On the Immortality of the Soul: Comparing Jonathan Edwards & Plato

The words immortality of the soul in large letters over a blue background

Since the fall in the garden of Eden (Gen 3), death has held dominion over all living things, not least of all human beings. Though Scripture tells us of an occasional Enoch or Elijah,1 death claims all living entities eventually, no matter their age, title, rank, privilege, health, or general wellbeing. The incontrovertible fact that all human beings must die has provoked the deepest thinkers of all time to work through the issue of the fate of the living soul within us. This question is of immediate and vital importance: Does any aspect of our humanity carry on and continue living after the cessation of this mortal life? Do mind, consciousness, memory, or will survive the grave? The destiny of the inner being after the termination of the life of the physical body must necessarily be among the most important questions that human beings can address.

Theologically, of course, the major religions of the world have had something considerable to say about the spirit of the human being after the body dies.

And yet, discussions on the nature and future of the soul beyond the grave have not been confined merely to the in-house conversations between and among the world’s religious belief systems. In fact, this very topic has been discussed at length in the philosophical literature as well. The ancient Greek philosophers had long and detailed discussions on this matter.2

Their hypotheses and conclusions overlap in interesting locations with those posited by the theologians of revealed religions. Because that overlap is often extraordinarily insightful, I will here attempt to compare and contrast the views of one of the greatest Greek philosophers (Plato) to one of the greatest theologians (Jonathan Edwards).

Socrates—as he is voiced through the pen of Plato (c. 428–348 BC) whose dialogues allow the peripatetic teacher to come to life—discussed the immortality of the soul at length in his Phaedo and to a lesser extent in his Republic. In the former, we eavesdrop upon Socrates and his friends discussing the fate of one’s soul after the body dies, even as the great teacher himself faces the imminence of his own demise, now just hours away. Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), too, agonized over the state and condition of his soul as well as that of his congregation, very often pondering the matter of the immortality of the soul in great detail in his private Miscellanies.3 As a Christian theologian, Edwards’s preoccupation with the immortality of the soul finds its fullest expression and hope in the eternal life granted to man by grace in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

At the outset of this essay, I will briefly consult Princeton’s esteemed Reformed theologian, Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (1851–1921), to give us a tidy and helpful rubric that will allow us to compare and contrast some of the more important views of the state of the soul after death that have been held over the centuries. This will help us to more accurately place the conceptual views of both Plato and Edwards as well as to identify their commonalities. On this initial point I promise to be brief.

In the main body of this essay, then, I will attempt to do three things:

  1. I will summarize a classical Greek philosophical position on the immortality of the soul as given in Plato’s Phaedo.
  2. I will collate Jonathan Edwards’s work on the immortality of the soul by assessing various of his Miscellanies.
  3. Finally, I will note both the overlap and divergences in the thinking of these two great men.

Warfield’s categories on the state of the soul after death

B. B. Warfield has helpfully set forth the possible logical categories governing a discussion on the soul which are held across the spectrum of philosophers and theologians alike. According to his short article on “Annihilationism”4 these basic categories subsume most of the major views held over the centuries by the wisdom lovers and freethinkers, as well as by advocates of the revealed religions such as Christianity. These categories are:

  1. Pure mortalism
  2. Conditional immortality
  3. Annihilationism proper
  4. Unconditional immortality (by implication)

Understanding these basic categories will help us to map the views of both Plato and Edwards more accurately below. Since Warfield’s chapter focuses on the aberrant doctrine of annihilationism (considered heterodox by Reformed Christianity), the fourth and orthodox view is treated by way of logical inference rather than directly in his essay.

1. Pure mortalism

The first view, “pure mortalism,” is the most secular and materialistic of the four views. We might also call it unconditional mortality. It holds “that human life is bound up with the organism, and that therefore the entire man passes out of being with the dissolution of the organism.”5 When the body dies, the soul must necessarily die too. The spirit or soul is incapable of survival if rent from the physical apparatus of the material body. They are inextricably connected. Biological life is coextensive with spiritual life. To make an analogy, if the clay jar breaks, the water contained within spills out and dissipates into the ground immediately—or at least evaporates into the air eventually. The soul cannot be retained alive apart from its physical connectivity to the biological body.

2. Conditional immortality

The second view Warfield calls “conditional immortality.” In this view, man is mortal in his ordinary condition and would necessarily suffer the fate of pure mortalism described above (the death of the soul) unless something happens to grant him eternal life. In other words, his soul would dissipate as above unless it is somehow given a new principle of divine preservation, allowing it to survive the shock of physical death. In this view, any life beyond the cessation of the body must be given, granted, or added to him supernaturally—usually as “a gift of god, conferred on those who have entered into living communion with Him.”6 This view by definition tends to focus on the believer rather than the unbeliever, since it is the believer to whom this conditional immortality is granted as a gift.

