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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Immortality (2)

IMMORTALITY.—In the ordinary acceptation of the term ‘immortality’ connotes ‘endlessness.’ It has ceased to express merely or solely a denial of physical death, in its incidence or its consequences, and has been extended to include the possibility or actuality of death, considered as putting an end to conscious existence either now or in the limitless future. Whether these two alternatives really mean the same thing, whether to be capable of dying is always and ultimately to die, and so that only is immortal which by its very nature and constitution is not liable to death, while all else perishes,—as is probably the case,—is a question that hardly comes within the scope of the present article. It will, however, be just, and will conduce to clearness, to separate these two considerations; to seek to determine, in the first instance, the teaching of Christ with regard to immortality in the limited sense of a denial of cessation of existence at death; and, secondly, to review the much wider and more perplexed question of the permanence of this ‘immortal’ state. ‘Does death end all?’, according to the mind and teaching of the Founder of Christianity, is an inquiry that needs to be twice raised,—once as it concerns the terminus of the present life upon earth, and again as it refers or may refer to a future to which human thought can set no limit. It is obvious that the first question is comparatively simple and uninvolved; and that upon its answer in the affirmative depends the possibility of opening the second, which is highly complicated, and involves the most far-reaching and important problems that can present themselves for human consideration.

By some writers the terms used in the NT, and especially by Christ Himself, with reference to a life after death have been further understood to imply blessedness. Life immortal would thus be not only life in the ordinary acceptation of conscious existence, but it would be life plus felicity. It is perhaps hardly right or wise to saddle the doctrine with this additional connotation. It will, however, be necessary to examine how far the words of Christ suggest or imply that He regarded happiness as an essential and inseparable part of the life to come, or a future existence of misery more or less prolonged as inconceivable unless it were terminated by restoration to bliss or annihilation of consciousness.

There is, however, a further preliminary consideration which must be taken into account. An examination of the whole teaching of Christ upon so momentous a theme, as it is transmitted by the Evangelists, may be expected to yield results not only positive but negative. Positive, inasmuch as upon a subject that concerns the deepest interests of men no great religious teacher can do other than afford some guidance to those who seek knowledge and truth at his lips; and negative, since the revelation which he may venture or see Ht to make of his own thoughts will obviously be determined and limited by the character and capacity of his contemporaries. In a sense neither derogatory nor contemptuous towards his hearers, he will refuse to cast his pearls before swine. Environment naturally and inevitably plays a large part in moulding the form into which doctrine shall be cast, and in assigning the bounds beyond which it shall not move. Teaching appropriate and welcome to the keen-witted and philosophic circles of Athens will fall on dull and inappreciative ears by the waterside or in the fields of Galilee. And of the confessedly greatest Teacher that the world has ever known this may be expected to be preeminently true; He will make His sayings accord both as to form and substance with the receptive ability of those to whom they are delivered. There will be many things within the compass of His own knowledge which they cannot now bear (John 16:12). And though He will at times give utterance to sayings hard to be understood (John 6:50 ff., John 6:60), of a depth and significance beyond their comprehension, foreshadowing truths into the full understanding of which only after-generations will be able to grow, the major part of His instruction will not be concerned with these; else would that instruction be barren and profitless to the hearers, no fruitful seed germinating to new spiritual and intellectual life. Moreover, it is precisely these sayings, dealing with the higher, more abstract and supra-sensible side of things, that would be most likely to be lost upon ordinary disciples, to fail to find a place in their memory, and in their subsequent reproductions, whether written or oral, of the Master’s teaching. Only by the choicer natures, the more refined and contemplative spirits among His followers, such as we conceive the Apostle John to have been, would this aspect of His discourse and doctrine be caught up and treasured, to be afterwards faithfully delivered as words φωνᾶντα συνετοῖσιν, although for the moment they may have soared far above the care or comprehension of those who first heard them with their outward ears.

