Losing The Faith (3/22)

Confusion About Life After Death

The resurrection of the dead is the Christian’s trust – Tertullian.

Life After Death

Clement of Rome, at the end of the first century, wrote to the Corinthian ecclesia and speaks of the apostles Peter and Paul as having “departed to the place of glory” and “being removed from the world … into the holy place.” (Clement, First Epistle to Corinthians, iv). This bishop of the Roman ecclesia is thought to have been contemporary with the apostles; thus these sentiments, which clearly appear to support the immortality of the soul, are most disappointing.

In the same letter, however, he is eloquent when reminding his readers of the apostolic hope:

“There shall be a future resurrection, of which He has rendered the Lord Jesus Christ the first-fruits by raising him from the dead … Do we then deem it any great and wonderful thing for the Maker of all things to raise up again those that have piously served Him in the assurance of a good faith … Job says, ‘Thou shalt raise up this flesh of mine, which has suffered all these things.’ Having then this hope, let our souls be bound to Him who is faithful in His promises…” (Clement, First Epistle, xxiv, xxvi).

Polycarp (AD 65-155) writes of certain martyrs that, “they are now in their due place in the presence of the Lord” (Polycarp to the Philippians, ix.). Yet in the same epistle he affirms, “He who raised (Christ) up from the dead will raise up us also, if we do His will, and walk in His commandments…” (To the Philippians, ii).

The soul’s inherent immortality is a concept that is obviously not compatible with the true Christian hope, which is the promise of immortality. Apostolic teaching affirms that death is a sleep and that the change in nature from mortal to immortal follows a future resurrection (I Cor. 15:42-44). It seems remarkable that this plain and simple teaching of Scripture was so quickly compromised.

One possible answer to this inconsistency in some of the very early writings is that they underwent later editing, after the immortality of the soul had become widely accepted in the church. (Scholars recognize that this did occur in some instances. See The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Roberts and Donaldson, vol. I, p. 37). Men were (providentially) careful not to tamper with the writings of the apostles – the New Testament itself. But they would have been less reluctant to edit these later documents.

However, it is plain that there was confusion in the second century about the soul of man, and that this confusion led eventually to a false concept of immortality. Greek and Roman thought was so steeped in the idea that the soul of man is immortal that converts were predisposed to that view.

The Soul in Pagan Literature

Following are typical statements from the Greek and Roman philosophers:

“The soul is immortal, and is clothed successively in many bodies.” “The soul of man is immortal and imperishable” – Plato.

“All men’s souls are immortal, but the souls of the righteous are both immortal and divine” – Socrates.

“Whatever that be within us that feels, thinks, desires and animates is something celestial and divine, and consequently it is imperishable” – Aristotle.

“If I err in my belief that the souls of men are immortal, I gladly err, nor do I wish this error, in which I find delight, to be wrested from me” – Cicero.

“…Therefore look forward without fear to that appointed hour – the last hour of the body, but not of the soul” – Seneca.

Justin Martyr

Justin Martyr (AD 110-165) was a Gentile convert who had been educated in Greek philosophy. But in his dialogue with Trypho, a Jew, it appears that the immortality of the soul had not yet been formulated in Christian teaching. Justin declares: “For if you have fallen in with some who are called Christians … who say there is no resurrection of the dead, and that their souls, when they die, are taken to heaven; do not imagine that they are Christians” (Dialogue, ch. lxxx).

“Nor ought the soul to be called immortal; for if it is immortal, it is plainly unbegotten” (ch. v). But Justin does not go so far as to concede that the soul of man is unconscious in death.

“The souls of the pious remain in a better place, while those of the unjust and wicked are in a worse, waiting for the time of judgment.” Then, again confirming the soul’s mortality, he adds, “Thus some which have appeared worthy of God never die; but others are punished so long as God wills them to exist and to be punished” (Dialogue, ch. v).

While Justin understood that the soul of man is not immortal, he had moved from the New Testament position that both classes of believers await resurrection for their fate to be declared. The undermining of that simple truth would have a devastating effect upon the doctrines and practices of Christendom.

J Banta.

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