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Resurrection and the Immortality of the Soul

Resurrection and the Immortality of the Soul

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Published by: dusty_badger on Mar 25, 2012
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Resurrection and the Immortality of the Soul

Resurrection This is the promise of an ultimate post-death existence in a re-created (i.e. perfect) human body. The physical body is not discarded. This is a traditional teaching of Judaism and Christianity. It can be illustrated with numerous examples from the Bible: Ezekiel 37: the valley of dry bones. God shows Ezekiel a valley of dry bones and states that he is able to “make these live again”. This shows the creative power of God. Resurrection beliefs assume that God has the ability to re-make the bodies of the dead. Gospels: The resurrection of Jesus is a teaching of all four gospels. Jesus is held to have risen from the dead in his body. This gives Christians their hope for post-death existence. St Paul: in 1 Corinthians 15 St Paul argues in favour of the resurrection of the dead, by which he means the body of the deceased being “raised imperishable”. For Jews and Christians, resurrection has traditionally been an „eschatological‟ belief (i.e. concerned with the end times), for it is hoped that the dead will rise on the last day for final judgement in God‟s kingdom. The idea that people go to heaven when they die is not the traditional teaching of either faith. In medieval Christianity, the defence of a doctrine of resurrection was seen as an explicit rejection of the teaching of Plato (more on that below). Christians looked back to the philosopher Aristotle, who had rejected Plato‟s concept of a soul that is separate from the body. Therefore, drawing on Aristotle, the Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas went on to argue that: “The natural condition of the human soul is to be united to the body.” So, what makes us a complete person is inclusive of our body. We cannot think of ourselves without a body and arguably this should apply to the afterlife too. However, Christians have not always been able to take this teaching for granted and have often sought to demonstrate the importance of resurrection within the faith. For example, St Paul attempts to argue for the resurrection with two main points: Firstly, since Jesus was resurrected, all Christian believers should hope to be resurrected.


Secondly, since there are many different bodies in nature, we might ask, why cannot our human nature be perfected in its body by God?

Yet, both of these arguments seek to persuade those who are already Christians, and therefore they might not be seen as adequate in the debate with atheism. A further problem arises. That is, we need to understand how such a strange belief might work out: what would a resurrected body be like? The first Christians seem to have accepted that resurrection would not produce normal bodies. It is not just the resuscitation of corpses here, but the transformation of the whole person. The Gospel of John gives this impression of the risen Jesus; he is something other than a normal body, telling Mary “do not hold me, for I have not yet ascended”. Similarly, St Paul asks in 1 Corinthians 15: “in what type of body shall we be raised?” and in answer he asserts it will be a “spiritual body”. Many will find the idea of resurrection to be unconvincing, especially if they stand outside of a faith tradition. However, if in the first instance one has already accepted the belief that God is creator of all things then the idea of re-creating the body is perhaps not so difficult to swallow. Nevertheless, resurrection is most often dealt with as an article of faith or a mystical event, rather than as a rationally justifiable aspect of religion. As the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has said, there is a “central silence” about the resurrection in Christian texts because it is “on the frontier of any possible language.”

Immortality of the Soul This is the belief that the soul is a distinct and immortal entity within the body which can survive the death of the body and ascend to the afterlife. The focus is upon the non-material essence of the true self. This has not been the traditional teaching of Christianity, though it is a view which has enjoyed a good deal of popularity among philosophers in the west. Perhaps the first person to give an extended argument in favour of the immortality of the soul was the Greek philosopher Plato. In his dialogue Phaedo Plato sets the scene just before the death of his philosophical mentor Socrates, who decides to talk with his friends about death and the immortality of the soul.

