FACT: Christians DON’T Believe in the Immortality of the Soul

FACT: Christians DON’T Believe in the Immortality of the Soul September 2, 2014

Kerr and Cullmann argue from different starting points that the Christian tradition doesn't think the soul is a gassy substance that likes to separate itself out of the body like a fart.
Kerr and Cullmann argue that the Christian tradition doesn’t think the soul is a gassy substance that likes to separate itself from the body like a fart.

I’m sure you’ve spent many a night in college, arguing over a beer, or over an even more punishing sobriety, with your skeptical roommate about the immortality of the soul until you were blue in the face.

Or maybe you even took to convincing yourself that there is something like this airy substance somewhere in you?

In all this you maybe even took it far enough to estimate how many grams lighter you’d be after death when your soul is secreted out of your body into a heavenly ether.

This sort of intellectualism is precisely what Oscar Cullmann, in his little classic, Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead?, ties to a pillar and whips mercilessly with words such as these:

The very fact that the words ‘post-Easter’ need to be underlined illustrates the whole abyss which nevertheless separates the early Christian view from that of the Greeks. The whole of early Christian thought is based in Heilgeschichte, and everything that is said about death and eternal life stands or falls with a belief in a real occurrence in real events which took place in time. This is the radical distinction from Greek thought. The purpose of my book Christ and Time was precisely to show that this belongs to the substance, to the essence of early Christian faith, that it is something not to be surrendered, not to be altered in meaning; yet it has often been mistakenly thought that I intended to write an essay on the New Testament attitude toward the problem of Time and Eternity.

I feel like I need to drop a hint of what the telos of this post is after I've had some fun with the confusion it's cause. Caroline Walker Bynum's book is a great place to start.
I feel like I need to drop a hint of what the telos of this post is after I’ve had some fun with the confusion it’s cause. The cover of Caroline Walker Bynum’s classic book should suffice.

If one recognizes that death and eternal life in the New Testament are always bound up with the Christ-event, then it becomes clear that for the first Christians the soul is not intrinsically immortal, but rather became so only through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and through faith in Him. It also becomes clear that death is not intrinsically the Friend, but rather that its ‘sting’, its power, is taken away only through the victory of Jesus over it in His death. And lastly, it becomes clear that the resurrection already accomplished is not the state of fulfillment, for that remains in the future until the body is also resurrected, which will not occur until ‘the last day’.

The gap between the Greeks and the New Testament is more peacefully negotiated by the Catholic tradition. Fergus Kerr’s priceless (but not free) little study Thomas Aquinas: A Very Short Introduction demonstrates how Thomism (and the older Catholic tradition) has always seen us as ensouled bodies instead of seeing us as souls merely trapped in a body:

There is no better translation for the Latin anima than the word soul so long as we remember that neither Thomas nor Aristotle (with the word psyche) believed in a ghostly entity hidden within the human body. For Thomas, the word ‘soul’ means the basic principle of life in living creatures. Following Aristotle, Thomas argues that a soul, as the primary principle of life, is not itself a body but that which makes a body alive. The soul is not some invisible entity inside the body; but the ‘form,’ or the visibility as we might almost say, of the body. Neither Thomas nor Aristotle sees the soul as connected with inwardness; to the contrary, the soul is naturally public. The soul is how the creature is alive, interacting with things around.

Therefore, if this conception holds true, then permanently bodiless souls in the afterlife (so compatible with our cultural Cartesian dualism) would be a contradiction in terms. The ultimate telos of Christian belief and practice is the resurrection of the body.

So go ahead, shock your friends by telling them you’re agnostic about the immortality of a soul (separated from a body). Let a pregnant silence take over the conversation, then tell them you believe in the resurrection of the body. (Saying ‘hylomorphism’ might only cause more confusion, but I’m all for that).


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