Early Anabaptism’s View of Death and the Soul

This post is part of a MennoNerds Synchro-Blog on the topic of Death, Loss, Pain and Grief, July 14-30, 2013. Check out our page on MennoNerds.com to see all the other posts in this series.

There was a range of attitudes on death and the soul within Anabaptism during the 16th century. Balthasar Hübmaier (1480?-1528) and later Menno Simons (1496-1561) both articulated what parallel or resembles present-day thought on the matter. However when one looks at the progenitors of the movement specifically Michael Sattler (d. 1527) you see something atypical.

The difference is that it “appears that Sattler came to hold the doctrine of psychopannychism, or sleep of the soul, rather than the traditional Catholic view.”[1] Thomas Finger tells us that Zwingli continuously asserted that the early Anabaptists taught, “at death souls do not immediately enter heaven, purgatory or somewhere worse but “sleep” until the resurrection of whole persons (body and soul) at Christ’s return.”[2] We also see that during the 1550s many “who became Anabaptists also believed that the soul is not naturally immortal but “sleeps” between death and the final resurrection. Some affirmed, further, that only the righteous would be resurrected, while the unrighteous would simply remain dead. Many denied hell. The Venice Synod affirmed soul sleep and rejected hell.”[3]

This should not be a foreign view because the doctrine of soul sleep was “widely held in the sixteenth century by…diverse figures…and for a while, Martin Luther.”[4] Thus, Sattler and other Anabaptists were not by themselves in teaching this view of death.

However, what evidence is there that Sattler actually taught this? Did he believe in soul sleep? The answers are found in his letter “To the Church of God at Horb”. Here he brings into focus his thought on the nature of death and what Christians are to expect following. In a similar fashion as Paul in his second communication to his spiritual protégé, Timothy Sattler wrote:

In short, beloved brethren and sisters this letter shall be a farewell to all of you who truly love and follow God (others I do not know); and also a testimony of my love which God has given into my heart towards you, for the sake of your salvation. I did indeed desire, and it would have been profitable, I trust, if I had labored a little while longer in the work of the Lord; but it is better for me, to be released, and to await with Christ the hope of the blessed.[5]

Now the question arises what did he mean by “released, and to await with Christ the hope of the blessed”? This is answered by reading a bit further.

Finally, beloved brethren and sisters, sanctify yourselves for Him that has made you holy, and hear what Esdras says, “Look for your Shepherd; he shall give you everlasting rest; for he is nigh at hand, that shall come in the end of the world. Be ready to the reward of the kingdom. . . .Flee the shadow of this world. . . .Arise up and stand, behold the number of those that be sealed in the feast of the Lord; which are departed from the shadow of the world, and have received glorious garments of the Lora. . . .and  shut up those of thine that are clothed in white, which have fulfilled the law of the Lord. The number of thy children whom thou longedst for, is fulfilled. . . .I Esdras saw upon the mount Sion a great people; whom I could not number, and they all praised the Lord with songs. And in the midst of them there was a young man of a high stature, taller than all the rest, and upon everyone of their heads he set crowns, and was more exalted; which I marveled at greatly. So I asked the angel, and said, Sir, what are these? He answered and said unto me, These be they that have put off the mortal clothing, and put on the immortal, and have confessed the name of God: now are they crowned, and receive palms. Then said I unto the angel, What young person is it that crowneth them, and giveth them palms in their hands? So he answered and said unto me, It is the Son of God, whom they have confessed in the world. Then began I greatly to commend them that stood so stiffly for the name of the Lord.” II Esdras 2:34-36, 38-47; Rev. 19:12; Matt. 13:43[6]

These words tells us that Sattler believed that upon death, one would wait with Christ within the confines of “everlasting rest” and then at the culmination of the age the righteous will receive an eternal means of existence. Some argue that Sattler recanted this position for shortly after the above-mentioned epistle was written he underwent martyrdom and he was recorded as mimicking his Lord in saying “Father, into thy hands I commend my soul!”[7]

Do Michael Sattler’s final words articulate a recantation of his apparent belief in soul sleep? Not necessarily to go further we must present a clearer definition of soul sleep.

