Are souls good and bodies bad?

Christianity could certainly give the impression that souls are good and bodies are bad, based on many of the hymns written and sung in Christian churches. A selection of hymns from the hymnal I use at church reveals a familiar belief in Christianity that the soul is separated from the body at death, the body is discarded forever while the soul rises immediately to heaven to be with Jesus forever. There’s no coming back to the earth, no resurrection into a new body, no more work to be done on earth, just blissful life forever in heaven.

The saving of people’s souls, therefore, has become the primary motive for Christian mission, based on the belief that the soul is what makes the person, and the soul is the real self, not the body. The body is just a temporary physical container in which the soul resides, and once the Christian life is done, the body is no longer needed. It’s a belief that still persists in Christianity today, despite clear scriptures that talk of the redemption of the body, being resurrected back into bodies, having a body like Jesus’ resurrected body, and ruling on the earth with Jesus as kings and priests.

So where did the idea of separating the soul from the body and the soul rising to heaven come from? There’s a clue in what Plato, a Greek philosopher in the 420’s BCE, taught. He believed there are two worlds, the physical and the non-physical. The physical world of space, time and matter is a mere shadow of the real world, the world that can be experienced by the mind or spirit. The spirit part of us is an immortal soul, far superior to the physical body. The soul is the person, the true self, but it’s trapped in a decaying, dying body.

The goal in life, therefore, is to free the soul from the body, meaning death is good, because at death we can escape our bodies, and our souls can return to their real home with the gods, beyond the stars and nowhere near the earth. The idea very quickly caught on in Roman culture that we all have a special place reserved for us in heaven, where we live with the immortal gods forever. It then crept into Christianity, especially at the time of the Emperor Constantine who believed he would be carried to heaven on a chariot with four horses after he died.

And we’re still stuck with Plato’s beliefs in Christianity today, that souls are good, bodies are bad, and that’s why saving souls, not bodies, is so important, as we read in so many Christian hymns.

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Which Christian view of the afterlife is correct?

Christians have at least three major views of the afterlife, which is disturbing, because how can Christians differ on a subject as important as what happens to us after we die? But we do.

The first view is that we go to heaven after we die and that’s where we stay forever. It’s our ultimate hope, that one day “Jesus takes us home” – as so many hymns and funeral services state. The second view is that we go to heaven (or paradise, Luke 23:43) immediately after we die, but only until the resurrection. Our stay in heaven or paradise is only temporary. The resurrection then occurs and we are given new bodies and back to the earth we come again. The third view is that we go to the grave when we die where we remain unconscious until the resurrection. at which point we receive new bodies and come back to the earth. At no point in this third view are we conscious in either heaven or paradise.

So which, if any, of these three radically different views is correct?

All three views find their support in Scripture, of course. The first view uses Philippians 3:20, for instance, which says “our citizenship is in heaven,” and Hebrews 11:16, which talks of us “longing for a better country – a heavenly one.”

The second view has no trouble with either of those verses, or all the other verses that talk of us being seated with Christ in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 2:6), being raised with Christ to sit with him at the right hand of God (Colossians 3:1), or Jesus preparing a place for us in his Father’s house (John 14:2) – but – Christ then returns to the earth at the last day (John 11:23-24) and transforms our bodies into the likeness of his body, and we live and rule with him on the earth (Colossians 3:3-4, Revelation 5:9-10).

The third view, meanwhile, quotes John 3:13, which says, “No one has ever gone into heaven” (including King David, Acts 2:34), so there’s no way any of us go to heaven at any time after we die. Instead we stay in our graves unconscious until Jesus returns to raise us from the dead to live and rule with him on the earth (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17).

So which of those three views correctly describes what happens to us after we die? Is it escaping off to heaven after we die to live with Jesus forever? Is it spending time in paradise awaiting the resurrection and then living with Jesus on the earth forever? Or is it staying unconscious in the grave until the resurrection and living with Jesus on the earth forever?

It can’t be all three, so which is it?