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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 2: The Wages of Sin: Death


Body and Soul -- Flesh and Spirit

Yet the contrast between the Greek idea of the immortality of the soul and the Christian belief in the resurrection is still deeper. The belief in the resurrection presupposes the Jewish connexion between death and sin. Death is not something natural, willed by God, as in the thought of the Greek philosohers; it is rather something unnatural, abnormal, opposed to God. (We shall see that Death, in view of its conquest by Christ, has lost all its horror. But I still would not venture as does Karl Barth, Die Kirchliche Dogmatik, III, 2 [1948], p. 777 ff [on the basis of the ‘second death’ distinguished in Apocalypse 21:8], to speak in the name of the New Testament of a ‘natural death’ [see 1 Corinthians 11:30!]). The Genesis narrative teaches us that it came into the world only by the sin of man. Death is a curse, and the whole creation has become involved in the curse. The sin of man has necessitated the whole series of events which the Bible records and which we call the story of redemption. Death can be conquered only to the extent that sin is removed. For ‘death is the wages of sin’. It is not only the Genesis narrative which speaks thus. Paul says the same thing (Romans 6:23), and this is the view of death held by the whole of primitive Christianity. Just as sin is something opposed to God, so is its consequence, death. To be sure, God can make use of death (1 Corinthians 15:35ff, John 12:24), as He can make use of Satan to man.

Nevertheless, death as such is the enemy of God. For God is Life and the Creator of life. It is not by the will of God that there are withering and decay, dying and sickness, the by-products of death working in our life. All these things, according to Christian and Jewish -- thinking, come from human sin. Therefore, every healing which Jesus accomplishes is not only a driving back of death, but also an invasion of the province of sin; and therefore on every occasion Jesus says: ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ Not as though there were a corresponding sin for every individual sickness; but rather, like the presence of death, the fact that sickness exists at all is a consequence of the sinful condition of the whole of humanity. Every healing is a partial resurrection, a partial victory of life over death. That is the Christian point of view. According to the Greek interpretation, on the contrary, bodily sickness is a corollary of the fact that the body is bad in itself and is ordained to destruction. For the Christian an anticipation of the Resurrection can already become visible, even in the earthly body.

That reminds us that the body is in no sense bad in itself, but is, like the soul, a gift of our Creator. Therefore, according to Paul, we have duties with regard to our body. God is the Creator of all things. The Greek doctrine of immortality and the Christian hope in the resurrection differ so radically because Greek thought has such an entirely different interpretation of creation. The Jewish and Christian interpretation of creation excludes the whole Greek dualism of body and soul. For indeed the visible, the corporeal, is just as truly God’s creation as the visible. God is the maker of the body. The body is not the soul’s prison, but rather a temple, as Paul says (I Corinthians 6:19): the temple of the Holy Spirit! The basic distinction lies here. Body and soul are not opposites. God finds the corporeal ‘good’ after He has created it. The Genesis story makes this emphasis explicit. Conversely, moreover, sin also embraces the whole man, not only the body, but the soul as well; and its consequence, death, extends over all the rest of creation. Death is accordingly something dreadful, because the whole visible creation, including our body, is something wonderful, even if it is corrupted by sin and death. Behind the pessimistic interpretation of death stands the optimistic view of creation. Wherever, as in Platonism, death is thought of in terms of liberation, there the visible world is not recognized directly as God’s creation.

Now, it must be granted that in Greek thought there is also a very positive appreciation of the body. But in Plato the good and beautiful in the corporeal are not good and beautiful in virtue of corporeality but rather, so to speak, in spite of corporeality: the soul, the eternal and the only substantial reality of being, shines faintly through the material. The corporeal is not the real, the eternal, the divine. It is merely that through which the real appears -- and then only in debased form. The corporeal is meant to lead us to contemplate the pure archetype, freed from all corporeality, the invisible Idea.

To be sure, the Jewish and Christian points of view also see something else besides corporeality. For the whole creation is corrupted by sin and death. The creation which we see is not as God willed it, as He created it; nor is the body which we wear. Death rules over all; and it is not necessary for annihilation to accomplish its work of destruction before this fact becomes apparent -- it is already obvious in the whole outward form of all things. Everything, even the most beautiful, is marked by death. Thus it might seem as if the distinction between Greek and Christian interpretation is not so great after all. And yet it remains radical. Behind the corporeal appearance Plato senses the incorporeal, transcendent, pure Idea. Behind the corrupted creation, under sentence of death, the Christian sees the future creation brought into being by the resurrection, just as God willed it. The contrast, for the Christian, is not between the body and the soul, not between outward form and Idea, but rather between the creation delivered over to death by sin and new creation; between the corruptible, fleshly body and the incorruptible resurrection body.

