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Does the Pope Believe in the Resurrection?

Category Articles
Date September 14, 2010

The current Pope (Joseph Ratzinger) entered office with a formidable reputation as the Vatican’s arch-conservative ‘enforcer’ of doctrine. In Protestant circles, it was conservative Evangelicals rather than mainline liberals that welcomed his appointment.1 Among those who praised his writings was Michael Horton (of Westminster Theological Seminary, California). While recognising that areas of disagreement exist, he considered that ‘Evangelicals will have reason to be encouraged by many of the new Pope’s teachings’.2 He was one of the Evangelical scholars who endorsed Scott Hahn’s recent book, Covenant and Communion: The Biblical Theology of Pope Benedict XVI.3 This comes in the context of recent ‘conversions’ of conservative Evangelicals to Rome, such as Hahn himself. It is evident that the current Pope’s writings are being presented in a way that will appeal to conservative Evangelicals and encourage them to ‘return home to Rome’.4

Joseph Ratzinger’s views are a little more complicated than his reputation suggests, however. During his early academic career Ratzinger admired, and worked with, radical liberal theologians such as Hans Küng, Karl Rahner and Edward Schillebeeckx and was also influential within the liberal majority at the Second Vatican Council in 1962.5 Ratzinger has gradually distanced himself from the extreme ‘progressivism’ of his ultra-liberal colleagues.6 In a 1993 interview with Time magazine, Ratzinger asserted, ‘I see no change in my theological positions over the years’. He describes himself as a ‘balanced progressive’, evidently blending conservative and modernist approaches.7

The doctrine of the resurrection of the body.

The continuity of Ratzinger’s theological views from his apparently-radical past is seen in his best known, most systematic book,Introduction to Christianity.8 The book seeks to explain the Apostles’ Creed in the light of contemporary Roman Catholic dogma. When Ratzinger approaches the clause, ‘I believe in the resurrection of the body’, he recognises that this doctrine is a ‘stumbling block to the modern mind’ (p 232).9 His definition is both strange and ambiguous. ‘Resurrection’, he writes, ‘expresses the idea that the immortality of man can exist and be thought of only in the fellowship of men’ (p 172). The doctrine, he claims, creates a ‘curious dilemma’ (p 238) because modern liberal theologians no longer believe that body and soul can be identified as separate entities, something that Ratzinger dismisses, together with the immortality of the soul, as a Greek notion which has ‘become obsolete’ (p 241).

Ratzinger’s book, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, covers, amongst other things, the nature of the resurrection. He notes that the accepted view among modern Roman Catholic and liberal Protestant theologians is that body and soul expire at the point of death and that ‘the proper Christian thing, therefore, is to speak, not of the soul’s immortality, but of the resurrection of the complete human being and of that alone’ (p 105). He notes that the word soul has disappeared from Roman Catholic liturgy (also from Roman Catholic Bible translations) as a consequence. Ratzinger offers his own new definition of the soul: ‘The “soul” is our term for that in us which offers a foothold for this relation [with the eternal]. Soul is nothing other than man’s capacity for relatedness with truth, with love eternal’ (p 259). The soul is therefore defined heretically as the capacity for relationship rather than real spiritual substance; having a soul means ‘being God’s partner in dialogue’.10

In Introduction to Christianity, Ratzinger explicitly denies the resurrection of the body. ‘It now becomes clear that the real heart of faith in the resurrection does not consist at all in the idea of the restoration of bodies, to which we have reduced it in our thinking; such is the case even though this is the pictorial image used throughout the Bible’. He says that the word body, or flesh, in the phrase, the resurrection of the body, ‘in effect means “the world of man” . . . [it is] not meant in the sense of a corporality isolated from the soul’ (pp 240-41).

Ratzinger is deliberately using a meaning that is impossible in the context, in order to explain away the clear meaning of the text. This is also done in relation to the word for body (Greek: soma), which he says can also mean self. He draws the conclusion that

one thing at any rate may be fairly clear: both John (6:63) and Paul (1 Cor. 15:50) state with all possible emphasis that the ‘resurrection of the flesh’, the ‘resurrection of the body’, is not a ‘resurrection of physical bodies’ . . . Paul teaches, not the resurrection of physical bodies, but the resurrection of persons, and this not in the return of ‘flesh body’, that is, the biological structure, an idea he expressly describes as impossible (‘the perishable cannot become imperishable’) but in the different form of the life of the resurrection, as shown in the risen Lord (p 246).

Ratzinger could not be more explicit about his interpretation of ‘the biblical pronouncements about the resurrection’. He says that

their essential content is not the conception of a restoration of bodies to souls after a long interval; their aim is to tell men that they, they themselves, live on . . . because they are known and loved by God in a way that they can no longer perish . . . the essential part of man, the person, remains . . . it goes on existing because it lives in God’s memory’ (p 243).

The resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Given the connection that Scripture makes between the resurrection of Christ and that of his people (1 Cor. 15:15; 1 Cor. 6:14), we might wonder how such views affect Ratzinger’s theology of the resurrection of Christ. Certainly, he dismisses an ‘earthly and material notion of resurrection’ and resists defining it as a real historical event.11 ‘The Resurrection cannot be an historical event in the same sense as the Crucifixion is’, he says. ‘For that matter, there is no account that depicts it as such, nor is it circumscribed in time otherwise than by the eschatological-symbolical expression “the third day”.’12

Ratzinger brushes aside all attempts to verify the resurrection as a historical event and asserts that it was really a matter of personal experience. Christ is ‘the one who died on the cross and to the eye of faith, rose again from the dead’.13 How far this is from the biblical truth of passages such as John 20:27: ‘Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing’. What a contrast with the clear and faithful summary provided in the Westminster Confession: ‘On the third day he arose from the dead, with the same body in which he suffered’ (8:4).

The true doctrine of the resurrection of the body.

Ratzinger flatly denies the fundamental biblical truth of the resurrection of the body, erring in not knowing ‘the Scriptures, nor the power of God’ (Matt. 22:29).14 It is a grave heresy, whose tendency is to ‘overthrow the faith of some’ (2 Tim. 2:18). It is evident from Scripture that the body that will be resurrected can be said to be the very same body that we now possess: ‘this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality’ (1 Cor. 15:53). ‘He that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you’ (Rom. 8:11). What is presently ‘our vile body’ shall be changed and made like to the glorious body of Christ (Phil. 3:21).15 This is well summarised by the Westminster Confession: ‘All the dead shall be raised up, with the selfsame bodies and none other, although with different qualities, which shall be united again to their souls for ever’ (32:2).

The bodies of believers are united to Christ (1 Cor. 6:14-15) even when they rest in the grave until the resurrection (1 Thess. 4:14). To deny the resurrection of the body is not only to hand some victory to death and the evil one that ‘had the power of death’, but to take away from the fulness of redemption in this area (Rom. 8:23).

Official Roman Catholic doctrine.

Is Ratzinger in breach of Rome’s official doctrine on this matter? A couple of years before Ratzinger was appointed to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a ‘Letter on Certain Questions Concerning Eschatology’ was issued (23 July 1979). This avoided the use of the term soul but stated instead that there is a ‘spiritual element’ in mankind that continues and exists independently after death. It did affirm, however, that resurrection is a resurrection of the whole person, body and soul. This was in order to counter the popularity of the ‘resurrection in death’ theology among Roman Catholic theologians. The Fourth Lateran Council has asserted – and Councils are regarded as infallible in Roman Catholic dogma – that all men ‘will rise again with their own bodies which they now bear about with them’. Ratzinger was involved in producing the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was approved with ‘Apostolic Authority’ by the previous Pope in 1992. This document states that ‘the “resurrection of the flesh” (the literal formulation of the Apostles’ Creed) means not only that the immortal soul will live on after death, but that even our “mortal body” will come to life again’ (para 536; compare 997, 1016-17). While this could be more precise it appears reasonably categorical.

How then may the current Pope continue to deny such a statement of the Church’s official teaching?16 It can be done only by the Jesuitical distinction that he makes between his official and private views (despite the fact that his books are all marketed with ‘Pope Benedict XVI’ more prominently displayed than his real name).17 Despite the seemingly-binding nature of the new Catechism, some point to the fact that it was not prepared by a full Council and are able to take some refuge in Ratzinger’s comments that the Catechism seeks to leave debated questions as open as possible.18 Ratzinger also views doctrinal formulations as having an ‘infinitely broken nature’ in ‘man’s continual effort to go beyond himself and reach up to God’ (p 98).

It is alarming to think of the extent of the heresies held by those who have authority within the bounds of Rome if Ratzinger is to be considered conservative. An explanation closer to the heart of the matter is that it is typical of Roman Catholicism to say both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ at the same time to biblical doctrine.19 It says ‘yes’ to the authority of Scripture but simultaneously ‘no’ by exalting the Church’s teaching above it. It says ‘yes’ to Christ as mediator, while also saying ‘no’ in giving priests, the Church, saints and Mary the real mediatorial function as ‘second Christs’. It says ‘yes’ to a certain definition of justification by faith while giving a firm ‘no’ to justification by faith alone.

