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Living On The Edge: challenges to faith

September 1, 2013 Leave a comment

Today Christians in the Western world are typically living in a post-Christian society. Christian beliefs are met with skepticism, and people see little reason to believe. Christians are confronted with daily challenges to their faith, and often struggle to understand the relevance of Christianity to modern life.

The book ‘Living On The Edge: challenges to faith‘ (due to be printed in November 2013), addresses those concerns. For an overview of the book, click here.

Participatory atonement 3: Modern scholarship

February 15, 2011 Leave a comment

The dominant Christian understanding of the atonement is the ‘penal substitution’ theory, which states that Christ was punished by an angry God as a substitute for those he came to save. However, the interpretation of penal substitution came under sustained attack during the nineteenth century.[1] This continued throughout the twentieth century,[2] [3] with the result that the theory has lost considerable support among theologians over the last thirty years.

*  Eerdman’s Bible Dictionary[4]

*  New Bible Dictionary[5]

*  Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary[6] [7] [8]

*  Encyclopedia of Christianity[9]

Many liberal theologians have abandoned substitution,[10] but recently there is increasing recognition among even conservative theologians that the most the original Biblical teaching is best understood as participatory.[11] [12] [13]

Interest in historic alternatives to penal substitution has increased, and the interpretations of Abelard and the Socinians have received renewed attention. Support for participatory atonement is growing, especially in reaction to the violent nature of traditional penal substitution. [14]

It is increasingly understood that a change was required not in God, but in those who sinned against Him.[15] Likewise, the irrelevance of penal substitution to the life of the believer has been identified as a serious weakness in this theory.[16] [17] Scholarly support for participatory atonement is both widespread and increasing. [18] [19] [20] [21] [22] [23] [24]


[1] ‘The character of the needed reform became more and more clear: Christian thought must be brought over from the point of view of law to that of the conscience, it must be raised from legality to morality. Those even who wished to adhere as far as possible to the tradition of the past, tried to find a new foundation for the doctrine of substitution in the moral fact of solidarity. They gave up justifying the expiatory condemnation of Christ on the plea that divine justice must be satisfied; they were content to insist upon the organic bond which united the Son of man with the whole race. This method of argumentation, the first sketch of which was given by Ch. Secretan, and which was powerfully developed by so many orators, among whom should be mentioned E. Bersier, Ed. de Pressense, and Ch. Bois, has the advantage of being modem; but it remains to be seen whether, from a logical point of view, the argument does not ruin the ancient edifice it was destined to support.’, Sabatier, ‘The Doctrine of the Atonement: And Its Historical Evolution and Religion; and, Religion and Modern Culture ‘, pp. 92-93 (1904).

[2]But new challenges to the position arose in the modern period and were accepted by more and more churches. Able apologists for the penal substitutionary view also defended and developed that position against these new theories.’, Allison, ‘History of the Doctrine of the Atonement’, Southern Baptist Journal of Theology ( 11.2.15), 2007).

[3] ‘On much the same basis articulated by Abelard, nineteenth-and early twentieth-century Protestant liberals advocated a version of moral influence theory over against the satisfaction theory of fundamentalism and evangelicalism. A primary example is Horace Bushnell’s use of satisfaction terminology to argue for a moral influence theory of atonement.’, Weaver, ‘The Nonviolent Atonement’, p. 19 (2001).

[4] ‘While Paul stresses the centrality of Christ’s vicarious sacrifice, the Synoptic Gospels note that Christ claimed to give his life as a “ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28 par. Mark 10:45; see Exod. 21:30). All three Evangelists record Christ’s sincere mention of his eternal sacrifice when at the breaking of the bread he referred to his own body during the Last Supper (“this is my body”; Matt. 26:26–27 par. Mark 14:22–23; Luke 22:19–20). On the other hand, the New Testament leaves no doubt that atonement is accomplished through the believer’s participation with the Lord in his death rather than merely by Christ’s death on the cross (Rom. 6:2, 6, 8; cf. Gal. 2:19–20).’, ‘Atone, Atonement’, in Myers (ed.), ‘Eerdmans Bible Dictionary’, p. 106 (1987).

