Tuesday, July 08, 2014

C6. God intended us to live forever.

Running late this week. Here is Sunday's post, second to last in the section on Creation in my theology in bullet points series. The previous one is here.
God intended us to live forever.

The dominant sense Christians have had throughout history is that Adam and Eve were naturally built to live forever before they sinned in the Garden of Eden. They only lost this capacity because of their sin. Now, the default is that humans die. "By the trespass of the one man, death reigned," Paul says (Rom. 5:17).

An alternative way to take the Genesis story, mentioned in our discussion of the goodness of creation, is that Adam and Eve always had needed to eat from the Tree of Life in order to live forever. In this approach, death entered the world as the human default because, from the time of their sin, they could not eat of the Tree of Life and live forever.

Whichever interpretation you choose, the Bible indicates that God created humanity with the goal that we would live forever with him. As the Calvinist Westminster Confession puts it, we were created to serve God forever.

Early on in church history, the Greek idea of the soul influenced the way Christians conceptualized the way in which we live forever. Even today, many Christians understand eternal life in terms of an immortal soul within us that lives forever, whether a person be saved or damned. However, we should keep at least a couple important qualifications in mind.

First, while historic Christianity has typically believed that we as humans have a soul, it has also held that the eternal state of humanity is an embodied one. That is to say, Christianity has commonly held that God will give us a glorified body to have for all eternity. So whether or not we formulate eternity in terms of a soul, Christianity has classically seen the ideal human state as an embodied one rather than a spiritual, disembodied one.

A second thing to keep in mind is that the soul does not play a major role in the biblical portraits of what a human is or in how we live forever. The immortal soul, while compatible with biblical teaching, comes more from the influence of Greek philosophy on early Christianity than from the Bible itself. The Bible itself gives us more than one picture of human identity.

For example, in Hebrew, a soul is a living being consisting of both body and breath. God takes the dust of the earth (body). God breathes into it (spirit). "And the man became a living being" or, as the King James Version puts it, "a living soul" (Gen. 2:7). The Hebrew word nephesh (soul) thus did not refer to a detachable part of a person but to a whole, living being. [1]We find traces of this use of the word in the Greek of 1 Peter 3:20, which speaks of eight "souls" (or persons, as the NIV puts it) being saved on the ark.

In the New Testament, the Greek word psyche can simply refer to the life of a person. Matthew 10:39 indicates that, "Whoever finds their life [psyche] will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it." Clearly it would not work to translate the word as "soul" here--"whoever loses their soul will find it"?

So arguably it is only in a couple of places where it is possible that the New Testament is thinking of the soul in some way similar to how we think of it today. For example, there is 1 Thessalonians 5:23, where Paul distinguishes between body, soul, and spirit. Hebrews 4:12 seems to distinguish between soul and spirit in some way. But these are oblique references, hardly enough to base a theology on.

So the picture of the soul works as one picture of human immortality, but it is just one biblical picture. It is a true picture from the outside looking on rather than from the inside looking out. Most of the functions that we would have associated with the soul in an earlier day would now be attributed, at least in large part, to the brain.

Memories go when the ganglia of the brain get tangled with Alzheimer's disease. Phineas Gage is a well-known story of a man whose personality fundamentally changed when a rod blew through the frontal lobe of his brain. We even know which part of your brain "lights up" when you are having a religious experience.

None of these observations disprove the existence of a soul. Indeed, the existence of a soul might indicate how we can have any free will at all amid the flood of determinism that is so much of what we know about the cause and effect of brain chemistry, genetics, and environment.

But God can also perform miracles. God can empower human freedom from the outside. God could recreate our bodies from complete scratch or give an immortal soul a recreated body.

The bottom line is that God created us for eternity. How he works out the details is hardly a challenge to him, even though it is a mystery to us.

Next Sunday the last post on creation: C7. All humanity is of equal value to God--all nations, every social status, both male and female.

[1] Such "living souls" need not even be human. Genesis 1:21 speaks of the living souls in the waters, that is, sea creatures.


Alethinon61 said...

Have you read any of the works by proponents of what's come to be known as "Conditional Immortality"? If not, I would highly recommend that you do so. I would start with #1 below, as it is the most influential work on the subject in modern history, but the others are also quite good:

1. The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, Third Edition, with a forward by Richard Bauckham.

Comment: As I said, this is *the* most influential book on this subject in modern times, and for good reason. It considers the nature of man and final destiny in light of the Bible, intertestamental literature, and the works of the Church Fathers.

2. 'Hell': A Hard Look at a Hard Question: The Fat of the Unrighteous in New Testament Thought.

Comment: This book is comparable to #1, but it focuses primarily on the New Testament.

3. The Case for Conditional Immortality, found in Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell, edited by Nigel M. de S. Cameron.

Comment: This chapter is the most compelling brief apology for Conditional Immortality that I've ever read. The same chapter can now also be found in #4 below.

4. Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism, edited by Edited by Christopher M. Date, Gregory G. Stump, Joshua W. Anderson.

Comment: This book brings together writings by various proponents of Conditional Immortality from yesteryear and today into a single volume. I believe that I own every book from which the extracts found in this one were taken.

5. Life and Immortality, by Basil F.C. Atkinson, M.A., PhD

Comment: Like the article above (#3), this is an *excellent* brief apology in support of Conditional Immortality (112 pages total).

6. The Righteous Judge, by Harold E. Guillebaud, M.A.

Comment: Similar to #5, i.e. a brief, excellent treatment. It's difficult to find now, but securing a copy shouldn't be to much of a challenge for a scholar:-)

7. Two Views of Hell: A Biblical & Theological Dialogue, by Edward William Fudge and Robert A. Peterson.

Comment: This book is structured like the "Four Views of X" series, with a proponent of Conditional Immortality (Fudge) in dialogue with a proponent of the traditional view. IMO, Fudge makes a *much* better case than Peterson.

8. Is Man the Phoenix?: A Study of Immortality, buy Bruce Reichenbach.

Comment: Another excellent study by a Conditionalist, with interesting comments about the so-called "intermediate state".

9. Immortality or Resurrection: A Biblical Study on Human Nature and Destiny, by Samuele Bacchiocchi, with a forward by Clark Pinnock.

Comment: Another excellent treatment of the subject. Much of the book can be read for free online at biblicalperspectives.

10. Life and Immortality, by Eric Lewis, B.A.

11. Christ, the First Fruits, by Eric Lewis.

With endorsements by folks like Richard Bauckham, Ben Witherington III, John Stott, Roger Olsen, E. Earle Ellis, Michael Green, Stephen Travis, Philip Hughes, David Powys, etc, this view can no longer be dismissed as the doctrine of fringe groups. It is gaining ground as a reputable position, and so folks like you, who can see that the doctrine of the immortality of the soul comes from Greek, not Hebrew thought, has the opportunity to join the growing body of thoughtful, scholarly dissent.


Ken Schenck said...

Thanks for the bibliography!

Alethinon61 said...

You're welcome:-) BTW, I forgot the most recent contrabution, which brings together the writings of various conditionalists, and which has been published by Wipf & Stock:

Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism,
Edited by Christopher M. Date, Gregory G. Stump, Joshua W. Anderson

You can see the list of chapter and contributors to this volume, here: