The answer to this question depends somewhat on your definition of immortality. Consider these three definitions:
- Ongoing physical life without any form of death ever occurring;
- The innate possession of an immortal part of one’s being, e.g. the soul, which will survive bodily death;
- The gift from elsewhere of an ongoing life, not itself innate in the human make-up, which could then provide the human continuity into eternity.
The first of these is clearly not the biblical hope. The second is the position of Plato, although it should be noted that for Plato, immortality didn’t simply mean that souls would continue to exist beyond death, it also meant that they had always existed. Immortality for Plato is not simply forward looking, but backward looking too. Origen held a similar view. Whilst many Christians debated whether each soul was individually crafted by God (creationism), or passed down from parents through natural generation (traducianism), Origen argued for pre-existentianism, surmising that “because God is omnipotent, he must always have had […] an invisible spiritual world composed of rational creatures over which he could exercise his power.”1 This position is not remotely found in Scripture.2
When Christians speak of the soul’s immortality, they must mean something other than existence in eternity future and eternity past. I think the third option is closer to a biblical view of the immortality of the soul.
The language of immortality is more or less lacking from the OT, although in Proverbs 12:28 we find a coined equivalent, ‘not death’. In the NT, three Greek words are sometimes rendered ‘immortality’, athanasia, aphtharsia and aphthartos. These are used seventeen times; five applying to God and the remaining twelve to man. Interestingly they are never used in conjunction with the word ‘soul’.
But Scripture regularly teaches that God has life in Himself; He depends on nobody for existence (eg. Jer 10:10; Acts 14:15-17; 1 Tim 4:10; Rev 4:9-10; Psalm 90:2; 102:27; Rev 1:8; 10:6; Ps 36:9; John 5:26; 6:57). Life is something intrinsic to Him, and which He bestows upon others. John writes that “just as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (John 5:26). 1 Timothy 6 is of particular interest, since it couples the idea that God “gives life to all things” with the claim that “it is He alone who has immortality.” (1 Tim 6:13, 16).
Murray J. Harris writes,
The distinctiveness or uniqueness of God’s immortality is to be located neither in his bodilessness nor in his spirituality nor simply in his being the only person inherently free from any propensity to deterioration which might lead to death, but rather in his being inherently deathless as the eternal source of life.3
Since God has intrinsic life, death must be extrinsic to Him, and if God alone is inherently immortal, it follows that any immortality man may receive or possess is only gained as a gift; a sharing of His divine life (cf. Rom 2:7; 6:23).
I think we are getting closer to defining a biblical, non-Platonic understanding of immortality. Insomuch as immortality connotes incorruptibility, imperishability, and the permanent absence of death and decay, this is clearly not something currently possessed by the physical body. To claim that the soul is immortal is to say that immortality is not a natural attribute, but a gift given out of the divine life possessed only otherwise by God. Souls did not always exist as Plato imagined, but were created by God, placed within a physical frame, united in an holistic form. As Aquinas writes, “The soul is also incorruptible according to the nature with which God endowed it at creation.”4
The possibility of an immortal soul being combined with a mortal body, with the eventual promise of a re-united immortal soul/body combination at the resurrection, raises tantalising questions, some of which we shall consider in the next post…
1. Allison, Historical Theology, (2011), p325
2. See the critiques of Grudem, Systematic Theology (1994), p. 484 and Barr, The Garden of Eden and the Hope of Immortality, (1992), p. 107.
3. Harris, Raised Immortal, (1983), p. 191. See too Cooper, Body, Soul and Life Everlasting (2000), p. 197.
4. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.76.1