Prof. Engelsma is professor emeritus of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: November 1, 2008, p. 57.

The “Immortality of the Soul”

The biblical and Reformed hope of the life of the elect believer with Christ in heaven in his soul immediately upon death—the intermediate state—must not be confused with the philosophical notion of the “immortality of the soul.” Greek philosophy taught that the soul of every human is inherently immortal. Physical death, therefore, only destroys the body. The soul naturally continues to live in a more-or-less happy, if vague, existence as part of a universal “world-soul.”

The philosophers had their reasons for this optimistic prospect of the soul of every human. The reasons were the Greek philosophers’ theories about the origin and the nature of the human soul. Every human soul was originally part of an eternal “world-soul.” Somehow, every human gets his own individual part of this “world-soul” at conception. As part of the eternal “world-soul,” the soul of every human is inherently good and noble. The soul thinks about grand realities such as the gods, truth, beauty, and justice, which are eternal ideas. Deriving from an eternal source and contemplating eternal realities, the soul cannot die.

According to the Greek philosophers, particularly Plato and Aristotle, man is a dualism of body and soul. Because the body is material, it is vile and worthless. But the soul, as “spiritual” and “immaterial,” is good and noble. As long as a man lives, his noble soul is hampered and corrupted by his vile body. The soul cannot think the excellent thoughts about truth, beauty, and justice that otherwise it would. The body is the prison of the soul. At death, the soul is finally freed from its prison in the body and soars away on high to return to the universal “world-soul” whence it came. Presumably, there it shares in thinking grand thoughts forever.

In Plato’s Phaedo, as he is about to drink the poison, Socrates expresses to his disciples that he is “of good cheer.” In death, he will “go to the joys of the blessed.” The reason is that “the soul is immortal and imperishable, and our souls will truly exist in another world.” For “the soul is in the very likeness of the divine, and immortal, and intellectual, and uniform, and indissoluble, and unchangeable.” The soul, according to Socrates (and Plato), is “pure and noble,” at least the soul of the philosopher (Plato, Phaedo, in The Works of Plato, tr. Benjamin Jowett, Modern Library, 1928, 107-189).

Greek philosophy knew nothing of the resurrection of the body. Indeed, it was opposed to any teaching of the resurrection of the body. Apart from the utter impossibility of the resurrection to the unbelieving Greek mind, as inherently vile and worthless the body ought not be raised. It ought only to be disposed of permanently as so much material refuse.

Socrates assured his disciples that all his lifelong he was “entirely concerned with the soul, and not with the body.” As much as possible, he tried to “get away from the body and to turn to the soul.” “True philosophers” are “enemies of the body.” Death held no fear for Socrates (he said), because “having got rid of the foolishness of the body [I] shall be pure . . . and know of [myself] the clear light everywhere, which is no other than the light of truth.” “Purification” for a man is “the separation of the soul from the body . . . the release of the soul from the chains of the body” (Phaedo, 118, 121, 122).

This is why Paul’s preaching in Athens of the resurrection of the body was roundly ridiculed. “When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked” (Acts 17:32). It is a testimony to the apostle’s faithfulness and courage as a missionary that he preached the resurrection of the body to his audience of Greek philosophers and their disciples on the Areopagus. He knew full well their contempt for the body and expected their mockery and rejection of his message.

What slight hope the Greek philosophers and their followers had for themselves in the face of death was the immortality of the soul. The soul is not mortal. The soul cannot die.

The hope of the pagan theory of reincarnation, of the older liberal Protestantism and of the average decent worldling in Western society, is essentially the same as that of Greek philosophy. Pagan religions teach a reincarnation of souls after death in a succession of beings until the soul is finally purified of all earthly desires and becomes worthy of union with the divine or of absorption into the nothingness that is nirvana. The older Protestant liberalism reduced the doctrines of the Christian religion to three truths: the fatherhood of God (of all men without exception), the brotherhood of man, and the immortality of the soul. The last, for liberalism, was no different from the vague hope of Plato and Aristotle. And the typical, decent, but thoroughly unbelieving and worldly American citizen, when he thinks of death at all, supposes that his soul will enjoy an everlasting, peaceful existence somewhere. At least, this is what he expresses in his obituary: “Joe Unbeliever has passed on to his everlasting rest”; or, “Jane Ungodly has now found peace”; or even, “Mickey the Drunken, Fornicating Ball-Player is now looking down with delight on the antics of his team in the World Series.”

