Anthropology: To Be Human

by Jefferson Vann

to be human is to depend on God for life

Human beings are creatures, created by God and subject to the same limitations as other creatures. Presupposing that we were created immortal, and then approaching Scripture from that presupposition has led to gross misinterpretations of several texts. We can only truly understand who we are in relation to God by beginning with the reality of our total dependence upon God for life and existence.

In this chapter, I refute the doctrine of innate immortality, showing that humans depend upon God for life and existence just as all other creatures do.

From the sovereign LORD of the universe we move our consideration to the being created in his image – humanity. Whereas God can best be described as “The Independent One,” humans are first described in such a way as to highlight their dependence upon him. In his account of man’s creation, Moses said, “then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.”[1]

The pagan creation myths tended to focus on violent conflict. Moses speaks of creation as a benevolent, artistic act. God takes the elements with which he has molded the other parts of his universe, and he carefully produces just one more work of art. Then the creator of all life breathes life into his ultimate creation. We can only truly understand who we are by beginning with the reality of our total dependence upon God for life and existence.

Formed From Dust

                 There are three statements in Genesis 2:7 that, together, make up a pretty good summary of this dependence we have on God. First, Adam was made up of the dust from the ground. It does not say simply that Adam’s body was made from the dust. There is no dualism here. God did not create two things: Adam’s body and his spirit.

The Bible teaches us to view the nature of man as a unity, and not as a duality, consisting of two different elements, each of which move along parallel lines but do not really unite to form a single organism. … it is not the soul but man that sins; it is not the body but man that dies; and it is not merely the soul, but man, body and soul, that is redeemed by Christ.[2]

The being created was Adam before he was ever animated by the breath from God’s nostrils. After his sin, God reminded Adam that “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”[3] God did not say, “your body is dust, but you are something else.” He did not say, “your body will return to the dust, but you will go somewhere else.”

The very name “Adam” spoke of the dependence human beings have on the elements from which this planet is made. He is ‘adam, and he was taken out of the ‘adamah — ground. Later in Genesis we will learn that humans have the potential to be something more, but even that is a miracle of God’s grace. Eternal life was never an entitlement. As first created, humans were just as dependent upon God for life as any of the other creatures God made.

In fact it was also “out of the ground (‘adamah) the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens.”[4] Both “man and all creatures of the earth were equally formed out of the dust of the ground … (so) … he and all the creatures of the earth have been regarded by God as mortal beings composed of dust of the ground and the breath of life.”[5]

Awareness of this fact of dependence upon the divine for life leads to a certain humility. Abraham, for example, could say, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.”[6] He did not flatter himself by imagining that he was something in God’s eyes. He admitted his utter dependence upon the sovereign Lord.

Job appeals to God on the basis of his dependence on him: “Remember that you have made me like clay; and will you return me to the dust?”[7] Job pleads for his life, and at the same time acknowledging that God is the one who gave this life to him – so God is capable of undoing it. Job recognized that he had no innate quality that would prevent God from ending his existence.

Solomon philosophized over this fact that we are just as dependent upon God as all the other creatures as well.

“For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.”[8]

His point was that it made no sense for a man to waste his life on hard work if in the end it would make no eternal difference. Only in a world where God holds out a promise does anything matter. Without him, life is meaningless. We are just like the animals.

That would be a rather bleak idea if we knew nothing more than Genesis 2:7. Indeed, our complete dependence upon God is a scary truth. But it is a truth that is foundational. We have to understand our “in Adam” identity before we can grasp with gratitude our “in Christ” hope.

“The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.”[9]

The gospel promises that human beings who are in Christ will one day bear his image. That includes immortality. However, that promise is conditional. It only applies to those who are “in Christ.” Also, it will only be experienced after his return, and the resurrection of the righteous.

There have always been those who insist that, in spite of Genesis 2:7 and 1 Corinthians 15, we already have immortality. To do so blurs the distinction that Paul saw so clearly between the creation and the restoration. It also ignores the fact that we are made of mortal, perishable, corruptible dust.

