Moltmann on the Immortal Soul vs. Bodily Resurrection

The immortality of the soul is an opinion – the resurrection of the dead is a hope. The first is a trust in something immortal in the human being, the second a trust in the God who calls into being the things that are not, and makes the dead live. In trust in the immortal soul we accept death, and in a sense anticipate it. In trust in the life-creating God we await the conquest of death – ‘death is swallowed up in victory’ (I Cor. 15.54) – and an eternal life in which ‘death shall be no more’ (Rev. 21.4). The immortal soul may welcome death as a friend, because death releases it from the earthly body; but for the resurrection hope, death is ‘the last enemy’ (I Cor. 15.26) of the living God and the creations of his love (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996, 65-66).

In short, the immortality of the soul is not a Christian doctrine. Resurrection of the body is. 

Easter Means Mission

Our celebrations of Christ’s resurrection at Easter tend to be narrowly focused. The focus, all too often, drills down onto the individualistic issue that the resurrection makes personal salvation possible. Christ has been raised so that you can go to heaven. Now don’t get me wrong. I happily affirm that the salvation of each person depends on the historical bodily resurrection of Christ: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17). The problem comes when we fail to consider how the implications of the resurrection extend beyond individual salvation. And in doing so we don’t have to worry about overlooking or neglecting the personal saving power of the resurrection. To the contrary, we establish it. 
So, what is the resurrection about? If we turn to the Gospel of John, we soon discover that the resurrection of Jesus is the basis for the Church’s vocation in the world. Easter means mission. Consider the words of Jesus to his disciples on the evening of the day of his resurrection: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). The first thing Jesus does is set before his closest followers the task he intends them to fulfill. He is sending them out into the world with a mission, a mission that flows out of and is similar to the one for which Jesus himself was sent into the world. And what is this mission? John has at least two things in mind: reconciliation and new creation.
Mission as Reconciliation
Twice during this first post-resurrection meeting, Jesus tells the disciples, “Peace be with you” (20:19, 21). His mission to them is a mission of reconciliation. And rightly so, for all human beings come into the world estranged from God. To draw on John’s own language, “No one has ever seen God” (1:18). God is light. We stand in darkness. Jesus comes to make peace between God and us so that we can become the children of God, so that we can experience the pure and unqualified joy of seeing God’s glory. 
And he does this reconciling work in his own body. This is why the incarnation is so important. This is central to the significance of the Word made flesh. Because he is fully God and fully human, he brings the two disparate parties together in his body. God and humanity are reconciled in the very body of Jesus that died on the cross and was raised from the dead. Without the incarnation and bodily resurrection, there is no reconciliation between God and humanity. This is what the Father sent Jesus to do, and Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” If the Father sent the Son to work peace between God and the human race, then Christ sends his Church to be agents of that peace making mission to the rest of the world. 
Mission as New Creation

But the mission goes much deeper than any initial reconciliation between God and humanity. John also gives us a few clues to help us understand that our mission is to cultivate the new creation that God is working through Christ and the Spirit. We know John likes Genesis. No first-century Jewish writer starts out a book with the words, “In the beginning,” and does it on accident. He is intentionally drawing on the creation narrative in Genesis 1 to inform our reading of the Gospel. And if Genesis 1 is telling the story of creation out of nothing, then John 1 is telling the story of new creation out of the old. John 20 offers a couple more clues that Jesus has been sent to work new creation. Ever notice that John is telling us about the most important day in the history of the world and never says a word about anything that happens while the sun is up? The story starts in the dark of early morning only to jump forward to the dark of evening. Morning, evening; evening, morning. That John is drawing on Genesis 1 ought to be clear. If it isn’t, John repeatedly reminds his readers that this is the first day of the week. If Genesis 1 tells story of cosmic creation structured by seven days of evenings and mornings, John 20 sets up the story of the resurrection as the work of God on the first morning and evening of the new creation. And as the Spirit hovered in the darkness over the face of the primordial waters, so now the Spirit is at work in the darkness of that first Easter morn raising the dead as the first act of God’s new creation. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” If Jesus has been sent by the Father to inaugurate the new creation, the Church has been sent by Jesus to cultivate it. 
The Whole Easter Package

