Scot McKnight and the Immortality of the Soul

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.

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25 Responses to Scot McKnight and the Immortality of the Soul

  1. Steven says:

    Clement of Alexandria, per Ramelli (2013), did not believe that persons would be eternally, everlastingly punished in hell. Curious that he names him as an example of the position he opposes.

    You might consider this from a different angle. Suppose when I die, my body is utterly destroyed by an atomic bomb or something like that. Unless I have a soul that survives the death of my body, how can I be resurrected? What is left for me to be identical with, if my body is destroyed and exists no longer? It seems to me there’s no coming back from utter annihilation. If that’s true, then resurrection demands and requires a soul which can survive the body’s death.

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    • Wm Tanksley Jr says:

      Yet when Christ addressed the Sadducees’ doubts about the resurrection He did not tell them “you do not understand the nature of man”. He told them instead that they did not understand the power of God.
      Furthermore, when Paul addresses the resurrection in 1 Cor 15, he says that the corrupted thing that was buried (or eaten by lions, or blown up in a nuclear explosion) will put on incorruption. He doesn’t say that an incorrupt thing (your soul) will put on a replacement body that’s incorrupt.

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      • Steven says:

        That’s certainly an interesting text to bring to this discussion. Presumably the argument is like this: if God can bring into life the same body, after it was apparently destroyed, then this could potentially secure identity. If this is the same body, after all, then this also could be the same person.

        Maybe, maybe not. Paul was not a metaphysician and I don’t know if he ever considered the following problems: (a) the material of a person’s body is constantly changing and being lost; you and I may share material by virtue of the fact that you died and I was given your liver to live. Whose body gets the liver at the resurrection? If neither does, then how are we resurrecting the same body? (b) The fact that Paul affirms that this same body will be raised doesn’t answer the problem: how can something which has been annihilated be brought back into existence? There’s nothing to bring back; there’s nothing to consider any longer, if the body has been annihilated.

        Paul’s words may be interpreted like this: our resurrected body will be like our human body, except different; it will not be a fish body or anything of the sort. Humanity, fallen though it currently is, will take on a different state at the resurrection, though the body may not be numerically identical.

        Anyway, one could infer from the way I’ve posed the problem that I don’t think the Bible contains all our answers on this topic; I don’t necessarily think it has the final word. Maybe Paul thought that God could raise the same body which was annihilated; what follows? Why should Paul’s view be the final word on the matter? The point is that there will be a resurrected body, that human life is properly embodied, etc.; whether or not it is numerically the same body in everyone’s case (it certainly was in Jesus’ case, however) is moot.

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        • Wm Tanksley Jr says:

          Thank you.

          I’m not sure that the Bible intends to answer this question either, but I do claim that IF the Bible happens to speak clearly on the topic, THEN it is correct. Clearly our readings should be called into question by clear results in sciences (and of course philosophy is a science) — but the reverse is also true.

          However, the Bible provides by far clearer guidance than philosophy on this topic. Philosophy cannot tell us whether there will be a Resurrection. The Bible can — even (following Jesus’ words) the first five books. The Bible also attributes that resurrection to God’s power (again in Jesus’ words). Without any doubt, including some bodies that we know have been subject to horrors like nuclear war, cannibalism (I would suspect that this includes cannibalism by a cannibal who converted to Christianity, and I would dare guess even one who converted and died while still incorporating atoms from the original person’s body. But philosophy is broad and has not been able to exclude answers perfectly compatible with my claim, including the possibility that identity is a unique _brute fact_ (that God can simply make true if He wants), or that identity although not physical is not personal either (i.e. God keeps our impersonal spirit in order to resurrect our soul by putting it into the recreated body that becomes ours).

          I don’t think we’re given a ton of clarity — it would be nice if Jesus chose to tell the Sadducees something more specific than just “you do not understand the power of God”. But we are given a little data, and it makes sense to accept the explanations that don’t stretch that data, assuming that they are at all plausible, and to reduce acceptance of explanations that do stretch the data (as I think the “conscious personal continuity is required for identity” explanation does, for example).

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Steven, I forgot to mention. Not only are you right about Clement, but St Augustine also believed in some form of apocatastasis early on, and I imagined that at that time he also believed in the immortality of the soul; hence we cannot blame his subsequent shift on soul-immortality. Ramelli has a lengthy discussion on Augustine in her book (as you are no doubt aware).