Given Life by God

                 The second major statement about the nature of humanity in Genesis 2:7 is the fact that God breathed into Adam’s nostrils, the breath of life. As previously stated, Adam was already Adam when God formed him from the dust. Whatever the breath of life was, it did not impart Adam’s personality or personhood. It was not some separate “soul” that took up residence in the body, but could have easily done without it. The phrase nishmat chayim is rendered literally “a breath of lives.” It refers to the animation of something that is at first lifeless. That same phrase is found in Genesis 7:22 referring to the animals and men who died in Noah’s flood: “Everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died.” So, the phrase itself does not imply any kind of “immortal soul” that would survive death. Instead, it implies the same thing that the dust did: humans are dependent upon God for life. The breath remains God’s breath, and he can take it back whenever he wishes.

Life is a gift from God. It was true of the animals. It is true of human beings as well. There is a difference between Adam and the animals he named, but that difference is not that Adam has some kind of “get out of death free card.” The first lesson we learn about ourselves is a humbling one: we depend upon God for life.

That breath that God gave Adam that day was simply the ability to breathe. This is seen in uses of the term neshamah elsewhere in Scripture. Moses told the Israelites when they conquer the Promised Land to save alive nothing that breathes.[10] In other words, no survivors. Joshua obeyed and “devoted to destruction all that breathed[11] If neshamah implied some kind of immortal soul, those statements would be contradictions.

The prophet tells us to “Stop regarding man in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he?”[12] It is much more important to regard the Independent One from whom the breath came. Human beings may be mighty or wise, but remove their breath, and they are again reduced to dust. They have great potential for advancement, but they are still dependent upon their creator for their next breath.

The process by which God gave breath to Adam on the day of his creation continues to be carried on by God for human beings today. God is the one who “created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it.”[13] He continues to give life, we continue to receive it.

Spirit (ruach) is just another name for that life-breath. It too, is the same animating breath that gives life to the animals.[14] As for the animals, when God takes “away their breath, they die and return to their dust.”[15] As for humanity, “When his breath departs he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.”[16] This all important gift from God — without which we could not exist  —  is a reminder that we are completely dependent on him.

The good news that we will pursue in later chapters is that God plans to resurrect those who are destined for eternal life. But until that day of resurrection at Christ’s second coming, our fate at death is the same as that of the lost. The most common description of this fate in the Bible is sleep. This metaphor “suggests an instructive parallel in which death is likened to falling asleep at night, the intermediate state to the hours of unconscious rest, and the resurrection to the experience of awakening to a new day.”[17]

A Composite Unity

                 The result of this creation process described in Genesis 2:7 is a being who is made up of the stuff of earth, infused with life from heaven. The Bible does not place the accent on one or the other of these facts, but insists on both. The result of creation is a composite unity. As Moses put it, “then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” Adam was not given a “soul,” he became one.

“Notice that the Bible presents man as a unitary being. While discussing man’s spirit, soul, and body, the Scripture places the emphasis upon man as a complete person. It is man – the complete being – who was created, who fell into sin, who can be saved, who dies, who will be raised again, and who will be judged.”[18]

This composite unity must remain together in order to be alive. The real human being is not one or the other, but “a combination of body and soul or spirit.”[19] If you separate the dust from the life, you no longer have a living creature. This also is a gentle reminder of our ultimate dependence upon God for life. Since sin came into God’s creation, mortality has been everyone’s condition, and death has ended every life. If not for the promise of a redeemer, and a future resurrection, that would be the end of our story.

Human beings are created beings, and, as such, we have an affinity with all other creatures, and the rest of the cosmos that God created. Realizing this should instill in us a desire to preserve and protect the environment, and guard the universe from abuse. This is the most fundamental fact about ourselves in Scripture (that we are created beings). From this fact flows the second most fundamental fact (that we are responsible to creation). We explore that responsibility in the next chapter.

to be human is to be mortal

The consequences of original sin in the garden of Eden include the mortality of all human beings, which makes homo sapiens no different from the animals in terms of mortality and eventual death. This dark reality is the backdrop upon which the brilliant light of eternal life offered by Christ emerges in Scripture.

In this chapter, I continue presenting the evidence for innate mortality, and bridge to the concept of potential immortality as a result of the atonement.

The early chapters of Genesis have proven to be very helpful as a guide to understanding human nature. They have shown that human beings are creatures, like the animals, but that human beings were intended to be more than that. They were created in God’s image and likeness, which implies a special authority from God and responsibility to him. God tested this responsibility in the Garden of Eden by planting two special trees in Eden: the tree of life (which, if eaten would have granted Adam and Eve immediate immortality), and the tree of knowing good and evil.

