IS IMMORTALITY A CHRISTIAN DOCTRINE?
I have too often heard ministers at funerals say that the human body is just a shell and how “you have an eternal soul that will live forever.” I know that people including Christians try to be of comfort, but this is in no way Christian doctrine or teaching. The idea of an immortal soul is an old Greek idea that has infected the Christian church, despite the church’s alternative – and quite distinct – teaching called the doctrine of the resurrection of the body.
The early Christian belief in future resurrection was based on Jesus’ own resurrection, which they rightly saw as an event within history, bringing to birth God’s future world in advance of its full appearing. Paul drew out the significance of this, not least in terms of the renewal and redemption of the entire cosmos (Romans 8:18-25).
Resurrection took center stage and would involve the transformation of the present body into a new type of physicality, incapable of incorruption (and hence immortal; “immortality” need not mean, and as used in 1 Corinthians 15:52-54 does not mean, “disembodied immortality”).
Shirley C. Guthrie, a great theologian in his classic book Christian Doctrine, outlines what I mean as clearly as anyone:
“If we hold to the genuinely biblical hope for the future, we must firmly reject this doctrine of the soul’s immortality for several reasons.
First, the Christian faith does not pretend that death is not so bad after all …. For the biblical writers death is real, total and terrible….
Death is hideous, because, so far as we are concerned, it means the death of us, not just the death of our bodies.
“Secondly….the Christian hope is not in the indestructibility of man, but in the creative power of God…..God alone has immortality. If there is life beyond death for men, it is not because they possess in themselves some immortal quality death cannot destroy, but because God has given them eternal life or immortality … Christians are not optimistic about man and the potentialities he has in himself, but about God and what he can and will do….
Finally, Christians reject the doctrine of the immortality of the soul because of the unbiblical split it makes between body and soul, physical-earthly and spiritual-heavenly life …. The Bible does not teach that the body is only a worthless or evil prison which degrades our true selves….The biblical hope is not for the soul’s escape from the bodily-physical into some purely spiritual realm. Our hope is the renewal of our total human existence.”
Indeed, as N.T. Wright makes so clear in his book Simply Christian, the Christian belief is that God will renew not just human existence but the whole of creation.
Person who speak of the deceased person’s body as just a shell from which one’s immortal soul is now evacuated could learn true Christian theology by reading the Scriptures more carefully. I would also suggest learning more about this doctrine from reading such books as Faith Seeking Understanding by Daniel L. Migliore and Accompany Them With Singing: The Christian Funeral, by Thomas G. Long.
Somehow I expect Christian ministers to understand traditional Christian doctrine and am always disappointed when I find them offering something else.