The origin and transmission of a thought or belief can be complicated to trace throughout history. Beliefs in the afterlife can take on many forms and mutations over time and are often contextually specific to a community or geographic area. What we can do, however, is look at how opposing groups have expressed their beliefs to differentiate themselves from others who have held views that contradicted their own. When we do this historically, we can see that the concept of the immortal soul can be traced back at least as far as the Egyptians. Egyptian thought influenced Greco-Roman views, which is potentially how the idea was transmitted from one culture to another. Whenever cultures cross-pollinate and intermingle, there is bound to be religious syncretism. The concept of life after death is one that is found in many cultures and people groups and is not specific to any religion or culture.
The Judeo-Christian tradition emerges out of the land of Egypt, and the Hebrew scriptures seem to stand in contrast to the Egyptian understanding of the afterlife. As the idea of the immortal soul developed in Greek philosophy, there seems to be a division of thought over the idea. This is best represented by the philosopher Plato and his student Aristotle. These opposing ideas no doubt influenced the Jewish religious leaders of Jesus day, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. It is evident that when Jesus lived, there was not a consensus of thought concerning the afterlife even within the religious leadership of the Jews. As the early church grew there seemed to be a consensus on the understanding of the mortality of the soul and the emphasis on the need for a resurrection in order for an afterlife to be potential, although this has been debated.
Augustine stands as the opposing side to this coin, and his ideas can be traced back to Platonic and Egyptian thought. While the Catholic church maintained this view for a large portion of history building its foundation on Augustinian theology, it did not go unrivalled. During the Reformation, the Biblical text became more accessible and therefore, open to additional research and scrutiny. Both Tyndale and Luther challenged the Catholic church’s understanding of the soul, the intermediate state and life after death. This resurgence also led to the bolstering of the traditional side’s defence, with the unlikely hero of John Calvin coming to the defence of the Catholic church.
As history unfolded, the belief in the immortality of the soul travelled west with the American settlers. The idea developed as one of many foundational protestant beliefs finding a stronghold in America. Evangelicals such as Jonathan Edwards and Billy Graham propagated the idea as Christian evangelism spread through the United States of America. In response, Conditionalist such as Leroy Froom and Edward Fudge have taken a Berean style approach to scripture revisiting the Biblical text anew to examine what it has to say about humanities immortality or lack thereof.
To begin, we will briefly examine the Old Testament scriptures and the Egyptian understanding of the afterlife.
Old Testament Bible:
In the Hebrew scriptures, the word nephesh refers to both animals and people. In the book of Genesis, it is used first to describe the animals that God created before man. In this context nephesh has been traditionally translated as ‘living creature’. In the second chapter of Genesis, God creates mankind, and he is said to become a nephesh, a living creature, sometimes translated into the English word ‘soul’. In addition to the word nephesh being used for all living creatures, it is also used to refer to a corpse or a dead body. The scriptures talk about a ‘dead nephesh’ which would be contradictory to the idea of an immortal nephesh or soul.
The Hebrew words neshemah and ruach have been translated as spirit, wind or breath. Biblically speaking both animals and people receive the gift of breath from God to have life and become a nephesh or living creature. The neshemah or ruach is not something that the living person or animal is or consists of but the life-giving force that is outside of them given them to God to sustain life. As a result, the breath is said to return to its giver, God, upon death. This also reinforces the Biblical understanding that death is a return to the dust from which we came. The Hebrew scriptures then can be summarised as teaching that both animals and humans are mortal creatures with the potential of God granting immortality through resurrection.
In contrast to the Jewish understanding of the afterlife, the Egyptian view of the afterlife promoted the idea of a disembodied life after death. The Egyptian understanding of life after death developed over time as one would expect. It seems that the concept of life after death was initially thought only to be available to kings. Over time the beliefs developed, which also offered the common person the hope of life after death. Much of what we know about the Egyptian view of the afterlife is revealed in the Egyptian ‘Book of the Dead’. This book describes a detailed account of life after death in which both a disembodied Ba and Ka exist separate from the body. When a person dies, it is said that they travel through the underworld facing a series of tests. The Book of the Dead provides the map to navigate the underworld successfully and eventually end at a place of judgment. Here a person’s heart is weighed on the scales of the Egyptian God Osiris. The judgment results in either a reward by passing to a utopian understanding of the afterlife, or a punishment which is described as being eaten by demigods.
