QUESTION. I heard an elder of a local church make the comment that he believed that our spirits are eternal, that they were in heaven before we were born and were given to us at conception. Does the Bible have anything to say about this?
ANSWER. The first text that comes to mind is 1 Tim. 6:16, which says that God alone “has immortality.” To be eternal is to be inherently immortal, and only God possesses this quality. Thus to be eternal is to be God, or equal with God. This elder’s view is absolutely false.
That the human spirit (or soul) is eternal is one of the most common heresies worldwide, and is part of the essence of pagan dualism. E.g., it was part of ancient Greek religion and Greek philosophy (e.g., Plato). This view denies the qualitative difference between Creator and creature (see Rom. 1:25), which is one of the most fundamental of all truths. Even Mormons do not go this far. They say our spirits pre-existed in heaven, but that they came into existence via copulation between Yahweh and his wife prior to being born into this world inside a physical body.
I have discussed this issue in my book, The Faith Once for All, 147-149. What follows here is a section from chapter six of that book, “The Visible Creation: The Nature of Man.” The section is labeled, “Man Is Wholly a Creature.”
To say that man is wholly a creature means that both body and spirit have been created by God. The doctrine of ex nihilo creation is unique to the Bible; therefore the doctrine of man as a created being is unique to Scripture also. In almost every non-biblical world view at least a part of man is eternal. In materialistic monism all matter is eternal; man is simply one stage in the eternal chance evolution of eternal stuff. In spiritualistic monism (e.g., Hinduism) the body is usually not even regarded as real, and the spirit is a part of or is identical with the eternal divine spirit. Pagan dualism usually regards matter–and thus the body–as real but as evil and temporary, but it regards the spirit as eternal and often divine. Over against all such false doctrines the Bible affirms the full creaturehood of man. Only God is eternal, immortal, and uncreated (John 1:3; Rom, 1:25; 1 Tim. 6:16).
Despite this clear Biblical affirmation, it is not uncommon for sincere Christians to naively assume that the soul or spirit is a divine spark or a little piece of God, and somehow inherently eternal and immortal and even divine. Alluding to Genesis 2:7, Alexander Campbell said, “Lord, what is man? Thine own offspring, reared out of the dust of earth, inspired with a portion of thine own spirit.” Thus man has “something in common with God”; there is “a divinity stirring within him” (from his “Address on Colleges,” in The Millennial Harbinger, Feb. 1854). C. C. Crawford (Survey Course in Christian Doctrine, I:142-143) has said that man’s body “was a divine creation; whereas the spirit that was breathed into it was a divine gift.” In Gen. 2:7 God implants a spirit in the body by “stooping down and placing His lips and nostrils to the inanimate form which he had created, and then expelling an infinitesimal portion of His very own essence into it.” Another writer says that in light of Gen. 2:7 the soul must survive death because “you cannot destroy the God-part!”
Others within the broad scope of Christendom say that man was not created divine but will somehow become divine as the climax of the salvation process. This idea is at the heart of the Mormon doctrine of salvation, and it appears occasionally in more orthodox circles. Texts such as Philippians 3:21 and 1 John 3:2, which say that in the resurrection we will be like Christ, are misapplied to his divine nature instead of to his glorified human nature. Another text says that we become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4), but this refers to our ethical oneness with God, not a sharing in the divine essence. I.e., we share his communicable attributes such as holiness, love, and patience (see 1 Pet. 1:15-16).
The very notion that finite creatures could ever acquire the attributes of infinity is illogical and impossible. Only the transcendent Creator-God is and can be infinite. Creatures should neither desire nor expect to “escape” their finiteness, as if this were some kind of unnatural prison. Neither death nor salvation causes us to automatically take on some attribute that belongs exclusively to the infinite Creator. When we die we will not “enter eternity” in the sense that we will no longer be limited by time, nor will we “know fully” (see 1 Cor. 13:12) by somehow becoming omniscient. We are finite now and will be finite forever. (On 1 Cor. 13:12 see my book, Power from on High, 460-464.)
To think of man’s essence as in any sense divine, either by creation or by salvation, is a most serious false doctrine. It destroys the distinction between God and man, between Creator and creature. It puts man on the same level with God, which is the most basic temptation (Gen. 3:5). It is the height of presumption and arrogance, the epitome of sinful pride. It either debases God or over-exalts man. It destroys the uniqueness of Christ and his incarnation. Nothing of true Christianity remains. See my book, God the Creator, 151-154.
To say that the spirit or soul is not divine but nevertheless is inherently immortal is not much better. This idea, too, is pagan, not Biblical. It denies the full creaturehood of man and the unique eternality of God. Logically it makes man equal with God, since whatever is eternal is indeed divine: God “alone possesses immortality” (1 Tim. 6:16).
The concept of innate immortality has led to false ideas about eternal punishment. Some have said that God created hell not because divine holiness demands it but because the souls of the wicked are indestructible and have to exist somewhere for eternity. Others have reacted to this error by teaching an even more serious error. They rightly deny the necessary immortality of the soul, but they then declare that this false idea was what led some in the early church to invent the idea of eternal punishment in the first place, a doctrine which they say is not really taught in the Bible. Thus they deny eternal punishment, believing that their refutation of the “immortal soul” doctrine has removed the basis for it. Examples of this approach are Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists, who deny not just the soul’s immortality but its very existence; and Restoration Movement writers such as Curtis Dickinson, Russell Boatman, and Edward Fudge.
It is true that because the soul is no less created than the body, the whole being is perishable and destructible. The soul is just as capable of being annihilated and returned to non-existence as the body, but this does not mean that it must do so. The fact is that the soul does not pass into non-existence at death or at some later point, and this is simply God’s will and plan. Though capable of perishing, the soul does not perish at physical death but continues to exist in the temporary absence of a physical body, nor is the sinner’s soul annihilated along with a resurrected body after a finite period of punishment in hell. After the resurrection the reunited body and soul will exist forever either in heaven or hell, not of necessity but by God’s choice.
Accepting either the divinity or the necessary immortality of the soul leads to a false contrast between soul and body, with an undue elevation of the importance of the soul as compared with the body. It leads to the idea that the soul or spirit is the only valuable part of man, the only real and authentic part, the only part that counts. It is true that the soul or spirit is relatively more important than the body, since it is the aspect of man that is in the image of God. It is also true that this present body is under the curse of sin and death, and must be redeemed (Rom. 8:23). But the idea that the body is by nature a temporary, unfortunate expedient, while the soul or spirit is by nature uncreated and eternal, is quite false.