Losing The Faith (4/22)

The Hope of Resurrection

The early Christian writers made efforts to reconcile the hope of resurrection with their preconceived notion about the soul. They often explained it this way: the soul at death departs to a place where it remains until the resurrection and judgment. The souls of the righteous are deemed to be resting in a state of blessedness; those of the wicked are already suffering punishment. Both are in Hades, the place of the dead. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is often cited. Typical examples are Tertullian’s comments in A Treatise on the Soul, liv, lv; On the Resurrection of the Flesh, xvii.

The importance of a clear understanding of the parables of Christ is evident as we review this rapid departure from the principles of truth. In the case of “the rich man and Lazarus,” Tertullian overlooks the fact that the account is a parable, and that it is speaking of bodies, not “souls.”

Some Right Thinking

A correct understanding of the nature of man is set forth in the writings of Theophilus of Antioch (c. AD 168).

“But some one will say to us, ‘Was man made by nature mortal?’ certainly not. Was he then immortal: Neither do we affirm this. He was by nature neither mortal nor immortal. For if He (God) had made him immortal from the beginning, He would have made him God. Again, if He had made him mortal, God would seem to be the cause of his death. Neither, then, immortal nor yet mortal did He make him, but as we have said above, capable of both; so that if he should incline to the things of immortality, keeping the commandment of God, he should receive as a reward from Him immortality; but if, on the other hand, he should turn to the things of death, disobeying God, he should himself be the cause of death to himself. That, then, which man brought upon himself [i.e. death] through carelessness and disobedience, this God now vouchsafes to him as a gift through His own philanthropy and pity, when men obey him. For a man, disobeying, drew death upon himself; so, obeying the will of God, he who desires is able to procure for himself life everlasting. For God has given us a law and holy commandments; and everyone who keeps these can be saved, and, obtaining the resurrection, can inherit incorruption” (Theophilus to Autolycus, Book II, ch. xxvii).

The Third Century

Tertullian (AD 145-220) writes of “Gehenna, which is a reservoir of secret fire under the earth for the purpose of punishment” and of “Paradise, the place of heavenly bliss appointed to receive the spirits of the saints” (Apology, ch. xlvii). In the word “paradise” he does not mean heaven itself, for he also writes: “How, indeed, shall the soul mount up to heaven, where Christ is already sitting at the Father’s right hand, when as yet the archangel’s trumpet has not been heard by the command of God … every soul is detained in safekeeping in Hades until the day of the Lord” (Treatise on the Soul, lv).

Origen (AD 185-254), a master of the Catechetical School in Alexandria, educated in Grecian literature, displays many ideas that are not scriptural. But his understanding of human nature retains some sense of the truth. He acknowledges that “there are souls in all living things” (De Principis, Book II, viii); and he writes, “We who believe in the resurrection (of the body), understand that a change only has been produced by death, but that its substance certainly remains; and that by the will of its Creator, and at the time appointed, it will be restored to life … will be again raised from the earth, and shall after this, according to the merits of the indwelling soul, advance to the glory of a spiritual body” (De Principis, Book III, vi, 5).

At the end of the century (about AD 300) Arnobius writes of immortality as “God’s gift” and that “He will deign to confer eternal life.” And, “None can grant to them a spirit which shall never die, except He who alone is immortal and everlasting” (Against the Heathens, Book II, 36 and 62).

The Fourth Century

But the Christian writers of the fourth century have fully accepted that the soul of man is immortal. They “prove” their point as much from the witness of pagan literature as from their (incorrect) application of Scripture. Lactantius (AD 260-330) (who believed in the coming millennial reign of Christ on earth, by the way) quotes Apollo of Miletus: “… after the wasting of the body, it (the soul) is altogether borne unto the air, never growing old, and it remains always uninjured …”

He says the Stoics taught: “… that the souls of men continue to exist, and are not annihilated by the intervention of death; that the souls, moreover, of those who have been just, being pure and incapable of suffering, and happy, return to the heavenly abodes from which they had their origin, or are borne to some happy plains, where they may enjoy wonderful pleasures; but that (the souls of) the wicked … though they cannot altogether be extinguished, inasmuch as they are from God, nevertheless become liable to torment …” To which the “Christian father” attests, “These things are near to the truth” (The Divine Institutes, Book VII, ch. xx).

The “unleavened bread of sincerity and truth,” commended to believers by Paul the apostle, became a rare commodity within a few years after the Acts. Human philosophy, especially in its teaching of the innate immortality of man, was a leaven that would corrupt the “whole lump.” That fallacy would be the first of several key elements that would subvert the gospel message.

J Banta.

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