Saturday, September 22, 2018

Irenaeus vs. The Annihilationists

by Hiram R. Diaz III 

§ I. Introduction 

Among the many church fathers the annihilationists mistakenly claim for themselves, we find not only Athanasius1 but his biggest influence, Irenaeus of Lyons. This is largely due to the presence of words central to the annihilationist doctrine which are also present throughout Irenaeus’ writings. For instance, given that Irenaeus states that “those who, in this brief temporal life, have shown themselves ungrateful to Him who bestowed it, shall justly not receive from Him length of days for ever and ever,”2 annihilationists believe he is denying that the wicked will exist eternally. This coupled with the fact that Irenaeus repeatedly stresses that immortality is conferred upon the righteous provides the annihilationists with a case that is superficially impressive. Yet a comprehensive reading of Irenaeus demonstrates that his understanding of immortality is much different than that of the annihilationists. What is more, a proper understanding of Irenaeus in his historical context reveals that his theological opponents, the Gnostics, were the ones who actually embraced a form of annihilationism that is very similar to that of present day annihilationists. 

The present article, therefore, will mainly deal with secondary scholarly literature as regards several key Irenaen themes pertinent to the question of immortality, and demonstrate that in Irenaeus’ theology the true immortality conferred upon the righteous encompasses the ontological immortality of the body, soul, and spirit, as well as the qualitative immortality acquired only by grace through faith in Christ, via participation in the life of God. 

These key themes are – 

1. Irenaen Anthropology vs. Gnostic Anthropology 
a. The Whole Man as Divine Image [Irenaeus]  
b. The Spirit as Wholly Divine [Gnosticism] 

2. Ontological & Qualitative Psychical Immortality 
a. Universal Ontological Psychical Immortality  
b. Particular Qualitative Psychical Immortality 

3. Universal Ontological Somatic Immortality 
a. Particular Qualitative Somatic Immortality
Once given due explanation, we will then demonstrate that because it is the case that Irenaeus did not hold to the same notion of immortality as held by the annihilationists, arguments that appeal to his numerous statements about immortality being a gift which the righteous only receive from God, are fallacious by virtue of equivocation. It will further be demonstrated that the annihilationists in Irenaeus’ day were actually the Gnostic heretics who affirmed that the lost would be annihilated in the fires of Gehenna, whereas only the righteous would receive any form of ontological immortality.

§ II. Irenaen Anthropology vs. Gnostic Anthropology 

a. The Whole Man as Divine Image [Irenaeus] 

Although Irenaeus affirms the material-immaterial constitution of man, he is not a dichotomist but a trichotomist. As Dai S. Kim explains – 
Irenaeus describes human nature as threefold: consisting of spirit, soul and body. In the fifth book of Against Heresies he strongly emphasizes that man is not only possessed with body and soul but also with the Spirit.3
In contrast to later theologians like Augustine who believed that only man’s soul bears the divine image and likeness,4 Irenaeus believed that “the whole man – body, soul, and spirit – is made in the likeness of God.”5 It is only those who are whole with respect to body, soul, and spirit that are properly considered men. Kim puts the matter emphatically, stating – 
Man…cannot be a complete being without his spirit, because a personal relationship with God cannot be excluded from human nature, and this relationship is identical with fully realized human existence. Irenaeus equates the likeness of God with the Spirit to lay stress on the fact that man has to grow through the Spirit of God; without this growth man cannot be a man in a true sense. Man can be fully man only in relation to the Spirit.6
Further adding that, 
The full realization of Imago Dei is found only in the man whose likeness is restored in Christ, that is, man in redemption. Then man's nature as such does not exist in alienation from God; it is only in relation with God that the full meaning of man’s existence can be found.7
b. The Spirit as Wholly Divine [Gnosticism] 

Significantly, Irenaeus’ doctrine of man stood in explicit contrast to the false anthropology of his Gnostic opponents who, according to Stephen Presley, believed that “the corporeal aspect of man is intrinsically corrupt.”8 “Not only is human physicality corrupt,” for the Gnostics, “but the entire cosmos as well.”9 This is because “Gnostic dualism,” as George H. Van Kooten informs, “viewed the cosmos as...the product of an inferior malevolent or ignorant creator-god.”10

