The Good News in the Bible
|The Resurrection of the Body and the Christian View of Immortality
Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D.,
The belief in conscious life after death is spreading today like wildfire. Such a popular belief derives from a dualistic understanding of the make up of human nature. Historically, the vast majority of Christians have believed and still believe today that human nature is dualistic, consisting of a material, mortal body, and an immaterial, immortal soul. At death, the soul allegedly detaches herself from the body and survives in a disembodied state, either in the bliss of Paradise or in the torment of Hell. This means that the first step in analyzing from a Biblical perspective the popular belief in conscious disembodied life after death, is to study what does the Bible teaches us regarding the make up of human nature. This will be the focus of our attention for in the next two essays.
Until recently only a handful of churches have been teaching and preaching that human nature is wholistic, consisting of an indivisible being where body, soul, and spirit, are only characteristics of the same person. The soul is the animating principle of the body, which is manifested in the conscious, thinking, living aspect of a person. At death, the body and soul do not come apart at death, but simply cease to exist and rest unconsciously in the grave until the resurrection. At that time the total mortal person will be resurrected either to eternal life or eternal death.
Catholics and Protestants have historically rejected the wholistic view of human nature and label as "sectarian" the few churches that held such view. But I am pleased to report to you that a radical change has occurred during the past 50 years in the thinking of the scholarly community. Leading Catholic and Protestant scholars have reexamined the Biblical view of human nature and the have concluded that in the Bible there is no dichotomy between a mortal body and an immortal soul that "comes apart" at death. Both body and soul are an indivisible unity that ceases to exist at death until the resurrection. In short, the verdict of modern scholarship is that the Adventist wholistic view is Biblical while the popular dualistic view in unbiblical, derived from Platonic dualism rather than from Scripture.
These developments have raised serious concerns on the part of those who find their traditional dualistic understanding of human nature severely challenged and undermined.In fact, some evangelical leaders have reacted very strongly, adopting in some cases tactics of harassment. Oscar Cullmann, a renowned Swiss theologian, for example, found himself bitterly attacked by many who strongly objected to his book Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead?I He wrote: "No other publication of mine has provoked such enthusiasm or such violent hostility." In fact, the criticism became so intense and so many took offense at his statements that he deliberately decided to keep silent for a time. I should add that Cullmann was not impressed by the attacks against his book because he claims they were based not on exegetical arguments, but on emotional, psychological, and sentimental considerations.
Respected Canadian theologian Clark Pinnock mentions some of the "tactics of harassment" used to discredit those evangelical scholars who have abandoned the traditional dualistic view of human nature and its related doctrine of eternal torment in a fiery hell. One of the tactics has been to associate such scholars with liberals or sectarians like the Adventists. Pinnock writes: "It seems that a new criterion for truth has been discovered which says that if Adventists or liberals hold any view, that view must be wrong. Apparently a truth claim can be decided by its association and does not need to be tested by public criteria in open debate. Such an argument, though useless in intelligent discussion, can be effective with the ignorant who are fooled by such rhetoric."
Despite the tactics of harassment, the Biblical wholistic view of human nature which negates the natural immortality of the soul and, consequently, the eternal torment of the unsaved in hell, is gaining ground among evangelicals. Its public endorsement by John R. W. Stott, a highly respected British theologian and popular preacher, is certainly encouraging the trend. "In a delicious piece of irony," writes Pinnock, "this is creating a measure of accreditation by association, countering the same tactics used against it. It has become all but impossible to claim that only heretics and near-heretics [like the Seventh-day Adventists] hold the position, though I am sure some will dismiss Stott's orthodoxy precisely on this ground."
Stott himself expresses anxiety over the divisive consequences of his new views in the evangelical community where he is a renowned leader. He writes: "I am hesitant to have written these things, partly because I have great respect for longstanding tradition which claims to be a true interpretation of Scripture, and do not lightly set it aside, and partly because the unity of the worldwide evangelical community has always meant much to me. But the issue is too important to be suppressed, and I am grateful to you (David Edwards) for challenging me to declare my present mind. I do not dogmatize about the position to which I have come. I hold it tentatively. But I do plead for frank dialogue among evangelicals on the basis of Scripture."