Of these two trees, only the latter was prohibited. The first humans were allowed to eat of all the other trees, including the tree of life. If our ancestors had simply made the correct decision, they would have remained alive forever, along with all their descendants.

Instead, they were deceived to believe that it was the other tree that actually held promise. Satan had told them “For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”[20] That statement was the truth, but it implied a lie: that the tree offered immunity from death. Instead “being like God” merely meant having experienced both good and evil. God had known both the good of his original creation and the evil of Satan’s rebellion. Taking of the tree of knowing good and evil would cause humans to experience evil personally  –  thus wreck the purity of Eden and human intimacy with their creator.

God’s response to that sin led to a further consequence: human mortality. The persons of the Triune One speak among themselves and say …

“Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever. Therefore the

LORD God sent him out from the Garden of Eden to work

the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the Garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.”[21]

Before the fall, human beings had the potential to become immortal. They had the potential to become something more than what they were. As a consequence of the rebellion in Eden, this opportunity was taken away.

God wanted human beings to be immortal. He still does. He wants to establish a relationship with us that will bring glory and joy to both parties forever. Yet God cannot endure unrighteousness forever. Until a solution can be found that will undo the Eden rebellion, God cannot grant immortality to human beings. He was thus forced by his own nature to banish us from paradise.

So, although intended for immortality, human beings are now reduced to the same nature as the animals God has placed us over. The ancient scientist Solomon recognized this:

I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that

God is testing them that they may see that they themselves

are but beasts. For what happens to the children of man

and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies,

so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man

has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go

to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.[22]

This is the bad news the Bible gives us, which serves as the backdrop for the good news of eternal life available through Christ.

Advent Christians proclaim Christ, and his second coming as the time when God is going to grant immortality to the saved and undo the Edenic curse. But Advent Christians have also championed the truth of this bad news: that all humanity is mortal and subject to real death. We feel that it is dishonoring God’s word to say that humans are both mortal and immortal at the same time.[23] We also feel that it is inconsistent evangelism to claim that Jesus offers eternal life and then teach people that they already have eternal life.

Conditional Immortality

So, instead of teaching people that immortality is innate (that is, that all human beings are born with it), we teach that it is conditional. God offers eternal life to those who put their faith in Christ: those are the conditions. One of the first post-apostolic writers to express conditionalism was Theophilus of Antioch:

“God did not create humanity as either mortal or immortal, but, … with the capacity for them both. If humanity inclined towards those things which relate to immortality by keeping the commandments of God, then it would receive immortality as a reward from God … On the other hand, if humanity should incline towards those things which relate to death by disobeying God, then humanity would be the cause of its own death.” [24]

When a certain man came to Jesus once, asking “what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”[25] – Jesus did not challenge his theological inference that eternal life is something that must be obtained. If immortality were innate, then Jesus should have stopped the man and pointed that out. Instead, Jesus agreed with the man that he needed eternal life, and then challenged the man to follow him – that he might get what he was asking for.[26]

The gospel is all about how God offers us what we do not have on the basis of his grace, through the atoning death of Christ. Christ’s death has met the conditions. Following Christ is the solution to the curse of Eden. A conditionalist is someone who does not trust in her own innate ability to live forever, but trusts in Christ’s completed work on the cross, and looks forward to the day when Christ will make her immortal.

Conferred Immortality

Advent Christians take death seriously, and that leads to our special appreciation of the gift of immortality.  We understand the awful consequences that are the result of sin entering God’s creation, and that makes us appreciate Christ all the more. When we read Romans 6:23, it makes perfect sense as it is: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” But if a person believes that immortality is not conferred as a gift, but is an innate possession, they have to supply some interpretation for Romans 6:23 to fit their view. It then reads “For the wages of sin is death (but only death of the body, because the real person is the soul and it cannot die), but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (except that eternal life is actually a right we have by birth, so Christ does not give it).”

William Newton Clarke complained that conditionalists “argue from the silence of scripture regarding the natural immortality of man, and from the uniform association of ‘eternal life’ with Christ.”[27] He was exactly right – although it is hardly reason for complaint. Scripture is silent on the natural immortality of humans because it rejects the notion. Eternal life is either conferred upon the faithful or it is innate by reason of creation. There is no logic that allows for both, or any scripture that proves both.

