Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

A recent diagnosis of cancer I got late last year, with some subsequent surgery I had to undergo in February, got me to thinking (as well it might) of death, the immortality of the soul, and the final resurrection of the dead. Being a theologian by habit, if not by talent, in the past four months I naturally fell to ruminating about the prospect of death, not just as a personal inevitability, but as a theological problem.

To get ready for surgery (and my doctors were admirably frank about the various risks of death attendant upon the procedure), I stumbled upon a marvelous gem of a book by Jaroslav Pelikan called The Shape of Death: Life, Death, and Immortality in the Early Fathers (1962). It’s no longer in print, but I do hope that it will be reprinted soon, for I found this short work of 123 pages immensely consoling, and I cannot help but think others will too.

The subtitle speaks of the early fathers, and Pelikan means by that some of the earliest, a mere five overlapping figures from the second to the third centuries: Tatian, Clement of Alexandria, Cyprian, Origen, and Irenaeus. He takes them in that order, which does not follow the exact chronology of their lives, because he clearly wanted to follow the logic of their respective arguments, with Irenaeus very definitely coming out on top as the most adequate of the early fathers who thought through the question of death and the soul.

That said, I have to admit I found much food for thought in the second-century Tatian, an early Christian writer whom I would, but for Pelikan’s sympathetic treatment, instinctively find repugnant. In that judgment I am not alone. Johannes Quasten, for example, in his very lengthy four-volume handbook Patrology , devotes scarcely more than eight pages to the man, and the little he has to say is almost entirely critical. Indeed, he makes Tertullian sound like Erasmus in comparison:

Although Justin [Martyr] was Tatian’s teacher, we notice sharp contrasts between them as soon as we compare their writings. This is especially evident in the evaluation which they place on non-Christian philosophy and culture. Whereas Justin attempts to find at least elements of truth in the writings of some Greek thinkers, Tatian teaches complete renunciation of all Greek philosophy on principle. Justin in his defense of Christianity paid high respect to non-Christian philosophy. Tatian betrays a determined hatred of all that belongs to Greek civilization, art, science and language. His character was so inclined to extremes that in his mind Christianity did not go far enough in its rejection of contemporary education and culture. He returned to the East [from Rome] about the year 172, where he became the founder of the sect of the Encratites, that is, the Abstinents, which belongs to the group of Christian Gnostics. This heresy rejected matrimony as adultery, condemned the use of meat in any form, the drinking of wine, and went so far as to substitute water for wine in the Eucharistic service.

As I say, not a man to whom I would normally feel drawn. But say this for Pelikan: He was one of the most catholic of historical theologians and could find some genuine insights even in the most unpleasant of theologians. For him Tatian is important because he was a key provocateur in later efforts of the Church to reach a completely consistent teaching on these matters.

Tellingly, the expression "the immortality of the soul" never appears in the New Testament, a fact Tatian was not slow to point out. For the Bible, immortality, in the sense of life eternal, belongs most properly to God, not man, a doctrine that Jesus drove home when he linked the resurrection of the dead with the fact that God is a living God: "As for the resurrection of the dead, have you never read what God himself said to you: ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob’? He is God, not of the dead, but of the living" (Matt. 22:31¯32).

It should be remembered that when Tatian was writing, it was almost universally assumed by the Greek philosophers working in the Platonic tradition that psychic immortality included both the soul’s preexistence before conception as well as its survival after death (a key feature of the Greek view that would get Origen into trouble when he adopted Platonic anthropology too uncritically). And against that doctrine, Tatian leveled some very effective orthodox polemic, which Pelikan deftly summarizes here:

Man wants to claim pre-existence for his soul because he aspires to immortality; if his soul existed before the brief arc of earthly existence began, it can continue to exist also after that arc has been closed . . . . If the soul does not need an act of the Creator in order to come into existence but pre-existed all along on its own power, then it does not need an act of the Creator to come to life after death but can go on living immortally by its own power.

A good riposte, I think, but it still leaves open the question of the fate of the soul after death, and here is Tatian’s answer (again, in Pelikan’s sympathetic formulation):

Vigorous though Tatian’s polemic against the doctrine of pre-existence may be, his polemic against the doctrine of the natural immortality of the soul is even more explicit . . . . In antithesis to the claim that the soul is not capable of dying, Tatian maintains that it is both capable of dying and capable of not dying; which of these destinies awaits it depends upon its relation to God. Not within the soul itself, but in the life-giving Spirit of God resides the power to grant life after death . . . . Like his argument against the pre-existence of the soul, Tatian’s rejection of natural immortality is fundamentally theocentric . . . . Neither for his original birth out of the nothingness of non-being nor for his ultimate rebirth out of the nothingness of death can man take the credit, but it belongs to God’s sovereignty and discretion to create a human being in the first place and to re-create him after he has been annihilated by death.

