Over the centuries, many civilizations and religions have thought about our souls, or our essence, continuing after bodily death. For instance, the ancient Egyptians thought that the afterlife was a better version of life on earth. That is one reason why they sometimes buried a person’s possessions from this life with them in their tomb- tools, jewelry, even food, so they could be used in the next life. The Norse myths talk about Valhalla as a place where the souls of those who die in battle live on. In the Greek underworld the souls of the dead existed in the realm of the dead but they are insubstantial and flitted around the underworld with no sense of purpose.
The Jews were different. Most believed that a day would come when God would raise us from the dead and that our physical bodies would participate in the gift of eternal life. You can hear this very clearly in today’s first reading from the book of Maccabees. One of the brothers, threatened with having his hands chopped off, says, “It was from Heaven that I received these (hands); for the sake of his laws I disdain them; from him I hope to receive them again. “ He is expressing his faith that his hands will share in the resurrection. Resurrection, then, means bodily resurrection.
Of course, our resurrected body will not be the same body that we have now. Our resurrected body will still be our body but transformed, a glorified body. It will not age or be prone to sickness or death. Jesus already has such a body, a glorified but still very human body, because he has already been resurrected. The resurrection narratives in the gospels try to express this physical but yet transformed body. After the resurrection, Jesus can speak to his disciples; he can be touched by his disciples; he can eat fish. But at the same time he can pass through locked doors and suddenly appear and disappear. So, we believe that Christ already has a resurrected body and we believe that our beloved dead who are already with God in heaven will on the last day be raised up bodily to join with all the blessed to share God’s presence forever.
Scripture affirms the afterlife and the resurrection of the dead but it does not give us many details about what resurrected life will be like. The lack of good information about our post-resurrection state, however, has not stopped people from speculating about the afterlife. Even today many assume that life in the world to come will be just like life on the present earth, only better. We tend to think it will differ from our life now only in degree, not in kind. In the Gospel today, Jesus tells us quite clearly that there is absolutely no comparison between life in this age with the age to come.
For one thing, the children of the resurrection do not die anymore, and they live like angels. It is pointless to ask who will be the husband in the next life of the woman who married the seven brothers in this life. Since there is no more death, the bearing and raising of children, which is the natural end or purpose of marriage, is no longer relevant.
In baptism we are incorporated into Christ; if he has risen, we also will be raised. If not, our faith is in vain. God is God of the living. And as God’s children, we are created to live eternal life.
In saying eternal life we are not speaking of some ‘realm of the dead’ as did the ancient Greeks or a better version of earthly life as did the Egyptians. No, Jesus revealed to us the existence of heaven, where we fully become part of the Body of Christ, sharing in the life of God. Unlike pagan beliefs, eternal life in the Christian heaven means full communion with God in Christ; full communion that elevates and sanctifies rather than eliminates our individual persons. Believing in Jesus, freely choosing to entrust ourselves to Jesus, means stepping into, being plunged into, being swept up into the infinite ocean of loving energy that is God; the God who brings life.
What does the resurrection of the body mean for us today, here on earth? Our belief in the eternal life of our body and soul in heaven is both a comfort and a challenge. We are truly blessed to have received the revelation that there is a resurrection and the gift of faith to believe in it. The resurrection of the body confirms our union with Christ, who goes before us in all things, and declares the ultimate triumph over sin and death. At the same time we are challenged to begin our eternal life in Christ here and now. That’s our destiny, and we can anticipate it by the way we live in our bodies day to day. Our present life is the moment to form our relationship with Jesus. This faith gives meaning to our struggles and dignity to our lives. The king of the world will raise us up to live forever.