Is the immortal soul a Biblical concept and if so, where is it found?

(Winston Jones) #1

Thanks again, Sean, for your thoughtful response to my thoughts.
Here’s another question:
It seems to me that the commonly held ideas about hell presuppose the idea of humans having an immortal soul. Is the immortal soul a Biblical concept and if so, where is it found?

Is there a good reason why we should not give a direct answer to “Do you think I’m going to Hell?”
Ask Michelle Tepper (August 13-17, 2018)
(Jamie Hobbs) #2

Thanks for the question, Winston. There are many places where the Bible speaks of eternal life (John 3:16, Matthew 25:46, etc). But I think the essence of your question is what part of us is eternal? Please correct me if I’m wrong. I’m coming from the concept of the soul and spirit being different here (Heb 4:12). I know there are schools of thought out there where soul and spirit are the same (but that’s another question).

As God is a triune Being (Father, Son, Spirit) and we are made in His image, we are also triune beings (body, soul, spirit, 1 Thess 5:23). The body, at least this one, cannot be eternal. We know that (Gen 3:19, 1 Cor 15:22). The soul is the mind, heart, emotions, personality, everything that makes you you, which even God has (Psalm 11:5). The spirit is that which allows us to commune with God, the generator of our power through Him (Rom 1:9, 8:16, 2 Tim 4:22). The Bible states that man cannot kill the soul (Mat 10:28), though God can as He is God. He can unmake anything He made if He chose to. This tells me, even if you see the soul and spirit as one, the soul cannot die apart from God wishing it.

One thing that is certain is that you don’t want to face God’s judgment, whether you believe in a fiery Hell, a place of disconnection from Him forever, or annihilationism. Eternal life means all three parts of us that make us who we are will be eternal (after gaining the perfect heavenly body, 2 Cor 5). Eternal death, regardless of its definition, is something I don’t want.

(SeanO) #3

@WinstonJones That is a great question and it is a debatable point. I personally do not think the soul is inherently immortal. I believe that position was the result of the influence of Greco-Roman philosophy on certain key men like Augustine in Church history. Some Church fathers taught conditional immortality; some taught the soul is inherently eternal.

Revelation speaks of the ‘second death’ and the penalty for sin in the Garden was death. The Bible never says the soul is immortal. The belief the soul is immortal, as far as i can tell, arises mostly from the prior belief that both Heaven and ‘hell’ are eternal.

I hope these thoughts are helpful. Feel free to dive deeper into the topic - because it is certainly an expansive topic that I could hardly cover in a series of post. I highly recommend Steve Gregg’s book on Hell for more details regarding this question - he has a good chapter on this very topic. The Lord grant you wisdom.

Conditional Immortality

Conditional immortality is the idea that while our soul can be immortal if God so allows, it is not by its essence immortal. In other words, we are not like God - we rely on God for our existence. Here is an article from Hank Hanegraff on the soul that I thought was well written. Included below that are some quotes from Church fathers who believed in conditional immortality.

“The human soul, while not by nature immortal, is nevertheless capable of entering an intermediate disembodied state upon death, however incomplete and unnatural this state may be, and, eventually, being reunited with a resurrected body. This is called substance dualism .”

Equip Article

Justin Martyr (100AD-165AD) also taught conditional immortality. Here is proof from his Dialogue with Trypho:
"‘These philosophers know nothing, then, about these things; for they cannot tell what a soul is.’
"‘It does not appear so.’
"‘Nor ought it to be called immortal; for if it is immortal, it is plainly unbegotten.’
"‘It is both unbegotten and immortal, according to some who are styled Platonists.’
"‘Do you say that the world is also unbegotten?’

