We’ve seen that belief in ‘everlasting hell’ is wrapped up with the traditional Christian doctrine of the ‘immortality of the soul’. And we’ve seen how Calvin’s deep investment in that doctrine created serious problems for his theology. Now its time to consider the alternative approach of Irenaeus of Lyons (2nd century A.D.). Cards on the table: Irenaeus is extraordinary on this. Sit back and watch how real theology is done.
In Against Heresies, Irenaeus was writing against a popular belief now called gnosticism, which made use of Christian terminology, but combined it with a big whack of Greek cosmology. These gnostics taught that there were two orders of existence: a lower order of material stuff which had been created, and a higher order, including some people’s souls, which existed alongside God and was, like him, eternal. These souls were able to transmigrate from one person to another – a kind of reincarnation. They were ultimately destined to return to the higher spheres, while lower stuff like the human body was fit only to be burned up and annihilated. Not that different from Plato. (Or from Calvin, actually!) In fact, Irenaeus holds Plato responsible for a lot of these ideas (2.33.2): and he’s not that impressed!
Many Christians in Irenaeus’s time, however, were being swayed by these ideas. To counter gnostic teachings, Irenaeus employs Christian theology. He doesn’t take the usual proof-texting approach which we all know and love. Rather, we are going to see four powerful, big-picture theological ideas which Irenaeus brings into play – like a battery of hand-picked, long-range guns, which he feels are more than adequate to knock out the opposing forces. Let’s see if he’s right.
First, Irenaeus introduces the idea of God’s freedom in creating:
If He (the Creator) made all things freely, and by His own power, and arranged and finished them, and His will is the substance of all things, then He is discovered to be the one only God who created all things, who alone is Omnipotent, and who is the only Father rounding and forming all things, visible and invisible, such as may be perceived by our senses and such as cannot, heavenly and earthly,
by the word of His power; and He has fitted and arranged all things by His wisdom, while He contains all things, but He Himself can be contained by no one: He is the Former, He the Builder, He the Discoverer, He the Creator, He the Lord of all; and there is no one besides Him, or above Him.
Against Heresies 2.30.9
As you can see, this idea of God’s freedom gets Irenaeus a lot of mileage. He asserts that God made the world the way he wanted to make it. He was able to arrange his creation ‘by his wisdom‘, not by any external necessities. His will is bedrock for the creation: it is ‘the substance of all things.’ This all seems hard for any Christian to deny.
But if this is so, then there could not have been any other heavenly beings or souls existing alongside God. For if there were, then the necessity of those things’ existence constrains and limits God in his creating. God would be surrounded, or as Irenaeus puts it here, ‘contained’. His freedom is compromised. It follows that for God to be truly free as Creator, then he must have created alone. So then, anyone else that is, was created by him: ‘then He is discovered to be the one only God who created all things…there is no one besides Him:
God alone, who is Lord of all, is without beginning and without end… always remaining the same unchangeable Being.
Against Heresies 2.34.4
Irenaeus’s second contribution follows close on the first. He teaches that the soul, is therefore created, just like the body:
But, as each one of us receives his body through the skilful working of God, so does he also possess his soul. 2.33.5
Not only are souls created: Irenaeus defines them with reference to the body:
[Souls] preserve the same form [after death] as the body had to which they were adapted… 2.34.1
…the soul possesses and rules over the body 2.33.4
Wow. The soul is not a prisoner of the body (cf. Calvin): it is actually the proprietor of the body! The soul possesses its own body. Moreover the soul is tailor-made and adapted to that particular body, and after the body’s death, the soul continues in that same form. The two parts of the human have a strong and permanent affinity. For the soul has much in common with the body with which it has been ‘mixed up’ (2.33.4). In other words, the soul’s true home is not a disembodied spirit world: its true home is its own proper body.
Blown away are the eternal souls of the Gnostics, who pre-existed uncreated alongside God. Such souls are not compatible with a free Creator. Irenaeus places everything, including souls, firmly and unambiguously in the ‘created’ camp, as the beneficiaries of God’s wise, sovereign, free creative action, and belonging within the created order. Note the difference with Calvin, who creates an ambiguous special category for souls, with both divine and creaturely qualities.
Now we come to the really interesting thing: Irenaeus also believes in ‘the immortality of the soul’. How does he maintain this, if souls are mere creatures? Here is Irenaeus’s third theological idea, perhaps his most important contribution to this whole debate. Irenaeus describes a different kind of immortality:
But if any persons at this point maintain that those souls, which only began a little while ago to exist, cannot endure for any length of time; but that they must…if they have had a beginning… die with the body itself— let them learn this: [Souls] endure, and extend their existence into a long series of ages, in accordance with the will of God their Creator; so that He grants them that they should be thus formed at the beginning, and that they should so exist afterwards.
Against Heresies, 2.34.2
This is an immortality which is not intrinsic but given, and not built-in but maintained from without. God, who is the only one to have essential immortality, grants length of days to his creatures as he wills it. Irenaeus compares souls to the sun and moon, which had a beginning from God, but which last on through long ages as he upholds them by his will.
