Does belief in life after death constitute an essential part of Christian faith?

by Stanley Pearson

© Stanley Pearson 2021. All rights reserved.


If we are to understand how Christianity today understands the relationship between this present life and any possible future existence after death, we need to recognise that this rests on a number of foundations. The biblical account is clearly of prime importance, but superimposed on this  are the thoughts of philosophers ranging from the gnostic influences of the first Century CE, the metaphysics of Christian theologians such as Augustine in the 4th Century and Aquinas in the 11th Century and subsequent to this the influence of philosophers of the Enlightenment such as Descartes whose assertion was that the soul and body exist as fundamentally different things, separately created, with immortality being a property of the former released at the moment of death. Finally, as we enter modernity any understanding of possible life after death has to take increasing account of the findings of the natural sciences and the way in which Christian theologians have tried to accommodate these in their thinking. In this essay I shall argue that ideas of eternal life based upon the concept of an immortal soul are not Christian in origin and that we should, rather, understand it in terms of the doctrine of ‘resurrection of the body’. What I mean by this I hope will become clear. Biblical references are to the New Revised Standard Version.

What does the Bible have to say about life after death?

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is no mention of a life after death in the sense of personal resurrection or continuation of a personal identity until around 164 BCE when it appears in the book of Daniel (Dan 12:2-3) (see The Jewish Study Bible, 1999: marginal notes page 1665). Before this time the future is addressed in terms of Covenant with, and the continuing life of, the nation or the People of Israel as a whole (for example, Genesis 15:1-6; Exodus 34:10-28; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Isaiah 44:1-8). At the time of Jesus also it is clear that at least one branch of Judaism, the Sadducees, had no belief in life after death (Matt. 22:23-33), although it is clear that is not Jesus’ own belief (Matt. 22:31-32).
Early Christianity viewed existence after death in terms of resurrection rather than immortality. This is the view of the German theologian Oscar Cullman (see Davies, 1999: 559) who regarded immortality as a later idea borrowed from Greek philosophy. It would also appear to be the view of Bonhoeffer (1963:210):

In the Christian person body and soul are bound together in an indissoluble unity. Real community is possible only through man's being equipped with a body, so we must think of body and soul as being essentially connected. We assume that with the body the sinful soul also dies, and that in the resurrection God, with the soul, also creates a new body, and that this new spiritual body is a warrant and condition for the eternal communion of personal spirits.

The distinction is that resurrection carries with it the idea of being made anew as a creative act of God, whereas immortality can be thought of simply in terms of continuation of present existence and, as such, is a property of the individual soul. Resurrection rather than immortality is a view which is, I believe, supported by the biblical record (for example John 6:40). However, there are a number of questions we need to ask. For example, what the early Christians understood by resurrection. When did they believe it would occur? Was it something that was for all or only for some? In what sense would continuity with earthly identity be preserved in the post-resurrection state?

The whole long passage in 1 Corinthians 15 is an attempt to explain to the new Christians at Corinth the meaning of Christ’s resurrection and its implications for the continued life after death of individual believers. The talk of body in this passage is a form of metaphor for Paul makes it clear that the resurrection body is not the same as the earthly body (1 Cor 15:42-49). He does not clarify what form he thinks it takes but the point being made by talking in terms of body is, I think, that post-resurrection life is not something unconnected with our earthly bodily existence, there is a continuity of personal identity. The same point is made in the gospel accounts of the post-resurrection Christ who is in some way different in that he is not always immediately recognised (Luke 24:13-35; John 20:11-18) but who also shows continuity in that he carries on him the marks of the crucifixion (John 20:24-29). That the resurrection of Christ was an act of God and not something that was a property of Christ’s soul is made clear by the repeated assertion, not that Christ rose from the dead but that he was raised by God (for example, Romans 1:3-4; Matt. 28:6; Mark 16:6. 1 Cor.15:3-4 ).

Thus, for Paul at least, the continued life of believers after death is not based on an indestructible soul but the guarantee of the Spirit of God (2 Cor 5:5) and this is based on the bond between the risen Jesus Christ and the believer through the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:11). Paul's argument rests on the fact that it was the same Christ who died who was raised again and, if this is true, then the same will be so for those who die “in Christ” (1 Cor 15) (see Anderson, 1998: 190, 192-193). Thus, Paul's view seems to be that with the death of the body life disappears and then with the resurrection of the body, the life reappears. His ground for saying this is that it has already taken place on our behalf in the resurrection of Christ. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust so we will also bear the image of the man of heaven (1 Cor 15:47-49). Nevertheless, the question needs to be asked as to what we mean by embodiment after death and what the doctrine is asserting when the body as we know it is subject to corruption and decay. On this the Bible is silent.

