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Eschatology or the Catholic Doctrine of the Last Things
A Dogmatic Treatise
Rev. Joseph Pohle Ph.D. D.D

1. DEFINITION.—The Resurrection of the flesh is one of the most important dogmas of the Christian religion.

St. Paul says: “If there is no resurrection of the dead, neither is Christ risen; and if Christ is not risen, vain truly is our preaching, vain too your faith.” The Bible employs “resurrection of the dead” and “resurrection of the flesh” synonymously. The latter phrase is the more significant because it emphasizes the body. The soul, of course, does not “return” to life; it is immortal.

The Resurrection of the flesh may be defined as “a substantial conversion whereby a human being, which has been resolved into its component elements by death, is restored to its former condition.”

The Resurrection is called a conversion (mutatio) to distinguish it from creation (creatio ex nihilo), by which an entirely new being comes into existence.

The change involved in the Resurrection is substantial because it affects the substance of human nature, and not merely its accidents. The subject is a corruptible being, composed of elements which are separated by death and thus admit of substantial destruction. Man as such is destroyed, and of the two essential elements that compose him, viz.: body and soul, the former gradually returns to dust. Its resurrection is not a re-creation, but a miraculous reproduction (reproductio) with full identity of subject.

2. HERETICAL ERRORS VS. THE DOGMATIC TEACHING OF THE CHURCH.—The Resurrection of the dead appeared foolish to the gentiles. It was denied by the Sadducees, the Gnostics, the Manichæans, and the medieval Albigenses and Waldenses, and is still violently attacked by atheists, materialists, and rationalists. Against all these the Catholic Church firmly upholds the Resurrection of the body. The dogma is expressly mentioned in the so-called Apostles’ Creed, in the Nicene and the Athanasian creeds, in the symbol of the Eleventh Council of Toledo, and in other ancient professions of faith. Origen’s teaching of an Apocatastasis of the dead was condemned by the Council of Constantinople (553). The Fourth Council of the Lateran specifically defined that “all men will arise [from the dead] with their own proper bodies.”

3. PROOF FROM SACRED SCRIPTURE.—The Resurrection of the body is mentioned in both the proto- and the deutero-canonical books of the Old Testament. The former advert to it veiledly, whereas the latter inculcate it with perfect clearness.

a) The proto-canonical books contain two classes of texts referring to the Resurrection. Some predict the restoration of Israel under the figure of a general rising of the dead; others point to the Resurrection of Christ as a symbol of our own.

α) The prophet Osee puts these words into the mouths of the Jewish exiles in Babylonia: “He will revive us after two days: on the third day he will raise us up, and we shall live in his sight.” Yahweh Himself promises his chosen people through the same prophet: “I will deliver them out of the hand of death. I will redeem them from death. O death, I will be thy death; O hell, I will be thy bite.”

Another argument may be deduced from the famous vision of Ezechiel. The prophet saw how the dry bones that lay scattered over the plain of the dead, at God’s command began to stir, took on sinews and flesh, and were covered with skin. When they stood upright, and lived and breathed, the Lord said to the prophet: “Son of man, all these bones are the house of Israel.… Behold I will open your graves, and will bring you out of your sepulchres, O my people, and will bring you into the land of Israel.” Though this vision symbolizes the restoration of Israel, it would have been unintelligible to the Jews had they not been familiar with belief in a resurrection.

β) The texts of the second group refer to the Resurrection of the Messias, which we Christians rightly regard as a figure and pledge of our own. Cfr. Ps. 15:10: “Thou wilt not leave my soul in the nether world, nor wilt thou give [permit] thy holy one to see corruption.”

b) A veritable locus classicus for the dogma of the Resurrection is Job 19:23 sqq.: “Who will grant me that my words may be written? who will grant me that they may be marked down in a book with an iron pen and in a plate of lead, or else be graven with an instrument in flint stone? For I know my Redeemer liveth, and in the last day I shall rise out of the earth, and I shall be clothed again with my skin, and in my flesh I shall see my God, whom I myself shall see, and my eyes shall behold, and not another: this my hope is laid up in my bosom.” So clearly does this passage express the dogma of the Resurrection that St. Jerome says: “Job prophesied the resurrection of the body in such plain terms that no man has written of it more clearly or more certainly, … no one [has treated this dogma] as openly after Christ as Job did before Him.”

The Hebrew text, it is true, differs slightly from the Vulgate rendering, which is followed by our English Bible. It runs something like this: “I know that my Redeemer liveth, and he will in the end stand above the dust. Then shall I be clothed with this skin, and in my flesh I shall see God. Yea, I will see him for myself, my eyes will see him, and not another: my reins consume themselves in my bosom.” But, though the wording is different, the hope of a glorious Resurrection is common to both versions. Where the Vulgate says, “Et in novissimo die de terra resurrecturus sum,” the Hebrew text has: “He [i. e. the Redeemer] will stand above the dust.” Both passages affirm the fact of the Resurrection, with this difference, that one mentions its efficient, while the other speaks of its formal cause. To interpret the whole passage as merely voicing Job’s confidence of regaining his health, will not do. For in that assumption, as even Rabbi Rosenmüller admits, there would be no proportion between the majestic announcement with which the text opens, and the unimportant fact which it records. The logical sequence of ideas demands that Job meet the charges of his friends by expressing his belief that the due proportion between guilt and punishment will be restored in the world beyond, especially since he himself had just closed his earthly account in the sure expectation of death. “We must assume,” says Rosenmüller, “that his thoughts were directed to the final resurrection of the body and the restoration of all things.”

c) The deutero-canonical books of the Old Testament teach the doctrine of the Resurrection explicitly.

