Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: Death and Life in the Bible (Part 2)

At Rethinking Hell, we put great emphasis on the fact that conditionalism does not stand or fall on a specific view of the intermediate state, or a specific view of the human soul. We were all conceived as physical beings, we are born as physical beings, and one way or another, core to Christianity is the belief that however long we live after judgment, we live as physical beings into the age to come. Ultimately, the question of the soul and the intermediate state does directly affect the nature of hell.

That said, the intermediate state, the time between the death of the body and the resurrection (when it is usually believed that the soul is still alive – and I phrase it that way on purpose), does impact our discussion about how the Bible speaks of death and life. That will be the focus in Part 2.

The Two Different Views of the Intermediate State

The question of whether a person is conscious in between the death of the body and resurrection splits up Christian ideas of the intermediate state into two broad categories.

Traditional Dualism

The traditional, dominant view in Christianity at large is that when you die the first death, when this life ends and the body dies, you have an immaterial soul that remains conscious in an intermediate state until the resurrection. Whether this state is a good or bad state is dependent on whether you are ultimately saved or unsaved. For our purposes, we will call this view “traditional dualism.”

A significant number of evangelical conditionalists also hold this view.

Minority View – Soul Sleep

However, not all Christians believe that there is a conscious intermediate state. They believe that when your body dies and this life ends, you have no conscious experience at all until the resurrection. It is like falling asleep and waking up, where an extended period of time passes by but in your experience, it was an instant.  For this reason, many call this view “soul sleep.”

This view is held by many conditionalists, including myself. It has also been held by a few well-known traditionalists as well, such as Williams Tyndale. 1 William Tyndale, An Answer to Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue, The Supper of the Lord, After the True Meaning of John VI. and I Cor. XI. And WM. Tracy’s Testament Expounded (The Parker Society, 1536), 180-181, reproduced at Google Books, n.d. https://books.google.com/books?id=TOLOU6-00yUC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false (accessed on September 7, 2020).      “The true faith putteth the resurrection, which we be warned to look for every hour. The heathen philosophers, denying that, did put that the souls did ever live. And the pope joineth the spiritual doctrine of Christ and the fleshly doctrine of philosophers together…And because the fleshly-minded pope consenteth unto heathen doctrine, therefore he corrupteth the scripture to stablish it…And again, if the souls are in heaven, tell me why they be not in as good case as the angels be? And then what cause is there of the resurrection?”

Among those with this view, there are further differences about specifics. One major point of departure among those who hold to soul sleep is whether you have an immaterial soul that exists separately but is not conscious apart from the body, or whether you have no immaterial soul and therefore, humans are strictly physical beings and your life and being is wrapped up in your body (this view is called physicalism). But for our purposes here, the general view of soul sleep is the alternative to traditional dualism.

The Death of The Body Is Not The Death of the Soul

If soul sleep is true, then this death and life question is very simple. Embodiment and consciousness are one and the same. If your body is alive, then you are alive. If your body is dead, then you are dead. If you are not an embodied person with the breath of life, then you are not conscious to begin with.

However, if traditional dualism is true, then we must address the impact of having a soul that is conscious in the intermediate state and how that affects the meaning of life and death.

The Consciousness Of The Soul Does Not Mean That Conscious Entities Can Be Considered Dead

If soul sleep is not true, and the soul is conscious after you die, then this fact would still not tie together consciousness with a dead entity because, in this view, the soul is not dead. This is evident from Matthew 10:28, where Jesus tells us the following:

Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. 2Unless otherwise noted, all scripture is quoted from the New American Standard Bible (NASB). Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright ©
1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by
permission.

Matthew 10:28 is often cited by annihilationists, and understandably so. It literally says that God will destroy body and soul in hell. But beyond that, it also paints a useful dichotomy for us here. When someone suffers physical death, like what men can inflict by means of murder, it is specifically the body that dies. The soul does not die. 3 For those who believe in soul sleep with an actual soul, the idea here can be summarized like this: the soul isn’t actually something that lives or dies. Rather, to say that it cannot be killed is somewhat figurative for saying it cannot be destroyed by men. The figurative choice of “kill” language is just to compare and contrast it to how men can kill the body. Men can kill you, by killing the body, but they cannot truly kill you because this immaterial but non-living soul entity cannot be touched. It is in the hands of God, who will use it to raise you from the dead anyway. 4 For a physicalist, the Greek word psuche, translated here as “soul,” really means something along the lines of one’s life in the abstract. For ease, I tend to call it a person’s life force. This Greek word is by no means translated uniformly as “soul,” and often times is translated as “life” (e.g. Matthew 2:20, 6:25, Mark 3:4). In this case, the overall meaning is like that held by the other holders of soul sleep. Saying that men cannot kill your psuche, your life force, is figuratively saying that men can kill you by killing your body, but since God will raise you from the dead, they can’t really kill you.

