Giles Fraser: I believe in death — not immortality

16 March 2011

Does it really have to be Easter every day of the Christian year? It was Ash Wednesday, the day we get marked with ash and re­minded of out mortality. I did something similar as a Thought for the Day on the Today programme on Radio 4, insisting that Christians really do believe in death — and that death means death.

Howls of condemnation poured in from out­raged Christians and non-Christians, all aghast at this trendy new-fangled theology, and leaping to the conclusion that I was denying the resurrection. In fact, what I said wasn’t at all new or trendy. The immortality of the soul is no real part of the authentic biblical witness. Christians believe in the resurrection — which is a wholly different sort of thing, where death is defeated rather than denied.

This is not the time for an extensive discussion of the resurrection; for that comes at Easter. Suffice to say that Christians believe in the resurrection of the dead. This means that we first believe in death — not going to sleep; not some disembodied soul floating up in the metaphysical ether. We die.

Death is the raw material of the resurrection, and is something far more extraordinary and radical than its Platonised second cousin, the immortality of the soul. In the course of Christian history, it is this type of immortality which is the trendy new thing. As N. T. Wright correctly points out, the Bible does not talk much about the soul.

Regrettably, Archbishop William Temple’s Nature, Man and God (Macmillan, 1934) is now out of print. This is a shame because the issues he addresses are clearly a cause of huge confusion. Immortality, he insists, “has an interest for us beings who cling to life, but there is nothing religious about that”.

Indeed, he continues: “If my desire is first and foremost for future life for myself, or even for re­union with those whom I have loved and lost, then the doctrine of immortality may do me positive harm by fixing me in self-concern or concern for my own joy in my friends.”

Temple’s theology is almost the opposite of the popular theology that one often finds when taking funerals. Here, it is common to find people who have little concern for belief in God, but are completely sure that Uncle Bob is looking down on them from above. Temple starts with God, and remains wholly indifferent to the question what will become of his own future existence.

Although he does not quote 1 Timothy 6.16, it en­tirely supports his case: “God alone is immortal.” We are alive through God’s grace alone. There is nothing intrinsically immortal about human beings. They die. And only God’s life can defeat that death — something we call resurrection. But let’s wait a few weeks for that part of the story.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and Director of the St Paul’s Institute.

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