3. Annihilationism proper

Next, Warfield discusses what he calls “annihilationism proper.” This is the view that a human’s soul would ordinarily be immortal (unlike the second view above) unless God acted upon it directly to take that life away, thus annihilating the soul out of existence. Advocates of this view hold that this punitive action is accomplished by God as a certain punishment for sin, and can either take place at the very moment of natural death, or else at a later personal judgment.

Some annihilationists hold that God snuffs out the life of the soul instantly, and others contend that the extinction of the soul takes place gradually over an extended period of time. In either case, what distinguishes this view from either of the views above is that God proactively snuffs out the soul of the person, a soul which would have otherwise carried on indefinitely.

4. Unconditional immortality

The fourth logical category, unconditional immortality, is one Warfield does not directly address in this article, though he does so elsewhere in his writings. This is the view that the soul of a human being does necessarily carry on after death and will do so under any set of conditions. This does not necessarily imply that the soul experiences salvation, however; damnation is also brought into clear focus here in this fourth category. In either regard, the soul or spirit will live forever somewhere, most likely either heaven or hell.7

To sum up, here is the schema we’ll be using throughout the rest of this piece:

 

Unconditional

Conditional

Mortality

1. Pure mortalism
The soul ceases to exist after death no matter what. When the body dies, the soul dies, too.

3. Annihilation proper
The soul would have been immortal after death, but God acts upon the soul as a judgment for sin to cause it to cease to exist.

Immortality

4. Unconditional immortality
The immortal soul continues to live after death somewhere; in orthodox Christianity, either heaven or hell.

2. Conditional immortality
The soul would have naturally died with the extinction of the body, but God supernaturally grants it eternal life.

Related article: “Bioethics from Embryo to Deathbed: Right, Wrong, and Healthcare” by Sandra Glahn

Plato on the soul

The question of the existence of the soul after death is evergreen. It is as relevant today as it has been for millennia. We ought not to be surprised then when we come to find out that the ancient writers discussed the very same concepts, though not always with the clarity of Warfield’s categories, and certainly not with the exact headings that Warfield suggests.

Reaching back as far as the classical Greek thinkers, the Athenians, in particular, had contemplated these same possibilities. In Plato’s Phaedo, the great writer of the Socratic dialogues considers a number of possibilities for the fate of the soul, focusing primarily on views 1, 2, and 4 above.8

Some context will be helpful. In Phaedo, the reader is given access to the final conversations of Socrates before he dies. The great peripatetic has been formally convicted of the crimes of atheism and of the corruption of minors through his avant-garde teaching. Shortly, he will be forced to drink the poisonous hemlock to enact his capital punishment. Before he dies, Socrates has the opportunity to converse freely with his friends and family. As his final conversation is deemed too important and too emotional for the presence of women and children,9

Socrates spends the majority of his time speaking with his true friends Cebes, Crito, Simmias, and Phaedo, for whom the book is named. The book takes place from the perspective of Phaedo, who is recounting the events of Socrates’s final moments to another friend, Echecrates. Since Socrates’s death has been assured by these certain circumstances, it is entirely appropriate to discuss what will happen to his own soul when the body dies in just a few hours. Throughout the dialogue, Socrates offers various defenses for the unconditional immortality of the soul (view 4). His friends, moved by impending grief (and partly confused by his logic!), are often positioned in the story as seriously doubting or at least uncertain as to the persuasiveness of Socrates’s arguments. In particular, they fear the possibility of view one.

The conversation begins in earnest. Perhaps death is good, it is suggested. If so, a true philosopher would not be afraid. After all, death is nothing more than “the release of the soul from the body,”10 and since the body contaminates the soul’s pursuit of true philosophy, death should be welcomed by the wise. Thus, the discussion begins somewhat optimistically in that death may free the philosopher from a corporeal anchor that only inhibited his pursuit of truth: his tainted and corrupt physical nature, subject to pains, toils, lusts, and other annoyances.

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But Cebes is particularly concerned here. He expresses his fear that the soul dies when the body dies (view 1 above).

[Perhaps] when [the soul] is released from the body it may no longer exist anywhere, but may be dispersed and destroyed on the very day that the man dies as soon as it is freed from the body, as it emerges it may be dissipated like breath or smoke and vanish away, so that nothing is left of it anywhere.11

At this point, Socrates advances his first refutations of view 1 (pure mortality) in favor of view 4. As life and death are opposites and cannot be known except through the other, it seems rational to assume that death produces life. Just as waking produces sleeping, and hot and cold often come about by a transition from the former to the latter, so it would seem that life would follow death in a sort of cyclical pattern. Intelligently, Cebes connects this line of thought with Socrates’s established view that the soul comes into the world at birth with some certain knowledge, and that knowledge and learning come primarily from the recollection of knowledge held prior to one’s birth. If knowledge is shared and carried over from one plane of existence to another, this too would seem to suggest that knowledge—along with life itself—is not hindered, but is actually passed through the inevitable mortal experiences of birth, life, and even death. Socrates says, “If the soul exists before birth, and if when it proceeds towards life and is born it must be born from death or the dead state, surely it must also exist after death, if it must be born again.”12 In short, if the soul existed prior to birth, it is also reasonable to suggest it persists after death.

