On eternal souls

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.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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10 Responses to On eternal souls

  1. Noah White says:

    Making my dramatic re-entrance into The Hump to reply to this, as it’s been on my mind recently. A good friend brought Wright’s perspective up, as he read an article critiquing Wright’s perspective (found most thoroughly, here: http://ntwrightpage.com/2016/07/12/mind-spirit-soul-and-body/). I don’t have access to the critiquing article through my institution, and don’t want to pay for it, but here’s the abstract:

    “At a 2011 meeting of the Society of Christian Philosophers, N. T. Wright offered four reasons for rejecting the existence of soul. This was surprising, as many Christian philosophers had previously taken Wright’s defense of a disembodied intermediate state as a defense of a substance dualist view of the soul. In this paper, I offer responses to each of Wright’s objections, demonstrating that Wright’s arguments fail to undermine substance dualism. In so doing, I expose how popular arguments against dualism fail, such as (1) dualism is merely an unwarranted influence of Greek culture on Christianity, and (2) substance dualism is merely a soul‐of‐the‐gaps hypothesis. Moreover, I demonstrate that Wright himself has offered a powerful reason for adopting substance dualism in his previous works. In conclusion I offer a view that explains why the human soul needs a resurrected body.” (https://philpapers.org/rec/RICRTN)

    Based on what I know about Wright’s perspective through Surprised by Hope and the article linked above, it seems like a classic case of Theologians and Philosophers talking past one another. I think you do bring something interesting to fold in insisting that we shouldn’t belittle God’s memory having an aspect of reality.

    I think a modified hylemorphic dualism is the way to go, with specific changes to “reason” and eternality/inherent immortality. Working on getting access to the article so I can dive deeper, but I’m curious about your thoughts in general.

    P.S.– I’m applying to St Andrew’s with my wife for next fall. She will be looking to join the program Wright founded (and has since ditched for Oxford!) and I’m looking at an MLitt in Intellectual History, largely inspired by your work tracking the history of evolution and theology here and in your book! Maybe we will dip down to Devonshire some time and share a pint!

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      And very welcome your dramatic re-entrance is, Noah!

      I’ll try and get round to reading the whole article as soon as possible, but thought I would greet you first!

      It’s a year or two since I read Wright on this, but I don’t recall his denying the soul altogether, though he didn’t, I agree, have much truck with substance dualism. Like you, I prefer to begin with hylemorphism.

      In the end, though, the philosophical suggestions are only ways of interpreting the biblical material that carries divine authority. Some are better or weaker than others, but none of us has experience of life after death (though some of us have had near death experiences!).

      I found Berkeley’s writings against matter interesting earlier in the year, if only in making one relaise how little we actually know even about the material world we experience every day. If I can’t be sure of matter, I can’t be objective about the soul… though I can be authoritatively subjective about it, being a soul myself!

      If you get to Scotland we must definitely meet up somehow.

      • Noah White says:

        Agreed all around! Wondering if you’ve had a chance to check out the article yet (no worries if you haven’t). It’s an interesting debate, as I understand the critique leveled at Wright and while it seems to be based on the *letter* of his words, it feels as though the author is misunderstanding the point of Wright’s critique. But I’m having a hard time figuring out what’s going on.

        I love your observations on matter vs. the soul. We learn so much more about the nature of the physical universe as time progresses, but only to find ourselves faced with an ever-growing ignorance!

        Also, I recently discovered through pure serendipity that Bruce L. Gordon (collaborator with Dembski, referenced on The Hump a few times) is a professor at HBU. The serendipity was that he found my dropped wallet outside the men’s restroom, of all things! Small world!

        • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

          Mea culpa! Haven’t had time, as I’m trying to get as much of the next book done as I can before the proofs of the last one arrived to be checked. More news anon.

          However, Academia has been plying me with notices of papers on the subject since I downloaded your link. There’s evidently a full-scale debate going on out there, which nobody alive can resolve, but everyone who’s dead could in flash! Funny old world.

          At least as far as the context of what I’ve read from Wright goes, you may well be right about critiques missing his point: the centrality of bodily resurrection in Judaism and Christianity was his emphasis, and everything else was to show the way different folks tried to make sense of the gaps left by Scripture.

