We are completing a series this morning on Berean Distinctives, this is part 5. So far, we have looked at Free Grace, Divine Election, Preterism, the Divine Council Viewpoint and this morning we are going to look at the doctrine of Conditional Immortality which opposes the doctrine of Hell. As always, I ask that you not believe what I have to say but that you be a Berean and study this out for yourself from the Scriptures and come to an informed decision.
What comes to mind when you hear the word Hell? When we hear or read the word "hell," all kinds of ideas probably come to mind. We may think of the abode of condemned souls and the devil, or a place of eternal fiery punishment for the wicked after death, presided over by Satan. We may think of a place of fire and brimstone where the damned undergo physical torment eternally. The dictionary says that hell is "a place regarded in various religions as a spiritual realm of evil and suffering, often traditionally depicted as a place of perpetual fire beneath the earth where the wicked are punished after death."
The belief that God's final judgment of the unsaved will lead to a state of eternal, conscious, tormenting punishment is firmly entrenched in the doctrinal traditions of the Christian church and is regarded widely as one of the defining pillars of conservative evangelical orthodoxy. But is it biblical?
I want to begin this morning with a profound quote from J. I. Packer. This quote is worth our understanding and meditation. To understand this quote is to gain a huge advantage in your study of the Bible:
We do not start our Christian lives by working out our faith for ourselves; it is mediated to us by Christian tradition, in the form of sermons, books and established patterns of church life and fellowship. We read our Bibles in the light of what we have learned from these sources; we approach Scripture with minds already formed by the mass of accepted opinions and viewpoints with which we have come into contact, in both the Church and the world. . . It is easy to be unaware that it has happened; it is hard even to begin to realize how profoundly tradition in this sense has molded us. But we are forbidden to become enslaved to human tradition, either secular or Christian, whether it be "catholic" tradition, or "critical" tradition, or "ecumenical" tradition. We may never assume the complete rightness of our own established ways of thought and practice and excuse ourselves the duty of testing and reforming them by Scriptures. (J. I. Packer, Fundamentalism and the Word of God, [Grand Rapids, MI, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1958], pp. 69-70.)
Believer, we must test everything we believe by the text. The beliefs you hold must come from the text, the Hebrew and Greek text. And we must be open to allowing the text to shatter our false ideas.
In an article entitled, "What Is Hell?" Published on June 20, 2014, R.C. Sproul writes:
"There is no biblical concept more grim or terror-invoking than the idea of hell. It is so unpopular with us that few would give credence to it at all except that it comes to us from the teaching of Christ Himself."
I'd like to challenge Sproul here and say that Christ never taught on Hell, because there is NO biblical concept of Hell. He says that the teaching of Hell comes from Christ Himself. Others have said that Christ taught more on Hell than on any other subject. We're going to look at Christ's teaching and see if this is in fact true. But before we look at the teaching of Christ, let's start in the Tanakh and see what we can learn about Hell.
The word "Hell" is found 31 times in the KJV Old Testament where it is translated from the Hebrew word "Sheol." Very few other translations have the word "hell" in the Old Testament. Sheol is the Hebrew word for the place of the dead. But nowhere do we see Sheol as a fiery place of torment. You will never get the traditional view of hell from the Tanakh. It just isn't there. So why did the KJV translators translate it as Hell? It is because the wording of the KJV is more "interpretation" than "translation."
Let's look at the Tanakh and see what it has to say about the destiny of the wicked, and then we'll look at the intertestamental literature and then the New Testament.
The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God. Psalm 9:17 KJV
Here the word, "hell" is mistranslated from the Hebrew,"Sheol." The ESV has:
The wicked shall return to Sheol, all the nations that forget God. Psalm 9:17 ESV
Do you get a different picture from these two translations? As I said earlier, nowhere do we see Sheol as a fiery place of torment.