Thus, while it is the case that Irenaeus and the Gnostics “taught [that] man is flesh, soul, and spirit,”11 Kim clarifies that 
...there is a basic difference between the Gnostic triad and that of Irenaeus. The Gnostic triad, flesh, soul, and spirit is made to emphasize that it is only spirit that belongs to the extra-mundane. (According to the Gnostics, reduced to ultimate principles, man’s origin is twofold: mundane and extra-mundane). In the Gnostic system, the unity of man in Irenaeus’ sense has been broken asunder, because the Gnostic man stands in a desperate conflict between spirit and flesh.12
Whereas Irenaeus believed that the whole man is the image of God, Gnostics believed that the spirit was wholly divine. Eric Osborn observes that the Gnostics held that 
The soul is in prison in the body and will not be released until it has paid the last committing every impiety. Those who have consummated all sins break the cycle of transmigration and soar to angelic bliss. This is a negation of humanity, of natural law, of any boundary between God and man. The Gnostic ‘total man’ accomplishes all in one parousia: he lacks nothing, absorbing all difference in himself. The body is irrelevant, a relic of the evil demiurge.13
The body could not be considered to be the image of God, either wholly or in part, seeing as it was the faulty production of an ignorant demiurge. Accordingly, the Gnostics believed it to be a “restrictive grip” that needed to be discarded of by death.14 Through death, the pneumatic soul would “ascend as immortal and imperishable to [its] heavenly home.”15

§ III. Ontological & Qualitative Psychical Immortality 

a. Universal Ontological Psychical Immortality 

Irenaeus taught that the soul is not naturally immortal, for immortality must be conferred upon it by God. However, this does not mean that he denied the soul is, in some sense, immortal. Rather, as Matthew C. Steenberg notes – 
...Irenaeus specifies that while the body may come to participate in immortality through the grace of God, this is a gift of transformation of the natural character of the flesh, while the immortality of the soul is inherent in its essence.16
Steenberg further explains that the soul “defined as properly incorporeal and immortal, cannot be the object of the ‘resurrection from the dead,’ given that death is not an event applicable to the immortal force in man.”17 Thus, Apostolos N. Andritsopoulos observes that “according to Irenaeus, God made man immortal, the distinguishing quality of the divine nature being its superiority to death.”18

b. Particular Qualitative Psychical Immortality 

Nevertheless, says Behr, “Irenaeus never describes this continuance, nor that of the damned in eternal fire, as immortality.”19 The life/death and immortality/mortality dichotomies in Irenaeus’ theology are much more complex than those that are found in the writings of the annihilationists. Unlike the annihilationists, who apparently believe that life and death, as well as immortality and mortality, can only be understood as mutually exclusive terms, Irenaeus taught that “it is possible for the soul to endure without life, just as it is possible, conversely, for the naturally corruptible body to participate in life, immortality, and incorruptibility.”20

This is because for Irenaeus “both life and death receive more meaning than mere existence and non-existence.”21 He understands true life to encompass bodily, psychical, and spiritual aspects of the “unitary”22 image of God in man. Consequently, if a psychosomatically “animated” man does not simultaneously possess spiritual life (i.e. if he is not a regenerate man), he is not truly alive. Life outside of an “obedient and filial relationship with the Father”23 through Christ is more appropriately identified as death, for as Vassilios Bebis likewise observes, in Irenaeus’ theology “obedience to God is identified with life as the possession of the Spirit while disobedience is identified with sin and death.”24

