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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.

Mortalism 5: 19th-20th century views

The Modern Era

Belief in conditional immortality and the annihilation of the unsaved became increasingly common during the nineteenth century,[1] [2] [3]  [4] entering mainstream Christianity in the twentieth century.[5] [6] [7]

From this point it is possible to speak in terms of entire groups holding the belief, and only the most prominent individual nineteenth century advocates of the doctrine will be mentioned here.

Scientific Support

Scientific conclusions concerning human mortality provided additional support.[8] [9]

Lexicographical Support

Lexicographical studies had already cast doubt on the traditional doctrine.[10] [11]  The standard Hebrew lexicon and grammar of John Parkhurst (reprinted many times throughout the nineteenth century), noted that the traditional translation ‘soul’ of the Hebrew word nephesh, had no lexical support.[12]

Such studies became influential in nineteenth century arguments for conditional immortality. [13] [14]

Notable Conditionalists

*  1833: Millerites (later Advenist groups came from the Millerites)[15]

*  1846: Edward White[16]

*  1855: Thomas Thayer[17]

*  d.1863: François Gaussen[18]

*  1865: Christadelphians[19]

*  1873: Henry Constable[20]

*  d. 1878: Louis Burnier[21]

*  1878: Conditionalist Association[22]

*  1888: Cameron Mann[23]

*  1895: Miles Grant[24]

*  1897: George Stokes[25]


[1]It emerged seriously in English-language theology in the late 19th century’, Johnston, ‘Hell’, in Alexander & Rosner (eds.), ‘New dictionary of biblical theology’ (electronic ed. (2001).

[2]Yet many abandonments of the traditional view are to be noted, including F. W. Newman (the Cardinal’s brother who took refuge in Unitarianism), S. T. Coleridge, Thomas Erskine of Linlathen, F. W. Robertson of Brighton, F. D. Maurice, Bishop Colenso of Natal, T. R. Birks of the Evangelical Alliance, Andrew Jukes, Samuel Cox, and others who took up the cudgel for conditional immortality like the redoubtable R. W. Dale of Birmingham and F. J. Delitzsch of Leipzig.72  Dale himself indicated he was drawn to Moody because of Moody’s great compassion for the lost, but ultimately he came to deny everlasting punishment. The defections were on the other side of the Atlantic also and included such a household name as the Quaker writer and preacher, Hannah Whitall Smith, whose The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life was so popular.’, Larsen, ‘Heaven and Hell in the Preaching of the Gospel: A Historical Survey’ Trinity Journal (22.2.255-256), 2001.

[3] ‘In the 1900s, the United States saw a minimal emergence of annihilationism, primarily in new fringe groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-Day Adventists.  But during that century England saw the rise of several books defending this doctrine, such as Archbishop of Durham Richard Wately’s A View of the Scripture Revelations Concerning a Future State (1892), Congregationalist Edward White’s LIfe in Christ (1846), English Baptist Henry Dobney’s The Scripture Doctrine of Future Punishment (1858), and Anglican priest Henry Constable’s Duration and Nature of Future Punishment (1868).’ , Morgan & Peterson, ‘Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment’, p. 197 (2004).

[4] ‘Referring to this subject, says Edward White, of London, ex-chairman of the great Congregational Union of England and Wales: “It is the one form of evangelical faith, which seems likely to win the sympathy of modern Europe…. Some of the very greatest of men are lending their sanction to the movement.” “It is espoused with ever increasing energy by evangelical scholars in all parts of the world.”’, ibid.

[5] ‘In Germany Richard Rothe, in France and Switzerland Charles Lambert, Charles Byse, and E. Petavel, in Italy Oscar Corcoda, and in America C.F. Hudson and W.F. Huntington have been prominent advocates of conditionalist views, and have won many adherents. Thus Conditionalism has at length, in the 20th cent., taken its place among those eschatological theories which are to be reckoned with.’, Fulford, ‘Conditional Immortality’, in Hastings & Selbie, ‘Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics’, volume 3, p. 824 (1908).