Of David. Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers! For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb. Psalm 37:1-2 ESV
For the evildoers shall be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land. In just a little while, the wicked will be no more; though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there. Psalm 37:9-10 ESV
But the wicked will perish; the enemies of the LORD are like the glory of the pastures; they vanish—like smoke they vanish away. Psalm 37:20 ESV
The word "perish" here is the Hebrew word "abad." Brown-Driver-Brigg's Definition is: "perish, vanish, go astray, be destroyed, die, be exterminated." And the word "vanish" is from kalah, which, according to Brown-Driver-Brigg's Definition, means: "to accomplish, cease, consume, determine, end, fail, finish." Do you see any hint of eternal conscious torment in these verses?
I have seen a wicked, ruthless man, spreading himself like a green laurel tree. But he passed away, and behold, he was no more; though I sought him, he could not be found. Psalm 37:35-36 ESV
Notice that the wicked "passed away" and was "no more." The words "no more" are from the Hebrew word ayin, which is from a primitive root meaning "to be nothing or not exist." The psalmist doesn't say they pass away and are tormented, but they "are no more."
Speaking of the wicked, Job says:
he will perish forever like his own dung; those who have seen him will say, 'Where is he?' Job 20:7 ESV
The word "dung" here is from the Hebrew gelel, which means "dung, a ball of dung." He perishes forever like his dung.
Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime, like the stillborn child who never sees the sun. Psalm 58:8 ESV
As smoke is driven away, so you shall drive them away; as wax melts before fire, so the wicked shall perish before God! Psalm 68:2 ESV
There are at least 70 metaphors or similes of what the end of the wicked will be like in the Tanakh. What do these pictures tell us? Will reality resemble the picture? If the wicked are to be eternally tortured in flames, shouldn't the pictures somehow reflect that? Shouldn't some of the pictures be the wicked will be like meat on a skewer roasting over the fire, or like those boiling in a cauldron of oil? Do you see eternal conscious torment even hinted at in any of these pictures?
The idea of eternal conscience torment is not found in the Tanakh. So, let me ask you, what New Covenant truth is not found in the Tanakh? The only one that I know of is the mystery of Jew and Gentile being one body in Christ. Paul writes,
When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. Ephesians 3:4-5 ESV
Paul tells us that he was a steward of the mystery and that no revelation of this mystery was given in the Tanakh, but that it was revealed for the first time in the New Testament.
So, if the doctrine of eternal conscience torment is true, why do we never see it in the Tanakh?
Let's look at how they viewed the end of the wicked in Second Temple Judaism or Intertestamental Literature. Apocrypha—is synonymous with the fourteen or fifteen books in the Catholic Bible. These writings are not found in the Hebrew Tanakh, but they are contained in some manuscripts of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Tanakh, which was completed around 250 B.C. in Alexandria, Egypt. Most of these books were declared to be Scripture by the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Trent (1545-1563), though the Protestant Church rejects any divine authority attached to them.
All references in the Apocrypha to the end of the wicked is that of perishing except for one in Judith 16:17 which talks about eternal torment. This is our first picture of eternal torment in literature associated with the Bible.
Pseudepigrapha—the word "Pseudepigrapha" literally means "falsely ascribed writings," and it refers to a work that falsely claims to be written by a specific author. This literature is equally split between the teaching of the wicked perishing and being eternally tormented.
Dead Sea Scrolls—in 1947, a Bedouin shepherd tossed a stone into a cave close to the northwest shore of the Dead Sea, in Qumran. Rather than the sound of rock or earth, he heard the sound of breaking pottery. They found a collection of some 981 different texts in eleven caves from the immediate vicinity of the ancient settlement at Qumran in the West Bank. The Dead Sea Scrolls include three types of documents: the earliest existing copies of books from the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh; copies of other early works that are not part of Tanakh; and works related to a specific sect that existed at Qumran among the Jews at the time of the Second Temple.
The Dead Sea Scrolls give a consistent picture of the total destruction of the wicked—they perish. No idea of eternal conscious torment is found in these documents.
The Rabbinical Literature—Babylonian Talmud, Jerusalem Talmud and Mishna. This literature seems to support both views: the wicked perish or they endure eternal torment. So, there was not a single Jewish view.
So, throughout the Hebrew Scriptures we have no hint that the end of the wicked involves eternal conscious torment. When we come to the intertestamental period, however, we start to see some indication of it. Why? We'll talk about this is a few minutes.
