IMMORTALITY (ἀθανασία, ἀφθαρσία, incorruptibility). In the Scriptures immortality is attributed to God and man and means freedom from decay, dissolution, and death.
I. The immortality of God. 1 Timothy 6:16 supplies the fundamental truth that God alone is intrinsically free from subjection to death; He does not cease to exist or to be active as God. This same truth is enunciated by Christ in John 5:26, “the Father has life in himself.”
The immortality of God contrasts sharply with the mortality of man and other living creatures (Rom 1:23). Mortality comes to expression vividly in the decay and dissolution of the body. By way of contrast, the word used of God in Romans 1:23 and 1 Timothy 1:17 is aphthartós (“incorruptible”). God’s incorruptibility does not reside in the fact that He is spirit without body, but in His essential immortality as the living and true God (1 Thess 1:9). Since God alone is immortal, any immortality predicated of man can only be derivative, the gift of grace.
Scripture testifies repeatedly that God is eternally, characteristically, and uniquely the living God (Pss 18:46; 90:2; 115:3-8; Jer 10:11). This life is not a bare existing or being. God has created and upholds all things by His power (Gen 1:1; Heb 1:3). He knows what takes place in the earth; He punishes the wicked, but intercedes to save His people.
II. The immortality of man
1. In the OT. God made man a living creature (Gen 2:7) and placed him in the Garden of Eden. The loving obedience required of him was focussed in the command not to eat of a particular tree, and the threat attached to disobedience was death (2:17). The implication is that man was not created mortal. God’s word to Adam that he was dust and would return to dust (3:19) imposed physical dissolution as punishment, and does not, as commonly understood, describe merely the outworking of a natural process.
On the other hand, man as created was not truly and properly immortal. The probation carried with it the possibility of failure and subjection to death. Obedience would receive as a reward of grace (not of merit) confirmation in life corresponding to the immortality of the NT.
When Adam sinned, he died spiritually, being alienated from the source of life. Physically, he was expelled from the original sphere of life in the Garden and was denied access to the tree of life. Bodily death intervened at a later point, but not before Adam received the promise of life through the seed of the woman (3:15, 20).
The basic principle established from the beginning is the inviolable correlation of sin and death on the one hand, and of righteousness and life on the other (cf. Deut 30:15-20; Ezek 33:10-20; Rom 2:7f.). Confirmation in righteousness carries with it confirmation in life, or immortality. God, who is uncreated and perfectly holy, is uniquely immortal.
The unfolding of the principle of sin and death is evidenced in the repeated refrain of Genesis 5, “...and he died,” but preëminently is the virtually total destruction of the race by the Flood (Gen 6:5-7). The correlation of righteousness and life is manifest in the translation of Enoch, the man who walked with God (5:24), and in the experience of the patriarchs.
Length of life and sustained fellowship with the covenant God and community is the normal expectation of the righteous. Abraham “died in a good old age, an old man and full of years.” His passing was a transition to renewed fellowship with his people (25:8). Similar circumstances are recorded of other great men of faith (e.g. Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, David). The fact of death is not denied, but even the place of burial becomes a sign of hope (50:13). Death is a transition from life to life. The God of the Fathers is the God of the living (Matt 22:32) and death results in deepened fellowship with Him (Pss 16:11; 17:15; 73:24).
The wicked, however, are prematurely cut off from the land of the living (Exod 14:28; Ps 52:5; Ezek 32). The heathen who are without God naturally fall into this category, but also the disobedient from among the covenant people (Lev 19:8; Num 16:31-33). Death for the wicked is not annihilation but descent into Sheol or the Pit. It is a conscious experience of separation from God, of destruction, and therefore of retribution (Pss 49:11, 14, 19; 88:10-12; Isa 14:9-11). The commonly accepted thesis that Sheol is the receptacle indifferently of the righteous as well as the wicked needs further clarification and refinement. The hypothetical descent of Joseph and Jacob into Sheol would result from an early and unnatural death (Gen 37:35; 44:31). Premature death is experienced as judgment whether deserved or not (cf. Isa 38:10, 17f.). Job falsely imagines that the supposed rest and peace of Sheol is preferable to continued earthly life (Job 3:11-26). It is an expression of the same weakness of faith which causes him to curse the day of his birth. Ultimately Job dies in the full enjoyment of family, wealth, and old age (42:10-17).
The major problem for OT piety arises when the righteous die prematurely and the prosperity of the wicked is prolonged on the earth. The solution lies in the realization that the wicked ultimately will be destroyed (Pss 37:10; 73:16ff.); but, in mercy, God spares the righteous from the brink of total destruction (Pss 30:3; 116; and frequently in the Psalms). The salvation of the righteous is grounded ultimately in the substitutionary death and resurrection of the Lord’s Servant (Isa 53:8, 10). The reality of a resurrection including the body comes to explicit expression in the OT (Job 19:25-27; Isa 25:8; 26:19; Dan 12:2).