In the next argument for unconditional immortality, Socrates carefully distinguishes the body and the soul. The former is the material aspect of the human being and the latter is the immaterial aspect. Since the body is that aspect that is material and therefore composite (made of parts and subject to disintegration), the soul must be that aspect of our human nature that is neither material nor composite. The body seems to possess attributes like visibility (tangibility) and variability (mutability). The soul, though, possesses the opposite: invisibility (intangibility) and invariability (immutability). If this is true, then the soul can neither dissipate nor decompose, even when it is set free from the body. At this point, Plato is in tension with a few other philosophers who believed that even the soul was material, though perhaps composed of very “thin” matter (like air, fire, dust, or mist). Yet Plato seems to be onto something here: the soul is much closer to mind or thought, not having any extension in space.

Here, the great philosopher and his companions discuss views often held by eastern or non-revealed religions, views such as reincarnation. Socrates and Cebes both seem to admit the possibility and likelihood of reincarnation, perhaps in the form of “bees, wasps, and ants, or even back into the human race again.”13 The soul will likely persist beyond death, but not necessarily in the same kind or similar body. Note that view 4 usually implies the existence of a heaven and a hell. But not always. Perpetual reincarnation would technically fit into the box of “unconditional immortality,” though it is obviously incompatible with biblical Christianity.

At this point, however, it becomes clear that neither Cebes nor Simmias are entirely persuaded by the foregoing arguments. Though they hesitate to voice their objections given the obvious seriousness of the matter and the personal pertinence of the discussion to Socrates, they do not find themselves convinced. Simmias suggests by way of analogy that a harp or lyre, too, is composed of a physical instrument (the strings) that produces an immaterial sound (the harmony). And yet even the immaterial harmony dissipates over time and grows less and less distinct until it is gone. Could not this be the case for the soul, too? Does this not negate the previous argument related to composition and change? Cebes, too, remains unpersuaded; he posits his own analogy: the body may be like a cloak woven as an outer garment. Perhaps the soul may very well outlast several bodies, but still eventually die out and disintegrate as both the weaver himself and all of his fabric garments certainly would.

With the hour drawing near and the time of death approaching, Socrates now is ready to unveil his last and greatest argument. Here he returns to his classical and most famous theory of the Forms, that all things in this material world reflect greater truths that exceed this world in a perfect and idealized conception. Just as water possesses the Form of wetness, and fire the Form of heat, so too the soul possesses the very Form of Life itself. In fact, the soul is the very best exhibition of the Form of Life in the material world, and therefore it must actually possess it. Since the Forms cannot become their own opposites,14 it must follow that the soul can never die. Socrates seems to place all of the burden of his argument on this point. He says, “The theory that our soul exists even before it enters the body surely stands or falls with the soul’s possession of the ultimate standard of reality [i.e., the Form of Life]—a view which I have, to the best of my belief, fully and rightly accepted.”15 He concludes that since the soul existed prior to birth with the Form of Life, it will certainly exist after death, retaining the same essence.

Modern readers disagree about how convincing Plato’s arguments are here. Some will find themselves in the same position of Cebes and Simmias: doubters wishing they were more convinced. They want to believe but are not sure that Socrates’s (and therefore Plato’s) arguments are persuasive. Interestingly, Socrates’s own view seems to come quite close to a Christian view of immortality at times, but his view diverges significantly when he begins to speak of reincarnation, the afterworld of Tartarus (or hell), Archeron, the Acherusian Lake, the rivers of souls, and other mysteries of the Greek conceptions of the afterlife. All told, Socrates in his dying moments—as recounted by his friend Phaedo, and by extension Plato the writer—places his eternal hope of salvation beyond death in philosophy itself. That is, Socrates hopes that the pursuit of truth and wisdom in this life will sufficiently purify his soul to make way for the best possible afterlife. The future and unconditional immortality of his soul will be “saved” from Tartarus, preserved through his present search for true philosophy, the love of wisdom.

