Audio length: 34:18 minutes
Transcript published: December 06, 2010
In this episode, Kevin and Father Steven C. Kostoff discuss two views of the afterlife that separate the New Age/Eastern/Gnostic from the central historic Christian belief.
Kevin Allen:There are so many metaphysical ideas and theories in our neo-paganized world today. We hear about reincarnation and the duality of the soul and the body, and the near-death experience, the light at the end of the tunnel, and so on, in the literature, that the traditional Christian understanding of the resurrection of the dead sometimes gets lost in the metaphysical shuffle, or is even misunderstood, and often, by Christians.
This will be our topic today, the distinction between two prevalent views of the soul and body and what happens to them after the end of this life. Obviously, this is a very deep, and perhaps, even somewhat speculative subject. It is a mystery, and we are certainly not going to be able to cover it extensively, but we will focus on two key beliefs: 1) The immortality of the soul, believed by Gnostics, and some Eastern traditions, and 2) the resurrection of the dead of the Judeo-Christian tradition. We will look at their historic theological roots, and some of the implications of these metaphysics.
My guest today in this conversation is Archpriest Steven Kostoff, rector of Christ the Savior Holy Spirit Orthodox Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. That is in the Midwest Diocese of the Orthodox Church in America, which he has served since 1989. Father Steven is an adjunct faculty member at Xavier University for the past 20 years. He has taught courses, and teaches courses, on the Orthodox Church, on Christian Mysticism, and The Russian Religious Mind. His wife, Presbytera Deborah, and he, have three children, and two grandchildren. Father Steven has written on the subject which we will be discussing today, and I am very glad to have him as my guest on the program.
Father Steven Kostoff, welcome to The Illumined Heart.
Father Steven Kostoff: Thank you very much, Kevin. Glad to be here, and hopefully, we can find something worthy of our discussion here
Kevin: I am very interested in the subject because I must confess that there have been times when I, too, have been confused by these theories, and it is always good to get our roots re-established, and to understand how the fathers of the Church understood things, so thanks for that.
Let’s begin. Father Steven, many people today have been influenced, as I have been mentioning, by Eastern and Gnostic beliefs and concepts of the immortality of the soul, rather than the traditional Christian belief in the resurrection of the body. In your article written in the OCA publication, The Orthodox Church, in the spring and summer of 2009, you pointedly wrote, “Our belief as Orthodox Christians is not centered on the immortality of the soul, but in the resurrection of the dead.” So, where does the tradition of the resurrection of the body come from? Let’s start there first.
Father Steven: I think as Christians we feel it has been perfectly revealed in Christ and his bodily resurrection from the dead. We can find Old Testament sources and roots, like the Book of Daniel, the deuterocanonical II Maccabees, and probably some inter-testamental Jewish literature. However that may be, and maybe that could be seen as speculative, our Lord’s resurrection clearly revealed that it is the very center of our belief, that the whole person is restored and transformed to life with God.
In the Nicene Creed, we openly affirm and claim to believe in the resurrection of the dead. If you look at the Creed carefully, there is no explicit mention of the immortality of the soul. However, I think it is important that we do not make too sharp of a dichotomy there. We do not reject the teaching of the immortality of the soul, we simply reject some of its, let’s say, Hellenistic sources.
We do not believe the soul is, by nature, immortal, or inherently immortal. We believe the soul is immortal by the grace of God. We are not rejecting the immortality of the soul, we are placing it in the wider context of the biblical understanding of the person in his or her wholeness, based upon the resurrection of Christ.
Kevin: Well said, I think that was a very, very good introduction to that understanding, because it is important to point out that we are not saying that the soul is not immortal, by God’s grace. As Christians, how do we understand this concept of the resurrection of the dead? You mentioned body and soul together, and so on.