Future Immortality

Advent Christians have never argued against the concept of human immortality. We simply insist that that great gift will be given to humans at the appropriate time. It has not been the possession of all humans from birth. Instead, it will be given to some humans at the return of Christ. Speaking of that return, Paul says that it will happen “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. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality”[28]

That glorious day will be the beginning of “the times of restoration of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began.”[29] The fact that raising the dead is first on Christ’s list when he returns should be an encouragement to us. It should enable us to face the death of our loved ones (or even our own eventual death) with courage, knowing that although death is real, it is only temporary.

Life Only In Christ

The doctrine of human mortality is Christocentric, not anthropocentric.[30] It reveals Christ as the giver of life, not just the one who can “get you to heaven.” John states the options bluntly: “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”[31] The Bible is about Jesus Christ. The Old Testament pointed forward to him, the New Testament points back to him. Human mortality is the need that only Christ could meet. Paul says that God “saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”[32]

Over against this clear teaching from the Bible on human mortality is the persistent mistaken notion that humans are born with immortal souls or spirits that consciously survive the death of their bodies. This view sees the references to death in the Scripture as usually referring to this physical death, and therefore irrelevant on the subject of the soul’s survival. The view thus confirms both mortality and immortality at the same time. Any scriptural evidence in favor of human mortality can immediately be dismissed as not pertinent, since it (in the innate immortality view) always refers to the material aspect of human existence, and not the spiritual.

Scriptures that Clash with the Innate Immortality Tradition

 This view reflects Greek dualism. It is a worldview that is read into Scripture, rather than being a part of it. It has become embedded in Christianity the way many other non-biblical traditions have. By taking a closer look at doctrines taught in Scripture, the clashes between those doctrines and the innate immortality tradition become more evident.

1 Timothy 6:16

 Scripture teaches that God “alone has immortality.”[33] The innate immortality view denies this, although its proponents do exercise a great deal of verbal gymnastics to try to affirm it. At issue, then, is not simply the doctrine of human nature, but the doctrine of God’s nature as well. To claim immortality for sinful humanity is to deny it as an exclusive attribute of God. But when the first humans sinned, God said that they “must not be allowed to … live forever.”[34] Their sin had not only affected their relationship with God (resulting in banishment from his presence in Eden), but it changed them. They had been immortable (capable of becoming immortal by eating of the tree of life). Now they were simply mortal.

Some argue that the term “immortality,” when it refers to God, has a different meaning than when it refers to all other beings.  They argue that “the meaning of ‘immortality’ in the Bible largely depends on its context.”[35] They see this as adequate justification for ignoring the contradiction found in the traditional doctrine of the immortal soul, and affirming both the exclusive immortality of God and the universal immortality of humanity as dependent upon him. Conditionalists see this as double-speak. While it is true that all words depend on their context for meaning, there is nowhere in the context of 1 Timothy 6:16 that redefines the term or assumes a distinction between how it is used by Paul there, compared to how he or other biblical authors use it elsewhere.

Genesis 2:17

 This is precisely what God (with tears in his eyes) warned Adam and Eve would happen if they disobey his Edenic prohibition. He said “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”[36] That phrase “you shall surely die” is a combination of two forms of the same verb. The word mot is the infinitive absolute of the verb “to die” and refers to the state of mortality that was humanity’s fate after the rebellion in Eden. From the moment they ate of the tree, humanity became a dying race. The second word is the imperfect tense of the same verb. The word tamut refers to the eventual and inevitable death that would come to each member of the race as a result of the fall. Together these two forms of a verb reflect a Hebrew idiom that accentuates the certainty of an action. Thus the translations render the phrase “you will surely die.” The innate immortality doctrine turns this into an empty threat since it claims that the real essence of a human person never dies.

Romans 5:12

                 Paul tells us that “When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned.”[37] Sin and death have been a matched set in human experience ever since that initial sin in Eden. It is not merely the body which sins, but the whole person. That is why we need a Savior, not just someone who can raise us from the dead. Christ is both. He can restore our inner beings as well as raise our bodies. Both have been affected by sin; the wages of that sin is death to both, and the gift of God is eternal life for both.[38]

John 3:16

The Bible speaks of a coming day of judgment when all those who are not redeemed by Christ’s blood will totally perish in the fires of Gehenna hell.[39] When the Bible speaks of believers being saved, it usually refers to this event. In other words, to perish is not simply to die. To perish is to utterly die. It refers to the ultimate, permanent death in Gehenna, not to the temporary death at the end of this life. So when Jesus told Nicodemus that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” he was speaking of the two ultimate fates of mankind. To perish is to be ultimately destroyed. To have eternal life is to escape that destruction. Many texts point out the same distinction.[40] The innate immortality doctrine blurs that distinction because it insists that no human being ultimately perishes. Thus all human beings ultimately have eternal life.

