Scot McKnight is blogging on hell, with particular reference to a position that is becoming increasingly popular in evangelicalism—conditional immortality. He is reviewing an essay by Glenn A. Peoples. It’s often unclear to me when McKnight it speaking in his own voice and when Peoples is speaking. I will assume it’s Peoples. If I’m wrong, I tender an advance apology.
In today’s post McKnight asks two questions: “Does the Bible teach the soul as it has been framed in classic formulations, and is the soul essentially immortal?”
I find these two questions curiously formulated. Let’s take the second question first. “Is the soul essentially immortal?” I begin with my own question: What does it mean to say that the soul is essentially immortal? Surely it cannot mean that it possesses an immortality that has not been granted it by its Creator. Christian theologians agree that the human soul, like the human body, has been created by the Almighty Father from out of nothing. If the soul is essentially immortal (the traditional position), then it is so because God continuously wills it to be immortal; if the soul is naturally indestructible, that’s how God wants it to be. The analogy here is angels, who are also immortal spirits. So what’s the problem? McKnight writes: “The immortality of the soul is more a Greek idea than a biblical idea; in fact, the Bible sees immortality as a gift and not an essential feature of the soul.” But all Christian theologians see immortality as a gift, whether it’s the immortality of the soul or the immortality of the body. It’s not as if God is somehow trapped by his decision to make “essentially” immortal souls. We aren’t deists, after all. If God wanted to wipe out one or more souls, then he remains free to do so. He is, after all, God. Immortal souls are only contingently immortal, for all souls depend on the Creator for their existence. All God would have to do is to forget them for just a millisecond and—blink—they would be gone. Perhaps we might put it this way: souls are essentially immortal but only conditionally so.
Why is this important for the discussion of hell? Because Glenn Peoples apparently believes that traditional theologians like St Clement of Alexandria and St Augustine of Hippo “argued from the immortality of the soul to the necessary[!] eternal suffering of the wicked. That fire does not destroy because the soul is undestroyable.” This makes it sound like God has become a victim of his creation: “Oh my goodness, I thought creating immortal souls was a pretty nifty idea, but now I’m eternally stuck with all these evil souls. What can I do? I guess I have no choice but to punish the wicked forever and ever. I wish I had planned things differently. Sigh. Okay, where’s the match?” Is that what Augustine really thought? Of course not. Augustine didn’t argue himself into believing in eternal retributive punishment because he believed in the immortality of the soul. He believed in eternal retributive punishment because he became convinced that’s what Scripture teaches (see, e.g., City of God 21.23).
Anyway, if we grant that souls are only conditionally immortal, then we are led to the intolerable conclusion that “for eternal conscious punishment to exist one must believe God intentionally raises the wicked, punishes them or assigns them judgment, then grants them immortality only for the sake of punishment.” Yep. Welcome to John 5:28 and Acts 24:15. Perhaps verses such as these can be exegeted to support annihilation, but these are the texts that drove folks like Augustine and Justinian to affirm eternal retribution. At least that’s what I think was really going on.
Now to the first question: “Does the Bible teach the soul as it has been framed in classic formulations?” McKnight succinctly puts the answer: “God is immortal; God grants immortality; immortality of the soul is not a biblical doctrine.” I am not up on recent biblical scholarship on this question. As an Orthodox Christian my belief in the immortality of the soul is not dependent on a New Testament proof-text but on the ecclesial practices of praying for the departed and invoking the saints, combined with a firm conviction in God’s love for the unrighteous. It is inconceivable to me that the God of Love would annihilate any human person. Thus Dumitru Staniloae: “Immortality is not based on the indestructibility of the soul viewed as a substance but on the indestructibility of the person. Or rather, immortality is based on the indestructibility of the soul as the basis of the human person; it is based on the indestructible relationship between God and the human being as persons, given that the person is the agent in this relationship” (The Experience of God, VI:26).
But it does seem to me that our Lord’s parable of Lazarus and the rich man witnesses to a post-mortem, pre-resurrection existence of the human person (Lk 16:19-31; see the discussion of this text and others by Murray J. Harris, “The New Testament View of Life After Death“). But as I said, I’m not up on recent critical scholarship on this question and welcome instruction.