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The Great Lie of Seventh-day Adventists

Ellen White’s “Original Lie”

The Founder of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, Ellen Gould White, had some choice words to say about the teaching of the immortality of the soul:

The great original lie, which [the devil] told to Eve in Eden, “Ye shall not surely die,” was the first sermon ever preached on the immortality of the soul. That sermon was crowned with success, and terrible results followed. He has brought minds to receive that sermon as truth, and ministers preach it, sing it, and pray it.

The sermon which Satan preached to Eve upon the immortality of the soul – “Ye shall not surely die” – they have reiterated from the pulpit; and the people receive it as pure Bible truth. It is the foundation of spiritualism. The word of God nowhere teaches that the soul of man is immortal. Immortality is an attribute of God only. 1Timothy 6:16: “Who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see: to whom be honor and power everlasting. Amen.”

Mrs. White makes two specific errors here that betray a further and underlying problem with her understanding (and Seventh-day Adventists’) of the nature of the human person that is common among the various sects that deny the natural immortality of the soul. We’ll get to the underlying problem after we clear up the first two errors.

1. Mrs. White obviously did not comprehend the Catholic (and biblical) understanding of death. She apparently thought that Catholics believe human beings never die because we believe the souls of mankind are immortal. At least, that is what she appears to say. Modern Seventh-day Adventists I have talked to have a bit more of a nuanced approach, but say essentially the same thing. They will say that Catholics (and those who believe in the natural immortality of the soul) teach that in “death” only the body dies, not the person. So it would be improper to say “Tom Smith died.” For the Catholic—the argument is made—Tom Smith’s body died, not Tom Smith. This is simply incorrect. In fact, Catholics believe that when a Christian dies, the person dies, not just his body. The real key here is to define just what we mean by death.

I remember learning in Philosophy class in the seminary that the basic definition of death that goes back to Plato, Socrates and perhaps beyond is: “The reduction of a composite being into its component parts.” This is precisely what occurs when a human person dies: his “component parts” of body and soul are separated. But make no mistake about it; it is the person who dies. Simple enough. However, at the “death” of the person there is a sense in which we can say the body “dies” that the soul does not. The body itself is “reduced to its component parts” because it no longer has its form, or unifying principle, which is the soul. This is why the body will very quickly begin to decay or “break down into its component parts” at death. As Scripture says, “The dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Eccl. 12:7).

Because the soul is spiritual in nature, there are no “parts” to break down. Hence, the soul continues to live as a substantial, though incomplete, entity. It is in this sense that we say the soul of man does not die, while the body and the person do.

2. When Scripture says God “only hath immortality,” this does not mean humans and angels do not participate in that immortality that God possesses absolutely. The Fourth Lateran Council declared in its Constitutions, “On the Catholic Faith,’ ch. 1:

We firmly believe and simply confess that there is only one true God, eternal and immeasurable, almighty, unchangeable, incomprehensible and ineffable…”

God alone is eternal according to the Council, yet “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23) according to Scripture. This is not a contradiction. Catholic theology makes a distinction between the aeternitas of God and the aevum or aeviternitas of man. The “eternity of God” has no beginning and no end. The “eternal” life of man has a beginning, but no end. There is an essential difference between the two. Man’s eternity, or more precisely, his immortality, is a participation in what God alone possesses absolutely.

There are two ways to help clear up this misunderstanding biblically. First, we note that even Mrs. White and Seventh-day Adventists believed and believe in the resurrection. Is this not immortality? St. Paul describes the resurrection of the body in terms of: “… this mortal nature must put on immortality” (I Cor. 15:53, emphasis added). Jesus said, “He who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:26). That means, at least in some sense, humans will possess immortality. And the fact is: Seventh-day Adventists agree that after the resurrection, Christians will never die. That is the definition of immortality! Thus, even according to Adventist theology, I Timothy 6:16 cannot mean God alone is immortal in an absolute sense and to the exclusion of all others in any sense.

Second, we can point to our Lord’s comparison between the immortality of angels and the immortality of the faithful. Jesus said, “Those who are accounted worthy to attain… to the resurrection of the dead… cannot die anymore because they are equal to the angels” (Luke 20:35-36). What makes this text so significant is the context. Our Lord was responding to the Sadducees who “say there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit” (Acts 23:8). It is in this context he makes clear the fundamental truth that angels are immortal. He then uses the example of the angels for the immortality of the resurrected dead. Angels are pure spirits, and therefore “cannot die.” So how are men “equal to the angels?” Men have spiritual souls that similarly cannot die. So obviously, again, I Timothy 6:16 must be taken to mean that God alone is immortal absolutely. Angels and men participate in the immortality that God alone possesses in a strict sense.