Theophilus, Patriarch of Antioch (unkown-181AD) also taught conditional immortality in his work Ad Autolycum:


But some one will say to us, Was man made by nature mortal? Certainly not. Was he, then, immortal? Neither do we affirm this. But one will say, Was he, then, nothing? Not even this hits the mark. He was by nature neither mortal nor immortal. For if He had made him immortal from the beginning, He would have made him God. Again, if He had made him mortal, God would seem to be the cause of his death. Neither, then, immortal nor yet mortal did He make him, but, as we have said above, capable of both; so that if he should incline to the things of immortality, keeping the commandment of God, he should receive as reward from Him immortality; but if, on the other hand, he should turn to the things of death, disobeying God, he should himself be the cause of death to himself.

(Lakshmi Mehta) #4

@WinstonJones, I find your question and the answers very intriguing. The idea of annihilationism of the soul is new to me and I am still trying to figure it out. I am of the understanding that many verses in the Bible suggest immortality of the soul. I do not mean immortality of soul without a beginning but immortality of soul without an ending after being created by God either in God’s presence or absence. Here are few verses that suggest immortality of soul to me.

John 5:28-29
28 “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice 29 and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned. ( Acts 24:15 has similar idea)

Matt 25:46
Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.

Daniel 12:2
Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.

Ecc 3:11
He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.

Isaiah 66:24
24 And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto flesh.

2 Thess 1:8-9
dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power,

Matt 18:8
If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be cast into the eternal fire

Immortality of the soul by believing in Jesus is very clear in the Bible but immortality of the soul apart from Jesus or hell seems to be what is under question here. The immediate stage of soul after death of being either in Abraham’s bosom or torment after death as in Luke 16:19-32 ( story of rich man and Lazarus) gives support that soul survives body. Whether torment in hell is eternal seems to be under contention. However, the word ‘eternal’ in Daniel 12:2, Matt 25:46, 2 Thess 1:8-9, Rev 20:13-15 suggest the immortality of soul in hell to me. I haven’t done any greek/hebrew word studies for these verses. I dont know what other interpretations are available for these verses.

With annihilationism, I am just not sure what would be the purpose of temporary torment of souls before annihilation? Did Jesus have to die for our sins if we were only going to suffer temporarily in hell as in annihilationism? Anything temporary seems very limited in light of eternity.

(SeanO) #5

@Lakshmismehta That is a great point. I think there are two elements to your question: What is the meaning of the word ‘eternal’? And why did Jesus have to die if punishment was not eternal? Obviously this is a debatable point and many godly people fall on both sides, but here I will speak from the perspective of annihiliation to try to address your questions.

My personal view is that the best translation of eternal in some of these cases is ‘of the age to come’. So eternal life is life ‘of the age to come’ - the age when Jesus reigns. And eternal destruction is destruction ‘of the age to come’ when Jesus judges the living and the dead. Also eternal can refer to the effects of something - so destruction that lasts forever - it is permanent - rather than to how long the event itself last.

These are simply some initial thoughts. Please do continue the dialogue. The grace of Jesus guide our conversation.

The Word ‘Everlasting’ or ‘Eternal’

The Greek words for eternal or everlasting, shown below, do not necessarily mean forever and can be used to refer to an ‘age’ or a ‘period of time’. But they can mean forever - so context is important.

aion - an age, a period of time

aionios - pertaining to or enduring for an age/period of time

“That neither the Hebrew nor the Greek word in itself contain the idea endlessness is shown both by the fact that they sometimes refer to events or conditions that occurred at a definite point in the past, and also by the fact that sometimes it is thouht desirable to repeat the word, not merely saying “forever”, but “forever and ever”…Both words came to be used to refer to a long age or period.” Bruce Waltke

“The context of the passage and of the book must determine whether this is a long but limited time or an unending period” G. K. Beale

Steve Gregg suggests a few possible definitions for this word depending on context:

  • lasting forever - literal or hyperbole
  • lasting for an ‘age’ or a long time
  • pertaining to an age or ‘the age to come’
  • proceeding from the eternal God

First, let us consider the following passages, which describe the destruction of Sodom, the judgment itself and redemption as ‘eternal’. None of these things went on forever, but their consequences did. They were not eternal in the sense that they lasted forever, but only in the sense that the consequences lasted forever. So ‘eternal judgment’ is judgment with consequences and verdicts that last forever, but the judgment does not necessarily go on forever. That is one way of looking at it.