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      • Wm Tanksley Jr says:

        I don’t think the intent is to explain a shift in Augustine, but in general Christian anthropology. It’s hard to miss the difference between Augustine’s consistent unconditional immortality and the clearly conditional immortality of Ignatius, Irenaeus, and (to a lesser extent) Athanasius.
        Athanasius was interesting — he argued conditional immortality, but then claimed universal immortality and conscious torment. He’s not the only one, and in particular modern arguments are tending that way; but that’s not how Augustine argued.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          William, would you explain precisely what you mean by conditional immortality, please. Do you mean that at the moment of death the human person disappears into nothingness?

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          • Wm Tanksley Jr says:

            Sorry. No, definitely not that — the book McKnight is talking about rules that right out; it affirms a resurrection of the wicked. (Or do you mean physicalism with a “blank” intermediate state? Clearly Iraneaus wasn’t a physicalist in that sense, as he clearly described God as keeping souls of men in existence so long as needed before the Resurrection.)

            By “conditional immortality” I mean the anthropological theory that man is naturally mortal (this is as far as Athanasius goes, and Ignatius goes at least this far) followed by the claim that God will in fact actually allow some men to follow their nature and therefore not live forever in any sense (a claim that Iraneaus appears to make when he mentions that the ingrate “deprives himself of continuance forever and ever”).

            I would consider the first term to be more like “hypothetically conditional immortality” — Athanasius clearly believed that everyone is _actually_ immortal, even though that immortality is only a gift (or curse). It’s not really helpful to call that “conditional immortality” — you might better call it “universal immortality” and not distinguish it from the natural immortality except when clarifying (since the end result is the same).

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            “Clearly Ireneaus wasn’t a physicalist in that sense, as he clearly described God as keeping souls of men in existence so long as needed before the Resurrection.)”

            So if for Irenaeus all souls continue after death, what is it that distinguishes Irenaeus from Augustine?

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  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Steven, years ago I recall reading John Polkinghorne on this question. As you probably know, he rejects the immortality of the soul but affirms the resurrection:

    My understanding of the soul is that it is the almost infinitely complex, dynamic, information-bearing pattern, carried at any instant by the matter of my animated body and continuously developing throughout all the constituent changes of my bodily make-up during the course of my earthly life. That psychosomatic unity is dissolved at death by the decay of my body, but I believe it is a perfectly coherent hope that the pattern that is me will be remembered by God and its instantiation will be recreated by him when he reconstitutes me in a new environment of his choosing. That will be his eschatological act of resurrection. (Science and Christian Belief, pp. 163-164)

    This seems plausible (sort’ve like a Star Trek transporter, which stores the person’s physical and psychic identity); but I don’t know how this belief can sustain prayers for the departed or invocation of the saints.

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    • Steven says:

      Fr Kimel,

      That’s certainly one possible view in the debate on personal identity, but a miserable one to my mind. I am not just some ‘pattern’, I am also a subject with a center of consciousness and my own subsistent existence. I’m not merely a way of speaking, thinking, acting, evaluating, etc., but more fundamentally a person who does all these things and therefore is distinct from them. Someone who thought exactly like me and acted like me would not necessarily be me; and, like my PHI 101 professor once said, I think the transporters in Star Trek are death machines.

      There is another point to be had here vis-a-vis McKnight/Peoples’s discussion. (Sorry for changing gears!) I don’t know why people think that the metaphysic of the Bible is necessarily true. These same persons may have doubts about the historicity of certain biblical narratives (e.g., the Canaanite genocide); why should we think that the Bible has an adequate metaphysic, then, if it is at times historically inadequate? Of course if they don’t have those historical doubts, then my point is moot and I withdraw it.

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    • Mark says:

      The curious thing is that Polkinghorne believes in an intermediate state! He even believes we can pray for the departed and that the departed can pray for us! From what I understand, he believes in some sort of “shadowy existence” in the afterlife, sort of like the Sheol of the OT. Not souls in the classical sense, but souls inasmuch as God preserves our personalities by a sheer act of his will. He explains this somewhat briefly in The Hope of God and the End of the World.

      I’m not sure I understand it, but it sure is interesting!

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Thanks for reminding of the Polkinghorne book. I just happen to have it sitting in my library. I remember reading it many years ago, but my recollection of his argument is very shaky. I’ll have to pull out the book and take another look at it.

        You might want to take glance at two earlier blog articles: “Personhood and the Immortality of the Soul” and “The Active Passivity of the Afterlife.”

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        I just read through the few pages that Polkinghorne devotes to the soul and the intermediate state, which he conceives as God remembering the “information-bearing pattern” of the human person. My question is, is the departed person alive? conscious? Can he/she develop, grow, change? Polkinghorne elides these questions. Perhaps he develops his position elsewhere, but based on what I have just read, his position sounds consonant with “soul-sleep.” Orthodox and Roman Catholics certainly would not accept such a view. When we ask the saints for their prayers, we certainly don’t think they are asleep.

