On Palm Sunday, Pastor Brian Hamer delivered as theology-rich a sermon as I have ever heard, so much so that I requested a written copy—while he was still delivering it. (Apologies to the other congregants.) Among the many interesting points made in his homily, a couple particularly stood out for me. One was that the earthquake, darkening of the sun, etc., that occurred upon Jesus’ expiration were signs of a primordial chaos returning. The one through whom all things were made—and are sustained—is dead! And so order collapses.
Pastor Hamer also alluded to the peculiarly Matthean episode of the resurrection of the saints, whose tombs are knocked open with the rattling of the earth. Theologically this affirms Jesus’ death not as his defeat but rather death’s. It also explains, as Pastor Hamer sees it, why “dead” saints are described as only “sleeping”—not because they will one day be made alive, but because only Jesus can be said to have ever truly died.
Could that be—that only Jesus can be said to have ever truly died, and that everyone else sleeps until the end of history, when body and soul are reunited and judged? Can Jesus be the only one to truly know what death is?
Is that, perhaps, what hell is? Real, total death, as opposed to the repose of the body that occurs upon the cessation of heart and brain functions?
I admit to being a bit of a heretic on this point—an undogmatic one, to be sure. I have trouble accepting body/spirit dualism. I believe in a more holistic conception of the human person. Neither the body nor the spirit can live without the other. (Which is why I also believe that prayer to the saints is futile.) As Jacques Ellul has written:
A familiar example of the mutation to which revelation was actually subjected is its contamination by the Greek idea of the immortality of the soul. . . . In Jewish thought death is total. There is no immortal soul, no division of body and soul. Paul’s thinking is Jewish in this regard. The soul belongs to the “psychical” realm and is part of the flesh. The body is the whole being. In death, there is no separation of body and soul. The soul is as mortal as the body. But there is a resurrection. (The Subversion of Christianity)
And before him:
And ye, in putting them [the departed souls] in heaven, hell and purgatory, destroy the arguments wherewith Christ and Paul prove the resurrection . . . And again, if the souls be in heaven, tell me why they be not in as good a case as the angels be? And then what cause is there of the resurrection? (William Tyndale, An Answer to Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue, 1530)
[S]o the soul after death enters its chamber and peace, and sleeping does not feel its sleep. (Martin Luther, Commentary on Genesis)
In fact, there’s a wonderful study of Luther’s understanding of the flesh/spirit distinction, as one of orientation away from or toward God, and not as separate “parts,” as it were, in Matt Jenson’s The Gravity of Sin. While Jenson concentrates on Luther’s “holistic anthropology” as it relates to total depravity, original sin, and justification, I don’t see how it does not also relate to the Reformer’s view of “soul sleep,” as some have termed it.
“Flesh,” then, is not the physical body (which would betray a discomfort and even a denunciation of materiality), but the “old” or “external” man in toto who is turned away in hostility to God. In turn, “spirit” is not the non-substantial part of a person, but the “new” or “internal” man in toto who is friends with God.
I wonder, too, if we are meant to take the Matthean episode of the resurrected saints released from their tombs after Jesus’ resurrection as historical in the first place, as it describes an eschatological event, and may be the Gospel writer’s weaving of theology into the Passion narrative to mine the depth of its meaning for all men.
Questions, questions. We await final answers, just as the first disciples did. And then there’s Easter. And all questions become moot, all voices go mute, in the presence of those nail prints.