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Hell 3 – the immortality of the soul

Hell - Conditional Immortality

Hell 3 — the immortality of the soul.

I used to believe in the immortality of the soul.

Therefore, I preached that every human being lived for ever. At that time I thought the only question about the afterlife was where you would spend your forever — with God or separated from God (an alternative often expressed as ‘in heaven’ or ‘in hell’).

The Christian message could, therefore, be reduced to an appeal to believe in Jesus to avoid spending forever in hell, and to be sure of spending forever in heaven.

Today, the subject is whether human beings are intrinsically immortal.

This is a belief widely held by the majority of people in the UK whether Christian or not.

This is the third of a series of posts about the nature of hell.

The first post here introduced the subject and some assumptions I was making.

In the second post here I described how the Bible challenged and then changed my mind. I used to believe and teach that hell was both (1) an experience of separation from God’s love and (2) a painful exposure to his wrath that lasted forever.

I am now persuaded that this exposure to God’s righteous anger and judgment is to bring about the irreversible destruction of the wicked.

In the second post I teased a wide variety of arguments from Scripture that have moved me to change my view. The follow-on posts will take these different arguments and explain how they point to the position often called conditional immortality or annihilationism.

In this post the focus is on the question of whether human beings are immortal — the question of the immortality of the soul.

Let’s look first at the popular view of this question.

Most western people believe that human beings have a beginning but no end — whereas God has neither beginning nor end.

Apart from the minority who believe there is nothing apart from the physical universe, so death means the end, the majority of people even in secular Western nations, believe implicitly in the immortality of the soul or spirit.

For example, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows JK Rowling has the know-all heroine, Hermione, state as a matter of unchallengeable truth that “whatever happens to your body, your soul will survive, untouched.” (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, 2007, p.90).

This is a widespread assumption in the secular Western world today revealed frequently in the way death is spoken about in both fiction, and on the socials.

The belief that human beings are created with an immaterial component that is immortal is virtually ubiquitous. It’s simply not contentious to assert that human beings have a ‘soul’ that is not liable to or subject to death; and hence that we are in possession of endless life or existence; and furthermore that all human beings are possessed of an inner core that is forever free from decay and from any power that can destroy or bring existence to an end.

Where did this widespread assumption come from? Not from the Bible!

immortality
Plato

Belief in the intrinsic immortality of the human soul is Platonism, not Christianity.

This is how Plato (428-348BC) describes the immortality of the soul in Phaedo:

“Then reflect, Cebes: is not the conclusion of the whole matter this?-that the soul is in the very likeness of the divine, and immortal, and intelligible, and uniform, and indissoluble, and unchangeable; and the body is in the very likeness of the human, and mortal, and unintelligible, and multiform, and dissoluble, and changeable. Can this, my dear Cebes, be denied? …

“… That soul, I say, herself invisible, departs to the invisible world to the divine and immortal and rational: thither arriving, she lives in bliss and is released from the error and folly of men, their fears and wild passions and all other human ills, and forever dwells, as they say of the initiated, in company with the gods. Is not this true, Cebes?” (Plato, Phaedo, 360BC translated by Benjamin Jowett (http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/phaedo.html)

Plato’s influence on Western thought cannot really be over-estimated and is not disputed.

Plato’s methods and conclusions have been foundational in Western culture and even in Judaism.

The word athanasia (immortality) does not appear at all in the Greek version of the Jewish Bible, the LXX. However, it begins to appear in later Jewish literature, for example in the Apocryphal books, and then (it must be admitted) often with the same meaning given to this word by Plato et al— that is to say that later Jewish usage is influenced by Hellenism (Brown, 1986, p.432). But that does not make it true.

Were early Christians aware of this influence from Plato?

Yes! An awareness that belief in immortality of the soul revealed Platonic influence is found in writings dating back to the second century — for example Justin Martyr (c.100-165) in his Dialogue with Trypho (ACUTE, p.61). This danger was well-understood in the early church.

The danger still exists, however, because the assumption of the intrinsic immortality of the soul, popularised by Plato, is still ubiquitous in Western culture. Tom Wright illustrates this with numerous quotations in chapters one and two of his book Surprised by Hope. Wright demonstrates how this belief in the immortality of the soul is evident in the story lines of many films, and the thoughts expressed at funerals about those who have died.

So what about Christians in the twenty-first century? Must we reject immortality of the soul because Plato taught it first? No. I recognise that there are credible bible scholars who would identify as Christian Platonists. All Christians who want Scripture to guide their beliefs about God will, however, submit to that text rather than to Plato’s.

First, let’s accept that the Christian Church has for centuries taught the immortality of the soul.

And this opinion is still widespread.

Billy Graham
Billy Graham

Belief in the intrinsic immortality of the human soul is found in some Christian writings.

Many evangelical Christians believe that all human beings, once they have been created, will live forever either in heaven or hell. For example, the late, great Dr Billy Graham wrote, in his book Peace With God, chapter 6, paragraph 25:

“The Bible teaches that you are an immortal soul. Your soul is eternal and will live forever. In other words, the real you — the part of you that thinks, feels, dreams, aspires; the ego, the personality — will never die. The Bible teaches that your soul will live forever in one of two places — heaven or hell.”

