EVOLUTION OF THE SOUL AND IMMORTALITY IN CHRISTIAN THOUGHT

Originally at: http://www.slate.com/bigideas/is-there-life-after-death/essays-and-opinions/nt-wright-opinion

by RT. REV. N.T. WRIGHT

Immortality is the condition of not being subject to death. The ancient pagan view of the gods as “immortal” was one way (along with their invisibility) of distinguishing them from humans; in other respects (such as their moral behaviour), they seemed similar. Humans were mortal, visible, and they died; gods were immortal, invisible, and didn’t.

There were wrinkles in this theory. Homer describes a shadowy underworld in which ex-humans had some kind of existence, but it was neither embodied nor happy. Such beings were like faded old photographs of their former selves.

Plato and other philosophers changed all that. Perhaps humans, despite having a mortal body, also had an immortal soul. Perhaps this soul existed before physical conception and would continue to exist after death. In some theories, this soul would inhabit a continuing succession of mortal bodies. In others, it came from some unearthly region (heaven?) and would return there after its temporary and unfortunate embodiment. Ancient philosophers developed many theories about all this—including the famous Epicurean denial, repeated by today’s skeptics, of any immortality, indeed, of any post-mortem future.

Ancient Jewish thought was rather different. The created order was God’s good world, and in the Psalms, Isaiah, and other books, God will renew and restore his creation. True, several Jewish thinkers attempted accommodations between Jewish and non-Jewish thought. Philo of Alexandria came up with a rich blend of Moses and Plato. He envisaged immortal souls rather than new creation.

Jesus and his first followers were “new creation” advocates. That is what the “kingdom of God” is about. Immortality as such is seldom discussed in the New Testament, which states that “only God possesses immortality” (1 Timothy 6:16). God’s new creation, including resurrected humans, will be “immortal” in the sense that it will last forever. When New Testament writers used the word “soul,” they were not referring to Plato’s belief in an immortal “part” of the human make-up, existing before conception and after bodily death, shedding its body to enjoy permanent disembodied bliss. Rather, they refer to the Hebrewnephesh, which is more like what we today mean by “person” or even “personality.”

Jesus, Paul, and all other first-century Christians known to us embraced the older Israelite view, in which the created physical order was of primary importance. God’s promises concerned the present world, seen as the combination of “heaven” and “earth.” The Jerusalem temple symbolized the coming together of those two spheres, pointing ahead to a time when the divine glory would fill the whole creation. Israel’s scriptures offered only cryptic hints about resurrection and the divine purpose extending beyond the grave. But this belief came to the fore, not least through times of persecution, in the last centuries before Jesus. God would, at the last, raise from the dead all his faithful people to share in his new creation. This belief remained at the heart of early Christian hope.

But if people believe that there will be a new physical world, suffused with the divine presence and with justice and peace; and if they also believe that all God’s people will be raised from the dead to share forever in that world; then they are bound to believe in some kind of immortality. There must be some continuity between the present self and the ultimate future one. If this continuity is not expressed in terms of a soul on the Platonic model, how can it be imagined?

Some Jewish writers had indeed used the word “soul” to express this continuity; the souls of the righteous dead are “in the hand of God,” but they will return, re-embodied, to judge the world (Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9). Some Pharisees expressed the same idea by speaking of the dead person existing in the form of a “spirit” or an “angel.” Such terms do not carry strict, technical meanings. They are ways of affirming some kind of continuity, ahead of the time when God raises the dead and gives his people new bodily life at last.

Jesus’ resurrection from the dead compelled his followers to rethink Jewish expectations. They came to believe that the promised “end” had arrived, confusingly, in the middle of history and in this one man. Instead of an interim period between death and resurrection (though that still mattered too), they were more interested in the interim between Jesus’ resurrection and the ultimate new creation; in other words, the time when God’s Spirit was energizing the church in global mission. Rather than looking forward to a disembodied post-mortem immortality, they saw their present lives, and the work they were doing within God’s inaugurated kingdom, as having immortal results. As Paul puts it, “in the Lord, your work is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58). The new creation will demonstrate the lasting value of present Spirit-inspired work.

They still believed in an interim between death and resurrection, though they did not speak of this in terms of immortality, a word they applied rather to the new resurrection body itself. When Paul speaks of the “interim,” he talks about “departing and being with the Messiah, which is much better.” Perhaps that is the best way of putting it: Jesus, the prototype of new creation, will look after those who belong to him until the moment of new creation. The Book of Revelation speaks of “souls under the altar;” the martyrs pray for God’s ultimate justice to triumph. Like all our speech about life beyond death, this is picture language. The first Christians were not hugely concerned with the immediate post-mortem future, but rather with the ultimate resurrection and new creation, the bodilyimmortality launched with Jesus’ own resurrection.

There is then a danger in Christians focusing too much on immortality and not enough on resurrection. Such a focus, out of kilter with the New Testament, has imagined a disembodied “heaven” as the ultimate Christian destination, rather than the biblical “new heavens and new earth.” This has led to an emphasis on supposedly “spiritual” matters rather than “merely physical” questions like justice and beauty. An emphasis on immortality has been a natural response to those skeptics who, like the ancient Epicureans, deny any post-mortem future; but the proper answer to them is not an escapist immortality, but new creation.

If the new creation really began with Jesus’ resurrection, and if by his Spirit he now calls people both to benefit from that new creation and also to share in its present projects, then the real immortality is not so much about “what happens after we die”—important though that is—but about the ultimate significance and everlasting new-creational effects of our present choices and our present kingdom work. The Holy Spirit is the “giver of life,” not so that we can escape the present world into disembodied bliss but so that the divine life-giving energy, which will one day renew the world, can work through us here and now. The results—real transformations of the world—will be “immortal” in the sense that, since they are inspired by the Spirit, they will truly be part of the final new world when God does for the whole creation what he did for Jesus himself on the first Easter day.

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