Next, we will examine the five historical rivalries throughout history that have landed on opposite sides of the fence in regards to the immortality of the soul. As we can see from the chart below each proponent of the immortality of the soul has also had a historical counterpart.
While this chart is not exhaustive, it does represent some of the most influential historical thinkers and writers on the topic.
|100 B.C-100 A.D.||Pharisees||vs||Sadducees|
|1500-1600||Calvin & Catholic church||vs||Tyndale and Luther|
|1700-1900||Edwards and Graham||vs||Froom and Fudge|
PLATO : DATES: 427-347 B.C
MAJOR WORK: Phaedo
Plato was a Greek philosopher who lived in the city of Athens. It was not uncommon for a developing Greek philosopher to spend time studying in Egypt. Plato himself studied for 13 years in the city of Heliopolis. The theologian Augustine writes, “Thus he (Plato) learned from the Egyptians whatever he held and taught as important.” (Augustine- City of God, Book 8, Ch 4)
Plato was the student of Socrates and the teacher of Aristotle. In Plato’s word Phaedo, he gives an account of Socrates death in which he describes his belief in the immortal soul. Death is described as something that should be welcomed as an escape from the prison of the body. Plato details his belief in a disembodied afterlife as a rational soul. Plato says, “the soul is most like that which is divine, immortal, intelligible, uniform, indissoluble, and ever be self-consistent and invariable, whereas the body is most like that which is human, mortal, multiform, unintelligible, dissoluble, and never self-consistent. (Plato- Phaedo).
ARISTOTLE : DATES: 384-322 B.C
Aristotle was a philosopher that studied under the teaching of Plato. While Plato focused on the realm of ideals and forms, Aristotle turned his attention to a much more empirical study of anthropology. He focused his studies on the natural sciences and what he observed through sensory perception. Aristotle concluded that “the soul is not affected and does not act without a body…for it is inseparable, if indeed it always involves a body.” (De Anima 1.1.5) While for Plato, the soul was something that escaped the body at death and was liberated from a lower level of existence, for Aristotle to be embodied was the only form of existence.
Aristotle’s approach to the soul seemed to align better with both the Biblical understanding of being made of the material as well as the Sadducees understanding that death was the end of living existence. Aristotle explains “If this is the case, it is clear that the affections of the soul are accounts of matter…now, for this reason, the study of the soul is already in the domain of the natural scientist.” (De Anima 1.1.25). If there was to be a potential for an afterlife for Aristotle, it must be an embodied material one.
The Pharisees were a sect of the Jewish religious leaders during the time of Jesus. They are said to have been Hellenized by the Roman occupation. Their beliefs consisted of the immortal soul that survived death, life in an intermediate state between death and resurrection, and eternal conscious torment for the wicked in the afterlife. The Pharisees held to a disembodied afterlife as a rational soul much like Plato. They believed that afterlife judgement would result from following the Law and would lead to either reward or punishment. The righteous were believed to go to Abraham’s Bosom after death, while the wicked were tortured in Hades. The Pharisees held to a future hope of a bodily resurrection.
Philo, a Jewish historian, describes these beliefs by saying, “man is a compound animal, made up of a mortal and immortal nature.” (Philo- On rewards and punishments, Section 2, 13.). Also, Josephus a Pharisee in Jerusalem who became a Roman citizen records, “The Pharisees …. say that all souls are incorruptible, but that the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies, but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment. (Flavius Josephus- The Judean War, Book 2 Section 162)
The Sadducees were also a sect of the Jewish religious leaders during the time of Jesus. This group was smaller than the Pharisees and more involvement with the Roman political scene along with being the more upper-class of the two groups. Luke records in the book of Acts that “the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor an angel, nor a spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all.” (Acts 23:8). The Sadducees did not believe in life after death. Death for them meant a return to the dust as scripture describes. They also did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, which is why at one point they try to confront Jesus with a ridiculous hypothetical situation that would prove his teaching on the resurrection to be unfounded.