If our job, then, is to be agents of reconciliation between God and the world and to cultivate the new creation everywhere we go, then personal salvation is obviously included in that along with much, much more. And our vision of salvation is enlarged way beyond the old “go to heaven when you die” sort of “fire insurance” that has so often characterized American Christianity. The mission is to facilitate peace between God and the nations. That peace is part and parcel to personal salvation, but it is neither a salvation of mere forgiveness nor is it a salvation of escape. Rather, it is salvation in which we are made new creatures for life in the new creation. It is incarnational. It is transformational. It’s the whole package. Easter is mission.

Here’s My New Seven Minute Seminary: Resurrection and the Christian Afterlife (@OfficialSeedbed)

Here’s the latest installment of Seedbed’s Seven Minute Seminary series in which I discuss several questions related to life after death, bodily resurrection, and the pastoral significance of the Christian hope. Watch to the end to discover why this doctrine is so very near and dear to my heart. Be sure also to check out this great little discussion guide that the Seedbed team has put together to accompany the video for use in a small group setting.

Check out my other contributions to the Seven Minute Seminary project:

Athanasius on the Resurrection

Today is Easter Sunday. Where better to turn than On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius? This is one of those books that I keep coming back to over and over again. And as many times as I’ve read this ancient book, it never gets old. It never loses its potency and is always fresh. So, here are a few excerpts on the significance of Christ’s resurrection for your Easter morning. 
The Reason Christ Came

The supreme object of His coming was to bring about the resurrection of the body. This was to be the monument to His victory over death, the assurance to all that He had Himself conquered corruption and that their own bodies also would eventually be incorrupt; and it was in token of that and as a pledge of the future resurrection that He kept His body incorrupt (22).

Death No Longer Feared

A very strong proof of this destruction of death and its conquest by the cross is supplied by a present fact, namely this. All the disciples of Christ despise death; they take the offensive against it and, instead of fearing it, by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ trample on it as on something dead. Before the divine sojourn of the Savior, even the holiest of men were afraid of death, and mourned the dead as those who perish. But now that the Savior has raised His body, death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing, and prefer to died rather than to deny their faith in Christ, knowing full well that when they die they do not perish, but live indeed, and become incorruptible through the resurrection (27).

 The Victory of Christ

Death has become like a tyrant who has been completely conquered by the legitimate monarch; bound hand and foot as he now is, the passers-by jeer at him, hitting him and abusing him, no longer afraid of his cruelty and rage, because of the king who has conquered him. So has death been conquered and branded for what it is by the Savior on the cross. It is bound hand and foot, all who are in Christ trample it as they pass and as witnesses to Him deride it, scoffing and saying, “O Death, where is thy victory? O Grave, where is they sting?” (27). 

Christ is risen! Alleluia! 

Resurrection is Everything (@OfficialSeedbed)

My latest guest post for Seedbed went live this morning. Here’s the intro:

“Why celebrate Easter?” That’s an honest question that was put to me recently by a man who is deeply interested in religion, though intentionally not part of any orthodox Christian tradition. His question is one that many believers seldom ask. After all, Easter is a given for church-going people. When have we ever felt the need to justify our celebration of Jesus’ resurrection? But in our increasingly secularized culture more and more people are less and less familiar with Christian belief and practice. So, maybe we should be more careful to ask the “Why?” question, not only for our sake but for the sake of those who may be interested in but unfamiliar with Christianity. Why is Easter so important? What’s the big deal? Why do we celebrate? 

Will God Destroy Our Bodies?

