Editor's note: The following column is adapted from a chapter in Sandlin's forthcoming book The Lord of the Dead and the Living: The Victory of Christian Resurrection.
But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness (1 Cor. 1:23).
In late November 2001, the Arts and Entertainment Television Network carried a special by popular rock singer Billy Joel. Among other inane comments, he said, “I believe that when people die, they go to live in the hearts of the people they love.” This is a manifestly pagan idea; and it should not surprise us, because Billy Joel is a manifest pagan. Unfortunately, it is only a somewhat secularized notion of a heresy too commonly held by many Christians today that the “release” of death is the joy of a disembodied “spiritual” existence.
The ancient pagan Greeks were proponents of the inherent immortality of the soul. The Bible, on the other hand, stresses the resurrection of the body. While we do not cease to exist at death (“soul sleep”), the Bible has little to say of this “intermediate” existence.
In the Bible, personal eschatology is inextricably linked with the resurrection of the body. First Corinthians 15 and 1 Thessalonians 4 (among other Scriptures) make this abundantly clear. As G. I. Williamson wrote several years ago, one of the big defects of many Christian funerals is all of the talk about the deceased’s being “with the Lord” (which is blissfully correct) but no talk whatsoever about the resurrection. This, in fact, is to reverse the biblical emphasis and to revert somewhat to Greek paganism.
To the ancient Greeks, man is made up of several distinct, and potentially independent, parts. The soul is the principal part of man—it is his insubstantial existence, which conforms to eternal, super-temporal “Forms.”
Another part of man is his body. The body is simply the house of the soul. In fact, it is the prison of the soul. According to the Greeks, the body is unnatural for man. It is an alien part that prevents him from realizing what he could if he were not imprisoned within it. The body was a troubling vexation to the pagan Greeks—it constrains man to time and space, subjects him to sickness and weariness, and gives him all sorts of fits. Therefore, the Greeks saw death as a pleasant, delightful, joyous experience. At death, we finally get rid of this old constricting baggage we carry around. Death was man’s Great Emancipation.
This is why the Athenians (Ac. 17) rather politely listened to Paul (“After all, isn’t everyone entitled to his own point of view?” [v. 21]) until he mentioned Christ’s resurrection (v. 32). To the Greeks, resurrection was silly. After all, the whole goal of life is death, so that man may escape the limitations of the body and join the eternal Forms. Why would he want to be re-embodied after death? That defeats the whole purpose!
Both the preaching of both the Cross and the resurrection were foolishness to the Greeks because these Christian realities centered salvation in redemptive history. The Greeks wanted a salvation from history. They wanted an escape. They didn’t want to be “Left Behind.”
The Goodness of Creation
This is as far removed from the Christian teaching of the body set forth in the Bible as the East is from the West. The contrast, as Oden suggests, is unmistakable:
The Greek tradition held that the soul existed before and after earthly life, hence one’s true life is the life of one’s soul, the body being ancillary to the human person. The Hebraic tradition viewed the human person as a single composite reality of inspirited mud, grounded in the earth yet capable of transcendence, in an interface so closely woven that it was unthinkable that one could be a person without a body of some sort.1
This latter idea was seemingly incomprehensible to the Greeks. They surely did not deny an afterlife. The problem was resurrection, which was simply not a tenet of ancient thought apart from many Old Testament Jews and the Christian church.
The main impetuses behind the Greek’s general denial of the resurrection were (1) the low value they placed on the human body and (2) their firm belief in man’s inherent immortality, i.e., that his soul was naturally imperishable. We one day (fortunately) lose the “bad body” but we retain the inherently imperishable soul.
According to the Bible, however, the body is good because God makes it. It is a good work of divine creation. When Adam led the human race into sin, this sin affected his body, just as it affected every other aspect of his being (Gen. 3:16-19). But this act of sin did not undo the goodness of God’s creation. Man’s body succumbs to illness and death because of sin, but these are not natural. In particular, death is not natural. It is unnatural.
God threatened Adam with death if he ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:15-17). Death is the result of sin, not the result of humanity. Had Adam never sinned, he never would have died. Just as sin is unnatural, so death, its consequence, is unnatural.
This is why death is described as an enemy in the Bible. In fact, we read in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s great chapter on the resurrection, that death is the “last enemy” that will be “destroyed” (v. 26). Similarly, we read in Hebrews that Jesus came to turn back men’s fearfulness of death (Heb. 2:14-15). Death is man’s enemy that our Lord vanquishes.
None of this means that the Bible teaches what some (like the Seventh Day Adventists) have called “soul sleep.” It does not teach that we completely lose existence between our death and the time of the final resurrection. But it does teach what we may call “body sleep.” In fact, the Bible uses this very expression to refer to our bodies. Paul speaks of those who are “asleep in the Lord” (1 Thes. 4:14). Jesus Himself spoke of the dead child as one who “sleepeth” (Mt. 9:24). The reason the Bible refers to Christians who have died as “sleeping” is that their bodies will one day wake up!
The great war on things material is a largely pagan conviction, deeply pessimistic, which has infected the church as heresy. The greatest proof of the inherent goodness of creation is Jesus Christ’s bodily resurrection—and ours. Our hope is not a Casper-the-Friendly-Ghost existence, but an existence on a renovated earth in a resurrected body. Glory be to God!
1. Thomas C. Oden, Life in the Spirit (Peabody, Massachusetts: Prince Press , 1998), 397.