Jonathan Edwards on the immortality of the soul

Jonathan Edwards held to the fourth view, the unconditional immortality of the soul—as did Plato. Obviously, though, his conceptions of the afterlife are distinctly Christian. He believed in heaven and hell and emphatically denied the possibility of postmortem purgation. Moreover, his doctrine of salvation can be described in classical Reformational and Calvinistic language as by grace alone through faith in Jesus Christ. In this, Edwards held the same view of unconditional immortality as did Warfield. For practical purposes, we will consider their views to be one and the same. 16 Though Jonathan Edwards certainly agreed that the soul is immortal, he arrived at his conclusion from a completely different angle than Plato’s. Edwards takes up this matter in a number of his Miscellanies, including nos. gg, 1, 20, 99, 175, 547, and 787, which we will survey below.17

Like Socrates (through the pen of Plato), Edwards does not discuss this topic cooly, as a disinterested and objective theoretician, but as one whose very soul is at stake. In his late teen years and even into his early twenties, Edwards was concerned for the salvation of his own soul, even as he was already beginning the initial duties of his ministry career as a local church pastor. As a more mature minister in his later twenties and beyond, Edwards’s preoccupation with the immortality of the soul was largely directed towards the salvation of his congregation, the subjects of the colonial revivals, and the Stockbridge Native Americans to whom he later preached after his dismissal from Northampton in 1750. We might say that the fourth view, the unconditional immortality of the soul, was his life’s greatest concern and burden. He lived and preached so that immortal souls would be saved and spared from an eternity in hell.

Miscellany gg

In his Miscellanies, Edwards began as early as April 1723, to work through these ideas about the soul’s immortality in writing. These personal journals were designed at the very least for his own conceptual thinking, if not also for preparation for the publisher’s press later on. In the early entry gg, entitled “Religion,” Edwards muses on the “end of creation” or the greatest purpose for which God made the world.18 If God is all-sufficient and need not have created anything at all to retain his own happiness, even intelligent creatures, God must have had an extraordinarily important purpose driving his creation. Figuring out what this purpose (or “end”) is for the creation of the world becomes a major trope, even an obsession, for Edwards throughout many of his writings.19 He developed a theme in this early entry that would capture his heart and mind for many years to come—that “intelligent beings are the end of the creation, that their end must be to behold and admire the doings of God, and magnify him for them, and to contemplate his glories in them.”20 In other words, God created the natural and material world as an inhabitable domain for intelligent creatures who would love, serve, and glorify God with reverent appreciation that is appropriate to God’s infinite glory.

Edwards then adds, “It follows from this that we must be immortal.”

How so?

Because:

The world had as good have been without us, as for us to be a few minutes and then be annihilated—if we are now to own God’s works to his glory, and only glorify him a few minutes, and then be annihilated, and it shall after that be all one to eternity as if we never had been, and be in vain after we are dead that we have been once; and then, after the earth shall be destroyed, it shall be for the future entirely in vain that either the earth or mankind have ever been.21

In other words, if human beings’ souls are to only be destroyed at the end of all things (whether by views 1, 2, or 3 outlined above), their annihilation would be counterproductive to God’s original purposes in having created them in the first place. What good would it be to create a world of intelligent creatures who can only admire and worship God temporarily?

Miscellany 1

In Miscellany 1, entitled “The Immortality of the Soul,”22 Edwards continues the same theme which he began in gg. Here, he uses a very interesting turn of phrase calling mankind, or intelligent beings, “the consciousness of creation.”23 This kind of verbiage probably hasn’t done Edwards any favors in countering the charges that he verges towards panentheism in some places!24 Nevertheless, we take his point: intelligent creatures have the capacity for thought, reason, reflection, worship, gratitude, and, importantly, self-awareness. In this way, only through such intelligent beings does the created universe become aware of its own existence. Intelligence is the mind by which the universe obtains consciousness. If that self-awareness is snuffed out at any point, it defeats the purpose of the world’s existence. For when the world is eventually destroyed, “if its consciousness don’t remain,” then it is also certain that, “it is in vain that ever it has been.”

Miscellany 20

Miscellany 20, also titled “Immortality of the Soul,” is very brief; just two sentences. It repeats the idea that intelligent beings are the “consciousness” of creation, but then it makes a sudden and startling jump to future punishment. Remember that, for Edwards, the fourth view retains the reality of an eternal hell as well as an eternal heaven. If the soul is snuffed out as in annihilation proper (Warfield’s third view), the creature cannot even be self-aware of having received that judgment. “If it be put out [of existence] as a punishment, it can never know that it is punished, never reflect on the justice of God, or anything of that nature.”25 In Edwards’s view, this is a serious problem for advocates of view 3: a punishment that is not comprehended by the subject is no punishment at all. Thus, for God to retain and defend his attribute of Justice, he must punish immortal souls in a way that they are conscious of: they must persist through the ages.

Miscellany 99

Miscellany 99, entitled “Future State,” adds another wrinkle in Edwards’s growing work on the immortality of the soul. He once again begins with the language of the “consciousness of creation,” but this time turns the discussion to the intrinsic worth of the glory of God. As a Being of infinite excellency, God is worthy of eternal praise. God is himself eternal in his nature because of his aseity—neither caused nor contingent—and cannot go out of existence or cease to be. This causes Edwards to draw into his consideration his own doctrine of “proportionality,” that is, the perfect harmony and balance in which all things maintain total symmetry. This necessarily requires an immortal God to be worshipped by creatures that are themselves immortal. Edwards writes,

I cannot think but that, if man was made to love God and delight in him, he was made to do it worthily and proportionately, in a due proportion to the excellency of the object and the capacity of the agent; seeing God doth all things according to the exactest harmony.”26

In other words, God’s own intrinsic worth demands the existence of never-ending worship and unceasing worshippers, lest their cessation of being (in the case of view 1 or 2) or their annihilation (in the case of view 3) be entirely unfitting with their original purpose in the universe.