The innate immortality view distorts a crucial and essential doctrine of the Christian faith: the purpose of Christ’s death on the cross. According to the Bible, Christ’s death was to protect us from ultimate destruction, not to get our souls to heaven when our bodies die.

1 Corinthians 15:22-23

                 The Bible is also explicit on the issue of just when believers will gain the gift of immortality. It did not happen at our birth, and it will not happen at our death. Believers will be made alive at the return of Christ. Paul says “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” Paul compares two events in history. The first event was the fall of humanity in the garden of Eden. As a result of that event, human nature became a fatal condition. The second event is the return of Christ to this earth.

The analogy Paul uses to describe the resurrection is a crop harvest. Each resurrection is a stage in the harvest. Since Christ is the firstfruits, he was resurrected first. This took place three days after his death. The second stage of the harvest includes “those who belong to Christ” when he comes. This is the believers’ resurrection. Paul does not speak of Christ restoring souls with their risen bodies. Instead he speaks of the whole person being “made alive.” This is when the promise of eternal life will be fulfilled for us.

The doctrine of innate immortality also subverts this plain teaching of Scripture. According to that view, no human being ever dies, so none will ever need to be made alive. The concept of the resurrection takes a back seat to the more immediate idea of conscious survival of death. It makes the return of Christ less crucial, and rather anticlimactic.

Summary

                 The consequences of original sin in the Garden of Eden include the mortality of all human beings, which makes homo sapiens no different from the animals in terms of mortality and eventual death. This dark reality is the backdrop upon which the brilliant light of eternal life offered by Christ emerges in Scripture. In contrast, the tradition of innate immortality dilutes the teachings of Scripture. Believing that one is already immortal by nature can make one less appreciative of the nature of God, the influence of sin, the purpose of Christ’s death on the cross, and the reason for his second coming.

to be human is to be immortable

The hope of humanity is the eternal life that God offers through the sacrifice of his Son on the cross. Immortality is a potential possession. Therefore, no human life need be wasted. Each of us has the potential to be much more than what we can attain in a few short years of life. The immortability of the human soul leads to at least two practical, but seemingly contradictory conclusions: 1) all human life is valuable and must be protected, 2) the chance to be immortal is worth risking one’s life for.

In this chapter, I outline the doctrine of potential immortality, and point out some of the implications of this doctrine, including the sanctity of human life, and the call for unlimited perseverance. 

The story of humanity begins in the past, in creation. It continues in the future, an eternal future set by God on Judgment Day. Those whom God judges as not worthy of restoration will experience “tribulation and distress,” and eventually will be destroyed by God’s “wrath and fury.” Those who respond to his grace in this life, and spend their lives seeking “glory and honor and immortality” by “patience in well-doing” will receive an everlasting life of “glory and honor and peace.”[41] This is the destiny of humanity. Without an understanding of this future reality, one can never hope to fully comprehend what human beings are.

This eternal destiny is at the core of the gospel message that Jesus revealed to the world by his ministry, death and resurrection. It involves salvation by grace, the abolition of death, and a call to live eternal lives, which manifest God’s purpose for life.[42] Our destiny is much more than a nice place to spend eternity. The good news is that we will be completely changed into the kind of persons who can inhabit a sinless eternity. Yet, the fact that such a transformation awaits us implies that somewhere within us today is the yearning for it: human beings are by nature – not immortal like God – but immortable.

Our conscience within us strives to share in God’s attribute of holiness. We grieve over sin and the loss and death it causes. We feel guilty when we do not live up to God’s standards. We feel angry when others sin, and when we sin. In the same way, there is something within us that reacts strongly to death – any death. We know death is real, and that it is inevitable. Yet we also know on a deeper level that it is wrong.

In 1999 Robin Williams starred in a film called “Bicentennial Man.” The movie centered on the “life” of a robot that somehow gained sentience and was like humans in every way except that he could not die. Having outlived everyone he knew and loved, the robot decided to take his own life, in order to be truly human. The film is a reminder of how death defines humanity now, but perhaps it sends the wrong message.

