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Showing posts with label resurrection. Show all posts
Showing posts with label resurrection. Show all posts

Sunday 22 August 2021

Review of "The Immortality of the Soul: Is it Biblical?" by Fr Emmanuel Cazanave

This article reviews an article entitled, «L'immortalité de l'âme est-elle biblique?» ("The immortality of the soul: Is it biblical?") by Fr Emmanuel Cazanave.1 Rev Dr Cazanave is a priest of the diocese of Toulouse, France and a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Theology at the Institut catholique de Toulouse. The topic is of interest to me as a reader who has moved from a confessional community that answers an emphatic "No" to the titular question (the Christadelphians),2 to one that affirms the immortality of the soul as a matter of dogma (the Roman Catholic Church).3 In my view, Fr Cazanave offers insights that could be useful to a diverse audience. I refer firstly to those who deny the immortality of the soul and hold an "annihilationist" position (that death reduces the human person to nothing). Secondly, I refer to myriads of Catholics who are misinformed about Church teaching and regard death as a welcome escape from bodily existence. Since the article is probably inaccessible to most readers of this blog, due to being written in French, I thought I would offer a review with a little of my own commentary. I should mention that I also do not have access to the published version of the article, but Fr Cazanave kindly sent me a preprint.4

The article is broader in scope than the title suggests. It is divided into four main sections, only one of which deals primarily with biblical exegesis. Fr Cazanave first explains what the Magisterium—the teaching office of the Catholic Church—has stated on the subject of the immortality of the soul. Secondly, he lists some theological objections to the doctrine of the soul's immortality and attempts to answer them. Thirdly, he surveys biblical evidence pertaining to the topic. Fourthly, he discusses the contributions of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), one of the Church's most important theologians.


In the article's introduction, Fr Cazanave briefly surveys much of the ground that he will dig into more deeply later on. He begins by acknowleding an apparent incongruity between the notion of the immortality of the soul—understood as the existence of a disembodied human soul after death—and the biblical vision of the human person, which exhibits a profound unity that seems to exclude any notion of a separable soul. He further points out that the idea of an immortal soul brings with it the danger (also highlighted in recent times by Protestant luminaries such as Oscar Cullmann and N.T. Wright) of a distorted Christian doctrine of resurrection. He admits that many Christians conceive of resurrection as simply an afterlife of the soul without the body, and indeed that the majority of Catholics no longer believe in the resurrection of the body (notwithstanding that Catholics testify to such belief at every Mass when reciting the Creed).

In view of these problems, Fr Cazanave concedes that the opposition of some theologians to any concept of a soul or an immortal soul, which they denounce as a pollution of Judaeo-Christian thought by Greek philosophy, is understandable. But what is the alternative? One option is what he refers to as "total death": after death, the body returns to dust and whatever is meant by "soul" also no longer exists. Death is therefore the annihilation of the person. Corresponding to "total death," therefore, is "total resurrection," whereby God at the eschaton resuscitates humans in both their bodily and psychological or pneumatic dimensions. This doctrine both preserves the unity of the "biblical human" and avoids any confusion between the resurrection and ideas about the soul.

Nevertheless, Fr Cazanave expresses a number of reservations about accepting this "total death and total resurrection" doctrine. First, and obviously significant for a Catholic priest such as himself, the Church's Magisterium has for many centuries affirmed and reaffirmed the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. Second, while conceding the Bible does not offer a notion of the immortality of the soul in the manner of a philosophical definition or a positive affirmation, he argues that this observation leaves the question unresolved, because the Bible is not written like a theological manual. This seems to me to be a vital point, since many Protestants—particularly of a fundamentalist or sectarian disposition—approach the Bible precisely as a doctrinal treatise or dogmatic constitution, and therefore presuppose that if a doctrine is "biblical," it must be expressly defined within the Bible.5 And, as Fr Cazanave observes, there is no shortage of biblical passages that at the very least call into question efforts by "total death" theologians to annul the notion of  a soul and its immortality.

Fr Cazanave proceeds to ask whether the doctrine of "total death for total resurrection" really corresponds to biblical anthropology. What, he asks, would it mean to be created in the image of God if that image in no way reflects the eternity of its Creator? Fr Cazanave also underlines the notion of progressive revelation: the idea of the "biblical human" is not static, but evolves organically throughout the biblical revelation. The later texts do not contradict the earlier, but develop their ideas further in the same direction.6

Fr Cazanave concludes his introduction by emphasising that the notion of an immortal soul existing in a disembodied state is paradoxical, since God wills for humans to be whole, which entails embodiment. The notion of a disembodied soul is thus tied up in the mystery of sin, of death, and of the permanence of the divine purpose despite them. No one faithful to the biblical idea of resurrection can deny, he says, that a soul no longer giving form to matter in its own body is «une absurdité». Yet it is an absurdity in the same measure that sin is absurd! Since neither sin nor death was part of God's purpose for humanity, the same is true of a disembodied soul, which is only possible in death. Nevertheless, could not, asks Fr Cazanave, the latter be the sign of the permanence of the divine plan in the face of sin?

1. The Teaching of the Magisterium

Fr Cazanave does not discuss the teachings of the Church Fathers concerning the soul. However, as I have written elsewhere, it is clear from the earliest post-apostolic writings that, even as early Christian writings such as 1 Clement and Justin Martyr strongly emphasised bodily resurrection or even polemicised against Neo-Platonist ideas that denigrated bodily existence, they nonetheless affirmed the real existence of the faithful between death and resurrection.7 Fr Cazanave instead focuses on magisterial teaching that has emanated from ecumenical councils. At the Fifth Lateran Council (1512-17), the Catholic Church dogmatically affirmed the existence of a human soul as well as its immortality. An implication of this is the notion of an "intermediate state" between individual death and resurrection during which the human soul may be said to subsist "separately" without a body. Moreover, Pope Leo X at the Fifth Lateran Council condemned those who assert that the soul is mortal. This teaching has been constantly reaffirmed since, including in the document Gaudium et Spes from the most recent ecumenical council, Vatican II (1962-65). In a 1979 letter to bishops, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reaffirmed the use of the word "soul" for that conscious element of the human "me" that subsists after death, without ignoring that this word takes on several meanings in Scripture.

