Dale Allison has a chapter of Night Comes that struggles with the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. He spends much space on the idea often expressed in historical theology that some material from my present body must get used in the resurrection body. He reduces this idea to absurdity in several ways. Our bodies decay and disintegrate. They get taken up into plant life. They may even be eaten by animals or cannibals. In any case they end up part of other people’s bodies. So who gets my molecules at the resurrection?
He says that his students get impatient with this line of argument because, of course, their idea of the Christian hope is more spiritual than that. I must say that I shared this impatience. However, Allison argues that the idea that some material from the body survives is intrinsic to the doctrine of the resurrection of the body.
He deals with theologians who have picked up Paul’s idea of the body as a bare seed (1 Corinthians 15:37). But this still implies some kind of material connection between the body that died and the body that rises. In many ways Allison shows that this does not work with what we know from science happens to the material of the body.
I had some trouble figuring out where the author was going with this. But I think the answer is that he finds that we have to go back to some kind of body-soul dualism. To say, as both science and philosophy today usually say, that there can be no separation between mind or soul and body undermines any possible afterlife.
He is aware that Wolfhart Pannenberg, for instance, argued for a concept of resurrection that fully integrated the unity of body and soul. But Allison (although I know from his other writings that he sympathizes with Pannenberg) just does not see it.
Of course, ever since some of the Church Fathers brought the ideas of Plato into correspondence with Christianity, many Christians have believed in a body-soul dualism. At death the body goes into the ground and the soul goes somewhere else. And popular beliefs in Hades or Sheol and in ghosts, even in the Hebrew Bible, reflect that people of faith have often conceived of a kind of out-of-body existence after death.
Interestingly, Allison recalls asking N. T. Wright about this at a dinner. Wright did not seem bothered by the problem and said that Origen (the controversial third-century teacher from Alexandria) had figured it out. Origen deemphasized the continuity between the present body and the future one.
As a New Testament scholar, Allison says that those who argue that the immortal soul has no place in New Testament thought are wrong. Matthew 10:28 and passages in almost every other New Testament book show that these authors did not agree with modern physicalism. They take for granted that the inner spirit can exist after death independently from the body.
So Allison advocates questioning the scientific materialism so aggressively proclaimed by some agnostics and atheists today. He does not have a philosophical or scientific view to offer in its place, although he has learned books in his library that do try to offer alternatives.
Theologically, he seems to see the biblical divide between the survival of the soul and the resurrection of the body as an admission that even beyond death there is a waiting for the kingdom. Our souls await some future consummation in sympathy with the afflictions that continue in this world.
I guess my personal problem with the immortality of the soul is that it would mean that there is some part of me that is intrinsically imperishable or that does not need God.
There was an interesting take on life after death by the liberal (very) theologian Charles Hartshorne. I read Hartshorne pretty thoroughly many years ago and was intrigued by his view that life after death consists of being remembered by God.
I did not agree with Hartshorne’s process theology or panentheism. His idea that the universe consists of monads (as Leibnitz called them), and that these basic units of existence experience everything and feed that experience into the memory of a God who is not personal but another way of speaking of the universe in process is not at all what I believe.
But I did agree with him that God remembers us perfectly. When I was faced in my churches and my family with the need to think about the dead, Hartshorne’s idea influenced me. I thought that we exist perfectly in the memory of God. God will resurrect us from memory without need for material bits and pieces. We exist now in God’s memory. Maybe this is not a conscious existence. But it is a real existence, The resurrection body arises from the memory of God.
Admittedly this is not as comforting as believing in the present, conscious existence of the dead. But I believed in God. I was not sure what to believe about a supposed realm where spirits exist somehow on their own.
I have always appreciated the role of imagination in theology. C. S. Lewis used it to great effect. Allison’s subtitle is “Death, Imagination and the Last Things”. So I appreciate his use of imagination to illuminate the mysteries involved in death. It contributed to my sermon the other day about heaven as a community of friends. This is a more comforting way to think about the dead. And it doesn’t really matter if the welcoming into community happens immediately after death or at the resurrection day.