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Recently in Old St. Paul’s Forum, we discussed our faith journeys and why we go to church.
As someone who attends church, I think this is important to do. But it’s hard. St. Augustine said, “What art Thou to me? In Thy pity, teach me to utter it.” That’s been my prayer for myself. Teach me, Lord, to be able to voice the peace and hope you’ve given me.
Something I often see in Christians is that they work from a context of needing to save souls for eternal life. And while it’s legitimate, it’s also a whole other world that is so far away from our thinking and our lives.
But I love what John says in 1 John 1:24-25: “See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father. And this is what He promised us—even eternal life.”
It reads (as I understand it) that the reason for Christ coming was so that we could remain in the Son and the Father—and, oh yes, you also get eternal life…almost like an afterthought. So when Christ told us that He came for us to have life and have it to the full, He meant more than eternal life. He meant a full life here. Now.
Honestly, sometimes I ask, why couldn’t God have chosen to send Christ at the end of the world and let us all choose at that time? He could have left the world as it was with Adam and Eve and then at the end of our lives, Christ could die and save us. But what kind of life would He have given us then?
He wanted us to know the Spirit’s comfort. He wanted us to know relief from the guilt of sin while we lived. He wanted us to have the assurance of a better place than here. He wanted to be a part of our lives in our conversations, our prayers, our daily moments. He wanted us to have the confidence to enter into His throne room and pray to Him while on Earth. HE, the God of the universe, wanted to be a part of our insignificant dusty bodies.
“Eternal life,” though important, can often be irrelevant. My choice to follow God is a response to Him who interrupted history to be present in our lives.
Photo by Larissa Peters
We have confusion in Christianity about the concept of the immortality of the soul and it is leading us in some unhelpful directions. A commonly accepted viewpoint is that humans are made of two components: a material mortal body and an immaterial immortal soul. So when we die, this eternal soul continues on either to heaven or is condemned to hell. That sounds Christian, right?
Actually, the immortality of the soul is not a biblical concept at all. Some Christians seem to have adopted it from Plato and Greek philosophy. What the New Testament claims is not the immortality of the soul, but the resurrection of the body.
Here is the difference. The biblical view is that, when we die, we actually die. All of us dies – body and soul. Human beings were created mortal, not immortal. Only God is immortal. What is proclaimed is that by the love and power of this God, we can be raised up to eternal life. We don’t already have an eternal essence within us. When Saint Paul says that we can “put on immortality” (I Cor. 15:53), he is saying that this is something God does for us. The Episcopal burial service says it well, addressing God saying: “You only are immortal, creator and maker of mankind; and we are mortal, formed of the earth and to earth shall we return” (BCP, p.499).
Perhaps it is fear of death (and maybe also a little arrogance?) that would have us think that we humans were created with a naturally eternal part of us. Popular culture has this immortal soul thing (sort of like a ghost) flying out of the human body at death to have an independent existence. I don’t know what happens when we die, but I think anything that does happen will be because God makes it happen.
So here is Good News: By the power of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, we can share in a resurrected life in heaven. This is done by the sheer grace of God and is not inherent within us. We are made to die, but Christ can make us alive again. To view an afterlife in heaven as a gift, rather than as our inherent destiny, makes a huge difference. So let us Christians stop talking about the “immortal soul” and instead proclaim the power of the Resurrection.
–The Reverend Mark Stanley