When a seventy-three-year-old California psychologist died of lung cancer several years ago, the unusual manner of disposing of his body included packing it in dry ice, draining the blood, and replacing it with an antifreeze solution. Then his frozen body was shipped to Phoenix to be kept in cold storage inside a thirteen-foot, thermos-shaped coffin. This strange process promotes the cause of cryonics—freezing the dead for future reanimation. This bizarre strategy expresses a universal wish for immortality.
There is a common belief that man, by nature, possesses an indefinable, invisible, and immortal soul capable of surviving physical death. The traditional understanding and biblical meaning of immortality will be carefully examined, in this sermon.
I. THE TRADITIONAL UNDERSTANDING OF IMMORTALITY
The belief in man’s natural immortality goes back to antiquity. The words “You will not certainly die” (Gen 3:4) are the earliest utterance of this false doctrine. This idea has been echoed through the centuries, from the Egyptian writers to the present. They said, as the sun set in the western horizon and was gloriously reborn every new day, so man left this world, only to be reborn in eternal happiness in the great beyond. To the Egyptians then, death was looked upon as a continuation of this life in a land where all was joy and peace.
The theory of immortality became popular through the speculations of the Greeks, which in later years infiltrated the Christian church. From 600 BC the Orphic and Pythagorean schools taught that the human soul was immortal and deathless—that every soul exists in happiness or misery through endless ages. This philosophy was further elaborated by Plato and Aristotle. Their ideas were accepted in the first century by Philo Judaeus, who sought to harmonize Jewish religious thought with Greek philosophy. To Philo the body was the source of all evil. It was the coffin that for a time imprisoned the soul. At death the soul was free to return to the heavens and enjoy the blessings of the ethereal realms or to descend in misery to the nethermost parts of Hades. So, for them death was not an end to punishment; the punishment was to be endured eternally.
Tertullian, the father of Latin theology, taught the eternal punishment of the wicked. He claimed that the torments of those who are lost will be coexistent with the happiness of the saved. Then down in Alexandria, Origen—a teacher in the Neoplatonic school—taught the preexistence and transmigration of souls and the purifying fires of purgatory. And we see the influence of the false teaching that “every soul” is immortal in the writings of fifth-century Augustine and Calvin’s teaching in Reformation times by advocating that in creating man, God not only designed to animate a vessel of clay, but made it the habitation of an immortal spirit. It was while John Knox was in Geneva as a refugee, that he met John Calvin and accepted his eschatological teachings and systematized these into Presbyterian doctrine.
Yet, even though the immortal soul theory seemed to be the prevailing view of the Christian era, many leading theologians throughout the centuries held to the biblical concept of immortality being conditional and a gift to be bestowed at the resurrection of the righteous. These voices include the learned monk Saphronius of Damascus, who became patriarch of Jerusalem in the seventh century; John Wycliffe, the morning star of the Reformation; and William Tyndale, who in the fourteenth century denounced the doctrine of purgatory. Many Anabaptists were burned at the stake but held to their view of non-immortality to the end. The poet John Milton and William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and many others of that era, join with John R. W. Stott, Oscar Cullman, and many contemporary theologians in the Bible teaching of the non-immortality of the soul.
II. THE BIBLICAL TEACHING ON IMMORTALITY
In 1702, William Coward dared to publish a treatise entitled Second Thoughts Concerning Human Soul. In this manuscript he stated the belief in the soul being “a spiritual Immortal Substance, united to a Human Body, to be a plain Heathenish Invention, and not consonant to the Principles of Philosophy, Reason or Religion; but the ground only of many absurd and Superstitious Opinions, abominable to the Reformed Church and Derogatory in General to True Christianity.” The book stirred up all England on the subject of immortality. When the second edition was published, the British government in 1704 ordered every copy to be burned by the common hangman.
Belief in the immortality of the soul was not a part of Hebrew teaching, nor even implied in the Old Testament, nor is it taught in the New Testament. The word “immortality” in 1 Corinthians 15:53–54, refers not to the soul but to the body, which though mortal now will be given immortality at the resurrection. In 1 Timothy 1:17 “immortality” is spoken of as an attribute of God alone.
Contrary to Plato, who taught that the soul of man is immortal and imperishable, Christ asserts that the human soul can be destroyed (Matt 10:28; 16:26). Further, the words “soul” and “spirit,” so often in modern parlance joined with the words “immortal,” “deathless,” and “never-dying,” come from two Hebrew words, nephesh and ruach, and the two corresponding words in the Greek, psuche and pneuma. These words are used in the aggregate in the Old and New Testaments 1,700 times, and yet not once are the terms “immortal,” “deathless,” or “ever-dying” applied to them or to any other terms that would convey the idea of an imperishable nature or continued existence in either the soul or spirit.
The biblical view of man is that he is a unitary being. When Paul sets forth pneuma, or “spirit,” in opposition to sarx, or “flesh,” he is speaking not of the opposition between two parts of man’s being, but of the two directions in which man may travel. The spiritual man is facing toward God and living a life of faith in His salvation. The life lived in the flesh is that which is apart from God and is headed downward for destruction. The endless permanence of all human souls has no place in the Bible.
The evidence of scriptural research leads us to the following conclusions:
The word “mortal” occurs six times in the Bible and in every instance is applied to man (Job 4:17; Rom 6:12; 8:11; 1 Cor 15:53– 54; 2 Cor 4:11). The word “immortal” occurs only once in the Bible and is applied to God (1 Tim 1:17). The word “immortality” occurs many times in the Bible and is applied to God or the future state of man beyond the resurrection (Rom 2:7; 1 Cor 15:53–54; 1 Tim 6:16; 2 Tim 1:10). Man can obtain immortality only through Christ (Rom 2:7; 1 Cor 15:51–54; 2 Tim 1:10; 1 John 5:12).
In the gorgeous gardens of the royal Sandringham House, there is a grave. A younger brother of King George VI slipped into the silence of death, his head pillowed in a dreamless sleep. This young prince was only fourteen and had spent much of his short life in pain. On his modest tombstone is engraved the epitaph “In Thy kingdom he shall have rest.” His earthly father, with all the resources of the empire, availed nothing to cure or give him peace. By contrast, we have a Savior who has brought ultimate healing, for He has “destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim 1:10). The life that we lost in the beginning is recoverable as a gift from God, and that gift is available to all. What peace comes with the assurance that the ransomed will on the day of Jesus’ coming be removed “from the power of the grave” (Hos 13:14), and will awake to life and immortality, and “never see death” (John 8:51). We have this hope. Amen.
Rex D. Edwards is a former vice president for religious studies at Griggs University.