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The Death of Death:
Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought

A Review

C. Gourgey, Ph.D.

The Death of Death: Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought
Neill Gillman
(Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, © 1997)

Anyone who has wondered what happens to us when we die will find this book challenging. I have met the author personally. He is not only an impeccable scholar, but also a man of deep integrity and spirituality. His scholarship alone has much to offer and teach. This book does invite comparison with N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope. Both affirm the doctrine of bodily resurrection, while rejecting the Greek idea of the immortality of the soul.

Gillman traces the theme of resurrection throughout Jewish literature and history, starting with the Bible. The Hebrew Bible has no developed theology of the afterlife. For the most part, the fate of the dead is sheol, a vaguely delineated netherworld whose inhabitants have no relationship with our world or with each other. However, three biblical texts maintain that death is not the final word, and point specifically towards resurrection:

“He will destroy death forever. My Lord God will wipe the tears away from all faces and will put an end to the reproach of His people over all the earth” (Isaiah 25:8, new JPS).

“Oh, let Your dead revive! Let corpses arise! Awake and shout for joy, you who dwell in the dust! For Your dew is like the dew on fresh growth; You make the land of the shades come to life” (Isaiah 26:19).

“Many of those that sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to eternal life, others to reproaches, to everlasting abhorrence” (Daniel 12:2).

In rabbinic sources we find more elaborate versions of the doctrine of resurrection. The one that came to predominate incorporated some influence of Greek thought concerning the immortality of the soul: along with the body there is an immortal soul, which separates from the body at death but will be returned to the body at the time of resurrection, in the messianic era. This hybrid theory was the one held by the Pharisees, who Josephus and the Christian Gospels report believed in the resurrection while the Sadducees did not. It is reflected in the Jewish liturgy; the traditional morning prayer begins like this (my translation):

My God, the soul you have given me is pure. You created it; you formed it; you breathed it into me and preserve it within me. In the future you will take it from me, and return it to me in the age to come. All this time in which my soul is within me I am grateful before you, Lord my God and God of my ancestors, that you are master of all creation, ruler of all creatures, and lord of all souls. Blessed are you Lord, who returns souls to the bodies of the dead.

While there were occasional variations, this understanding of resurrection predominated until modern times. With the Enlightenment and more liberal forms of Judaism the Greek-originated view of the immortality of the soul became more popular, while some forms of Judaism denied the afterlife altogether (the rabbi of Harry Kemelman’s mystery series comes to mind). But in today’s “postmodern” period the belief in resurrection has become popular again, and the author claims it as his own.

Gillman summarizes his own belief as follows:

What does it mean to say that God has the power to bring the dead to life?

We saw that this doctrine began as two separate doctrines that later merged. The first teaches that, at the end of time, bodies will be resurrected from their graves. The second, that there is a nonmaterial “something” in every human called the “soul” which never dies, which departs the body at death and returns to God. The later conflation of the two doctrines led to the belief that, at the time of resurrection, the soul would be restored to the resurrected body, and that each individual human, with body and soul united as they were on earth, would come before God for judgement [sic].

This scenario is profoundly true. Even more, it is indispensable for us if we are to make sense of our lives here on earth - as long as we accept it, not as crude biology, but as classic Jewish religious myth. (p. 260)

Gillman repeats this final caution several times: to take the doctrine of resurrection literally would be to “trivialize” it. Rather, it is a “mythic statement.” What is a myth?

Myths, then, are not objectively literal descriptions of some reality “out there” beyond the individual. But neither are they total fictions. Rather, they are subjective, somewhat imaginative portraits that make it possible for our experience of the world to hang together, to be ordered, and thus, to make sense. (p. 250)

It is hard to know what to make of this. Gillman explicitly rejects the “body/soul dualism” inherited from the Greeks. So he really cannot push very far his claim that resurrection is a non-literal “myth.” At the very least it must refer to some physical entity, even if substantially different from bodies as we now know them. Thus resurrection cannot be entirely a doctrine of non-literal symbols. Understood symbolically (as many have), tehiyat hametim (the revival of the dead) takes us away from the physical body and to the immortal soul, a doctrine from which Gillman pointedly distances himself. If resurrection means anything, it means the restoration of some kind of physical existence.

And this is where Gillman runs into the same problems as N.T. Wright (see my review of Surprised by Hope). Just what kind of physical existence are we talking about? Presumably it is not unlike that which we already enjoy on earth. Gillman states:

When the Gevurot benediction affirms that mehaye hametim, that God “revives the dead,” I believe it means the entire scenario: God gives new life to the dead, to the totality of me, to my body together with my soul.

