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


If we were to ask an ordinary Christian today (whether well-read Protestant or Catholic, or not) what he conceived to be the New Testament teaching concerning the fate of man after death, with few eceptions we should get the answer: ‘The immortality of the soul.’ Yet this widely-accepted idea is one of the greatest misunderstandings of Christianity ll-read Protestant or Catholic, or not) what he conceived to be the New Testament teaching concerning the fate of man after death, with few exceptions we should get the answer. There is no point in attempting to hide this fact, or to veil it by reinterpreting the Christian faith. This is something that should be discussed quite candidly. The concept of death and resurrection is anchored in the Christ-event (as will be shown in the following pages), and hence is incompatible with the Greek belief in immortality; because it is based in Heilsgeschichte it is offensive to modern thought. Is it not such an integral element of the early Christian proclamation that it can neither be surrendered nor reinterpreted without robbing the New Testament of its substance? (See on the following also O. Cullmann, ‘La foi à la résurrection Ct l’espérance de la résurrection dans le Nouveau Testament’, Etudes théol. et rel [1943], pp. 3ff; Christ and Time (1945), pp. 231ff; Ph. H. Menoud, Le sort des trépassés [1945]; R. Mehl, Der letzte Feind [1954]).

But is it really true that the early Christian resurrection faith is irreconcilable with the Greek concept of the immortality of the soul? Does not the New Testament, and above all the Gospel of John, teach that we already have eternal life? Is it really true that death in the New Testament is always conceived as ‘the last enemy’ in a way that is diametrically opposed to Greek thought, which sees in death a friend? Does not Paul write: ‘O death, where is thy sting?’ We shall see at the end that there is at least an analogy, but first we must stress the fundamental differences between the two points of view.

The widespread misunderstanding that the New Testament teaches the immortality of the soul was actually encouraged by the rock-like post-Easter conviction of the first disciples that the bodily Resurrection of Christ had robbed death of all its horror, (But hardly in such a way that the original Christian community could speak of ‘natural’ dying. This manner of speaking of Karl Barth’s in Die kirchliche Dogmatik, III, 2 [1948], pp. 776ff, though found in a section where otherwise the negative valuation of death as the ‘last enemy’ is strongly emphasized, still seems to me not to be grounded in the New Testament. See 1 Corinthians 11:30 [on that verse see below, pp. 34, 37]). and that from the moment of Easter onward, the Holy Spirit had awakened the souls of believers into the life of the Resurrection.

The very fact that the words ‘post-Easter’ need to be underlined illustrates the whole abyss which nevertheless separates the early Christian view from that of the Greeks. The whole of early Christian thought is based in Heilgeschichte, and everything that is said about death and eternal life stands or falls with a belief in a real occurrence in real events which took place in time. This is the radical distinction from Greek thought. The purpose of my book Christ and Time was precisely to show that this belongs to the substance, to the essence of early Christian faith, that it is something not to be surrendered, not to be altered in meaning; yet it has often been mistakenly thought that I intended to write an essay on the New Testament attitude toward the problem of Time and Eternity.

If one recognizes that death and eternal life in the New Testament are always bound up with the Christ-event, then it becomes clear that for the first Christians the soul is not intrinsically immortal, but rather became so only through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and through faith in Him. It also becomes clear that death is not intrinsically the Friend, but rather that its ‘sting’, its power, is taken away on/y through the victory of Jesus over it in His death. And lastly, it becomes clear that the resurrection already accomplished is not the state of fulfillment, for that remains in the future until the body is also resurrected, which will not occur until ‘the last day’.

It is a mistake to read into the Fourth Gospel an early trend toward the Greek teaching of immortality, because there also eternal life is bound up with the Christ-event. (In so far as John’s Gospel is rooted in Heilsgeschichte, it is not true, as Rudolf Bultmann wrongly maintains, that a process of demythologizing is already to be discerned in it.) Within the bounds of the Christ-event, of course, the various New Testament books place the accent in different places, but common to all is the view of Heilsgeschichte. (As Bo Reicke correctly maintains, ‘Einheitlichkeit oder verschiedene Lehrbegriffe in der neutestamentlichen Theologie’, Theol.Zeitschr., 9 [1953], pp. 401ff.) Obviously one must reckon with Greek influence upon the origin of Christianity from the very beginning, (All the more as the Qumrân texts show that the Judaism to which embryonic Christianity was so closely connected was already itself influenced by Hellenism. See 0. Cullmann, ‘The Significance of the Qumrân Texts for Research into the Beginnings of Christianity’, Jounr,. of Bibl. Lit., 74 [1955], pp. 2I3ff. So too Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament [1955], Vol. II, p. 13 note.) but so long as the Greek ideas are subordinated to the total view of Heilsgeschichte, there can be no talk of ‘Hellenization’ in the proper sense. (Rather, it would be more accurate to speak of a Christian ‘historicization’ [in the sense of Heilsgeschichte] of the Greek ideas. Only in this sense, not in that employed by Bultmann, are the New Testament ‘myths’ already ‘demythologized’ by the New Testament itself.) Genuine Hellenization occurs for the first time at a later date.