As Catholics, we look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the renewal of all things when Christ comes again in glory. But what of those who have died? Do they also await these things, or have they in some sense already happened for them?
Traditionally, the Church has answered this question in terms of the souls of human beings experiencing either beatitude (immediately or after purification) or perdition – the resurrection of the body and the transfiguration of the cosmos being events that are distinct and deferred in relation to this state.
Such a view is, however, not without its problems. The first of these is the anthropology of duality which it presupposes (ie, man is a unity of body and spiritual soul), an anthropology supposedly unsupported by Sacred Scripture.
A second point is that if beatitude or perdition can be experienced in this interim state between death and resurrection, then those events associated with the return of Christ would appear to have been marginalised, in spite of their importance in Sacred Scripture.
A third difficulty is distinctively Catholic: the piety and devotions of the faithful suffer seeming violence by the idea of an interim state populated not by saints but mere separated souls. In the words of St Thomas Aquinas, anima Petri non est Petrus (“Peter’s soul is not Peter”).
In light of these problems, Catholic thinkers have proposed two main rival theories to the traditional schema. The first of these is resurrection in death into the Last Day and the consummation of all things, a thing made possible because these are realities which exist outside time. The second is resurrection in death into an interim state in which the embodied dead await, like us, the final consummation of all things.
Neither possibility, however, is without significant difficulties of its own. The first, in positing the transfer at death of the human being from time to a timeless eternity, fails adequately to explain how personal identity is to be maintained between death and resurrection. Neither can it account for the piety and devotions associated with the communion of saints (if from the perspective of the saints all of history is completed, what sense can it make to say they intercede for us?).
The second option is similarly problematic. Arguments for this based on the supposed indivisibility of the human being struggle to account satisfactorily for the continuing identity of the individual between death and immediate resurrection and/or the full religious significance of the corpse.
Neither can either version of resurrection in death satisfactorily address the tension supposed to be irresolvable in the traditional account, that between the beatitude or damnation of the individual at death, on the one hand, and the meaningfulness of bodily resurrection and cosmic consummation, on the other. Their merging of the moment of the individual’s consummation with all or some of those other created elements destined for consummation simply obscures, rather than actually resolves, the tensions said by their proponents to undermine the traditional explanation.
Where does this leave us? I would argue that the problems with the traditional notion identified earlier are more apparent than real. First, the anthropology of duality which the traditional schema presupposes is, in fact, well supported by Sacred Scripture, which while affirming a holistic rather than a dualistic vision of the human being does so in a manner which nevertheless allows for a non-material element capable of existing apart from the body (eg Mt 10:28; Lk 24:37-39; 2 Cor 12:1-4; Heb 12:23; Rev 6:9-11).
Furthermore, without such an anthropology, there can be no possibility of resurrection (immediate or otherwise). The need for numerical identity between the one who dies and the one who rises requires an enduring non-material element capable of reconstituting matter as a new body.
Concerning the supposed marginalisation of the resurrection and the renewal of the cosmos by the traditional schema, as noted, the significance of these remains to be explained satisfactorily within any of the theories on offer. I suggest that progress can be made once we think less anthropocentrically about this.
If – as the Church teaches – the world was ultimately made for the glory of God, then the eschatological significance of a thing need not be determined by the extent its restoration contributes to the happiness of individual creatures. Rather we might give an account in terms of the full and proper manifestation of God’s glory in and through the objective completion of his creation.
As for the supposed difficulties of the traditional schema regarding popular piety, while the separated soul cannot be said to be the person in an unqualified sense, if we cease to think of existence as an all-or-nothing affair, because part of the person exists he or she can be said still to exist, just not in their entirety. This is particularly so given that the enduring element is that which constitutes the actualising principle of the whole person, that which preserves and continues their habits and acts of intellect and will.
Furthermore, by reserving bodily resurrection for the future, the traditional idea preserves a place of eschatological significance for a person’s material remains, and thus the Church’s cult of relics. Whatever imperfections the traditional schema may possess, therefore, it would nevertheless seem to be the preferable option for us when we reflect on the situation of those who have gone before us.
Stephen Yates is the author of Between Death and Resurrection (Bloomsbury Academic) and programme director for Catholic Applied Theology at the Maryvale Institute
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