2. The Difficulties Posed by the Doctrine of the Immortality of the Soul

2.1. Is the immortality of the soul incompatible with resurrection?

Fr Cazanave next addresses theological objections that have been raised against the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, some of which had already been mentioned in the introduction. He quotes Protestant theologian Philippie-Henri Menoud to the effect that the ideas of immortality of the soul and resurrection of the body are not compatible but mutually exclusive notions between which one must choose, with the New Testament coming down decisively on the side of the latter. In response, Fr Cazanave reiterates an important point he has made earlier: Sacred Scripture is not a treatise on psychology and does not give conceptual definitions as a work of systematic philosophy would. He describes the practice of looking for an anthropological treatise in the biblical writings as a «piège» (trap), commenting that even if one were to assemble all the passages that describe man,8 this would not equate to the logical components of a systematic discourse on the subject.9 

Instead, Fr Cazanave argues that research into biblical anthropology must be theologically oriented, focusing not on man in himself but on God and the intent he reveals through the manifestations of his presence and action in the economy of salvation. Hence, he regards as a key text Wisdom 1:13-14, which asserts that God "did not make death nor does he delight in the destruction of the living. For he created all things that they might exist..." (NETS)10 Fr Cazanave comments that death certainly exists and things disappear when it reaches them. Nevertheless, man exists by virtue of a form that transcends his matter while constituting only a single actus essendi (Latin, "act of being"), matter and form. It is this paradox by which man uniquely exists in the image of God. In a world characterised by signification (the presence of divine signs), the sustenance of the human form beyond the destruction of its matter is the sign of persistence of the divine plan. Fr Cazanave reiterates the analogy between sin and death: just as sin has wounded mankind but not annihilated it, so death does not annihilate man but signals the absurdity of sin by the unthinkable separation of soul from body. The disembodied soul subsists without realising what it is essentially made for—to "in-form" matter, thereby making it into a body—and thus conveys the gravity of sin and the tragedy of death. In this sense, the terminology "immortality of the soul" is rather unfortunate.11 In Scripture, immortality is not mere existence but a hoped-for reward: life in all its fullness. Moreover, the term "immortality" suggests imperviousness to death, whereas—in terms of Fr Cazanave's description—the soul is wounded or denuded by its paradoxical separation from the body. The term "immortality" in "immortality of the soul" should be understood in the sense of subsistence and not in the biblical sense of eternal blessedness.

Fr Cazanave then points out a central truth of biblical revelation, namely that God created man to be in covenant with him. God does not change and his covenant is eternal. Yet how can a covenant continue when one of the parties to it no longer exists? He therefore argues that the subsistence of man's being after death, the fact of his remaining without returning to nothingness, provides a point of connection between the One who simply Is and his creature. The immortality of the soul thus witnesses to the irrevocability of God's covenantal plan. Fr Cazanave thus summarises that the apparent absurdity of the soul's subsistence without the body is a sign conveying two important truths:
  1. The gravity of sin, which upsets the order of God's creation but does not cause him to renounce it altogether; 
  2. The irrevocable power of the Creator's merciful plan of redemption
A key text cited by Fr Cazanave in support of this theological anthropology is Romans 14:7-9, where St. Paul declares that we belong to the Lord in death as in life. The Lord, infers Fr Cazanave, is not the Lord of nothingness or of a memory of that which has lapsed into nothingness.

2.2. Is the idea of the immortality of the soul a pollution of Christian thought by Greek philosophy?

Having quoted some theologians—including the great Karl Barth—who describe the idea of the immortality of the soul as a contamination of Judaeo-Christian thought by Greek philosophy, Fr Cazanave poses two questions. Firstly, is there really a clearly defined Greek anthropology that posits a body/soul dualism? Secondly, is Christian thought in its development—especially the scholasticism of the second millennium—truly dualistic and does it really oppose soul and body?

To the first question, Fr Cazanave responds that, according to recent research, the Greek heritage is one of questioning and exploration rather than of clearly established definitions. It would be reductionist to think of "Greek philosophy" in monolithic terms. Even Plato, although influenced by the mystery religion of Orphism (in which the soul is clearly distinct from the body and imprisoned by it), only uses this tradition in the service of a philosophical vision. Plato did not bequeath a coherent philosophical definition of the soul and its relation to the body that could simply be passed on by others. Fr Cazanave grants that the school of Neo-Platonism systematised some of Plato's ideas in the direction of a dualistic anthropology in which the body imprisons the soul. However, he warns, this line of thought is not the only representative of Greek philosophy. On the contrary, in Aristotelian thought, the principle of animation (the soul) and the matter so animated (the body) are so unified and interdependent that they disappear together in death (though some interpreters of Aristotle maintain that, for Aristotle, something of the soul remains after death.) It is clear, therefore, that early Christianity did not simply inherit a well-defined "Greek anthropology." The thought of the Church Fathers and later the scholastics draws on various currents of the Greek tradition but does not adopt them uncritically. And Magisterial teaching on the soul, as promulgated dogmatically in the second millennium, is unambiguously Aristotelian—not Neo-Platonist—in its philosophical orientation.

2.3. Is "total death for total resurrection" biblical?

Fr Cazanave next observes that contemporary theologians present us with a stark choice: either be faithful to the unitary anthropology of the Bible and adopt a "total death for total resurrection" doctrine, or pollute biblical faith by clinging to the notion of an immortal soul that subsists in an "intermediate state" between death and eschatological resurrection. The first option not only entails choosing the Bible over Greek influence, but also restoring the primacy of divine action over against an exaltation of human autonomy expressed in the natural immortality of the soul. He notes that at their most extreme, detractors of the immortality of the soul concept regard it as an exemplification of human pride just as occurs in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3) and at the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11).

The notion of "total death for total resurrection" may appear to do justice to biblical notions of divine primacy and unitary anthropology, but for Fr Cazanave a serious concern arises: what of the intermediate time between the moment of death and that of resurrection? The annihilation of the deceased makes it impossible to think of a continuity of the personal "me" and in this respect is hardly biblical, for there is then not a resurrection but a re-creation.12 The person who is rewarded is not the same "me" as the one who died. Fr Cazanave notes two solutions to this conundrum that theologians typically offer. The first is that the dead person is held in God's memory (cf. Isa. 49:15-16). However, is it really "existence" for one to exist only within the memory of God? To refer to an earlier point, can annihilation really be the sign and witness of the irrevocability of the divine plan? Can a covenant subsist while one of its parties does not? Moreover, does the notion of an annihilation that is attenuated by an absorption into the memory of the divine Word not resemble the Neo-Platonist idea of the divine part of the soul merging with the divinity?13 This resemblance is ironic, given that the doctrine of the immortality of the soul is often accused of being a Neo-Platonist corruption of Christianity.

Fr Cazanave notes that other theologians have sought to address this problem by positing that resurrection takes place immediately after death (e.g., due to the dead passing outside of linear time). However, such a doctrine is at odds with the biblical vision of history and time, which compels us to situate the resurrection of the body at the Parousia of Christ.

3. The "Biblical Man"

3.1. The human person and death in the Hebrew Bible

Fr Cazanave quotes the Protestant theologian Oscar Cullmann to the effect that the doctrine of the immortality of the soul represents a serious misunderstanding of both Old and New Testaments. In response, Fr Cazanave surveys biblical anthropology. Beginning with the Hebrew Bible, he asserts that it presents a man who is fundamentally one, and that any kind of soul/body dualism is foreign to it. A man is characterised by three dimensions or elements: the nefesh, the basar, and the ruah.14 Nefesh designates the throat and respiration and can be understood as the breath that signifies man as a living being who desires, who possesses an appetite. Nefesh is therefore the person, who is not self-sufficient but fulfilled by aspiring to something beyond oneself. The basar is then the bodily and carnal expression and manifestation of the nefesh, the two being dimensions of one psycho-physiological being. The ruah is the spirit of God, which communicates to man something of divine energy and establishes him in relation to God.

