Monday, December 13, 2010

The Biblical View of Eternal Life

The Most Rev. Dr. Rowan Williams, 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, offers thoughts on the biblical view of eternal life and why it cannot be reduced to belief in the "immortality of the soul."

People are sometimes rather shocked if you say that Christianity does not believe in the immortality of the soul; but in fact, while the Bible and the tradition talk about 'immortal' life, they don't assume that this deathless existence is something reserved for a part of us only, as if there were a bit of us that didn't have a future and a bit that did, the solid lumpy bit and the hazy spiritual bit. We have a future with God as persons, no less. The life that is given us by God in our mortal and material relationships takes in all of that, and on the further side of death (which be definition we can't imagine) nothing is lost.

Our hope has nothing to do with some natural feature of our existence, a soul that has natural immortality. Although this came to be taken for granted in the early centuries of the Church and deeply affected much of what we are used to hearing on the subject, the hope described in the Bible is connected not to any aspect of our lives but to God's faithful commitment to the whole of what he has made. And, to be fair to earlier Christian generations, while they usually did assume the immortality of the soul, they never lost hold of the larger promise of resurrection. In the Middle Ages, you will find writers describing the frustration of the soul after death as it waits for the Last Judgment when it can be reunited to the body. We don't have to accept the rather convoluted theories they worked out in order to tidy this up; but we can recognize that they understood the hope of eternal life as hope for persons not ghosts.

And ... the key to this is - yet again - the belief in a trustworthy God. The pattern we have had before us all the way through these reflections, the story of a God who is totally committed to what he has made and loved and worked with, whose action and purpose are all directed towards our flourishing and healing, all of that fits completely with the vision of a God who will not let us go even on the far side of death. What he has made and, more significantly, has made his own in the loving action of Jesus, he will not abandon. Ultimately, Christians believe in eternal life not because they believe something about themselves as human (that they have an immortal element in them), but because they believe something about God. And if this belief in eternal life rests on what is made known about God, there is no special reason for Christians to be that concerned about 'evidence for survival' or psychical research. It may be very interesting in its way, it may sometimes be a sign of obsessive anxiety, it may dangerously distract from the real challenges of the gospel; but it doesn't have much to do with the biblical view of eternal life, which takes it for granted that the challenge is to respond honestly and repentantly and joyfully to the presence of God's truth in our midst here and now in the news about Jesus."

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