What About Physicalism and Soul Sleep? (Part 1: Scope)

“What happens when we die?”
“Do conditionalists believe in soul sleep?”
“What about the issue of dualism vs. physicalism?”

At Rethinking Hell we hear these kinds of questions often. They are good questions about interesting topics! However, they officially fall outside of our discussion area, as we focus on Evangelical Conditionalism and the Hell debate.

This article explains why that is the case. We will consider the scope and importance of Evangelical Conditionalism, and review its main tenets about life, death, resurrection, immortality, and annihilation. We’ll also encounter the lens of biblical holism, which will clarify how things are best framed and discussed.

Let’s begin by posing a question of our own, which better encapsulates our work at Rethinking Hell:

“What is the ultimate destiny of human beings?”

This question determines the broad scope of the Evangelical debate on Hell, since each of the three main views affirms some correlation of final punishment and final reward. On Universalism, those who are finally punished are also eventually saved. On Conditionalism, eternal destruction is the privation of eternal life (just as death is the privation of life), and this eternal life or immortality is awarded to the saved only. On Eternal Torment, all will live forever in either Heaven or Hell, so to experience eternal bliss is simultaneously to avoid experiencing eternal misery.

If we keep this profoundly important controlling question in mind, we will be able to recognize the boundaries of the debate.

The initial questions are different. They’re not about our ultimate destiny in any direct sense. Instead, they fall into one of two categories of Christian theology: anthropology and the intermediate state.

    • Anthropology is the study of human beings, particularly in terms of how we are constituted (constitutional anthropology).
    • The Intermediate State refers to a person’s condition or whereabouts in the interval between their death and resurrection.

We may ask, do people have a non-physical spirit or soul? Most Christians have answered “yes” to this question, many simply assuming it as the only option for our faith.

Is the soul conscious during death? Most have believed this too, often elaborating on what that conscious experience might be like for the saved and the unsaved.

But there is an alternative minority view, where the soul is believed to enter a state of unconscious “sleep” between death and resurrection. In the Protestant tradition this “soul sleep” view was held by the Anabaptists, and notable Reformers Martin Luther and William Tyndale.

As if that weren’t controversial enough, a perspective called Christian physicalism goes further. On physicalism, the human constitution is basically physical, lacking any soul/spirit of a different nature. The view is sometimes called materialism to reference physical matter, or monism to emphasize its singular nature as distinct from dualism.

Importantly, Christian physicalists–like all Christians–believe that God is Spirit, and that He created and sustains all things in existence, including ourselves. This differs markedly from a naturalistic physicalism in which our brains and bodies are the result of unguided causes. It affirms that whatever the precise structuring of human beings may be, we were designed purposefully and intricately, wholly complete in the image of our Creator. Should that constitution suffer decay and dissolution in death, our Creator is able to restore us to life again–even if we cannot fathom how.

Christian physicalists also affirm the divinity of Jesus Christ, his death on the cross for our sins, and his resurrection–placing their trust in him as their Lord and Savior.

For these reasons, the occasional suspicion and even animosity directed at Christian physicalists is unwarranted. As a non-physicalist myself I can make this observation without prejudice. When self-styled heresy hunters turn this into a hill to die on, they show themselves to be uninformed.

Or worse, uncharitable, when it comes to the specific doctrinal concern that the union of Christ’s divine and human natures be maintained during his death–if the critic insists that physicalists must deny this, when in fact they typically affirm it. Sincere affirmations of faith take precedence over supposed logical implications. Whatever the strength of arguments about physicalism implying heresy, critics must stop short of dictating that such things are actually believed by others.

Even so, physicalists have provided their response on logical grounds. Rethinking Hell representative Chris Date, for instance, who happens to hold to physicalism, has explained that the person of Jesus Christ subsists in both divine and human natures, and if Jesus ceased to be conscious as a human being during death, his human nature still continued to exist (especially so since the Father did not permit him to undergo decay; Acts 2:27).

Not only is the union of natures preserved, but the related criticism that the divine being is affected doesn’t hold up either. As far as atonement is concerned, the notion of substitution requires only human death, albeit that of a sinless human of infinite value (Heb 2:17; Col 1:22). But for the death of the incarnate Son to effect some change in the Trinity is not possible even in principle, since it occurs in time, yet God transcends created time.

As far as Conditionalism is concerned, our statement of belief in this area is simple: Jesus died, by which we mean ceased to live–not ceased to exist, was destroyed, was annihilated, or anything else. To affirm this biblical truth as a statement of historic fact, is not to invoke any view of anthropology or the intermediate state.

Now, at first blush physicalism might seem incompatible with soul sleep, given that it offers no soul to be disembodied at death. But both views are functionally similar in terms of rejecting a conscious intermediate state. That is likely to be the focus whenever the two are being lumped together.

Physicalism can even be functionally similar to dualism, depending on who you ask. Non-reductive physicalism, for instance, is not unlike property dualism in some respects. Some physicalists are primarily concerned to reject only certain types of dualism and various problems they see: cartesian dualism, bodily non-essentialism, etc. Yet they may still conceive of a person’s essence being held in God’s care during death, which to some ears sounds like a kind of distinct soul.

