Mortalism 1: Early Jewish beliefs

Mortalism is the belief that human beings are not naturally immortal, and that at death they are unconscious rather than continuing to exist consciously as an ‘immortal soul’.

Conditional mortality is the belief that immortality is only granted by God at the resurrection and judgment. Historically, belief in conditional immortality (either as ‘soul sleep’[1] or ‘soul death’[2]), has been held marginally throughout the history of Christianity.[3] [4] [5] [6] [7]

Beliefs concerning the afterlife varied even among the Jews of the Old Testament era, [8] [9] but the Scriptural teaching is consistent,[10] [11] [12] [13] [14] and deliberately contradictory to the beliefs of Israel’s neighbours.[15] [16] [17] [18] [19] [20]

Belief in an immortal soul going to bliss or torment after death entered mainstream Judaism after the exile [21] and existed throughout the Second Temple era, though both ‘soul sleep’ and ‘soul death’, were also held,[22] [23] [24] [25] [26] [27] [28] as even certain modern defenders of hell acknowledge.[29]


[1] The belief that people still exist in some non-physical form after death, but remain completely unconscious.

[2] The belief that people do not exist at all after death.

[3] ‘In the first place, there have not been a few, both in ancient and modern times, who have maintained the truth of a “Conditional Immortality”.’, McConnell, ‘The Evolution of Immortality’, p. 84 (1901).

[4] ‘At the same time there have always been isolated voices raised in support of other views. There are hints of a belief in repentance after death, as well as conditional immortality and annihilationism.’, Streeter, et al., ‘Immortality: An Essay in Discovery, Co-Ordinating Scientific, Psychical, and Biblical Research’, p. 204 (1917).

[5]Many biblical scholars down throughout history, looking at the issue through Hebrew rather than Greek eyes, have denied the teaching of innate immortality.’, Knight, ‘A brief history of Seventh-Day Adventists’, p. 42 (1999).

[6] ‘Various concepts of conditional immortality or annihilationism have appeared earlier in Baptist history as well. Several examples illustrate this claim. General as well as particular Baptists developed versions of annihilationism or conditional immortality.’, Pool, ‘Against returning to Egypt: Exposing and Resisting Credalism in the Southern Baptist Convention’, p. 133 (1998) .

[7] ‘through the early part of the 1540s a number of English evangelicals continued to claim that the souls of the dead experienced no consciousness before the Last Judgement.’, Marshall, ‘Beliefs and the dead in Reformation England’, p. 224 (2002).

[8] ‘ “Who knows whether the breath of human beings rises up and the breath of an animal sinks down to the earth?” (Eccles 3:21). In Qohelet’s day there were perhaps people who were speculating that human beings would enjoy a positive afterlife, as animals would not. Qohelet points out that there is no evidence for this.’, Goldingay, ‘Old Testament Theology’, volume 2, p. 644 (2006).

[9]Almost any position one can imagine on the subject appears to have been espoused by some Jews somewhere in the period between the Maccabaean crisis and the writing of the Mishnah, roughly 200 BC to AD 200.’, Wright, ‘The Resurrection of the Son of God’, p. 129 (2003).

[10] ‘Barr is surely right to stress that the Genesis story as it now stands indicates that humans were not created immortal, but had (and lost) the chance to gain unending life.’, Wright, ‘The Resurrection of the Son of God’, p. 92 (2003); Wright himself actually interprets some passages of Scripture as indicating alternative beliefs, ‘The Bible offers a spectrum of belief about life after death’, ibid., p.129.

[11] ‘Death means that the body returns to the dust, and the breath to God who gave it; meaning not that an immortal part of the person goes to live with God, but that the God who breathed life’s breath into human nostrils in the first place will simply withdraw it into his own possession.’, ibid., p. 98.

[12] ‘In contrast to the two enigmatic references to Enoch and Elijah, there are ample references to the fact that death is the ultimate destiny for all human beings, that God has no contact with or power over the dead, and that the dead do not have any relationship with God (see, inter alia, Ps. 6:6, 30:9–10, 39:13–14, 49:6–13, 115:16–18, 146:2–4). If there is a conceivable setting for the introduction of a doctrine of the afterlife, it would be in Job, since Job, although righteous, is harmed by God in the present life. But Job 10:20–22 and 14:1–10 affirm the opposite.’, Gillman, ‘Death and Afterlife, Judaic Doctrines Of’, in Neusner, ‘The Encyclopedia of Judaism’, volume 1, p. 176 (2000).

[13]Despite the fact that existence in Sheol means total oblivion, in one sense there is a form of continued existence there. Jacob claims that when he goes to Sheol, he will never know his son Benjamin again (Gen. 42:38). Samuel too clearly existed in some sense while in Sheol. This suggests that Jacob, Benjamin, and Samuel were “there” in some mysterious sense. This may simply reflect the psychological awareness that our dead are still “present” with us.’, ibid., p. 198.

[14] ‘Finally, if one were to speculate on the reasons for the biblical emphasis on the finality of death, two possibilities arise. The first is to distance biblical religion from pagan religions that worshipped the dead. The second rests on the biblical insistence that only God is immortal. Human beings die, and that is the difference between them and the deity.’, ibid., p. 198.

[15] ‘A characteristic mark of the biblical understanding of death is that it did not simply adopt the views found in surrounding cultures. Neither the varied and developed Egyptian view (→ Egyptian Religion) nor the rites of Canaan became relevant for the OT. The speculations and practices of the world of the great religions relating to death were, indeed, totally incompatible with faith in Yahweh.’, Schoberth, ‘Death’, in Fahlbusch & Bromiley (eds.), ‘The Encyclopedia of Christianity’, volume 1, p. 782 (1999-2003).

