Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Conditional vs. Universal immortality

A while back I wrote a series of articles on the different views of hell. Ever since then I have continued to study the topic which is the reason for this post. For those looking to go deeper on this, it would be helpful after reading this post to go back and read this one as well.

Firstly, as stated elsewhere, I do not think that Universalism has any biblical merit. The views that I have therefore been focusing on are the traditional view of hell which is that of eternal conscious torment and Annihilationism, also known as Conditional immortality. So here is the big question, is the soul immortal? Does everyone inherit eternal life or will those outside of Christ perish? Below is a very basic summary on the history of the teaching of the immortal soul followed by what the bible says about the topic.

It is believed that the concept of the immortal soul was first taught in ancient Egypt (see The Egyptian book of the dead) and in Babylon. We see the idea in ancient religions like Hinduism as well. Some have credited Satan as being the first to suggest the idea with his words recorded in Genesis 3:4 (You will not surely die). Rather than through the bible, Christians seem to have being exposed to the idea through ancient Greek philosophy. Many of the famous names in 3rd and 4th century Christendom were influenced by Greek thought both before and after their conversions. Many of them held on to what they had learned from men like Plato. Regarding the soul immortal, Plato taught that “The soul is in the very likeness of the divine, and immortal, and intelligible, and uniform, and indissoluble, and unchangeable”. Although most Christians rejected Plato’s idea of our existing eternally in the past, many accepted the idea of everyone existing eternally into the future.

It seems to be in Alexandria where Christianity was most influenced by the pagan beliefs surrounding them. Athenagoras (A.D. 190) who was schooled in Greek philosophy was the first Christian that we know of to publically embrace the immortality of the soul. Clement (A.D. 220) and Origen (A.D. 254), also from Alexandria, were other adherents.  But it was the writings of Tertullian which really shifted the popular opinion on the soul. In A Treatise on the Soul he stated, “The soul, we define to be sprung from the breath of God, immortal, possessing body, having form…” It must also be noted that Tertullian was not basing his arguments on scripture but in his own words, “I use the opinion of Plato, when he declares that every soul is immortal”. It was due to his writings that the meanings of certain words began to be interpreted less literally, “death” could be interpreted as “eternal misery” and “destruction” or “consume” as “pain” or “anguish”. Death therefore meant “perpetually dying but never actually dead”.
   Augustine is worth a mention as well as he has probably, after Constantine, had more influence on the Christian faith than anyone else. A prolific writer, he wrote a book (The immortality of the Soul) giving sixteen reasons as to why he considered the soul to be immortal which was enough to see it become the official position of most of the Western Church.

There have of course always been those who have debated this. The Waldenses of Europe rejected it, as have scores of individuals including many of the men who translated the bible. William Tyndale, the English reformer said “The heathen philosophers, denying that (the resurrection), did put that the soul did ever live. And the Pope joineth the spiritual doctrine of Christ and the fleshly doctrine of philosophers together: things so contrary that they cannot agree.” (An Answer to Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue, Book 4, Chapter 2).
   Martin Luther agreed with Tyndale as evidenced in Volume 7, pp131, 132, where he wrote in protest of the ideas that “... he (the pope) is emperor of the world and king of heaven, and earthly god; that the soul is immortal, and all these endless monstrous fictions...”.
   Other bible translators who also believed in Conditional immortality were John Wycliffe, John Huss, R.F. Weymouth and Robert Young.

What does the bible say?

Just because the idea of the immortal soul can be found in Pagan philosophy and other religions does not necessarily prove that it is wrong. So it is important to turn to scripture to shed further light on the topic. Consider the following verses:-

...the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and lives in unapproachable light... – 1 Timothy 6:15-16

To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. – Romans 2:7

The soul that sins shall die – Ezekiel 18:20

The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever. – Genesis 3:22

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. – Matthew 10:2

Eternal life or immortality, if I am reading the bible correctly, belongs to God alone and to those who find life in Christ:-

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. – John 3:16

For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: Death has been swallowed up in victory. – 1 Corinthians 15:53-54

I know what I am saying is controversial and not very popular, some of my closest friends are freaked out that I have even being looking into this. I would love to hear feedback from you on this topic. Is it something you could consider despite the inevitable shunning that would follow? Is it something you disagree with but won't make you go all "John Piper" on someone over? If you disagree with Conditional immortality, how would you interpret the passages mentioned?



  1. Good thoughts Wesley! Join our conversation at:


    where we discuss these and related issues.

    1. Thanks Ronnie. I enjoy the articles on the Rethinking Hell website. I am glad to hear that there is a Facebook group as well.