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Soul death

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Soul death

Christian mortalism incorporates the belief that the human soul is not naturally immortal[1][2][3][4][5]; and may include the belief that the soul is uncomprehending during the time between bodily death and Judgment Day resurrection,[6][7][8][9][10] known as the Intermediate state. "Soul sleep" is an often pejorative term[11][lower-alpha 1][14] so the more neutral term "materialism" was also used in the nineteenth century,[15] and "Christian mortalism" since the 1970s.[16][17][18][19][20][21][22]

Historically the term psychopannychism was also used, despite problems with the etymology[lower-alpha 2][lower-alpha 3] and application.[24] Some have identified a distinction between psychopannychism and thnetopsychism, for example Gordon Campbell (2008) identified Milton as believing in the latter[25] though in fact both De doctrina Christiana[lower-alpha 4] and Paradise Lost[lower-alpha 5] refers to death as "sleep" and the dead as being "raised from sleep" The difference is difficult to identify in practice.[26]

Etymology and terminology

Since the phrase "soul sleep" does not occur either in the Bible or in early Anabaptist materials, an explanation is required for the origin of the term. Additionally several other terms have been introduced relating to the view.

Soul sleep

The phrase soul sleep appears to have been popularised by John Calvin in the subtitle to his Latin tract Psychopannychia (, , , ). The title of the booklet comes from Greek psyche (soul, mind) with pan-nychis (παν-νυχίς, all-night vigil, all-night banquet),[27][28] so Psychopannychia, originally, represents Calvin's view; that the soul was conscious, active.

The title and subtitle of the 1542 Strasbourg 1st edition read: [11].

The title and subtitle of the 1545 2nd Latin edition read: .

The 1558 French edition was a translation of that of the 1545 2nd edition:


In the Latin it is clearer that Psychopannychia is actually the refutation of, the opposite of, the idea of soul sleep. The version may have caused the confusion that by -pannychis Calvin meant sleep (in Greek -hypnos not -pannychis, vigil).[29] The subtitle was taken up as .[30] The tract first appeared in English as .

Luther's use of similar language (but this time defending the view) appears in print only a few years after Calvin:

…so the soul after death enters its chamber and peace, and sleeping does not feel its sleep


"Hypnopsychism" from hypno- + psyche ("sleep of soul") was a more correct coinage from Greek than that of Calvin's editor. Eustratios of Constantinople (after 582) denounced mortalism as a heresy using this term.


A possibly contrasting phrase is thnetopsychism (from Greek thnetos [mortal] + psyche [soul, mind]).[32] The term has its origin in the descriptions of Eusebius of Caesarea and John of Damascus of mortalist views among Arab Christians,[33][34] In the 1960s also this phrase was applied also to the views of Tyndale, Luther and other mortalists, from awareness that Calvin's term Psychopannychia originally described his own belief, not the belief he was calling error.[35] The term is also used of the view of the Anabaptists. Their view is that the soul dies, with the body to be recalled to life at the resurrection of the dead, or that the soul is not separate from the body and so there is no "spiritual" self to survive bodily death. In both cases, the deceased does not begin to enjoy a reward or suffer a punishment until Judgment Day.

Mortalist arguments

Historically, Christian mortalists have advanced theological, lexical, and scientific arguments in support of their position.[36]

Theological arguments

Some early eastern Christians argued for mortalism on the basis of the identity of blood with life in Leviticus 17:11.[37] Theological arguments which contended that the continued existence of the soul was not taught in the Bible were made by mortalists such as Francis Blackburne,[38] Joseph Priestley,[39] and Samuel Bourne.[40] Mortalists such as Richard Overton advanced a combination of theological and philosophical arguments in favor of mortalism.[41] Thomas Hobbes likewise made extensive use of theological argumentation.[42] Some mortalists viewed their beliefs as a return to original Christian teaching.[43][44] Mortalist theological arguments were also used to contest the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory and masses for the dead.[45][46][47]

Lexical arguments

In the late eighteenth century, the standard Hebrew lexicon and grammar of John Parkhurst[48] expressed the view that the traditional rendering of the Hebrew word nephesh as reference to an immortal soul, had no lexical support.[49] Mortalists in the nineteenth century used lexical arguments to deny the traditional doctrines of hell and the immortal soul.[50][51][page needed]

Scientific arguments

The eighteenth-century mortalist Henry Layton presented arguments based on physiology.[52] Scientific arguments became important to the nineteenth-century discussion of mortalism and natural immortality,[53] and mortalist Miles Grant cited extensively from a number of scientists who observed that the immortality of the soul was unsupported by scientific evidence.[51][page needed]

