Immortality Reconsidered (pt I)

There are some aspects of theology I may never have cause to engage with on a personal level. The question of death ain’t one of them.

Humans die. Unless you’ve lived under a rock for most of your life, and your first foray into the real world happened to include stumbling across this blog (in which case welcome… we’ve got some things to talk about!) I’m sure you will have spotted that fact. Hence, questions about anthropology and personal eschatology have featured prominently in Christian thinking across the ages, since no theologian can personally evade the practical implications of the doctrines.

In previous generations it was taken as read that the immortality of the soul was a central tenet of Christian doctrine; whilst the body was subject to corruption, the soul was imperishable. However, by the 1930s, many were disinclined to believe in a ‘soul’ altogether, and by 1972, Krister Stendahl could write ‘An increasing number of men and women are less and less concerned about the immortality of the soul, especially their own.’1

In the twentieth century, many theologians (rightly, I think) emphasised the doctrine of bodily resurrection, but some protested that resurrection was firmly opposed to the more Platonic view of the soul’s immortality, and wanted to do away with it wholesale.

In this series of posts, I want to offer some thoughts about the questions of immortality and resurrection. Are they opposed to one another? Are they mutually contradictory? What is the biblical view? And how does this fit with the way we think about human origins and Genesis 1-3?

To put the question succinctly: Was man created immortal?

My reason for thinking about this is three-fold:

First: As a preacher I’ve become aware how easily stock phrases roll off my tongue when I’m trying to summarise key aspects of the Christian gospel. Phrases like: “God made man to live eternally, but he ate the fruit and gave up eternal life.” This kind of glib summary raises all sorts of questions. I may know what I mean by those sorts of phrases, but of course the point of preaching is not that I know what I mean, but that they know what I mean! (Or perhaps more accurately, we know what He means!)

Second: I realised that my thinking about the fall focussed a great deal on the Tree of Knowledge and very little on the Tree of Life. Yet both hold an equally central place in the Creation narrative (Gen 1-3) and only the Tree of Life has a place in the New Creation narratives (eg. Rev 2 and 22). So I felt there was a balance to be redressed.

Third: as I thought more about human origins, creation and evolution, I realised I needed a more robust understanding of death and immortality to go alongside it. (To use Andrew Wilson’s 10 models, my journey on this started years ago with me being a 1 or 2, before moving towards a 4 and now currently sitting somewhere around 7-9). Clearly questions about the method of man’s creation lead onto questions about the nature of his created being.

So those are the kinds of things I want to write about for the next few posts, but feel free to kick us off with some comments… Gut reactions. What do you think? Was man created immortal? And what kind of questions or issues do you foresee arising along the way?

Footnotes

  • 1. Stendahl, Meanings: The Bible as Document and as Guide (1984), p. 198.
Two Trees #5 by Simon Marussi

Two Trees #5 by Simon Marussi

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