3. Can We Believe in Immortality?
The word immortal means exemption from liability to death. That which is immortal is not liable to death. History shows that wherever man has appeared there has been the idea of a longer span of life than that between the cradle and the grave. Only a few have dared to believe that death ends all and that with the death of the body there is the death of the spirit and soul of man. But God have mercy on us if the grave marks our end! “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” (1 Corinthians 15:19). And certainly there is naught but misery and despair in the words of the agnostic who said:
There is one steady star; and dim from afar,
Comes the solace that dies in its gleam;
There’s the coffin nail’s rust; the brain in white dust;
And the sleeping that knows no dream.
This song of unbelief says there is a “sleeping that knows no dream.” Contrariwise, the Apostle Paul by the Holy Spirit says: “We know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Corinthians 5:1).
The Witness of the Ancients
Wherever death has come it seems to have brought with it a conscious assurance of immortality. The immortal soul of saint and savage alike has voiced a hope in life beyond the grave. The idea of the permanency of death seldom was entertained in the mind of man.
Egypt, the classroom of the world’s finest arts and sciences, had a strong faith and a feeling of certainty in immortality. Professor Salmond in his “Doctrine of Immortality” says that the Egyptians had the reputation of being the first people who taught the doctrine of immortality. Very often the coffin was referred to as “the chest of the living.” The Egyptian art of embalming grew out of their belief in immortality. Their conception of a future life originated the idea and construction of the pyramids, one of the wonders of the world. These huge monuments were erected because it was believed that the soul returned to the body and required an eternal abode. So the mighty pyramids and Egyptian mummies tell us of the ancient belief in a deathless soul.
The heathen of Africa believe in life after death. We are told that the wives of the deceased take up their residence near the tomb so that they can remain the rest of their earthly lives “to watch the departed spirit.” Madison C. Peters quotes David Livingstone’s story of his travels in which Livingstone tells of the belief of the old Chinsunse: “We live only a few days here, but we live again after death; we do not know where, or in what condition, or with what companions, for the dead never return to tell us. Sometimes the dead do come back and appear to us in our dreams; but they never speak, nor tell us where they have gone, nor how they fare.” Only recently we listened to testimonies of returned missionaries, relating the belief of the African in life after death.
Steeped in savagery, the Indian of other lands as well as those in North America, had some idea of a future life. In some ancient Asiatic tribes the belief was held that the next world could be reached by the cremation of the body, the fire god taking the deceased to the gods of the other world. Sometimes animals were sacrificed in the fire to precede the corps to the land beyond. Some North American Indians, believing that they were providing their departed tribesman with the necessary equipment for the land where the Great Spirit lives, buried their dead with bow and arrow and canoe. The Indians had many and various customs of expressing their belief in a life beyond the grave. When a Seneca Indian maiden died a young bird was imprisoned until it first learned how to sing. It was then given messages of affection and loosed over the grave of the maiden in the belief that it would neither close its eyes nor fold its wings until it had flown to the spirit-world and delivered the message of love to her who had died.
Through six millenniums of human history man has looked upon immortality as a reality. Universally believed, it is the most indestructible of all instincts and the most penetrating of all intuitions. We agree with Dr. Lockyer when he said: “Without hesitation, affirm that the belief in a future state was derived from a revelation made to our first parents by their Creator, and that it traveled down the ages. The Hope of Immortality, resident within the breast of both savages and saints, was planted there by Him who has no beginning or end.”
The Witness of the Bible
When we approach the Bible on the subject of immortality, it is well to have in mind a few important facts that are basic and necessary to a proper understanding of the subject. Nowhere in the Bible is the expression to be found, “the immortality of the soul.” Nor is there written anything about “the immortal soul.” We are not suggesting for a moment that Scripture teaches anything about the sleep or annihilation of the soul at death. The thought of the soul’s endless being is true enough, but it is not Scriptural language to refer to “the immortality of the soul.” The Word of God assumes the eternal existence of every soul regardless of its destiny. Every man’s soul is immortal and can never be annihilated. Jesus said: “Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in Hell” (Matthew 10:28). Now those who teach “soul-sleep” would have us believe that their doctrine is Biblical, when actually they have falsified the facts by their misinterpretation of Scripture. Man can kill the body, but that is the worst he can do. God alone can take hold of both body and soul and condemn them.