Historic proponents of the mortality of the soul

The mortality of the soul has been held throughout the history of both Judaism and Christianity.[54][55][56][57]


Although in the Book of Genesis Jacob mentions he would descend into the Sheol where he thought his son Joseph already was and the Witch of Endor summons the ghost of the deceased prophet Samuel at the behest of King Saul, modern scholars believe the concept of an immortal soul going to bliss or torment after death entered mainstream Judaism after the exile[58] and existed throughout the Second Temple era, though both ‘soul sleep’ and ‘soul death’, were also held,[59][60][61]

Mortalism is present in certain Second Temple Period pseudepigraphal works,[62][63][64][65][66][67] later rabbinical works,[68][69] and among medieval era rabbis such as Abraham Ibn Ezra (1092–1167),[70] Maimonides (1135–1204),[71] and Joseph Albo (1380–1444).[72]

Some authorities within Conservative Judaism, notably Neil Gillman, also support the notion that the souls of the dead are unconscious until the Resurrection.[73]

Traditional rabbinic Judaism, however, has always been of the opinion that belief in immortality of at least most souls, and punishment and reward after death, was a consistent belief back through the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Traditional Judaism reads the Torah accordingly. As an example, the punishment of kareth (excision) is understood to mean that soul is cut off from God in the Afterlife.[74][75]

Christian views

Second to eighth centuries

The most well known case of mortalism in the early church is that recorded by Eusebius of Caesarea:

The Dissension of the Arabians. About the same time others arose in Arabia, putting forward a doctrine foreign to the truth. They said that during the present time the human soul dies and perishes with the body, but that at the time of the resurrection they will be renewed together. And at that time also a synod of considerable size assembled, and Origen, being again invited there, spoke publicly on the question with such effect that the opinions of those who had formerly fallen were changed.
— Ecclesiastical History VI,37

This synod in Arabia would have been during the reign of Emperor Philip the Arab (244–49).[76] Redepenning (1841)[77] was of the opinion that Eusebius' terminology here, "the human soul dies" was probably that of their critics rather than the Arabian Christians' own expression and they were more likely simply "psychopannychists", believers in "soul sleep".[78]

Some Syriac writers such as Aphrahat, Ephrem and Narsai believed in the dormition, or "sleep", of the soul, in which "…souls of the dead […] are largely inert, having lapsed into a state of sleep, in which they can only dream of their future reward or punishments."[79] John of Damascus denounced the ideas of some Arab Christians as thnetopsychism (‘soul death’). Eustratios of Constantinople (after 582) denounced this and what he called hypnopsychism (‘soul sleep’).[80] The issue was connected to that of the Intercession of saints. The writings of Christian ascetic Isaac of Nineveh (d.700), reflect several perspectives which include mortalism.[81]

Ninth to fifteenth centuries

Mortalism evidently persisted since various Byzantine writers had to defend the doctrine of the veneration of saints against those who said the saints sleep.[82][page needed] John the Deacon (eleventh century) attacked those who "dare to say that praying to the saints is like shouting in the ears of the deaf, as if they had drunk from the mythical waters of Oblivion."[83]

Pope John XXII inadvertently caused the Beatific vision controversy (1331–34) by suggesting that the saved do not attain the Beatific Vision, or "see God" until Judgment Day (in Italian: Visione beatifica differita, "deferred beatific vision"), which was a view possibly consistent with soul sleep. The Sacred College of Cardinals held a consistory on the problem in January 1334, and Pope John conceded to the more orthodox understanding. His successor, in that same year, Pope Benedict XII, declared it ex cathedra doctrine that the righteous do see Heaven prior to the final judgement.

The Reformation

After a brief hiatus, mortalism reemerged in Christianity during the Late Middle Ages. It was promoted by some Reformation leaders and survives today mostly among Restorationist sects, such as Jehovah's Witnesses.[5][84] Conti has argued that during the Reformation both psychosomnolence (the belief that the soul sleeps until the resurrection) and thnetopsychism (the belief that the body and soul both die and then both rise again) were quite common.[85]

William Tyndale (1494–1536) argued against Thomas More in favour of soul sleep:

And ye, in putting them [the departed souls] in heaven, hell and purgatory, destroy the arguments wherewith Christ and Paul prove the resurrection... And again, if the souls be in heaven, tell me why they be not in as good a case as the angels be? And then what cause is there of the resurrection?"[86][41]

