EVEN THE summary account of Christian eschatology which we are here attempting requires us to say something further in explanation of the Christian affirmation of belief in the resurrection of the dead. For no article of the Creed is more liable than this to offend the intellectual conscience, especially in an age which finds such difficulty in believing in any life after death at all for the individual soul.
1. TWO PRINCIPLES IN CHRISTIAN BELIEF
The essential meaning of the Christian affirmation in this matter involves two fundamental principles or postulates which we will discuss briefly in turn:
First, that the object of ultimate hope is communion with the eternal God, and not any prolongation of human lives as such.
Secondly, that the way in which this hope is to be finally attained, as well as the true significance of its attainment, are more adequately symbolized under the figure of resurrection, than by any doctrine which asserts simply the immortality of the soul.
2. LIFE AFTER DEATH AND THE RELIGIOUS DOCTRINE OF IMMORTALITY
In dealing with the first of these two principles, we must begin by making an important distinction. When we say that we believe in “life after death”, we may have either of two quite different ideas in mind.
(a) We may be thinking of the answer to the question, does the soul or personality of a man go on existing when the body dies? This is a perfectly intelligible question but it has no self-evident connexion with any particular belief about God. Many believers in God reject belief in the immortality of the soul. And on the other hand some have believed in the immortality of the soul, while rejecting belief in God. Moreover, it is to be observed that to say that the soul survives the death of the body is not necessarily to say that it is immortal; for it is quite conceivable that it might perish afterwards. The evidence for and against survival, as distinct from immortality, may be investigated from a strictly scientific standpoint, which excludes both metaphysical and religious presuppositions altogether.
(b) On the other hand, it is possible to regard belief in human immortality as a religious belief founded upon some faith in the being of God. And when we thus approach the subject from the religious side, the fundamental question which we ask about life after death has a quite different context and significance. Almost all religions attribute immortality or eternity to the God of their worship, while at the same time they indicate to man some way of entering into some sort of communion or fellowship with God. And thus the thought is bound to arise that man himself may somehow be made partaker of the immortality or eternity which is properly divine.
The question then asked about life after death ceases to be, Is the human soul by nature such as to survive the death of the body? and becomes rather, Is the human soul capable of rising into or receiving a higher kind of life which is somehow akin to God’s? In the affirmative answer to that question we reach the religious doctrine of immortal or eternal life for man. It is not based upon the nature of the human soul simply as such, but upon a relation which exists or may exist between the human soul and God. Nor could it be proved to be true by the most complete evidence conceivable that in fact every human soul survives the death of the body.1
3. THE TEACHING OF THE BIBLE ON LIFE AFTER DEATH
Having made this distinction clear, we turn to the teaching of the Bible. Its most obvious feature perhaps is the lack of any positive information as to what happens to the human soul when the body dies. In the Old Testament indeed there are many passages which roundly deny that the human soul continues after death in any life worth having. And even the New Testament, for all its emphasis on the glorious hope of resurrection, gives no kind of answer to the questions asked by those who are interested in spiritualism or what is commonly called “psychical research”.
Why is there at first so much negation, and at last so little information, in the Bible? The question has deeply perplexed sincere Christians who long for some definite knowledge about the condition of dear ones departed.
When Lazarus left his charnel-cave And home to Mary’s house returned, Was this demanded if he yearned To hear her weeping by his grave? “Where wert thou, brother, those four days?” There lives no record of reply, Which, telling what it is to die, Had surely added praise to praise. Behold a man raised up by Christ! The rest remaineth unrevealed ; He told it not; or something sealed The lips of that evangelist.2
Tennyson’s question is certainly not to be answered by suggesting doubts as to the historical value of the Fourth Gospel. But the distinction previously drawn between survival and eternal life may afford us more help. From first to last the Bible is chiefly concerned to teach us that our faith and hope must be in God, that it is on God’s Kingdom, not on personal survival and its particular phases and circumstances, that our aims and affections should be set.
Already in the Old Testament it is very significant that when the psalmists deny most explicitly any value to the life of the departed spirit, they immediately pass on to declare that just for that reason their hope is more firmly fixed on God.3 There seems to be good reason for thinking that the picture of Sheol as a prison for unsubstantial wraiths, a picture which represents the orthodox belief of Israel before the Captivity, was originally intended to discourage a false spiritualism or cult of departed spirits which led men away from the worship of Jehovah. It was to Jehovah’s seers and prophets, not to the witches and wizards who professed to raise the ghosts of the dead, that the loyal Israelite should go for guidance. It was when Saul could get no answer from God through prophets, dreams or divination, that he turned in despair to the witch of Endor.4 Only after the Captivity, when idolatry and necromancy have ceased to be dangers, do we find a new hope of the after-life taking shape dimly in the Hebrew mind. And this new hope is based wholly on the all pervading presence and power of Jehovah. The faith is at last dawning that never and nowhere in the universe can the faithful be really “cut away from God’s hand”, not even by death or the bars of Sheol itself. “Though I walk through the valley of deep darkness, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me.”5
In the New Testament Christ’s reply to his Sadducean questioners carries on the same line of teaching. That there is life beyond the grave, he tells them, is proved when God says to Moses, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”; for God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.6 In other words, a man has abiding life, in so far as the living Jehovah is really his God. For God’s faithful servants, therefore, there can be no imprisonment or empty existence among the shades. For “the gates of Hades” (or the bars of Sheol) do not prevail against the life and fellowship of God’s own ecclesia.7 This is the great conclusion which the Bible reaches. The immortality of man is the gift of the living God who conquers death. Of that the Bible assures us; but it does not answer our questions about what happens to the soul when the body dies. And it would be difficult to cite any text outside the Apocrypha which suggests that the soul of man is by the necessity of its own created nature immortal.
