He who asked what happens to us after death has also asked whether I believe in the immortality of the soul. The short answer is no. A slightly longer answer would go something like this….
It’s a generalisation—we always have to reckon with the extent to which Jewish thought was hellenised in the period—but I think it’s correct to say that the immortality of the soul was a Greek contribution to the history of Christian thought.
In Plato’s Phaedo Socrates propounds your basic Greek anthropological dualism:
the soul is in the very likeness of the divine, and immortal, and intelligible, and uniform, and indissoluble, and unchangeable; and the body is in the very likeness of the human, and mortal, and unintelligible, and multiform, and dissoluble, and changeable.
That argument found its way into Christian thought fairly early on. The second century Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, for example, says that:
The soul is locked up in the body, but it holds the body together… The soul, which is immortal, lives in a mortal dwelling… (Diog. 6:7–8)
But it’s not a biblical idea.
The Old Testament and the New Testament agree, by and large, that a person is an indivisible unity. Death is the end of the whole person, not the releasing of the indestructible soul from a mortal body into a new kind of existence, whether for better or for worse.
Adam is told that he will live by the sweat of his brow until “you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19; cf. Ps. 146:4). The breath or life of the body returns to the God who gave it (Eccl. 12:7; Job 34:14).
The dominant idea is that all the dead go down into Sheol or Hades to lead, in the words of the Jewish Encyclopaedia, “a shadowy existence without life and consciousness”. In effect, Sheol is the grave, a figure for death, for the corruption of the body and its return to the earth—and the “bars of Sheol” are probably not as much fun as they might sound:
If I hope for Sheol as my house, if I make my bed in darkness, if I say to the pit, ‘You are my father,’ and to the worm, ‘My mother,’ or ‘My sister,’ where then is my hope? Who will see my hope? Will it go down to the bars of Sheol? Shall we descend together into the dust?” (Job 17:13–16)
Resurrection, therefore, must be the remaking of the whole person, not the rejoining of soul and body. Jesus’ resurrection was different only inasmuch as God did not abandon his anointed to Hades, did not let his flesh see corruption (Acts 2:31). By his resurrection he became a second Adam, the beginning of a new imperishable humanity—the beginning of new creation.
Originally resurrection was conceived within the national-historical setting of the renewal of Israel (cf. Dan. 12:1-3), and I think that this perspective dominates the New Testament. Paul expected a resurrection of the dead in Christ, corresponding to the resurrection of the righteous in Jewish thought, at the parousia. As a reward, so to speak, for their faithful witness and suffering they would reign with Christ throughout the coming ages.
But the idea also emerged that, since the God of historical Israel was also the creator of heaven and earth, there would be a final resurrection and judgment of humanity.
A couple of New Testament texts might be taken to imply a body-soul dualism.
Jesus’ distinction between body and soul in Matthew 10:28 seems to reflect a hellenised martyr theology: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in gehenna.” The real distinction here is between the disciple who is willing to forfeit his “life” (psychēn) for the sake of Jesus (Matt. 16:24-26) and the multitude of Jews who will be destroyed in the war against Rome.
In Revelation 6:9 and 20:4 we hear of the “souls” of those slain for their testimony to the word of God patiently waiting for vindication, but the “souls” are no more real than the “white robes” give to them (Rev. 6:11). They are symbolic elements in the apocalyptic drama of John’s vision.
So I am led to conclude that Christians who die between the vindication of the early martyrs and the final resurrection—i.e., during John’s thousand year period—do not go to heaven. To get to heaven when you die you either need to have an immortal soul, which we don’t, or you need to be raised from the dead, which we aren’t. So we will just have to wait. Or rather not wait, because we will be dead.