Chapter 13: Destiny and Resurrection

The Lure of Divine Love: Human Experience and Christian Faith in a Process Perspective
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 13: Destiny and Resurrection

The beautiful passage from the Letter to Diognetus, quoted in the last chapter, spoke of the soul, and had the entire passage been quoted we should have seen that the writer contrasts the soul as imperishable with the body, which is perishable. Although a devout Christian, the writer of that letter had undoubtedly felt the influence of hellenizing thought that was dominant in the civilization of which he was a part; and that kind of thought made just such a distinction between soul and body. Indeed, it could speak of the body as "the prison-house of the soul" and long for the release of the latter from captivity to the former.

This point of view is not compatible with the Jewish way of understanding human existence, and it is in flat contradiction to what we now know about ourselves as human. In the chapter on human nature the position was outlined. We are psychosomatic organisms, not souls who happen to reside temporarily in bodies. We are "wholes," with body, mind, and spirit: And to be a person is to be just that kind of organism. At no point is this as significant as when we are considering what may be said, more particularly by Christians who subscribe to the process conceptuality, about our human destiny.

The third word in the title of this chapter is "resurrection." This word is of singular value, since it is an indication of the way in which Judaism regarded human destiny. The Jews did not believe in the immortality of the soul, as did the Greeks; rather, they believed -- or after centuries of Jewish history came at last to believe -- that the total human organism would in some fashion be raised from the dead and would endure in God. Not that this belief was found in early Jewish thinking, for in earlier centuries, as the Old Testament makes plain, the Jews believed that with death there was an end to human existence. They could speak of the persistence of some strange shadow of that existence in a place called Sheol. But this was a dim and vague affair, presumably taken to be a way in which the "spirit" breathed into human life when God shaped the "dust of the earth," as the legend in Genesis tells the story, would never be utterly destroyed -- after all, it had been breathed by God and hence must be indestructible even if largely irrelevant to whatever the future, beyond death, held for men and women. After a time, however, some Jews began to speak about resurrection of the body, which to them meant the entire human personality; they did this because it was inconceivable that Jews who suffered death as martyrs in the time of the Maccabees should be "cast as rubbish to the void," their faithfulness to Judaism unrewarded and their bravery denied enduring value.

The Sadducean school of thought in Judaism rejected this development, while the Pharisaic school accepted it and taught it to their adherents. Obviously the beginnings of this belief were somewhat primitive in their understanding of resurrection; doubtless they assumed that the resurrection would be of the person more or less as in the days before death. Later on, Pharisaic ideas were more highly "spiritualized," and Paul, himself a learned Jew before his conversion to Christian faith, probably reflects such notions in the way in which he speaks of resurrection in I Corinthians 15. Here he contrasts a material body and what he styles a spiritual one; he rejects the idea that flesh and blood can enter the kingdom of heaven, but he teaches that between the body we now know and the body that is appropriate, in his thinking, to heavenly places there is the sort of continuity he took to be between a seed planted in the earth and the flower or tree which grows from it. This reflects, of course, a mistaken botanical interpretation, although the continuity is there -- but not of the sort he wishes to defend.

The important consideration here is that primitive Christianity interpreted the rising again of Jesus Christ in this fashion, and not by a conception of the soul’s immortality. Sooner or later, however, that Greek idea made its way into Christian thinking, and today it is doubtless true that a vast majority of Christian people have been led to think that immortality of the soul is the Christian belief, and seek to combine this in some fashion with the talk about resurrection found in the New Testament. It is not a happy marriage of ideas, and it has led to much confusion.

I confess that there was a time when I myself endeavored to reconcile these two and tried to work out a position that would preserve them in such a way that it would still be possible to speak in the traditional fashion of survival beyond death of the human personality. In a moment I shall give the arguments which led me at that time, as they have led many more competent Christian theologians both in the past and today, to talk in a different fashion of survival as a necessary ingredient in the total Christian faith. It should be said now, for reasons which will be given later, that I have become convinced we require what may be called a "demythologizing" of this teaching (following the line of thought of the German theologian and New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann). This does not mean outright rejection; it has to do with the attempt to penetrate through the symbolic (and mythological) language which religion inevitably uses to the basic reality that is there being affirmed. One day I hope I can write a book that will engage in just this enterprise; for the moment, I only mention it and in the conclusion of this chapter shall try briefly to say what belief it seems to me to make possible and credible for us in our own time.

But first, what in fact have been the traditional arguments for life after death, as it has come to be called? Despite my own dissatisfaction with these arguments, it is only right that I should present them as sympathetically as possible. I should also follow them with an account of the traditional view of death, judgment, heaven, and hell, the so-called last things, as they have been interpreted in the historic Christian theologies, although once again I believe that the process of demythologizing is necessary at this point also.