Some modern perspectives

The modern debate with the neurosciences has centred around the question as to whether all those higher inner functions that we believe characterize our humanity are simply products of our physical being and nothing more. Advances in neuroscience have contributed a great deal to our understanding of how basic neurophysiological events translate into higher sensation, but the relationship between brain and mind remains largely mysterious. The immature state of scientific knowledge is, however, no excuse for theologians to avoid the implications of the ‘physicalist’ question, namely, that our bodies are all that there is.

One approach of theologians has been simply to maintain that the spiritual dimension means something more than the mind of the philosophers or the brain of the scientist, but this needs to be defended. It is accepted that when basic structures come together more complex possibilities emerge that cannot be reduced to the sum of the basic constituents or always predicted from them. Thus, the properties of life that emerge from a non-living system could not be inferred from the sum of the properties of the basic atoms that constitute living things. Included is the further idea that the emergent higher functions can exert causal effects on the lower levels, that is, that there can exist feedback loops between higher integrated functions and lower basic levels. When it comes to human personality and behaviour, one can add to this the influence of context, for example, social context (on such things as free will and decisions and behaviour in general) and we begin to see that the actions of complex systems can only be understood if you consider the system as a whole. From the theologian’s perspective I think this is in tune with biblical accounts and, furthermore, there is here, I think, a basis for bringing science and theology together in a way that avoids a conflict with reductive science.

The biblical account of what it means to be human does, I believe, recognize these complexities as discussed above. Both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament assert that human beings are embodied persons. Modern theologians have tried to answer the question in a number of ways. Jantzen (1984), for example, has questioned some of the assumptions as to the desirability of life after death. Thus, she draws attention to the importance of death as a limit that gives urgency to our choices in this life (p. 36) and the danger that belief in immortality might remove the impetus to get on and do what is right in the present. She also questions the morality of ideas that see life after death as a remedy for the evils present in this life or, on a personal level, as a reward for good living. Philosophically, she draws attention to fact that we are trying to reconcile the time-based process of our physical lives with the existence of a state of eternity which has no beginning and no end. She focusses instead on the idea that eternal life is a present possession, a quality of life in the present, not to be equated with endless survival (p 42) but with the quality of our relationship with God (John 5:24; John 17:3) and it is this rather than endless survival that is important for Christian belief.

Lash (1978: 279) emphasises the fact that our earthly lives change with time and raises the question as to what constitutes our identity in the complex ‘network of personal, family and social relationships of which I formed a part’. He objects to the idea that only the final instant of life, what we are at the moment of death, determines our eternal relationship with God (page 275). Rather he suggests that our finite historical life, as experienced from the unchanging and eternal standpoint of God, is participation in God’s eternity (page 281). This is an expression of a strand of 20th Century Christian theology which I feel is helpful, namely, the idea that life after death is seen as part of the life of God. Karl Barth (quoted by Lash 1978: 277), in referring to the life and death of Jesus, expresses the meaning of his resurrection not as a prolongation of his life which was terminated on the Cross but as ‘the appearance of his terminated existence in its participation in the sovereign life of God’. Tanner (see McGrath 2007: 681) suggests that ‘Despite the fact of human failing, faithlessness and death, we are alive in God’ and Pannenburg (1970 [1962]: 80) expresses it as follows:

The life that awakens in the resurrection of the dead is the same life we now lead on earth. However, it is our present life as God sees it from his eternal perspective.
The view expressed by these theologians, as I understand it, is that for us as individuals life after death is seen as being a part of the life of God. For Pannenburg (1970 [1962]: 74) the ‘truth of time lies beyond the self-centredness of our experience of past, present and future’. God stands outside the flow of time and everything that is past and future is for him present. Our life is part of this eternity that is God.

The process theologians such as Hartshorne have a different view of God as a temporal reality but one which undergoes continual change in the form of growth to an ever-fuller perfection (a very different view of God from that of the Judaeo-Christian tradition and not one that I am sure can be labelled Christian). They see life after death in terms of a man’s life being taken up into the divine memory where it forms a new synthesis (an idea borrowed Hegel) entering into all subsequent moments of divine consciousness (see Hick, 1976: 220).

I am of the view that a belief in life after death does constitute an essential part of the Christian Faith.  My own belief, as a Christian, is that we are important to God and that the lives we lead matter to God (Luke 12:22-34). I believe the concept of resurrection of the body, rather than the possession of an immortal soul, is important because it recognises that we are creatures and that our body is important for our personal identity, but it also provides a recognition that this identity will survive beyond death. Furthermore, it stresses that our continued existence in the presence of God is an act of God and not some immortal property of our earthly being. The Christian basis for this belief lies in the witness of the disciples as to their experience of the resurrected Christ (1 Cor.15:1-8) and to the subsequent experience of believers of the presence of the resurrected Christ in their lives (Rom 8:15-17).



Copyright © Stanley Pearson 2021. All rights reserved.