[6] ‘The doctrine of conditional immortality is becoming popular, especially among Christian thinkers.’, Radhakrishnan, ‘An Idealist View of Life; being the Hibbert lectures for 1929.’, p. 283 (2nd ed. 1947).

[7] ‘R. A. Torrey, H. A. Ironside, Paul Rood, John R. Rice, Robert G. Lee, and many others preached on heaven and hell, but they were a vanishing breed.’, Larsen, ‘Heaven and Hell in the Preaching of the Gospel: A Historical Survey’ Trinity Journal (22.2.257), 2001.

[8] ‘We are confronted thus with the problem of conditional immortality. Henry Drummond said that life depends on correspondence with the environment. The human body needs food, drink and oxygen to breathe. But if the body is gone and the environment is spiritual what correspondence can there be on the part of one who has lived only for the needs and lusts of the body?’, ‘A Letter From Roland Bainton On Immortality’, Church & Williams (eds.), ‘Continuity and discontinuity in church history: essays presented to George Huntson Williams’, p. 393 (1979).

[9]Science has learned no more than is expressed in Eccl. 3: 19: ‘For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them; as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast.’ “Said Lester F. Ward, A. M., at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D. C.: “The consciousness, when scientifically examined, reveals itself as a quality of brain…. It is a universal induction of science that modification of brain is accompanied by modification of consciousness, and that the destruction of brain results in destruction of consciousness. No exception to this law has ever been observed.”’, Grant, ‘Positive Theology’, chapter 4 (1895).

[10]Dr. Fulke saith plainly, that neither in the Hebrew, Greek, nor Latin, is there a word proper for hell, (as we take hell for the place of punishment of the ungodly.) Fulke’s Defence Translation, pp. 13, 37, 89. Is not this a full testimony against their opinion of the torments of hell?’, Richardson, ‘Torments of Hell’, in Whittermore, ‘The Doctrine of Hell Torments Overthrown: In Three Parts’, pp. 10-11 (1833).

[11]The word hell is not in the Greek; the Greek Word for which they put the English word hell, is gehenna; ge in Greek is the earth, or ground, and henna is borrowed from the Hebrew, from the valley of Hinnom.’, ibid., p. 14.

[12] ‘As a noun, nephesh hath been supposed to signify the spiritual part of man, or what we commonly call his soul; I must for myself confess that I can find no passage where it hath undoubtedly this meaning., Parkhurst, ‘A Hebrew and English lexicon without points: in which the Hebrew and Chaldee words of the Old Testament are explained in their leading and derived senses, To this work are prefixed, a Hebrew and a Chaldee grammar, without points’, p. 460 (1799).

[13] ‘Dr. J. H. M’Culloh says: “There is no word in the Hebrew language that signifies either soul or spirit, in the technical sense in which we use the term as implying something distinct from the body.”  § 55. R. B. Girdlestone, in his Synonyms of the Old Testament, says: “The soul is, properly speaking, the animating principle of the body; and is the common property of man and beast.” “In other words, it is the life, whether of man or beast.” When every passage in the Bible that speaks of the soul of man has been carefully examined, it will be found that these statements of these eminent Hebrew scholars and lexicographers, and many others, are strictly correct, and therefore should be fully believed by all who love the truth.’, Grant, ‘Positive Theology’, chapter 4 (1895).

[14]There are four words in the original language of the Scriptures, all translated hell (though not invariably), each of which, it has long been supposed, denotes this place of woe. Of late, however, that opinion has been discarded.’, Balfour, ‘An Inquiry Into the Scriptural Import of the Words Sheol, Hades, Tartarus, and Gehenna, Translated Hell in the Common English Version’, p. 9 (rev. ed. 1854).

[15] The original group following the teachings of William Miller, who began preaching his distinctive beliefs in 1833; Miller himself did not believe in conditional immortality, but it was one of a number of beliefs held among the group.

