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Resurrection: A Symbol of Hope by Lloyd Geering


Lloyd Geering is a Presbyterian minister and former Professor of Old Testament Studies at theological colleges in Brisbane and Dunedia, and Professor of Religious Studies at Victorian University in Wellington, New Zealand. He is author of Tomorrow's God (1994), The World to Come (1999) and Christianity Without God (2002). Published by Hodder and Stoughton: London, Auckland, Sydney, Toronto, 1971.


Chapter 12: Resurrection as the Hope for Personal Immortality


Because the proclamation of the Easter message came to be made almost exclusively in terms of the resurrection idiom, we have had to spend the last three chapters dealing with that development in some detail. We must now retrace our steps. It was possible for the Easter message to be expressed in the idiom of resurrection because the latter formed part of the eschatological hope already widely held by Jews at the time of Jesus, and shared, it appears, by both Jesus and his disciples. What happened to the Jewish belief that there would be a general resurrection at the end-time?

First of all let us turn our inquiries to the faith of Judaism itself Although in the lifetime of Jesus the resurrection hope had not yet become universal in Judaism, it soon established itself as a fundamental doctrine in the rabbinical Judaism which survived the rise of Christianity. The belief is explicitly affirmed in the second paragraph of the Shemoneh Esreh, or Eighteen Benedictions, a Jewish liturgy which has been traced back to the first century.

Thou art mighty for ever,
Thou sustainest the living
And givest life to the dead.
Blessed art Thou, 0 Lord, who makest the dead to live!1

But Judaism, as we have seen, had already begun to be influenced by the Greek doctrine of an immortal soul even though this was foreign to the heritage of ancient Israel found in the Hebrew Bible. Some Jewish thinkers became so Hellenised that they came to regard the heavenly bliss of a spiritual soul as a much more worthy expression of human destiny than the thought of an endless life in a material body. This led to tension with those who regarded with alarm any departure from what had by then become fairly standard belief.2

Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), the most famous Jewish philosopher of the Middle Ages, included the doctrine of the resurrection as the last of his Thirteen Principles of Faith -- ‘I believe with perfect faith that there will be a resurrection of the dead at the time when it shall please the Creator.’ Yet some thought that even Maimonides was in danger of identifying resurrection with the immortality of the soul. So he was led to write a treatise in which he Set out to show that a spiritual view of immortality was not in conflict with the doctrine of the return of the soul to the body.

The tension between these two modes of expressing the hope of immortality is still to be found in contemporary Judaism. Orthodox Jewish thinkers look for a future resurrection in a literal sense, though they are not unanimous as to whether this will include only the righteous, or all the Jewish people, or will embrace all of mankind. Conservative Judaism tends to identify resurrection with the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. Reform Judaism has rejected the doctrine of resurrection, particularly in any literal form, pointing out that its Persian origin shows it to be a foreign import into Jewish thought.3

The belief in a future resurrection was borrowed from Judaism by Muhammed and became a permanent part of the faith of Islam. The Koran has much to say about the future Judgment, the bliss to be enjoyed by the faithful and the eternal fire to be endured by the unbelievers. Much of the language and imagery has been taken over from both Jewish and Christian thought and is not always used in exactly the same way. ‘The Day of Resurrection’ is treated largely as a synonym for ‘The Day of Judgment’ and the resurrection idiom seems to have been used mainly because it was part of the Jewish and Christian eschatology from which it was borrowed. Nevertheless the idiom is there, as the following excerpts from the Koran clearly show.

I swear by the Day of Resurrection, and by the self-reproaching Soul! Does man think We4 shall never put his bones together again? Indeed, We can remold his very fingers! Yet man would ever deny what is to come. ‘When will this be,’ he asks, ‘this day of Resurrection?’5

The Hour of Doom is sure to come -- in this there is no doubt. Those who are in the grave Allah will raise to life. Some wrangle about Allah, though they have neither knowledge nor guidance nor divine revelation . . . Such men shall incur disgrace in this life and taste the torment of Hell on the Day of Resurrection.6

In rabbinical Judaism, and even more so in Islam, the hope of a future resurrection became quite divorced from the context of an imminent end-time to which it belonged in the late post-exilic Jewish thought. It had become one standard idiom among others for the description of the hope of personal immortality. As we shall see, something similar happened in Christianity.

We shall now trace the path taken in Christian thought by the hope of a general resurrection, a doctrine, which, far from being unique to Christianity, has been shared by Jew and Muslim, and which, in the first place, as we have seen, was partly borrowed from Persian Zoroastrianism.

For the first twenty years after the death of Jesus it was believed by many Jews and by most Christians, so far as we are able to ascertain, that the end-time was very near and this would usher in the New Age, to the accompaniment of the resurrection of those who had died before its arrival. A fairly clear picture of this has been provided for us by Paul. ‘We who are left alive until the Lord comes shall not forestall those who have died; because at the word of command, at the sound of the archangel’s voice and God’s trumpet-call, the Lord himself will descend from heaven; first the Christian dead will rise, then we who are left alive shall join them, caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.’7

The belief in a general resurrection at the end-time proved no problem at all so long as Christianity was spreading amongst Jews, to whom it was already familiar and acceptable. But difficulties arose as soon as the Gospel spread to the Gentile, Hellenistic world, where it was unknown and sounded strangely primitive. Since the Greeks (as indeed most of the ancient world though often in vague and undefined ways) were accustomed to think of death in terms of the survival of an immaterial soul, the Jewish emphasis on the resurrection of the fleshly body seemed not only unnecessary, but unspiritual and even repellent.