Father Steven: I think that is the key. Of course, we look to the account of creation. The human person made in God’s image and likeness is a psychosomatic unity of what we traditionally call the body and the soul. That is the whole person. The whole person is created by God, sustained by God, and has an eternal destiny to be in God, and we believe that the body, of course, is part of that destiny, not to be discarded or lost. The entire person is in that relationship. If that was not the case, there would be no reason or purpose for the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
We do not speak of the immortality of his soul, we speak of his full resurrection. The full Jesus of Nazareth has been raised from the dead to sit at the right hand of the Father, so I think we are being very biblical here, speaking of the psychosomatic unity, more holistic, and we are able to distance ourselves from those very Gnostic, or Hellenistic, or esoteric sources that do cause a lot of confusion today.
Kevin: Yes, I have a quote that I wrote down here, Father, if you would allow me, Mark Eugenikos quoting at the Council of Florence, where he was arguing against purgatory, wrote, “Neither the soul, itself, nor the body by itself, is deserving of the name human being, but only both, together.”
It is a very fine quotation. I think you can find something very similar going back to even Justin the Martyr in the second century, so that has been very consistent in our patristic tradition. Sometimes the fathers are accused of being too “Greek or Hellenistic” but the fathers, at their best, are very biblical in their anthropology, never neglecting or discarding the role of the body. St. Mark, writing in the 15th century, in a sense, synthesizes a longstanding tradition that is very consistent.
Father Steven: He wrote, and I quote, “Resurrection is the claim that the body, and thus, the whole person, conceived biblically, has been raised and glorified to a new mode of existence in an eternal relationship with God. What many Jews believed would occur at the end of history happened with Jesus within history.”
Just to drill down a bit on the differences between immortality of the soul, as it is conceived by Gnostics and Eastern seekers, and so on, we are basically saying, and correct me where I am wrong, Father Steven Kostoff, that the soul is not pre-existent to the body.
Father Steven: Exactly. That is where someone like Origen got himself into deep trouble in the third century, even though, of course, he was a great genius, he was teaching the pre-existence of the soul, that the soul was almost trapped in the body in a Hellenistic form, and the Church had to rightly condemn that. We do not believe in the pre-existence of the soul, but that soul and body, in a sense, are conceived simultaneously in the very act of creation, where human persons, in a sense, co-create with
Father Steven: You mentioned Hellenistic, and I am assuming that Gnosticism would fall, technically, within the historical thinking of Hellenism. Is that correct?
Father Steven: To this day, if I am not mistaken, scholars are still debating and trying to find the real source of Gnosticism, which is very hard. They will go as far-ranging as the Middle East, with some things coming out of Zoroastrianism, being filtered through certain Jewish thinking, and of course Hellenism. Then you had the Eastern world, and the Hellenic world, kind of meeting, following the conquest of Alexander the Great, exchange of ideas.
Finding the real source of Gnosticism is pretty tricky, I believe, even for historians, to this day. It just kind of emerges from a coming together of various strains of thought, and it began to trouble the Church, of course, by the second, into the third century, as it posed perhaps the greatest external metaphysical threat to the Church in those centuries. There was a real battle to save the very heart of the gospel, fighting these Gnostic systems which represented, intellectually, very fascinating or attractive as they could be. It is a long history, but one that the church is probably still fighting with the re-emergency of Gnostic thinking today, that we can find in various types of movements.
Kevin: I would agree, absolutely, with that statement. Going back to what you are saying, here, in Greco-Roman religion and Eastern non-Christian religion, with the confluence of Alexander the Great, and so on, there is a cosmic dualistic view of reality, that is, spirit is good, physical matter is bad. We even see that in Plato, as far as I understand anything about Plato.
Consequently, for these religions, the absolute was sought in an escape from the physical, including the body, as we have been discussing, for the rescue of the true self found in the soul. You can hear, simply by the definition, how that resonates with some of these New-Agey type thoughts that are going on today. The biblical doctrine of the resurrection of the body, on the other hand, has been called, and I quote, “The greatest disjunction between the respective beliefs of Athens, that is, the non-Christian pagan world, and Jerusalem. Can you talk a bit more about this profound difference in understanding of the material, and how this relates to the resurrection of the body, please?