Morey suggests that John Wycliffe (1320–84) and Tyndale taught the doctrine of soul sleep "as the answer to the Catholic teachings of purgatory and masses for the dead."[87]

Many Anabaptists in this period, such as Michael Sattler (1490–1527),[88][89] were Christian mortalists.[90]

However, the best known advocate of soul sleep was Martin Luther (1483–1546).[46] In writing on Ecclesiastes, Luther says

Salomon judgeth that the dead are a sleepe, and feele nothing at all. For the dead lye there accompting neyther dayes nor yeares, but when they are awoken, they shall seeme to have slept scarce one minute.[91]

Elsewhere Luther states that

As soon as thy eyes have closed shalt thou be woken, a thousand years shall be as if thou hadst slept but a little half hour. Just as at night we hear the clock strike and know not how long we have slept, so too, and how much more, are in death a thousand years soon past. Before a man should turn round, he is already a fair angel.[92]

Jürgen Moltmann (2000) concludes from this that "Luther conceived the state of the dead as a deep, dreamless sleep, removed from time and space, without consciousness and without feeling."[93] That Luther believed in soul sleep is also the view of Watts 1985.[41] Some writers have claimed that Luther changed his view later in life.[94][95][96]

Gottfried Fritschel (1867) argued that quotes from Luther's Latin works had occasionally been misread in Latin or in German translation to contradict or qualify specific statements and Luther's overall teaching, namely that the sleep of the dead was unconscious:[97] These readings can still be found in some English sources.[96][98][99]

The two most frequently cited passages are:

  • "It is certain that to this day Abraham is serving God, just as Abel, Noah are serving God. And this we should carefully note; for it is divine truth that Abraham is living, serving God, and ruling with Him. But what sort of life that may be, whether he is asleep or awake, is another question. How the soul is resting we are not to know, but it is certain that it is living." [100]
  • "A man tired with his daily labour... sleeps. But his soul does not sleep (Anima autem non sic dormit) but is awake (sed vigilat). It experiences visions and the discourses of the angels and of God. Therefore the sleep in the future life is deeper than it is in this life. Nevertheless, the soul lives to God. This is the likeness to the sleep of life."[101][102]

Others included Camillo Renato (1540)[103] Mátyás Dévai Bíró (1500–45)[104] Michael Servetus (1511–53)[105] Laelio Sozzini (1562)[106] Fausto Sozzini (1563)[107] the Polish Brethren (1565 onwards)[108] Dirk Philips (1504–68)[109] Gregory Paul of Brzezin (1568)[110] the Socinians (1570–1800)[111] John Frith (1573)[112] George Schomann (1574)[113] Simon Budny (1576)[107]

Seventeenth to eighteenth centuries

Soul sleep was a significant minority view from the eighth to the seventeenth centuries,[114] and soul death became increasingly common from the Reformation onwards.[5]

Soul sleep has been called a "major current of seventeenth century protestant ideology."[115] John Milton wrote in his unpublished De Doctrina Christiana,

Inasmuch then as the whole man is uniformly said to consist of body, and soul (whatever may be the distinct provinces assigned to these divisions), I will show, that in death, first, the whole man, and secondly, each component part, suffers privation of life.[116]

Gordon Campbell (2008) identifies Milton's views as "thnetopsychism", a belief that the soul dies with the body but is resurrected at the last judgment.[117] however Milton speaks also of the dead as "asleep".[118]

Those holding this view include: 1600s: Sussex Baptists[119] d. 1612: Edward Wightman[120] 1627: Samuel Gardner[121] 1628: Samuel Przypkowski[122] 1636: George Wither[123] 1637: Joachim Stegmann[124] 1624: Richard Overton[41] 1654: John Biddle (Unitarian)[125] 1655: Matthew Caffyn[126] 1658: Samuel Richardson[127] 1608–74: John Milton[128][page needed][129] 1588–1670: Thomas Hobbes[111] 1605–82: Thomas Browne[130] 1622–1705: Henry Layton[52] 1702: William Coward[52] 1632–1704: John Locke[131] 1643–1727: Isaac Newton[132] 1676–1748: Pietro Giannone[133] 1751: William Kenrick[134] 1755: Edmund Law[135] 1759: Samuel Bourn[136] 1723–91: Richard Price[137] 1718–97: Peter Peckard[138] 1733–1804: Joseph Priestley[139] Francis Blackburne (1765)[140].

