Chapter 3: The First-Born from the Dead

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

Chapter 3: The First-Born from the Dead

Between the Resurrection of Christ and the Destruction of Death

We must take into account what it meant for the Christians when they proclaimed: Christ is risen from the dead! Above all we must bear in mind what death meant for them. We are tempted to associate these powerful affirmations with the Greek thought of the immortality of the soul, and in this way to rob them of their content. Christ risen : that is we stand in the new era in which death is conquered, in which corruptibility is no more. For if there is really one spiritual body (not an immortal soul, but a spiritual body) which has emerged from a flesh then indeed the power of death is broken. Believers, according to the conviction of the first Christians, should no longer die: this was certainly their expectation in the earliest days. It must have been a problem when they discovered that Christians continued to die. But even the fact that men continue to die no longer has the same significance after the Resurrection of Christ. The fact of death is robbed of its former significance. Dying is no longer an expression of the absolute lordship of death, but only one of Death’s last contentions for lordship. Death cannot put an end to the great fact that there is one risen Body.

We ought to try simply to understand what the first Christians meant when they spoke of Christ as being the ‘first-born from the dead’. However difficult it may be for us to do so, we must exclude the question whether or not we can accept this belief. We must also at the very start leave on one side the question whether Socrates or the New Testament is right. Otherwise we shall find ourselves continually mixing alien thought-processes with those of the New Testament. We should for once simply listen to what the New Testament says. Christ the first-born from the dead! His body the first Resurrection Body, the first Spiritual Body. Where this conviction is present, the whole of life and the whole of thought must be influenced by it. The whole thought of the New Testament remains for us a book sealed with seven seals if we do not read behind every sentence there this other sentence: Death has already been overcome (death, be it noted, not the body) ; there is already a new creation (a new creation, be it noted, not an immortality which the soul has always possessed) the resurrection age is already inaugurated. (If, as the Qumrân fragment most recently published by Allegro seems to confirm, the ‘teacher of righteousness’ of this sect really was put to death and his return was awaited, still what most decisively separates this sect from the original Christian community [apart from the other differences, for which see my article, ‘The Significance of the Qumrân Texts’, J. B.L.,1955. pp. 213ff] is the absence in it of faith in a resurrection which has already occurred.)

Granted that it is only inaugurated, but still it is decisively inaugurated. Only inaugurated: for death is at work, and Christians still die. The disciples experienced this as the first members of the Christian community died. This necessarily presented them with a difficult problem. (See in this regard Ph. H. Menoud, ‘La mort d’Ananias et de Saphira’, dux sources de la tradition chrétienne. Melanges efferts à M. Goguel [1950], particularly pp. 150ff.). In 1 Corinthians 11:30 Paul writes that basically death and sickness should no longer occur. We still die, and still there is sickness and sin. But the Holy Spirit is already effective in our world as the power of new creation; He is already at work visibly in the primitive community in the diverse manifestations of the Spirit. In my book Christ and Time I have spoken of a tension between present and future, the tension between ‘already fulfilled’ and ‘not yet consummated’. This tension belongs essentially to the New Testament and is not introduced as a secondary solution born of embarrassment, (See particularly F. Buri, ‘Das Problem des ausgebliebenen Parusie’, Schweiz. Theol. Umscan [1946], pp. 97ff. See in addition O. Cullmann, ‘Das wahre durch die ausgebliebene Parusie gestellte neutestamentliche Problem’, Theol. Zeitschr. 3 [1947], p. 177ff; also pp. 428ff.) as Albert Schweitzer’s disciples and Rudolph Bultmann maintain. (R. Bultmann, ‘History and Eschatology in the New Testament’, New Test. Stud., I [1954], pp. 5ff.) This tension is already present in and with Jesus. He proclaims the Kingdom of God for the future; but on the other hand, He proclaims that the Kingdom of God has already broken in, since He Himself with the Holy Spirit is indeed already repulsing death by healing the sick and raising the dead (Matthew 12:28, 11:3ff, Luke 10:18.) in anticipation of the victory over death which He obtains in His own death. Schweitzer is not right when he sees as the original Christian hope only a hope in the future; nor is C. H. Dodd when he speaks only of realized eschatology; still less Bultmann when he resolves the original hope of Jesus and the first Christians into Existentialism. It belongs to the very stuff of the New Testament that it thinks in temporal categories, and this is because the belief that in Christ the resurrection is achieved is the starting-point of all Christian living and thinking. When one starts from this principle, then the chronological tension between ‘already fulfilled’ and ‘not yet consummated’ constitutes the essence of the Christian faith. Then the metaphor I use in Christ and Time characterizes the whole New Testament situation: the decisive battle has been fought in Christ’s death and Resurrection; only V-day is yet to come.

