Read I Tim. 6:11–16; II Tim. 1:8–12*
1. STATEMENTS OF DIFFERENT AUTHORS WITH RESPECT TO MAN’S IMMORTALITY
What do you think: Is man immortal or is he not immortal? Opinions differ. One author argues along this line: The idea that the New Testament teaches the soul’s immortality is a misunderstanding. The immortality of the soul is a Greek, not a Christian doctrine. The Christian doctrine is that of resurrection, not that of immortality. “Immortality, in fact, is only a negative assertion…but resurrection is a positive assertion” (0. Cullmann, “Immortality or Resurrection,” an article in Christianity Today, July 21, 1958, pp. 3–6).
Another author agrees with this position in so far that he, too, speaks about “the heresy of man’s immortal soul.” Nevertheless, he is willing to accept the term immorality, provided it be applied only to those who are in Christ. He states, “God can destroy both soul and body in hell. And immorality is the word that can be applied only to the state of the glorified saints in Christ” (H. Hoeksema, In the Midst of Death, a volume in that author’s series of Expositions on the Heidelberg Catechism, pp. 98, 99).
We turn now to a widely recognized work on doctrine, namely, L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, pp. 672–678. This author points out that the term immorality is not always used in the same sense. He does not go so far, however, as to reject completely the idea that in a sense man is immortal. He states, “Immortality, in the sense of continuous or endless existence, is also ascribed to all spirits, including the human soul. It is one of the doctrines of natural religion or philosophy that, when the body is dissolved, the soul does not share in its dissolution, but retains its identity as an individual being. This idea of the immortality of the soul is in perfect harmony with what the Bible teaches about man; but the Bible, religion, and theology are not primarily interested in this purely quantitative and colorless immortality, the bare continued existence of the soul.”
So, there you have it. The first author would substitute the term resurrection for immortality. The next one says, in substance, that only those who are in Christ are immortal. The last one is of the opinion that in a sense the souls of all men are immortal, but that this is not the immortality in which the Bible is primarily interested.
2. DISTINCTIONS THAT SHOULD BE KEPT IN MIND
Is man immortal or is he not immortal? It all depends upon what you mean by immortality.
In a sense only God is immortal. He is “the only One possessing immortality” (see I Timothy 6:11–16). He alone is life’s original Owner and never-failing Fountain. His immortality has been called “an original, necessary, and eternal endowment.” In God’s being there is no death and not even a possibility of death in any sense whatever. Now, immortality (Greek athanasia) means deathlessness. This negative implies the positive. God possesses fulness of life, imperishable blessedness (cf. I Timothy 1:17), the inalienable enjoyment of all the divine attributes.
But although only God is immortal in the sense of being the original Owner and Fountain of life and blessedness, in a derived sense it is also true that believers are immortal. In II Timothy 1:8–12 it is clearly stated that our Savior Christ Jesus on the one hand utterly defeated death, and on the other hand, “brought to light life and immortality (literally incorruptibility) through the gospel.” As a result of Christ’s atonement eternal death no longer exists for the believer. Spiritual death is vanquished more and more in his life and completely when the child of God departs from his earthly enclosure. And physical death has been turned into gain. Christ accomplished all that for his children, on the one hand. On the other hand, he brought to light life and incorruptibility. He brought it to light by exhibiting it in his own glorious resurrection. Most of all, he brought it to light by his promise to them: “Because I live ye too shall live” (John 14:19); hence, through the gospel. This immortality transcends by far mere endless existence. Even here and now the believer receives this great blessing in principle. In heaven he receives it in further development. Yet he does not fully receive it until the day of Christ’s glorious second coming. Until then the bodies of all believers will be subject to the law of decay and death. Immortality, that is, imperishable salvation for both soul and body, belongs to the new heaven and earth. It is an inheritance stored away for all those who are in Christ.
Hence, if a person, untrained in Scripture, asks you the question, “Is man immortal?” a good answer would be, “Only in the sense that his existence never ends; but in the Bible only those are called immortal who have everlasting life in Christ Jesus, and are destined to glorify him forever as to both soul and body.”
3. SCRIPTURE’S DOCTRINE OF IMMORTALITY AND THAT OF GREEK PHILOSOPHY CONTRASTED
a. The immortality taught by Plato and others after him applies to men in general. The immortality taught in Scripture (when that term of its synonym is actually used) applies in one sense to God alone; in another sense only to those who are in Christ.
b. The immortality of Greek philosophy is nothing but the soul’s inherent indestructibility, its necessary endless existence. The immortality of which the Bible speaks is everlasting blessedness.
c. The immortality of pagan thought applies to the soul alone. The body is regarded as the prison from which at death the soul is delivered. According to Scripture our bodies are not prisons but temples. Hence, the Bible’s immortality applies to both the soul and the body of the believer, his entire person.
d. The immortality of which the world speaks is a natural or philosophical concept. The immortality of which God speaks in his Word is (in as far as it applies to man) a redemptive concept.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
A. Questions Answered in the Outline
1. In which sense is it true that only God possesses immortality?
2. In which sense is it true that believers, too, are immortal?
3. If a person, untrained in Scripture, asks you the question, “Is man immortal?” what would be a good answer?
4. What literally is the meaning of the word immortality? What is its synonym?
5. What are the points of contrast between Scripture’s doctrine of immortality and that of Greek philosophy?
B. Additional Questions
1. Would you say that Adam and Eve before the fall were immortal? If so, in w hat sense were they immortal? Are angels immortal? Is the devil immortal?
2. Is it possible for the believer, in his association with people of the world, altogether to avoid using terms in the sense in which the world uses them, when Scripture employs these same terms in a different sense? Think of such terms as immortality, fellowship, love.
3. Old-timers used to speak about “the language of Canaan.” What does that mean? Should this be cultivated today?
4. Why is the idea of immortality in the sense of the soul’s survival and endless existence not nearly as comforting as Scripture’s doctrine of immortality? What were Plato’s arguments for “immortality” (in his sense of the term)? What do you think of these arguments?
5. Where does Scripture clearly teach that immortality pertains to the believer’s body as well as his soul?
* For a fuller exposition of these passages see my New Testament Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, published by Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Mich., pp. 202–208 and 230–236.