This is largely the problem that arose in the Corinthian Church, for whom Paul embarked on the fullest explanation of resurrection that the New Testament contains. Paul, it should be noticed, never charged them with doubting the Easter faith concerning Jesus Christ. He simply States that some Corinthian Christians were saying, ‘There is no resurrection of the dead.’8 In becoming Christians they had accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and they could regard themselves as called by God ‘to share in the life of his Son Jesus Christ’, as they waited ‘expectantly for our Lord Jesus Christ to reveal himself’.9

Paul set out to convince them of the resurrection of the dead by reminding them of the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus, which was central to the Gospel they had already received, and which they do not seem to have doubted. His argument, even when his premises about the resurrection of Christ are accepted, does not prove that there will be a future resurrection of the dead, but simply establishes the fact that the categorical denial of the possibility of resurrection was inconsistent with their faith in the risen Christ.

It is possible that Paul, because of his own Jewish background, did not fully appreciate the difficulties faced by the Gentile Christians. They were not denying a doctrine of immortality for the Christian, but they simply did not want to think of it in terms of ‘resurrection of the body’. The fact that they were practicing baptism on behalf of the dead10 illustrates their belief in some kind of immortality, but in a form different from that which Paul expected them to share. Probably they thought of the risen Christ as the unseen living Lord in whose life and spirit they shared (for the Lucan interpretation of the resurrection of Christ in physical form had not yet developed). Even Paul did not interpret the resurrection of the dead in crudely physical terms, insisting that ‘flesh and blood can never possess the kingdom of God’,11 and speaking consistently in terms of ‘heavenly’ or ‘spiritual’ bodies. It is not clear how far the difference between Paul and his Corinthian readers was due simply to the differences in terminology and idiom which stemmed from their respective cultural backgrounds.

In spite of Paul’s quite full treatment it did not put an end to the matter. As Christianity became more divorced from her Jewish origins and more immersed in the Hellenistic culture of the Gentile world, the Jewish-cum-Christian eschatology, involving a future resurrection of the dead, was bound to be severely challenged -- and this for two reasons. First, the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead seemed unnecessary to a people who already believed, in varying measure, in the immortality of the soul. Secondly, the belief in the imminent coming of the day of the Lord, so strong in the thought of Paul, and presumably in that of the early church, was bound to wane in intensity by the time two generations of Christians had passed away and the expected end-time had not yet come.

We get some idea of what was happening towards the end of the first century, at least in some quarters, by examining the new way in which the Fourth Evangelist speaks about resurrection. As C. H. Dodd points out, ‘In the dialogue preceding the Raising of Lazarus the evangelist appears to be explicitly contrasting the popular eschatology of Judaism and primitive Christianity with the doctrine which he wishes to propound.’12 The primitive view of resurrection, both Jewish and Christian, is placed in the mouth of Martha. The reply given by the Johannine Jesus appears at first to confirm this by saying, ‘If a man has faith in me, even though he die, he shall come to life’, but then proceeds to add quite a new interpretation of the resurrection power of Christ in the words, ‘and no one who is alive and has faith shall ever die’.13 C. H. Dodd concludes that ‘the "resurrection" of which Jesus has spoken is something which may take place before bodily death, and has for its result the possession of eternal life here and now . . . The evangelist agrees with popular Christianity that the believer will enter into eternal life at the general resurrection, but for him this is a truth of less importance than the fact that the believer already enjoys eternal life and the former is a consequence of the latter.’14

The raising of Lazarus is thus not a sign of the coming resurrection at the end-time, but a symbolic and dramatic description of Christian experience, in which Christ, by his life-giving word, delivers a man from an existence which is virtual death, and raises him to a quality of living which can properly be called ‘eternal life’. For this reason the Evangelist can put into the mouth of Jesus words which give quite a new -- turn to the resurrection idiom, ‘I am the resurrection and I am the life.’15 Here resurrection has become a synonym for life, or more specifically, for the entrance to a new quality of life, ‘eternal life’.

For the Evangelist resurrection has become only one idiom among several which could be used to describe the life-giving power of Jesus. In the story of Nicodemus the idiom of re-birth is used to proclaim substantially the same thing. ‘Life’ or ‘eternal life’ is a constant theme in the Johannine writings. Although this theme has by no means eliminated resurrection talk,16 it has displaced it as the focal point of attention, and given it a new interpretation. C. H. Dodd contends that the thought of the Evangelist has some affinity with that of Philo, the Jewish philosopher (c. 20 BC. -- c. AD. 50) who took over Plato’s concept of eternity in which there is neither past nor future but only present. If this is so, the Evangelist meant by ‘eternal life’ not a temporal existence but ‘a life which has properly speaking neither past nor future, but is lived in God’s eternal Today. To think of any end to such life would be a contradiction in terms.’17