What does the New Testament say about the end of the wicked? Where did the New Testament writers get their information? The teaching of the apostles was based on Moses and the Prophets, therefore, their writings reflect the truths found in the Tanakh.
"I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." Matthew 3:11-12 ESV
What is John talking about here? Is this a reference to Hell? No, he is talking about the fiery destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. John is warning the religious leaders of Israel. The fact that the axe was already laid at the root of the tree (God's covenant people) indicates the nearness of the judgment.
John the Baptist comes on the scene as a Prophet of Yahweh after 400 years of silence. The Tanakh closes with the book of Malachi. The book of Malachi is one long and terrible impeachment of the nation Israel. Malachi is the Prophet of doom. Coming judgment is the burden of the word of the Lord to Israel by Malachi:
"Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts. Malachi 3:5 ESV
"For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. Malachi 4:1 ESV
This verse sounds like Hell doesn't it? No, he says the evildoer will be stubble. The reference to "burning like an oven" is speaking of the national judgment on Jerusalem. This verse points to an approaching crisis in the history of the nation when Yahweh would inflict judgment upon His rebellious people. "The day" was coming—the day that shall "burn like an oven." This period is more precisely defined as "the great and terrible day of the Lord" in Malachi:
"Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. Malachi 4:5 ESV
That this "day" refers to a certain period and a specific event is clear. Yeshua tells us that the predicted Elijah that was to come before "the great and terrible day of the Lord" was, in fact, John the Baptist.
and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Matthew 11:14 ESV
This enables us to determine the time of the event referred to as "the great and terrible day of the Lord." It must be in the time period of John the Baptist. It seems clear that the allusion is to the judgment of the Jewish nation in AD 70 when their city and Temple were destroyed and the entire fabric of Judaism was dissolved.
And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. Mark 9:43 ESV
What is "unquenchable fire" that Yeshua talks about? The key to understanding the phrase unquenchable fire is found in Jeremiah 17.
But if you do not listen to me, to keep the Sabbath day holy, and not to bear a burden and enter by the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle a fire in its gates, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem and shall not be quenched.'" Jeremiah 17:27 ESV
Israel did not heed the warning, and as a result, Jerusalem and the Temple of God were burned to the ground by Nebuchadnezzar (See II Kings 25:8,9). Is Jerusalem burning today? Obviously not. An unquenchable fire clearly does not burn forever. So, what does the phrase mean? A fire that cannot be quenched burns until its divine purpose has been accomplished and then it goes out. Man cannot extinguish or quench the fire, but it does indeed go out when there is nothing left to burn.
And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. Mark 9:43 ESV
Here the word for "hell" is Gehenna. It is used 12 times in the New Testament, 11 in the Gospels and once in James. This is the word that most translations render as "hell." When Yeshua used "Gehenna," what did they think of? What did it represent to Yeshua's audience? That is what is important. Gehenna began to be used as a place of human sacrifice in the days of King Ahaz. Gehenna is referred to in Jeremiah 7 as the Valley of Hinnom. In this passage, people are burning their own sons and daughters as human sacrifices. That is how dedicated and committed they are to the worship of the fire god, Molech.
And they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when it will no more be called Topheth, or the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter; for they will bury in Topheth, because there is no room elsewhere. Jeremiah 7:31-32 ESV
Isaiah had already spoken of Topheth as the fiery destiny of an enemy of God.
For Topheth has long been ready, indeed, it has been prepared for the king. He has made it deep and large, A pyre of fire with plenty of wood; The breath of the LORD, like a torrent of brimstone, sets it afire. Isaiah 30:33 NASB
So, in the Tanakh the Valley of Hinnom was associated with the destiny of the wicked. It was a place of fiery judgment. Isaiah closes his book with these words:
"And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh." Isaiah 66:24 ESV
This verse is talking about God's destruction of Jerusalem in the generation when Yeshua was crucified. When Yeshua quoted these words in Mark 9:48-49, "their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched," the disciples would have been familiar with these words as referring to a national judgment.