[16] ‘Congregational minister Edward White, whose Life in Christ (1846) espoused the view that immortality was not necessary but conditional on right belief. Instead of suffering perpetual torture, the unsaved were annihilated.’, Wilson, ‘STOKES, George Gabriel’, Bebbington & Noll (eds.), ‘Biographical dictionary of evangelicals’, p. 633 (2003).

[17] Thayer, ‘The Origin and History of the Doctrine of Endless Punishment’ (1855); he was appealed to by subsequent conditionalists due to his reputation as an authoritative lexicographer.

[18] ‘Louis Gaussen, whom Froom mentions on p. 252 with respect to premillennialism, and on p. 602 in connection with Petavel-Olliff, may be remembered almost as an apostle of the biblical doctrine concerning the state of the dead.’, Vauchez, ‘The History of Conditionalism’, Andrews University Seminary Studies, volumes 4-5, pp. 199-200 (1966).

[19] Thomas, ‘Tour in the United States and Canada.—Letter from Dr. Thomas’, The Christadelphian (2.7.105), 1865.

[20]Death is, for the time, the annihilation of man, his hopes, his thoughts, his life, himself —’, Constable, ‘The Intermediate State of Man’, p. 88 (1873).

[21]The unconsciousness of the dead was also set forth by the Swiss pastor Louis Burnier (1795-1873).’, Vauchez, ‘The History of Conditionalism’, Andrews University Seminary Studies, volumes 4-5, p. 199 (1966).

[22]In 1878, some English Baptists formed the Conditionalist Association. George A. Brown, an English Baptist pastor, host’, Pool, ‘Against returning to Egypt: Exposing and Resisting Credalism in the Southern Baptist Convention’, p. 134 (1998).

[23]The theory of the final destruction of the wicked, or, as it is more briefly and correctly named, the theory of “conditional immortality” is this: That men are not created with inherent immortality, with a soul, or body, or both, such as cannot be destroyed, but that immortality is a superadded gift which man’s nature is capable of receiving and which God bestows in such cases as He wills, and that He does not so will in the case of impenitent sinners; hence, it of course follows, that at some time all such offenders will cease to exist.’, Mann, ‘Five Discourses On Future Punishment’, p. (1888).

[24] Grant, ‘Positive Theology’ (1895).

[25]The doctrine of conditional immortality was his principal religious concern.’, Wilson, ‘STOKES, George Gabriel’, Bebbington & Noll (eds.), ‘Biographical dictionary of evangelicals’, p. 633 (2003).

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 7: Current Scholarship

February 4, 2011 Leave a comment

The majority of standard scholarly sources today describe the state of the dead in terms identical or very close to the mortalist view.[1] In particular, it is typically held by modern scholarly commentary that the traditional doctrine of the ‘immortal soul’ has no place in the Hebrew Bible,[2] and little to no suggestion of any support in the New Testament.

  • Harper’s Bible Dictionary (1985)[3]
  • Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (1987)[4]
  • New Bible Dictionary (3rd ed. 1996)[5]
  • Baker Encyclopedia of Psychology & Counseling (2nd ed. 1999)[6]
  • Encyclopedia of Judaism (2000)[7]
  • New Dictionary of Theology (2000)[8]
  • Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (2000) [9]
  • Tyndale Bible Dictionary (2001)[10]
  • International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (rev. ed. 2002)[11] [12]
  • Encyclopedia of Christianity (2003)[13]
  • Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (2005)[14]
  • Zondervan Encylopedia of the Bible (rev. ed. 2009)[15] [16]

[1] 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’.

[2]Twentieth century biblical scholarship largely agrees that the ancient Jews had little explicit notion of a personal afterlife until very late in the Old Testament period. Immortality of the soul was a typically Greek philosophical notion quite foreign to the thought of ancient Semitic peoples. Only the latest stratum of the Old Testament asserts even the resurrection of the body, a view more congenial to Semites.’, Donelley, ‘Calvinism and Scholasticism in Vermigli’s doctrine of man and grace’, p. 99 (1976); note that this was written over 30 years ago, and the academic consensus has only strengthened on the issue.

