toledo church of god

Man and Mortality
Reincarnation?  Oblivion?  Immortal soul?  Resurrection?

Consider these four concepts that speak of man1 in his relation to death and the hereafter:

1. Man is a spiritual being destined for a succession of future lives through reincarnation.
2. Man is merely an animal form with no hope for life beyond death.
3. Man is a mortal body whose immortal soul goes either to heaven or hell when he dies.
4. Man is a created being who will be resurrected either to eternal life or eternal destruction.

In the schools of religion and philosophy, teachers can be found to endorse each of these concepts.

The first concept, reincarnation, says that man takes on another body after death. This would be either a higher or a lower life form, depending on the quality of the previous life. Few scholars would attempt to defend reincarnation from the Scriptures. It has a long history in a few religions other than Christianity and has recently experienced popularity by the influence of New Age thinking. Since support for this belief lies outside the Bible, we will give it no further consideration here.

The second concept — that we have no further existence forever, after we die — is promoted by those who believe that no deity will arrange anything beyond death. It is a creed of hopeless despair and a dead end.

The third concept — that our immortal souls go either to heaven or to eternal hell when our bodies die — is widely believed. It may be called the “theory of natural immortality,” because it teaches that humans can never really die, that immortality is a natural attribute of all people.

This idea has led many Christians to think of death as a friend, not an enemy, because death takes believers immediately into the bliss of heaven.

Immortality of the soul is a belief attractive enough and strong enough to win the hearts, if not the minds, of most modern Christians, but the concept has some serious flaws. Let’s examine these flaws before we explain the fourth concept. Later, we will examine several texts often used to defend the orthodox view of human immortality.

The First Flaw

The theory of natural immortality contradicts the Old Testament view of man and substitutes a concept popularized in the ancient pagan world.

The early Hebrews regarded the human body and soul as an indivisible unity.

Genesis 2:7 (KJV): And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

In this passage, to be human and alive means to exist bodily and consciously with the ability to act and interact with the created order. This bodily existence is physical and earthy, although it depends on the God-given spirit for vitality. The Old Testament texts do not see physical and spiritual existence as opposites, as contrary to each other, or as existing independently. Rather, the word soul is used as a synonym for the whole person:

Exodus 1:5 (KJV): And all the souls that came out of the loins of Jacob were seventy souls.

Numbers 9:13 (KJV): But the man that . . . forbeareth to keep the passover, even the same soul shall be cut off from among his people.

The Hebrew scriptures do not hint that the soul is detachable, nor that it can exist apart from the body. To die means to cease conscious existence, to interact no longer with the created order. At death, the body returns to the dust, and the spirit (breath or power of God) returns to God who gave it.

Psalm 146:3, 4: Do not trust in princes, in mortal man, in whom there is no salvation. His spirit departs, he returns to the earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.

Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6: For the living know they will die: but the dead do not know anything . . . Indeed their love, their hate, and their zeal have already perished.

Ecclesiastes 12:7: Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.

There is no support in these texts for the view that death, or nearing death, leads to any out-of-body experiences. Neither is the option presented that death is an instantaneous doorway through which a conscious soul enters heaven or hell. This popular view crept into the church with the influence of Greek philosophy in general, and Plato’s dualism in particular, during the early Christian era. Plato taught that all reality is divided into material and spiritual categories, and that the spiritual (soul) has an eternal existence after the material (body) has decayed.

The Second Flaw

The theory of natural immortality cannot be reconciled with the purpose of these three events foretold in the New Testament:

1. The second coming of Christ to earth;
2. The resurrection of the dead from their graves;
3. The great Judgment Day for all people.

Teaching the soul is immortal conflicts with each of these tenets of the Christian faith. If that teaching were true, these three promises of the gospel would be meaningless. Here’s why:

• If souls of the righteous go to heaven to be with the Lord when their bodies die, and if the final reward of the righteous is heaven, then what is the purpose of the Lord coming back for His people?

• If souls are immortal, when the righteous dead already enjoy eternal life: What is the purpose of the body’s resurrection?

• If the righteous dead are now with the Lord and the wicked dead are now in hell, what will be accomplished at the last great Judgment?

While secondary purposes for these three eschatological events have been suggested, the fact remains that their primary purpose would be removed by natural immortality. This is its second great flaw.

If one accepts the literal return of Christ (John 14:3), the literal resurrection of the dead (John 5:28, 29), and the Day of Judgment when all peoples will be separated before Him (Matthew 25:31-33), then one readily sees problems with the common idea of immortal souls going immediately to heaven or hell at the death of the body.