Father Steven: That is a very good point, absolutely fascinating and essential. There is almost an intrinsic attraction to this Gnostic thought. How wonderful to think that the soul is immortal by nature, it is contained in the body, it is awaiting release into a transcendent realm where it will be freed of any bodily entanglements, so on, and so forth, so it has a kind of superficial attraction.
Obviously it attracted many people in the very Greco-Roman world we are discussing here a little bit, but the whole consequence is, it just ignores or denigrates the material creation. We believe what God created is very good. It is a very powerful biblical affirmation that we have to re-establish today very clearly. Everything that came from God is good. There is nothing intrinsically evil. Gnosticism implies a metaphysical dualism between light and darkness, and the spirit and the material. Christianity presents an ethical or moral dualism. There is light and darkness within the created realm because evil exists in its own mysterious way, but this gnostic system simply just ignores the goodness and the beauty of creation and the wholeness of who we are as human persons, so although it may be superficially attractive, it has to be rejected on behalf of our biblical anthropology.
Kevin: Too, you have mentioned that the incarnation, itself, proves that the material has been sanctified, right?
Father Steven: Absolutely. Why would the transcendent God send His Word into the world to be conceived, to grow, to live as a human being who could be seen, could be heard, could be even handled, according to St. John in his beautiful opening of his first epistle? Incarnation, itself, is God’s way of, in a sense, undermining any mistaken Gnostic or dualistic way of looking at reality.
The creation that is very good is the one that God will enter, on behalf of its salvation, to restore it, to transform it, to transfigure it, to unite it with Himself for all of eternity. We are presenting a thoroughly holistic world view, a thoroughly holistic way of grasping and embracing reality, seeing its goodness and its potential holiness, and awaiting its redemption in the future. I think the Gnostic systems, or any other dualistic systems, cannot offer such a gift, such a holistic understanding of who and what we are, and the incarnation is the very heart of it.
Some early pagan writers were almost disgusted by the incarnation, the fact that the divine, or the transcendent, or the realm that may be called God, could enter into a womb and be born. They were just completely disgusted with that possibility. We find that in Celsus’ writing against the early Christians, and others of these pagan writers. As much as Christianity may have borrowed or transformed from the Greco-Roman world, including certain platonic insights, that real divide is the incarnation and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
Kevin: I think you have well pointed out that it is a temptation, if you will, to think in Gnostic terms, and in a way, as you point out, philosophically, it is easier in some ways to be a Gnostic than it is to adhere to truly Judeo-Christian thinking in this area.
Father Steven: I think so. One side of Gnosticism is a kind of anti-nomianism where if the body is so disregarded, on the one hand, we may be very ascetical. On the other hand, you may think what you do in the body is of no real consequence. If you read some of the early fathers, they talk about this kind of polarity in some Gnostic approaches to either handle the body, or what we would call the passions or temptations of the flesh. They would indulge them, thinking that was going to simply be extinguished at the end of time, or when the soul escaped the body.
There was a real, pastoral, ethical dimension to how we understand the body and its relationship to our whole person. We have to care for our body, the temple of the Holy Spirit. We respect it, if you like. We just cannot discard or ignore it in the process, and we certainly cannot indulge it in some kind of way that is offended by our biblical understanding.
Kevin: I do not want to divert our attention from the subject at hand, but that is also, and correct me if I am wrong about this, that is also why we say that our dead must be buried, not simply cremated or tossed in the ditch, or whatever.
Father Steven: Right, I think our practice of burial, again, is very biblical. The problem with cremation is that there is usually a philosophical or quasi-religious underpinning to cremation, which again, brings us back to a disregard for the body. Our respect for the body is expressed in the fact that we do bury our dead, as our Lord, himself, was buried. I think that is an important practice that we need to defend and maintain within the life of the Church, based upon our holistic anthropology.