[3]For a Hebrew, ‘soul’ indicated the unity of a human person; Hebrews were living bodies, they did not have bodies. This Hebrew field of meaning is breached in the Wisdom of Solomon by explicit introduction of Greek ideas of soul. A dualism of soul and body is present: ‘a perishable body weighs down the soul’ (9:15). This perishable body is opposed by an immortal soul (3:1-3). Such dualism might imply that soul is superior to body. In the nt, ‘soul’ retains its basic Hebrew field of meaning. Soul refers to one’s life: Herod sought Jesus’ soul (Matt. 2:20); one might save a soul or take it (Mark 3:4). Death occurs when God ‘requires your soul’ (Luke 12:20). ‘Soul’ may refer to the whole person, the self: ‘three thousand souls’ were converted in Acts 2:41 (see Acts 3:23). Although the Greek idea of an immortal soul different in kind from the mortal body is not evident, ‘soul’ denotes the existence of a person after death (see Luke 9:25; 12:4; 21:19); yet Greek influence may be found in 1 Peter’s remark about ‘the salvation of souls’ (1:9). A moderate dualism exists in the contrast of spirit with body and even soul, where ‘soul’ means life that is not yet caught up in grace. See also Flesh and Spirit; Human Being.’, Neyrey, ‘Soul’, in Achtemeier, Harper, & Row (eds.), ‘Harper’s Bible Dictionary’, pp. 982-983 (1st ed. 1985).

[4] ‘Indeed, the salvation of the “immortal soul” has sometimes been a commonplace in preaching, but it is fundamentally unbiblical. Biblical anthropology is not dualistic but monistic: human being consists in the integrated wholeness of body and soul, and the Bible never contemplates the disembodied existence of the soul in bliss.’, Myers (ed.), ‘The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary’, p. 518 (1987).

[5] ‘A particular instance of the Heb. avoidance of dualism is the biblical doctrine of man. Greek thought, and in consequence many Hellenizing Jewish and Christian sages, regarded the body as a prison-house of the soul: sōma sēma ‘the body is a tomb’. The aim of the sage was to achieve deliverance from all that is bodily and thus liberate the soul. But to the Bible man is not a soul in a body but a body/soul unity; so true is this that even in the resurrection, although flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, we shall still have bodies (1 Cor. 15:35ff.).’, Cressey, ‘Dualism’, in Cressey, Wood, & Marshall (eds.), ‘New Bible Dictionary’, p. 284 (3rd. ed. 1996).

[6] ‘Modern scholarship has underscored the fact that Hebrew and Greek concepts of soul were not synonymous. While the Hebrew thought world distinguished soul from body (as material basis of life), there was no question of two separate, independent entities. A person did not have a body but was an animated body, a unit of life manifesting itself in fleshly form—a psychophysical organism (Buttrick, 1962). Although Greek concepts of the soul varied widely according to the particular era and philosophical school, Greek thought often presented a view of the soul as a separate entity from body. Until recent decades Christian theology of the soul has been more reflective of Greek (compartmentalized) than Hebrew (unitive) ideas.’, Moon, ‘Soul’, in Benner & Hill (eds.), ‘Baker encyclopedia of psychology & counseling, p. 1148 (2nd ed. 1999).

[7] ‘Even as we are conscious of the broad and very common biblical usage of the term “soul,” we must be clear that Scripture does not present even a rudimentarily developed theology of the soul. The creation narrative is clear that all life originates with God. Yet the Hebrew Scripture offers no specific understanding of the origin of individual souls, of when and how they become attached to specific bodies, or of their potential existence, apart from the body, after death. The reason for this is that, as we noted at the beginning, the Hebrew Bible does not present a theory of the soul developed much beyond the simple concept of a force associated with respiration, hence, a life-force.’, Avery-Peck, ‘Soul’, in Neusner, et al. (eds.), ‘The Encyclopedia of Judaism’, p. 1343 (2000).