Miscellany 114

The doctrine of proportionality (that God is worthy of eternal, unending praise) also carries Miscellany 114. Here Edwards supplements the lines of reasoning pursued above by adding,

I cannot think that, seeing that rational beings’ communion with God is the very highest end and only end of the whole universe, that God created man for such communion with him for forty or fifty years, which is so exceedingly defective, poor and miserable.

Time is a poor substitute for eternity if eternity was written into the purpose of man’s existence. To say it another way, God’s unending glory demands the reality of the immortality of the soul and is itself the concrete foundation making it both possible and necessary.

God’s unending glory demands the reality of the immortality of the soul and is itself the concrete foundation making it both possible and necessary.

Edwards believed these truths to be reasonable and discoverable by the human mind. Human beings seem to know that their souls are immortal. And not only does humanity seem to know that it is immortal, but it also longs to be so, desiring immortality with all of its heart. Edwards says,

If man ought so ardently to love God, so vehemently and wholly to delight in God, he ought also with his whole [soul] to love the enjoyment of God, and to desire the continuance of his delight in God; and so with his whole soul to abhor the being deprived of the enjoyment of God, and the discontinuance and end of his delight in God; that is, he ought with his whole soul to abhor annihilation, wherein it must be discontinued. So he ought with his whole soul to desire a future state. This God has made his duty; and if he does love God with his whole soul, [he] will necessarily so desire a future state, and so abhor annihilation, yea, will necessarily dread it, according as he loves God.27

These creatures, awakening to their own purpose in the economy of the created order, therefore desire to give God the praise he is due, even if that desire is somewhat subconscious.

After all, even the pagans and unbelievers worship something! As Calvin had taught, the hearts of human beings are a perpetual idol forge, continually fabricating new things to worship if they do not recognize the greater glory of God in their depravity.28 Man will pursue meaning in happiness, and happiness in purpose. But the thought that he might one day cease to be causes him great distress. Humans dread the possibility of non-being. In fact, the “more perfect and intelligent he is, the more pain will the consideration [of annihilation] give him.” So we loathe the possibility of non-existence. This is why Cebes and Simmias in the Phaedo were so terrified about the possibility that their souls might blow away like the wind, or cease to resound like the sound of the harp, or disintegrate like a woven garment. And this is why Socrates also longed to comfort his friends with the reality of the soul’s continuity after death. These men didn’t understand the gospel, but they certainly recognized their need for it.

Miscellany 175

In Miscellany 175, Edwards considers the doctrine of immortality from the opposite perspective. Some thinkers demand airtight proof that human beings’ souls are immortal. But this is unnecessary. In fact, the skeptic is the one who bears the burden of proof when everything else seems to point towards immortal souls. Where is the proof that they aren’t? In fact, Edwards avers, the better thinkers throughout history have always assumed that eternity is just behind the door of death. He writes,

Let him exercise his reason never so much, he cannot be sure that there is no future state; but the more rational and most virtuous men are most apt to believe it—we find that by experience. God has given us no proofs that there is no future state, and he has placed man in such circumstances that, let him exercise his reason never so well, he will see many arguments for a future state which he cannot get over; and it can be proved by mathematical demonstration, that a probability or possibility of eternal happiness on one hand and misery on the other, is more to be regarded than the certainty of anything that has an end. 29

This assumption that the burden lies on the skeptic has great practical and ethical value, too. All things being equal, it would make more sense to live in such a way that immortality is anticipated rather than the reverse. The odds (or the “mathematical demonstration”) are just too great to ignore. Edwards recognized that “the more rational and most virtuous men are most apt to believe it!” This might even be a tipping of the hand to philosophers like Socrates/Plato (and others throughout the ages) who seemed to reason their way towards the doctrine of immortality, even if they were left totally in the dark as to how their sins might be forgiven through grace in Christ. Though the reasoning capability of the pagan philosophers falls far short of the “divine and supernatural light” required to convert the heart savingly, the fact that such philosophers ascertained the certainty of immortality through reason alone without divine revelation only showed how self-evident the notion truly is.

