The ancient philosophers taught that man is essentially an immortal, spiritual "soul" housed in a temporary body of flesh—that the real man is not the body, but an invisible, immaterial "immortal soul" that thinks, hears, sees, and will consciously live on forever.
At death, according to the speculation of the ancients, the soul leaves the body and journeys to a nebulous realm, possibly paradise or a place of punishment. The body, they correctly observed, goes to the grave.
Some Oriental philosophers speculated that the souls of the departed go into other bodies after death and live as animals, birds, snakes, even trees or gnats—or perhaps as human beings. This doctrine, called "transmigration of souls" or "reincarnation," is currently gaining a renewed popularity.
But what is the authority for these beliefs? Do they come from biblical revelation? Where did they come from? Where did the Christian-professing churches acquire their present teachings about the immortality of the soul?
Consider this candid statement from the Jewish Encyclopedia:
The belief that the soul continues its existence after the dissolution of the body [after death] is a matter of philosophical or theological speculation rather than of simple faith, and is accordingly nowhere taught in the Holy Scripture. (article, "Immortality of the Soul")
This same article continues:
The belief in the immortality of the soul came to the Jews from contact with Greek thought and chiefly through the philosophy of Plato, its principal exponent, who was led to it through Orphic and Eleusinian mysteries in which Babylonian and Egyptian views were strangely blended.
The doctrine of the immortality of the soul, according to this respected encyclopedia, came from pre-Christian Greek philosophers who acquired it from pagan Egypt and Babylon!
Notice what Herodotus, the famous Greek historian who lived in the fifth century before Jesus, admitted:
The Egyptians also were the first who asserted the doctrine that the soul of man is immortal. . . . This opinion, some among the Greeks have at different periods of time adopted as their own. (Euterpe, chapter 123)
It was the Greek Socrates who traveled to Egypt and consulted the Egyptians on this very teaching. After his return to Greece, he imparted the concept to Plato, his most famous pupil. Compare the present-day doctrine of the churches with what Plato wrote in his book, The Phaedo:
The soul whose inseparable attribute is life will never admit of life's opposite, death. Thus the soul is shown to be immortal, and since immortal, indestructible. . . . Do we believe there is such a thing as death? To be sure. And is this anything but the separation of the soul and body? And being dead is the attainment of this separation, when the soul exists in herself and separate from the body, and the body is parted from the soul. That is death. . . . Death is merely the separation of soul and body.
Sounds a lot like ordinary church teaching, does it not?
You were probably taught that this same doctrine was totally Christian. You undoubtedly assumed it came straight from the Bible—but it did not.
After Plato came Aristotle who perpetuated the theory. Then the poet Virgil (70-19 BC) popularized it throughout the Roman World. But how did this concept become a fundamental doctrine of the vast majority of professing Christians?
The introduction of this popular superstition into the churches was a gradual process that took centuries. The early "church fathers" were divided on this subject. As late as AD 160, Justin, the philosopher-turned-professing-Christian, wrote:
But our Jesus Christ, being crucified and dead, and having ascended to heaven, reigned, and by those things which were published in His name among all nations by the apostles, there is joy offered to those who expect the immortality promised by Him. (Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. I, p. 176)
Many of the early Catholics indeed knew they did not have immortality within themselves. It was something they yet expected to receive (see Romans 2:7; I Timothy 6:16; I Corinthians 15:50-54).
Origen, an early Catholic teacher in Alexandria, Egypt, joined the speculations of Plato with certain parts of the Bible and called his philosophy neo-Platonism. Here is what Origen wrote around AD 200: "Souls are immortal, as God Himself is eternal and immortal"! He openly professed to be a true "Platonist, who believed in the immortality of the soul" (Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. IV, pp. 314, 402).
Another influential teacher at the close of the second century was Tertullian of Phoenician North Africa. He wrote:
For some things are known, even by nature: the immortality of the soul, for instance, is held by many. . . . I may use, therefore, the opinion of Plato, when he declares: "Every soul is immortal." (ibid., vol. III, p. 547, emphasis ours)
And so the personal ideas of these influential men helped mold the thinking of the entire Christian-professing world.
But a few Catholic writers and teachers as late as the time of Constantine condemned the change in doctrine from Christ's teachings to those of Plato. Here is the remonstration of Arnobius against those who were being
carried away by an extravagant opinion of themselves, that souls are immortal. . . . Will you lay aside your habitual arrogance, O men, who claim God as your Father, and maintain that you are immortal just as He is?" (ibid., vol. VI, p. 440)
After the time of Emperor Constantine—who forced the Roman Empire to accept one universal faith—Augustine, another writer of North African extraction, "sanctified" the doctrine of the immortality of the soul in his book, The City of God. Along came other writers—all under the influence of Plato, Aristotle, and Virgil—who dominated the philosophy of Western "Christian" theology during the early Middle Ages.
Thomas Aquinas (AD 1225-1274), Italian scholastic teacher and theologian, stamped the doctrine of the immortality of the soul permanently on the Christian-professing world. Fifty years later, Dante Alighieri wrote the immensely famous poem, The Divine Comedy, in which he pictured for the common people his imaginary concepts of hell, purgatory, and paradise—which have been widely believed since that time.
But not only did this doctrine become religious dogma in the medieval world, those who rejected this idea became branded as heretics!
Just before the Protestant Reformation, the Lateran Council of 1513 issued this decree:
Whereas some have dared to assert concerning the nature of the reasonable soul that it is mortal, we, with the approbation of the sacred council, do condemn and reprobate all those who assert that the intellectual soul is mortal, seeing, according to the canon of Pope Clement V, that the soul is . . . immortal . . . and we decree that all who adhere to like erroneous assertions shall be shunned and punished as heretics.
That meant that any who taught the truth were to be turned over to the civil authorities for punishment. And the punishment was usually severe!
During the Reformation, some early Protestants tried to cast off the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. Martin Luther declared that the Bible did not teach the immortality of the soul (Defense, Proposition No. 27). "Luther held that the soul died with the body, and that God would hereafter raise both the one and the other" (Historical View, p. 344).
How different were Luther's first teachings from Protestant doctrine today! Here are Luther's own words, expressed about the year 1522:
It is probable, in my opinion, that, with very few exceptions, indeed, the dead sleep in utter insensibility till the day of judgment. . . . On what authority can it be said that the souls of the dead may not sleep . . . in the same way that the living pass in profound slumber the interval between their downlying at night and their uprising in the morning? (From Michelet's Life of Luther, Bohn's edition, p. 133.)
Luther's original teachings have never ceased to embarrass Protestant theologians who have since readopted the teachings of ancient Egypt and Greece.
William Tyndale, the printer of the first New Testament in English and another of the Reformers, wrote:
In putting departed souls in heaven, hell, or purgatory you destroy the arguments wherewith Christ and Paul prove the resurrection. . . . The true faith putteth the resurrection; the heathen philosophers, denying that, did put that souls did ever live. . . . If the soul be in heaven, tell me what cause is there for the resurrection?
That is a very good question!
The Protestant Reformers found the people unwilling to change their doctrines. Gradually, the Reformers themselves gave in to popular tradition—tradition which has its roots in pagan philosophy and speculation! And so many churchgoers today believe the doctrine of the immortality of the soul simply because they have unquestioningly embraced the speculations that have been passed down from ancient pagan philosophers!
The apostle Paul wrote about this very kind of speculation:
Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments [fundamental concepts] of the world, and not after Christ. (Colossians 2:8)