The Problem Continues – From Here to Eternity

Like its founder, Ellen Gould White, the Seventh-day Adventist sect denies the natural immortality of the soul. In 1988, the Ministerial Association of the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church published a biblical exposition of the fundamental doctrines of their denomination. It states:

The soul has no conscious existence apart from the body. There is no text that indicates that the soul survives the body as a conscious entity.

Failing to understand the nature of the human person leads to more errors than space would allow us to consider here. But another couple of examples are found in Ellen White’s take on the resurrection and the judgment:

Thus were serious errors introduced into the Christian faith [by the Catholic Church]. Prominent among these was the belief in man’s natural immortality and his consciousness in death. This doctrine laid the foundation upon which Rome established the invocation of saints and adoration of the Virgin Mary. From this sprung also the heresy of eternal torment for the finally impenitent, which was early incorporated into papal faith.

Aside from the fact that Mrs. White misrepresents the Catholic position on Mary—Catholics do not adore her; we honor her, and rightly so—notice how the truth of the communion of saints and even the doctrine of Hell goes up in smoke (pun intended) with the denial of the immortality of the soul?

In the years I have dealt with Adventists and other sects that deny the natural immortality of the human soul, I have found the underlying problem to lie in the misapplication of texts of Scripture from the Old Testament. Here we find the real foundation of the error for these are the “go-to” verses for Adventists.

We will examine three of them here:

1. Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble. He comes forth like a flower, and withers… For there is hope for a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease… But man dies, and is laid low… and where is he?… Oh, that thou wouldst hide me in Sheol, that thou wouldst conceal me until thy wrath be past, that thou wouldest appoint me a set time, and remember me! If a man die, shall he live again?… His sons come to honor, and he does not know it; they are brought low, and he perceives it not… (Job 14:1-2, 7, 10, 13-14, 21)

“His sons come to honor, and he does not know it?” To the Adventist, this text is clear: that would mean there is no consciousness after death. Further, the author compares the death of a man to a tree getting cut down. He says the tree has the advantage! The tree continues to live, whereas a man will not. Seems like an open and shut case. But not so fast! If we examine the context here we see quite a different story. Job is speaking of death being the final end to this life. He is not denying that there is an afterlife. There are four points to consider in order to clear up this apparent difficulty:

1) Job compares man to a tree, which continues to blossom again; or “return” to this life. Man does not. He is not denying an afterlife. Job obviously believes man will be resurrected. He says as much in Job 19:25: “For I know that my redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God.” Job simply declares what all Christians believe: a man that dies will not ordinarily return to this life.

2) In verses 13-14, as Fr. William Most has said, “[Job] indulges a fanciful wish, saying he would like to hide, without dying in Sheol, the underworld, until God’s wrath has passed” (Catholic Apologetics Today, p. 228) This is an understandable wish in the midst of terrible suffering. It is in this context that he says, in verse 14, “If a man dies shall he live again?” Job knows that you cannot go to Sheol and return to this life. We know this is what he is referring to because, as we have seen, in Job 19:25, Job explicitly teaches that there will be a resurrection of the body. So the dead will return, but not to this life.

3) What about the part that says the sons of the dead man “come to honor, and he does not know it; they are brought low, and he perceives it not?” Job is writing at a time, before the advent of Christ, when the dead did not experience the Beatific Vision. The “limbo of the fathers,” as it is called, was somewhat mysterious.

Job talks of the future life as he knew it, and as Jews thought of it. Job and his people thought of life [after death] as a drab survival—which is what it really was before the death of Christ. It was a dim limbo of the fathers, in which they had no means of knowing what transpired on earth, whether their children suffered or prospered [barring a special revelation given by God to the souls in Sheol for a special purpose as we see in the cases of Samuel (I Samuel 28:15), perhaps Rachel (Jeremiah 31:15), certainly Jeremiah and Onias (II Maccabees 15:11-15), and Moses and Elijah on the Mountain of the Transfiguration (Luke 9:30-31)]. By way of the beatific vision of God [the holy souls of the departed] can know what goes on on earth. But without that vision he cannot. And that vision was not to be had in the days of Job, not until Jesus died (Apologetics Today, 229-230).

