Immortality Reconsidered (pt III): Defining Death
We must now ask, what is a biblical understanding of death? The traditional Christian definition is that death is the separation of body and soul. Whilst this definition is not explicitly contained in the Bible, it can be strongly inferred from various passages on the destiny of the soul and verses like Genesis 35:18 or Ecclesiastes 12:7. Karl Rahner wrote that this description is “used in such a matter-of-fact way, from the earliest Fathers up to the catechism of Cardinal Gasparri, that we must consider and accept it as the classical theological description of death.”1
Such a definition is decidedly dualist. Death is the act of dichotomising the human being, separating that which was intimately joined throughout life. On the surface, this may not seem dissimilar from Hellenistic, non-Christian definitions, such as that of Epictetus who wrote, “Death is simply the separation of soul from body, with the physical matter returning whence it came.”2 However, there are significant differences. For one, this separation of body and soul is neither natural nor to be celebrated, but unnatural. In this regard it is wildly different from Plato’s negative attitude towards the body. For Plato, “The body is governed by sensation and by desire for pleasure (Resp. 1.328D; 2.380E) and since it is a contaminating impediment to the attainment of truth (Phaed. 66B), like a shell in which an oyster is imprisoned (Phaedr. 250C), it must be renounced and despised (Phaed. 65C, D).”3
According to the creation narratives, man was formed as a holistic entity of body and spirit, (Gen 1:26; 2:7) and the doctrine of the resurrection implies that this will be man’s eternal state. Paul teaches a dualistic, holistic anthropology, recognising that at death something of our nature and personality, presumably our soul, departs to be with Christ, (Phil 1:23) which is the opposite of remaining in the flesh, (Phil 1:22) but also that the ultimate goal is the reuniting of soul and body, (1 Thess 4:14-17) and the transformation of our body-soul union to be like that of Christ (Phil 3:21) – imperishable rather than perishable; (1 Cor 15:53-54) like a building rather than a tent; (2 Cor 5:1-5) no longer in weakness, but power (1 Cor 15:43). In contrast to Plato, Paul declares that this new state will not be like becoming naked, but being further clothed (1 Cor 5:2-3). The goal is not disembodiment, but re-embodiment in a transformed body.
As Rahner puts it:
If death as such an end, positively aimed at, were only a complete release from the body and a departure from the world, it would be impossible to see how the resurrection of the body could still be a desirable moment of positive consummation for man and for his personal, spiritual principle.4
Sentiments such as the following from Lactantius clearly owe more to Platonism than to Christian theology:
When a separation shall have been made between the body and the soul, then evil will be disunited from good; and as the body perishes and the soul remains, so evil will perish and good be permanent. Then man, having received the garment of immortality, will be wise and free from evil, as God is.5
That the separation of soul and body at death is a departure from what man was created to be suggests that death is unnatural. Whilst it is possible for body and soul to be separated, they are not intended to be. At the point of death, man does not cease to be human. Paul still uses personal pronouns to describe the disincarnate state (2 Cor 5:1-10; 2 Cor 12:1-5; Phil 1:22-23). But until we are resurrected as whole persons, salvation is incomplete (Rom 8:23).
In this definition of death, both dualism and holism are held tightly together. Dualism forces us to take seriously both the unseen and the biological aspects of death, whilst holism reminds us that apart, neither body nor soul enjoys the intended fullness. Rahner is correct that “death is an event which strikes man in his totality […] death consequently, must possesses for him a personal and a natural aspect.”6 We must resist definitions of death and immortality that do not treat the being as a holistic entity, and we must not allow a Platonic preference for the superiority of the soul to distort our view of man’s nature or future beyond death.
A common objection to dualism is that it limits death to the body. As Reichenbach puts it, “since the soul is not subject to death, no individual person ever dies.”7 However, this assumes that the experience of death looks identical for each part of a man, and that death means ‘ceasing to exist’, but if death means the unnatural separation of the mortal body and immortal soul, the objection holds no weight. Death as separation is experienced by the whole person, just as the consummation – the reuniting of body and soul and the whole being made imperishable – is experienced by the whole person.
1. Rahner, On the Theology of Death (1961), p. 24.
2. Epictetus, Discourses 3.10.13-16; 4.7.15 quoted in Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God(2003), p. 53.
3. Harris, Raised Immortal (1983), p. 202.
4. Rahner, On the Theology of Death, (1961), p. 33-34.
5. Lactantius, The Divine Institutes, 5.25. For further examples, see Allison, Historical Theology(2011), p. 322-327.
6. Rahner, On the Theology of Death (1961), p. 21.
7. Reichenbach, Is Man the Phoenix?, p. 52, cited in Cooper, Body, Soul and Life Everlasting(2000), p. 194.