Ask most people what happens after you die, and they say “you go to Heaven (or Hell).” As in, your soul goes to either Heaven or Hell, and leaves your body behind. Ask them about the Resurrection, and they talk about Jesus. Christians, according to popular Christian understanding, don’t get bodily raised from the dead like Jesus did; their souls (and not their bodies) go to Heaven.
The problem is, that’s not what the Bible says. Now, granted, the Bible never lays out a clear timeline for the end times; most of what it says about the and of the world is told through parables, metaphors, dreams, and visions instead of laying out plain and simple what’s going to happen. But some things are pretty clear and universal throughout Biblical passages on death and what comes next and the end of the world:
1) There is no hard-and-fast separation between body and soul. That was a pagan philosophy that got grafted in later from the Greeks in the early church. In the Old Testament, whenever you see the word “soul,” it’s a mistranslation, because there isn’t a word for what we think of as the “soul” in Hebrew. The Hebrew word nefesh means something closer along the lines of everything that makes you you–personality, spirit, and body, all rolled into one. It’s your essence, your core, your being, and your physicality is included in it. In the New Testament, well, pagan Greek philosophy separated out the physical and the spiritual, so Greek does have a word (psyche) for soul-separate-from-body. But Jesus was a Jewish man talking (mostly) with other Jewish people, so on the rare occasions he uses that word he’s probably meaning the Hebrew concept of nefesh instead.
The word that gets translated as “Spirit” is ruach in Hebrew, or pneuma in Greek, both of which literally means breath. (In English, it comes from the same root word as “respiration” and “inspiration.” Spirit is life force, but it’s inherently physical. Only living bodies breathe.
In the Biblical worldview, we are not, never have been, and never will be free-floating souls who happen to have a physical body to wear around temporarily. We are whole, body, mind, heart, and spirit together as one. (I will note that the more scientists learn about the body and mind, the more obvious it is that the two are connected and intertwined in all sorts of ways we hadn’t understood until now: those ancient Jewish people in the desert understood more about the human condition than Greek philosophers did.)
2) Jesus is not the only one who will be resurrected. The sequence of events is not “Jesus died to save us from our sins, so when we die our souls will go to heaven.” The sequence is “Jesus died to save us from our sins, and because we are tied to his death and resurrection, we, too, will one day be raised from the dead. When Christ comes again, the graves will open, and all those who have died will rise again, and all the living and the dead shall be judged, and there will be a new heaven and a new earth and God’s kingdom will be here on earth.” What exactly that looks like, what the exact timeline will be when Christ comes again, all the other stuff (trials and tribulations, etc., etc.,) that’s pretty hazy and contradictory. What is perfectly clear every time the subject is discussed is the fact that the dead will be raised–not just spiritually, but physically–and then all people will be judged.
What happens to us in the between-time–the time between when we die and the general resurrection of the dead–is not so clear. The Bible simply isn’t very concerned with it. There are hints here and there, and mostly they seem to imply that we are asleep or unconscious in some way, waiting for the day of resurrection. Sometimes (as in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man) they do imply that our souls are either in Heaven or Hell while we wait. But mostly the answer is “we die and are dead until Christ comes again and raises all the dead.”
Why, then, do modern Christians focus so heavily on “soul going to Heaven/Hell” that we forget about the Resurrection of the body? Well, first, lots of people today (even practicing Christians) haven’t spent much time studying the Bible, and so most of what they believe on the subject they get from pop culture, just assuming that movies/television/comedians/authors in the general culture know what they’re talking about and that they are accurately portraying something Biblically-based. Second, the early church (the first few centuries after Jesus’ original followers died out) was dominated by Greeks, and they had all been raised with pagan Greek philosophy, and so they interpreted a lot of the Bible through that lens. So, among other things, a split between body and soul was injected into Christian beliefs, even though the Bible doesn’t have such a split. Third, during the American Civil War, there was a spiritual crisis. It was the first time that such a high percentage of the population died so far from home, with no bodies to bury that the family could ever see. This really changed the way Americans talked about and thought about death, and there is a really good book-turned-documentary, Death and the Civil War, that explores this.
So now that I’ve written almost 800 words explaining all of this, I can get to what I really wanted to talk about. I was reading Richard Hays’ commentary on First Corinthians in the Interpretations Bible Commentary series, specifically the section about 1 Corinthians 15. In that passage, Paul confronts people (Greek former-pagans, who believed in an immortal soul that was completely separate from the physical body it was housed in) who didn’t believe in the resurrection. Well, they believed that Jesus had been raised, but didn’t believe in the general resurrection to come, i.e. that when Christ comes again he will raise all those who have died. And Paul is vehement that this is a problem: you cannot separate out Jesus’ resurrection and our resurrection. If resurrection is not possible for us, then Jesus could not have been raised either. If God can raise Jesus bodily from the dead, God can raise us bodily from the dead, as well; and because God has raised Jesus from the dead, God will raise us also. If you don’t believe God will raise us bodily from the dead, according to Paul, you are calling Jesus and all the disciples liars.
Hays brings up how the earliest Christians interpreted this passage (page 259). In particular, he quotes the words of St. Justin Martyr, a second-century Christian and church leader who was one of the first great Christian writers after the New Testament was finished. In one of his debates, Justin talks about “godless, impious heretics” who “are called Christians … and say that there is no resurrection of the dead, and that their souls, when they die, are taken to heaven.” St. Justin Martyr considered this absolute heresy, and said of such people: “Do not imagine that they are Christians.”
That’s, uh, that’s pretty direct and straightforward, with not much wiggle room. And when you read Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, he, too, has no wiggle room. According to both Paul and Justin Martyr, you cannot be a Christian if you think your soul goes to heaven without your body. You can only be a Christian if you believe in a bodily/fleshly resurrection.
Most American Christians today do not believe in a bodily/fleshly resurrection for anyone except Jesus. They believe that your soul goes to heaven (or hell) without your body.
I am not sure what to say, except that we obviously need more Christian education and Bible study about this.
I’d like to share some words of Hays’ own (page 277), on why this is such an important point:
Paul saw that underneath all the dismaying problems of the Corinthians lay one massive theological fallacy: they denied the resurrection of the dead. And by doing that, they denied the importance of the world that God created. They denied–whether they meant to or not–that these flawed bodies of ours are loved by God and will be redeemed. And therefore–whether they meant to or not–they denied that what we do with these bodies is of ultimate significance in God’s eyes. So they lapsed into confusion, both moral and theological.
Modern American Christians tend to focus on the “spiritual” aspects of faith and ignore much of the practical aspects, reducing discipleship to merely agreeing with certain beliefs. And when we do talk about physical bodies and morality, we tend to focus on sex. Which is important, but still only a small part of what we do with our bodies.
What would a Christian ethic look like if it were based on the idea that the physical–bodies, creation, all if it–matters? If we really took seriously the idea that God’s saving work isn’t about destroying this fallen world and rescuing the souls of believers from it, but rather focused on the Biblical idea that God in Christ is reconciling the world to himself? That the coming kingdom is based not on the destruction of the old world and the old bodies, but rather on their recreation and resurrection? There are lots of Christian theologians and writers who have talked about these subjects over the last century or so, I’m not saying anything new … but unfortunately, none of those people have moved the needle very far on what the average Christian-in-the-pew thinks.
Much food for thought.