As a hospice chaplain, my work revolves around supporting the dying and their families. I officiate many funerals. I deal with questions about death and what happens after people die. I am asked regularly about mysteries beyond our human experience in this life.
On Mondays we are delving into this subject, starting with Gerhard Lohfink and his excellent new book, Is This All There Is?: On Resurrection and Eternal Life. Today we consider chapter two, “Between Skepticism and Belief in the Soul,” an examination of how Greek and Roman thought influenced Christian thinking about the afterlife from the beginning.
For example, here is an inscription from the third century:
This tomb hides the body of unmarried Kalokairos, but his immortal soul has left the body of the young man. She, his soul, has left far behind the cares of a bitter life and hurries on the divine road so that she might arrive purified. (p. 12)
There is an anchor carved beneath this epitaph, which, Lohfink notes, is the only clue that this statement differs from any number of pagan formulations from the same era.
That idea was formulated quite explicitly in antiquity, especially by followers of the the philosopher Pythagoras. Soma–sema, said the Greeks: “body–tomb.” In this world of ideas the soul is what really makes the human; the body is only an obstacle. In death the soul is liberated as if from a tomb, a prison. As we have seen, Plato also presents such ideas in his Phaedo. (p. 12)
The influence of such ideas upon Christians has been far-reaching, as this verse from a contemporary Christian prayerbook that Lohfink cites shows.
To earth I came without a load,
nothing outward brought with me
except only my soul
Nothing will I take with me
beyond into the lightsome day
except again my soul.
What, then, to me is earthly life
when in but lightsome garments clad
and shedding every earthly fault
my own and only soul shall fly
to God’s paternal hand.
Culture’s ideas have penetrated Christian belief from the beginning. And they still do. In one church I pastored, I preached on 1 Corinthians 15 one morning, emphasizing the unique importance of the resurrection to our faith. One man, an elder in the congregation, came up to me afterward and said, “I had no idea the resurrection and our bodies were so important!”
Well, when you sing “I’ll Fly Away” as your anthem of Christian hope, this is what you get. One can understand the common sense cosmology underneath this. As Lohfink writes, our bodies are material and substantial. When they inevitably break down and expire, what happens to the immaterial, lighter than air “me” — my soul — within? It floats into the ether, of course, to “heaven” above.
However, this platonic, dualistic way of thinking was by no means universal in Greek and Roman culture. As Lohfink says,
For a long time the Greeks were convinced that human life ends as a shadowy existence in the darkness of the underworld, and in later periods belief in the soul was by no means the only philosophy. There was also a powerful strand of materialism for which the body was the one and only human reality. That materialism was usually associated with a profound skepticism, and especially the conviction that everything ends with death. At death the human person falls back into absolute nothingness. A dead person has no “I” any longer, no memory, no awareness, no future. (p. 13f)
In the light of this way of thinking, ancient inscriptions express either that grim finality, or exhortations to the living to enjoy life while you can.
Of course, this strand of thinking remains with us as well, becoming even more prominent in the 20th century, influenced by secularization and the existential questions raised by the horrors of two world wars, unimaginable genocides, and the terrifying prospect of nuclear annihilation.
As Lohfink notes, “…the dissonant polyphony of voices from antiquity is still with us. The question of questions remains, and the answer still swings between radical skepticism and hope for the wholly “other” that will finally answer all questions.” (p. 18)