Josephus records that “the Sadducees are those that compose the second-order, and take away fate entirely…. They also take away the belief of the immortal duration of the soul and the punishments and rewards in Hades.” (Flavius Josephus- The Judean War, Book 2 Section 162). The Sadducees stood in opposition to their counterparts the Pharisees, both groups leading and teaching the Jewish people during Jesus time. When the apostle Paul is put on trial in the book of Acts, Luke records that Paul uses their disagreements to incite division between them. As a former Pharisee, Paul appeals to the resurrection of the dead to create division between the two groups who would like to unit to destroy him.
AUGUSTINE: DATES: 354-430 A.D
MAJOR WORK: The City of God
The theologian Augustine was educated in Carthage a major city of the Roman Empire in the province of Africa. Augustine believed in the immortal soul, a disembodied intermediate state, and eternal torment in Hell. In this way, he followed very closely to the beliefs of the Pharisees. Augustine believed that Platonism was the closest philosophy to Christianity. Augustine wrote, “if, then, Plato defined the wise man as one who imitates, knows, loves his God, and who is rendered blessed through fellowship with Him in His own blessedness, why discuss with other philosophers? It is evident that none come nearer to us than the Platonists.” (Augustine- City of God, Book 8, Ch 5). Augustin’s work became very influential in the development of the Catholic churches theology and was adopted as church doctrine.
Like Plato, Augustine defined death, not as the cessation or end of life but the continuation of it in another form. Augustine says, “wherefore, as regards bodily death, that is, the separation of the soul from the body, it is good unto none while it is being endured by those whom we say are in the article of death.” (The City of God book 13, chapter 6). Augustine uses philosophy to justify the immortality of the soul rather than scripture. He states, “consequently, if, as we said above, the soul is a subject in which reason is inseparably (by that necessity also by with it is shown to be in the subject) neither can there be any soul except a living soul, nor can reason be in a soul without life, and reason is immortal; hence, the soul is immortal.” (The City of God)
Predating Augustine, the Apostolic Fathers are those that stood as the church leaders and theologians’ generations after Christ’s death. Determining what the consensus of thought exactly was on the immortality of the soul in the early church can be a tricky thing. In Dr John Roller’s research on this topic he concluded that; “It is clear… that Conditionalism was the original doctrine of the Early Church (AD 95-177), and that Naturalism (his term for the teaching of the immortal soul) was first introduced by Athenagoras of Athens, and popularized by Tertullian of Carthage, after whose time it rapidly became the predominant view, though there continued to be an outspoken minority of Conditionalists.” (Dr. John Roller-The Doctrine of Immortality on the Early Church)
Roller concluded this after doing an extensive study and reading of the Early Church Fathers writings, searching for anything they had to say on the topic of the soul. Roller explains, “Athenagoras was born in AD 127 in Athens. As a young philosopher, he espoused Platonism (which, of course, included the doctrine of Natural Immortality) and tried to refute the claims of Christianity. To do so, he studied Christian teaching in great depth. This led to his conversion. He died around AD 190.” So it seems that the teaching of the immortal soul was again imported into the church through means of Platonic philosophy.
JOHN CALVIN & THE CATHOLIC CHURCH DATES: 1509-1564
John Calvin was a French theologian, pastor and reformer in Geneva during the Protestant Reformation. Calvin believed in the disembodied afterlife as a rational soul. Calvin believed in a final judgment by God justified by election, and a future reward or punishment for both the righteous and wicked. He believed the righteous would be in God’s presence, a place called Paradise, and the wicked would find their fate in Hades.
Calvin wrote of his Augustinian influence admitting that he owed much of his though to him. Calvin says, “If I were inclined to compile a whole volume from Augustine, I could easily show my readers, that I need no words but his” (Institutes, Book III, chap. 22). Again, Calvin says, “[Augustine is the one] we quote most frequently as being the best and most faithful witness of all antiquity” (Institutes, Book IV, chap. 14). Calvin then followed in the lineage of Plato and Augustine, stating, “it is a mistake to suppose that I am here affirming anything else than the immortality of the soul.” (John Calvin Psychopannychia.)