[5] ‘It is agreed by most students that Christ’s death was vicarious. If in one sense he died ‘for sin’, in another he died ‘for us’. But ‘vicarious’ is a term which may mean much or little. It is better to be more precise. Most scholars today accept the view that the death of Christ is representative. That is to say, it is not that Christ died and somehow the benefits of that death become available to men (did not even Anselm ask to whom more fittingly than to us could they be assigned?). It is rather that he died specifically for us. He was our representative as he hung on the cross. This is expressed succinctly in 2 Cor. 5:14, ‘one died for all; therefore all have died’. The death of the Representative counts as the death of those he represents. When Christ is spoken of as our ‘advocate with the Father’ (1 Jn. 2:1) there is the plain thought of representation, and as the passage immediately goes on to deal with his death for sin it is relevant to our purpose. The Epistle to the Hebrews has as one of its major themes that of Christ as our great High Priest. The thought is repeated over and over. Now whatever else may be said about a High Priest, he represents men. The thought of representation may thus be said to be very strong in this Epistle. d. Substitution taught in the New Testament But can we say more? There is a marked disinclination among many modern scholars (though not by any means all) to use the older language of substitution. Nevertheless, this seems to be the teaching of the NT, and that not in one or two places only, but throughout.’, Morris, ‘Atonement’, in Wood & Marshall (eds.), ‘New Bible Dictionary’, p. 103 (3rd ed. 1996).

[6]The idea of appeasing an angry god by sacrifice is certainly present in some non-Jewish ideas of sacrifice. Much hinges on the translation of the word hilaskesthai (and cognates) in the NT, and the equivalent OT words (usually kpr). In non-Jewish Gk, the word clearly carries ideas of propitiation. However, in a classic essay Dodd (1935: 82–95) argued that Jewish and Christian usage differs from that decisively.’, Tuckett, ‘Atonement in the NT’, in Freedman (ed.), ‘Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary’, volume 1, p. 519 (1996).

[7]Thus it is unlikely that the sacrificial system was ever conceived of in such a substitutionary sense. Substitutionary ideas have been thought to lie behind much of Paul’s language, though many would argue that “representation” rather than “substitution” does far more justice to Paul’s thought.’ , ibid., p. 519.

[8] ‘Similarly Paul’s language of Jesus “redeeming” those under the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us (Gal 3:13; 4:5) can only with difficulty support the view that Jesus’ death is being interpreted as a ransom price paid in a substitutionary sense. Far more important for Paul here seems to be the representative nature of Jesus’ death (see Hooker 1971).’, ibid., p. 521.

[9] ‘Atonement is a central concept in biblical theology. Along with the traditional misunderstanding of appeasing an angry deity, the penal definition of making good an offense and the viewing of the cultus as a human work have impeded a more relevant approach., Janowski, ‘Atonement: OT and Judaism’, in Fahlbusch & Bromiley (eds.), ‘Encyclopedia of Christianity’, volume 1, p. 152 (1999-2003).

[10] ‘In the wake of Socinian attacks, Protestant liberalism and Catholic modernism rejected objective theories, especially penal substitution. The “heretical” anthropology of R. Girard has reinforced the trend. Radical feminists have expressed the strongest possible aversion.’, Blocher, ‘Atonement’, in Vanhoozer et al. (eds.), ‘Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible’, p. 73 (2005).

[11] ‘In the Roman Church, after the critique by Sabourin and Lyonnet and under the climate created by Teilhard de Chardin and Rahner, few scholars of note, if any, have maintained it.’, ibid., p. 73.

[12] ‘Sanders goes so far as to argue that “the purpose of Christ’s death [for Paul is] that Christians may participate in it, not that their sins may be atoned for.”.’, Finlan, ‘The background and content of Paul’s cultic atonement metaphors’, p. 117 (2004).

[13]Sanders combines the participationist passages with those that mention “dying to the law” and argues that it is not so much atonement, as it is “sharing in christ’s death” that brings salvation.’, ibid., p, 117.

[14] ‘According to Anthony Bartlett, the New Testament has no place for wrath and its propitiation. Thus the atonement can only be “saved” if it is stripped of its “violent” implications.’, Horton, ‘Lord and servant: a covenant Christology’, p. 184 (2005).

[15] ‘Thus in this view, the work of the cross affects a change in us, rather than in God. Horace Bushnell revived this view of the atonement in the nineteenth century. He regarded sin as a type of sickness from which we must be healed.’, Kuhns, ‘Atonement and Violence’, Quodlibet Journal (5.4), October 2003.

