Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Death (and Paul)

I used to think -- and teach, and write (Ultimate Things, 133-34) -- that Paul changed his mind concerning what happens when we die. In 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians, Paul writes that those who have fallen asleep will be raised and transformed upon the return of Christ. As I understood it, these early letters of Paul revealed a series of assumptions concerning afterlife hope.
  1. We are not immortal, nor do we have immortal souls.
  2. When we die, we really die. We don't go on to "a better place."
  3. 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.
Abe Simpson sound byte on death.

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):
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
Now I'm thinking I might be wrong about Paul. In Philippians 3:11 Paul writes in hope that he will "attain the resurrection of the dead." Could it be that for Paul (and for the author of Revelation), the idea of a temporary dwelling place and a final resurrection did not represent exclusive options? I can't get my mind around it, but the presence of both ideas in both Philippians and Revelation suggests that I may need to revise my views. How much, or in what way? I'm still sorting that out.


Talon said...

maybe the books were written by different people with different opinions.

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Luke said...

My meta-physic is suffering and has been for years. Christians talk out of both sides of their mouth. We want heaven (a concept from Hellenistic and other pagan sources who believed in the soul) AND resurrection (which is Jewish). Some Christians have merged the two or picked one over the other, but mostly I've heard them be used interchangably.

I don't know what happens when we die aside from that we stink. I hope that our consciousness continues, and based on some dreams I've had I think it does... but this isn't scientific evidence and any answer I give will be poorly reasoned. I don't see resurrection unless in metaphorical sense. So that's where I'm at. Thanks for the throughly depressing post ;-)

M.joshua said...

This is the most I've heard from somebody on this subject that I can fully relate to. I feel like we're on a similar page. But that's also disheartening. As I don't know exactly what to do with it now, either.

I just look forward to being with Jesus at the resurrection (if not sooner).

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