4) Most importantly, we have to read the very next verse: Job 14:22:

He feels only the pain of his own body, and he mourns only for himself.

This seems to be overlooked by those who deny the natural immortality of the soul. But if the dead man being spoken of feels his own pain, then he must have a continued existence, albeit, he does not know what is happening “under the sun.”

The “limbo of the fathers” was a shadowy sort of existence that we just do not know everything about. This “pain” in the afterlife of which Job speaks may well be a reference to the separation of body and soul at death and the longing for the resurrection. This makes sense” when we again consider Job 19:25. Job said, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God.” It would certainly make sense that Job would communicate a sense of “pain” in that the righteous dead are awaiting that which will finally complete them as human persons. Most important however is the fact that Job indicates “feeling” after death.

2. Psalm 6:3-6:

My soul is sorely troubled. But thou, O Lord—how long? Turn, O Lord, save my life; deliver me for the sake of thy steadfast love. In death there is no remembrance of thee; in Sheol who can give thee praise?

“’In death there is no remembrance of thee?’ How can it get any clearer than that?” says the Adventist. Fr. Most, quoting Scripture scholar Mitchell Joseph Dahood, S.J., responds:

The psalmist suffers not because of the inability to remember Yahweh in Sheol [Hell], but from being unable to share in the praise of Yahweh which characterizes Israel’s worship (Apologetics Today, 231).

Psalm 6 is a Psalm of David written “to the choirmaster” in order for it to be sung in the context of the liturgical worship of the people of God. This is the worship of God that David loved so much. In Sheol there would be no Tabernacle, no Temple, no choir and no grand communal worship. There would be no “remembrance” of God in the liturgy. No “praise” of God in the assembly. This was the desire of David’s heart all of his life:

One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple (Psalm 27:4).

David does not want to be deprived of the glorious praise of God. Fr. Most continues:

Isaiah 38:18 also has similar language: “For Sheol will not thank you [nor] death praise you.” The verb for praise, hallel, in Hebrew is precisely the same verb used in I Chr. 16:4 and II Chr. 5:13 and 31:2 for the liturgical praise of God. That of course would not take place in Hell [sheol].

A good way to see vividly the difference between the after-life occasioned by the life, death, burial and resurrection of Christ in the New Covenant verses the after-life in the Old Covenant is to note the different ways death is viewed in each Testament. David, in Psalm 6, does not want to die because in death existence was less appealing than life in this world. Not just for the damned—of course that would be true—but for the just. In the New Covenant, we see just the opposite. St. Paul says:

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If it is to be life in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me… My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account (Phil. 1:21-24).

Only an understanding of the immortality of the soul and the glory of the beatific vision awaiting the faithful after the resurrection of Christ can make sense of this text. If there is nothing—but nothing—in death, then St. Paul should be saying with David, “I don’t want to die!” St. Paul says plainly that death in friendship with Christ is “far better” than life in this present world.

3. Eccl. 9:10:

For there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.

That sounds like we should join the local Seventh-day Adventist community, doesn’t it? But, again, not so fast! As always, the key is context. If we back up to verse five of this same chapter, we read:

For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward; but the memory of them is lost. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and they have no more for ever any share in all that is done under the sun. Go, eat your bread with enjoyment… Enjoy life with the wife who you love… which he has given you under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going. Again, I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift…

Notice how many times the inspired author said “under the sun?” Three times in these few short verses! The inspired author does not say the dead have no existence at all. The context reveals that he was saying the dead have nothing to do, and no knowledge of, what is happening “under the sun” as I’ve said before. But, in the end, the writer of Ecclesiastes knows that justice is coming in the next life. He is so certain of this that he can say in the final two verses of his book:

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil (Eccl. 12:13-14).

The writer of Ecclesiastes is focusing upon what happens “under the sun” until the very end when he tells us that the after-life is the place where everything will finally make sense. He does not attempt to give us an in-depth teaching of the nature of the after-life. He simply assures his readers that ultimate justice awaits in God’s good time.

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Do the “Dead Know Nothing?”

