i-mor’-tal, im-or-tal’-i-ti (athanasia,
1. Preliminary--Need of Definition and Distinction
2. Biblical Conception
I. THE NATURAL BELIEF
1. Its Origin
2. Philosophical Arguments
(1) The Soul Spiritual
Soul not Inherently Indestructible
(2) Capacities of Human Nature
(3) The Moral Argument
II. THE BIBLICAL DOCTRINE--THE OLD TESTAMENT
1. Starting-Point--Man’s Relation to God
2. Sin and Death
3. Grace and Redemption--The True Immortality
Deliverance from Sheol
4. Later Jewish Thought
III. THE CHRISTIAN HOPE
1. Immortality through Christ
(1) Survival of the Soul
(2) Union with Christ in Unseen World
(3) The Resurrection
(4) The Wicked Also Raised
1. Preliminary--Need of Definition and Distinction:
In hardly any subject is it more necessary to be careful in the definition of terms and clear distinction of ideas, especially where the Biblical doctrine is concerned, than in this of "immortality." By "immortality" is frequently meant simply the survival of the soul, or spiritual part of man, after bodily death. It is the assertion of the fact that death does not end all. The soul survives. This is commonly what is meant when we speak of "a future life," "a future state," "a hereafter." Not, however, to dwell on the fact that many peoples have no clear conception of an immaterial "soul" in the modern sense (the Egyptians, e.g. distinguished several parts, the Ka, the Ba, etc., which survived death; often the surviving self is simply a ghostly resemblance of the earthly self, nourished with food, offerings, etc.), there is the more serious consideration that the state into which the surviving part is supposed to enter at death is anything but a state which can be described as "life," or worthy to be dignified with the name "immortality." It is state peculiar to "death" (see Death); in most cases, shadowy, inert, feeble, dependent, joyless; a state to be dreaded and shrunk from, not one to be hoped for. If, on the other hand, as in the hope of immortality among the nobler heathen, it is conceived of, as for some, a state of happiness--the clog of the body being shaken off--this yields the idea, which has passed into so much of our modern thinking, of an "immortality of the soul," of an imperishableness of the spiritual part, sometimes supposed to extend backward as well as forward; an inherent indestructibility.
2. Biblical Conception:
It will be seen as we advance, that the Biblical view is different from all of these. The soul, indeed, survives the body; but this disembodied state is never viewed as one of complete "life." For the Bible "immortality" is not merely the survival of the soul, the passing into "Sheol" or "Hades." This is not, in itself considered, "life" or happiness. The "immortality" the Bible contemplates is an immortality of the whole person--body and soul together. It implies, therefore, deliverance from the state of death. It is not a condition simply of future existence, however prolonged, but a state of blessedness, due to redemption and the possession of the "eternal life" in the soul; it includes resurrection and perfected life in both soul and body. The subject must now be considered more particularly in its different aspects.
I. The Natural Belief.
1. Its Origin:
In some sort the belief in the survival of the spirit or self at death is a practically universal phenomenon. To what is it traceable? A favorite hypothesis with anthropologists is that it has its origin in dreams or visions suggesting the continued existence of the dead (compare H. Spencer, Eccles. Instit., chapters i, xiv). Before, however, a dream can suggest the survival of the soul, there must be the idea of the soul, and of this there seems a simpler explanation in the consciousness which even the savage possesses of something within him that thinks, feels and wills, in distinction from his bodily organs. At death this thinking, feeling something disappears, while the body remains. What more natural than to suppose that it persists in some other state apart from the body? (Compare Max Muller, Anthrop. Religion, 281.) Dreams, etc., may help this conviction, but need not create it. It is only as we assume such a deeper root for the belief that we can account for its universality and persistence. Even this, however, while an instinctive presumption, can hardly be called a proof of survival after death, and it does not yield an idea of "immortality" in any worthy sense. It is at most, as already said, a ghostly reduplication of the earthly life that is thus far reached.
2. Philosophical Arguments:
(1) The Soul Spiritual.
The more philosophical arguments that are adduced for the soul’s immortality. (or survival) are not all of equal weight. The argument based on the metaphysical essence of the soul (see Plato’s Phaedo) is not in these days felt to be satisfying. On the other hand, it can be maintained against the materialist on irrefragable grounds that the soul, or thinking spirit, in man is immaterial in Nature, and, where this is granted, there is, or can be, no proof that death, or physical dissolution, destroys this conscious spirit. The presumption is powerfully the other way. Cicero of old argued that death need not even be the suspension of its powers (compare Tusc. Disp. i.20); Butler reasons the matter from analogy (Anal., I, chapter i); modern scientists like J.S. Mill (Three Essays, 201) and Professor Huxley (Life and Letters, I, 217 ff; compare, Ingersoll Lecture) concede that immortality cannot be disproved. The denial one hears from various sides more frequently than formerly is therefore not warranted. Still possibility is not certainty, and there is nothing as yet to show that even if the soul survives death, its new state of existence has in it anything desirable.
Soul not Inherently Indestructible
It was hinted that one use which the Greeks made of the metaphysical argument was to prove the indestructibility of the soul--its immortality in the sense of having no beginning and no end. This is not the Christian doctrine. The soul has no such inherent indestructibility. It is dependent on God, as everything else is, for its continued existence. Did He withdraw His sustaining power, it would cease to exist. That it does continue to exist is not doubted, but this must be argued on other grounds.
(2) Capacities of Human Nature.
