In this article I want to compare what Christadelphian discourse says orthodox Christians believe about the afterlife with traditional, orthodox Christian teaching itself. In doing so, I want to suggest that Christadelphian polemic in this area has focused on popular aberrations of traditional Christian belief ('folk theology') and has largely neglected to engage with traditional Christian doctrine proper. Hence, I would invite Christadelphians to take a second look at orthodoxy in this area.
Christadelphian teaching on the state of the dead
Christadelphians teach that 'When we die we cease to exist. The only hope of life is by resurrection at Christ's return.'1 Christadelphians dogmatically reject the ideas 'that man has an immortal soul' and 'that man consciously exists in death'2 A technical theological term for the Christadelphian position on the state of the dead is thnetopsychism, or 'soul death'.3 This may be distinguished from 'soul sleep', which holds that the soul continues to exist after death but in an unconscious state. This is an idea Christadelphians have traditionally rejected,4 though it is technically not excluded in the language of their Statement of Faith.5 Another term sometimes associated with these doctrinal positions collectively is Christian mortalism.
Christadelphian characterizations of orthodox Christian afterlife belief
In Christadelphian discourse, one encounters various ideas about what 'orthodox', 'mainstream' or 'popular' Christianity6 believes about the soul and body, the state of the dead, and resurrection. The following ideas are commonly encountered:
(1) Orthodox Christians have taken over the Platonist idea7 of death as a welcome liberation of the soul from the prison of bodily existence8 9 leading to eternal disembodied bliss.10 11
(2) The ideas of immortality of the soul and bodily resurrection are mutually exclusive;12 or, if not, the immortality of the soul renders bodily resurrection superfluous.13
(3) Orthodox Christians place no value on the idea of bodily resurrection. If they mention it at all, it is merely to maintain the appearance of adhering to biblical teaching.14 They may as well, and often do, spiritualize it away.15
Traditional orthodox Christian teaching on the afterlife
Classical orthodox Christianity did not and does not denigrate bodily existence or marginalize the idea of resurrection. At the end of a lengthy study of ante-Nicene Fathers' views on the millennium, Hill finds that those who did not believe in a literal, earthly millennium but rather a heavenly intermediate state do
not appear to have held any prejudice whatsoever against the belief in a future resurrection of the body. In Gnosticism, of course, and at its fringes, a "heavenly" afterlife was certainly combined with antagonism to the salvability of the flesh. But this antagonism flowed from other impulses. It will be recalled that neither Justin nor Irenaeus charges orthodox non-chiliasts with denial of the resurrection of the body... The ground motive for the heavenly view within Christianity was not a radically dualistic anthropology (most chiliasts [premillennialists] were every bit as "dualistic" as most non-chiliasts [amillennialists] in this respect) but rather the deep and persistent conviction of a fellowship with Christ which even death could not sever.16
Hill's observation about resurrection in the early church is matched by the classical creeds, handed down to us by a Church that unquestionably affirmed a postmortem intermediate state for the soul. The Apostles Creed ends with an affirmation of 'the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.' Similarly, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed ends with these words: 'I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.' Neither creed makes any mention of heaven-going or an intermediate state; resurrection receives all the emphasis.17
The same strong affirmation of bodily resurrection is found in major post-Reformation confessional statements. The Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 32, states:
The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption: but their souls, which neither die nor sleep, having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them: the souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God, in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies... At the last day, such as are found alive shall not die, but be changed: and all the dead shall be raised up, with the selfsame bodies, and none other (although with different qualities), which shall be united again to their souls forever...