Irenaeus’ doctrine of man does not deny that the soul of man will endure forever given (a.)its ontological simplicity, and (b.)its creational union with the Logos in whose image it has been created. Rather, it denies that the soul will endure forever because, as the Gnostics falsely taught, “within [it] is to be found the spirit (pneuma), a part of the divine substance from the spiritual realm fallen into the world.”25 James G. Bushur restates Irenaeus’ position very clearly, writing – 
The substance of creation has no independent existence. Even the soul is not immortal due to its own separate nature; rather, its life arises from its communion with the almighty will of God...Humanity shares a common beginning with all creation. All creation enjoys a common fellowship with the divine will, which gives life, light, and every good gift. 
However, in the creation of Adam, Irenaeus sees an indication that God‘s relationship to humanity is more intimate and personal...Irenaeus interprets the creation of the human race as an intimate and deeply personal act of God. The plural pronouns of Genesis 1:26 are interpreted in reference to the Word and the Spirit. In a similar way, the “hands of God” and the “breath of life” reveal the personal communion between God and humanity. In this communion, the divine plan to create humankind in the “image and likeness of God” reaches its perfection.26
Bushur further notes that while “in creation, human flesh and blood are capable of receiving a personal communion with God,”27 it is only in Christ that this personal communion is realized. Bushur – Christ, human flesh and blood actually participate in the divine life, and the divine Logos actually participates in human weakness. In other words, In Christ, there is both a real incarnation of God and a real deification of the human creature. This means that, in Christ, there is no boundary preventing God from communicating himself to his creatures and no boundary preventing humankind from giving himself to God.28
John Behr concurs, stating – 
As Adam became a psychical being, flesh animated by the breath of life given from God, so too, by the imparting of the Holy Spirit, do Christians become spiritual beings, flesh vivified by the Spirit. Nevertheless, what they have received by being adopted and sealed...with the Spirit is but a ‘pledge’ of what is promised to them for when they are raised to see God ‘face to face’ and to receive the full grace of the Spirit.2 
It is...mistaken to equate the pre-lapsarian life of Adam with the life of the Spirit manifested by Christ. That they should be regarded as different modalities of life is demanded by, first, Genesis 2: 7, which speaks only of the first man becoming a ‘living soul’...second, the apostle Paul, who specifies that it is the last Adam who became a life-creating contrast to the first Adam who was a ‘living soul’ (1 Cor. 15:45–6); third, the whole movement of Irenaeus’s theology of the economy, which moves from ‘animation’ to ‘vivification’: as Adam was animated by the breath of life, so Christ was vivified by the Spirit, as also will be those who, as adopted sons in him, presently have the pledge of the Spirit.30
Apart from a new relationship with God by faith in Christ, as vivified by the Holy Spirit, men remain incomplete, dead, lifeless, without immortality, and without true being. Nevertheless, they remain in existence, for “man’s life, from the first breath to the last vivification by the Spirit, is a participation, in different modalities, in the very life of God.”31 As Irenaeus himself explains, 
For since there are real men..., so must there also be a real plantation..., that they vanish not away among non-existent things..., but progress among those which have an actual existence. For neither is the substance nor the essence...of the creation annihilated (for faithful and true is he who has established it), but “the fashion...of the world passes away,” that is, those things among which transgression has occurred, since man has grown them. And therefore this fashion...has been formed temporary..., God foreknowing all things; as I have pointed out in the preceding book, and have also shown, as far as was possible, the cause of the creation of this world of temporal things...But when this fashion...passes away, and man has been renewed..., and an incorruptible state, so as to preclude the possibility of becoming old, there shall be the new heaven and the new earth, in which the new man shall remain..., always holding fresh converse with God...32 
Hence, Kim correctly concludes that “the fate of those on whom God's judgment is inflicted is not annihilation but eternal separation from God.”33

