Very Near Certainty

From The Resurrection of Christ, 102-103 (1945)

While traditional Christianity insists upon distinguishing the revealed doctrine of resurrection from a philosophical belief in the immortality of the soul, it regards the latter not as untrue and irrelevant so much as incomplete, distressingly dull and missing the gift of the gospel. There are grounds, both philosophical and psychological and religious, for believing that the soul survives death; though the life of a soul without a body is a conception which it is difficult to imagine.

It is incomplete; because the self is far more than the soul, and the self without bodily expression can hardly be the complete self. It is dull; because it implies the prolongation of man’s finite existence for everlasting years. In contrast both with the incompleteness and the dullness of the immortality of the soul Christianity teaches a future state (not as of right but as of God’s gift) wherein the soul is not unclothed but clothed upon a bodily expression, and wherein the finite human life is raised so as to share, without losing its finiteness, in the infinite life of Christ himself.

The Christian gospel was not first addressed to people who had no belief in a future state. Greeks were familiar with a philosophical doctrine of immortality. Jews believed in the resurrection of the body. Sometimes this was thought of as a resuscitation of human relics and a reconstruction of human existence after the fashion of this present life. Sometimes it was thought of as a transformation of dead bodies into an utterly new state of glory and spiritualization.

But nowhere, either for Greek or Jew, was belief in the future life vivid, immediate, central, and triumphant. Nowhere did the belief combine a conscious nearness of the world to come with a moral exalting life in this present world.

This was what Christianity brought. Its doctrine was not a flight to another world that left this world behind, nor was it a longing for another world that would come when the history of this world was ended. It was the very near certainty of another world, with which the Christians were already linked and into which the life of this world would be raised up.

For Christian belief about the future state centered in Jesus Christ. He had been seen and loved in this life; and he had been seen and loved also as the one who had conquered death. He had become vividly known as the Lord both of the living and the dead; and the conviction of his people concerning the future life rested upon their conviction about him in whose life they shared. It was an intense and triumphant conviction that where he was there also would his people be.

It found utterance in ringing tones: “He has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.” “Fear not; I am the first and the last, and the living one; I was dead, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades.” “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ shall shine upon you.”

Michael Ramsey (1904-1988) was the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury. A gifted theologian and spiritual writer, he advocated for the cause of church unity throughout his ministry. His book The Resurrection of Christ was written early in his ministry, when he was serving as Van Mildert Professor of Divinity at Durham University.

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