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]

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