From “Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead?
by Oscar Cullmann, 1902-1999
l have put the death of Socrates and the death of Jesus side by side. For nothing shows better the radical difference between the Greek doctrine of the immortality of the soul and the Christian doctrine of the resurrection. Because Jesus underwent death in all its horror, not only in his body but also in his soul (“My God, why hast thou forsaken me”), and as he is regarded by the first Christians as the mediator of salvation, he must indeed be the very one who in his death conquers death itself. He cannot obtain this victory by simply living on as an immortal soul, thus fundamentally not dying. He can conquer death only by actually dying, by betaking himself to the sphere of death, the destroyer of life, to the sphere of “nothingness,” of abandonment by God. When one wishes to overcome someone else, one must enter his territory. Whoever wants to conquer death must die; he must really cease to live; not simply live on as an immortal soul, but die in body and soul, lose life itself, the most precious good which God has given us. For this reason, the evangelists, who nonetheless intended to present Jesus as the Son of God, have not tried to soften the terribleness of his thoroughly human death.
Furthermore, if life is to issue out of so genuine a death as this, a new divine act of creation is necessary. And this act of creation calls back to life not just a part of the man, but the whole man, all that God had created and death had annihilated. For Socrates and Plato, no new act of creation is necessary. For the body is indeed bad and should not live on. And that part which is to live on, the soul, does not die at all.
If we want to understand the Christian faith in the resurrection, we must completely disregard the Greek thought that the material, the bodily, the corporeal is bad and must be destroyed, so that the death of the body would not be in any sense a destruction of the true life. For Christian (and Jewish) thinking, the death of the body is also destruction of God created life. No distinction is made: even the life of our body is true life; death is the destruction of all life created by God. Therefore it is death and not the body which must be conquered by the resurrection.
Only he who apprehends with the first Christians the horror of death, who takes death seriously as death, can comprehend the Easter exultation of the primitive Christian community and understand that the whole thinking of the New Testament is governed by belief in the resurrection. Belief in the immortality of the soul is not belief in a revolutionary event. Immortality, in fact, is only a negative assertion: the soul does not die, but simply lives on. Resurrection is a positive assertion: the whole man. who has really died, is recalled to life by a new act of creation by God. Something has happened, a miracle of creation! For something has also happened previously. something fearful: life formed by God has been destroyed.
Death in itself is not beautiful, not even the death of Jesus. Death before Easter is really the death’s head surrounded by the odour of decay. And the death of Jesus is as loathsome as the great painter Grünewald depicted it in the Middle Ages. But precisely for this reason, the same painter understood how to paint, along with it, in an incomparable way, the great victory, the resurrection of Christ: Christ in the new body, the resurrection body. Whoever paints a pretty death can paint no resurrection. Whoever has not grasped the
horror of death cannot join Paul in the hymn of victory: “Death is swallowed up—in victory! O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” (I Cor. 15:54f).