James Barr is a professor of Hebrew Bible at Vanderbilt Divinity School. This book is an expanded version of a lecture series that was given at Bristol University in May 1990. The purpose of these lectures were to facilitate the rethinking of the Genesis narrative in light of the topic of immortality. Barr states that he thinks his study has something to say about; philosophy, anthropology and the general history of religions. Barr’s book concludes with the summary that the idea of immortality is found in the very beginning of the Hebrew scriptures. Barr ultimately attempts to show that the concept of immortality and resurrection can be in harmony.
Adam and Eve, the Chance of Immortality:
For Barr, the creation story found in Genesis is primarily to be understood as the “story of how human immortality was almost gained, but in fact, was lost.” He states that story of Adam and Eve is not a narrative meant to explain sin and evil in the world. Barr points to the fact that the common conception that sin separates humanity from God does not seem to fit the narrative framework. While there may be a break down in relationship, God does not separate Himself from Adam and Eve as a result of their sin. Rather, the separation that takes place is between Adam and Eve, and the Tree of Life. In addition, Barr suggests that there is not a concept of a loss in the reflection of the image and likeness of God. The story then is not about the idea of original sin or a fall, but rather about knowledge and immortality. Adam and Eve gain knowledge but lose the chance for eternal life. Eternal life then is understood to be controlled by the power and will of God and is not something inherent or ontological within the created order itself. In this sense, Barr sees death as a natural occurrence, and says that Adam and Eve were “mortal from the beginning.” Creation is thus potentially immortal, and the actualization of this potential is always understood to be contingent upon God as symbolized by the Tree of Life. In fact, if it is not understood this way, the Tree of Life and in essence, the entire narrative itself, losses its primary significance. Barr summarizes this chapter by stating:
“In particular, our story does not speak of ‘life after death’, nor about the ‘immortality of the soul’. The ‘living for ever’ which Adam and Eve would have acquired had they stayed in the Garden of Eden is a permanent continuance of human life.”
Two key points that Barr seems to make here are first, that Gods creation is intended to be physically embodied, and that God has deemed his creation good. Second, God’s initial vision of ‘eternal life’ is to be lived out on the earth that he has created, not in a disembodied state in heaven. Barr says “immortality here, or eternal life, in the first place does not mean life after death, but the continuance of life without death. That continuance is meant to take place in the physical bodies Adam and Eve were created with on earth. Here, Barr strongly affirms the goodness of God’s physical creation of both humanity along with the rest of the created order.
The Naturalness of Death, and the Path to Immortality
Throughout the book, Barr interacts with Oscar Cullmann’s book, which draws a contrast between Greek and Hebrew thought through the contrast of both Socrates and Jesus’ death. Barr reveals that there are two sides to the argument concerning the relationship between death and God. On one hand, there are texts that seem to support the idea that death is an enemy that separates humanity from God. These are revealed in Biblical statements about God being the God of the living, and God’s desire for all to live and none to die. On the other hand, there also seem to be texts that show God’s control over life, revealing God can both give and take life from his creation. Barr thinks that for the Hebrews, the primary question concerning life after death was not the modern problem of the continuance of existence, “but whether they continued to be in touch with Yahweh.” Understood this way the Hebrews could believe in the continuity of existence as shades in Sheol and still maintain that death was an enemy that separated a deceased person from Yahweh.
In investigating the language of creation and the soul, Barr shows that humans don’t ‘have’ a soul they ‘are’ a soul. Here he draws attention to the Hebrew parallels found in Job 14:22, Psalm 63:2 and Psalm 84:3 where the Hebrew term nephesh (soul) is placed in parallel with the word for flesh. Barr’s critique of Cullmann seems to be that “Hebrew thinking, then is not itself a monolithic block.” The point being that there was a variety of belief in anthropological ideas and the afterlife within the Hebrew tradition seen most poignantly in the contrast between the Pharisees and Sadducees. The contrast can also be seen in the canonical Hebrew scriptures with the Second Temple literature. Barr says that the intent of the second chapter is not necessary to prove or disprove the idea of the immortality of the soul. Instead, he is seeking to show that death is something that is a natural occurrence within creation. In this sense, death is not seen so much as a punishment, but a natural limitation of the created order that God has made. Death can be the fulfilment of a long and fulfilled life, or it can be an enemy that cuts short one’s potential through unjust violence or other circumstances which might end a person’s life prematurely.