The toughest texts to deal with concerning the natural immortality of the soul are found in the Old Testament. These are the go-to verses for Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others who deny it. One way you can go about explaining things to them is to go to the manifold and obvious texts in the New Testament that clearly teach the human soul to be immortal. These would include Jesus’ teaching about the afterlife in his parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:19-31 (there Jesus indicates there is an immediate or “particular” judgment and either reward or punishment at the point of death), the various texts that teach of the eternity of Hell (Matt. 25:41; 46; Rev. 14:9-11; Rev. 20:10-15, etc.), etc.

These and more texts we could use from the New Testament are crucial to the discussion, but not necessarily compelling, I have found, unless one can also deal with those “go-to” texts from the Old Testament. We will examine three of them here:

Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble. He comes forth like a flower, and withers; he flees like a shadow, and continues not… For there is hope for a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease… But man dies, and is laid low; man breathes his last, and where is he?… Oh, that thou wouldst hide me in Sheol, that thou wouldst conceal me until thy wrath be past, that thou wouldest appoint me a set time, and remember me! If a man die, shall he live again?… His sons come to honor, and he does not know it; they are brought low, and he perceives it not. He feels only the pain of his own body, and he mourns only for himself (Job 14).

“His sons come to honor, and he does not know it?” To many, this text is clear: there is no consciousness after death. Further, the author compares the death of a man to a tree getting cut down. He says the tree has the advantage! The tree continues to live, whereas a man will not. Seems like an open and shut case. But not so fast! If we examine the context here we see quite a different story. Job is speaking of death being the final end to this life. He is not denying that there is an afterlife. There are three points to consider in order to clear up this apparent difficulty:

1.  Job compares man to a tree, which continues to blossom again; or “return” to this life. Man does not. He is not denying an afterlife. Job obviously believes man will be resurrected. He says as much in Job 19:25: “For I know that my redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God.” Job simply declares what all Christians believe: a man that dies will not return to this life.

2. In verses 13-14, as Fr. William Most has said, in his book, Apologetics Today, “[Job] indulges a fanciful wish, saying he would like to hide, without dying in Sheol, the underworld, until God’s wrath has passed.” This is an understandable wish in the midst of terrible suffering. It is in this context that he says, in verse 14, “If a man dies shall he live again?” Job knows that you cannot go to Sheol and return to this life. We know this is what he is referring to because, as we have seen, in Job 19:25, Job explicitly teaches that there will be a resurrection of the body. So the dead will return, but not to this life.

3. What about the part that says the sons of the dead man “come to honor, and he does not know it; they are brought low, and he perceives it not?” Job is writing at a time, before the advent of Christ, when the dead did not experience the Beatific Vision. The “limbo of the fathers” as it is called was somewhat mysterious.

Again, Fr. Most says:

Job talks of the future life as he knew it, and as Jews thought of it. Job and his people thought of life [after death] as a drab survival—which is what it really was before the death of Christ. It was a dim limbo of the fathers, in which they had no means of knowing what transpired on earth, whether their children suffered or prospered [barring a special revelation given by God to the souls in Sheol for a special purpose as we see in the cases of Samuel (I Samuel 28:15), perhaps Rachel (Jeremiah 31:15), certainly Jeremiah and Onias (II Maccabees 15:11-15), and Moses and Elijah on the Mountain of the Transfiguration (Luke 9:30-31)]. By way of the beatific vision of God [the holy soul of the departed] can know what goes on on earth. But without that vision he cannot. And that vision was not to be had in the days of Job, not until Jesus died.

It is interesting to note, as Fr. Most also points out, this text from Job 14 is far from disproving a belief in the afterlife; it actually demonstrates it to be true:

So, Job says that the dead man feels only his pain. The fact that he feels pain shows his continued existence. So there is an afterlife.

The “limbo of the fathers” was a shadowy sort of existence that we just do not know everything about. And neither did Job. This “pain” in the afterlife of which he speaks may well be a reference to the separation of body and soul at death and the longing for the resurrection. This makes sense when we again consider Job 19:25. Job said, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then from my flesh I shall see God.” It would certainly make sense that Job would communicate a sense of “pain” in that the righteous dead are awaiting that which will finally complete them as human persons. Most important however is the fact that Job indicates “feeling” after death.

Psalm 6:3-6:

My soul is sorely troubled. But thou, O Lord—how long? Turn, O Lord, save my life; deliver me for the sake of thy steadfast love. In death there is no remembrance of thee; in Sheol who can give thee praise?