The case that has been put for life after death within the Christian tradition has not been based upon Greek ideas of the supposed indestructibility of the soul, like those found argued in the dialogues of Plato. The real grounds adduced for the belief by Christian thinkers have been the nature of God as disclosed in Jesus Christ and the Christian conviction that this same Jesus Christ has been raised from death. Let us say something about each of these.

In the first place God’s love is so real, so intense, that it is thought to be inconceivable that once God has so painstakingly created human life, after such a fashion that the human heart is "restless until it finds its rest in God," God will either destroy that human life or permit it to be destroyed. Furthermore, it is unthinkable that the glimmerings of communion with God, the beginnings of life in relationship with God, can be so ephemeral in their importance that death can altogether finish the bearer of them. The fact of the divine-human relationship, begun in this present life, implies (it is urged) an ever-deepening and ever-widening relationship beyond that which is possible in our human three-score years and ten.

The character of God is thus one of the basic foundations for the Christian hope as this has commonly been presented. And it is based, in itself, on the faith that God is love; if God were not love, then life after this world’s fever was over would be utterly undesirable. It would simply be going on and on, in some continuing mode of existence that would have no attraction. The Buddhist desire for annihilation is taken to be proof of this, since with no conception of God, whose companionship could illuminate life beyond death and make it a joy to be desired, such a life would be a fate to be feared and avoided.

The other traditional ground is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The conviction of the earliest Christian disciples that their Lord and Master had not suffered total annihilation, that death was not the end of him but that he was alive and with them "to the end of the world," carried with it the confidence that because he lived, they would live also. Life with Jesus risen from the dead was an experience that began here and now; and since it was God who had thus raised Jesus from the dead, Christian believers were sure that life in Christ was indestructible, both for him their Lord and for themselves as those already united with him. This, it was said, is the meaning of the Easter message. "We know that we have passed out of death into life," they asserted, not only because they loved their brothers and sisters (which was a sign of participation in the love of God in Christ) but also because "Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him." Easter proclaims his victory to the world; and so the earliest Christians could indeed declare that because Christ lives, they also shall live. This is the confident hope that through the gate of death, we will pass to our resurrection.

Notice that resurrection is being presented, not simply the immortality of the soul. It is the total personhood -- with "all things appertaining to the perfection of [humankind’s] nature," as Article IV of the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion in the Anglican prayer book puts it -- that has been raised in Christ, and hence it is the total human existence that will be raised for anyone who is "in Christ." This way of talking is a guarantee of the reality and value of that which is done "in the body." In an earlier chapter we stressed the Christian teaching that each of us is a compound and complex organism of material stuff, and of intellectual, emotional, cognative, and valuational powers, all of which are necessary for full life in this world. Thus any significant life beyond this world must include some such embodiment -- although this does not mean the physics, chemistry, and biology of our present physical bodies, since (in Paul’s words) "flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God." Resurrection is at the very least a symbolic way of guaranteeing that such embodied existence, and also sociality or sharing with others in human existence, count enormously in the ongoing reality of human life.

Thus death has lost its "sting" and the grave its "victory." There is here no "flight of the alone to the Alone," as the Neoplatonic writer Plotinus thought would be the case. On the contrary, there is a social existence beyond death, in which the integrity of human nature will be preserved in both its personal and its communal aspects. Schubert Ogden has said that the immortality of the soul idea has been a way in which personal reality has traditionally been given value idea and the resurrection a way in which social reality has been given value. He is probably correct in this, although the immortality of the soul is, as it were, an alien intruder into the basic biblical picture.

I have said that I am not today satisfied with much if not all that I have just presented. In what follows I shall set down what now seems to me to be the residual significance of this position, once we have engaged in the strenuous and perhaps disturbing enterprise of getting behind the accepted phrasing to the intention which was, as I believe, seeking expression. At the moment, however, I go on to outline the traditional presentation of the four "last things," although once again I shall be obliged to follow them by stating another way in which they may be understood.

The "last things" are death, judgment, heaven, and hell. We all die, sooner or later. What is more, all of us die, unless we subscribe to the immortality of the soul concept -- but in biblical thought that is not taught and therefore the total humanity that each of us is or possesses is believed doomed to extinction. Resurrection after death is the raising or reconstitution of total humanity; it does not presuppose some element in human existence which naturally persists after the death of the body. We have already indicated that no Jew would have been able to talk about "John Brown’s body amoldering in the grave, while his soul goes marching on. Body and soul, John Brown would die; so early Christian thinking said, in agreement with Jewish thought.

