Bruce’s question is a good place to start:
I often hear from the pulpit, or in pious Christian talk, reflections on the sheer unnaturalness of [human] death. In a sense one knows what this means: it is contrary to our individual value and --- how shall one put this? --- spiritual nature. It is offensive. And yet ... as animals, we die: we are mortal. This is uncanny, and recognised as such even by quite secular figures, but it is obviously unnnatural only in a certain sense.
Bruce is putting his finger on the fact that death seems to fit in very well with the universe as we know it. It is not as though human beings run along from strength to strength and then, out of the blue death appears and takes them away. There’s no mystery to death, in the sense that its causes can’t be discovered. We can see the natural processes that led to death occurring, and all of them seem ‘natural’, well fitted to life in this world. More than that, we struggle to imagine what would be involved in such processes not existing or not leading to death.
This appears to be part of the context into which the second half of 1 Cor 15 is written.
From 1 Cor 15:1-34 Paul appears to be addressing a claim by some of the Corinthians that there is no resurrection of the dead. Paul deals with the issue by showing how Christ’s resurrection is a constitutive element of the gospel and is the basis of our resurrection. He then in verses 23 to 28 deals with the fact that Christ has already been resurrected but we have to wait for ours as a ‘group lot’ and shows how this order in resurrection links to bigger programme that God has going, of putting all of Christ’s enemies under his feet, with the final result that God will be all in all. He then brings out some implications.
Then in verse 35 Paul addresses a related issue:
1 Corinthians 15:35 But someone will say, "How are the dead raised? And with what kind of body do they come?"As becomes apparent in the ensuing verses, this is a challenge to the hope of a resurrection. From the way that Paul deals with the question, it appears that the question is getting at the naturalness of death for bodies as we know them and the incongruity of suggesting that a physical body could last for ever.
This is particularly clear in the following material from 1 Cor 15, where Paul unfolds the answer:
1 Corinthians 15:42-55 So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So also it is written, "The first MAN, Adam, BECAME A LIVING SOUL." The last Adam became a life-giving spirit. However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural; then the spiritual. The first man is from the earth, earthy; the second man is from heaven. As is the earthy, so also are those who are earthy; and as is the heavenly, so also are those who are heavenly. Just as we have borne the image of the earthy, we will also bear the image of the heavenly.Paul’s argument here is predicated on a strong difference between Adam and Christ. Indeed, they are held up as contrasts. Adam’s body (and our bodies) are perishable, dishonoured, weak, and natural. The resurrection body of Christ (that we will also be given) is imperishable, glorious, powerful and spiritual.
Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, "DEATH IS SWALLOWED UP in victory. "O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR VICTORY? O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR STING?"
More than that, Adam and Christ, not ‘just’ their bodies, are contrasted. Adam is earthy—he was made out of the earth and of the earth. He is made of the stuff of this world, and so is well suited to life here. Accordingly, in creation he became a living soul (alluding back to Gen 2:7—the breath, or spirit of God entered into Adam and he became a living soul). But Christ is radically different. He is heavenly—his source is heaven, the right hand of God from which he came and to which he returned. He is no mere soul in whom life has been infused from without. He is himself the Lord of Life, he is a life-giving spirit—a source of life for others. (Incidentally, this part of Scripture is hard to reconcile with any idea of a bipartite or tripartite understanding of humanity as body, soul, spirit: Adam and Christ are soul/spirit, not have a soul/spirit).
And Paul concludes that phase of his argument by indicating that just as we have worn Adam’s image, we will in the resurrection bear the image of Christ. This suggests that ‘image’ is here being used in an ontological sense—Paul has in view a fundamental change in human nature that is going to occur.
The key bit is the implications of this in the final paragraph. Resurrection of the body is not more of the same. It involves a change. Perishable bodies will become imperishable. Mortal bodies will become immortal. And Paul makes it very clear with his statement that ‘flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.’ The New Heavens and New Earth will be so radically different, that a different kind of humanity (a different image) will be needed for us to inhabit that realm. It’s not just what we have now without end, it’s a different kind of existence. It is radically better and more glorious.
