Around our house we’ve lately been talking about souls. Great breakfast table conversation. Is the soul inside or outside of the body? When some theologians, me for instance, talk about embodied souls, what the heck are they talking about? Where did the idea of an eternal soul come from? What is a soul anyway?
An eternal soul that is ours by right of being human is very popular and commonly held, but it’s a very Greek idea that doesn’t have much credibility in Hebrew scripture. That seems to come as a surprise to most Christians. On the other hand, Hebrew scripture does reflect something of our nature that continues on after death, even if it is in cold storage in Sheol. Consider, for instance, the story of King Saul summoning up the spirit of Samuel to advise him on the upcoming battle. Nevertheless, some kind of spiritual cold storage does not seem to me to be the same thing as life after death. Life requires living in all the meanings that living can have. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were firmly convinced of a resurrection life in which all the promises of God would be fulfilled. The gift of that life eternal, whatever eternal might mean, seems to be exactly that, a gift given by God and not something that is inherent in human being. As Christians we believe that by grace through faith we are recipients of that gift, but I think we get into a lot of trouble when we start telling God what the rules are that govern how and to whom God can grant it. As far as I know, God has never asked for our opinion on that.
Our continued life, in the fullness of all that life can be, after our bodies have died suggests that the soul bears our self into new territory. Whatever our soul is, it seems to me that it must encompass all that we would call the self. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but as a man growing into his senior years, I do know that the self I identify as me is not an old man, in spite of what my body displays in the mirror. That self is not merely the exchange of electrical impulses coursing across the synapses of my brain, nor is it only the image and capabilities of my body. It is more than that, and it continues to grow and change embracing the wholeness of my life.
I believe that both the Incarnation and the Resurrection symbolize the embodiment of soul. Materiality is a part of the soul’s wholeness. The body is not a temporary and decaying soul container from which we will emerge as freed spirits after death. Something there is about soul that includes materiality.
That raises a really good question. What will our resurrection body be like? The Corinthians wanted to know and Paul famously answered by calling the questioner a fool. He went on to say, in essence, that he really had no idea, but whatever it is, it will be quite different from the one we now have. I think we get a clue about the answer not from the Resurrection, but from the Transformation. In that scene, the disciples recognized both Elijah and Moses without difficulty, and that’s the clue. Whatever our resurrection body is, it will embody our souls so that our self will be instantly recognizable by anyone who ever knew us at any time in our lives, regardless of age or condition.
So do we get these marvelous new bodies immediately after death or do we have to wait around for the General Resurrection? N.T. Wright takes a third track and seems to think that we will spend a lot of time in heaven as disembodied souls waiting for the new earth of Revelation before we again become embodied. Given what physicists have told us about the notorious instability of time itself, I’m not sure the question even makes sense. In God’s presence perhaps all these things happen at the same time. Since our earthly lives are predictably short, what difference does it make?