Do All Humans have an Immortal Soul?

Do All Humans have an Immortal Soul? July 24, 2014

If you believe in the immortality of the soul, so it would seem, you would have to believe in endless punishment of the wicked or universalism. In the history of the church, belief in the immortality of the soul has been a constant. Not all, but most have believed God made humans immortal. While N.T. Wright, especially in Surprised by Hope and more academically in The Resurrection of the Son of God, has labored to prove that this is not only a later (than the New Testament) belief but also that immortality of the soul is positively not taught in the Bible. Immortality is a gift from God, not an innate possession of humans.

In Rethinking Hell, a chp is included from well-known Reformed evangelical theologian, Philip Edgcumbe Hughes (from his The True Image), where he subjects belief in the immortality of soul to serious re-examination.  Calvin, he argues, believed in immortality of the soul but Hughes contends the passages Calvin cites “indicate that the human soul survives physical death,” not that it is inherently immortal.

Hughes:

1. The Bible teaches that humans are created/born with the potential of immortality or mortality. Death proves humans are not inherently immortal. The human of the Bible is both body and soul; to make the soul immortal violates biblical unity. The Bible teaches that Jesus gained immortality by virtue of death and resurrection, and that God alone possesses immortality — which is a gift from God. He thinks Calvin’s view is symbiotic: if the saints live forever, the wicked will be punished forever (189).

2. Hughes thinks what God brings into existence, God can destroy. Sodom and Gomorrah is a biblical paradigm for destruction (thus, Gen 18 and Jude 7). The ultimate in the Bible is life vs. death, not punishment and reward. He contends then that the Augustinian view requires that God keeps alive forever the wicked in order to have them dying/dead forever. He sees Augustine as logically confusing in his view of death as eternal, but never finally, dying.

Here is Hughes’s fundamental problem in the logic of ECT: Is it justifiable to call eternal dying “death”? 

3. He sees the contrast between eternal life and eternal death to be a comparison of living forever and irreversible death and destruction. He thinks eternal death means obliteration. Immortality is a gift through Christ, not natural to humans. Mutual existence of heaven and hell contradicts the redemption in Christ. It means eternal existence of alienation and rebellion and therefore the incompletion of the victory. [I find this argument one of the most persuasive elements of conditionalism.] The second coming of Christ will put death to all death.

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  • Patrick

    When death is done away with by Christ for good at the eschaton, how is it we can use our human reason and conclude God will deal out eschatological death?

    Christ’s last enemy is death, when The Father puts even that under His feet, at that point God will be all in all. Who does that leave out?

    God was in Christ reconciling the kosmos to Himself, not imputing their sins to them. Through Christ, God will reconcile “everything” to Himself, whether things on earth or things in the heavens. Which human does that exempt?

    As Jesus told His disciples when He told them to pick up all the crumbs, “we lose nothing”.

    He said He did not come to condemn the kosmos, but, to save the kosmos. He did so. “Tetelestai”.

    He set the highest standard for His job, IF a single human is killed off by death using whatever terminology we want to use( separation, eternal punishment, death, etc) then Jesus fell short of His lofty goal The Father gave Him.

    That is what we all have to deal with when we qualify away what are very obvious universalist concepts Paul repeats a lot following Isaiah’s lead.

  • Gordie LaChance

    After years of trying to make sense of these topics, I’ve come to believe the Bible doesn’t speak of life after death (or immortality) much at all. Most of the verses, if not all, that we typically believe speak of life after death I believe refer to two things:

    Either
    1) The coming age, the age of the Messiah, which Jesus proclaimed was in effect, and the author of Hebrews says came into full force at the destruction of the Temple.

    or

    2) Our relationship with God; knowing God is eternal life. These verses are word picture to express the great superiority and transcendence of God and how He loves us.

    And really, #1 fits inside #2. That’s the whole story of the Bible; that’s the gospel – that we can know God and that we are loved by Him.

    That’s my take anyway after reading Wright and Rohr and Enns and Bailey on such topics. And to be honest, no one knows, but it’s fun to discuss.

  • Peter Grice

    They are not very obviously universalist (or everyone would be a universalist), but they are very obviously universal. There’s a difference. So the question becomes which view makes best sense of all the data, including this particular data. Annihilationism makes good sense of it because the whole point of annihilation is to arrive at a universally righteous world.

    As Jesus taught quite explicitly, at the end of the present age “The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear.” (Matt 13:41-43)

    He said, “The kosmos and its desires pass away, but the one who does the will of God lives forever.” (1 John 2:17) These are the righteous, which he spoke of as living on in the everlasting kingdom, right after saying that all the unrighteous will be weeded out and burned.