Jude 1:7 - In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.

Hebrews 6:2 - instruction about cleansing rites, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.

Hebrews 9:12 - He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.

Why Did Jesus Die?

You know, it is interesting that in one of the most famous passages on why Jesus died, it does not compare eternal life to eternal torment. In fact, it compares death to eternal life. The wages of sin is death, but God grants us eternal life in Christ.

Romans 6:23 - For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Also, I think God sent Jesus to do much more than simply save us from a terrible fate and I think this question is closely connected to why God created us in the first place. Here are a few reasons:

  • to be stewards over creation
  • to be His chosen people and testimony to the nations
  • that we might bring Him glory and praise
  • that He might delight in us and we in Him
  • to know Him and be known by Him

(Jamie Hobbs) #6

I’m always nervous about annihilationism simply because of its connection to Seventh Day Adventist theology, which directly lead to Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Now, I recognize that the first does not necessarily lead to the second. A number of things typically go wrong when cults are formed. But in my study of cults and non-Christian religions, it was precisely the concept of eternal torment that drove Charles Taze Russell away from the orthodoxy and in search of something else. He couldn’t wrap his head around either eternal punishment or predestination, so he became a skeptic until he met the Adventists and learned of annihilationism. The rest, as they say, is history.

To me, the view that @Lakshmismehta gave and her biblical support makes a lot of sense. But I won’t discount the concept entirely. There are a number of denominations who adopt the idea, and ultimately it doesn’t change the main thing, that being the importance of the Gospel.

(SeanO) #7

@Jamie_Hobbs Thank you for those thoughts. I would like to note that some of the early Church fathers likely believed in conditional immortality (some form of annihiliation) and that in modern times the belief has good company. I agree with you fully that an argument rooted only in emotion - how could God do that! - is not proper at all. We must be rooted in what the Scriptures actually say and on this matter disagreement within the Church is no cause for contention. But I also think that linking annihilation to cults represents a misunderstanding of Christian history in its fullness.

My own experience has been that the more I have studied the less I am convinced that any one view has a home run on this particular topic.

In Good Company

Here is an excerpt from an article pointing out some noted annihilationists.

"Furthermore, we believe that the traditionalist-conditionalist debate on hell should be regarded as a secondary rather than a primary issue for evangelical theology.”

John Stott, a principal leader of the evangelical church, embraced conditionalism. Another principal leader, J.I. Packer, stated that conditionalists are “honored fellow-evangelicals,” and “it would be wrong for differences of opinion on this matter to lead to breaches of fellowship.” In conservative 8 American circles, conditionalism is broadly permissible among laity wherever a statement of faith doesn’t preclude membership. Meanwhile, various church pastors (including Baptists, for example) and tenured academics have publicly declared their commitment to conditionalism. Evangelical Conditionalism is seen as a distinctly acceptable form of conditional immortality, and is championed by the organisation, Rethinking Hell.

Among the many celebrated proponents of evangelical conditionalism are Basil Atkinson, Richard Bauckham, E. Earle Ellis, Roger Forster, R.T. France, Michael Green, Harold Guillebaud, P.E. Hughes, David Instone-Brewer, Dale Moody, I.
Howard Marshall, John Stackhouse Jr., John Stott, Richard Swinburne, Anthony Thistleton,Terrance Tiessen, Stephen Travis, John Wenham and Nigel Wright."

The Immortality of the Soul and the Church Fathers

This brief assessment (see article below) suggests that the early Church fathers (prior to Augustine) had among them some who believed in the conditional immortality of the soul and therefore some form of annihiliation. Of course it must always be remembered that we have only a small selection of writings from the early fathers and there is speculation involved when we try to generalize, but I think this is significant both for our main question - the immortal soul - and the side question of annihiliation upon which we have landed.

