The God Squad: Resurrection is full of theological mysteries

Q: First of all, I want to thank you for your prayerful answers to all and for sharing your gifts with your readers. On several occasions you've referred to our souls living on with God. I realize you can't encompass all religious beliefs in every answer, but could you please give some equal time to the beliefs of Catholics? Not only our souls but also our bodies will live on in heaven. Why have you never mentioned this in your column?

A: What you're asking about is the belief in the resurrection of the body at the end of time. Until that Messianic age, obviously, our bodies return to the earth through burial or cremation. Until that time, our souls, which are immaterial and return to God, live a separate existence from our bodies.

This belief in the ultimate resurrection of the dead is also a belief of post-biblical Judaism (called rabbinic or Orthodox Judaism). It entered western Christianity, not just Catholicism, as a part of the Apostle's Creed, which was one of the earliest formulations of Christian belief. The Apostle's Creed was first introduced in the 4th century and was formalized by the 8th century. This is the Creed as translated for the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which divides the Creed into 12 beliefs, with the resurrection of the dead being No. 11:

1. I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

2. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.

3. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.

4. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.

5. He descended into hell. On the third day, he rose again.

6. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

7. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

8. I believe in the Holy Spirit,

9. the holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints,

10. the forgiveness of sins,

11. the resurrection of the body,

12. and the life everlasting.


The theological problem with believing in the resurrection of the body obviously centers around those bodies that have been destroyed utterly and have thus lost their bodily integrity. How are they to be resurrected? There's also the problem of what age we will be when we're resurrected. Will old people be resurrected as young, vibrant people? Will infants be resurrected as adults?

The apostle Paul in I Corinthians 15:44 states that although the resurrected body will be a physical body, it will be so suffused with the Spirit that it will not have any of the imperfections it endured during its earthly life.

There's another theological tradition that is comforted just by the promise of eternal life for the soul with God after death. I hold to this view. However, if my miserable body is to return, I better get on the treadmill today so that I can keep up with my wife.

Whether or not the body is resurrected in the fullness of time is definitely one of those ultimate mysteries I'm in no hurry to solve. Of course, if Brad Pitt's body is available, I might change my mind. (Note: If you want more information on this topic, you might read "The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336," by Caroline Walker Bynum (Columbia University Press).

Q: The atonement for sin in the Hebrew Bible required specific offerings and rituals, whether the sins were intentional or not. While on the march, the Hebrews had the Tabernacle, which served as the center of worship, and the sacrifices until Solomon built the first Temple.

I'm aware that synagogues have existed for a long time, even when the Temple was still present, but how did the Jews deal with atonement during the Babylonian captivity, when this temple was razed by Nebuchadnezzar, and how do they now since 70 A.D., when it was again destroyed by Titus since they can no longer perform the required sacrifices?

A: You're one of my most thoughtful readers. Since the biblical sacrifices are God's commandments, they can't be suspended, but because of the destruction of the Temple, they cannot be offered. The rabbinic solution to this problem was to offer up a special prayer for each sacrifice. The morning sacrifice became the morning prayer, and so forth.

The Jews also preserved several honorific tasks for the descendents of the biblical priests, who were called the Kohens and the Levis (the people, not the jeans). Then the leadership of Judaism was transferred to rabbis who were chosen on the basis of learning and merit, not heredity (the biblical priesthood went through the father's bloodlines). So the prayer book became our portable sanctuary, and our prayers became the offerings of our hearts.

In this way, Judaism was able both to preserve the past and adapt to the future. Being both a rabbi and an animal lover, I don't shed a tear that the bloody animal sacrifices of the Bible are a thing of the past. I know this is slim comfort to the Thanksgiving turkey I ate, but God is not through with me yet.

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