So, the Valley of Hinnom was the scene of human sacrifices, burned in the worship of Moloch and Baal (2 Kings 16:3 and 21:6), which accounts for the prophecy of Jeremiah that it would be called the Valley of Slaughter under judgment of God (Jer. 7:32-33). This combination of abominable fires and divine judgment led to the association of the valley with a place of perpetual fiery judgment.
Gehenna was a reference to the Valley of Hinnom and the fiery judgment of God. Gehenna was a place that had become identified in people's minds as the symbol of national judgment. Gehenna is a proper noun just like Jerusalem. The term "Hell" is not a translation of Gehenna; it's a theologically loaded substitution. Gehenna is not a reference to eternal conscience torment. It is a reference to national judgment, a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. The only people ever threatened with Gehenna were the Judean Jews of Yeshua's generation.
None of the KJV's uses of "Hell" have anything to do with a fiery place of eternal torment. As I said earlier, the word "Hell" should not be in your Bible. The NASB has the word "Hell" 13 times and the ESV has it 14 times. Young's Literal Translation and The Scripture 2009 do not have the word "Hell" in them, not once. To answer my original question, then, " What does the Bible say about Hell?" The answer is nothing! The word "Hell" is not in the original translations of the Bible.
Actually, the better question to ask is, "What does the Bible say about the destiny of the wicked?" What happens to people at death who have not trusted Christ? Now this the Bible talks about. The three main views of the end of the wicked would be that they go to a place of eternal conscious torment, what traditionally is known as "Hell." Another view is Annihilationism—the belief that God simply ends the existence of the unsaved without any particular judgment. And a third view is conditional immortality or conditionalism, a concept in which the gift of immortality is attached to (or conditioned upon) belief in Yeshua the Christ. The Conditional Immortality view teaches that God will finally and fully bring his enemies to judgment.
Yeshua taught His disciples:
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Matthew 10:28 ESV
Notice that Yeshua did not use the words "punishment," "torment," or "eternal." He used the word "destroy" (apollumi) which Thayer Defines as 1) to destroy 1a) to put out of the way entirely, abolish, put an end to ruin."
Yeshua was speaking here to "Jews" that were living under the Law of Moses. Throughout His ministry, He made continual references to the judgment (wrath) of God that was soon to come upon them. The unfaithful "Jews" (those who rejected Him, as the Anointed of God) would be destroyed, while those of the faithful remnant would be spared.
As the disciples went out, they were not to fear death at the hands of their unbelieving brethren, as they could only rob the body of life. They were to fear God, who could permanently extinguish their life force (psuche) by denying them the resurrection unto everlasting life.
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16 ESV
The clear contrast here is "perish" and "eternal life." Those who trust in Christ don't perish. The Greek word "perish" is apollumi which Thayer Defines as 1) to destroy or abolish. Paul taught the same thing as Yeshua in Romans 6.
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Yeshua our Lord. Romans 6:23 ESV
Note the wages for sin is death not eternal punishing and torment in some place called Hell. In the context of Paul's dissertation in his letter to Rome, "the death" refers to the sentence given to Adam who was guilty of "the sin." Paul's message was that a life in Adam would result in "the death" while a life of faith in Christ brings everlasting life. Again, the contrast is death and eternal life, not eternal torture or eternal life.
The Greek scholar and New Testament translator, R. F. Weymouth, wrote, "My mind fails to conceive a grosser misinterpretation of language than when the five or six strongest words which the Greek tongue possesses, signifying 'destroy,' or 'destruction,' are explained to mean maintaining an everlasting but wretched existence. To translate black as white is nothing to this."
And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." Matthew 25:46 ESV
Here we have a comparison between eternal punishment and eternal life. The word "eternal" is the same in both cases. "Eternal" is from the Greek aionios from aion, which means "existing at all times, perpetual, pertaining to an unlimited duration of time." People argue that if the righteous get eternal life, then the wicked get eternal punishment. I agree. This is true. But what does "eternal punishment" mean? As we have seen from other Scriptures, the punishment is death. Therefore, what the wicked get is eternal death. It is talking about the result of the action and not the action itself. The punishment is death and that is eternal. The destruction of the wicked in the lake of fire is permanent. It is a punishment that cannot be reversed. The act of punishing will come to an end, but the consequences will last for eternity.
