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The Mortal Soul

Sermon April 5, 2008 (board meeting weekend)

I think it is safe to say that everyone here has heard of a man named Socrates. And of his disciple, Plato.


          I think it is also safe to say that few of us know much about him and how he has influenced Christian thought.


          I don’t plan to trace how that happened, because I want to look at the contrast between his death and that of Jesus.


                      Socrates was a philosopher, and what we know of his philosophy, we learn from Plato, and his work the Phaedo.


          Oscar Cullman calls it “perhaps the highest and most sublime doctrine ever presented on the immortality of the soul.”

The arguments offered for the immortality of the soul are well known:


          Our body is only an outer garment which, as long as we live, prevents our soul from moving freely and from living in conformity to its proper eternal essence.


          It imposes upon the soul a law which is not appropriate to it.


          The soul, confined within the body, belongs to the eternal world. As long as we live, our soul finds itself in a prison, that is, in a body essentially alien to it.


          Death, in fact, is the great liberator. It looses the chains, since it leads the soul out of the prison of the body and back to its eternal home.


          Since body and soul are radically different from one another and belong to different worlds, the destruction of the body cannot mean the destruction of the soul, any more than a musical composition can be destroyed when the instrument is destroyed.

Cullmann goes on:


Although the proofs of the immortality of the soul do not have for Socrates himself the same value as the proofs of a mathematical theorem, they nevertheless attain within their own sphere the highest possible degree of validity, and make immortality so probable that it amounts to a ‘fair chance’ for man.


And when the great Socrates traced the arguments for immortality in his address to his disciples on the day of his death, he did not merely teach this doctrine: at that moment he lived his doctrine. He showed how we serve the freedom of the soul, even in this present life, when we occupy ourselves with the eternal truths of philosophy.


For through philosophy we penetrate into that eternal world of ideas to which the soul belongs, and we free the soul from the prison of the body. Death does no more than complete this liberation.


Plato shows us how Socrates goes to his death in complete peace and composure. The death of Socrates is a beautiful death. Nothing is seen here of death’s terror. Socrates cannot fear death, since indeed it sets us free from the body. Whoever fears death proves that he loves the world of the body, that he is thoroughly entangled in the world of sense. Death is the soul’s great friend. So he teaches; and so, in wonderful harmony with his teaching, he dies -- this man who embodied the Greek world in its noblest form.


          Until I read Cullmanns summary of the death of Socrates, I had only vaguest notion of Socrates’ philosophy and death.

Before I go on to the contrast between the death of Socrates and the death of Jesus, you need to know that Oscar Cullman was a Swiss Christian theologian in the Lutheran tradition.


          A friend gave me some copied excerpts from his book several years ago, but I never got around to reading it.


          Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? by Oscar Cullmann Footnote (1956)


          Cullmann received a lot of flack for the work, as you might easily imagine.

The next thing he does in his book is to contrast the death of Socrates and the death of Jesus:

And now let us hear how Jesus dies. In Gethsemane He knows that death stands before Him, just as Socrates expected death on his last day. The Synoptic Evangelists furnish us, by and large, with a unanimous report.”


          (Mark 14:32-35 NIV) They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, "Sit here while I pray." {33} He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. {34} "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death," he said to them. "Stay here and keep watch." {35} Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him.


          (Matthew 26:36-42 KJV) Then cometh Jesus with them unto a place called Gethsemane, and saith unto the disciples, Sit ye here, while I go and pray yonder. {37} And he took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be sorrowful and very heavy. {38} Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me. {39} And he went a little farther, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt. {40} And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them asleep, and saith unto Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one hour? {41} Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. {42} He went away again the second time, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done.


          (Luke 22:41-44 KJV) And he was withdrawn from them about a stone's cast, and kneeled down, and prayed, {42} Saying, Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done. {43} And there appeared an angel unto him from heaven, strengthening him. {44} And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly: and his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.


          I have read these passages countless times, but I was strangely touched by Oscar Cullmann’s description of this night and his contrast with the approach to death by Socrates.

