On the Cullman hypothesis

-Cullman claimed that belief in immortality was in opposition to the Christian hope in resurrection. His main argument was highlighting the difference between Socrates in Phaedo and Christ in the Passion accounts.

-The hypothesis is in keeping with the Hebrew-good, Hellenic-bad theme in contemporary theology, and is still an important argument in that context. It also dovetails with contemporary theologies of death, which tend to foreground its horrors (what else would one do after 1914-45?)

-It’s hard for the argument to get past Ratzinger’s objection that it is incompatible with belief in the communion of the saints. If every modality of human immortality is to be anti-Christian then the intercession of the saints is anti-Christian too. Cullman wasn’t Catholic so this objection was less probative, but there all credal Christianity is committed to the communion of saints, and you can’t be in communion with the unconscious.

-Much of the difference between Christ and Socrates is in personality. Socrates was playful and ironic, Christ was far more severe; Socrates was elitist, Christ actively engaged all levels of society; Socrates was dialectical and prone to abstraction, Christ taught aphoristically and never strayed far from concrete, lived experience. On these differences alone one would expect very different accounts of death.

-Christ’s teaching on death is a development of the complex existential tangle of the Old Testament teaching on death, above all in the Psalms, where death is (a) both a punishment for the wicked from which God will deliver the righteous and something that even the righteous will suffer (b) both a land of shadows in which none praise God and yet allowing for the righteous to enjoy the continued presence of God. Keeping with this, (c) death is seen as making man’s life finite all the way down, and nevertheless the person is capable of enjoying the presence of God forever.

-Paul calls death sleep. This is either a metaphor or a euphemism. If it’s a euphemism, nothing follows. What can we conclude about our own beliefs about death by noticing that we say that a person has “passed”? Do we think they actually passed something or somewhere? Or could we reconstruct a Corleone theology of death from the fact that they speak of it as sleeping with the fishes? If it’s a metaphor, it’s not clear what follows. Is death sleep because the dead are non-conscious and awaiting resurrection or because they appear to be dead (non-conscious) but are actually beholding the presence of the Lord? Is it a metaphor for the absence of awareness or for the merely apparent loss of the activities of life? It works equally well as either, and is probably used alternately to express both. If Paul agreed with Cullman, why would he say “We… would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord (2 Cor 5:8)” or “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better indeed (Phil. 1:23)”?

-Resurrection is not reincarnation because it is not a return to a status quo ante but an elevation and transformation to a state that, based on our evidence from the stories of the resurrected Christ, is equal parts material and spiritual. Christ eats fish and has location, but he isn’t restricted by location and appears able, like the angels, to be wherever he thinks of being and to appear to others not by doing away with physical impediments but by willing to be seen. Taken in this way, resurrection is the transcendent third term of a Hegelian synthesis, to which embodiment and separated existence are the thesis and antithesis.

-I’m not Hegelian, but to view embodiment-separation-resurrection as a thesis-antithesis and synthesis fits the facts better than seeing resurrection as merely restoring embodiment. Resurrection is the “restoration of the whole person”, and this does mean the restoration of the body, but it is also the elevation and restoration of separated existence.

-The finality of death is not from its annihilation, but from judgment. If it were annihilation, would it necessarily be an object of dread? The Epicureans didn’t think so, and Scripture seems aware that annihilationism is as much a doctrine of nihilism as it could be for theism, or, in the language of the Psalms, it is both the idea of the fool/wicked as the righteous.

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