We have learned that the doctrine of the natural immortality of the human soul is not found in the Protestant Bible. It appears in neither Testament. Yet, it is commonly believed in churches. It is taught that at death, the soul goes to one of two – three if you’re Catholic – places – heaven, hell or purgatory. How did this extra-Biblical doctrine find its way into the Church? Traced through Jewish, then Christian, history, it is a fascinating tale.

Reiterating the Biblical Position

When God was instructing Adam in Eden, he told him that if he ate of the forbidden fruit he would “surely die.” He did not say he would live on in hell, suffering for eternity. The wages of sin is not life anywhere, but death (Romans 6:23). The “soul” is something that can be destroyed by God (Matthew 10:28). If and when this happens, it is called “the second death” (Revelation 21:8), not a second life in Gehenna. This is commonly known as the doctrine of “annihilationism.”

Man is portrayed in the Bible as “mortal” and corruptible (I Corinthians 15:53; 42). God and Christ alone are immortal (I Timothy 6:16). Immortality is something that must be granted by God – “put on” like a cloak (I Corinthians 15:53). For those who are saved, it is granted at the resurrection. That which was “corruptible” (our fleshly bodies) will be raised “incorruptible” (I Corinthians 15:42). (It is recommended that the reader read all of I Corinthians 15:12-58 as background for this section.)

The key to eternal life for man is not “going to heaven” at death, but the resurrection to that life (John 5:29). This is the essential Biblical model – but it is not the most commonly taught Christian teaching.

Common Christian Beliefs

In recent years, a number of books have been written by people who claim to have experienced either heaven or hell firsthand. Their depictions of both places vary in details and specifics. Yet all seem to share the belief that man is essentially immortal and that at death his immortal soul must go somewhere and experience conscious suffering or ecstasy. One such book uses the word soul to represent both soul and spirit. He writes, “For the ease of discussion, I will use the word soul to represent both soul and spirit. The soul cannot die, in the way we think of death. Death to the soul means to be separated from God. It does not mean to cease to exist. If man rejects the only way provided for entrance into heaven, then there is no other place for the soul to go…our soul was built to exist in one of two places – heaven or hell,” (Hell by Bill Weise, p. 51).

On page 3, Weise states this thought in stark terms: “As eternal beings, our souls will live forever in either heaven or hell. There is no other place for the soul to go.”

States Weise, “The souls of people who walked the earth, just as you and I do, are still alive and suffering extreme torment. They are in the realm of the dead. They are the living dead,” (ibid. p. 4).

Towards the end of his second book, Weise cites a long list of prominent church figures that believe and endorse the above teaching.

No Unanimity

When you consider the whole spectrum of eschatological thought in the Church, you realize there is no unanimity on the subject of the afterlife. Literally hundreds of texts have been cobbled together and proof-texted into a variety of teachings. (The term “eschatology” usually includes four subjects: death, last judgment, hell and heaven. The word itself means “last things.”) As author Edward Fudge reminds us, “The thought of every major time-slot [on this subject] is disputed – from Old Testament teaching, intertestamental, the first century, the apostolic fathers, the formative Latin authors and the Reformers,” The Fire That Consumes, p.69.

Anything I write in these articles can, and likely will be, disputed by someone. What we are putting forward here is highly condensed. It is by no means the last word on the subject. The late evangelical scholar F.F. Bruce wrote, “Christian theologians chiefly disagree over the destiny in the Age to Come of those who live and die without God. The New Testament answer to this question is much less explicit than is frequently supposed,” (Foreword to Fudge’s book, cited above.) In other words, there is lots of “wiggle room” for discussion and study.

In the last analysis, “The only truth on the subject is contained in the Old and New Testament Scriptures. All else must be measured by that standard,” – Fudge, p. xv. Ultimately it comes down to the text itself, correctly interpreted. Here, of course, is where there is room for debate. With all this in mind, we proceed to the history of the doctrine of the immortality of the soul as developed and taught in the Church.

