Augustine on the Identity of the Resurrected Body

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By Jason Schwartz, University of Dallas

            The resurrection of the body stands among the most difficult doctrines of the Christian Faith, one which was ridiculed by the ancient philosophers and largely ignored by contemporary culture. One may be somewhat sympathetic with those who reject the dogma: even if one manages to avoid a contempt of the body that would render resurrection unthinkable, it seems absurd to claim that the body that is constantly in flux should return in the perfect rest of beatitude. Further, the doctrinal requirement that the resurrected body be the same body as the present one seems to fly in the face of ordinary experience of decay. In the final book of his City of God, Augustine attempts to defend the dogma against these objections, availing himself of his anthropology to argue for its coherence. In Augustine’s conception of the resurrection of the dead, the resurrected body will be numerically identical to the present body as ordered by the same soul to the same kinds of actions, but it will be spiritualized according to the elevation and spiritualization of those actions.

            The first objections to the resurrection in City of God involve abortions and those who died as infants: it seems that, to receive the same body, they must receive their immature bodies at the resurrection, but it is improper that infants (especially baptized infants, who are in beatitude) should retain their diminutive bodies forever. Augustine’s concise reply invokes the potentiality of the body to be fully grown.[1] Although infants die with immature bodies, their bodies implicitly contain their full statue as a possibility, should they reach maturity. Consequently, the same body may be brought to full stature in the resurrection by God’s power, rapidly achieving the dimensions it would have come to by gradual maturation. Thus, the difference between natural growth and miraculous resurrection in an adult body is merely a temporal one. Just as the same person has the same body both as an infant and as an adult, so the resurrected infants will have the same bodies in mature form.

            The early placement of these objections and their replies is notable. Unlike the later objections involving cannibalism, Augustine’s reply to these early objections centers on the purely natural process of growth. If the infant and the adult have the same body in the pilgrim state, then nothing prevents the infant and the adult from having the same body in the resurrected state. Augustine’s reply, therefore, rests on a natural conception of human identity, founded on his anthropology. Though Augustine was aware of Aristotle’s De anima, his anthropology does not formulate psychosomatic unity precisely in terms of form and matter. He does clearly maintain that the human person is a unity of body and soul and (against the Manichaeans) that this unity is natural and good.[2] Moreover, certain aspects of the hylomorphic conception appear in Augustine’s account: the body derives its order from the soul, and the body and the soul are defined relatively to each other.[3] Consequently, Augustine’s defense of the identity of the body will be acceptable even to more strongly hylomorphic accounts of psychosomatic unity.

Of the similarities between the Augustinian and the Aristotelian accounts, the greatest may be the concept of instrumentality. As Aristotle argues that the soul is the first act of an instrumental body,[4] Augustine argues that the body is an instrument of the soul. At one point in an early work against the Manichaeans, he goes so far as to define the human person as “a rational soul using a mortal and earthly body.”[5] Use entails first a superiority of the user to the used and secondly an intention toward an end. A good instrument will be entirely passive to the agent, extending the agent’s capacities to accomplish a purpose but not attempting any action of its own. Therefore, the body of an integral human being would be passive and obedient to the soul, but it would extend the soul’s capabilities toward an end, such as the sensitive apprehension of material things or locomotion. Any rebellion of the body against the soul is a result of the Fall: after the Fall, the body now weighs down the soul—even to such a degree that Augustine at times sounds like a straightforward Platonist.[6]

            The opposite side of the relation begins to clarify the close connection between soul and body in Augustine, so that the goodness of their unity becomes more apparent. The soul is intentionally related to the body. The user of an instrument has a double intention, primarily to accomplish some purpose (generally, one that is impossible or difficult without the instrument) and secondarily, as a means, to take up the instrument itself. In the order of accomplishment, these intentions are fulfilled in opposite order, so that the agent first takes up the instrument and then uses it for a task. Similarly, the soul primarily intends certain ends, such as the apprehension of material bodies, and secondarily animates the body for these ends.[7] In the order of accomplishment, the soul first and fundamentally animates the body, and then it acts through the body in sensation and locomotion.

