What if I were to tell you that for Christians, the belief in an Immortal Soul and the belief of the apostles creed and the New Testament, Resurrection of the Dead, were not only at odds but incompatible to the point that a person must believe one or the other? After investigating though it seems we really have to take a position on the effects and place of death itself. Do we view death as friend or as enemy?
That is exactly the point Oscar Cullman makes in his book, Immortality of The Soul or Resurrection of The Dead.
The idea is controversial, and the book in its time produced much backlash. Yet, Cullman’s thesis rest not only on solid exegesis of the bible, which many claim is to be the source of all doctrine, but desire to state a reaffirmation of the old creed “We believe in the Resurrection of the Dead.” What it did fly in the face of was over 2000 years of western thought that took human souls for granted. I’ve outlined a brief history of the development of soul related philosophy here.
Still, the other side of the argument that Christians believe in immortal souls and “going to heaven when we die” is firmly established in the Church’s culture be it Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Orthodox. It is what is preached at funerals. It is what gives many people comfort.
Yet, for all the waking poetic about the breath of life many do in the pulpit, public discussion of this issue seems non-existent.
Recapturing Resurrection Sunday
Cullman begins by pointing out that for the early Church, they were defined by being the community post-easter (pg16). For them, that something really happened to lead to an empty tomb was definitive and they had to change and order their lives and beliefs around the new revelation of an empty tomb. The resurrection of Christ was the defining moment all other beliefs seek to explain.
As Cullman puts it:
[death and eternal life in the New Testament are always bound up with the Christ event… 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] (pg 17)
Cullman starts here for a major reason, he want to contrast the death of Socrates with the death of Jesus. And in exploring the two, he hopes to recapture a sense of what “Horror of Death” Christ conquered when he defeated “the last enemy death” and juxtapose it against “death as friend” in Socrates and Greek ideals.
Death as Friend
For his example of the Greek teaching, Cullman reaches to the perhaps unfamiliar Phaedo.
The full text of it is widely available free online, and you can get to it by this link to Harvard.
The Phaedo is Plato’s record of Socrates’ death and final hours with his students and disciples. In Plato’s presentation, Socrates spends his final hours describing what he thinks a soul is, and why death as friend is not to be feared.
Cullman sums up Socrates’ views so succinctly I will just reproduce it:
[ …the aurgments [Socrates] presents for the immortality of the soul. Our body is an outer garment which, as long as we live, prevents the soul from moving freely and from living in conformity to its proper essence. It imposes on the soul a law which is not appropriate to it. The soul, confined within the body, belongs to the eternal world. As long as we live, our soul finds itself in a prison, that is, in a body that is essentially alien to to it. Death in fact is the great liberator.] (pg 19-20)
Plato therefore, presents Socrates as completely calm and composed when he dies.”Death does nothing more than complete his liberation.”
Death as the Enemy
As the counter point, Cullman retells the story of how Jesus dies.
“Jesus is so thoroughly human that He shares a natural fear of death.” (pg21) And Cullman cites the scenes at Gethsemane. There Jesus trembles and is distressed (Mark 14:33) and ask for the cup to pass (Mark 14:36). Jesus even sought the comfort of friends, only to be distraught to find them sleeping when he is so tested (Mark 24:37).
Jesus even physically reacts, sweating drops of sweat like blood. And this is not just from fear of Hell, etc. but a real threat from death itself.
The death scenes in both tails also are radically different. Socrates calmly and freely drinks his hemlock. Jesus goes out with the cry, “My God, my God, Why have you forsaken me?”
John describes death as the final enemy to be tossed into the lake of fire (John 20:14) a common New Testament Motif. And in all the Gospels climactic scenes, Jesus is seen as placed into that final enemy’s hands and thus alienated from God completely.
Death as Fren-enemy
Cullman feels that by contrasting these two stories, he has pointed out a key difference between the end games of belief in immortal souls and belief in Resurrection.
For a those that hold to immortal souls, the end of physical life is “fundamentally not dying” (pg 25). Socrates’ true life, that of his soul is not really negatively effected. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Freed from the prison of his body his soul is now positively effected. It is free to exist in its true element.
For the believer in the resurrection, death is very real. It is a moment when the entire being is transferred to the “sphere of nothingness” (pg25). God completely abandons the individual. And whatever essence or soul exist is not freed, but truly dies just as the body.
Even more-so, Cullman states that this death is so complete that there is no natural power in the creation to overcome this resurrection style thinking about death. The dead are to stay in their graves.
That is, unless God himself undertakes a new act and re-approaches the dead as a “new creation” (pg 26).
