When the Roman legions ultimately conquered Greece during the Punic wars, they may have done so in a political sense, but never in a cultural sense. The Greek language became the lingua franca of the then known world. Men like Plato, Socrates and other philosophers created a framework of human thinking that has continued to impact history down to our own modern era.
Nowhere has this influenced human thought more than the areas of life and death. The Greek philosophers believed there were two realms of existence, one material and the other spiritual. In their thinking the material world was an evil corruption of the spiritual world. The only reality that ultimately existed lay in the spiritual world.
nything in the material world was, at best, only a poor shadow of its perfect form existing in the spiritual domain.
The human body, comprised very much of matter, was considered an outer prison of the spirit trapped within, and as such was an enemy of all things spiritual. In the face of this tragic belief, Greeks adopted one of two dramatic alternatives toward the body. One group disciplined it mercilessly, hoping in so doing to develop the inner spirit. The other group, believing the spirit was immortal and would eventually escape its prison at the time of physical death, treated the body as if it were irrelevant. “Eat, drink and be merry” became a slogan for their dissolute lifestyle.
This pervasive Greek pattern of thinking contrasted markedly with Hebrew thought as expressed in the Bible. For the Hebrews everything was concrete and in unity. They could talk of body and spirit as two aspects of humanity, but never separated them into a separate existence the way Greeks did. For the Hebrew, the body would cease to exist without the spirit, and the spirit could not function without the body.
A classic example of this is seen when the deaths of Socrates and Jesus are compared. Both died with their disciples around them. Socrates committed suicide by drinking a cup of hemlock.
As he did so, he and his disciples were singing because they believed his spirit was about to escape his body and merge with the great universal spirit. Jesus, on the other hand, died with cries and strong tears (see Hebrews 5:7). As a Hebrew, He believed that apart from a bodily resurrection at some later time, death was the end of all existence (see Job 14:14, 15; Isaiah 26:19).
All matter had been created by God and described as “very good” (Genesis 1:31). The body, therefore, even though it has become affected by the results of sin, and consequently experiences sickness and deformity, is not intrinsically sinful in itself. The God of heaven valued the human body so much that He chose not only to live in it while He was on earth, but chose to be resurrected in it for eternity.
By the time Jesus lived, Greek thinking had penetrated much of Jewish thinking. Jesus, on one occasion, even included an example of Greek thinking, not as something He believed as fact, but as a commonly accepted story, to illustrate one of His parables aimed at Jewish attitudes toward wealth (see Luke 16:19-31). The Jewish historian Josephus, a contemporary of Jesus, told the same basic story in his “Discourse to the Greeks Concerning Hades.” The apostle Paul often had to address the basic errors of Greek thinking about death. In his famous speech at the Areopagus in Athens, his hearers listened to him up until the point when he spoke of the resurrection of Jesus. With that climactic punchline, many of his hearers began to sneer (see Acts 17:31-34).
To the Greeks, the resurrection of a material body was foolishness (see 1 Corinthians 1:22, 23). “Why would we want a material body when we have spent all our lives trying to discipline it or wait to be free of it?” they asked. In the city of Corinth, Paul had to address a young church that had become infected with this thinking.
The whole of chapter 15 is addressed to those Christians who could not accept the Resurrection because of their Greek bias. In chapter 7, he has to address married couples who had stopped having normal sexual relations because they believed anything physical was an enemy of the spirit (see 1 Corinthians 7:1-7). They forgot the Hebrew celebration of the legitimate sensual aspects of marriage portrayed in the Song of Solomon and tried to live like the angels, spirits who neither married nor had children (see Matthew 22:30). Their Greek thinking even led them to seek the ability to speak in the language of angels (1 Corinthians 13:1). They were seeking to be “super-spiritual” apart from the body (see 2 Corinthians 12:11).
As time passed, the medieval church consolidated this Greek way of thinking.
The hermit Simon Stylites, for example, spent 38 years on top of a pole disciplining his bodily flesh and in so doing became a model of spirituality when he was later canonised as a saint. In order to become really spiritual, one needed to become a monk or a nun and renounce many things related to the body. Sex was heavily connected to original sin, and the epitome of virtue became the “virgin” Mary.
The legacy in our day of this Greek way of thinking about death is that some still believe the concept that the human spirit escapes the body at death and goes immediately into the presence of God, or to other places such as limbo, purgatory or hell to work out its destiny.
There is, however, a growing groundswell of many Christian theologians who are returning to the Hebrew teaching of both the Old and New Testaments. The New Testament consistently uses the metaphor of unconscious “sleep” to describe the experience of death (see John 11:11-14; 1 Corinthians 15:6). When Jesus returns to this planet at the end of time, those who have received Him as their Lord during their time on earth will be resurrected to live with Him for eternity (see 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
In response to Martha's grief at the death of her brother, Lazarus, Jesus said, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha, reflecting what Jesus had already taught her in John 5:28, 29, answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus then said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:24-26).
God has set this longing for eternity in all of our hearts. And He has offered it to us all as a gift—if we will receive it.