Soul-immortalism entered Christianity, not from the Bible, but from ancient Greek philosophy, profoundly influenced by Plato (c.428 – c.348 B.C.). Alan Richardson, former Dean of York, acknowledges this:
…the ancient Church inherited from Greek thought the notion of a soul substance which was by nature immortal, and this conception was often entwined with biblical teaching about resurrection. In the biblical view, a man dies and literally ceases to exist: his resurrection…was the result of an act of new creation by God.1
We owe Plato the greatest respect as a genuine and profound seeker after truth, but he would certainly not have wanted us to accept any of his conclusions uncritically.2 Yet this is what Christian tradition has done.
As for the question of the nature of final punishment, the eminent British philosopher Bertrand Russell has correctly observed:
It is sometimes supposed that Hell was a Christian invention, but this is a mistake. What Christianity did in this respect was only to systematise earlier popular beliefs.3
Today, more and more Bible scholars are finding the case against eternal torment convincing, or at least are calling for “fresh, radical and unbridled examination of the biblical data”.4
As far back as 1931, Archbishop William Temple called for such a re-examination. First, as to the Christian view of death, Temple asserted, in his Drew Lecture on Immortality:
The core of the doctrine (of the future life) is this: Man is not immortal by nature or of right; but there is offered to him resurrection from the dead and life eternal, if he will receive it from God and on God’s terms… It is a doctrine, not of Immortality, but of Resurrection… There is a very strong case for thinking out the whole subject again, in as complete independence as possible alike of medieval and of Protestant traditions.5
Second, as to hell, Temple claimed, during another series of lectures to the University Church at Oxford (Christian Faith and Life, p.81):
If men had not imported the Greek and unbiblical notion of the natural indestructibility of the individual soul, and then read the New Testament with that already in their minds, they would have drawn from it a belief, not in everlasting torment, but in annihilation.6
I am a convinced Christian and a church pastor. It is not my purpose to detract in any way from Christian faith, nor to stigmatise the Christian Church. My purpose is to explore and explain what the Bible actually teaches on these matters, in order to advocate a truly biblical faith for today. The Bible is the one authority all Christians recognise and yet I am convinced that there is an urgent need for Christians today to recover and reclaim a truly biblical understanding of the human person, death and God’s ultimate purpose. I am also convinced that many people who reject or ignore Christian faith today have never been shown what the Bible itself actually teaches. Surely it is a matter of truly vital concern for everyone, Christian or not, to find reality regarding life, death and destiny.
So this book will set out systematically and straightforwardly what the Bible teaches about human death, eternal life and the final state of those whom God rejects. I am well aware that much may seem novel or even controversial, especially to readers nurtured on traditional doctrines of soul-immortalism and hell. However, the views I shall be arguing for are not new, but have always been held by some and are held today by an increasing number.
I am after truth, not originality. Furthermore, the book would become much larger, more expensive and less readable, if I were to enter into a detailed discussion of every point of biblical interpretation! So, to make it clear that the explanations of biblical passages which I advance are not simply eccentricities of my own, and to help keep the discussion within manageable limits, I shall quote frequently from internationally established scholars in the field.7 However, I trust that in the end the Bible will speak clearly for itself.
This book argues the following. First, there is no immortal human soul or spirit. Rather, we all both live and die as whole body-and-soul beings. Our one and only hope of immortality is to be raised bodily from the dead, reconstituted as whole beings, at the coming of God’s final Kingdom, through Jesus Christ. Second, there will indeed be those whom God rejects at His final judgment and excludes from His Kingdom. However, they will not suffer forever, either physically or psychologically or spiritually, but will be finally and literally destroyed. In this book, the term “conditional immortality” will be used, as it quite often is, to refer to these two points. The entire matter is summed up in one memorable saying of the Apostle Paul, Romans 6:23:
For the wages of sin is death,
but the free gift of God is eternal life
in Christ Jesus our Lord.
- “Soul”, in A. Richardson (Ed), A Dictionary of Christian Theology, London: SCM Press Ltd, 1976, p.316. [↩]
- Plato’s hero was Socrates, who questioned everything! [↩]
- B. Russell, History of Western Philosophy, London: Routledge, (1946) 1991, p.257. [↩]
- D. J. Powys, “The Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Debates about Hell and Universalism”, in Nigel M. de S. Cameron (Ed), Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell, Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1992, p.135. [↩]
- Recalled in Eric Lewis, Christ, The First Fruits, Boston: Warren Press, 1949, pp15-16. [↩]
- Lewis, Christ, The First Fruits, pp.15-16. [↩]
- Not that all authors quoted in support of particular points would fully agree on everything in this book, of course! [↩]