It is, I suggest, gloriously head-spinning stuff, and far beyond us to grasp in anything other than through a mirror darkly.
What is important for our discussion however, is the way in which Paul here seems happy to intermingle conditions arising from sin and conditions arising from creation without any attempt to distinguish them. Adam is earthy, he is from the earth, and is living soul. Accordingly his body is natural, and so is mortal, perishable, weak, and ends in dishonour. Paul is very clear that death is the final enemy, and is the result of sin—he returns to this theme in the next verse after what I’ve just quoted above. And yet, the way he talks about Adam in contrast to Christ in these verses makes the difference seem primarily to do with creation versus new creation. After all, he is focusing on Adam’s natural body, the fact that Adam is from the earth and so is earthy, and the nature of Adam in Gen 2:7. Nothing about what he says here about Adam seems drawn from chapter three.
That is, the basic picture in 1 Cor 15 seems to be both that death is a tyrant, and Christ’s final enemy and that Adam and his image-sharers (us) are by nature mortal and perishable and that we need to be fundamentally changed to be made immortal.
How is this to be understood? I’ll highlight three ways I think Christians have often sought to understand this. This isn’t an exhaustive list, and there are variations of how these views could be expressed, and they can be combined in different ways, but it’ll give some pegs for thinking:
First, Adam was immortal but lost it through sinning. In the beginning Adam had life in himself, but when he sinned there was a basic change to the fabric of his nature and he became mortal. I think this view is probably the most common position among popular Evangelicalism. I also think it is the hardest to square with the tree of life in the Garden, as the tree of life suggests that Adam and Eve needed a source external to themselves for their life to be continued. Immortals don’t need a tree of life.
Second, Adam was mortal but would become immortal if he passed a period of testing by not eating the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Here Adam is not inherently immortal, but there was an implicit offer of being translated to the kind of condition Paul is speaking of in 1 Cor 15 without sin and Christ’s death and resurrection as the means to get there. That could have all been bypassed. My impression is that this is the view of Calvin and others.
Third, Adam was mortal by nature but immortal by participation. That is, left to ourselves, death is as natural to human beings as it is for all other parts of the animate creation. There is nothing inherently immortal about flesh and blood—which is why flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God but must be put off for us to put on imperishability and immortality. What Adam and Eve were given was a source of life external to themselves that enabled them to enjoy a share in God’s own eternal life and so be kept from death. This was mediated through the Tree of Life.
On this view death is unnatural when at looked at from the point of view of God’s purpose in creating humanity. We were made to stay connected to God through trusting his word and obeying it and so stay in the realm of life by being caught up in something greater than ourselves. Yet death is natural when looked at from the point of view of humanity’s nature. Humanity was made mortal like all creatures and so once we were cut off from God, we faced death like every other animal.
It is the image of God that made the difference, and this worked dynamically, not statically. It related us to God through his Image, his only begotten Son and so we were partakers in Life.
It’s probably clear that I strongly favour this last view, despite the fact that, as far as I can see, it is a minority position within Evangelicalism. That’s for two reasons.
One, I think it fits with Scripture better, as I’ve tried to briefly indicate.