When addressing Martin Luther’s articulation of the doctrine which typifies its characteristics Mark Johnston in Surviving Death explains, “Luther…favored a doctrine of soul-sleeping or “Psychopannychism” as it came to be called after Calvin attacked it, the doctrine that the soul is in a state of sleep or suspended mental life in the interregnum between death and the final judgment.”[8]

This concept is codified in Ecclesiastes 9:5-6:

“For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten. Indeed their love, their hate and their zeal have already perished, and they will no longer have a share in all that is done under the sun”.

In other words, the soul is inert during death; the sleep qualification is a biblical metaphor for death and during this period of inactivity, in addition to this the soul is present in the memory of God (Cf. John 11:1-15; Luke 20:38). There is a parallel concept that is generally mistaken for soul sleep that is informally regarded as ‘soul annihilation’ that is a form of thnetopsychism. Thnetopsychism teaches when the physical body expires, the soul also expires, and that both are to be called back to life at the Day of Judgment. With soul annihilation the human organism and the soul is the same and when the body ceases to function, culminating in cell death nothing subsists.

What is the soul and is there true dissimilarity between soul sleep and soul annihilationism? For the most part a distinction does not exist because they both convey the idea that there is torpidity on the part of the individual following death that is no conscious activity at all. They are dead in the complete sense of the term and just like those that hold to soul sleep, they are only in the memory of God.

In light of this the remainder of the post will be working from the perspective of the individual consciously speaking is uncomprehending from the time of death to resurrection (if found worthy) because upon their demise nothing remains of them that lives on in any form.

Contemporary neuroscience also adds its voice to the matter by declaring there is no soul in the area of study called materialism or more specifically nonreductive physicalism. During medieval times, the concept of the soul served as a means to account for certain qualities inherent within humanity or you can identify them as human’s higher competencies. These capacities “include a sort of rationality that goes beyond that of animals, as well as morality and a relationship with God.”[9]

Oddly enough, both dualists as well as reductionists use this argument to maintain their position. Dualists say that we cannot have a relationship with God without a soul and the “reductive view would…say that if there is no soul then people must not be truly rational, moral or religious…rationality, morality, and relationship with God is really nothing but brain processes.”[10] Whereas the “nonreductive physicalist says instead that if there is no soul then these higher human capacities must be explained in a different manner. In part they are explainable as brain functions, but their full explanation requires attention to human social relations, to cultural factors, and, most importantly, to our relationship with God.”[11] Nonreductive physicalism deserves more time as my next point but the parameters of this blog post will not allow this however I recommend that everyone look further into the matter.[12]

What do the scriptures say regarding the soul?

The Hebrew term ‘nephesh’ literally means “a soul”, “living being”, and “person” in addition to some other delimitation that will be touched on briefly. Out of the 755 times, נפש (nephesh) appear in the Bible the King James Version render 100 times as “life”.

Genesis 2:7 demonstrates that man is constituted of the breath of life and the chemical components that comprise our physical bodies. When these components are conjoined, a soul or נפש (nephesh) is brought forth. A soul is a unit of life each distinct in the sense that every person is different beyond physical and physiological characteristics that is common among all members of humanity. The Greek equivalent is ψυχή (psuché); it conveys the same meanings as נפש (nephesh).

In view of the fact that a soul is a person it is employed at times in an idiomatic fashion thus, we see statements such as ‘my soul’, ‘his soul’ and so forth. What this translates to is נפש (nephesh) can be used in place of personal pronouns such as ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘you’ (See Genesis 12:13).

When we automatically see soul in English translations, the word carries with it a lot of traditional baggage. Yet when we look at נפש (nephesh) and the meanings it naturally conveys something mortal akin to its basic meaning of a person, being, something that lives and even dies (Ezekiel 18:4).