In this ‘realized eschatology’, as it has been called, we have moved a long way from Paul’s hope of an imminent coming of the day of resurrection. Yet it could be said that the seeds of it are to be found in such words of Paul as: ‘All I care for is to know Christ, to experience the power of his resurrection, and to share his sufferings …’18 ‘For in dying as he died, he died to sin, once for all, and in living as he lives, he lives to God. In the same way you must regard yourselves as dead to sin and alive to God, in union with Christ Jesus.’19 But whereas for Paul the resurrection of the dead was still something he hoped to share in at the end-time, it has been relegated to the background in Johannine thought. As C. H. Dodd remarks, ‘For John this present enjoyment of eternal life has become the controlling and all-important conception.’20

The ‘realized eschatology’ of John represents only one of the attempts being made by Christians at the end of the first century to wrestle in a new setting with the heritage of the primitive Jewish hope in the imminent resurrection of the dead. There were others who had to be refuted as false teachers for saying that the resurrection had already taken place.21 The New Testament Apocalypse represented still another kind of development, though one more in keeping with the earlier Jewish eschatology. This book was almost certainly written during or after a period of severe persecution for the Christians, perhaps that carried out under the Emperor Domitian (AD. 81-96). It was written by one who was thoroughly familiar with Jewish apocalyptic imagery, and it shows a particular concern for the martyrs.

We have seen that one of the chief factors which fostered the development of the resurrection belief in the pre-Christian period was the concern to see the Jewish martyrs vindicated. Since, in Christianity, resurrection had become the hope of all Christians, the Apocalypse singles out the martyrs for special honor by speaking of two resurrections. In the first resurrection only the martyrs will participate. They will come to life again and reign with Christ for a thousand years. Then comes the final cataclysm when all Hell will be let loose before being vanquished for ever in the utter destruction of the present world. Only then comes the second resurrection, in which the underworld and the sea yield up their dead for the final judgment. Those who shared in the first resurrection are exempted from the second death.22

Thus the New Testament itself presents us with a variety of ways of understanding the belief in the resurrection of the dead, and shows that by the end of the first century it had become necessary to seek a re-interpretation of the earlier eschatology. The question was therefore far from settled; indeed the controversy was only at the beginning. W. C. van Unnik has said of the second century, ‘It would not be unfair to say that at no time in the long history of Christianity has the resurrection of the dead been so much debated as during that period.’23

The chief new factor which had to be reckoned with was the dualistic view of man so prominent in Greek thought, and associated particularly with Platonism. Man was thought to consist of two component parts, body and soul. Death entailed the decay and dissolution of the physical body: the soul, being a spiritual invisible entity, was not subject to death but was in fact immortal. The soul not only survived the death of the body but also existed before the birth of the historical person. The body was sometimes regarded as a prison-house of the soul, so that death could even be welcomed for the much needed relief that it brought to the soul. The subject of the immortality of the soul is fully discussed in Plato’s Phaedo, where Socrates says, ‘if we are ever to have pure knowledge of anything, we must get rid of the body and contemplate things by themselves with the soul by itself.’24

This view of man was very different from that which obtained in ancient Israel. There, as we have seen, man was regarded as an indissoluble unity, created by God from the dust of the ground, and returning to dust at death. It was just because of this view that the doctrine of resurrection had come to the fore in later Jewish thought when men yearned for the vindication of their martyrs.

But some time before this hope of a general resurrection had become widespread in Judaism, Greek thought stemming from Plato had wrestled with a similar problem and resolved it by quite a different method because of a differing conception of man. Since the spiritual entity or soul of a man was thought to survive death anyway and go to live in another world, the vindication of the martyr was amply provided for. Plato interprets Socrates as saying, ‘When death comes to a man, the mortal part of him dies, but the immortal part retires at the approach of death and escapes unharmed and indestructible . . . Since the soul is clearly immortal, it can have no escape or security from evil except by becoming as good and wise as it possibly can. For it takes nothing with it to the next world except its education and training; and these . . . are of supreme importance in helping or harming the newly dead at the very beginning of his journey there.’ ‘And when the newly dead reach the place to which each is conducted by his guardian spirit, first they submit to judgment; both those who have lived well and holily and those who have not.’25

It could be argued that the Platonic doctrine of the immortality of the soul was simply a refined and highly sophisticated version of that belief in an after-life which had been widespread in the ancient world in one form or another, and which Israel had come almost completely to abandon because of her psychosomatic view of the unity of the human individual.

We must remember that by the beginning of the second century a wide rift had opened up between Jew and Christian, and Christianity was primarily spreading among the Gentiles, to whom the traditions of ancient Israel were foreign, and who, on the other hand, were mostly Greek-speaking and immersed in Hellenistic culture. The Greek term psyche (soul), which Christians naturally found themselves using in order to describe the spiritual aspect of a man, already implied the dualistic approach to human nature and introduced a concept for which there had been no verbal equivalent in the language of ancient Israel.26

The second century witnessed the chief period of conflict between the Jewish ‘resurrection of the body’ and the Platonic ‘immortality of the soul’ in the developing thought of Christians. It is clear that to some Gentile Christians the latter doctrine was more acceptable. There was a very real possibility that it could have come to replace the Jewish doctrine of resurrection completely as the idiom of Christian hope. There are several good reasons why it did not do so.

