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Fall 2008 · Vol. 37 No. 2 · pp. 223–27 

Resurrection of the Body or Immortality of the Soul? Some Personal Reflections

Dan Epp-Tiessen

There is often a lack of logic and consistency in the church’s language about life after death. On one hand we freely use resurrection language to reassure one another that some day God will resurrect our bodies. On the other hand we speak of immortal souls that immediately go to heaven the moment our hearts stop beating, there to live a wonderful life in the presence of God. So, what will our ultimate fate actually be, to live as disembodied souls in heaven, or to live as resurrected beings in God’s re-created cosmos? Does the church’s holding to both these logically-inconsistent images represent sloppy theology or deep theological insight? I suspect it may be a bit of both.

It is fitting that the New Testament uses a variety of images to portray life beyond the grave. How else can one speak of the indescribable experience of living in the presence of God?

It is fitting that the New Testament uses a variety of images to portray life beyond the grave. How else can one speak of the indescribable experience of living in the presence of God, except through images that convey but a very partial picture of what this glorious life will be like? Perhaps because I teach Old Testament, I have always been drawn to the image of resurrection of the body, which has deep roots in ancient Israelite experience. I dislike some of what is implied by the image of an immortal soul, or at least what many Christians assume it implies—that the spiritual and physical can easily be separated, that the physical part of our being is of much less value than the spiritual, that our earthly life is important largely insofar as we use it to prepare for our eternal spiritual life in heaven. In contrast, resurrection language is far more earthy. It affirms the value of our bodies and the physical world as a whole. God’s ultimate goal for us is not disembodied existence is an ethereal heaven, but embodied life in a re-created cosmos, the new heaven and new earth that Isaiah and Revelation speak of (Isa. 65:17-25; 66:22-23; Rev. 21:1-22:5).

My favorite resurrection passage is 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul asks the question, “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead” (15:12). To this question he responds, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (15:20-22). Paul’s basic argument here is that the resurrection of Christ constitutes God’s promise that some day we too will experience a similar resurrection and victory over death.

Two personal experiences have combined to make the image of resurrection of the body particularly powerful for me. The first occurred many years ago when I was teaching an introductory course in Old Testament at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario. While discussing Israelite views of life after death, I described how the ancient Israelites viewed human beings as single holistic entities and as a result they could not conceive of meaningful human life apart from a body. Therefore, late in the Old Testament period when the belief in a meaningful life after death first arose within the Jewish community (or to put it another way, when God first revealed to the Jews that there was a meaningful life after death), this conviction was framed in terms of a resurrection of the body. By the time of Jesus many Jews believed that at the end of time God would raise the dead, or at least the faithful dead. Resurrection became the dominant image in the New Testament and the early church for describing how God, through Jesus Christ, was overcoming the power of death. This belief in resurrection of the body stands in sharp contrast to the Greek view of human life, vestiges of which can also be found in the New Testament, that we human beings are made up of body and soul, and at death the two part company. The body decays while the eternal soul is freed from the shackles of earthly existence to live on in some other realm. As the church moved into a world dominated by a Greek philosophical worldview, emphasis on the immortality of the soul came to overshadow belief in resurrection of the body. Today the church continues to use New Testament-based resurrection language, even though most Christians rarely think seriously about the theological implications of such language.

After class the conversation between myself and several students continued. One of these students was a young man who suffered from a rare congenital condition that had prevented his body from growing normally. As a result his body was tiny, he had little use of his arms and legs, and he relied on an electric scooter for mobility. Despite, or perhaps because of his disabilities, this young man had developed a wonderful personality and a deep Christian faith. I will never forget his words and the passion behind them. “For me belief in the resurrection is so meaningful because it means that some day I will have a new body. Then I will be able to run and jump and play with all the other young people my age.” What a marvellous image of the life that God has in store for us!

