The Idea Enters Judaism, Christendom, and Islam
“Religion is among other things a way of reconciling people to the fact that some day they must die, whether by the promise of a better life beyond the grave, rebirth, or both.”—GERHARD HERM, GERMAN AUTHOR.
1. Most religions base their promise of life after death on what basic belief?
IN MAKING a promise of an afterlife, virtually every religion depends on the belief that a human has a soul that is immortal and that upon death journeys to another realm or transmigrates to another creature. As noted in the preceding section, the belief in human immortality has been an integral part of Eastern religions from their inception. But what about Judaism, Christendom, and Islam? How did the teaching become central to these faiths?
Judaism Absorbs Greek Concepts
2, 3. According to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, did the sacred Hebrew writings teach the immortality of the soul?
2 The roots of Judaism go back some 4,000 years to Abraham. The sacred Hebrew writings began to be written in the 16th century B.C.E. and were completed by the time Socrates and Plato gave shape to the theory of the immortality of the soul. Did these Scriptures teach the immortality of the soul?
3 Answers the Encyclopaedia Judaica: “Only in the post-biblical period, did a clear and firm belief in the immortality of the soul take hold . . . and become one of the cornerstones of the Jewish and Christian faiths.” It also states: “The personality was considered as a whole in the biblical period. Thus the soul was not sharply distinguished from the body.” The early Jews believed in the resurrection of the dead, and this “is to be distinguished from the belief in . . . the immortality of the soul,” points out that encyclopedia.
4-6. How did the doctrine of the immortality of the soul become “one of the cornerstones” of Judaism?
4 How, then, did the doctrine become “one of the cornerstones” of Judaism? History provides the answer. In 332 B.C.E., Alexander the Great took much of the Middle East in lightning-quick conquest. Upon his arrival in Jerusalem, the Jews welcomed him with open arms. According to first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, they even showed him the prophecy from the book of Daniel, written over 200 years earlier, that clearly described Alexander’s conquests in the role of “the king of Greece.” (Daniel 8:5-8, 21) Alexander’s successors continued his plan of Hellenization, imbuing all parts of the empire with Greek language, culture, and philosophy. A blending of the two cultures—the Greek and the Jewish—was inevitable.
5 Early in the third century B.C.E., the first translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, called the Septuagint, was begun. Through it many Gentiles came to have respect for and familiarity with the Jewish religion, some even converting. Jews, on the other hand, were becoming conversant with Greek thought, and some became philosophers, something entirely new to them. Philo of Alexandria, of the first century C.E., was one such Jewish philosopher.
6 Philo revered Plato and endeavored to explain Judaism in terms of Greek philosophy. “By creating a unique synthesis of Platonic philosophy and biblical tradition,” says the book Heaven—A History, “Philo paved the way for later Christian [as well as Jewish] thinkers.” And what was Philo’s belief about the soul? The book continues: “For him, death restores the soul to its original, pre-birth state. Since the soul belongs to the spiritual world, life in the body becomes nothing but a brief, often unfortunate, episode.” Other Jewish thinkers who believed in the immortality of the soul include Isaac Israeli, the well-known 10th-century Jewish physician, and Moses Mendelssohn, a German-Jewish philosopher of the 18th century.
7, 8. (a) How does the Talmud depict the soul? (b) What does later Jewish mystical literature say about the soul?
7 A book that has also deeply influenced Jewish thought and life is the Talmud—the written summary of the so-called oral law, with later commentaries and explanations of this law, compiled by rabbis from the second century C.E. into the Middle Ages. “The rabbis of the Talmud,” says the Encyclopaedia Judaica, “believed in the continued existence of the soul after death.” The Talmud even speaks of the dead contacting the living. “Probably on account of the influence of Platonism,” says the Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics, “[rabbis] believed in the pre-existence of souls.”
8 Later Jewish mystical literature, the Cabala, even goes as far as to teach reincarnation. Regarding this belief, The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia states: “The idea seems to have originated in India. . . . In Kabbalah it first emerges in the book Bahir, and then, from the Zohar onward, was commonly accepted by mystics, playing an important role in Hasidic belief and literature.” In Israel today, reincarnation is widely accepted as a Jewish teaching.
9. What is the stance of most factions of today’s Judaism as to the immortality of the soul?
9 The idea of the immortality of the soul, therefore, entered Judaism through the influence of Greek philosophy, and the concept is today accepted by most of its factions. What can be said about the entry of the teaching into Christendom?
Christendom Adopts Plato’s Thoughts
10. What did a prominent Spanish scholar conclude regarding Jesus’ belief in the immortality of the soul?
10 Genuine Christianity began with Christ Jesus. Concerning Jesus, Miguel de Unamuno, a prominent 20th-century Spanish scholar, wrote: “He believed rather in the resurrection of the flesh, according to the Jewish manner, not in the immortality of the soul, according to the [Greek] Platonic manner. . . . The proofs of this can be seen in any honest book of interpretation.” He concluded: “The immortality of the soul . . . is a pagan philosophical dogma.”
11. When did Greek philosophy begin making inroads into Christianity?
11 When and how did this “pagan philosophical dogma” infiltrate Christianity? The New Encyclopædia Britannica points out: “From the middle of the 2nd century AD Christians who had some training in Greek philosophy began to feel the need to express their faith in its terms, both for their own intellectual satisfaction and in order to convert educated pagans. The philosophy that suited them best was Platonism.”
12-14. What roles did Origen and Augustine play in fusing Platonic philosophy with Christianity?