That’s what several standard Bible translations would have you think. The verse in question is 1 Corinthians 6:13a, and it turns out that a decision of punctuation makes all the difference in two contrasting understandings of Paul’s attitude toward the human body. Let me illustrate by showing you four different translations of this one verse. Pay close attention to the quotation marks included (not by me but) by the translation team.

“Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”– and God will destroy both one and the other (ESV).

You say, “Food was made for the stomach, and the stomach for food.” (This is true, though someday God will do away with both of them) (NLT).

“Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. (NRS)

You say, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.”  (TNIV).

Did you catch that? Each of these translations agree that Paul is quoting a slogan original to the Corinthians, but they disagree on the extent of the quotation. The first three close the quote before the assertion that God will destroy both stomach and body; the fourth closes the quote after that claim. To their credit, the translators of the NRSV include a footnote saying that “the quotation may extend to the word other.” But the question remains. Whose view are we faced with? Should the claim that God will destroy the body be attributed to Paul or to a group of Corinthians?
The problem arises because the Greek in which Paul wrote did not have quotation marks; so the translators have to decide where to close the quote when rendering it into English. To make this decision they must consider the verse in its immediate context and in light of all Paul’s letters. In this case, the decision about punctuation is really a decision about interpretation and how we understand Paul’s anthropology. What does Paul believe to be the destiny of the human body? Punctuation matters.
In this case, I would argue that the TNIV gets it right. The next verse tells us Paul’s view of the future of the believer’s body, “God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power” (NRSV). For Paul, the future resurrection of the body is an argument against the libertine attitude of appetite indulgence among some of the Corinthians. The body (and its parts) will be resurrected in a manner analogous to that of Jesus. That means that physical (though certainly transformed) bodies will arise from their graves. The corpse of someone who is in Christ will not be destroyed; it will not even remain a corpse. To the contrary, it will be made alive again by the power of God. It seems to me unclear how we can describe that as destruction.

Paul has more to say about death and resurrection in chapter 15 of the same letter, where the language of destruction comes up again, but not with regard to the body. Paul says that, at the coming of Christ, death is the thing that will be destroyed when the bodies of believers are raised from the dead (15:26). Death is the enemy of Christ, and Christ will destroy his enemies. The final enemy that Christ will destroy is death itself. We might say that, as the nails spring loose from the coffins of those who belong to Christ, the final nail will be hammered into death’s own coffin. 
Paul fills in the picture later in the same chapter by saying that the presently mortal and perishing body will be overcome with immortality and imperishability (see especially vv. 50-55). The body will be transformed, not destroyed.  I see no way that this transformation could plausibly be construed as destruction; it is the opposite of destruction. 
This evidence weighs strongly against an interpretation (or punctuation!) of 6:13a that attributes to Paul the belief that God will destroy our bodies. Destruction is defeat. Resurrection is victory. Destruction is what happens to death. Resurrection is what happened to the body of Christ, and it’s what will happen to the bodies of those who belong to Christ. 

Review: Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction

Questions about death and what may lie beyond are always with us, and the mystery of the unknown has given rise to more than a few theories. With Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction, Terence Nichols provides a biblically grounded, historically rooted, and carefully argued account of the Christian understanding of what awaits us after death.
 
The first two chapters introduce the reader to the various attitudes toward death and afterlife in the Old Testament and other ancient Jewish texts. He concludes that ancient Hebrew texts generally show belief in some sort of ongoing personal existence after death in Sheol (or the underworld), but these concepts were vague and lacked detailed expression. As time passed, Jewish texts became increasingly, though not exhaustively, characterized by belief in bodily resurrection. Nichols finds extensive evidence in the New Testament for early Christian belief in future bodily resurrection, and he accurately identifies this as transformed physical life in God’s new creation. He helpfully resists a strong duality between heaven and earth suggesting that afterlife is the consummation of choices made in the present.
 
