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IMMORTALITY (ἀθανασία, ἀφθαρσία, incorruptibility). In the Scriptures immortality is attributed to God and man and means freedom from decay, dissolution, and death.

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.

The immortality of man

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).

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.

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.


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.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

i-mor’-tal, im-or-tal’-i-ti (athanasia, 1Co 15:53; 1Ti 6:16, aphtharsia, literally, "incorruption," Ro 2:7; 1Co 15; 2Ti 1:10, aphthartos, literally, "incorruptible," Ro 1:23; 1Co 15:52; 1Ti 1:17):

1. Preliminary--Need of Definition and Distinction

2. Biblical Conception


1. Its Origin

2. Philosophical Arguments

(1) The Soul Spiritual

Soul not Inherently Indestructible

(2) Capacities of Human Nature

(3) The Moral Argument


1. Starting-Point--Man’s Relation to God

Man’s Nature

2. Sin and Death

3. Grace and Redemption--The True Immortality

Deliverance from Sheol

4. Later Jewish Thought


1. Immortality through Christ

(1) Survival of the Soul

(2) Union with Christ in Unseen World

(3) The Resurrection

(4) The Wicked Also Raised

(5) Eternal Life

2. Contrasts


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 William James, 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 Old Testament.

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 (Ge 1:27), is fitted for the knowledge of God, for fellowship with Him. This implies that man is more than an animal; that he has a life which transcends time. In it already lies the pledge of immortality if man is obedient.

Man’s Nature.

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" (Ge 2:17), implies that if man continued obedient he would live. But this is not an immortality of the soul only. It is a life in the body (compare Ge 3:22). Its type is such cases as Enoch and Elijah (Ge 5:24; 2Ki 2:11,12; compare Ps 49:15; 73:24).

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 (De 33:27; compare Ps 90:1). Their hope of immortality, therefore, was, in principle, the hope not merely of an "immortality of the soul," but likewise of resurrection--of complete deliverance from Sheol. Thus it is clearly in the impassioned outburst of Job (19:25-27; compare 14:13 ff), and in many of the psalms. The hope always clothes itself in the form of complete deliverance from Sheol. Thus in Ps 17:14 f, the wicked have their portion "in this life," but, "As for me, I shall behold thy face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness" (the American Standard Revised Version "with beholding thy form"); and in Ps 49:14 f, the wicked are "appointed as a flock for Sheol," but "God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol; for he will receive me" (same expression as that regarding Enoch, Ge 5:24; compare Ps 73:24). It will be remembered that when Jesus expounded the declaration, "I am the God of Abraham," etc., it was as a pledge of resurrection (Mt 22:31 f). The idea comes to final expression in the declaration in Da of a resurrection of the just and unjust (12:2). For further development and illustration see Eschatology of the Old Testament.

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.

See Eschatology.

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 New Testament. The ring of this joyful hope is heard in every part of the apostolic writings. "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ," says Peter, "who according to his great mercy begat us again unto a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, unto an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you" (1Pe 1:3 f). Paul declares, "Our Saviour Christ Jesus, who .... brought life and immortality (incorruption) to light through the gospel" (2Ti 1:10). In Ro 2:7 he had spoken of those who "by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and incorruption, eternal life." This immortality, it is seen, is part of the eternal life bestowed through Jesus on believers. It is guaranteed by Christ’s own resurrection and life in glory. The nature of this hope of the gospel may now be further analyzed.

(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" (Joh 11:25 f). To His disciples He said, "If I go and prepare a place for you, I come again, and will receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also" (Joh 14:3). Compare His words to the penitent thief: "To-day shalt thou be with me in Paradise" (Lu 23:43). The survival of both righteous and wicked is implied in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lu 16:19-31). So in many other places (e.g. Mt 5:29 f; 10:28; 11:21-24; 12:41, etc.). The same is the teaching of the epistles. The doctrine of a future judgment depends on and presupposes this truth (Ro 2:5-11; 2Co 5:10, etc.).

(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 (Joh 5:29; Ac 24:15; Re 20:12-15). The same truth is implied in all passages on the last judgment. Excluded from the blessedness of the righteous, their state is described by both Jesus and His apostles as one of uttermost tribulation and anguish (e.g. Mt 25:46; Mr 9:43-50; Ro 2:8 f). This is not "immortality" or "life," though the continued existence of the soul is implied in it (see Everlasting Punishment; Hell; RETRIBUTION).

(5) Eternal Life.

(1) restoration to God’s image and likeness to Christ (1Co 15:49; 2Co 3:18; Eph 4:24; Col 3:10; 1; Joh 3:2);

(2) perfect holiness in the possession of God’s Spirit (2Co 7:1; Php 1:6; Re 21:27; 22:4,11);

(3) the unveiled vision of God’s glory (Re 22:4; compare Ps 17:15);

(4) freedom from all sorrow, pain and death (Re 21:3 f);

(5) power of unwearied service (Re 22:3).

2. Contrasts:

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 (Php 3:13 f).


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.

See also

  • Eschatology