Death, then, occurs when God withdraws the ruah (Qoh. 12:7) and the basar perishes (Job 34:14-15). Fr Cazanave states that, since the biblical man is characterised by profound unity, one could be tempted to conceive of biblical death as the disappearance of the whole person. However, while the early biblical vision of the afterlife is less than cheerful and akin to the Babylonian idea of a dark abode, there are indications that the deceased do not return to nothingness. The deceased are rephaim, mere shadows of themselves (e.g., Job 26:5; Prov. 9:18; 21:16; Isa. 14:9); but being reduced to a shadow, to sleepiness or a comatose state, is not equivalent to ontological annihilation. Thus, Fr Cazanave infers that the nefesh, despite being deprived of the vital breath (ruah), does not return to nothingness at death. In a similar vein, Fr Cazanave argues that descriptions of the dead as being in a place, Sheol—albeit a place of darkness, shadow, and disorder (Job 10:20-22; cf. 3:13-19, Ps. 88:9-12)—imply that the dead have not completely ceased to exist.15 Death in the Hebrew Bible is an unenviable, unfulfilling state but it is not annihilation.

3.2. Not the God of the dead, but of the living

Fr Cazanave asserts that Jesus' affirmation to the Sadducees, "He is not the God of the dead but of the living" (Mark 12:27 par.) confirms the evolution of intertestamental Jewish eschatology, in which faith in bodily resurrection appears, the fruit of reflection on the faithfulness of God to his covenant. While some early biblical texts on resurrection probably refer—at the grammatical-historical level—to political or national revivals within history (e.g., Isa. 26:19; Ezekiel 37), the hope of individual bodily resurrection at the end of history appears explicitly in late strata of the Old Testament, such as Daniel 12:2 and 2 Maccabees 7. 

Jewish faith in the resurrection required, argues Fr Cazanave, a harmonisation between two convictions: (i) a certain continuation of the "I" after death, albeit in a shadowy state; and (ii) the eschatological resurrection of the flesh. Together, these two affirmations necessitate an "intermediate state" in which the person exists in a kind of "standby" between death and resurrection. Fr Cazanave reasons that later biblical authors—particularly the author of Wisdom of Solomon—adopted the Hellenistic notion of the immortality of the soul to help conceptualise the post-mortem continuation of the nefesh. He emphasises that this adoption is not a pollution of biblical thought by "Greek philosophy" (which did not offer a monolithic concept of the soul) but the assimilation of a concept useful in the ongoing development of biblical thought. Moreover, it was not Greek thought in its entirety, nor even a thoroughgoing dualism, that was adopted. The selective and discerning assimilation of Greek ideas about the soul does not necessarily result in a dualism that elevates the soul, denigrates embodiment, and destroys the unity of the human person. Fr Cazanave warns that reductionism on this point is the source of widespread misunderstanding.

A further clarification offered by Fr Cazanave is that a doctrine of the immortality of the soul that is compatible with Scripture would not be a doctrine of natural immortality. That is, the soul's immortality is not due to its own intrinsic nature but to the faithfulness of God (Wisdom 3:1-4).

3.3. The Soul in the New Testament

Fr Cazanave points to Matthew 10:28 ("Fear not those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul") as a text that mentions the soul/body distinction. He acknowledges that psyche ("soul") in this text designates the whole person in her capacity to transcend the earthly dimension of life. Nonetheless, he considers it significant that a distinction between body and soul is made (and that the whole person is not annihilated by earthly death).

Our author identifies the Gospel of St. Luke as the New Testament book with the greatest interest in the question of the fate of the dead before the Parousia. In this respect, he points to the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31) and Jesus' saying on the cross to the good thief, "Today you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43).16 The emphasis in the latter text is on presence with Christ. This same emphasis emerges in St. Paul's concept of the intermediate state (2 Cor. 5:6-8; Phil. 1:20-24). Fr Cazanave asserts that, by equating his death with "being with Christ," St. Paul clearly shows that he does not think of death in terms of annihilation. Moreover, if he was thinking merely of a datum in God's memory, he would not have used the term sun Christō einai ("being with Christ"). These passages draw out the afterlife implications of Paul's assertion in Romans 14:8-9 that "whether we live or die, we are the Lord's" and that Christ is "Lord of both the dead and the living." St. Paul's experience of union with Christ is so intimate that he cannot conceive of it being dissolved, even temporarily, by death (cf. Rom. 8:38).

Fr Cazanave draws another important insight on Pauline anthropology from 2 Corinthians 12:2. This text is concerned with a mystical experience rather than death, but for Paul to twice say of the experience "whether in the body or out of the body I do not know" shows that a strict identification of the "I" with the body is not in accordance with Paul's thought. Indeed, his words imply some separability from bodily existence (without in any way denigrating embodiment).

There are numerous other New Testament texts relevant to the subject of the intermediate state that the article does not discuss. The subject is obviously not a major concern of the New Testament writers (why would it be, since they expected an imminent Parousia?) and is never treated systematically, but there is enough evidence to conclude that they anticipated the ontological continuation of the person in Christ's presence between death and resurrection.

4. St. Thomas and Scholasticism: A Keen Awareness of the Difficulty

In the last part of the article, Fr Cazanave interacts with the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. The Common Doctor's anthropology draws on Aristotelian thought, in which the soul is the form of the body: it in-forms (gives form to) matter, allowing it to realise its potential as a human body. The soul is for a body and the body is for a soul; they are so profoundly united that the body is like the skin of the soul. The soul is a single actus essendi ("act of being") with the body, but being made spiritually in the image of God, is personal and immortal. The body and soul are not two beings that come together but together constitute a single being.

Within this framework, the notion of a human soul without a body is a contradiction, and St. Thomas so acutely appreciates the difficulty of thinking of a soul separated from its body after death that he wonders whether such a soul can even be described as a person. Clearly, St. Thomas cannot be accused of a Neo-Platonic dualism in which death is the soul's liberation from its bodily prison. Fr Cazanave quotes at length from Joseph Ratzinger's assessment of the anthropological problem faced by medieval theologians and St. Thomas' solution thereto. Theological anthropology had, on the one hand, to recognise in each human person a unique creature of God, created as a unified whole and willed to exist. On the other hand, it had to distinguish between that which is ephemeral in man and that which endures. The ephemeral accounts for the reality of death brought on by sin, while the enduring opens the way to resurrection (as opposed to re-creation ex nihilo). 

Although St. Thomas' anthropology is Aristotelian in orientation, he does not adopt Aristotelian anthropology uncritically. For Aristotle, "form" is a reality only when united with matter, and thus the soul dies with the body. If, conversely, the soul is "immortal," it is immortal in a universal, not an individual, sense. The idea that the human soul is at once personal and "form" of matter would have been inconceivable to Aristotle. Thus, St. Thomas goes beyond Aristotle by conceiving of the soul as an intellectual substance, a substantial form of matter. In short, St. Thomas' idea of the soul as the substantial form of the body provides a philosophical anthropology that at once preserves the fundamental unity of the human person (against the Neo-Platonist idea of the body as the soul's instrument), the particularity of each human person (against any notion of a "universal spirit" into which one is absorbed at death), and the substantial soul as the subject of rationality (against the materialist idea of the rationality of un-in-formed matter).