Two, I think it is arguably the dominant position of the early church. It’s not the only position in the early church, my impression is that Tertullian, for example believes that human souls are inherently immortal. Nonetheless, the view I’ve tried to unpack briefly here is held by a number of respected and orthodox teachers in the early church. I’ll give some brief extracts from Athanasius as an example:
For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good. By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing, but he bears also the Likeness of Him Who is, and if he preserves that Likeness through constant contemplation, then his nature is deprived of its power and he remains incorrupt. De Incarnatione §4
Here, I hope, it should be clear that the basic schema is fairly similar to what I’ve outlined. Humanity is by nature mortal ‘of course’ (!). This is because he is a creature, and so has been made from nothing (a common link among the early church fathers in my reading—that which has a beginning naturally has an end as well). Hence, returning to non-existence is natural for humanity. But because humanity bears the Likeness of the Son, that underlying nature ‘is deprived of its power’ and humanity ‘remains incorrupt’. I’ll give one more example to show this isn’t an exception:
For God is good—or rather, of all goodness He is Fountainhead, and it is impossible for one who is good to be mean or grudging about anything. Grudging existence to none therefore, He made all things out of nothing through His own Word, our Lord Jesus Christ; and of all these His earthly creatures He reserved especial mercy for the race of men. Upon them, therefore, upon men who, as animals, were essentially impermanent, He bestowed a grace which other creatures lacked—namely, the impress of His own Image, a share in the reasonable being of the very Word Himself, so that, reflecting Him and themselves becoming reasonable and expressing the Mind of God even as He does, though in a limited degree, they might continue for ever in the blessed and only true life of the saints in paradise. De Incarnatione §3
Here Athanasius indicates that men naturally die because we are fundamentally animals: ‘men who, as animals, were essentially impermanent.’ What makes us different from all other animals is a particular grace we have that nothing else has—we are made with an impress of God’s own Image, and share in the rationality of the Word of God. This is ‘so that, reflecting Him…they might continue for ever…in paradise.’ Here Athanasius is briefly stating my key points—human beings are animals and so are mortal. Our immortality came through our link to God forged by our sharing in the nature of the Word because we had the imprint of His Image within us.
This is hardly unique to Athanasius, the idea that animals are mortal and human beings were able to transcend their natural mortality because of their being made in the Image of God is, as I’ve said, a common teaching in the early church.
Athanasius’ comment about Paradise picks up an issue that Martin Kemp raised:
Also Bill Dumbrell has written some interesting stuff (if I am remembering him correctly). He notes that Adam was made outside the garden, and then placed in the garden where there was the antidote to death in the the form of the tree. I think some interesting things follw from this observation:1. Sin existed outside the garden2. Adam was formed outside the garden in the realm of death (allowing for evolution)3. Inside the garden it's not that death didin't exist, it's just that there was an antidote.4. Adam and Eve's punishment was that they were barred from the antidote.
I’ve already noted scepticism on my part about evolution, and I’d not see any need to see sin already existing before the events of chapter three. But I’d want to support the idea Marty is putting forward that there is something special about Eden.
Creation Science, in my experience, seems to speak as though the Garden was what was happening for all of creation. That the conditions pictured in chapter 2 were the conditions throughout the world. And yet, Genesis 2 seems to suggest that there is something very different about life in the Garden and in the rest of the world (for example, there are no plants alive anywhere on the planet). Far from the Garden being the paradigm of pre-Fall creation, it seems in some ways to be something unique, a ‘paradise’.
Long before we wrestled with these issues Athanasius seems to be sensitive to the issue of the status of Eden in relation to the rest of the world because in the material just after what I’ve quoted he contrasts ‘living in paradise’ with ‘dying outside it’. That is, he doesn’t just see the issue as ‘immortal people now die’. He sees the other aspect of the issue: people who were in paradise, and so could avoid death, have been removed from paradise and therefore die. In other words, death seems to be, in some sense ‘natural’ for life outside the Garden. The judgement is to be removed from the Garden, and so denied access to the Tree of Life, which is the antidote to (otherwise natural) death.
When we look back at the original conditions of humanity, what do we think was happening then? Three kind of options: Immortal but had immortality taken away. Mortal but an offer of being changed into immortality if passed a test. Mortal, but rendered immortal through connection to God’s eternal life through the mediatorship of the Word.
My argument in IV in many ways reflects that I hold to the third of these options as the one which best reflecting what Scripture says. All this is a long way of saying, I think that death is natural to humanity’s nature, but is unnatural in terms of God’s intention and purpose of humanity. We were made to live without end, and God set things up so that we would not go the way of all flesh despite the fact that that is natural for a creature. We were made with a nature that was mortal, but capable of immortality.
In the New Heavens and the New Earth we will be by nature immortal, so nature and purpose will come together. But here too it will come ‘from without’—it will be because through his becoming man and then dying and rising to life that the eternal Son of God has united himself to creation and to humanity and is now the head over creation. Out of that relationship, forged through redemption, a whole new kind of existence is opened up to us in which death will be, not just unnatural in terms of God’s purposes, but an impossibility in the Kingdom of God.