A Theological Dilemma
“THE idea of the immortality of the soul and faith in the resurrection of the dead . . . are two concepts on completely different planes, between which a choice needs to be made.” These words of Philippe Menoud sum up the dilemma faced by Protestant and Catholic theologians over the condition of the dead. The Bible speaks of the hope of a resurrection “at the last day.” (John 6:39, 40, 44, 54) But the hope of many believers, says theologian Gisbert Greshake, “rests in the immortality of the soul, which separates from the body at death and returns to God, while hope in the resurrection has largely, if not completely, disappeared.”
In that case, a thorny problem arises, explains Bernard Sesboüé: “What is the condition of the dead during the ‘interval’ between their bodily death and final resurrection?” That question seems to have been at the center of theological debate in the last few years. What led to it? And more important, what is the real hope for the dead?
Origin and Development of a Dilemma
The first Christians had clear ideas on the matter. They knew from the Scriptures that the dead are not conscious of anything, for the Hebrew Scriptures say: “The living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all . . . There is no work nor devising nor knowledge nor wisdom in Sheol, the place to which you are going.” (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10) Those Christians hoped for a resurrection to take place during the future “presence of the Lord.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17) They did not expect to be conscious somewhere else while they awaited that moment. Joseph Ratzinger, present prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, says: “No doctrinal affirmation existed in the ancient Church on the immortality of the soul.”
However, Nuovo dizionario di teologia, explains that when reading Church Fathers, such as Augustine or Ambrose, “we become aware of something new with respect to Biblical tradition—the emergence of a Greek eschatology, fundamentally different from that of Judeo-Christians.” This new teaching was based on “the immortality of the soul, on individual judgment with reward or punishment immediately after death.” Thus, a question was raised about the “intermediate state”: If the soul survives the death of the body, what happens to it while it awaits the resurrection at the “last day”? This is a dilemma theologians have struggled to resolve.
In the sixth century C.E., Pope Gregory I argued that at death souls go immediately to the place of their destiny. Pope John XXII of the 14th century was convinced that the dead would receive their ultimate reward on Judgment Day. Pope Benedict XII, however, refuted his predecessor. In the papal bull Benedictus Deus (1336), he decreed that “the souls of the deceased enter a condition of bliss [heaven], purging [purgatory], or damnation [hell] immediately after death, only to be reunited with their resurrected bodies at the end of the world.”
Despite controversy and debate, this has been the position of churches of Christendom for centuries, although the Protestant and Orthodox churches in general do not believe in purgatory. However, from the end of the last century, an increasing number of scholars have pointed out the non-Biblical origin of the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, and as a consequence, “modern theology now often tries to view man as a unity that is totally dissolved in death.” (The Encyclopedia of Religion) Bible commentators, therefore, find it difficult to justify the existence of an “intermediate state.” Does the Bible speak about it, or does it offer a different hope?
Did Paul Believe in an “Intermediate State”?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “To rise with Christ, we must die with Christ: we must ‘be away from the body and at home with the Lord’. [2 Corinthians 5:8] In that ‘departure’ which is death the soul is separated from the body. [Philippians 1:23] It will be reunited with the body on the day of resurrection of the dead.” But in the texts here quoted, does the apostle Paul say that the soul survives the death of the body and then awaits the “Last Judgment” to be reunited with the body?
At 2 Corinthians 5:1, Paul refers to his death and speaks of an “earthly house” that is “dissolved.” Was he thinking of the body deserted by its immortal soul? No. Paul believed that man is a soul, not that he has a soul. (Genesis 2:7; 1 Corinthians 15:45) Paul was a spirit-anointed Christian whose hope, like that of his first-century brothers, was ‘reserved in the heavens.’ (Colossians 1:5; Romans 8:14-18) His ‘earnest desire,’ therefore, was to be resurrected to heaven as an immortal spirit creature at God’s appointed time. (2 Corinthians 5:2-4) Speaking of this hope, he wrote: “We shall all be changed . . . during the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised up incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”—1 Corinthians 15:51, 52.
At 2 Corinthians 5:8, Paul says: “We are of good courage and are well pleased rather to become absent from the body and to make our home with the Lord.” Some believe that these words refer to an intermediate state of waiting. Such ones refer also to Jesus’ promise to his faithful followers that he was going to prepare a place in which to ‘receive them home to himself.’ But when would such prospects be realized? Christ said that it would be when he ‘came again’ in his future presence. (John 14:1-3) Similarly, at 2 Corinthians 5:1-10, Paul said that the hope common to anointed Christians was to inherit a heavenly dwelling. This would come about, not through some presumed immortality of the soul, but through a resurrection during Christ’s presence. (1 Corinthians 15:23, 42-44) Exegete Charles Masson concludes that 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 “can be well understood then without having to resort to the hypothesis of an ‘intermediate state.’”
At Philippians 1:21, 23, Paul says: “In my case to live is Christ, and to die, gain. I am under pressure from these two things; but what I do desire is the releasing and the being with Christ, for this, to be sure, is far better.” Does Paul here refer to an “intermediate state”? Some think so. However, Paul says that he was put under pressure by two possibilities—life or death. “But what I do desire,” he added, mentioning a third possibility, “is the releasing and the being with Christ.” A “releasing” to be with Christ immediately after death? Well, as already seen, Paul believed that faithful anointed Christians would be resurrected during the presence of Christ. Therefore, he must have had in mind the events of that period.
This can be seen from his words found at Philippians 3:20, 21 and 1 Thessalonians 4:16. Such a “releasing” during the presence of Christ Jesus would enable Paul to receive the reward that God had prepared for him. That this was his hope is seen in his words to the young man Timothy: “From this time on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me as a reward in that day, yet not only to me, but also to all those who have loved his manifestation.”—2 Timothy 4:8.
The Resurrection—A Splendid Bible Truth
The first Christians considered the resurrection an event that would begin during Christ’s presence, and they received strength and comfort from this splendid Bible truth. (Matthew 24:3; John 5:28, 29; 11:24, 25; 1 Corinthians 15:19, 20; 1 Thessalonians 4:13) They faithfully awaited that future joy, rejecting apostate teachings of an immortal soul.—Acts 20:28-30; 2 Timothy 4:3, 4; 2 Peter 2:1-3.
Of course, the resurrection is not limited to Christians with a heavenly hope. (1 Peter 1:3-5) The patriarchs and other ancient servants of God exercised faith in Jehovah’s ability to bring the dead back to life on the earth. (Job 14:14, 15; Daniel 12:2; Luke 20:37, 38; Hebrews 11:19, 35) Even those billions who over the course of centuries never knew God have the opportunity of coming back to life in an earthly paradise, since “there is going to be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Acts 24:15; Luke 23:42, 43) Is this not a thrilling prospect?
Rather than have us believe that suffering and death will always be, Jehovah points to the time when “the last enemy, death,” will be eliminated forever and faithful humankind will live eternally on an earth restored to Paradise. (1 Corinthians 15:26; John 3:16; 2 Peter 3:13) How marvelous it will be to see our loved ones come back to life! How much better this sure hope is than the hypothetical immortality of the human soul—a doctrine based, not on God’s Word, but on Greek philosophy! If you base your hope on God’s sure promise, you too can be sure that soon “death will be no more”!—Revelation 21:3-5.
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The resurrection is a splendid Bible truth