[16] ‘First, this theory emphasizes Christ’s death as a sacrifice of propitiation that turns away God’s wrath, almost to neglect of any immediate consequence of Christ’s death for the daily life of the believer.’, ibid.

[17] ‘If some of the other theories are weak in not showing why Jesus had to die, this theory, as it is sometimes expounded, fails to adequately show why Jesus spent so much time teaching and calling people to follow him.’, ibid.

[18] ‘The central thesis of this lecture now comes into view. I contend that the work of the cross is not completed until we participate in it.’, Marshall, ‘On A Hill Too Far Away?: Reclaiming The Cross as the Critical Interpretive Principle of the Christian Life’, Review and Expositor (91.2.251), 1994.

[19] ‘Reno says that, in this account, Milbank accords the activity of “interpretive creativity” an indispensable role in the act of atonement itself, which thereby gives rise to the idea of “participatory atonement.”‘, Hyman, ‘The Predicament of Postmodern Theology: Radical Orthodoxy or Nihilist Textualism?’, p. 87 (2001).

[20]Participation is a constant theme with Paul. The believer must offer up his whole self as a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1; 6:13)…’, Finlan, ‘The Background and Content of Paul’s Cultic Atonement Metaphors’, p. 118 (2004).

[21]But Paul’s teaching is not that Christ dies “in the place of” others so that they escape death (as the logic of “substitution” implies).86 It is rather that Christ’s sharing their death makes it possible for them to share his death.“Representation” is not an adequate single-word description, nor particularly “participation” or “participatory event”. But at least they help convey the sense of a continuing identification with Christ in, through, and beyond his death, which, as we shall see, is fundamental to Paul’s soteriology.’ , Dunn, ‘The Theology of Paul the Apostle’, p. 223 (2006).

[22] ‘…emphasis upon the practice of accepting forgiveness and extending it to one another, a participatory atonement if you will.’, Steere, ‘Rediscovering Confession: A Constructive Practice of Forgiveness’ p. 227 (2009).

[23] ‘Participatory atonement: we become reconciled to God by participating in Jesus’ path of death and resurrection‘ , Borg, ‘Conversations with Scripture: The Gospel of Mark’, p. 81 (2009).

[24]In a participatory model, but contrast, God does it all and we are fully included in the doing of God. And not as puppets are we fully included, but as creatures created by the Creator God to be creative. It is we who contribute something, we who are artists participating in the artistry of God.’, Rigby, ‘”Beautiful Playing”: Motlmann, Barth, and the Work of the Christian’, in McCormack & Bender (eds.),  ‘Theology as Conversation: The Significance of Dialogue in Historical and Contemporary Theology: A Festschrift for Daniel L. Migliore’, p. 114 (2009).

Mortalism 3: The Medieval Era

January 30, 2011 Leave a comment

Conditional immortality was retained through the late medieval era and early Middle Ages by Jewish commentators such as Isaac of Nineveh[1] [2] (d.700), Abraham Ibn Ezra[3] [4] (1092-1167), Maimonides [5] [6] (1135-1204), and Joseph Albo[7] (1380-1444).

Persian Christian Ab al-Farag Hibat Allah ibn Al-‘Assal, believed souls (though conscious when dead), would not receive final reward or punishment until the resurrection.[8]

Views also changed as purgatory was rejected,[9] and defending the immortal soul from ‘Scripture alone’ proved difficult,[10] with serious consequences.[11]

Notable conditionalists of this era include:

l  -1384: John Wycliffe [12]

l  1490-1527: Michael Sattler[13] [14]

l  1527-1700[15]: Anabaptists[16] [17]

l  1494-1536: William Tyndale[18]

l  1540: Camillo Rentao[19]

l  1500-1545: Matyas Devai[20]

l  1511-1553: Michael Servetus[21]

l  d. 1562: Laelius Socinus[22]

l  1563: Faustus Socinus[23]

l  1565: Polish Brethren[24]

l  1504-1568: Dirk Philips[25]

l  1568: Gregory Paul[26]

l  1570-1800: Socinians[27]

l  1573: John Frith[28]

l  1574: George Schomann[29]

l  1576: Simon Budny[30]


[1] Also known as ‘Isaac the Syrian’, or ‘Isaac Syrus’.

