Karl Rahner’s understanding of Resurrection

Karl Rahner’s (1904-1984) view on the resurrection had evolved over the course of his theological career. In his early days, he held to the idea that at death, the soul is separated from the body until the consummation of the world when it is finally united with a resurrected body. In his later view, he asserted that the resurrection occurs at death.

1. Rahner’s Early View

According to Rahner, resurrection is “the termination and perfection of the whole man before God, which gives him ‘eternal life.’”[1] It involves a process, which begins at death and culminates with the events pertaining to the end of the world.

For Rahner, the death is both a ‘natural’ and ‘personal’ act. In its natural aspect, death strikes the whole person, in body and soul.[2] The soul, which is united to the body during the earthly life, is made up of material from this cosmos. Released from the body at death, the soul is free to engage, via this unitive aspect of our cosmos, with all that exists in a “pancosmic” way.[3] In ‘On the Theology of Death’, Rahner states that the pancosmic relationship with the universe is the nature of the soul’s existence in heaven. Pancosmicity is the manner of existence for a soul in heaven prior to bodily resurrection. It is this Pancosmicity, which helps the relationship to the cosmos of which body is a part. He noted that “since the soul is united to the body, it clearly must also have some relationship to that whole of which the body is a part, that is, to the totality which constitutes the unity of the material universe.”[4]

Peter C. Phan infers Rahner’s understanding of death as a personal act as follows: “As a personal act, death is one’s definitive and final act of transcendental freedom whereby one determines one’s eternal destiny. Such self-determination takes place throughout one’s life, in and through one’s categorical choices, but in dying, such a process is brought to a final and definitive end.”[5] Since the person’s trajectory of process toward reaching the God is set at death, a person may enjoy the beatific vision even as a soul separated from body. At death, the soul departs the body and may reside with God. But, the person would reach the fullness of the perfection only at the end of the world when the soul is united with a resurrected body.[6] This unification of the soul and body will take place only at the end of the world.[7]

However, Rahner asserted that Jesus has already achieved the fullness of resurrected life because he was the “firstborn” (cf. 1 Cor 15:20-28) of the events related to the consummation of the world, that has already ushered the beginning of the “end of the world.” Rahner is of the opinion that one cannot even imagine what the resurrected body is like. Even the disciples would not have been able to perceive the glorified body of Jesus, because they were not in the same state of perfection as Jesus was.[8]  Jesus was able to communicate to the disciples even after the resurrection, because his ability to relate with the universe remained intact as it did when his soul was pancosmic. In this section, Rahner avoided discussing the nature of the relationship between the resurrected and the earthly body of Jesus.[9]

2. Rahner’s Later View

Rahner’s first position was problematic because it divides up the human person as body and soul. So, in his later works he agreed that the idea of a soul separated from body at death is a dualistic view. This view stems from ancient Platonic philosophy and is not consistent with a Judeo-Christian understanding of the person as an indivisible unity of body and soul. At the same time, he held the view that many Christians tend to believe that the soul can be separated from the body.[10] This is not in agreement with the biblical understanding. In Scripture, Rahner notes “‘resurrection of the flesh’ is not understood as being the final destiny of the body as such. On the contrary, the statement always means the destiny of the one and total person who as such is ‘flesh.’”[11]  In other words, the “flesh” (Fleisch/ body) refers to the person’s whole identity. The resurrected person is the inseparable body and soul.

Rahner did not think that mortal bodies will be involved in the fullness of resurrected life. He found the notion to be illogical, as “probably no metaphysically thinking theologian would continue to maintain today … that the identity of the glorified body and the earthly body is only ensured if some material fragment of the earthly body is found again in the glorified body. For this kind of identity cannot even be found in the earthly body, because of its radical metabolic processes.”[12] In short, when our bodies are ever changing during the life time, how can we ensure the continuity of this body in resurrection?

Therefore, the resurrection is not a resuscitation of a physical material body. Rahner observed that “we miss the meaning of ‘resurrection’ in general and also of the resurrection of Jesus . . . if our original preconception is the notion of a resuscitation of a physical, material body.”[13] The resurrection “means the final and definitive salvation of a concrete human existence by God and in the presence of God.”[14] By stating this is in the “presence of God,” Rahner means “we must avoid the misunderstanding that resurrection is a return to life and existence in time and space as we experience it.”[15]

