the context of another objection – that it would seem impossible that every part of a man’s body should be resurrected (since this would necessitate that all his excess hair and fingernails, which he had cut away over the years, would be restored):
If, furthermore, a man’s identical body is restored to life, by equal reasoning whatever was in the man’s body ought to be returned to the same man. But on this something extremely unseemly follows—not only by reason of the beard and the nails and the hair which are openly removed by daily trimming, but also by reason of other parts of the body which are covertly resolved by the action of the natural heat—and if these all are restored to the man rising again, an unseemly enormity will rise with him. It seems, then, that man will not rise after death.”
Now consider the objection regarding cannibalism: “There is more. It happens, occasionally, that some men feed on human flesh, and they are nourished on this nutriment only, and those so nourished generate sons. Therefore, the same flesh is found in many men. But it is not possible that it should rise in many. And the resurrection does not seem otherwise to be universal and entire if there is not restored to every man what he has had here.” (both objections are taken from Summa Contra Gentiles IV, 80)
St. Thomas gives a brilliantly simple answer to the first objection – “What is no obstacle to a man’s numerical unity while he continues to live, manifestly cannot be an obstacle to the unity of the one who rises” (SCG 81). In other words, if loosing hair and fingernails while on earth does not make us stop being who we are, it is clear that we do not need to have all that hair and those fingernail clippings back in the resurrection! St. Thomas’ genius, especially in his most speculative moments, is in his practicality.
A distinction must be drawn between the matter which is accidental and that which is essential – according to modern science, we might say that no particular piece of matter is essential to a given human being; it could always be swapped out with other matter. And yet, the unity of the individual is maintained by virtue (primarily) of the unity of the soul, and also by the congruity of the process by which the matter is changed and transferred within the individual. Hence, it will be enough for God to give us back some of the hair that we had while on earth; he does not need to give back all of the matter that was once our hair…that would be ridiculous!
The solution of St. Thomas
When St. Thomas comes to the case of the cannibal, he refers back to the question of hair and fingernails – relying again on the distinction between that which is essential and that which is accidental.
“It is not necessary, as has just been shown, that whatever has been in man materially rise in him; further, if something is lacking, it can be supplied by the power of God. Therefore, the flesh consumed will rise in him in whom it was first perfected by the rational soul” (SCG 81). Thus, St. Thomas maintains that the cannibal’s victim will rise with his own flesh and the cannibal will rise with the flesh of other things he has eaten – since, through a lifetime, we obviously eat a lot more than our body weight! Moreover, even if there were a cannibal who only ate human flesh, from the time of his birth, God could supply the matter needed for his resurrection – even then, the men eaten would have plenty of other matter which had gone through them in years before their death, and that matter could be used for their resurrection.
The point here is this – many fools today think that they are very clever in objecting to the reality of the resurrection by appealing to this silly “problem” of the cannibal; but St. Thomas solved this question 800 years ago. The answer, which is so basic and straightforward, proves just how foolish the objection is in the first place.
From the Summa Contra Gentiles, chapter 81
[12] The fourth objection [regarding excess hair and fingernails], also, fails to remove the unity of the one who rises. For what is no obstacle to a man’s numerical unity while he continues to live manifestly cannot be an obstacle to the unity of one who rises. But in the body of man, so long as he is alive, it is not with respect to matter that he has the same parts, but with respect to his species. In respect to matter, of course, the parts are in flux, but this is not an obstacle to his being numerically one from the beginning of his life to the end of it. An example of this can be taken from fire: While it continues to bum, it is called numerically one because its species persists, yet wood is consumed and -new wood is applied. It is also like this in the human body, for the form and species of its single parts remain continuously through a whole life; the matter of the parts is not only resolved by the action of the natural heat, but is replenished anew by nourishment. Man is not, therefore, numerically different according to his different ages, although not everything which is in him materially in one state is also there in another. In this way, then, this is not a requirement of man’s arising with numerical identity: that he should assume again whatever has been in him during the whole time of his life; but he need assume from that matter only what suffices to complete the quantity due, and that especially must be resumed which was more perfectly consistent with the form and species of humanity. But, if something was wanting to the fulfillment of the quantity due, either because one was overtaken by death before nature could bring him to the quantity due or because mutilation perhaps deprived him of so-me member, the divine power will supply this from another source. This, however, will be no obstacle to the unity of the body of the one rising, for even the work of nature adds to what a boy has from some other source to bring him to his perfect quantity. And this addition does not make him numerically other, for the man is the same in number whether he is boy or adult.
[13] From this it is clear, also, that there is no obstacle to faith in the resurrection—even in the fact that some men eat human flesh, as the fifth objection was maintaining. For it is not necessary, as has just been shown, that whatever has been in man materially rise in him; further, if something is lacking, it can be supplied by the power of God. Therefore, the flesh consumed will rise in him in whom it was first perfected by the rational soul. But in the second man, if he ate not only human flesh, but other food as well, only that will rise in him which came to him materially from the other food, and which will be necessary to restore the quantity due his body. But if he ate human flesh only, what rises in him will be that which he drew from those who generated him, and what is wanting will be supplied by the Creator’s omnipotence. But let it be that the parents, too, have eaten only human flesh, and that as a result their seed—which is the superfluity of nourishment—has been generated from the flesh of others; the seed, indeed, will rise in him who was generated from the seed, and in its place there will be supplied in him whose flesh was eaten something from another source. For in the resurrection this situation will obtain: If something was materially present in many men, it will rise in him to whose perfection it belonged more intimately. Accordingly, if something was in one man as the radical seed from which he was generated, and in another as the superfluity of nourishment, it will rise in him who was generated therefrom as from seed. If something was in one as pertinent to the perfection of the individual, but in another as assigned to the perfection of the species, it will rise in him to whom it belonged as perfection of the individual. Accordingly, seed will arise in the begotten, not in his generator; the rib of Adam will arise in Eve, not in Adam in whom it was present as in a principle of nature. But, if something was in both in the same degree of perfection, it will rise in him in whom it was the first time.