[8] ‘‎Gn. 2:7 refers to God forming Adam ‘from the dust of the ground’ and breathing ‘into his nostrils the breath of life’, so that man becomes a ‘living being’. The word ‘being’ translates the Hebrew word nep̄eš which, though often translated by the Eng. word ‘soul’, ought not to be interpreted in the sense suggested by Hellenistic thought (see Platonism; Soul, Origin of). It should rather be understood in its own context within the OT as indicative of men and women as living beings or persons in relationship to God and other people. The lxx translates this Heb. word nep̄eš with the Gk. word psychē, which explains the habit of interpreting this OT concept in the light of Gk. use of psychē. Yet it is surely more appropriate to understand the use of psychē (in both the lxx and the NT) in the light of the OT’s use of nep̄eš. According to Gn. 2, any conception of the soul as a separate (and separable) part or division of our being would seem to be invalid. Similarly, the popular debate concerning whether human nature is a bipartite or tripartite being has the appearance of a rather ill-founded and unhelpful irrelevancy. The human person is a ‘soul’ by virtue of being a ‘body’ made alive by the ‘breath’ (or ‘Spirit’) of God.’, Ferguson & Packer (eds.),’New Dictionary of Theology’, pp. 28-29 (electronic ed. 2000).

[9] ‘Far from referring simply to one aspect of a person, “soul” refers to the whole person. Thus, a corpse is referred to as a “dead soul,” even though the word is usually translated “dead body” (Lev. 21:11; Num. 6:6). “Soul” can also refer to a person’s very life itself 1 Kgs. 19:4; Ezek. 32:10).‎“Soul” often refers by extension to the whole person.’, Carrigan, ‘Soul’, Freedman, Myers, & Beck (eds.) ‘Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible’, p. 1245 (2000).

[10] ‘There is no suggestion in the OT of the transmigration of the soul as an immaterial, immortal entity. Man is a unity of body and soul—terms that describe not so much two separate entities in a person as much as one person from different standpoints. Hence, in the description of man’s creation in Genesis 2:7, the phrase “a living soul” (kjv) is better translated as “a living being.”’, Elwell & Comfort (eds.), ‘Tyndale Bible dictionary, p. 1216 (2001).

[11] ‘It has been noted already that the soul, like the body, derives from God. This implies that man is composed of soul and body, and the Bible makes it plain that this is so. The soul and the body belong together, so that without either the one or the other there is no true man. Disembodied existence in Sheol is unreal. Paul does not seek a life outside the body, but wants to be clothed with a new and spiritual body (1 Cor. 15; 2 Cor. 5).’, Bromiley, ‘Psychology’, in Bromiley, ‘The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia’, volume 3, p. 1045 (rev. ed. 2002).

[12] ‘Nor is any place left for dualism. Soul and body are not separate entities which are able to work in concert by virtue of a preestablished harmony (Leibniz).’ , ibid., p. 1045.

[13] ‘All Christians believe in immortality, understood as a final resurrection to everlasting life. The majority have held that immortality also includes continuing existence of the soul or person between death and resurrection. Almost every detail of this general confession and its biblical basis, however, has been disputed. The debate has been fueled by the development of beliefs about the afterlife within the Bible itself and the variety of language in which they are expressed. The Hebrew Bible does not present the human soul (nepeš) or spirit (rûah) as an immortal substance, and for the most part it envisions the dead as ghosts in Sheol, the dark, sleepy underworld. Nevertheless it expresses hope beyond death (see Pss. 23 and 49:15) and eventually asserts physical resurrection (see Isa. 26:19; Dan. 12:2).’, Cooper, ‘Immortality’, in Fahlbusch & Bromiley (eds.), ‘The Encyclopedia of Christianity’, volume 2, p. (2003).

[14] ‘soul. The idea of a distinction between the soul, the immaterial principle of life and intelligence, and the body is of great antiquity, though only gradually expressed with any precision. Hebrew thought made little of this distinction, and there is practically no specific teaching on the subject in the Bible beyond an underlying assumption of some form of afterlife (see immortality)., Cross & Livingstone, (eds.), ‘The Oxford dictionary of the Christian Church’, p. 1531 (3rd rev. ed. 2005).