First, the Christian faith would have been seriously undermined if its doctrine of man’s destiny was no more than what Platonism had already long proclaimed. The doctrine of resurrection became one of the characteristics which highlighted the uniqueness of Christianity. Some even went so far as to claim that it was the most unique contribution of the teaching of Jesus.

Secondly, the doctrine of resurrection had always had a close association with martyrdom, and consequently held a strong attraction for a struggling, persecuted community. We are told by Eusebius (c. 260 - c. 340), the ‘Father of Church History’, that in the persecution in Lyons the bodies of the martyrs were deliberately burned, reduced to ashes and finally cast into the Rhone so that they would be deprived of all hope of rising again.27

The third and most important reason was that the Resurrection of Jesus, so central to the Christian faith, had now come to be understood in such physical, fleshly terms, that it was naturally taken to be the model of the destiny that awaited his followers. Ignatius, martyred c. AD. 115, wrote to the church at Smyrna, ‘For I know and believe that even after his resurrection he [Jesus] was in a physical body; and when he came to Peter and his companions he said, "Take hold and feel me, and see that I am not a bodiless phantom." And immediately they touched him and believed, when they had had contact with his flesh and blood. Therefore also they despised death and proved superior to death.’28

Let us look at some typical samples of the second century Christian debate on the resurrection. In The Epistle to Diognetus, often dated about the middle of the second century, we find the following affirmations about the human soul being used to describe the relationship of Christians to the world. ‘Christians are in the world what the soul is in the body . . . The soul inhabits the body, but does not belong to the body . . . The soul is invisible and is kept in custody in the visible body . . . The soul is locked up by the body, but it sustains the body . . . The immortal soul inhabits a mortal tenement.’29 One could hardly expect to find anything closer to Platonic thought than that.

Where such a view of the soul was commonly held, one would expect men to regard resurrection as unnecessary. So we find repeated warnings like the following which Justin Martyr (c. 100 - c. 165) an early Christian apologist, delivered to Trypho, ‘For if you have fallen in with some who are called Christians, but who . . . say there is no resurrection of the dead, and that their souls, when they die, are taken to heaven; do not imagine that they are Christians . . . But I and others, who are right-minded Christians on all points, are assured that there will be a resurrection of the dead, and a thousand years in Jerusalem, which will then be built, adorned and enlarged.’30

Earlier in his Dialogue, Justin had discussed the Platonic view of the soul and rejected it, maintaining that the soul should not be called immortal, for that would imply it had not been begotten. Yet, though Justin rejected any kind of eternal preexistence for the soul, he did not conclude that the soul died with the body, but said, ‘The souls of the pious remain in a better place, where those of the unjust and wicked are in a worse, waiting for the time of judgment. Thus some which have appeared worthy of God never die; but others are punished so long as God wills them to exist and to be punished.’31 Such a view was fairly close to some of the pre-Christian Jewish interpretations already described in Chapter 8.

Athenagoras of Athens, one of the ablest of the early Christian apologists, set out to prove the doctrine of the resurrection on rational and philosophical grounds in his treatise, On the Resurrection of the Dead. He delved into questions of physiology and diet in order to refute those who maintained that it was a sheer impossibility for any who had been eaten by wild beasts to be raised again in the same flesh. While recognizing that a man could be conceived as being composed of two parts, an immortal soul and a fleshly body, he insisted that God is concerned with the whole man, and the whole man cannot be identified with, or limited to, the soul. Resurrection is made logically necessary, for judgment must refer to the whole man, both body and soul. ‘There must by all means be a resurrection of the bodies which are dead, or even entirely dissolved, and the same men must be formed anew . . . it is impossible for the same men to be reconstituted unless the same bodies are restored to the same souls.’32

At the end of the century Tertullian (c. 160 - c. 220), the first of the Latin Fathers, wrote a vigorous defense of a future resurrection which was to be completely physical, in his On the Resurrection of the Flesh. This rests upon his understanding of the soul which he had set out in his earlier work On the Soul. There he refuted the Platonic doctrine of an immortal soul, maintaining that while man is to be understood as the conjunction of two entities, body and soul, these both came into existence simultaneously at the moment of conception. Like Athenagoras, he was quite properly concerned with the destiny of the whole man, and the soul could not in any sense be regarded as the whole man. He questioned whether a soul, divorced from the flesh, could possess anything like real life.

Tertullian drew upon the Stoic view of a material soul, declaring the soul to be ‘corporal, having its own particular kind of substance and solidity by which it is capable both of perception and suffering.’33 Consequently Tertullian’s understanding of man stood somewhere between the classical Israelite view of man as an animated body and the Platonic dualism of body and soul. The whole man exists only as long as the two substances of body and soul are in a living conjunction. ‘Now the soul by itself is not man, for the thing formed (by God) was already called "man" before the soul was threaded into it: nor is flesh without soul man, for after the soul’s exile it is enregistered as "corpse". Thus the term "man" is so to speak a pin joining together two inter-threaded substances, and they cannot be described by this term except when they cohere.’34

Tertullian’s anthropology, like that of ancient Israel, led to the idiom of resurrection as the only satisfying way of expressing any ultimate hope for the whole man. He was strongly opposed to the teaching of some of his Christian contemporaries who wished to interpret the idiom of resurrection as an allegorical description of that Christian experience by which ‘a man, having come to the truth, has been reanimated and revivified to God, and, the death of ignorance being dispelled, has as it were burst forth from the tomb of the old man’.35 Tertullian was adamant that the resurrection was in the future and to be understood in physical, fleshly terms (‘I pronounce that the flesh will certainly rise again’).36 In order to forestall those who could contend the impossibility of such a hope on the grounds that the decayed corpse would have long since wasted away to nothing, he pointed out that quite recently, in his city, skeletons some five hundred years old had been unearthed in a remarkable state of preservation.