Fr Cazanave begins his conclusion by acknowledging that the idea of the immortality of the soul presents dangers (that do not, however, invalidate the doctrine). Firstly, there is the danger of veering into a Neo-Platonist anthropology in which the soul is the real person and the body a mere vehicle. This danger is all too commonly seen in popular Christian piety, including among Catholics, and reduces resurrection to a redundant afterthought. The profound unity of the human person, as taught by the Bible, must be reaffirmed, and the resurrection of the body reaffirmed as the Christian hope.

Secondly, there is a danger that the idea of an immortal soul leads to a proud self-exaltation by man in the face of his Creator. If the Church affirms that the soul endures in death, this is not to surrender to the quest for vain consolation, but is a reflection of the eternal purpose of God for his image-bearers. The absurdity of a soul without a body to give form to is not bypassed but becomes the sign of another absurdity—sin—that however did not defeat the Creator's plan.

It seems, therefore, that the doctrine of the immortality of the soul is widely misunderstood by many of its adherents and detractors alike! Many on both sides seem to conceive of the doctrine as elevating the soul at the expense of the body and obviating the need for resurrection. In my estimation, Fr Cazanave's article makes an important contribution toward correcting misconceptions of the Church's teaching. 

From an exegetical standpoint, one of Fr Cazanave's most significant observations is that the Bible cannot be approached as though it were a systematic theological treatise (either at the level of individual passages or formed by assembling various texts). Scripture does not conform to human expectations by treating subjects with a level of detail and precision proportional to our level of interest. Scripture does not, in fact, offer us either a philosophically precise account of the human person or of human death. It does, however, offer a vision for man, individually and collectively, as purposed by his Creator. In reflecting on that vision, the Church has seen fit to promulgate a doctrine of the immortality of the soul—or, as it might be termed to avoid confusion—the subsistence of the human person despite death and until resurrection.
  • 1 Cazanave, E, «L'immortalité de l'âme est-elle biblique?», Bulletin de Litterature Ecclesiastique 120 (2019): 7-43.
  • 2 Article 7 of the Doctrines to be Rejected of the Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith reads, "We reject the doctrine - that man has an immortal soul." The main statement affirms belief in the Resurrection of (some of) the Dead at the Second Coming of Christ, with the final judgment leading to one of two destinies: bodily immortality or annihilation.
  • 3 See, for instance, articles 362-68 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Following St. Thomas Aquinas and others, the Catholic Church follows an Aristotelian anthropology in which the soul is described as the "form of the body." The Church does not in any way denigrate corporeality or materiality. The Catechism states that "every spiritual soul is created immediately by God—it is not 'produced' by the parents—and also that it is immortal: it does not perish when it separates from the body at death, and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection" (CCC 366). The Church's teaching on what happens at death is summarised thus: "Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers to his life in Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven—through a purification or immediately,—or immediate and everlasting damnation" (CCC 1022). Thus, the Church affirms an intermediate state that is incorporeal but already anticipates the final state that will occur after the Resurrection of the Dead and the Last Judgment.
  • 4 For this reason, I will not cite page numbers in referencing the work.
  • 5 No one who has spent much time with Scripture can suppose that Scripture always reveals truths in this way. The New Testament epistles, much as the Old Testament prophets, for instance, are largely of an occasional nature. They bear witness to theological truths as often as they explicitly teach them. Hence, rather than imposing on the Holy Spirit an obligation to reveal the dogma of the immortality of the soul (or any other truth) on our terms, our task is to carefully interpret what Scripture does reveal, even indirectly.
  • For instance, contemporary biblical scholars now widely agree that the earliest texts in the Hebrew Bible convey nothing of a beatific afterlife, including personal resurrection; this is a development that appears only well into the Second Temple Period.
  • 7 On 1 Clement, see my article, A Systematic-Theological Analysis of Mortalism as an Evangelical Position (written while I was still an Evangelical). On Justin Martyr's ideas about the soul and afterlife, see my article, Justin Martyr, the Soul, and Christadelphian Apologetics.
  • I follow Fr Cazanave in using the term "man" to describe humanity or the generic human; this term should be understood in a gender-inclusive sense.
  • 9 The point was already made in the introduction but bears repeating since this seems to be precisely the hermeneutical methodology taken by some interpreters of Scripture.
  • 10 A number of important biblical texts bearing on our subject come from the deutero-canonical books, which are of course not considered as divinely inspired by Protestants. The reader may to refer to my prior article here for evidence that the early Church regarded these books as Scripture long before the canon was formally defined at councils held at the end of the fourth century.
  • 11 This is my own observation, not Fr Cazanave's.
  • New Testament language about resurrection, as exemplified by the noun anastasis and the associated verb anistēmi, depicts it not as an act of creation ex nihilo but as a rising. The dead are therefore conceived of as compromised—fallen, prostrate, in a state analogous to "sleep"—but not as non-existent.
  • 13 Since the creature loses its separate existence, its distinctness from God, after death, the notion of "total death for total resurrection" seems to border on pantheism and call into question the particularity of the human person. This is my observation, not the article's.
  • 14 I am following the transliterations as they are in the preprint version of the article.
  • 15 Other Old Testament texts that imply an ontological continuation of the person after death include 1 Samuel 28:11-20, where a medium succeeds in summoning Samuel from beyond the grave, and 2 Maccabees 15:12-16, where Judas Maccabeus relates a dream in which two deceased saints, Onias the high priest and Jeremiah the prophet, offer prayers and encouragement in the Jews' battle for their city and law.
  • 16 For my own commentary on these and other passages, see my article, A Systematic-Theological Analysis of Mortalism as an Evangelical Position, as well as—on Luke 23:43—my more detailed article, "Today in Paradise? Ambiguous Adverb Attachment and the Meaning of Luke 23:43," Neotestamentica 51 (2017): 185-207.

Friday 17 January 2020

Did Jesus Raise Himself from the Dead?

St. Ignatius of Antioch, a Christian bishop who was martyred in the early second century, wrote the following concerning Jesus Christ in his Letter to the Smyrnaeans:
For he suffered all these things for our sakes, in order that we might be saved; and he truly suffered just as he truly raised himself—not, as certain unbelievers say, that he suffered in appearance only (it is they who exist in appearance only!). (Smyrn. 1.1-2.1)1
In this passage, Ignatius asserts that Jesus had raised himself from the dead. The statement occurs in a longer paragraph in which he praises the Smyrnaean church for their conviction in the concrete historical realities of Jesus' life: his descent from David, birth from a virgin, baptism by John, crucifixion under Pilate and Herod, and resurrection. The point that he is most keen to emphasise is that Jesus' suffering and resurrection 'truly' happened and not did not merely appear to happen. The causal agency of Jesus' resurrection is not a point he belabours; indeed, elsewhere in his writings—including in this same letter—Ignatius describes Jesus as having been raised by the Father.2 Thus, for Ignatius, 'he raised himself' is simply another way of describing Jesus' resurrection. That he provides no further comment or clarification suggests that he does not regard his statement as novel or controversial, but assumed that it would be acceptable to his Smyrnaean readers.