[15] ‘The English translation of nepeš by the term “soul” has too often been misunderstood as teaching a bipartite (soul and body—dichotomy) or tripartite (body, soul, and spirit—trichotomy) anthropology. Equally misleading is the interpretation that too radically separates soul from body as in the Greek view of human nature. See body; spirit. N. Porteous (in IDB, 4:428) states it well when he says, “The Hebrew could not conceive of a disembodied nepeš, though he could use nepeš with or without the adjective ‘dead,’ for corpse (e.g., Lev. 19:28; Num. 6:6).” Or as R. B. Laurin has suggested, “To the Hebrew, man was not a ‘body’ and a ‘soul,’ but rather a ‘body-soul,’ a unit of vital power” (BDT, 492). In this connection, the most significant text is Gen. 2:7, “the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life [nišmat hayyîm], and the man became a living being [nepeš hayyâ]” (the KJV rendering “living soul” is misleading).’, Lake, ‘Soul’, in Silva & Tenney (eds.), ‘The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible’, volume 5, p. 586 (rev. ed. 2009).

[16] ‘What is essential to understanding the Hebrew mind is the recognition that the human being is a unit: body-soul! The soul is not, therefore, unaffected by the experience of death. OT eschatology does indeed contain seminal elements of hope implying the more positive teaching of the NT, as can be seen in the OT phrase, “rested with his fathers” (1 Ki. 2:10 et al.), in David’s confident attitude toward the death of his child (2 Sam. 12:12–23), and in Job’s hope for a resurrection (Job 19:20–29). It is this essential soul-body oneness that provides the uniqueness of the biblical concept of the resurrection of the body as distinguished from the Greek idea of the immortality of the soul.’, ibid., p. 587.

Mortalism 4: The Early Modern Era

January 31, 2011 Leave a comment

Soul sleep[1] was a significant minority view from the eighth to the seventeenth centuries.[2] Soul death[3] became increasingly common from the Reformation onwards.[4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10]

Notable conditionalists of this era include:

l  16??: Sussex Baptists.[11]

l  d. 1612: Edward Wightman[12]

l  1627: Samuel Gardner[13]

l  1628: Samuel Przpkowski[14]

l  1636: George Wither[15]

l  1637: Joachim Stegman[16]

l  1624: Richard Overton[17]

l  1654: John Biddle[18]

l  1655: Matthew Caffyn[19]

l  1658: Samuel Richardson[20]

l  1608-1674: John Milton[21]

l  1588-1670: Thomas Hobbes[22]

l  1605-1682: Thomas Browne[23]

l  1622-1705: Henry Layton[24]

l  1702: William Coward[25]

l  1632-1704: John Locke[26]

l  1643-1727: Isaac Newton[27]

l  1676-1748: Pietro Giannone[28]

l  1751: William Kenrick[29]

l  1755: Edmund Law[30]

l  1759: Samuel Bourn[31]

l  1723-1791: Richard Price[32]

l  1718-1797: Peter Peckard[33]

l  1733-1804: Joseph Priestley[34]

l  1765: Francis Blackburne[35]


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

[2] ‘Harold Fisch calls it ‘a major current of seventeenth century protestant ideology‘.’, Thomson, ‘Bodies of thought: science, religion, and the soul in the early Enlightenment’, p. 42 (2008).

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

[4]Mortalism, in some form or other, had been around quite a while before the seventeenth century, but for our purposes we can begin to investigate mortalism as it appeared at the time of the Reformation.’, Brandon, ‘The coherence of Hobbes’s Leviathan: civil and religious authority combined’, p. 65 (2007).

[5] ‘we also know that such mortalist thought was fairly widespread prior to the seventeenth century.’, ibid., p. 66.

[6] ‘The status of the dead was among the most divisive issues of the early Reformation; it was also arguably the theological terrain over which in the reign of Henry VIII official reform travelled furthest and fastest.’, Marshall, ‘Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England’, p. 47 (2002).

