Dualism at Death
Underlying this hope is a radically dualistic view of what it means to be human. The idea that we can live forever as a computer, depends on the idea that our bodies are completely separate, and completely irrelevant, to our true selves. Plato and Descartes are alive and well in secular anthropology. They’ve already radically shaped our views on sexuality, gender, and when it’s acceptable to end a life (in abortion or euthanasia), and now they are transforming the way we think about death.
Part of the Christian response to these hopes is pretty obvious. We don’t need to hold out hope for immortality as a computer when we have the hope of immortality in resurrected bodies. But we should also highlight that Christian anthropology, while acknowledging that we have a body and a soul, is far from dualistic. Though the soul can exist apart from the body (and will do if we die before Christ returns and the general resurrection takes place), we are designed to be integrated beings: body and soul united and working together. This is why the ultimate Christian hope in the face of death is not the soul’s release from the body, but the reuniting of the soul and the body in resurrection.
And yet, when death actually hits, it’s easy for us as Christians to fall into a dualistic view of humanity which stops short of the reality of Christian hope. When someone we love dies, we comfort ourselves and others with the fact that they are now with Jesus and that their pain and suffering have ended. For those who have suffered physically or mentally before death, we celebrate the release from that suffering as they were released from their body.
And this is right for us to do. This is the wonderful hope we have for the immediate future after death. It really is better to be with Christ (Phil. 1:23) and to be ‘at home with the Lord’ (2 Cor. 5:8). But if we stop there, if that is all we say, we’re missing the really good bit, because the pinnacle of Christian hope is not release but resurrection; it is not that we would be released from the pain and suffering which comes from having a physical body, but that we would be resurrected with a physical body that will never experience pain and suffering. When our souls go to be with Christ at the moment of death, we’ve only reached the waiting room for our real destination. While celebrating the good that is in that, we ought to be careful not to forget that there is something even better yet to come. This should shape the way we talk about life after death, the way we pastor those who are grieving, and what we say, read and sing at funeral services.
Dissecting Dualism at Death
Why does this happen? Why do we find it so easy to become dualists when we’re dealing with death? I can think of at least three potential reasons.
In part, I wonder if we are just impatient. We live in an instant access culture where we’re used to getting what we want and getting it when we want it. Waiting is something that, at best, makes us uncomfortable, and, at worst, we feel is an abuse of our rights. Perhaps the idea that we don’t instantly get the full experience of our eternal hope at death is just something we’re uncomfortable with because we’re impatient.
It may also be that the way many of us spend the last part of our lives has an effect. With the improvement of medical care, many of us are living longer, but that doesn’t mean that the end of life is always better. While there have been wonderful developments in palliative care, meaning few people now need die in great pain, many will face serious illness or mental limitations in their last years meaning that death is often experienced as a blessed release from the body. While many generations who have gone before us may also have seen death as a blessed release, this was often because of a much broader range of difficult situations faced in life, not just physical pain and distress at the end of life. Death for these generations was release, but it was release from life in a tough world, not just from a frail physical body. For those of us who live in relative ease and safety, the release we are more likely to value at death is the release from the physical body, rather than from a difficult life.
A final factor which may be contributing to this dualistic view of Christian hope after death is the popularity of cremation. In 2017, 77% of deaths in the UK were followed by a cremation. There are practical and financial reasons for this shift in practice, and I don’t necessarily think that Christians shouldn’t cremate bodies (although I do have quite a bit of sympathy for Piper’s arguments), but the reality is that cremation is not a very body-affirming way of handling death. Most of us probably don’t like to think about the body of our loved ones being incinerated and therefore, in the context of a cremation, we tend to focus on the soul, rather than the body. By contrast, burial carries with it the biblical imagery of sowing a seed (1 Cor. 15:42-44). Burial is a body-affirming way of handling death, which points us towards the hope of resurrection. So, if we do cremate, we must make sure it doesn’t lead us to stop short of the fullness of Christian hope.
Hope beyond death is one of the great blessings of the gospel, and we don’t need to wait for further developments in technology to be sure that we will enjoy that hope. But let’s not miss the fullness of that hope by being dualists in death. Yes, for a time our bodies and souls will be separated, and yes, our souls will at that point be with Jesus, we will be at home with the Lord, enjoying what is better. But we won’t yet be enjoying what is best. The best will be yet to come. The best will come when what has been sown perishable will be raised imperishable, when death, dualism, and division will be defeated, and through resurrection, there will be restoration and reunion.