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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