And yet, if we are content to leave at this point our account of the Christian hope for the individual, we shall still have almost ignored what is perhaps the most characteristic feature of the Christian gospel. For we have said nothing of the difference made to the religious doctrine of immortal or eternal life by the Christian teaching of the resurrection.
No leading idea in human religion has had a more complicated and paradoxical history than that of resurrection. In pagan thought it is connected with myths of a dying and rising god or goddess, which apparently have their origin in the cycle of the seasons, the death of winter followed by the rebirth of spring. But such legends as that of Persephone seem to have little direct relation, either historical or ideological, to Christian belief. The latter springs out of Judaism. And in Judaism the religious idea of resurrection appears in its crudest and most materialistic form. It came into being as part of the eschatological expectation conceived by Jewish apocalyptists at a time when all hope of a national redemption wrought by natural means seemed destined to final disappointment. The apocalyptists sought to re-establish faith in God’s guidance of history with visions of a purely supernatural event. They spoke of a great theophany at the end of the age when men were to rise again with their material bodies from the tomb in order to receive the reward of their deeds in everlasting felicity or torment. Compared with such fantasies, the language of Psalm cxxxix and the Platonistic teachings found in the Book of Wisdom seem to convey a much more worthy and spiritual idea of immortality. And at first sight it appears to be merely a disaster that the Church should have felt herself obliged to repel the most sympathetic minds in the pagan world by retaining in her creed a clause which speaks of the resurrection of the body or the flesh. Doubtless that clause was retained because of the Church’s belief that her Lord’s body had actually been raised from the tomb. But was that belief itself originally due to a misunderstanding, inevitable perhaps to minds brought up on Jewish notions of eschatology, but none the less fatal to a truly catholic interpretation of the gospel?
Such a conclusion is only superficially attractive. Of course as long as resurrection is understood, as it was understood by Jewish apocalyptists, to mean simply the restoration of life by divine fiat at some moment of time after death, it remains a crude and primitive notion, on a lower level altogether than the nobler forms of the Hellenic belief in the immortality of the soul. But when an attentive reading of the New Testament has enabled us to perceive that Christ has given to the idea of resurrection the quite new meaning of life restored and glorified through and by means of death, we see also that he has made it the symbol of a deeper truth than any which a doctrine of mere immortality can express. Christianity must indeed sublimate and spiritualize the belief in resurrection which was part of its heritage from Judaism. And yet the Jewish notion, crude and fantastic as it originally was, contributes through Jesus a vital element to Christian faith and hope which the Hellenic doctrines of immortality wholly lack.
For this belief in resurrection, throughout its strange and chequered history, stands for the great truth inherent in Jewish eschatology, that the change from earthly to heavenly life is not and cannot be a gradual process of ascension, in which the falling away of the material body is merely a further liberation of the soul; rather it is a process of increasing tension and conflict leading to a crisis in which the earthly man must wholly die in order wholly to receive life. What is true of this whole age or world-order, which must pass away in the new creation of the world to come, is true also of the individual organism which is a man it also must wholly die in its present earthly state in order to receive from God that full and heavenly glory of which its created nature has made it capable. The gateway to the heavenly and eternal life is the self-sacrifice which Christ first accomplished only through his death, and in which he enables Christians to follow him. And thus in Christ the universal fact of physical decay and death becomes for man, as it were, the sacrament of the inward and spiritual truth that life must be wholly surrendered before it can be wholly won.
To use the now fashionable term, the progress of the earthly life towards the heavenly is inherently dialectical. In the more concrete and illuminating language of the gospel, it is a story of exaltation won through humiliation, of gain through loss, of having through giving, of power through suffering, of victory through defeat, of joy through sorrow, of holiness through common sharing, of glory through shame, of life through death. And the reconciliation of all these antinomies is in the simple yet world transforming fact that God is love, the love which decrees that the Son of Man, who is also the Son of God, must suffer in order to reign and save. That is the supreme truth which Jesus taught; and Calvary, the empty tomb, and the visions of the glorious body bearing the marks of the cross, mean that in his own person he has proved the truth to be true indeed.