It is completely impossible to explain away the ‘distress' in the face of death,

and also in view of the fact that Jesus is abandoned by God on the Cross [Mark 15:34],

it is not possible to explain the Gethsemane scene except through this distress at the prospect of being abandoned by God,

an abandonment which will be the work of Death, God's great enemy.)

Jesus is afraid, though not as a coward would be of the men who will kill Him, still less of the pain and grief which precede death. He is afraid in the face of death itself.

Death for Him is not something divine : it is something dreadful. Jesus does not want to be alone in this moment. He knows, of course, that the Father stands by to help Him. He looks to Him in this decisive moment as He has done throughout his life.

He turns to Him with all His human fear of this great enemy, death. He is afraid of death.

It is useless to try to explain away Jesus' fear as reported by the Evangelists. The opponents of Christianity who already in the first centuries made the contrast between the death of Socrates and the death of Jesus saw more clearly here than the exponents of Christianity.

He was really afraid. Here is nothing of the composure of Socrates, who met death peacefully as a friend. To be sure, Jesus already knows the task which has been given Him: to suffer death; and He has already spoken the words: ‘I have a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how distressed (or afraid) I am until it is accomplished' (Luke 19:50). Now, when God's enemy stands before Him, He cries to God, whose omnipotence He knows: ‘All things are possible with thee; let this cup pass from me' (Mark 14:36).

And when He concludes, ‘Yet not as I will, but as thou wilt', this does not mean that at the last He, like Socrates, regards death as the friend, the liberator. No, He means only this: If this greatest of all terrors, death, must befall Me according to Thy will, then I submit to this horror.

 Jesus knows that in itself, because death is the enemy of God, to die means to be utterly forsaken. Therefore He cries to God; in face of this enemy of God He does not want to be alone.

 He wants to remain as closely tied to God as He has been throughout His whole earthly life. For whoever is in the hands of death is no longer in the hands of God, but in the hands of God's enemy.

At this moment, Jesus seeks the assistance, not only of God, but even of His disciples. Again and again He interrupts His prayer and goes to His most intimate disciples, who are trying to fight off sleep in order to be awake when the men come to arrest their Master. They try; but they do not succeed, and Jesus must wake them again and again. Why does He want them to keep awake? He does not want to be alone.

When the terrible enemy, death, approaches, He does not want to be forsaken even by the disciples whose human weakness He knows. ‘Could you not watch one hour?' (Mark 14:37).


          I can’t argue with Cullmann here, because I know categorically that Jesus was tempted in all points as we are.

          And we are afraid of death.


          There are emotions we who live in the flesh cannot control. Fear is one of them.


          I have spoken of my own reaction to the death of my mother. I was there next to her. I thought I was ready for her to go. But when the line went flat and I knew she was dead, I wept like a child.


          Why? I learned something that night. I learned that there is a human reaction to death. I think it is why Jesus wept when he approached Lazarus’ tomb. He was human, and that is what humans do. We can’t help ourselves.

Well, Socrates was a thinker, a logician, and Cullmann applies logic to this situation:


Can there be a greater contrast than that between Socrates and Jesus? Like Jesus, Socrates has his disciples about him on the day of his death; but he discourses serenely with them on immortality. Jesus, a few hours before His death, trembles and begs His disciples not to leave Him alone. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, who, more than any other New Testament author, emphasizes the full deity (1:10) but also the full humanity of Jesus, goes still farther than the reports of the three Synoptists in his description of Jesus' fear of death. In 5:7 he writes that Jesus ‘with loud cries and tears offered up prayers and supplications to Him who was able to save Him'.. . . ) Thus, according to the Epistle to the Hebrews, Jesus wept and cried in the face of death. There is Socrates, calmly and composedly speaking of the immortality of the soul; here Jesus, weeping and crying.


          Apparently, Cullmann took a beating for this description. Probably because his argument could not be defeated on the merits from the text, and all that was left was to attack him personally.


          But I can’t think of any better way to contrast Socrates philosophy with the belief and faith of the first Christians.


          Recently the third ranking bishop in the church of England, N.T. Wright, published a book in which he argues that Christians do not “go to heaven” at death, but wait in an intermediate state which the first Christians universally refer to as “sleep.”

This is not a new idea.