Therefore, to appeal to the conscious soul as proof that conscious entities are called “dead” is incorrect. The soul, if it is indeed conscious, is not dead.

Some point to James 2:26 as proof that there is an immaterial soul/spirit apart from the body, and that death is defined as separation (and not lack of consciousness or something along those lines).

For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.

But notice that the text only says that the body dies. Whatever is meant by “spirit,” it is not said to die at this separation. Only the body is said to die, thus illustrating my point.

It is not the case that death is separation. Rather, this passage is showing a case where separation causes death. A separation causes the body to die, and so if we want to see what a dead entity is like, just look at a dead body. If that is what the unsaved person, body and soul, is like after judgment, then evangelical conditionalism, not eternal torment, is proven true. 5 For more on this, see “Whatever Death Means, It Supports Conditionalism.”

What About The Whole Person And The Fact That We Call People “Dead”?

There is one area where the connection between life and consciousness can be a bit muddled, though only if traditional dualism is true.

What is not muddled is the fact that a conscious entity is a living one. If traditional dualism is true, then the soul that consciously exists apart from the body, in the intermediate state, is alive. As noted above, the Bible itself refers to it this way (i.e. refers to it as not being dead).

However, the Bible does, in one place, mimic the common language we use, where a person whose body has died is considered to be “dead” and not “living.”

The Complicating Effects of Matthew 22:31-32

The passage in question is Matthew 22:31-32. Jesus refers to those whose bodies have died as specifically not being among the “the living,” and he refers to them as being dead (i.e. not living) in a way that can only be rectified by the resurrection. 6 In conversation, I have heard others point to additional reasons for considering the whole person “dead” even when the soul is conscious and, therefore, alive. I mainly appeal to Matthew 22:31-32 because I find it by far the strongest argument for the idea that those with dead bodies are considered “dead” by the Bible, regardless of whether their souls are alive. He does so when rebutting the Sadducees and their denial of the resurrection of the dead:

But regarding the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living (Matthew 22:31-32).

This passage is sometimes appealed to in order to prove that there is a conscious intermediate state. Because God is the God of the living, and he is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then it therefore follows that they were already alive when Jesus said it (even though they were – and still are – in the intermediate state).

Ironically, those who make this claim are actually driving home a very annihilationist-friendly point: conscious entities are living entities. You cannot say, on the one hand, that the consciousness of souls in the intermediate state proves that you can be dead but conscious, and then, on the other hand, say that those in the intermediate state are alive and not dead (based on Matthew 22:31-32).

However, the problem with this accidently pro-annihilationist argument, that this passage proves those in the intermediate state are alive, is that the passage proves the exact opposite. Jesus’s argument for the resurrection only works here if the patriarchs were (and still are) not currently considered alive (i.e. “the living.”).

Follow Jesus’s reasoning here: all that Jesus puts forth as an argument for the resurrection is that God is the God of the patriarchs (who had already died), and that God is also the God of the living, not the dead. Since God is their God, and God is only the God of the living, then they must be “the living” and not “the dead.” However, since Jesus’s point is to prove that there is a resurrection, it must be the case that a resurrection is necessary to make the patriarchs be “the living.”

If the resurrection is necessary to make the patriarchs be considered “the living,” then if the patriarchs are already actually alive (i.e. “the living”) in their current, disembodied state, then that would mean that Jesus’s argument failed because you would not need a resurrection to make them “the living.”

Why then did Jesus speak of God being the God of the “living” now, if the patriarchs are not now actually considered to be living? After all, it says God is the God of the living. And yet, they are not currently living.

The simple answer is that verb tense like this is not always determinative in scripture. God has the perspective of all of history and eternity. It is not unreasonable for God to reckon people as “the living” when they are dead temporarily but will ultimately live for eternity, since any finite period of time is less than infinitesimal when compared to eternity.

Although one might argue that this is not technically prolepsis, prolepsis is a common way in which the Bible uses verb tenses in a metaphorical way. Future events are spoken of as present. This general approach to time is not uncommon in the Bible, or for that matter, outside of it. For more on this, see “Prolepsis and Hell: A Matter of Life and Death (Part 1)“.

Implications of Matthew 22:31-32 If Traditional Dualism Is True

I am not going to lie: I actually consider Matthew 22:31-32 to be strong evidence for soul sleep (as do others). 7 E.g. Glenn Peoples, “God of the Living – William Tyndale and the Resurrection,” Right Reason [blog], posted May 4, 2012, http://www.rightreason.org/2012/god-of-the-living-william-tyndale-and-the-resurrection/ (accessed on September 7, 2020). I do not believe that the passage is neutral and can just as easily or as reasonably go one way or the other. If the patriarchs are considered dead, not alive, then the straightforward, face value interpretation that makes sense in light of human experience is that they are not in any sort of conscious state and will not be until the resurrection.