Three Kinds of Death
It is true we read: “The soul that sinneth, it shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4), but neither here nor elsewhere in Scripture does a reference to the soul dying mean a state of non-existence, or even one of unconsciousness. The Bible teaches that there are three kinds of death and it distinguishes clearly between each. First, there is physical death, or the separation of the soul from the body. This is the death of the body to which reference was made in Hebrews 9:27, “It is appointed unto men once to die.” Second, the Bible teaches that there is a spiritual death. This is the separator of the soul from God, the condition of all unbelievers of whom Paul says they are “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1), and “alienated from the life of God” (Ephesians 4:18). Third, there is eternal death or banishment from God. All who suffer eternal death are conscious, but “shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thessalonians 1:9), these “have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone, which is the second death” (Revelation 21:8).
The Immortal Becomes a Mortal
The words “immortal” and “immortality” when used in Scripture in reference to man find their application to the body. The body of our first parent, as God created him, was an immortal body created to endless existence. God had warned Adam and Eve against eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, saying: “In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Genesis 2:17). In spite of the Lord’s warning, they disobeyed, and immediately death began its work in the body. The immortal had put on mortality. Paul says: “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world and death by sin” (Romans 5:12). So then, says the writer to the Hebrews, “It is appointed unto men once to die” (Hebrews 9:27). And again we read in First Corinthians, “In Adam all die” (1 Corinthians 15:22). Over all of the human race, having received its natural life from Adam, hangs the sentence of death. Mortality is the curse upon our race as the result of sin and is the saddest fact in world history. The body of man does not possess immortality by nature, but he is a mortal being--subject to death.
Deliverance from Mortality
The purpose of the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ was to offer redemption to the fallen race. No mortal could have done this. The dead cannot impart life. The only way that man could escape the sentence of death was by “the appearing of our Lord Jesus . . . Who only hath immortality” (1 Timothy 6:14, 16). The soul of man, though retaining endless existence, became morally degenerate. After the fall, his body became corruptible, and his spirit lost all relationship with God. But a glorious truth is given us by the Apostle Paul. He says: “The appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ, hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10). O wondrous thought! The Immortal One became mortal, “obedient unto death” (Philippians 2:8), that He might redeem man’s soul, restore his spirit to right relation with God and make his body heir to incorruptibility. This is the triumph of the cross of Christ. By His death and resurrection from the grave our Lord “abolished death.” He was willing to be clothed with mortality “that through death He might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Hebrews 2:14). “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).
Eternal Life and Immortality
It seems to the writer that the subject under consideration is made clearer as we see a difference between eternal life and immortality. The terms are not synonymous. The moment one trusts Jesus Christ for salvation he receives everlasting life. This is God’s gift bestowed to the sinner upon his acceptance of Jesus Christ as his own personal Saviour from sin. “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life” (John 3:36). “He that believeth on Me hath everlasting life” (John 6:47). “But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His Name” (John 20:31). The glorious work of redemption for sinners is effective in any individual just as soon as he is born again, but it cannot be correctly stated that at that moment the soul became immortal. As a matter of fact the soul never lost its immortality. Regeneration by the Holy Spirit is but the beginning of the redemptive process. Immediately upon the Holy Spirit’s taking residence in man’s spirit, the soul receives eternal life. But the body, even though it has become heir to immortality and incorruptibility, must die. The only possibility the Christian has of his body escaping death and the grave is the return of Christ to rapture all believers to Himself. It follows then that one can possess and enjoy eternal life while death and the grave stare them in the face.
But is this the best that God can offer man? Must our bodies suffer disease, pain, and disability to be put into the ground and to disappear forever? This is where God effects the consummation of the redemptive process. The Apostle Paul says: “We ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body” (Romans 8:23). But is there any guarantee that this corruptible body will put on incorruption? Can we be certain that the mortal will one day be clothed with immortality? We only say that in order to fulfill the redemption covenant and promise, Jesus Christ is under oath and obligation to raise the bodies of all the dead who died trusting in Him. There is bright hope and full assurance in the words of our Lord: “I am the resurrection, and the life; he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live” (John 11:25). Our Lord’s own testimony assures us of the deliverance from death and decay to life and immortality.
The redemption of the soul is past, but the redemption of the body is still future. Since man is a trinity, and all three component parts of him must be united, it can only be possible as man is restored once again to the image and likeness of God. This is exactly what takes place at the resurrection “when man--the unit--with his tripartite nature is reconstructed into an immortal.” The Gospel did not have its consummation with the death of Christ. Paul said: “I declare unto you the Gospel . . . how that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:1-4). Jesus Christ the Immortal One, became mortal by His death. But it was only temporary mortality. By His resurrection from death and the grave to immortality, the Son of God guarantees the same for all that are His. By the first Adam came mortality and death, and by the Last Adam came life and immortality. “Now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept . . . But every man in his own order; Christ the firstfruits, afterward they that are Christ’s at His coming” (1 Corinthians 15:20, 23). As every child of Adam dies, so will every child of God be raised never to die again.
