For some time now, I've been considering several ideas which are connected to each other in Christian theology.
The first idea I've been contemplating concerns whether or not human beings have souls/spirits apart from their physical bodies. We always act and speak as if they do. Even outside of religious circles, the general public frequently conceives of a human being as a body with some inner, alive essence which departs when someone passes away. The body is a shell; the soul is the creamy immortal filling.
Dualism is the official name of this concept, the dividing of the material world from the spiritual world. It comes in many forms and varies from belief system to belief system, but in essence results in dividing the world and it's experiences into two separate categories which are linked, but which exist separately.
Although this is the widely accepted view of most Christians, I have had my doubts about the basis for it. Many Christians assume that a human being is immortal, that their soul is imperishable. Where that immortal soul resides for all eternity is the single most important question of their faith. Heaven or Hell? Will we rest in God's presence or be tormented, forever apart from Him?
What is curious about this is that, biblically speaking, human beings are hardly ever spoken of in this way. In the Genesis narration, Adam and Eve are depicted as living in the Garden of Eden with two very special trees; the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Life. Of course, we know the story. They eat the forbidden fruit, are cursed and banished from the Garden.
In all my years of studying the Bible, following Christ, attending church..etc., I can't recall a single pastor or study addressing a very important part of the story and the whole motivation for removing Adam and Eve from the Garden...Genesis 3:22-24:
And the Lord GOD said, "The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat and live forever." So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. After he drove the man out, he placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.
A very simple reading of the text implies that man does not live forever. Not only does man not live forever, but God seems to be concerned that man might live forever in his now-corrupted state. Sending him away from the source of life is damage control. Without immortality, there will be a limit to the destructiveness unleashed by the young humans' choices.
This raises a few questions, if God is concerned that man might live forever and goes to extreme lengths to prevent him from living forever in his current state, why does Christian theology contain the doctrine of Hell? Hell would seem to be the very embodiment of what God is fighting against in Genesis; the eternal existence of people who are marred and stained by sin and evil. I plan to get into that a little more in another post.
The Old Testament says very little about an after-life. In fact the idea that the dead exist consciously in some other dimension can hardly be found in the entire Old Testament. The only example I can find of such a concept even being broached is when Saul asks a medium to contact Samuel, God's judge and prophet, who has died. Other than that, there seem to be no clear examples found in the Old Testament.
That is not to say that the Old testament does not use the word "soul" when speaking of humans. It is frequently used, but very often in combinations with other words to describe human nature, such as body, soul and spirit, or one's whole heart, mind and soul. It is a description of the consciousness of the human being, a representation of the entire total of a human's feeling, desires, and emotions. It is not usually used when discussing death and what happens afterward.
In contrast, an idea which is touched upon briefly in the Old Testament is resurrection. In the book of Daniel, after he has seen visions of the end of time, Daniel is left with this message from an angel:
Daniel 12:13As for you, go your way till the end. You will rest and then at the end of the days you will rise to receive your allotted inheritance.
The angel says nothing about Heaven, but only reassures Daniel of a future resurrection.
In the New Testament things become even more intriguing. If we read the New Testament with the belief that man has an immortal soul, we will assume that each time the term "eternal life" is used, it's referring to our existence in Heaven and possibly our eventual bodily resurrection. In that reading, eternal life=salvation=not being in Hell.
However, if we assume that man does not have an immortal soul already, then the Scriptures take on a different meaning. Eternal life means just that, physical life without end. Existence forever. This would also mean that those who do not have eternal life are no longer living in any sense of the word. Instead, they simply cease to be and do not continue on even in Hell. The term for this theory is annihilationalism. Once again, I'm coming back to that in a future post.
The term eternal life is used extensively, and almost exclusively in place of "salvation", by Jesus and usually tied to the physical resurrection of his followers.
John 6:38-40"For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life and I will raise him up at the last day."
Thinking about salvation in these terms impacts common interpretations familiar with most evangelical Christians. For instance, when speaking with Nicodemus in John 3, Jesus declares that no one could see the kingdom of God unless he was born again. Nicodemus takes the term literally, asking how a man can re-enter his mother's womb and Jesus says that a person must be born from above, born of the Spirit. At first glance this seems to work against the idea that Man is not both a material being and a spiritual being. Yet, If we think about what Jesus is saying in the context of man's mortality, it could be interpreted that God grants immortality to believers. They are being born again by being given another chance at eternal existence. He is birthing immortality into a perishable being.
Further on, in one of the most famous passages of Scripture, Jesus says:
John 3:13-17No one has ever gone into Heaven except for the one who came from Heaven--the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world but to save the world through him.
If eternal life is interpreted as everlasting physical existence, then perish means die. In every other context we use the word perish to portray a tragic death, not to portray a continual state of suffering. If I say my neighbor perished at sea, I am clearly saying they died at sea, not that they are still being tossed upon the foamy waves, conscious and suffering from hypothermia.
I have much more to delve into with regard to this. I hate to cut this short, so hopefully I'll get back to it in a few days.