Tips on Reading the New Testament Regarding the Afterlife

In a recent online discussion about how difficult it is to discern what the New Testament authors thought about suffering and salvation after biological death, I shared these four top reasons why people today misunderstand the plain meanings of the New Testament on this topic:

1. They have no concept that for most in Christ’s and Paul’s day, our spirits alone could enjoy full union with God and that our spirits (our “inner person”) could only be fully saved by the total destruction of our flesh and our soul (our “outer person”). To be clear, as I’ll consider a little more below, this does not mean that flesh or soul are evil. They are gifts by which we can learn to participate in the life of God, and their destruction is a transfiguration by fire.

2. That for most in Christ’s and Paul’s world there are multiple ages in which we exist and that these are not sequential but are stacked within each other. Words like “before” and “after” are not primarily sequential either. Time and space were both assumed to be layered or hierarchical, so that our current experience of time is somehow just a beginning with a myriad of incomplete gaps that can yet be made whole within the fuller experience of heavenly time as it transfigures our current fallen time.

3. There were competing conceptualizations among New Testament authors regarding what is most real, what makes up a human, and what union with God’s eternal life would involve. Sometimes, the same author will even have several conceptual approaches between which they vacillate.

4. Despite the wide variety of concepts, virtually all agreed that matter (which made up fleshly bodies) was incomplete and transitory and easily manipulated while spirit (breath, fire, or indestructible light) was an element that was uniquely substantive and potent and capable of divine life.

My second point generated the most interest including a comment by a well-informed scholar in the group that this point was probably “the most dubious claim, though it may be true” and that he would “like to see it unpacked and the evidence for it presented.” I would love to circle back and provide such evidence some time, but that’s a larger project. For now, I can just point to these sources that read the New Testament in this more ancient way (with the concept of layered ages that are not just sequential in terms of “fallen time” to use a phrase from David Hart in The Doors of the Sea):

  • Time and Man (Mantzaridis)
  • Ever-Moving Repose (Mitralexis)
  • Transfiguring Time (Clément)
  • The Bride of the Lamb (Bulgakov)
  • Mystagogy (Golitzin)
  • On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ (St. Maximus and P. Blowers)
  • The Doors of the Sea (Hart)

In addition to any more reflections that I might be able to share from books such as these, I hope that Hart might write more about the specific topic of time in the scriptures at some point. I once asked him if you would “consider a reflection some time on the nature of time (comparing its fallen and its higher forms)?” He responded: “An interesting idea.” Hope springs eternal…

My first point in the list at the top got a thoughtful question as well from another member: “Where do you get the whole destruction of the psyche/nefesh being necessary?” This is a good question because conceptualizations of “the soul” are one of the greatest examples of my third point above regarding how diverse the anthropologies of various biblical authors can be. Soul is a much contested zone for the authors with many changing and conflicting ideas. It can sometimes be conflated with the breath and spirit of God. However, Paul clearly distinguishes soul from spirit in 1 Corinthians 15:44. He says here that a spirit body does not need the animating power of a soul: “It is sown a psychical body, it is raised a spiritual body.” In his New Testament translation, Hart has this note with this verse:

The distinction is between a σῶμα ψυχικόν (sōma psychikon) (a body literally “ensouled,” “animated,” or “animal,” given life by psychē, the “soul” or organic “life-principle”) and a σῶμα πνευματικόν (sōma pnevmatikon) (a body that is of a “spirited” nature, or constituted from or made to live entirely by deathless spirit, pnevma). As is even more clear in the succeeding verses, this is also a distinction between earthly and heavenly origin; and, as is clearest of all in v. 50, resurrection for Paul is not a simple resuscitation of the sort of material body one has in the fallen world, but a radically different kind of life.

Think of the implications for some teachings by Jesus Christ if he shares anything like this concept from Paul that the soul-body gives life to the flesh-body but that both must be left behind as they are transfigured by the full manifestation of our spirit-body? For example, consider when Christ teaches: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28, ESV). This becomes the simple continuation of the comfort that Christ is providing to the suffering within the larger context of this verse. Man can only harm our fleshly body. However, God (for whom “not one sparrow will fall to the ground apart from your Father” as the next verse points out) is the one who can take not only our body but our soul from us—as must eventually happen when we are all ultimately revealed as bodies of pure heavenly fire like the stars or like the burning bush.