Upon a priori grounds, therefore, bearing in mind the character of the people among whom Christ lived and with whom He had to deal, we should expect to find the speculative and philosophic side of doctrine but slightly represented, while stress is laid more upon ethics and the practical conduct of life. The supernatural will be stated, as it were, in terms of the natural, the heavenly of the earthly, and with a constant recognition of the actual needs and circumstances and possibilities of His hearers. Whether and how far this is so in fact only an examination of the texts can show. Such an examination of the more or less direct references in the Gospels to a future life will be most conveniently conducted under the three divisions suggested, viz.—(1) a renewed life after death, (2) the permanence of this life, (3) its comprehensiveness, whether it is to be conceived as embracing the entire race of mankind or limited to a part thereof. It will be necessary to take separately the evidence of the Synoptic Gospels and of St. John.

A. The Synoptists

(1) With regard to the first point little need be said, for indeed there is nothing in dispute. That the teaching of Christ assumes from first to last a conscious life beyond the grave for Himself and His hearers lies upon the surface of His words and permeates His entire rule of life. The whole tone of His speech, the implications of His parables, the sanctions with which He surrounds His encouragements and warnings, the comparative value which He teaches men to set upon heavenly and earthly things, the gravity and seriousness of His outlook into the future, all show that here at least to Him and to His hearers there was common ground; that He did not need to begin by proving to them that death was not the end of all, but that the universal postulate of religious thought of His day anticipated a renewal of personal and conscious existence after death. In this respect He was but adopting, assuming, and making the basis of impressive exhortation and warning what the majority at least of His contemporaries believed.

The repeated references to the coming of the Kingdom of God or of the heavens (Matthew 3:2; Matthew 4:17; Matthew 10:7; Matthew 12:28, Mark 1:15, Luke 9:27; Luke 10:9 al.), into which not everyone who professes loyalty will enter (Matthew 7:21); to the Day of Judgment or ‘that day’ (Matthew 10:15; Matthew 11:22; Matthew 11:24, Luke 10:14, Matthew 7:22 al.); to His own Resurrection (Matthew 17:9; Matthew 28; Matthew 26:32, Mark 9:31; Mark 10:34, Luke 18:33 al.) and the Coming of the Son of Man (Matthew 10:23; Matthew 16:27 f., Mark 13:26; Mark 14:62 al.), when those who have confessed or denied Him upon earth will reap as they have sown, in a public confession or denial of them before His Father and the holy angels (Matthew 10:32 f., Luke 9:26; Luke 12:8 f.),—all presuppose and rest upon the foundation of a belief in another life after this. The disciples are to lay up treasure in heaven (Matthew 6:20, Luke 12:33), the enjoyment of which is clearly not designed for the present. ‘In the regeneration’ these disciples shall sit upon thrones in the capacity of judges (Matthew 19:28, Luke 22:30). Even His enemies, who bound Him to death, shall ‘see’ the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power (Matthew 26:64, Mark 14:62; cf. Matthew 24:30, Mark 13:26, Luke 21:27). The robber, after death, shall be with Christ in Paradise (Luke 23:43). More than one parable bears emphatic witness to the same belief, for example that of the King and the Wedding Feast (Matthew 22:1 ff.), of the Talents (Matthew 25:14 ff.), of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19 ff.). These and other expressions which might be cited, figurative as some of them undoubtedly are, sufficiently emphasize the form and substance of a teaching which is not limited to the present, but always and consistently presupposes a life of active consciousness beyond the grave.

It is doubtful whether even the reputed scepticism of the Sadducees (Matthew 22:23-33, Mark 12:18-27, Luke 20:27-40) is any real exception to this. The scope and articles of the creed that they professed remain very uncertain. And their famous apologue is perhaps rather directed against the conception of a joint and common resurrection at one time and place, at which the relationships of this life would be resumed, than implies disbelief in any sequel after death to the life lived upon earth. The incident gives occasion at least to a most emphatic assertion on the part of Christ of the reality of the life that succeeds the present, and an equally emphatic repudiation of the idea that those who have died have ceased to be—‘God is not the God of the dead, but of the living; for all live unto him.’