A much more apprehensible argument for immortality--more strictly, of a future state of existence--is drawn from the rich capacities and possibilities of human nature, for which the earthly life affords so brief and inadequate a sphere of exercise. It is the characteristic of spirit that it has in it an element of infinitude, and aspires to the infinite. The best the world can give can never satisfy it. It has in it the possibility of endless progress, and ever higher satisfaction. It was this consideration which led Kant, with all his theoretical skepticism, to give immortality a place among his "doctrinal beliefs" (see his Critique of Pure Reason, Bohn’s translation, 590-91), and moved J.S. Mill to speak of it as the only hope which gave adequate scope to the human faculties and feelings, "the loftier aspirations being no longer kept down by a sense of the insignificance of human life by the disastrous feeling of `not worth while’ " (Three Essays, 249). Yet when these arguments are calmly weighed, they amount to no more than a proof that man is constituted for immortality; they do not afford a guarantee that this destiny might not be forfeited, or if they yield such a guarantee for the good, they hardly do so for the wicked. The belief, in their case, must depend on other considerations.
(3) The Moral Argument.
It is, as Kant also felt, when we enter the moral sphere that immortality, or the continued existence of the soul, becomes a practical certainty to the earnest mind. With moral personality is bound up the idea of moral law and moral responsibility; this, in turn, necessitates the thought of the world as a moral system, and of God as moral Ruler. The world, as we know it, is certainly a scene of moral administration--of probation, of discipline, of reward and penalty--but as obviously a scene of incomplete moral administration. The tangled condition of things in this life can satisfy no one’s sense of justice. Goodness is left to suffer; wickedness outwardly triumphs. The evil-doer’s own conscience proclaims him answerable, and points to future judgment. There is need for a final rectification of what is wrong here. But while a future state seems thus called for, this does not of itself secure eternal existence for the wicked, nor would such existence be "immortality" in the positive sense. In view of the mystery of sin, the lamp of reason grows dim. For further light we must look to revelation. II. The Biblical Doctrine--the.
1. Starting-Point--Man’s Relation to God:
The Biblical view of immortality starts from man’s relation to God. Man, as made in the image of God (
With this corresponds the account given of man’s creation and original state. Man is a being composed of body and soul; both are integral parts of his personality. He was created for life, not for mortality. The warning, "In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die" (
2. Sin and Death:
The frustration of this original destiny of man comes through sin. Sin entails death (see Death). Death in its physical aspect is a separation of soul and body--a breaking up of the unity of man’s personality. In one sense, therefore, it is the destruction of the immortality which was man’s original destiny. It does not, however, imply the extinction of the soul. That survives, but not in a state that can be called "life." It passes into Sheol--the sad, gloomy abode of the dead, in which there is no joy, activity, knowledge of the affairs of earth, or (in the view of Nature) remembrance of God, or praise of His goodness (on this subject, and the Hebrew belief in the future state generally, see Eschatology of the Old Testament; Death; SHEOL). This is not future "life"--not "immortality."
It is the part of grace and redemption to restore immortality in the true sense. Had the world been left to develop in sin, no further hope could have come to it. The picture of Sheol would have become ever darker as the idea of retribution grew stronger; it could never become brighter.
3. Grace and Redemption--the True Immortality:
Deliverance from Sheol.
Here we reach the core of the Old Testament hope of immortality. Such fellowship as the believer had with God could not be lost, even in Sheol; beyond that was deliverance from Sheol. In their highest moments it was this hope that sustained patriarchs, psalmists, prophets, in their outlook on the future. Doubt might cloud their minds; there might be seasons of darkness and even despair; but it was impossible in moments of strong faith to believe that God would ever really desert them. The eternal God was their dwelling-place; them were everlasting arms (
4. Later Jewish Thought:
Later Jewish thought carried out these ideas of the Old Testament to further issues. A blessed future for the righteous was now accepted, and was definitely connected with the idea of resurrection. The wicked remained in Sheol, now conceived of as a place of retribution. The Gentiles, too, shared this doom.
III. The Christian Hope.
1. Immortality through Christ:
In full consonance with what is revealed in part in the Old Testament is the hope of immortality discovered in the
(1) Survival of the Soul.
The soul survives the body. A future state for both righteous and wicked is plainly declared by Jesus Himself. "He that believeth on me," He said to Martha, "though he die, yet shall he live; and whosoever liveth and believeth on me shall never die" (
(2) Union with Christ in Unseen World.
(3) The Resurrection.
(4) The Wicked Also Raised.
The wicked also are raised, not, however, to glory, but for judgment (
(5) Eternal Life.
(1) restoration to God’s image and likeness to Christ (
(2) perfect holiness in the possession of God’s Spirit (
(3) the unveiled vision of God’s glory (
(4) freedom from all sorrow, pain and death (
(5) power of unwearied service (
The contrast between the Biblical view of immortality and that of heathenism and of the schools will now be obvious. It is not mere future existence; not a bare, abstract immortality of the soul; it is the result of redemption and of renewal by God’s spirit; it embraces the whole personality, soul and body; it is not shared by the unholy; it includes the perfection of rational, moral and spiritual blessedness, in an environment suitable to such glorified existence. As such it is the supreme prize after which every believer is called to strive (
Ingersoll Lectures on Immortality, by Professor William James, Professor Osler, etc.; Salmond, Christian Doctrine of Immortality; Orr, Christian View of God and the World, Lects iv, v, with App. to v; works specified in the article on ESCHATOLOGY.