Miscellany 547

In Miscellany 547, entitled “Christian Religion, God’s End in Creation and Providence, Immortality of the Soul,” Edwards makes a sort of argument from redemption history. Here he structures his proof of immortality upon what again seems to be the purpose of the whole creation. Edwards remarks that history itself seems to be driving toward a particular goal, an endpoint in which its existence is justified and made clear. Here, he seems to be referring to the development of nations, massive events on a global scale, the discovery of new worlds through technology, startling advances of science and medicine, and even the evangelization of the nations and the fulfillment of the Great Commission.30

If each succeeding age or epoch in the “affairs of men” and the “continual progress” of the world gives way to the next, bringing about a more and more clear understanding in each progressive “scheme” or “revolution,” history itself must logically culminate at a certain point in which the driving purpose or function of the universe is finally made known. For Edwards, this seems self-evident, for “perfection will not be obtained till the last revolution when God’s design will be fully reached.”31

Then Edwards pivots and drops two important corollaries, the first of which says,

Hence it may be argued, that the intelligent beings of the world are everlasting, and will remain after the world comes to an end.

This must be so since otherwise the Creator will have derived “no benefit, nor glory, nor honor to God Himself.” The entire exercise of redemption history would have been futile, meaningless, vain. God would have been driving the gears of history towards no particular end, only to have the whole mechanism fall apart in an anticlimactic conclusion, a dispersal of both existence and meaning.

Miscellany 787

In the final Miscellany that we will consider, no. 787, entitled “Future State, Immortality of the Soul,” Edwards makes an argument from the essential oneness of the universe. Edwards remarks that the universe is a diverse whole, with “one architect, one frame.”32

This great cosmos, as has been stressed above repeatedly, is filled by “intelligent inhabitants,” a theme that has emerged ubiquitously in Edwards’s thoughts on immortality. But the fact that these intelligent beings (human beings, and presumably angels as well) have lived in diverse locations and across great periods of time does not seem to adequately display the unity and harmony of the cosmos as a whole. Our souls have been separated by a great number of barriers, including mountains, seas, centuries, and languages. Since millions of such creatures live and die without having ever met—or, in innumerable cases, having even been made aware of one another’s existence—the essential unity of the universe is obscured. He says that “in this respect [we] remain totally and eternally separate”; and this scenario, “don’t appear to me reasonable.” Edwards suggests it cannot be the case that souls will never meet.

But they will remain totally separate, without communication, unless there be such a thing as a transition or translation of the inhabitants from one part of the universe to another.33

Thus there must be a world beyond this world. We must all be brought to a greater state of unity than this present cosmos admits. The redeemed must become one in eternity in such a way that the unity of the cosmos is demonstrated, not denied. And if that is impossible now in this life, it must be made possible then.

Miscellaneous Miscellanies

There are several other Miscellanies in which Edwards argues for the immortality of the soul. In no. 865, he argues that man is the greatest of all the beasts and argues from lesser to greater about humankind’s significance. In no. 897, he argues that evil cannot be left unpunished, nor the good left unrewarded in such a miserable estate as death. In no. 1006, Edwards rehearses several of the above arguments, with a growing pathos in his voice as he struggles to see what possible meaning a universe might have whose highest creatures eventually cease to be. No. 1006 is a rehearsal and summary of all of the preceding arguments.

Rhetorically, Edwards pushes the theological envelope when he writes,

No end is worthy of an infinite God but an infinite end. And therefore the good that is obtained must be of infinite duration. If it be not so, who shall fix the bounds? Who shall say a million years is long enough? … If it be said because, though it existed but a little while, its end was attained, and so it may be thrown by as useless for the future, I ask, what end?34

Edwards compared to Plato

It almost goes without saying that Plato and Edwards disagree about a great number of things. At the risk of stating the obvious, let me name just a few of them.

Divergent epistemologies

First, their respective epistemologies are divergent. The scene that Phaedo recounts is emotionally moving, and Plato’s arguments are incredibly interesting throughout. Socrates (and Plato who voices him in the dialogues) arrives at his conclusions about immortality through reason as well as a great amount of imagination and conjecture. Do the Forms really exist? Plato is sure they do, but not many have followed him in this confidence over the centuries. In my estimation, Plato’s strongest argument is his contention that the soul is immaterial and non-composite, thus persisting through time and space—since it is proper only to matter to disintegrate.

Edwards, by contrast, holding as he does to the great revealed religion of Christianity, defends an epistemological view that he essentially derives from Holy Scripture. Edwards believes what Scripture teaches. Nevertheless, he does not merely “defend the tradition” by rehearsing well-known arguments. He too is fresh and somewhat imaginative; he does not merely cite chapter and verse. But his arguments are biblical through and through. He builds his case with great creativity and genuine light. So Plato’s arguments are derived from pure reason, while Edwards’s are incited by and couched in divine revelation.

The future of the soul

Not only that, but Plato is far less certain about what actually happens to the soul, even while supposing that it persists beyond death. For him, the soul may be reincarnated into an animal. It may be reincarnated into another human being. It may pass into the nebulous world of shadow. It may be subject to the terrors or Tartarus, or even carried through the river of souls for purgation. In the best case scenario, it may even in some way come into communion with the gods. If anything positive happens to the soul, Plato is sure that it will come through the pursuit of philosophy. He even uses the language of holiness.35

Edwards is far more sure that the soul is destined for only one of two possible destinations revealed in Scripture: heaven or hell. He repudiates the Roman Catholic doctrines of purgatory and limbo. In this Warfield and Edwards stand together as heirs of the Protestant, Reformed, and evangelical position, one held dearly by orthodox Christians throughout the centuries.

