Hell 5: Is the soul immortal?

Posted: March 19, 2014 by J in Bible, Church history, Theology

We have seen that the traditionally, the doctrine of everlasting torment (‘hell’) rested on another doctrine: the immortality of the soul. We’ve stopped teaching an immortal soul in the past century. But if we could sustain that doctrine from Scripture, then ‘hell’ would also be looking pretty strong. Can we bring back the immortal soul?

Historically the church was confident about the human soul:

Whereas some have dared to assert concerning the nature of the reasonable soul that it is mortal, we, with the approbation of the sacred council do condemn and reprobate all those who assert that the intellectual soul is mortal, seeing, according to the canon of Pope Clement V, that the soul is […] immortal […] and we decree that all who adhere to like erroneous assertions shall be shunned and punished as heretics.

— Fifth Council of the Lateran (1513)

Wow. This stuff could get you excommunicated. Denying immortality to the soul was heresy. It was that important.

However, the doctrine has fallen into disrepute, and it is hard to find a theologian now who affirms it.

“That the idea of the soul’s immortality as disembodied state beyond death is not popular amongst Christian theologians or among Christian philosophers today… “.

Hebblethwaite (2005), Philosophical theology and Christian doctrine, p. 113,

“It is this essential soul-body oneness that provides the uniqueness of the biblical concept of the resurrection of the body as distinguished from the Greek idea of the immortality of the soul”.

Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible (rev ed.), 2009

” … the “immortal soul” has sometimes been a commonplace in preaching, but it is fundamentally unbiblical.”

Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, 1987

What changed? Why did we back away from this ‘core’ Christian doctrine from the middle ages, still so important until recently?
There have been a couple of forces eroding the doctrine of the immortal soul. The most obvious has been the inroads made by biblical studies. The basic insight at work here is that in Hebrew thought and language, we do not possess a soul: we ARE a soul. The word traditionally translated ‘soul’ (Heb. nefesh, lit. ‘throat’) refers simply to a living person or animal. It is the whole person, the life, that is in view, not just a part. The living being is thought of as a unity, not a composite of parts: body, soul, spirit etc.

“Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures (nefesh)”. (Genesis 1:20)

Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being (living nefesh). (Genesis 2:7)

Notice that God does not give the man a soul: he makes the man become a soul. It has gradually been realised that the OT has no concept of soul as it was understood by the Christian church since the times of the Fathers.

In the NT the equivalent term to the Hebrew nefesh, is ‘psyche. Its meaning is broader than the Hebrew nefesh, embracing also meanings from Greek culture. However its normal NT meaning is pretty much the same as nefesh: the life or living person.

“those who were seeking the child’s life (psyche) are dead.”  (Mat. 2:20)

“keep up your courage, for there will be no loss of life (psyche) among you, but only of the ship. (Acts 27:22)

What psyche does not mean in the NT, is an immortal core to the person that endures after the death of the body. Psyche is about life, not death.

So the key words traditionally translated ‘soul’, really don’t bear that translation. Nefesh and psyche are not words for an eternal, incorporeal core to the human person. Much of the meaning content attached to the word ‘soul’ in the Christian tradition, just doesn’t fit with these two words.

And there are no other words in Scripture that convey the traditional idea of ‘immortal soul’, either. Man’s ‘spirit’ (ruach) in the OT usually refers his life-force, the ‘breath of life’ that God breathed in to Adam originally. It means something a bit similar to nefesh. It can be used a bit metaphorically, to mean morale. But never ‘immortal soul’. In the NT, the equivalent word, pneuma normally means the Holy Spirit, but when used of man it is employed in much the same way as ruach: the life-force or morale of the person. It seems these terms are never, in Scripture, used in conjunction with words meaning ‘immortal’.  There is no suggestion of immortality for ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’.

This is not a recent insight. As far back as 1769, John Parkhurst, in his Greek and English Lexicon, noted the lack of textual support for the traditional view that nefesh and psyche referred to an ‘immortal soul’. Since then scholarly consensus has come to overwhelmingly agree with him.

“The word ‘being’ translates the Hebrew word nefesh which, though often translated by the Eng. word ‘soul’, ought not to be interpreted in the sense suggested by Hellenistic thought…any conception of the soul as a separate (and separable) part or division of our being would seem to be invalid…The human person is a ‘soul’ by virtue of being a ‘body’ made alive by the ‘breath’ (or ‘Spirit’) of God.”

New Dictionary of Theology (2000).

The absence of ‘immortal soul’ terminology in the NT is all the more significant because of what happened in Judaism in the inter-testamental period. Judaism was hit with a massive whack of Hellenism, including Greek ideas about the soul. Plato and the Greeks saw the soul as the true ‘stuff’ of humanity, a non-material core to our being that was the real ‘us’. Plato would say that our soul was an eternal spark imprisoned in the mortal shell of our body.  It was waiting to escape and take up its true place in the realms of eternity and the divine, to which it was fitted.

By Jesus’ time, these Platonic ideas had entered mainstream Judaism, which now did teach an immortal soul and heaven and hell. This was a widespread, popular anthropology with connected eschatology (re. the afterlife). It’s in the intertestamental ‘Apocrypha’ and the Rabbinic literature.

And yet, as we have seen, Jesus and his apostles do not use the key terms in this way. They seem to avoid this by-now-traditional Jewish doctrine.

Lack of Scripture terminology is not a knock-out argument. Doctrines can survive without specific Scripture-terms for them. Think Trinity, creation ex nihilo, etc. Deeply biblical ideas, with no word for them in Scripture. But in fact, even the concept of ‘immortal soul’ is just not that easy to find in Scripture. Or to deduce from Scripture. Or even to square with Scripture. It’s certainly not clearly and explicitly taught.

In fact, Scripture evidence for this doctrine is so very scarce, people come back again and again to just a few texts. The main two are a parable of Jesus and one verse in Revelation (Rev. 6:9).

We will need to look at those texts, but at first blush, the textual support for this teaching seems weak.  A parable and a verse from Revelation are not promising places on which to build an entire core doctrine of the faith. We don’t normally use either of these genres to build our basic doctrines. Which other key doctrine has such slender and uncertain foundations?

So that’s a problem. We’ve got this doctrine, which was of the essence for the Church for over 1000 years, and now we can’t find much sign of it in Scripture. Gulp! No wonder we’ve been backing away!

So much for biblical studies. There’s one other direction from which the doctrine has been eroded: from theologyThe ‘immortal soul’ teaching has gradually been seen to create serious theological problems that damage the Christian faith. Clued-up theologians don’t like it.

But that’s going to need its own post.


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