It can also designate concepts such as “desire”, “passion”, “appetite”, and “emotion” because all of these things communicate existence or aspects of existence. As mentioned, this is an in-depth topic and given the translators, theological preference it is difficult to grasp within the context of English translations of the Bible but a simple comparison of older translations with contemporary ones will shed light. This study is worthwhile since it will clear of traditional misunderstandings concerning the subject.[13]  Following an inductive study of the uses of נפש (nephesh) in the Old Testament in which the findings corroborates what has been stated here and more the Journal of Biblical Literature volume 16 states, “If this inductive study is correct in its results, it is evident that some of the current statements as to Biblical psychology are wrong. Readers of the Bible will have to be exceedingly careful lest they go astray from the Biblical usage when they follow the ordinary renderings of נפש in our English Bibles. Soul in English usage at the present time conveys usually a very different meaning from נפש in Hebrew, and it is easy for the incautious reader to misinterpret.”[14]

       Application of the Original Anabaptist View

As mentioned the physical organism plus the life force or spirit makes a living soul. The relationship established with God is not dependent on a soul but with God and the entire person. The relationship is holistic in nature. The Spirit of God present in the believer establishes the connection. Romans 8:14-17 according to the New Living Translation testifies:

“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.”

The Holy Spirit is the link and leads us to carry out the will of the Father, and it is our relationship with Him that creates the memorial in the mind of God that functions as the templates for our resurrected bodies making us once again a living soul.

Ministry becomes incarnational, in place of focusing on satisfying spiritual requirements resulting in the salvation of the immaterial soul that is what will live on upon the termination of material existence as found in traditional thought. A transformed hands-on radical means of service is found on the part of the minister. No longer will the desires of the evangelist and minister focus on solely redeeming what they have been taught is the nucleus of the person the true individual that dwells within the material casing that is known as a body. They will seek out to satisfy the entirety of the person, their physical and spiritual needs. We see this exemplified in the ministry of Jesus, the Apostles and the early disciples. They not only met the spiritual needs of those they preached the gospel to but they also satisfied their physical needs as well, manifested in healings and physical nourishment.[15] In Matthew 25:31-40 Jesus prophesied:

“But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left. “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’”

A popular interpretation of this passage focuses on Jesus’ emphasis on the gratification of the individual’s corporeal needs, namely food, clothing and companionship. In addition, it is noteworthy that he makes it clear that these things have salvific connotations.

Many forgo the physical realm because it has been taught that the inner immaterial aspect is more important because all things material will be done away and an ethereal existence remains. Still, a holistic approach to life and faith harmonizes with the natural order of things designed by God. Our physical well-being affects our mental and spiritual life. All these areas must be balanced equally. If the physical health of a person is bad, all other areas will suffer. Prayer and religious activities contribute to better mental and physical health. In addition, diet affects mental health, the intake of certain foods can affect mood, behavior and brain function.

In the end, the physicalist position (soul sleep or soul annihilation) assists one in being a better adherent to the Christian faith. While 16th century Anabaptists such as Michael Sattler did not have any knowledge, of contemporary neural science they did tirelessly scour the scriptures and discovered the truth concerning biblical anthropology and it is apparent that they realized that relationships in the present has eternal benefits.


[1] C. Arnold Snyder, The Life and Thought of Michael Sattler (Scottdale, Penn: Herald Press, 1984), 130

[2] Thomas N. Finger, A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology: Biblical, Historical, Constructive (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 518

[3] Ibid., 42

[4] Rodney L. Petersen, and George Huntston Williams. The Contentious Triangle: Church, State, and University : a Festschrift in Honor of Professor George Huntston Williams (Kirksville: Thomas Jefferson Univ. Press, Truman State Univ, 1999), 33

[6] Ibid.

[7] John Howard Yoder and Michael Sattler, The Legacy of Michael Sattler (Scottdale, Pa: Herald Press, 1973), 78

[8] Mark Johnston, Surviving Death (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 23

[9] Nancey C. Murphy, Bodies and Souls, or Spirited Bodies? (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 69

[10] Ibid., 69-70

[11] Ibid., 70

[14] Charles A. Briggs, “The Use of נֶפֶש in the Old Testament”, Journal of Biblical Literature 16 (1897), 30

[15] Cf. Matthew 8:16-17; Mark 6:30-44; 8:1-13; Acts of the Apostles 3:7-11; 5:12-16; 9:17-18; 28:8-9

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2 thoughts on “Early Anabaptism’s View of Death and the Soul

  1. Thanks, AO Green, I appreciate the research in this post and the introduction to a topic that interests me in the present, since my mission is to prepare for the hour of my death, one good day at a time. As an Anabaptist, I want to be informed of what my spiritual heritage consists.

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