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  3. ddpbf says:

    Eh, they are pretty much reinventing Theology. After rejecting Tradition, they are looking for answer to questions long settled. But, I remeber Giannaras also wrote about Hellenestic concept of soul predominating in our colective conscousnesness. He is of course proponent of biblical explaination, God is God of live people (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob), what Orthodox Dogmatics determine as immortality of Person, trough relation with God. Anyway, I think in current NT scolarship, bishop N. T. Wright is proponent of soul sleep.

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  4. CJ says:

    Thanks for this. I’m considering converting to Orthodoxy from a tradition that teaches conditional immortality (CI) and annihilation, and the issue of what happens after death is one of my biggest hurdles. I was taught growing up that the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus shouldn’t be taken literally, since there are parables in the OT about talking trees and such. And since Ecclesiastes 9:5,6 provide clear teaching that we are unconscious in death, verses that seem to contradict that understanding should be reinterpreted.

    I will say that the “Star Trek transporter problem” really bugged my mom, even though she went to her grave believing in CI, annihilation, and still had faith in the resurrection. I think she just tried not to think about it too hard.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      The transporter problem takes us right into the philosophical thicket of personal identity. Not an easy thicket to navigate.

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  5. Anthony says:

    Here is some helpful information regrading rich man and lazarus: https://adventistbiblicalresearch.org/materials/bible-nt-texts/luke-1619-31
    Blessings.

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  6. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Does anyone know what the various forms of Second Temple Judaism believed about souls and the intermediate state?

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    • I know that Richard Bauckham wrote “The Fate of the Dead: Studies of Jewish and Christian Apocalypses” and that his observation was that, yes, Second Temple Judaism (Pharisaic and their successors? Haven’t seen anything on the Sadduccees) definitely believed in a conscious, interim state for souls but that reward and retribution were withheld initially until the Last Judgment, all the souls waiting in an anteroom of sorts before the world to come.

      I also know that the Old Testament very much so believed in some sort of conscious afterlife for the dead, esp. in the Psalms – and at least some holding out hope for some kind of at least spiritual revivification arising out of confidence in the Divine Warrior and hints at reward versus punishment (Spronk, Klaas. Beatific Afterlife; Greenspoon, Leonard. “The Origin of the Idea of Resurrection.”)

      And, an interim state exists evidenced by both licit and illicit ancestral veneration. There’s a good but speculative book by Francesca Stavrakapoulou called “Land of Our Fathers: The Roles of Ancestor Veneration in Biblical Land Claims.” Finally, there’s the excellent article which combines comparative anthropology and Biblical history by Stephen Cook (free pdf “Funerary Practices and Aferlife Expectations in Ancient Israel”) which ties the interim dead, actively, into the covenantal relationship via the living to God through the invocation of their memory and placement of God’s inheritance in Israel – i.e., physically on ancestral soil. The wicked, by contrast, are precisely denied any inheritance in the covenant by literally not being buried in the right inheritance and thus encounters not one’s relatives and friends by covenant but facing one’s enemies on foreign soil. He compares this with African tribal religion.

      So, yes, I’d say there’s good evidence for kind of consciousness in the interim state.

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    • whitefrozen says:

      There wasn’t any one view of the afterlife – views ranged from pagan-influenced ideas of the soul to denials of the resurrection, but the intermediate state (Sheol, correct?) was seen to be not much more than a period of waiting before the final resurrection and judgement. A friend of mine did a good post on this subject, I’ll try and dig it up.

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  7. It seems to me that there is at least one more position which may be proffered, that of Athanasius. Namely, the soul is not imbued with immortality at creation, but rather with a potentiality for immortality. The failure to actualize this potentiality through obedience leads to natural death. The incarnation, death and resurrection cause the soul to necessarily obtain immortality. Hence, all are raised because Christ is raised. And all will be eternal because Christ is eternal. I don’t think he addresses the question of eternal punishment directly.

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    • ddpbf says:

      Similar notions could be found at few other Fathers. Teophilos of Alexandria wrote, that man by nature soul is not mortal or immortal, but capable for both. Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Tripho, writes that iwe ought avoid to call soul immortal, since immortality implies being unborn. Only God is immortal and unborn. Irinaeus wrote that souls did not came from other incorruptable soul, its created and belongs to this created world, soul does not manifest itself as life by itself, but from relation with God. Also, John of Damascus wrote not even angels are immortal by nature, but by Grace. 🙂

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Quite right. Every immortal creature is immortal by grace. And that’s why I find the conditional immortality argument, as popularly formulated, unpersuasive. Of course only God is immortal by nature.

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