(2) The question of the duration of this new life, the permanence or impermanence of the state after death, presents greater difficulties. Once again it may be said in anticipation that the probabilities of the case are strongly in favour of the former hypothesis. A teacher of the elevation and spirituality of Christ would hardly be likely to suggest to His hearers as a reward for following Him a prolonged existence indeed, but one which closed in the thick darkness of oblivion; and if He wished to convey the thought that in this respect a sharp distinction prevailed between those who loved and obeyed Him and those who did not,—the former are to be immortal, the latter entirely cease to be,—He would do so very clearly and emphatically, as presenting a further powerful and almost overwhelming incentive to hearken to His words. Moreover, it is to be noted also that the conception of ‘endlessness’ in the abstract is not one easily formulated or grasped, and that a doctrine of this character, assuming it to be present in His teaching, may very well prove to have been set forth in the simplest terms, rather by way of suggestion and illustration that would appeal to His hearers, than in the rigorous language of a scheme of metaphysics. The more important terms that bear upon this point are collected and will be conveniently examined together at a later stage. A few expressions only from the Synoptic Gospels call here for notice.

One of the most important passages, rather, perhaps, on the ground of what it implies than of what it directly states, is the declaration recorded in St. Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 16:18) of the permanence and inviolability of Christ’s Church, founded and built up as it is upon Himself.* [Note: It is strange that ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρα is still sometimes referred to Peter. The Speaker, or the Evangelist who reports Him, is playing upon the name in a characteristically Oriental manner. The similarity of the sound forms to Oriental thought a real bond of connexion between the persons. The whole point of the play is lost, and the expression reduced to meaninglessness and absurdity, if Πἑτρος and τἑτρα are identified (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:4, and in the OT, Genesis 2:23, Exodus 2:10 etc.).] The Speaker can hardly be conceived as thinking of a mere temporary duration of that Church, united as it is with Him in the closest of all bonds; the destruction or annihilation of the one would involve a like fate for the other: ‘the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it’ now or henceforth. And if the Church is to remain, then necessarily its members collectively: for the Church is the members.

It may be said also that the abiding nature of Christ’s words (Matthew 24:35, Mark 13:31, Luke 21:33), under the circumstances of their utterance, presupposes the continued existence of intelligent receptive hearers and doers. The permanence of His words is contrasted with that which in the universe appears most permanent and unchanged, ‘Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away’ (Mark 13:31, cf. Matthew 5:18, Luke 16:17); in no part or degree shall their accomplishment fail to be achieved. But this complete fulfilment does not imply the cessation of their effect upon and in those for whom they are spoken. Rather is it the beginning of a new life, which is only then perfected.

The literal demands of these passages would be satisfied by what has sometimes been termed ‘racial’ or ‘collective’ immortality; in which the race might be supposed to persist, while the individuals, each and all in turn, perished. Such an interpretation could not be ruled out of court on the ground that it is not suggested elsewhere in Christ’s teaching. But a conception so remote and unusual would seem to require much more clear and definite exposition, and is hardly consistent with the numerous references to a personal and individual survival.

In a negative sense also phrases like τὸ τέλος (Matthew 24:6, Mark 13:7, Luke 21:9), εἰς τέλος (Matthew 10:22; Matthew 24:13, Mark 13:13), ἡ συντέλεια τ. αἰῶνος (Matthew 13:40; Matthew 13:49; Matthew 24:3) clearly do not imply an absolute end, involving annihilation or the like. They do not, of course, assert survival in any universalistic sense; but they are not altogether neutral in the matter (cf. Matthew 13 ll.cc., and the interpretation that is given by Christ Himself of the parable of the Sower). The end of one era is the beginning of another, and for some at least ushers in a period of supreme blessedness (Matthew 10:22; Matthew 24:13, Mark 13:13).