          Re Bruce Gordon: if we were to believe what some people say about ID, the serendipity was that he didn’t steal your wallet when he found it! Make contact – you may be able to use him as an endorsee on your first book! 🙂

  2. Ian Thompson says:

    Jon:
    Do we have a spiritual life?
    If so, what does it consist of?
    And then, if it exists, where does that life come from?

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Ian

      As you ask it, that question seems to me unanswerably imprecise. To yer average modern, an entirely biomechanical brain’s feelings of beauty, let alone wondering about the existence of God, would constitute a “spiritual life.”

      At the other extreme, Christians will often elide the meaning of “spirit” and “soul” so that a disembodied spirit is exactly the same as a disembodied soul, in some Platonic or even Gnostic sense – the spark from God trapped in the earthly body.

      It would help to know more clearly what you have in mind (or in your spirit?).

      But #1: Scripture in some way views the “spirit” as the “empowering principle” of a person, which goes back to the Genesis 2 account, in which the breath of God animating the clay of the body made Adam “a living soul.”

      #2. Hence both OT and NY refer to “a man’s spirit within him,” and that sometimes seems to refer to mind, or perhaps consciousness. It is the spirit that Ecclesiastes discusses as returning to God, who made it.

      #3. God is referred to as (pure) “spirit”, and it is his Spirit, viewed as personal, who indwells the believer. And this sense underlies the NT conception of the “life of the spirit” as opposed to the “life of the flesh.”

      All that makes (for me) a difficult job of synthesis, which leads me to speculate that, as in the case of “soul,” Scripture is often speaking colloquially or experientially, rather than technically. The thoughts I expressed in the OP seem equally significant on this matter: we know there is “spirit”, because that is what God is, and we know there is “matter,” because the world is made of it – but exactly what they are we don’t know, though we can philosophize to make some sense of the distinction.

      Your thoughts?

      • Ian Thompson says:

        We can talk about mind and consciousness and feelings, but everyone has these. So they are not part of any new spiritual life coming from the God.

        But there are some things that cannot come just from ordinary life and natural selection. These are (1) a love of what is good, (2) an understanding of what is true, and (3) love acting by that understanding to do what is good (i.e. charity) in the Kingdom.

        It seems to me that religious spirituality consists of receiving that love and that understanding from the Spirit and that doing what is good, and acting as if it is our own.

        Doesn’t it appear that was what the early Christians received from the glorified Christ? Something real and living and existing with them?
        Don’t you sense that some times?

        What puzzles me is how this new life from God could fit into the life of a person if that is just a hylemorphic form+matter. I think that this gives a merely one-level account of human life, whereas with input from God living with us, the story must be more complex.

        • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

          Right! The conversation makes more sense now I see your drift. Here are some musings.

          The first point is on the indwelling of God’s Spirit of the believer. Without trying to pin down the metaphysics of it, Scripture portrays that as a “coming alongside” (parakletos), so God’s Spirit remains God working in us, rather than being identified with us. I take it that would work with any view of the human soul.

          His role is complex, but includes reminding us of Jesus’s teaching, and making God real to us – the joy that life in the Spirit gives seems to me the kind of joy that comes from being in the company of the Beloved: it’s a delight in itself (or occasionally a cause for shame), and the conversation increases that.

          One of The Spirit’s main roles is to bring new life to the spiritually dead, ie conversion, and that, I guess, is where we’re closer to the actual “spiritual life of the believer himself/herself.”

          That process is supernatural, but the question is whether it also creates something supernatural, or simply restores the corrupted created nature.

          My understanding of this, informed by my Genealogical Adam work, goes back to Eden. I suggest that (pre-Adamic) mankind was created with a natural sense of religion, and Adam takes that with him into the garden.

          However, the purpose of Eden (though stymied by sin) was a new creation beyond that, involving intimacy with God, co-regency of creation with him, and eternal life. In other words, the same quality of eternal life in communion with the Lord that was eventually brought to fallen mankind by Jesus.

          Since that life is, the NT tells us, a whole new created order that is pneumatikos rather than psuchikos, after the resurrection of the body at least there must be a fundamental change in the nature of the “soul” understood as the whole nature of the living human.

          But it seems to be a change to the fundamental order of creation – a change to matter – as well as, or perhaps instead of, any change to the human “form” that unites with it in hylemorphism.

          What can we build from that?

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