The perfect body seems to allude us all. It's something that everybody wants but few of us have. Most of us, try as we do, find ourselves stuck with the same dying, odly shaped, drooping flesh. The situation seems hopeless. Even St. Paul is fed up: “When can I escape this body of death?” (Romans 7:24) Paul wants a new body just like we do. But he's not looking to do P90X, and he's not looking for an escape from flesh as such (a la Buddha). He wants out of his body, the body of Adam – corruptible and sinful. Dispite what we might find in the mirror, we know God created man and woman with a body and that was “very good” (Gen. 1:31). In fact, it’s so good that, after we separate from it at death, we will, one day, get it back! Yes, we believe “in the resurrection of the body” – not just any body, this body. This might be the hardest part of the Creed to wrap our minds around, but the Easter season is the perfect time to try. Why? Because the Gospels in this season present us with an image of the resurrected Christ. It is precisely this image, of this resurrected man, that we can look to with hope to tell us something about our future image as resurrected persons. So what exactly does the Church teach us about how things will be like with our new bodies? St. Thomas Aquinas might present the most comprehensive treatment of this subject. Below is a brief synthesis of his teaching on the state of the resurrected bodies based on the Supplementum Tertiae Partis, q. 75-85.
After each of us bites the bullet, we will go immediately to our individual judgement. From there we will be sentenced eternally to heaven or hell. Those who need to do some purgatory time will eventually arrive upstairs. The damned will receive immediate awareness that they will be deprived of the Beatific Vision and be forever miserable and hopeless. The righteous will be immediately granted the Beatific Vision by seeing God face to face. Remember, we can receive the Beatific Vision without the body, as it is an intellectual act. We do not need the senses to know God Who cannot be known through the senses in this way. Thus, the intellectual souls will begin their eternal happiness (or misery) without a body. But is the soul meant to stay this way? The escape has been made – is that all we need to write? No. As the Church affirms, we are most happy, most ourselves with a body. The soul is actually happiest when it has a body to inform – to give itself to. At this point we should remember that the Catholic understanding of the human soul is not the modern Cartesian understanding. The soul is not a ghost trapped in a machine. The soul is actually what grows the body. It is the body’s animating principle; and the body exists to serve the soul’s knowing purposes. I am reminded here of a story told to me about a well known and pious priest. He was sitting at a bar (not a joke) with a younger priest. Then, a man walked in the bar, and the older priest related quietly to the younger priest regarding the man who had just walked in, “I don’t like his face.” The younger priest was naturally a little scandalized. “Is this holy priest judging a man by his looks? – how superficial!” With the intent of teaching something to the younger priest, the older one explained, “By the time a man is 40, he is responsible for the way his face looks.”
It is the soul that grows the body for it’s knowing purposes! This is why it was said of Mother Theresa that every wrinkle on her weathered face beamed with joy. It is this integral unity of the soul to the body as ancilla (handmaiden) which is truly a cause of ultimate personal happiness. We get our bodies back. On the last day, when the world ends, there will be a general judgement. At that point, you will know my worst sins because they will be shouted from a rooftop (I can’t wait). Then, after the sentences are pronounced, we will get our bodies back – the righteous and the damned alike. For the Blessed, the bodies will become a great source of joy; for the damned, the bodies will increase their torment. You have probably seen this scene as portrayed by Michelangelo on the wall of the Sistine Chapel. But let’s leave aside the damned for the rest of this article – this is, after all, Easter.
Michelangelo is right. Should you one day be counted among the Blessed, you will spend the rest of eternity as buff. Won’t it be great? You will be in peak physical condition and at the prime of your life. How old will you be? What if you died an infant – or an old lady? It doesn’t matter. You will get resurrected in the prime physical age. That is to say, all the men will be about 30 or 33 and all the women will be… of a youthful and prime physical age (The Angelic Doctor is smart enough not to give an exact number for the ladies; speculating publicly on this is a bad idea).
