Immortality - Is it Conditional?
The course we shall pursue in our examination is briefly this: first, we shall seek out the meaning and use of the terms which are employed in Scripture in relation to this subject; then we shall look at the prophetic outline of the future, so far as may be needed to connect and apply the various passages; next, we shall try and fill in this scheme with the passages which bear upon the successive events which it marks out; and finally, give some attention to the ethical questions.
We shall begin with immortality and eternal life, two questions, which for annihilationists are only one; and, however discordant up to this time may have been their statements, we shall find them in almost perfect agreement now.
Says Mr. Morris: -
"The Son of God came to give life, even eternal life; and if it be asked, ‘Who will live forever?' the answer of the Lord and Giver of life, who is also the Bread of life, is in these words; ‘He that eateth of this bread shall live forever.' And it is most irreverent and evil for any man to say, that in the vocabulary of the Son of God the word ‘life' does not mean life; and that the words ‘eternal life' do not mean eternal life, and that the words ‘shall live forever' do not mean shall live forever. And yet, in their ecclesiastical teaching, certain men are hurried into this kind of irreverence and evil by reason of their having adopted the false doctrine of the innate and essential immortality of ‘the earthly' race."*
*What is Man 1" p 48.
And at the other end of annihilationism, the follower of Dr. Thomas, Mr. Roberts of Birmingham, after quoting various passages which speak of eternal life, writes (Twelve Lectures, p. 82):
"Now, if immortality be the natural attribute of every son of Adam from the very moment he breathes, what can be the meaning of testimonies like these, which, one and all, speak of immortality as a future contingency, a thing to be sought for, a reward, a thing to be given, a thing brought to light through the gospel etc? There is an utter incongruity in such language, if immortality be a natural and present possession. How can you promise a man that which is already his own? The divine promise is, that God will award eternal life to those who seek for glory, honour and immortality; and this is the strongest proof that human nature is utterly destitute of it at present."
Immortality and eternal life are here confounded. And it does not make it better that Mr. Roberts quotes apparent Scripture to justify the confusion. He may shelter himself under the fact that he is not alone in it.* He is not; but that will not make him less responsible for deception, even unwittingly practised.†
*Messrs Dobney, Hastings, Ham, Moncrieff, Z. Campbell, Minton, Goodwyn and Constable, all agree with him. No doubt, others also.
†He takes no notice of it even in his review of my book, after its being plainly pointed out to him. But this is no unaccustomed thing with him.
The true Scriptural statement is this: -
In the New Testament the true word for immortality, athanasia, occurs but three times: 1 Cor. xv. 53, 54, "this mortal must put on immortality" "when... this mortal shall have put on immortality,.." and once of God it is asserted (1 Tim. vi. 16), that He "only hath immortality." The adjective 'immortal' does not even occur.
There is indeed another word, aphtharsia, twice translated in our version "immortality" and that is the word Mr. Roberts with others has caught at as showing man's seeking it; but its proper meaning is "incorruption," and so it is mostly translated I cite all the passages: -
Rom. ii. 7: - "glory, honour and immortality."
1 Cor. xv. 42: - "it is raised in incorruption."
50: - "neither doth corruption inherit incorruption."
53: - "must put on incorruption."
54: - "shall have put on incorruption."
Eph. vi. 24: - "love our Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity."
2 Tim. i. 10: - " brought life and immortality to light by the gospel."
Tit. ii. 7: - "incorruptness, gravity, sincerity."
Its adjective, aphthartos, "incorruptible," is used seven times, and applied to God (Rom. i. 23, 1 Tim. i. 17); the crown of the righteous (1 Cor. ix. 25); our inheritance (1 Pet. i. 4); the word of God (1 Pet. i. 23); and once figuratively, "that which is not corruptible" (1 Pet. iii. 4). It is only once in our version (1 Tim. 1. 17) rendered "immortal," but with no more reason than in other places. Furthermore its opposite, phthartos, corruptible," is six times found, and always so rendered: Rom. 1. 23; 1 Cor. ix. 25; xv. 53, 54; 1 Pet. i. 18,23.
