We have learned that the doctrine of the immortality of the soul is not found in the Old Testament – but is it found in the New? Since so many other Christian doctrines depend on it, it seems logical that it should appear somewhere in the Bible.
Curiously, the words “immortal” and “soul” appear together nowhere in the New Testament – and not without good reason, as we shall see. In fact, the word “immortal” appears only once, “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen (I Timothy 1:17). Immortality is here described as an exclusive attribute of God, not man.
The word “immortality” is found only five times in the New Testament – Romans 2:7; I Corinthians 15:53, 54; I Timothy 6:16 and II Timothy 1:10. In the Romans reference, it is something for which Christiansseek, not something that they have. The 1 Corinthians verses both speak of it as something we “put on” at the resurrection — something with which we are
“clothed” by God.
In his first letter to Timothy, Paul refers to God “…who alone is immortal…” (I Timothy 6:16). In the second letter, Paul tells Timothy that Jesus “brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel (II Timothy 1:10). Jesus showed the way to eternal life. It was not something with which all of mankind was naturally endowed.
For the Sake of Argument
The idea that man is innately or naturally immortal gives rise to a number of logical questions. Why did God fail to reveal such an essential “truth” from the beginning? Why is the TaNaKh mute about it?
If man has an immortal soul, at what point was he gifted with it – at birth, at conception or prior to conception? What is the status of the soul of an aborted fetus? What does it look like? What is its fate?
If a “saved” person goes immediately to heaven at death, there to dwell forever with God, what is the point of the resurrection? William Tyndale (1492? – 1536), the Bible translator, also pondered the question of the resurrection, “And ye, in putting them [the dead] in heaven, hell or purgatory, destroy the arguments wherewith Christ and Paul prove the resurrection…if the souls be in heaven, tell me why they be not in as good a case as the angels be? And then what cause is there of a resurrection…The true faith putteth forth the resurrection, which we be warned to look for every hour. The heathen philosophers, denying that, did put that souls did ever live. And the pope joineth the spiritual doctrine of Christ and the fleshly doctrine of philosophers together, things so contrary they cannot agree. And because the fleshly-minded pope consenteth unto heathen doctrine, therefore he corrupteth the Scripture to establish it.” (Cited by P.Kapusta in “Immortality of the Soul” 2003.)
For his many attempts at truth-telling, Tyndale was murdered by strangulation and then burned at the stake by fellow “Christians.”
The New Testament speaks of a final judgment to follow a resurrection (John 5:29; Revelation 11:11-15 etc.). Yet if immortal souls are already judged at death, and are now lodged in heaven or hell, what is the point of such a resurrection? This would amount to a redundant judgment. Would not their future then be the same as what they had been experiencing?
By now the reader should be able to see that the New Testament teaches that not only is man not an immortal being, but that God alone is immortal. As Paul puts it, “…this mortal [man] must put on immortality…” In John 5:26 we read, “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself.”
Eternal life – immortality – is something God alone possesses. Following a final resurrection and judgment, he will grant immortality to those he deems worthy of it. Between now and that resurrection the dead in Christ “sleep” awaiting the call to life. This is the teaching of the New Testament. Yet it is not the teaching of much of the Church. How did the unbiblical doctrine of the immortality of the soul find its way into the Christian Church? In the next article in this series, we’ll find out.
Sidebar: Unhealthy Preoccupations
The Christian world tends to be preoccupied with the afterlife. It is concerned with “pearly gates,” “streets of gold” and “going to heaven.”
In contrast the Judaism of Jesus’ time and beyond was more concerned with life in the present. In fact, it is written in the Oral Law (Mishnah), “Whosoever gives his mind to four things it were better for him if he had not come into the world – what is above? What is beneath? What was beforetime? And what will be hereafter?” (M.Moed, Haggigah, 2.1)
Speculating about the details of heaven, hell, immortality, and the afterlife in general can become an unhealthy obsession. In some churches it has been used as a manipulation to get wealth or control the church populace through liturgy and ecclesiastical authority.
It is not wrong to form theologies about the afterlife based on what we find in Scripture, but if we go beyond the text we could find ourselves in deep exegetical waters. A healthier approach is to concern ourselves with present and leave the future to our loving Creator who is “not willing that any should perish…” (II Peter 3:9). If we have faith in God, we will trust him with our present and our future.
Jesus taught his disciples to be concerned with their daily bread – with the needs of the moment in the moment. Study Matthew 6:25-34. Notice especially verse 34, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own troubles.” Jesus practiced Judaism. He thought more like a Jew than like a gentile Christian. He was concerned with the present – about man’s relationship with God and with man in the now. The world to come is in God’s hands.