[2] ‘”Isaac,” too, is convinced that the final reward and punishment for human deeds awaits the resurrection (e.g., Bedjan 724.4 from bottom). Then those who died in “peace and quiet” with the lord will find eternal peace (Bedjan 276.15), while sinners will be banished to a darkness far away from God (Bedjan 117f.). Gehenna, the kingdom of the demons (Bedjan 203.4 from bottom), is a place of fire, and on the day of judgment this fire will burst forth from the bodies of the damned (Bedjan 73.4.; 118.3-7). Until the resurrection, the dead must wait in Sheol, which the author seems to imagine as a collective grave (Bedjan 366.3 from bottom; 368.5; 369.4). Some passages in the corpus suggest that the dead continue to act, in Sheol, as they have during life (e.g., Bedjan 90.13; 366.10-18). Others declare that action for good or ill is no longer possible after death (e.g., Bedjan 392.4 from bottom), and even envisage Sheol, before the judgment, as a place of fire ruled over by Satan (Bedjan 93.4f.).’, Daley, ‘The hope of the early church: a handbook of patristic eschatology’, pp. 174-175 (1991).

[3] ‘But Ibn Ezra held that the souls of the wicked perish with their bodies.’, Davidson, ‘The Doctrine of Last Things Contained in the New Testament, Compared With Notions of the Jews and the Statements of Church Creeds’, p. 139 (1882).

[4]The medieval thinker who most approximates Maimonides’ own view is Abraham ibn Ezra (1092–1167). In his commentary to Dan. 12:2, he accepts the notion of a double dying, with the second resurrection remaining totally spiritual.’, Gillman, ‘Death and Afterlife, Judaic Doctrines Of’, in Neusner, ‘The Encyclopedia of Judaism’, volume 1, p. 206 (2000).

[5] ‘Maimonides claims that since the greatest punishment would be to lose one’s immortal soul, the souls of the wicked are destroyed along with their bodies.’, Rudavsky, ‘Maimonides’, p. 105 (2010).

[6]His view posits a theory of a double dying: we die once, we are then resurrected sometime around the coming of the Messiah (which, for Maimonides, is a period independent of and prior to “the age to come”); we then die a second time, and, after that, in the age to come, the souls of the righteous achieve the ultimate reward reserved for souls alone, as he described in Helek. Resurrection and spiritual immortality are both true, but they emerge sequentially.’, Gillman, ‘Death and Afterlife, Judaic Doctrines Of’, in Neusner, ‘The Encyclopedia of Judaism’, volume 1, p. 205 (2000).

[7]Maimonides’ views are reasserted by Joseph Albo (1380–1444) in his Book of Principles.’, ibid., p. 206.

[8] ‘The author advocated the belief that souls, though conscious of their destiny during the period between death and resurrection, enter the final state of blessedness or punishment only after reunion with the body.’, Meinardus, ‘Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity’, p. 59 (2010).

[9] ‘Beliefs and practices relating to the dead represented a thread visibly protruding from the theological and devotional apparel of traditional religion. It did not take long for both defenders and assailants of the old order to understand that if this thread were pulled upon vigorously enough, the entire fabric might start to unravel.’, Marshall, ‘Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England’, p. 47 (2002).

[10] ‘As did Calvin, Martyr took upon himself a Herculean task in trying to uphold the immortality of the soul with a handful of vague New Testament texts (e.g. Luke, 23:43) against the defenders of soul sleep who had a plentiful supply of denials of immortality garnered from the early strata of the Old Testament.’, Donelley, ‘Calvinism and Scholasticism in Vermigli’s doctrine of man and grace’, pp. 99-100 (1976).

[11] ‘Beliefs and practices relating to the dead represented a thread visibly protruding from the theological and devotional apparel of traditional religion. It did not take long for both defenders and assailants of the old order to understand that if this thread were pulled upon vigorously enough, the entire fabric might start to unravel.’, Marshall, ‘Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England’, p. 47 (2002).

[12] ‘During the pre-Reformation period, there seems to be some indication that both Wycliffe and Tyndale taught the doctrine of soul sleep as the answer to the Catholic teachings of purgatory and masses for the dead.’, Morey, ‘Death and the Afterlife’, p. 200 (1984).