True immortality is that which applies to the body and the soul and the spirit. A man who is only ontologically immortal does not truly possess immortality. Salvation, the means whereby men can become immortal, in other words, is not solely ontological, but qualitative as well. Kim observes – 
If death was the result of man's Fall, it is natural to speak of the salvation in terms of the victory over mortality. However, if this notion leads us to say that sin does not receive its due attention in the thought of Irenaeus, it is quite misleading. This point becomes self-evident as we examine the interrelatedness of sin and death.  
Irenaeus' concept of sin and death points to man's defeat as "ethical" as well as "physical." In fact, it is characteristic of Irenaeus to relate the ethical and physical defeat in such a way that they cannot be separated. If the Devil brought death to man under the pretext of immortality, man's defeat is physical. If it is man's disobedience (sin) that allowed death, man's defeat becomes ethical. The proof that defeat is ethical is found in the passages where Irenaeus describes Adam after the Fall as being penitent without any sense of physical affliction. Then death is the direct outcome of sin, and we see that the logical interrelatedness of sin and death in obvious.34
The distinction between ontological and qualitative immortality is not only very clearly taught throughout the writings of Irenaeus, it is also found in non-Christian sources contemporaneous with him. Concerning Irenaeus’ understanding of the qualitative immortality which only believers in Christ possess, therefore, Ben C. Blackwell writes – 
...divine immortality [in sources contemporaneous with Irenaeus] does not necessarily entail a corresponding ontology...because immortality could be social [i.e. qualitative] as well as ontological. For instance,...when early Greek poetry honoured its heroes, this ‘immortality’ had nothing to do with ontology. Similarly, Wisdom argues that the righteous will be immortal because they are remembered by the community (Wis 3-4, esp. 4.1, 7-9, 18-19). As such, social immortality mediated through honour, fame, and remembrance continued to play a role in the Hellenistic honour-shame culture. 
When we consider the imperial cult, the second characteristic related to deity comes to the fore...the cult had little to do with affirmations about ontology; rather, the ascribed divinity was more about relative status that stemmed from their power. The cult thus immortalised the emperors by recognising their power...this is a recognition of their ability to bring order out of chaos... 
Irenaeus appears to draw from this conceptuality of immortality and power as characterising deity. For instance, with his quotation of Wis 6.19 in 4.38.3 (‘Incorruption brings one near to God...’), he makes his association between incorruption/immortality and divinity clear. At the same time, in 4.11.2 we remember how Irenaeus distinguishes between God and humanity: God makes, humanity is made. Thus, with his use of immortality language Irenaeus shows that believers are drawn into a divine manner [i.e. quality] of being, but the difference from creation shows the difference between humanity and the divine. Returning to 3.19.1, his identification of believers as ‘gods’ due to their experience of immortality indicates that he is probably working with this Greek taxonomy in mind.35
Irenaeus’ doctrine stands in contradiction to the Gnostics, who explicitly believed and taught that those who possess psychosomatic life only will put out existence in the fires of Gehenna, for “the gnostic redemptive figure draws only the pneumatics toward immortality, while those resurrected as fleshy and psychic face annihilation.”36 Thus Valentinus’ disciple Heracleon, in his commentary on the Gospel of John, writes – 
Soul and body are destroyed in Gehenna. [Footnote: See Matthew 10:28] The soul is not immortal but only has a disposition to salvation. It is the perishable that robes itself in imperishability, and the mortal that robes itself in immortality, when its death was swallowed in victory. [Footnote: See 1 Corinthians 15:53-55]37
For the Gnostics, it was not merely the case that the body would be annihilated, then, but the bodies and souls of all who are not pneumatics (i.e. those with the “divine spark,” “spirit,” or “nous”) would be obliterated in the fires of the second death. 

§ IV. Universal Ontological Somatic Immortality

Following Scripture, Irenaeus taught that the Logos of God came to abolish the physical and ethical results of man’s fall into sin. Having been created by the Logos and in his image, as noted above, it is the case that all men share a creational union with God. This creational union is brought to its completion in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ for every single human being. As Trevor A. Hart writes, 
For Irenaeus...the union of humanity with divinity is achieved precisely in this vital co-existence in the person of the Son of God, wrought through his condescension in assuming our nature, and in that fulfilling of ‘all the conditions of human nature’ which led him ultimately to the cross. In the dynamics of this one man’s ‘nature’ the salvation of mankind was effected, ‘attaching man to God by his own incarnation, and bestowing on us at his coming immortality durably and truly, by means of communion (communionem) with God.’ It is in this establishing of man in his proper relationship for communion with God, therefore, that the communication of immortality consists, life itself being defined in terms of this fellowship, and death or non-existence in terms of its absence. Thus this ‘union’ is in itself a reconciliatory one, Christ having taken on our flesh in order to redeem it from its pitiful state, ‘reconciling us to himself by the body of his own flesh’, and ‘effecting by means of himself that communion which should be held with [humanity]’ such that we may say that he has saved it in his own person.38
Christ has fulfilled “all the conditions of human nature,” notes Hart, even death. Thus, by uniting all humanity to himself in his life, death, burial, and resurrection Christ abolished death for all men. Andritsopoulos – 
Since by the fall of man the whole human race was lost, the Son of God had to become man in order to effect as such the re-creation of mankind...By this recapitulation of the original man, not only Adam personally, but the whole human race was renovated and restored…Everything is reversed and also the evil effects of the disobedience of the first Adam are destroyed.39 
 Salvation is conceived of as being universal in its scope, rendering all men physically immortal. Kim concurs, stating for Irenaeus “the newness which Christ brought was universal and all inclusive...Thus the ‘summing up’ of Christ goes back to Adam and includes all his descendants.”40 

