(image courtesy ChristArt)
By Spencer D Gear
There is only one Person who is truly immortal – God Himself, as stated in 1 Tim. 6:15-16 (ESV), “He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion.” Therefore, only God is immortal in the sense that He is the Owner and Originator of human life and he Himself has always existed.
Our immortality of the soul is in a derived sense and applies to all people, believers and unbelievers. Second Timothy 1:10 (ESV) speaks of God’s purpose and grace “which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”
I have found that many people (eg Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists) who object to the immortality of the soul are those who reject eternal punishment in hell for unbelievers. Let’s check out what the Bible says.
By immortality of the soul, I mean “the belief that human persons, at least in their spiritual dimension, consciously survive death and live on forever” (Geisler 1999:350). Or, for human beings, immortality means “deathlessness” (Hendriksen 1959:46).
C. S. Lewis wrote: “The earliest Christian documents give ascent to the belief that the supernatural or invisible part of man survives the death of the body” (1966:29).
Since the Bible teaches progressive revelation from the Old Testament (OT) to the New Testament (NT), we do not see a full expression of the immortality of the soul in the OT. Here’s a brief statement of what we find:
Old Testament and death
The OT affirms the hope of life after death in bodily terms. The doctrine of OT immortality is seen mostly in view of resurrection. Since human beings were created from the dust (Gen. 2:7), the expectation was that they would return to dust (Eccles. 12:7). However, this latter verse also teaches that “the spirit returns to God who gave it” (ESV). Therefore, the OT teaching does not support soul sleep, extinction or annihilation, but the human spirit going to God at death. We will see what that means for the just and unjust.
In the OT there are passages that support resurrection of people and that the dead would be brought back to life. See Scriptures such as Deut. 32:39; 1 Sam. 2:6; Job 19:25-27, and Ps. 49:14-15. Ps. 49:15 states, “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.”
In Isaiah there is evidence of the resurrection of the dead: “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!” (26:19). In Dan. 12:2, we read, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” The language of “the dust of the earth” shows the OT doctrine of the physical resurrection of people after death. “Sleep” is using the language of the phenomenon we see when a person breathes his/her last breath. Soul sleep is not a biblical teaching.
While the Sadducees rejected the teaching on the material resurrection of the dead, the Pharisees supported it (Matt. 22:23, 28). Martha demonstrated her belief in the resurrection of the dead when she said after the death of her brother, Lazarus, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24).
Jesus Christ and resurrection
Christ believed that the OT taught resurrection when he refuted the Sadducees. He told them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Matt. 22:29). Then Jesus quoted Exodus 3:6, 15: “I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. He is not God of the dead, but of the living” (Matt. 22:32).
Note especially the closing statement here: “He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” The dead are living!!
(image courtesy ChristArt)
New Testament views on death
The NT teaches immortality after the resurrection, but it also teaches the conscious existence of the soul between death and the resurrection, in what is known as the intermediate state.
Christ’s promise to the thief on the cross was “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43 ESV). Stephen, the martyr, prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59 ESV). He did not pray, “Lord Jesus, send me to the grave in which to sleep until the resurrection of the just and unjust.”
Paul’s classic statement of the immortality of the soul is in 2 Cor. 5:8 (ESV), “Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” Paul as he was contemplating his own death, wrote: “I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Phil. 1:23 ESV). There is no hint in Paul’s teaching of going to sleep in the grave before the resurrection of the just. He knew that when he died he would “be with Christ.” How does that compare with this life? It is “far better.”
Some contend that in I Corinthians 15 (ESV) Paul is correcting a false doctrine in Corinth of the immortality of the soul. Nowhere does Paul even hint at this. He wrote this passage to correct a false doctrine: “How can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” (I Cor. 15:14 ESV).
This passage of I Cor. 15 corrected a Sadducees-kind-of false doctrine, that there is no resurrection of the dead. It is fallacious to say that Paul was correcting a false doctrine of the immortality of the soul. Paul’s punch line is in v. 16: “For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised.” Immortality of the soul means that the soul continues in conscious existence after death and will be reunited with the body in the resurrection of all people.
When we go to the book of Revelation, we find an example of the souls of martyred people who are conscious and in heaven: “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne” (Rev. 6:9). But as for the wicked, even the beast and the false prophet who were thrown alive into the lake of fire (Rev. 19:20) were alive 1,000 years later (Rev. 20:10). What will happen to the devil, the beast and the false prophet? “They will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Rev. 20:10). There’s no soul sleep here!
In Matt. 17:3 (ESV) we read, “And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.” Here Moses and Elijah, who had been dead for hundreds of years, were alive and conversing about Christ’s death on the Mount of Transfiguration. There’s no soul sleep here!