Basically the whole contemporary theological discussion turns upon this question: Is Easter the starting-point of the Christian Church, of its existence, life, and thought? If so, we are living in an interim time.

In that case, the faith in resurrection of the New Testament becomes the cardinal point of all Christian belief. Accordingly, the fad that there is a resurrection body --Christ’s body -- defines the first Christians’ whole interpretation of time. If Christ is the ‘first-born from the dead’, then this means that the End-time is already present. But it also means that a temporal interval separates the First-born from all other men who are not yet ‘born from the dead’. This means then that we live in an interim time, between Jesus’ Resurrection, which has already taken place, and our own, which will not take place until the End. It also means, moreover, that the quickening Power, the Holy Spirit, is already at work among us. Therefore Paul designates the Holy Spirit by the same term -- first-fruits (Romans 823) as he uses for Jesus Himself (1 Corinthians 15:23). There is then already a foretaste of the resurrection. And indeed in a twofold way: our inner man is already being renewed from day to day by the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 4:16; Ephesians 3:16); the body also has already been laid hold of by the Spirit, although the flesh still has its citadel within it. Wherever the Holy Spirit appears, the vanquished power of death recoils, even in the body. Hence miracles of healing occur even in our still mortal body. To the despairing cry in Romans 7:24, ‘Who shall deliver me from this body of death?’ the whole New Testament answers: The Holy Spirit!

The foretaste of the End, realized through the Holy Spirit, becomes most clearly visible in the early Christian celebration of the breaking of bread. Visible miracles of the Spirit occur there. There the Spirit tries to break through the limits of imperfect human language in the speaking with tongues. And there the community passes over into direct connexion with the Risen One, not only with His soul, but also with His Resurrection Body. Therefore we hear in I Corinthians 10:18: ‘The bread we break, is it not communion with the body of Christ?’ Here in communion with the brethren we come nearest to the Resurrection Body of Christ; and so Paul writes in the following Chapter 11 (a passage which has received far too little consideration) if this Lord’s Supper were partaken of by all members of the community in a completely worthy manner, then the union with Jesus’ Resurrection Body would be so effective in our own bodies that even now there would be no more sickness or death (1 Corinthians 1 1:28-30) a singularly bold assertion. (F. J. Leenhardt’s new study, Ceci ese mon corps. Explication de ces paroles de Jésus-Christ [1955], is also to be understood in the light of this.) Therefore the community is described as the body of Christ, because here the spiritual body of Christ is present, because here we come closest to it; here in the common meal the first disciples at Easter saw Jesus’ Resurrection Body, His Spiritual Body.

Yet in spite of the fact that the Holy Spirit is already so powerfully at work, men still die; even after Easter and Pentecost men continue to die as before. Our body remains mortal and subject to sickness. Its transformation into the spiritual body does not take place until the whole creation is formed anew by God, then only, for the first time, there will be nothing but Spirit, nothing but the power of life, for then death will be destroyed with finality. Then there will be a new substance for all things visible. Instead of the fleshly matter there appears the spiritual. That is, instead of corruptible matter there appears the incorruptible. The visible and the invisible will be spirit. But let us make no mistake: this is certainly not the Greek sense of bodiless Idea! A new heaven and a new earth I That is the Christian hope. And then will our bodies also rise from the dead. Yet not as fleshly bodies, but as spiritual bodies.

The expression which stands in the ancZeitschrift, I [1945], pp., 105ff, seeks to explicate the expression ‘resurrection of the flesh’ both from the point of view of biblical theology and the history of dogma). Paul could not say that. Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom. Paul believes in the resurrection of the body, not of the flesh. The flesh is the power of death, which must be destroyed. This error in the Greek creed made its entrance at a time when the biblical terminology had been misconstrued in the sense of Greek anthropology. Our body, moreover (not merely our soul), will be raised at the End, when the quickening power of the Spirit makes all things new, all things without exception.

An incorruptible body! How are we to conceive this? Or better, how, did the first Christians conceive of it? Paul says in Philippians 3:21 that at the End Christ will transform our lowly body into the body of his own glory just as in 2 Corinthians 3:18 ‘We are being transformed into his own likeness from glory to gloryThis glory was conceived by the first Christians as a sort of light-substance; but this is only an imperfect comparison. Our language has no word for it. Once again I refer to Grünewald’s painting of the Resurrection. He may have come closest to what Paul understood as the spiritual body.