Kevin: It is a temptation to spiritualize the notion of, even, the resurrection. I know that, having come out of a New Age Eastern religions background, they will consistently spiritualize the biblical account of the resurrection of Christ. I have heard, for an example, many times, New Agers and Hindus, interpret the Gospel of John, Chapter 20, verse 17, and so on, which is Mary’s encounter with our Lord at the tomb, where the Lord says, “Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father,” as some sort of a proof text that Christ’s body was no longer merely physical, which could be touched, but spiritual, or as one often hears from the theosophical groups, that his subtle body was ascending, otherwise why would the Lord have commanded Mary not to touch him? How do we talk about that in a Christian context?
Father Steven: That is a very interesting issue, because what it tells me is that groups, let’s say Hindus, as you mentioned, or even theosophists—I remember reading theosophical literature as a young man—they bring certain presuppositions to the text that are foreign to the whole mindset of the bible, if you like. When you bring these metaphysical or philosophical presuppositions, you start reading things into the text.
You take everything out of context, so if you bring to the text a notion of the lack of importance of the body, or the passing nature of the body, then you can perhaps read those things into, or out of, the text, which are foreign to what the sacred writers were telling us. Jesus speaking to Mary, saying, “Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father,” is not a Jesus somehow in a subtle body, or a totally spiritualized Jesus who is telling her to forget about transformed bodily existence after his resurrection.
Jesus seems to be telling Mary, there is a new basis for my relationship with my disciples. It is no longer like in my earthly ministry, where, again quoting I John, “I am seen, I am heard, I am touched.” There is, if you like, a spiritual relationship which differs in the post paschal Christ, of course, but it does not mean it is a disembodied relationship. The ascended Lord is seated at the right hand of the Father as the resurrected Jesus of Nazareth.
The body our Lord assumed in incarnation, that body has been transformed through the process of death, deified, glorified, ascended at the right hand of the Father. When I teach my course at Xavier University, sometimes on one of the exams I will have a question about the resurrection and ascension, and many students somehow think Jesus is no longer in bodily form following the resurrection. I can talk about the resurrection, they just kind of let that go through their mind and they think he is now disembodied, so it is rather fascinating how powerful the grip that has on us, that spiritual life is disembodied life.
Kevin: That is why I wanted to get you on the phone and discuss this, because I think your articles and your work on this topic are extremely important for us, especially as New Age people and Eastern seekers are coming into the Orthodox Church, which thank God, they are. St. Paul had to correct the early believers on this, as well, perhaps influenced as the gentile believes might have been by Greco-Roman religious views, isn’t that correct?
Father Steven: Yes, in I Corinthians, 15, you have what some scholars might even call a kind of proto-gnosticism or a tendency to spiritualize our relationship with God, so somehow they seem to believe that the resurrection already occurred, I am assuming something internal about their spiritual relationship to God, and they were not looking for the resurrection of the dead. To them it was what scholars would call a realized eschatology, which you will find even among certain biblical scholars, which we reject.
I think that St. Paul was dealing with that attempt, once again, to think of the spiritual in terms of the disembodied. That is why I Corinthians is the most important chapter in the New Testament, I think, about resurrection, perhaps next to the gospel accounts of our Lord rising from the dead. He had to really clarify and speak about the notion of transformation, of change, but still about a real embodied existence in the age to come.
Kelly: Let’s talk a little bit about that, because St. Paul’s teaching on the resurrection is nuanced. Can you talk a little bit about the distinction you make between physical resuscitation and resurrection? We hear a lot about putting the body in cryonic machines to keep it so that later it can be brought back, resuscitated, etc. He is not talking about that, correct?
