Immortality

Immortal i-môrʹtəl; IMMORTALITY im-ôr-tal??-tē [Heb. ʾal-māweṯ] (Prov. 12:28); [Gk. athanasía] (1 Cor. 15:53f.; 1 Tim. 6:16); [Gk. aphtharsía] (Rom. 2:7; 2 Tim. 1:10); [Gk. áphthartos] (Rom. 1:23; 1 Tim. 1:17); AV also UNCORRUPTIBLE (Rom. 1:23). The noun athanasía, "deathlessness," denotes the immunity from death enjoyed by God (1 Tim. 6:16) and by resurrected believers (1 Cor. 15:53f.). The noun aphtharsía, "incorruptibility," "imperishability," signifies the immunity from decay that characterizes the divine state (Eph. 6:24) and the resurrection state (1 Cor. 15:42, 50, 53f.). It was "brought to light" by Christ as indicated in the gospel (2 Tim. 1:10) and is the divine gift granted to the righteous (Rom. 2:7). Finally, the adjective áphthartos, "imperishable," describes the quality of the divine nature (Rom. 1:23; 1 Tim. 1:17; 1 Pet. 1:23), the gentle and quiet disposition of the Christian woman (1 Pet. 3:4), the Christian's reward (1 Cor. 9:25) or inheritance (1 Pet. 1:4), and the future state of resurrected believers (1 Cor. 15:52).

Several points are noteworthy: (1) All uses of the nouns are Pauline. (2) All three terms are associated with Paul's description of the spiritual body (seven instances, all in 1 Cor. 15), but never with the "soul." Immortality and resurrection are inseparable ideas (see IV.A below). (3) Although the three terms are formed with "alpha privative," a negative prefix comparable to the English in- or un-, each takes on positive overtones relating to "(eternal) life." For example, just as God is "never-dying" (Rom. 1:23; 1 Tim. 1:17; 6:16) because he is "ever-living" (Jer. 10:10; Jn. 5:26), so believers are destined to become free from decay and death because they will participate fully and immediately in the eternal divine life (2 Pet. 1:4). Moreover, the ideas of immortality and life are closely related in Rom. 2:7; 2 Tim. 1:10, so that inheriting immortality (1 Cor. 15:50) is equivalent to reaping eternal life (Gal. 6:8). (4) Immortality may therefore be defined as the immunity from decay and death that results from sharing the divine life in the resurrected state.

I. Immortality in the Pre-Christian Era

A. Greek World

B. OT

C. Intertestamental Judaism

II. Immortality of God in the NT

III. Immortality of Man in the NT

A. As a Divine Gift to the Righteous

B. As a Future Acquisition

C. Immortality and Eternal Life

IV. Immortality and Resurrection

A. As Inseparable Ideas

B. As Complementary Ideas

V. Platonic and Biblical Immortality

I. Immortality in the Pre-Christian Era

A. Greek World An essential ingredient of Orphic religion was belief in the essential divinity of the soul and in embodiment as the soul's exile from its true heavenly home. Hence the celebrated Orphic pun só̄ma sé̄ma, "the body is the tomb (of the soul)." This belief in the eternal survival of the soul gained intellectual respectability in the writings of Plato. According to Plato, in its rational or divine function the soul is preexistent and apparently eternal and has relations with both the phenomenal world and the unchanging ideal world. He adduces five arguments for the immortality of the rational soul: the argument from opposites (Phaedo 70c–72e) and the complementary argument from reminiscence (Phaedo 72e–77d); the argument from affinity (or from the simplicity of the soul) (Phaedo 78b–84b); the argument from "forms" (Phaedo 102a–107b) which he regarded as the most conclusive proof; the argument from destructibility (Respublica 608d–611a); the argument from motion (Phaedrus 245c–246a). Aristotle reserves divinity, eternality, and immortality for "active intellect" (De an. 415a; De generatione animalium 738b), the highest phase of soul. Since the faculty of memory belongs to the passive and perishable part of the intellect (De an. 408b), the discarnate active intellect will lack continuity with earlier bodily existence. All that survives the death of the individual is the impersonal reason or divine noús (intellect).

B. OT The OT has no distinct term for immortality, although the coinage "not-death" (ʾal-māweṯ) occurs once (Prov. 12:28): "In the way of righteousness is [eternal] life; the treading of her path is not-death [= immortality]." The RSV, however, follows the LXX (eis thánaton) in reading ʾel-māweṯ ("to death") in the second line: "the way of error leads to death." Adducing an instance of the synonymous parallelism of "[eternal] life" and "immortality" in an Ugaritic poem (2 Aqht vi. 27–29), M. Dahood claims to have found ten instances in the Psalms (e.g., 16:11; 133:3) and four in Proverbs (e.g., 12:28; 15:24) where the Heb. ḥayyîm ("life") signifies "life eternal" (Psalms, III [AB, 1970], xlvi–xlvii).