[16] ‘Even for holistic dualism, the starting point is the assumption that human beings comprise soul and body. However these are understood, this is not an assumption that the Scriptures work with.’, Goldingay, ‘Old Testament Theology’, volume 2, p. 559 (2006).

[17]The life of a human being came more directly from God, and it is also evident that when someone dies, the breath (rûaḥ, e.g., Ps 104:29) or the life (nepeš, e.g., Gen 35:18) disappears and returns to the God who is rûa. And whereas the living may hope that the absence of God may give way again to God’s presence, the dead are forever cut off from God’s presence.241 Death means an end to fellowship with God and to fellowship with other people. It means an end to the activity of God and the activity of other people. Even more obviously, it means an end to my own activity. It means an end to awareness.’, ibid., p. 640.

[18] ‘The story of Samuel’s visit with the witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28) does not provide evidence of belief in the spirits of the dead so much as it does that of a strict prohibition (and teaching about the uselessness) of any contacts with them. Disinterest in the graves of the mighty men of → Israel (Deut. 34:6; 1 Kgs. 2:10) bears witness to this rejection of overvaluation of the dead.’, Schoberth, ‘Death’, in Fahlbusch & Bromiley (eds.), ‘The Encyclopedia of Christianity’, volume 1, p. 782 (1999-2003).

[19]Qohelet is opposed to belief in the immortal soul.’, Sacchi, ‘The history of the Second Temple period’, Journal for the study of the Old Testament, volume 285, p. 428 (2000).

[20]He saw death as annihilation. Death, even the good death of old age, is nothing more than the final act of the weakening process that is old age. Death appears as nothing but the fading away of the individual’s vital capacities until their complete disappearance.’, Goldingay, ‘Old Testament Theology’, volume 2, p. 428 (2006).

[21] ‘A second doctrine of the afterlife enters Judaism not in the Bible itself but in the intertestamental period, i.e., the first century B.C.E.-first century C.E. This doctrine teaches that every human being is a composite of two entities, a material body and a non-material soul; that the soul pre-exists the body and departs from the body at death; that, though the body disintegrates in the grave, the soul, by its very nature, is indestructible; and that it continues to exist for eternity. Not even a hint of this dualistic view of the human being appears in the Bible.’, Gillman, ‘Death and Afterlife, Judaic Doctrines Of’, in Neusner, ‘The Encyclopedia of Judaism’, volume 1, p. 200 (2000).

[22] ‘As good creational monotheists, mainline Jews were not hoping to escape from the present universe into some Platonic realm of eternal bliss enjoyed by disembodied souls after the end of the space-time universe. If they died in the fight for the restoration of Israel, they hoped not to ‘go to heaven’, or at least not permanently, but to be raised to new bodies when the kingdom came, since they would of course need new bodies to enjoy the very much this-worldly shalom, peace and prosperity that was in store.’, Wright, ‘The New Testament and the People of God’, p. 286.

[23] ‘However, Strack and Billerbeck, noted authorities on Rabbinic literature, suggest that the pseudepigraphal references to eternal punishment simply denote everlasting annihilation. See Hermann L. Strack and Paul Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch (Munchen: C.H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, Oskar Beck, 1928), 2:1096.’, Fudge, ‘The Old Testament’, in Fudge & Peterson, ‘Two views of hell: a biblical & theological dialogue’, p. 210 (2000).

[24]Some sages believed that the soul remains quiescent, with those of the righteous “hidden under the Throne of Glory”; others viewed the souls of the dead as having full consciousness.’, Eisenberg, ‘The JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions’, p. 116 (1st ed. 2004).

[25]Two independent doctrines of the afterlife for the individual emerged in Judaism, probably during the last two centuries B.C.E.: the doctrine of the resurrection of bodies and that of the immortality of souls. In time (probably the first century C.E.), these two doctrines became conflated so as to yield the theory that, at the end of days, God will resurrect dead bodies, rejoin them with their souls, which never died, and the individual human being, reconstituted as he or she existed on earth, will come before God in judgment.’, Gillman, ‘Death and Afterlife, Judaic Doctrines Of’, in Neusner, ‘The Encyclopedia of Judaism’, volume 1, p. 196 (2000).

[26] ‘Now, he differs from R. Simeon b. Lakish, who said: There is no Gehinnom in the world to come,’, Epstein (ed.), ‘The Soncino Talmud’, Nedarim 8b (1990 ed.) .

[27] ‘Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish as well as his colleague Rabbi Yannai, said that there is no such thing as the popular concept of a hell, gehinnom, lasting a long time, but that at the time when G’d passes out judgment the wicked will be burned’, Chananel, et al., ‘Hut ha-meshulash’, p. 183 (2003).

[28] ‘Thus we have one Rabbi denying the very existence of hell. “There is no hell in the future world,” says R. Simon ben Lakish.’, Darmesteter, ‘The Talmud’, p. 52 (2007).

[29]Psalms of Solomon 3:11-12; Sybilline Oracles 4:175-85; 4 Ezra 7:61; Pseudo-Philo 16:3. Other presumed annihilation texts may be found in Fudge, The Fire That Consumes, 125-54’, Walvoord, ‘The Metaphorical View’, in Crockett & Hayes (eds.), ‘Four Views on Hell’, p. 64 (1997).

  1. paulf
    August 27, 2011 at 3:25 am

    Very interesting. I wrote a few articles for Anythony Buzzard’s “Focus on the Kingdom” newsletter, which I guess you might be familiar with. I went through a period in which I agreed with a lot of that, although my ideas have evolved a bit since then.

    Send me an email and I’d like to discuss further.

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