 a. Particular Qualitative Somatic Immortality 

Yet this does not mean that Irenaeus was a true universalist, for by placing emphasis on the free choice of man to either enter into communion with God through faith in his Son, or to remain in unbelief and rebellion, Irenaeus avoided embracing a true universalism in which all men are rendered qualitatively immortal in body, soul, and spirit. While the effects of the work of Christ are universal as regards the psychosomatic existence of man, and while these are applied universally apart from man’s choice in the matter, the moral-spiritual effects of the work of Christ can only be appropriated by the freewill exercise of faith, displayed by a life of obedience to God subsequently lived by faith in Christ, as empowered by the Holy Spirit. 

Behr’s explanation here is helpful – 
The meaning of the term ‘judgement’ [in Irenaeus’ eschatology] is separation, and, as everyone has been created with free will and understanding, the choice whether to join the just or the judged rests with them, not with God who ‘makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good’...It is, therefore, not the light that has blinded the judged, but rather that they have preferred the darkness, and so God’s ‘judgement’ is an acknowledgement of their own freely chosen separation: ‘he inflicts that separation from himself which they have chosen of their own accord...’41
Note that we are not merely speaking of the soul’s separation from the qualitative immortality of which Irenaeus clearly speaks, but the body as well. Through communion with God, the bodies of the saints also become further perfected as partakers in the divine nature. More to the point, Irenaeus’ doctrine of the work of Christ as regards the bodies of all men is twofold. All bodies will exist forever, for all men will exist forever; however, not all bodies will become further perfected in the likeness of the Son of God, i.e. beyond sharing an ontological immortality with him. It is only the righteous whose bodies will likewise share in the qualitative immortality of the Son of God. 

§ V. Conclusion 

The complexity of Irenaeus’ theology requires much patience to learn, digest, and parse out systematically. As this article has shown, the doctrine of immortality present in his theology exemplifies how this is the case. Rather than teaching that life and death, and by extension immortality and mortality, are solely related to man’s existence or non-existence, Irenaeus differentiated between the ontological immortality of the soul (given its simplicity), the qualitative immortality of the soul (granting that it chooses to trust in Christ and follow him), the ontological immortality of the body (given its creational and redemptive union with the Second Adam, the Lord Jesus Christ), and the qualitative immortality of the body (dependent upon the redeemed sinner’s choice to trust in Christ and walk in obedience to him). Moreover, Irenaeus differentiated between true life (which is obedience to God) and the living death of remaining the darkness of sin, in separation from God’s paternal love and spiritual life. The bishop’s theology allows for the work of Christ to be universal in scope, but only particularly realized in those who trust in him and follow him. 

This also allowed him to affirm the goodness of God as Creator, the grace of God as the sustainer of all of his material creation through transformation (to be fully realized at the return of Christ). And this truly set his theology in complete opposition to that of the Gnostics. For whereas Irenaeus taught that Christ saved all men, psychosomatically, and only those who refused to appropriate true life, i.e. obedience to God and participation in the divine life, would be punished eternally, the Gnostics clearly taught that the unsaved, i.e. the psychosomatic humans lacking the spirit/divine spark/nous, would be annihilated. Like contemporary annihilationists, they believed that ontological immortality was solely the possession of those who had been saved. 

Contemporary annihilationists, therefore, not only anachronistically read into Irenaeus’ language ideas that he did not hold – they attribute to his words ideas that his very enemies were presenting in opposition to the faith once for all delivered to the saints. Arguments attempting to prove that Irenaeus was an annihilationist simply because he affirmed that only those in Christ are the recipients of immortality and life are, consequently, dependent upon the fallacy of equivocation and do not in any way support the ahistorical idea that Irenaeus was an annihilationist. 