    This occurs at the cusp of the two ages, on Judgment Day, before the age to come. Only “those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come” will live on, for “they can no longer die” and are “God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.” (Luke 20:35.36)

    Much more could be offered in this connection, but I trust the point is made that it’s by no means a given that those passages indicate universalism. Granted, it makes more sense of *those* passages than does traditionalism. But universalism has had something of a free pass with this until conditionalism recently re-entered the debate in a more forthright way. Now we can proceed without excluding the middle option.

  • William Tanksley Jr

    There are passages that put tension against claims like that (as with ANY claim, of course). For example, 1 Cor 15 says “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” — and in context this is specifically about a bodily resurrection from the dead that’s supposed to apply to all.

    EDIT: Sorry, sent too soon. I meant to ask: how do you deal with that particular challenging passage?

  • Gordie LaChance

    I think Paul uses the terms “natural” and “spiritual” in 1 Cor 15 in the same way he does in 1 Cor 2:

    Verses 14-15 “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one.”

    I think 1 Cor 15 is about the resurrection of our spirit/consciousness to wholeness, which is why Paul says “life-giving spirit” not “redeemed physical body.”

    And he sums up the thought nicely with “so we will bear the image of the heavenly.” In the first century, they were still waiting on the full benefits of the New Covenant and once they received them (timeline marked most clearly by the destruction of the Temple, see Hebrews 9:8-9) they bore the image of the heavenly. They were marked righteous in the sight of God because Jesus had completed His work of redemption. Consciously, they were able to leave behind the old establishment of knowing God – correct law-keeping and interpretation – for the new community where mercy/compassion triumphs over sacrifice.

  • Patrick

    Peter,

    It seems to me God cannot deal out eschatological death. Not only would this contradict the idea of Him destroying His last enemy, death, it would indicate He failed to partially.

    Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil, yet He partially failed to? Because most would agree the theological cause the serpent served was to delude humanity away from God’s guidance and thus introduce spiritual death here.

    God is perfectly fair, there is no unrighteousness in Him, yet we believe that God gave the world’s biggest sinner a vision of Him that transformed that man from a 2cd temple era Osama Bin Laden into arguably the closest model of a type of Christ ever while not doing so for lesser sinners?

    We all will have the same vision(Philippians 2/Isaiah 45:23, Revelation 1:7) and all will profess the same allegiance to Jesus as Yahweh when they do see Him, yet Jesus will seemingly execute these other unfortunates?

    It simply does not add up to me. Thomas, James and Jude all became believers with post resurrection sightings. Saul became the most productive Apostle of Christ with post resurrection sightings.

    Yet that opportunity won’t work for all humanity who the text teaches will pledge their allegiance to Christ at the eschaton?

    When Thomas believed, did Jesus give us cause to think He did not accept Thomas’ faith effective or did He give us cause to think believing w/o seeing is even more blessed?

    Look, I realize this is a huge idea and not going to be agreed to right now, but, these are some thoughts to consider is all.

    How will Jesus handle that eshcatological day when all humanity freely praises God and acknowledges Jesus of biblical fame really is the creator God?

    “Die people that did not believe w/o seeing now”. Man, that just flat does not equal the same God-Man who prayed in agony on the cross, “Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing”.

    It just doesn’t add up.

  • Didn’t find this to be a particularly compelling argument but it raises interesting points about how conditional immortality frames the discussion. Biblically speaking, where does the idea that humans are inherently immortal come from? Is it the “image of God” language? If so I think that’s flawed reasoning.

    Immortality as gift doesn’t disprove ECT, but if immortality isn’t inherent (it’s “gift”) then the sadistic vengeful nature of the traditional view of ECT is UNAVOIDABLE. A God who ECT’s people because “Well, they’re immortal in and of themselves. What else can I do but torture them forever?”is no longer an option because that immortality is “gifted”. If that’s true, if this is the essence of biblical Christianity, then we should shut down our children’s programs, no more Veggie Tales, and stop singing our happy upbeat contemporary pop worship songs. Can we just call a spade a spade? Be very, very afraid.

    Interesting on the Wright quote because I’m pretty sure he believes in ECT – or at least some kind of conscious state where people become “less than human” (Surprised by Hope). Not non-existence. So you have both in Wright’s view – a nuanced version of ECT and conditional immortality.

  • William van Loon

    Do any of these writers address the issue of immortality as presented in the Tanakh/Old Testament? The responses so far are New Testament-centric.

  • William Tanksley Jr

    Ah, so you read that verse as a hint that Christ resurrected as spirit, and you read “spirit” to contradict body. Obviously, if “spirit” and “spiritual” does contradict “body” you’d be correct — but if it doesn’t inherently contradict, we can’t simply rule out actual physicality, especially when the same passage seems to indicate of the body that “it is buried in corruption, it is raised incorruptible.”