The First Jewish Christians

The first generation of the Church was entirely Jewish, as were Jesus and his apostles. They practiced the religion of Judaism. They were viewed by other Jews as “the sect of the Nazarenes” (Acts 24:5). As such, it held to a traditional Jewish anthropology. What they believed about death, resurrection and immortality is described in the early part of this article and in the New Testament as a whole.

The influence of the pagan philosopher Plato on Judaism is a subject for a lengthy article – perhaps even a book.  We do not have space to cover it here. Nor do we have space to discuss the influence of Platonism on the Gnostics, and how Paul defended the Church against them. Suffice it to say here that the New Testament documents came out of the Apostolic period of the Church, and those apostles were observant Jews.

It was only after the original Jewish apostles, including Paul, died that the Church began its transformation to gentile leadership. To understand this shift in leadership, we recommend the classic work on “Jewish roots” – Our Father Abraham by Prof. Marvin R. Wilson. Chapter six is especially helpful. In the last paragraph of that chapter Prof. Wilson summarizes the result of the split: “Though the break between Synagogue and Church had now essentially been made, the struggle between the two was far from over. A triumphalistic and arrogant Church, largely gentile in makeup, would now become more and more de-Judaized – severed from its Jewish roots. This de-Judaizing developed into a history of anti-Judaism, a travesty which has extended from the second century to the present day (ibid. p. 84).”

Once gentile leadership of the Church was ensconced, it began to incrementally reject all things Jewish, and embrace things anti-Jewish or pagan. The Church began to develop through a variety of historical periods. First there were the Greek Church Fathers. They were followed by the Latin Church Fathers. By the fourth century a fully hellenized, politicized, gentile Church had emerged. As Dan Gruber writes, “The Council of Nicea, in 325 A.D., was a distinct turning point in the history of the church. Since that time, all accepted church theology has been built upon an anti-Judaic foundation, (The Church and the Jews, p. vii).”

The issues of the immortality of the soul, going to heaven or hell at death, and the resurrection, did not escape revision. By the time we reach the Protestant Reformation, some errors had become irreversibly entrenched and set in stone. All who disbelieved them were branded as heretics.

The Post-Apostolic Period

It must be remembered at the outset that “In earliest Christianity, orthodoxy and heresy do not stand in relation to one another as primary and secondary, but in many regions heresy was the original manifestation of Christianity,” Orthodoxy & Heresy in Earliest Christianity by Walter Bauer, p. xi. In other words, today’s heresy may be yesterday’s truth.

It was the winners of early theological battles who determined what was “orthodox” and what was “Heresy.” Might made right. Textual scholar Bart D. Ehrman states it succinctly, “By the fourth century, one of these groups had routed the opposition, co-opting for itself the designation ‘orthodoxy’ and effectively marginalizing the rival parties as ‘heresies,’ The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, p. xii.”

The Jewish believers had never systematized their theology. They simply practiced the uncomplicated teachings of Jesus and his Jewish apostles (Acts 2:42). Once the stabilizing influence of Jesus’ original talmidimwas gone, new ideas began to stream into the body from without. Writes Ehrman, “During its first two and a half centuries, Christianity comprised a   number of competing theologies, or better, a number of competing Christian groups advocating a variety of theologies. There was as yet no established ‘orthodoxy,’ that is, no basic theological system acknowledged by the majority of church leaders and laity. Different local churches supported different understandings of the religion, while different understandings of the religion were present even within the same local church,” (ibid. p.4).

Once the Church was divested of all things Jewish, and thoroughly Hellenized, paganized and politicized, the door was flung open to ideas foreign to the Hebraic foundations of the original believing community. The doctrine of the natural immortality of the soul is a case in point. The original apostles, being Jewish, accepted the Jewish view of man – that is, they embraced an essentially Jewish anthropology as found in the Tanach(II Timothy 3:15-17). Later rabbinic and Talmudic teaching is much more complex. In this article, we are only concerned with the Bible itself.