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:18 ESV
The Greek word "perish" is apollumi which Thayer Defines as 1) to destroy or abolish. Here, those perishing are the non-elect.
but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 1 Corinthians 1:24 ESV
The contrast, therefore, is between those who are "perishing" and those who are "being saved."
The Bible teaches that the reward of believers is everlasting life, while the punishment of the wicked is just as the Scriptures state—death, which is the opposite of life. As the wicked will have no escape from death, it is indeed an eternal punishment.
just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. Jude 1:7 ESV
Notice that the punishment is "eternal fire." Is this a reference to Hell? Who or what is it that "serves as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire"? Isn't this a reference to the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah? It is the cities that are an example of the punishment of eternal fire. Are the cities still burning? No, but the fire is said to be eternal because its destruction is eternal, permanent, never ending.
Let's look at a favorite proof text of eternal conscience torment,
he also will drink the wine of God's wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name." Revelation 14:10-11 ESV
At first glance this passage may seem to confirm the traditional idea of a seething, sulfurous hellfire, mercilessly and eternally tormenting helpless immortal souls. But notice the setting for this passage. From the context we see that the events it describes occur in Jerusalem amid earth-shaking events and disasters occurring immediately before or at Christ's return and not in Hell or in the afterlife. This warning describes the punishment that will befall all of Jerusalem's inhabitants "who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name." This is another passage that is speaking of the fiery destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.
"The smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever"—is a symbolic portrayal of the final reality of the wicked who will suffer complete judgment, rather than a period of eternal suffering. Speaking of the judgment of Yahweh on Edom:
And the streams of Edom shall be turned into pitch, and her soil into sulfur; her land shall become burning pitch. Night and day it shall not be quenched; its smoke shall go up forever. From generation to generation, it shall lie waste; none shall pass through it forever and ever. Isaiah 34:9-10 ESV
John is no doubt drawing on this text which speaks of national judgment.
"They have no rest, day or night"—is seen in contrast with the phrase in 14:13 where the followers of Christ are promised rest from their labor,
And I heard a voice from heaven saying, "Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on." "Blessed indeed," says the Spirit, "that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!" Revelation 14:13 ESV
The worshippers of the beast will not have a chance to have the eternal rest that is promised to the people of God.
We must admit that all doctrines will have some texts that appear to be contradictory. A final test of any exegetical interpretation is the analogy of faith—how it fits with the general teaching of Scripture on this subject. And all of the Tanakh and the majority of the New Testament writings state that unbelievers will perish, not burn in hell.
I had a person ask me, "If you don't believe in Hell, how do you evangelize?" Can we scare people into heaven? "Turn or burn" is not good evangelism. If we go to the book of Acts, which records the evangelistic efforts of the early Church, what do we find? Do they warn of the fires of Hell? No, there is only one passage in the book of Acts that talks about the punishment of the wicked. The apostles talking about Yeshua said:
And it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people.' Acts 3:23 ESV
"Destroyed" here is from exolothreúō, which according to Thayer means "to destroy out of its place, destroy utterly, to extirpate." Those who reject Christ are destroyed, not tortured. The apostles never talked about a place like the traditional view of Hell.
And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. 1 John 5:11-12 ESV
The fate of mankind cannot be stated any simpler than this. Those who accept Yeshua as the Son of God will receive life. The opposite lay in store for those who refused Him—they would not receive life. If they do not receive life, which Paul declared to be victory over death, then we must conclude that they will remain subject to the power of death.
Translating the terms "Sheol," "Hades," "Gehenna," or "Tartarus" in a manner that denotes a place of "eternal punishment" is a perversion of God's Word. The insertion of the word "Hell" into any Bible verse can only be for the purpose of leading the reader into the falsely held perception of the translator. As with all other pagan concepts, "Hell" must be pre-determined prior to coming to the Scriptures because the original language does not use the term, nor does it present any evidence to support the existence of a place of eternal torment.