But we are judged, and this judgment is stated in Christian tradition as being every day of our lives as well as at the point of death. The latter is usually styled "the particular judgment" in that each person is evaluated or appraised, at the end of his or her mortal life, in terms of the good or the evil he or she has done. That is not the whole story, however, for at the end of the world, when God (so to speak) makes a complete evaluation of the creation, there will be a general judgment. Each human life will then be judged again, in the light of the whole creation’s achievement, for good or for ill.

Heaven and hell are the last two terms to be considered here. Heaven is life with God, in the enjoyment of "the beatific vision." It will be the occasion for the rejoining, in some fashion, of soul and body, if the notion of immortality of the soul has been entertained. In any event it will be entrance into perfect rest, although that rest need not be regarded as cessation of all activity by those who are in heaven. On the contrary, as A. E. Taylor once suggested, it may very well be endless growth in perfection, once the state of heavenly perfection has been achieved. Hell, on the other hand, is the absence of God. It is that state or condition in which human beings may find themselves if they are judged unworthy, through their sin and in spite of all that God has sought to do for them, of being "with God" for all eternity. Sometimes the picture of hell has been painted in lurid fashion, with ghastly punishment inflicted upon "lost" persons; more frequently, at least in recent theological writing, this aspect has been muted or denied, and stress has been put on such ideas as persistence after death apart from God’s presence -- or even in that presence, which for the utterly unworthy man or woman would be horrifying, as when an evil person is compelled to be with someone whom he or she deeply hates.

So much for the traditional presentation of the four "last things." Certainly nobody could deny that when they are presented in this fashion they have the capacity to force all of us to regard human existence, human decisions, and human actions as matters of very great importance. They compel those who accept them to live seriously and responsibly; they demand moral integrity and make impossible any cheap, easy, or superficial attitude toward duty and toward obedience to God’s supposed commands. To all this I shall return. But before I leave the "last things," it must be added that in many parts of the Christian tradition a fifth "last thing" has been introduced. This is a state beyond death but short of heaven or hell; it is usually called purgatory or the intermediate state. Its point is that at death most human beings are hardly fit for heaven or bound for hell. They may be on their way to the vision of God for all eternity, which is heaven, but they need a period of purification or growth so that they will be in a condition that will make heaven a joyful possibility for them. Here certainly, as in the case of the other four "last things," we are talking in highly symbolic language. That is why modern theologians are unwilling to press such questions as whether or not the intermediate state is temporal or (as some have suggested) quasi-eternal, whatever that may mean.

I now turn to a reconception of human destiny, such as may be suggested in the process conceptuality but which will be as loyal as possible to the general view of things that biblical material provides. Perhaps it will be helpful to some readers. Before I state it, however, I must say that there is no reason why the more traditional position, both about life beyond death as a subjective (and hence personal) reality for each of us and also with respect to the traditional portrayal of the "last things" (including an intermediate state), may not be accepted by those who find it compelling. There is no systematic rejection of this position in process thought. The vision of reality which that conceptuality offers does not make any decisive judgment on the matter, and Whitehead himself said that if there is evidence to support, say, personal immortality for each human life, this evidence can provide a ground for affirming it. Some contemporary process theologians are prepared to accept something like, if not always identical with, that traditional position; John Cobb is one of these. But other process theologians, like Schubert Ogden, would disagree and argue that while there is no systematic reason for rejection there is also no special reason for acceptance. As will be seen, my own view is closer to Ogden’s, but like him I am sure that back of, in, and behind the traditional position enormously important assertions are being made, and that these may be stated "in other words" (as a friend of mine puts it) which will yet be compelling and loyal to the intention of the Christian faith. Pastorally speaking, I agree with Robert Mellert, an American Roman Catholic process theologian, who has written wisely in his essay "A Pastoral on Death and Immortality," included in the symposium Religious Experience and Process Theology (edited by Cargas and Lee, Paulist Press, 1976):

The richness of Whitehead’s thought is such that it provides a solid philosophical framework for a great diversity of human experience and a means of synthesizing that experience in interesting new ways. It can account for, and indeed deepen, the thinking of traditionalist and liberal alike, and can also be an effective instrument of translating between their different interpretations of their experience of reality. And this is the fundamental task of ministering to the sorrowing and dying: to understand, support, and to deepen.

