Oscar Cullmann was born in 1902 and passed away in 1999. He was a professor of New Testament at Basel Reformed Seminary and taught theology in Paris at the Sorbonne. Cullmann was well known for his work in the ecumenical movement and helped establish a dialogue between the Lutheran and Roman Catholic traditions. His works include Salvation in History and Christ in Time.
The preface of this book explains that there is a radical difference between “the Christian expectation of the resurrection of the dead and the Greek belief in the immortality of the soul.”
This short and succinct book sets out to explore that difference. The dominant way that the author intends to draw this comparison is through comparing and contrasting the death of Socrates with the death of Jesus.
In the introduction, Cullmann proposes to his readers that “the concept of death and resurrection is anchored in the Christ-event.” In contrast he says, “the early Christian resurrection faith is irreconcilable with the Greek concept of the immortality of the soul.” Here he draws on the contrast of the belief that death is a friend for the Greek rather than an enemy for the Christian. In addition, Cullman points to the repetitive admonition of scripture that the dead will be raised “on the last day” when Christ returns.
Part 1. The Last Enemy: Death
Cullmann explains that for the Greek philosopher Socrates, death was a welcomed friend because it was viewed as an escape from the prison of the fleshly body. In death, the soul was liberated from its captivity that held it in chains and limited its ability. In this view, death is viewed as a welcomed friend. Evidence of this is seen in the way Socrates is said to welcome death in Plato’s book Phaedo. Cullmann contrast Socrates with Jesus who took the opposite approach to his own death. Cullmann points out that in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus said “my soul is troubled, even to death.” (Mark 14:33) Jesus did not welcome death as a friend like Socrates, but feared death so much so that he sweat blood in agony of its anticipation and asked the Father if there was any way to avoid his impending crucifixion.
Cullman explains that Jesus’ fear of death is rooted in the fact that it separates humanity from its Creator. Jesus can only conquer the enemy of death by fully dying and submitting to his enemy and thus placing complete trust in the Father that he has the power to raise him back to life. Cullman says Jesus can “conquer death only by actually dying by betaking himself to the sphere of death, the destroyer of life, to the sphere of ‘nothingness’, of abandonment of God.” Cullmann says that “for Socrates and Plato no new act of creation is necessary. For the body is indeed bad and should not live on.” This is a negative view of the body that does not hold to the hope of its redemption and restoration. In contrast, Cullmann says, “for the Christian (and Jewish) thinking the death of the body is also destruction of God-created life. No distinction is made: even the life of our body is true life; death is the destruction of all life created by God.” Death then in a Biblical sense is when the life formed by God has been destroyed completely. Resurrection is understood to be a miracle of restoration and re-creation. Cullmann says that death can be swallowed up in victory because Jesus is victorious over death. (I Corinthians 15:54) This stands in stark contrast to the Greek dualist view of death which does not need to be conquered but instead is a welcomed friend.
Part 2. The Wages of Sin: Death
In the second chapter of the book, Cullman explores the Jewish connection between death and sin. He says that, “death is a curse, and the whole creation has become involved in the curse.” In short, death is the wages of sin. (Romans 6:23) Here he draws on the Genesis narrative where humanity is said to be created from the dust and death is a return to this lifeless state. As seen in the Cain and Abel story, death is an enemy of God and God both warns against it and takes action to protect against it. By the time the flood narrative takes place, death and violence had become the pervasive sin of humanity.
Cullmann says that “the fact that sickness exists at all is the consequence of the sinful condition of humanity.” He goes on to explain that the Christian view of our body should be that it is good and a gift from God, unlike the Greek view that seeks to escape the body. Cullman says the body is not the soul’s prison but rather a temple for the Holy Spirit. (1 Corinthians 6:19) In essence, says Cullman, dualism is a rejection of God’s death sentence as a result of sin. It is to take the side of the serpent in the Garden of Eden that tells Eve the lie “in dying, you will not die.” One might be led to ask, what about those that Jesus raised from the dead during his ministry, or those that were said to be raised from the dead after Jesus himself rose from the dead? Cullmann explains that “even those whom Jesus raised up in His lifetime will die again, for they did not receive a resurrected body, the transformation of the fleshly body does not take place until the End.”