“’In death there is no remembrance of thee?’ How can it get any clearer than that?” says the Adventist. Fr. Most, quoting Scripture scholar Mitchell Joseph Dahood, S.J., responds:

The psalmist suffers not because of the inability to remember Yahweh in Sheol [Hell], but from being unable to share in the praise of Yahweh which characterizes Israel’s worship.

Psalm 6 is a Psalm of David written “to the choirmaster” in order for it to be sung in the context of the liturgical worship of the People of God. This is the worship of God that David loved so much. In Sheol there would be no Tabernacle, no Temple, no choir and no grand communal worship. There would be no “remembrance” of God in the liturgy. No “praise” of God in the assembly. This was the desire of David’s heart all of his life as we see here in Psalm 27:4:

One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.

David does not want to be deprived of the glorious praise of God. Fr. Most continues:

Isaiah 38:18 also has similar language: “For Sheol will not thank you [nor] death praise you.” The verb for praise, hallel, in Hebrew is precisely the same verb used in I Chr. 16:4 and II Chr. 5:13 and 31:2 for the liturgical praise of God. That of course would not take place in Hell [sheol].

A good way to see vividly the difference between the after-life occasioned by the life, death, burial and resurrection of Christ in the New Covenant verses the after-life in the Old Covenant is to note the different ways death is viewed in each Testament. David, in Psalm 6, does not want to die because in death existence was less appealing than life in this world. Not just for the damned—of course that would be true—but for the just. In the New Covenant, we see just the opposite. St. Paul says:

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If it is to be life in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account (Phil 1:21-24).

Only an understanding of the immortality of the soul and the glory of the beatific vision awaiting the faithful after the resurrection of Christ can make sense of this text. If there is nothing—but nothing—in death, then St. Paul should be saying with David, “I don’t want to die!” St. Paul says plainly that death in friendship with Christ is “far better” than life in this present world.

Eccl. 9:10:

For there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.

That sounds like we should join the local Seventh-day Adventist community, doesn’t it? What gives? As always, the key is context. Beginning at verse 5 of this chapter, we read:

For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward; but the memory of them is lost. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and they have no more for ever any share in all that is done under the sun. Go, eat your bread with enjoyment… Enjoy life with the wife who you love… which he has given you under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going. Again, I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift…

Notice how many times the inspired author said “under the sun?” Three times in these few short verses! The inspired author does not say the dead have no existence at all. The context reveals that he was saying the dead have nothing to do with, and no knowledge of, what is happening “under the sun” as I’ve said before. But, in the end, the writer of Ecclesiastes knows that justice is coming in the next life. So certain is he of this that he can say in the final two verses of the book (Eccl. 12:13-14):

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.

The writer of Ecclesiastes is focusing upon what happens “under the sun” until the very end when he tells us that the after-life is the place where everything will finally make sense. He does not attempt to give us an in-depth teaching of the nature of the after-life. He simply assures his readers that ultimate justice awaits in God’s good time.

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Seven Proofs for the Natural Immortality of the Human Soul

The late Dr. Antony Flew—perhaps the greatest among atheist thinkers of the last 100 years—came to faith in God largely through his studies in philosophy and, most especially, science, as he recounted in his book written with Roy Abraham Varghese, “There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.”

It was in 2004 that Dr. Flew rocked the world with his confession that he had come to believe in God. He made clear that he accepted deism, and not the God of the Bible, or of any other of the great world religions. But this in no way lessened the impact of his startling declaration. The reactions ranged from surprise, to disbelief, to even questioning whether Dr. Flew’s mental capacities were diminished, perhaps because of his age. He was 81 at the time of his “conversion.”

Let me assure you, as one who knows personally one of the men who walked alongside Dr. Flew on his journey toward truth, and who helped him to write the above-mentioned book, Roy Abraham Varghese, his radical change was very much real, his faculties were not diminished, and he was entirely free in his decision-making process.

It is interesting to note that in the second appendix of There is a God, there is a fascinating dialogue between Dr. Flew and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright on whether or not God has revealed himself to man, where Flew had this to say about Christianity:

I think that the Christian religion is the one religion that most clearly deserves to be honoured and respected whether or not its claim to be a divine revelation is true. There is nothing like the combination of a charismatic figure like Jesus and a first-class intellectual like St. Paul. … If you’re wanting Omnipotence to set up a religion, this is the one to beat (pp. 185–186).