Nineteenth to twentieth centuries

Belief in conditional immortality and the annihilation of the unsaved became increasingly common during the nineteenth century,[141][142][143] entering mainstream Christianity in the twentieth century.[144][145] From this point it is possible to speak in terms of entire groups holding the belief, and only the most prominent individual nineteenth-century advocates of the doctrine will be mentioned here.

Others include: Millerites (from 1833),[lower-alpha 6] Edward White (1846),[146] Christadelphians (from 1848),[147] Thomas Thayer (1855),[148] François Gaussen (d. 1863),[149] Henry Constable (1873),[150] Louis Burnier (Waldensian, d. 1878),[151] the Baptist Conditionalist Association (1878),[152] Cameron Mann (1888),[153] Emmanuel Pétavel-Olliff (1891), Miles Grant (1895)[51][page needed], George Gabriel Stokes (1897).[146]

Modern Christian groups

Present-day defenders of mortalism include many, such as Nicky Gumbel,[154] some Lutherans, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Advent Christian Church, the Afterlife group,[155] Christadelphians, the Church of God (Seventh Day), Church of God (7th day) – Salem Conference, the Church of God Abrahamic Faith, and various other Church of God organizations and related denominations which adhered to the older teachings of Herbert W. Armstrong's Worldwide Church of God and the Bible Student movement.

Jehovah's Witnesses also teach a form of mortalism[156] but represent a special case. They believe that 144,000 believers began to be raised from the dead in October 1914 to receive immortality in heaven,[157] but all other believers will be raised from the dead on Judgment Day to receive eternal life on earth.[158]


Immortality of the soul

The more common Christian belief about the Intermediate State between death and Judgment Day is immortality of the soul followed immediately after death of the body by Particular Judgment. Most Protestants believe the soul is judged to go to Heaven or Hell immediately after death. In Catholicism most souls temporarily stay in Purgatory to be purified for Heaven (as described in the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, 1030–32). In Eastern Orthodoxy, the soul waits in the Abode of the Dead, specifically Hades, until the Resurrection of the Dead, the saved resting in light and the damned suffering in darkness.[159] According to James Tabor this Eastern Orthodox picture of Particular Judgment is similar to the first-century Jewish and possibly Early Christian[160] concept that the dead either "Rest in Peace" in the Bosom of Abraham (mentioned in the Gospel of Luke) or suffer in Hades. This view was also promoted by John Calvin, though Calvin taught that immortality was not in the nature of the soul but was imparted by God.[161] Nineteenth-century Reformed theologians such as A.A. Hodge, W.G.T. Shedd, and Louis Berkhof also taught the immortality of the soul, but some later Reformed theologians such as Herman Bavinck and G. C. Berkouwer rejected the idea as unscriptural.[162]

Opponents of Psychopannychism and Thnetopsychism include the Roman Catholic Church, most mainline Protestant denominations, and most conservative Protestants, Evangelicals, and Fundamentalists.

Roman Catholic Church

The Roman Catholic Church has called "soul mortality" a serious heresy.

Whereas some have dared to assert concerning the nature of the reasonable soul that it is mortal, we, with the approbation of the sacred council do condemn and reprobate all those who assert that the intellectual soul is mortal, seeing, according to the canon of Pope Clement V, that the soul is [...] immortal [...] and we decree that all who adhere to like erroneous assertions shall be shunned and punished as heretics.

Modern scholarship

As early as 1917 Harvey W. Scott wrote "That there is no definite affirmation, in the Old Testament of the doctrine of a future life, or personal immortality, is the general consensus of Biblical scholarship."[163] The modern scholarly consensus is that the canonical teaching of the Old Testament made no reference to an "immortal soul" independent of the body.[164][165][166][167] This view is represented consistently in a wide range of scholarly reference works.[168][169][170][171][172]

According to Donelley, "Twentieth century biblical scholarship largely agrees that the ancient Jews had little explicit notion of a personal afterlife until very late in the Old Testament period," and "only the latest stratum of the Old Testament asserts even the resurrection of the body."[164] Scholars have noted that the notion of the "disembodied existence of a soul in bliss" is not in accordance with a Hebrew world view:[168] "While Hebrew thought world distinguished soul from body (as material basis of life), there was no question of two separate, independent entities."[173] Gillman argues that

