The Doctrine of Immortality in the Early Church – Book Review

19381161The Doctrine of Immortality in the Early Church by John H. Roller

“The Doctrine of Immortality in the Early Church” is a brief work filled with quotations from church fathers, quotations which are not given detailed explanation that would substantiate the author’s belief that they — because they employ binaries such as life/death, immortality/destruction, etc — support the contemporary doctrine of conditional immortality.Given our historical and cultural distance from the historical and cultural backdrop of the writings of the fathers, it is all too easy to interpret their use of the aforementioned binaries as meaning what our present day colloquial speech may, in some instances, mean. So when examining the works of the fathers, it is isn’t enough to collate passages that contain words and phrases that seem to support one’s doctrine. Rather, it is necessary to explain one’s justification for interpreting those words and phrases to mean something identical to or concordant with one’s doctrine.

Ironically, by not presenting the passages he cites in a historically informed manner, but instead simply citing them and adding parenthetical remarks such as “not torment,” Roller is not presenting an “unbiased view.” Rather, he is begging the question and stacking the deck. In addition to these fallacies, we have to add his use of the word-concept fallacy, implying that because Clement did not use the phrase “immortal soul” or “immortality of the soul” that he held to the same conditionalist doctrine which Roller holds.

The question Roller does not ask is this — “What exactly do the fathers mean when they claim that the soul is not immortal”?

A cursory study of Patristic scholars will reveal that the consensus opinion of specialists in this field is that the fathers have employed Platonic language in the service of explaining Christian doctrine over and against the Gnostics. The fathers denied that the soul was divine, immortal, etc, and affirmed that it was created by God, sustained in existence by him, and given life or deprived of life by him.

Because the fathers deny the Gnostic doctrine of the immortality of the soul, in the case of those who have the divine spark at least!, conditionalists like Roller believe they were conditionalists in the contemporary sense of the word. However, that is not the case. The fathers to a man believed in the immortality of the soul, but they were also conditionalists. How so? They affirmed that the existence of anything is conditioned upon the will of God alone, while they also affirmed that the soul has been created in such a way that it does not undergo deconstruction/disintegration/decomposition into constituent parts as the body does.

The soul exists and lives conditionally, then, as an immortal entity. This is not the conditionalism of Roller, the Adventists, or contemporary annihilationists.

What makes Roller’s book attractive is its claim to being unbiased, as well as its claim to only deal with the original authors themselves. It would be nice if we could gather a long list of quotations from the fathers and decide what their theology was simply by such proof-texting. Unfortunately, if we really want to know what these men meant when they asserted that immortality was not natural to man, or that immortality was a gift for those whose faith has been placed in Christ, then we need to do more historical research on these men in order to better understand their use of binaries and phrases that have come to mean something completely different than what many contemporary authors may assume.

Roller claims that Athenagoras is one of the first, if not the first, fathers to believe that immortality was naturally proper to the soul. However, that is not the case, as a simple reading of Irenaeus, as well as an in-depth examination of scholarly patristic writing on the issue very quickly reveals. The church fathers were not conditionalists, but held to a view similar to the one contemporary orthodox Christians hold. Conditionalism, and Soul sleep (which Roller also seems to embrace), was not held by any but the heretics.

Arnobius the heretic, the Arabian heretics, and Tatian the heretic held to these such views. Moreover, prior to these heretics, it was the Gnostics themselves who taught that those who were not spiritual would be annihilated in body and soul (see Heracleon’s Commentary on the Gospel of John, for instance where he treats Matthew 10:28 in the same way that conditionalists today do).

If you want to know what the church fathers believed about immortality, it would be best to read patristic scholars, and those who are familiar with patristic scholarship, on the matter. Roller’s book is not a good place to learn about the fathers, but does serve to educate one about how not to do historical research.


Conspiracies and the Christian Worldview: A Brief Reflection

If Induced, then Defeasible


While there is much fruitless speculation when it comes to just about every subject you can think of, there is also “out of the box” thinking that often contributes to the expansion of our knowledge. This is because inductively drawn conclusions are always open to revision. This means that even the most widely subscribed to idea, if it has been inductively inferred, is subject to amendation and, in many cases, rejection. The possibility of outright rejection of an idea that seems established by physical data is inconceivable to many in our day. But the fact of the matter remains – unless you are omniscient, all inductively drawn conclusions are tentative conclusions, defeasible propositions which may or may not be true.

Some have argued that coming to the truth by induction is possible by means of specification. The idea is that we can safely inductively infer conclusions if we have a very rigidly defined set of constraints on our field of inquiry, its relevant moving parts (as it were), and so on. But this doesn’t help the situation, seeing as we are still assuming that the limitations we have placed on our inquiry are true. The most we can get from setting up rigid constraints is the conclusion –

y follows x, iff constraint set P is true.

Whether or not P is true is the problem. We can’t know whether or not it’s true by means of induction, since this would necessitate that we set up another set of rigid constraints, P’, in order to safely inductively infer conclusions. This would lead to an infinite regress, and make knowledge impossible.

So What?

