I recently had a parishioner come to me with a question about a Bible verse. Now, this made me ecstatic on a couple of fronts: I have a congregant who is reading the Bible regularly!; I have a congregant who is willing to come to me with a question about Scripture! This in itself was worth the $50,000 degree! Okay, maybe not. But still, it made all that time I had spent studying the Hebrew Bible and New Testament seem a little more valid, in a real-life kind of way.
His question had to do with I Corinthians 15, which is one of my favorite passages of Scripture. I use it at every funeral I officiate, as it contains Paul's famous taunt against death's power. My congregant's little "daily verse of Scripture" email had sent him I Cor. 15:20: "But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep." His question basically was "What the h&*# does that mean?"
An excellent quandary. It took a good bit of explaining for me to try to get across what I think Paul was saying. Essentially, he had a totally different vision of what life after death looks like than contemporary culture espouses. If you are a Christian, by and large, you have been taught that after you die, you will enter immediately into some kind of immortal afterlife. Now, depending on the flavor of your Christianity, there may be judgment involved, and there may be one of two places that your soul goes. I'm not getting into that whole experience here today. I think Paul had a different timeline than our common Christian culture teaches now. He thought that no one would experience judgment or be sorted into their various eternal soul resting-places until Christ returned in final victory, at the end of time. Therefore, there had to be a kind of "soulsleep," an intermediate resting-place between death now and resurrection then. This is why he said Christ was the "firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep" - Jesus was the first one who awoke from his sleep and experienced resurrection. Zombie movie anyone?
The clash between Paul's vision of soulsleep and the eventual afterlife and the more common mainstream Christian interpretation represents part of the problem about relying solely on Scripture to back a theological argument: you can find passages to support just about anything.
Where this hits home for me is in thinking about the reunion we often envision with loved ones who have died before us. I think of my mother, and how much I want to hug her when I meet her again. What if that won't happen until a general resurrection and the return of Christ? Will I even be able to tell time in soulsleep? Do I think Paul was full of it, as I sometimes do on certain of his doctrines? I do believe that God loves a thoughtful believer . . . so what do you think?