Unfortunately, that word re-create implies too great a discontinuity between the self on earth and the self before the Judgment Seat of God, which is why almost all later fathers, not to mention church teaching itself, came to a greater appreciation of Platonic/Aristotelian reflection on the substantial immortality of the soul. But I think Tatian’s wider point can be granted: "If a man is to find immortality he has to look for it at the source from which his life has originally come, the free and sovereign action of God the Creator," as Pelikan paraphrases. "Whatever immortality a man may obtain is thus by participation in the immortality and incorruptibility of God."

Tatian’s views enjoyed a great revival among certain Protestant divines after World War II, especially in Oscar Cullmann’s influential Immortality of the Soul and Resurrection of the Dead . But the problems the early Church had with Tatian inevitably crop up whenever his views are revived, a point perhaps most succinctly made by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus in his account of his own bout with cancer surgery, As I Lay Dying :

In Protestant theology of the last century, there has been a sharp reaction against the ancient Greek and later Enlightenment notion of a disembodied mind or soul. Here the turn is not toward materialism¯for, after all, God, the ultimate reality, is Spirit¯but toward the resurrection of the dead . . . . But we may wonder whether it is the case, as some theologians claim, that belief in the resurrection excludes what is suggested by the immortality of the soul, by the experience of a perduring "I" beyond death. At least I, and many others who have been brought to death’s door and back, wonder about that.

Me too. Still, there is a feature of Tatian’s thought that is perfectly orthodox and something worth considering: the sheer fact of the soul’s immortality is not the automatic assurance that so many Greeks, Socrates especially, took it to be¯as the fall of the devils proves. They were not encumbered by a body and led a totally spiritual life from the moment of their creation. As Tatian rightly points out, if the nonphysical form of reality were truly superior to that of the body, the devils never would have fallen: "Is it not so," Tatian concludes, "that among men who follow the demons fewer kinds of sin develop because their life is shortened, while the demons multiply their transgressions because their existence is boundless?" Or, in Pelikan’s formulation:

This means that there is nothing good about immortality if that immortality entails separation from God. It means also that under the conditions of human existence death must be regarded as good because it delivers men from a life of steady deterioration and endless sinning, . . . which is, in Paul Tillich’s definition, "rooted both in ethical freedom and in tragic destiny." For death is not only the wages of sin; it is also the end of sin’s dominion, the line that God draws to keep the arc of tragic existence from becoming an endless revolving circle of tragic existence.

Think of Friedrich Nietzsche here: As Europe became more and more pagan in the late nineteenth century, Nietzsche saw no alternative to a desiccated Christianity but his doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence, about the bleakest alternative to Christian cosmology one can imagine. No wonder Tatian held that Adam and Eve had been granted a grace when they had been expelled from the Garden of Eden, lest they proceed to eat of the Tree of Life after having eaten of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen. 3:22). Otherwise, they would be been truly trapped in the cycle of endlessly repeated evil.

These thoughts, as I’ve said, have been genuinely consoling for me as I increasingly encounter my own finitude. Perhaps, though, I owe that consolation less to Tatian than to Pelikan, who can draw out marvelous nuggets of wisdom even from the most cantankerous of theologians. As he says in summary of Tatian’s best point:

The only man to whom God grants the life eternal is the man who refuses to grasp for immortality on his own. God brings men not from life to life with smoothness and ease, but from life to death to life with the pain of childbirth and the pangs of death and the continuing threat of nonexistence hanging over them. Living in hope, therefore, means living by faith in the God who can reach even into the hollowness of nonexistence . . . to confer life.

Or, in Tatian’s own words: "After losing immortality, men have conquered death by submitting to death in faith . . . . Die to the world, then, and repudiate its madness! Live to God, take hold of Him, and lay aside your old nature!" In those Pauline cadences, one can detect the essential Christian wisdom about death, one that can be found in all the great Christian writers, a wisdom that Pelikan sums up as follows: "The core of the Christian faith is pessimism about life and optimism about God, and therefore hope for life in God . . . . Pessimism about man and optimism about God¯nowhere do they come together more dramatically than in the Christian view of death. This gospel of death gave the early Christians a feeling for the tragedy of life to meet the pessimism of their pagan neighbors, and it gave them a buoyancy beyond the tragedy of life to meet the optimism of their pagan neighbors. Such sorrow and joy, and joy mingled with sorrow, still constitute the appeal of the Christian gospel."

Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles