Death versus Destruction: The Immortality of the Soul and the Conditionalist Confession

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The question in this argument [over the nature of the soul] concerns what is meant by the “immortality of the soul.” This doctrine is well represented in the Christian tradition but many would agree that it owes more to Hellenistic philosophy than to the Hebrew background of Christianity. Often the term seems to denote the belief that the soul is able to outlive the body and that physical death is not the same as personal extinction. That the essence of human beings is not destroyed by physical death is certainly taught in the New Testament. But this scarcely constitutes “immortality” in the stronger sense of being “incapable of dying.” In fact, Jesus spoke about the one who is able to destroy both body and soul in hell. (Nigel G. Wright, “A Kindler, Gentler Damnation? from Rethinking Hell: Readings In Evangelical Conditionalism, pp. 230-231. Bold font mine).

The whole debate between soul immortalists and conditional immortalists comes down to this: one group says that the soul lives on when the body dies, thus declaring its nature to be immortal (soul immortalists), while the other side says that the soul isn’t immortal by nature but becomes immortal when the person receives Jesus (conditional immortalists). Conditional immortalists accuse traditionalists who hold to Soul Immortality of adhering to Platonic or “Hellenistic” philosophy, as Nigel Wright points to above in the above quote. That is, the soul isn’t declared to be immortal in Scripture (so conditional immortalists say) but traditionalists believe it is because they’re victims of philosophical training and don’t know it.

And yet, Jesus spoke on philosophy and the nature of the soul in Scripture when He tells us that humans are more important the birds of the air and the lilies of the field (Matthew 6:25-30), when He says that it’s a bad exchange to “gain the whole world” yet “lose his soul” (Matthew 16:26; Mark 8:36), when He tells us that man can kill the body but not the soul (Matthew 10:28), and that the soul, though immortal (not subject to human, physical death), is still destructible and can be destroyed by the Immortal God (Matthew 10:28b). In all these things, we see that the philosophical nature of the soul is discussed in the words of Holy Scripture — and that the Lord is on the side of traditionalists who hold to the cherished Doctrine of the Immortality of the Soul.

Here in the work I’ve been reading as of late, Rethinking Hell: Readings In Evangelical Conditionalism, Nigel Wright has one of the most honest chapters in the entire book. To be sure, I value the work of all those who’ve written in it, but his chapter comes to terms with what traditionalists are saying about the soul. He isn’t the only one; Henry Guillebaud’s chapter in the work is also an excellent one that confesses some truth in the debate that is worth reading. But Nigel’s chapter meets the traditionalist where he or she is and says, “I see what you’re seeing in Scripture.”

Immortality And Destructibility

This is what Nigel Wright does: he sees what the traditionalist or soul immortalist is saying: “That the essence of human beings is not destroyed by physical death is certainly taught in the New Testament,” Wright says, a nod to soul immortalists that their viewpoint has clear indication in Scripture. Where he disagrees with the traditional view, then, is over calling the soul “immortal” because the soul survives the body: “this scarcely constitutes ‘immortality’ in the stronger sense of being ‘incapable of dying.’ In fact, Jesus spoke about the one who is able to destroy both body and soul in hell,” Wright says (page 231).

So, while the soul survives mortal death, it isn’t incapable of dying, according to Wright. But what his argument shows is that he isn’t quite familiar with terms and definitions. He seems to assume that, because the soul is destructible, it is “mortal” as opposed to “im-mortal” (that is, not mortal).

Death versus Destruction

For Wright, the soul is capable of being destroyed (which is true according to Matthew 10:28), but does this mean that the soul “dies”? Of course not. After all, Wright just said above that “the essence of human beings is not destroyed by physical death is certainly taught in the New Testament.” If someone is with the Lord while absent from the body, then his or her soul outlives the body and can’t be mortal or subject to death and decay. That’s why traditionalists call the soul im-mortal: because the soul does not die a mortal death in the same way the body does. Conditionalists/conditional immortalists/annihilationists need to understand how the traditionalist defines mortal and immortal.

Mortal = subject to decay and mortal death, from the dust, physical

immortal = not subject to decay or mortal death, not made from the dust, immaterial

Based on these two definitions above, then, it would make sense for the soul to be labeled immortal, would it not?

But what about the claim that the soul is destructible? Let’s get into that now.

Immortality and Destructibility: Terms Needing Distinction

The Conditionalist/conditional immortalist/annihilationist (these three terms are all used to refer to the same thing in many discussions) would agree that the soul outlives the body; at least Nigel Wright agrees. Where they’d strongly disagree is the following: “Sure the soul outlives the body, but that doesn’t make it immortal because it’s still destructible.” To make this claim, the conditionalist is saying that, for something to be immortal, it must be indestructible.

But is that true? Are the words immortal and destructible so divorced that only the indestructible can be immortal? In other words, if the soul is immortal, then must it be indestructible? If so, then the soul’s immortality must be defined some other way.

And yet, as the apostle Paul would say here, I show conditionalists a better way.

Immortal and Destructible: Angels

To prove the traditionalist standpoint, let’s examine a spiritual being: angels. This includes the Devil, of course, since he was created as the most beautiful cherubim angel in Heaven and was even the Captain of the Angelic Hosts (God is the Lord of Hosts, just saying).

The angels are immortal, are they not? Are the angels subject to human decay? Do they die a mortal death? Can angels be mortally wounded? If the answer to these questions about human, mortal death and decay is “no,” then angels are im-mortal (meaning “not mortal”).

And yet, angels, though immortal, are a creation of God, are they not? They are. Anything God makes, then, can be destroyed by God, which means that everything made by God’s hands is destructible. So the immortal angels are destructible, yet immortal and destructible co-exist without tension or contradiction.

If the angels can be both immortal and destructible, then couldn’t the human soul be both, as is the case with the angels?

Conclusion

Nigel Wright wants to conflate the terms death and destruction to say that, if something can be destroyed, it can die, but we’ve seen from the case of angels that Wright’s claim isn’t true. The human soul, then, can be immortal (whereas the body is mortal, subject to death and decay) and destructible, all at the same time.

Everything God makes is destructible and can be destroyed, but not everything God makes is mortal. That’s the crucial distinction conditionalists/conditional immortalists/annihilationists have to make. Lots of things God made are inanimate and thus, cannot die — but they can be destroyed. If inanimate objects cannot die, and angels cannot die, yet both can be destroyed, then it appears as though Wright’s conflation of death and destruction is simply misguided and wrong.

And remember the words of our Lord Jesus: He can “destroy both body and soul in Hell.” The words destroy (what God does to the body and soul) and kill (what man does to the body but cannot do to the soul) are not synonymous.

But at least Wright admits that the soul does outlive the body. That’s a win for the traditionalist, even if the conditionalist confuses death and destruction. It’s enough of a win to make conditional immortality an embarrassing view to hold.