Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

Leviathan: IV.XLIV.17-40

Theodore Beza


In the beginning of this chapter, Hobbes argued that three key misinterpretations of scripture were likely to lead to the “kingdom of darkness,” including:

1) Confusing the “kingdom of God” with any institution in the here-and-now, including the church;
2) Replacing “consecration” with “conjuration;”
3) Separating soul from body in the afterlife.

The rest of the chapter is dedicated to refuting these points and suggesting correct doctrines in their place.

In response to the first of these points, Hobbes notes that he has already refuted the errors of the pope and his supporters. He now turns his theological guns on the Presbyterians, particularly on Theodore Beza. Beza was Calvin’s successor in Geneva and had argued for a state church with religious authority even over the political leaders of the city. Hobbes argues that functionally Beza has made the same claims as the pope (XLIV.17).

Hobbes’s reply to the Protestant claims is functionally the same as his reply to the claims of Bellarmine. When the Bible speaks of the “kingdom of God,” it refers only to an eschatological kingdom that will be, not a kingdom that already is. The Protestant churches have no more right to sap the sovereignty of the state than does the Roman Catholic Church.

In response to the second error, that of replacing “consecration” with “conjuration,” Hobbes notes that the vast majority of examples of this kind of a religious activity in the Bible are largely without supernatural incident. When Moses, Solomon, John the Baptist, and the apostles consecrated objects for the temple (in the Old Testament) and baptized/administer communion (in the New Testament), there was no great spiritual contest wherein demons were exorcised or substances transformed. Instead, consecration was the result. The object (OT) or person (NT) was now declared to be set apart for God: full stop (XLIV.21-22).

The response to the third error—the afterlife separation of soul and body—is where we run into yet another of Hobbes’s theological idiosyncrasies. He has already rejected the idea of even a temporary body/soul split. Instead, he argues that God will resurrect all people, some to be made new and live in the Kingdom of God for all time and some headed for the “Second Death.” But what is this “second death” and who forms the group of people who go there?

Those who die the “Second Death”  are, of course, those who do not believe that Jesus is the Christ. Certainly Hobbes’s doctrine of faith leaves much to be desired, but at least there’s something loosely orthodox about his specific answer here. Yet, Hobbes ultimately rejects the idea of an eternal hell, instead arguing that the “second death” is exactly what it sounds like. That is, the second death is not a repeat of the first death. By contrast, Hobbes argues that those who are not made new for the Kingdom of God, are instead resurrected to live a second life in this world, where they will eat and drink and reproduce (unlike those in the Kingdom of Heaven) and then die a second time in body and soul and so be ended:

…I can find nowhere [in Scripture] that any man shall live in torments everlastingly. Also, it seemeth hard to say that God, who is the father of mercies, that doth in heaven and earth all that he will, that hath the hearts of all men in his disposing, that worketh in men both to do and to will, and without whose free gift a man hath neither inclination to good nor repentance of evil, should punish men’s transgressions without any end of time, and with all the extremity of torture that men can imagine, and more. (XLIV.26)

Which…I find a bit surprising coming from Hobbes, of all people. Can the man who taught that life in a state of nature is nasty, poor, brutish, and short really claim “I don’t believe in hell because the idea of it ‘seemeth hard’?” This is functionally seventeenth-century English for “it makes me feel bad,” and seems terribly out of place in the Leviathan. It may be that for all his realism about this life being awful, the idea of that being the case for eternity was too much even for the dour English philosopher. And so we have his conclusion that after their resurrection the reprobate live the second life of hell in this world, exactly as their first lives had been, and then die the second death to exist no more.

But what of all the passages that speak of the eternal punishment of the wicked? The descriptions of hell and fiery torment and so on?

To the reprobate there remaineth, after the resurrection, a second and eternal death, between which resurrection and their second and eternal death is but a time of punishment and torment; and to last, by succession of sinners thereunto, as long as the kind of man by propagation shall endure, which is eternally. (XLIV.29)

How are we to understand the eternal and absolute promises of punishment in scripture? As applying to the reprobate as a group, perhaps even as a commonwealth, rather than as individual sinners. This ultimately leaves Hobbes somewhere between annihilationism and orthodoxy, but much closer to the former than to the latter.

Hobbes’s beliefs about human nature and the afterlife leave no room for the doctrine of purgatory—which he spends a surprising amount of time refuting. The idea that there can be a place where the soul lies in wait without the body he believes is contrary to human nature, “human nature” by definition being body and soul combined and inseparable. Perhaps a less generous reading would be to say that Hobbes does not believe in a soul at all, but he never says such and so there’s no need to add to the reasons to disagree with him.

Instead, he argues that we should see the resurrection as a miraculous work of God recreating what had been destroyed—”For God, that could give a life to a piece of clay, hath the same power to give life again to a dead man, and renew his inanimate and rotten carcass, into a glorious, spiritual, and immortal body” (XLIV.32). Where is the soul while the body lies in the grave? Hobbes does not tell us. Nor can he, for he doesn’t believe that a person can exist without a body. It might be that in the name of consistency we have to say that in Hobbes’s view, the person is annihilated on his death and recreated on resurrection, but Hobbes never goes so far. Instead, we must leave the topic as something of a mystery in the Leviathan.

Again, Hobbes has a view of the afterlife that I’ve never encountered before, and which I do not believe anyone has ever taken up and written into a church statement of faith. (Feel free to correct me on that if you know of a church that has.) Most Christians are quite content to believe in a temporary disconnect between soul and body and an eternal heaven and hell for those who should be in each. Some Christians wander toward universalism or annihilationism (without arriving at either, which would be heresy), but I know of none who try to balance a materialistic worldview with an eternal heaven for individuals and an eternal hell for the human race (but not for individuals). While Hobbes’s exposition of scripture leaves much to be desired, the same obviously cannot be said for his creativity and imagination when it comes to theology.


Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.

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