Thursday, August 25, 2011

Reconciling Philosophy and Theology: The Assumption of Soul Immortality

“W.G.T. Shedd affirms the immortality of the soul as it was taught for seventeen centuries:

‘But irrepressible and universal as it is, the doctrine of man’s immortality is an astonishing one, and difficult to entertain. For it means that every frail finite man is to be as long-enduring as the infinite and eternal God; that there will no more be an end to the existence of the man who died today than there will be of the Deity who made him. God is denominated ‘The Ancient of Days.’ But every immortal spirit that ever dwelt in a human body will also be an ‘ancient of days’...yes, man must exist. He has no option. Necessity is laid upon him. He cannot extinguish himself. He cannot cease to be’” (W.G.T. Shedd, quoted by Edward William Fudge, “Immortality Verbatim,” from The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment. Eugene: Cascade Books, 2011).

I have always been one to believe in the partnership of theology and philosophy in theological research. Philosophy is “theology’s handmaiden,” which is why I have a section of posts here at the site labeled by that very title. Today’s post will examine the biblical statements surrounding immortality and whether or not certain philosophical assumptions (such as the doctrine of the immortality of the soul) are biblically faithful. I believe that the soul is immortal, it cannot die. Since I believe in soul immortality, I will defend this traditional, long-standing belief via the Scriptures themselves. We can use what is contained within the Scriptures to draw inferences about immortality, humanity, and humanity’s relationship to God.

In the quote above, W.G.T. Shedd argues that man must continue to exist. As he says, “He [man] cannot extinguish himself. He cannot cease to be.” I think this is a fair claim to make, since all of humanity will reside in only two places at the end of time: heaven or hell. The Scriptures seem to indicate this as well, and I will let Scripture be the final judge in these philosophical matters. It’s safe to say that believers should always consult the Bible before forming philosophical conclusions that may conflict with the text of Scripture itself.

Fudge disagrees with Shedd’s claim:

“If someone inquires why this does not fly into the face of Scripture’s statement that God alone possesses immortality (1 Tim. 6:16), many traditionalists answer that man’s immortality concerns only his soul, which survives bodily death” (Fudge, The Fire That Consumes, “Immortality Verbatim”).

Being the inquisitive Bible student that I am, I decided to check 1 Timothy 6:16. When Paul writes that “God alone possesses immortality,” he is saying that God alone has an immortal essence. What are humans essentially called? “Mortals!” The reason why humans are mortals is because we have a time to live and a time to die. We will not live forever in our mortal bodies. But one day, we will put on immortal bodies (see 1 Corinthians 15:50-56). Still, though, the question arises, “Do we have an immortal soul?” We have discussed the issue of mortal bodies, that humans possess bodies that will decay and die. The question we need to answer next, though, is “What about the soul? Is the soul immortal or mortal?” This is an important question to Edward Fudge as well, since his espousal of conditional immortality will argue that man has a mortal soul just as he has a mortal body.

How do traditionalists respond? Fudge quotes Henry Barclay Swete:

God is immortal in the sense that he cannot die...God ‘only hath immortality’ such as this. Man is immortal in the sense that there is in him that which does not die. His body dies, but his soul survives. It lives on after it has left the body” [Henry Barclay Swete, quoted by Edward Fudge, The Fire That Consumes, “Immortality Verbatim” (chap. 3)].

When it says that God is immortal, it means that God alone is “eternal.” The New American Standard Bible which I was given as an MDiv graduate from Southeastern Seminary this past May 19, 2011, connects 1 Timothy 1:17 to this verse. 1 Timothy 1:17 states that God is “eternal,” which provides greater understanding of 1 Timothy 6:16. It makes sense to say that God alone is eternal. It is rather obvious that humans are not (otherwise, we would not die).

However, does this mean that humans have immortal souls? Is the immortality of the soul a biblical doctrine? There is good evidence to indicate immortality of the soul. One such good piece of evidence comes from Matthew 25, where Jesus describes the judgment of the nations (following the parable of the talents). To the ones who do not do good deeds in Jesus’ name, He says “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:46, NASB). If “eternal life” means that life will last forever, what does “eternal punishment” mean? It is a punishment that lasts forever! This is the only way to approach the parallel nature of both “life” and “punishment” that are eternal in nature. Fudge will have problems with accepting my interpretation, as we will see throughout the rest of the series on this work.

Matthew 25:46 fits well with the verses from Revelation that I discussed in my last post. Such verses as Revelation 14:11, which says that those who worship the beast will “have no rest day and night” and that “the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever.” Such rhetoric describes conscious, unending torment in the lake of fire and brimstone. If we return to the context of Matthew 25, the lazy servant in the parable of the three talents is thrown “into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 25:30). Such a description indicates that there will be weeping, a sign of emotional torment and sadness, and there will be “gnashing of teeth,” a sign of conscious pain. In the same way that a person winces when they stub their toe, a person will wince a whole lot more in the lake of fire and brimstone. Why is this true? Because, although the devil and his angels will dwell in hell, so will ungodly humans. And because ungodly humans are raised to be judged for their deeds, and death is annihilated before men and women are thrown into the fire (see Revelation 20:14), there will be no death, no annihilation, for those who die without faith in Jesus. Such persons will experience the conscious, unending torment of hell for all it’s worth. And the unending consciousness of humans is a sign of the immortality of the soul [for the same soul that suffers conscious pain in life (the ungodly) will suffer conscious torment in the next [eternal death].

To conclude, let me say that heaven and hell are two places the Bible says exist. And in the end, hell will still exist. There is no such text in the Scriptures that indicates the annihilation of hell. What we are told in Revelation 20:14 is that “death and Hades” are thrown into the lake of fire...but we are not told that the lake of fire and brimstone is destroyed. Thus, the lake of fire and brimstone will continue to burn for all eternity. And the only way that this can be torment is if those who are thrown into it actually feel it and experience the weeping and gnashing of teeth. God bless.

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