Is the soul immortal?

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The Creation Concept

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VI. On the Orthodox Doctrine on the Nature and Destiny of Mankind

VII. On the Possibility that Christendom has Erred on the Doctrine of Human Destiny

VIII. On the Immortality of the Soul

IX. On the Original Constitution of Man



THE not far from universal judgment of modern Christendom regards as one of the two foundation truths of religion the immortality of the soul; the other being the existence and moral character of God.

It is held by the Christian community, as a first principle of faith, that man possesses a spiritual soul ; and that this soul, either as the result of the simplicity of its substance, indissoluble by any natural cause acting from within or from without, -- or as a consequence of a general law fixed by the Sovereign Will, that all thinking, free, and accountable agents shall live for ever, -- or as the effect of a special decree in relation to man, -- is destined in every case to everlasting duration.

By some writers the moral relations of the soul with the Eternal Nature of God are held to necessitate a corresponding perpetuity of existence. The soul's relation to God as Moral Governor is held to involve an eternal continuance in being, to imply and compel an infinite destiny. [1]  Such arguments may impose on the imagination of devout metaphysicians, but they do not carry with them any rational evidence. It might be answered, even out of the Scripture, that while to be 'a God' to Abraham doubtless requires the eternal perpetuation of Abraham's life, the renunciation of the relationship of a 'God' to the disobedient on the part of the Almighty may involve the destruction of individual being. Human destiny does not depend, we may be assured, on any abstract ontological relation of the finite mind to the Infinite, but on the moral relations between the two, as declared by the Deity; and to be cast off by God may be to perish.

A second argument much depended on by some writers is derived from the general doctrine of the indestructibleness of substance. All things that exist, it is said, continue in being. Matter changes its form, but never passes out of existence. There is a perpetual conservation of substance and of energy. Nothing perishes. Nature makes known no example of annihilation. Combinations alter, but substance endures. This, which is demonstrably true of material things around us, must be true also, it is thought, of things spiritual. The whole analogy of nature, so far as known, is opposed to the idea of the destruction of substance; -- whence it is argued the soul will last for ever. In the poetic language of John Smith, the Platonist of Cambridge, 'Nothing dies that can discourse, that can reflect in perfect circles.' Why should mind be less durable than matter? Why should intellect vanish out of being when every gaseous atom is naturally eternal? It is to assail a fundamental law of nature to presume on the destruction of mind. Nothing was made to perish ; all substance was formed at first for an endless use under varying forms. Therefore also mind was formed to live for ever.

Such reasonings may amuse a theologian's leisure, but it is wonderful that they can satisfy as a basis of hope any serious inquirer. That the soul of man is an uncompounded substance, or indivisible essence, has never been proved, and cannot be proved. All the evidence of comparative physiology rather favours the opinion that it is a complex and therefore dissoluble structure. [2] Of its essence we really know nothing. Of the destruction of its substance we know nothing. But as, when the body dies, it dissolves, and is no more a living organism, so, if it shall please God to break up the soul, its substance may or may not remain, but its individual life will perish, and it shall be no more a soul. That the soul of man is in its nature less dissoluble than the 'souls' of animals, to use the Biblical idiom, has never been shown -- nor is likely to be shown on scientific grounds alone. All modern observation tends to the belief in the unity and continuity of nature. The sharp distinction between vegetable and animal is passing away. The sharp distinction between matter and spirit is vanishing also. Meantime this argument for immortality derived from the perpetuity of substance is equally valid for the eternal duration of all life; and no decisive anticipation of immortality for mankind as a substructure for religious faith can be deduced from a premiss which compels the conclusion of an equal immortality for the life-force of zoophytes and infusoria. [3]

A third, and more promising argument has, in all ages, been derived from the moral instincts of mankind. There is in men a widely developed instinctive expectation of survival in death for judgment. The good hope for, great souls desire, and bad men often profoundly dread, a 'something after death;' and this instinctive expectation of continued life with a view to retribution is thought to prove the soul's indestructible duration.