Father Steven: Not at all. There is something a bit unsettling and macabre about this notion of suspended animation. There, I think, you are in the face of that kind of desperate, agonized fear of death, but that is a different issue. We have in the New Testament, in the gospels, narratives of Jesus raising three persons from the dead. We have the daughter of Jairus, we have the widow of Nain’s son, and of course, we have Lazarus. To properly distinguish their new life from the resurrected life of the Lord, I think we can use the terms, resuscitation for the former, and resurrection for our Lord.
Jesus brought back to life those three persons, very powerfully, and we know those are great, powerful narratives. They anticipate the resurrection, they point to the Lord as the Lord of the living and the dead. They show his authority if you like, but they will die again. Those resuscitated persons will die again that were brought back to life in this world. As we hear in Romans Chapter 6, the risen Lord is beyond death, obviously, in his resurrection. There is a real distinction between the two, and I think we have to bear that in mind because if we do not, we might have the danger of over-literalizing the resurrection of our savior. That is why sometimes I am a little wary about the term, physical resurrection, because skeptical scholars will mock that, and say you are talking about a resuscitated corpse walking around, or something. Maybe that does not quite get the real power of the term of resurrection, and the transformative implications of resurrection that take us beyond life in this world in revealing the form and the glory of the resurrected body. I think we have to keep that distinction between resuscitation and resurrection to make that distinction clear. I hope that helps a bit.
Kevin: I think it does. I would like to continue along on that thread if we can, though, because St. Paul differentiates between a physical body which perishes, and in my New King James version the physical body is translated as terrestrial, and later, as natural, as in I Corinthians 15:40, and he differentiates that body, the terrestrial and the natural, from a spiritual body which is raised, which my New King James translates as celestial, or spiritual. St. Paul writes in Chapter 15, verse 44, “It is sown, a natural body. It is raised, a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.” Here is my problem, Father Steven Kostoff, it sounds like he is saying that it is not a physical body, but a spiritual one, and this is also sort of what the theosophists, like Madame Blavatsky, believed. So can you help us with this?
Father Steven: Maybe I am repeating myself a bit, but St. Paul clearly affirms the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and he speaks of the empty tomb in I Corinthians 15:3, that Jesus was seen by Peter and James and by the twelve, and even by myself, bad creature that I am.
If you put that I Corinthians 15 in the context, his spiritual body does not mean some kind of thorough disembodiment. He is trying to capture what is very hard to capture in words, the sense of transformation, that what is sown, the physical body, is raised as a spiritual body. He is trying to capture the transformative nature as well as he can, in the human words that he is, in a sense, limited to.
The word natural can throw us off a little bit, because natural, in that sense, almost makes it sound like maybe natural is negative. I think it is psychikon, almost like from the word for soul that he is using for that particular text. The spiritual body is pneumatikos soma, so I think he is just trying to capture transformation there, and not disembodiment. I think it is a total misreading of the so-called theosophists, or others, to claim otherwise.
Kevin: You mentioned the overt literalism that we can fall into in understanding these mysteries, and I think the human mind wants to equate mysteries with things that we can identify. I think one of the problems with this idea of the resurrection of the body, if you will, is that we can go from one way, that is, hyperspiritualizing this, and having it, as you point out well, a disembodied understanding, or you can go the other way, and think about this to hyperliteralism, that is, Christ sitting at the right hand of the Father in the heavens, meaning a man with long beard, or whatever, is literally sitting up there in the clouds.
Certainly, this is how much of Western art has often depicted this mystery, and it seems to me it is prone to misunderstanding and leads us again to an overly physical understanding. We can see that in the Mormon church, the Latter Day Saints, as an example, which has a very literal and physical view of theosis and the resurrection of the body, and I would also argue that so also does the Muslim doctrine of resurrection with the virgins and all of that business, for example. Would you comment on that?
Father Steven: Again, that is a good point, and one we have to address carefully, all these tendencies toward polarization or driving one point home in an extreme manner, like over-spiritualization, over-literalization. I think some of that kind of inter-testamental Jewish literature that predates the coming of Christ, you will find even there, what we would consider now almost crass or overly literalistic promises of resurrection life—gardens and fruit and almost re-establishing the same mode of existence, and the resurrection of Christ, clearly is a different dimension there.