These creates for Cullman an impasse. The Greek idea that the body is bad and must be destroyed for the soul to be free is contradicted by the New Testament evidence that the whole human being, soul included is so intertwined that the entirety must be recreated in a new body.(pg 27)
The issue of Sin
Cullman’s second line of logic expounds upon the idea that in Scripture Death is viewed as unnatural, a wage of sin, and opposed to God. “Death is the Wages of Sin”
He uses multiple tacts to develop the point. He points to the fact that declining bodily heath and sin are intertwined in the New Testament that Jesus heals with the phrase, “Your sins are forgiven.” Reaching further back, he grabs motifs of death entering the garden with the fall.
But primarily, he is seeking to overcome the Greek notion that the body is bad for the soul. he points to the fact that the body is good and a gift from the creator (pg 29) and Sin and death are corruptions of it.
Cullman is not insensitive to the fact that between the Greek ideals of an outward and negative flesh and an inward and good souls and the New Testament notion of an inner and outer man that there is some analogy (pg 16).
Yet, he is convinced that the analogy is taken to far if the reader starts seeing them as parallel.
[The New Testament certainly knows the difference between body and soul, or more precisely, between the inner and outer man. The distinction does not, however, imply opposition, as if one were by nature good, and the other by nature bad… the inner man without the outer has no proper, full existence] (pg32-3)
He even reaches to the “much quoted” (pg 36) Matthew 10:28, “fear not them that kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. Fear him who can slay soul and body in Gehenna” to indicate that God gives individuals over to a complete death.
Socrates’ half-death of just the body is not in line with Jewish and Christian understanding that death is far more serious.
Regaining the radical claim of Easter’s physical Resurrection
Cullman drives his work towards a hope to restate just how crazy and amazing the Easter story really is, and in so doing recapture the before mention spirit of the church as a people post-Easter.
The immortal soul view, for Cullman, is in the end unsatisfactory because it only ‘over comes the body.’ (pg 41). It is a death that only shifts states and in the end really only improves our lot. He sees it as incompatible with the Gospel on many fronts, the least of which not being that is makes the wages of sin, or death, a net positive.
It needs no call to repentance, I would add breeds odd asceticisms, there are practices I’ve explored like Hesychasm that aim to purify the soul alone, etc., and require no radical hope. Nature simply takes its course.
The resurrection of the dead, however, is a message that seeks to overthrow actual death itself. The entirety of what destroys people inwardly and outwardly is thus overcome. Death was something that completely destroyed human beings. The message of the Gospel then is that the the whole human, body included, is recreated.
This message that needs to be worked out with fear and trembling. It offers a scary alternative if it is not embraced, because nature taking its course presents a message that the whole of a human will be lost without major assistance.
What are we to believe? Resurrection is more valuable than Souls in the end.
Cullman at the very least makes a good case for Christians to re-evaluate where they stand on the issue; moreover, he challenges us to see where our stance on the matter effects the conduct of our Christian vocations.
Do we hold that death, and by relation sin, are truly fang-less because the end result is freedom from the physical? And how are our ethics and morals developing in regards to our view of the body?
Is it a cage that we wait to be freed from? Or is it a blessing from the creator that is to be used thankfully and authentically.
At the end of the day Cullman pushes us to ask, “What is a man?”
Cullman relates that writing the book got him a lot of negative responses. Many people felt he was undercutting whatever hope they had. They complained that it was against Christian charity to say that death of our loved ones is truly death.
At the very least, his thesis would render common notions of intermediate states and pearly gates as false. It also leads completely new impetus to annihilationism views of hell over others.
It makes death scary.
At the same time, it is honest in the face of the pain we feel in the “now and not yet.” It validates the morning and lose we feel.
And it ask us, what do we really hope?
My question to you
Personally, I am with Cullman 100%. In fact, I slightly hate that he got this book out before I was even born. I independently came to a very similar position…
Other people I now who have read the book have reacted very differently, and they find immortality of the Soul a dogma of their theology and a great hope.
Even the Westminster Confession retains the thesis of Immortal Souls, as does the entirety of the Roman Catholic system with purgatory, heaven, etc. Likewise, the Orthodox with their theosis hold overcoming the body and its sinful nature as paramount to sanctification.
As stated I have traced out the wide and deep historical developments of this doctrine in another post
This is a deep issue, and I would like to welcome you to share your thoughts and reactions below.
Especially so if you are nominally/ culturally Christian. Does this mesh with anything you’ve ever heard?
I remain convinced that this discussion needs to go out into God’s people.
It is my intention to eventually hand out some copies of the book.
If interested, please notify me so I can gauge and budget the level of interest.
For now, you can Get the book here