Now, throughout the New Testament literature (all or nearly all of which predates Ignatius), the normative way of referring to Jesus' resurrection is not 'Jesus raised himself from the dead' but 'God raised Jesus from the dead' or simply 'Jesus was raised from the dead,' a divine passive that implicitly identifies God as the subject of the action. The pre-Pauline credal formula quoted in 1 Cor. 15:3-4 uses such a divine passive, and throughout the Pauline corpus we consistently read that God raised Jesus from the dead (Rom. 4:24; 8:11; 10:9; 1 Cor. 6:14; 2 Cor. 4:14; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 1:20; Col. 2:12; 1 Thess. 1:10). The same language is used throughout Acts (2:24; 3:15; 4:10; 13:30, 34; 17:31) and also appears in 1 Peter (1:21). As for the Gospels, all four of them use divine passives, for instance in the post-resurrection narratives (Matt. 28:6-7; Mark 16:6; Luke 24:6, 34; John 21:14).

Juxtaposing the consistency of the New Testament in describing Jesus' resurrection as 'God raised Jesus' with Ignatius' seemingly uncontroversial statement that Jesus 'raised himself' leads to an obvious question: where did Ignatius (and presumably at least some of his contemporaries) get the idea that Jesus raised himself from the dead?

The most plausible answer is that Ignatius took the idea from the Gospel of John. Now, it is not certain that Ignatius knew the Gospel of John. Over a century ago, a committee of the Oxford Society of Historical Theology made a close study of literary dependence on the New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers. They gave a 'B' rating to Ignatius' knowledge of John, meaning they considered it 'highly probable,' but not 'beyond reasonable doubt,' that Ignatius knew the Fourth Gospel.3 A subsequent study by Walter J. Burghardt found that literary dependence of Ignatius on John's Gospel was the most plausible explanation of the affinity between the two, but that other forms of dependency (such as oral tradition or the influence of a post-apostolic 'Johannine school') could not be ruled out.4 Thus, we cannot take it for granted that Ignatius knew the text of the Gospel of John as we have it today, but it is almost certain that he was familiar with Johannine ideas in some form.

The Gospel of John does not state as explicitly as Ignatius that Jesus raised himself from the dead. However, there are also two passages in John that imply that Jesus raised himself from the dead. The first of these reads as follows:
19 Jesus answered and said to them, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and you will raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking about the temple of his body. 22 Therefore, when he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they came to believe the scripture and the word Jesus had spoken. (John 2:19-22 NABRE)
John explains the temple metaphor that Jesus used in this saying: the temple refers to his body (cf. John 1:14, which says literally that the Logos 'tabernacled among us, and became flesh'). Thus, as v. 22 confirms, in saying 'Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up,' Jesus was foretelling his death and resurrection. The first-person statement, 'I will raise it up' (egerō auton) cannot be explained away as though necessitated by the temple metaphor. Jesus could easily have said, 'Destroy this temple and in three days it will rise again' or 'Destroy this temple and in three days it will be rebuilt.' Instead, he foregrounded his own agency. What is more, this statement parallels the fourfold statement of Jesus in John 6:39-54, 'I will raise him/it up on the last day' (although the latter uses a different verb, anastēsō). In that text, Jesus is clearly referring to his own future agency in raising the dead. Thus, we have every reason to think that the same idea is in view in John 2:19: Jesus foretold that he would raise his own body from the dead.5,6 We must emphasise that this notion is not opposed to the idea that Jesus was raised from the dead by God—to the contrary, the latter idea does appear in this very context (v. 22) through the use of a divine passive. (The same is true, as we noted already, in Ignatius' Letter to the Smyrnaeans). 

How could John have conceived of both God and Jesus raising Jesus from the dead? The answer lies in different levels of causal agency. The temple metaphor is helpful here: the Jerusalem temple, forty-six years in the making, was called Herod's Temple because it was Herod's project. However, Herod probably was not involved in the day-to-day construction operations and almost certainly did not do any of the heavy lifting. Thus it would be correct to say that Herod built the temple and it would also be correct to say that workers built the temple. The second Johannine text that implies Jesus' agency in his own resurrection provides more detail about the respective causal roles of the Father and the Son:
17 This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father. (John 10:17-18 NABRE)
Here, Jesus describes his death and resurrection in terms of laying down his life and taking it up again. Notice that he specifically emphasises his volition: 'I lay it down on my own.' He then declares, literally, 'authority I have to lay it down' (or, 'to give it up,' exousian echō theinai autēn), 'and authority I have to take it up again' (or, 'to take it back', exousian echō palin labein autēn). Word order in Greek conveys emphasis and here the word order squarely emphasises Jesus' own agency. According to this text, Jesus took back his life in the same willful sense that he gave it up. As Jerome H. Neyrey states, 'John 10:17-18 and 28-38 both assert that Jesus has God's eschatological power over death, both to raise himself and to raise his followers.'7 However, the text is not saying that this was done independently of the Father. The last clause stresses that the authority with which Jesus was to act was received from the Father.8

Other passages in John's Gospel shed further light on Jesus' role in the resurrection of others (already seen in John 6:39-54). In John 11:24-25, just prior to demonstrating his power to raise the dead by raising Lazarus, Jesus responds to Martha's faith in 'the resurrection on the last day' by declaring his own definitive role therein: 'I am the resurrection and the life'. However, the Gospel's most detailed material on Jesus' role in the resurrection comes in John 5:19-29. The overarching theme here is that, a son does not work independently of his father, and the Son is no different: the Father loves him and shows him all that he does, and the Son does likewise. Here we have precisely the kind of dual Father-Son agency that is implied in the above references to Jesus' involvement in his own resurrection. John 5:21-22 gives two concrete examples of how the Son imitates the Father: resurrection and judgment. 'just as the Father raises the dead and gives life, so also does the Son give life to whomever he wishes'. 'Taking back' his own life after giving it up (John 10:18) was just such a volitional act of the Son. Jesus goes on to declare that it is the voice of the Son that will give life to the dead in the resurrection (John 5:25, 28). Jesus says in v. 26 that 'just as the Father has life in himself, so also he gave to his Son the possession of life in himself.' 'Having life in oneself' appears to refer to self-existence, a divine attribute. We have then the paradoxical idea that the Son has received self-existence as a gift from the Father. That the Son 'has life in himself' helps to explain how, having died, he would still have authority to reclaim his life.

We can now understand a bold Christological move that was first made in the Fourth Gospel, and then taken up by Ignatius. Because the Father gave the Son to have life in himself, and authorised him to dispense life to whomever he wished—already during his lifetime, in the case of Lazarus, and ultimately 'on the last day'—why should the Son not also have exercised this agency in his own resurrection, by 'taking back' his life as deliberately as he had given it up? After all, Jesus' resurrection was not a separate event from the eschatological resurrection. It was, in Paul's words, the firstfruits of the same harvest (1 Cor. 15:20, 23). Or, to return to Ignatius, 'our Lord' was 'truly nailed in the flesh for us under Pontius Pilate and Herod the tetrach...in order that he might raise a banner for the ages through his resurrection for his saints and faithful people' (Smyrn. 1.2).9

What are the theological implications of the notion that Jesus raised himself from the dead? There are profound implications, not only for Christology—Jesus' divine authority over death is absolute—but also for anthropology. Clearly, in order to raise himself from the dead, Jesus must have still consciously existed while he was dead. This implies that death, for humans, is not the extinction of all existence.10