So it turns out that not everyone uses these terms in the same way. How much tension really exists between two given views will vary depending on the specifics.

There are still legitimate controversies and debates in these areas of course. But if they can be bounded by points of agreement–about death and resurrection for instance–we are able to focus on other worthwhile things, such as rethinking the doctrine of Hell.


The (Supposed) Point of Tension

At times, the question of immortality as a property of the soul has been in dispute between Annihilationism and Eternal Torment. This framing might have been helpful at times, but on strictly logical grounds, we must reject its assumption that if the soul survives death, this guarantees its permanent future.

That notion is more at home in Plato’s thought than in Christianity. According to his metaphysics, human souls always existed in an eternal and unchanging realm, and are indestructible by virtue of having no constituent parts. For the soul to survive death is just a function of its participation in the eternal realm, a demonstration of its permanent resilience.

“The doctrine of the immortality of the soul is a Greek doctrine; it’s not a Christian doctrine.”

–Paul Copan1Paul Copan, Extinction or Corrosion?, 14:10, Rethinking Hell Conference 2020

“The doctrine of the immortality of the soul is a pagan doctrine and not a Christian one at all.”

–Gordon Fee2Gordon Fee, First Corinthians Series (Part 9), Youth With A Mission Lausanne, 1977

In Christianity, souls are created, and included in the set of “all things” sustained in existence by God for however long as He determines. Instead of being baked into the structure of reality, our eternal future ensues from God’s judgments at a future event (Acts 17:31). Even if we do have inherently immortal souls–something rejected by Martin Luther and increasingly today by proponents of Eternal Torment–God is still able to annihilate, to “destroy both soul and body in Hell” (Matt 10:28). Our final destiny is therefore a matter of His sovereign will and power, not of human anthropology or whatever means or mechanisms He may choose to implement.

“That the soul survives the grave is not a testimony to its indestructibility or of its intrinsic immortality. The soul as a created entity is mortal. It survives the grave only because it is sustained and preserved by the power of God.”

–R. C. Sproul3R.C. Sproul, The Origin of the Soul

Now, if the claim is that God equipped souls with innate immortality because every person will ultimately live forever according to His will, on either Universalism or Eternal Torment, this just begs the question. God could easily have done so instead because some (not all) will use this capacity forever. The most we could argue in this area is that God made souls capable of subsisting in death because more still needs to take place via resurrection. This persistence of the soul still only occurs for a temporary, intermediate time period, and relates only to a part of us–the situation is incomplete in both respects. An act of God is needed, and will someday occur, in order to bring each person back to life inclusive of all their constituent parts.

When we insist upon a biblical and Christian approach, we gain much clarity on the crucial role of God himself in this matter. As P. T. Forsyth explains,

A sure belief in immortality does not rest where philosophy puts it, but where religion puts it. It is not founded on the nature of the psychic organism, but on its relation to Another . . . I do not remember where we have Christian warrant for believing that man was created immortal . . . If my immortality is due to God’s gift, it is due to his incessant gift and creation, and not to an infinite lease on life which He signed at the beginning . . . In the Bible the supreme interest and the final ground of immortality was not the continuity of the organism, physical or psychical, but of a relation. The ground of the belief was not that such an organism must go on, but that a life in God, and especially in the risen Christ, could not die.4 P.T. Forsyth, A Sense of the Holy, Wipf and Stock, 1996

Immortality is still very central to the Hell debate today, just not as a property of the soul or as a function of disembodied continuance. Straightforwardly, it’s the notion of ultimately living forever (everlasting life), which is a question of fact about the future. To whom this applies is answered differently by the different views of final punishment. We Conditionalists say that immortality is a gift given only to the saved, and forfeited by others who will be destroyed in Gehenna. Traditionalists and Universalists, on the other hand, affirm everlasting life for all.

The real question of immortality in Christianity–“Who ultimately lives forever?”–is something we can only know if God has revealed His intention to us. Therefore, instead of trying to derive an answer from human composition or postmortem conditions, we must look for it more directly, in the pages of the Bible.


Importance: our biblical standard

Shouldn’t we still seek to integrate our own beliefs in different areas? Yes, generally speaking a robust and well-formed theological belief system is good to pursue. We should explore and build connections between different doctrines, and test those relationships through logical argument.

Those involved in the Hell debate do tend to be theological types, who find detailed models satisfying, and love to discuss and debate all the finer points. Still, there is a time and place for boundaries, and for keeping beliefs distinct.

We understand this intuitively when it comes to the gospel message. The content of the gospel is meant to be accessible and clearly communicated to people from all walks of life, not just theologians and logicians. The message should not be saddled with more complex ideas, or clouded by concepts foreign to it. If we do seek integration with other beliefs, in principle they should not be permitted to modify the gospel. Better to be right about the gospel, than right about everything else instead.

We are saved through faith in Jesus, not by our knowledge of many facts or prowess in logical consistency. Faith, the apostle Paul reminds us in terms of matters of “first importance,” believes the good news of the death of Jesus Christ for our sins, his burial, his resurrection, and his post-resurrection appearances (1 Cor 15:1-4).