The Fourth Concept — A Better Answer

Faced with these glaring weaknesses in the theory of natural immortality, Bible students should consider the merits of the fourth concept. This position holds that humanity has no hope for eternal life except as God’s people, redeemed by the death, resurrection, and return of Jesus Christ.

This explanation rests on firm pillars of revealed truth. The Bible teaches that God alone has immortality.

Mortal Versus Immortal

The Scripture is clear that only God has the attribute of immortality.

1 Timothy 6:14-16: Keep the commandment without stain or reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which He will bring about at the proper time — He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and the Lord of lords; who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light; whom no man has seen or can see. To Him be honor and eternal dominion! Amen.

In Genesis 3:22, the Lord God expresses concern lest “the man . . . put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever.” This shows that God created Adam and Eve as mortals. They would have had to eat of the tree of life to become immortal. Man is not innately immortal.

Human mortality is supported by the fact that the expression immortal soul never occurs in Scripture. In addition, persons are never referred to as immortal except as a result of the resurrection. Neither our bodies nor our souls are ever spoken of as inherently immortal.

This is more than an argument from silence. Our Lord clearly stated that both soul and body are capable of being destroyed: “Do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Since the soul can be destroyed, it is therefore not immortal.

In this life, humans remain “mortal men” (Psalm 146:3). The whole tenor of the sacred text shows that humanity is on a natural course of mortality and death. Only God has immortality now.

Life and Death

According to the Scriptures, all persons will die once.2

Genesis 3:19: By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

1 Corinthians 15:22: For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive.

Hebrews 9:27: It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.

Crucial to this point is the meaning of die and death in Scripture. Death is the opposite of life: When life ends, death begins:

Isaiah 38:1: In those days Hezekiah became mortally ill. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him and said to him, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Set your house in order, for you shall die and not live.’

Romans 6:23: The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We may note from these texts that life and death are mutually exclusive conditions. If you are dead, you are not alive,3 and vice versa.

Other texts confirm that death is a state in which the dead do not experience human activities. The dead neither plan nor work and have no knowledge or wisdom:

Ecclesiastes 9:10: Whatever your hand finds to do, verily, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol [the grave] where you are going.

Psalm 146:4: His spirit departs, he returns to the earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.

The dead make no sounds of praise; they have no memory, knowledge, or emotion:

Psalm 115:17: The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any who go down into silence.

Psalm 6:5: There is no mention of Thee in death; in Sheol [the grave] who will give Thee thanks?

Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6: For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten. Indeed their love, their hate, and their zeal have already perished, and they will no longer have a share in all that is done under the sun.

Death is referred to as sleep:

1 Kings 2:10: Then David slept with his fathers and was buried in the city of David.

John 11:11, 14: He said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I go, that I may awaken him out of sleep.” . . . Then Jesus therefore said to them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.”

1 Corinthians 15:6: After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep.

The resurrection is like waking from a sleep:

1 Thessalonians 4:13-15: But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve, as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, and remain until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep.

1 Thessalonians 5:10: [Jesus Christ] . . . died for us, that whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with Him.

By using sleep as an analogy for death, these writers did not describe any continuation of human activity. They depicted death much like normal sleep in which we are unconscious, unaware of the passage of time, and unaware of what others are doing. This agrees perfectly with the Old Testament descriptions of death in the foregoing texts.

Resurrection and Judgment

The Bible teaches that every human being who has died will be resurrected from the grave. Resurrection for judgment is as sure as Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the tomb after three days. At the future resurrection, the great divide between the righteous and the wicked will be clear for all to see.

1 Corinthians 15:12-18: Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we witnessed against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.

John 5:28, 29: Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tomb shall hear His voice, and shall come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.

2 Corinthians 5:10: For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.

At the resurrection, those who have received God’s gracious gift of salvation through Jesus Christ will be changed into immortal beings suitable for God’s eternal kingdom (1 Corinthians 15:50-57).

At the same time, those who have continued in rejection of the gospel of Christ and persisted in their selfish, sinful lives will be destroyed, body and soul, in the lake of fire (Matthew 25:41). They will not live in torment forever.4

Most Christians accept this teaching about resurrection and the Day of Judgment. The crucial question is, “When?” When will the dead be raised? When will the righteous and the wicked be forever separated and assigned their rewards?

The Bible’s answer is . . .
. . . at the Second Coming of Christ!

Please note how the following texts tie the resurrection and judgment of the dead with the return of the Lord to earth:

2 Timothy 4:1: I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom. . . .

1 Thessalonians 4:15-17: For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, and remain until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord.

1 Corinthians 15:19-23, 52 (NIV): If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him . . . in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.

