Whoever you are, you probably don’t believe in resurrection. Yes, if you’re a Christian, I’m including you. You might be upset by that. But, hear me out. By resurrection, I’m talking not narrowly about the resurrection of Jesus (you probably believe in that), but in the sense that the apostles understood it – that is, as an event within history of which the resurrection of Jesus is an anomalous outlier (a gloriously anomalous outlier). Because Jesus has been raised from the dead to eternal life, then all of God’s people will also. It’s what Paul is saying in Romans 8:11 (and 1 Corinthians 15:20-23).
And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you. (Rom 8:11 NIV)
In my last post, I was looking at the numbers in the recently-published ComRes survey into beliefs about the resurrection and ‘life after death’ for BBC Religion and Ethics. In this post I want to look at what people really believe when they say they believe in ‘life after death’. This is, for me, a really important part of this survey – although not really picked up by the mainstream media.
The third question in the survey was: ‘You mentioned that you believe that there is life after death. Which of the following forms, if any, do you believe this takes?’ It was asked of the 46% of the sample who expressed a belief in life after death. Various options were read out (thirteen altogether)! The options themselves are fascinating. I wonder who chose them… (See the data tables here).
You’ve got options which are based around the immortality of the soul, but not the body (including heaven/hell, becoming a ghost, existing as energy of some sort, going to a spiritual dimension) and other options which are specifically Christian (The Rapture/Judgement Day/Armageddon all bundled together (1 option), and the Resurrection/Second Coming of Christ (1 option). You’ve one that’s about existence in a ‘parallel universe’, but this is coupled with the ‘astral plane’ – two entirely different things. And one that talks about bodily existence in another world. Then, you’ve got reincarnation (two options, one straight up reincarnation and the other a combination of reincarnation and immortality of the soul, which is classic Platonism actually). There’s another that’s basically living on as part of the natural world (your atoms I suppose), and something that boils down to a ‘don’t know’.
I’m looking at these options and I’m not really sure how I, an orthodox Christian with a biblical doctrine of resurrection, would answer. No, seriously. I mean, the Christian doctrine of resurrection is not merely the immortality of the soul. It involves the body. Reincarnation isn’t a Christian doctrine (although it is quite close to the biblical doctrine of resurrection in some ways). I definitely believe in the Second Coming of Christ, but not the Rapture. Maybe the option that’s worded ‘I believe in the resurrection/second coming of Christ’ is the one I want. It does contain a statement from the Apostle’s Creed, after all. But there’s not much content in that answer about what kind of life I believe in. I could answer ‘a bodily/physical existence in another world’, but the language of ‘another’ is difficult for me there. So, there are a couple of options which are orthodox anyway.
The troubling thing is, these options polled 1% and 0% amongst Active Christians! Perhaps it’s me? But I don’t think so. Now, the options offered for Question 3 are totally confused in themselves, so you have to take that into account. But, let’s look at the most popular options amongst Active Christians:
86% of Active Christians plumped for ‘Another life where your soul lives on (e.g. heaven/hell)’
16% of Active Christians plumped for ‘Reincarnation (e.g. starting a new life in a different physical body or form after death)’
Then you’ve got a couple of 2%ers (ghosts and ‘don’t know’) and what I see as the orthodox options above. It’s obvious that some people are ticking more than one box, so to speak. But, the headline is that virtually none of the Active Christians chose an option that could be considered orthodox.
The Apostles’ Creed contains the statement: ‘I believe in the resurrection of the body’. This is basic to orthodoxy, whatever your Christian tradition. Orthodox Christian belief is that eternal life is not just the survival of the soul. The concern of the scriptures is not ‘life after death’ anyway, but what Tom Wright calls ‘life after life after death’. Any existence of the soul in heaven is just a temporary state. A biblical doctrine of eternal life also contains the idea of the renewal of creation (or in radical, pietist theology the replacement of the creation with a new one). The resurrection of the human body into this world renewed – that’s the biblical view.
You might argue that the question prompts people to talk about ‘life after death’, rather than ‘life after life after death’. Trouble is, I can well-believe that the average active Christian wouldn’t make that nuanced distinction. In any case, the survival of the soul in heaven is actually a state of death. Christians, in my experience, really don’t like to face up to that. Jesus was raised, on the the first day of the week, from the dead (Acts 4:10). Paul hopes above anything else that he will attain the resurrection from the dead (Phil 3:11). The dead in Christ will rise first (1 Thess 4:16). So, if you want to be accurate, the only type of ‘life after death’ in the Christian hope is resurrection life. But, according to the BBC survey, a tiny, tiny, tiny minority of active Christians really believe that.
And let’s not be too hard on the Re-incarnationers. The description in the brackets (‘starting a new life in a different physical body…after death’) is actually more-or-less the orthodox view (with some caveats around ‘different’). It’s closer to orthodoxy than the soul living on in heaven. I remember explaining the doctrine of resurrection to a Roman Catholic man once. He hadn’t heard of it, and his reaction was: ‘kind of like reincarnation then?’ Well, yes, kind of… In my doctoral thesis I argue that it was exactly this idea of ‘reincarnation, kind of’ that was part of the problem in Corinth, which is why Paul shaped 1 Corinthians 15 as he did.
Anyway, I would hazard a guess, based on the evidence, that the good BBC folk who put the survey together are themselves entirely sketchy on this (and a number of other things). But, the really worrying thing is how many committed Christians are themselves entirely sketchy on it. To come clean, I’m not really surprised. I see it all around, in so many orthodox, evangelical, bible-believing (choose any of these adjectives) churches. So many Christians have little biblical understanding of eternal life, including the doctrine of resurrection. They think that the great Christian hope is to go to heaven, as a soul, after death. The survey figures just bear out the anecdotal evidence.
I’ve written plenty of times on resurrection (try this, this and/or this). It is one of the (perhaps the most) forgotten doctrine of the church. The figures suggest that you (yes, you) probably don’t believe in the biblical doctrine of resurrection. It’s high time we rediscovered the inspiring, grand Christian vision of the (to quote Jesus, or at least a Greek translation of Jesus in Matthew 19:28), palingenesis – the restoration of all things.