“From beginning to end of them there is not one word said of that immortality of the soul which is so prominent in the writings of the later fathers. Immortality is asserted by them to be peculiar to the redeemed. The punishment of the wicked is by them emphatically declared to be everlasting. Not one stray expression of theirs can be interpreted as giving any countenance to the theory of restoration after purgatorial suffering. The fire of hell is with them, as with us, an unquenchable one; but its issue is, with them as with Scripture, “destruction,” “death,” “loss of life” (Constable, p. 167).”

In fact, and this is quite astounding, Hanson writes - “not one of those who wrote against the heresies of their times ever name universal salvation as one of them!” in reference to the early Church fathers. And we know Origen was a believer in universal salvation, though he did not deny either sin or the cross (I am by no means agreeing with Origen, but simply noting that if Origen was not condemned for this view, there was probably plenty of space for disagreement within the early Church on this topic).

(Winston Jones) #8

Well, that question brought a lot of response! Thanks to all who wrote. I asked it in relation to the previous topic on why Christians are reluctant sometimes to tell people they are going to hell if they do not at some time repent.

If we do not have, or are not, immortal souls, belief in the existence of hell as it is commonly thought of, is illogical, in my opinion.

To Lakshmismehta I would like to say that the idea of annihilationism is worth looking into because as SeanO said to me earlier, it brings a feeling of freedom to those who see it as probable.

To your question about Jesus’ death, Lakshmi, I would say that Jesus came to give us eternal life and to prevent our annihilation, as I read John3:16-17. His sacrifice made eternal life possible for us. Truly an amazing gift!.

To Jamie_Hobb , I agree the Gospel is the main focus but the conventional idea of hell is, in my mind, a stumbling block to many who are looking for answers in this lost world, and thus, a stumbling block to the Gospel.

Here is another question to think about.

If we are immortal souls, and if our punishment for not repenting is living forever in hell, and if Jesus took our punishment for us, why is Jesus not in hell now instead of seated at God’s right hand?

(Jamie Hobbs) #9

I would have to disagree with the concept of an eternal hell being a stumbling block to the Gospel. Billy Graham believed in an eternal hell, preached as such, and it certainly didn’t slow his ministry down. This is why the focus shouldn’t be on the manner of hell, but the fact of hell with regards to the cost of refusing Jesus. To your additional question, Jesus is God. He was the sacrifice for our atonement, not the stand-in that had to live out the entirety of our punishment with regards to time, which He is not bound by. I could as easily flip the question: If we are immortal souls, and if our punishment for not repenting is annihilation, and if Jesus took our punishment for us, why is Jesus not annihilated?

You see, the stumbling block to me for the lost is not “what exactly is hell?”, but “WHY exactly is hell?” However you define it, why is such a place or state of being, or unbeing, even necessary?

Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
– Matthew 25:45-46

Regardless of the form that everlasting punishment takes, you don’t want it. The lost need to understand the law, the significance of sin, the fact of the one true Way to atone for that sin, and the nature of repentance. No need to stumble over a definition of hell along the way, just know that refusing repentance is really not good.

(SeanO) #10

@WinstonJones I am glad the replies were helpful. However, it is important to remember that the traditional view of hell as a place that is eternal is a valid option. Jesus died on the cross and conquered death and the grave. A person can believe in the traditional view of hell and still believe that Jesus, because He was the sinless Son of God, defeated both death and hell, nailing our bill of debt to the cross along the way.

In addition, very intelligent men believe in eternal torment and the common interpretation is that it is not necessarily physical torment. Here is a sermon by Tim Keller, a man I very much respect, on hell that explains why, even if it is eternal, it is likely not physical torment but rather something entirely different - God gives us over to ourselves and that is a form of punishment. Again, this is not my view, but I think it is important to recognize that it is a valid Biblical view. And it is also different from the fire and brimstone view that turns so many people away - the one I expect you are envisioning when you say it is a stumbling block.

