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


The present work is the translation of a study already published in Switzerland, (Mélanges offerts à KARL BARTH à l’occasion de ses 70 ans [pubi. by Reinhardt, Bâle, 1956][Theologische Zeitschrift, N. 2, pp. 126ff]. See also Verbum Caro [1956], pp. 58ff.) of which a summary has appeared in various French periodicals.

No other publication of mine has provoked such enthusiasm or such violent hostility. The editors of the periodicals concerned have been good enough to send me some of the letters of protest which they have received from their readers. One of the letter -- writers was prompted by my article to reflect bitterly that ‘the French people, dying for lack of the Bread of Life, have been offered instead of bread, stones, if not serpents’. Another writer takes me for a kind of monster who delights in causing spiritual distress. ‘Has M. Cullmann’, he writes, ‘a stone instead of a heart?’ For a third, my study has been ‘the cause of astonishment, sorrow, and deep distress’. Friends who have followed my previous work with interest and approval have indicated to me the pain which this study has caused them. In others I have detected a malaise which they have tried to conceal by an eloquent silence.

My critics belong to the most varied camps. The contrast, which out of concern for the truth I have found it necessary to draw between the courageous and joyful primitive Christian hope of the resurrection of the dead and the serene philosophic expectation of the survival of the immortal soul, has displeased not only many sincere Christians in all Communions and of all theological outlooks, but also those whose convictions, while not outwardly alienated from Christianity, are more strongly moulded by philosophical considerations. So far, no critic of either kind has attempted to refute me by exegesis, that being the basis of our study.

This remarkable agreement seems to me to show how widespread is the mistake of attributing to primitive Christianity the Greek belief in the immortality of the soul. Further, people with such different attitudes as those I have mentioned are united in a common inability to listen with complete objectivity to what the texts teach us about the faith and hope of primitive Christianity, without mixing their own opinions and the views that are so dear to them with their interpretation of the texts. This inability to listen is equally surprising on the part of intelligent people committed to the principles of sound, scientific exegesis and on the part of believers who profess to rely on the revelation in Holy Scripture.

The attacks provoked by my work would impress me more if they were based on exegetical arguments. Instead, I am attacked with very general considerations of a philosophical, psychological, and above all sentimental kind. It has been said against me, ‘I can accept the immortality of the soul, but not the resurrection of the body’, or ‘I cannot believe that our loved ones merely sleep for an indeterminate period, and that I myself, when I die, shall merely sleep while awaiting the resurrection’.

Is it really necessary today to remind intelligent people, whether Christians or not, that there is a difference between recognizing that such a view was held by Socrates and accepting it, between recognizing a hope as primitive Christian and sharing it oneself?

We must first listen to what Plato and St Paul said. We can go farther. We can respect and indeed admire both views. How can we fail to do so when we see them in relation to the life and death of their authors? But that is no reason for denying a radical difference between the Christian expectation of the resurrection of the dead and the Greek belief in the immortality of the soul. However sincere our admiration for both views, it cannot allow us to pretend, against our profound conviction and against the exegetical evidence, that they are compatible. That it is possible to discover Certain points of contact, I have shown in this study; but that does not prevent their fundamental inspiration being totally different.

The fact that later Christianity effected a link between the two beliefs and that today the ordinary Christian simply confuses them has not persuaded me to be silent about what I, in common with most exegetes, regard as true; and all the more so, since the link established between the expectation of the ‘resurrection of the dead’ and the belief in ‘the immortality of the soul’ is not in fact a link at all but renunciation of one in favour of the other. 1 Corinthians 15 has been sacrificed for the Phaedo. No good purpose is served by concealing this fact, as is often done today when things that are really incompatible are combined by the following type of over-simplified reasoning: that whatever in early Christian teaching appears to us irreconcilable with the immortality of the soul, viz. the resurrection of the body, is not an essential affirmation for the first Christians but simply an accommodation to the mythological expressions of the thought of their time, and that the heart of the matter is the immortality of the soul. On the contrary we must recognize loyally that precisely those things which distinguish the Christian teaching from the Greek belief are at the heart of primitive Christianity. Even if the interpreter cannot himself accept it as fundamental, he has no right to conclude that it was not fundamental for the authors whom he studies.

. . . . . . . . . . .