Tertullian regarded Lazarus as a model of the resurrection. ‘For in Lazarus, the pre-eminent instance of resurrection, it was the flesh which lay down in weakness, the flesh which all but decayed into dishonor, the flesh which meanwhile stank to corruption; and yet as flesh Lazarus rose again.’ 37 Because his arguments were frequently based on Holy Scripture, he was a little embarrassed by Paul’s words which declared that ‘flesh and blood shall not inherit the kingdom of God’. But here he appealed to what had become by his time the traditional view of the resurrection of Jesus, a physical resuscitation leading to the Ascension. In the light of this Tertullian could confidently declare, ‘Have no fear, flesh and blood: you have already in Christ taken seizin of heaven and of the kingdom of God. Else if they deny that you are in Christ, let them, as they have denied heaven to you, deny also that Christ is in heaven.’38

After his long and many-sided argument, Tertullian leaves us in no doubt that the general resurrection is to be understood in terms of flesh and blood. Although he allows some element of change, it is not such that provides for the destruction or loss of any part of the present body. Even though the organs of the body will no longer be required to perform their present functions after the resurrection, they will nevertheless all be there, intestines, reproductive organs -- the lot! ‘So then the flesh will rise again, all of it indeed, itself; entire.’ 39

Although the soul was not the whole man, it was regarded by Tertullian as having some independent existence between death and the future resurrection. All the souls of the dead, he taught, are preserved in an underworld except those of the martyrs to whom heaven was opened immediately. The heroism of Christian martyrs had been an important factor in converting Tertullian to Christianity. His belief that they had a special destiny was confirmed by the vision attributed to Perpetua at her martyrdom in which she saw only her fellow-martyrs in Paradise. The souls preserved in the underworld were already experiencing either punishment or consolation, as in their time of waiting, they anticipated the certain judgment yet to come.

The interval between death and the future resurrection became more and more of a problem and an area for speculation, once the idea of the soul as an independent entity became firmly established in Christian thought. Irenaeus (c. 130 - c. 200) concluded from the widely accepted tradition that Jesus himself had descended into the underworld of the dead before rising bodily on the third day, that ‘the souls of his disciples, for whom the Lord performed this, will depart into an unseen region, set apart for them by God, and they will dwell there until the resurrection which they await. Then they will receive their bodies and arise entire, that is, in bodily form as the Lord arose, and thus will come into the presence of God.’ 40

There were other Christians who could not go as far as Tertullian. Origen (c. 185-c. 254) thought it absurd to maintain that the resurrection body would be involved in the passions of flesh and blood, and developed a view much closer to the Pauline teaching of the ‘spiritual body’. ‘By the command of God the body which was earthly and animal will be replaced by a spiritual body, such as may be able to dwell in heaven . . . even for those destined for eternal fire or for punishment there will be an incorruptible body through the change of the resurrection.’41

Origen recognized that eschatology is a subject on which one cannot become dogmatic. ‘We speak on this subject very cautiously and diffidently,’ he writes, ‘rather by way of discussion than coming to definite conclusions . . . We suppose that the goodness of God will restore the whole creation to unity in the end . . . If anyone thinks that matter will be utterly destroyed, it passes my comprehension how all these substances can live and exist without material bodies, since to live without material substance is the privilege of God alone . . . Another perhaps may say that in the consummation all matter will be so purified that it may be thought of as a kind of ethereal substance . . . But only God knows.’42

In spite of his caution, Origen entered into a good deal of speculation on both the origin and destiny of the world of men. He was considerably influenced by Platonism, and envisaged not only pre-existent souls but a succession of worlds, before and after this one. He believed that all things would finally be wholly restored to their original, spiritual state. J. N. D. Kelly has described his contribution as ‘the twofold one of expounding the truth against (a) the crude literalism which pictured the body as being reconstituted, with all its physical functions, at the last day, and (b) the perverse spiritualism of the Gnostics and Manichees, who proposed to exclude the body from salvation’.43

Over the next two centuries there was considerable opposition to Origen’s Platonism and spiritualizing tendencies, and some claimed that he had virtually denied the doctrine of resurrection. Methodius of Olympus (died c. 311) refuted Origen’s ideas about pre-existent souls and the nature of the world. Man was created by God originally to be immortal in both body and soul, but because of his sin he was declared mortal.44 It was necessary for God to decree the dissolution of the body so that ‘sin might be altogether destroyed from the very roots’.45 God’s plan of the redemption of man involved a complete remodeling, so that what had been handed over to death should be rescued for eternity. God achieved this by the incarnation and the resurrection of Christ. ‘For if He bore flesh for any other reason than that of setting the flesh free, and raising it up, why did he bear flesh superfluously, as He purposed neither to save it nor to raise it up? But the Son of God does nothing superfluously . . . For he truly was made man, and died, and not in mere appearance, but that He might truly be shown to be the first begotten from the dead, changing the earthy into the heavenly, and the mortal into the immortal.’46