Men in all ages, and in nearly all lands, have looked with more or less of confidence for a life to come. The tombs of the ancient Egyptians testify to the established belief in a future state of blessedness or misery. It was not simply a speculation of the priesthood, but a fixed persuasion of the people. In every burial scroll and on every mummy-case there is a picture of the Balance of Justice in which the soul is weighed against the image of truth in the presence of Osiris, the lord of the under-world. The ancient literatures of India and China attest on every page the prevalence of a similar faith in the soul's survival. In Greece Socrates expressed in death the common hope of good men, that they had an inheritance beyond the present life. Before Germany was Christianised the faith in the soul's immortality was widely diffused over barbaric Europe. In modern ages the irrepressible instinct of survival practically triumphs in every country over the opposition of scientific materialism. No stress of physiological evidence on the structure and development of the brain, on the relation of the human brain to that of animals, on the dependence of thought on cerebral machinery, avails completely to silence the 'oracle of God' within the heart, which tells us that 'it is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgment.'

No valid answer, I think, can be given to these arguments, if they are taken only for what they are worth, as morally probable evidence of survival or of revival; but if we are to be governed by accurate criticism it will be seen (1) that this probable evidence of survival is far from carrying with it an  equal probability of eternal survival. The souls of men may survive for a time, and then lapse one by one into the universum, as four hundred millions of Buddhists still believe; or some may survive eternally, and some may perish. The light of Nature can give no assurance of everlasting duration for all souls. There may be a survival and a transformation, as in the example of many physical organisms, the last transformation to be followed by death. The butterfly rises from the chrysalis, yet the butterfly is not eternal. And (2) the probable evidence of survival arising from the moral consciousness, though it may hold out to men of the better sort, like Socrates, the prospect dimly seen, even of an eternal existence of some kind, whether material or immaterial, throws no light whatever on the cause or quality of that survival or resurrection. The fact may seem to be probable to the moral judgment, yet the reason of the fact be completely concealed. Thus, 'in the ever touching dialogue of the Phaedo, it is easy to distinguish between the comparative solidity of the main hope of some future life, held by the Athenian martyr, and the worthlessness of most of the arguments for pre-existence and immortality by which that hope was supported. 'Contradictories generate each other, therefore death leads to life eternal.' Plato might think it worth while, as a literary man, to spin such gossamer threads as these, but it was not by them that Socrates anchored his soul in his dying hour. No physical argument reaches further than to show that survival of the living energy is barely possible. No argument derived from the progressive nature of intellect offers solid ground until we are assured of the purpose of a benevolent Deity, which is not made very clearly known by the light of Nature. The apparent dependence of intellect on the brain, the black and ugly fact of death, and the ever-strengthening force of the argument for non-survival derived from the side of comparative biology, leaves but a faint glimmer of hope to be drawn from some imaginary law of 'everlasting progression.'
Nature 'red in tooth and claw' may be thought to yield small signs of any special regard for humanity as one species of the million who consume the fruits of the earth. No, it is the moral argument alone which carries weight, the probability of retribution or salvation by a living God. Good men like Socrates are drawn to believe, feebly or firmly, in an Eternal Justice which will receive their souls beyond. But this shows that the ontological arguments for the soul's immortality are practically valueless. The fact of survival may be correctly appreciated ; the reason of it may be concealed, or concealed from many who have rightly believed the fact. It may not result from the nature of the soul as essentially immortal, but solely from the pleasure of God, that souls of men, of the character of Socrates, will survive in death, and live for ever. It may not be in any degree from the nature of the soul, but from the purpose of God in judgment (who, adding fresh opportunities of salvation to human life, 'exacts the more,' and inflicts fresh penalties on the whole nature), that wicked men are often led instinctively to apprehend a terrible future.

Persons who accept the New Testament theology must moreover allow that no man, however 'good,' can deserve an everlasting life in happiness. All men by nature are sinful, and by their sins have deserved future punishment, of which conscience warns the wicked in some degree. Therefore nature, if it teach the immortality of the soul, might seem to teach for all sinners, that is for all men, only an immortality in punishment. But indeed nature, which is the voice of Law, teaches nothing of the kind. So far as strict evidence is concerned, we are in the dark under natural conditions as to the future of the soul, except that judgment to come looms in the distance to some men's fears. One philosopher dreams in one manner of its destiny, another in a different manner.  (See this shown with great effect in Joseph Hallet's Observations on the Soul and its Immortality, an excellent book, published in 1729.)

