An extract from “Hell No!” by Michael Bieleski
For some, man is considered an immortal being. This means that he was created with an immortal soul that cannot die. The soul leaves the body at death and survives until the resurrection, when it is joined with a new body. The wicked also live forever as an immortal soul, although they get to spend forever in eternal torment.
This in general has been the orthodox Christian view of the soul, hell and eternal torment, which has been stamped with all the authority the medieval Church could muster. It helped to fund the Church and keep the faithful on the straight and narrow. Indulgences (paid to the Church) helped shorten purgatory for self and one’s relatives (not to mention feeding and clothing and housing the clergy); woe to anyone who thought differently.
The idea of man as an immortal being is essential to the concept of hell. For man to live forever in a burning fire, he must be incapable of dying. The soul cannot die if it is to spend forever and ever suffering, for if it dies, it can no longer suffer. However, if as Paul and Jesus suggest, man is a mortal being who requires immortality as a gift through the resurrection from the dead, then the concept of hell becomes problematic. Foremost, God would have had to make man immortal to ensure eternal punishment, which seems a very unlikely possibility, and certainly an idea that is not supported by any scriptures.
Therefore, either man was created with natural immortality, or he is a mortal being subject to the possibility of death. We would expect the Bible to clearly explain and clarify this issue for us and we find the answer in the Book of Genesis. What we find is that man was most definitely created as a mortal being, and we know this because of three distinct and important clues. These clues are a special tree, a clever lie and God’s definition of death.1
When God created Man, they were told that they could eat from any tree they liked, apart from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. If they ate from this tree they would die. As we have already seen, we know what this death was because God had very carefully described what would happen. He had told Adam and Eve that they were made from dust and that they would return to dust. That was it. Death was the dissolution of self back to the essential elements from which one was made. At no point does God say to Adam and Eve – you will die and suffer for ever and ever as immortal beings. He simply says that they were made from dust and now that they had sinned, they would return to that dust.
There is nowhere in the Bible that says that Man has an immortal soul. However, the Bible does say that God alone possesses immortality and immortality is a gift through faith in Jesus Christ.2 If God alone has immortality, then why do we believe that we are immortal souls? We have already covered this point in Paul’s teaching; that immortality was the result of the self being brought back to life in a new resurrected and incorruptible body. Paul also explained that the corruptible bodies could not inherit in-corruption and that is why we need new bodies.
However, if we believed in the idea of an immortal soul, we would have to assume that we die and then we wait around in heaven for the resurrection of our new body. Why would we have to wait for the resurrection of our new body? Wouldn’t it be easier to assign a new body immediately after death? Regardless of any answers to these questions, these ideas contradict Paul’s teaching that the dead will rise together at the return of Christ and join those who are still alive.3 The resurrection in Hebrew thought, happened to dead people sometime after they had been dead. It was never about immediate life after death. It was the return of the self, who had long ago perished, the body corrupted in the grave, risen and alive in a new body.
Taking these ideas into consideration in the context of the creation story, the idea of immortal man does not make sense. There was no indication in God’s judgment on man’s sin that their physical death or the dissolution of the physical self, would lead to some form of future continuous existence. In addition, the only possibility of immortality for man was to eat from the tree of life. If the source of immortality was the Tree of Life, then man could not have had any form of natural immortality. This would explain the significance of the curse of physical death as a consequence for sin. Death and immortality were antithetical states of existence. Either one was immortal or one would cease to exist.
This point is important because the Tree of Life only became significant in the story once man had sinned. Once man was subject to death he reached out for the Tree of Life because that was now his only hope. If he ate from this tree he could live forever and he would therefore no longer be subject to death. However, God was extremely concerned about this possibility-imagine man living forever in his fallen state! To prevent this possibility, he cast them out of the Garden in which they had been living and set up a flaming sword and cherubim to prevent them from coming back. Man now had no access to the Tree of Life. The Tree of Life gave immortality and he could not have that which he wanted. He was now subject to the curse of death, which God had described as the dissolution of the body. If the Tree of Life was the source of immortality, and Man was banished from accessing this tree, then why has the Church taught that Man is a naturally immortal being? If Man was naturally immortal, then that which God did not want to happen – man living forever in his fallen state – was going to happen regardless of whether Man was banished from the Tree of Life or not.
Obviously, this idea does not make any sense. God had clearly explained that Man was made of dust, that in death he would return to dust, and that he would be banished forever from the Tree of Life to prevent him from obtaining immortality, which would enable him to avoid this death. In a sense, death was God’s mercy to Man. God thought it abhorrent that man would live forever in his fallen state and took great practical steps to ensure that this did not happen. Man living forever in his fallen state was not on God’s top ten list of things to do – it was the last thing he wanted to happen. However, immortal souls being tormented forever and ever is exactly that. Unable to die, the wicked would be forced into a never-ending status supposedly suited to their condition.
To briefly digress, the question could also be asked why God would want to torment people forever as a punishment. The general answer states that there must be a consequence for sin. The Good News is that Jesus has indeed taken our punishment for us when he died on a cross. However, Jesus died for our sins. He did not suffer forever and ever for our sins. Therefore, it makes a lot more sense that man in his disobedience was cursed to physical death and removed from the Garden, and no longer had access to immortality. Only Jesus could now set us free from the curse of sin and death by dying in our place and rising from the grave to resurrection life, bringing immortality and freedom from death to all who would believe.
The third major problem for those that believe in the natural immortality of man is a clever lie. After God had warned Adam and Eve not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the Serpent came to Eve and tempted her to eat from the tree. Eve responded by pointing out that God had placed a prohibition on that particular tree and that eating from it would bring death. The Serpent responded by saying that they would not die, but that their eyes would be opened and they would be like God, knowing good and evil.
