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Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? by Oscar Cullmann


Oscar Cullmann, D.Th, D.D., was Professor of the Theological Faculty of the University of Basel and of the Sorbonne in Paris. The present work is the translation of a study already published in Switzerland, (Mélanges offerts à KARL BARTH à l’occasion de ses 70 ans [pubi. by Reinhardt, Bâle, 1956][Theologische Zeitschrift, N. 2, pp. 126ff]. See also Verbum Caro [1956], pp. 58ff.) of which a summary has appeared in various French periodicals.


Chapter 1: The Last Enemy


Socrates and Jesus

Nothing shows more clearly than the contrast between the death of Socrates and that of Jesus (a contrast which was often cited, though for other purposes, by early opponents of Christianity) that the biblical view of death from the first is focused in salvation-history and so departs completely from the Greek conception. (Material on this contrast in F. Benz, Der gekreuzigte Gerechte bei Plato im N.T. und in der alten Kirche [1950]).

In Plato’s impressive description of the death of Socrates, in the Phaedo, occurs perhaps the highest and most sublime doctrine ever presented on the immortality of the soul. What gives his argument its unexcelled value is his scientific reserve, his disclaimer of any proof having mathematical validity. We know the arguments he offers for the immortality of the soul. Our body is only an outer garment which, as long as we live, prevents our soul from moving freely and from living in conformity to its proper eternal essence. It imposes upon the soul a law which is not appropriate to it. The soul, confined within the body, belongs to the eternal world. As long as we live, our soul finds itself in a prison, that is, in a body essentially alien to it. Death, in fact, is the great liberator. It looses the chains, since it leads the soul out of the prison of the body and back to its eternal home. Since body and soul are radically different from one another and belong to different worlds, the destruction of the body cannot mean the destruction of the soul, any more than a musical composition can be destroyed when the instrument is destroyed. Although the proofs of the immortality of the soul do not have for Socrates himself the same value as the proofs of a mathematical theorem, they nevertheless attain within their own sphere the highest possible degree of validity, and make immortality so probable that it amounts to a ‘fair chance’ for man. And when the great Socrates traced the arguments for immortality in his address to his disciples on the day of his death, he did not merely teach this doctrine: at that moment he lived his doctrine. He showed how we serve the freedom of the soul, even in this present life, when we occupy ourselves with the eternal truths of philosophy. For through philosophy we penetrate into that eternal world of ideas to which the soul belongs, and we free the soul from the prison of the body. Death does no more than complete this liberation. Plato shows us how Socrates goes to his death in complete peace and composure. The death of Socrates is a beautiful death. Nothing is seen here of death’s terror. Socrates cannot fear death, since indeed it sets us free from the body. Whoever fears death proves that he loves the world of the body, that he is thoroughly entangled in the world of sense. Death is the soul’s great friend. So he teaches; and so, in wonderful harmony with his teaching, he dies -- this man who embodied the Greek world in its noblest form.