To turn now to my suggestions about reconception, I must begin with a refutation of the sharp distinction, often proposed by those who call themselves biblical theologians, between what are said to be the Jewish and the Hellenistic views of history. The latter asserts at best a cyclical return of history upon itself, it is claimed, while for the former there is a goal, "a good time coming," in which the purpose of creation will be accomplished. In the cyclical view the historical process can have no significance, and human beings may properly seek to extricate themselves from it; in the Jewish view history is getting somewhere and the happiness of humankind is in their aligning themselves with the purpose that runs through it and hence sharing in the accomplishment of that purpose in the "end." This very sharp distinction is in fact not the case, but there is a sense in which it may rightly be asserted that the Bible speaks of God’s working through history toward a goal, whereas the Greek position failed to stress this, even when it was theistic in outlook. The biblical position is that God is in the creation, though not exhausted by it. Therefore time, succession, and a dynamic conception of historical events are affirmed by biblical writers. History, then, makes its contribution to God, although how this can be the case is not always clear.

Another error of "biblical theologians" is that of making too sharp a distinction between history and nature. These theologians sometimes talk as if the Christian need have no concern for nature, save as a kind of background for the really significant thing -- which is the historical movement of humankind and of nations. Such a dichotomy is untrue to the scriptural witness, just as would be the opposite idea that dissolves history into nature. The fact is that the Bible makes us read nature in terms of history. It is indeed the background, the setting or context, for human experience and history, but it is also in itself a historical process that the Bible portrays as moving from inchoate beginnings (when, as the myth in Genesis puts it, "the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters") to the consummation of all things (when, as Revelation says, there shall be "a new heaven and a new earth"). The real distinction between some philosophical ideas, which are nonbiblical in their implications, and the scriptural picture is exactly what I urged above: that between history read in terms of nature and nature read in terms of history. Interestingly enough, recent study of the physico-chemical world seems to be producing results that are on the side of the scriptural reading of the matter.

But, it may be asked, what has this discussion of views of history and of the relation of history and nature got to do with the subject of the present chapter? I should reply that it has a great deal to do with that subject. Briefly, the point is that talk of human destiny must find its proper context in talk of the cosmos at large. In other words, what is God doing in the whole creation, not just in human existence? And we have already emphasized again and again that what God is "up to" in the creation, as well as in human life, is the bringing to actual realization of the potentialities which are given to both in the very fact of their being created. The whole world is the field of divine operation; so is human experience and human history. In the constellation of preparation, person, act, apprehension, and response in community -- which was seen in the coming of Christ and what that coming brought about -- we have a microscopic picture of what macroscopically is the truth about the world, both in the realm of history and in the realm of nature. And God who is Creator, and who as Creator is "with the creation" (in Whitehead’s words), is also God who is the Consummator, in whom the creation’s accomplishments are received, treasured, and used.

The biblical myths have something to tell us here. The myth of creation is not literally or scientifically accurate, but it is an invaluable symbolic way of stating that without the divine energizing nothing at all would happen in nature or in history. The myth of the divine consummation (found in books like Revelation in the New Testament and suggested by the picture of resurrection, as well as by the "last things") is an assertion that the divine purpose cannot fail, that God will take into the divine self what is achieved in the world, and that in some fashion, obviously beyond our imagining, God will be disclosed as all in all. As God’s love is the ultimate dependability and the chief creative cause of all things, so also God’s love is the final end and the fulfillment of all things. It is in no sense a contradiction of this biblical view if we feel obliged to say, as process thought would suggest, that creation is an everlasting activity. In that case God still remains what I have styled the "ultimate dependability" and the "final end." God is still that supreme reality who on the one hand maintains order and provides novelty and on the other hand through the process of nature and history secures ends that are incorporated into the divine self (in the divine "consequent nature," as process thinkers would say), and thus validates and vindicates what is done in the world.

I urge, then, that talk about human destiny through stories of resurrection, like that about the "last things," is a way of saying with the firm conviction of Christian faith in the cosmic divine Lover active in the event we name Jesus Christ that we can put our trust in God for both time and eternity, whatever we might wish to add about our own subjective participation in the divine life. This needs to be spelled out.

