Posts Tagged ‘resurrection’

Come, see how he dies…

October 29, 2009

I think we don’t talk enough about the resurrection. I’m not talking about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, circa 30 AD – though the more we talk about that, the better. I mean we don’t talk enough about the one that’s going to happen – your resurrection and mine. The Nicene Creed has “I believe in the resurrection of the dead”, and we don’t explicitly deny this, but we much prefer to talk about “going to heaven when we die”. The problem is, most people hear that and think of the immortality of the soul. Pictures of people in heaven floating around playing harps on clouds doesn’t help.

heaven

Bad theology

We forget that the Bible doesn’t offer the solution to death of the immortality of the soul, but offers instead the resurrection of the body – at the return of Christ and the renewing of all creation. Daniel 12:1-4 gives voice to this:

But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.

Paul says the same thing in 1Corinthians 15:

the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.

This is so different to the idea of the immortality of the soul. Christians should resist the sharp dualism offered by the idea of an immortal soul being released from a mortal body – that’s Platonism, not Christianity!

This affects our view of death, as well. Oscar Cullmann famously presented the difference between the Greek view of death and the immortality of the soul and the Christian view of death and the resurrection of the body by comparing the deaths of Socrates and Jesus.
(Oscar Cullmann, “Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? The Witness of the New Testament” in Krister Stendahl (ed.), Immortality and Resurrection, Death and Resurrection (New York: Macmillan, 1965))

Socrates faces death calmly. For him, it is insignificant because the soul is essentially deathless. Drinking the hemlock only sets him, the real Socrates, free from the prison-house of his body. Death liberates his soul, and he returns to eternity. “The destruction of the body cannot mean the destruction of the soul any more than a musical composition can be destroyed when the instrument is destroyed”.

By contrast, come, see how Jesus dies. In Gethsemane he struggles with his impending fate. He knows that his life can be entrusted to his Father’s faithfulness and love, but death is an all-too-real experience. He is in agony anticipating it. Death means being forsaken by God and being taken away from real, full-blooded existence, at least for a while. Jesus knows he is an embodied being, and that whatever existence there is in the grave, it is radically reduced from the fullness of life God intends for humanity. Death is a horror and a terror, beyond which we can only have hope because of God’s promised recreation: resurrection of the body.

Cullmann’s point should stop us from being careless in the way we express the Christian hope. It is not enough to say “I will go to heaven when I die” – death must be undone and the dead must be raised in new, perfect, incorruptible bodies. Death is ambiguous at best – an enemy which cannot ultimately harm us; inevitable, but not the final word. It will be undone – until then, we can recognize with our Saviour its horror and unnaturalness; in hope because God has promised to resurrect the dead, and God keeps his promises.