[13] ‘He has written at length on psychopannychism, the doctrine of soul sleep, widely held in the sixteenth century by such diverse figures as Camillo Renato, Michael Sattler, and for a while, Martin Luther.’, Williams, Petersen, & Pater (eds.), ‘The contentious triangle: church, state, and university: a festschrift in in Honor of Professor George Huntston Williams’, Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies, volume 2, p. (1999).

[14] ‘It appears that Sattler came to hold the doctrine of psychopannychism, or sleep of the soul’, Synder, The life and thought of Michael Sattler’, p. 130 (1984).

[15] Generally accepted date of the Anabaptists’ emergence as a distinctive community, represented by the Schleitheim Confession, a statement of faith written by Swiss Anabaptists at a meeting led by Michael Sattler.

[16] ‘Many who became Anabaptists also believed that the soul is not naturally immortal but “sleeps” between death and the final resurrection. Some affirmed, further, that only the righteous would be resurrected, while the unrighteous would simply remain dead. Many denied hell. The Venice Synod affirmed soul sleep and rejected hell (ibid., pp. 871-72).’, Finger, ‘A contemporary Anabaptist theology: biblical, historical, constructive’, p. 42 (2004).

[17] ‘At a synod of 1550 in Venice, the unorthodox Italian Anabaptists denied the existence of the Devil and hell, as well as the existence of angels, the virgin birth, and the divinity of Christ.’, Russell, ‘Mephistopheles: The Devil in the Modern World’, p. 49 (1990)

[18] ‘The belief that the soul goes to sleep at the death of the body to await eventual resurrection was held by both Martin Luther and William Tyndale’, Watts, ‘The Dissenters: From the Reformation to the French Revolution’, p. 119 (1985).

[19] ‘The Italian Anabaptist movement has been traced to the leadership of Camillo Renato, a Sicilian scholar who escaped from imminent danger in Italy to settle in southern Switzerland and who, in the 1540s, held the position “that the soul of man is by nature mortal, and dies with the body, to be raised at the last day in another forum, though the souls of the wicked will perish.”’, Simmonds, ‘Milton Studies’, volume 8, p. 193 (1975).

[20]One might add that the sleep of the dead was affirmed by the Hungarian reformer, Matyas-Biro Devay (ca. 1500 – ca. 1545).’, Vauchez, ‘The History of Conditionalism’, Andrews University Seminary Studies (4.2. 198-199), 1966.

[21]Servetus also believed the soul to be but mortal, with immortality bestowed only by the grace of Christ at the resurrection. In other words, he also held to Conditional Immortality.’, ibid., p. 115.

[22]In Poland and Lithuania the mortalist cause was advanced by Laelius Socinus, who left among his papers a work concerning the resurrection, De resurrectione corporum, which, “following Camillo Renato . . . attempted to replace the V Lateran teaching of the natural immortality of the soul”.’, Ball, ‘The Soul Sleepers: Christian Mortalism from Wycliffe to Priestley’, p. 36 (2008).

[23] ‘Faustus himself came to hold the Paduan view of man’s natural mortality and the death of the soul with the body,’, Ball, ‘The Soul Sleepers: Christian Mortalism from Wycliffe to Priestley’, p. 37 (2008).

[24] ‘When Sozzini arrived in Poland, the Polish Brethren already shared many of his beliefs, such as antitrinitarianism, the denial of the literal preexistence of Christ, psychopannychism [soul sleep] and the emphasis on the moral commandments of the Gospel.’, Snobelen, ‘Revelation and Reason: The Development, Rationalization and Influence of Socinianism’, honors thesis, p. 46 (1993).

[25] ‘Resurrection, moreover, would be a future historical event, not simply the soul’s entrance into heaven or hell at death. Soul sleep would apparently precede the resurrection, for this would awaken all people, who had been “at rest from death.”‘, Finger, ‘A contemporary Anabaptist theology: biblical, historical, constructive’, p. 536 (2004).

[26] ‘Gregory Paul had followed Laelius and, since 1568, had taught that the soul, like the body, is mortal, awaiting the resurrection.’, Williams, ‘The Radical Reformation’, p. 739 (1962).

[27] ‘But among philosophers they were perhaps equally notorious for their commitment to the mortalist heresy; this is the doctrine that denies the existence of a naturally immortal soul.’, Jolley, ‘The relation between theology and philosophy’, in Garber & Ayres (eds.), ‘The Cambridge history of seventeenth-century philosophy’, volume 1, p. 383 (2003).