In contrast to the two enigmatic references to Enoch and Elijah, there are ample references to the fact that death is the ultimate destiny for all human beings, that God has no contact with or power over the dead, and that the dead do not have any relationship with God (see, inter alia, Ps. 6:6, 30:9–10, 39:13–14, 49:6–13, 115:16–18, 146:2–4). If there is a conceivable setting for the introduction of a doctrine of the afterlife, it would be in Job, since Job, although righteous, is harmed by God in the present life. But Job 10:20–22 and 14:1–10 affirm the opposite.[171]

However, N. T. Wright suggests that "the Bible offers a spectrum of belief about life after death."[174] While Goldingay suggests that Qohelet points out that there is no evidence that "human beings would enjoy a positive afterlife,"[175] Philip Johnston argues that a few Psalms, such as Psalm 16, Psalm 49 and Psalm 73, "affirm a continued communion with God after death," but "give no elaboration of how, when or where this communion will take place."[176]

Neyrey suggests that, "for a Hebrew, ‘soul’ indicated the unity of a human person," and "this Hebrew field of meaning is breached in the Wisdom of Solomon by explicit introduction of Greek ideas of soul.[177] Avery-Peck argues that

Scripture does not present even a rudimentarily developed theology of the soul. The creation narrative is clear that all life originates with God. Yet the Hebrew Scripture offers no specific understanding of the origin of individual souls, of when and how they become attached to specific bodies, or of their potential existence, apart from the body, after death. The reason for this is that, as we noted at the beginning, the Hebrew Bible does not present a theory of the soul developed much beyond the simple concept of a force associated with respiration, hence, a life-force.[178]

Regardless of the character of the soul's existence in the intermediate state, biblical scholarship affirms that a disembodied soul is unnatural and at best transitional. Bromiley argues that "the soul and the body belong together, so that without either the one or the other there is no true man. Disembodied existence in Sheol is unreal. Paul does not seek a life outside the body, but wants to be clothed with a new and spiritual body (1 Cor. 15; 2 Cor. 5)."[179]

The mortalist disbelief in the existence of a naturally immortal soul,[1][5] is affirmed as biblical teaching by a range of standard scholarly Jewish and Christian sources. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought (1995) says, "There is no concept of an immortal soul in the Old Testament, nor does the New Testament ever call the human soul immortal."[180] Harper's Bible Dictionary (1st ed. 1985) says that "For a Hebrew, ‘soul’ indicated the unity of a human person; Hebrews were living bodies, they did not have bodies".[181] Cressey 1996 says, "But to the Bible man is not a soul in a body but a body/soul unity".[182] Avery-Peck 2000 says, "Scripture does not present even a rudimentarily developed theology of the soul"[178] and "The notion of the soul as an independent force that animates human life but that can exist apart from the human body—either prior to conception and birth or subsequent to life and death—is the product only of later Judaism".[178] The says that the Septuagint translated the Hebrew word nefesh by the Greek word psyche, but the latter does not have the same sense in Greek thought.[183] The says, "Far from referring simply to one aspect of a person, “soul” refers to the whole person".[184] The says, "Possibly Jn. 6:33 also includes an allusion to the general life-giving function. This teaching rules out all ideas of an emanation of the soul."[179] and "The soul and the body belong together, so that without either the one or the other there is no true man".[179] The says, "Indeed, the salvation of the “immortal soul” has sometimes been a commonplace in preaching, but it is fundamentally unbiblical."[168] The says "The Hebrew Bible does not present the human soul (nepeš) or spirit (rûah) as an immortal substance, and for the most part it envisions the dead as ghosts in Sheol, the dark, sleepy underworld".[185] The says, "there is practically no specific teaching on the subject in the Bible beyond an underlying assumption of some form of afterlife (see immortality)".[186] The says "It is this essential soul-body oneness that provides the uniqueness of the biblical concept of the resurrection of the body as distinguished from the Greek idea of the immortality of the soul".[187]

The mortalist disbelief in the existence of a naturally immortal soul[1][5] is also affirmed as biblical teaching by various modern theologians,[188][189][190][lower-alpha 7][191][192][193] and Hebblethwaite observes the doctrine is "not popular amongst Christian theologians or among Christian philosophers today".[194][195]




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Further reading

  • (English translation Theology of the New Testament 2 vols, London: SCM, 1952, 1955). The leading scholarly reference supporting a holistic anthropology (similar to soul sleep)
  • Covers all major strands of psychopannychism and thnetopsychism in English Reformation and Revolution.
  • (English translation ).
  • , 349 pp. Comprehensive volume covering a multitude of texts for and against the doctrine of soul sleep.
  • .
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