In the same chapter, in paragraph 28, he adds:

“The Bible teaches that whether we are saved or lost, there is conscious and everlasting existence of the soul and personality.”

This belief in the immortality of the soul is written into the statements of faith of many protestant denominations.

The 1561 Belgic Confession, for example, states:

“The evil ones will be convicted by the witness of their own consciences, and shall be made immortal— but only to be tormented in “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (from Article 37)

When founded in 1846, the World Evangelical Fellowship (now the World Evangelical Alliance), stated the following in clause 8 of its Basis of Faith (ACUTE, 2000, p. 136):

“The Immortality of the Soul, the Resurrection of the Body, the Judgment of the World by our Lord Jesus Christ, with the Eternal Blessedness of the Righteous, and the Eternal Punishment of the wicked.”

Other bible scholars who teach the immortality of the soul include John Blanchard, for example, in his book Whatever Happened to Hell? where he likens the doctrine of the immortality of the soul to the doctrine of the Trinity (ACUTE, p.99) as a doctrine never explicitly stated but implicit in Scripture. This is, however, a minority view among those scholars who hold to the traditional position on eternal conscious torment.

Today, most scholars who uphold the traditional view that hell is eternal conscious torment would not defend the notion of the intrinsic immortality of the soul (or spirit, whichever term is chosen to mean an ongoing immaterial existence of a person). It has been widely accepted that what Plato taught is NOT taught by Scripture. In view of this I do not wish to set up and attack a straw man.

It is admitted, nevertheless, that many popular Christian leaders have argued that hell means eternal conscious torment on the basis that ‘we already know that the soul is immortal.’

Furthermore, belief in the immortality of the soul is a widely held belief in wider society and even, therefore, among many ordinary Christians.

But does the Bible teach that every human being is immortal, or shall be made immortal?

What does the Bible teach us about God and immortality?

1. God alone is self-existent.

God has no beginning or end. God has life in himself. In philosophical terms we can say that God exists a se, of himself; that he is necessary and not contingent.

John 5:25-26 (ESV)

25 “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. 26 For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.

Theologians call this the aseity of God. God is his own cause. There is nothing and nobody before or behind or above God. He is the I AM: without beginning, without cause, underived.

We Christians often resort to apophatic language — the language of negating what is inaccurate — to enable us to assert truths about the being of God because clearly there can be nothing analogous to God. To speak of immortality is to speak apophatically because the word means a being who is NOT mortal.

2. God alone is immortal.

Several New Testament Scriptures affirm that God is immortal, and that his immortality is essential to God:

1 Timothy 1:16-17 (ESV)

16 But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. 17 To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

1 Timothy 6:13-16 (ESV)

13 I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, 14 to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 which he will display at the proper time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16 who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honour and eternal dominion. Amen.

This passage asserts that God alone has immortality.

In his commentary on this verse Calvin wrote:

“Paul labours to demonstrate that there is no happiness, no dignity or excellence, no life, out of God. Accordingly, he now says that God alone is immortal, in order to inform us, that we and all the creatures do not, strictly speaking, live, but only borrow life from Him. Hence it follows that, when we look up to God as the fountain of immortal life, we should reckon this present life as of no value.

“But it is objected, that the human soul and angels have their immortality, and therefore this cannot be truly affirmed of God alone. I reply, when it is said, that God alone possesses immortality, it is not here denied that he bestows it, as he pleases, on any of his creatures. The meaning is the same as if Paul had said that God alone is immortal from himself and from his own nature, but has immortality in his power; so that it does not belong to creatures, except so far as he imparts to them power and vigour; for if you take away the power of God which is communicated to the soul of man, it will instantly fade away; and the same thing may be said about angels. Strictly speaking, therefore, immortality does not subsist in the nature of souls or of angels, but comes from another source, namely, from the secret inspiration of God…” (accessed 23 Nov 2023 at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom43.iii.viii.iv.html)

What does the Bible teach us about human beings and immortality?

The evidence in the New Testament is that immortality is conditional upon faith in Christ.

In 2 Timothy Paul asserts that God in Christ was at work to abolish death and bring life and immortality to light through the gospel. In other words, the immortality of human beings is only possible where death has been abolished.

2 Timothy 1:8-10 (ESV)

Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10 and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel…

Luke 20:34-36 (ESV)

In response to the Sadducees’ questions seeking to make Jesus look foolish for believing in the resurrection, Jesus begins his reply thus:

34 And Jesus said to them, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, 35 but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, 36 for they cannot die any more, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.

For the purpose of the argument the reader is invited to note that Jesus distinguishes ‘those who are considered worthy to attain to that age (the new heavens and earth) and to the resurrection from the dead’. To whom can he be referring? Scripture affirms the resurrection of all to face judgment — a truth I find many Christians are unaware of – so I may post on this elsewhere. But surely in this instance, it is unimaginable that Jesus would describe the wicked as ‘worthy to attain…the resurrection’ in the blessed sense described here. Therefore, by implication, the wicked do not attain this blessed resurrection.

