Immortality of the Soul and Greek Philosophy: The Problematic Foundation of Conditional Immortality (Annihilationism)

Christians believe that the Bible is the Word of God and the first source one consults with regard to questions about God and man, but believers do differ when it comes to philosophy and the study of theology. Some believe that “all we need is the Bible,” that the Bible is “all we need that pertains to life and godliness” (2 Peter 1:3), while others believe that philosophy is “the handmaiden of theology” and that both should be used when it comes to the study of Scripture and Theology as a whole. It is true that some discussion of philosophy is present in the Scriptures; if you’ve read phrases such as “in eternity,” “eternal life,” “before the foundation of the world,” “known from eternity are all His works” (Acts 15:18), or have ever wondered about how salvation occurs in the heart of an individual, then you understand how philosophy can help answer questions that may not be as clear with a given theological term.

There are some who believe that philosophy is “of the devil,” an evil tool that has marred the views of the church, and those who hold to philosophy as a help to theology are “secular” and “thinking like the world.” This idea, that “philosophy is vain,” is creeping up with the debate on the Immortality of the Soul. The concept is that everyone born on the earth, whether saved or unsaved in the end, has an immortal soul that lives on even when the individual’s body returns to the dust. And in the end, when the righteous put on immortal bodies, the wicked will be judged in the Great White Throne Judgment, then sentenced to the lake of fire and brimstone where they’ll burn forever and ever. This idea has merit because of statements made in the book of Revelation:

Then a third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives his mark on his forehead or on his hand, 10 he himself shall also drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out full strength into the cup of His indignation. He shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever; and they have no rest day or night, who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.”

12 Here is the patience of the saints; here are those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.

13 Then I heard a voice from heaven saying to me, “Write: ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’”

“Yes,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, and their works follow them.” (Revelation 14:9-13)

Despite the traditional view of the Immortality of the Soul, some disagree and hold to a view known as Conditional Immortality or “Annihilationism.” Conditional Immortality or Annihilationism says that only those who come to faith in Jesus (believe in Christ) get a soul; no one is born with a soul, and the wicked die without a soul – thus ceasing to exist rather than suffering in an eternal fire of conscious torment that never ends.

The one complaint Conditional Immortalists (or Annihilationists) make against the traditional doctrine of Immortality of the Soul is that it stems from Greek philosophy. It is assumed that the church’s view of the person has been stained because of the impact of Greek philosophy on biblical discussions: if churches would just divorce their views from philosophy, some say, then the church could ditch the idea of soul immortality and hold to conditional immortality.

But there are problems with the idea of “divorcing” Immortality of the Soul from Greek philosophy. What Conditional Immortalists or Annihilationists often overlook is that the Scriptures themselves were written in two original languages: The Old Testament in Hebrew, the New Testament in Greek. When it comes to the New Testament, Greek is the original language in which the text was written (not English, for example). Thus, to divorce the Doctrine of the Immortality of the Soul from the Greek language (that incorporates Greek philosophy) is near impossible to do. The Greek language incorporates concepts from Greek philosophy (as English incorporates American views of philosophy), which means that those seeking to discredit Greek philosophy are ultimately seeking to discount the entirety of the New Testament in the discussion. I’m confident that Annihilationists don’t want to eliminate what half of the Holy Spirit’s divine Word has to say.

Greek philosophy and the Immortality of the Soul

To examine what Scripture says about whether or not humans have a soul, we can look at translations of Scriptures that are commonly used. Using the New King James Version (NKJV), I discovered that Rachel’s soul departed when she died:

16 Then they journeyed from Bethel. And when there was but a little distance to go to Ephrath, Rachel labored in childbirth, and she had hard labor. 17 Now it came to pass, when she was in hard labor, that the midwife said to her, “Do not fear; you will have this son also.” 18 And so it was, as her soul was departing (for she died), that she called his name Ben-Oni; but his father called him Benjamin. 19 So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is,Bethlehem). (Genesis 35:16-19)

The word for “soul” here in Genesis 35:18 is “psuxen.” The Greek phrase is αὐτὴν τὴν ψυχήν, which translates to “her soul.” The word ps-uk-ein comes from the Greek word “ps-uk-ei,” which means “soul.” The word ψυχήν is where our English word “psyche” comes from (in fact, the English word is a transliteration of the Greek word for “soul”). The “psyche” is where the mind is, so when one thinks of ψυχήν, you think of the mind, rationality, the will – in other words, all things that make a person a person. Take away the psyche, take away the mind, take away “psychology” (the study of the mind, the soul, the will), and you’ve robbed someone of his or her personhood.

What this means for the Conditional Immortalist is that, in his or her quest to “rid biblical study of vain Greek philosophy,” he or she has also robbed humans of their personhood. If we don’t have a soul, but die and cease to be, then humans are just “more intelligent animals,” and evolutionary thought that man is just “an advanced primate,” akin to a monkey or orangutan, is true. Think about the human mind, intellect, will, and reason: where else on earth can one find these things? If we can’t find these things on earth, then they come from God and make us “like God.”

That’s what it means for us to be made in His image: to reason, make decisions, etc. The whole idea of God being intelligent means that the Lord is genius in His design of the world and all its wonders. When man creates paintings, writes songs, creates stories for children, invents a new video game, and writes a sermon that incorporates the Word of God, humans are exhibiting their likeness to their Creator. What primate on earth can do those things? There are a number of failed chimpanzee “write a Shakespearean play” experiments to orbit the sun.

Let’s examine another passage:

18 Then Joseph said to them the third day, “Do this and live, for I fear God: 19 If you are honest men, let one of your brothers be confined to your prison house; but you, go and carry grain for the famine of your houses. 20 And bring your youngest brother to me; so your words will be verified, and you shall not die.”

And they did so. 21 Then they said to one another, “We are truly guilty concerning our brother, for we saw the anguish of his soul when he pleaded with us, and we would not hear; therefore this distress has come upon us.” (Genesis 42:18-21)

The context of Genesis 42 is that Joseph’s brothers have come to Egypt; he is second-in-command in Egypt, but his brothers don’t know it’s Joseph. They only feel guilt over what they did to their brother. So in verse 21, the brothers are talking among themselves over their current circumstances, saying that they are guilty of having done evil to Joseph. They saw Joseph when they left him in the pit, and he pleaded with them when they sold him into slavery. “We saw the anguish of his soul,” referring to the pain inside. So, the word “soul” here refers to not only the will, rationality, and intellect, but also the emotions and affections. The soul is the seat of the personhood of an individual, where their thoughts and emotions are located as well as their intellect and ability to reason.

Thus, to say that a person has no soul, to say that no one is born with a soul, is to deny that which makes a person a person. The denial of the soul in every person has implications for not only eternal life and eternity but also personhood and human dignity. Conditional Immortalists want to retain the dignity of persons when it comes to the idea of eternal, conscious torment (by evading it), but they end up denying human dignity to do it.

There’s more to cover on Annihilationism/Conditional Immortality, and I’ll cover it in coming days and weeks.