    I suspect that you account for the “moment, the twinkling of an eye” as being in AD70 — right? It can’t be just an individual thing like personal death or baptism.

    I think, if I’m reading you right, that you would also read the “in this life only” as referring not to a human life before death, but to the current “age” before the destruction of the temple.

    I believe I have some objections to raise, but I’m not sure exactly what you’re teaching here; when you get enough differences it’s good to not just _assume_ :). So please think of my questions as critical examination and feel free to reply accordingly.

    I can see one clear exegetical mistake. You claim that Hebrews 9:8-9 teaches that the then-current age (when Hebrews was written) didn’t have a “way into the holy place” opened; but the passage is speaking of how the High Priest could not enter into the Holy of Holies, and the passage continues on to say that Christ actually entered “once for all into the holy places” and already secured an eternal redemption. From this (and the fact that Christ is pictured throughout Hebrews as the Great High Priest) we see that “the present age” in verse 8 refers to the age being discussed (when “sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience”), not the age during which the author is writing.

  • William Tanksley Jr

    Patrick, you’re assuming conditional immortality is false in order to disprove conditional immortality. We (conditionalists) believe that those “every knee” passages refer to the moment after the judgment, as we see in 2Thess 1:10ff; _after_ all the wicked and all causes of stumbling are burned into ash.

    As Agent Smith might have said, how will you bend a knee if you do not have a knee (or a you)?

    I’m not saying there aren’t arguments for universalism (although I’m not convinced they’re good ones); I’m saying that your entire argument depends on Peter and I being wrong, and quite simply, that’s not persuasive (even though it might be true).

  • Gordie LaChance

    I think the natural/body vs spirit idea for me is more of identification. In the natural state, our identification is found in our humanity, solely. In the spiritual state, our identity is tied and held by God.

    I think the “twinkling of an eye” occurred for Paul’s audience in 70AD. It’s possible some folks got a beta copy before then though. Haha.

    “I think, if I’m reading you right, that you would also read the “in this life only” as referring not to a human life before death, but to the current “age” before the destruction of the temple.”
    Yes that’s correct. The age of futility where heaven and earth were not united.
    As far as Hebrews, I think all I’m trying to say is I believe the author is trying to link the old system/establishment with the Temple and its Holy Place where only the High Priest went, and that once a year. And I think he’s saying (as Jesus did in Matt 24) that the destruction of the Temple is the clear sign that the New Age had come, when Heaven and Earth became one (God reigning in the hearts of His people, not a physical location).
    Does that clear up some things? It’s really hard to explain some of this stuff, which is why I think we see so much symbology and imagery from Jesus and others when dealing with eschatological ideas.

    I appreciate your saving your assumptions. It’s always refreshing to see/read people who don’t just support or attack, but spend time thinking.

  • Patrick

    wt,

    I just can’t figure out how God can be perfect, desire to save all His creation from corruption evil brought to it, say He will do so and has done so affirmatively in several passages, then fails to.

    There really isn’t room for any failure in a perfect plan and God is going to be a partial failure if a large part of His works have to either be killed off or tortured forever, either way. He didn’t defeat eschatological death, He utilized it.

    I shared your views not long ago, I just no longer can. They do not add up to me and I say this impersonally, I shared them for 45 years.

    Just learned this morning Psalm 45:17 has a passage where the “goyim” will praise God for ever and ever. How’s that happen if God kills billions of them?

  • Patrick

    William,

    Just 1 passage I heard this morning discusses immortality ostensibly for the “goyim”. Psalm 45:17. Promise there are tons more in the Psalms and Isaiah.

    They are going to praise YHWH forever and ever. That’s a long time for a group to be killed off.

  • Nicholas Quient

    We have his entire chapter on “New Testament Teaching on Hell.” 🙂

  • mjk

    I think Wright would resist/reject your characterization of his view as “a nuanced version of ECT.” The “I think”s and “I believe”s below reflect my reading of Wright.

    I think he would consider the “less than human” condition of sinners to be something “less than existence” as well, perhaps more like the “shades” of Sheol. I believe that he has been deliberately vague about speculating about details, but this vision of God’s eternal judgment is his alternative to torment, not any nuanced version of it.

  • Wasted Evangelism

    I am open to an interpretation of Revelation 20:10-13 that is favorable to you hell-less eternity (or did I read you et al incorrectly?).

    Whereas after the 1000 years (and you can take that 1000 any way you want, for the end end has come . . . and “and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (v. 10).

    Granted, this is figurative language and I am open to not taking the imagery literally, however I am somewhat compelled to take what it teaches literally (or are we not to?).

    Additionally, one could point out that v. 10 only says those evil characters get the forever and ever torment. But, contextually, the same awaits those not written in the book of life (vv.11-13).