The indications which the Synoptic Gospels afford on the subject of the comparative duration of the existence of the righteous and the wicked after death are almost wholly concerned with the significance of words like αἰώνιος (κόλασις αἱ. Matthew 25:46, πῦρ αἰώνιον Matthew 18:8, Matthew 25:41, αἰώνιον ἀμάρτημα Mark 3:29, εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα ib.), and will be more conveniently examined together (see below). Here it need only be said that parables such as those of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Wise and Foolish Virgins, or the Wedding Feast, do not in themselves suggest or demand any inequality of treatment as regards the mere duration of the allotted punishment or reward; and that references to the Judgment, the Day of Judgment, or the Last Day are equally neutral, as far as direct statement is concerned. While the burning of the tares in the parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matthew 13:30), if the detail is to be pressed as anything more than the natural and appropriate setting of the story,—the legitimate and necessary end of weeds,—rather points in the direction of permanence and indestructibility. Burning is not annihilation of matter, but transformation of form. And this particular feature of the parable might admit of interpretation as implying renovation through suffering, but is hardly satisfied by any theory of absolute cessation of being. Similarly, it might be urged that the πῦρ ἄσβεστον of Mark 9:43 (cf. v. 48) implies the permanence of the fuel on which it feeds. It is clear, however, that no secure or decisive argument can be based on what are obviously allusive and metaphorical expressions.

B. St. John.—Within the Fourth Gospel, where, if anywhere in the record of our Lord’s teaching, we might expect to find a reasoned and philosophical doctrine of a future life, that teaching is so entirely, or almost entirely, conveyed in connexion with a special phraseology, the leading terms of which are ζωἠ, ζωἠ αἱώνιος, and εἰς τ. αἰῶνα, that little need be said by way of anticipation of the special investigation of these terms. It is worth noting, however, at once, in view of the interpretation of these expressions which will be urged below, that every reference in St. John to a definite termination or close of a world-period is, as we saw was the case in the Synoptists, such as to presuppose and assume a continuation beyond. The conception of an absolute end, beyond which there is nothing, is as foreign to the thought of this Gospel as to that of the others. There is a ‘last day’ (ἡ ἐσχάτη ἡμέρα, john John 6:39 f.; John 6:44; John 6:54; John 11:24; John 12:48, a phrase not found in the Synoptists); but it terminates one age only to usher in another more glorious. Judgment (κρίσις) again in St. John does not ordinarily await the setting up of a future tribunal; it is immediate conviction, wrought by the presence of the light. And in the one passage where it is definitely relegated to the future (John 5:29) the parallelism of the phraseology (ἀνάστασις κρίσεωςἀνάστασις ζωῆς) shows that whatever threatening of suffering or retribution may lie behind the word, there is no thought of extinction, or of a final end, in the mind of the Speaker,—they that have practised ill ((Revised Version margin)) come to the resurrection equally with those that have done good. He cannot be conceived to mean that they are raised merely that forthwith, or after a longer or shorter period, they may be destroyed.

It is in St. John also that the most emphatic assertions are found—apart from the special phraseology to which reference has been made—of the abiding blessedness and freedom from ill of those who believe in Christ. ‘He that believeth in me οὐ μὴ ἁποθάνῃ’ (John 11:26); he that drinks of the Christ-given water ‘οὐ μὴ διψήσει’ (John 4:14); ‘he that cometh unto me οὐ μὴ πεινάσῃ, and he that believeth on me οὐ μὴ διψήσει πώποτε’ (John 6:35). The ‘many mansions’ and the prepared place of John 14:2 are clearly intended to convey the assurance of more than merely temporary resting-places. Finally, the prayer that all His followers may be one, as He is one with the Father (John 17:11; John 17:21), and may be with Him where He is (John 17:24), implies for those who are thus united a coequal duration of existence with Himself.

For the believer, therefore, the future, thus conditioned and defined, is a life of blessedness. But there is nothing to suggest, much less to show, that the continuance of the life is dependent upon its felicity; or that these two features are other than completely independent, no necessary connexion subsisting between them which would make an eternal but unblessed life a contradiction in terms.

