Monday, May 11, 2009

The soul doesn't leave the body at death

I think it’s safe to say that most Christians think that your soul leaves your body when you die. What I’m about to show you is that this is not biblical. The biblical afterlife is not the immortality of the soul but the resurrection of the body.

Second Corinthians 5:1-8 is put forward by Christians as proof of the immortality of the soul and thus the departure of the soul from the body at death. Yet in these verses Paul says that your present physical body (a flesh and blood “tent”, as he calls it) must be changed into an immortal, imperishable body (a resurrected “house”, as he calls it). Resurrection accomplishes this, says Paul, and nothing else.

2 Corinthians 5:1-8 For we know that if the earthly tent (skenos {pronounced skay'-nos} meaning tent or tabernacle) we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling (house) -- 3 if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. 6 So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord -- 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. (italics mine)

This quote, perhaps more than any other, is held up as proof of your immortal soul leaving your body and going to heaven when you die. Is that how you read it? Yes, Paul does write about being “in the body” and “away from the body.” Isn’t that proof that during your life your soul is “at home in the body,” but in death your soul is “away from the body”? And isn’t that proof that your soul leaves your body at death? Not in the least on both accounts. Take a closer look.

First, where is the word soul in 2 Corinthians 5:1-8? It’s not there. If an interpretation tells me that these verses are about the immortality of the soul, and the word soul is not in those verses, then I feel pretty suspicious up front.

Second, why would Paul abandon the resurrection of the body in this one passage while holding to it everywhere else? For Paul, the resurrection of the body from the dead is key. If there is not resurrection, Paul says, then our faith is for nothing and we have no hope. (1 Corinthians 15, especially verses 14 and 19)

So, you might ask: If Paul isn’t saying that your soul leaves your body at death, then what might he be saying?

Your flesh-and-blood body (your present natural body) is an earthly tent (skenos), says Paul in verses 1-4. The destruction of the tent is death (verse 1). But we will have a heavenly house, says Paul; the flesh-and-blood physical tent will be transformed into a proper eternal home. The house will be better than the tent we have now. The tent is mortal. The result of death is that what is mortal will be swallowed up by Life (verse 4)—becoming immortal. So we have nothing to worry about, he claims. The dead tent is swallowed up by Life when raised as an eternal home. Read 1-4 again:

2 Corinthians 5:1-4 For we know that if the earthly tent (our mortal bodies) we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God (our immortal bodies), a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling -- 3 if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. (bold italics mine)

Paul is talking about resurrection, as always, when he speaks of the afterlife. Yes, 2 Corinthians 5:1-8 is used more than any other to argue for the immortality of the soul. And I understand why. It can easily be misconstrued. It says to be “at home in the body” is to be “away from the Lord,” and the reverse: “to be away from the body” is to “be at home with the Lord.” But again, forget immortality of the soul. It’s not there. It’s a pagan philosophy that has poisoned the Christian resurrection well.

NET Colossians 2:8 Be careful not to allow anyone to captivate you through an empty, deceitful philosophy that is according to human traditions and the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.

I can show you definitively that Paul is talking about resurrection. Let me inserts phrases in brackets from elsewhere in Paul’s teaching to clarify Paul’s meaning in verses 6-8:

2 Corinthians 5:6-8 So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the [flesh-and-blood natural] body [here and now in this earthly tent] we are away from the Lord [until the resurrection when our physical bodies are changed into spiritual bodies like his, not a mere tent but an eternal house, and we will be like him and see him face to face] -- 7 for we walk by faith [right now in the earthly tent], not by sight. 8 Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the [flesh-and-blood natural] body [only a tent] and at home with the Lord [in the house that is our spiritual body in the resurrection of the dead, a body like his].

We’re not leaving our bodies at death, according to Paul. Our dead, defeated tents are transformed into living, victorious houses on the day of resurrection. Our mortal bodies become immortal bodies. Our perishable bodies become imperishable bodies. Our bodies will be like Jesus’ body. We’ll have spiritual bodies. We’ll be with him and see him for the first time as he is, Paul insists.

NET 1 Corinthians 13:12 For now we see in a mirror indirectly, 4 but then we will see face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known.

NET Notes (1Co 13:12): 4 Corinth was well known in the ancient world for producing some of the finest bronze mirrors available. Paul's point in this analogy, then, is not that our current understanding and relationship with God is distorted (as if the mirror reflected poorly), but rather that it is "indirect," (i.e., the nature of looking in a mirror) compared to the relationship we will enjoy with him in the future when we see him "face to face" (cf. G. D. Fee, First Corinthians [NICNT], 648).

The pagan idea of the immortality of the soul is entirely different and entirely incompatible with the Bible’s promised resurrection. It comes from Greek mythology and philosophy. It’s Plato’s calling card.

In the pagan philosophy of immortality of the soul . . .

1. the human body is bad and the soul is good
2. the good soul is imprisoned in the bad human body
3. the good soul escapes the bad human body at death
4. the soul’s destiny is a cycle of reincarnations

In Christian Scripture . . .

1. the human body is made by God and is not evil
2. the human body is not separable from the soul
3. the human body is not a prison for the soul which must be escaped
4. the whole person is made alive, each person once and uniquely, with body and soul together forever via resurrection from the dead in Christ Jesus on the last day

The following text is often paired with 2 Corinthians 5 to argue for the immortality of the soul:

Philippians 1:21-24 For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. 23 I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24 but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.

Paul is talking about resurrection here too, not his soul leaving his body. Now, Paul says, we live in the flesh of a physical body—a temporary tent. We depart via death and resurrection to be with Christ in a spiritual body—an eternal house. By “remain in the flesh” he means remain in the tent that is our flesh-and-blood natural bodies while mortals. To depart and be with Christ is the preferable choice (to be in face-to-face immortality with the Lord at the resurrection), but Paul puts the needs of the church first and tells them that they need him in the tent for a little longer. His service to them is not finished.

There is nothing in 2 Corinthians 5 or Philippians 1 about the immortality of the soul or the soul leaving the body. Both chapters are referring, as Paul does consistently throughout his letters, to resurrection of the whole person.

Romans 6:5 For if we have been united with him (Jesus) in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

1 Corinthians 15:12-13 Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised;

1 Corinthians 15:21-22 For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; 22 for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.

Second Peter 1:13-15 is also noted as support for immortality of the soul.

2 Peter 1:13-15 I think it right, as long as I am in this body 1, to refresh your memory, 14 since I know that my death will come soon, as indeed our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. 15 And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things. (italics mine)

1 skenoma {pronounced skay'-no-mah} meaning tent or tabernacle (but is translated here as body)

Don’t miss Peter’s use of the word, “this.” “. . . as long as I am in THIS body (tent) . . .” He’s not suggesting that his soul is detachable. He’s talking about “this” old body being changed into the next body, a new body, the tent become a house. He’s talking about the resurrection of his body after his “departure,” meaning his death.

Arguably more than any other verses, 1 Corinthians 5:1-8, Philippians 1:21-24, and 2 Peter 1:13-15 are used by Christians to defend the immortality of the soul. This is indefensible. Christians believe in the resurrection of the body on the last day, as our most commonly recited creed of faith professes. The Apostles’ Creed, a listing of the essentials of biblical apostolic teaching, says nothing about the soul leaving the body at death. But it does say this:

“I believe in . . . the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen."

For more on the Apostle Paul see my blogs The Apostle Paul Never Converted to Christianity, Paul Didn't Go to Heaven, and Porneia.
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