- We are not immortal, nor do we have immortal souls.
- When we die, we really die. We don't go on to "a better place."
- Life is a gift from God, and it is embodied life. Paul believed in the resurrection of the body -- a new body, for sure -- but one continuous with the body in which we lived our lives, the same body that really, really dies.
However, in Philippians 1 Paul writes that "to die is gain," since to die is "to depart and be with Christ" (1:21-24). This sounds much more like the Gospel of Luke, in which the rich man and Lazarus go on to afterlife dwelling places and Jesus says to the thief on the cross, "Today you will be with me in paradise." It seemed to me that Paul's opinion changed as time passed, as the return of Jesus tarried, and as he faced the prospect of his own death more seriously.
Here's the key: Early Jews and Christians expressed two kinds of hope concerning the afterlife, one involving death then resurrection, and the other involving an intermediate life beyond the grave but before one reaches one's final destination. The classic studies on this topic are by Richard Bauckham, in an enormously wonderful book, The Fate of the Dead; Jaime Clark-Soles, in Death and the Afterlife in the New Testament; and N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God. See also Oscar Cullmann's famous essay.
I've made a lot of this point in my teaching. Christians, I've argued, believe in the resurrection of the dead, not the immortality of the soul. Our hymns and liturgies demonstrate great confusion on this point, as do some of our creeds. This is important for several reasons (and I still think it is):
- Resurrection means the reclamation of our bodies -- our bodies matter. Therefore, what we do in and with our bodies, and how we relate to the bodies of others, also matters.
- There's nothing special or immortal about us, except insofar as God graces us with life and status. Our life depends on God, now and forever.