The Heidelberg Catechism, Question 57, reads:
Q. What comfort does the resurrection of the body offer you?A. Not only shall my soul after this life immediately be taken up to Christ, my Head, but also this my flesh, raised by the power of Christ, shall be reunited with my soul and made like Christ's glorious body.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church covers the creedal affirmation of 'the resurrection of the body' in articles 988-1013, which include the following statements:
The Christian Creed...culminates in the proclamation of the resurrection of the dead on the last day and in life everlasting.We firmly believe, and hence we hope that, just as Christ is truly risen from the dead and lives for ever, so after death the righteous will live for ever with the risen Christ and he will raise them up on the last day.The term "flesh" refers to man in his state of weakness and mortality. The "resurrection of the flesh" (the literal formulation of the Apostles' Creed) means not only that the immortal soul will live on after death, but that even our "mortal body" will come to life again.Belief in the resurrection of the dead has been an essential element of the Christian faith from its beginnings. "The confidence of Christians is the resurrection of the dead; believing this we live."When [will resurrection occur]? Definitively "at the last day," "at the end of the world." Indeed, the resurrection of the dead is closely associated with Christ's Parousia
One can add that the Catechism of the Catholic Church does not denigrate bodily life or regard the body as an unwelcome prison for the soul:
The human body shares in the dignity of "the image of God": it is a human body precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul, and it is the whole human person that is intended to become, in the body of Christ, a temple of the Spirit:Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity. Through his very bodily condition he sums up in himself the elements of the material world. Through him they are thus brought to their highest perfection and can raise their voice in praise freely given to the Creator. For this reason man may not despise his bodily life. Rather he is obliged to regard his body as good and to hold it in honor since God has created it and will raise it up on the last day.The unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the "form" of the body: i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature. (Articles 364-365, emphasis added)
What we see in these confessional documents is a belief in both immortality of the soul and bodily resurrection. The two ideas have a both/and relationship, not an either/or relationship. There is no indication in these documents that the idea of resurrection is vestigial, retained to give an appearance of adherence to the biblical testimony while the real interest is confined to disembodied existence. The authors of these doctrinal statements would all agree wholeheartedly with Robert Roberts' description of the Christian hope as 'a promise of resurrection to incorruptible bodily existence.'18
Now there is no question that many orthodox Christians - both clergy and laity - have marginalized bodily resurrection and focused almost exclusively on disembodied existence in heaven as their hope. This tendency can arguably be seen in the diagnostic question, 'If you died today, where would you spend eternity?', which is widely used in Evangelical evangelism. The question seems to assume the eternal state is entered into immediately after death, sidelining the hope of eschatological resurrection.19
However, it must be stressed that when orthodox Christians ignore or neglect resurrection they are misunderstanding or misapplying their own theological traditions. Hence, when Christadelphians rebuke those who sideline bodily resurrection and regard death as an everlasting escape from the body, they are not attacking orthodox theology but folk theology. They are, in fact, making the same rebuke that many orthodox theologians are making!20 The problem is that Christadelphians have been so busy attacking popular aberrations of traditional Christian afterlife belief that they seem not to have engaged much with the traditional view itself.21
Our findings can be summed up by paraphrasing (and recontextualizing) a famous saying of G.K. Chesterton:
Traditional Christian beliefs about the afterlife have not been tried and found wanting. They have been found difficult; and left untried.22
There is a definite need for Christadelphians to engage with traditional, orthodox Christian teaching on the afterlife and not only with folk theology. I can say for myself personally that I lived for many years rejecting a caricature of orthodox beliefs rather than actual orthodox beliefs. Once I engaged with the latter, over time I found them to be sound. For Christadelphians who might be interested in reading a case for a traditional Christian view of the afterlife, a good place to begin would be John W. Cooper's book Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting.
- 1 A major Christadelphian website says this belief is shared by Christadelphians worldwide.
- 2 Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith, Doctrines to be Rejected 7 and 8.
- 3 A teaching tract entitled Life after Death: The Wonderful Facts by Christadelphian Alan Hayward expresses this idea directly: 'The soul does not live apart from the body. When the body dies, the soul dies, too.'
