W hat does the Bible say about death and resurrection? The meaning of the resurrection in Scripture is marked by two distinct emphases, and it is useful to differentiate between them. One of them is the immortality of the soul, which is a property of the soul by virtue of its nature, and involves an afterlife in either heaven or hell. We all survive death, and either go to be in heaven, or to suffer in hell, while we wait for the resurrection of the body. This brings us to the second meaning: the resurrection of the body, which occurs at the end of time as we know it. This involves the raising of physical bodies from the dead when Christ returns.
The Sadducees argued, in numerous New Testament texts, that there was no resurrection of the dead (Matthew 22:23, Mark 12:18, Luke 20:27, and others). Yet the immortality of the soul is often assumed in the New Testament, even in the words of Jesus, who says to one of the men who was crucified with him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). This seems to presuppose a dwelling in Paradise, quite apart from any notion of the resurrection, since Jesus was raised, but there was no general resurrection.
We see these two distinct emphases in other passages of Scripture, too. For example, Paul, in his early discussion of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:26, states that “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” This sounds very much like the emphasis on the resurrection of the body. But his further discussion seems to move more in the direction of the immortality of the soul. First Corinthians 15:44 states, “it is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.” Hence, for Paul, the physical is a prelude to the spiritual. This seems very close to the notion of the immortality of the soul.
We see these same two emphases, even more starkly, in contemporary Christian practice. For example, many folks assume that when they die, their spirits will be connected to loved ones who have died before them. This is clearly based on the immortality of the soul, quite apart from any notion of resurrection. It presupposes only that those who have died have gone to heaven, rather than hell, and so will be seen by loved ones after death, quite apart from any resurrection at the end of time, when the new heaven and the new earth will appear (Revelation 21).
What are we to make of this tension? On the one hand, we could say, “when you are dead, you’re dead” and abandon any notion of the immortality of the soul. However, this seems to ignore those New Testament texts that seem much more open to the immortality of the soul, including the words of Jesus himself cited above. On the other hand, we might abandon the notion of a final resurrection, and simply affirm the immortality of the soul. Yet this seems to avoid a significant number of New Testament texts as well.
Or we can simply hold the tension, affirming both, without calling either into question. That is what I am recommending. This is not without its own tensions, since the two concepts are not entirely compatible with each other. If the soul is immortal, why should the body be raised from the dead? If bodies are raised, why do we also believe in the immortality of the soul? Obviously, the resurrection of Jesus is part of this, since the gospel affirms that Jesus was physically raised from the dead, and he invites his disciples to touch his wounds and to physically explore his body (Luke 24:39 and parallels). Yet Jesus himself seems also to affirm the immortality of the soul (Luke 23:43, cited earlier, and similar others). It may not always be easy to resolve the tensions.
Of course, this all has major implications also for the way we think about the creation. Is God concerned about the creation, or is the goal of life simply to escape creation via the immortality of the soul? How we resolve these tensions at the practical level will affect what we practically believe about God and God’s character, as well as the earth and its future.
Jim Brownson is retired after three decades of professorship and leadership at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, including a lengthy tenure as the James I. and Jean Cook Professor of New Testament. He is ordained in the Reformed Church in America and has served as a General Synod professor. Jim is also a published author, many times over. His most recent book is Questions Christians Aren’t Supposed to Ask (2021).