[7] ‘In fact, during the Reformation both psycho- somnolence—the belief that the soul sleeps until the resurrection—and thnetopsychism—the belief that the body and soul both die and then both rise againwere quite common’, Conti, ‘Religio Medici’s Profession of Faith’, in Barbour & Preston (eds.), ‘Sir Thomas Browne: the world proposed’, p. 157 (2008).

[8] ‘All this suggests that mortalism, and the fear of it, was widespread in England in the century after the Reformation. But the English Revolution, in particular, was a crucible out of which radical new ideas boiled. Mortalist ideas multiplied rapidly in the 1640s‘, Almond, ‘Heaven and Hell in Enlightenment England’, p. 43 (1994).

[9] ‘The most common form of seventeenth-century Christian mortalism claimed that the whole individual died and was insensible until the resurrection and judgement, when the whole individual would be resuscitated and enter on eternal life. There was no continuation of an immaterial part of the individual, no feeling, thought, or suffering before the final general resurrection.’, Thomson, ‘Bodies of thought: science, religion, and the soul in the early Enlightenment’, p. 42 (2008).

[10] ‘On the contrary, mortalist views – particularly of the sort which affirmed that the soul slept or died – were widespread in the Reformation period. George Williams has shown how prevalent mortalism was among the Reformation radicals.’, Almond, ‘Heaven and Hell in Enlightenment England’, p. 38 (1994).

[11]The Baptists in Italy and France had at times adopted Soul Sleeping; such an association also existed in England, for we hear that in Kent and Sussex Baptists were linked to a sect known as the Soul Sleepers.’, Burrell, ‘The role of religion in modern European history’, p. 74 (1964).

[12] ‘he affirmed that the soul sleeps in the sleep of the first death as well as the body;’, Vedder, ‘A Short History of the Baptists’, p. 197 (1907).

[13] ‘The Norwich minister Samuel Gardiner envisaged the dead ‘sleep[ing] supinely in their lockers, careless and senseless of secular affaires”, Marshall, ‘Beliefs and the dead in Reformation England’, p. 213 (2002).

[14] ‘Przypkowski, like Sozzini, affirmed that those who had not been exposed to the Gospel through revelation would not receive eternal torments for their ignorance of the Gospel. Przypkowski remains consistent with Sozzini in stating that they simply would not be raised and would remain eternally dead.’, Snobelen, ‘Revelation and Reason: The Development, Rationalization and Influence of Socinianism’, honors thesis, p. 54 (1993).

[15] ‘Another convinced adherent of moderate Puritan opinion, the poet George Wither, gave mortalism even more substantial support‘, Ball, ‘The Soul Sleepers: Christian Mortalism from Wycliffe to Priestley’, p. 73 (2008).

[16]The mortalist position, on the other hand, was defended in the Brevis disquisitio published by the Socinian Joachim Stegmann in 1637.’, Méchoulan (ed.), ‘La formazione storica della alterità: studi di storia della tolleranza nell’età moderna offerti a Antonio Rotondò’, Secolo XVI, p. 1221 (2001).

[17] ‘In 1644 he published a notorious tract, Mans Mortalitie, wherein he sought to prove ‘both theologically and philosophically, that whole man (as a rational creature) is a compound wholly mortal, contrary to that common distinction of soul and body: and that the present going of the soul into heaven or hell is a mere fiction: and that at the resurrection is the beginning of our immortality, and then actual condemnation, and salvation, and not before.’, Watts, ‘The Dissenters: From the Reformation to the French Revolution’, p. 119 (1985).

[18] ‘The seventeenth-century Socinians John Biddle and Samuel Richardson both disbelieved in eternal torment and were convinced that the wicked would be annihilated.’, Young, ‘F. D. Maurice and Unitarianism’, p. 249 (1992).

[19] ‘”Matthew Caffyn said, no man hath eternal life [immortality] now in him as possessing it, but a promise of it, I John ii. 25’, Froom, ‘The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers’, volume 2, p. 144 (1966).

