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Resurrection or Immortality?

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Archives / 1962 / June



Resurrection or Immortality?

Edward W. H. Vick

Canadian Union College, Department of Theology


[This article reviews some teachings set forth in an im­portant book on the witness of the New Testament to the question, "Immortality of the Soul or the Resurrection of the Dead?" It will serve to deepen our meditation on the stupendous event of the resurrection.—Eds.]

THE problem of the condition of man after death has been perennial. In the main, the solutions have been of two kinds. The Greek con­ception was that the soul is at death removed from the tension between time and eter­nity and is freed from the limiting condi­tion of the body, its temporary housing. This is the direct outcome of Plato's doc­trine of forms, which states that reality is not that which may be observed and touched but is to be found in the eternal, unchanging world of forms, of which tem­poral things are but the imperfect expres­sion. This teaching has had tremendous in­fluence in the Christian interpretation of the universe, with baneful results in the in­terpretation of the New Testament. It pro­duced the Gnostic dualism between body and soul, the body being evil, the soul good. This teaching that the body is evil has led in two directions—first, to asceticism: the body must be punished by neglect or dis­cipline, since the development of the soul is dependent upon the negation of the body; second, to libertinism: if the body is evil and it is man's lot to be saddled with it, since nothing can be done about the condition (Gnosticism was fatalistic in out­look), let the body be indulged to the full. Hence all kinds of immorality resulted as a consequence of such a doctrine.

Oscar Cullmann, professor of theology at the University of Basel, takes issue with the basic, albeit gratuitous assumption so prev­alent in Christendom, that the Greek teaching of immortality is compatible with the New Testament doctrine of resurrec­tion. His book Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? The Witness of the New Testament is a frank examination of the conviction of the early church. His contention is that the two teachings are incompatible.

However sincere our admiration for both views, it cannot allow us to pretend, against our profound conviction and against the exegetical evidence, that they axe compatible. . . . Precisely those things which distinguish the Christian teaching from the Greek belief are at the heart of primitive Chris­tianity.—Pages 7, 8.

Our author contends that belief in the resurrection is integral to Christianity, whose early thought was based on heilsgeschichte, i.e., a view of history that made it the locus of revelation. God revealed His saving power in specific events that oc­curred at specific times. Hence death has been overcome and will be overthrown at specific points of time. This is the Chris­tian, as opposed to the Greek, view of time.

A contrast is drawn between the philo­sophic spirit in which Socrates died, "a beautiful death" (page 20), and the death of Jesus, accompanied by distress and tears and the anguish of separation between Himself and God. Socrates was facing death as a friend, Jesus faced it as an enemy. Here the contrast is radical. For the Christian, "Whoever is in the hands of death is no longer in the hands of God, but in the hands of God's enemy" (page 23). To con­quer the enemy, Jesus must enter the ene­my's territory. He must Himself die, and following the death there must be an act of new creation, a re-creation of what death had destroyed. Resurrection is thus a "new act of creation by God" (page 27).

Death is not natural, but is the conse­quence of sin. Both are opposed to God. The body, a gift of God, was part of God's good creation. Body and soul are not op-posites but correlatives. For the Christian the contrast is between the creation (which includes the body) as made by God and as corrupted by sin, not between the body and soul as such, as in the Greek viewpoint. In the New Testament the "flesh" is the power of sin, the "spirit," the power of creation at work through the Holy Spirit, active at the resurrection and in the church. Body and soul are "good . . . as . . . created by God; they are both bad in so far as the deadly power of the flesh has hold of them" (page 35). The important word here is "both." For the Greek, the body was at best cumbersome, at worst, evil, the soul always good. For the New Testament writers both body and soul must be delivered by God's act of new creation, when they are both freed from "the flesh" (i.e., evil and cor­ruptibility). God performs this act of crea­tion at the resurrection, when life is given to the soul. "The soul is not immortal. There must be resurrection for both [i.e., soul, as well as body]; for since the Fall the whole man is 'sown corruptible'" (pases 36, 37).

Since the whole creation is involved in man's condition and will be newly created, the re-creation of man can only be at the End, when the new age dawns and the whole universe is renewed. Hence, there is no place for an individual transition at death.

Yet believers still die, even as they did fol­lowing the resurrection of Jesus. But the resurrection age has been inaugurated; it awaits its consummation, so death has lost its terror. This tension between "already fulfilled" and "not yet consummated" be­longs to the fabric of the New Testament, according to Cullmann. The foretaste of the consummation is given through the Holy Spirit and becomes manifest in the breaking of the bread. At the consumma­tion the body will be raised when all things are made new. It will be a body of glory in contrast to our present lowly body.

Death will be abolished at the End; it has already been conquered. Hence there is an interim period between the conquest and the annihilation of death. This means that the dead are still in some way "in time," i.e., since the resurrection at the End is an historical event, taking place at a point in time—in which those who are now dead, share—they are not in their interim con­dition placed beyond the temporal sphere. This means, of course, that they are not immortal, since immortality would mean a loosing of the bounds of time, and would make resurrection superfluous. Cullmann then concludes that since this is the case, the transformation of the body does not (and indeed, on this view, cannot) take place at death, since the victory over death at the End is a cosmic event.

He now considers the interim condition, but does not speculate upon it, since any such speculation is lacking in the New Tes­tament (page 51). Those "in Christ" sleep in death; they are waiting but they wait "in Christ." That is to say, there is a difference, because of the resurrection of Jesus, be­tween the Christian who has died and the one not "in Christ." Christ is near, in a sense undefined by Cullmann, even in death to the believer. Since the Holy Spirit, given as a foretaste to the Christian while living, is the power o£ life, the Christian has nothing to fear from death. Our author in­terprets 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 as a desire on Paul's part not to have to undergo death, which even though vanquished still calls forth a natural fear when it must be faced, but a desire to share in the transformation at Christ's second advent. Paul is here ex­pressing a wish not for death, but for trans­lation at the parousia. This is a legitimate and powerful interpretation of Paul's words.

It is the Holy Spirit that makes the differ­ence to the dead "in Christ." They are "closer to the final resurrection," "no longer alone" (page 54). He engages in no speculation on their condition. To have Christ in life is to be nearer Him in death than before. One does not have to interpret these expressions in terms of consciousness. They may be taken metaphorically. If so interpreted, they are quite legitimate. It is then true that the Christian in death is now nearer Christ. All that now he must await is the event of the resurrection, which will put him in Christ's direct presence. This interim condition is an "imperfect" state (page 56). This differentiates the Christian teaching from the Greek teaching of the immortality of the soul, which necessitates that the consummation take place at death. For the Greek the condition at death is not "imperfect" but perfect; in fact, death, in the Greek teaching, is the perfecting of life.


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