The Demise of Immortality

I. Immortality—Going the Way of Miracles
  • Stephen Paul Foster
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives Internationales D’histoire des Idées book series (ARCH, volume 154)


The promise of personal immortality is Christianity’s spiritual font of hope and inspiration. By Gibbon’s own account the assurance of it greatly energized the Christians in their early battles against paganism. The reward of heaven and the threat of hell were also powerful proselytizing tools—instrumental in subverting the traditional pagan religions. The doctrine of personal immortality in the Decline and Fall’s history of Christianity is subject to a skeptical, caustic treatment similar to the account of miracles. Like Hume, Gibbon viewed the entire notion as a speculative matter about which nothing can be known. Gibbon was also unremittingly critical of how belief in immortality affects the conduct of believers, and he linked belief in immortality, as he did with belief in miracles, closely to fanaticism and superstition. Both miracles and the hope for immortality were casualties of the philosophic historian’s critique of Christianity. Hume attacked the notions philosophically: Gibbon disparaged them in his history. Belief in miracles and hope for the afterlife, Gibbon insinuates, work on the minds of the believers in a similar fashion. Religious believers invent miracles to impress the doubters and waverers and to confront rival sectarians, and they create eternal paradises as a reward for correct belief and promise hell as the consequence of disbelief. Devout attachment to a belief in immortality, like a belief in the testimony of miracles, turns on the dynamics of the imagination and the passions. The Christian preoccupation with immortality is the work of hope and fear, stimulating a vision of a world beyond the grave.1 Christianity emerged irremediably hostile to the traditional religions of the empire, and the antagonistic new believers, infused with hope for the rewards of the afterlife, became subversive agents of the political authority of the empire. (DF-15, II, 57–58) Gibbon’s critique of immortality is yet another melancholy aspect of his attack on Christianity. The preoccupation with the prospect of the wondrous afterlife by early Christians actually seems to bring degeneration and corruption rather than amelioration. Immortality in the Decline and Fall goes the way of miracles as the spirituality of Christianity is confronted by the naturalism of the Enlightenment.


Future Life Roman Empire Relic Worship Eternal Damnation Divine Justice 
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  1. 1.
    Gibbon himself in a letter of grief to his friend Lord Sheffield over the death of his very dear Aunt Kitty alludes to the emotional force of hope in relation to the belief of immortality. As I grew up, an intercourse of thirty years endeared her to me as the faithful friend and the agreable companion; you have seen with what freedom and confidence we lived together, and have often admired her character and conversation which could alike please the young and old. All this is now lost, finally irrecoverably lost! I will agree with Mylady that the immortality of the soul is, on some occasions, a very comfortable doctrine.“ (Letters-G, III,46) The melancholy tone seems suggestive of Gibbon’s disbelief.Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1997

Authors and Affiliations

  • Stephen Paul Foster
    • 1
  1. 1.Central Michigan UniversityMount PleasantUSA

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