Volume. XXXVI, No. 14
Sunday, 03 October 2021

From the Pastor’s Heart: Resurrection and Afterlife (2)

This is the second part of three series of talks about resurrection or afterlife by Philip Schaff.  We have heard from Homer, Socrates, Plato, and Cicero so far.  Philip Schaff continues his views about the heathen notions of future life as follows:


The Stoics* believed only in a limited immortality, or denied it altogether, and justified suicide when life became unendurable.  The great men of Greece and Rome were not influenced by the idea of a future world as a motive of action. 


[*The Stoics: whatever impressions you may get from the English adjective, “stoical,” may not explain the meaning of “the stoics.”  They held a view that a person who had attained moral and intellectual perfection would not undergo emotions like fear or envy.  The sage is utterly immune to misfortune and virtue is sufficient for happiness.  The Stoics are mentioned in Acts 17:18, “Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection.”  We can draw a mental picture of Paul’s talks with them.]


During the debate on the punishment of Catiline and his fellow-conspirators, Julius Caesar openly declared in the Roman Senate that death dissolves all the ills of mortality and is the boundary of existence beyond which there is no more care or joy, no more punishment for sin, nor any reward for virtue.  The younger Cato,* the model Stoic, agreed with Caesar; yet before he made an end to his life at Utica, he read Plato’s Phaedo.  Seneca once dreamed of immortality, and almost approached the Christian hope of the birth-day of eternity, if we are to trust his rhetoric, but afterwards he awoke from the beautiful dream and committed suicide.  The elder Pliny**, who found a tragic death under the lava of Vesuvius, speaks of the future life as an invention of man’s vanity and selfishness, and thinks that body and soul have no more sensation after death than before birth; death becomes doubly painful if it is only the beginning of another indefinite existence.  Tacitus*** speaks but once of immortality, and then conditionally; and he believed only in the immortality of fame.  Marcus Aurelius****, in sad resignation, bids nature, “Give what thou wilt, and take back again what and when thou wilt.”


[*The younger Cato (95-46 BC): a Roman senator, an orator and follower of the Stoic philosophy.  He was in a lengthy conflict with Julius Caesar.]

[**The elder Pliny (23/24-79 AD): a Roman author, naturalist, and natural philosopher.  He was a friend of the emperor Vespasian.]

[***Tacitus (56-120 AD): a Roman historian and politician.  He is widely regarded as one of the greatest Roman historians.]

[****Marcus Aurelius Antonius (121-180 AD): a Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher.  He was the last emperor of Pax Romana.]


These were noble and earnest Romans. What can be expected from the crown of frivolous men of the world who moved within the limits of matter and sense and made present pleasure and enjoyment the chief end of life?  The surviving wife of an Epicurean philosopher erected a monument to him, with the inscription, “to the eternal sleep.”   Not a few heathen epitaphs openly profess the doctrine that death ends all; while, in striking contrast with them, the humble Christian inscriptions in the catacombs express the confident hope of future bliss and glory in the uninterrupted communion of the believer with Christ and God.


Yet the scepticism of the educated and half-educated could not extinguish the popular belief in the imperial age.  The number of cheerless and hopeless materialistic epitaphs is, after all, very small as compared with the many thousands which reveal no such doubt, or express a belief in some kind of existence beyond the grave.  Of a resurrection of the body, the Greeks and Romans had no conception, except in the form of shades and spectral outlines, which were supposed to surround the disembodied spirits, and to make them to some degree recognisable.  Heathen philosophers, like Celsus,* ridiculed the resurrection of the body as useless, absurd, and impossible.

[*Celsus: a Greek philosopher and opponent of Christianity during the second century.]


The JEWISH doctrine is far in advance of heathen notions and conjectures but presents different phases of development.

(a) The Mosaic writings are remarkably silent about the future life and emphasise the present rather than future consequences of the observance or non-observance of the law (because it had a civil or political as well as spiritual import); and hence the Sadducees accepted them, although they denied the resurrection (perhaps also the immortality of the soul).  The Pentateuch contains, however, some remote and significant hints of immortality, as in the tree of life with its symbolic import; in the mysterious translation of Enoch as a reward for his piety; in the prohibition of necromancy; in the patriarchal phrase for dying: “to be gathered to his fathers,” or “to his people;” and last, though not least, in the self-designation of Jehovah as “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” which implies their immortality, since “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”  That which has an eternal meaning for God must itself be eternal.


(b) In the later writings of the Old Testament, especially during and after the exile, the doctrine of immortality and resurrection comes out plainly.  Daniel’s vision reaches out even to the final resurrection of “many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth… some to everlasting life,” and of “some to shame and everlasting contempt” [Daniel 12:2], and prophesies that “they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars forever and ever” [Daniel 12:3]. 

But before Christ, who first revealed true life, the Hebrew Sheol, the general receptacle of departing souls, remained, like the Greek Hades, a dark and dreary abode, and is so described in the Old Testament.  Cases like Enoch’s translation and Elijah’s ascent are altogether unique and exceptional, and imply the meaning that death is contrary to man’s original destination and may be overcome by the power of holiness.


(c) The Jewish Apocrypha (the Book of Wisdom, and the Second Book of Maccabees), and later Jewish writings (the Book of Enoch, the Apocalypse of Ezra) show some progress: they distinguish between two regions in Sheol — Paradise or Abraham’s Bosom for the righteous, and Gehinnom or Gehenna for the wicked; they emphasize the resurrection of the body, and the future rewards and punishments.


(d) The Talmud adds various fanciful embellishments. It puts Paradise and Gehenna in close proximity, measures their extent, and distinguishes different departments in both, corresponding to the degrees of merit and guilt. Paradise is sixty times as large as the world, and Hell sixty times as large as Paradise, for the bad preponderate here and hereafter. To be continued….



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