[28] ‘Tracy had looked forward to the ‘resurrection of body and soul’, a phrase that left him open to charges of denying the soul’s immortality. Frith defended him from this, but glossed the phrase to refer to ‘the soule whiche in the meane ceason semeth to lye secret‘. According to the hostile account of Germaine Gardiner, Frith stated during his last imprisonment ‘that he thought no sayntes soule came in heven before the day of dome/but in the meane season reposed hym selfe he wiste not where‘.’, Marshall, ‘Beliefs and the dead in Reformation England’, p. 223 (2002).

[29] ‘…Schomann outlined a number of distinctive beliefs, including believers’ baptism by immersion, psychopannychism, [soul sleep]’, Snobelen, ‘Revelation and Reason: The Development, Rationalization and Influence of Socinianism’, honors thesis, p. 34 (1993).

[30]There is no possible ambiguity, however, with the energetic Simon Budny, the anti-Trintiarian leader in Lithuania and Little Poland, who in 1576 openly advocated a form of thnetopsychism, declaring that the soul was nothing more than the life of the body and had no independent existence.’, Ball, ‘The Soul Sleepers: Christian Mortalism from Wycliffe to Priestley’, p. 37 (2008).

Mortalism 2: Early Christian beliefs

January 29, 2011 4 comments

The earliest post-apostolic Christian confessions of faith[1] do not refer to heaven or hell, but do mention the resurrection. Most writers from the first to the seventh century believed in an immortal soul and eternal torment in hell. [2] [3]

Soul sleep[4] or soul death[5] was occasionally understood to be followed by eternity in heaven or hell subsequent to the resurrection.[6] Conditionalism was preserved by early Christians such as Arnobius, [7] [8] and among Syrian Christians such as Aphrahat,[9] [10] Ephrem,[11] [12] [13] Narsai,[14] [15] and Jacob of Sarug. [16] [17]

Syrian Christianity inherited both soul death and soul sleep[18] [19] [20] [21] [22] from earlier Jewish teaching.[23] [24] [25] [26] [27] [28]


[1] The first century ‘Didache’ and the ‘Old Roman Symbol’, which came to be known as the ‘Apostles’ Creed’.

[2]Concerning its nature, many early fathers, including the apologist Justin (Dial 45.4) and the Latin fathers Tertullian (Deres 5ff) and Jerome (cf. Ep 119), assumed a fiery hell.’, Bromiley, ‘Hell’, in Bromiley (ed.), ‘The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia’, volume 2, p. 677 (rev. ed. 1988).

[3] ‘While we freely admit that there are indications that some of the early fathers believed in the final annihilation or salvation of the wicked, it is clear that the majority of fathers believed in a conscious afterlife and eternal punishment.’, Morey, ‘Death and the Afterlife’, p. 60 (1984).

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

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

[6]Some have believed in the annihilation of the wicked after they should have undergone just punishment proportioned to their sins. This supposition has had a considerable number of advocates. It was maintained, among others, by Arnobius, at the close of the third century, by the Socini, by Dr. Hammond, and by some of the New England divines.’, Alger, ‘The Destiny of the Soul: A Critical History of the Doctrine of  a Future Life’, p. 546 (14th ed. 1889).

[7]The theory of annihilationism in which the wicked pass into nonexistence either at death or the resurrection was first advanced by Arnobius, a 4th-century “Christian” apologist, according to standard reference works such as Baker’s Dictionary of Theology (p. 184).’, Morey, ‘Death and the Afterlife’, p. 199 (1984).

[8] ‘Already in the fourth century Arnobius taught the annihilation of the wicked.’, Hoekama, ‘The Bible and the Future’, p. 266 (1994).

[9] ‘On the subject of the fate of souls after death. Aphrahat insists – as does Ephrem – “that as yet no one has received his reward. For the righteous have not inherited the Kingdom, nor have the wicked gone into torment” (8.22; fc. 20). At present, the dead simply “sleep” in their graves, which are collectively referred to as Sheol, or the underworld. Their capabilities for activity and experience are, apparently, almost non-existent, “for when people die, the animal spirit is buried with the body and sense is taken away from it, but the heavenly spirit they receive [i.e. the Holy Spirit, given in baptism] goes, according to its nature, to Christ” (6.14). Aphrahat, however, seems to ascribe to the dead a kind of anticipatory consciousness of their own future which is akin to dreaming in earthly sleep.’, Daley, ‘The hope of the early church: a handbook of patristic eschatology’, p. 73 (1991).

