The Christian theology of creation means every created thing is mortal – including the soul. If God chooses not to maintain souls in existence, then their existence will cease. The only possible immortality for the creature is a conditional sort, supported from outside.
The church has probably been wise to back off from its traditional ‘immortal soul’ teaching. Personally, I think it’s a dead duck.
Irenaeus’s insights seriously damage the traditional underpinning for the doctrine of hell – by removing one of its thickest supports. The traditional package of ‘immortal soul=everlasting heaven or hell’ just doesn’t hold up.
They also open up the possibility of the annihilationist position. For the ‘immortal soul’ doctrine was the main theological obstacle in the way of this view. (We have noted that most of the objections to annihilationism were not theological but more practical.) So it seems there is no strong theological reason why the annihilationist view is unacceptable. If it were the case that annihilation was God’s practice in judgement, core gospel doctrines would not be undermined by this: creation, redemption, the work of Christ and of the Spirit, the need for faith – all of these are upheld by Irenaeus’s view, and are compatible with annihilationism.
This of course only creates the possibility: it doesn’t prove one view or the other. Clarifying the soul’s nature hasn’t actually resolved our issue about hell. The question is thrown back to: what is God’s intention for the future of his creatures? In particular, what is he going to do about those who persist in turning away from him?
On which, more next time!
But perhaps this is a good moment to stop, and say: probably we can relax a bit about annihilationism. It’s true that this is a shift from the traditional meanstream position. But it’s hardly a novel view: Irenaeus in the 2nd century was pushing in this direction. And it doesn’t seem to be a core gospel issue. Not much hangs on it, at the theological level. It’s not necessarily going to put you on some slippery slope towards heresy or liberalism or compromise, or whatever.
It seems that we evangelicals can afford to disagree about this.
So I want to make a plea for peace. Could we make a decision to not fight over this? To not persecute or alienate over this? Shouldn’t we put this in the same category as adult vs infant-baptism? Good evangelicals on each side, etc.?