But what if I am wrong, and traditional dualism is true? After all, this passage still exists either way. Everything I pointed out above is true regardless of whether or not I am right about soul sleep.

In that case, if the souls of people in the intermediate state are conscious (and therefore, alive), then the implication here is that the patriarchs are considered dead, not alive, despite having living souls. Until both body and soul are alive and reunited, you as a whole person are considered to be dead, even though part of you, the part that is conscious, is alive.

Although this outcome is convoluted, it is hard to avoid based on the text (if traditional dualism is true). But it actually makes sense that the language of death here would be a bit muddled and complicated.

After all, traditional dualism is itself a bit complicated. Step back and think about what this belief actually entails. It entails that a person is multiple parts, one (or more) is immaterial while one is material. God created you to be unified as one coherent being made of all the parts. However, he also ordained that part of you is destroyed, albeit temporarily, while the other part continues on for you to experience conscious existence as if nothing really changed. And yet, you are incomplete. People spend potentially thousands of years in this state where part of them is dead and part of them is alive. And then, from a standpoint of judgment and justice, the final judgment hasn’t even happened yet, but God already puts you in a state, either paradise or punishment, beforehand, based on the outcome that he knows will result at final judgment.

The theology itself is complicated, and so language reflecting its complicated nature to be expected.

For Part 3

Having now established this, there is one final question that one could ask: what if hell is eternal torment but only of the soul and not the body? If Matthew 22:31-32 shows that the patriarchs, despite having conscious (i.e. living) souls in hell, are considered “dead,” could it be that the unsaved will be made “dead” in this same way in hell? What about the idea that their bodies are killed (again) but their souls stay alive, and thus those in eternal conscious hell are called “dead” like the patriarchs?

Tune in to Part 3.

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1. William Tyndale, An Answer to Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue, The Supper of the Lord, After the True Meaning of John VI. and I Cor. XI. And WM. Tracy’s Testament Expounded (The Parker Society, 1536), 180-181, reproduced at Google Books, n.d. https://books.google.com/books?id=TOLOU6-00yUC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false (accessed on September 7, 2020).      “The true faith putteth the resurrection, which we be warned to look for every hour. The heathen philosophers, denying that, did put that the souls did ever live. And the pope joineth the spiritual doctrine of Christ and the fleshly doctrine of philosophers together…And because the fleshly-minded pope consenteth unto heathen doctrine, therefore he corrupteth the scripture to stablish it…And again, if the souls are in heaven, tell me why they be not in as good case as the angels be? And then what cause is there of the resurrection?”
2. Unless otherwise noted, all scripture is quoted from the New American Standard Bible (NASB). Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®, Copyright ©
1960,1962,1963,1968,1971,1972,1973,1975,1977,1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by
permission.
3. For those who believe in soul sleep with an actual soul, the idea here can be summarized like this: the soul isn’t actually something that lives or dies. Rather, to say that it cannot be killed is somewhat figurative for saying it cannot be destroyed by men. The figurative choice of “kill” language is just to compare and contrast it to how men can kill the body. Men can kill you, by killing the body, but they cannot truly kill you because this immaterial but non-living soul entity cannot be touched. It is in the hands of God, who will use it to raise you from the dead anyway.
4. For a physicalist, the Greek word psuche, translated here as “soul,” really means something along the lines of one’s life in the abstract. For ease, I tend to call it a person’s life force. This Greek word is by no means translated uniformly as “soul,” and often times is translated as “life” (e.g. Matthew 2:20, 6:25, Mark 3:4). In this case, the overall meaning is like that held by the other holders of soul sleep. Saying that men cannot kill your psuche, your life force, is figuratively saying that men can kill you by killing your body, but since God will raise you from the dead, they can’t really kill you.
5. For more on this, see “Whatever Death Means, It Supports Conditionalism.”
6. In conversation, I have heard others point to additional reasons for considering the whole person “dead” even when the soul is conscious and, therefore, alive. I mainly appeal to Matthew 22:31-32 because I find it by far the strongest argument for the idea that those with dead bodies are considered “dead” by the Bible, regardless of whether their souls are alive.
7. E.g. Glenn Peoples, “God of the Living – William Tyndale and the Resurrection,” Right Reason [blog], posted May 4, 2012, http://www.rightreason.org/2012/god-of-the-living-william-tyndale-and-the-resurrection/ (accessed on September 7, 2020).
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