Sunday, January 24, 2010

9.4 A Soul in a Body, Part 1

The earlier parts of this chapter were:

9.1 Biological Machines
9.2 Socially-Constructed Identity
9.3 Existentialism and Identity

A Soul in a Body, Part 1:
When we who are Christians affirm the “Apostle’s Creed,” we confess our belief in the “forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” Popular Christianity often misses the meaning of Christian faith in “the resurrection of the body.” It is an affirmation that, one day in the future, God will transform our dead corpses (or whatever is left of them) into new bodies, and we will come back from the dead, possibly on an equally transformed earth. The “resurrection of the body” is thus something distinct from the “immortality of the soul,” even if the two ideas do not necessarily contradict each other. The idea that “you die and go to heaven or hell” is thus slightly different from what most Christians in the past have believed. It would be more accurate to say that most Christians in history have traditionally believed that you die and go to a place of reward or torment to wait for the final resurrection and judgment, after which you will go either to eternal life or condemnation.

So where does the idea of the soul come in? As we will see, we do find some language in the New Testament that seems to relate to “disembodied” existence between our deaths and our resurrections—whether for eternal life or death. But we ironically find very little language in the Bible that speaks of “souls” in this way. The idea that we have a detachable soul, which comes into existence at least at our conception and continues to exist forever, arguably came into Christian tradition more from the influence of Greek philosophy than from the Bible itself.[i]

Nevertheless, it became the consensus of Christendom, not only that at some point in the future we will receive resurrection bodies, but that we have immortal souls. When the vast majority of Christians have believed something for so long, we must surely be very cautious about drawing a different conclusion. Those of us who are Protestants have room for “reformation,” particularly when the majority seems to have deviated from the founding principles and practices of earliest Christianity. But some developments from New Testament times seem like appropriate extensions or refinements of first principles and practices, even clarifications of tensions or ambiguities within the earliest church. So it would seem we can neither dismiss common elements of historic Christianity easily nor completely affirm them without the possibility of reformation or development.

At the same time, no human being can remove their thinking completely from the categories of their times and places. You could argue that it is not so much the existence of the soul that is the important consensus but rather what language of the soul was really about. We could argue that belief in the soul has primarily been about our continued existence after death. The soul also provides potential mechanisms to explain our individual identity or even free will. For others, the existence of a soul at conception might provide an argument against abortion when as yet an embryo not only has no blood or breath—the biblical images of life—but has no nerves to feel pain, let alone has thought. You could at least argue that what is important is that we can affirm these things—continued existence, continued identity—rather than a particular version of human psychology...

[i] The church father Origen (AD185-254) believed that God created all the souls of humankind when He made the world. He thus believed that our souls pre-existed our conception. He also believed that, since all souls were good, all humans would be good after they were freed of their bodies. He is thus the earliest known Christian “universalist,” someone who believes everyone will be saved in the end. For this reason he was posthumously excommunicated several centuries after his death.


Marc said...

Since reading Wright I've also seen how much mainline, even orthodox historical Christianity, has in common with gnostic platonic dualism: believe this and receive blissful disembodied reward at the expense of the very this-worldly Jewish hope.

One problem with a very "fleshy" view of resurrection is the question of where Jesus' body is currently located: if he's in a non-physical heaven, where's his body?

Jesus seems to indicate (Mt 5) that the physical fire of Gehenna (not Hell people) can destroy body and soul - I know it would destory my psyche to be burned alive! So, when Peter writes that "the goal of your faith [is] the salvation of your souls" we might be wrong to think of classic heaven/hell duality and instead consider worldly rescue.

I think Wright is right that Jewish hope of salvation was primarily about this-worldly rescue and vindication for the living and bodily resurrection for the faithful departed so that they could share in the worldly New Creation - no escaping to heaven.

P-Squared said...

I settled this more in my mind when I came to the conclusion (from Scripture and some of the Church Fathers) that humans were created mortal, not immortal. If we were created immmortal then we would not need the tree of life, both in the garden of Eden and in the Kingdom.

Andrew Patrick said...

Gehenna does mean hell. Hell is where you cast away your dead, and in the judgment, hell is cast into fire, which is when it absolutely destroys body and soul.

Mat 5:22 KJV
(22) ...but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.

Mat 10:28 KJV
(28) And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

Rev 20:14 KJV
(14) And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.

After the judgment, body and soul shall be destroyed in hell fire. That's not a mistake.

The words are just fine as they are in the King's English. If you start tossing around Greek and Hebrew words like "sheol" and "hades" and "gehenna" you also risk bringing in the baggage of superstition, myth, and philosophy that's been packaged into these terms by modern theology.

Ken Schenck said...

Andrew, I'm not sure how your first and third relate to this discussion. Gehenna is still possible in a scheme that sees a body of some sort necessary for existence.

Your quote from Matthew is one that needs to be strongly considered as a passage that is dualistic. If that is what it implies, however, it is a relatively rare instance in the Bible. The biblical imagery is varied and we have to sort it out as biblical theologians.