The doctrine of the soul’s immortality was a primary concept for the Greek philosopher Plato who was born about the time the last Old Testament book was being written. As Anthony Hoekema writes, “The concept of the immortality of the soul was developed in the mystery religions of ancient Greece, and was given philosophical expression in the writings of Plato (427-347 B.C.) – The Bible and the Future, p. 65).”

Edward Fudge explains how Plato’s notion of the soul found its way into the Post-apostolic church, “Many Christian writers of the second an third centuries wanted to show their neighbors the reasonableness of the biblical faith. They did it the same way the Jewish apologist, Philo of Alexandria, had done long before. They wrapped their understanding of Scripture in the robes of philosophy, choosing from the vocabulary of worldly wisdom the words which sparkled and adorned it best…They freely borrowed the Platonic conception of the soul, the chief characteristic being its separability from the body, (Fudge, pp. 66-67).”

The early apologists tried to distinguish their version of the soul from that of the philosophers by saying that the soul is not inherently immortal. It had a beginning, originating with God. “And though it survives the death of the body, its future existence depends entirely on God’s will. Even Origen and Augustine, who did sometimes speak of the soul’s natural immortality, made this distinction clear,” (Fudge, p.67).

Justin Martyr and Tatian argued openly against the notion of immortality and took positions in favor of the resurrection.

It should be clear that during this early time of gentile leadership in the Church, the issue of man’s soul was not settled. Fudge believes the situation is best summed up by Robert Wilken who wrote, “The fathers modified the notion of the immortality of the soul as it was understood within the Church philosophical tradition. Yet in its main lines, they adopted the idea adapting it where necessary to the requirements of the Christian faith and they gave it a prominent place in Christian piety,” (Wilken, Immortality of the Soul, p. 114.”

So we see an idea both adopted and adapted. Fudge also observes, “Here we simply observe that the church fathers, without important exception, stressed that man’s immortality is derived, not inherent, and that the future continuance of his ‘immortal soul’ rests entirely in the hands of God, who made him,” (Fudge p. 69).

Later Developments

The views of the early Church fathers were by no means the end of the matter. There was much animated interest in the subject in the 16th & 17th centuries. The famous reformer, Martin Luther believed that death was a “sleep” that occurred between death and resurrection. For Luther, there was no consciousness during this period. At the time of the resurrection, believers would receive a gentle wakeup call from the voice of Jesus. As Fudge writes, “…Luther rejected the philosophical doctrine of the soul’s innate immortality,” (Fudge p. 70). In fact he went so far as to label it one of the “monstrous fables that form part of the Roman dunghill of decretals,” (ibid.). I wonder what he really thought?

Sir Thomas More was among the first to attack Luther’s doctrine of “soul-sleeping.” More (1478 – 1535) was a Catholic who opposed Luther and Tyndale, both of whom believed in the Biblical position on resurrection. More was decapitated by Henry VIII and his head was fixed on the London Bridge. Pope Leo XIII (1886) later “beautified” More who finally achieved sainthood in 1935. More had championed the king against Luther’s reforms. The theological battles of the Reformation and Counter Reformation were wicked indeed, with many men of conscience being hounded, persecuted and murdered by both, or all, sides.

At issue was the authority of Scripture versus the authority of the Catholic hierarchy. “…the Catholic Church was reluctant to part with the authority it had built over centuries. Yes, Christian faith should be sourced in the Bible, but, as the Council of Trent declared — the Bible was best clarified by ‘the testimonies of approved holy fathers and councils, the judgment and consensus of the Church,” (The Dark Side of Christian Historyby Helen Ellerbe, p.98.

For Moore and Catholics, it was the Church’s way or the highway. For the Protestants, it was Sola Scriptura – the Bible alone. Yet Protestantism’s interpreting authorities were sometimes opposed to Catholic views, and to each other’s views. Luther and Tyndale accepted the doctrine of soul sleep followed by resurrection. So did the hated Anabaptists. Calvin rejected Luther and Tyndale in favor of the Catholic dogma of the soul’s immortality. Calvin also believed in soteriological predestination – i.e. that some of us are predestined to eternal life, others to eternal damnation.