Socrates gives a number of arguments in favour of the immortality of the soul, but perhaps the main point concerns the source of life. Life cannot emerge from a dead thing. Something living must have given life to the body in the first instance and “the soul is that which renders the body living”. Therefore, there must be some immortal soul which enters the body at birth and leaves it at death. The true life of a person exists after bodily death in the soul which survives. Apart from Plato, the most famous advocate of the immortality of the soul has to be the French philosopher, René Descartes. Descartes argues that the existence of the true self can be known through reason. In the Meditations he attempts to prove his existence through his famous argument: “I think, therefore I am” (cogito ergo sum). This proof gives us knowledge of our own existence as thinking beings. However, it is not sure evidence that our bodies exist. First and foremost, we know ourselves as a “thinking thing” (res cogitans). Therefore, our basic knowledge of ourselves is separate from our bodies. Surely, then, we are made up of a soul within a body rather than being purely physical beings. So it is that Descartes argues that the body is spatial and physical, but not conscious. It is our immortal souls which provide us with conscious life. A similar conclusion was reached in a very different way by Immanuel Kant. Kant argued that we can actually learn about ourselves and God through the study of ethics. He argued that our purpose in life is to attain the highest good (summum bonum) in which virtue meets with happiness. However, we have short lives in which to achieve this goal and it even seems unrealisable. Surely God would allow us the chance to realise this good, but that seems to require that we survive death. Therefore, for practical reasons, Kant grants that the soul exists and is immortal, able to move on to the highest virtue after death. The philosophical view that the soul or mind exists separately from the body is commonly referred to as „dualism‟. We are dual beings because there are two parts to us: the physical body and the non-material soul (usually regarded as the true self). However, materialist philosophers have been highly critical of this concept. Gilbert Ryle dismissed the idea of a separate soul as “the ghost in the machine”. Our minds and consciousness are thus said to be made up of physical matter (brain cells), just like the rest of us. The whole idea of studying consciousness through neuroscience assumes that a person has no soul. The alternate theory which Ryle proposed was „philosophical behaviourism‟ – the view that supposed mental events (i.e. the thinking self) really just refer to complex patterns of behaviour. Our interior mental terminology is just a way of referring to our physical activities.

Evaluating the Two Approaches It is fair to say that ideas about the afterlife have become somewhat confused over the years, with many Christians and Jews abandoning the traditional concept of bodily resurrection in favour of the idea that the soul ascends to heaven. Certainly, the latter view can seem more comforting in the immediate aftermath of dead, for it allows one to image a close relative or friend being with God in paradise. However, philosophers may ask which of the two views are more or less credible. Firstly, there is resurrection. This has a number of advantages: - It gives value to the physical self and our connection with the world, which arguably is a good thing. - It avoids the pitfalls of mind/body dualism, as identified by Ryle. - It has a basis in tradition, finding particular support in the Bible. - It makes a natural connection with the doctrine of creation, which most theists would assume. However, resurrection also suffers from a number of disadvantages: - The idea that the body will be re-made seems strange or mythological. - The body is in many ways the source of weakness and limitations (desire, disease, etc.) Arguably, it would be better if we could exist as pure soul. - The biblical sources behind resurrection may be questioned: why should we take Ezekiel or St Paul‟s word for it?

The immortality of the soul meanwhile also has a number of advantages: - The idea that the soul joins with God at death is comforting. - Certain religious experiences (e.g. near death experiences) might be seen as supporting testimony for this concept. - If we accept that our thinking self transcends our physical body, then the immortality of the soul makes good sense. - Dualism is a solid and established way of thinking; for centuries many cultures have supposed that the spirits of the dead live on. Yet, the immortality of the soul suffers from significant weaknesses:


As Ryle pointed out, the idea that the soul is separate from the body seems to be unnecessary and unscientific. Against Descartes, proving that one thinks is different from proving that the thinking self is a separate thing. Kant‟s argument is easily rejected, if one denies the possibility of perfect goodness ever being realised. This idea lacks a basis in traditional religious teaching; Jews and Christians should reject it.

Questions (1) What‟s good about having a body? (2) Would you accept St Paul‟s arguments in favour of the resurrection? (3) Is Rowan William right to emphasise the indescribability of the resurrection, or is he just making excuses? (4) What do you think of Plato‟s argument for the immortality of the soul? (5) Is Descartes right in claiming that the res cogitans („thinking thing‟) is independent of its body? (6) Is Ryle correct to say that our mental life is just a reflection of complex physical behaviour? (7) Which concept of afterlife is best? Why? (8) Is either concept valuable or persuasive?

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