Knowledge, Sexuality and Immortality
In the third chapter if the book, Barr points out that the sole “motivation for the expulsion from the garden” is to limit access to the Tree of Life which in turn denies both Adam and Eve immortality. If humanity possessed an immortal soul, this limitation would seem to only be a partial punishment in that it would eventually limit humanity from embodied life but not life in general. In order to maintain a dualist or trichotomist anthropology, one must then redefine the common biological understanding of death as outlined by God in Genesis 3:19.
Noah’s Ark: Time, Chronology and the Fall
One of the unique statements that Barr seems to make is “if we are to talk of a ‘Fall of Man’ and indeed of a ‘fallen world’, we come much closer to it here in the Flood story than in that of the Garden of Eden.” This is a very interesting observation considering historically the idea of the Fall has been associated with the first sin. While the banishment from the Garden seems to be a limitation of ability, which is represented by the Tree of Life, the Flood narrative seems to be a direct judgement and punishment of God. Read this way, Barr suggests that the real problem or ‘Fall of Man’ is understood to be violence. Barr draws his readers attention to Genesis 6:3 which states “My spirit will not remain in a human being forever; because he is mortal flesh, he will live only for a hundred and twenty years.” This text coincides nicely with Romans 8:11 which states “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 because of his Spirit who lives in you.” Here we see that life is contingent upon God’s life-giving breath or spirit. Genesis 2:7 reveals this truth in the initial creation of man, where God sets a limit on life in Genesis 6:3 and then we see the hope found in the resurrection and restoration of the spirit in Romans 8:11. Barr then moves to what he says is the true meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion, which is to reveal the violence of man through an unjust execution. Barr says “the point is not the general, universal fact that he died, but the way in which he died, the victim of a complicated set of injustices.” Two things are concluded in this chapter. First, concerning immortality, Adam and Eve “never [had] it, but they had the chance of it, and lost the chance.” Second, humanity did not lose the image of God. The image of God is said to correspond to the vocation, to be God’s rulers over the created order.
Immortality and Resurrection: Conflict or Complementarity?
In the final chapter, Barr suggests that humanity in a general sense can be divided into two classes of people. There are those that are immoralists and there are those that believe in the resurrection. The advantage to the physicalist resurrectionist view is that it seems to more accurately aligned with the natural sciences. Barr says that “traditional Christianity [has] invested far more heavily in idealist, immaterialist, side of Greek philosophy than people now want to admit. He suggests a tangible example of this can be found in the Westminster Confession. Barr suggests the theology of such a faith statement seems to have at least four obvious problems in relation to the Biblical text. First, in the Westminster Confession, the judgement must take place both individually and immediately after death while the Bible seems to indicate a corporate judgement at the return of Jesus. Second, in the Westminster Confession man is attributed an immortal soul which does not seem to coincide with the Genesis narrative or scripture as a whole. Third, the Westminster Confession proclaims that both Heaven and Hell are eternal locations, which becomes problematic to conceive of God as an eternal torturer. Finally, the Westminster Confession suggests that the resurrection will be a reunion of body and soul, which does not fit with the Biblical language of sleep and the whole person being reconstituted from the dust at the resurrection.
Barr suggests that a commonly overlooked problem is that the Platonic idea of the immortality of the soul also involves the ideas of reincarnation and the transmigration of souls. Here Christianity has chosen to ignore these elements of Plato’s argument but keep the ones that support their truth claim. In part, it seems, that Christianity struggled with the concept of continuity of personhood the farther away if got from Christ’s bodily resurrection. Barr finishes the book with an examination of several Pauline texts that have to do with life, death and the afterlife. Paul seems to indicate that immortality is something that is gained through the process of resurrection and not an innate ontological feature of humanity. In this way, immortality is brought to light through Jesus’ resurrection. It is important to note that while Paul says that flesh and blood cannot enter the kingdom of God he does believe in the resurrection of the body. Here Paul sees the idea of flesh and blood as that which is corruptible, perishable and mortal. This is why the resurrected body must be clothed or overclothed with immortality.
I found this book refreshing and honest. Barr does a great job at attempting to shed new light on a very well-known Biblical narrative found in Genesis. With such a topic, it is hard to set aside preconceived notions and learned opinions and approach the text with a fresh perspective. I personally found the connection between Genesis 6:3 in which God limits the breath of man to the promise of the return of the spirit of humanity in the resurrection to be an insightful connection. Barr does well to point out that the creation account culminates in the banishment from the Garden of Eden. It is here that we see the potential of immortality becomes limited and understand the dependence of the created on the Creator. I would highly recommend this book as a fresh way to approach the topic of Conditional Immortality as seen through the lens of the creation account in Genesis.