Stott's plea for a "frank dialogue among evangelicals on the basis of Scripture" may be very difficult if not impossible, to realize. The reason is simple. Evangelicals are conditioned by their denominational traditional teachings, just as much as the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. In theory, they appeal to Sola Scriptura, but in practice, Evangelicals often interpret Scripture in accordance with their traditional denominational teachings. If new Biblical research challenges traditional doctrines, in most cases, Evangelical churches will choose to stand for tradition rather than for Sola Scriptura. The real difference between Evangelicals and Roman Catholics is that Catholic are up front about the normative authority of their ecclesiastical tradition, while Evangelical churches are not.
To be an "Evangelical" means to uphold certain fundamental traditional doctrines without questioning. Anyone who dares to question the Biblical validity of a traditional doctrine can become suspect as a "heretic." In a major conference held in 1989 to discuss what it means to be an evangelical, serious questions were raised as to whether such persons like John Stott or Philip Hughes should be considered evangelical, since they had adopted the view of conditional immortality and the annihilation of the unsaved. The vote to exclude such theologians failed only narrowly.
Why evangelicals are so adamant in refusing to reconsider the Biblical teachings on human nature and destiny? After all, they have taken the liberty of changing other old traditional teachings. Perhaps one reason for their insistence on holding to the dualistic view is that it impacts on so many other doctrines. We noted earlier that what Christians believe about the make-up of human nature largely determines what they believe about human destiny. To abandon dualism, also entails abandoning a whole cluster of doctrines resulting from it, especially the cherished belief of conscious life after death. This may be called "the domino effect." If one doctrine falls, several others fall as well.
To help the members of our list to appreciate the importance of a correct understanding of the Biblical view of human nature, in this first essay we wish to briefly compare and contrast the practical and doctrinal implications of the dualistic and wholistic view of human nature.
Practical Implications of Dualism versus Wholism
Dualistic View of Life. Christians who hold to the dualistic view of human nature conceptualize the present life dualistically. They view the spiritual life of the soul as more important than the physical life of the body. Historically, this dualistic view has envisioned the saints as persons who devote themselves primarily to vita contemplative (contemplative life), detaching themselves from the vita activa (secular life). Since cultivating the soul has been seen as more important than caring for the body, the physical wellbeing of the body often intentionally has been ignored or even suppressed.
I witnessed this dualistic mentality during the five years I spent at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Italy. Often I would see some of my classmates, mostly Catholic monks and priests from all over the world, first going to the chapel to cultivate their soul through prayer and meditation, and then going to the bar at the end of the hallway to intoxicate their bodies by partaking of alcoholic beverages and smoking cigarettes. They saw no conflict between the two activities, because, according to their dualistic mentality, what they did to their bodies did not affect the salvation of their souls.
The same dualistic mentality prevails today in the Protestant world where redemption is largely associated with the salvation of the soul, rather than the caring of the body. Many Christians are guilty of divorcing the human body from its soul by making salvation an internal experience of the soul rather than a total transformation of the whole person.
The comment I constantly hear on the various discussion groups where I have been sharing what the Bible teaches about lifestyle issues like Sabbath keeping, dress and adornment, use of alcoholic beverages, marriage, pre or extra marital relationships, runs something like this: "You are majoring on minors! This is not the Gospel. Salvation has to do with accepting and professing Christ as your personal Savior and not with lifestyle issues" Such comments reflect a dualistic mentality. As long as people accept Christ with the mind, what we do with their bodies does not really matters.
