Immortality and the Death State

This article has been written in order to provide an answer to a reader that asked about the meaning of soul and spirit in the Scriptures:

As for the question about the meaning of soul, spirit and immortality in the Scriptures, it often comes down to a more basic question and that is, what the Scriptures teach about death and the condition of the dead. The frequent Christian use of the term “sleep” with reference to death certainly indicates that the dead person is not conscious. (Acts 7:60; 13:36; 1 Corinthians 7:39; 11:30; 15:6, 18, 20; 1 Thessalonians 4:14, 15) This agrees with what the Hebrew Scriptures state.

Those who have put their trust in God’s Son and his ransom have the full assurance of a resurrection. Because of the absolute certainty of that promise, Jesus speaks of them as though already possessing everlasting life. (John 3:36; 5:24) From God’s standpoint therefore, even though they have died they are all alive, as Jesus said at Luke 20:37, 38. So, we have to recognize that God’s standpoint is superior to ours. Because He knows that He is going to do something, He can, as the apostle puts it, “call things that are not as though they were.” (Romans 4:17) So, when we read the Scriptures we need to keep in mind that while from the human standpoint we go into the unconscious sleep of death, from God’s standpoint our life is still a reality, a certainty. For us, death has “lost its sting.” —1 Corinthians 15:55-57

As for those who do not place their faith in God’s provision through Christ, who reject it, the Scriptures show that they have chosen death in place of life, and death is the opposite of life. The original Bible terms for “hell” (in Hebrew sheol, and in Greek hades) clearly refer to the death state into which all who die and are buried are found. Even Christ is spoken of as having entered this state and the term hades is used in connection with his death and resurrection. (Acts 2:24-32) I think it is worth noting here also that some of the finest Biblical scholars acknowledge that the Bible does not teach the mysterious view of the soul that so many religious persons have in their mind, and that this concept was adopted from Greek philosophy. That influence has continued on and is reflected in a large portion of the various church organizations. We should be guided, however, not by how widespread a belief may be (some majority viewpoint) but rather by what God’s Word actually teaches on the subject. Immortality in Scripture is always presented as something to be gained, not as something inherent. The book In Search of Christian Freedom gives information on this Greek philosophy influence on pages 706, 707:

Many persons confuse certain views as being unique among Jehovah’s Witnesses, or among what those persons call “cults”, a term that, as one scholar observes, is all too often applied to any religion of which the individual strongly disapproves. They fail to recognize that, while differing (sometimes considerably) in detail, a similar viewpoint can be found in the writings of many respected theologians—even theologians accepted as meriting the designation “orthodox”.

As one example, the common view among many of the human soul is described by S. C. Guthrie, professor of systematic theology at Columbia Theological Seminary (a Presbyterian institution), in this manner:

According to this doctrine only my body can die, but I myself do not really die. My body is only the shell of my true self. It is not me; it is only the earthly-physical prison in which the real “I” is trapped. My true self is my soul, which, because it is spiritual and not physical, is like God and therefore shares God’s immortality (inability to die). What happens at death, then, is that my immortal soul escapes from my mortal body. My body dies, but I myself live on and return to the spiritual realm from which I came and to which I really belong.

Having said this, this theologian then goes on to state:

If we hold to the genuinely Biblical hope for the future, we must firmly reject this doctrine of the soul’s immortality for several reasons.

He then proceeds to detail those reasons from Scripture. As to the origin of the belief he first described, he states:

This doctrine [of the soul’s inherent immortality] was not taught by the biblical writers themselves, but it was common in the Greek and Oriental religions of the ancient world in which the Christian church was born. Some of the earliest Christian theologians were influenced by it, read the Bible in the light of it and introduced it into the thinking of the church. It has been with us ever since, influencing even the Reformed confessions (see the Westminster Confession, XXXII; the Belgic Confession, Art XXXVII).

I present this here neither as conclusive nor as a view that all should accede to. To determine whether that viewpoint is convincing one would have to read and weigh the validity of his Biblical reasons, which I have not included. While one could find scores of other scholars who express the same viewpoint as this particular theologian, their numbers or their reputation is not decisive; one can similarly find theologians of repute who argue for a different, contrary view. My purpose here is not to argue the validity of the view expressed but solely to show that, though there might be the inclination to reject it out of hand as the product of “cult-thinking,” there are in fact reputable scholars who express that viewpoint.

According to Bible, both Stephen and Jesus prayed to God saying, “receive my spirit”. Did that mean they were transferred to heaven upon death? Not according to Scripture since it shows that Christ died and was in the grave during parts of three days, “tasting death for every man.” (Heb. 2:9; Acts 10:39, 40; 1 Corinthians 15:4) Since Christ was the “first fruits” of the resurrection, it is evident that no others had preceded him in being raised permanently from death to life. (1 Corinthians 15:20-23) You may do well to re-read chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians to see how the apostle presents matters and note his regular reference to those dead (including those who accepted Christ) as sleeping in death.

Perhaps some of the above points may at least be of some help to you and as you read the Scriptures and let them mold your thinking you will find that the truly important things will come through. We can go to God for help and for the wisdom necessary, not only to understand his message for us but also wisdom to live our lives in a way that will result in good, for us and for those we love. — James 1:2-6.

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Raymond V. Franz