That is why the resurrection of Christ has a truly eschatological significance. It is the sign, not that a holy manhood survives death, but that by the humiliation and self-sacrifice of the Son of God the deadliness of death has been overcome, and the kingdom of heaven opened to all believers. In the crisis which that gospel inevitably brings to every soul which hears it, the world to come itself, together with its living Lord, are already at the doors.
From another point of view the essential difference between believing in the resurrection of Jesus and believing merely in the immortality of his personal spirit or soul, is clearly seen the moment we seek to apply to his case the language which the author of the Book of Wisdom uses about the souls of the righteous. “In the sight of the unwise,” he writes, “they seemed to die”, and he implies thereby that their death was apparent only. Can we imagine St. Paul using such words of Christ? If he had done so, his gospel would certainly have caused no scandal in the Gentile world. On the contrary it would have been received with much sympathy, not least in philosophical centres such as Athens. To suggest that Christ’s death was an appearance, and not a full or ultimate reality, would have removed all the offence of the cross; but it would have removed also the essence of the gospel. For to the Christian the death on the cross, with all its circumstances of shame, was not less real, not less vitally important for faith, than the resurrection of which it was the condition. The reality of the resurrection balanced and transformed the reality of the death; both realities were equally essential to the new salvation that was in Christ. Therefore the fullness of the gospel required the emptiness of the tomb. And it was better that the intelligentsia of the Gentile world should continue to be alienated by crude beliefs about the final resurrection, which St. Paul and St. John8 failed to banish from the Church, than that the gospel should be lost by being assimilated to religious philosophies which had no room for the true value of Hebraic eschatology.
Christian theologians today are still in quest of a metaphysic which will do full justice to the Easter-gospel. But, in the light of the experience and thought of the centuries, they should be able to see rather more clearly than their forefathers what is the real heart of the problem.9 So far as it concerns the destiny of the individual soul, the essence of the Easter-gospel consists in declaring in Christ the correlation between the completeness of the surrender of life to God and the completeness of its restoration in glory. By that great correlation or antinomy (whichever we like to call it) the Christian’s hope of life eternal is determined. All that lives in this world must really die. But this fact of mortality may be made the opportunity for entering into the service and the self-surrender of the Son of God; and, by so entering, this mortal personality of ours, and not any supposedly undying part of it, must at the last through death put on immortality. To be made partaker of Christ’s life here and hereafter, as in heaven so on earth, is what the Christian means by life eternal. Only through Jesus Christ, yet through Jesus Christ in the commonest as well as in the holiest things, he claims to have fellowship with the eternal God. We dare not say how far on the other side of physical death a soul may have opportunity for completing a self-surrender which on this side it hardly seemed to have begun just as we cannot say how far Christ’s greatest saints had been received into the life of heaven even before in the body they crossed the narrow stream. But this much surely we know, that whenever, and not until, a man’s surrender of himself to the God of love has been altogether accomplished, he attains the end of his being; and that end is not death but life.
Doctrines of the Creed – Their Basis in the Scripture and Their Meanings Today, New York, USA, 1938, Chapter 24, pp. 262-270.
1 – The most such evidence could do would be to remove one a priori objection to the religious doctrine of immortality, viz., the objection that, since the soul or personality must perish with the body, no kind of immortality for man is possible. Whether this objection ever ought to be removed in this way, is another question.
2 – Tennyson, In Memoriam, XXXI.
3 – See, e.g., Pss. xxx. 9-11 ; xxxix. 6-8.
4 – 1 Sam. xxviii. 6.
5 – Ps. xxiii.4. See also Pss. Ixxiii 22-5; cxxxix. 7-11, and Job xix. 25 (R.V. Margin).
6 – Matt. xxii. 31-3 ; Mark xii. 26, 27. Luke (xx. 38) makes an addition to the saying, which is apparently a gloss derived from 4 Macc. vii, 19; xvi. 25, and which obscures the point. The words added are “for all live unto him”. But the point is not that all live unto God, but that those who are truly God’s must have abiding life. See Easton’s Commentary, ad loc.
7 – This surely is the most natural explanation of the saying to St. Peter in Matt. xvi. 18. I cannot resist the speculation that this whole saying, recorded only by St. Matthew, represented originally words spoken by our Lord to St. Peter when he appeared to him after the resurrection. Placed in that context, the saying gains a clearer and greatly enhanced significance. It is on St. Peter as penitent and believing in the resurrection that Christ founds the fellowship of his Church against which the gates of Hades shall not prevail. But this is of course only a speculation.
8 – The author of Hebrews hardly says anything explicitly about the resurrection; but his teaching in ii. 5-9, is well worth examining in connexion. (See above p. 120.).
9 – The Christian metaphysician who seems to me to penetrate most deeply to the root of the matter is N. Berdyaev, The Destiny of Man, Pt. Ill, c. I.