Is Man Immortal? (1 Timothy 6)

A Special Study by Gareth L. Reese

Excerpted from Paul's Prison Epistles:  A Critical & Exegetical Commentary
(Moberly, MO: Scripture Exposition Books LLC, 2007)
Download a printable PDF of this Special Study



        Is man immortal, or is he not?  Opinions differ.  One of the doctrines currently making the rounds is that the Bible does not teach that the soul is immortal; therefore, eternal punishment of the wicked is unthinkable since before eternal punishment could be inflicted, God would have to deliberately keep the soul alive.  Well, then, is man immortal or not?

Definition of Terms      

        One important term is "soul" (Hebrew, nephesh, Greek, psuchē).  Lexicons give three literal meanings for the word:  (1) Life on the earth in its external, physical aspects; used in this sense of animals and men; when it leaves the body, death occurs.  (2) The soul, by which is intended man's desires, feelings, emotions.  (3) The soul or immaterial part of man – which can receive salvation or can be lost, which men cannot injure but which God can hand over to destruction, and which is distinct from the body so far as the body is made up of flesh.1  It is primarily this third usage with which we are concerned.

        It is important to remember that there are two Greek words translated "immortal" in the New Testament.  One is athanasia (1 Corinthians 15:53,54; 1 Timothy 5:16), which speaks of "deathlessness."  The other is aphtharsia (1 Corinthians 15:42ff; Romans 2:7; 2 Timothy 1:10) and its cognate aphthartos (1 Timothy 1:17; Romans 1:23; 1 Corinthians 9:25; 1 Peter 1:4,24), which mean "uncorruptible, imperishable."

        With these brief definitions in mind, let us again consider the question, "Is man immortal?"  Is the soul "deathless" and "imperishable"?

Three Modern Attitudes Toward Immortality

        Oscar Cullman argues that the idea that the New Testament teaches the soul's immortality is a misunderstanding.  He alleges that the immortality of the soul is a Greek doctrine, not a Christian doctrine.  The Christian doctrine is that of resurrection, not that of immortality.2

        Hoeksema, while agreeing with the position that soul-immortality is a non-Christian idea, will permit the term immortality to be applied to man, provided the term is defined.  His position, in substance, is that only those who are in Christ are immortal.3

        The third of the modern attitudes is the opinion that in a sense the souls of all men are immortal (i.e., all have an endless existence), but that the term "immortality" is used in the Bible only of the redeemed, since the heavenly life with its blessings is the only life that meets the real sense of the term.4

        Which of these three is nearest the truth of the Scriptures?

Old Testament Idea of Immortality

        The Bible nowhere explicitly mentions the immortality of the soul, and never attempts to prove it in a formal way.  Everywhere it assumes man's immortality as an undisputed postulate, in much the way it assumes the existence of God.

        The Old Testament teaches immortality, but not with the clarity of the New Testament, chiefly because God's revelation in Scripture is progressive and gradually increases in clearness.  Several Old Testament texts imply the immortality of the soul.  The translation of Enoch (Genesis 5:22,24).  The phrases "to go to his fathers" (Genesis 15:15) or "to be gathered to his people" (Genesis 25:8, 35:29; Numbers 20:24) speak not of burial in a family cemetery, but of a place where the dead dwell connected together in a society.5  From Genesis 47:9 (and similar passages where life is called a "journey") Paul argues that the patriarchs expected a life after death.6  And consider Exodus 3:6 in light of Matthew 22:23.  According to Jesus' words, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were definitely alive even though their bodies were in the grave.  None of them had 'gone out of existence.'  All of them were souls that had survived death.  Consider further that the dead in the Old Testament descended into Sheol (Greek, Hades), and in Sheol they were in a state of conscious existence.7  A belief in the immortality of the soul is also evidenced by Old Testament Jews from their practice of necromancy, or consulting the dead – against which God gives frequent warnings.8  Further, the passages that speak of the future resurrection of the dead imply immortality.9

        Some have attempted to show from the Old Testament that the soul is not immortal.  Ecclesiastes 3:19,20 and 9:2-10 are appealed to for proof.  There it is stated that the same thing happens to both men and beasts, in that they all die, and the dead know nothing.  Surely, it is alleged, such language speaks of non-existence.

        How does Ecclesiastes answer the question, "Is man immortal?"  Ecclesiastes 12:11 tells us that the book is made up of "goads" and "nails."  It may be that the "goads" are problems raised to stimulate earnest reflection, and the "nails" are the solutions to the problems.  The goad would be that which perplexes the man who looks at things from the standpoint of the earth ("under the sun").  Thus, the goad problem – Is it not true that men and beasts all die, and that ends things for them?  And the nail solution – viewed from the region above the sun, is that man's spirit does not go out of existence.  On the contrary, "Then the dust shall return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it" (Ecclesiastes 12:7).  In fact, in Ecclesiastes 3:11 we are told that man's soul reaches out for the life after this life.10

        When Ezekiel 18:4,20 says, "The soul that sinneth, it shall die" (ASV), this is not necessarily proof that the soul is mortal.  It might mean that sin will separate man from God.  That is one thing that death is.  It is separation.

        Certainly, the Old Testament implies the immortality of the soul.

