Confused about Immortality?

One of the reasons for our confusion on many subjects is our unrecognized but preconceived or unclear ideas as a result of imprecise or misused words. For example, one who thinks he understands Aristotelian logic may conclude that everything must be either "A" or "not A." So he may ask, "Is a baby saved or lost?" as if it has to be one or the other. He assumes that if "saved" equals "A" then "not A" must mean "lost." Most of us have probably learned the answer to that, but not necessarily the principle behind the answer. The answer is that the baby is neither saved nor lost. He is safe.

Suppose you were asked, "Is your soul black or white? Is it fat or skinny?" You might laugh or cry, but you might do neither as you realize that everything does not have to fit into some preconceived, contrived or verbal category. It is not hard for the average person to realize that the expressions "black or white" or "fat or skinny" simply do not apply to the soul, although you may have a perfectly good sentence in terms of its structure or grammar.

Now, suppose you were asked, "Is the soul of man mortal or immortal?" If you assume that "mortal" always means "subject to death" and "subject to death" means "may cease to exist," then you have the same sort of problems you have if you try to decide whether your soul weighs more than mine, or if all souls weigh the same amount.

It might help clarify the problem if we asked, "Is the throne of God mortal or immortal?" and recognize that the terms simply do not apply. If the term "immortal" merely means "does not die," then we may admit that the throne of God and my mailbox are immortal. But it should not be hard to see that the terms "life" and "death" do not apply to them, for they neither live nor die.

Note carefully: the term "immortal" may include or involve the idea of undying, imperishable, or incorruptible. That does not mean the words are synonymous, but only means that in some contexts those things may be involved.

When the Bible says that Jesus alone has immortality (1 Tim. 6:16), it is sometimes assumed that the verse applies to God, who cannot die. It is then assumed that the term "mortal" refers to those who can die, and "immortal" refers to those who cannot die. This is not so, as we have previously suggested.

Let us realize that the problem is compounded as we find that a word can come to mean whatever human beings may make it mean, but that does not change its basic Bible meaning. For example, "baptize" may mean to English speaking people today, "Any religious ceremony, especially with the use of water, by which a person is inducted into membership in some church or religious community."

So, our basic question must always be, "How is the word used in the New Testament?" If we look at the word "soul" we discover that it sometimes refers to the whole person (Acts 27:37). It sometimes refers to the life of a person, or an immaterial part of a person that can exist apart from the body (Acts 2:27). Some assume from the fact that the soul of Jesus was not left in Hades that the terms "soul" and "spirit" are synonyms. That is not so, although they may be used interchangeably in some contexts, as "chair" and "table" are not synonyms. They are both "furniture" and may be used interchangeably in some contexts.

I do not find the terms "mortal" (thnetos) and "immortal" referring simply to beings or things that merely die or do not die, although that is a part of what is involved in mortality or immortality. In the Bible a mortal is a being who has the capability of dying, with the potential of having a glorified body that will not die, but will be in a state of bliss with Christ forever. I do not find angels and Satan spoken of as being either mortal or immortal, for as far as I know the Holy Spirit did not mean for the words to apply to them. They, and all unrighteous persons, are spoken of as being in existence forever, but in no case, as far as I can find, are they spoken of as being immortal. Romans 2:7 seems to confirm this conclusion. It says, "To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honor and immortality--." We do not seek merely for a continued existence. We seek for a state of blessed incorruption where we shall live forever in a body like unto Christ (1 John 3:2).

Man is a mortal being, for he is capable of dying, but he is also capable of having a glorified body that is incorruptible. He will then achieve immortality. I would not speak of the soul (psyche - life) of man as being immortal, for the simple reason that the term does not apply to that part of man. Since "immortality" does not simply mean "continued existence," it is not a Biblical expression to speak of the "immortality of the soul," although man's spirit will exist forever, either in bliss or torment. Torment is not immortality, though unending.

T. Pierce Brown

Published in The Old Paths Archive