Category Archives: eschatology

Resurrection of the Body or Survival of the Soul?

Last week in dealing with eschatology I urged us to keep our focus on the definitive state of salvation rather than getting bogged down in discussions of transitional end time events. Whatever the transitional events turn out to be, the definitive state of salvation is eternal life in the presence of God. However there is one transitional event that the New Testament so connects to the definitive state that I need to deal with it, that is, the resurrection of the body. Though I won’t take the space in this essay to discuss it, my thinking on the resurrection has been definitively shaped by repeated reading and reflection on Paul’s great treatise on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.

Everyone dies, and everyone knows it. But death means different things in different religions. For some religions and philosophies, death is merely a transition from this order to another. The higher part of the soul is freed from the body to return to the divine realm from which it came. Life in the cyclical of nature is bondage from which we need liberating and death is the way out. But for Christianity, death is not a transition to another mode of life; it is the end. Death is not the promise of liberation but the threat of annihilation. In the Christian understanding of salvation, the resurrection of the body is the central event of transition from this order to eternal life with God. Pinpointing death instead of the resurrection of the body as the transitional event, as popular religion often does, distorts and disrupts the entire Christian way of understanding the world. Let’s examine two reasons why the resurrection instead of death makes sense as the transition to eternal life.

First, God created this world, matter and nature, body and soul, and pronounced it very good. The body is not a prison, and life in this world is not a place of purgatory to which we were consigned because of our pre-incarnate sins. So, resurrection makes perfect sense as the transition from the present order in which creation is wounded and imperfect—though still good—to the healed and perfected order that God is preparing. Resurrection saves and perfects creation and affirms its created goodness. Or, to say it another way, God’s act of saving creation from death and decay and bringing it to its intended goal is called resurrection.

The promise of resurrection affirms continuity between the creation as it now exists and the new creation God will make. The new creation is not a replacement for the old one but the present creation saved and perfected. As for individual people, resurrection promises continuity between our present identity and our future selves. What good would it do for me to survive death if the part of my soul that survives has no memory of me and if my life in the body makes no ultimate difference? I have no more reason to look forward to this mode of survival than to survival of the atoms in my body after its dissolution! Who would find comfort in that? I can hope that my resurrected self (body and soul) will be expanded and illuminated and intimately united with Christ and filled with God’s Spirit. But unless there is continuity with the “I” that I am now, it makes no sense to call this transition resurrection or salvation.

Second, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central revealing and saving event of the Christian faith. Why would God raise Jesus, body and soul, from the dead if death itself were the transition to eternal life? If Jesus had merely survived death as a spirit, he could have appeared as a ghost to his disciples to declare his innocence and to assure them of the possibility of surviving death. But God raised him from the dead! Jesus’ resurrection declared not only his innocence of the Jewish’s accusation of blasphemy and Roman charge of sedition but it also declared his victory over death. Jesus’ resurrection made God’s intention to save and perfect his creation more than a hypothesis consistent with God’s act of creation. It made it a fact in history. And this fact calls for a revolution in the way we live:

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:55).

It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.” Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself…Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Corinthians 4:13-18).

Next Time: What shall we make of the doctrine of Hell? Is it part of the gospel or an especially difficult part of the problem of evil? Should we take the language about Hell as literal or metaphorical?

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The Christian Hope Or End-Times Fancies?

Christianity presents itself as more than an ideal of human life in this world, a vision of a harmonious and just human community. It offers more than inspired knowledge of the secrets of the divine world. And it is more than a way of dealing with guilt. These benefits may enhance wellbeing and happiness in this life, but they do not address ultimate human longings. We long for a quality of life, being, community, knowledge, joy, freedom, and love that we cannot attain in this world. Our longings reach further than our minds can conceptualize or our imaginations can picture.

What is the Christian hope, the final form of the salvation Christianity offers? What should we seek and expect? And what is the ground and assurance of this hope? In this and the upcoming essays I want to address these questions.

In my view, many discussions of the Christian hope are obscured by an unhealthy fascination with the apocalyptic imagery and eschatological timetables associated with the transition from the present order to the new order. People lose sight of the hope of eternal life in intimate closeness to the eternal God. Instead, they become engrossed in current events, looking for signs of the approaching end. They stockpile food and construct safe houses for the coming collapse of society. They treat the Book of Revelation like some people treat the works of Nostradamus, as obscure texts on which to impose their own fancies, good for entertainment but not for edification. Or, they make their views of eschatology into an orthodoxy that becomes a test of one’s Christian faith. The nature of the millennium becomes as important as the fact of Christ’s resurrection!

A sober treatment of the Christian hope must remain focused on its ultimate fulfillment and not let itself be distracted by the imagery of transitions. What then is that hope? As I indicated above, it is eternal life in intimate union with the eternal God. But what does this mean? Popular religion speaks vaguely of an “afterlife” or of survival beyond death. Some people want another life like they want another house or another car. But why think another life would make you any happier than this life does? Does eternal life mean simply living forever? But why would living unendingly be a good thing? One can imagine conditions under which immortality would be a curse that would make us long for death.

Paul sometimes uses apocalyptic imagery when speaking of the transition from this life to eternal life. But when he speaks of the ultimate state of salvation he speaks of eternal life and immortality. His favorite expression seems to be “being with the Lord.”

I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. (Phil 1:23-24)

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead (Phil 3:10-11).

We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. (2 Cor 5:8)

After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. (1 Thess 4:17)

John speaks with cautious confidence when he says this

See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure (1 John 3:1-3).

John keeps the focus on the hope of being like Christ and seeing him “as he is.” This hope does not encourage us to look for signs of the end or bury our end-time bunkers deep. Instead it motivates us to “purify” ourselves and live as Christ lived in the world. Nor does Paul connect apocalyptic imagery of transitions to speculation about times or seasons but to becoming like Christ in his sufferings and death.

The end of the story is being “with the Lord” and “like Christ.” And so is the beginning and middle of the story! At each stage our task is the same. Let God handle the times, seasons, and transitions.