I would also reiterate that both flesh and soul are good and can faithfully serve our spirit in this fallen world. This belief in the sacramental goodness of flesh and matter—as it participates in the life of God’s Spirit—does separate Christian belief from some future gnostic ideas. Such a belief in the participation of matter with the life of God, while essential to the Christian faith, was not unique to it, however. Christian teachers in future centuries would cite pagan Platonists in defense of the goodness of matter (a fact not well understood in the simplified ideas that are generally taught today related to all of this).

Because of this love for how the fleshly body connects us to our spiritual body, we do treat our bodies even now as temples of God. Cremation is only permitted among Orthodox Christians in Japan, and Christians have always championed high and intimate standards in caring for all of the dead and have long venerated the relics of beloved saints. Our bodies, even after they die biologically, are all a gift of communion with a spiritual body into which they all are ultimately transfigured. A helpful book related to all of this (and highly recommended by Hart) is The Corinthian Body by Dale B. Martin. I have blogged about this a long while back, and, most recently, have summarized Hart’s ideas on spiritual bodies here.

When it comes to how we read the Bible, of course we can apprehend the Word of God most fully as we line up to venerate the cover of our Gospel Book (for whom so many have died across history to keep it safely hidden between services) and as we hear its divine teachings intoned within the incensed air and amid the reverberation of bells during our worship and prayer together in our churches. At the same time, we also know that none of this prayerful corporate context is a guarantee that the seed of divine life from within its pages will land on soft and ready hearts to take root and to yield sixty fold or more. We pray earnestly that we might receive the Word of God, and we hope for the increase of it within our lives.

None of this contradicts the fact that some formal learning about the texts of the New Testament is also a great help to us. This need for instruction is, in some part, why homilies remain a critical part of every liturgy (except on Pascha night when we simply read the venerable homily of St John the Golden-Tongued regarding how “Hell was embittered when …it took a body, and met God face to face”).

Sadly, it seems clear to me that the burden of teaching only grows greater with time. One of the most obvious things in history is that: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” (to cite the famous opening lines of L. P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between in which Harley was actually quoting his friend Lord David Cecil in his inaugural lecture as Goldsmith’s Professor in 1949). We should not flinch at visiting these strange worlds of the past with a readiness to attend and learn. Past worlds are not better than our world today, but they do have a wealth of forgotten wisdom.

There are good reasons why almost all questions about eschatology and the post-mortem state are theologoumenon for Orthodox. Not only are the ideas of the New Testament authors and subsequent Christian writers quite diverse, but all of us in these fleshly and biological bodies with our five senses are barely capable of seeing or comprehending anything about life after this current death. We must learn now to love our salvation and to hope for our salvation, but we cannot know our salvation until after we fully die. Even after our fleshly death, many of us are likely to have much dying left to do before the glory of God’s spirit transfigures all of our flesh and soul into pure bodies of light. Our five biological senses now are a means of communion with this light to be sure, but the attention of our nous struggles greatly to hold all the streams of sensation together into their native wholeness.

What Jesus Christ, Paul, and other voices from the New Testament teach on the topic of life after death are tremendously confusing. They were clearly confusing even from the start of the Christian church, because interpretations of their meaning varied substantially from the earliest years. However, a case can be made that Jesus and Paul, at least, had some clarity about what they themselves believed. It is likely that other authors, such as Luke, had less clarity or consistency in their ideas about the human experience after death. However, even the defense of consistency from Jesus and Paul is not a simple case to make, and the passage of a couple millenia has not made it any easier.

C. S. Lewis, for example, had a wild belief about an eternal hell for subhuman beings. This seems like a kind of annihilationism (also called conditional immortality), but Lewis believed that the human soul cannot be entirely snuffed from existence but only degraded by our own choices until it becomes inhuman and incapable of repentance. Therefore, relying primarily on The Problem of Pain, Reggie Weems argues that C. S. Lewis was not an annihilationist. Quoting from pages 127-128: “To enter heaven is to become more human than you ever succeeded in being on earth; to enter hell, is to be banished from humanity.” Therefore, “the soul never ceases to be but exists as dehumanized humanity, an ex-man or damned ghost.” Lewis also speaks of this state as the “un-man” on page 253 of The Space Trilogy (Hammersmith: Harper Collins, 2013). This vision of Lewis lends some terrible weight indeed to the famous lines from his beloved “Weight of Glory” sermon:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.

