On the Resurrection of the Dead

A New Metaphysics of Afterlife for Christian Thought

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James T. Turner
Routledge New Critical Thinking in Religion, Theology and Biblical Studies
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , September
     2018.
     260 pages.
     $140.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781138350625.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

James Turner Jr.’s On the Resurrection of the Dead: A New Metaphysics of Afterlife for Christian Thought is an analytical treatment of the central difficulties that arise concerning the Christian Doctrine of the afterlife. In particular, the tension that arises from the afterlife seeming to consist of two stages. The first stage is that of a non-bodily existence of the soul—the so-called “Intermediate State,” and the second stage is the resurrection. The difficulty, as Turner argues, is that “[t]he Intermediate State obtaining renders bodily resurrection superfluous” (17). Furthermore, Turner strongly posits that “substance dualism” is false, and undermines Paul’s argument, in 1 Corinthians 15, that without the resurrection, we would have “hope in this life only.” The reasoning is that, if the human being survives death and even enters beatitude, there would be no need for the resurrection, and it would not be merely the resurrection in which we could have hope. Turner’s fascinating and rather unique solution to this problem is to adopt what he calls a “broadly Thomistic hylemorphic conception of human beings” (18) and put it together with “Eschatological Presentism” (18).

Turner’s contention is that, given Christian theology, there is no such thing as a disembodied soul. He goes about this by first arguing against substance dualism (chapter 1), and then by rejecting physicalism (chapters 2 and 3). In chapter 4, Turner argues that hylemorphic conceptions of the disembodied soul are false. The separated soul can no longer be a substantial form, since it is no longer forming a substance. This leads to problems with identity, according to Turner (177). We are either left with the position that the separated soul is the human being, or that it is not. The latter position Turner dismisses as “existentially uninteresting,” as it would mean that while Socrates’s soul may be in Paradise with Christ, Socrates is not. 

The solution Turner proposes is rooted in what he calls a “tentatively offered cornerstone” to his constructive project. Essentially, Turner maintains that immediately following the moment a human being dies, this same human exists at the eschatological resurrection. The argument turns on the notion that the eschatological future is likewise present in some way. This is the “already but not yet,” which is often associated with Christian theology. In affirming this position, Turner utilizes a broadly taken Thomistic hylemorphism which affirms that the human person is identified with the body, and cannot exist otherwise. Consistent with the honest and straightforward tone that characterizes the book, Turner candidly admits that, in his account, he is not always clear on what “surviving death” means, even while it is a position that he wishes to affirm (185, fn. 2). 

While there are many interesting aspects of Turner’s work that merit attention, with the limited space available I will draw-out what I think is a rather significant difficulty in his argument. While Turner professes that he is relying on a broadly Thomistic hylemorphic account, it seems that he has perhaps misunderstood Thomas on some key points that implicate his greater argument. In particular, Turner makes a significant error regarding Thomas’s Christology. According to Turner, Thomas says that after death, “Christ was not in Hell; his soul was” (61). This is simply a failure to read what Thomas says explicitly on the question: consequently, it must be affirmed that during the three days of Christ's death the whole Christ was in the tomb, given that the whole Person was there through the body united with Him; and likewise He was entirely in hell, in that the whole Person of Christ was there by reason of the soul united with Him, and the whole Christ was then everywhere by reason of the Divine Nature (Summa Theologiae III, q. 52, a. 3).  

Thus, since the Person of Christ is a Divine Person, Christ was in the tomb and Hell. 

This touches on another important aspect of Thomas’s hylemorphic anthropology. Turner relies heavily on 1 Corinthians 15 in arguing against a middle state, but he does not look at Thomas’s commentary on the chapter, which reveals a great deal about Thomas’s thoughts on the question of the middle state. It is in his commentary on this chapter that Thomas famously notes “my soul is not I.” The position that Turner finds existentially uninteresting is actually part of Thomas’s argument for the importance of the Resurrection. For Thomas, the Resurrection of the body occurs precisely in that it completes the human person. According to Thomas, it is only by means of the Resurrection that a person fully receives their reward or punishment. 

Turner’s book is quite technical. It is not intended for a wide audience, but it is a work written for experts in the field. As he says, “it is a theological project aimed at certain sorts of Christian theologians ...” (20). The Christian theologians are those who affirm that the bodily resurrection is not superfluous, that there is an immediate post-mortem existence in Paradise, and that there is a numerical identity between pre-mortem and post-resurrection human beings. Further, Turner approaches the question in the style of the analytic philosophers. Such an approach serves his goal of being logically rigorous but, as is always the case with such texts, readability is often sacrificed. Consequently, even well-read amateurs in the field will find this text a challenge. 

Neither the interpretive missteps committed with regard to Thomas’s own doctrine, nor the technical nature of the writing, should be taken as deterrents to reading this work. Turner’s engagement with the subject is intelligent and creative, and merits serious attention from serious scholars. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Daniel Lendman is a doctoral candidate in Systematic Theology at Ave Maria University.

Date of Review: 
April 24, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James T. Turner, Jr. is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Anderson University in South Carolina, USA. From 2016–2018 he was Postdoctoral Research Associate on the Analytic Theology Project at Fuller Theological Seminary. He has published various articles in analytic theology and philosophy of religion dealing with, among other topics, Christian conceptions of afterlife, the imago Dei, the metaphysics of human beings, and Christology in journals such as Journal of Analytic Theology, International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, and Journal of Reformed Theology.

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