Dr. Flew never came to accept Christ or Christianity, or any of the distinctively Christian teachings like the inspiration of Scripture, the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the incarnation of Christ, etc. This is almost to be expected as they are dependent upon supernatural assistance and the acceptance of divine revelation. As a deist, Flew would have accepted none of these teachings.

But interestingly enough, Flew also never came to accept the immortality of the human soul. And this is a truth that is knowable by the natural light of reason apart from revelation. This makes me wonder if this may well have been the linchpin that, if understood and accepted, might have completed the foundation for Dr. Flew upon which the entirety of the revelation of God may well have been able to rest. Perhaps then Dr. Flew would have been able to accept the further light of revelation?

Perhaps.

Because Dr. Flew, unfortunately, died in 2010, just six years after his declaration of faith, I also wonder if time simply ran out before he would have come to the fullness of truth. This we will not know this side of eternity. But I do think we can rejoice in a reasonable hope that he was heading in the right direction when he passed away. Dr. Flew was truly a fascinating man. And, according to my friend Roy Abraham Varghese, he was a good man as well.

Our Reason Tells Us So

Dr. Flew was certainly not alone in his struggle with the concept of the natural immortality of the human soul. (I say “natural” because human beings uniquely possess an immortal soul by nature. That means, man does not need grace in order for his soul to live forever. It would do so naturally, even if he ends up in the isolation and emptiness of hell forever.) This is a point of difficulty for many skepetics. Thus, it is crucial for Christians to know how to explain it to skeptics. And to know that we don’t need a Bible to be able to do so.

The Bible certainly more than helps those who believe in its inspiration, and in the Church that has the authority to definitively interpret it. Through these great gifts, all can know the essential truths of the Faith, including the natural immortality of the human soul, both easily and infallibly. But this hardly helps when you are speaking to someone who doesn’t accept the Bible as God’s word.

The truth is, we can can demonstrate this truth through reason alone, i.e., through philosophy. But first we need to establish the fact that humans have souls at all, and define our terms.

Does Fido Have a Soul?

The soul is, by definition, the unifying and vivifying principle that accounts for the life and what philosophers call the “immanent action” of all living things. The word “immanent” comes from two Latin words that mean “to remain” and “in.” “Immanent action” means the multiple parts that comprise a living being are able to act “from within” in a unified way, and in accordance with its given nature, for the good of the whole being. The soul is what accounts for this unified action that is essential for there to be life.

This comes as a surprise to many Christians with whom I speak, but St. Thomas Aquinas tells us, and it follows from our definition of the soul above, that not only humans, but non-rational animals and plants have souls as well. Man alone possesses what St. Thomas calls a “rational,” or “spiritual” soul. Plants and animals possess “material souls” that, unlike human souls, are dependent upon matter for their existence. But they possess souls nonetheless.

To be precise, there are three categories of souls:

1. Vegetative – This category of soul empowers its host to be able to take in nutrition and hydration, grow, and reproduce others of its kind. A rock can’t do this!

2. Sensitive – An animal with a sensitive soul can also acquire sense knowledge and use locomotion to both ward off danger and to gather goods it needs to survive and thrive.

These first two categories of souls are material in nature. By that I mean, they are entirely dependent upon the material body for their existence. As St. Thomas says, “They are adduced from the potency of the matter.” When the host dies, the vegetative or sensitive soul ceases to exist.

3. Rational – Capable of all the above, the animal possessing a rational soul is capable of acquiring intellectual, or “spiritual,” knowledge as well, and of choosing to freely act toward chosen ends.

The question now becomes: how does any of this demonstrate the soul of man to be immortal?

What is Death?

In order to get where we need to go, we first have to define death. CCC 997 defines it as, “… the separation of the soul from the body”—an excellent definition. But perhaps a more precise philosophical definition is: “The reduction of a composite being into its component parts.” This is why I would say when Fido dies, you might want to get him out of the house and bury him. It won’t take long for him to start the process to becoming “reduced to his component parts.” And that process gets a bit messy!

However, a spirit, by definition, has no parts. There is nothing to be “reduced to its component parts.” Thus, that which is purely spiritual cannot die.

So for my first four proofs for the immortality of the soul, I am going to demonstrate it by showing the soul to be “spiritual” in nature. If I can do this, I will have accomplished the task at hand.

For my fifth, sixth, and seventh proofs, I will make my appeal through what we find in human experience down through the millennia that points us in the direction of man possessing an immortal soul.