Jerome (342-420) is said to have been an ardent supporter of Origen’s ideas until 394, but then ‘made a complete voile-face, and began to stress, with crudely literalistic elaboration, the physical identity of the resurrection body with the earthly body’.47 There is a very full discussion in the treatise he addressed to Pammachius. Jerome insisted that it was not sufficient to speak of the resurrection of the body, as Origen did; it was necessary to affirm the resurrection of the flesh (as Tertullian had done). He asserted that Enoch, Elijah and Jesus were all carried up to heaven in the flesh, to be inhabitants of Paradise. ‘The reality of a resurrection without flesh and bones, without blood and members, is unintelligible.’ 48

Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315-86) thought of resurrection in terms of the resuscitation of the physical body, followed by a spiritual transformation. ‘It is this very body which is raised, but it does not remain such as it is. The bodies of the righteous, for example, will assume supernatural qualities, while those of the wicked will become capable of burning eternally.’49

By the end of the fifth century the belief in a future resurrection of the flesh had not only become permanently entrenched in Christian doctrine, but it had successfully withstood the danger of its being replaced by a Platonic doctrine of immortality. The belief that Christ’s resurrection had been a physical one undoubtedly had been an important factor, for most writers appealed to it for support. Men like Tertullian and Methodius had also rightly maintained that the body is essential for the life of the whole man and any doctrine of immortality which dispenses with it must be inadequate. Increasingly more appeal was being made to Holy Scripture, and the unified view of man found there provided a strong counter to the Platonic one. There continued to be some diversity of opinion on the exact nature of the resurrection body, and although all wanted to affirm the essential continuity of the person, by referring to the ‘same body’, some allowed more room than others for some kind of spiritual transformation of the body.

The Greek view of the soul nevertheless left its mark firmly upon Christian doctrine. This was almost inevitable when the sense of an imminent end-time and accompanying resurrection receded into the distant future. Those who died could be regarded as having fallen asleep. But the Greek notion of a spiritual psyche, capable of having an existence independent of the body (whether or not it was to be regarded as equivalent to the whole man), quite naturally led to speculation about its state and spiritual progress in the interim before the resurrection. Kelly remarks that concerning the soul’s lot immediately after death ‘great uncertainty, not to say confusion, seems to have prevailed among the Greek fathers’.50

As time went on, men speculated on this issue in a more detailed and confident manner. The souls were regarded as waiting in storehouses for the final judgment to be pronounced. Many saw the future judgment already beginning to take effect before the day of judgment arrived. Augustine (354-430) taught ‘that in the intermediary period between laying aside the body and later resuming it human souls either undergo torture or enjoy repose, according to their previous conduct in this world’.51 The result was that the two ways of expressing man’s ultimate hope, which had originally been mutually exclusive, became welded together in the Christian eschatology which finally emerged. These were ‘the resurrection of the flesh’ and ‘the immortality of the soul’ and they stemmed from two different views of man.

In the following centuries there was very little change in the Christian doctrine of Last Things except the emergence of the concept of Purgatory, an intermediate place where souls were thought to undergo suffering for a cleansing or atoning purpose. The seeds of this are to be found at least as early as the thought of Augustine,

Now, for the time that intervenes between man’s death and the final resurrection, there is a secret shelter for his soul, as each is worthy of rest or affliction according to what it has merited while it lived in the body. There is no denying that the souls of the dead are benefited by the piety of their living friends, when the sacrifice of the Mediator is offered for the dead, or alms are given in the church. But these means benefit only those who, when they were living, have merited that such services could be of help to them. For there is a mode of life that is neither so good as not to need such helps after death nor so bad as not to gain benefit from them after death.52

At the Reformation Christian doctrine, as inherited from the medieval church, was revised in the light of the new emphasis on Holy Scripture. The doctrine of Purgatory was eliminated, but Biblical warrant was claimed for the rest of the traditional eschatological picture. The following extract from the Westminster Confession (1647) not only presents what had long been accepted as the orthodox Christian view ‘Of the State of Men after Death, and of the Resurrection of the Dead’, but it also clearly illustrates for our purposes how the two differing views which had struggled with each other for supremacy in the second century had finally been reconciled with each other.

The bodies of men after death return to dust, and see corruption: but their souls, (which neither die nor sleep) having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them. The souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies; and the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day. Besides these two places for souls separated from their bodies, the scripture acknowledgeth none.

At the last day, such as are found alive shall not die, but be changed: and all the dead shall be raised up with the selfsame bodies, and none other, although with different qualities, which shall be united again to their souls for ever.