Importantly, this immortality is seated not in the soul’s nature, but in the will of God:
When God bestows life, it happens that even souls which did not previously exist, henceforth endure [for ever], since God has both willed that they should exist, and should continue in existence. For the will of God ought to govern and rule in all things, while all other things give way to Him.”
Against Heresies 2.34.4
God’s freedom, then, extends to maintaining the creation he first made.
This is so important that we will dwell on it a bit more. Here is how Irenaeus sees this ‘supported’ immortality functioning in Scripture:
The prophetic Spirit bears testimony to these opinions. He thus speaks respecting the salvation of man:
“He asked life of You, and You gave him length of days for ever and ever;” indicating that it is the Father of all who imparts continuance for ever and ever on those who are saved. For life does not arise from us, nor from our own nature; but it is bestowed according to the grace of God. And therefore he who shall preserve the life bestowed upon him, and give thanks to Him who imparted it, shall receive also length of days for ever and ever. But he who shall reject it, and prove himself ungrateful to his Maker, inasmuch as he has been created, and has not recognised the Giver of life, deprives himself of [the privilege of] continuance for ever and ever.
Against Heresies 2.34.3
Continued existence or life is not automatic or intrinsic to our nature, not even to our souls. Rather it is a gift given moment by moment by the God who has promised eternal life to those who trust him. As he says later, “the soul herself is not life, but partakes in that life bestowed upon her by God.“
In this one move, Irenaeus blows away the cosmology of Plato and the Greeks, so beloved of many in the medieval Church. He replaces it with a model derived from the doctrine of God’s free creation out of nothing (ex nihilo): souls are by nature mortal, not immortal, like every other part of creation. They belong down here, with their respective bodies! The world just turned on its axis!
Irenaeus’s last great contribution to this issue also follows tightly. It follows from all this that immortality is conditional: something which some receive by asking, and others miss out on. Or as Irenaeus puts it, immortality must be entered into. It is not the automatic inheritance of souls by nature.
And this has an unexpected corollary for the poor old human body:
If, on the other hand, [immortality] is on account of their righteousness, then it is no longer simply because they are souls, but because they are righteous. But if souls would have perished unless they had been righteous, then righteousness must have power to save the bodies also [which these souls inhabited]; for why should it not save them, since they, too, participated in righteousness? For if nature and substance are the means of salvation, then all souls shall be saved; but if instead righteousness and faith [are the means], why should these not save those bodies which, equally with the souls, will enter into immortality?
Against Heresies 2.29.1
Now Irenaeus has an immortal body as well as soul: a scandalous idea for any well-informed Greek! You can’t have it both ways, he says: either immortality is inherent in souls, or it comes only from righteousness. If it comes from righteousness, then it can come to the body of the righteous person also: for the body took part in the righteousness! Good call.
And this of course pushes the whole question about immortality into the future, to the resurrection of the dead:
And then the doctrine which we believe concerning the resurrection of bodies, will emerge true and certain… since God, when He resuscitates our mortal bodies which preserved righteousness, will render them incorruptible and immortal.
Against Heresies 2.29.2
Immortality is something we look forward to, our promised inheritance. It comes at the end of the story, not at the beginning.
And so Irenaeus’ version of immortality relies on the work in history of Christ and especially of his Holy Spirit, to bring this transformation at the appointed time. This view of immortality is eschatological, fully integrated into the Christian hope. Once again we note the difference with Calvin, whose doctrine of immortality tended to sideline both Spirit and eschatology.
We could show more of Irenaeus’s stunning work in this area. There is more gold here, to be mined. But what we’ve seen is enough for us to say: Ireneaus has given the Greek doctrine of the immortality of the soul a complete reworking along biblical-theological lines. When it emerges, it is a doctrine of conditional immortality as the goal of the gospel. Not everyone who has been granted existence will be given continuance in life for ever and ever. But some will enter into eternal life. This doctrine seems to sit well with the framework of Christian faith at the very points where Calvin’s did not.
We know that Calvin was familiar with Irenaeus’s work in this area, because he quotes it. But he seems to have been little influenced by it. Calvin acknowledges Irenaeus’s points:
For when we say that the spirit of man is immortal, we do not affirm that it can stand against the hand of God, or subsist without his agency. Far from us be such blasphemy! But we say that man’s spirit is sustained by God’s hand and blessing. Thus Irenaeus, who with us asserts the immortality of the spirit, wishes us, however, to learn that by nature we are mortal, and God alone immortal.
Ok. But Calvin doesn’t seem to learn much from Irenaeus’s masterly treatment of the subject. He appears not to see that conceding this much undermines his own insistent teaching of the soul’s essential immortality. Calvin here gives the game away without even noticing. He ends up with a fairly confused and conflicted position. Irenaeus on the other hand, shows us what can be done if you start with Christian theology.