αἰών, αἰώνιος, εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα or τοὺς αἰῶνας.—The primary significance of the term αἰών is not seriously in question. ‘Age’ or ‘period’ suggests a limited stretch of time marked by a definite close. In this sense the word is found in the Gospels, with reference to the present era under which the speaker is living, either simply or as ethically characterized by degeneracy and corruption. The cares τοῦ αἰῶνος choke the word (Matthew 13:22 || Mark 4:19); the sons of this αἰών are wiser than the sons of light (Luke 16:8); οὗτος ὁ αἱών is contrasted with the αἰών that is to follow it as ὁ μέλλωνς (Matthew 12:32), or ἑκεῖνος (Luke 20:34 f.); and the latter appears again as ὁ ἐρχόμενος αἰών in Mark 10:30 || Luke 18:30, where the present is οὖτος ὁ καιρός. It is worthy of notice that in one of the above passages (Luke 20:35) the future αἰών is something to be gained (τυχεῖν); its nature or characteristic, therefore, was more prominent to the writer’s mind than any mere question of duration. In one context, the parable of the Tares in St. Matthew, the end of the present age is definitely indicated () συντέλεια (τοῦ) αἰῶνος (Matthew 13:39 f., Matthew 13:49), and the same phrase is twice employed later in the Gospel, once by the disciples with reference to the Parousia, which they assume to be synchronous with the end of the αἰών (Matthew 24:3), and again by Christ Himself, when He asserts His presence with His disciples ἕως τῆς συντελείας τοῦ αἰῶνος (Matthew 28:20).

In the last two passages especially it is clear that in no shape or form is there attached by the Speaker or His hearers to the phrase ‘end of the age’ the thought of a termination of personality or conscious life. The close of the one epoch marks the opening of another, into which pass without interruption the actors and participators in the present. The pledge given to the disciples of personal association with Himself, or rather of His personal association with them—an association which is already subsisting (ἐγὼ μεθʼ ὑμῶν εἰμί, Matthew 28:20), could hardly have been couched in more emphatic or significant terms, or in words less suggestive of a possible severance, however clearly they may admit or even require the thought of a change of the conditions under which it is maintained.

αἰών is also twice used in the Gospels with reference to the past, ἀπʼ αἰῶνος Luke 1:70, ἐκ τοῦ αἰῶνος John 9:32. In neither case are the words those of Christ Himself. And all, perhaps, that need be said is that the speakers, Zacharias and the man born blind respectively, employ the phrase to denote in an indefinite kind of way the whole antecedent period of human history during which the conditions of life upon the earth have been such as they now know them to be, or believe them to have been in former times.

Elsewhere in the Gospels, the word under consideration is found only in the phrase εἰς τὸν αἱῶνα, or εἰς τοὺς αἱῶνας. The latter occurs in Luke 1:33 and in the inserted doxology of Matthew 6:13 (retained in the margin of the Revised Version). It may fairly be regarded as merely a strengthened form of the other, intermediate between that and the yet more emphatic expression εἰς τοὺς αἱῶνας τῶν αἰώνων employed especially in the Apocalypse, and by St. Paul in doxologies. Εἰς τὸς αἱῶνα occurs once in St. Matthew and St. Luke (Matthew 21:19, Luke 1:55), twice in St. Mark (Mark 3:29; Mark 11:14), and twelve times in St. John (John 4:14; John 6:51; John 6:58; John 8:35 bis. John 8:51 f., John 10:28; John 11:26; John 12:34; John 13:8; John 14:15), constituting indeed this Evangelist’s sole use of the word αἰών, with the exception of the phrase above noted (John 9:32). Setting aside Matthew 21:19 || Mark 11:14, which condemns the fig-tree to perpetual barrenness, and where μηκέτι εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα is a strong negation of any possible or prospective fruitfulness at any time; and the passages from St. Luke, of which the first is Messianic and expressly asserts the endlessness of the Messiah’s kingdom, and the second has reference to the Divine attitude or action towards men, which also can hardly be thought of as subject to termination or change; the remainder may be classified as positive or negative. In the former, the phrase εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα qualifies some verb expressive of continuance or life (ζῆν John 6:51; John 6:58, μένειν John 8:35, John 12:34, εἷναι John 14:15); in the latter it is joined with a more or less emphatic negative, and denies the possibility of the contingency to which the passage refers (οὐκ Mark 3:29, John 8:35; οὐ μή John 4:14; John 8:51 f., John 10:28, John 11:26, John 13:8).

