Volume. XXXVI, No. 13
Sunday, 26 September 2021

From the Pastor’s Heart: Resurrection and Afterlife (1)

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is not only a doctrine but also a hope. (This hope does not mean “wishful thinking” but “waiting with certainty and confidence.”) 

I am going to take you to some of Philip Schaff’s writings about the topic for the next three weeks.  Philip Schaff was a Swiss-born American theologian and historian whose works, especially the Creeds of Christendom (1877), have helped set standards for scholarship in church history.  He was born in 1819 and died in 1893.  I believe his following piece of work does not have any copyright claims.  Thus, I can use it freely for your benefit.  He briefly gives the different views of the afterlife within different civilisations and paganism before explaining the biblical view.  He deals mainly with pagan philosophers’ views of the afterlife in today’s article. 


Christianity — and human life itself, with its countless problems and mysteries — has no meaning without the certainty of a future world of rewards and punishments, for which the present life serves as a preparatory school.  Christ represents Himself as “the Resurrection and the Life,” and promises “eternal life” to all who believe in Him.  On His resurrection the Church is built, and without it the Church could never have come into existence.  The resurrection of the body and the life everlasting are among the fundamental articles of the early baptismal creeds.  The doctrine of the future life, though last in the logical order of systematic theology, was among the first in the consciousness of the Christians, and an unfailing source of comfort and strength in times of trial and persecution.  It stood in close connection with the expectation of the Lord’s glorious reappearance.  It is the subject of Paul’s first epistles, to the Thessalonians, and is prominently discussed in the fifteenth chapter of first Corinthians.  He declares the Christians “the most pitiable,” because they are the most deluded and uselessly self-sacrificing, “of all men,” if their hope in Christ were confined to this life.


The Ante-Nicene Church was a stranger in the midst of a hostile world, and longed for the unfading crown which awaited the faithful confessor and martyr beyond the grave.  Such a mighty revolution as the conversion of the heathen emperor (Emperor Constantine) was not dreamed of even as a remote possibility, except perhaps by the far-sighted Origen.  Among the five causes to which Gibbon* traces the rapid progress of the Christian religion, he assigns the second place to the doctrine of the immortality of the soul.  We know nothing whatever of a future world which lies beyond the boundaries of our observation and experience, except what God has chosen to reveal to us.  Left to the instincts and aspirations of nature, which strongly crave after immortality and glory, we can reach at best only probabilities; while the gospel gives us absolute certainty, sealed by the resurrection of Christ.

[*Edward Gibbon (1737-1794): He was an English historian, writer, and Member of Parliament.  His most important work was, “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788.]


The HEATHEN notions of the future life were vague and confused. 

The Hindus, Babylonians, and Egyptians had a lively sense of immortality, but mixed with the idea of endless migrations and transformations.  The Buddhists, starting from the idea that existence is want, and want is suffering, make it the chief end of man to escape such migrations, and by various mortifications to prepare for final absorption in Nirvana.  The popular belief among the ancient Greeks and Romans was that man passes after death into the Underworld, the Greek Hades, the Roman Orcus.  According to Homer,* Hades is a dark abode in the interior of the earth, with an entrance at the western extremity of the ocean, where the rays of the sun do not penetrate.  Charon carries the dead over the stream Acheron, and the three-headed dog Cerberus watches the entrance and allows none to pass out.  There the spirits exist in a disembodied state and lead a shadowy dream-life.  A vague distinction was made between two regions in Hades, an Elysium (also “the Islands of the Blessed”) for the good, and Tartarus for the bad.  “Poets and painters,” says Gibbon, peopled the infernal regions with so many phantoms and monsters, who dispensed their rewards and punishments with so little equity, that a solemn truth, the most congenial to the human heart, was oppressed and disgraced by the absurd mixture of the wildest fictions.  The eleventh book of the Odyssey gives a very dreary and incoherent account of the infernal shades.

[*Homer: He was the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, the two epic poems that are the foundational works of ancient Greek literature.  The Iliad and the Odyssey are stories during and after the Trojan war, the ten years of siege of the city of Troy.]


Socrates, Plato, Cicero, Seneca, and Plutarch rose highest among the ancient philosophers in their views of the future life, but they reached only to belief in its probability - not in its certainty.  Socrates, after he was condemned to death, said to his judges: “Death is either an eternal sleep, or the transition to a new life; but in neither case is it an evil;” and he drank with playful irony the fatal hemlock.


Plato, viewing the human soul as a portion of the eternal, infinite, all-pervading deity, believed in its pre-existence before this present life, and thus had a strong ground of hope for its continuance after death.  All the souls (according to his Phaedo* and Gorgias,** pass into the spirit-world, the righteous into the abodes of bliss, where they live forever in a disembodied state, the wicked into Tartarus for punishment and purification (which notion prepared the way for purgatory).

*Phaedo: Dialogues between Socrates and his friends about the immortality of souls not too long before he died (between a few hours and a few days before his death.)

**Gorgias: Dialogues between Socrates and a few sophists about the definition of rhetoric.


Plutarch,* the purest and noblest among the Platonists, thought that immortality was inseparably connected with belief in an all-ruling Providence, and looked with Plato to the life beyond as promising a higher knowledge of, and closer conformity to God, but only for those few who are here purified by virtue and piety.  In such rare cases, departure might be called an ascent to the stars, to heaven, to the gods, rather than a descent to Hades.  He also, at the death of his daughter, expresses his faith in the blissful state of infants who die in infancy.

[*Plutarch: He was a biographer and author.  He was in Rome, Athens, Corinth and many other places and close to emperors.  I was hoping to find some traces of Christians from his writings but did not find any.  He was born in 46 AD and died in 119 AD.]

Cicero,* in his Tusculan Questions and treatise De Senectute, reflects in classical language, “the ignorance, the errors, and the uncertainty of the ancient philosophers with regard to the immortality of the soul.”  Though strongly leaning to a positive view, he yet found it no superfluous task to quiet the fear of death in case the soul should perish with the body. 

[*Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC): He was a Roman statesman, lawyer, scholar, and philosopher.] 


We are going to read a bit more of Philip Schaff’s writings in the coming two more weeks.



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