Ecclesiasticus is not entirely conclusive because the Greek text is badly corrupted and differs in many places from the Latin Vulgate. Nevertheless, the praise of Elias, who is expected to return at the end of the world, may be quoted. The Greek text says: “Blessed are they that saw thee [i. e. Elias at the end of the world] and were honored in love; for we too shall live.”

That the post-exilic Jews firmly believed in the Resurrection of the flesh is proved by the glorious martyrdom of the seven brethren and their mother, recounted in 2 Mach. 7:9 sqq. “Thou indeed, O most wicked man,” says the second of the brothers to the cruel tyrant Antiochus, “destroyest us out of this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up, who die for his laws, in the resurrection of eternal life.” And the fourth declares: “It is better, being put to death by men, to look for hope from God, to be raised up again by him: for, as to thee thou shalt have no resurrection unto life.” The mother exhorts them all to be steadfast. “The Creator of the world,” she says, “… will restore to you again in his mercy both breath and life.” When Razias, one of the ancients of Jerusalem, was put to death for his loyalty to the Jewish religion, we are told that, “as he had yet breath in him, being inflamed in mind, he arose, and while his blood ran down with a great stream, and he was grievously wounded, he ran through the crowd, and standing upon a steep rock, when he was now almost without blood, grasping his bowels with both hands, he cast them upon the throng, calling upon the Lord of life and spirit to restore these to him again: and so he departed this life.”

d) In the New Testament we have the distinct assurance of Christ and His Apostles that the dead will rise again.

α) Our Lord says: “Fear ye not them that kill the body, and are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him that can destroy both soul and body in hell.” He accuses the Sadducees, who denied the Resurrection, of ignorance. “You err,” he says, “not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God.” When Martha before the tomb of her brother exclaimed, “I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day,” Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, although he be dead, shall live.” On another occasion He predicted that He Himself would raise the dead to life: “The hour cometh, wherein all that are in the graves shall hear the voice of the Son of God; and they that have done good things, shall come forth unto the resurrection of life; but they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of judgment.” Those who eat of the “true bread of heaven,” i. e. His Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist, have our Lord’s solemn promise that He will “raise them up in the last day.”

β) The Apostles testified both to the Resurrection of Christ and to the General Resurrection of the dead, with such power that the Sadducees were “grieved.” St. Paul places the Resurrection of the dead on the same level, as regards certainty, with the Resurrection of our Lord: “Now if Christ is preached as risen from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, neither is Christ risen; and if Christ is not risen, vain truly is our preaching, vain too your faith.” Again he says: “If the spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead, dwell in you: he that raised up Jesus Christ from the dead shall quicken also your mortal bodies, because of his spirit that dwelleth in you.” And: “Know you not that all we who are baptized in Christ Jesus are baptized in his death? For we are buried together with him by baptism into death; that as Christ is risen from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also may walk in newness of life.” The Apostle proclaimed the doctrine of the Resurrection before the Epicureans and the Stoics, and courageously upheld it in the presence of Felix, the governor, and King Agrippa. Hymeneus and Philetus were publicly denounced by him as apostates for having taught that “the resurrection is past already.”

4. PROOF FROM TRADITION.—The Tradition of the early Church agrees perfectly with the teaching of the Bible. To construe a complete Patristic argument for the Resurrection, “one would have to transcribe almost all the writings of the early Fathers,” for not only do they all mention the dogma occasionally, but a number of them (Athenagoras, Justin Martyr, Theophilus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Ephraem, Tertullian, Minucius Felix, Ambrose, and others) have left special treatises on the subject.

If we study the arguments of these Fathers we find that they embody splendid proofs for the fitness of the Resurrection. Thus Minucius Felix points to the analogy existing between revelation and nature. “The sun,” he says, “sinks down and rises, the stars pass away and return, the flowers die and revive again, the shrubs resume their leaves after their wintry decay, seeds do not flourish unless they are rotted.… So we, too, must wait for the springtime of the body.”

The Fathers refute the objection that it is impossible for the dead to return to life by pointing to the divine omnipotence. Thus Cyril of Jerusalem says: “God created us out of nothing; why should He not be able to re-awaken that which is destroyed?” St. Irenaeus emphasizes the dignity of the body as the temple of the Holy Ghost and receptacle of the Eucharistic Christ. “How can it be asserted,” he asks, “that the flesh which is nourished with the Body and Blood of our Lord shall not partake of the life?” St. Clement of Rome declares that the body must rise again in order to be rewarded for the merits it has acquired here below. Tertullian argues that if there were no resurrection of the body, the devil would prove mightier than God and the divine economy of grace would show a fatal defect.

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