What did the early Church Believe about the Soul?

White TulipsAs we continue our discussion about what the New Testament has to say about the soul, the afterlife, and how one will make the transition between this life and the next, let’s take a look at what the followers of Jesus believed about these things, as well as what early church members thought.

On questions about the human soul, the afterlife, and the resurrection, it would be nice to have a clear, “thus saith the Lord”.  Unfortunately as much as we might wish that there were explicit teachings on these matters in the New Testament, there is not.

We might wish, for example, that the author of Hebrews may have gotten around to dealing with the early church’s teaching on the resurrection.  He said that “time permitting” he would cover that subject, but alas it seems that he must have run out of time! (Hebrews 6: 2,3)

When a commonly held Christian belief or doctrine is not explicitly taught in Scripture, some say that this probably means that the idea or concept was so fundamental or “taken for granted” that the Biblical authors felt that it was not important enough to develop a clear doctrinal statement or creed, or present any arguments to correct errors.

If that is the case, the important question that we might ask in our current discussion is, “are we absolutely sure that we understand what the fundamental belief of the apostles was on the idea of souls, and how people make it from this life to the next?”  What if our understanding of what the early church believed is wrong?  We might have some general assumptions about what the early church believed, but what have we based these on?  Doctrines come from somewhere, and we can hope that they are reliable, but what if they are not?  What if the early church fathers built some of their doctrines more on popular Greek philosophy than they did from careful study of the scriptures?

Let's take a quick survey of what the first followers of Jesus believed, from the pages of the New Testament.

Reading some of the implicit statements of Paul the matter seems to be a "slam dunk" case.  He says things like;

“I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows.  And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows”  – 2 Corinthians 12: 2-4 (NIV)

“Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we live by faith, not by sight.  We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” – 2 Corinthians 5: 6-9

“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know!  I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.  Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith.”   - Philippians 1:21-25

From these passages, it seems as though Paul believed in the dual nature of mankind and that at death, the soul goes to be with the Lord. In that he does not seem to be laying out any big arguments for his belief, some might infer from this that the readers in Corinth and Philippi understood things in the same way.

However, as we take a closer look at some other passages that reflect the ideas and belief-systems of members of the early church, it may not be such an “open and shut case”.  In spite of Paul’s statement of how nice it would be to just, “pack it all in” and go and be with the Lord, most other passages of the New Testament imply a completely different method of making it to the afterlife, one that has more to do with monism than it does dualism!  It was a teaching called, "the resurrection".  It was the common Jewish belief of the day, and one that the followers of Christ seem to adopt. It insists on a reanimation of a physical body and is always associated with the events of the "last day", at the Second Coming of Jesus.

When Jesus met Martha, grieving at the tomb of her brother, He said:

“Your brother will rise again.”  Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”  John 11: 23,24

We will take up what Jesus believed in another article, but for now it is interesting to note that Jesus does not say something like, “Don’t grieve too much Martha, for Lazarus is not really dead, he is alive and well, enjoying the wonders of heaven!”  Martha does not say something like, “I know my brother is OK and that even though we have put his body in the tomb, his immortal soul is in the Kingdom with the Father…”

You would think that Lazarus might have had a lot to say about his four-day tour of heaven, but he is strangely silent on his “after-death experience”!  His testimony about the beauty of heaven does not make it in to the culture of the early church at all!  It is as if, as Jesus described it to the disciples, he had been “sleeping” for the last four days, not in heaven as we might expect.

The implication from this passage is that a commonly held belief of the followers of Jesus on this subject, was that the mechanism for moving from this life to the afterlife was accomplished through the resurrection of the physical body, and that this would not happen until the “Last Day”. There seems to be a very strong connection between the physical body and "life".  When the body is revived, life is revived!

Where did they get this idea?  Most likely from their Scriptures, what we now call the Old Testament.  Martha’s Bible didn’t really say a lot about the afterlife, but there were a few passages that people clung to, like:

“If a man dies, will he live again? All the days of my hard service
I will wait for my renewal to come. You will call and I will answer you;
  you will long for the creature your hands have made.” Job 14:14, 15

"But God will redeem my soul from the grave; he will surely take me to himself."  Psalm 49:15

“As for you (Daniel), go your way till the end. You will rest, and then at the end of the days you will rise to receive your allotted inheritance.”  Daniel 12:13

These passages, combined with all the things that Jesus had taught them about the Kingdom of Heaven and how if people believed on Him they would be able to enter and be with Him forever, must have given Martha great confidence that her brother would live again. However, in her mind, this was something that would not happen until the “end of days”, when, like Daniel, her brother Lazarus would live again, through the process of some kind of recreation or resurrection of his physical body.  It is as if, in Martha’s thinking, life is only possible if there is a body.  If Martha did believe in some kind of a soul, it seems as though her brother’s soul alone, whatever that might be understood to be, was not enough for her brother to experience life.  Lazarus would only “live again” at the end of time when his body was once again, alive.