A second experience that has made belief in resurrection of the body so powerful for me is the death of our son, Tim, who died of cancer at the age of eight. Tim was a delightful, happy child, but his body had many limitations. These were a result of cerebral palsy, his original bout with cancer when he was three, radiation treatments to the brain, the ravages of powerful chemotherapy, and then a stroke at age four which diminished his remaining abilities and robbed him of his vision. But now Tim has a new body. He is again able to enjoy what was once one of his favorite pastimes, looking at picture books. Tim is able to run and jump and play games. No longer do the other children run off to play elsewhere, leaving him behind to call out, “Will someone please come and play with me.” I thank God that Tim has a new body. And I thank God for the promise that some day I too will have a new body.

Ironically, while Tim’s death has deepened my appreciation for Christian faith in the resurrection of the body, it has also deepened my appreciation for Christian belief in the immortality of the soul. In the moments after Tim stopped breathing I wanted to hold him one last time. As I cradled his lifeless body a profound sense washed over me that Tim’s body was here in my arms, but the “real” Tim was gone. The “real” Tim, Tim’s “soul,” had already passed into God’s everlasting care, and Tim was now being cradled in the loving arms of God. I suspect that many Christians have had similar experiences in connection with the death of their loved ones, and I suspect that such experiences are one of the reasons why belief in the immortal soul is so prevalent in our churches. Perhaps the Greek idea of the immortality of the soul does in fact correspond to a reality of Christian life—that at the point of death our life moves into the realm of God’s presence and everlasting care. Perhaps the church’s holding to the “contradictory” images of resurrection of the body and immortality of the soul does not represent sloppy theology, but the deep intuitive insight that we need more than one image to capture the reality that not even death “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39). Tim’s death helped me to better understand and reclaim for myself the Christian belief in the immortal soul.

Do I really believe that Tim is at this moment looking at picture books and playing with other children? I sometimes spell out the following scenario to help my students understand how the Bible’s language about life after death functions. My body is composed of billions of molecules, the majority of which are water molecules. When I die and my body decomposes these water molecules will enter the water table and eventually seep into streams and lakes. Some of these molecules will be sucked into the drinking water system of towns or cities, and someone else will drink “my” water molecules and some of these molecules will be incorporated into their body, and then the cycle will repeat itself. In the day of resurrection, from where will God gather the molecules to resurrect my body? This scenario illustrates how ridiculous a strictly literal interpretation of our language about life after death can be become.

Jesus once made a similar point. The Sadducees, who did not believe in resurrection, wanted to demonstrate how foolish such a conviction was, and so they sketched a scenario in which the same woman was successively married to seven brothers. In the day of resurrection, they asked, whose wife will she be? Jesus chides the Sadducees, not only for misunderstanding scripture and underestimating the power of God (Mark 12:24), but also for their wooden literalism. “For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (12:25). According to Jesus, resurrection existence is a qualitatively different existence from our present life, and so the categories and experiences of this present life will not be operative in the life to come. The Sadducees are correct in discerning that a literal interpretation of resurrection language leads to nonsense, but they are mistaken in their basic assumption about how to understand resurrection language. For Jesus, resurrection of the body is an image pointing to the nature of the new life that God has in store for the faithful.

Paul’s view is similar. In 1 Corinthians 15:35–58 he mounts a lengthy argument to counteract overly-literal understandings of resurrection. At the heart of his argument stands the contrast between our current physical body with its limitations, and the glorious, imperishable, spiritual, resurrected body that God will some day grant us. Paul is unequivocal that the dead will be raised, but the resurrection body and life will be qualitatively different from our present bodies and life. Paul too understands that Christian language about life after death is impoverished if reduced to literal interpretation.

Resurrection of the body or immortality of the soul? The question posed this way makes assumptions I no longer accept and poses a theological choice I no longer feel compelled to make. I am deeply grateful for the insights and reality embodied by both images.

Dan Epp-Tiessen is an associate professor of Bible at Canadian Mennonite University. He has served as an interim pastor and was a Mennonite Central Committee country representative in the Philippines from 1982–1986. He and his wife, Esther, have three sons: Mark, Chris, and Tim (who died of cancer some years ago). They are members of Charleswood Mennonite Church in Winnipeg.

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