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Body and Soul

An address by Fr John Slater

05 October 2003 11:00 | Fr John Slater

He was the only son of his mother, and she was a widow - what a very poignant comment on that scene from St Luke’s Gospel. This was a society without pension provision when the elderly relied on their children in their old age. When Jesus says, Young man, I say unto thee, Arise, he sits up, speaks and is restored to his mother. But I think the earliest Christians for whom this Gospel was written would have seen the incident as a paradigm of the resurrection - which is not coming back from death to this life but going on beyond death to eternal life.

I think it might be worth while looking at the biblical attitude to death and resurrection; it is different from what we might easily assume. In his speech to the Labour party Conference last week, Gordon Brown spoke about the soul of the party. By that I presume he meant the abiding essence of what the party has always stood for. But he is using a religious word which usually refers to the abiding essence of a human person.

Aristotle says the soul may be defined as the initial actuality of a natural body endowed with the capacity of life. Greek thought generally divided the human person into a mortal body and an immortal soul. Some philosophers taught that the soul was part of the divine but tragically imprisoned in the body from which it would only be liberated by death. This is not biblical teaching but it does still strongly influence Christian thought. At a funeral we often speak of commending the body of the departed to the earth and their soul to God - but this is a Greek way of seeing things rather than the biblical way.

So what is the biblical way? Hebrew thought sees a human being as a unity of body, mind and spirit. These belong together, are born together and die together. No part of us is naturally immortal and for much of Hebrew history there was no belief in life after death. The big change came when hundreds of young men died in the revolt led by Judas Maccabeus against the Syrians in the second century BC. People refused to believe that death was the end for their brave warriors. The Jews did not choose to believe, like the Greeks, in an immortal soul, but rather that although we die - body, mind and spirit - God who first made us can also raise us beyond death to new and eternal life.

In the Nicene Creed we speak of our belief in the resurrection of the body, though St Paul rather confusingly speaks of this as a spiritual body. Greek language about the immortality of the soul and Hebrew language about the resurrection of the body are different ways of trying to throw light on the mystery of life beyond death. Christianity prefers the insights of the Old Testament which were shared by Jesus himself - eternal life is not something to which we have a natural right, but something which is a gift of God, an act of new creation.

But by way of shorthand, we can still speak of the soul as being the defining core of who we are. A modern parallel might be the genetic code which stores information about each individual. And God who fashioned each of us in his own image will cherish the this identity of all who have died as the seeds of new and eternal life. The Greek idea of soul and the Hebrew belief in resurrection should both point us to our total dependence upon the creator. Eternal life is not our right; it is God’s free gift through Jesus Christ.
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