[20] Richardson, ‘A discourse of the torments of hell: The foundation and pillars thereof discovered, searched, shaken and removed. With many infallible proofs, that there is not to be a punishment after this life for any to endure that shall never end’ (1658).

[21] ‘In discussing the death of the body (chapter 13), Milton espouses mortalism or Thnetopsychism, the logical concomitant of his monist ontology.’, Lewalski, ‘The life of John Milton: a critical biography’, p. 431 (2002).

[22] ‘Although he is not normally counted a Socinian, Hobbes shares their commitment to the mortalist thesis,’, Jolley, ‘The relation between theology and philosophy’, in Garber & Ayres (eds.), ‘The Cambridge history of seventeenth-century philosophy’, volume 1, p. 383 (2003).

[23] ‘ Burns presents this view as held not only by Hobbes, but also by John Milton, Sir Thomas Browne, and Richard Overton.’, Brandon, ‘The coherence of Hobbes’s Leviathan: civil and religious authority combined’, p. 66 (2007).

[24] ‘Between 1692 and 1706, Henry Layton had produced a series of pamphlets which, while endorsing the notion of a general resurrection on the last day, had asserted the mortality of the soul primarily on physiological grounds though with the aid of Scripture.’, Almond, ‘Heaven and Hell in Enlightenment England’, p. 62 (1994).

[25] ‘Similarly, William Coward wrote a series of works from 1702 to 1706 in which he argued for the mortality of the soul and the resurrection of the dead on the last day.’, Almond, ‘Heaven and Hell in Enlightenment England’, p. 62 (1994).

[26]Locke affirmed the doctrine of mortalism in the Reasonableness in his account of the consequences of Adam’s Fall.’, Nuvo (ed.), ‘John Locke: Writings on Religion’, p. xxxiii (2002).

[27]Newton’s mortalism is of a piece with that of several Civil War sectarians,’, Wood, ‘Science and dissent in England, 1688-1945’, p. 50 (2004).

[28] ‘In the Triregno Giannone implicitly aligns himself with a materialist position: the doctrine of the soul’s immortality is presented as one of many corrupting influences that the Jews absorbed from the Egyptians.’, Suttcliffe, ‘Judaism and Enlightenment’, p. 207 (2005).

[29]He seems to have been a materialist, a mortalist (that is, a believer that the soul expires at death), and an announced foe to priestcraft; the pages of the London Review resounded with his defenses of Joseph Priesley’s unorthodoxies.’, Johns, ‘Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates’, p. 141 (2010).

[30]Edmund Law, Archdeacon of Carlisle, who (in a D.D. exercise at Cambridge in 1754, published as an “Appendix” to the third edition of The Theory of Religion [1755]) had revived the Anabaptist theory of “soul sleep”’, Outler, ‘John Wesley: Folk-Theologian’, Theology Today (34.2.154), 1977.

[31] ‘Death, when applied to the end of wicked men in a future state, he says, properly denotes a total extinction of life and being,’, Buck, ‘A theological dictionary: containing definitions of all religious terms’, p. 115 (1823).

[32] ‘He does not believe, for he cannot find in Scripture, the ‘ultimate restoration of all mankind,’ but he holds that the future punishment will consist chiefly in the annihilation of being, not in the torture of living beings‘, Stephen, ‘History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century’, p. 429 (1901).

[33] ‘Peckard, on the other hand, adopted the anti-dogmatic mortalist line that between death and final judgment, the soul lay dormant, that at death the whole man died rather than just his physical being.’, Ingram, ‘Religion, reform and modernity in the eighteenth century: Thomas Secker and the Church of England’, Studies in Modern British Religious History, p. 101 (2007).

[34] ‘I suppose that the powers of thought are not merely suspended, but are extinct, or cease to be, at death.’, Priestley, ‘A free discussion of the doctrine of materialism, and philosophical necessity’, p. 82 (1778).

[35] Blackburne, ‘A short historical view of the controversy concerning an intermediate state and the separate existence of the soul between death and the general resurrection, deduced from the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, to the present times’ (1765).

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.