Happy Easter to those who celebrate it. I thought it would be worth considering what the early Christians thought about human nature with respect to the resurrection.
In New Testament Theology Philip Esler tackles this question, first by outlining the “four major accounts of the nature of the person in Western cultures” (pp 234-251).
1. Reductive Materialism. A person is no more than a physical organism. Emotions, morality, and religious experiences can all be explained by science. Death is the end of life; there is no afterlife.
2. Radical Dualism. A person consists of a body and a mind/soul, sharply distinguished, and identified chiefly with the latter which can survive the death of the body.
3. Nonreductive Materialism. A person is a physical organism in relation to the world and God, which gives rise to capacities like morality and spirituality. Nothing survives of the body after death; resurrection is the hope for an afterlife.
4. Integrative Dualism. A person is a composite of separate parts in relation to the world and God, but is identified with the whole. The soul might survive death; resurrection is the hope for the re-unity of body and soul in the afterlife.
I’m a (1) reductive materialist, but needless to say the NT authors lean in other directions, particularly towards (3) or (4). Tom Wright, in Resurrection of the Son of God, insists on (3), but Esler (pp 196-208) has offered a convincing argument for (4), based on texts like Heb 10-12, Lk 23:43, Lk 16:22, II Cor 5:8, Philip 1:23. In Hebrews especially, the faithful from the past applaud the faithful in the present, implying some form of lively existence in the interim state between death and resurrection. Esler’s argument for integrative dualism in the NT is convincing (and even outside the NT: the dead Samuel addresses Saul in I Sam 28; Abel’s soul speaks against Cain in I Enoch 22; etc).
Frankly, I’m not sure why people like Wright insist on “resurrection only” when there are texts which point to the idea of “lively souls” apart from, or prior to, resurrection. Is there a need to make the doctrine of the resurrection square with science (materialism) as much as possible? Does the idea of disembodied souls floating about somewhere now, in the present, raise unease with some Christians?
Who knows. I’m probably too reductive to perceive the hidden issue, if there is any. But I do wish a happy resurrection-day to all nonreductive materialists and integrative dualists, whatever your flavor is and why.
UPDATE: In comments many have pointed out that Wright is closer to position (4) than I was willing to grant. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that he underplays any activity of the soul between death and resurrection as much as possible. He emphasizes “sleep” in this period, and isn’t wild about the idea of believers reuniting before resurrection (as in ROSG, p 217). I believe that’s what Esler is getting at by referring to Wright’s “resurrection only” argument (p 247; cf. pp 197-199), and that’s how I’ve always understood him.