Nick said...

I think all the objections against the resurrection are quite silly when you look at death. The body returns to dust. What could be a greater objection to a resurrection than that total decomposition of the body? But I don't know if people knew about decomposition in Saint Thomas' time.

Anonymous said...

Nick, we were made from dust and to dust we shall return. I see no difficulty in being resurrected from dust. I suspect people knew about decomposition in Saint Thomas' time. :)

Richard said...

Somehow I doubt that the Almighty God, who created everything from nothing, would be hindered by the paltry objections raised here.

Peregrinus said...

The main and most serious objection to the resurrection of the body arises from a disparaging of the goodness of the body and of its importance to human nature, and not from perceived difficulties with re-constituting and perfecting a decomposed body.

Magister Christianus said...

This is brilliant stuff! Thanks for sharing it! As Richard said above, nothing is impossible for an omnipotent God. Of course, omnipotences is regularly taken to mean within certain logical limits. It is no slight to God's power to say that He could not create a square circle. This is a logical and semantic issue and has no bearing on His omnipotence.

As for the cannibal scenario or the aborted baby, I think Aquinas' reasoning is quite helpful in a modern discussion. There are some who pose these objections merely out of perversity, but most who offer them, I think, are seriously trying to question and understand. Aquinas is reasoning in the area of material composition, something Michael Rea at Notre Dame has published some articles on in the last few years. Again, great stuff!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Nick and anonymous, St. Thomas was indeed well aware of decomposition...he talks about the "ashes" which remain...
And we should be clear about this -- it is not so much that the dust in the grave and only that dust will be returned, rather God can re-make the body out anything which had at one time been the body (old hair and nail clippings, for example); moreover, he can even add matter (as in the case of a small child who dies).

Peace to you both.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@ Richard, Are you saying that the "cannibalism objection" or the "dust objection" is paltry, or both?
St. Thomas is willing to discuss the objections; so I do think it is important to talk about them.
However, I certainly agree with you that the omnipotence of God is easily able to overcome any and all difficulties.

@Magister Christianus, Thank you for pointing out the "logical limits" of divine omnipotence (which, as you say, are not any real limits at all).

This is especially important to keep in mind when we discuss the nature of the resurrected body -- it is logically impossible for a body (even a glorified body) to be a spirit. This is an error some will make -- thinking that because the body is raised "spiritual" it is no longer "physical" or material. However, in order for a body to be a body, it must be material and physical -- even if it surpasses what we now recognize as the ordinary laws of nature and physics.
The materiality of the resurrected body does not come from any lack of power in God, but simply from the logical necessity of what it is to be a "body".

Blessings to all.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Peregrine, you are quite is modern gnosticism which is the great enemy of this doctrine.
I am amazed at how many people think we will become "angels" when we die! Who wants to be an angel? It would mean losing our identity!

I do find it interesting, however, that St. Augustine credits Plato with affirming (against Porphyry) the necessity of the body for the joy of the soul. A truly brilliant move!
(cf. City of God, book xxii, chapter 27 )
This really confounds those gnostics who look to Plato (like the neo-origenists).

kkollwitz said...

My 6th graders kow that each human being is a unique unity of body and soul. They know that Jesus saves the whole human being, not just the soul. Therefore they conclude that the body must be resurrected to complete our salvation.

Dan Buckley said...

Assuming that each person has a unique DNA code to inform the cells that make up his body, a bodily resurrection would require only the person's DNA code and the material of the body would be uniquely his, whatever the source of the material.

Magister Christianus said...

@Dan...good point! This is a great use of current scientific discovery, which, if it be true, cannot be at odds with anything revealed by the One Who is Truth.

Magister Christianus said...