Besides being eternally ripped, St. Thomas assigns four primary characteristics to the bodies of the Blessed. Drawing from St. Paul (1 Cor. 15: 42-44), he lists them as follows:
First, Impassibility (“It is sown in corruption, it rises in incorruption…”). Not only will you live forever in heaven but the gift of impassibility means that the glorified body can suffer no corruption or pain, and it will not be subject to carnal passions. You won’t need any physical food and you won’t age. Your bodies will be animated, in a sense, by God, who is Life itself. You will have spiritual bodies – or, should we say, spiritualized bodies. No longer, tied to the dust of the earth from which you came, you will be totally aimed at God.
Next, the blessed will have subtlety. (“It is sown a natural body, it shall rise a spiritual body…”). By subtlety, we do not mean understatedness. Because our bodies will not be subject to any laws of material nature, nothing will stand in our way. The prime example of subtlety in Scripture is John 20:19 when Jesus walks through the walls of a locked room to get to the disciples. By the gift of subtlety, our bodies shall be able to freely penetrate other bodies (walk through walls). Interestingly, our bodies will even be subtle with respect to one another. Totally sharable, we will be able to completely communicate, through our bodies, our joys to our neighbor. Though I do not know of one that has been done, a further study on the connection to the gift of Beatific subtlety and the sexual urge to share a body in this life would be worth while.
Thirdly, you bodies will have what St. Thomas calls agility. (“It is sown in weakness, it shall rise in power…”). This is a good one. Because, in Heaven, your body will be so unified and obedient to your soul, it will do whatever you can think of. Think about how incredible this is: if you can think it, your body can do it. Yes, I will be able to dunk. This actually explains why every human longs to do things like fly and have super speed. God gave us an appetite for these actions because we are actually meant to be able to do them. And we do see agility, in its seminal form, in the natural order. Isn’t it true that everything we see well trained athletes doing on ESPN’s Top Ten Plays of the Week is due to nothing more than a body which is well trained and habitually obedient to the rational soul of the athlete? So the Blessed, with their agile bodies will be able to fly, float, have super strength and be able to move faster than a speeding bullet.
Lastly, our resurrected bodies will possess the gift of clarity. (“It is sown in dishonor, it rises in glory…”). This clarity, or “brightness,” will be the glory of the blessed soul which overflows through the head and the rest of the body. It is the light of glory which Jesus gives us a glimpse of at the transfiguration. We will possess the very intellectual light of God (lumen gloreae) by which we will see him in his light that is otherwise unapproachable. As crystalline, the heavenly glory of our bodies will present to all; their very organization and internal structure will be immediately visible. And yes, we will actually have halos - these will be a sign of our kingly reign with Christ. The means by which our glory was accomplished will also be visible to all. The doctors will have the crowns of doctors and the martyrs that of martyrs. The particular means will also be evident: John the Baptist might have some sort of scar around his neck. The statues of the apostles in Rome usually portray them holding the instrument of their martyrdom – this is not just a good means of catechesis, but an insight into the nature of their to-be glorified state. Our crosses, everything painful in this life, will be, one day, transformed into something glorious. There is a story St. Augustine tells of a man who was burdoned by uncontrollable flatulence - in Heaven, he was blessed with the gift of wonderous musicality.
Of course, all of these thoughts and insights of St. Thomas are but images of what is to come. “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love him.” (1 Cor. 2:9). The truth is, we can only barely begin to imagine the goodness of Heaven. It will be better than anything we can imagine. What we know for sure is that just as our Lord Jesus will be one day united to those he loves, the Church, who He has taken as His body forever in Heaven, so will we be united forever with the body God gave us – in all it’s glory. We ought then now to make very good use of this Easter season and realize our duty to celebrate with the entirety of our being. This is the ultimate feast that the Church celebrates because it is a prefigurement of the the ultimate feast which the blessed shall enjoy completely in Heaven - and that's an Easter dinner that won't give you love handles.