Wholistic View of Life. This dualistic mentality is openly contradicted by the Bible which teaches us to glorify God not only with our mind but also with our body, because our body is "a temple of the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor 6:19) to be presented as "a living sacrifice" to God (Rom 12:1). As Adventist we have long recognized and emphasized that the way we treat our bodies reflects the spiritual condition of our souls, because our bodies and souls are one. If we pollute our bodies with tobacco, drugs, unhealthy foods or intemperate lifestyle, we cause not only the physical pollution of our bodies, but also the spiritual pollution of our souls.
The challenge that Christians who hold to the Biblical wholistic view face today, is to integrate such a view more fully in their teaching, preaching, educational, and medical programs.
The Biblical wholistic view of human nature challenges us to be concerned about the whole person. This means that in our preaching and teaching, we must meet not only the spiritual needs of the soul but also the physical needs of the body. We need to teach people not only how to cultivate their spiritual life but also how to care for their physical bodies.
Gospel gives us no basis for a doctrine of redemption which saves the souls apart from the bodies to which they belong. The Gospel commission is not to save souls but whole persons. What God has joined together at creation and redeemed at the Cross, no Christian has the right to put apart.
In Christian education Biblical wholism means that we should aim at the development of the mental, physical, and spiritual aspects of life. A good physical-education program should be considered as important as its academic and religious programs.
In medicine Biblical wholism means that physicians must treat the whole person, including physical, emotional, spiritual, nutritional condition of the patient. Biblical wholism challenges us also to serve the world and not to avoid it.
Doctrinal Implications of Dualism. The doctrinal implications of the dualistic view of human nature are even more alarming. A host of heresies that are plaguing the Christian world today derive from dualism. For example, dualism has given rise to the popular deception of conscious life after death that is spreading today like wildfire, a deception that is promoted effectively by the channeling craze of the New Age movement and research into near-death experiences. The latter in turn has fostered such beliefs as the intercession of the saints, the praying for the dead, indulgences, Purgatory, the reattachment of the soul to the body at the resurrection, the eternal torment in Hell, an ethereal view of Paradise where glorified souls will spend eternity in everlasting contemplation and meditation.
It is impossible for us to estimate the negative impact of these deceptive beliefs on the Christian faith and practice . For one thing these beliefs have weakened and obscured the expectation of the Second Advent. If at death the soul of the believer goes up immediately to the beatitude of Paradise to be with the Lord, there can hardly be any real sense of expectation for Christ to come down to resurrect the sleeping saints. The primary concern of these Christians is to go up to heaven to meet Christ immediately at death, albeit as a disembodied souls, rather than to prepare themselves and others to meet Christ when He comes down to this earth at His Return.
In the Bible the advent Hope is not "a pie in the sky for disembodies souls when their bodies die" but a real meeting upon this earth between embodied believers and Christ on the glorious day of His Return. Out of that real meeting will come a radical transformation affecting humanity and nature. This great expectation is obscured by the belief in individual immortality and heavenly bliss immediately after death.
Dualism has fostered also misconceptions about the world to come. Most Christians believe that paradise is a spiritual retreat center somewhere up in space, where glorified souls will spend eternity in everlasting contemplation and meditation,. As a popular hymn puts it: "In mansion of glory and endless delight I will ever adore Thee in heaven so bright."
This ethereal vision of the world to come been inspired more by Platonic dualism than by Biblical realism. The Biblical vision of the world to come is not a spiritual heavenly retreat inhabited by glorified souls, but this physical earthly planet populated by resurrected saints (Is 66:22; Rev 21:1). In Scripture Christ comes the second time not to help the saint escape from this planet, but to transform this earth to its original perfection. Yes, the world to come is a real world, inhabited not by disembodied souls, but by resurrected bodies, that is, real people like you and me.