This section is based on a response to TrustAndObey on Christian Forums:
You ask some very good questions here that need good answers:
- Let me ask you this, okay? Did Jesus go to paradise that day?
- What does Scripture tell us?
- Scripture tells us that Christ did not ascend to the Father the day that He died on the cross.
- There are significant questions that need to be answered about Luke 23: 43, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Questions such as:
1. Jesus was in the tomb for 3 days. How does this verse harmonise or contradict the meaning of what happened to Jesus at death?
2. Didn’t Christ ascend to Paradise only after the resurrection?
3. If this is true, how could he make a promise like this to the dying thief?
I think that you are pointing to these kinds of questions. These are excellent questions.
“You have to remember that the original language was written without any punctuation at all. . . I submit for your consideration that the comma was in the wrong place in Luke 23:43. If the verse read “Verily, verily I say unto thee today, thou shalt be with me in Paradise” we wouldn’t have a big contradiction. That would still be a promise from Christ Himself, but it wouldn’t give a timeline of when.”
Let’s take a read of major translations of Luke 23:43 to see what Greek scholars from around the world think of your suggested translation (punctuation):
- And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (ESV)
- Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (NIV)
- And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” (NASB)
- And Jesus replied, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (NLT)
- And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise. (KJV)
- And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” (NKJV)
- And Jesus said to him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (NET Bible)
- He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’ (NRSV)
- And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (RSV)
- Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (ISV)
- Jesus said to him, “I promise you that today you will be in Paradise with me.” (TEV/GNB)
- He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (NAB)
- He answered, ‘I tell you this: today you will be with me in Paradise” (NEB)
- He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (REB)
- He answered him, ‘In truth I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (NJB)
Of all these major translations, using the best of Greek scholars in the world, not one of them agrees with your suggested translation / punctuation of Luke 23:43 (ESV). But there is one translation that does agree with you: “And he said to him: ‘Truly I tell you today, You will be with me in Paradise.” Have a guess which translation this is? It’s the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures. From my understanding of NT Greek, the New World Translation is one of the most dishonest translations in the areas in which it translates according to preconceived Watchtower doctrine.
Koine Greek not only did not have any punctuation, but also it didn’t have any spaces between words. It didn’t distinguish between lower case and upper case. Some manuscripts are written in cursive (lower case) and others are uncial (all capitals) writings. In fact, most of the earliest manuscripts were uncial. The word order is nothing like what we have in English as the declensions (of nouns, adjectives) and conjugations (verbals) of words determine their places in the sentence.
Your desire to want to move the comma in Luke 23:43 (ESV) is a common technique by those who don’t want to deal with the immortality of the soul taught in this verse. When Jesus said to the thief, “today you will be with me in Paradise,” he was saying to the thief that after Jesus died on that very day, Jesus’ soul (or spirit) went immediately into the presence of the Father in heaven, even though Jesus’ body was in the grave.
Some want to disagree, claiming that Paradise is different from heaven. However, in both of the other NT uses of Paradise, they clearly mean heaven – as in 2 Cor. 12:4 (ESV), which was the place where Paul was caught up in his revelation of heaven. Also in Rev. 2:7 (ESV) we find that Paradise is the place of the tree of life, which is clearly heaven according to Rev. 22:2, 13 (ESV).
The immortality of the soul for all people is the teaching of orthodox Christianity and has been throughout its existence. Of course there have been a few exceptions, but these have been infinitesimal compared with the millions of orthodox teachers and followers in the history of the church. This led Robert Morey to state correctly: “From the classic Greek philosophers to the present time, the immortality of the soul has been accepted as immediately reasonable and virtually self-evident. . . For nearly two thousand years, with rare exceptions, Christians have generally believed in the immortality of the soul” (Morey 1984:68-69).
Immortality of the soul means that eternal salvation is the experience of the Christian from the moment he/she is committed to Christ as Saviour and Lord. Death means immediate translation into the presence of the Lord in Paradise for believers. For unbelievers, the immortality of the soul means continuous existence in the place of eternal punishment – hell – at the point of death. Denying the immortality of the soul is denial of orthodox biblical teaching.
To the question, “Are human beings immortal?” the answer is, “Yes, in the sense that their existence never ends.”
Norman L. Geisler 1999, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
William Hendriksen 1959, The Bible on the Life Hereafter, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan.
C. S. Lewis 1966, Miracles, Macmillan Co., New York.
Robert A. Morey 1984, Death and the Afterlife, Bethany House Publishers, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
 Christian Forums, TrustAndObey’s comments at: http://www.christianforums.com/t2279341-after-death.html&page=5#post19815123 [Accessed 10 November 2005.]
Copyright (c) 2014 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 21 December 2016.