The bodies of the unjust shall, by the power of Christ, be raised to dishonor: the bodies of the just, by his Spirit, unto honor, and be made conformable to his own glorious body.53

After acknowledging that this traditional Christian eschatology had arisen from ‘the simple juxta-position of two originally distinct, not to say mutually exclusive, views’, John Dickie declared ‘no open-minded person can read through the passages of Scripture which our Confession and Catechisms adduce in support of this scheme as a whole, without feeling that a very slender foundation is made to sustain the weight of a most elaborate super-structure. Nor is it easy to see what purpose is served in the eternal economy of things by this two-fold determination of our individual destinies. But perhaps it is more interesting and significant to note that this double eschatology no longer seems to function in the ordinary consciousness, even of convinced evangelical believers.’54

From the Reformation onwards there has been a tendency for the two ‘mutually exclusive’ views of human destiny to come apart at the very seams where they had remained welded together in Christian thought for more than a thousand years. The second-century debate on resurrection was re-opened, though, in the circumstances, it took a different form. Since that time Christians have tended to found their personal hope either on the ‘immortality of the soul’, or on a fleshly resurrection of the dead at the end-time.

The renewed study of the Bible initiated in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries led to the discovery that many elements of the traditional Christian eschatology were not clearly to be found there. Many were not content simply to eliminate the unbiblical Purgatory. They realized that the Bible had little to say about the immortality of the soul, or of the destiny of the dead during the interim between death and the general resurrection. Such well-known Reformers as William Tyndale (1494-1536) and Martin Luther (1483-1546) denied that the souls of the dead departed to heaven, hell or purgatory, maintaining that death is a deep, sound, sweet sleep in which the dead will remain until the day of resurrection.

Luther dispensed with the traditional Christian teaching about the destiny of the bodiless soul after death, and spoke consistently of the dead as sleeping. ‘We are to sleep’, he said, ‘until he comes and knocks on the grave and says, "Dr Martin, get up." Then I will arise in a moment and will be eternally happy with him.’55 Luther could also on occasions speak of the Last Judgment coming immediately after the moment of death for the simple reason that the sleeping dead were quite unconscious of the passing of time.

Luther’s teaching on the sleep of the soul represented a genuine recovery of some elements of the first-century resurrection hope. But it did not win the day. By the following century Lutheran theology had returned to the medieval tradition in which it was thought that the souls of the departed already live in blessedness with Christ in a bodiless condition, and where, for this reason, the significance of the general resurrection was considerably lessened.56 It was left to extremist Christian groups, such as the Anabaptists, to affirm the doctrine of soul-sleep and to describe human destiny solely in terms of a fleshly resurrection at the end-time. This doctrine is still explicitly taught today by such groups as Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses.57

Not all the Reformers espoused the doctrine of soul-sleep. John Calvin (1509-64) wrote a vigorous refutation of this view entitled Psychopannychia, in which he said, ‘Our controversy, then, relates to the HUMAN SOUL. Some, while admitting it to have a real existence, imagine that it sleeps in a state of insensibility from Death to the Judgment-day, when it will awake from its sleep; while others will sooner admit anything than its real existence, maintaining that it is merely a vital power which is derived from arterial spirit on the action of the lungs, and being unable to exist without body, perishes along with the body, and vanishes away and becomes evanescent till the period when the whole man shall be raised again. We, on the other hand, maintain both that it is a substance, and after the death of the body truly lives, being endued both with sense and understanding.’ 58

Joseph Priestly observed in 1782 in his widely read History of the Corruptions of Christianity, ‘Had it not been for the authority of Calvin, who wrote expressly against it, the doctrine of an intermediate conscious state would, in all probability, have been as effectively exploded as the doctrine of purgatory itself.’59 Be that as it may, the fact remains that in all the major communions of the western church the traditional eschatology (as outlined by the Westminster Confession quoted above) was retained. This seems to have been largely due to the fact that the Platonic doctrine of an immortal human soul had become deeply entrenched in Christian thought. The Lateran Council of 1512 went so far as to declare this doctrine ‘to be a dogma, to contradict which was a heresy’ 60

In the next three centuries the horizon of man’s view of the world expanded so tremendously both in time and in space that it became gradually clearer that the traditional eschatological picture could no longer be accepted in any literal or chronological way. Under these circumstances theologians and philosophers of the western cultural tradition leaned more and more on the doctrine of an immortal soul as an expression of the Christian hope. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote in 1939, ‘The idea of the resurrection of the body is a Biblical symbol in which modern minds find the greatest offence and which has long since been displaced in most modern versions of the Christian faith by the idea of the immortality of the soul.61

In John Baillie’s widely acclaimed modern classic, And the Life Everlasting, the biblical doctrine of the resurrection has almost moved out of sight, being replaced by an emphasis on eternal life as a quality of life which transcends death. Shrinking from the idea of an entirely disembodied spirit, Baillie thought of death as a transition to another kind of life, of which we have no knowledge, but which is nevertheless to be conceived as ‘embodied life’.62 Yet he makes little or no use of the idiom of resurrection to describe it. His book may be taken as an example of liberal Protestant thought in which the biblical doctrine of resurrection has reached the end of its course, and been superseded by a doctrine of personal immortality which drew its inspiration ultimately from Plato and St John. The same may be said of the earlier standard work on The Christian Doctrine of Immortality by S. D. F. Salmond who, in 1895, concluded that ‘Christianity has found a new basis of immortality in the fact of Christ’s resurrection’,63 but rarely referred to the general resurrection as the Christian’s hope today.