And now let us hear how Jesus dies. In Gethsemane He knows that death stands before Him, just as Socrates expected death on his last day. The Synoptic Evangelists furnish us, by and large, with a unanimous report. Jesus begins_‘to tremble and be distressed’, writes Mark (14:33). ‘My soul is troubled, even to death’, He says to His disciples.( Despite the parallel Jonah 4:9 which is cited by E. Klostermann, Das Markus-Evangelium, 3rd Edition [1936], ad loc., and E. Lohmeyer, Das Evangelium des Markus [1937], ad loc., I agree with J. Weiss, Das Markus-Evangelium, 3rd Edition [1917], ad loc., that the explanation: ‘I am so sad that I prefer to die’ in this situation where Jesus knows that He is going to die [the scene is the Last Supper!] is completely unsatisfactory; moreover, Weiss’s interpretation: ‘My affliction is so great that I am sinking under the weight of it’ is supported by Mark 15:34. Also Luke 12:50, ‘How distressed I am until the baptism [=death] takes place’, allows of no other explanation.) Jesus is so thoroughly human that He shares the natural fear of death. (Old and recent commentators J. Wellhausen, Das Evangelium Marci, 2nd Edition [1909], ad. loc., J. Schniewind in N.T. Deutsch [1934], ad. loc, B. Lohmeyer, Das Evangelium des Markus [1937], ad loc., seek in vain to avoid this conclusion, which is supported by the strong Greek expressions for ‘tremble and shrink’, by giving explanations which do not fit the situation, in which Jesus already knows that He must suffer for the sins of His people [Last Supper]. In Luke 12:50 it is completely impossible to explain away the ‘distress’ in the face of death, and also in view of the fact that Jesus is abandoned by God on the Cross [Mark 15:34], it is not possible to explain the Gethsemane scene except through this distress at the prospect of being abandoned by God, an abandonment which will be the work of Death, God’s great enemy.) Jesus is afraid, though not as a coward would be of the men who will kill Him, still less of the pain and grief which precede death. He is afraid in the face of death itself. Death for Him is not something divine : it is something dreadful. Jesus does not want to be alone in this moment. He knows, of course, that the Father stands by to help Him. He looks to Him in this decisive moment as He has done throughout his life. He turns to Him with all His human fear of this great enemy, death. He is afraid of death. It is useless to try to explain away Jesus’ fear as reported by the Evangelists. The opponents of Christianity who already in the first centuries made the contrast between the death of Socrates and the death of Jesus saw more clearly here than the exponents of Christianity. He was really afraid. Here is nothing of the composure of Socrates, who met death peacefully as a friend. To be sure, Jesus already knows the task which has been given Him: to suffer death; and He has already spoken the words: ‘I have a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how distressed (or afraid) I am until it is accomplished’ (Luke 19:50). Now, when God’s enemy stands before Him, He cries to God, whose omnipotence He knows: ‘All things are possible with thee; let this cup pass from me’ (Mark 14:36). And when He concludes, ‘Yet not as I will, but as thou wilt’, this does not mean that at the last He, like Socrates, regards death as the friend, the liberator. No, He means only this: If this greatest of all terrors, death, must befall Me according to Thy will, then I submit to this horror. Jesus knows that in itself, because death is the enemy of God, to die means to be utterly forsaken. Therefore He cries to God; in face of this enemy of God He does not want to be alone. He wants to remain as closely tied to God as He has been throughout His whole earthly life. For whoever is in the hands of death is no longer in the hands of God, but in the hands of God’s enemy. At this moment, Jesus seeks the assistance, not only of God, but even of His disciples. Again and again He interrupts His prayer and goes to His most intimate disciples, who are trying to fight off sleep in order to be awake when the men come to arrest their Master. They try; but they do not succeed, and Jesus must wake them again and again. Why does He want them to keep awake? He does not want to be alone. When the terrible enemy, death, approaches, He does not want to be forsaken even by the disciples whose human weakness He knows. ‘Could you not watch one hour?’ (Mark 14:37).

Can there be a greater contrast than that between Socrates and Jesus? Like Jesus, Socrates has his disciples about him on the day of his death; but he discourses serenely with them on immortality. Jesus, a few hours before His death, trembles and begs His disciples not to leave Him alone. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, who, more than any other New Testament author, emphasizes the full deity (1:10) but also the full humanity of Jesus, goes still farther than the reports of the three Synoptists in his description of Jesus’ fear of death. In 5:7 he writes that Jesus ‘with loud cries and tears offered up prayers and supplications to Him who was able to save Him’. (‘The reference to Gethsemane here seems to me unmistakable. J. Héring, L’Epître aux Hébreux [1954], ad loc., concurs in this.) Thus, according to the Epistle to the Hebrews, Jesus wept and cried in the face of death. There is Socrates, calmly and composedly speaking of the immortality of the soul; here Jesus, weeping and crying.