Of all these passages it may be said at once that the Speaker clearly has in mind a state of things of which no reversal is by Him conceived as possible, either now or at any future time. In presence of natural death, the solemn declaration that he who believes οὐ μὴ ἁποθάνῃ εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα (John 11:26) does not merely defer the date, but repudiates the possibility of anything that deserves to be called death for the believer. The bond-servant, again, whose sojourn in the house of his master comes to an end, is expressly contrasted with the son who μένει εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα (John 8:35); and the same expression is used of the Christ (John 12:34), with the same associated ideas of permanence and perpetuity. Peter rejects his Master’s offer of service in washing his feet (John 13:8)—a rejection which lie immediately after gladly retracts—not certainly with the idea that he may accept the offer on some or any future occasion, but sincerely, and as far as his present thought is concerned, finally. And life εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα (John 6:51; John 6:58) is not limited, terminable life, merely lengthened out as compared with the present, but is a life that needs no artificial and bodily sustenance to enable it uninterruptedly to endure. The connotation of the phrase, whether on the lips of Christ Himself or employed by another, evidently implies an outlook into a future to which the thought of the writer or speaker neither assigns nor conceives it possible to assign a limit.

The same considerations will apply to the adjective αἰώνιος, and especially as it is used to qualify ζωή in a phrase which becomes a distinctive feature of St. John’s Gospel and First Epistle. For the word itself the somewhat question-begging rendering ‘age-long’ has been offered. In such a rendering it is evident that all depends on the conception the writers had formed of the ‘age,’ and the associations it bore to their minds. If they thought of it as definitely terminated or terminable, then ‘age-long’ is equivalent to ‘temporary.’ If they regarded it and wrote of it without any associated idea of a limit or end, or if the context clearly intimates that no such idea would have been admitted, then so far ‘age-long’ is synonymous with ‘immortal,’ ‘everlasting,’ or ‘eternal.’ And it appears undesirable to introduce a new and ambiguous term. Apart, however, from the phrase ζωὴ αἰώνιος, the adjective is of rare occurrence in the Synoptic Gospels, and is not used by St. John. It is found three times in St. Matthew in association with terms expressive of suffering or retribution to be endured in the future (τὸ πῦρ τὸ αἰώνιον, Matthew 18:8; Matthew 25:41; κόλασις αἰώνιος, Matthew 26:46). St. Luke has a reference (Luke 16:9) to τὰς αἰωνίους σκηνάς, ‘the eternal tabernacles,’ open to those who have been far-sighted enough to secure to themselves friends while it was in their power, from whom in their own day of need they may claim favours and return in kind. And a significant and unique phrase in Mark 3:29 δς δʼ ἄν βλασφημήσῃἔνοχός ἐστιν αἰωνίου ἀμαρτήματος, suggests far-reaching conclusions, with regard to which all that perhaps need be said in this place is that it stands here as an explanatory addition to an emphatic affirmation that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit hath not forgiveness εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα. The context, therefore, precludes an interpretation in a sense contrary to the implications of the preceding words, as though the writer might be thinking of an act of sin committed once for all, and then with all that it entailed definitely and finally set aside.

The reading ἀμαρτῆματος is sufficiently decisively attested by the witness of אBL [Note: L Bampton Lecture.] Δ 28. 33, the Latin and other versions, and is adopted by all editors. It is supported also by the Sinaitic Syriac, mutilated, however, in this verse, if the transcript (1894) may be trusted. The TR [Note: R Textus Receptus.] κρίσεως is found in אC2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] Γ and the cursives, with one or two Latin manuscripts, and the Peshitta Syriac. The various reading ἁμαρτίας, C-D 13. 69. 346, would seem to be a correction of ἁμαρτήματος designed to introduce into the text the meaning of ‘sinfulness’ as distinguished from ‘a sin.’ Cf. II. B. Swete, in loc., a not wholly satisfactory note. The true exposition seems to be given by E. P. Gould in his commentary:* [Note: Critical Commentary, ‘St. Mark,’ T. & T. Clark, 1896.] ‘An eternal sin may be one subjecting the person to an eternal punishment, eternal in its consequences, that is. But certainly it is equally allowable to suppose that it describes the sin itself as eternal, accounting for the impossibility of the forgiveness by the permanence of the sin,—endless consequences attached to endless sin. This is the philosophy of endless punishment. Sin reacts on the nature, an act passes into a state, and the state continues. That is, eternal punishment is not a measure of God’s resentment against a single sin.… It is the result of the effect of any sin, or course of sin, in fixing the sinful state beyond recovery.’