[10] ‘The wicked will be sent back to Sheol, the real of Death under the world (22.17.24; cf. 6.6), where they will be punished in the measure and the way that their sins deserve – some in “outer darkness,” others in unquenchable fire, others by simple exclusion from the presence of God (22.18-22).’, ibid., p. 73.

[11] ‘Ephrem, too, conceives of the time between our death and the second coming of Jesus as a “sleep,” a period of inactivity in virtually every aspect of human existence. Because his anthropology is more highly developed than Aphrahat’s, and because he is so insistent – in contrast to Bardaisan and other earlier, more dualistic Syriac writers – that the human person needs both body and soul to be functional, Ephrem seems to imagine that this sleep as [sic] deprived even of the “dreaming” Aphrahat mentions. For Ephrem, the soul without the body is “bound,” “paralyzed” (CN 476.6); it is like an embryo in its mother’s womb or like a blind or deaf person: “living, but deprived of word and thought” (HP 8.4-6).’, ibid., p. 74.

[12] ‘Because of his insistence on the positive role of the body in human life and its necessity for a full human existence (e.g., CN 47.4), Ephrem sees eschatological reward and punishment as delayed until the resurrection of the dead. Resurrection will begin when souls are “awakened” from their sleep by the angel’s trumpet and the commanding voice of God (CN 49.16f.).’, ibid., p. 75.

[13] ‘Ephrem’s picture of Gehenna is less detailed and more traditional than his picture of heaven. The damned there seem to suffer most from their awareness that they have lost all hope sharing in beauty and happiness (HP 2.3f.; 7.29).’, ibid., p. 76.

[14] ‘Following in the tradition of Ephrem and Aphrahat, as well as that of Theodore of Mopsuestia, Narsai assumes that the souls of the dead do not receive the reward or punishment for their deeds until they are reunited with their bodies in the resurrection; until then, they must all wait in Sheol, the earthly place of the dead, in a state of conscious but powerless inactivity that Narsai refers to as a “sleep.”‘, ibid., p. 174

[15] ‘The Nestorian Narsai described the soul and the body as a pair of inseperable lovers who could not live the one without the other. From the moment that her lover deserted her, he recounts, nephesh lost her speech and fell into a deep slumber. In spite of this, even in this state of forced inertia, she maintained her essential characteristics: her galloping intellect, her acute judgement, the emotions that open up a view in the world. The reason that all her faculties had ceased to function is that they had no more any purpose to serve, since the body for the sake of which they operated was no longer there. Nephesh recovered her sentience and her speech at the end of time when, together with the body, she rose to give an account for her deeds. Till then she felt no pain or joy. The vague knowledge she had of what was in store for her scarcely disturbed her peaceful sleep.’, Samellas, ‘Death in the eastern Mediterranean (50-600 A.D.): the Christianization of the East: An Interpretation’, Studien Und Text Zu Antike Und Christentum, pp. 56-57 (2002).

[16]His eschatology remains within the Syriac tradition. Thus he speaks often of death in personified terms, as the captor of an enslaved human race or as an insatiable glutton; although Sheol, where the dead now exist, is a dark place of sleep. Jacob also describes the experience of death as a dangerous journey across a sea of fire.’, Daley, ‘The hope of the early church: a handbook of patristic eschatology’, p. 175 (1991).

[17]On the influence of hypnopsychism on the theology of Jacob of Sarug see M. D. Guinan, “Where are the dead? Purgatory and Immediate Retribution in James of Sargu,” in Symposium Syriacum 1972, pp. 546-549.’, Samellas, ‘Death in the eastern Mediterranean (50-600 A.D.): the Christianization of the East: An Interpretation’, Studien Und Text Zu Antike Und Christentum, p. 56 (2002).

[18]The doctrine of the ‘sleep of the soul’ after death, a Syrian tradition held in common with Ephrem, Narsai and others’, Murray, ‘Symbols of church and kingdom: a study in early Syriac tradition’, p. 279 (2006).