Cullman goes on to address a commonly used text, Mathew 10:28, to support the view of the immortal soul and a disembodied afterlife. He shows that Jesus did in fact believe in the death of the soul along with the body and that the Christian hope of the martyr is that God can raise the dead. What Jesus means then, is that man cannot ultimately take your life by killing you because God has the power to resurrect the dead. Jesus does not mean to say that the soul cannot be killed because it is immortal and cannot die. For Cullmann this issue concerns not only human bodies but all of creation itself. He reminds his readers of Paul’s words that the whole of creation from now on waits longingly for deliverance from the bondage of death and decay. (Romans 8:19) For Paul, sin and death must be conquered and that will happen when Christ returns and raises the dead from their sleep.
Part 3. The First-Born from the Dead
In the third chapter of the book Cullmann explains that the Christian lives in the tension of the ‘already but not yet.’ While Christ has conquered death and death has been overcome because Christ is ‘the first-born from the dead’, death is still very much a pervasive reality that plagues humanity and creation. Therefore, we live in the “tension between present and future, the tension between ‘already filled’ and ‘not yet consummated.’” In the interim, our bodies remain mortal and subject to sickness, death, and decay. So, we can join with Paul in the cry to God, “who shall deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24) Yet at the same time we can place our hope firmly in the bodily resurrection to come. Finally, Cullmann makes an important distinction in Paul’s language explaining that “Paul believes in the resurrection of the body, not the flesh.” The flesh is the power of death, which must be destroyed.
Part 4. Those who Sleep
For Cullmann the key to the chronological order is the answer to the question, “when does this transformation of the body take place?” Paul answers this question explaining that death will be the last enemy to be conquered when Christ returns and raises the dead from their graves. (1 Corinthians 15:26) Death then is the last enemy which is to be cast into the Lake of Fire and destroyed. Cullman next goes on to address the following four passages all commonly used to support an intermediate state; Revelation 6:11 where the martyrs are under the alter of God, Luke 23:43 where Jesus gives words of comfort to the thief on the cross, Luke 16:22 and the parable of Lazarus and the Rich man, and Philippians 1:23 where Paul expresses his desire to depart and be with Christ. Cullman states that “all these images express simply a special proximity to Christ, in which those dying in Christ before the end find themselves. They are ‘with Christ’ or ‘in paradise’ or ‘in Abraham’s bosom’ or, according to Revelation 6:9, ‘under the alter’. All these are simply various images of special nearness to God. But the most usual image for Paul is: ‘They are asleep.’”
For Cullman the intermediate state is not one of consciousness because life does not exist without the body. Instead he says that the dead await resurrection. The hope then is found in Paul’s words to the Philippian and Roman churches that if the Holy Spirit dwells within us, the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead (who also waited in the grave for three days) will also raise us from death to a newness of life in the ‘last day’. (See Philippians 3:21 and Romans 8:11). Cullmann concludes his short book with a note about Justin Martyr who wrote concerning the resurrection of the dead in his Dialogue. He explains that Justin addresses those ‘who say that there is no resurrection from the dead, but that immediately at death their souls would ascend to heaven.’ Justin warns against this teaching and instead admonishes the church to hold fast to the teaching of the resurrection of the dead.
This short little book packs a powerful punch. Cullmann makes several great arguments for the Christian belief in the resurrection of the dead over and against the view of the immortal soul. As I have read various books on this topic, this short book is often quoted by authors who fall on either side of the debate. After reading this book, I can see why it has withstood the test of time and has been addressed by many scholars despite its brevity. Cullmann’s strength is his stark contrast of the death of Socrates and Jesus. This comparison shows how death is approached from a Christian holist view of anthropology versus a dualist understanding. Death is not something to be celebrated but mourned, it is not a friend to be welcomed, but an enemy to be overcome. As a worship pastor, I have been called on to do music for several funerals. I have seen how people have expressed their emotions to death and the loss of loved ones in several different settings. Cullmann’s short book gives both pastors and Christians food for thought on how we might approach funeral services and what we should be proclaiming about death and the hope of the resurrection. I would highly recommend this book as a great starting point for anyone interested in the topic. The book is easily accessible and would be great as a gift to a loved one to start a Biblical discussion on the Christian belief of death and resurrection.