With regard to the phrase ζωὴ αἰώνιος, there is a striking difference in its associations in the few passages in which it is found in the Synoptists, and in the more frequent use of St. John; a difference which seems to reflect the varying attitude of the writers towards the teaching of Christ. In the Synoptists the sphere of ζωὴ αἰώνιος is in the future. It is to be inherited (Matthew 19:29), and to be received in the coming αἰών (Mark 10:30, Luke 18:30) in recompense for that which the disciples of Christ forego in this; which the ruler (ἄρχων, Luke 18:18, Matthew 19:16, Mark 10:17), or lawyer (νομικός, Luke 10:25) conceives that he may inherit or attain (σχῶ, Mt. l.c.) by virtue of good deeds in the present. In St. John, on the contrary, ζωὴ αἰώνιος is a present possession. The believer has or may have it (John 3:36; John 5:24; John 6:47; John 3:15-16; John 6:40); and the bestowal of this gift is described as the express aim and purpose of the coming of the Son into the world and of His death, the fruit of the Father’s love (John 3:16) and will (John 6:40), but conferred by the Son Himself (John 10:28, John 17:2). In one passage also where the same phrase is used, the closeness of the fellowship with Himself implied in the possession of ζωὴ αἰώνιος is mystically described as an eating of His flesh and drinking of His blood, and is associated with the resurrection at the last day (John 6:54). This last passage would by itself prove, what the others assume, that ζωὴ αἱώνιος, though present, is not limited by the present. Elsewhere there is an approach to the Synoptic standpoint of a future life over against or following on that now lived, although sight seems never to be entirely lost of the conception of ζωὴ αἱώνιος as subsisting already and now attainable. He that hateth his soul (ψυχή) in this world will keep it εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον (John 12:25); the meat (βρῶσις), the gift of the Son of Man, abideth unto eternal life (John 6:27). The same thought recurs in Christ’s words to the woman of Samaria; there it is the water, His gift, which becomes a well of water springing up unto eternal life (John 4:14). And, finally, in connexion with the same incident, the harvest, the ripeness of which the disciples are bidden to recognize, is laid up unto a future which is undefined in time and place; the reaper gathereth together fruit εἰς ζωήν αἱώνιον, and shares with the sower in a common joy (John 4:36).

Once also Christ appeals to the knowledge or belief of His hearers in the present reality of this eternal life; they think that they have it in the OT Scriptures, missing the spirit there, and the testimony of these Scriptures to Himself, and ascribing life to the letter (John 5:39). A somewhat similar thought underlies the answer of Simon Peter to Christ’s question whether he and the Twelve intend to follow the example of others, and be repelled by ‘hard sayings’; ‘Thou hast the words of eternal life’ (John 6:68),—words, that is to say, which in their spirit and teaching bring ζωὴν αἰώνιον to the hearers. Finally, lest, as it were, any lingering possibility or suggestion should remain of a time-limit to be understood in the phrase, or of its being confined under a merely temporal category, it is twice expressly defined in terms which are ethical and spiritual, and transcend all limitations of time or change; the Divine ἐντολή, committed by the Father to the Son and by Him transmitted to the world, is eternal life (John 12:50); and in similar pregnant words (John 17:3) ζωὴ αἰώνιον is the learning to know the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom He has sent.