The common OT phrase "for ever (more)" sometimes denotes eternality and immortality, as when it refers to Yahweh's existence and character (Ps. 9:7 [MT 8]; 111:3), but generally it points to unlimited duration, "as long as life lasts" (e.g., Ex. 21:6, of slavery in perpetuity). Note also the customary royal greeting, "O king, live for ever!" (Dnl. 2:4). Even "living for ever" in Gen. 3:22 denotes merely a permanent continuation of man's earthly, corporeal existence, not direct participation in the eternal, divine life brought about by a somatic transformation. Only in Dnl. 12:2 is immortality related to resurrection: some of those who sleep in the dust of the earth "shall awake … to everlasting life," the positive corollary of immortality. As to man's original state, we may say that he was created neither immortal (Gen. 3:22–24) nor mortal (Gen. 2:17) but with the potentiality to become either, depending on his obedience or disobedience to God. If not created with immortality, he was certainly created for immortality.

C. Intertestamental Judaism During the period 200 b.c. to a.d. 100 the concept of immortality gained a new prominence in Jewish texts. Some emphasize or refer exclusively to immortality (Palestinian Judaism: Jubilees [e.g., 23:31]; Testament of Moses [e.g., 10:8–10]; Testament of Abraham [e.g., Recension A, 1, 7]; Diaspora Judaism: 4 Maccabees [e.g., 16:13; 18:23]; Wisdom [e.g., 2:23; 3:1–4]; Philo [e.g., De opificio mundi 135]). Other texts juxtapose the ideas of resurrection and immortality without attempting to interrelate them (Palestinian Judaism: 1 En. 91–104 [e.g., 92:3f.; 103:3f]; XII P. [e.g., TJud 25:1, 4; TAsh 6:5f]; Diaspora Judaism: Testament of Job [e.g., 4:9; 52:2–9]). But some texts do interrelate the two ideas, often through recourse to the notion of an intermediate state occurring between a person's gaining of immortality at death and his resurrection at the last day (Palestinian Judaism: 12En 1–36 [e.g., 22:1–12]; 37–71 [e.g., 51:1f.; 58:3f]; 2 Esd. 3–14 [e.g., 7:88–101]; 2 Baruch [e.g., 30:2–4; 51:9]; Diaspora Judaism: 2 Maccabees [e.g., 7:9–11, 14]; Josephus [e.g., BJ iii.8.5 (372–78)]).

II. Immortality of God in the NT

1 Tim. 6:16 asserts the uniqueness of God's immortality. He is "the blessed and only Sovereign … who alone has immortality." This means not simply that decay and death have no place in His existence but that He is the sole and eternal source of life and holiness. Significantly, the same Greek sentence that includes the phrase "who alone has immortality" affirms that He perpetually "gives life to all things" (1 Tim. 6:13) and "dwells in unapproachable light" (1 Tim. 6:16). On the principle that behind each explicit negative definition of God's character (such as immortality) there lies some implicit positive assertion, immortality may be said to imply that creative energy (Ps. 36:9 [MT 10]; Jn. 5:26; 6:57) and purity (Ex. 15:11; Isa. 6:3; He. 12:29) are constantly present in God as well as that death and sin are permanently absent.

III. Immortality of Man in the NT

A. As a Divine Gift to the Righteous If only God is inherently immortal, man may gain immortality only as a gracious gift of the divine will (cf. Rom. 2:7; 6:23). Man's immortality is not essential or intrinsic but derived or extrinsic. The acquisition of immortality is a privilege reserved for the righteous rather than the prerogative of all mankind. This is clear from Rom. 2:7f, where eternal life is promised to "those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality" but wrath and fury to "those who … do not obey the truth but obey wickedness"; and from 1 Cor. 15, where investiture with imperishability and immortality (vv 53f) is pledged to "those who have fallen asleep in Christ" (v 18). There is a resurrection that leads to eternal life, the positive aspect of immortality, and a resurrection that leads to judgment (Jn. 5:29). Sharing the divine nature is a future experience reserved for those who belong to Christ (1 Cor. 15:23, 49, 53f.; 2 Pet. 1:4). Potentially immortal by nature, man actually becomes immortal through grace. Immortality is conditional in the sense that there is no eternal life except in Christ. But this does not imply, of course, that existence beyond death is conditional. Because, in its NT sense, immortality has positive content, being more than mere survival beyond death, its opposite is not nonexistence but the "second death" (Rev. 20:6, 14; 21:8), "the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord" (2 Thess. 1:9).

B. As a Future Acquisition It was suggested above (I.B) that man was not created unable to die (non posse mori) but able not to die (posse non mori). If, then, man was not created immortal and since the fall has been subject to death, when is this gift of immortality received? Although immortality was "brought to light" and made available by the death and resurrection of Jesus (2 Tim. 1:10) and is gained potentially at the time of regeneration when a person comes to be in Christ (1 Cor. 15:22; 2 Cor. 5:17; 1 Pet. 1:23), it is not until the believer experiences a resurrection transformation that immortality becomes an actual possession. For those who die this may occur at the moment of death (if indeed that marks the receipt of the spiritual body) or at the Parousia; for the living it occurs at the Parousia. But more in accord with the NT use of the terms "immortal" and "immortality" than this "potential-actual" distinction, is the conclusion that the NT simply portrays immortality as a divine gift gained through somatic resurrection at or after the death of the believer (Lk. 20:35f.; Jn. 11:25f.; 1 Cor. 15:51–54; 2 Cor. 5:1–4). Whereas resurrection occurs in two stages, a spiritual resurrection at baptism (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12) and a somatic resurrection in the future (1 Cor. 15:23, 49, 52), immortality lies totally in the future, since as long as the believer is alive he remains subject to physical death.