“They that are Christ’s” tells us who shall become immortal. “At His coming!” This tells us when we shall become immortal. Immortality is the final step of redemption when our Lord comes again. It is for the redeemed only, for even as “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption” (1 Corinthians 15:5).
“The dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:22). Though the body of the believer has decayed in the ground, his spirit is still alive and is the pledge of resurrection life. We read: “But if the Spirit of Him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, He that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by His Spirit that dwelleth in you” (Romans 8:11). If the Holy Spirit who is the Spirit of Life, is dwelling in you, by that same Spirit will our mortal bodies be quickened into newness of life. This is the victory that Christ wrought for us by His Death and Resurrection. He took hold of death and, grappling with it, compelled it to let go while He ascended triumphantly to glory. And now, unhindered by death, all who are His are permitted to follow after Him into glory also. Abraham Kuyper has said that the redeemed of the Lord truly die, but without ever for one moment coming under the power of death. Giving up the ghost, breathing out the last breath, is for them nothing but passing through the gate, which from this world leads to the world which is with God; and thus for him who dies in Jesus, it is nothing but a passage into eternal life.
One day the Apostle Paul uttered a self-despairing cry, “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” The body, yet unredeemed and under the law of sin and death, is a “body of death.” But Paul continues: “I thank God (there is deliverance) through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:24-25). Death may seem to triumph for a season as it enters into our homes, and one by one, takes those nearest and dearest to us. But death cannot be triumphant over the believer in Christ, “for this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:53, 54). The child of God has lost all fear of death, and he can look into a grave unafraid. One day I stood by the grave of my godly grandmother and lifted my heart in praise and gratitude to God that death and the grave were conquered by the risen Saviour. I am looking for the return of Christ and that glad day when the graves shall be opened and the dead in Christ shall rise first, and together we shall sing: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? . . . Thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:55, 57).
New Bodies for Old
A well-known magazine published an article entitled, New Bodies for Old. The purpose of the article was to show the progress that science had made toward giving new arms and legs for lost ones and eyes that can see to men who were blind. Finally, it predicted that an entirely new body may some day be exchanged for an old one, “retaining the developed brain.” It concluded by saying, “How many thousands of years in the future all this may be is uncertain.” How foolish of the scientific mind to think that it is possible to produce earthly immortality, letting God out of the picture!
The subject of immortality is not of human origin. The Biblical conception of immortality commences with man being in right relation to God, and such relationship he cannot attain by human effort. Man must acknowledge the immortal Christ as his only hope for life after death. Without the Cross of Christ there could have been no redemption for the fallen race, and without that redemption there can be no hope for the life that is immortal. The Christian possesses a living hope that finds its root in the Person and Work of the now living Christ. The Apostle Peter affirms: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to His abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively (or a living) hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). Though eternal life and immortality are not synonymous terms, still there can be no immortality of the body where the spirit of man has not received eternal life through personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Our Lord could say to His disciples: “Because I live, ye shall live also” (John 14:19). The resurrection of believers is guaranteed by Christ’s own resurrection.
Edward Rees has said that it is the preaching of immortality which keeps alive the flame of devotion upon the altars of the hearts of men. The Apostle Paul, who apart from our Lord, was doubtless the greatest preacher of all time, repeatedly held before Christians this glorious truth. His messages were all Christocentric and they directed his hearers heavenward “from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ; Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto His glorious body, according to the working whereby He is able even to subdue all things unto Himself” (Philippians 3:20, 21). This all-glorious fact is the conquering hope of the Church. William Jennings Bryan has given us a beautiful paragraph on the subject.
If the Father deigns to touch with divine power the cold and pulseless heart of the buried acorn, and make it burst forth from its prison walls, will He leave neglected in the earth the man, who was made in the image of his Creator? If He stoops to give to the rosebush, whose leaves and withered blossoms float upon the breeze, the sweet assurance of another springtime, will He withhold the words of hope from the souls of men when the frosts of death’s winter come? If matter, mute and inanimate, though changed by the forces of nature into a multitude of forms, can never die, will the imperial spirit of man suffer annihilation after it has paid a brief visit, like a royal guest to this tenement of clay? Rather let us believe that He who in His apparent prodigality wastes not the raindrop, the blade of grass or the evening’s zephyr, but makes them all carry out His eternal plans, has given immortality to the mortal, and gathered to Himself the generous spirit of our friends.
In the hour of death and separation from our loved ones we have this comforting belief that the grave is but the gateway to glory. May God grant that you, dear reader, shall receive eternal life and a victorious faith in a life after death.