Describing death Calvin says, “for I come to the second head, which I propose to discuss, viz., that the soul, after the death of the body, still survives, endued with sense and intellect.” (John Calvin Psychopannychia.)
So far, we have been able to trace the belief of the immortal soul from its potential origin in Egypt to the writings of Roman philosophy. We have seen how it influenced the Jewish sect of the Pharisees of Jesus day as well. The African theologian Augustine helps us connect the thread of thought from Plato to the Catholic church. Next, we saw that the Reformer Calvin continued this tradition attributing Augustine with being a major influence in his theology.
WILLIAM TYNDALE DATES: 1494-1536 & MARTIN LUTHER
MAJOR WORK: English translation of the Bible
William Tyndale was an English scholar who became a leading figure in the Protestant Reformation. Tyndale is most well known for his translation of the Bible into English. Tyndale’s English translation was a threat to the Catholic church which had previously held the privilege to the Latin Vulgate. For Tyndale, the idea of a disembodied intermediate state undermined the preaching of Christ and the necessity of the doctrine of the resurrection.
In his written dialogue to Sir Thomas More Tyndale said “the true faith putteth [setteth forth] the resurrection, which we be warned to look for every hour. The heathen philosophers, denying that, did put [set forth] that the souls did ever live. And the Pope joineth the spiritual doctrine of Christ and the fleshly doctrine of philosophers together; things so contrary that they cannot agree, no more than the Spirit and the flesh do in a Christian man. And because the fleshly-minded pope consenteth unto the heathen doctrine, therefore he corrupteth the Scripture to establish it.” (An Answer to Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue (Parker’s 1850 reprint), bk. 4, ch. 4, pp. 180)
LUTHER: DATES: 1483-1546
MAJOR WORK: The 95 Thesis
Martin Luther was a German professor of theology, composer, priest, monk, and a leading figure in the Protestant Reformation. Luther was ordained to the priesthood in 1507. He later wrote his 95-thesis calling the Catholic church to revisit its theology. For Luther, the idea of death centred around the metaphor of ‘sleep’. It is hard to decipher at times if Luther believed that the soul was contingent upon the body and therefore ceased to have any life at the moment of death, or if he saw the soul as a separable immaterial thing that was stored somewhere lying dormant and awaiting resurrection without the perception of time. What we can know for sure is that Luther did speak out against the idea of an intermediate state and the Catholic teaching of purgatory.
Luther expounding on the word of Solomon, wrote, ‘Salomon judges that the dead are a sleep, and feel nothing at all. For the dead lye there accompting neither days nor years, but when are awaked, they shall seem to have slept scarce one minute.” (An Exposition of Salomon’s Booke, called Ecclesiastes or the Preacher, 1553, folio 151v.).
JONATHAN EDWARDS: DATES: 1703-1758
MAJOR WORK: Sermon-Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God
Jonathan Edwards was an American revivalist preacher, philosopher, and Congregationalist Protestant theologian. Edwards taught when people died; they continued to live on in a disembodied afterlife as a rational soul. He developed a Calvinist theology founded on the covenant of grace and followed in the footsteps of Calvin’s understanding of Biblical Anthropology. Edwards wrote, “Sin introduced that death consists in the separation of the body and soul.”1 . He taught that there would ultimately be a judgement of humanity, that the righteous would go to heaven, and the wicked would experience eternal conscious torment in Hell.
As we have seen, the belief of the immortal soul has often stemmed from secular philosophy and has not found its grounding in the Biblical text itself. It is no surprise that Edwards is widely regarded as one of America’s most important and original philosophical theologians. Edwards defended the teaching of the immortal soul saying, “as to the doctrine of the immortality of the soul; it is certain, nothing can be more agreeable to reason when once the doctrine is proposed and thoroughly canvased.” (The Works of President Edwards: Ch VI Observations on the Scriptures their authority and necessity, section 27). Just like Augustine, Edwards appeals to reason as his validation for the belief in the immortal soul rather than scripture.
