Jefferson on Eternal Life



In a recent Liberty Letter this writer asserted, “Jefferson believed that the two most important teachings of Christ, along with love of God and love of neighbor, were a belief in life after death, and final judgment.”

I backed the claim by quoting Jefferson’s Letter to Benjamin Waterhouse, dated June 26, 1822, wherein Jefferson writes: “The Doctrines of Jesus are simple, and tend all to the happiness of men. 1. That there is one only God, and he all perfect. 2. That there is a future state of rewards and punishments. 3. That to love God with all thy heart and thy neighbor as thyself is the sum of religion. These are the great points on which he endeavored to reform the religion of the Jews.” The man who followed this religion is “the true and charitable Christian.” (4)

This should have been evidence enough for the reasonable man; nevertheless, a reader who identifies himself as “Mighty Atheist Star” responded, “[Y]ou show your ignorance. Jefferson was very skeptical about the afterlife, and everything else in Christianity.”

He quoted a letter to John Adams, dated August 15, 1820, as evidence, wherein Jefferson writes:

“To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say that they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise … without plunging into the fathomless abyss of dreams and phantasms. I am satisfied, and sufficiently occupied with the things which are, without tormenting or troubling myself about those which may indeed be, but of which I have no evidence.” (2)

At first glance one might suppose that the reader has a point, if only the naysayer had not made such an extraordinary effort to remove a very important quote from the equally important context it was found in. What preceded, what followed, and what was selectively withdraw from the quote itself via the simple, but not in this case innocent mechanism of “…” is not a Jeffersonian denunciation of the study and belief in God, angels, and spirits, but something quite the opposite. For starters, Jefferson did not think the study ‘a waste of time:’ Remarking on Adam’s last note on this subject, he confessed, “it kept me from sleep. I read it, and laid it down; and read it, and laid down, again and again”.  (3) So, was it a ‘waste of time’ or an absorbing diversion, a diversion which the two returned to again and again for approximately a decade?

Let’s be honest. As for “dreams and phantasms”; Jefferson’s target was not God, angels, and spirits, but “the heresy of immaterialism, or masked atheism.” (4) Again, let’s be true. It was false doctrine Jefferson opposed-false doctrines which taught nonsense about God and life after death. God and spirits were not immaterial, but matter, he asserted. “At what age of the Christian church this heresy crept in, I do not exactly know. But a heresy it is. Jesus taught nothing of it. He told us, indeed, that ‘God is a spirit.’ But he has not defined what a spirit is, nor said that it is not matter. And the ancient fathers generally, of the three first centuries, held it to be matter, light and thin indeed, an etherial gas; but still matter.” (5)

This is Jefferson the theologian, and Jefferson the reformer, a man who has done his homework and is stretching himself – not Jefferson the unbeliever.

“‘I feel, therefore, I exist.’ I feel bodies which are not myself: there [are] other existences then. I call them matter. I feel them changing place. This gives me motion. Where there is an absence of matter, I call if void, or nothing, or immaterial space. On the basis of sensation, of matter and motion, we may erect the fabric of all the certainties we have or need.” (6)

Consistent with the creation account wherein all living things were commanded to reproduce after their own kind, Jefferson reasons that only matter can beget matter. It just didn’t make sense that “nothing made something,” (7) or that “an absence of matter can have a will, and by that will put matter into motion.” (8)

Thomas Jefferson firmly believed in the reality of God, eternal life, and of a coming day of judgment. As he grew older, his belief deepened.

In addressing “the God of Jesus and our God,” he wrote John Adams shortly before their death: “I join you cordially, and await His time and will with more readiness than reluctance. May we meet there again, in Congress, with our ancient colleagues, and receive with them the seal of approbation, ‘well done, good and faithful servants.'” (9)

On July 4th, 1826, both Jefferson and Adams stepped out of their mortal bodies to begin their journey home to just such a judgment day.

Steve Farrell is the Founder and Editor In Chief of Self-Educated American, one of the original and most popular pundits at (1999-2007), and the author of the inspirational novel, Dark Rose (now available in Kindle).


  1. Letter to Benjamin Waterhouse, June 26, 1822, as cited in: Cousins, Norman, editor. “In God We Trust: The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers,” New York, Harper Brothers Publishers, 1958, p. 160.  See also, Bergh, Albert Ellery, Editor. “The Writings of Thomas Jefferson: Volume XV,” pgs. and 383-385.
  2. Ibid., p. 286. See also, Bergh, Volume XV, pgs. 273-276.
  3. Ibid., p. 285.
  4. Ibid., p. 286.
  5. Ibid., p. 286. (See also, Jefferson’s letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823, as found in Bergh, Volume XV, p. 428: “Jesus tells us, that ‘God is a spirit.’ John 4:24. But without defining what a spirit is. . Down to the third century, we know it was still deemed material; but of a lighter, subtler matter than our gross bodies. So says Origen. . So also Tertullian. . These two fathers were of the third century.”
  6. Ibid., p. 285.
  7. Ibid., p. 286.
  8. Ibid., p. 286.
  9. Ibid., p. 291. Letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823.

Your comments