2. In the NT. Throughout the intertestamental period there is a growing apprehension, more or less adequate, of the doctrine of the resurrection, though it is denied in some quarters. Paul is able to align himself with the teaching of the Pharisees over against the Sadducees (Acts 23:6; 24:14).
However, it is through the Gospel of Jesus Christ who abolished death that life and immortality are brought to light (2 Tim 1:10). The word used here is aphtharsía (“incorruption”), indicating that life through Jesus Christ is not to be dissociated from the resurrection of the body.
Jesus bore the sins of His people and therefore endured their full penalty. He was cut off from the land of the living in His youth, but His death made atonement for sin. When the penalty was exhausted, He was raised from the grave with a newness of life corresponding to the perfect divine righteousness which He embodies (Ps 16:9f.; Isa 53:8ff.; Acts 2:27f.; 13:35). Therefore He is the living one who died, but is alive forevermore (Rev 1:18).
By the preaching of the Gospel, Christ’s own are regenerated and through faith are united to their Savior. From Him they receive eternal life. Immortality is, in the Biblical pattern of thought, not a universal natural possession but the gift of redemptive grace.
Because the Savior gives life at every point where death has intervened, the body also participates in immortality (1 Cor 15:54, athanasía). The bodies of those alive at the consummation are transformed, while the bodies of deceased believers are transformed in the resurrection; all are made incorruptible (15:51-55).
The necessary correlation of righteousness and life finds fulfillment in the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to believers. Even in the OT it is not human righteousness that is crowned with life. By faith Enoch was pleasing to God and did not see death (Heb 11:5f.). The justifying faith of Abraham is in God who gives life to the dead (Rom 4:17). The Gospel of both Testaments is that the righteous by faith shall live (Hab 2:4; Rom 1:17).
The NT deepens the ancient truth that believers who experience the unnatural lingering consequences of sin in the death of the body before the resurrection are more than compensated by a continuing and fuller communion with God (2 Cor 5:1-5; Phil 1:23). Their bodies also are still united to Christ awaiting the resurrection (Rom 8:23). The intermediate state of both the righteous and the wicked is one of conscious experience rather than annihilation. The wicked begin to endure the torments of destruction (Luke 16:23), but only at the final judgment in the unity of body and spirit are they cast into hell forever (Rev 20:13ff.). The resurrection of the unjust (John 5:29; Acts 24:15) reveals that death as penalty does not come to expression exclusively or even primarily in the dissolution of the body.
3. In philosophy and recent theology. The Biblical teaching on immortality must be radically distinguished from the notion found in Gr. (cf. Acts 17:32), but also in later idealist philosophy, that the soul is naturally immortal, while the body being mortal is subject to death and decay. The Gr. idea has been incorporated into Roman Catholic theology and is prevalent in some forms of Protestantism. This view presupposes a fundamental but unbiblical anthropological dualism of body and soul. While the Bible recognizes a duality, God deals with man in his created integrity. Immortality conceived of merely as personal, conscious, disembodied existence continued beyond the grave does not measure up to the richness of blessing comprehended by the term in the NT.
Kant rejected all attempts to demonstrate the fact of immortality from the substantiality of the soul, but maintained it as a postulate of the practical reason. It is not the redemptive reality revealed and wrought finally and fully through Jesus Christ alone.
The philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea (Vollenhoven, Dooyeweerd) has exposed the unbiblical character of much philosophical speculation, but has been less successful in establishing a positive view of immortality.
Recent theology has vigorously opposed Christian accommodation to the Gr. view by stressing the unity of man. There is a corresponding recognition that the Biblical hope of life is in terms of the resurrection of the body (Cullmann). The Biblical teaching is effectively dissipated, however, when the resurrection is conceived of as suprahistorical (geschichtlich) event (neo-orthodoxy) or as myth pointing simultaneously to man’s existence in, and transcendence of the world (existentialistoriented theologies). See Death.
Bibliography S. D. F. Salmond, The Christian Doctrine of Immortality (1907); L. Boettner, Immortality (1956); O. Cullmann, Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? (1958); C. R. Smith, The Bible Doctrine of the Hereafter (1958); E. Brunner, Dogmatics, Part 4, III (1962), 339-444; G. C. Berkouwer, “Immortality,” Man: The Image of God (1962), 234-278; R. A. Finlayson, God’s Light on Man’s Destiny (n.d.); “Life After Death,” ExpT, LXXVI (1964-1965), 76-79, 107-109, 140-143, 217-220, 236-239, 273-276, 332-337, 364-367, a series by various authors dealing with Biblical extra-canonical, non-Christian religious, and philosophical sources; C. K. Barrett, “Immortality and Resurrection,” London Quarterly and Holborn Review CXC, sixth series, XXXIV (1965), 91-102; R. Bultmann; “θάνατος, G2505, etc.,” TDNT, III (1965), 7-25; K. Stendahl, ed., Immortality and Resurrection (1965), contains four Ingersoll Lectures by O. Cullmann, H. A. Wolfson, W. Jaeger, and H. J. Cadbury.
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