Monday, May 28, 2012

Everlasting life or everlasting death?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines death as the separation of soul and body. This is a good theological definition, and as far as I am aware, harmonizes with all other Christian definitions of death (or what Revelation would call "the first death").

The definition comes in section 997, which has more to say in response to the question What is rising? It says, "In death, the separation of the soul from the body, the human body decays and the soul goes to meet God, while awaiting its reunion with its glorified body. God, in his almighty power, will definitively grant incorruptible life to our bodies by reuniting them with our souls, through the power of Jesus' Resurrection."

The completion of our salvation is not just our (re)union with God, but also the reunion of our immortal soul with our resurrected body on a resurrected (or renewed) earth. I bring this up to highlight a discrepancy between orthodox Christian doctrine and modern American folk religion, which tends to talk about salvation in terms of going to be with God in heaven forever. Such a view tends to see the body as a shell for the soul, which is "the real me," an idea captured best in the infamous funeral parlor poem "I'm Free."

Don't grieve for me, for now I'm free 
I'm following the path God has chosen for me. 
I took His hand when I heard him call; 
I turned my back and left it all. 

I could not stay another day, 
To laugh, to love, to work or play. 
Tasks left undone must stay that way; 
I've now found peace at the end of day. 

If my parting has left a void, 
Then fill it with remembered joys. 
A friendship shared, a laugh, a kiss; 
Oh yes, these things, I too will miss. 

Be not burdened with times of sorrow;
Look for the sunshine of tomorrow. 
My life's been full, I savored much; 
Good friends, good times, a loved ones touch. 

Perhaps my time seems all to brief; 
Don't lengthen your pain with undue grief. 
Lift up your heart and peace to thee, 
God wanted me now-He set me free!

This popular theology (which is actually the manifestation of a Christian heresy) is labeled "Christo-Platonism" by Randy Alcorn's in his book Heaven. He points out that for Plato, matter is a hindrance to spirit, which means our bodies are a prison for our souls. Alcorn notes that, "But according to Scripture, our bodies aren't just shells for our spirits to inhabit; they're a good and essential aspect of our being" (pg 475). Jesus came to redeem our souls as well as our bodies. That's the significance of the incarnation and the resurrection--the redemption of matter.

Which got me to thinking . . . If your view of salvation is being eternally free from your body so that you can live with God in heaven, then do really believe in everlasting life? Or do you believe in everlasting death?


Jonathan said...

Are you familiar with N.T. Wright's 'Surprised by Hope'? He talks at great length about how this more orthodox version of eternal life has profound implications in all kinds of day-to-day life.

Fr Timothy Matkin said...

I have not read it, but I did watch a talk he did at National Cathedral on his book tour for Simply Christian, and he incorporated much of that in his talk. Very engaging stuff. It's things like that that make me want to see him be the next ABC.