All the passages in which this phrase is found in the Gospels have now been passed in review. An extension of the examination to the remaining books of the New Testament would not modify the conclusions reached, or throw fresh light upon its meaning. It is used twice by St. Luke in the Acts (Acts 13:46; Acts 13:48); by St. Paul in the Romans (Romans 2:7; Romans 5:21; Romans 6:22 f.), Galatians (Galatians 6:8), and Pastoral Epistles (1 Timothy 1:16; 1 Timothy 6:12, Titus 1:2; Titus 3:7); by St. John himself in his First Epistle (John 1:2; John 2:25; John 3:15; John 5:11; John 13:20; the adjective not elsewhere), and by St. Jude (Judges 1:21). These conclusions are entirely in harmony with the results obtained from a consideration of the term αἱών, or of the adjective αἰώνιος standing by itself, ζωὴ αἱώνιος is in its significance independent of time-limits, and may be described indifferently as either present or future. When, moreover, the occasion offers to indicate its characteristics and meaning by definition, that definition is framed not on the lines of time and space, as here, there, or elsewhere, now or then, but is wholly ethical, supranatural, belonging to the realm of the mind and spirit, and lifting up ζωὴ αἰώνιος beyond the touch of change or end, into the region of the changeless, the immortal.

At the risk, therefore, of repetition, it must again be pointed out that words and phrases which are crucial for any doctrine of immortality as taught by Christ in the Gospels, so far from implying or suggesting an absolute termination, whether nearer or more distant, to that future which the speakers or writers have in mind, seem to indicate that no such idea was ever present to them; and in some passages, which are neither isolated nor unimportant, a fair interpretation of the writer’s thought in the light of the context appears to exclude the possibility of any such limit being found at any definite point or place in the ‘age’ towards which his gaze is directed.

ζωὴ, εἰσελθεῖν εἰς τὴν ζωήν, σώζεσθαι, σωτηρία.

There remains a group of words and phrases to be referred to, which with more or less distinctness characterize the future, or contrast it with the conditions of the present. All of them, when used in their fullest sense, imply non-mortality, but they do not bear directly upon the question of the duration of existence after death, which, as we have seen, has come to be the chief element in the connotation of the term ‘immortality.’ The chief of these is ζωή with its derivatives, including the phrases of which it forms a part, ζωή in the Gospels is not mere physical life, but is an expression for the higher life, the life which is life indeed, life in its fullest, richest aspects. Such life was in the Word (John 1:4); it is Christ’s gift to His disciples (John 10:28, cf. John 6:33); nay, He is Himself ‘the life’ (John 11:25, John 14:6). It is so good a possession that to ‘enter into life’ is worth the sacrifice of an eye or a limb (Matthew 18:8 f. || Mark 9:43; Mark 9:45). It begins after death (John 5:24)—not in a temporal sense, but when θάνατος as a state ceases to be; and it is a ‘resurrection of life’ to which the well-doers will come forth from the tomb (John 5:29). ‘To have life in himself’ is an attribute of the Father, and is His gift to the Son (John 5:26); and this ‘life’ or ‘eternal life’ is repeatedly stated to be the present possession of the believer (John 3:15 f, John 3:36, John 6:47; John 6:54), the gift of Christ which some of them wilfully refuse (John 5:40), and which the unbelieving will not see (John 3:36), but which is emphatically declared to be the final end of His coming into the world (John 10:10, cf. John 20:31). The words which He has spoken are ζωή (John 6:63), and His commandment is ζωή αἰώνιος (John 12:50). None of these passages suggests that the thought of a termination of the ‘life’ was present to the mind of the Speaker; some are hardly compatible with such a thought, and others absolutely forbid it (e.g. John 1:4; John 5:26). This ζωή, therefore, is fittingly represented as αἰώνιος.

A similar absence of limitation will be found to characterize expressions such as σώζεσθαι, σωτηρία, etc., which describe the future from the point of view of deliverance from the present, its calamities and its evils. These terms, however, are not in themselves suggestive of duration, except so far as their results are involved; and, as doctrinal terms, belong in the New Testament rather to the Epistles than to the Gospels. In the e

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Immortality (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/i/immortality-2.html. 1906-1918.

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