IMMORTAL MEANS DEATH-PROOF. To believe in the immortality of the soul is to believe that though John Brown's body lies a-moldering in the grave, his soul goes marching on simply because marching on is the nature of souls just the way producing butterflies is the nature of caterpillars. Bodies die, but souls don't.

True or false, this is not the biblical view, although many who ought to know better assume it is. The biblical view differs in several significant ways:

1. As someone has put it, the biblical understanding of human beings is not that they have bodies, but that they are bodies. God made Adam by slapping some mud together to make a body and then breathing some breath into it to make a living soul. Thus the body and soul that make up human beings are as inextricably part and parcel of each other as the leaves and flames that make up a bonfire. When you kick the bucket, you kick it 100 percent. All of you. There is nothing left to go marching on with.

2. The idea that the body dies and the soul doesn't is an idea that implies that the body is something rather gross and embarrassing, like a case of hemorrhoids. The Greeks spoke of it as the prison house of the soul. The suggestion was that to escape it altogether was something less than a disaster.

The Bible, on the other hand, sees the body in particular and the material world in general as a good and glorious invention. How could it be otherwise when it was invented by a good and glorious God?

The Old Testament rings loud with the praise of trees and birds and rain and mountains, of wine that gladdens our hearts and oil that makes our faces shine and bread that strengthens us. Read Psalm 104, for instance. Or try the Song of Solomon for as abandoned and unabashed a celebration of the physical as you're apt to find anywhere.

As for the New Testament, Jesus himself, far from being a world-denying ascetic, was accused of being a wino and a chowhound (Matthew 11:19). When he heard that his friend Lazarus was dead, he didn't mouth any pious cliches about what a merciful release it was. He wept.

The whole idea of incarnation, of the word becoming flesh, affirms the physical and fleshly in yet another way, by declaring that it was a uniform even God wasn't ashamed to wear.

Saint Paul undoubtedly had his hang-ups, but when he compares flesh unfavorably to spirit, he is not talking about body versus soul, but about the old person without Christ versus the new person with him.

3. Those who believe in the immortality of the soul believe that life after death is as natural a human function as waking after sleep.

The Bible, instead, speaks of resurrection. It is entirely unnatural. We do not go on living beyond the grave because that's how we are made. Rather, we go to our graves as dead as a doornail and are given our lives back again by God (i.e., resurrected), just as we were given them by God in the first place, because that is the way God is made.

4. All the major Christian creeds affirm belief in resurrection of the body. In other words, they affirm the belief that what God in spite of everything prizes enough to bring back to life is not just some disembodied echo of human beings but a new and revised version of all the things that made them the particular human beings they were and that they need something like a body to express: their personality, the way they looked, the sound of their voices, their peculiar capacity for creating and loving, in some sense their faces.

5. The idea of the immortality of the soul is based on the experience of humanity's indomitable spirit. The idea of the resurrection of the body is based on the experience of God's unspeakable love.

-Originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words

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