Saturday, 15 April 2006

Resurrection or immortality?

“I believe ... in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” This has always been the confession of Christian faith. But belief in “resurrection” has time and again been obscured by notions of “immortality.”

According to the doctrine of immortality, human beings have a soul which is naturally immortal. When the body dies, the soul simply continues to exist. Death is not the end of human existence, but only a point of transition from one state of being to another.

If we imagine that human beings are immortal in this way, we can hardly even begin to appreciate what is meant by the word “resurrection.” For resurrection is the very opposite of any sort of natural transition to a life-beyond-death. To believe in resurrection is to believe in a miracle—in something utterly unheard of, unnatural, impossible.

Death is finality. It is the end of our existence, and it as an end after which there can be no new beginning. Death is the end of all life—so that it is meaningless to speak of an “afterlife,” or of any kind of continuing existence beyond the grave. Even if it were still possible to think of an immaterial “soul” in distinction from the physical “body,” we would have to say that this soul is utterly extinguished by death.

Christian faith affirms all this; but it also says that something unthinkably strange happens: God raises the dead. God does what is intrinsically impossible: he brings new life from death. This is a sheer miracle. It is, in the strictest sense of the term, an impossibility. It is pure contradiction—for to raise the dead means to contradict death itself, to negate death and turn its whole reality upside down. Death is, by definition, the end. But by the act of God death becomes a new beginning! In other words, the resurrection of the dead is the death of death.

As long as our thinking contains even a trace of the notion of “immortality,” we will understand neither the reality of death nor the miracle of resurrection. For to speak of “immortality” is to speak of a possibility latent within human nature. But to speak of “resurrection” is to speak of the act of God. Or, more precisely: to say “resurrection” is to say “God.”

[Reposted from July 2005]

12 Comments:

Gil said...

Thanks for this, I had never thought of the implications of our assumptions concerning immortality. I like your last statement contrasting the 'latent possibility within human nature' with the true miracle of resurrection. Thanks for opening up a new way of thinking about the hope of Easter.

Ken said...

Great post... could use some Scripture though...

Pittsley said...

I happened upon this post through the League of Reformed Bloggers. I was curious about your statements about the impossibility of an afterlife and I wondered what you thought about this:

The Christian hope has usually included some sort of intermediate state in which the disembodied person waits for the resurrection in the presence of Jesus.

"Today, you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43).

"I desire to depart and to be with Christ, which is better by far" (Phil 1:23).

"We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord" (2 Cor 5:8).

Any thoughts?

Anonymous said...

I am an agnostic; I do not pretend to know what many ignorant men are sure of

Chris Petersen said...

I never get tired of this post, Ben. It was what first led me to your site. Have a good Resurrection Sunday.

Ben Myers said...

Many thanks for these comments. Ken, you said it "could use some Scripture though" -- well, I did actually have the Bible in mind while writing the post. Does that count? ;-)

As you point out, Pittsley, Christian tradition (and some aspects of Jewish tradition too) has tended to speak of an "intermediate state" of disembodiment. As you can probably guess, this isn't a concept that I'm comfortable with, since I think it undermines (or rather obliterates!) the meaning of resurrection. Also, the concept of an intermediate state rests on a spirit-body dichotomy that doesn't really seem compatible with the central traditions of the OT and NT.

So I would be critical of all theological concepts of an intermediate state -- but in spite of that, I'm quite comfortable to use this language in the general, metaphorical way that it is occasionally used in the NT (e.g. by Paul). I think it's fine to use the metaphor of a disembodied trip to heaven, as long as we don't try to turn this into a theological reality!

As for Jesus' saying that "today you will be with me in paradise" -- I think this is more likely to be a messianic/apocalyptic statement, rather than a statement about disembodied existence.

I'd be glad to know if I'm mistaken though!

Pittsley said...

I thought that you might be leaning in this direction.

I do not think the intermediate state undermines the doctrine of physical resurrection. There is reason, after all, that it has been called intermediate. The term implies that it is a state which is bound by two events in history: namely, death and the resurrection of the body.

To me it seems like the unity of the human person is the underlying presupposition you care to defend. I agree that the Scriptures present human persons as monistic (Pss 16:9, 31:9). However, I am also bound by the texts above to say that human unity is a conditional unity. It seems that disembodied existence (while not normal or permanent for any human) is still possible, if always temporary.

Ken said...

Ben... it does but I'd like it to be more explicit... I know you can do exegesis right? :-)

Pittsley... there are very strong alternative readings of the verses you cite. Surely you'd at least have to acknowledge that those passages are not entirely unequivocal?

Exiled Preacher said...

Hi Ben,

I don't have a problem with an intermediate state. I think 2 Corinthians 5:8, "absent from the body, presnt with the Lord" Philippians 1:21-23 point us in that direction. The difficulty is that in much popular evangelical eschatology, the intermediate state has become the final state. According to this perspective, believers die and go to heaven as disembodied souls and that's it.

We should not so stress the glory of the intermediate state that we play down the greater glory of the resurrection of the body and the renewal of the cosmos. The word "immortality" is never used of the soul in the NT. Believers will be raised up to immortal glory at the coming of Christ,
"this mortal must put on immortality" 1 Corinthians 15:53. Only then will "death be swallowed up in victory."

Paul can write of the intermediate state in Philippians 1, but his great desire is not disembidied bliss but, "I may know him [Christ] and the power of his resurrection...if by any means I may attain the resurrection of the dead." Phil 3:10 & 11. At his coming Saviour will "transform our lowly bodies that they might be conformed to his glorious body according to the power by which he is able to subdue all things to himself". (3:21.)

Human beings are not inherently immortal."Christ Jesus...has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel". 1 Tim 1:10.

This is no way undermines the eternal duration of the punishment of the wicked, who will be raised up for condemnation on the day of judgement.

The final state of believers is resurrection to immortal, Christ-like glory. That never ceases to amaze me. "O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory?"

Guy Davies

Kyle said...

Ben, Thanks for reposting this. I wasn't reading your blog then, so I would of missed this.

One of my required readings for a metaphysical class I took last quarter was In Search of the Soul. I found one of the contributors position very interesting (Kevin Corcoran). He speaks of the resurrection as a "reassembly" of our "bits." Might be worth a look.

He also addresses the postulation of the intermediary state.

Blessings.

Theoblogian said...

Ben,

I was wondering what implications this has for our "he descended to hell" creedal assertion. Between "Good" Friday and Easter, was Christ dead in body and soul, was his human nature the only one killed, is there a body/soul duality? Do we need to re-work out creeds to allow for the mortality of the soul?
Thanks.

Anonymous said...

There is a free book on immortality at robertwr.com/resurrection.pdf

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