The twentieth century was destined, however, to witness a resurgence of interest in biblical eschatology, and this we shall deal with in the next chapter. There are two final observations to be made. The first is this. The Jewish doctrine of resurrection had not only preceded the rise of Christianity, but was also the necessary background for the expression of the Easter faith in terms of the resurrection of Jesus. In the course of time the relationship of these two became reversed. At least from the end of the first century, it has been the traditional understanding of the nature of Jesus’ resurrection which has been the chief single factor in keeping the expectation of a general resurrection at the end-time permanently anchored in Christian thought. The resurrection of Jesus remained the model on which the Christian fastened his hope for his own eternal destiny.

The second observation is this. The doctrine of a general resurrection was originally of cosmic dimensions. It was concerned with the end of the whole created universe and a Last Judgment which was intended to form the grand finale, comparable to the original event of creation. In the course of time resurrection was increasingly orientated to the interests of the individual person, so that it became the Christian form of the hope of personal immortality, guaranteed by the affirmation of the Easter proclamation. The idiom had been retained; but the purpose it served had undergone a gradual transformation until the point was reached where even the idiom itself could be dispensed with.

 

Notes:

1. Quoted from Ancient Judaism and the New Testament, by F. C. Grant, p.46.

2. The Encyclopedia of Jewish Religion, pp. 199, 331.

3. ibid., p. 331.

4. God is the speaker.

5. The Koran, Sura 75, trans. by N. J. Dawood.

6. ibid., Sura 22.

7. 1 Thess. 4:15-17.
8. Cor. 15:12.

9. Sect Cor. 1:7-9. Although these are Paul’s words, there is no indication that he is trying to convince them of something they do not already accept.

10. 1 Cor. 15:29.

11. 1 Cor. 15:50.

12. The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, p. 147.

13. John 11:25-6.

14. Op. cit., p. 148.

15. John 11:25.

16. e.g. see John 5:28-9, 6:39-40,44,54,12:48.

17. op. cit., p. 150.

18. Phil. 3:10.

19. Rom. 6:10-11.

20. Op. cit., p. 149.

21. 2 Tim. 2:18, and perhaps 2 Thess. 2:2-3.

22. Rev. 20:4-15.

23. ‘The Newly Discovered Gnostic "Epistle to Rheginos" on the Resurrection’, in The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Vol. XV (1964), p. 156.

24. The Last Days of Socrates, trans. by H. Tredennick, p. 111.

25. ibid., pp. 169, 170, 177.

26. The Hebrew nephesh has sometimes been translated as ‘soul’, but it must be clearly understood that it described the whole living breathing being and was not a spiritual entity which survived a person’s death.

27. Ecclesiastical History, Book V, Chap. i.

28. The Early Christian Fathers, Ed. by H. Bettenson, p. 48.

29. ibid., p. 54.

30. Ante-Nicene Christian Library, Vol. II, pp. 199-200. Dialogue with Trypho, Chap. lxxx.

31. ibid., Chap. v.

32. On the Resurrection of the Dead, Chap. xxv. Ante-Nicene Christian Library, Vol. II, p. 455.

33. Tertullian’s Treatise on the Resurrection, trans. by E. Evans, p. 45.

34. ibid., p. 111.

35. ibid., p. 53.

36. ibid., p. 117.

37. ibid., p. 157.

38. ibid., p. 149.

39. ibid., p. 183.

40. The Early Christian Fathers, ed. by H. Bettenson, p. 98 (Adversus Haereses, V.xxxi.2).

41. ibid., p. 255 (De Principiis, II. x. 3).

42. ibid., pp. 256-7 (De Principiis, I. vi. 1-4).

43. Early Christian Doctrines, p. 471. Jerome confirms that Origen attempted to avoid the errors of both extremes in his Letter to Pammachius against John of Jerusalem, § 25.

44. Methodius interpreted the ‘tunics of skins’ (Gen. 3:25) with which God clothed man after the Fall as meaning he ‘clothed him with mortality’.

45. Ante-Nicene Christian Library, Vol. XIV, p. 140.

46. ibid., p. 149.

47. Kelly, op. cit., p. 476.

48. To Pammachius against John of Jerusalem, §§ 23-36, trans. by XV. H. Fremantle, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. VI, pp. 435-43.

49. Kelly, op. cit., p. 477.

50. op. cit., p. 482.

51. Kelly, op. cit., p. 483.

52. Enchiridion, trans. by A. C. Outler, Library of Christian Classics, Vol. VII, p. 405.

53. Westminster Confession of Faith, Chap. xxxii.

54. The Organism of Christian Truth, p. 393.

55. Quoted by Paul Althaus in The Theology of Martin Luther, p. 415.

56. ibid., p. 417.

57. In Seventh-Day Adventists Answer Questions on Doctrine, pp. 567-609, is found an impressive, documented list of Christians of many communions from the Reformation onwards who, in their writings, have given complete or qualified support for this view.

58. Calvin’s Tracts, Vol. III, trans. by H. Beveridge, pp. 419f.

59. Works of Joseph Priestly, Vol. 5, p. 229.

60. Thus writes Brunner, Eternal Hope, p. 100.

61. The Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. II, p. 304.

62. op. cit., pp. 251-5.

63. op. cit., p. 585.

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