- 4 '...the Christadelphians...are not "soul sleepers." "Soul sleepers" are those who believe in the existence of "the soul" as an entity after death; but who contend that between death and resurrection, it sinks into a state of somnolence, like certain animals that lie dormant all the winter. The Christadelphians, on the contrary, believe that in death a man is DEAD, and that if man is not put together again at the resurrection, he will never come again, or enjoy or suffer any kind of existence whatever.' (Robert Roberts, Man Mortal, p. 61)
- 5 Moreover, it appears that some Christadelphians do think in such terms. For instance, Alan Fowler writes concerning Matt. 10:28: 'Orthodox Christianity asserts that we have an inborn divine soul that goes to heaven, assuring continuity of consciousness after death. In refuting this false hope there is a danger that we may go to the other extreme in stating that our character or soul ceases to exist in any way until the resurrection. Scripture teaches that there is a continuity in the sense that a record of our character, continues its existence in divine ‘books.’'
- 6 These adjectives seem to be used interchangeably in Christadelphian literature. One does not see a consistent differentiation between mainstream, orthodox theology (as defined by classical creedal and confessional documents, and standard works on systematic theology) and popular, folk theology (e.g., what one hears from the proverbial man in the street, Hollywood films, or a poem on a funeral programme). I am interested in the former category rather than the latter, as I believe Christadelphians also should be.
- 7 '"[The sages of Greece and Rome] soon discovered that, as none of the properties of matter will apply to the operations of the mind, the human soul must consequently be a substance distinct from the body, pure, simple, and spiritual, incapable of dissolution, and susceptible of a much higher degree of virtue and happiness after the release from its corporeal prison..." This then, was the pagan philosophy which became adopted into Christian thinking and doctrine as the apostolic age drew to its close.' (Paul Billington, Space-Age Immortal Soulism, emphasis added). Note that the words in double quotation marks are quoted from Edward Gibbon by Billington.
- 8 'Consider, first, what the universal theory of the human constitution is. It is that in his proper essential being, a man is a "spiritual" immaterial, and immortal being, living in a material body composed of organs necessary for the manifestation of his invisible and indestructible inner "self" in this external and material world. This organic body is not regarded as essential to man's identity or existence. His proper self is understood to subsist in the immaterial entity or divine spark called the soul or spirit. The organs composing the body are looked upon as things which the man uses as a mechanic uses his tools - the external agencies by which the behests of "the inner man" are carried out... In accordance with this view, death is not considered to affect a man's being. It is regarded simply as a demolition of the material organism, which liberates the deathless, intangible man from the bondage of this "mortal coil," which having "shuffled off," he wings his way to spiritual regions, for eternal happiness or misery, according to "deeds done in the body."' (Robert Roberts, Christendom Astray, Lecture 2: HUMAN NATURE ESSENTIALLY MORTAL, AS PROVED BY "NATURE" AND REVELATION, emphasis added)
- 9 'You know that it is the belief of the religious world that man is an immortal soul, and that when death takes place the real man does not die – he simply forsakes his body and continues to live without a body. If he has been a good man, he goes to heaven to live in happiness; if he has been a bad man, he goes to hell (supposed to be a place of torment) to live in misery.' (Thomas Williams, The Great Salvation, emphasis added)
- 10 'The body is said to be mortal and corruptible, turning to dust and ashes after death, whereas the soul is immortal and incorruptible and lives on in endless bliss or misery.' (Dudley Fifield, Heaven and Hell: What does the Bible teach?)