After laying out the biblical material, Nichols investigates the meaning of death and afterlife in key thinkers in Christian history (Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin). He demonstrates that each one affirmed the resurrection of the body as the Christian hope, even if each one understood resurrection in somewhat differing ways. The strength of the study to this point is the demonstration that from its earliest history, Christianity has come at questions of death with a firm vision of the resurrection of the body.
 
Chapter four brings a shift from historical theology to a presentation of contemporary scientific challenges to afterlife and the soul. This chapter will be particularly useful to those unfamiliar with these recent and varied challenges to the historic Christian view. Chapter five begins the author’s response to the challenges by appealing to testimonial evidence of those who have had near death experiences (NDE) and argues that such experiences cannot be accounted for by physicalist denials of an immaterial soul.  
 
This leads Nichols to a discussion of the soul (chapter 6) in which he describes the different approaches to the body-soul relationship (physicalism, substance dualism, holistic dualism). Nichols argues for a form of  holistic dualism that he calls “subject-in-relation”. This means that the soul and body are, in this life, an integrated whole but that the soul can still survive bodily death and carry forth personal identify to the resurrected body. The soul, he believes, is a subject that stands in relation to the body, others, its environment, and to God. Thus, it exercises its powers through the body, but the body also influences the soul. So, causality goes in both directions. Particular powers of the soul include free choice and the ability to relate to God. Nichols thinks of the soul as a “bridging principle” for humans to relate to God (132). By this he means that a bridge is needed for the world of spirit to interact with the world of matter. As physical creatures, human beings need a means of relating to God, who is understood as pure spirit. The soul fulfills this bridging role as a non-physical aspect of human life that allows us to relate to a spiritual God.
 
I do find this bridging role to be somewhat problematic in that it seems to slide into an unnecessary contrastive dualism. If our non-physical souls can interact with our physical bodies, why should we think that a non-physical God is unable to likewise relate to physical creatures? Further, it’s not clear how an immaterial soul successfully bridges the gap between God and humanity. As David Kelsey points out, when we concieve of the difference between God and humanity in terms of the difference between the Creator and the creature, then it’s not clear how a created soul relates to an uncreated God, even if both are immaterial (cf. Kelsey, Eccentric Existence, 1:255-56). Instead, following Kelsey, I think we can say that God lovingly relates to those he creates in the very act of creating them, our physicality is no barrier to God’s determination to relate to us. Indeed, in the very act of creating, the immaterial God lovingly relates to his physical creation.
 
Nichols goes on to articulate a case for belief in resurrection despite arguments to the contrary (ch. 7). He gives a chapter to “Justification and Judgment” in which I found little with which to disagree, even though Nichols is writing from a Roman Catholic perspective. He describes justification as “forgiveness of sins, through faith in Christ” that “should lead to the inner transformation that comes from the outpouring of God’s love in the hearts of believers” (160). He describes that transformation in terms of sanctification through the presence of the Holy Spirit. He does say that justification is “completed by sanctification” (160), but this doesn’t seem to conflate the two, and, while sympathetic to the Canons of the Council of Trent, his view strikes me as somewhat more Protestant than Tridentine.
 
Nichols does argue for the historic Roman Catholic view of purgatory in chapter nine. I would like to take more space to present and evaluate this interesting, though flawed, argument. But this review is already rather long for a blog. So, I hope to follow-up with a post devoted specifically to interacting with Nichols’ view on purgatory.
 
The final chapter presents a vision of dying well, which Nichols describes as “dying into God” (187). This involves a deeper surrender of ourselves to God as we move toward death, the supreme trial of our lives.
 
All in all, I found this book very interesting and very helpful. The apologetic value of the book is high in that it summarizes and introduces readers to the significant difficulties for those who reject (whether for scientific or other reasons) the historic Christian understandings of the soul and the resurrection of the body. It also does an excellent job of drawing a vision of a future with a hope, and a path for the journey through death. I am happy to commend it.