I mentioned Michael Rea of Notre Dame earlier. His site is: If you look in his articles, you will find quite a few having to do with the issue of material constitution.

fisherofmen3 said...

Adam was created from dust (Gen.2:7)and, "all the beasts of the field and all the birds of the air." (Gen.2:19)
However, Eve was made from a rib God took from Adam, and, all mankind, with very few exceptions, as well as the beasts of the field and birds of the air, are born, not created from dust. (Gen.2:23)

fisherofmen3 said...

One more point, God simply thought the world into existence with more creativity and detail than we are capable of understanding.
Take God out of the box, and He will reveal His Omnipotence, in spite of our opinions.
Think I'm going to listen to the
6th graders, they keep it simple, and scriptural.

Bernardus said...

Dear Fr. Reginaldus,
I am finding this fascinating and enlightening. There just seems too little time for one as me to study and comb all for further enrichment. None-the-less, this brings to mind some points for consideration and thought (perhaps more my thought and consideration than others).

--the Dogma of the Assumption (Mary assumed to Heaven body and soul).
--the Transfiguration ("30 And behold, two men talked with him, Moses and Eli'jah,31who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem.
32 Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, and when they wakened they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him." RSV-Catholic)
--Elijah taken up in a whirlwind ("11And as they still went on and talked, behold, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Eli'jah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.
12 And Eli'sha saw it and he cried, "My father, my father! the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!" And he saw him no more. Then he took hold of his own clothes and rent them in two pieces." RSV-Catholic)

I do not begin to question the Great Mystery of the Triune God, so whose to say we will or will not be resurrected in a material body like our own if not our own.

Thanks Fr. Reginaldus for encouraging us to thought. You are in my prayers always, please pray for me.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Yes, the dogma of the Assumption is very important here too!
I wrote an article on Mary's Assumption for August --

Also, regarding the Transfiguration and the bodies of Moses and Elijah, I wrote on this way back in Lent 2010...perhaps you will find it interesting --
The main point here is that Elijah's body was not glorified and Moses may not have even had his true body...see the article for the discussion.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I think you are quite right to affirm the omnipotence of God, but do be wary of 'fideism' is a good thing for us to try to understand and to attempt to penetrate more deeply into the mysteries... St. Thomas is a great example of this -- faith desires vision, so true faith in this life must seek understanding.

Regarding Adam's rib...St. Thomas says that, in the resurrection, it will belong to Eve and that God will create a new rib for Adam...he has some good reasons for holding this; see the supplement to the Summa, q.80, a.4, ad 2.

Anonymous said...

I firmly believe in the resurrection of the body. God loves us beyond our understanding. God's love is not limited only to the soul (some spiritualism), but includes the body He created. God's love is wholistic. God loves us body and soul. Furthermore, since the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, this shows God's wholistic and total love for everything created in His love. Does not the Incarnation also reveal the Resurrection.
Nothing absoultly nothing, not even death itself, can hinder God's love for the whole (body and soul) of every human being.

Anonymous said...

If God can create Adam from the dust of the earth, he can surely raise a person from the dead.

Magister Christianus said...

@Reginaldus...You write, "it is a good thing for us to try to understand and to attempt to penetrate more deeply into the mysteries." This immediately called to mind St. Anselm's words in Cur Deus Homo, "Sicut rectus ordo exigit ut profunda Christianae fidei credamus, priusquam ea praesumamus ratione discutere, negligentia mihi videtur, si, postquam confirmati sumus in fide, non studemus quod credimus intelligere."

"Just as the right order of things compels us first to believe the foundations of the Christian faith before attempting to discuss them rationally, so it seems to me negligence if, after we have been confirmed in the faith, we do not apply ourselves to understand what it is we believe."

Peregrinus said...

Yes, we must always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us.

I do not think, Magister, that “profunda” should be translated as “foundations” in the quotation from St. Anslem above. Profunda, in fact, usually means the opposite of foundations or fundamental truths.

Michael Potts said...

Thank you for a solid affirmation of the resurrection of the flesh. The earliest Christians were so convinced that materiality is a part of human nature that some, such as Tertullian (under Stoic influence on this point) posited a material, bodily soul. Aquinas, as you correctly point out, accepted a hylomorphic theory of human nature so that the soul-body composite is the human person. I wonder, though, if it makes sense on St. Thomas' account of human nature, to state that the disembodied soul is conscious in the intermediate state. If images are a necessary condition for human consciousness due to reliance on the senses, and a soul cannot form images, how can it be conscious of anything?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I seem to recall that St. Thomas holds that the soul, when separated from the body, is able to maintain consciousness only by a special divine illumination -- whereby intelligible species are infused upon the soul, in a manner analogous to that according to which angels know naturally.
While on earth, God gives knowledge to the human soul (ordinarily) through natural sense experience; in the intermediate disembodied state, the soul receives knowledge from God by means of this infusion of knowledge (which is beyond the nature of man, but not contrary to it).

I hope that this helps! Peace to you.

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