This is not only entirely contrary to the nature of truth but also to the command of Christ (Matt. 5:37) and the example of the Apostle Paul whose word was not ‘yea and nay’ (2 Cor. 1:18-19). This is also part of that ‘all deceivableness of unrighteousness’ (2 Thess. 2:10) with which the system presided over by the man of sin is characterised.20 It is well able to bring together the incompatible as well as the diverse. There is a deceivability that goes beyond any other, and a particular deceit in presenting itself with an appeal for every kind of person, whatever form of belief or unbelief they prefer. Woe unto any ‘Evangelical’ deceived by it.


  1. Norman Geisler, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, NC, rejoiced ‘in the choice because he’s going to hold the line and he’s not going to allow the liberal element in the Catholic Church to reverse any of those things’. Charles Colson hailed it as ‘a great choice for orthodoxy’. John Witvliet of Calvin College spoke of the appeal of his writings for Protestants as well as Roman Catholics (Christianity Today, 18/04/05).
  2. ‘What can Protestants expect from the new Pope?’ posted on on 21/04/05. Ratzinger’s major work, Introduction to Christianity is said to have been influential in persuading some Evangelical thinkers that a doctrinal meeting point could be established with Roman Catholics.
  3. Horton has since clarified that he was endorsing an ’eminently useful guide for . . . the thought of an important theologian of our time’, rather than the theology of the book.
  4. This is largely because Ratzinger’s theology is more influenced by Augustine than Thomas Aquinas and he refers to Scripture more frequently than other Roman Catholic theologians.
  5. Ratzinger even wrote a speech for Cardinal Josef Frings in which the Congregation for the Defence of the Faith (of which Ratzinger would later become head) was condemned. A sketch of Ratzinger’s theological career, including his heretical views in relation to the doctrine of Scripture, is available in ‘Who is Benedict XVI?’ in the book, Pope Benedict XVI and the United Kingdom (Free Presbyterian Publications, 2010).
  6. This was evident when Ratzinger was influential in the discipline of the theologian Hans Küng, despite having contributed, only a few years earlier, to The Problem of Infallibility, a book by Roman Catholic theologians, defending Küng’s statements on papal infallibility.
  7. The Ratzinger Report: an exclusive interview on the state of the Church, with Vittorio Messori, Ignatius Press, 1985, p 18.
  8. First published 1968, reprinted repeatedly (latest reprint 2004, with a new preface by Ratzinger; all quotations are from this edition).
  9. The Apostle Paul made no such concessions to unbelief in his day (Acts 17:18, 32).
  10. Introduction, p 244. This refusal to identify the real substance of the soul connects with Ratzinger’s doctrine of God as ‘entirely relationship’ rather than substance (Many Religions – One Covenant: Israel, the Church, and the World, Ignatius Press, 1998, p 77).
  11. Introduction, p 212. He says that it is ‘impossible for the Gospels to describe the encounter with the risen Christ; that is why they can only stammer when they speak of these meetings and seem to provide contradictory descriptions of them’ (Introduction, p 211).
  12. Principles of Catholic Theology: Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology, Ignatius Press, 2009, p 186. This is an obvious reference to the work of Ratzinger’s longstanding colleague, Cardinal Karl Lehmann, who denies the historicity of the resurrection. Lehmann’s 1969 book, Auferweckt am ditten Tag nach der Schrif, denied that the expression, ‘the third day’, should be taken literally. Ratzinger established a theological journal with Lehmann in 1972 and the latter was on his staff in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for 10 years.
  13. Introduction, p 152, my emphasis.
  14. Augustine of Hippo said that: ‘There is no article of the Christian faith which has encountered such contradiction as that of the resurrection of the flesh’ (Sermon on Psalm 89).
  15. See also Job 19:25; Isa. 26:19; Dan. 12:2; John 5:28-29; Rev. 20:13. For the resurrection body of believers as like to Christ, see 1 Cor. 15:20, 23 and 1 John 3:2.
  16. A minority of traditionalist Romanists called sedevacantists believe that the current Pope together with his last three predecessors are heretics and cannot be regarded as valid popes.
  17. ‘It goes without saying that this book is absolutely not a magisterial act, but is only the expression of my personal search . . . So everyone is free to disagree with me’ (Preface to Jesus of Nazareth by Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, translated by Adrian Walker, Random House/Doubleday, 2007).
  18. Joseph A Komonchak, ‘The authority of the Catechism’, in Introducing the Catechism of the Catholic Church: traditional themes and contemporary issues, ed. Berard L Marthaler, Paulist Press, 1994, pp 18-31). In Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian issued by Ratzinger in 1990, there are complicated qualifications as to when and how views differing from official doctrine can be proposed: for example, ‘witholding assent’ is distinguished from ‘dissent’.
  19. This is mentioned by Leonardo De Chirico in ‘Roman Catholicism and the Evangelical Alternative’, Foundations (Spring, 2007).
  20. Calvin notes that this ‘must consist partly in false doctrine and errors’.

Taken with permission from the September 2010 Free Presbyterian Magazine.

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