Where did the traditional view of Hell come from?
A study of early Church history will reveal that the teaching of Hell was foreign to the earliest followers of Christ. The doctrines of "eternal torment" and "Hell" are the product of a domino effect that began with the acceptance of the pagan doctrine of the "eternal soul." Once it was accepted that man had a nature that could not die, it naturally followed that his punishment must also be "eternal." As the "souls" of the wicked were eternal, punishment must be eternal. As a result, "Hell" became a place of "eternal torment."
The concept of the "soul" originated with Greek philosophers some three hundred years before the time of Christ. In the second century, it found its way into the early "Church" where it became a fundamental truth of the Roman Catholic Church, through the Nicene council of 325 AD, and reinforced by other councils that convened over the next 100 years.
Where did the teaching that man has an eternal nature that transcends death come from? Historical evidence reveals that it first appeared among the ancient Egyptians. With the expansion of the Greeks under Alexander, the Egyptian philosophy of life and death became a subject to be examined by Greek philosophers. Plato is credited with modifying the Egyptian philosophy of man's having two natures so that it could be incorporated into the religion of the Greeks. Plato taught that man had a nature that lived on after death and went on to a higher plane of being.
"The soul, whose inseparable attitude is life, will never admit of life's opposite, death. Thus, the soul is shown to be immortal, and since immortal, indestructible…we believe there is such a thing as death? To be sure. And is this anything but the separation of the soul and body? Being dead is the attainment of this separation, when the soul exists in herself and separate from the body, and the body is parted from the soul. This is death…death is merely the separation of the soul from the body." [Plato, 428-347 BC.]
The Greeks prided themselves on their superior intellect and philosophy. Their philosophers had been teaching an undying nature of man. The teaching of the Greek philosophers found its way into Jewish society 300 years prior to the birth of Yeshua, through the Pharisees and the Hellenization movement.
Then early converts to Christianity brought the Greek philosophy of the eternal "soul" into the early Church. Origen (ca. 185-254) was the first person to attempt to organize Christian Doctrine into a systematic theology. He was an admirer of Plato and believed in the immortality of the soul and that it would depart to an everlasting reward or everlasting punishment at death.
In Origen De Principiis he wrote:
"The soul, having a substance and life of its own, shall after its departure from the world, be rewarded according to its deserts, being destined to obtain either an inheritance of eternal life and blessedness, if its actions shall have procured this for it, or to be delivered up to eternal fire and punishments, if the guilt of its crimes shall have brought it down to this …" ( Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4, 1995, p. 240).
For Augustine, death meant the destruction of the body, but the conscious soul would continue to live in either a blissful state with God or an agonizing state of separation from God. In The City of God, he wrote that the soul "is therefore called immortal, because in a sense, it does not cease to live and to feel; while the body is called mortal because it can be forsaken of all life, and cannot by itself live at all. The death, then, of the soul takes place when God forsakes it, as the death of the body when the soul forsakes it" ( Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2, 1995, p. 245.)
Richard Tarnas, in his book, The Passion of the Western Mind, points to this influence:
"… It was Augustine's formulation of Christian Platonism that was to permeate virtually all of medieval Christian thought in the West. So enthusiastic was the Christian integration of the Greek spirit that Socrates and Plato were frequently regarded as divinely inspired pre-Christian saints …" (1991, p. 103).
Centuries later Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1225-1274) crystallized the doctrine of the immortal soul in The Summa Theologica. He taught that the soul is a conscious intellect and will and cannot be destroyed.
A few centuries later the leaders of the Protestant Reformation generally accepted these traditional views, so they became entrenched in traditional Protestant teaching. For the most part this is what the Church today believes, but is it biblical?
The Jewish Encyclopedia states:
"The belief that the soul continues its existence after the dissolution of the body is a matter of philosophical and theological speculation rather than of simple truth, and is accordingly nowhere taught in Holy Scripture…" [Jewish Encyclopedia, Immortality of the Soul, 1925.]