BILLY GRAHAM: DATES: 1918-2018
William Franklin Graham Jr. was an American evangelist, a prominent evangelical Christian figure, and an ordained Southern Baptist minister. Graham became a well-known international preacher and was very influential in defining protestant evangelism in America. He is thought to have been “among the most influential Christian leaders” of the 20th century.
Graham continued the teaching of the immortal soul through his evangelism and writing. In his book, Peace With God, he states, “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.” (Billy Graham- Peace with God, ch 6, paragraph 25). Graham also seemed to confuse the Biblical language of spirit and soul. In his preaching and writing, he often uses the words synonymously. As an example, he writes “your body will die, but your soul, the part of you that is made in the image of God, will never die. Your soul—your spirit—will live forever. It is that part of you that has understanding and wisdom.” 2
LEROY FROOM DATES: 1890-1974
MAJOR WORK: The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers
Le Roy Edwin Froom was a Seventh-day Adventist minister and historian. Froom wrote the massive two-volume set of books called ‘The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers’ in which he traces the history of Conditionalist thought and its opposers. His historical work is unrivalled to this day. Unfortunately, the Seventh-day Adventist church which publishes his works still holds the Copywrite to the books and has chosen not to publish more copies. This has limited the book’s influence and made the work hard and harder to find. Froom argues throughout his works that the Biblical understanding of anthropology is a holistic view of mankind in which man is created mortal and only finds immortality after the resurrection.
For Froom, life is conditional upon God and humans do not possess an immortal soul. Froom states, “Life is thereby conditional. These are the final endings of the two ways of life and death. That is the essence of Conditionalism or Conditional Immortality.” 3 In stark contrast to those who see death as the separation of body and soul Froom describes death as, “In death, the process is simply reversed the life-giving breath is withdrawn, the heart ceases to beat, the circulation of the blood stops, the mind ceases to function, and all the vital processes end. The organism begins to disintegrate, and the body returns to the dust—the same lifeless condition whence it came. The individual is dead.” 4
EDWARD FUDGE : DATES: 1944-2017
MAJOR WORK: The Fire that Consumes
Edward William Fudge was an American Christian theologian and lawyer. In his writings, Fudge argues against traditionalist Christian interpretations of Hell. He has been called “one of the foremost scholars on hell” and has challenged evangelicals to rethink what scripture says on the topic of Biblical anthropology and eschatology. Fudge challenges the traditional view of Hell, which is built on the understanding that humanity has an immortal soul. This view has led to the understanding that Hell is a place of eternal conscious torment. Fudge argues, however, that the Biblical understanding of judgement and punishment leads to annihilation or the final destruction of body and soul.
On Fudge’s website in answering the question about the immortal soul, he writes, “The notion that every human being has a soul which, unlike the body, is immortal and cannot die, is a remnant of ancient pagan Greek philosophy. The idea crept into Christian thinking in the second and third centuries, where it shaped the popular doctrine of everlasting torture in hell. The great theologian Augustine gave the notion his stamp of approval, and it became Catholic and Protestant orthodoxy. If souls cannot die but live forever, the wicked souls must suffer conscious torment throughout eternity — something the Bible never says and an idea completely out of character with the nature of God as revealed in Scripture and His Son Jesus Christ. The Bible does say that only God possesses immortality. (1 Tim. 6:16)”
As we have seen historically, the teaching of the immortal soul has always had a counterpoint. From the Greek philosophers to the Jewish Rabbis, from the early church development to the Protestant Reformation, and even now in the modern era. The debate over the immortality of the soul continues. While the historically dominant view from a numerical standpoint has been the validation of the teaching of the immortality of the soul, it has not gone unanswered or unchallenged.
- The Works of President Edwards: Ch IV, The propriety of a general judgement and a future state section 18
- Decision Magazine July/Aug 2012 The Value of the Soul
- Froom- The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers
- Froom- The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers