We expect to die; we watch history passing away and divinely scheduled for an eventual end. We look for resurrection and life everlasting. But in what sense is the fleshly reality of the Christian to last? Death is a profound transformation, in some sense a real destruction of the bodily person. Resurrection is a re-creation. While this re-creation is not creation out of nothing—since resurrection is resurrection from death—the death-resurrection sequence seems more discontinuity than continuity. Thus the resurrection life for which we hope seems only part of what is not yet, in no way part of present Christian life. But this is not so.
In the first place, Jesus already has the bodily life he will enjoy forever. By our union with him, we now share in resurrection life. On this basis, we already commune with God in glory by participation in Jesus’ communing, although we do not individually have the full experience he enjoys. In the second place, we now are bodily incorporated in Jesus. If one puts these two considerations together, one sees more clearly that if bodily human persons are to enjoy any real solidarity with the Word made flesh, then some sort of bodily communion is not only fitting but seems necessary.
Our Lord provided for this need by the sacrament of the Eucharist, in which even now we are in bodily communion with him (see Jn 6.25–58). For this reason, we not only have already died with Jesus in baptism, but also have already risen with him and dwell with him in his completion (see Eph 2.5–7; Col 2.12–13; 3.1–4). This statement is not merely a metaphor; it is a statement of fact, and part of the fact is real, present, bodily communion with our Lord Jesus in his resurrection life. To the extent that this life is the present bodily life of a Christian, the Christian’s present bodily life is part of what will last forever.
Moreover, resurrection is of one’s own body, which is a unique, personal body. The Church clearly teaches this truth (see DS 325/–-, 684/347, 801/429, 854/464), and it is a serious mistake to think—as I suspect many people do implicitly think—that at resurrection one’s soul gets a new body very much as one’s wrecked car is supplied with a new body, only the chassis being saved (see S.c.g., 4, 79–81). My body is not all of myself, but it is an essential and intrinsic part of myself; if I did not live forever in my very own body, then I would not be saved.
Therefore, the aspect of the Christian’s bodily reality in which this unique body is personal also is destined to last. What will not last is the mortal organic life which at present constitutes one’s bodily self; this will be transformed into immortal organic life like—because still in full communion with—the glorious flesh of Jesus.
It also is worth considering how a Christian’s present life bears upon his or her lasting reality. One of the attractions of secular humanism is its promise to liberate humankind from the givenness of the natural world which often constrains and will eventually put an end to all the creative efforts of human intelligence. In trying to fulfill this promise, contemporary humanist ideologies go so far as to reject the meaning and value God has given creation. The promise of liberation by unaided human effort and the rejection of all natural meaning and value are, of course, Promethean arrogance. Still, Christian faith makes it clear that in many respects God’s plan for humankind exalts men and women beyond their most ambitious dreams. It is permissible to speculate—and the following is speculation—that the blessed will be more completely liberated from all the givenness of nature than secular humanists imagine.
Jesus rises from the dead by his own action. Jesus asserted he would raise up the temple of his body after it was destroyed (see Jn 2.19–21). He also said of his own life: “I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again” (Jn 10.18). St. Thomas explains that there is a certain sense in which, even in death, Jesus miraculously raises himself. Thus the resurrection of Jesus is not exclusively a divine work; it also is in some way a work in which Jesus’ body and soul share by divine power (see S.t., 3, q. 53, a. 4).
Having risen in glory, Jesus in heaven continues the work of building the new creation, of which he himself is the cornerstone (see LG 6–8). The coming of the Son of Man in glory, for which we hope, will complete this work, for he will raise the dead, judge, and complete the mission the Father gave him (see Mt 13.41; 16.27–28; 24.31–46; 1 Thes 4.16). When death, the last enemy, is destroyed, Jesus will hand over the kingdom to his Father (see 1 Cor 15.20–28), not as if he were resigning his kingship, but inasmuch as he will have finished the work of bringing all things to completion in himself.26
The book of Acts makes it clear that Christians, in unity with Jesus and never apart from him, can bring divine power to bear by miraculous acts, which also are their own human acts. For example, when Peter raises the cripple, he says: “I have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (Acts 3.6). Peter both acts in the name of Jesus and gives what he himself has to give. Jesus had said: “He who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father” (Jn 14.12). Peter is doing a work Jesus does.
When Jesus comes again, the “human race as well as the entire world, which is intimately related to man and achieves its purpose through him, will be perfectly reestablished in Christ (cf. Eph 1.10; Col 1.20; 2 Pt 3.10–13)” (LG 48). The new heavens and the new earth are therefore the work of our Lord Jesus. Through him, as Word of the eternal Father, all things are created (see Jn 1.3). The new heavens and new earth also are part of creation; as such they are solely the work of the Trinity, and so the work of our Lord only insofar as he is the divine Word. But the new heavens and new earth are also his work as Incarnate Word, and so are brought about by his human act just as were his smaller-scale earthly miracles.
At present, we ourselves can unite our own lives to Jesus’ life. In offering our lives with his sacrifice in the Eucharist, we do precisely this (see LG 7). So we too have a share in the re-creation of all things. Thus our Christian lives in Jesus not only make a material contribution to the new heavens and the new earth, they even share in the work of bringing this hope to fruition. For each Christian, an important part of this hope is for the resurrection of his or her own personal body.
And so there are two principles by which one’s present bodily existence is to last. One of them is one’s bodily incorporation in Jesus, which already is established and destined to last. The other is one’s share in his work of bringing about the resurrection, a share by which one acts upon one’s own present body, precisely as it is uniquely personal. In this respect death in Jesus not only surrenders but at the same time renders unbreakable one’s own attachment to one’s own body.
In our present life, we find ourselves constrained in many ways by the universe which was here prior to our arrival. Our bodily existence, in particular, is a pure fact. In heaven, we shall not be thus constrained, for having died with Jesus, we will have freely exchanged the mortal life we were given for a life we cooperate in re-creating. Only the Trinity is creator; we are and always shall be creatures. But in the re-created world to come, nothing which determines us will be given without our having freely willed it in advance.
Having freely accepted God’s offer of a share in his own divine life, having freely constituted our human existential selves by our own choices, and having freely shared in the work of re-creating everything else in Jesus, we will be revealed fully as adopted children of God, whose whole being will express the glorious freedom proper to such children (see Rom 8.19–21).