It is not impossible that the increasingly frequent cremation of the body indicates something of the old Greek contempt for the body, as well.

If the Greek philosophers grounded their doctrine of the immortality of the soul in reason, contemporary advocates of the immortality of the soul find some basis in experience for their hope of pleasant life after death in the soul. They appeal to accounts of an “after-death” experience by some who are supposed to have died for a little while and then mysteriously returned to earthly life. These persons invariably tell of their enjoyment of a white light and of great peace.

The Mortality of the Soul

The philosophical, pagan, liberal, and unbelieving notion of the immortality of the soul is erroneous. The biblical truth of the intermediate state has nothing in common with this false hope in the face of death.

The soul of the natural man, that is, the unregenerated sinner, is subject to death, as much as is his body. Indeed, his soul is dead. The soul of sinful man is mortal.

The soul of the unregenerated sinner is sinful, indeed, totally depraved. This is the spiritual death of the soul. The verdict of the apostle upon natural men and women, that they are “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1), does not apply only to the body. It applies to the entire human nature. That the soul is included the apostle makes plain when he adds that this death expresses itself in the wicked “desires . . . of the mind” (v. 3).

Throughout earthly life, apart from the grace of God in the gospel of forgiveness, the soul of the ungodly is under the sentence of death in the wrath of God. The soul of the ungodly knows this verdict, which will be executed fully after the physical death of the ungodly. “Through fear of death” in the judgment of a just God, he is “all [his] lifetime subject to bondage” (Heb. 2:15). In their imagining an immortal soul, the Greek philosopher, the pagan, the liberal Protestant, and the decent unbeliever vainly resist the testimony of God to them that they will die, soul as well as body. For all Socrates’ (and his) bravado in the face of imminent death, Plato let slip that death was the “king of terrors” to Greek philosophers as much as to ordinary mortals. Plato has one of Socrates’ disciples respond to the apparently unafraid philosopher, “Socrates, you must argue us out of our fears . . . . There is a child within us to whom death is a sort of hobgoblin: him too we must persuade not to be afraid when he is alone in the dark” (Phaedo, 137).

At the moment of physical death, the soul of the covetous and cruel man begins to suffer the torments of hell, which is continued existence to be sure, but not life (Luke 16:22, 23). Rather, this state of the soul is the beginning of eternal death.

The outcome of the final judgment will be that those whose names are not written in the book of life will be cast into the lake of fire, body and soul. This will be the “second death” (Rev. 20:14, 15). Whereas man is unable to kill the soul, God can “destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).

Herman Hoeksema was right, therefore, to complain of a “loose” and “thoughtless” use of the “philosophical” phrase “the immortality of the soul.”

It is to be regretted that this philosophical usage of the term is frequently adopted, not only by believers who very loosely and often thoughtlessly speak of the immortality of the soul, but even by the church as such (Reformed Dogmatics, RFPA, 1966, 747).

The Indestructibility of the Soul

When the Reformed creeds speak of the immortality of the soul, or of the immortality of reprobate unbelievers, they mean, in fact, only that the soul continues to exist after death, or that the soul is indestructible. The soul cannot be annihilated. It does not drop into nothingness at the moment of physical death.