  • 1 Trans. Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: English Translations (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 186.
  • 2 'They abstain from the Eucharist and prayer, because they refuse to acknowledge that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins and which the Father by his goodness raised up' (Smyrn. 6.2, trans. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers, 189); 'Be deaf, therefore, whenever anyone speaks to you apart from Jesus Christ, who was of the family of David, who was the son of Mary; who really was born, who both ate and drank; who really was persecuted under Pontius Pilate, who really was crucified and died while those in heaven and on earth and under the earth looked on; who, moreover, really was raised from the dead when his Father raised him up, who—his Father, that is—in the same way will likewise also raise us up in Christ Jesus who believe in him, apart from whom we have no true life' (Trall. 9.1-2, trans. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers, 165).
  • 3 A Committee of the Oxford Society of Historical Theology. The New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers (Oxford: Clarendon, 1905).
  • 4 Walter J. Burghardt, 'Did Saint Ignatius of Antioch Know the Fourth Gospel?', Theological Studies 1(2) (1940): 130-56.
  • 5 Robert H. Gundry writes, 'Jesus' saying [in John 2:19] — with John's editorial comment — makes Jesus raise himself from the dead just as in John 10:17-18' ('Jesus' Blasphemy according to Mark 14:61b-64 and Mishnah Sanhedrin 7:5,' in Robert H. Gundry, The Old is Better: New Testament Essays in Support of Traditional Interpretations [Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2010], 109; previously published by Mohr Siebeck).
  • 6 Frederick Dale Bruner writes, 'Usually in the New Testament it is God who is said to raise Jesus. But John here, and notably in chapter 10 (vv. 17-18), records Jesus speaking of raising himself. Most of us are most comfortable with the majority New Testament representation: that God raised Jesus from the dead. But if John is so convinced of Jesus' full deity that he believes Jesus also contributed to his Resurrection, without any compromising of Jesus' true humanity (a true humanity that John, too, is deeply eager to maintain), then most of us have felt we can live with John's record as well, since in the final analysis, a Resurrection is mystery enough in itself' (The Gospel of John: A Commentary [Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012], 195).
  • 7 An Ideology of Revolt: John's Christology in Social-Science Perspective (Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2007), 79. Previously published by Fortress Press.
  • 8 Bruner again: 'Usually in the New Testament it is God the Father who is reported to have raised Jesus. But here Jesus speaks of raising himself — though, notice, he says he can both "lay down" and "take back" his life only because, as he continues immediately, "I have authority" to do so (from the Father)' (The Gospel of John, 765).
  • 9 Trans. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers, 186.
  • 10 One could escape this implication by asserting that unless death for Jesus was a metaphysically different experience than death for the rest of humanity. This, however, would be a soteriologically dangerous claim to make, since it is precisely our relatedness to Jesus' death that gives us hope (see, e.g., Rom. 6:4-5; Heb. 2:9, 14).

Thursday 11 August 2016

Justin Martyr, the soul, and Christadelphian apologetics

In the previous article, we discussed how Christadelphian apologetic discourse has seldom engaged with the classical Christian position on the afterlife, focusing its attack instead on popular folk theology. In particular, Christadelphians have regarded resurrection of the body and immortality of the soul as mutually exclusive doctrines, and have often assumed that orthodox Christians affirm the latter and not the former. We pointed out in the previous article that traditional Christian teaching affirms both.

The 'resurrection vs. immortal soulism' paradigm has affected the way Christadelphians read ancient texts. Specifically, a writer who expresses belief in bodily resurrection is assumed not to believe that the soul survives death, and vice versa. In this article, we will see how this assumption has led Christadelphians to misunderstand the theology of one early Christian writer, Justin Martyr, even as they appeal to him as a witness to the antiquity of Christadelphian doctrine.

Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho

The Dialogue with Trypho is an account of a theological dialogue between Justin Martyr, a Christian apologist, and Trypho, a non-Christian Diaspora Jew, written by Justin in the mid-second century. While many scholars have concluded that Trypho was a fictional, stereotyped Jew invented by Justin for rhetorical purposes, Horner has recently made the case that he was a real person and that the extant Dialogue is a sort of revised and expanded second edition of an earlier account of an authentic dialogue.1 Boyarin, a Jewish scholar, is impressed by Justin's detailed knowledge of Judaism,2 while Skarsaune argues that Justin's thought is 'very Jewish' and that he probably took his Christological arguments from earlier, Jewish Christian tradition.3 In any case, the Dialogue is an important historical source for reconstructing early Christianity - indeed, 'far and away the longest Christian document we have from the second century.'4 (I've written previously about Justin's use of Greek philosophy here.)

Dialogue with Trypho 80.4 in Christadelphian apologetics

Since the days of their founder, Dr. John Thomas, Christadelphian apologists have periodically enlisted Justin to prove that, as late as the mid-second century, the Christadelphian view of the afterlife was still current while what later became established as orthodoxy (the immortality of the soul and heaven-going) was regarded as heretical. The passage from Justin Martyr's writings that is usually quoted is this:
If you have ever encountered any nominal Christians who do not admit this doctrine [i.e. the doctrine of God], but dare to blaspheme the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob by asserting that there is no resurrection of the dead, but that their souls are taken up to heaven at the very moment of their death, do not consider them to be real Christians, just as one, after careful examination, would not acknowledge as Jews the Sadducees or similar sects' (Dialogue with Trypho 80.4, emphasis added)5
It is not difficult to see why this passage has proven popular in Christadelphian apologetics: it sounds like it could have been written by a Christadelphian. It upholds resurrection as the Christian hope over against heaven-going of the soul at death. This passage is quoted repeatedly by Dr. John Thomas,6 by Thomas Williams,7 by C.C. Walker,8 and now in the Internet age by Paul Billington, Matt Daviesinstructional material of the Dawn Christadelphians,9 and Dave Burke. (One prominent Christadelphian who appears not to have had much use for Justin Martyr is Robert Roberts, who referred to him as an 'ecclesiastical driveller'.)10

Some of these writers quote the passage virtually without comment, as though its meaning and implications were self-evident. I think most have simply assumed that if Justin believed in resurrection rather than heaven-going, he must have been a mortalist.11

Let us look at the inferences that Christadelphian writers have explicitly drawn from Dialogue 80.4.
From this we learn, that what is orthodox now concerning souls going to heaven was regarded by the contemporaries of the Apostle as sufficiently pestilential to consign the men that held it to eternal reprobation12
Here you see that Justin Martyr, 150 years after Christ, is proving the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead by the fact that men have not gone to heaven or to hell, but that they were dead and needed a resurrection for a future life.13
He rejected the immortality of the soul in unambiguous terms.14
The way Christadelphian apologists have used this passage from Justin Martyr leaves their readers with the impression that (1) Justin's views on the afterlife were compatible with Christadelphian teaching, while (2) the views he attacked as non-Christian were compatible with later orthodox teaching. As it turns out, both (1) and (2) are mistaken.

Before turning to the evidence for this claim, I want to emphasize that I am not accusing Christadelphian apologists of knowingly withholding information about Justin's beliefs in order to misrepresent him for apologetic ends. I presume that the use of Dialogue with Trypho 80.4 in Christadelphian apologetics has, in good faith, tried to accurately represent Justin's beliefs but failed to take account of all of the evidence. Accordingly, I undertake to show from Justin's writings that Christadelphians have widely misunderstood his views on the afterlife, in the hope that this passage will be handled differently by Christadelphians in the future.