Lewis developed this idea of eternal conscious torment for those of us who chose a sub-human existence as a synthesis of what he found in the scriptures, and Lewis did not want this all to be true. He wrote in a September 6, 1959 letter to the theologian Alan M. Fairhurst that he would much prefer to follow his beloved George MacDonald as a universalist: “Need I add that I should very much prefer to follow George MacDonald in this point if I could?” Lewis says in the same letter, however, that he is bound by “the Dominical utterances themselves” which “seemed to me irreconcilable with universalism.” While bound by the teachings of his Lord Jesus, Lewis also recognized that Paul very often sounds like a universalist. In The Great Divorce, the main character (who is Lewis himself in a dream state) says to the angelic spirit sent to teach Lewis how to live within the mountains of heaven (and who is George MacDonald): “You talked as if all men would be saved. And St. Paul too.”

If great Christian thinkers such as C. S. Lewis are so torn over these questions, so, also, are many living thinkers. Even David Bentley Hart—whose confidence regarding the salvation of all is arguably the most insistently expressed of any Christian voice in history—said in a recent interview that “if you try to construct a coherent rather than merely symbolic and minatory meaning for these metaphors [of destruction, banishment, and imprisonment given by Jesus Christ], you end up with gibberish.” To be clear, Hart has many helpful things to say about what Jesus does mean with his various “minatory metaphors,” but it is a messy picture of practical advice about the dangerous realities of this present world along with some warnings about the periods of banishment and the destruction of evil that awaits many of us beyond our biological death. Echoing Lewis, Hart is far more clear about our ability to understand Paul:

I think there are three possible readings of Paul. One is that he generally believed that, when the old age passes away and the new age comes, only some will enjoy a resurrection and a spiritual body and enter into the kingdom whereas others, the rest, will simply pass away with the old order. [Interviewer: “Annihilationism?”] Yeah. There are those who think that he is unclear, that he at times speaks as an annihilationist and then at other times as in 1 Corinthians 15 or in Romans chapter 5 or in various places, speaks in clear and and unambiguously universalist terms and those are the terms that were taken up in the pastoral epistles by whoever wrote those because the pastoral epistles are clearly universalists. And then there are those who, like me, think that, no, he was universalist and that 1 Corinthians 3 explains his theology perfectly adequately, and if there’s any other passage you can find in his writings that contradicts that picture, please make me aware of it, but I haven’t found it yet.

What’s definitely not there, absolutely clearly not in Paul—and that would definitely be in Paul’s thought given the gravity of the concern that it should evoke—is the notion of eternal torment. For him, Christ came to save us from death, from dissolution, from destruction, but if he actually believed in a state of eternal postmortem suffering it would have been rather colossally silly of him never to have mentioned it as part of the stakes involved in the drama of salvation. It’s not there because he was unaware of the idea, and he was unaware of the idea because it’s nonsense. (See this interview with Larry Chapp.)

With such a range of categories and debates that exist among highly-trained scholars on these exegetical questions, it is little wonder that Christians are often told to focus on their own sanctification and salvation now in this life while leaving these larger final questions in the loving hands of God. Although I certainly agree that this is good advice, I also agree with Hart that eternal conscious torment of free rational spirits created by God makes no sense as one of those outcomes that our loving God might have in store. As I have written and said several times, I’m with Saint Sophrony. Once, when the Orthodox theologian Olivier Clement asked then Elder Sophrony what would happen if a person does not agree to open his or her heart and accept the love of God, Sophrony replied: “You may be certain that as long as someone is in hell, Christ will remain there with him.”

But this essay is supposed to be about how to read your New Testament, so to return to my opening points, I maintain, without bothering to work it all out here, that Jesus and Paul may be more consistent with themselves and with each other than we typically think on some of these inscrutable questions. And I am convinced that understanding Jesus and Paul on these matters requires some serious consideration of what they both thought about divine life in the spirit versus the kind of life-bound-to-death that we currently know as well as what they both believed about the relationship of one age to another across the realms of time as we currently know it and time as it might exist in closer communion with God’s own eternal and timeless life. Especially these considerations about time and the relation of age to age, can open up the scriptures to us in new ways. In the light of such a living Word, we can even learn to complete our own past lives. This starts even now as we learn to commune with a God from whom every moment of our current history is both immediately present and entirely finished, whole, and radiant with glorious and infinite potential.

Icon of the Last Judgment. Novgorod, late 15th century. (Twenty ordeals are represented by rings on the winding path to the Throne.)

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