For Irenaeus was not merely not an annihilationist, he was actively opposed to the annihilationists of his day.

1 Regarding the annihilationists’ error of interpreting Athanasius to be an annihilationist, see Diaz, Hiram R. Athanasius, Ontology, and the Work of Christ (Lewiston: Scripturalist Publications, 2018), 100. 
2 Against Heresies, 2.34.3, New Advent,, accessed September 13, 2018. 
3 “The Doctrine of Man in Irenaeus of Lyons,” (PhD diss., Boston University, 1969), 88.
4 For more on Augustine’s understanding of the soul as the bearer of the divine image and likeness, see Drever, Matthew. “Redeeming Creation: Creation Ex Nihilo and the Imago Dei in Augustine,” in International Journal of Systematic Theology Volume 15 Number 2 (April 2013), 135-153. 
5 The Doctrine of Man in Irenaeus of Lyons, 93. 
6 ibid., 106-107. (emphasis added) 
7 ibid., 107-108. (emphasis added) 
8 “Irenaeus and the Gnostics on 1 Corinthians 15:53-54,” Bible.Org,, Accessed September 14, 2018. 
9 ibid.
10 The Routledge Companion to Early Christian Thought, Ed. D. Jeffrey Bing (New York: Routledge, 2010), 20. 
11 ibid., 29. 
12 The Doctrine of Man in Irenaeus of Lyons, 104. (emphasis added)
13 Irenaeus of Lyons (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 252. 
14 Irenaeus and the Gnostics on 1 Corinthians 15:53-54. 
15 ibid.
16 Irenaeus on Creation: The Cosmic Christ and the Saga of Redemption (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 130. 
17 Of God and Man: Theology as Anthropology from Irenaeus to Athanasius (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 39. (emphasis added) 
18 “The Doctrine of the Recapitulation in the Theology of Irenaeus of Lyons,” (Master’s Theses, Western Michigan University, 1971), 9. (emphasis added) 
19 ibid., 5. 
20 ibid. (emphasis added) 
21 The Doctrine of Man in Irenaeus of Lyons, 323. 
22 Purves, James G.M. "The Spirit and the Imago Dei: Reviewing the Anthropology of Irenaeus of Lyons," in The Evangelical Quarterly 68 (1996), 107. 
23 Of God and Man: Theology as Anthropology, 38. 
24 “The Pneumatology of St Irenaeus of Lyons,” (PhD diss., North-West University, 2010), 75. 
25 Drane, John W. “Gnosticism and the New Testament” in Bulletin of the Theological Students Fellowship 68/69 (Spring 1974), 7. 
26 “Joining the End to the Beginning Divine Providence and the Interpretation of Scripture in the Teaching of Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons,” (PhD diss., Durham University, 2010), 116-117. 
27 Joining the End to the Beginning, 117. 
28 ibid., 117. 
29 Asceticism and Anthropology in Irenaeus of Lyons and Clement (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 75-76. 
30 ibid., 95. (emphasis added) 
31 ibid., 127. 
32 Quoted in Bushur, Joining the End to the Beginning, 158. (emphasis added) 
33 The Doctrine of Man in Irenaeus of Lyons, 273. 
34 ibid., 161-162. 
35 Christosis: Pauline Soteriology in Light of Deification in Irenaeus and Cyril of Alexandria, (Tubingen: Mohr Seibeck, 2011), 47-48. (emphasis added) 
36 Irenaeus and the Gnostics on 1 Corinthians 15:53-54. (emphasis added) 
37 The Gnostic Bible: Gnostic Texts of Mystical Wisdom from the Ancient and Medieval Worlds Eds. William Barstone & Marvin Meyer (Boston, London: Shambala, 2003), 323. (emphasis added) 
38 Christ in Our Place: The Humanity of God in Christ for the Reconciliation of the World, Eds. Trevor Hart & Daniel Thimell (Eugene: Pickwick, 1989), 169. 
39 The Doctrine of the Recapitulation, 13-14. (emphasis added) 
40 The Doctrine of Man In Irenaeus, 287. (emphasis added) 
41 Irenaeus of Lyons: Identifying Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 182.