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Bible Dictionaries

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology


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A state or condition free from both death and decay. The Bible affirms that only God by nature has immortality (1 Timothy 6:16; cf. Deuteronomy 32:40; Romans 1:23; 1 Timothy 1:17 ). It also implies that it is a potential state for human beings. Humankind failed to obtain this state because of sin (Genesis 2:17; 3:19 ), but it is given by God to righteous persons (Romans 2:6-7; 1 Corinthians 15:23-56 ).

The concept of immortality is present in the Old Testament, but there is no Hebrew word for it. In Proverbs 12:28 (NASB)—"In the way of righteousness is life, and in its pathway there is no death"—immortality (as the word is translated in the NIV) is, literally, the Hebrew phrase "no-death" ( al-mawet ). "Sheol" occurs sixty-five times throughout the Old Testament; it is an obscure, shadowy, gloomy place of existence, but also of forgetfulness. The hope is for deliverance from it after death (Psalm 49:15; 86:13 ). Job 10:20-22 anticipates only a sheol-like state after death, but 19:25-26 seems to look for something more. Isaiah's prophecy ends with a vague expectation of continued existence for good and evil (66:22-24; cf. 26:16; Psalm 23:6 ); such is made clear in Daniel 12:2 .

The New Testament writers present the idea of immortality with (1) the nouns aphtharsia [ Romans 2:7; 1 Corinthians 15:42,50 , 53-54; Ephesians 6:24; 2 Timothy 1:10 ); and athanasia [ 1 Corinthians 15:53-54; 1 Timothy 6:16 ); (2) the adjective aphthartos [ Romans 1:23; 1 Corinthians 9:25; 15:52; 1 Timothy 1:17; 1 Peter 1:4 ); and (3) the phrase "eternal life" (lit., "life of the ages, " zoen aionion ). All these terms, except the latter (which Paul uses elsewhere), occur in 1 Corinthians 15 . "Eternal life" is a favorite expression of John (3:15,16, 36; 10:28; 17:2-3; 1 John 1:2; 2:25; 5:11,13 , 20 ) and is frequently used by Paul (e.g., Romans 2:7; 5:21; 6:22-23; Galatians 6:8; 1 Timothy 1:16; 6:12; 2 Timothy 2:10; Titus 1:2; 3:7 ). Passages such as 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 refer or allude to the concept with metaphors. Immortality is a corollary to references to existence after death or to the resurrection in general.

Jesus assumes a continuing existence after death throughout his teachings. Certainly the future aspects of the kingdom of God imply as much. He speaks of it directly in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31 ) and in the judgment scene of Matthew 25:31-46 . To make "everlasting life" available is at the heart of Jesus' mission: "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (10:10; cf. 5:40; 20:31). John 14:1-3 assumes not only a continuing existence but also that for believers it will be with Jesus.

Peter says Christians have been given "new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade" (1 Peter 1:3-4 ). Later he states that this new birth is "not of perishable seed, but of imperishable" (v. 23). The judgment scenes of Revelation 20-22 display eternal life of bliss for believers and punishment for the rest.

It is Paul who gives the clearest explanations of immortality. It is a gift made available through the work of Christ (Romans 2:7; 2 Timothy 1:10 ), the lasting reward of the believer in contrast to the perishable wreath won by the athlete (1 Corinthians 9:25 ). At the same time Paul asserts that the wicked face continuing, conscious alienation from God and positive punishment (2 Thessalonians 1:9 ).

First Corinthians 15:35-57 contains the most lengthy discussion of immortality, but is actually only a corollary to Paul's affirmation of the resurrection. Here Paul clearly sets forth the fact of an incorruptible, permanent existence in contrast to our present condition. However, as the planted seed and the stalk that grows from it are both the same yet different, so the future spiritual-immortal body will be both a continuation of and different from the physical-mortal one.

Second Corinthians 5:1-10 affirms that the future, eternal, heavenly "house" is the present possession of believers ("we have, " v. 1). In spite of the present undesirable state, a mortal one in which "we groan" (vv. 2-4), the Spirit is "the guarantee" of the better one that awaits the believer (v. 5). Furthermore, Paul maintains that to be "away from the body" is to be "at home with the Lord" (v. 8). Similarly, Philippians 1:20-21 asserts that through the believer's union with Christ the future (immortal) life is a present possession. Philippians 2:10-21 has the same expectation of a changed or transformed body, by implication an immortal one, as the Corinthians correspondence. Indeed, Paul assumes that immortality as a permanent, incorruptible, never-ending state and life not only await the Christian after death but is actually the present possession of the believer.

Differing views about nature of life beyond the grave are tied to differing views about the nature of humankind. Traditional Christianity has held a dualist or tripartite view of persons (soul-spirit and body or soul, spirit, and body) and that between death and the resurrection there is some sort of an intermediate state in which the immaterial part of the individual continues a conscious existence apart from the physical. Some who emphasize a holistic view of persons assume that at death there is an immediate resurrection of a new spiritual body and union with God. Others with a similar anthropology propound a form of re-creationism, a temporary extinction at death that ends at the resurrection in a new creation. An associated issue, "soul sleep" (psychopannychy), could be a corollary to either the traditional view or that of re-creation.

In summary, the Bible clearly teaches a continuing existence after death for all. For believers this will be deathless and imperishable, marked by that glory and honor that come from union with Christ. Because immortality is now obscured in corruptible bodies, changes will occur. Believers will have appropriately different bodies; their immortality will be evident. This fact, along with the bodily resurrection, Paul sees as assured because of the Spirit's guarantee, the defeat of death, and the ultimate victory of God through Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:54-57 ).

J. Julius Scott, Jr.

See also Death, Mortality; Eternal Life, Eternality, Everlasting Life; Resurrection

Bibliography . F. F. Bruce, Scottish Journal of Theology 24 (1971): 457-72; J. W. Cooper, Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting; O. Cullmann, HDSB (1955): 7-36; G. R. Habermas and J. B. Moreland, Immortality: The Other Side of Death; M. J. Harris, Raised Immortal: Resurrection and Immortality in the New Testament; idem, From Grave to Glory; G. E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament; A. Lincoln, Paradise Now and Not Yet; G. W. E. Nickelsburg, Jr., Resurrection, Immortality and Eternal Life in Intertestamental Judaism .

Copyright Statement
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
For usage information, please read the Baker Book House Copyright Statement.

Bibliography Information
Elwell, Walter A. Entry for 'Immortality'. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. 1996.

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