The difference between these words comes out in 1 Cor. xv., in which they are all to be found. Speaking of the dead body of the saint (ver. 42-50) the apostle uses the word "corruptible" and "corruption." It was not mortal, but dead. Then, speaking of the resurrection of those " that are Christ's at His coming" (ver. 23), he brings in also the change of the living saints which would accompany it: "We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed;" "the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we (the living) shall be changed; for this corruptible (applying to the dead saints) must put on incorruption, and this mortal (applying to the living) must put on immortality."
Thus there is evident distinction in the use of these words in Scripture; and when it is said (Rom. ii. 7) that God will render "to them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and incorruption, eternal life," it is not at all the same as seeking for immortality, but the blessed, incorruptible state in which resurrection or the "change" will put the saints at the coming of Christ. And it applies only to the saints, as the whole description in 1 Cor. xv. 42-50 does. The wicked are not those of whom it is said, "It is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power." Such words are applicable alone to the bloom and beauty of the "resurrection of life."
Quite true that the saints, alive but mortal when Christ comes, will then get "immortality." The liability and tendency to death will in their case be of course removed. But that word is the expression of a different fact from that which is pointed out in the case of those who have died. All will alike of course possess incorruption, putting on alike the image of the heavenly; but the fact noticed as to the living is that they shall not sleep at all, "mortality" in their case being "swallowed up of life."
For of course mortality is our condition down here. "Immortality" is not "our natural and present condition." Immortality is eathlessness, and who among the people Mr. Roberts is opposing asserts that we do not die? It is a poor quibble that. The soul does not die; nor the spirit; but man does surely. The question is as to what death is, not whether men are subject to it. Of course with Mr. R. it is cessation of existence, but then that is not what we mean by death. We mean the dust returning to the earth as it was, while the spirit returns to God who gave it. Under the same word we are in reality speaking of different things.
General Goodwyn has indeed another application of the words in this chapter: -
"Ver. 50 applies the word ‘corruption' to flesh and blood, the entire natural man; ver. 52 applies the word ‘incorruptible' to dead bodies ‘raised.' In ver. 53, therefore, the word ‘incorruption' evidently applies to the body, and consequently ‘immortality' to the soul, but only in resurrection, ‘when body and soul are reunited. The apostle Peter, in contrasting the source of the children of God with the natural birth of the Adam race, says that the former are ‘born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible.' The truth, therefore, remains that the latter are born of ‘corruptible seed'; and the apostle Paul gives further force to this expression when he says, ‘We that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened, not that we would be unclothed' - uncovered with a body - ‘but clothed upon, that MORTALITY might be swallowed up of LIFE.' Here is a distinct assertion that the personality - apart or not from the body - is ‘mortal' (2 Cor. v. 4)."
If boldness would carry the day the field were won. As it is we are not convinced. We dispute the fact of "flesh and blood" being the "entire natural man"; we agree that "incorruption" everywhere applies to the body. We deny the "consequence" that mortality or immortality refers to the soul. It refers to the bodies of the living when Christ comes, as corruption and incorruption to the bodies of the dead. Let any one compare 1 Thess. iv. 15-17, where the same event is spoken of and where the dead in Christ, and "we" who are alive and remain are similarly contrasted. The "we shall be changed" is contrasted in I Cor. xv. 52, with the dead being "raised incorruptible," and so similarly in the next verse, "this corruptible" applies to the dead, "this mortal" to the living: both expressions to the body, the "mortal flesh" (2 Cor. iv. 11).
Again, in the passage from 1 Pet. i. 23, the "incorruptible seed" is the "word of God, which by the gospel is preached unto you." What has that to do with the physical constitution of man? And if we are born, as I have no wish to deny, of "corruptible seed," how does that show that such a term applies to the physical constitution of the soul or spirit? Nay, he has himself just now applied "corruptible" to the condition of the body, and "mortal" in contrast with this to the state of the soul. Neither assumption can bear the least examination.
