Are Christians, as Christians, necessarily committed to the belief in the Immortality of the human soul? And what does Immortality actually mean in the Christian universe of discourse? These questions are by no means just rhetorical ones. Etienne Gilson, in his Gifford lectures, felt himself compelled to make the following startling statement: "On the whole," he said, "Christianity without an Immortality of the soul is not altogether inconceivable, the proof is that it has been so conceived. What is, on the contrary, absolutely inconceivable, is Christianity without a Resurrection of Man." The striking feature of the early history of the Christian doctrine of Man was that many of the leading writers of the second century seem to have emphatically denied the (natural) immortality of the soul. And this does not seem to be an exceptional or extravagant opinion of certain writers only, but rather the common teaching of the age. Nor was this conviction completely abandoned in a later age. Bishop Anders Nygren, in his famous book, Den kristna karlekstanken genom tiderna, praises the Apologists of the second century precisely for this courageous statement and sees in it an expression of the true Evangelical spirit. The main emphasis was then, as in Nygren's opinion it should ever be, rather on the "Resurrection of the body" than on the "Immortality of the soul." An Anglican erudite of the 17th century, Henry Dodwell (1641-1711, one-time
An Epistolary Discourse, proving, from the Scriptures and the First Fathers, that the Soul is a Principle naturally Mortal; but immortalized actually by the Pleasure of God, to Punishment; or to Reward, by its Union with the Divine Baptismal Spirit. Wherein is proved, that None have the Power of giving this Divine Immortalizing Spirit, since the Apostles, but only the Bishops (1706).
Dodwell's argument was often confused and involved. The main value of the book, however, was in its immense erudition. Dodwell, probably for the first time, collected an enormous mass of information on the early Christian doctrine of Man, even if he could not use it properly himself. And he was quite right in his contention that Christianity was not concerned with a natural "Immortality," but rather with the soul's supernatural Communion with God, "Who only hath immortality" (1 Tim. 6:16). No wonder that Dodwell's book provoked a violent controversy. A formal charge of heresy was brought against the author. Yet, he found some fervent supporters. And an anonymous writer, "a Presbyter of the Church of England," published two books on the subject, presenting a careful study of the Patristic evidence that "the Holy Spirit (was) the Author of Immortality, or Immortality (was) a Peculiar Grace of the Gospel, (and) no Natural Ingredient of the soul," and that "Immortality (was) preternatural to Human Souls, the Gift of Jesus Christ, collated by the Holy Spirit in Baptism." What was of special interest in that controversy was that Dodwell's thesis was opposed chiefly by the "liberals" of that day, and his greatest literary opponent was the famous Samuel Clarke, of St. James, Westminster, a follower of Newton and a correspondent of Leibniz, notorious for his unorthodox beliefs and ideas, a typical man of the age of Latitudinarianism and Enlightenment. It was an unusual sight: "Immortality" contested by an "Orthodox" and defended by a Latitudinarian. In fact, it was rather what one should have expected. The belief in a natural Immortality was one of the few basic "dogmas" of the enlightened Deism of that time. A man of the Enlightenment could easily dismiss the doctrines of Revelation, but could not afford any doubt on the "truth" of Reason. Gilson suggested that "what is known under the name of the "Moralist" doctrine of the 17th century was originally a return to the position of the Early Fathers and not, as seems to be usually believed, a manifestation of a libertine spirit." As a general statement, it is untenable. The whole situation in the 17th century was much more complex and mixed up than Gilson apparently surmised. Yet, in the case of Dodwell (and some others) Gilson's guess is fully vindicated. There was an obvious "return to the positions of the First Fathers."
St. Justin, in his Dialogue with Trypho, tells the story of his conversion. In his quest for truth he went first to Philosophers, and for a time was fully satisfied with the teaching of Platonists. "The perception of incorporeal things quite overwhelmed me, and the Platonic theory of ideas added wing to my mind." Then he met a Christian teacher, an elderly and respectable man. Among the questions raised in the course of their conversation was that of the nature of the soul. We should not call the soul immortal, contended the Christian. "For, if it were, we would certainly have to call it unbegotten also," i athanatos esti ke agennitos. This was, of course, the thesis of the Platonists. Now, God alone is "unbegotten" and immortal, and it is for that very reason that He is Divine. The world, on the other hand, is "begotten," and the souls make part of it. "Perhaps, there was a time when they were not in existence." And therefore they are not immortal, "since the world has appeared to us to be begotten." The soul is not life by itself, but only "partakes" of life. God alone is life, the soul can but have life. "For the power to live is not an attribute of the soul, as it is of God." Moreover, God gives life to souls, "as He pleases." All created things "have the nature of decay, and are such as may be blotted out and cease to exist." Creatures as such are "corruptible" (Dial. 5 and 6).
The main classical proofs of immortality, derived from Phaedo and Phaedrus, are disavowed and declined, and their basic presuppositions openly rejected. As Professor A. E. Taylor pointed out, "to the Greek mind athanasia or aftharsia regularly signified much the same things as "divinity" and included the conception of ingenerability as well as of indestructibility. To say "the soul is immortal" would be for a Greek the same as to say "it is uncreated," i.e., eternal and "divine." Everything that had a beginning was bound to have an end. In other words, for a Greek, "immortality" of the soul would immediately imply its "eternity," i.e., an eternal "pre-existence." Only that which had no beginning could last for ever. Christians could not comply with this "philosophical" assumption, as they believed in Creation, and therefore they had to deny "immortality" (in the Greek meaning of the word). The soul is not an independent or self-governing being, but precisely a creature, and its very existence it owes to God, the Creator. Accordingly, it cannot be "immortal" by nature, i.e., by itself, but only by "God's pleasure," i.e., by grace. The "philosophical" argument for (natural) "immortality" was based on the "necessity" of existence.
On the contrary, to say that the world is created is to emphasize, first of all, its radical contingency, and precisely — contingency in the order of existence. In other words, a created world is a world which might not have existed at all. That is to say that the world is, utterly and entirely, ab alio, and in no sense a se." As Gilson puts it, "there are some beings that are radically different from God at least in this that, unlike Him, they might not have existed, and still may, at a certain time, cease to exist." "May cease," however, does not mean necessarily "will [actually] cease." St. Justin was not a "conditionalist," and his name has been invoked by the defenders of a "conditional immortality" quite in vain. "I do not say, indeed, that all souls die." The whole argument was polemical, and its purpose was to stress belief in Creation. We find the same reasoning in other writings of the second century. St. Theophilus of Antioch insisted on the "neutral" character of Man. "By nature," Man is neither "immortal" nor "mortal," but rather "capable of both," dektikon amfoteron. "For if God had made him immortal from the beginning, He would have made him God." If Man from the beginning had chosen things immortal, in obedience to God's commandments, he would have been rewarded with immortality and have become God, "an adoptive God," deus assumptus, Theos anadihthis (Ad Autolycum II, 24 and 27).
Tatian went even further. "The soul is not in itself immortal, O Greeks, but mortal. Yet it is possible for it not to die" (Oratio ad Graecos, 13). The thought of the early Apologists was not free from contradictions, nor was it always accurately expressed. But the main contention was always clear: the problem of human immortality had to be faced in the context of the doctrine of Creation. One may say also: not as a metaphysical problem only, but as a religious one, first of all. "Immortality" is not an attribute of the soul, but something that ultimately depends upon man's actual relationship with God, his Master and Creator. Not only the ultimate destiny of Man can be achieved only in Communion with God, but even Man's existence itself and his "survival" or endurance depend upon God's will. St. Irenaeus continued the same tradition. In his struggle against the Gnostics he had a special motive to emphasize the creaturely character of the soul. It does not come from "another world," exempt from corruption; it belongs precisely to this created world.
It has been contended, says St. Irenaeus, that in order to stay in existence souls had to be "unbegotten" (sed oportere eas aut innascibiles esse ut sint immortales), for otherwise they would have to die with the body (vel si generationis initium acceperint, cum corpore mori). He declines this argument. As creatures, the souls "endure as long as God wills them to endure" (perseverant autem quoadusque eas Deus et esse, et perseverare voluerit). Perseverantia here obviously corresponds to the Greek: diamoni. St. Irenaeus uses almost the same phrases as St. Justin. The soul is not life by itself; it partakes of life, by the grant of God (sic et anima quidem non est vita, participatur autem a Deo sibi praestitam vitam). God alone is Life and the only Giver of Life (Adversus haereses II, 34.). Even Clement of Alexandria, in spite of his Platonism, would occasionally recall that the soul was not immortal "by nature" (Adumbrationes in I Petri 1:9: hinc apparet quoniam non est naturaliter anima incorruptibilis, sed gartia Dei ... perficitur incorruptibilis).
St. Athanasius would demonstrate the immortality of the soul by arguments which can be traced back to Plato (Adv. Gentes, 33), and yet he insisted very strongly that everything created is "by nature" unstable and exposed to destruction (ibidem, 41; fysin revstin usan ke dialyomeni). Even
We may conclude: When we discuss the problem of Immortality from a Christian point of view, we must keep in mind the creaturely nature of the soul. The very existence of the soul is contingent, i.e., as it were, "conditional." It is conditioned by the creative fiat of God. Yet, a given existence, i.e., an existence which is not necessarily implied in the "essence," is not necessarily a transient one. The creative fiat is a free but ultimate act of God. God has created the world simply for existence: ektise gar is to ine ta panda (
- Archpriest George Florovsky