If you’re wondering what this has to do with “conspiracy theories,” let me explain. When we investigate an event, let’s say, we are looking at an incomplete set of data, and trying to safely infer from that data a conclusion which is true. Our conclusions, therefore, are always tentative, defeasible. The tighter the constraints on an inquiry are, the more sure we can be that y follows x, iff constraint set P is true. But whether or not P is true is something that can’t be determined by inductive reasoning. So when an “official story” about an event is relayed by a media outlet, this does not settle the matter of what actually happened.

epsitemological trainwreck

It could, of course, be true that the “official story” is true. But given the fact that we are separated by degrees from the data available to the authors of the “official story,” we are at a greater disadvantage than those who set up the initial constraints on their inquiry, and subsequently acquired the data relevant to their investigation. Regarding the relationship of epistemic disadvantage to the formulation of, and/or belief in, various “conspiracy theories,” some authors have identified a “crippled epistemology” as an underlying cause. Cass R. Sunstein writes –

Many people who accept conspiracy theories suffer from a crippled epistemology. Their beliefs are a function of what they hear. For that reason, isolated social networks can be a breeding ground for conspiracy theories.

-Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas, 31-32.

So when does one have a “crippled epistemology”? When one “knows relatively few things, and what they know is wrong” (Sunstein, 12). In other words, those who deviate from the “official story” and speculate as to what may have really occurred, in some given context, do so because they are lacking information requisite to understanding the “official story.” So the problem is rooted in inductive reasoning, which is necessarily defeasible.

Ironically, Sunstein notes that a “crippled epistemology” is universal, and not limited to so-called conspiracists. He writes –

All of us have, at least to some degree, a crippled epistemology, in the sense that there is a lot that we don’t know, and we have to rely on people we trust. We lack direct or personal evidence for most of what we think, especially about politics and government. We are often confident in what we believe, but we don’t have reason to be. Much of what we know can turn out to be badly wrong.

-Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas, XI. (emphasis added)

In just a few sentences, Sunstein has completely undermined one of the key concepts used in his (psycho)analysis of conspiracists and the people who think they’re on to something. If having a “crippled epistemology” is one of the root causes of being a “conspiracy theorist,” and we all have a crippled epistemology, then upon what basis can one claim that one explanation is the truth, while another explanation is merely a “conspiracy theory”?

Sadly, Sunstein lacks epistemological self-consciousness, it seems, even while he attempts to empathize with his “low-information” conspiracists. On the one hand, he wants to identify deviations from the “official story” as being potentially harmful opinions based on no, little, or “bad” evidence. On the other hand, however, he openly admits that we are all epistemologically crippled. And it doesn’t help any for Sunstein to qualify his assertion by adding that we all are epistemologically crippled “at least to some degree,” since he further states that “we lack direct or personal evidence for most of what we think. In other words, “official stories” and “conspiracy theories” are all, ultimately, theories. Barring one being omniscient, therefore, all conclusive reports concerning a given subject of inquiry are tentative, defeasible working theories that, to quote Sunstein, “can turn out to be badly wrong.”

What Hath Christianity to Do with “Conspiracy Theories”?

If what we know can turn out to be “badly wrong,” then we didn’t know what we thought we knew. Rather, we believed that a proposition, or a set of propositions, about some subject of inquiry was true, but learned that we were wrong. Our inductive reasoning needs to be constrained by the truth regarding the subject of inquiry, its relevant and irrelevant factors to be considered as evidence or discounted, etc. We need a divine truth, or some divine truths, to show us how to constrain the otherwise infinite pool of data from which we seek to reconstruct the truth.

The Word of God contains such constraints, but the world rejects the Word of God. In the place of the authority of the omniscient Triune God, ignorant humans who agree with one another become the authorities regarding any given subject of inquiry. This is not a conspiracy theory, btw; this is reality. We have two options set before us – Either we can submit to the authoritative words of fallible men, or we can submit to the authoritative Word of the Infallible and Omniscient Trinity. Without these constraints given by God, all conclusions regarding any subject of inquiry are merely theories in competition with one another.


As Christians, we can justifiably identify explanations about a given subject of inquiry as being good, bad, plausible, implausible, right, wrong, poorly reasoned, well reasoned, and so on. We can justifiably draw a distinction between the most plausible explanation and a borderline insane conspiracy theory. Contrary to the hackneyed claims of atheists and agnostics, Christianity forms the basis of free thinking, critical inquiry, and epistemological generosity. Apart from the Logic of God, Christ Jesus, we can do nothing. And with him, we can come to possess truth. In Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3). And this is important to remember, Paul tells us, so that “that no one may delude [us] with plausible arguments” (Col 2:4).

Our thinking is to be geared toward finding the truth by means of the truth revealed to us by God. Questioning the “official story” or a “conspiracy theory” is well within our freedom to do as those who have been called to love the Lord our God with all of our hearts, soul, mind, and strength. In doing so, we may contribute to a better understanding of some subject of inquiry, or at least be able to identify those theories – either those “officially” or unofficially declared to be the case – as false conclusions harmful to the acquisition of the truth.

Soli Deo Gloria