The Doctrine of Immortality in the Early Church
by Dr. John H. Roller
Most modern evangelical Christians believe that every human being has within him (or her) a naturally immortal soul which, being separated from the body at the moment of physical death, continues to exist forever, either in the enjoyment of God’s presence or in the everlasting torment of hell-fire -- in the latter case, in particular, consciously experiencing the pain of burning, but never actually being burnt up.
This position is well stated by the popular evangelist, Dr. Billy Graham, in his book, Peace With God, chapter 6, paragraph 25, where he says, “The Bible teaches that you are an immortal soul. Your soul is eternal and will live forever. In other words, the real you -- the part of you that thinks, feels, dreams, aspires; the ego, the personality -- will never die. The Bible teaches that your soul will live forever in one of two places -- heaven or hell.”
In the same chapter, in paragraph 28, he adds, “The Bible teaches that whether we are saved or lost, there is conscious and everlasting existence of the soul and personality.”
This belief is actually written into the Statements of Faith of many Protestant denominations -- for example, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Assemblies of God, the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches, the American Baptist Association, the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, and the Evangelical Free Church of America (to name just a few). Thus it is held to be both Biblically supportable and doctrinally essential by those churches that so include it.
On the other hand, a small but vocal minority, who refer to themselves as “Conditionalists”, believe that the soul (by which term they mean, the “whole personality”) is naturally mortal, not immortal, and consequently cannot, and will not, live forever (in any condition) unless immortality is granted to the individual by God -- and that God only grants immortality to those who trust in Jesus Christ as their personal Savior and follow Him as their Lord.
This position is well stated by Dr. David A. Dean, of Berkshire Christian College, in his book, Resurrection Hope, on page 83, where he says, “Nothing in the Bible teaches that the wicked are immortal. Such expressions as ‘to live forever’, ‘to exist forever’, ‘never to die’, ‘to be immortal’, nor any equivalent expressions, are ever applied to the nature of the soul, or the destiny of the lost. They are only applied to the destiny of the righteous. Death is the inevitable wages for sin. Eternal life is God’s gift to only those who believe in Jesus Christ.”
In the same book, on page 84, he adds, “The second death destroys the whole person completely and irreversibly. Jesus said, ‘Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell’ (Matt. 10:28). In the second death there is a complete and never-ending destruction of the total personality (or personhood) of the sinner. One’s life is taken away and eternal life is withheld.”
This doctrine is called, by those who hold it, “Conditional Immortality”, and those who believe it have often been driven to form churches and denominations of their own -- for example, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Advent Christian General Conference of America, the Christadelphian Church, the Church of God of the Abrahamic Faith (and others) -- because they feel unable honestly to sign the Statements of Faith of other churches, such as those previously mentioned.
In my opinion, however, the beliefs of present-day churches are no valid standard by which to judge the truth or falsehood of any doctrine. We are now as far removed in the stream of time from Christ and the Apostles as Abraham was before God spoke to him in Mesopotamia -- and God has not spoken to anyone, by way of inspired Revelation, in over nineteen centuries! On the question of human immortality, as on every other subject of spiritual interest, we should not ask, “What do modern churches teach?”, but rather, “What does the Bible say?” and “How did the early Christians interpret its statements?”
With this principle in mind, then, I would like to discuss this question: What can we learn from the writings of the early Church Fathers as to the position(s) held in their times on the subject of human immortality? Specifically, we will want to see whether the Apostolic, Sub-Apostolic, and Ante-Nicene Fathers of the first, second and third centuries held a view similar to the popular modern view, or one more similar to the Conditionalist view.