The Soul, the Person, and the Body

The two principle powers of the soul are its power to know and to will. Why do we say these powers lie in the soul? In simple terms, it is because it is the entire man that comes to “know” or to “love” (love being the highest purpose of the will) not just “part” of him. This would seem to indicate that the same “unifying and vivifying principle” that explains man’s life, would also explain his power to know and to will.

But man is more than just a soul. He also directly experiences the “I” that unifies all that he is and all that he has done down through the decades of his life. This “I” represents the individual “person” that constitutes each human being.

Is there a distinction between the soul and the person? Yes. But it can be a bit tricky to demonstrate.

Perhaps it would best to demonstrate the distinctions by laying out some of the differences between the body, soul, and person.

There is no doubt that the body contributes to the soul’s ability to come to know. A damaged brain is a clear indicator here. The soul needs a properly functioning brain to be able to come to know anything, ordinarily speaking.

Yet, it is also interesting to note that according to philosopher and theologian, J.P. Moreland, man is much more than a body as well. Moreland provides:

“… neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield electrically stimulated the brains of epilepsy patients and found he could cause them to move their arms or legs, turn their heads or eyes, talk or swallow…”

But yet, Moreland says, the “patient would respond by saying, ‘I didn’t do that. You did.”’ Further, no matter how much probing and electrical prodding, Penfield found there is no place in the brain that can “cause a patient to believe or decide” (Lee Strobel, The Case for a Creator, p. 258.).

Thus, the “I,” or, the person, seems to use his body, or here, his brain, to be sure, but “he” is not determined by it.

We can also say with confidence that the “I” is not synonymous with the intellect and will, or the soul, either because “I” can struggle to remember, to know, or to exercise its will. There seems to be more to a person than just a body, or even just a soul. Man seems to be a body/soul composite. Both his body and soul contribute to the great and mysterious “I.”

The Seven Proofs for the Natural Immortality of the Human Soul

1. The Intellect Possesses the Power of Abstraction

St. Thomas Aquinas explained, “The operation of anything follows the mode of its being” (Summa Theologica, Pt. 1, Q. 75, art. 3). To put it in simpler terms: action follows being. One can tell something of the nature of a thing through examining its actions. Hence, the spiritual nature of the human soul; and therefore its immortality, can be proven through the exhibition of its spiritual power in human acts. One such “spiritual action” is the power of abstraction.

To use thomistic language once again, when a human being comes to know something or someone, let’s say, he sees a man, “Tim,” his senses engage the individual; “Tim,” through the immediate “accidental” qualities that he sees. By “accidentals,” we mean the non-essential, or changeable, aspects of “Tim” like his size, color, or colors, weight, etc. From this conglomeration of accidentals, his intellect abstracts the “form” of “man-ness” from that individual (This reminds me of a philosophy professor I had in college who seemed to have an inability to pronounce a noun without adding a “ness” to the end of it.).

This “form” the intellect abstracts is an immaterial likeness of the object thought about or seen. It is ordinarily derived from a particular object, like the man, “Tim,” as I mentioned above, but it transcends the particular individual. The form gets at the essence of “Tim.” It is that which is universal concerning “Tim,” the man. He is risible (he laughs), he reasons, he worships, and more. This is that which is changeless and applies not just to “Tim,” but to all men. And very importantly for our purpose, we must remember that this essential “form” abstracted by the intellect is a spiritual reality. It transcends the individual.

Now, there is a material likeness, or image, that is concrete and singular, impressed in the memory of man, but that is not what we are talking about here. Dogs, cats, birds, and bats have memory. Non-rational animals do not have the power to abstract the form of “man.” Only human beings can comprehend “man-ness” or “dog-ness.”

This is not to say the soul of a dog is not real. It is, as St. Thomas Aquinas says, a “real principle,” and it is “adduced from the potency of the matter.” This is analogous to elements formed into a compound or an atomic explosion caused from the potency of the matter used in the formation of a bomb. Certain kinds of matter exist in potency to other kinds of matter that when joined create elements, atomic explosions, or Fido! But only man (among animals on earth) has this power of abstraction that necessarily involves a spiritual principle.

Why is this crucial to understand? Well, let’s introduce yet another “form” here… “tree-ness.” “Tree” is defined as, “A woody perennial plant, having a single main stem or trunk arising from the soil and having branches and foliage.” This would represent “the form” that is common to all trees apart from any particular. I could burn the individual tree from which I abstract the form of “tree-ness,” and reduce it to ash so that there is no longer this particular “tree” in existence, but I can never burn “tree-ness” because it is “spiritual,” or “universal.”

