November 26, 2020

On Resurrection and Eternal Life (2)

As a hospice chaplain, my work revolves around supporting the dying and their families. I officiate many funerals. I deal with questions about death and what happens after people die. I am asked regularly about mysteries beyond our human experience in this life.

On Mondays we are delving into this subject, starting with Gerhard Lohfink and his excellent new book, Is This All There Is?: On Resurrection and Eternal Life. Today we consider chapter two, “Between Skepticism and Belief in the Soul,” an examination of how Greek and Roman thought influenced Christian thinking about the afterlife from the beginning.

For example, here is an inscription from the third century:

This tomb hides the body of unmarried Kalokairos, but his immortal soul has left the body of the young man. She, his soul, has left far behind the cares of a bitter life and hurries on the divine road so that she might arrive purified. (p. 12)

There is an anchor carved beneath this epitaph, which, Lohfink notes, is the only clue that this statement differs from any number of pagan formulations from the same era.

That idea was formulated quite explicitly in antiquity, especially by followers of the the philosopher Pythagoras. Soma–sema, said the Greeks: “body–tomb.” In this world of ideas the soul is what really makes the human; the body is only an obstacle. In death the soul is liberated as if from a tomb, a prison. As we have seen, Plato also presents such ideas in his Phaedo. (p. 12)

The influence of such ideas upon Christians has been far-reaching, as this verse from a contemporary Christian prayerbook that Lohfink cites shows.

To earth I came without a load,
nothing outward brought with me
except only my soul

Nothing will I take with me
beyond into the lightsome day
except again my soul.

What, then, to me is earthly life
when in but lightsome garments clad
and shedding every earthly fault
my own and only soul shall fly
to God’s paternal hand.

Culture’s ideas have penetrated Christian belief from the beginning. And they still do. In one church I pastored, I preached on 1 Corinthians 15 one morning, emphasizing the unique importance of the resurrection to our faith. One man, an elder in the congregation, came up to me afterward and said, “I had no idea the resurrection and our bodies were so important!”

Well, when you sing “I’ll Fly Away” as your anthem of Christian hope, this is what you get. One can understand the common sense cosmology underneath this. As Lohfink writes, our bodies are material and substantial. When they inevitably break down and expire, what happens to the immaterial, lighter than air “me” — my soul — within? It floats into the ether, of course, to “heaven” above.

However, this platonic, dualistic way of thinking was by no means universal in Greek and Roman culture. As Lohfink says,

For a long time the Greeks were convinced that human life ends as a shadowy existence in the darkness of the underworld, and in later periods belief in the soul was by no means the only philosophy. There was also a powerful strand of materialism for which the body was the one and only human reality. That materialism was usually associated with a profound skepticism, and especially the conviction that everything ends with death. At death the human person falls back into absolute nothingness. A dead person has no “I” any longer, no memory, no awareness, no future. (p. 13f)

In the light of this way of thinking, ancient inscriptions express either that grim finality, or exhortations to the living to enjoy life while you can.

Of course, this strand of thinking remains with us as well, becoming even more prominent in the 20th century, influenced by secularization and the existential questions raised by the horrors of two world wars, unimaginable genocides, and the terrifying prospect of nuclear annihilation.

As Lohfink notes, “…the dissonant polyphony of voices from antiquity is still with us. The question of questions remains, and the answer still swings between radical skepticism and hope for the wholly “other” that will finally answer all questions.” (p. 18)


  1. Susan Dumbrell says

    Chaplain Mike, please bear with me in my story of today.

    For ‘Molly’
    Maurice Ravel – Pavane for a dead princess.
    I digress from our usual commentary.
    I am sure some I Monkers will question my attachment and grief at the loss of my cat ‘Molly’.
    The Vet put her to sleep this morning. I held ‘Molly’ and watched her die by inches in my arms.
    I had to have a small laugh in amongst my tears. My friend Jenny suggested I scatter roses and I replied that Molly has been buried at the end of the climbing bean rack in the veggie garden! That is where son-in-law Pat dug the hole 6 weeks ago. I knew Molly’s days were numbered and asked him to dig me a hole early December.
    I cut a ‘Just Joey’ rose flower and buried Molly with that.
    Judith the Vet prepared Molly so beautifully in a nice bio degradable drawstring calico bag with her name and a paw print and a heart drawn on it. I thought it so suitable.
    So on my own I buried Molly with tears and a rose flower.
    I need time to grieve my old lady, 17 years. We were supposed to grow old gracefully together. That was the pact we had.
    I will miss her dreadfully.
    I still have ‘ Vanessa’ who I love but a different girl. She is also 17 years old but very well, opinionated and very fat too.
    Yesterday she kept going to Molly in her hidey hole box in the far corner and then coming back to me for a sit on my lap and then back to Molly in her box.
    Don’t tell me animals don’t have a sixth sense about what is going on around them, Vanessa knew Molly was sick.
    Many years ago we lost a beautiful cat, ‘Patches’, a calico cat, run over by a car. We brought her home and her friend ‘Lucy’ howled and howled. She watched ‘Patches’ being buried and cried the whole time.
    Took her ages to get over losing her friend.
    They know!!
    We are so blessed to have companion animals to steer us through the rough patches of life.
    Thank you for listening to my story.
    I attach two haiku in ‘ Molly’s’ honour.