In the New Testament, the notion of resurrection finds its focus in Jesus Christ himself. It is he who has been raised from the dead; we are then raised in him. Jesus Christ, in the full reality of his existence, has been "taken into God" in a way we cannot explain. This was the initial and basic Christian affirmation about him. For us to be "incorporated into Christ," as Christians believe occurs when they are made his members in his Body (the Christian community, the church), is to share with him in his being "taken into God." And when it comes to the "last things," we can see that death is indeed the finality of our mortal existence, the last page of the book of human life for each of us. But that is not "the end" in the sense of finis. Rather it is (or may be) the occasion of our being received by God, as those who are thus participant in Jesus Christ, to be remembered forever just as we are and with just what we have done. So also judgment now makes sense, since we are always being appraised, and at death shall be finally appraised, for what we are and for what we have done. Heaven is nothing other than God, the divine self. God is indeed the kingdom of heaven in God’s "consequent nature"; for God cannot have an area or place or sphere completely separate from the world. It is not possible to talk about God without also talking about the world in which God is acting creatively and redemptively. And hell is rejection, as a surd, from such life in God through Christ. Since it may be the case (we do not know) that some elements or entities in the world have been utterly evil, no place can be found for them in the divine life of love. Incidentally, much Christian thought and some process thinkers have been unwilling to make any such statement on that last point. The former would insist that God’s love is strong enough -- yet never coercive -- to win the willing response of every creature in the end; the latter would say that God receives into the divine self all that occurs in creation, the good bringing God delight and joy and the evil bringing God tragic suffering -- which, however, will be transformed by the deity into an occasion for a further transformation, in turning all evil into possible good.

Some further points need to be made. One concerns the question of whether -- and the way in which -- there may be conscious or subjective continuing life for humans when they have thus been "taken into God." As I indicated earlier, process theologians differ about this matter. For myself, I agree with what Whitehead remarked in the quotation at the end of this chapter: the question is reduced to a state of irrelevancy when we come to understand that the greater glory of God (which is God’s continuing activity in love, not proud assertion of the divine self) is the goal giving its profound significance to what goes on in the world. Yet some may, and many do, feel otherwise, and I think we do well on this particular subject to accept Mellert’s wise words already quoted.

Another question has to do with a practice that those in the "Catholic" churches of Christendom have found so valuable: praying for the departed. I believe that such a practice can be meaningfully continued, on the basis of the view here presented. If we are permitted to remember before God those who are now with us, we are surely also permitted likewise to remember those we have loved and lost. We do not know what effect such prayers will have, but we do know that all generous prayer is valued by God, and while God always does the best that can be done in every circumstance, we may cherish the thought that God also can use prayer of that kind for furthering the divine purposes for good, though it may be in a way past human comprehension. It should not be forgotten that we do not know in what fashion any prayer made at any time is effectual, yet we do feel ourselves impelled to pray for ourselves and our friends as much as to pray for all good causes and actions. We know that committing oneself to God, letting oneself be lifted into God’s presence, is one of the ways we become truly human. And we have every reason to believe that in this lifting of self to God we may include all persons and causes that we hold dear or consider worthy, trusting that in God’s own way and in accordance with the divine loving intention God will use such remembrance for the good of the whole creation. And if nothing else could be said, it would still be possible to affirm (from our own experience) that the love we have felt for the departed is confirmed and strengthened by such praying, whatever may be its final use in the eyes of God.

The last matter to be considered has to do with what might be styled "Christian optimism." A Christian should not be sentimental about the world; he or she must be realistic. Yet the Christian affirms that God is distilling love, goodness, truth, beauty, and righteousness out of the changes and chances of nature and human existence. God can never be finally defeated, although our own small causes and purposes may well suffer such defeat. The only ground for Christian hope is in God, but such hope enables us to live with high courage, despite all that may be wrong or evil in our experience, and in ourselves.

A few days before his death in 1947, my philosophical master Alfred North Whitehead, the founder of process thought, had a conversation with his friend Lucien Price. Price kept a record of his many conversations with Whitehead, from their first meeting in April 1934 until just before Whitehead’s death, in his eighty-seventh year, on December 30, 1947. The conversations were later published under the title Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead. I quote from the Mentor edition of 1956 what are Whitehead’s last recorded words:

God is in the world, or nowhere, creating continually in us and around us. This creative principle is everywhere, in animate and so-called inanimate matter, in the ether, water, earth, human hearts. But this creation is a continuing process, and "the process is itself the actuality," since no sooner do you arrive than you start on a fresh journey. In so far as man partakes of this creative process does he partake of the divine, of God, and that participation is his immortality, reducing the question of whether his individuality survives death of the body to the estate of an irrelevancy. His true destiny as co-creator of the universe is his dignity and his grandeur [p. 297].

These words say admirably what a process conceptuality would tell us. When to them is added the Christian conviction that God is the divine creative Love, personalized and personalizing, who was decisively active in the pure unbounded love which was Jesus in his total human deed; and when there is added also the corollary of that conviction, the certainty that God, so understood, receives into the divine unending life the good that has been accomplished in the created world by the free decisions of humankind -- when we add these we have a portrayal of human destiny and a way of understanding the true significance of resurrection. For me, and I believe for many others too, this is enough to give our human existence a value and importance which nothing can shake or destroy.