William Tyndale (1484-1536), English Bible translator

"          And ye, in putting them [the departed souls] in heaven, hell and purgatory, destroy the arguments wherewith Christ and Paul prove the resurrection...And again, if the souls be in heaven, tell me why they be not in as good a case as the angels be ? And then what cause is there of the resurrection ?" - William Tyndale, An Answer to Sir Thomas More's Dialogue (1530)

Martin Luther (1493-1546), German reformer and Bible translator

"Salomon judgeth that the dead are a sleepe, and feele nothing at all. For the dead lye there accompting neyther dayes nor yeares, but when they are awoken, they shall seeme to haue slept scarce one minute." - Martin Luther, An Exposition of Salomon's Booke, called Ecclesiastes or the Preacher (translation 1573)


          So, it is kind of hard to throw rocks at Bishop Wright and Oscar Cullmann, for developing the theme further.


          In these days where we begin to understand time dilation, I find myself in the strange position of agreeing with Martin Luther.


          The way I put it when my friend Jim Ross died was that, for Jim, Time stopped and will only start again at the resurrection of the dead.

Consider just a few familiar Scriptures.

(John 11:11-13 KJV) These things said he: and after that he saith unto them, Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep. {12} Then said his disciples, Lord, if he sleep, he shall do well. {13} Howbeit Jesus spake of his death: but they thought that he had spoken of taking of rest in sleep.

(Acts 13:35-36 KJV) Wherefore he saith also in another psalm, Thou shalt not suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. {36} For David, after he had served his own generation by the will of God, fell on sleep, and was laid unto his fathers, and saw corruption:

(1 Corinthians 11:29-30 KJV) For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body. {30} For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep.

(1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 KJV) But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. {14} For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. {15} For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. {16} For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: {17} Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.


          And then, there is our old Favorite, the Resurrection Chapter.

(1 Corinthians 15 KJV) {3} For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; {4} And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: {5} And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: {6} After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. {7} After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. {8} And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time.

{12} Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? {13} But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: {14} And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.

 {15} Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not. {16} For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: {17} And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins.

{18} Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished.


          This is tough.


          A. Paul says, not that they have gone to be with the Lord, but that they have fallen asleep in Christ.


          B. Apart from the resurrection from the dead, they are gone forever.

{19} If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable. {20} But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.


          There it is again. They aren’t wide awake in heaven, they sleep.

{21} For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. {22} For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.

{23} But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ's

at his coming.

{24} Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power. {25} For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet.

{26} The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.


          Death is not a friend that releases the soul from the prison of the body.


          Death is the ultimate enemy. In death man is separated from God—except for those who sleep in Christ.

Like Oscar Cullmann, Paul had his detractors:

{35} But some man will say, How are the dead raised up? and with what body do they come? {36} Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die: {37} And that which thou sowest, thou sowest not that body that shall be, but bare grain, it may chance of wheat, or of some other grain: {38} But God giveth it a body as it hath pleased him, and to every seed his own body.


          This is important. What we put under the ground is not what comes up.


          We bury a body with a missing arm. In the resurrection he arises with a whole, glorified body.

{41} There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory.

{42} So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: {43} It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: {44} It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.


          I have a hundred technical questions about this, but I understand it in the whole.

{45} And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit. {46} Howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual. {47} The first man is of the earth, earthy: the second man is the Lord from heaven. {48} As is the earthy, such are they also that are earthy: and as is the heavenly, such are they also that are heavenly. {49} And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.

{50} Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption.

{51} Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,


          You need to underline that in your mind. As those who are alive will be changed, not left in the flesh, so those who died a paraplegic will be changed into a powerful glorified body.


          This seems to be important for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.


          But this is clear. We will not see life as disembodied spirits. We will have a body.


          So when?

{52} In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.

{53} For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. {54} So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. {55} O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? {56} The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. {57} But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Oscar Cullmann wrote this:

“If one recognizes that death and eternal life in the New Testament are always bound up with the Christ-event, then it becomes clear that for the first Christians the soul is not intrinsically immortal, but rather became so only through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and through faith in Him. It also becomes clear that death is not intrinsically the Friend, but rather that its ‘sting’, its power, is taken away through the victory of Jesus over it in His death.”

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