Past certainties blurred

Ian Harris examines the background to Christian beliefs on immortality and resurrection.

Is it important to you that you should survive beyond death? If so, you would not be alone - from the beginning of history, people have hankered after immortality. Religious faiths have generally obliged by assuring their followers of life everlasting in some shape or form.

This was easier to do when heaven and hell were thought to be physical realities. This gave priests and preachers enormous leverage by holding out the promise of one and the threat of the other. Those days are not completely gone, but the emergence of a secular world view has radically changed the endgame.

It came as a jolt, then, to learn from the Catholic Encyclopaedia that the doctrine of immortality ''formed the foundation of the whole scheme of Christian faith''. Not for me it doesn't, nor, I suspect, for many other Christians who are at home in their secular environment.

Three main pictures of what happens after death can be drawn from the Christian Bible. All have been endlessly elaborated over the centuries, turning poetic vision into formulas and speculation into fact. While this was usually done with the best of intentions, the certainties of the past are not so compelling today.

Nevertheless, the questions people were speculating on then can still be heard today: Will we survive beyond death? If so, in what form? Will we be identifiable? What will the surviving entity do?The oldest biblical answer to these questions is very down-to-earth.

In the Adam and Eve myth, God shapes man from the dust of the ground and then breathes life into him. When that breath of life leaves him, he returns to the dust.

Each human being is body and breath (spirit) melded into a living creature, and neither body nor spirit is immortal. At death the underworld of Sheol claims them for eternity.

History prompted a rethink. From the 8th century BC the Jews were buffeted by successive waves of invaders, some of whom set out to suppress the faith that held the Jews together as a people. In the 2nd century BC they rose in rebellion to reclaim their land and heritage, and many paid with their lives.

Surely, people reasoned, a just God would not let the martyrs share the same fate as those who had collaborated with the conquerors. No, God would vindicate the heroes by restoring them to life at some future time. But resurrection would be limited to the select few.

In time, however, this expanded to belief in a general resurrection on the Day of Judgement, when the good would be raised to live for ever and the wicked would be punished or destroyed.

Speculation then centred on whether the resurrected body would be physical or spiritual - a debate still bubbling in Jesus' day, along with the old view that death ends it all in Sheol.

Resurrection holds that when we die we are really dead: only later will that be reversed by an act of God. In some biblical scenarios this would happen after a brief interval, in others not until the end of time. Only then would we become immortal (or not, as the case may be). But we have to die first.

Meanwhile, Greek invaders had introduced to Palestine the radically different idea of immortality. This holds that the soul or psyche is part of a universal, divine spirit and therefore lives on independently of the body it casts off at death.

Philosophers taught that the soul existed before we were born, enters the body for a time, and at death regains its freedom. That makes resurrection superfluous, since the soul has not died and therefore has no need to be restored to life.

All those understandings about what happens after death can be seen, in varying colours and intensities, in both the Old (Jewish) and New (Christian) Testaments - but the Christian emphasis is resurrection, not immortality, because it places the initiative firmly with God. Yet, as the church expanded across the Greek world, immortality proved too beguiling an idea to block out.

For growing numbers in the secular world of the West, however, neither immortality nor resurrection computes any more.

This is despite the fact the questions which those doctrines emerged to answer are as real as ever: Is there meaning in life? Is there hope? Do good and bad matter?

To those questions I would want to answer ''yes, yes and yes'' - but not by relying on notions of immortality and resurrection. There is another way in. Watch this space.

Ian Harris is a journalist and commentator.

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