And then the death-scene itself. With sublime calm Socrates drinks the hemlock; but Jesus (thus says the Evangelist, Mark 15:34 -- we dare not gloss it over) cries: ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ And with another inarticulate cry He dies (Mark 15:37). This is not ‘death as a friend’. This is death in all its frightful horror. This is really ‘the last enemy’ of God. This is the name Paul gives it in 1 Corinthians 15:26, where the whole contrast between Greek thought and Christianity is disclosed. (The problem is presented in entirely false perspective by J. Leipoldt, Der Tod bei Griechen und Juden [1942]. To be sure, he correctly makes a sharp distinction between the Greek view of death and the Jewish. But Leipoldt’s efforts always to equate the Christian with the Greek and oppose it to the Jewish only become comprehensible when one notes the year in which this book was published and the series [Germanentum, Christentum und Judentum] of which it is a part.) Using different words, the author of the Johannine Apocalypse also regards death as the last enemy, when he describes how at the end death will be cast into the lake of fire (20:14). Because it is God’s enemy, it separates us from God, who is Life and the Creator of all life. Jesus, who is so closely tied to God, tied as no other man has even been, for precisely this reason must experience death much more terribly than any other man. To be in the hands of the great enemy of God means to be forsaken by God. In a way quite different from others, Jesus must suffer this abandonment, this separation from God, the only condition really to be feared. Therefore He cries to God: ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’ He is now actually in the hands of God’s great enemy.

We must be grateful to the Evangelists for having glossed over nothing at this point. Later (as early as the beginning of the second century, and probably even earlier) there were people who took offence at this -- people of Greek provenance. In early Christian history we call them Gnostics.

I have put the death of Socrates and the death of Jesus side by side. For nothing shows better the radical difference between the Greek doctrine of the immortality of the soul and the Christian doctrine of the Resurrection. Because Jesus underwent death in all its horror, not only in His body, but also in His soul (‘My God, why hast thou forsaken me’), and as He is regarded by the first Christians as the Mediator of salvation, He must indeed be the very one who in His death conquers death itself. He cannot obtain this victory by simply living on as an immortal soul, thus fundamentally not dying. He can conquer death only by actually dying, by betaking Himself to the sphere of death, the destroyer of life, to the sphere of ‘nothingness’, of abandonment by God. When one wishes to overcome someone else, one must enter his territory. Whoever wants to conquer death must die; he must really cease to live -- not simply live on as an immortal soul, but die in body and soul, lose life itself, the most precious good which God has given us. For this reason the Evangelists, who none the less intended to present Jesus as the Son of God, have not tried to soften the terribleness of His thoroughly human death.

Furthermore, if life is to issue out of so genuine a death as this a new divine act of creation is necessary. And this act of creation calls back to life not just a part of the man but the whole man -- all that God had created and death had annihilated. For Socrates and Plato no new act of creation is necessary. For the body is indeed bad and should not live on. And that part which is to live on, the soul, does not die at all.

If we want to understand the Christian faith in the Resurrection, we must completely disregard the Greek thought that the material, the bodily, the corporeal is bad and must be destroyed, so that the death of the body would not be in any sense a destruction of the true life. For Christian (and Jewish) thinking the death of the body is also destruction of God-created life. No distinction is made: even the life of our body is true life; death is the destruction of all life created by God. Therefore it is death and not the body which must be conquered by the Resurrection.

Only he who apprehends with the first Christians the horror of death, who takes death seriously as death, can comprehend the Easter exultation of the primitive Christian community and understand that the whole thinking of the New Testament is governed by belief in the Resurrection. Belief in the immortality of the soul is not belief in a revolutionary event. Immortality, in fact, is only a negative assertion: the soul does not die, but simply lives on. Resurrection is a positive assertion: the whole man, who has really died, is recalled to life by a new act of creation by God. Something has happened -- a miracle of creation! For something has also happened previously, something fearful: life formed by God has been destroyed.

Death in itself is not beautiful, not even the death of Jesus. Death before Easter is really the Death’s head surrounded by the odour of decay. And the death of Jesus is as loathsome as the great painter Grünewald depicted it in the Middle Ages. But precisely for this reason the same painter understood how to paint, along with it, in an incomparable way, the great victory, the Resurrection of Christ: Christ in the new body, the Resurrection body. Whoever paints a pretty death can paint no resurrection. Whoever has not grasped the horror of death cannot join Paul in the hymn of victory: ‘Death is swallowed up -- in victory! O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?’ (1 Corinthians 15:54f).

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