Doctrinal Implications of Wholism. The Biblical wholistic view of human nature presupposes a cosmic view of redemption that encompasses the body and the soul, the material and the spiritual world. The separation between body and soul or spirit has often paralleled the division between the realm of creation and the realm of redemption. The latter has been associated to a large extent in both Catholicism and Protestantism with the salvation of individual souls at the expense of the physical and cosmic dimensions of redemption. The saints often are portrayed as pilgrims who live on earth but detached from the world and whose souls at death immediately leave their material bodies to ascend to an abstract place called "heaven." This view reflects classical dualism but fails, as we shall see during the course of this study, to represent the wholistic Biblical view of the human and subhuman creation.
We noted that traditional dualism has produced an attitude of contempt toward the body and the natural world. This other-worldliness reflected in such hymns as "This World Is Not My Home," "I'm a stranger here, Heaven is my home; Earth is a desert drear, Heaven is my home." Such an attitude of disdain toward our planet is absent from the Psalms, the Hebrew hymnal, where the central theme is the praise of God for His magnificent works. In Psalm 139:14, David says: "I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvelous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth very well." Here the Psalmist praises God for his wonderful body, a fact well known to his soul (mind). This is a good example of wholistic thinking, where body and soul are part of God's marvelous creation.
In Psalm 92, the Psalmist urges one to praise God with musical instruments, because, he says, "Thou, O Lord, hast made me glad by thy work; at the work of thy hands I sing for joy. How great are thy works, O Lord!" (Ps 92:4-5). The Psalmist's rejoicing over his wonderful body and marvelous creation is based upon his wholistic conception of the created world as an integral part of the whole drama of creation and redemption.
The Biblical wholistic view of human nature also impacts on our view of the world to come. In a forthcoming essay we will see that the Bible does not envision the world to come as an ethereal paradise where glorified souls will spend eternity wearing white robes, singing, plucking harps, praying, chasing clouds, and drinking milk of ambrosia. Instead, the Bible speaks of the resurrected saints inhabiting this planet earth, which will be purified, transformed, and perfected at and through the coming of the Lord (2 Pet 3:11-13; Rom 8:19-25; Rev 21:1). The "new heavens and a new earth" (Is 65:17) are not a remote and inconsequential spiritual retreat somewhere off in space; rather, they are the present heaven and earth renewed to their original perfection.
Believers enter the new earth not as disembodied souls but as resurrected bodily persons (Rev 20:4; John 5:28-29; 1 Thess 4:14-17). Though nothing unclean shall enter the New Jerusalem, we are told that "the kings of the earth shall bring their glory into it, . . . they shall bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations" (Rev 21:24, 26). These verses suggest that everything of real value in the old heaven and earth, including the achievements of man's inventive, artistic, and intellectual prowess, will find a place in the eternal order. The very image of "the city" conveys the idea of activity, vitality, creativity, and real relationships.
It is regrettable that this fundamentally concrete, earthly view of God's new world portrayed in the Scripture has largely been lost and replaced in popular piety with an ethereal, spiritualized concept of heaven. The latter has been influenced by Platonic dualism rather than by Biblical realism.
Conclusion. Historically, two major, radically different views of human nature have been held. One is designated as classical dualism and the other as Biblical wholism. The dualistic view maintains that human nature consists of a material, mortal body and a spiritual, immortal soul. The latter survives the death of the body and transits to heaven, or purgatory, or hell. At the resurrection, the soul is reunited with the body. This dualistic conception has had an enormous impact on Christian life and thought, affecting people's view of human life, this present world, redemption, and the world to come.
In recent times the dualistic view of human nature has come under attack from scholars who have re-examined the Biblical view of the body, soul, and spirit. They have concluded that the Biblical view of human nature is not dualistic at all; it is clearly wholistic. Many voices from different directions are affirming today that dualism is out and wholism is in.
This brief report on the ongoing debate over the Biblical view of human nature has shown the fundamental importance of this subject for the whole structure of Christian beliefs and practices. It is imperative, therefore, for us to diligently examine what the Bible actually teaches on this vital subject. This we intend to do beginning with the next essay "THE BIBLICAL VIEW OF HUMAN NATURE," where we will attempt to define human nature from the perspective of creation, the Fall, and redemption. Christian regards