In the First Letter to Corinthians, Paul indicates that the nature of the risen body is spiritual, for it is not made of flesh and blood (1 Cor 15:44, 50).  God provides this new spiritual, resurrected body at death (1 Cor 15:38), yet it carries the identity of the person.[16] We should understand the nature of Jesus’ resurrected body in this way. Jesus’ resurrected body should be understood as spiritual in nature. The empty tomb narratives, according to him, should be best considered as dramatic expressions of the resurrection experiences.  Jesus’ body was not likely to have been involved in any way. According to Rahner, it was not the empty tomb, but the conviction that Jesus was alive[17], mainly due to his post-resurrection appearances, which brought out the belief in Jesus’ resurrection. As Rahner observed, “it can be said that by ‘historical’ means we would not reach the resurrection of Jesus, but only the conviction of his disciples that he is alive.” [18]

If Jesus’ physical body would have been involved in resurrection. it would have been difficult to explain the ability of Jesus’ post-resurrected body to appear and disappear and even pass through the closed doors. Rahner further clarifies that Jesus’ appearances were not so tangible that any disinterested observer could also have experienced them. So, they would have been able to be photographed with our cameras.[19]  At the same time, they were not mere self-generated or internal visualizations, for they happened only over a certain period and only to certain people indicates that they were selectively given as a matter of faith by God.[20]

Although, Rahner changed his idea that the soul could be separated from the body at death, he held on the idea of ‘pancosmicity’. According to Rahner, a person retains a pancosmic relationship with the universe even in the resurrected state, for it is where we made our personal history. Therefore, our personal identity is forever, linked with our universe – even after the resurrection. [21] Rahner does not elaborate on the modality and quality of the risen body. For him, the resurrection of Jesus explains the transcendental condition of the possibility of the resurrection. And it is the transcendental hope of humanity that serves as the context in which both the resurrection of Jesus and our own resurrection are made intelligible and credible.[22]

3. Conclusion

As we have seen, Rahner’s idea of resurrection had evolved over his theological carrier. In his earlier view, he held the view that the soul and the body are separated at death. The person would reach the fullness of the perfection only at the end of the world when the soul is re-united with the body. However, he later arrived at a position which took the Judeo-Christian understanding of the indivisible unity of human person. Soul and Body cannot be separated at death. The resurrected body would be an evolved spiritual body. This body may not be tangible to the present human mind. Although, Rahner changed his idea, he held on the idea of ‘pancosmicity’. A person retains a pancosmic relationship with the universe even in the resurrected state. Jesus’ resurrected body was also such an evolved one. That is why, he could pass through the closed doors. But, the post-resurrection experiences of the apostles cannot be fully understood today. Rahner attributes the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to his idea of Pancosmicity. Jesus could communicate to the disciples even after the resurrection, because his ability to relate with the universe remained intact as it did when his soul was pancosmic. However, for Rahner, the resurrection of the humans become intelligible in the context of the transcendental hope of humanity which is based on the resurrection of Jesus.

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[1] Karl Rahner, Man in the Church (trans. Karl H. Kruger; Theological Investigations Vol. 2; London: Darton Longman & Todd Helicon Press, 1963), 211.

[2] Peter C. Phan, “Roman Catholic Theology,” in The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology (ed. Jerry L. Walls; Oxford Handbooks; 2007; repr., New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 223.

[3] Bernard P. Prusak, “Bodily Resurrection in Catholic Perspectives,” TS 61 (March 2000): 68-69.

[4] Karl Rahner, On the Theology of Death (trans. C.H. Henkey; Quaestiones disputatae Vol. 2; 1961; repr., New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), 18.

[5] Phan, “Catholic Theology,” in Walls, Eschatology, 223.

[6] Rahner, Theology of Death, 214.

[7] Rahner, Theology of Death, 214.

[8] Rahner, Theology of Death, 214.

[9] Prusak, “Bodily Resurrection,” 71.

[10] Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity (trans. William V. Dych; 1978; repr., New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1999), 268-69.

[11] Karl Rahner, Jesus, Man, and the Church (trans. Margaret Kohl; Theological Investigations Vol. 17; New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1981), 119.

[12] Rahner, Jesus, Man, and the Church, 120.

[13] Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith, 266-67.

[14] Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith, 266-67.

[15] Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith, 267.

[16] Rahner, Jesus, Man, and the Church, 14.

[17] Rahner, Jesus, Man, and the Church, 120.

[18] Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith, 276-78.

[19] Karl Rahner, Confrontations (Theological Investigations 11; New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1982), 210-11.

[20] Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith, 277.

[21] Karl Rahner, The Great Church Year: The Best of Karl Rahner’s Homilies, Sermons, and Meditations (ed. Albert Raffelt; trans. Harvey D. Egan; 1993; repr., New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2001), 194-95.

[22] Phan, “Catholic Theology,” in Walls, Eschatology, 224.

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