This week saw the Christian Church celebrate the wonderful feast of Easter, a truly marvellous event in the Church’s calendar, which, as you may know, continues for 50 days. The accounts of Christ’s resurrection give Christians the tremendous hope that, at the end of our lives, death will not have the final word, but rather, we will go to be with Christ and see our heavenly Father face-to-face. Speaking from a personal perspective, this hope has been of tremendous comfort to me over many years: from the moment, really, that I first became aware of the reality of death as a young boy.
However, not everyone down through the ages has viewed this aspect of Christianity with the same enthusiasm. Karl Marx, for example described religion (by which he really meant Christianity) as the ‘opium of the people’ because it kept the ordinary people in servitude: the promise of eternal life with God meant that they put up with the absolute drudgery of 19th century life without complaining. (Actually, I’m not sure that that’s entirely true – I suspect they did plenty of complaining!).
A similar criticism has been made more recently by ecological theologians, who suggest that the concept of the soul flying off to heaven, as they put it, has so focused Christians’ attention on eternal life with God, that the needs of the world, including the natural world, are easily forgotten. So the argument goes that Christianity was heavily influenced by Plato’s thoughts and those of his followers. The concept of the soul going off to be with God was influenced by Plato’s ideas that this world was merely a shadow of the real world. The real world is somewhere else, and the soul will travel there, leaving behind the physical body, which is merely the shell which houses the essence of a human being: the soul. If the soul is going off to be with God, there is no incentive to care for creation now. The result, and this thought is particularly found in feminist ecological theology, is that human beings long to leave behind the messy, awkward realm of the physical, and take off to heaven. This world is simply the training ground for our higher purpose: eternal life with God.
So, can we still hope for eternal life with God and yet at the same time be motivated to care for God’s creation now? Putting it another way, is it either one or the other?
It is true that Christianity was influenced by Plato’s thoughts. As one of the premier Greek philosophers, Plato’s ideas were well known, remembering that under Alexander the Great, Greek ideas had spread across the known world, including into First Century Palestine. There is no denying that Christianity took the Greek ideas of the eternal soul as a way of understanding the hope for the resurrection.
But herein lies the critical difference: although Platonism and the idea of the eternal soul certainly influenced Christianity, they didn’t define it. The early Christian thinkers used those ideas as a way of making sense of the resurrection. I think that the experience of Jesus’ resurrection appearances was so powerful and so overwhelming, that they were searching for language to make sense of it. Using Greek philosophy was a masterstroke because it was so well known. But a twist was added by those early Christians in response to their experience of Christ’s resurrection. We see it in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, when he attempts to talk about bodily resurrection and we see it in John’s Gospel, when Thomas encounters the risen Lord. In both cases, the writers clearly had in mind that it was the resurrection of the body, which was the defining mark and hope of Christianity.
Whatever resurrection means exactly, and you can see Paul struggling with the idea as he writes to the Corinthians, it certainly does not mean a disembodied soul flying off to an eternal paradise. Rather, it means that God takes us, all of us, with all of our physical flaws, as well as all of our emotions, thoughts and memories, and transforms them with the same power, with which he transformed the crucified Jesus into the risen Christ. Resurrection, in the Christian sense, is fundamentally different from the notion of a soul leaving behind the empty husk of the body.
There is something else which Christianity must never forget: what we do in this life matters and is remembered eternally by God. In other words, what we do in this life enters into God’s eternity; it is written down, transcribed, into God’s eternal memory. The actions we take to encourage life, to preserve the diversity of our environment, to protect our fragile wilderness, to find creative solutions to the production of our energy, to make our cars more fuel efficient and less polluting: all of these things, are transcribed into God’s memory. Putting it simply, our actions in this life have eternal value and eternal significance.
The Reverend Dr Theo McCall, School Chaplain