Theology Thursday: Resurrection and the Immortality of the Soul

G. I. Williamson, in an issue of Biblical Horizons, described the hope of the Christian most succinctly:

[S]everal times lately … I have been both surprised and dismayed because of what seems to me to be a wrong change of focus. I refer to sermons that I have heard at funeral services in churches in which the doctrine of the resurrection of the body is still recognized as essential to the authentic Christian faith. The amazing thing is that – no doubt quite unintentionally – the whole focus was shifted from the glorious hope of the victory of the Christian over the grave in the final state, to the less glorious reality that the souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness and are with Christ.

Williamson goes on to observe a great irony. Orthodox, Bible-believing Christians act very much like theological liberals when they de-emphasize the future bodily resurrection in favor of simply “going to heaven.” Even theological liberals have no problem with our being “with the Lord” at death. What they have a real problem with is the resurrection, a miracle that they find scandalous and “un-scientific.” Millard Erickson wrote in his Christian Theology: “The liberal who wished to maintain some sort of continuing life after death replaced the idea of the resurrection of the body with the immortality of the soul. Although the body may die and decompose, the soul, being immortal, lives on.”

This is not the Biblical or orthodox view, though it is very popular. Therefore, at Christian funerals (and other times), we orthodox Christians should especially emphasize the resurrection, not simply the intermediate state, the time between death and the final resurrection. The resurrection of the body is not a doctrine to be subordinated to the disembodied immortality of the soul in the “intermediate state.” There is nothing of the hope of the Scriptures in this, though there is a great deal of pagan Greek philosophy in it. The ancient Greeks saw the body as a prison-house for the soul, which is emancipated at death. That’s why they craved death, by which the immortal soul was released to the world of the “Ideas,” its true, idyllic home.

Man’s great hope is not for a disembodied spirit or soul to “soar away” to heaven. The Second Coming – not the Christian’s death – is termed the “blessed hope” (Tit. 2:13) precisely because then, after the intermediate state, the saints who have died will be fully restored humans again, resurrected as Christ is resurrected.

Pagan Greek origins

Socrates welcomed death, since indeed it sets us free from the body. Whoever fears death proves that he loves the world of the body, that he is thoroughly entangled in the world of the senses. To Socrates, death is the soul’s great friend. So he teaches; and so, in wonderful harmony with his teaching, he dies – this man who embodied the Greek world in its noblest form. Contrast this with Jesus’ view of death: In Gethsemane Christ knows that death stands before him, just as Socrates expected death on his last day. The synoptic evangelists furnish us, by and large, with a unanimous report. Jesus begins “to tremble and be distressed,” writes Mark. “My soul is troubled, even to death,” he tells his disciples. Jesus shares the natural fear of death. Jesus is afraid … He is afraid in the face of death itself. Death for Him is not something divine; it is something dreadful. Only one who takes death seriously – as the tragedy that it truly is – can comprehend the Easter exultation of the first century Christian community and understand that the whole thinking of the New Testament is governed by belief in the resurrection. Before the influence of Babylonian Zoroastrianism upon Hebrew thought, the Old Testament records no such concept as “an immortal soul.” To a Hebrew, a person ceased to be at death. But resurrection is illustrated even in the oldest (chronologically speaking in terms of when the literature was first written) known scripture:

If a man dies, will he live again? All the days of my struggle I will wait until my change comes. You will call, and I will answer You; You will long for the work of Your hands (Job 14:14-15).

The word “immortality” occurs in only 5 places in Scripture:

In Romans 2:7 it is to be strived for.
In 1 Corinthians 15:53-54 it is to be obtained, or “put on.”
In 1 Timothy 6:16 it is something that only God possesses.
In 2 Timothy 1:10 it is brought to light.

Is the soul immortal? For the Christian, the scripture is clear that the same Spirit which raised Christ from the dead dwells in us; Christians are described as born from Above, having the life of God within. I think it is fair to say that Christians, at least, are in some sense immortal. Immortality is a communicable attribute of God, which He grants to His chosen ones. But the hope of the Christian is not the “intermediate state” between physical death and physical “glorified” resurrection. Rather it is that awesome eschatological event in which we are resurrected in new incorruptible bodies like Christ’s own resurrected physical body. It is the new heavens and new earth which is the great and final victory, not simply “going to heaven when we die.”

It’s also quite clear in scripture that unregenerate sinners are to be given immortality as well, to endure the terrors of God’s justice for ever. Do not imagine, you unrepentant sinners, that you will be annihilated at some point and escape the eternal and everlasting consequences of your treasonous rebellion against Thrice-holy God! The lake of fire, created for the devil and his angels, awaits you as well unless you exchange your imagined independence and right to determine your own destiny to the One who holds the fate of all of us in His hands and does as He pleases with all His created beings.

This post is not to argue against the Confessional doctrine that man is an immortal soul living in a mortal body. My purpose is to restore to us the Confessional and Orthodox emphasis on the great final hope of the Christian: The resurrection of the body to inherit the new heaven and Earth! We must not settle for celebrating the lesser truth of the intermediate state as the liberals do, marginalizing the greatest victory of all – the final resurrection of our physical bodies to inherit a new creation!