Greek Philosophers on Immortality

        It has already been noted that some are of the opinion that immortality of the soul is not a Christian idea, but a Greek idea.  Just what did the Greek philosophers teach on the subject of immortality?  At death "the soul departs ... to a divine, immortal ... place ... It lives the rest of the time with the gods."11  In another place is this note,

... the soul is an entirely different thing from the body.  In actual life, that which makes each of us what he is, is the soul. ... [T]he immortal soul (when we are dead) passes on to other gods to give account of itself, so tradition tells us – an encouraging thought for the good man, but very alarming for the wicked.12

        The ideas the philosophers taught plainly had come, they said, from "sacred sayings of old" or "tradition."  Instead of the Christians getting their beliefs from the philosophers, the Greek philosophers got their teachings from that ancient knowledge which men deliberate-ly allowed to get away as time passed.13

        It will further help to see whether immortality is a Greek or Biblical idea by examining the doctrine of immortality in the New Testament.

New Testament Teaching of Immortality

        The doctrine of immortality is found everywhere assumed in the New Testament.  A future state for both righteous and wicked is clearly taught.  The continued existence of believers appears in such passages as Matthew 10:28; Luke 23:43; John 11:25ff; 2 Corinthians 5:1.  The survival after death of the wicked is made clear in Matthew 11:21-24, 12:41; Romans 2:5-11; 2 Corinthians 5:10.  That even the wicked survive death, and are in a state of conscious existence, is clearly suggested by the narrative of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19ff.  Immortality is implied in all those passages in which the body is represented as a garment which is to be laid aside, or as a tabernacle or house in which the soul dwells.14   When Jesus Christ appeared in this world, the views about immortality that prevailed were those of the Jews and the Greeks.  It was left for Him to advance the revelation of the future state of soul, and this He did.  Paul says, "Christ Jesus ... abolished death, and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel."15  By means of the gospel, men have had disclosed to them the life of the future world, and the incorruptibility (aphtharsia) of both body and soul.16   Paul has pointed out that the wicked survive death, and have wrath, indignation, tribulation, and anguish awaiting them.17  He also taught that one of the things included in the redemptive act of Christ was the redemption of the body.  Christ died for the body as well as for the soul.  This is why He can speak of the uncorruptible body which awaits the redeemed at the second coming of Christ.18

        The statement of 1 Timothy 6:16, that "only God possesses immortality," is often used to refute the conclusion to which this paper is tending.  On the basis of that passage, it is alleged by some that no soul is immortal.  Is this a true inference to draw from 1 Timothy?  No reputable commentary so understands it.  To quote just a few:

Justin Martyr says,

God is said only to have immortality, because He has it not by the will of another, as the rest who possess it, but of His own proper essence.19

Barnes' note is this,

It seems to mean that God, in his own nature, enjoys a perfect and certain exemption from death.  Creatures have immortality only as they derive it from Him, and of course are dependent on Him for it.  He has it by his nature, and it is in His case underived.20

        Only those who disbelieve the overwhelming evidence for the survival of the soul after death try to use 1 Timothy 6:16 as proof that man is mortal.

        One other New Testament doctrine needs to be considered.  Briefly, it is this:  The word "immortality" is used specifically only with reference to the redeemed, when speaking of men.  This seems to imply that the Bible writers put an exalted definition on the term, speaking of the blessedness of heaven.  There is a sense in which only the saved have "immortality" since the continued existence of the wicked cannot be called "eternal life" in the full sense of the word "life."


        The reality of a conscious life beyond the grave is uniformly assumed and taught by the inspired Bible writers.  To this future life they assign no terminus or end.  Cullman's assertion that the idea of immortality was a Greek doctrine has been shown to be false.  The wicked have been shown to be immortal in the sense that they have continued existence after death.  Those who wish to deny the future punishment of the wicked will have to go elsewhere for arguments.

        To the question "Is Man Immortal?" a good answer would be, "Yes, but only in the sense that his existence never ends.  The Bible uses the word 'immortal' only for the redeemed.  The soul has been endowed with immortality by the God who alone possesses immortality!"




1 See the lexicons by Arndt and Gingrich, Thayer, Liddel and Scott, and others.
2 Oscar Cullmann, "Immortality or Resurrection" an article in Christianity Today, July 21, 1958, p.3-6.
3 H. Hoeksema, In the Midst of Death, p.98,99.
4 L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p.672-78.
5 Lange's Commentary on Revelation, p.368; McClintock and Strong, Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature, V. 4, p.516.
6 Hebrews 11:13-16.
7 Genesis 37:35; Isaiah 14:9ff.
8 Leviticus 19:31, 20-27; Deuteronomy 18:11; Isaiah 8:19, 29:4.
9 Job 19:23-27; Psalms 16:9-10, 17:15, 49:15, 73:24; Isaiah 26:19; Daniel 12:2; Hosea 13:14.
10 Some interpret Ecclesiastes 3:11 to mean that man is different from the beast in that man is a reflecting, meditating soul, while the beast is not.  At least, the "nail" says that "man is not in every respect like the beast."
11 Adam Fox, Plato and the Christians, p.75.
12 Op. cit., p.86.  See similar ideas expressed on pages 88-90.
13 Romans 1:20ff.
14 2 Corinthians 12:1-4, 5:1; 2 Peter 1:14; Philippians 1:23,24.
15 2 Timothy 1:10.
16 See Barnes' Notes at 2 Timothy 1:10. See also Hendriksen, 1-2 Timothy and Titus, p.233,234.
17 Romans 2:6ff.
18 1 Corinthians 15; 1 Thessalonians 4:16ff, etc.
19 Quoted by Henry Alford, Greek Testament, V.3, p.362,363.
20 Barnes' Notes on 1 Timothy, p.202.  Compare Hendriksen, op. cit., p.208.
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