Happily, at least one Christadelphian apologist has already warned against interpreting Justin's views on the afterlife as proto-Christadelphian. Jonathan Burke writes:
A number of early Christian writers, such as Justin Martyr, Tatian, Irenaeus, Theophilus of Antioch, Arnobius, and Lactantius, held that the soul was not independently immortal, and could die. However, they must be understood as arguing specifically against the Platonic teachings of the Greeks that the soul was immortal of itself. Other than Arnobius, they do not appear to be arguing that the soul ceases to exist at death.15
This qualification is of crucial importance, and if it were heeded by Christadelphians, there would not be much need for this article. However, Jonathan does not interact with Justin's writings directly, citing only secondary sources. Nor does he provide detailed information about Justin's beliefs concerning the afterlife, or the beliefs he was attacking as heretical. I aim, therefore, to elaborate on Jonathan's observations by filling in the details from Justin's own testimony.

In the remainder of this article, I hope to demonstrate from Justin's writings that the following are true:
(1') Justin's position on the state of the dead was incompatible with Christadelphian doctrine, and much closer to orthodox doctrine;
(2') The position that Justin was attacking as non-Christian is one that is also considered heretical by orthodox Christians
Justin's beliefs about the afterlife 

It is clear from Dialogue 80.4, quoted above, that Justin believed in the resurrection of the dead. As he writes elsewhere:
Receive us, at least like these, since we believe in God not less, but rather more, than they do: we who expect even to receive our own bodies again, after they have died and been put in the earth, since we say that nothing is impossible for God. (1 Apology 18.6)16
But what did Justin believe happened to people between death and resurrection? Did he teach, as Christadelphians do, that when we die we cease to exist? Did he 'reject the doctrine - that man consciously exists in death'?17 The following quotations from his First Apology make his position clear:
1 Consider what happened to each of the kings that have been. They died just like everybody else. Which, if death led to unconsciousness, would have been a godsend to all the unjust. 2 But, since consciousness endures for all those who have existed, and eternal punishment lies in store, take care to be persuaded and to believe that these things are true. 3 For conjurings of the dead – both visions obtained through uncorrupted children, and the summoning of human souls – and those whom magicians call “dream-senders” or “attendants” – and the things done by those who know these things – let these persuade you that even after death souls remain in consciousness. (1 Apology 18.1-3, emphasis added)
And in our saying that the souls of the wicked are punished after death, remaining in consciousness, and that the souls of the virtuous remain free from punishment and live happily, we will seem to say the same things as the poets and philosophers. (1 Apology 20.4, emphasis added)
In case it might be claimed that the views expressed in the First Apology differ from those in the Dialogue with Trypho, consider the following passage from the Dialogue. This is from the account of Justin's conversation with an old man by the sea that led to his conversion to Christianity. 'He' is the old man and 'I' is Justin. The positions expressed by the old man are thus being construed by Justin as Christian teaching.
4.7. “Therefore,” he concluded, “souls do not see God, nor do they transmigrate into other bodies”… 5.1. “Nor should we call the soul immortal, for, if it were, we would certainly have to call it unbegotten.”… 5.2. “Souls, then, are not immortal.” “No,” I said, “since it appears that the world itself was generated.” “3. On the other hand,” he continued, “I do not claim that any soul ever perishes, for this would certainly be a benefit to sinners. What happens to them? The souls of the devout dwell in a better place, whereas the souls of the unjust and the evil abide in a worse place, and there they await the judgment day. Those, therefore, who are deemed worthy to see God will never perish, but the others will be subjected to punishment as long as God allows them to exist and as long as he wants them to be punished.” (Dialogue with Trypho 4.7-5.3, emphasis added)
In this passage, the old man is trying to persuade Justin of the truth of Christianity by attacking Platonism, which regarded souls as unbegotten, intrinsically immortal, and capable of transmigrating into other bodies. However, the Christian alternative reflected here is not mortalism. It regards souls neither as predisposed to mortality nor as intrinsically immortal but as existing continuously unless God should decide to annihilate them. Moreover, this passage reflects the same belief as the First Apology in a conscious intermediate state for the soul between death and resurrection.

The difference between Justin's views on the intermediate state and those of later orthodoxy are mainly geographical: Justin appears not to have believed that the souls of the righteous ascend to heaven at death (given his antipathy toward this idea in Dialogue 80.4), but that they reside 'happily' in 'a better place'. However, in his Second Apology,18 Justin appears to countenance the idea of heaven-going at death, at least for martyrs. Recounting the interrogation of a Christian who was subsequently martyred, Justin writes:
Another Christian, a man called Lucius, on seeing the judgement given in this irrational way, said to Urbicus: "Why did you order this  man to be punished when he is not convicted of... any evil deed at all...? Your judgement does not befit a pioius emperor..." His only reply was similarly to say to Lucius: "I think you also are one of them." And when Lucius said, "Certainly", Urbicus ordered that he too be led away. Lucius further confessed that he was thankful to have been set free from evil masters such as these and that he was going to the father and king of all. (Second Apology 2.15-19, emphasis added)
If Justin could attribute such a belief to one he regarded as a faithful Christian martyr, it follows that Justin probably affirmed the same idea himself.19 It is plausible that Justin believed that heaven-going at death is a privilege reserved only for martyrs, while the rest of the righteous dead spend the intermediate state in Abraham's bosom, understood as a compartment within Hades.20

Hence, we can summarize Justin's individual eschatology as follows:
  • After death, all souls continue to exist consciously
  • The souls of the righteous go to a better place and the souls of the wicked to a worse place (both in Hades?), where they await resurrection and the final judgment
  • The souls of martyrs ascend to heaven

The afterlife beliefs that Justin regarded as heretical

What is the position that Justin regards as blasphemous and non-Christian in Dialogue 80.4? It is 'that there is no resurrection of the dead, but that their souls are taken up to heaven at the very moment of their death'. Contra Dr. Thomas, this is not a description of any doctrine ever held by orthodoxy, which has always maintained the resurrection of the dead as an article of the faith. Rather, this is a description of Platonist belief as taken up by the Gnostics, who regarded the body as a prison to be vacated and thus rejected the idea of resurrection. It is this denial of resurrection that Justin considers offensive, not the idea of the souls of the righteous going somewhere after death until the resurrection. Justin himself believed the latter!  Moreover, while it appears Justin restricted heaven-going to martyrs, it is unlikely that he regarded as heretical those Christians who believed in a heavenly intermediate state for all the righteous, followed by resurrection.21


Christadelphians have, over the past 150 years, frequently used a passage from Justin Martyr's Dialogue with Trypho in their apologetics to prove that the early church repudiated the immortality of the soul and affirmed the resurrection of the dead. However, when this passage is understood in the wider context of Justin's thought, it is clear that his beliefs were much closer to traditional orthodoxy than Christadelphian mortalism. Like all orthodox Christians (and Christadelphians), Justin believed in the resurrection of the dead and repudiated those who did not share this doctrine. However, like most orthodox Christians but unlike Christadelphians, Justin also believed in a conscious intermediate state for the soul between death and resurrection. His only point of apparent disagreement with later orthodoxy concerned the 'geography' of the intermediate state.22

Accordingly, I call on Christadelphian apologists to provide their hearers and readers with a full account of Justin Martyr's beliefs concerning the soul and the afterlife when the subject comes up in their discourse, to avoid giving the impression that Justin's beliefs were proto-Christadelphian in this respect.