An affecting summary of the arguments for immortality under natural light has been given by Mr. John Stuart Mill in his recent work on Religion. They are in part cited here, because by many Mr. Mill will probably be accounted an able expositor of what nature, carefully reasoning, really teaches as to the probability of survival, on most of the grounds on which theologians have rested hitherto; and it will be seen that his judgment is not on the side of hope:--

'The common arguments (for immortality) are -- the goodness of God; the improbability that He would ordain the annihilation of His noblest and richest work, after the greater part of its few years of life had been spent in the acquisition of faculties which time is not allowed him to turn to fruit; and the special improbability that He would have implanted in us an instinctive desire for eternal life and doomed that desire to complete disappointment. These might be arguments in a world the constitution of which made it possible without contradiction to hold it for the work of a Being at once omnipotent and benevolent. But they are not arguments in a world like that in which we live. . . . One thing is quite certain in respect to God's government of the world, that He either could not or would not grant to us everything we wish. We wish for life, and He has granted some life. That we wish, or some of us wish, for a boundless extent of life, and that it is not granted, is no exception to the ordinary modes of His government. Many a man would like to be a Croesus or an Augustus Caesar, but has his wishes gratified only to the moderate extent of a pound a week or the secretaryship of his trade union. There is, therefore, no assurance whatever of a life after death on grounds of natural religion.'

To the same conclusion came the late Archbishop Whately, who says: 'That the natural immortality of man's soul is discoverable by reason may be denied on the ground that it has not in fact been discovered yet. No arguments from reason, independent of revelation, have been brought forward that amount to a decisive proof that the soul must survive bodily death.' [4]

Dr. J. J. S. Perowne, after a careful summary of all the probabilities for survival alleged by Dr. M'Cosh, M. Renan, and Jules Simon, thus concludes: 'It cannot be said that such arguments make a future life certain. They make a future life not improbable, but they do not prove it. So far as they are strong, it is because in a degree which we little suspect we bring them in aid of our Christian faith ; but apart from that faith they have no solid ground. Take away this faith, and these arguments lose their force. You are left in a world of shadows. The immortality of the soul is a phantom which eludes your eager grasp.' [5]

It offers too remarkable an analogy between the teaching of Natural and Revealed Religion to allow of its postponement to a future page in this work (as a strict method might demand), that the Scripture, regarded as the multifarious record of divine movements for man's salvation, speaks as little as Mr. John Stuart Mill, or any one else who utters the language of reason, of the abstract or essential Immortality of the Soul. Of the survival of souls in a Sheol, or Hades, it seems to speak often; of the actual eternal survival of the saved it also often speaks; but it never once places the eternal hope of mankind on the abstract dogma of the Immortality of the Soul, or declares that Man will live for ever because he is naturally Immortal.

That the doctrine of the Immortality of the Soul is never once explicitly delivered throughout the whole range of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures is a fact of which every reader may satisfy himself by examination; and it is a fact which long ago has drawn the attention of thoughtful and exact inquirers.

If the doctrine be true that the spirit of man is a deathless intelligence, a power destined by its God-imposed nature to endure as long as the NECESSARY BEING, we might surely have expected to find at least some few traces of this fundamental in the ages which were illustrated by direct communication with heaven. Neither men nor languages were so differently formed in antiquity as to necessitate a steadfast neglect of every verbal reference to an idea which is alleged to lie at the basis of the system of Redemption; and one of transcendent importance in every aspect of the case, as the zeal of its modern upholders sufficiently testifies. If Redemption, and the Incarnation of the Deity which gave it its force, were 'wasted' unless man were an immortal, and the object were to redeem him from endless misery, the idea of Immortality would have occurred at least as often as the idea of Redemption. In every other instance we obtain from the Prophets and Apostles clear and frequent expressions of the doctrines which they were commissioned to deliver; even of those which unaided reason was able to discover, as the existence of God and the difference between good and evil. But in this instance nearly a hundred writers have by some astonishing fatality omitted, with one consent, all reference to the Immortality of the Soul; no sentence of the Bible containing that brief declaration 'from God,' or even a passing reference, which would have set the controversy for ever at rest. In our own times scarcely a religious work issues from the press addressed to sinful men, scarcely is a public exhortation directed to them, without a distinct exhibition of the doctrine of Immortality, of deathless being in the nature of man, as the basis of the whole theological superstructure. Now, how shall we explain the remarkable fact that neither Apostles nor Prophets have ever once employed this argument in dealing with the wicked-- 'You have immortal souls, and must live for ever in joy or woe, therefore repent!' -- an argument of almost irresistible force, if it be true? How, otherwise than by concluding that this was not their philosophy, that this doctrine formed no part of the 'wisdom of God,' and that they were withheld from proposing it to the world by Him who has declared that the eternal life of the righteous is the gift of His grace, and that 'all the wicked He will destroy'? We are taught, in certain cases, to argue confidently from the silence of the Scriptures; and since, as in the case of the priesthood of Judah (Heb. vii. 14), the Bible has 'spoken nothing' in any of its numerous books, during the fifteen centuries of its composition, concerning man's natural or necessary immortality, one gathers courage to ask for the proofs of so important a doctrine. [6]