Furthermore, Jesus here affirms that those who are ‘worthy to attain… to the resurrection… cannot die anymore.’ By strong implication, therefore, those who are not ‘worthy’ to attain to the resurrection, but rather are resurrected so they can receive God’s just punishment, can die again for a second time.

Romans 2:6-8 (ESV)

Immortality is a gift we must seek in the manner which God directs (which is revealed in the gospel). This passage is clearly set in an eschatological setting (see verse 5 below) so it is relevant to our study.

Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgement will be revealed.

He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking [lit: contentious] and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.

It does not say how long the experience will be of God’s wrath and fury although, as so often in Scripture, God’s judgment is predicted to happen ‘on the day’ of the Lord.

Ephesians 6:24 (NIV margin)

Grace and immortality to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ.

The commentator, Andrew Lincoln, discusses the translation options at length and argues that immortality is one of the blessings being bestowed in this closing benediction. He thus translates the verse in this way (1990, pp.466-468):

Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ, grace and immortality.

1 Corinthians 15:53 and 54

The Greek word rendered immortality in 1 Timothy 6:16 is athanasia (lit: deathlessness).

The only other NT use of the word athanasia is in 1 Corinthians 15:53 and 54 where it is used twice to speak of God’s victory gift to believers. Twice the word athanasia, the Greek word meaning deathlessness, occurs in these verses and is, on both occasions, translated as immortality in English translations.

Those who follow Jesus are promised deathlessness. There is no Scripture that makes this same promise to all human beings.

Let’s reprise the conclusions of this post:

The Creation only continues in existence because God sustains it.

Hebrews 1:1-3a (ESV)

1 Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.

If the resurrected wicked do continue to exist, consciously, in hell, then we must say that is by God acting continually to sustain or uphold their existence — not by any intrinsic immortality.

The immortality of each human being is not intrinsic.

If any human being wishes to live forever, there is only one path to gain immortality — faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ as described in the gospel.

To believe in eternal conscious torment is to argue that God continues to sustain the lives of the wicked in contradiction of the offer of life only to those who are joined with Christ by faith. I might even say it sounds like the words of the serpent to Eve:

Genesis 3:2-4 ESV

And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die…”

This is the first reason why I am now persuaded to believe that the wicked will be killed and destroyed by the fiery punishment of hell.

This is the view commonly called Conditional Immortality or Annihilationism.

A final note: Each argument I will bring about the nature of hell stands or falls alone.

This realisation helped to convince me to a change of view. It’s to do with how arguments are constructed.

There are some arguments that involve a sequence of premises that lead logically to a conclusion, but where each subsequent premise relies on the truth of the first (or maybe on the truth of the one before) every premise must be true for us to be sure that the conclusion follows. In such arguments, one has only to show that the first premise is false (or any other premise) and the whole argument fails. The conclusion is unsafe.

Here’s an example of a logical argument with 4 premises that depend on the first premise being true to succeed:

Premise A: If it is raining, then the ground is wet.

Premise B: If the ground is wet, then the grass is slippery.

Premise C: If the grass is slippery, then the athlete’s feet will slide.

Premise D: If the athlete’s feet slide, then lawn tennis will be difficult or even dangerous to play.

Conclusion: Therefore, if it is raining, then lawn tennis will be difficult or even dangerous to play.

In this argument, each premise depends on the previous premise to form a chain of reasoning. The conclusion follows logically from the premises, and the argument is valid if all the premises are true. Note that the truth of the premises is not guaranteed, but if they are true, then the conclusion follows necessarily from those premises.

This looks like a watertight chain of reasoning. However, a single change can overturn the conclusion. What’s that change? The fact that the grass court has a movable roof. If the roof has been deployed before the rain fell then the first premise is false. If that first premise is false then none of the other premises succeed in proving the conclusion.

What’s this to do with my review of the Biblical evidence?

As I reviewed what the Scripture said about the nature of hell I saw that none of the premises in my argument depended on any of the others. Each premise stood on its own. And I realised that even if several of my premises failed, the conclusion was still solidly founded on the remaining premises.

The next post in this series asks the question ‘ Is hell forever?’

Photo of statue of Plato by Meelimello.

 

Books

For the whole list of books refenced or consulted to write this blog series please go to the first post and scroll to the end.

The following is a list of the main books referenced in this post alone.

Evangelical Alliance Commission on Unity and Truth Among Evangelicals (ACUTE), The Nature of Hell, (2000), ACUTE, Paternoster, Carlisle

John BLANCHARD, Whatever Happened to Hell, (1993), Evangelical Press, Darlington

Andrew T LINCOLN, Ephesians, (1990) Nelson Word Biblical Commentary, Dallas, Texas

JK ROWLING, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, (2007), Bloomsbury, London

Tom WRIGHT, Surprised by Hope, (2007), SPCK, London

 

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