Sense and Nonsense: Souls and Bodies

April 15, 1781, was Easter Sunday. Boswell tells us that he went to services at St. Paul’s in London, then to Dr. Johnson’s for a chat. Dr. William Scott dropped in and remarked that some of the best essays in The Spectator were written with “the warmth of wine.”

When Johnson did not want to admit this fact, Scott added that the famous Blackstone, “a sober man, composed his Commentaries, with a bottle of port before him, and found his mind invigorated.” I debate with myself about whether I should read this passage to my many potential law students!

In the evening, dinner was served. Present were Mrs. Williams, Mrs. Desmoulins, Mr. Levett, Mr. Allan, the printer, and Mrs. Hall, the “sister of the Reverend Mr. John Wesley, and resembling him, as I [Boswell] thought, both in figure and in manner.” We presume this comparison of figure and manner was a compliment but, in context, I suppose, it could go either way.

Mrs. Hall was quite curious about matters of death and resurrection. She pressed a reluctant Johnson on several related issues. Finally, Mrs. Hall spoke of “the resurrection of the human race in general and maintained that we will all rise with the same bodies.” This opinion was enough to elicit a response from Samuel Johnson: “Nay, Madam, we see that it is not to be the same body; for the Scripture uses the illustration of grain sown, and we know that the grain which grows is not the same with what is sown. You cannot suppose that we shall rise with a diseased body; it is enough if there be such a sameness as to distinguish identity of person.”

The sister of John Wesley listened to this response of Johnson. But she was not completely satisfied. Boswell simply records that “she seemed desirous of knowing more, but he [Johnson] left the question in obscurity.”

After I came across that passage from Boswell, I went back to read what the General Catechism had to say about the topic of the resurrection and the particular body that we might have, diseased or oddly configured though it might currently be. Needless to say, on reading these paragraphs in the Catechism (nos. 997-1004), we are left pretty much with Mrs. Hall and Boswell; that is, we are desirous of knowing more, but the question is left in some obscurity.

The Catechism divides the issue in this manner: (1) “What is ‘rising’?” (2) “Who will rise?” (3) “How?”, and (4) “When?” What we shall rise to is “incorruptible” life, which is pretty much what Johnson meant by his analogy with the grain. Who will arise, of course, is everyone, some to eternal life, some to punishment (John 5:29). This recalls C. S. Lewis’s famous remark that no one has ever met a merely mortal person. “How? Christ is raised with His own body: `See my hands and feet; that is I myself (Luke 24:39); but He did not return to an ‘earthly’ life.” The “when” is the last day.

Clearly, we are both given some light and mainly left in obscurity. Would it be better if we knew more about these things? We know enough to challenge those who say these things cannot happen. When we wonder about just why we are left in obscurity, we can rightly suspect that there is indeed a divine reason. Does this mean that we cannot speculate about it? Of course not. Christianity understands that everything revealed to us is, among other things, addressed to our intelligence. John Wesley’s sister was quite right to prod Samuel Johnson, for he was a very wise man and knew a good deal.

Johnson’s answer, be it noted, did not deny the resurrection of the body in suggesting that the nondiseased body would be a new and improved version of our very selves. The Catechism itself discusses this issue in these terms: “In death, the separation of the soul from the body, the human body decays and the soul goes to meet God while awaiting the reunion with its glorified body” (no. 997).

Since all the atoms and molecules in our bodies are changed every couple of months or so, this is not really too difficult a proposition to accept, since what organizes any body, the soul, remains the same. The Church, however, does not primarily rely on possible scientific implications, though it is interested in pertinent speculation. Rather it relies on the fact of the Resurrection of Christ and what we know about him from this same revelation. This “obscurity,” we are told, is the “Light” of the world.

See my hands and feet; that is I myself.”


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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