Christ the firstfruits

By far the greatest difference between Plato and Edwards is the latter’s insistence on the resurrection of the body to accompany the immortal soul. Edwards believed that at a certain point in the future, Christ will resurrect the bodies of the saints, which will rejoin their own same-self souls and inhabit the New Heavens and the New Earth. Edwards’s theology of the resurrection goes far beyond the little space I have left here, but it certainly warrants full exploration by scholars, especially as it is attached to his doctrine of the soul.36

Plato and Edwards are in remarkable agreement that the human being is composed of body (materiality) and soul (immateriality). In this, they are both dualistic. Both hold that the body must die and suffer from the inevitable decay that is intrinsic to matter. Both also hold that the soul is released from the body at the point of death, and that in fact the very definition of “death” seems to be the separation of these two aspects of our being. Both deny the reality of views 1, 2, and 3 in Warfield’s rubric, insisting that there is neither mortality of soul nor annihilation by God, even for the wicked, who—like the good—must persist in another realm somewhere for eternity.

Both Plato and Edwards also stress that the true philosopher (or, in Edwards, Christian) must also prepare his or her soul diligently for death.37 Death must somehow even be “good” in that the state of the soul of holy persons subsequent to death is a blessed state that exceeds even the greatest joys of this life. For Edwards and Warfield—in contradistinction to Plato—the true philosopher is the lover of the One who is himself Wisdom, Jesus Christ.

We can put Plato in the same category as Edwards and Warfield in the most general of terms: all three believed the soul is immortal. Yet Plato’s philosophy, in the end, leaves the soul anxious and uncertain. He gives the reader very little hope. Edwards and Warfield, by contrast, were much more clear: the immortal soul can be saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Herein lies our hope!

Resources for further reading

The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 20: The

The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 20: The “Miscellanies”, 833–1152

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The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 23: The

The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 23: The “Miscellanies”, 1153–1360

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Ethical Writings (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 8 | WJE)

Ethical Writings (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 8 | WJE)

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The “Miscellanies”: Entry Nos. a–z, aa–zz, 1–500 (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 13 | WJE)

The “Miscellanies”: Entry Nos. a–z, aa–zz, 1–500 (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 13 | WJE)

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The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 18: The

The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 18: The “Miscellanies”, 501–832

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Tabletalk Magazine, November 2006: The Lord's Supper

Tabletalk Magazine, November 2006: The Lord’s Supper

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Institutes of the Christian Religion (2 vols.)

Institutes of the Christian Religion (2 vols.)