C. Immortality and Eternal Life Both expressions describe conditional divine gifts (Acts 11:18; 13:48; Rom. 2:7; 6:23; Gal. 6:8; 1 Cor. 15:52–54) that are inseparably related to the resurrection transformation (compare Rom. 6:22f with 8:11, 23, for eternal life; 1 Cor. 15:35–57, for immortality). Both depict the final state of blessedness or the heavenly mode of existence. But they are not identical concepts: (1) Formally, one is a positive expression, referring to life; the other negative, relating to death. Each implies the other, however, for to have eternal life is to be ultimately free from death (Jn. 5:24) and to be immortal is to live forever (Jn. 6:51, 58). (2) In the Fourth Gospel, eternal life is both a present reality (Jn. 3:36; 5:24; 17:3) and a future blessing (Jn. 4:14, 36; 5:29; 6:27), whereas for Paul both eternal life (Rom. 2:7; 5:21; 6:22f.; Gal. 6:8) and immortality are future acquisitions. This distinction may perhaps best be explained by observing that in John eternal life (or life) signifies (negatively) an immunity from spiritual death (Jn. 5:24) but not from physical death (Jn. 11:25), while immortality (and eternal life) in Paul involves immunity from both spiritual and physical death. (3) Eternal life is the positive aspect of immortality (viz., participation in the divine life), and immortality is the future aspect of eternal life.

IV. Immortality and Resurrection

It is sometimes thought that the idea of immortality may be safely jettisoned without losing an essential ingredient of Christian doctrine. There is a distinction between a Platonic belief in the immortality of the soul alone and biblical teaching regarding the resurrection of the dead. The NT data, however, point to the complementarity of the ideas of resurrection and immortality.

A. As Inseparable Ideas First, a resurrection transformation is the only means of gaining immortality (Lk. 20:35f.; Acts 13:34f.; Rom. 6:9; 1 Cor. 15:42, 52–54). Although those alive at the Parousia will not be "raised from the dead," they will experience a transformation into the image of Christ comparable to the change effected in the dead (1 Cor. 15:49–54). Second, immortality is the inevitable outcome of a resurrection transformation (Lk. 20:36; Jn. 11:25f.; Rom. 6:9; 1 Cor. 15:53f.; Rev. 1:18; 20:6). From a Christian perspective, the two ideas stand or fall together. To deny resurrection is to deny immortality, since the embodiment guaranteed by resurrection is (from a Jewish or Christian outlook) necessary for meaningful existence. To deny immortality is to deny resurrection, since the divine life pledged by immortality is necessary to sustain transformed persons.

B. As Complementary Ideas First, NT teaching about resurrection insures that immortality is regarded as personal rather than racial, ideal, or pantheistic; as corporate rather than individualistic; and as somatic rather than merely spiritual. Resurrection involves dead persons who are raised in spiritual bodies to enjoy the corporate life of the redeemed. Second, NT teaching about immortality guarantees that resurrection is seen as a continuing state rather than simply as a single event. It is a permanent rather than a temporary condition, a transformed state sustained by divine life and power. Immortality involves entrance upon a state of freedom from decay and death that is permanent because it has the constant invigoration of God's endless power.

V. Platonic and Biblical Immortality

The biblical doctrine of immortality differs from the Platonic doctrine in several important ways. First, in the NT immortality is not an inherent characteristic of the rational part of the human soul but a natural attribute of God alone (1 Tim. 6:16). Second, the NT depicts immortality as a future acquisition gained by the righteous through a resurrection transformation effected by God, not as a natural property of every rational soul. Third, whereas Platonic anthropology is dichotomistic so that only release from corporeality achieved at death enables the soul to reenter its true abode in the world of Forms, NT anthropology is basically monistic so that the destiny of the Christian is somatic immortality, with the spiritual body being the organ of resurrection life. Fourth, according to the NT, possession of immortality depends on one's relationship to the second Adam, not the first Adam. It is death or a propensity to death, not immortality, that man inherits from Adam (Rom. 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:22). Deathlessness and imperishability result from union with Christ (1 Cor. 15:22f, 42, 52–54). Fifth, for Plato assurance of immortality was grounded in belief in the soul's divinity, but for Paul it was based on the fact that God gives all believers His Spirit as a pledge of a resurrection transformation that will result in immortality (2 Cor. 5:4f.). Sixth, although both Plato and NT writers understand immortality as involving "becoming like God," for the Christian this means conformity to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29; Col. 3:10), rather than "a never-ending union with true Reality" (Rohde, Psyche, p. 475).

Harris, M. J. (1979–1988). Immortal. In G. W. Bromiley (Ed.), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Vol. 2, pp. 809–811). Wm. B. Eerdmans.

Return to Index of Concepts and Definitions


Return to CRTA