However, Satan is the father of lies,4 and in order to entrap man into sinning, he lied by saying that he would not die. The idea that man is a naturally immortal soul is that same lie. It is likely that this idea of an immortal soul in Christendom has come from Greek philosophy of platonism, which considered the body and this world to be evil. Death was able to release the soul from its prison of the body, making death nothing more than a transitive process from one realm of existence to the next. However, the Bible teaches us that we all face death and only the resurrection will rescue us from its grip.
Therefore, there is no indication in Genesis that man was a naturally immortal being. He was made from dust and his death was defined as that dust going back to the earth. It is descriptive of the corruption of the body as it decomposes. Man did die and has been subject to death ever since. Death is indeed the wages of sin. However, the idea that we are all an immortal soul incapable of dying, is the lie that Satan continues to tell.
There are certain passages that have been used to support the idea of an immortal soul. Amongst these have been Genesis 2:7, where it says that God breathed the breath of life into man and he became a living soul. However, the word soul is the Hebrew word nephesh, which actually meant creature or being and this is the way it should be translated.5
God breathed life into man and he became a living being or nephesh. A being is someone or something that has life in itself. It explains the completeness of the nature of the creature that lives and breathes. There was no indication that the being was immortal or survived death in any shape or form.
In addition to this, nephesh is also applied to animals.6 The Bible says that the earth brought forward living creatures of every kind, including cattle and creeping things. If we insist on applying great significance to an immortal soul of man, then this significance can only undermined by the fact that animals were also created as living souls.
The use of the Hebrew words explain to us that God made things alive through the breath of life. This is why Bible might say that the spirit returns to God who gave it.7 Spirit in Hebrew meant wind or breath, and so a translation of this could say that the breath returned to God who gave it.
This sort of language does not mean that man’s breath is an immortal part of man that survives death. The breath of life is a metaphorical explanation of the creation of life with breathing being the evidence that something is alive. Importantly, it means that creatures did not become immortal beings, just because God gave them life. They were alive because they were living breathing creatures, and it is God who gave them the breath of life.
This idea of this God given life is contrasted by the significance of death. God gave man life as a living breathing creature, but Satan tricked man into disobedience. The consequence for man was the destruction of the physical self.
These ideas are strongly supported by Jesus’ own teaching. Jesus never suggests that one should believe in him to avoid eternal torment. However, he does say that whoever believes in him will not die, because he is the resurrection and the life.
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.8
This verse tells us that the judgment that the believer avoids is death. It cannot mean a spiritual death because Jesus was very clear about the nature of death. For example, his description of the death of the Israelites in the wilderness, clearly shows that he had in mind physical death. This is because the Israelites had eaten bread in the wilderness and yet they had died. However, Jesus is the bread from heaven and whoever ate of that bread would not die.
Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.9
And while believers still die a physical death, the promise that Jesus makes is that even though die we shall still live, but only through the resurrection.
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 10
Jesus is the resurrection and the life. He does not state that we will continue to live beyond the grave, because the promise is that we will return from the grave. This is a place where the dead are dead. But Jesus did not just say these things. He demonstrated what he meant by raising Lazarus from the dead. The return to life was a physical demonstration of the message that Jesus proclaimed. Even though Lazarus had died, he was brought back to life from a physical death, still wrapped in his burial clothes.
If we accepted the idea of the immortal soul, we would have to conceive of the fact that Lazarus went to heaven as an immortal soul and then came back to his body all wrapped in burial clothes and climbed out of the grave.
It is not likely that this is what Jesus thought was happening. Jesus wept when he heard that Lazarus had died. Why would you weep if you knew that Lazarus was a happy soul in Heaven with the Father? Jesus wept because death is an unpleasant thing. It is the end of self and existence.
The influence of the idea that man is a naturally immortal being or soul undermines the significance of the link between the body, life and the resurrection. A belief in the idea of a naturally immortal soul has also encouraged and developed the idea that the death of man was primarily a spiritual death or a type of separation from God.
One source for the emphasis on this spiritual death is possibly found in the statement by God that Adam and Eve would die in the day that they ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The argument is that the moment man ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, he became spiritually alienated from God and therefore spiritually dead. The major support for this idea rests on the assumption that man was created with an immortal soul. Once this immortal soul sinned it would then become subject to an eternal separation from God.
However, this statement is an idiomatic expression which means as surely as you eat of it. It means that the judgment would be an inevitable event. Therefore man become subject to the physical processes leading to death and explains why we all get wrinkles, grey hair and end up in the ground. The creation story is an explanation story. It explains why there is sin and why we die.
We should point out that man could still be considered spiritually dead in the sense that unregenerate man is not conscious of God or capable of relationship with God. Once man had sinned he found himself naked and fell into a downward spiral of evil leading to all sorts of folly. However, this spiritual death is not the death described by God.
The emphasis on a spiritual death is a distraction from the real issue, which is that death means the end of existence. For man, this meant the dissolution of the elements from which he was made. We have already seen how Satan’s lie was that we would not really die and the concept of spiritual death and immortality are part of this lie. It is a distraction from the fact that we all will physically die, and that the only solution offered by Jesus to this problem was the resurrection from the dead.
- Genesis 2-3
- 1 Timothy 6:16, 2 Timothy 1:10
- 1 Thessalonians 4:16
- John 8:44
- NRSV for example
- Genesis 1.24
- Ecclesiastes 12:7
- John 5:24 (ESV)
- John 6:49-50 (ESV)
- John 11:25-26 (ESV)