This leads us to a further point: the Christian interpretation of man. The anthropology of the New Testament is not Greek, but is connected with Jewish conceptions. For the concepts of body, soul, flesh, and spirit (to name only these), the New Testament does indeed use the same words as the Greek philosopher. But they mean something quite different, and we understand the whole New Testament amiss when we construe these concepts only from the point of view of Greek thought. Many misunderstandings arise thus. I cannot present here a biblical anthropology in detail. There are good monographs on the, subject,(W.G. Kümmel, Das Bild des Menschen im NeuenTestament [1948]) not to mention the appropriate articles in the Theologisches Wörterbuch. A complete study would have to treat separately the anthropologies of the various New Testament authors, since on this point there exist differences which are by no means unimportant. (Also the various Theologies of the New Testament should here be mentioned.) Of necessity I can deal here only with a few cardinal points which concern our problem, and even this must be done somewhat schematically, without taking into account the nuances which would have to be discussed in a proper anthropology. In so doing, we shall naturally have to rely primarily upon Paul, since only in his writings do we find an anthropology which is definable in detail, even though he too fails to use the different ideas with complete consistency. (W. Gutbrod, Die paulinische Anthopologue [1934]; W. G. Kümmel, Römer 7 und die Bekehrung des Pau1us [1929]; E. Schweitzer, Rom. 1:3f und der Gegensatz von Fleisch und Geist vor und bei Paulus’: Evang. Theol., 15 [1955], pp. 563ff; and especially the relevant chapter in R. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament [1955]).

The New Testament certainly knows the difference between body and soul, or more precisely, between the inner and the outer man. This distinction does not, however, imply opposition, as if the one were by nature good, the other by nature bad. (Also the words of Jesus in Mark 8:36, Matthew 6:25 and Matthew 10:28 [life] do not speak of an ‘infinite value of the immortal soul’ and presuppose no higher valuation of the inner man. See also re [Mark 14:38] Kümmel, Das Bild des Menschen, pp. 16ff.) Both belong together, both are created by God. The inner man without the outer has no proper, full existence. It requires a body. It can, to be sure, somehow lead a shady existence without the body, like the dead in Sheol according to the Old Testament, but that is not a genuine life. The contrast with the Greek soul is clear: it is precisely apart from the body that the Greek soul attains to full development of its life. According to the Christian view, however, it is the inner man’s very nature which demands the body.

And what now is the role played by the flesh and spirit? Here it is especially important not to be misled by the secular use of the Greek words, though it is found in various places even in the New Testament and even within individual writers whose use of terminology is never completely uniform. With these reservations, we may say that according to the use which is characteristic, say, for Pauline theology, flesh and spirit in the New Testament are two transcendent powers which can enter into man from without; but neither is given with human existence as such. On the whole it is true that the Pauline anthropology, contrary to the Greek, is grounded in Heilsgeschichte. (This is what Kümmel, Das Bild des Menschen, means when he states that in the New Testament, including the Johannine theology, man is always conceived as an historical being.) ‘Flesh’ is the power of sin or the power of death. It seizes the outer and the inner man together. Spirit is its great antagonist: the power of creation. It also seizes the er and inner man together. Flesh and spirit are active powers, and as such they work within us. The flesh, the power of death, entered man with the sin of Adam; indeed it entered the whole man inner and outer yet in such a way that it is very closely linked with the body. The inner man finds itself less closely connected with the flesh; (The body is, so to speak, its locus, from which point it affects the whole man. This explains why Paul is able to speak of ‘body’ instead of ‘flesh’, or conversely ‘flesh’ instead of ‘body’, contrary to his own basic conception, although this occurs in very few passages. These terminological exceptions do not alter his general view, which is characterized by a sharp distinction between body and flesh.) although through guilt this power of death has more and more taken possession even of the inner man. The spirit, on the other hand, is the great power of life, the element of the resurrection; God’s power of creation is given to us through the Holy Spirit. In the Old Testament the Spirit is at work only from time to time in the prophets. In the End-time in which we live -- that is, since Christ has broken the power of death in His own death and has arisen -- this power of life is at work in all members of the community (Acts 2:16 ): ‘in the last days’). Like the flesh, it too already takes possession of the whole man, inner and outer. But whereas, in this age, the flesh has established itself to a substantial degree in the body, though it does not rule the inner man in the same inescapable way, the quickening power of the Holy Spirit is already taking possession of the inner man so decisively that the inner man is ‘renewed from day to day’, as Paul says (2 Corinthians 4:16). The whole Johannine Gospel emphasizes the point. We are already in the state of resurrection, that of eternal life -- not immortality of soul: the new era is already inaugurated. The body, too, is already in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Wherever the Holy Spirit is at work we have what amounts to a momentary retreat of the power of death, a certain foretaste of the End. (See my article, ‘La délivrance anticipée du corps humain d’après le Nouveau Testament’, Hommage et Reconnaissance. 60th anniversaire de K. Barth [1946], pp. 31 ff.) This is true even in the body, hence the healings of the sick. But here it is a question only of a retreat, not of a final transformation of the body of death into a resurrection body. Even those who Jesus raised up in His lifetime will die again, for they did not receive a resurrection body, the transformation of the fleshly body into a spiritual body does not take place until the End. Only then will the Holy Spirit’s power of resurrection take such complete possession of the body that it transforms it in the way it is already transforming the inner man. It is important to see how different the New Testament anthropology is from that of the Greeks. Body and soul are both originally good in so far as they are created by God; they are both bad in so far as the deadly power of the flesh has hold of them. Both can and must be set free by the quickening power of the Holy Spirit.