12 Two such early philosophers wielded a great deal of influence on Christendom’s doctrines. One was Origen of Alexandria (c. 185-254 C.E.), and the other, Augustine of Hippo (354-430 C.E.). Regarding them, the New Catholic Encyclopedia states: “Only with Origen in the East and St. Augustine in the West was the soul established as a spiritual substance and a philosophical concept formed of its nature.” On what basis did Origen and Augustine form their concepts about the soul?
13 Origen was a pupil of Clement of Alexandria, who was “the first of the Fathers explicitly to borrow from the Greek tradition on the soul,” says the New Catholic Encyclopedia. Plato’s ideas about the soul must have influenced Origen deeply. “[Origen] built into Christian doctrine the whole cosmic drama of the soul, which he took from Plato,” noted theologian Werner Jaeger in The Harvard Theological Review.
14 Augustine is viewed by some in Christendom as the greatest thinker of antiquity. Before converting to “Christianity” at the age of 33, Augustine had intense interest in philosophy and had become a Neoplatonist.* Upon his conversion, he remained Neoplatonic in his thinking. “His mind was the crucible in which the religion of the New Testament was most completely fused with the Platonic tradition of Greek philosophy,” says The New Encyclopædia Britannica. The New Catholic Encyclopedia admits that Augustine’s “doctrine [of the soul], which became standard in the West until the late 12th century, owed much . . . to Neoplatonism.”
15, 16. Did 13th-century interest in Aristotle’s teachings alter the stance of the church on the teaching of the immortality of the soul?
15 In the 13th century, the teachings of Aristotle were gaining in popularity in Europe, largely because of the availability in Latin of the works of Arab scholars who had commented extensively on Aristotle’s writings. A Catholic scholar named Thomas Aquinas was deeply impressed by Aristotelian thinking. Because of Aquinas’ writings, Aristotle’s views wielded a greater influence on the church’s teaching than Plato’s did. This trend, however, did not affect the teaching about the immortality of the soul.
16 Aristotle taught that the soul was inseparably connected with the body and did not continue individual existence after death and that if anything eternal existed in man, it was abstract, nonpersonal intellect. This way of looking at the soul was not in harmony with the church’s belief of personal souls surviving death. Therefore, Aquinas modified Aristotle’s view of the soul, asserting that the immortality of the soul can be proved by reason. Thus, the belief of the church in the immortality of the soul remained intact.
17, 18. (a) Did the Reformation of the 16th century introduce a reform in the teaching about the soul? (b) What is the position of most denominations of Christendom on the immortality of the soul?
17 During the 14th and 15th centuries, the early part of the Renaissance, there was a revival of interest in Plato. The famous Medici family in Italy even helped establish an academy in Florence to promote the study of Plato’s philosophy. During the 16th and 17th centuries, interest in Aristotle waned. And the Reformation of the 16th century did not introduce a reform in the teaching about the soul. Although Protestant Reformers took issue with the teaching of purgatory, they accepted the idea of eternal punishment or reward.
18 The teaching of the immortality of the soul thus prevails in most denominations of Christendom. Noting this, an American scholar wrote: “Religion, in fact, for the great majority of our own race, means immortality, and nothing else. God is the producer of immortality.”
Immortality and Islam
19. When was Islam founded, and by whom?
19 Islam began with Muḥammad’s call to be a prophet when he was about 40 years old. It is generally believed by Muslims that revelations came to him during a period of some 20 to 23 years, from about 610 C.E. to his death in 632 C.E. These revelations are recorded in the Koran, the Muslim holy book. By the time Islam came into existence, Judaism and Christendom were infiltrated with the Platonic concept of the soul.
20, 21. What do Muslims believe about the Hereafter?
20 Muslims believe that their faith is the culmination of the revelations given to the faithful Hebrews and Christians of old. The Koran cites both the Hebrew and the Greek Scriptures. But on the teaching of the immortality of the soul, the Koran diverges from these writings. The Koran teaches that man has a soul that goes on living after death. It also speaks of resurrection of the dead, a judgment day, and the final destiny of the soul—either life in a heavenly garden of paradise or punishment in a burning hell.
21 Muslims hold that a dead person’s soul goes to the Barzakh, or “Partition,” “the place or state in which people will be after death and before Judgment.” (Surah 23:99, 100, The Holy Qur-an, footnote) The soul is conscious, there experiencing what is termed the “Chastisement of the Tomb” if the person had been wicked or enjoying happiness if he had been faithful. But the faithful ones must also experience some torment because of their few sins committed while alive. On the judgment day, each faces his eternal destiny, which ends that intermediate state.
22. What differing theories regarding the soul’s destiny did some Arab philosophers present?
22 The idea of the immortality of the soul in Judaism and Christendom appeared because of Platonic influence, but the concept was built into Islam from its beginning. This is not to say that Arab scholars have not tried to synthesize Islamic teachings and Greek philosophy. The Arab world, in fact, was greatly influenced by Aristotle’s work. And noted Arab scholars, such as Avicenna and Averroës, expounded and built on Aristotelian thinking. In their attempts to harmonize Greek thought with the Muslim teaching about the soul, however, they came up with differing theories. For example, Avicenna declared that the personal soul is immortal. Averroës, on the other hand, argued against that view. Regardless of these viewpoints, the immortality of the soul remains the belief of Muslims.
23. Where do Judaism, Christendom, and Islam stand on the issue of the immortality of the soul?
23 Clearly, then, Judaism, Christendom, and Islam all teach the doctrine of the immortality of the soul.
An adherent of Neoplatonism, a new version of Plato’s philosophy developed by Plotinus in third-century Rome.
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The conquest by Alexander the Great led to the blending of the Greek and the Jewish cultures
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Origen, top, and Augustine tried to fuse Platonic philosophy with Christianity
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Avicenna, top, declared that the personal soul is immortal. Averroës argued against that view