In view of the negative reactions and ‘distress’ provoked by the publication of my thesis in various periodicals, should I not have broken off the debate for the sake of Christian charity, instead of publishing this booklet? My decision has been determined by the conviction that ‘stumbling-blocks’ are sometimes salutary, both from the scholarly and the Christian point of view. I simply ask my readers to be good enough to take the trouble of reading on till the end.

The question is here raised in its exegetical aspect, we turn to the Christian aspect, I would venture to mind my critics that when they put in the forefront, they do, the particular manner in which they wish themselves and their loved ones to survive, they are involuntarily giving grounds to the opponents of Christianity who constantly repeat that the faith of Christians is nothing more than the projection of their desires.

In reality, does it not belong to the greatness of our Christian faith, as I have done my best to expound it, that we do not begin from our personal desires but place our resurrection within the framework of a cosmic redemption and of a new creation of the universe? I do not under-estimate in any way the difficulty one may experience in sharing this faith, and I freely admit the difficulty of talking about this subject in a dispassionate manner. An open grave at once reminds us that we are not simply concerned with a matter of academic discussion. But is there not therefore all the more reason for seeking truth and clarity at this point? The best way to do it is not by beginning with what is ambiguous, but by explaining simply and as faithfully as possible, with all the means at our disposal, the hope of the New Testament authors, and thus showing the very essence of this hope and -- however hard it may seem to us -- what it is that separates it from other beliefs we hold so dear. If in the first place we examine objectively the primitive Christian expectation in those aspects which seem shocking to our commonly accepted views, are we not following the only possible way by which it may perhaps none the less be given us, not only to understand that expectation better, but also to ascertain that it is not so impossible to accept it as we imagine.

I have the impression that some of my readers have not troubled to read my exposition right through. The comparison of the death of Socrates with that of Jesus seems to have scandalized and irritated them so much that they have read no farther, and have not looked at what I have said about the New Testament faith in the victory of Christ over death.

For many of those who have attacked me the cause of ‘sorrow and distress’ has been not only the distinction we draw between resurrection of the dead and immortality of the soul, but above all the place which I with the whole of primitive Christianity believe should be given to the intermediate state of those who are dead and die in Christ before the final days, the state which the first-century authors described by the word ‘sleep’. The idea of a temporary state of waiting is all the more repugnant to those who would like fuller information about this ‘sleep’ of the dead who, though stripped of their fleshly bodies, are still deprived of their resurrection bodies although in possession of the Holy Spirit. They are not able to observe the discretion of the New Testament authors, including St Paul, in this matter; or to be satisfied with the joyful assurance of the Apostle when he says that henceforth death can no longer separate from Christ him who has the Holy Spirit. ‘Whether we live or die, we belong to Christ.’

There are some who find this idea of ‘sleep’ entirely unacceptable. I am tempted to lay aside for a moment the exegetical methods of this study and ask them whether they have never experienced a dream which has made them happier than any other experience, even though they have only been sleeping. Might that not be an illustration, though indeed an imperfect one, of the state of anticipation in which, according to St Paul, the dead in Christ find themselves during their ‘sleeping’ as they wait for the resurrection of the body?

However that may be, I do not intend to avoid the ‘stumbling-block’ by minimizing what I have said about the provisional and still imperfect character of this state. The fact is that, according to the first Christians the full, genuine life of the resurrection is inconceivable apart from the new body, the ‘spiritual body’, with which the dead will be clothed when heaven and earth are re-created.

In this study I have referred more than once to the Isenheim altar-piece by the medieval painter Grünewald. It was the resurrection body that he depicted, not the immortal soul. Similarly, another artist, John Sebastian Bach, has made it possible for us to hear, in the Credo of the Mass in B Minor, the musical interpretation of the words of this ancient creed which faithfully reproduces the New Testament faith in Christ’s resurrection and our own. The jubilant music of this great composer is intended to express not the immortality of the soul but the event of the resurrection of the body: Et resurrexit tertia die . . . Expecto resurrectionem mortuorum et vitam venturi saeculi. And Handel, in the last part of the Messiah, gives us some inkling of what St Paul understood by the sleep of those who rest in Christ; and also, in the song of triumph, Paul’s expectation of the final resurrection when the ‘last trumpet shall sound and we shall be changed’.

Whether we share this hope or not, let us at least admit that in this case the artists have proved the best expositors of the Bible.


15th September 1956