[19]In virtually every period of Byzantine history, critical voices denied that the souls of the dead could involve themselves in the affairs of the living or intercede on their behalf in heaven. Based on a more unitive, materialist notion of the self as irreducibly embodied, some thinkers argued that the souls of the dead (sainted or otherwise) were largely inert, having lapsed into a state of cognitive oblivion and psychomotor lethargy, a condition sometimes described as a state of “sleep” in which the soul could only “dream” of its future punishment or heavenly reward. Still others argued for the outright death of the soul, which, they claimed, was mortal and perished with the body, and which would be recreated together with the body only on the day of resurrection.’, Constas, ‘”To Sleep, Perchance to Dream”: The Middle State of Souls in Patristic and Byzantine Literature’, in Talbot (ed.), ‘Dunbarton Oaks Papers’, No. 55, p. 94 (2001).

[20]Till the end of the sixth century and beyond, Christians in Nisibis and Constantinople, Syria and Arabia adduced Leviticus 17:11 which states that “The soul of the whole flesh is the blood” to argue that the soul after death sank into non-existence, that it lost its sensibility and stayed inert in the grave together with the body.’, Samellas, ‘Death in the eastern Mediterranean (50-600 A.D.): the Christianization of the East: An Interpretation’, Studien Und Text Zu Antike Und Christentum, pp. 55-56 (2002).

[21]others arose in Arabia, putting forward a doctrine foreign to the truth. They said that during the present time the human soul dies and perishes with the body, but that at the time of the resurrection they will be renewed together.’, Eusebius (a contemporary), ‘Ecclesiastical History’ (6.37.1), NPNF2 1:297.

[22] ‘It is unclear if Arabian thnetopsychism [‘soul death’] is related to the Syriac tradition of the soul’s dormition [sleep] espoused by writers like Aphrahat (d. ca. 345), Ephrem (d. 373), and Narsai (d. 502), according to whom the souls of the dead are largely inert, having lapsed into a state of sleep, in which they can only dream of their future reward or punishments.’, Constas, ‘”To Sleep, Perchance to Dream”: The Middle State of Souls in Patristic and Byzantine Literature’, in Talbot (ed.), ‘Dunbarton Oaks Papers’, No. 55, p. 110 (2001).

[23] ‘In his comments on Aphraates, [Aphrahates, a Syrian Christian sage] Braun suggests that he must have been acquainted with contemporaneous rabbinic teaching as to the condition of the soul and body after death. In much the same vein Redepenning thinks that the ‘heresy of the Arabians,’ which caused the dissension that Origen had to settle, was none other than a bit of Jewish tradition which the Church had taken over, Gavin, ‘The Sleep of the Soul in the Early Syriac Church’, Journal of the American Oriental Society (40.116), 1920.

[24] ‘we can see that its connections are Jewish and perhaps also Persian.’, Murray, ‘Symbols of church and kingdom: a study in early Syriac tradition’, p. 279 (2006).

[25] ‘in VIII.397.15 he [Aphrahat] says ‘our faith teaches us‘ the doctrine of the sleep of the soul after death, which seems to come from various but ultimately Jewish sources‘, ibid., pp. 22-23.

[26] ‘Gouillard notes that variations of thnetopsychism [‘soul death’] and hypnopsychism [‘soul sleep’] existed alongside the views of the official church until the sixth century when they were resoundingly denounced by Eustratios.’, ibid., p. 111.

[27]Thnetopsychism [‘soul death’] continued to challenge the patience and ingenuity of church officials, as evidenced by writers such as John the Deacon, Niketas Stethatos, Philip Monotropos (Dioptra, pp. 210, 220), and Michael Glykas, all of whom are keenly interested in the survival of consciousness and memory among the souls of the departed saints. John the Deacon, for example, attacks those who “dare to say that praying to the saints is like shouting in the ears of the deaf, as if they had drunk from the mythical waters of Oblivion” (line 174).’ ibid., p. 111.

[28] ‘The Syriac tradition of the soul’s “sleep in the dust” (Job 21:26), with its links to the Old Testament and Jewish apocalyptic, stands as a corrective to overly Hellenized views of the afterlife, and was canonized at a Nestorian synod in the eighth century (786–787) presided over by Timothy I (d. 823), who rejected anything else as blatant Origenism.’, ibid., p. 111.

Mortalism 1: Early Jewish beliefs

January 28, 2011 2 comments

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).