- 11 'The theory that man is an immortal soul that never dies and is never buried has produced different inventions of resurrection in attempts to fit the needs of the supposed case. Some have confined resurrection to a moral quickening of the "immortal soul;" others have declared that it consists in the escape of the "immortal soul" from the house of clay and its elevation into the "spirit world." These speculators no doubt saw that too much importance is attached in the Scriptures to the resurrection to allow of its application to the body as a mere tabernacle for the soul which was only a burden during natural life, and which to be rid of is the unhampered and unburdened liberty of the soul to bask in bliss. No theory of resurrection would fit this disembodied existence as well as the ascension of the soul out of the body into heaven, and if the words of scripture could be manipulated to suit this invention the body might just as well, indeed much more conveniently, be left to moulder eternally in the dust. Having shown that disembodied existence is a myth it will be readily seen that to invent such theories of resurrection is only to add myth to myth.' (Thomas Williams, The World's Redemption, Chapter 15: Man Unconscious in Death; Resurrection the Only Hope of Future Life, emphasis added)
- 12 'With regards to the nature of humankind, almost all of Christianity is united in affirming that within every person lies a portion that is inherently immortal. The most frequent take on this is that we have an immortal soul that upon death of the flesh does not die, but rather goes somewhere else... Biblically, the hope of humanity lies in the resurrection. It makes no sense to say that a being that never really dies is resurrected - these are mutually exclusive pathways.' (Christadelphia.org, Response to Mainstream Christianity: the Nature of Man)
- 13 'All this is in sharp contrast to the claims of popular "Christianity". Their teaching that the righteous immediately go to heaven at death destroys the need for a resurrection and judgment. Yet we have seen that these are vital events in God's plan of salvation, and therefore in the Gospel message. The popular idea suggests that one righteous person dies and is rewarded by going to heaven, to be followed the next day, the next month, the next year, by others. This is in sharp contrast to the Bible's teaching that all the righteous will be rewarded together, at the same time.' (Duncan Heaster, Bible Basics, Section 4.6: The Judgment, emphasis added)
- 14 'The truth is, that this article of the creed [i.e. the affirmation of bodily resurrection] is brought in to defend "orthodoxy" against the imputation of denying the resurrection of the body, which would be a very inconvenient charge in the face of the testimony of God. But this will not avail; for, to believe dogmas that make the resurrection of the mortal body unnecessary and absurd is equivalent to a denial of it.' (John Thomas, Elpis Israel, Chapter 2: The Creation of Earth and of Man.)
- 15 '[The Bible] establishes the doctrine of the resurrection on the firm foundation of necessity; for in this view, a future life is only attainable by resurrection; whereas, in the popular view, future life is a natural growth from the present, affected neither one way nor the other by the "resurrection of the body." In fact it is difficult to see any use for resurrection at all if we accept the popular idea; for if a man "goes to his reward" at death and enjoys all the felicity of heaven of which his nature is capable, it seems incongruous that, after a certain time, he should be compelled to leave the celestial regions, and rejoin his body on earth, when without that body he is supposed to have so much more capability of enjoyment. The resurrection seems out of place in such a system; and accordingly we find that, nowadays, many are abandoning it, and vainly trying to explain away the New Testament doctrine of physical resurrection altogether, in favour of the Swedenborgian theory of spiritual resuscitation.' (Robert Roberts, Christendom Astray, Lecture 3: THE DEAD UNCONSCIOUS, THE RESURRECTION, AND CONSEQUENT ERROR OF POPULAR BELIEF IN HEAVEN AND HELL)
- 16 Hill, C.E. (1992). Regnum Caelorum: Patterns of Future Hope in Early Christianity. Oxford: Clarendon Press, p. 182.
- 17 It is possible that a notion of intermediate state is presupposed in the doctrine of 'the communion of saints' mentioned in the Apostles Creed-certainly it came to be.
- 18 Robert Roberts, Christendom Astray, chapter 4.
- 19 This implication is even clearer in the lyrics of the praise song If You Died Tonight by contemporary Christian group Big Daddy Weave: 'If you died tonight where would you be, where would your soul spend eternity?' For criticism of this sort of diagnostic question, see Zens, Jon. (2015). "Are You Going to Heaven?" A Journey Away from the Wrong Question. In Christopher M. Date & Ron Highfield (Eds.), A Consuming Passion: Essays on Hell and Immortality in Honor of Edward Fudge (pp. 60-63). Eugene: Pickwick Publications.
- 20 In addition to Roger E. Olson's two online articles (here and here), see Wright, N.T. (2008). Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. New York: HarperCollins, pp. 13-30.
- 21 In descriptions of orthodox beliefs in Christadelphian discourse, for instance, one rarely encounters terminology used by orthodox theologians for the state of the dead, such as 'the intermediate state'; nor does one find an appreciation of the distinction between different kinds of anthropological dualism, such as substance dualism and holistic dualism.
- 22 The original saying was, 'The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.' (Chesterton, G.K. (1912). What's Wrong with the World? London: Cassell, p. 48.)