            Nonetheless, the soul does not use the body in a merely external way, as a workman uses tools that are alien to himself, as a purely Platonic reading of Augustine might suggest. Rather, the soul and the body are closely related in Augustine’s view: the body is ordered by the soul, and the soul is oriented toward animating the body.[8] On the one hand, the soul tempers the body for its purposes, establishing an order within the body so that it can accomplish its ends. On the other hand, Augustine defines the human soul as “a certain substance, participating in reason, adapted to rule the body.”[9] The soul is not unaffected by its union with the body, so that it might transmigrate to some other body or exist before the body. Rather, the soul is naturally fitted or adapted to animating and ordering its body. Thus, the body and soul do form a single substance by their mutual adaptation, but the soul is superior to the body and has more the character of a substance.

            Augustine’s anthropological statements provide a context through which to understand his concept of bodily identity. Because Augustine construes the body primarily in terms of instrumentality, the actions performed through the body—nutrition, sensation, locomotion, and the like—are intrinsic to it as ends for which the soul animates it. Since the body is ordered by the soul, it will be the same body only if it is animated by the same soul: one soul cannot be replaced by another in ruling the same body. In addition, since the body is ordered by the soul for certain kinds of actions, it will be the same body only if it is ordered to those same kinds of actions. Thus, a human body cannot be ordered by a human soul for the purpose of flying like a bird; if it were ordered to this different kind of action, it would be a different body. Accordingly, a body will be this body only if it is animated by this soul for these kinds of actions.  

In this light, Augustine’s conception of the identity of the infant’s body with the adult’s becomes clearer. The difference in bodily size does not imply any difference in the soul, so the identity of soul is conserved as one ages. Further, as Augustine states, “every material substance… seems to contain within itself what one might call a pattern of everything which does not exist—or rather, which is as yet latent—but which in the course of time will come into existence, or, rather, into sight.”[10] The structure of the infant’s body already reflects its future capacity to perform the adult’s actions. Therefore, although the infant’s body may not presently be capable of achieving all the purposes for which the soul animates it, those purposes are already present in the soul’s ordering of the body. Both the numerical identity of soul and the generic identity of intended actions hold of the same person as infant and as adult, whether that person naturally matures or is raised as an adult. Consequently, the precise question of a person’s age does not present a problem for an account of the resurrection.

One might insist on a further requirement for the resurrection of the same body, that there be continuity between the natural body and the resurrected body. In the infant example, the identity of the body as first infant and then adult is most recognizable in the continuous animation of the body by the soul, so it seems that the continuity is especially necessary for the identity of the body. One might formalize the argument as follows. The body is constituted by the soul’s action of use, by which it animates the body. If actions are multiplied by discontinuity—as seems reasonable, given that motions are multiplied by discontinuity[11]—a discontinuity in the soul’s animation of the body would multiply the animation, and consequently the body that it constitutes. Therefore, it seems that somatic identity over time requires continuity of animation.

However, insisting upon this condition leads to a denial of the resurrection altogether. Unless the soul never truly ceases to animate the body—that is, unless the human being never dies—the resurrection will follow the discontinuity of animation that is the interim state of the soul. Following the continuity condition, the resurrected body would be an entirely different body from the natural one; the resurrection would merely be a special kind of reincarnation, in which the soul happens to pass into a new body that is generically identical but numerically distinct from the present one. However, the denial of resurrection in the same body is heresy. To avoid this conclusion, one must deny the premise that continuity is a necessary condition for resurrection.

            Having eliminated the most likely candidate for a third necessary condition, one may reasonably suggest that the two necessary conditions of the same soul and the same kinds of actions are jointly sufficient. The resurrected body is the same simply due to being animated by the same soul for the same kinds of actions. However, this claim is rather weak: it is consistent with theories that God will create new bodies ex nihilo at the end of time. Provided those bodies be animated by the same souls for the same purposes, they would be the same bodies—even if the corpses of the present bodies were still rotting in the earth. Although it is not precisely a denial of resurrection in the same body, this logical possibility seems outrageously unfitting and incongruous with the import of the resurrection, as well as Christian practice.

Because the somatic identity does not intrinsically require continuity between the natural body and the resurrected body, whether any parts of the natural body will be included in the resurrection is a question of a future contingent fact, rather than necessity. Accordingly, one may answer the question only by appeal (primarily) to Revelation or (secondarily) to fittingness. To eliminate this possibility, Augustine makes the much stronger claim that our present bodies will be restored, availing himself of a single verse from the Gospel of Luke: “not a hair on your head will be destroyed” (Lk 21:18).[12] Given these words of Scripture, Augustine’s faces a twofold task. First, he must interpret the text in a way that neither robs it of its literal meaning nor commits it to absurdities. Second, he must defend the possibility of this interpretation against philosophical doubts. Should he accomplish both these tasks, he will have established the truth of what the text asserts.

