by Athol Walter
The recent loss of a beloved sister in the Lord brought the subject of resurrection to the fore once again, especially in connection with the almost universal belief amongst Christians that the ‘soul’ of a deceased believer goes immediately to Heaven to be with the Lord. It may come as a surprise to many believers, as it did to me some years ago, to discover that the idea of ‘sudden death, sudden glory’, as the doctrine is sometimes called, comes not from the Bible, but from the teachings of ancient Greek philosophers.
Several early Christian teachers, however, saw the danger embedded in this teaching. For example, Justin Martyr (AD 150) wrote this: ‘If you fall in with those who are called Christians who confess not this truth (namely resurrection) but dare to blaspheme the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in that they say there is no resurrection of the dead, but that immediately when they die their souls are received up into heaven, avoid them and esteem them not Christians.’*
Justin Martyr, obviously, was not one to hold back when he had something to say, and while we could not join him in questioning the standing in Christ of a fellow-believer who accepted this doctrine of the souls of the dead going to be with the Lord immediately at death, nevertheless, highlights the fact that this doctrine calls into question the great scriptural truth of resurrection.
To put it bluntly, if a believer’s soul goes directly into the presence of the Lord at death, what is the point of the bodily resurrection? It becomes almost superfluous. But, you might respond that the resurrection of the body is necessary to reunite soul and body. My answer is this: If a soul has already been enjoying life in the Lord’s presence for some time without its body, why is there any need at all for the body? In the case of believers who died back in the first century – for example, Stephen, Peter or Paul – they will have already spent 2000 years with the Lord, in round figures, without their bodies.
So how did this teaching find its way into the Christian Church? I can only give the briefest answer in the available space. The Reverend H A Barnes, in an article titled The Platonic Tradition says this: ‘At an early period in the Christian Church it became fashionable to believe that there was much similarity between the teaching of Plato and that of Christianity, until it actually came to pass that the authority of the heathen philosopher was recognised almost as if he had been a teacher of true religion’.* Another writer, Dr E Petavel, in his book The Problem of Immortality, writes this: ‘The rising tide of Platonic theory was made to triumph in the Christian Church by the false Clementines, Tertullian, Minusclus Felix, Cyprian, Jerome, and especially by St Augustine, but the primitive teaching was maintained here and there’.*
The strong connection between the doctrine of the immortality of the soul and ‘sudden death, sudden glory’, can be clearly seen from these quotes. I’ll come to that a little later, but let’s stay with the central place of resurrection in biblical teaching. Bypassing many worthy quotes, I want to lay out before you a rather long passage written by William Tyndale, who paid with his life for his work in translating the Bible into English. The language is quaint, to say the least, but it has an added force and attraction because of that. It is worth persevering with.
These words, upholding the fundamental place of resurrection in our faith, come from Tyndale’s writings, refuting the beliefs of Sir Thomas More:
‘And when he proveth that the saints be in heaven in glory with Christ already, saying, “If God be their God, they be in heaven, for He is not the God of the dead”: there he stealeth away Christ’s argument, wherewith He proveth the resurrection: that Abraham and all saints should rise again, and not that their souls were in heaven; which doctrine was not yet in the world. And with that doctrine he taketh away the resurrection quite, and maketh Christ’s argument of none effect. For when Christ allegeth the Scripture, that God is Abraham’s God, and addeth too that God is not the God of the dead but of the living, and so proveth that Abraham must rise again: I deny Christ’s argument if I say with Master More, that Abraham is yet alive, not because of the resurrection, but because his soul is in heaven. And in like manner, Paul’s argument unto the Corinthians is nought worth: for when he sayeth, “If there be no resurrection, we be of all wretches the miserablest; here we have no pleasure, but sorrow, care and oppression; and therefore, if we rise not again, all our suffering is in vain”; nay, Paul, thou art unlearned; go to Master More, and learn a new way. “We be not most miserable, though we rise not again; for our souls go to heaven as soon as we be dead, and are there in as great joy as Christ that is risen again.” And I marvel that Paul had not comforted them with that doctrine, if he had wist it, that the souls of their dead had been in joy; as he did with the resurrection, that their dead should rise again. If the souls be in heaven, in as great glory as the angels, after your doctrine, show me what cause should be of resurrection? And ye, putting them in heaven, hell, and purgatory, destroy the arguments wherewith Christ and Paul prove the resurrection. What God doth with them, that shall we know when we come to them. The true faith putteth the resurrection, which we are warned to look for every hour. The heathen philosophers, denying that, did put that the souls did ever live. And the Pope joineth the spiritual doctrine of Christ and the fleshly doctrine of philosophers together; things so contrary that they cannot agree, no more than the Spirit and the flesh do in a Christian man… And again, if the souls be in heaven, tell me why they be not in as good a case as the angels be? And then what cause is there of the resurrection?’*
These are quite wonderful words, and to repeat myself, if you find it hard to take in the different style, I hope that you will go through the quote as often as necessary to get Tyndale’s meaning. His reference to Corinthians is, of course, to 1 Corinthians 15, often called ‘the resurrection chapter’.
The other two subjects that are intimately connected with that of resurrection are the immortality of the soul, and, are any believers actually in heaven now?
Believers in Heaven
I will deal with the second subject first, as it requires less room. Surely we only have to read John 3:13 and allow its significance to sink in for the point to be settled once and for all: ‘No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from Heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven’. I expect the thoughts of some readers will go to Enoch and Elijah, but surely the Lord’s words must also apply to them. Then there is Acts 2:34: ‘For David did not ascend into heaven…’ It would seem to me that, if anyone would qualify to go to heaven immediately at death (if that is what really happens), David would because of his faith in God’s Word. But here is Peter, speaking under the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit, saying that David did not ascend into heaven. In fact, he is contrasting David with the Lord Jesus, who did ascend to heaven.
The Immortality of the Soul
Much has been written on this subject, so I will confine myself to a few salient points. The doctrine of the immortality of the soul is an import from Greek philosophy along with the idea of the soul going directly to heaven at death. The two ideas go hand in hand. I can say quite confidently, that the doctrine of the immortality of the soul is not taught in the Bible. Genesis 2:7 explicitly states that when the Lord breathed into Adam’s body the breath of life, Adam ‘became a living soul’. We have been so conditioned by the pagan doctrine that we fail to see that this verse does not say that Adam was given a separate soul. The breath-filled body became, or was in totality, a living soul. Each human being is a soul, but does not have a separate soul. At the end of our lives, when the ‘breath’ leaves the body, we become dead souls.
The other scriptural statement, which also should put an end to any argument, if it is accepted, is in 1 Timothy 6:16. Here Paul, speaking of Christ Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, goes on to say of Him: ‘who alone has immortality…’
Dear reader, who do you believe, Plato or Paul? Read 1 Corinthians 15 again, and note verses 51 to 54:
‘Behold, I tell you a mystery: we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruption must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on corruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying: “Death is swallowed up in victory”.’
+ + +
* The various quotations in the above article are taken from the article ‘Resurrection’ by Charles Welch, in An Alphabetical Analysis, Vol. 7, p. 168.