It is clear that if there is no coming of the Lord, then there is no resurrection of the dead. And it is clear if there is no resurrection of the dead, we are without hope — dead in our sins.

The blessed hope of every Christian is not that he or she will someday die and go to be with the Lord. The blessed hope is that we mortals will be changed to immortality at the return of our Lord:
“. . . looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus” (Titus 2:13).

We have followed the Scriptures, then, to show that life beyond death is fully dependent on the gospel promises of Christ’s return and the resurrection of the dead. We have no other clear promise for a future, endless life than these.

More and more students of the Bible are recognizing that our hope in Christ is not innate immortality of the soul; it is transformation of body and soul to immortality at the resurrection when Christ returns!

A Gift, Not a Natural Possession

The best possessions in life are gifts from God, and eternal life certainly is one of them. Not something we have naturally, eternal life is something God gives us as announced in the gospel. If we were born with immortal souls, eternal life would not depend on faith in Christ. Even failure to trust Christ would not cause us to perish, because immortal souls can never perish.

Life and immortality have now come to light through the gospel:

John 3:16: For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.

2 Timothy 1:10: But now has been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

Jesus Christ, by His life, death, and resurrection, has given us our only hope of escaping a second death, of receiving perfect and everlasting life after death. These truths are headlined across the pages of Scripture: We will all die forever unless we receive the gift of God, which is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 6:23).

Before we summarize the case for the natural mortality of humans, let’s look at several texts that have been used to teach natural immortality.

What About the Spirits in Prison?

1 Peter 3:18-20a: For Christ also died . . . having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark.

Some propose that this text refers to the activity of Jesus Christ in the hours following His death. They believe that Christ’s spirit preached the gospel in the realms of the “dead” while His body was entombed for three days.

The details are important here. These verses say that it was “by the Spirit” that Christ preached to those who disobeyed “in the days when Noah was building the ark.” The preaching spoken of here was an act of the preexistent Christ through the Holy Spirit, accomplished through the mouth of the man Noah: “And did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a preacher of righteousness, with seven others, when He brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly” (2 Peter 2:5). This preaching was an act of God’s patience toward those ancient “spirits in prison” — people bound by sin prior to the Flood.

There is no compelling reason to interpret the passage as an out-of-body experience of the Lord during His burial or to suppose that He preached to conscious spirits in an underworld prison. It is not necessary to infer from it that Christ, during three days and nights in the grave, led souls from hades into heaven forever. The reference to Noah’s day is reasonable and does not involve the speculation of an alternate explanation.

Absent from the Body; Present with the Lord

2 Corinthians 5:1-5: For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven; inasmuch as we, having put it on, shall not be found naked. For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened because we do not want to be unclothed, but to be clothed, in order that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now He who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave to us the Spirit as a pledge.

Philippians 1:21-23: For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better.

These passages express Paul’s anticipation of death and what it would mean in his relationship with the Lord. Although the apostle uses language that many interpret as his expectation of being consciously with the Lord at the moment of his death, other texts lead us to an alternate interpretation.

The crucial understanding in both texts is in the Bible’s regular reference to death as “sleep.” When one sleeps in the manner described in the Bible as death (no thoughts, no emotions, etc.), the passage of time seems immediate and is imperceptible.

Paul’s words suggest that he did not expect some “intermediate state” of consciousness prior to the resurrection. Verse 3 of 2 Corinthians 5, especially, indicates his confidence that he would not be found “naked,” i.e., a soul without a body. He expected that his next waking moment would be in the presence of the Lord — spirit, soul, and body (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Paul taught that a resurrection was not only promised for standing in the Lord’s presence, but also required!

In the believer’s experience, being with the Lord is his next conscious moment after death. The dead have no knowledge of the “wait” between death and resurrection; they are unaware of the passage of time. Thus, the expectation of the apostle is firm and true.

We may be comforted that when we fall asleep (die) with faith in Christ, we will sleep safely in Jesus’ love until the resurrection.

Souls Under the Altar

Revelation 6:9, 10: And when He broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained; and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, wilt Thou refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”

This speaks of martyred souls under the altar, as seen by John in vision. While waiting for final judgment upon the wicked who killed them, they cry, “How long, O Lord . . . ?” Does this description indicate that these martyrs are alive forever, happy in heaven? Hardly! Souls “under the altar” suggests a position of having been sacrificed for the cause of Christ, unhappily and impatiently awaiting the time of judgment.