So there is that, and I think that is something we have to be very careful of. I think that is why certain biblical scholars reject the resurrection of Christ and want to spiritualize it. They kind of either mock that, or somehow have an easier time undermining that teaching. I think on one hand we have to be careful with that.
On the other hand, when we speak of the spiritual body, and again, perhaps I do not want to just keep repeating myself, it is about a transformative existence. I think the balance we have to hold here is that there is both continuity and discontinuity in resurrection. When the myrrh-bearing women came to the tomb in Mark’s gospel, the angel said to them, “You seek Jesus of Nazareth. He is not here. He is risen.”
It is Jesus of Nazareth who is risen from the dead, but that same Jesus of Nazareth has undergone the transformation that we call resurrection and a spiritual body, not bound by space and time, clearly freed of those constraints that he assumed upon himself in the incarnation. So there is a continuity. The discontinuity is the transformation, the glorification, the freedom from sickness, sorrow and sighing, as we say in our funeral text, that theosis that we long for so deeply in our hearts, the glorified person, soul and body, in the Kingdom of God. So I think we have to avoid that polarization and stay with, if you like, the royal road, of seeing continuity and discontinuity, so perfectly brought together.
Kevin: Thank you, that was a very good way to kind of wrap this up. I have one last question, Father Steven Kostoff, I would like to end off with, and we have some time, so feel free to expound on it a bit, and that is this: How do we know that Christ’s bodily resurrection actually applies to us? I can imagine, and I have actually heard someone say, “Christ was the Son of God. You are not, I am not. How do we know this happens to us?” Is there any way of proving that point? I think it is an interesting point, perhaps you could speak to it.
Father Steven: It is a very interesting point. When we look at our Lord, we talk of him as the New Adam, or the last Adam, or eschatos Adam, as St. Paul would say. That image captures Jesus as representing all of humanity. St. Paul will draw the consequence out of that representational aspect of our Lord as the New Adam, by telling us that he is kind of the pioneer of our salvation, or the one who anticipates our own resurrection, glorification. What has happened to our Lord will happen to us, just as what happened to the Adam of old also happened to us, in the tragedy of death, our dissolution, our lack of relationship with God.
The Bible does not think individualistically. It thinks often, communally, or if you like, personally, and the personal always means interrelationally, with interrelationships. So Christ is conceived, not as an individual, or some kind of dying, rising God, in his apotheosis, in a very individual manner, but he is seen as representative of all humanity. He is the first fruits of them who have fallen asleep. The first fruits implies the gathering of the fruit yet to come. He is like the first gathering of the harvest, the very old testamental image that St. Paul also employs in I Corinthians 15. So, when we think communally or corporately, members of the body of Christ, members one of another, I think that takes us way beyond the fear or uncertainty about Jesus being one thing apart from us. I think that is very important.
If you look at the tradition behind the dormition of the Theotokos, the dormition speaks of the translation into heaven of the Mother of God. That translation is depicted in bodily terms, and some will say, as a human hypostasis, or human person, she also reveals the common destiny of all of humankind, in a fully glorified existence, together with God, but I think it is so important for us as “modern people” to pull away from this kind of individualism and think more communally, corporately, which is very biblical.
I think Christ is the first fruits of them that have fallen asleep. It is a very powerful image to reveal that to us. So, the promise is given in the resurrected Christ, as the promise was given in the transfigured Christ. Our role is to live out our life, seeking our salvation in fear and trembling, and trying to be worthy of that glorification that we await as our common destiny.
Kevin: My guest in this very fascinating and, I think, important conversation, has been Father Steven C. Kostoff. He is the rector of Christ the Savior Holy Spirit Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. Father Steven, thank you very much, I have really enjoyed this fascinating, and, I think, enlightening, conversation. Thank you for being my guest on Ancient Faith Radio.