This is the ultimate meaning of the Talmudic doctrine that at the end of days, God will bring my body and my soul together again and that I will be reconstituted as I was during my life on earth. The mythic thrust of this doctrine is that it is this totality in its concrete individuality, as manifest during my lifetime, that God treasures and that God will therefore preserve for all time.

I insist that my resurrection must affect all of me in my concrete individuality because I understand the central thrust of the doctrine of the afterlife as establishing the everlasting preciousness to God of the life I led here on earth. I lived that life as a concrete individual. (p. 271, emphasis added)

Gillman states (p. 249) that “The surest way to trivialize any eschatological doctrine is to understand it as literal truth.” However, when he speaks of being reconstituted as he was during life on earth, he is inviting literal interpretation. As he also states:

The thrust of these reflections is to suggest, first, that my body is indispensable to my sense of self. Without my body, there is no “me.” Whatever my ultimate destiny, then, whatever God has in store for me at the end, must include my body. That is why any doctrine of the afterlife must deal with my body as well. Belief in bodily resurrection is, then, indispensable to any doctrine of the afterlife. (p. 262, emphasis added)

A resurrection that “must include my body” “reconstituted as I was during my life on earth” is as close to literal as it gets. Such a doctrine leads to the same absurdities we encountered in the review of N.T. Wright. Is this body the same type of physical body we have here on earth? Earthly matter is by nature perishable, impermanent. It will not serve us well for a coming everlasting kingdom. Then will this new body be a kind of “incorruptible physicality” as Wright describes? Will it need to eat? Digest and eliminate food? Engage in sex? Procreate? Will it be vulnerable to pain and injury? All these are part of our perishability. A living body without these traits is a “body” that in no meaningful sense can be called physical. It would have to obey an entirely different set of laws, of which we can hardly conceive. In fact, free of all the physical limitations that make life in a body what it is. it would be virtually indistinguishable from the immortal soul that Gillman soundly rejects. It is also impossible to imagine how such a “spiritual body” that does not obey physical laws could exist on this physical earth, the proposed venue for the resurrection. Gillman is correct that literal interpretations lead to trivialization, but the way he presents his doctrine makes its literal interpretation inescapable.

Gillman justifies his doctrine by asserting that existence in a body is the only life he knows and the only life of which he can conceive: “my body is indispensable to my sense of self,” “then, whatever God has in store for me at the end, must include my body.” He wants his earthly life to continue; he wants to “be reconstituted as I was during my life on earth.” What this amounts to is a denial of death, in the wish to perpetuate life as we know it but without its sorrows. As Gillman puts it, “establishing the everlasting preciousness to God of the life I led here on earth.”

Much theology is driven by the urge to codify human desires. We want God to be a certain way (for example, a sympathetic parent), so that is how God is. The same goes for the afterlife. This is a popular but not very good way of doing theology. Of course we are attached to the life we live here on earth (at least if we do not suffer too much). That is hardly a rationale for assuming that the way things are in this world is the way they must be in eternity. That Gillman cannot conceive of himself without a body is no reason to assume his bodily existence will be preserved. Any specific theory of what happens after death, be it resurrection, reincarnation, or even disembodied souls interacting with each other the way they did on earth, is bound to be wrong. We are simply not meant to know such things (Deuteronomy 29:29), for if we did we would be tempted to live just for the next world while neglecting this one. In my opinion the best approach to this issue was taken by Paul Tillich towards the end of his Systematic Theology. He states that the question of the individual’s fate can only be answered by two negative statements: “The self-conscious self cannot be excluded from eternal life,” and “The self-conscious self in Eternal Life is not what it is in temporal life.” That would of course mean that it does not exist in a body as it does in temporal life. Beyond these two statements everything remains hidden.

The persistence of the doctrine of bodily resurrection in our time is a rather peculiar anachronism. It is more appropriately part of first-century apocalyptic theology. Resurrection was taken there to be the inauguration of the messianic age. The earth would be transformed and God’s kingdom finally established on it. First-century believers were not concerned with questions that today we cannot escape: What does it mean to establish an eternal kingdom on a physical earth? How can anything material be permanent and imperishable? Is a physical body without the characteristics of earthly physical bodies really any different from an immortal soul? And how can a physical body like our physical bodies be immortal? In the first century such questions would have made no sense. In the twenty-first century such questions are unavoidable.

It is both frustrating and frightening not to know what will become of us after we die. Instead of trying to escape this tension by resorting to solutions with little basis other than that we find them consoling, perhaps the willingness to live with this ignorance, within the “cloud of unknowing,” will be the way we encounter the God whose answers shatter our own in the power of the divine mystery.

September 2019