"We are influenced always more or less by the Greek, Platonic idea that the body dies, yet soul is immortal. Such an idea is utterly contrary to the Israelite consciousness and is nowhere found in the Old Testament." [International Bible Encyclopedia, Page 812, 1960.]
Does the Bible teach that man has an immortal soul? Is man created immortal? In the Hebrew Scriptures, the term rendered as "soul" is "nephesh." Which, according to Strong's Exhaustive Concordance, means "A breathing thing; by extension, a living creature, any animal of vitality."
Vine's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words defines nephesh as "the essence of life, the act of breathing, taking breath … The problem with the English term 'soul' is that no actual equivalent of the term or the idea behind it is represented in the Hebrew language. The Hebrew system of thought does not include the combination or opposition of the 'body' and 'soul' which are really Greek and Latin in origin" (1985, p. 237-238).
The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible makes this comment on nephesh: "The word 'soul' in English, though it has to some extent naturalized the Hebrew idiom, frequently carries with it overtones, ultimately coming from philosophical Greek (Platonism) and from Orphism and Gnosticism which are absent in 'nephesh.' In the OT it never means the immortal soul, but it is essentially the life principle, or the living being, or the self as the subject of appetite, and emotion, occasionally of volition" (Vol. 4, 1962, "Soul,").
In the writings of Moses, the Hebrew term "nephesh" is used in reference to the life that was given to both man and animal, without implying any distinction between the two.
While most believe Adam to have been created as an eternal being, the Bible does not teach this. If he were eternal, what was the purpose of the "tree of life"? Absolute proof that Adam was created mortal is found in Genesis 3.
Then the LORD God said, "Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—" therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. Genesis 3:22-23 ESV
Adam was created mortal and was always subject to death; however, in establishing the "tree of life," God had given him the means to procure everlasting life. Adam sinned in eating the fruit of the forbidden tree and for this was subject to condemnation, which is spiritual death.
For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory." 1 Corinthians 15:53-54 ESV
At the Second Coming, the perishable put on the imperishable and immortality was given to believers and only to believers. The mortal put on immortality. All non-believers perish.
Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown write, "Nowhere is the immortality of the soul, distinct from the body, taught: A notion which many erroneously have derived from the heathen philosophers." [Commentary by Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, 1 Corinthians 15:53.]
Canon Martin Gouge writes, "When the Greek and Roman mind instead of the Hebrew mind came to dominate the Church, there occurred a disaster in doctrine and practice from which we have never recovered."
Many will try to use Luke 16:19-31 and The Rich Man and Lazarus as proof that there is conscious life after death, and that there is a place of eternal torment (Hell). This is a Parable and parables are designed to teach great moral principles. Do people actually have conversations between Heaven and Hell? Can those in Heaven see people burning in Hell? Can they hear their screams? Would a finger dipped in water actually lessen the torment of another?
It is my opinion that the Church's doctrine of Hell comes more from the 14th-century Italian poet Dante Alighieri who wrote The Divine Comedy with the idea that sinners are tortured in ways that represented ultimate justice for their sins. It is an invention of the Catholic Church to keep people in fear and bondage. Dante taught that the lowest level of Hell, which was reserved for the worst of sinners, was freezing cold. Ever heard the expression, "Cold as Hell"?
Hopefully, this study has shown that the Scriptures do not support the teaching of the traditional view of non-believers suffering in flames of fire for eternity. Man was not created immortal. Man is mortal until he trusts in Christ, at which point he puts on immortality. So, if the Bible doesn't teach a doctrine of eternal conscious torment, why do so many believe it? I think that S.W. Foss gives us the answer in his poem the "Calf Path":
For men are prone to go it blind, Along the calf-paths of the mind;
And work away from sun to sun, To do what other men have done.
They follow in the beaten track, And out and in, and forth and back,
And still their devious course pursue, To keep the path that others do.
(This is an excerpt from The Calf Path by S.W. Foss)
Some men who have broken away from this "Calf Path" of eternal conscious torment are F.F. Bruce, John Stott, Clark H. Pinnock, N.T. Wright, and Edward Fudge to name just a few.