Oscar Cullmann on Death, Immortality, Resurrection

The death of Socrates is a beautiful death. Nothing is seen here of death's terror. Socrates cannot fear death, since indeed it sets us free from the body. Whoever fears death proves that he loves the world of the body, that he is thoroughly entangled in the world of the senses. Death is the soul's great friend. So he teaches; and so, in wonderful harmony with his teaching, he dies---this man who embodied the Greek world in its noblest form.

And now let us hear how Jesus dies. In Gethsemane he knows that death stands before him, just as Socrates expected death on his last day. The synoptic evangelists furnish us, by and large, with a unanimous report. Jesus begins "to tremble and be distressed," writes Mark. "My soul is troubled, even to death," he says to his disciples. Jesus is so thoroughly human that he shares the natural fear of death. Jesus is afraid... He is afraid in the face of death itself. Death for him is not something divine; it is something dreadful.


Only he who apprehends with the first Christians the horror of death, who takes death seriously as death, can comprehend the Easter exultation of the primitive Christian community and understand that the whole thinking of the New Testament is governed by belief in the resurrection. Belief in the immortality of the soul is not belief in a revolutionary event. Immortality, in fact, is only a negative assertion: the soul does not die, but simply lives on. Resurrection is a positive assertion: the whole man, who has really died, is recalled to life by a new act of creation by God. Something has happened---a miracle of creation! For something has also happened previously, something fearful: life formed by God has been destroyed.

Death in itself is not beautiful, not even the death of Jesus. Death before Easter is really the death's head surrounded by the odor of decay. And the death of Jesus is as loathsome as the great painter Grünewald depicted it in the Middle Ages. But precisely for this reason the same painter understood how to paint, along with it, in an incomparable way, the great victory, the resurrection of Christ... Whoever paints a pretty death can paint no resurrection. Whoever has not grasped the horror of death cannot join Paul in the hymn of victory: "Death is swallowed up---in victory! O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?"

Oscar Cullmann, "Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead", 1955

Last modified: Tue Sep 16 09:16:00 1997