    • Susan Dumbrell says

      tears mix with my love
      rose petals swirl in the grave
      memories to dust

      the mat by the fire
      empty of my dear Molly
      warm and safe with God.

    • Pets are a wonderful gift from God for companionship, Susan. My condolences for your loss.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Took her ages to get over losing her friend.
      They know!!

      And a lot of Over-Saved Christians and Pastors don’t.
      (Homegoing Celebration(TM)… The LORD Giveth and the LORD Taketh Away(TM)…)
      Even a CAT has more sense than the Over-Spiritual!

    • Dear Susan, sending hugs your way. So sorry for the loss of such a good friend. We will see those friends again; Paradise would not be Paradise without them, and God is just that good.


    • I pray that God will comfort you in your grief, Susan, and may light perpetual shine upon your sweet kitty.

      RIP, Molly.

    • Sorry to hear the news, Susan.

    • always we wait
      to be born, to live and die,
      to be together again

  2. This is an interesting subject, and a good discussion to have. I think it’s important, however, to start with an acknowledgment that modern quantum physics is teaching us that, despite common sense experience and the traditional understanding of Newtonian physics, matter and energy are not as distinct as we once thought they were, and that, as a result, our inherited cultural ideas of what the body actually is, and how it is distinct from soul, may be woefully inadequate.

    • Ronald Avra says

      That is a package that has barely begun to be unwrapped.

      • I get most of my philosophy from 1960’s Star Trek but I do disagree with them on one key issue. They consider space to be the frontier while I consider death the final frontier. Even the Enterprise Dr., Bones McCoy could not prevent or find a cure for death because as he often said rather with great drama ” I can’t cure this Jim, I am just a Doctor”.
        Like Star Trek life is a voyage and the gift God gave us is our journey in this kingdom with the option to have faith that the journey ends where it began, with the Father. There was one Star Trek where the Enterprise crew thought some of the people on the planet worshipped the sun , but they found out they worshipped the Son, of course they were the minority on the planet.

        Susan, your grief at losing your cat Molly is understandable and human. Molly brought great joy and comfort to your life, how could you not miss her? You are wise enough and faithful enough to rejoice in that joy that Molly brought to you. Animals know kindness and concern I believe. I appreciate your honesty in revealing your true feelings and thoughts and being “real” as the Pepsi generation says. Molly made your life better, you made Molly’s life great, what more could you do?

  3. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    That idea was formulated quite explicitly in antiquity, especially by followers of the the philosopher Pythagoras. Soma–sema, said the Greeks: “body–tomb.” In this world of ideas the soul is what really makes the human; the body is only an obstacle. In death the soul is liberated as if from a tomb, a prison. As we have seen, Plato also presents such ideas in his Phaedo. (p. 12)

    In his book Butterflies in the Belfry, Serpents in the Cellar (link from IMonk Authors), JMJ/Christian Monist traces this Dualist crossover and how its fallout continues to the present day. Driving an impassible wedge between Reason and Faith, Physical and Spiritual, removing any sort of reality check from Faith Faith Faith. (Much like al-Ghazali’s Incoherence of the Philosopners did to Islamic beliefs.)

  4. Well, again, dualism had much less influence in the Christian East, where the importance of the body was stressed because of the Incarnation, which is so prominent in the East and hardly gets a mention in Evangelicalism. For example, the “official” Orthodox name for Christmas is “The Nativity in the Flesh of Our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” Every feast has a special hymn of praise that is sung at the end of the Liturgy, Vespers and Matins, called the Megalynarion (“magnification”). For feasts of the Lord and the Theotokos, the final phrase of many of them contains a reference to the body.

    The other thing I wish to point out is that the phrase at the end of the Gloria Patri, “world without end”, is not a good translation. Even in the Latin it is rendered, as in Greek, as “unto the ages of ages.” “Eternal life” in Greek is more accurately translated “the life of The Age” – not “eternal life”. N.T. Wright and other scholars, both Jewish and Christian, have opened to us the thoughts of C1 Jews (continuing to the present day, in fact) about the division between the Present Age and the Age to Come. The questions Jesus got from people supposedly about “eternal life” were actually questions about who was eligible to part of the people who would make it into the next Age, the Age when the Messiah would arise and rule.

    “Eternal life” in the NT is in no way a reference to an unending existence, except as we have our existence in God who has no beginning or end. It is, as Dallas Willard of blessed memory wrote, an Eternal Kind of Life – a quality, not a quantity.


    • Thank you Dana.

    • So… even after the resurrection, there will still be a time limit to existence?

      • A finite duration to the resurrected life. It’s possible, and it is not something I would consider antithetical to resurrected Eternal Life. As long as the duration doesn’t end in fear, alienation, loneliness, pain, isolation, despair, hellish separateness; as long as it does end in communion, love, peace, acceptance, fulfillment, the vision of God, I don’t see the problem. The vision of the resurrection in the Old Testament, to the degree that it exists there, is of living a complete life, to ripe old age, under the shade of one’s own olive tree, at peace and in the fullness of God’s gift of life: shalom. Is there anything in the New Testament that prevents us from essentially embracing this vision? Interestingly, there are places in the Church Dogmatics where Karl Barth seems to affirm this idea, rather than the idea of resurrected life being everlasting in duration.