Remember our philosophical principle? “Action follows being?” If the soul has this spiritual power to “abstract” the form of “tree,” or “man,” it must be spiritual. And if the soul is spiritual, it has to be immortal. It cannot be “reduced to its component parts.”

2. The Soul Forms Ideas of Realities That Are Immaterial

The human soul not only abstracts the forms of material entities encountered, but it also has the power to know the ideas or “forms” of immaterial realities like logical sequence, moral goodness, property rights, philosophical categories like “substance,” cause and effect, and more.

Where are these realities? What color are they? How big are they? How much do they weigh?

They have no color, size, or weight because they are spiritual—and by definition—immaterial. Sense image alone (like the Empiricists John Locke and David Hume say is the only source of knowledge) cannot account for these. We are not talking about the material world here.

To form an idea of something spiritual, again, requires a spiritual principle, i.e., the soul. If it’s spiritual, it can’t die.

3. The Will Strives for Immaterial Goods

Closely related to my first two proofs, just as the intellect has the power to abstract the “spiritual” forms of the things and beings it encounters, and to form ideas of immaterial realities, the will also has the power to strive for immaterial things, like prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude, etc. One cannot produce what one does not possess. There must be a spiritual; and therefore, immortal principle (the soul), to will these spiritual realities.

4. The Intellect Can Reflect Upon Its Own Act of Knowledge

It could not do so if it were material. A material faculty, such as the power of vision, only reacts in response to external stimuli. It could only be said to “perceive” inasmuch as one “part” was acted upon by another “part” of something else. When our intellect reflects on its own act of knowing, and we could add its own act of being as well, it is both subject and object of knowledge. The soul can only do this if it has no parts. A dog cannot reflect on its own act of knowing, or being. It just scratches! That is sense knowledge.

5. Man Has a Natural Desire to Live Forever

Aristotle gave us an extremely important philosophical principle when he said, “A potency without the possibility of actuality destroys nature.”

The existence of acorns necessitate the existence of oak trees. It is not that each individual acorn will be actualized and become an oak tree. That is clearly not the case. But if no acorns could be actualized, there would be no oak trees.

We could multiply examples here. A digestive system in animals necessarily means we can know there is food… somewhere out there. A female dog necessitates the existence of a male dog. If there’s not, then “dog” will be eliminated in fairly short order.

Thus, the non-rational animal seeks self-preservation, food and sex. Each of these is conditioned by time. Man has intellectual knowledge which is absolute. The “forms” are not conditioned to time as material knowledge is. Remember? The individual “tree” will die, but not the “form” or “idea” of tree that man alone possesses among creatures of earth. From this knowledge of the eternal springs a spontaneous desire to live forever. And this potency cannot exist in vain. That would be contrary to everything we see in nature.

6. The Testimony of Mankind Over the Centuries and Millennia

From ancient Egypt’s Book of the Dead, to Western Civilization’s Bible, every civilization, every culture, in all of human history has attested to the existence of an after-life.

Some will point out the very few exceptions—one being Hinayana (or Theravedic) Buddhism—that deny the existence of “spirit,” or the soul, to discount this our sixth proof. But to no avail.

Actually, the exception tends to prove the rule. And this, I would argue, is certainly the case with Hinayana Buddhism. Not only is this ancient form of Buddhism an anomaly in the world of religion, but the appearance of Mahayana Buddhism (that restored belief in “God” and “the soul”), very early in the history of Buddhism, and the fact that it is today by far the largest of the three main traditions of Buddhism, tends to demonstrate that man is so ordered to believe in the afterlife that errant thinking here or there over millenia can never keep its truth suppressed for very long.

7. The Existence of the Moral Law

My final proof for the natural immortality of the human soul is derived from the existence of the Moral Law that we can know apart from divine revelation. This is a true law knowable to all, and a law that man did not give to himself. And yet, it is often unpunished and the sanctions of law not carried out. Hence, there must be an eternity where all is rectified.

Necessarily rooted in the reality of the justice and wisdom of God who created both us and this that we call “Natural Law,” Plato said without the immortality of the soul there is no justice, which would be absurd. If there is a God who is just, then there must be final justice. Since final justice so often does not occur in this life, there must be a next life in which justice will be served.

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