(Lakshmi Mehta) #11

@SeanO, @Jamie_Hobbs, @WinstonJones, many thought provoking responses and thank you. I certainly have to do a lot more reading into the different viewpoints on the issue of immortality of the soul and am open to wherever the Lord leads me. I appreciate the emphasis in all your responses of how these doctrinal viewpoints on the soul dont affect our standing as a Christian. The Bible may not be clear about the nature of judgement in hell but it leaves no room for doubt on who the Judge is.

One of the criticisms I hear about sharing about hell with gospel presentation is that it leads people to Christ through a false motivation of fear instead of love. However, I think any true conversion will last only if founded in love. It’s hard not to bring up judgment when talking about the true Judge.

The more I try to learn about the doctrines of Christianity, I realize the focus in the gospel must really be about the person of Jesus than any theological answer. Other than Trinity, atonement, resurrection, redemption of creation there seem to be many interpretations for almost everything else in the doctrines. These variations in interpretations will likely present a hurdle to someone who thinks that the true way to God must have the clearest answers. This is sometimes discouraging. But perhaps it was by God’s design so that our hope may rest on Jesus rather than on answers. Besides, other faiths also give many questionable answers.

(SeanO) #12

@Lakshmismehta Great points! I will be interested to hear what you learn in your studies. Regarding the fact that some doctrines are not as simple as we may like, I wanted to say not to be discouraged!

I am a computer scientist - and in the field of science in general we celebrate the fact that we have new and challenging problems. The complexity of reality is considered something beautiful that draws us into deeper study. Sure - we all enjoy 8th grade science that is fairly straightforward and fun, but we celebrate that we can go deeper and learn more.

In Christianity, the Gospel and redemption and judgment are straightforward and simple to understand, but the layers of complexity beneath them are beautiful and rich. I love that Christianity is nuanced because the real world is nuanced. So, if Christianity did not require nuance I would have to conclude it is not real - so I am glad it does!

Second, the Scriptures are clear that God reveals truth to us so that we can know, love and obey Him. God is purposeful in what He reveals.

Deuteronomy 29:29 - The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.

The image Lewis paints in The Last Battle is so wonderful - for eternity we will go ‘further up and further in’, knowing God more and being known by Him.

C. S. Lewis - The Last Battle - “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now…Come further up, come further in!”

(Lakshmi Mehta) #13

@SeanO, thank you for the different perspectives on how to deal with doctrinal variations in Christianity and your reminder to not be discouraged. Discouragement doesn’t come from God and Christ is enough where we fall short.

People who have converted from Christian religion to an eastern faith say that they have found a more developed philosophy in eastern religions. Some are drawn by the details on the nature of creation, nature of soul, descriptions of heaven, descriptions of hell and some scientific revelations in eastern scriptures. Of course many of the details are debatable but it has caused me to inquire more about the Christian doctrine and search if there is a unified understanding even if incomplete. I haven’t expected it to be simple but thought I would see more uniformity.

Of what little I have read, there seem to be variations in what other religions may consider as fundamental doctrine. For example: interpretation of creation days, the fall, nature of soul - dichotomy/trichotomy, creation of soul, understanding role of man and God in salvation and destiny of soul. I have been asking what are the essential doctrines that true Christians can actually agree on that we can present to non-Christians. It seems to be all around the person of Jesus Christ - Trinity, Deity of Jesus, fallenness of man, atonement and resurrection. May be that’s why Jesus says He is the way, the truth and the life. God wants us to know Him more than understand life.

The focus of the Bible appears different from other religious approaches to God. For example, the Hindu faith is focused on philosophies and explanations about life rather than an incarnation but Bible focuses more on the incarnation of God in Jesus than providing explanations on life. I find the explanation of E. Stanley Jones in “Christ of the Indian Road” helpful here. " Many teachers of the world have tried to explain everything- they changed little or nothing. Jesus explained little and changed everything. Many teachers have tried to diagnose the disease of humanity- Jesus cures it…Many philosophers speculate on how evil entered the world- Jesus presents Himself as the way by which it shall leave. …Jesus doesnt speculate on life but defines life itself by presenting Himself and saying " I am the Life".