An eminent writer tells us, indeed, that 'this is an old and futile argument. The word Trinity never occurs once in Scripture, nor Providence. Are both, therefore, to be denied? Was there no death under the old economy, or no everlasting life for the holy, for angels, for the blessed God? The complete fact is all in favour of the common view: men are said to be mortal, but mortal or mortality is never applied in either Testament to soul or spirit.' But this is to evade the argument. In every modern sermon, prayer, and hymn you hear of 'immortal souls,' - and every modern address to man is founded on a declaration of their immortality; it is not so in any one of the many books which compose the 'Bible.' And not only is the word not used, or any equivalent in Hebrew or Greek, but no single expression of Scripture can be pointed out in which man's natural immortality is affirmed directly or indirectly, The argument is, that if the doctrine were true and important, it would not be left to divines to teach us that we are by nature immortal, any more than it has been left to them to teach us the doctrine of the plurality of Persons in the Godhead, or of God's Providence ; but it would be found everywhere in Scripture in one form of speech or another, that all men shall live for ever.

It may nevertheless be asked with reason:-- 'How is it that a doctrine which, according to you, is destitute of solid foundation in ontological fact, and which is not once explicitly acknowledged in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, has nevertheless taken a hold on the mind of the world in ancient and modern times so firm that the denial of it, even by conscientious inquirers, offers a serious shock to the religious consciousness of the age?'

The answer to this question leads us to the consideration of a remarkable portion of the method of the divine government. The practical work of man's world is carried forward for the most part under imperfect conceptions of the material system, and the practical work of the moral world has been carried forward under equally unscientific conditions. Until quite recently men laboured and navigated under a false conviction that the earth was a plane, and stationary in the centre, while the sun, moon, and stars were whirled round it by a daily revolution of the sky. It is an advantage to know the truth of the Newtonian astronomy; but much sound work was done by mankind under an unshaken conviction of the truth of the Ptolemaic theory. In the same manner an erroneous psychology and theology have for ages dominated over the western world, as over the eastern; but even under such unfavourable conditions it has been possible to answer the chief ends of being in a life devoted to the service of God. The shock occasioned by learning that, after all, there is no reason to place our hope of eternal life on the basis of the soul's immortality, but on the promise of the grace of God, is not greater than was the shock of learning, as Europe two hundred years since was compelled to learn, that the antipodes existed, that the earth was a rapidly moving globe, and that it revolved once a year round the central sun. In the ages which precede the popular establishment of physical, intellectual, and psychological truth there are interim beliefs which serve well enough the purposes of practical life, although attended with many limitations and disadvantages. There is an elementary revelation of half truth to the senses, and a subsequent revelation of scientific truth to the soul.

Such a belief has been the popular conception of the immortality of the spirit. It is, as we hold, when taken in the absolute sense, an error in philosophy and theology ; but since it earned with it the belief of retribution it has served the ends of moral probation, by extending the views of men to another state of being, and by carrying the hopes of good men forward into eternity. As Mr. Heard strongly puts it in his chapter on the ' Immortality of the Psyche ' [7] -- ' The mistake of the Greek thinkers was the most natural one in the world; so natural that they are to be excused, nay, honoured, for holding it. But for us to repeat the error is to betray willful prejudice. The one hypothesis was as good as the other as a provisional theory to account for the facts of the case. Without these hypotheses or landing-places, the heights of discovery would never have been scaled to this day. But when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part is to be done away. So with philosophic theories of existence after death. Till life and immortality had been brought to light by the gospel, it would have been reasonable to argue, as the philosophers did, that the soul does not die because it cannot die. As there was no external evidence of existence after death, they were obliged to fall back on internal. The immortality of the soul was the hypothesis which accounted very plausibly for the contradiction between man's inner aspirations and the humiliating fact of his early and untimely death. But the resurrection of Christ as the first-fruits of the dead is a fact in these moral speculations which is irreconcilable with all previous hypotheses. Either man is non-mortal because he is immortal; or he is non-mortal because the hour is coming in which 'all that are in the graves shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and they that hear shall live.' Those who embrace the latter doctrine as the revealed truth of God may well abandon the interim hypotheses of a darker time.

