The theological world of today is bemused by an eschatological cliché that has come to be accepted as almost axiomatic: Christianity has no doctrine of immortality but only a belief in resurrection.
A pioneer in this view is Oscar Cullmann. In his Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead Cullmann tries to show from the New Testament—and from Plato’s Phaedo—that the two ideas are radically incompatible. He sets in contrast the deaths of Socrates and Jesus and believes that our Lord’s expiring agony stemmed from the seriousness with which he took the implications of the death of the body for the continuance of man’s spiritual existence. Socrates’ death, on the other hand, is said to reflect a dualistic rejection, typically Greek, of the body, and an unrealistic view of the nature of “soul” or “spirit.”
It seems strange to select Socrates as the major bearer of Hellenistic thought at this point. There were, after all, many strains in Greek thought about the body. Gymnastike was an indispensable element in Hellenistic education—hardly an evidence for the dualism that seems to worry Professor Cullmann so greatly. Nor are we convinced by hearing that the body enjoyed positive appreciation among the Greeks in spite of its corporeality. Could it be that the Greeks simply reflected the common sentiments of humanity in seeing the spiritual part of man as imperishable?
To show that a doctrine of the post mortem survival of the soul or spirit of man is in radical opposition to the Christian understanding, it is necessary first to demonstrate that there are no clear traces of such a teaching in the Old Testament and/or in Judaism. One is impressed by the repeated statements in the Old Testament that the dying “go to their fathers” ...1
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