Here, therefore, deliverance consists not in a release of soul from body but in a release of both from flesh. We are not released from the body; rather the body itself is set free. This is made especially clear in the Pauline Epistles, but it is the interpretation of the whole New Testament. In this connexion one does not find the differences which are present among the various books on other points. Even the much-quoted saying of Jesus in Matthew 10:28 in no way presupposes the Greek conception. ‘Fear not them that kill the body, but cannot kill the soul.’ It might seem to presuppose the view that the soul has no need of the body, but the context of the passage shows that this is not the case. Jesus does not continue: ‘Be afraid of him who kills the soul’ ; rather: ‘Fear him who can slay both soul and body in Gehenna.’ That is, fear God, who is able to give comletely to death; to wit, when He does not resurrect you to life. We shall see, it is true, that the soul is the starting-point of the resurrection, since, as we have said, it can already be possessed by the Holy Spirit in a way quite different from the body. The Holy Spirit already lives in our inner man. ‘By the Holy Spirit who dwells in you (already)’, says Paul in Romans 8:11, ‘God will also quicken your mortal bodies.’ Therefore, those who kill only the body are not to be feared. It can be raised from the dead. Moreover, it must be raised. The soul cannot always remain without a body. And on the other side we hear in Jesus’ saying in Matthew 10:28 that the soul can be killed. The soul is not immortal. There must be resurrection for both; for since the Fall the whole man is ‘sown corruptible’. For the inner man, thanks to the transformation by the quickening power of the Holy Spirit, the resurrection can take place already in this present life: through the ‘renewal from day to day’. The flesh, however, still maintains its seat in our body. The transformation of the body does not take place until the End, when the whole creation will be made new by the Holy Spirit, when there will be no death and no corruption.

The resurrection of the body, whose substance (I use this rather unfortunate term for want of a better. What I mean by it will be clear from the preceding discussion.) will no longer be that of the flesh, but that of the Holy Spirit, is only a part of the whole new creation. ‘We wait for a new heaven and a new earth’, says 2 Peter 3:13. The Christian hope relates not only to my individual fate, but to the entire creation. Through sin the whole creation has become involved in death. This we hear not only in Genesis, but also in Romans 8:19ff, where Paul writes that the whole creation (The allusion in verse 20 to the words ‘for your sake’ of Genesis 3:17, excludes the translation of as ‘creature’ in the sense of man, a translation advocated by E. Brunner and A. Schlatter. See O. Cullman, Christ and Time [1950], p. 103.) from now on waits longingly for deliverance. This deliverance will come when the power of the Holy Spirit transforms all matter, when God in a new act of creation will not destroy matter, but set it free from the flesh, from corruptibility. Not eternal Ideas, but concrete objects will then rise anew, in the new, incorruptible life-substance of the Holy Spirit; and among these objects belongs our body as well.

Because resurrection of the body is a new act of creation which embraces everything, it is not an event which begins with each individual death, but only at the End. It is not a transition from this world to another world, as is the case of the immortal soul freed from the body; rather it is the transition from the present age to the future. It is tied to the whole process of redemption.

Because there is sin there must be a process of redemption enacted in time. Where sin is regarded as the source of death’s lordship over God’s creation, there this sin and death must be vanquished together, and there the Holy Spirit, the only power able to conquer death, must win all creatures back to life in a continuous process.

Therefore the Christian belief in the resurrection, as distinct from the Greek belief in immortality, is tied to a divine total process implying deliverance. Sin and death must be conquered. We cannot do this. Another has done it for us ; and He was able to do it only in that He betook himself to the province of death -- that is, He himself died and expiated sin, so that death as the wages of sin is overcome. Christian faith proclaims that Jesus has done this and that He arose with body and soul after He was fully and really dead. Here God has consummated the miracle of the new creation expected at the End. Once again He has created life as in the beginning. At this one point, in Jesus Christ, this has already happened ! Resurrection, not only in the sense of the Holy Spirit’s taking possession of the inner man, but also resurrection of the body. This is a new creation of matter, an incorruptible matter. Nowhere else in the world is there this new spiritual matter. Nowhere else is there a spiritual body -- only here in Christ.

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