That Christendom should have fallen back upon heathenish speculations, and returned to the beggarly elements of Asiatic and Athenian philosophy as the basis of hope, is consonant with other parallel portions of the history of European thought. Europe sentenced herself to fifteen hundred years of priestcraft and restored paganism, through forgetting the lessons of primitive Christianity. [8] The Reformation has vindicated one half of the original divine revelation against the errors of the middle ages. It may seem incredible to many that the other half at least should remain still to be rescued from the superincumbent accumulations of pagan and Gothic thought. Yet wisely does Lord Bacon warn the modern world: -- 'Another error,' says he, 'is a conceit that of former opinions or sects, after variety and examination, the best hath still prevailed, and suppressed the rest; so as if a man should undertake the labour of a new search, he were but like to light upon somewhat formerly rejected, and by rejection brought into oblivion; as if the multitude, or the wisest for the multitude's sake, were not ready to give passage rather to that which is popular and superficial than to that which is substantial and profound. For the truth is, that Time seemeth to be of the nature of a river or stream, which carrieth down to us that which is light or blown up, and sinketh and drowneth that which is weighty and solid.' [9] I must ask an indulgent application of this hypothesis to explain the facts, at least until the reader has considered the arguments of the following pages.


[1]  'As it is essentially bound up with a moral system which is undoubtedly everlasting, we have no other conclusion open to us than that the soul so constituted and related is destined for an immortal existence.' -- Peill's Immortality Proved, p. 28.

 'We hold by this principle of a God-consciousness in man, a sense of the Infinite, the Perfect, the Eternal, which stamps him with the awful character of Immortality, for it could have no root, no permanent hold in a being whose nature is merely mortal' -- A. Thompson, Doctrine, the Old and the New, p. 22.

[2] See Dr. A. Bain on Mind and Body.

[3] Mr. Peill dismisses the 'living souls' of animals into non-entity in a brief decided sentence. ' The immaterial principle in the lower animals, whose functions correspond to this sensuous element in man, not being a separate, self-conscious, and responsible nature, and being related simply to the wants of the animal body, will, in all probability, close its particular development upon the death of the body.' -- Immortality Proved, p. 15. But indeed most of the arguments on which this devout writer depends in proof of man's natural immortality will appear equally available on behalf of the animals, to one who lives in close and friendly relations with them. John Wesley is known to have entertained strong hopes of their everlasting salvation, their immaterial nature with him involving their immortality. Good news indeed for the ephemera ; but not a gospel founded on sufficient evidence.

Writers of far greater weight than Mr. Peill, the authors of The Unseen Universe, seem to allow that their physical argument for survival of some spiritual substance in man's death is of equal value for the souls of animals, standing alone. But they do not discuss the question whether they are not making a larger demand on the faith of their materialistic opponents than is likely to meet with assent, when they propose as arguments for man's survival a series of considerations which compel the simultaneous belief of the eternal existence of the whole animal creation. See p. 162, Is it not true that these illustrations of the physical possibility of survival become valuable only when the moral and religious argument for survival has been established?

[4] Archbishop Whately on Future Life, p. 17.]

[5] Hulsean Lectures on Immortality, 1868, p. 31.

[6] The Silence of Scripture on man's natural Immortality is treated with great ability by the lamented Professor Hudson, of Cambridge, U.S. Amenca, in his works on Debt and Grace in relation to a Future Life and Christ our Life. (Munroe and Co., 134, Washington Street, Boston; and G.W. Carleton, 413, Broadway, New York.)

[7] The Tripartite Nature of Man, p. 230-1.

[8] See Draper's History of Intellectual Development of Europe

[9] Bacon's Advancement of Learning.