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  1. In the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, these two characters experienced the unusual occurrence of being transported directly to heaven. In the case of Enoch, we are told that, “Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him” (Gen 5:24). In the case of Elijah, we are told that he was transported to heaven in a whirlwind attended by chariots of fire (2 Kgs 2:11).
  2. See the excellent summary of the positions held by the Greeks in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. “Ancient Theories of Soul.”
  3. Logos carries the entire Yale set of the Works of Jonathan Edwards, including the first, second, third, and fourth volumes of the Miscellanies.
  4. “Annihiliationism,” in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Vol. 9: Studies in Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2000), 447–57.
  5. Warfield, “Annihilationism,” 447.
  6. Warfield, “Annihilationism,” 448.
  7. Roman Catholic theology brings into play the extra-biblical possibilities of “purgatory” and “limbo,” which will not be discussed here. Another small note: the purpose of Warfield’s chapter is not to endorse any form of annihilationism, but merely to define them. As an orthodox Reformed theologian, Warfield eagerly confessed the doctrines of the Westminster Confession of Faith which asserts as clear a statement on unconditional immortality (view 4) as can be found anywhere. See for instance the Westminster Confession of Faith 32:1: “The bodies of men, after death, return to dust, and see corruption;a but their souls (which neither die nor sleep), having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them. The souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies:c and the souls of the wicked are cast into hell, where they remain in torments and utter darkness, reserved to the judgment of the great day.d Besides these two places for souls separated from their bodies, the Scripture acknowledgeth none” (emphasis added).
  8. It is probably worth pausing to recall that the protagonist of the story is Socrates, though the writer is his student, Plato. Were it not for Plato, virtually nothing of Socrates would have survived, since it is in the dialogues that Socrates speaks. Unfortunately, however, Plato’s chosen literary format presents us with the perennial problem of whether we are really listening to the views of Socrates the historic person, of Socrates as the main character in a stylized story, or perhaps of Plato himself as the actual writer and storyteller using Socrates as a mouthpiece. Since I have neither the space or the expertise to decide that question, I will merely assume for the sake of our discussion of greater importance on the soul that the views espoused are those of Plato, the writer. At times, however, I will speak of either Socrates or Plato holding a particular position although again, it is very hard to determine whose view is being offered.
  9. Plato, Phaedo, 116:b, in The Collected Dialogues of Plato Including the Letters, eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961), 96.
  10. Plato, Phaedo, 64:c.
  11. Plato, Phaedo, 70:a
  12. Plato, Phaedo, 77:b.
  13. Plato, Phaedo, 82:b.
  14. For instance, the Form of Justice can never be unjust; the Form of Beauty can never be ugly.
  15. Plato, Phaedo, 92:d.
  16. An assessment of Jonathan Edwards’s theology by B. B. Warfield himself can be found in “Edwards and the New England Theology,” in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Vol. 9: Studies in Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 515–540. Warfield’s assessment of Edwards is largely commendatory. He views Edwards as a faithful adherent to the Reformed and Calvinistic tradition, a brilliant thinker, and a faithful pastor. Warfield does mildly admonish him for his idealism and for coming too near to pantheism in this metaphysics (see Warfield, “Edwards and the New England Theology,” 519–520).
  17. He also discussed the immortality of the soul in Miscellanies 716, 787, 789, 865, 867, 897, 908, 1006, 1016, 1167, 1258, and 1292.
  18. The most important work of Edwards on this topic is The End for Which God Created the Word which is contained in the Ethical Writings volume of the Yale Works as WJE 8:405–536.
  19. See for instance my own work A Theology of Joy: Jonathan Edwards and Eternal Happiness in the Holy Trinity (Pittsburgh, PA: Independent Reformed Media, 2023).
  20. Edwards, WJE 13:185.
  21. Edwards, WJE 13:185.
  22. We recall, of course, that Miscellany 1 is not actually the first one written. Edwards began with Miscellany a and then moved all the way through z in alphabetical sequence. He then went on to aa and then through zz before writing 1 and then retaining a numerical sequence.
  23. Edwards, WJE 13:197.
  24. For some discussion on the views of idealism, occasionalism, and panentheism, see Oliver Crisp, Jonathan Edwards Among the Theologians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 164–82, especially 172–79. Crisp also has an entire chapter on panentheism in his work Jonathan Edwards on God and Creation (Oxford University Press, 212), 138–63.
  25. Edwards, WJE 13:210.
  26. Edwards, WJE 13:268.
  27. Edwards, WJE 13:266.
  28. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.11.8.
  29. Edwards, WJE 13:326.
  30. Of the four main millennial views, Jonathan Edwards was decidedly in the camp of Postmillennialism. This means that Edwards saw history as working slowly but surely towards a culminating age of glory in which the kingdom of Christ is established more and more on the earth in manifest form. Edwards believed that the world would be evangelized successfully, the nations would be largely Christianized, and that the millennial dawn might even begin in America. For this reason, Edwards often speaks of the events of history building towards the eventual glory of an established and manifest kingdom of Christ in redemption history.
  31. Edwards, WJE 18:94.
  32. Edwards, WJE 18:472.
  33. Edwards, WJE 18:472–73.
  34. Edwards, WJE 18:335, emphasis added.
  35. Plato, Phaedo, 114:b.
  36. A starter pack of Miscellanies to explore on this topic would certainly include no. 716, in which Edwards copiously copies ideas into his notebook from Dr. John Tillotson, Lord Archibishop of Canterbury, related to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, the resurrection of all true saints, and the rejoining of the body with the soul in the end of days.
  37. Listen to Socrates speak of the care of the soul here: “But my friends,” he said, “we ought to bear in mind, that, if the soul is immortal, we must care for it, not only in respect to this time, which we call life, but in respect to all time, and if we neglect it, the danger now appears to be terrible. For if death were an escape from everything, it would be a boon to the wicked, for when they die they would be freed from the body and from their wickedness together with their souls. But now, since the soul is seen to be immortal, it cannot escape from evil or be saved in any other way than by becoming as good and wise as possible. For the soul takes with it to the other world nothing but its education and nurture, and these are said to benefit or injure the departed greatly from the very beginning of his journey thither. And so it is said that after death, the tutelary genius of each person, to whom he had been allotted in life, leads him to a place where the dead are gathered together; then they are judged and depart to the other world with the guide whose task it is to conduct thither those who come from this world; and when they have there received their due and remained through the time appointed, another guide brings them back after many long periods of time.” Phaedo, 107:c-d.
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Written by
Matthew Everhard

Matthew Everhard is the senior pastor of Gospel Fellowship PCA, a Reformed Bible-believing church just North of Pittsburgh, PA. He is on the President’s Council at Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary where he is also an adjunct professor. His area of expertise is Jonathan Edwards studies. His latest book is 'Souls: How Jesus Saves Sinners' (2022).

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Written by Matthew Everhard