The obvious opposition to one of the most widespread Christian teachings is likely to provoke strong reactions, which is what happened with the book Immortality of the Soul or the Resurrection of the Dead?, by the renowned Lutheran theologian Oscar Cullmann (1902-1999).
Cullmann himself would admit in the preface to a later edition that his short essay caused quite a storm, with some accusing him of being a “monster” who, instead of giving the flock the Bread of Life, gave them “stones, if not serpents” instead.
Naturally, an author of his stature, who taught theology at the Sorbonne (Paris, France)—and, after the publication of this book, would participate, as an observer, in the Second Vatican Council—had not published his text without having carefully weighed every sentence. Furthermore, Cullmann emphasised that the opposition to his thesis was not based on biblical arguments, but rather on “very general considerations of a philosophical, psychological, and above all sentimental kind.”
The immortality of the soul and popular belief
The book addresses a rather sensitive topic: are there biblical grounds for the popular belief in the intrinsic immortality of the soul? Or is it a belief that was not held by first-generation Christians, being introduced only later, as Cullmann suggests?
The core of Cullmann’s essay, grounded in the New Testament and early church history, is that the immortality of the soul was an idea taken up by some Christian theologians from Greek philosophy. To argue his thesis, the Lutheran theologian made a comparison between the death of the philosopher Socrates and that of Jesus Christ, highlighting the calmness of the former (follower of the belief in an entity that survives matter, after death) in contrast to Jesus’s “sorrow to the point of death”, in anticipation of His agony and death (Mark 14:33-34).
Analysing the Pauline epistles, Cullmann concludes that Christian anthropology is far from the Greek thinking about body and spirit. Unlike the Greeks, who considered matter (including the body) inherently evil, Christians viewed the human body as a gift from God.
“The whole man, who has really died, is recalled to life by a new act of creation by God,” says Cullmann, pointing out the logical fracture between the resurrection of the body, clearly announced in the New Testament, and the supposed immortal soul. He refers to the state of the human after the moment of death as a sleep in which the individual is unconscious while awaiting resurrection.
Given the spread of the belief in the immortality of the soul, which could be considered almost universal, Cullmann’s essay deserves more attention and, as the author deemed appropriate, a debate starting from exegetical reasoning.
Florin Bică is a children’s book author, writing both fiction and non-fiction for this exacting audience.