The Belgic Confession speaks thus, “loosely,” of the immortality of the reprobate wicked in its explanation of the punishment of everlasting hell: “The wicked . . . being immortal, shall be tormented in that everlasting fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels” (Art. 37, in Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, vol. 3, Baker repr. 1983, 435; see also the Westminster Confession of Faith, 32.1: “souls . . . having an immortal subsistence”). The Confession certainly does not teach that the reprobate wicked live after the final judgment, that they cannot die (which is the meaning of the word, “immortal”), for the Confession is exactly asserting the eternal death of the wicked in hell. By “immortal,” the Confession means only that the wicked are not annihilated, and cannot be annihilated.

Evangelical and Reformed theologians who teach the evolutionary descent of man from animals have a great deal of difficulty with the teaching of the creeds that the soul is “immortal,” that is, indestructible. As descended from animals, man either has no soul at all, or has a soul like that of the animals. In either case, man is completely destroyed at death until the resurrection of the body. This doctrine pits these theologians squarely against the confessions of the Christian church, which certainly do teach that the distinctively human soul cannot pass out of existence.

The evangelical Hans Schwarz indicates the problem that theologians committed to (theistic) evolutionary theory have with the doctrine of the immortality of the soul: “The idea of immortality of the soul is ‘one of the greatest misunderstandings of Christianity’ . . . Death is the end of this life in its totality; nothing and nobody will survive” (Eschatology, Eerdmans 2000, 276).

It is worth noting that the Confession affirms that the reprobate wicked are “immortal,” or indestructible, not only with regard to their soul, but ultimately with regard to the whole of their nature. By virtue of his creation in relation to God, as originally God’s image, soul and body, as taught in Genesis 1:26, 27 and Genesis 2:7, man cannot be annihilated in the entirety of his nature. Not only his soul, but also his body must continue to exist everlastingly, either in the bliss of heaven or in the agony of hell.

The Immortal Christian

There is true immortality, in the exact meaning of the word—’not subject to death,’ or, ‘incapable of dying’—whether of the soul or of the body, only in the risen Jesus Christ.

Only when Christ died and rose again did imperishable life come to light. Christ did not gain or disclose immortality in the philosophical sense, the sense of the continued existence of souls after death (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, Baker, 2008, 616).

Reason cannot disclose immortality, nor can experience. Only the revelation of the gospel of Holy Scripture can make known the immortality of the soul, as of the body. “Jesus Christ…hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (II Tim. 1:10).

Immortality is not an inherent quality and hope of all humans without exception, but the gift of grace to those who are in Jesus Christ by a true faith, according to God’s election.

Jesus Christ first accomplished and entered into immortal life for man by His resurrection from the dead. “Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him” (Rom. 6:9). The life into which God raised Jesus Christ was a new kind of life for man, a life never lived before, a life never attainable by anyone else, the highest and best form of life, life that is spiritual, heavenly, incorruptible, immortal (I Cor. 15:45-58). Adam did not have this life; he could, and did, die. Jesus Himself did not have this life before His resurrection; He was “die-able,” and died.

In Jesus Christ and for Jesus Christ’s sake, elect men and women share the immortal life of their head and savior in the grace of God.

The elect becomes immortal at the moment of his or her union with Christ by the bond of faith. The resurrection life of Christ is put into his or her heart in the Spirit’s work of regeneration. “Whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die” (John 11:26). The elect child of God knows and experiences his or her immortality by believing the gospel. “Jesus Christ . . . hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (II Tim. 1:10).

The soul of the elect believer receives and enjoys this immortality perfectly at the moment of death. In the soul that is immortal by fully sharing the immortal life of Christ the believer lives and reigns with Christ (Rev. 20:4, 6). This is the intermediate state of the elect believer.

Elect believers will receive and enjoy immortality perfectly also in their body at the coming of Christ, when their body will be raised from the grave and made like to the immortal, glorious body of Christ. This is our hope: “By patient continuance in well doing [we] seek for glory, honor and immortality” (Rom. 2:7; see also I Cor. 15:53 and Phil. 3:21).

Only in Jesus Christ, on the basis alone of the promise of the gospel, is there hope for the sinner in the face of death. In Him, on the basis of the gospel, there is hope—hope regarding the intermediate state and hope for the everlasting future.

And what a hope!