If you think about the implications of that last idea, it makes God out to be a sadistic monster. Imagine – the conscious, immortal souls of the hapless, predestined lost, suffering without relief in hell for all eternity! And consider the plight of the saved knowing that some of their most loved and cherished relatives and friends are “down there” experiencing the endless, relentless, agony of the damned – and they can do nothing about it.

To their credit, the Protestants “…stressed the authority of the Word of God apart from creeds and confessions of faith. They also championed the right of each individual to study the Scriptures himself, relying on the Holy Spirit alone for guidance in understanding,” (Fudge, p.71).

On the face of it, this represented an advancement over the authoritarian approach of the Roman Church. At the practical level, however, it had its weaknesses. The Reformation didn’t reform enough. As Fudge writes, “Although the moderate reforms of the English Church left much of the Roman doctrine untouched, including the immortality of the soul, Christian mortalism was preached to the people of Protestant England from earliest times. Although established churchmen denounced this teaching, they ‘rarely examined the concept on its theological merits and only occasionally and superficially considered the scriptural arguments on which it was based,’” (Fudge, p. 1, citing Christian Mortalism by Burns, p. 99).

Out of Luther’s reformation came the Lutheran Church. From Calvin’s thought emerged the Presbyterians. The Anabaptists produced the Baptists. Following the Enlightenment and the birth of higher Biblical criticism, there arose the phenomenon of Fundamentalism. For the most part, Fundamentalists and Evangelicals have embraced the Platonic doctrine of the immortality of the soul and all that follows from it. Writes Fudge of Calvin’s view: “Calvin’s view [inherited from Rome] was widely adopted as the authoritative standard for Reformed churches throughout the world,” (ibid. p.73).

Calvin viewed the body as a “rotting carcase” – a “prison” and even “wretched dung.” However, to his credit, Calvin – like some of the early fathers, believed that the human soul depends on God for its existence, and that God can put it out of existence. In a sermon, he said that the soul’s immortality is “not natural,” (ibid. p. 74).

Summing Up

Edward Fudge sums up the situation regarding the doctrine of the immortality of the soul: “…Christian writers were men of their age – and (with exceptions) they accepted the common Platonic view of man’s soul as a component separable from his body and unhurt by physical death. In this they agreed with their opponents, but on the eternity of the soul fathers and philosophers parted company. To the soul’s immortality (survival of the death of the body) the Platonists generally added also its eternity. There the fathers stood firm. ‘No,’ they said, ‘although the soul enters and leaves the body, and even survives its death, it is not eternal. It had its beginning by the creation of God, and God – if He pleases – can also make it extinct. Only God possesses that kind of immortality.

“With rare and disputed exceptions, this is the common witness of theologians who affirmed the soul’s immortality – from the days of the earliest Greek apologists until and including John Calvin and his descendants today,” (Fudge, p. 75).

Minor Neo-Reformation

In our time, many of the doctrines of mainstream denominations, from Catholic to fundamentalist, are coming under scrutiny. As more and more scholars become intimately familiar with the biblical texts themselves – as opposed to established confessions, creeds and dogmas – these texts yield up a better understanding of the “faith once for all delivered.” As Fudge writes, “Today the traditional dualistic dogma of soul-immortality is under increasing suspicion as an interloper. More and more, orthodox writers are concluding that the church will not suffer by its expulsion but, rather, that it would eliminate an unnecessary inconsistency from orthodoxy’s position.

“Crisscrossing all this flows the stream of Christian mortalism. Freshly issuing from springs opened by Luther and Tyndale, and fed by tributaries of recent biblical theology, this understanding introduces itself as the sparkling pure water of pristine Christianity. Today, more than ever, orthodox evangelical scholars are taking its claims seriously and are giving it a careful look,” (Fudge, p. 76).

In the next installment we will examine the doctrine of conscious eternal suffering in an ever-burning Dante-like inferno.