  • 1 Horner, Timothy J. (2001). Listening to Trypho: Justin's Dialogue Reconsidered. Leuven: Peeters.
  • 2 He comments on 'the authenticity of Justin's information and its richness of detail' concerning Jewish beliefs about heresy (Boyarin, Daniel (2001). Justin Martyr Invents Judaism. Church History, 70(3), 427-461; here p. 451)
  • 3 Skarsaune, Oskar (2002). In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press. He says the second-century Apologists 'think in very Jewish ways and carry on important Jewish concerns vis-à-vis paganism' (In the Shadow of the Temple, p. 231). He also ascribes to Justin a 'remarkably "Jewish" definition of philosophy' and emphasizes that 'in defining Christianity as a "philosophy," in this sense of the word, he is certainly not "Hellenizing" Christianity away from its Jewish roots.' (p. 240) Concerning Justin's biblical arguments for Christ's pre-existent divinity, he says, 'We have every reason to believe that this kind of argument was developed among Judeo-Christians with a knowledge of Hebrew' (p. 273).
  • 4 Horner, op. cit., p. 7.
  • 5 Quotations from the Dialogue with Trypho are taken from Slusser, Michael and Halton, Thomas P. (Ed). (2003). Justin Martyr: Dialogue with Trypho. (Thomas B. Falls, trans.). Washington: Catholic University of America Press.
  • 6 Thomas, John (1855). Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, 5, p. 174; Thomas, John (1857) Herald of the Kingdom and Age to Come, 7, p. 244; Carter, John (1949). The Faith in the Last Days: A Selection from the Writings of John Thomas. Birmingham: The Christadelphian.
  • 7 Williams, Thomas (1898). The World's Redemption. Chicago: Advocate Publishing House; Williams, Thomas (1898). The Hall-Williams Debate on The Kingdom of Heaven, the State of the Dead, Resurrection and the Punishment of the Wicked. Chicago: Advocate Publishing House, pp. 156-157.
  • 8 Walker, C.C. (1926). A Declaration of the Truth Revealed in the Bible as Distinguishable from the Theology of Christendom. Birmingham: Published by author, pp. 36-37.
  • 9 The material quotes our passage and comments, 'The doctrine of the immortality of the soul is an ancient teaching of pagan religions which was incorporated into a Christianity which was rapidly becoming corrupted. It is a false doctrine which must be rejected.'
  • 10 Roberts, Robert (n.d.) My Days and My Ways: An Autobiography. Sussex: R.J. Acford, p. 44.
  • 11 i.e. believed, like Christadelphians, that the dead are unconscious or do not exist until the resurrection.
  • 12 Dr. Thomas, The Faith in the Last Days.
  • 13 Williams, Hall-Williams Debate, p. 157, emphasis added. This was a debate held between Thomas Williams and the editor of a Baptist periodical, J.N. Hall, in Kentucky in 1898 before an audience of two thousand. Mr. Hall responded as follows: 'Justin Martyr don't say it is not all right to talk about souls being in heaven, but he argues that if you are going to make the presence of souls in heaven destroy the doctrine of the resurrection, and do not believe the resurrection is true, anybody who teaches such a thing would be just like those Justin Martyr warns us against. Justin Martyr did not pretend to say there were no souls in heaven; that is only the conclusion of my brother; that is another "peculiarity" of the Christadelphians. Justin Martyr does not himself take a position against the idea of the existence of departed souls.' (op. cit., p. 162)
  • 14 Dave Burke, profiling Justin Martyr's beliefs on his Christian History Facebook page
  • 15 Burke, Jonathan (2012). Sleeping in the Dust: The Biblical View of Death. Lively Stones Publishing, p. 30, emphasis added.
  • 16 Quotations from Justin's Apologies are taken from Minns, Denis & Parvis, Paul (Eds.) (2009). Justin, Philosopher and Martyr, Apologies. Edited with an Introduction, Translation, and Commentary on the Text. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • 17 Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith, Doctrines to be Rejected, No. 8.
  • 18 Various theories have been proposed by scholars on the relationship between Justin's First and Second Apologies. Some regard the Second as an appendix to the first. Minns and Parvis (op. cit.) offer the intriguing hypothesis that the Second Apology consists of unpublished material from the 'cutting-room floor' that Justin's friends published after his martyrdom.
  • 19 Indeed, according to The Acts of Justin,  an account of Justin's martyrdom, this is exactly what Justin believed at the time of his death: 'The prefect said to Justin, "If you are beaten and beheaded, do you believe you are going to ascend into the sky?" Justin said, "I hope for reward for endurance if I endure. For I know that for those who live rightly, the divine gift of grace is waiting until the final conflagration." Rusticus the prefect said, "So you suppose you will ascend?" Justin said, "I do not suppose so, I am certain of it."' (The Acts of Justin, Recension A, trans. Grant, R.M. (2003). Second-century Christianity: A Collection of Fragments (2nd ed.). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 52)
  • 20 This view was expressed explicitly a few decades later by Tertullian (see De Resurrectione Carnis 43; De Anima 55). Two other possibilities are mentioned by Hill, C.E. (1992). Regnum Caelorum: Patterns of Future Hope in Early Christianity. Oxford: Clarendon Press, p. 20f. These are (a) that Justin didn't have a coherent cosmology of the intermediate state but was an heir of different traditions; (b) that Justin's cosmology of the intermediate state changed over time, with the heaven-going of the Second Apology reflecting a later position than the apparent Hades-going of the Dialogue and First Apology.
  • 21 How could Justin regard the idea of heaven-going as intrinsically heretical when he affirmed it himself, at least for martyrs? In Dialogue 80.1-2, Justin affirms his belief in a future, earthly, millennial kingdom in Jerusalem, but notes 'that there are many pure and pious Christians who do not share our opinion', whom he then distinguishes from the 'godless and impious heretics, whose doctrines are entirely blasphemous, atheistic, and senseless'. Where do the pure and pious but amillennial Christians believe souls go at death? Justin does not say, but Hill, op. cit., argues at length that in the early church, premillennialism (chiliasm) correlated with belief in a subterranean intermediate state while amillennialism (non-chiliasm) correlated with belief in a celestial intermediate state. If he is correct, the amillennial Christians mentioned by Justin probably believed in a celestial intermediate state - and yet were still considered 'pure and pious' by Justin, because unlike the Gnostic heretics they affirmed the resurrection of the body.
  • 22 If Justin's view of the intermediate state matched Tertullian's - i.e. heaven for martyrs and Hades (divided into good and bad compartments) for the rest, then it may be worth noting the similarities between his view and the purgatorial model of the intermediate state that was ultimately defined by the Western church.

Saturday 6 August 2016

Orthodox Christian teaching on the afterlife versus Christadelphian descriptions of the same

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 IsraelChapter 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 QuestionIn 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.)