The question of the eternal soul came up at Peaceful Science in the context of what it means to be human (and specifically, to be a human living outside the Garden of Eden under the Genealogical Adam and Eve paradigm.
Here’s my assessment of the situation.
The Bible doesn’t actually teach a concept of an immortal soul. In Genesis 2, Adam becomes a living soul (nephesh) when God breathes into him, and generally in the OT the concept of “soul” is almost synonymous with a colloquial, rather than technical, concept of “living”. Animals, being alive, are occasionally said to have souls, meaning they are alive. And on one occasion, at least, the phrase “dead souls” is used, the oxymoron suggesting that “soul” has become, as in English, simply a word for person (“You poor soul…”).
Genesis 2-3 quite clearly make the concept of eternal life an external endowment, literally from eating a tree in the midst of the garden, and eternal life is lost to Adam and Eve by their exile from the garden – indeed, prevention of their living forever is God’s stated reason for the expulsion.
On the other hand the rich biblical teaching on life after death complicates the issue. The undeveloped Old Testament teaching speaks of Sheol (the grave) as a place or state of shadowy beings, rather after the pattern of the Greek Hades, which word translates sheol in the NT.
The great Jewish, and Christian, hope though is the resurrection of the body. N. T. Wright discusses this in its Jewish and New Testament context at length in The Resurrection of the Son of God. He points out that the prophetic and traditional witness in the second temple period was of a rather shadowy but secure “intermediate existence” for the departed, as they await the the final resurrection of the saints, the eschatological goal. For this reason Wright refers to the unique biblical hope as “life after life after death.” This theme is carried on in the New Testament, where it is hinted, rather than clearly asserted, that those who die in Christ are safe with him, and perhaps have some degree of consciousness. This, however, is not full life, for that awaits the glorious resurrection body pioneered by Jesus on Easter Day.
Thomas Aquinas was aware both of this strand of biblical teaching, and of the use made by it by earlier Christian writers. In achieving his synthesis of Aristotelian philosophy and Christian doctrine, he had to deal with a well-entrenched Neo-platonic idea of the eternal soul, and with Aristotle’s “hylemorphic dualism,” in which the rational human soul is simply the particular form imposed on the body of indeterminate matter. To Aristotle, at death that form must be lost.
Aquinas’s answer was to argue that “reason,” the characteristically human endowment, is immaterial and therefore eternal. In this way he could picture the soul after death, but before the resurrection, as somehow alive, but lacking the body through which, alone, it could express itself fully.
How may we square the Old Testament material both with the vaguely expressed “intermediate state” of the New Testament and later Jewish literature, and perhaps with Aquinas’s rather attractively coherent position – though bear in mind that we are under no obligation to retain anything of Aquinas if he is wrong?
Let’s start with Aquinas’s concept of the soul as a “form,” which is closely linked to the modern conception of information. Information is, in some sense and under some conditions, eternal. Imagine a persecuting world government which manages to destroy every last copy of the Islamic Quran. You will be aware that it is a mark of merit amongst Muslims to have memorised the whole Quran, and so whilst any of those who have done so are alive, the book still exists in their memories, and could be reconstructed as a book again at any time. If their memory was good, it would be the same Quran.
Information can therefore be transferred between media, and of course the Sci-Fi scenario is sometimes the possibility of teleportation by transmitting your molecular structure electronically and building it up from local materials. But when material media fail, as in my Quran analogy, the “form”still exists whilst there is a mind to contain it.
In biblical faith, we know that the mind of God continues to exist even if the whole material world, including every human brain, should perish. And should he choose to bring a human “form” to mind, and place it in a new or reconstituted imperishable body, then that person is truly eternal, though not by nature, but only by the will of God.
That dependance on God surely matches the story of the tree of life in Genesis. In planting the garden God creates the possibility that, in his presence, Adam and Eve will never die. In expelling them from the garden, they return to their natural state of mortality, and yet in God’s purposes there remains the intention to restore their prospect of eternal life through his salvation plan. Is there a more graphic description of the final resurrection than that God calls us, in our every detail, to mind, and embodies us again?
That still leaves unanswered the question of the scriptural hints of conscious existence outside the body, “in the bosom of Christ.” But the whole question of the relationship between what is in God’s mind, and what is “real” is such holy ground that I’m prepared to be agnostic on the matter… and I am not, as regular readers, will know, a Molinist, so I am inclined to believe that God only ever thinks what is real. Deliberation between alternatives is fundamental to creatures, but I suspect is an anthropomorphism with respect to the Omniscient God.
Finally, let me return to the original question of whether those outside the garden, under Genealogical Adam, have “eternal souls.” You will see from the above that the question may not mean much: if Adam has eternal life only because God “keeps him in mind,” then God certainly, as Creator, also knows entirely each non-adamic man, and every Neanderthal and chimpanzee, to boot.
The question is rather whether God will choose to “call them to mind” at the final resurrection. We have no scriptural indication that animals will be raised from the dead, despite the sentimental hopes of pet-lovers. Unlike Aquinas, I can see no necessity for “reason” to be intrinsically eternal. And in Genesis, the possibility (and so the hope) of eternal life is a feature not of human creation, but of Adam’s covenant calling to rule creation.
I can see no injustice should the Lord’s creation of mankind before Adam mean that they lived with a piety endowed by their nature, without any consciousness of sin, and with no hankering after life beyond the enjoyment of God’s good earth for longer than most other species.
But in my understanding, it would be no problem for God to raise everyone he, as Creator, deems to be human at the last day. Perhaps, as most suppose of innocent children who die, pre-adamic people would see the face of Christ and receive the kingdom directly from him, rather than from Adam as had been the first intention. In the end, that’s a question Scripture doesn’t answer, and it depends on knowledge we do not possess about the extent of God’s grace. Trying to answer unanswerable questions is a mug’s game – check out Deuteronomy 29:29.
But it’s not a problem of whether or not such people have eternal souls. It’s a question only of God’s calling, and specifically of his calling to remembrance.