Suppose, for a moment, that a literal explanation of this text is correct. Then the souls of Revelation 6:9 are “under the altar” — not in the glorious presence of the Lord above. Further, these souls are crying with a loud voice, in obvious discontent and pain. “How long, O Lord?” does not describe a happy scene of bliss for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their faith. This could hardly be the literal experience of saints who have gone to joyfully be with the Lord in heaven. Instead, they are unresurrected, unrewarded, and unhappy.

This passage may better be understood in the same sense as these:

Genesis 4:10: And He said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground.”

Hebrews 12:24: And to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel.

Just as the blood of Abel “cried out” from the ground, so the souls of the dead martyrs “cry” under the altar. The voices of these martyrs represent the longing of God’s saints for the day when they will be rewarded and their persecutors will be punished. They obviously have not received their inheritance, and await the common time of reward for all saints, as expressed in Hebrews 11:40: “ . . . because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” Revelation 6:9, 10, then, should be understood not literally but figuratively.

Rich Man and Lazarus

Luke 16:22-24: Now it came about that the poor man died and he was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. And in Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue; for I am in agony in this flame.”

Does this parable picture one immortal soul in heaven and another in hell? Not every aspect of this parable should be taken as a reflection of life and death. Doing so leads to ludicrous conclusions, especially in this case. If this is a literal picture of heaven and hell, then:

• rich men go to hell and poor beggars go to heaven.
• heaven is not a pleasant place; it is close enough to hell for the residents to talk with each other about what’s going on in the other place.
• Abraham’s bosom is large enough to contain all the righteous.

Jesus’ story is a parable and obviously not intended for use as a literal description of what men experience at death.

Thief on the Cross

Luke 23:43: And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.”

Was the Lord’s statement an assurance of the time when they would experience paradise together or of the fact that it would happen? We believe it is the latter.

The word today in Jesus’ reply may logically refer to the time He gave the promise itself and not to the time of their experiencing paradise. His response may be understood like this: “Today I assure you that you will be with me in paradise.”

Such speculation contradicts the statements telling that Jesus went to the grave and remained there until His resurrection: It requires conjecture beyond the clear statements of Scripture to teach that Jesus himself went to paradise the day of His crucifixion.

The morning after His resurrection, before the twelve had seen Him, Jesus spoke to Mary outside the tomb:

Jesus said to her, “Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brethren, and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God’” (John 20:17).

If on the first day of the week Jesus had not yet ascended to God, and yet the thief was to be with Jesus the day of the crucifixion, then “paradise” could not equate with going to heaven. The clear statements of Jesus require a different understanding of the passage, such as explained above.

Acts 2:22-24: “Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know — this Man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death. And God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power.”

How do we know Jesus remained in the grave until the resurrection?

1 Corinthians 15:3, 4: I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (NASB).


Jesus’ promise to return for His people is a solid basis on which to build our expectation of eternal life. That promise is sounded scores of times in the New Testament. The doctrine of our resurrection is repeated often in the clearest of terms. Our being raised to immortality, from the grave, is stated without equivocation. These are the truth pillars on which we rest our hope.

The theories of reincarnation and soul immortality, having originated in extra-biblical sources, can give no lasting comfort to those who know the Scriptures well. Only untrustworthy evidence exists for those ideas. They are nothing compared to the solid biblical evidence for the life, death, resurrection, and return of Jesus Christ upon which our hope is built.

Our assurance of eternal life does not come from speculation, nor from the teaching that persons live on after death because they are naturally immortal. Assurance of eternal life does not come from the common report that some have floated through a tunnel toward a bright light as they neared death.

Our confidence of immortality and eternal life for the righteous comes from the clear teachings of God’s Word:

• When a man dies, he sleeps until the resurrection. He is not aware of heaven or hell, of the passage of time, of the struggles and triumphs of those yet living. He is not looking down on his unbelieving loved ones burning in hell!
• The experience of immortality and life in God’s great eternity awaits the consummation of the ages, and of Christ’s return when the transforming power of His resurrection will be fully seen.
• We can receive eternal life and immortality only as a gift of God through the gospel. This means trusting Jesus Christ as Savior and obeying Him as Lord.

1 Man is used here generically, referring to the entire human race, both male and female.
2 While giving this as the general dictum, Scripture recognizes the exceptions in 1 Corinthians 15 and 1 Thessalonians 4: those who are living when Christ returns.
3 You may, of course, be alive physically but dead spiritually, but that is not the issue we are discussing here. Defining physical death as “separation from God” is an error commonly made in the popular view of death. This may be the definition of spiritual death in Scripture, but not of physical death.
4 For a fuller discussion of the fate of the wicked, see the brochure, Will God Punish the Wicked Forever?

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