For some coursework, I’m reading N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope, which explores the Christian hope birthed by the resurrection of Jesus. Wright points out that the belief that we have immortal souls that survive after the body’s death is a development coming more out of Greek thought than the early church. At the time of Jesus, many Jews (including the Pharisees) believed that there would be an ultimate resurrection, bringing dead bodies back to life to be reunited with the spirits that had been resting in Paradise and waiting for that day. “Soul” in Hebrew actually described the whole person, including the physical body—the separation of spirit from body was seen as unnatural and temporary. What the Jews of the time did not expect was for any one person to experience resurrection before the final resurrection, which is what Christians believed happened with Jesus.
So the core Christian teaching about our resurrection is no small point, and it’s no surprise that many people cannot accept it. Again, from the Catechism (#996, 999):
From the beginning, Christian faith in the resurrection has met with incomprehension and opposition. . . . It is very commonly accepted that the life of the human person continues in a spiritual fashion after death. But how can we believe that this body, so clearly mortal, could rise to everlasting life?
How? Christ is raised with his own body: “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself,” but he did not return to an earthly life. So, in him “all of them will rise again with their own bodies which they now bear,” but Christ “will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body,” into a “spiritual body”:
[quoting now 1 Corinthians 15:35-37, 42, 52-53] But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” You foolish man! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel. . . . What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. . . . The dead will be raised imperishable. . . . For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality.
For the Christian, resurrection is no metaphor, although we do use the term metaphorically at times. But when we bury our dead*, we do believe they will be raised up, just as Jesus rose—that we will experience resurrection that is real and accomplished by the very power of God.
*Resurrection will happen regardless of how the person died or if the body was buried, cremated, annihilated on the battlefield, lost at sea, and so on.