Our topic of ultimate destinies is similar, as a matter of great importance for us all. In fact there is some overlap with elements of the gospel message. Paul goes on in that passage to treat the topic of “the resurrection of the dead,” which in Hebrews 6:1-2 is listed as foundational doctrine alongside “eternal judgments.” Those two items comprise the main areas of interest for Conditionalism, along with the work of Jesus Christ in death and resurrection, and the account of Adam and Eve.

So we operate on fairly sacred territory, so to speak, and should be mindful of the theological scaffolding for our discussion: protology, eschatology, soteriology and damnation (first things, last things, salvation, and final punishment).

Having that awareness can help prevent too many missteps like category errors, wrong assumptions, unjustified inferences, and so on. If you’ve ever discussed theology with someone prone to making those mistakes, or who keeps “jumping around all over the place,” you’ll appreciate the need for a little structure and self-regulation in how we think and communicate.

For controversial topics like ours those problems are only compounded by personal bias, social interests, and a desire to be proven right. We too easily emphasize and reject only the weakest forms of opposing views, even outright caricatures, and ignore the best representations. These things produce frustration and confusion, instead of clarity and understanding. If we don’t attend to topical boundaries when needed, and allow too much obfuscation of already challenging subjects, sooner or later we’ll find ourselves embroiled in endless controversies that do nothing to edify (1 Tim 4:7).

Fortunately in that regard, beliefs in the areas of anthropology and the intermediate state aren’t of primary importance in matters of Christian faith. They might even be considered tertiary and somewhat speculative. That being the case, we have the option to be agnostic about them. Unlike matters that are more clearly revealed, maybe we just don’t have enough information here either way. Or if we do, maybe we’re still investigating, or have become stuck not knowing how to finally resolve things. If that’s where you find yourself, don’t be pressured into accepting or rejecting beliefs that aren’t of primary importance. Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know.


Statements and Boundaries

We see now why anthropology and the intermediate state are typically absent from statements of faith for the broad Evangelical bodies, such as the World Evangelical Alliance, the UK’s Evangelical Alliance, and the USA’s National Association of Evangelicals. In addition to affirming primary doctrines already noted, such statements typically also highlight belief in the inspiration and authority of the Bible, the nature of God as Trinity, the present work of the indwelling Holy Spirit, the future return of Jesus Christ, and the future resurrection of the saved and the unsaved. All of these basic beliefs should be givens implied by the term “Christian,” and are important both for faith and for unity. They are certainly implied by the term “Evangelical,” which we embrace in our banner “Evangelical Conditionalism.”

A lengthier statement known as the Reforming Catholic Confession, which is aimed at unifying the Protestant world, likewise does not cover anthropology or the intermediate state. Regrettably though, as I’ve pointed out in a previous article, not only is its wording conspicuously weak in affirming the resurrection of the saved (Dan 12:2-3; John 5:29; Acts 24:15)–it fails to even mention the resurrection of the unsaved! This is vital doctrine, the outright denial of which is considered heretical (2 Tim 2:17-18; 1 Cor 15:12-19). So if anything should be concerning in these areas we deal with, it’s the all-too-common neglect of future resurrection. With future resurrection affirmed, we enter the domain of eschatology at the return of Christ, the main area of focus at Rethinking Hell.

Naturally there are still Christian groups and contexts in which one is required to affirm something about an intermediate state or human constitution. But across the broad Evangelical world and beyond, we can legitimately disagree over their details. By acknowledging where we could be mistaken we find greater unity in Christ, and are able to fellowship and minister together despite any differences on non-primary matters. This applies within the Evangelical Conditionalist movement too. For an outline of our diversity of belief on other matters, see the Statement on Evangelical Conditionalism.

Our official statement concludes by saying that no belief of anthropology or the intermediate state is “a logical requirement or consequence” of Conditionalism. Those categories are technically out of bounds for our purposes, not only since they’re not directly about final punishment, and since they’re not of foundational importance, and since we have a diversity of opinion about them anyway, but also because this really is fitting and proper for the best framing of our view.

None of this means that they are not interesting and important in their own right, or cannot be integrated with Conditionalism. We’ve previously published guest articles from authors presenting their own integrated schemes, here and here. Individual perspectives are one thing, but the general approach to Evangelical Conditionalism has broad utility. It’s both well-founded in the literature, and well-represented in the dialogue today. In the next part of this series we’ll encounter this model and review its main tenets. An outline of our view is worth exploring for its own sake, and should be useful to have in one place. It will also help to clarify why it’s not necessary to attend to beliefs in others areas, such as anthropology and the intermediate state.

1 Paul Copan, Extinction or Corrosion?, 14:10, Rethinking Hell Conference 2020
2 Gordon Fee, First Corinthians Series (Part 9), Youth With A Mission Lausanne, 1977
3 R.C. Sproul, The Origin of the Soul
4 P.T. Forsyth, A Sense of the Holy, Wipf and Stock, 1996