(SeanO) #14

@Lakshmismehta Wow - that explanation from E. Stanley Jones is great! Thank you for sharing those words of wisdom. His quote cuts to the heart of the issue - the reality that what we need most deeply is a Shepherd for our souls who can heal our wounds, wipe away our tears and lead us on. I am reminded of two passages of Scripture by your thoughts.

John 17:3 - Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.

John 5:39-40 - “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.

(Lakshmi Mehta) #15

I love John 5:39-40 in this context. It captures the issue we are talking about well. Thanks!

(Jimmy Sellers) #16

Loved the Jones quote that is definitely going in my Sunday school folder.:grinning:

(Lakshmi Mehta) #17

Great to hear that @Jimmy_Sellers! It helped me a lot not to get bogged down with things I dont understand.

(Jimmy Sellers) #18

You might find this useful. I posted this in the Worship Pause thread that @LaTricia_January started a while back. Dr. S.M. Lockridge, Do You Know Him.


(Lakshmi Mehta) #19

Thank you! THAT’S BEAUTIFUL! How I need to magnify my view of Jesus! I remember the prayer of Paul, I desire to know nothing but Christ crucified.

(Winston Jones) #20

Well!!! Many interesting thoughts about immortality of the soul and, in my mind, the closely related idea of living forever in some kind of punishment. To every question there seems to be an answer; in fact, several different answers, which brings up the question of why so many ideas in a Way that is supposed to be one in Jesus.

My personal journey has seen a variety of “answers”.

As a young child, I listened to hellfire and brimstone in the United Church of Canada (I am a Canadian).

As a tween, I listened to a gentle and loving Jesus being preached in the same church, and to some adults complaining that the preaching wasn’t hellfire enough.

As an older teen, I became a somewhat militant atheist and evolutionist.

As a twenty-something, I lived in a state that could be figuratively described as " two miles below hell", due in part to my dysfunctional

family and in part to not finding answers that worked.

What finally brought me to consider Christianity seriously was hearing and reading about Bible Numerics which proved, to my mind at least, the existence of God and the inerrancy of the Bible.

Next, I spent two decades as a member of the Worldwide Church of God, the “cult” founded by Herbert W. Armstrong.

Upon his death, the Church began a transition to a more orthodox form of Christianity, from legalism to Grace, losing about 90% of its membership in the process, and I faced the biggest challenge of my life since baptism. I had to seriously consider what Jesus meant when he said in Matt.9:13, " I desire mercy, and not sacrifice". Although my life up to that point had made me comfortable with sacrifice, (that is, legalism and rules based religion including punishment for sin), I could see from my own experience also that it does not work.

Mercy (Grace) does work, even though it is much a harder way for me to live. It goes against my natural inclination to seek revenge and to glory in my own ability to keep rules. So I have been a member of the Grace Communion International Church since it was renamed from the Worldwide Church of God.

To go back to the question of differing answers to the same question, the Worldwide Church could look at a scripture like Col.2:16, for example, and say it meant one thing and Grace Communion can look at the same words and say they mean just the opposite. We all read the same Bible, yet some see immortality of the soul and others do not. Some see eternal punishing and some see annihilation.

I believe that I, at least, tend to see what I have been led to believe is there, reading into passages things that are not really there.

The only place where I actually see the Bible say that someone will be “tormented day and night forever and ever” is in Rev.20:10 where it says that about satan and the beast and the false prophet. They deserve it, but do people who have been deceived by these unspeakably evil beings deserve it too?

I have read most of the posts about this subject and the related links that were suggested, and they are all interesting. But I am a farmer and therefore quite busy so I can’t keep up with it all. And I am not a scholar either so I can’t offer deep answers. I only know from my own life that the Holy Spirit leads us on an interesting journey into “all truth” and being open to him and to the Word will, I believe, in due time, lead sincere followers of the Way to the unity of understanding that should be in the whole Church.

Meanwhile, as SeanO informed me, I remain an annihilationist.