In fact, the afterlife and how that might be entered in to, was a topic of spirited debate among the common people of Jesus and Paul's day. Even their religious leaders could not agree.  The Pharisees taught that if you could keep all of the laws perfectly, you would be able to enter eternal life, but again, not until the end of time, through the resurrection of the physical body. (Acts 23:8)

The Sadducees, another sect of Jewish teachers and thinkers, did not believe in the resurrection, and as a result did not believe in the afterlife, angels, or spirits. (Luke 20:27; Acts 23:7-8)  Like the Pharisees, the Sadducees had to have a body in order for the person to exist, and for them, there was no mechanism to facilitate the revival of the bodies of people who had died. The Sadducees took the five books of Moses as their main authority.  Their "Bible" talked only about finding your reward and blessings for obedience in this life. Since the Torah did not mention the resurrection or an afterlife, they chose not to believe in it.  

While the Greek idea of an immortal soul that leaves the body at death and goes on to an eternal existence on another plane would have been a common idea floating around Jerusalem, and might have been a tempting solution to the problem of death, the Sadducees would have nothing of it.  Again, since the Torah did not teach anything about an immortal soul, they chose not to believe it!

This debate among the religious leaders of the day seems to have an influence, even on the believers of the early church.  Because it was believed that Jesus would return soon, within their own generation, most people who were baptized into the Christian faith believed that as a result of their acceptance of Jesus, they would never die!  They believed that with their rebirth of baptism, they had already passed from death unto life. Any day, Jesus would return in the clouds the same way that he had left, to take them to their eternal reward. This is what Jesus had taught.  (John 5:24;11:26; Matthew 24:34)

The problem was that some of the elder believers eventually began to die, before Jesus returned!  What would happen to them?  Had they somehow “missed out”?  If the Sadducees were right, it would seem that their loved ones had “missed the boat”!

Some believers in the city of Corinth were concerned enough about the issue that they wrote to Paul, asking him what would happen to their loved ones who had not lived through to the second coming.  Paul writes back, endeavoring to bring them some assurance about the fate of those who have “fallen asleep” in death.

We will take a closer look at 1 Corinthians 15 in another article, but for now, it is interesting to note that the solution to death that Paul offers has nothing to do with people going straight to their reward, and everything to do with the resurrection, at the end of time, at the “last trumpet”, when Jesus returns.  While many readers might expect that Paul would have said something like, “don’t worry about your loved ones who have fallen asleep, they are already with the Lord!  While you have put their body in the grave, their immortal soul is enjoying the fruits of heaven with Jesus!” 

He instead says,

“Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”  1 Corinthians 15: 51, 52

The believers in Thessalonica seemed to have the same concern, and so Paul also writes to comfort them as well.  He says:

“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope…. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” 1 Thessalonians 4: 13, 16-18

From these two passages, it seems to be clear that Paul taught that there would be a resurrection on the day of the second coming, and that our loved ones, who have died in Christ, will on that day live again and joyously rise up to meet the Lord as He returns to this Earth.

All of this begs the question, “if believers in Christ go to ‘be with the Lord’ in some kind of spirit-form when they die, why would they need to come back to this earth to be "resurrected" at the Second Coming?”  Wouldn't they already be alive?  Some have postulated that the souls needs to come back to earth with Jesus when He returns, so that the can be reunited with a body, that Jesus creates from the grave-sites of the saints... We might ask the follow-up question, “could they not be reunited with a body in heaven?”  “Why make the trip?”  Do we believe that the body that is recreated is based on the DNA of the person’s original body and that God is dependent on this DNA to create the new bodies?  Do we have a picture in mind of Jesus spending time finding all of the bones of the saints and generating a new body from these bones, so that the souls that He has brought back from heaven can reconnect with a physical form that is based on the original DNA?  I would suggest that we need to think carefully about some of the things that we have just taken for granted!

Why does the New Testament talk so much about the resurrection at the last day as being the vehicle for entry in to the afterlife, if it all happens at the time of death, as we have been led to believe?  Or, put another way, why do almost all Christian denominations believe that a person’s soul goes straight to their reward at the time of death, when the Bible most predominantly speaks of this happening, only at the second coming? 

We will devote a separate article to what Jesus believed about all of this, but to get a quick answer to what he taught about when people will receive their reward and how they will enter into eternal life, a review of John 6 can be very helpful.  Here Jesus repeats several times, the idea that the people to whom he gives eternal life, will be “raised up” on the last day.

“For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” (John 6:40 NIV)
One of the big themes of the teachings of Jesus was the concept of a "Day of Judgment".  In almost every reference to this most solemn occasion, there is an association of the judgment event with the "last day", at the Second Coming.  This is the day when all nations are gathered before him and all people are separated one from another, like a shepherd separates his sheep from his goats at the end of the day. The sheep are invited to “take their inheritance” and enter the kingdom. The goats are asked to go another way… Matthew 25:31-46

This big judgment theme of Jesus makes me the question, "how can people even go to their reward, either heaven, hell (or somewhere in between), until judgment has been passed on their life, here on earth, on the 'last day', at the end of time?"

One might legitimately ask, “where does the belief in the immediate migration of an immortal soul to the afterlife find its foundation, if not in the Bible?”  "If it is extra-Biblical, why do most Christian denominations hold so strongly to the belief?"

What was Paul talking about with his "out of body" experience and later, wanting to leave to go and "be with the Lord", if in other places he taught that this would not happen until the resurrection?

We will offer some possible answers to these questions as our “search for the soul”, continues in future articles!

Recommended Reading
In Search of the Soul: Four Views of the Mind-Body Problem - Edited by Joel B. Green and Stuart L. Parker
Surprised by Hope - N.T. Wright