            Immediately, the verse from Scripture seems to commit one to a degree of continuity between the present body and the resurrected body. However, considering that Christ has just predicted that some of his disciples will be put to death (Lk 21:16), his words cannot mean that the natural body will not be harmed. Given the reasonable possibility that the entire body might be consumed—one can think, for example, of a martyr burned alive, or simply of a corpse that completely decomposes over a long time—one cannot posit even that some part of the body must remain to be resurrected. Nonetheless, the text points to a weak continuity, such that at least some of the matter that composed the body at some point in its life will be returned to it. If one connects the verse, as Augustine does in a different context,[13] to our Lord’s assurance that “even the hairs of your head have all been counted” (Lk 12:7), it seems appropriate that the matter that used to compose the body not be lost completely but be restored to it.

            For this reason, one finds in Augustine’s work a careful defense of God’s power to restore the matter of the body in the resurrection, yet without denying that God may create new matter as well. In answer to the standard objection of cannibalism—a cannibal and his victim are both composed partially of the same flesh, but both cannot have the same matter in the resurrection—Augustine takes a twofold approach. First, he argues that the flesh belongs more properly to the victim and will be restored to him, not the cannibal. Second, he appeals to something like what is now the law of conservation of energy: whatever matter the cannibal replaced with his victim’s flesh dissipated somehow (by evaporation, in Augustine’s opinion) and remains scattered somewhere in the cosmos. Surely the omniscient and omnipotent God can trace the matter and restore it to the cannibal. Due to the striking image of God collecting cannibal flesh from the corners of the universe, it is easy to miss Augustine’s almost off-handed remark that follows: “even if [what had evaporated] had perished entirely, so that no part of its substance remained in any hidden place of nature, the Almighty could still restore it by such means as He willed.”[14] Augustine first attempts a solution that preserves the continuity of matter between the natural and the resurrected body, but he accepts that, in the absurd situation where the matter has been annihilated completely, God’s power is sufficient to restore it to the body somehow.

            Having completed his defense of somatic identity in the resurrection, Augustine turns toward the major difference between the body now and the body then, namely, the spiritual character of the resurrected (and glorified) body. He references 1 Corinthians 15, stating that “the flesh will then be spiritual, and subject to the spirit; but it will be flesh and not spirit, just as the spirit, even when carnal and subject to the flesh, is still spirit and not flesh.”[15] The glorified body is not merely ensouled but “enspirited” in such a way that it is fit for heavenly glory.[16] Precisely what this means for the body will probably remain unclear until it occurs, but one may conjecture from present anthropology.

            Augustine’s account of perception in the resurrected state provides a glimpse, though admittedly a conjectural one, into what elevates the body in the glorified state. As he points out, bodily eyes cannot see God directly, and in the resurrection even visible things will be knowable without sensation.[17] Nonetheless, everything in the new creation is transformed for the worship of God.[18] If the eyes continue to function for sight—as Augustine’s concept of somatic identity requires that they do—they must be elevated to see God in all things.[19] The action of sight remains what it is, a mode of perceiving material bodies, but it is raised to a new and invisible object, the transcendent God, through those bodies. To return to the necessary conditions and jointly sufficient conditions for somatic identity, the body is animated (or now “enspirited”) by the same soul for the same kind of actions, but these actions take on their elevated character from the worship in which all things will participate. It is the same body, but due to the glorified actions to which it is directed, it is the same body as glorified, not as merely natural.

            As paradoxical as it may seem, Augustine’s account of resurrection preserves the identity of the body precisely by emphasizing the subordination of the body to the soul and by weakening the continuity condition of identity. In doing so, he not only answers the standard objections to the resurrection based on changes in size and shared matter, but even provides an account of bodily identity with ramifications for the meaning of the body’s glorification. Although this more subtle understanding of the body’s identity does not preclude the more intuitive notion of continuity—rather, it defends it as entirely appropriate and knowable through Revelation—its clarification of anthropology provides insight into both man’s future state and his present one. In this way, Augustine’s account is eschatological in the sense that it both attempts to make true statements about the end times and (in doing so) reveals man’s present condition in light of his future as known by Revelation.


Aristotle. De anima. Translated by Mark Shiffman. Indianapolis: Focus, 2011.

———. Physics. Translated by C. D. C. Reeve. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2018.