The quotation from 2 Cor. v. 4 is, however, still more recklessly misapplied. Where is the "assertion that the personality, apart from the body, is mortal"? It is Gen. Goodwyn's own, not the apostle's. He has distinctly stated that he groaned, not to be unclothed, but clothed upon. Now this is the very change of the living we have before been looking at. Paul, the living but mortal man, longed not to be unclothed - to be apart from the body - but, in opposition to that, to be clothed upon, that mortality, his present condition, might be swallowed up of life.
How could the "personality," apart from the body, be according to Gen. Goodwyn, "mortal" any more? Would he call a dead body mortal? And for him, apart from the body, the soul is as strictly dead as is the body itself
Mr. Roberts makes an effort to show that immortality and incorruption are interchangeable terms; and we will allow him to state how in his own words:
"The first (athanasia) tells us that the life of the age is deathless. In entering it we are told that this mortal shall put on immortality. By this we know the truth declared by Christ, that ‘They who are accounted worthy of the age... cannot die any more' (Luke xx. 36). But how is it that life is thus made endless to those that were before but mortal? The second word (aphtharsia) answers it: ‘This corruptible must put on incorruption' (1 Cor. xv. 53). Men are mortal - liable to death - because their natures are corruptible; they decay. But make them incorruptible, and endlessness of life is the necessary consequence. Hence to seek for incorruption is equivalent to seeking for deathlessness or immortality."
Mr. Roberts' physiological knowledge is as defective as his knowledge of Scripture. I have already pointed out that his theory of life being the result of organization is the very reverse at least of what the acutest physiologists of the day assert. Prof. Huxley, well known to be as stout a materialist as he is undeniably an unbeliever, admits over and over again that life is the cause of organization, and not organization the cause of life. (Introd. to Classification of Animals.) I have before quoted from another of the same school. It is almost the universally accepted doctrine now.
Mr. R.'s present assertion is but the logical outgrowth of his former one. If life be the result of organization, doubtless immortality will be that of incorruption. But as the former statement needs to be reversed, so will the latter require to be. Incorruption will be based rather upon immortality, but even so is not (as it would appear) its necessary result. We must bear in mind that we are speaking here of what is almost outside the sphere of mere human knowledge, and where a verse or two of Scripture is all the Biblical material to draw from either. But all that we do know is against the view Mr. Roberts advocates.
That "immortality" as a term is applied in Scripture only to the righteous is not of striking force when we remember that it is only applied to them in two consecutive verses (1 Cor. xv. 53, 54), one of which is but really the repetition of the other.
But, say these writers (quoting 1 Tim. vi. 16), "God only hath immortality." What then? Why, it is argued, "the soul can't have it." Let them go a little farther, and the result will be apparent. The angels then cannot either. Does death then reign throughout the ranks of created, sinless beings? That will not of course be contended for; but it is involved necessarily in the argument; and must follow, or the argument be given up. No, says Mr. Roberts, for the angels "are God to us; for they are of His nature, and come only on His errands"... "they are of the divine nature they are ‘spirit.' "And so is man's spirit "spirit," and we have seen that, if angels be "Sons of God" on that account, just so are men also "His offspring." Whatever therefore this proves as to angels, it proves also for the spirit of man. That the angels represent God to us, as coming on His errands, proves nothing nor disproves.
The Scripture sense of the passage does indeed make it apply to angels, and to all created beings. It is the essential difference between the Creator and all His works, that He alone by Himself subsists. "By Him," on the other hand, "all things subsist." "He upholdeth all things by the word of His power." Thus we by no means maintain what Mr. Morris calls, and rightly calls, "the false doctrine of the innate and essential immortality of the earthly race." So far from that we contend that the race is mortal, and that immortality innate and essential belongs to no creature, fallen or unfallen. It is the assurance of this that this passage in Timothy gives. In that sense, as possessing it in Himself God alone hath it, and in Him "we live, and move, and have our being." "By Him all things subsist."
But this no more proves that the soul dies, than that angels die. Dependent derived immortality it may have equally with them, and in that sense its immortality is affirmed; for they that kill the body cannot kill the soul.
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