The theological world of today is bemused by an eschatological cliché that has come to be accepted as almost axiomatic: Christianity has no doctrine of immortality but only a belief in resurrection.
A pioneer in this view is Oscar Cullmann. In his Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead Cullmann tries to show from the New Testament—and from Plato’s Phaedo—that the two ideas are radically incompatible. He sets in contrast the deaths of Socrates and Jesus and believes that our Lord’s expiring agony stemmed from the seriousness with which he took the implications of the death of the body for the continuance of man’s spiritual existence. Socrates’ death, on the other hand, is said to reflect a dualistic rejection, typically Greek, of the body, and an unrealistic view of the nature of “soul” or “spirit.”
It seems strange to select Socrates as the major bearer of Hellenistic thought at this point. There were, after all, many strains in Greek thought about the body. Gymnastike was an indispensable element in Hellenistic education—hardly an evidence for the dualism that seems to worry Professor Cullmann so greatly. Nor are we convinced by hearing that the body enjoyed positive appreciation among the Greeks in spite of its corporeality. Could it be that the Greeks simply reflected the common sentiments of humanity in seeing the spiritual part of man as imperishable?
To show that a doctrine of the post mortem survival of the soul or spirit of man is in radical opposition to the Christian understanding, it is necessary first to demonstrate that there are no clear traces of such a teaching in the Old Testament and/or in Judaism. One is impressed by the repeated statements in the Old Testament that the dying “go to their fathers” or “are gathered unto their people” (Gen. 15:15; 25:8; 35:29). These and similar passages hardly suggest a belief in the annihilation of the personality at death. And if someone objects that Hebrew thought made no distinction between body and spirit, he might read Ecclesiastes 12:7: “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was, and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.”
Cullmann insists that the New Testament view of man is not Greek “but is connected with Jewish conceptions.” That the New Testament uses concepts such as body, soul, flesh, and spirit, but only in sharpest contrast with their earlier meanings to the Hebrew mind, seems difficult to defend. Nor does the Hebrew usage rule out the possibility that in Old Testament times, thoughtful Hebrews had rather clear conceptions of the survival of the “inner man” as the “outer man” perishes.
In this matter, much hinges upon the attitude one assumes toward our Lord’s death. If he merely drew back in horror from the annihilative effect of bodily death upon the total personality, it might be shown that in his death he grappled simply with this problem. If, however, in his suffering he underwent the pains of spiritual death (i.e., of banishment from God’s recognized and authentic universe into “outer darkness”), then his agony was focused upon something far more profound.
Not only so, but after the “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani,” which seems to have been his anguished response to the Father’s momentary abandonment of the Son, his bearing changed to one of confidence and calm—a bearing so much more affirmative than that of Socrates that Professor Cullmann’s contrast between the two deaths becomes in reality the reverse of what he intended.
Again, the New Testament scarcely lends itself so easily to the support of the “resurrection, not immortality” cliché. In his dying, our Lord commended his spirit to God as it left the body, having agreed, an hour or two earlier, to meet the penitent gangster “in paradise.” Paul affirmed his conviction that to be “absent from the body” meant being “present with the Lord”—with no suggestion of an interval of suspended personhood. Again, the souls of the martyred ones “under the altar” appear as being able not only to speak but also to remember (Rev. 6:9–10).
Some defend the validity of the view under study in terms of its simplicity. No intermediate state is needed, so the conventional wisdom runs, and there is no need to answer the question of what organs of perception and what means for interaction would have to be provided if souls had no real existence between death and the final resurrection. There are, to be sure, unanswered questions in these and related areas. But mere simplicity does not of necessity prove a doctrine.
Some argue that the overcoming of death by the cross provides “a new creation” that would be violated if the souls of men were immortal—“inherently immortal” is the standard expression. But perhaps the souls of men have already been created to endure, so that the “new creation” implies a radical moral (as opposed to ontological) change.
Again, those who advance the view of “resurrection, not immortality” have no coherent explanation for the condition and destination of the finally impenitent. Some have even alleged that those who defend the position of the imperishability of the human soul do so in order to shore up a teaching of eternal punishment. Their own teaching seems to accept, as a hidden assumption, either some form of universalism or else an annihilation of the finally corrupt and terminally spiritually alienated by a simple “passing over” at the final resurrection.
Perhaps our paradigm comes from the words of our Lord himself. He saw both Lazarus and the rich man not only as existing after their deaths but as having active contact with their environments and, as well, with the allegiances and relationships they had while in the body. Surely he did not portray them as existing in some state of transcendent annihilation or of suspended vitality, pending the Eschaton.
Evangelicals will do well to take very seriously the words of Dean Krister Stendahl in the introduction to his symposium Immortality and Resurrection. Especially meaningful is his statement that this theological conclusion is “the mature fruit of radical historical criticism.” In other words, the denial of personal survival stems from an antithesis that is set up strictly by modern hermeneutical methods, and would scarcely have been formulated apart from the scholarship of the mid-twentieth century.
Thus this “newer” view rests upon a methodology that claims near-infallibility for itself but may prove later to be one more theological fad.
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