Ashley, Benedict M. Theologies of the Body: Humanist and Christian. St. Louis: Pope John Center, 1985.

Augustine of Hippo. The City of God Against the Pagans. Translated by R. W. Dyson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

———. Opera omnia. Vols. 32–46, Patrologia Latina, edited by J.-P. Migne. Paris: 1841. Google Books.

Berry, John Anthony. “What Makes Us Human? Augustine on Interiority, Exteriority and the Self.” Scientia et Fides 5, no 2 (): 87–106.

Buckenmeyer, Robert E. “Augustine and the Life of Man’s Body in the Early Dialogues.” Augustinian Studies 2 (1971): 197–211.

Daley, Brian E. “From Exemplum to Sacramentum: Augustine’s Eschatological Hermeneutic of Salvation.” Journal of Religion and Society, Supplement 15 (2018): 197–211.

Morales, Isaac Augustine. “‘With My Body I Thee Worship’: New Creation, Beatific Vision, and the Liturgical Consummation of All Things.” Pro Ecclesia 25, no. 3 (August ): 337–56.

O’Neill, Seamus J. “Aequales angeli sunt: Angelology, Demonology, and the Resurrection of the Body in Augustine and Anselm.” Saint Anselm Journal 12, no. 1 (Fall ): 1–18.

Rombs, Ronnie J. Saint Augustine and the Fall of the Soul. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2006.

[1] Augustine, City of God, trans. R. W. Dyson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 22.14.

[2] “For they say—and they speak truly—that the first and greatest requirement of nature, so to speak, is that a man should cherish himself, and should for that reason naturally flee from death: that he should be a friend to himself, in that he should vehemently wish and desire to remain alive in this conjunction of body and soul.” Augustine, City of God, trans. R. W. Dyson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 19.4: emphasis mine. Cf. John Anthony Berry, “What Makes Us Human? Augustine on Interiority, Exteriority and the Self,” Scientia et Fides 5, no. 2 (): 96.

[3] Robert E. Buckenmeyer, “Augustine and the Life of Man’s Body in the Early Dialogues,” Augustinian Studies 2 (1971): 206.

[4] Organikos is taken here to mean that the body has an instrumental character, which is expressed in its division into organs; thus, the soul is not only a formal and final cause of the animal but also uses the body in a way. Aristotle, De anima, trans. Mark Shiffman (Indianapolis: Focus, 2011), 412b4; cf. 412b4n4.

[5] “Anima rationalis mortali et terreno utens corpore.” Augustine, De moribus ecclesiae catholicae et de moribus Manichaeorum, in Sancti Aurelii Augustini Hipponis Episcopi Opera Omnia, vol. 32, Patrologia Latina, ed. J.-P. Migne (Paris: Garnier, 1841), 1.27.52. Translation mine. Cf. Berry, 97.

[6] Cf. Ronnie Rombs, Saint Augustine and the Fall of the Soul (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2006), 40.

[7] Buckenmeyer, 203.

[8] Buckenmeyer, 206.

[9] “Substantia quaedam rationis particeps, regendo corpori accomodata.” Augustine, De quantitate animae, in Sancti Aurelii Augustini Hipponis Episcopi Opera Omnia: Tomus Primus, vol. 32, Patrologia Latina, ed. J.-P. Migne (Paris: Garnier, 1841), 13.22. Translation mine.

[10] Augustine, City of God 22.14.

[11] Aristotle, Physics, trans. C. D. C. Reeve (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2018), 228b4.

[12] Augustine, City of God 22.21; cf. 22.12, 14, 19. One might adduce other classical Scriptural texts, such as Job 19:26 or 2 Macc 7:11, as pointing indirectly to some degree of material continuity between the natural body and the resurrected body.

[13] Augustine, City of God 22.19.

[14] Augustine, City of God 22.20.

[15] Augustine, City of God 22.21.

[16] Seamus J. O’Neill, “Aequales angelis sunt: Angelology, Demonology, and the Resurrection of the Body in Augustine and Anselm,” Saint Anselm Journal 12, no. 1 (Fall ): 13.

[17] Isaac Augustine Morales, “‘With My Body I Thee Worship’: New Creation, Beatific Vision, and the Liturgical Consummation of All Things,” Pro Ecclesia 25, no. 3 (August ): 354.

[18] Cf. Morales, 351.

[19] Morales, 353. Characteristically, Augustine compares the vision of God in material things to the vision of life in bodies.