The Bible also preaches the reality of death, but it does so as the backdrop to the glorious good news that death is not what defines humanity. Our purpose is life and life forever. To insist that death is what makes us truly human is to miss that glorious truth.

Life as a Gift

From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible depicts eternal life not as a present possession, but as a gift that is promised to believers by a loving, generous and kind God (who currently is the only one who possesses it). The tree of life that God planted in Eden was a symbol of that gift. God gave no prohibitions against the tree of life. Yet our ancestors, convinced that it was the other tree that would give them life, ignored the real opportunity until it was taken away from them.

A lawyer had once asked Jesus, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?,” and Jesus taught the parable of the Good Samaritan in reply.[43] The question that the lawyer asked was actually quite perceptive. He knew that eternal life was not a given – not an innate characteristic. He should also be given credit for asking Jesus, because Jesus through his sacrificial death has made eternal life a possibility for all humanity again. It is “through Christ alone (that the) doom is reversed, and man becomes capable of immortality.”[44]  Unfortunately, Jesus knew that the lawyer’s heart was not right, although his question was. The lawyer was still “desiring to justify himself,”[45] which is a way of avoiding God’s grace – the only means of justification. He was determined to get life by taking of the wrong tree. Jesus left him with a means of measuring whether he was truly living up to the law that he professed to live by.

In many other places, the New Testament speaks of salvation as the gift of eternal life.[46] To speak of eternal life or immortality as an innate possession cheapens this doctrine. The teaching about eternal life as a gift from God is the heart of the gospel message. We humans know that we are facing death. The good news is not that death is an illusion, but that Jesus offers hope beyond it. That hope is the kingdom of God, ushered in by a resurrection.

The Kingdom and Eternal Life

                 In Christ, the opportunity for eternal life (lost at Eden) has been restored. When our Lord taught about his return for judgment, he said he will call all the nations to him, and separate people from each other, the sheep from the goats. They will be separated according to their destiny. Those goats destined for permanent destruction will be separated from the sheep who are destined for permanent life.[47] Christ said it would be he who judges. Jesus calls this eternal life “the kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world.”[48] By doing this, Jesus weaves together two biblical concepts into one fabric: the kingdom of God and the resurrection. Both concepts put together suggest that believers are destined to live forever, but unbelievers are not.

Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man afforded him another opportunity to talk about the kingdom and the eternal life it will bring.[49] Again, it is clear that both concepts are woven together into the same issue. The young man asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”[50] When Jesus’ answer did not suit him, the young man left. Jesus used that public rejection as an opportunity to teach about – the kingdom of God. He said “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”[51]

A Pharisee named Nicodemus was also privy to a discussion with Jesus on the same issues.[52] Jesus taught him that one has to be born again to see the kingdom of God.[53] He also said that he (the Son of Man) would be “lifted up” like the serpent in the wilderness was.[54] The story from the Old Testament (Numbers 21:4-9) is important to review. The people had sinned and the wages of that sin was death. They asked Moses to intercede for them, that God would take the serpents away. Instead, God instructed Moses to make a symbol of the curse itself, and set it up for all to see. Anyone bit by the serpents would be redeemed from the curse and gain life on the condition that they look on the symbol in faith.

Jesus taught Nicodemus that the Old Testament story was a simile for how God has chosen to deal with a rebellious, sinful people. Like the serpent in the wilderness, the cross is the symbol of death, the due punishment for our rebellion and sin. But God in his grace has offered a way to escape the punishment. Those who believe in Christ are reborn – not of the flesh (natural birth), but of the Holy Spirit (a supernatural birth). These can both see and enter the kingdom of God.[55] They will have eternal life.[56] They will be saved from the condemnation that will come upon all the rest.[57]

John (the Gospel author) comments later in such a way as to connect the ideas of the kingdom of God and eternal life. He says that “the Father loves the Son and had given all things into his hand.”[58] He is referring to the authority to rule the earth: the kingdom of God. In the next verse, he says “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”[59] Faith and obedience come together in the concept of the kingdom.

John also explains the details so that there is no mistake about what it means to receive eternal life by believing in Christ. Does it mean that believers will never die? No, it means that upon believing in Christ, believers will inherit the promise of eternal life in God’s kingdom. Believers continue to die, but that death is only temporary. The state of death will be interrupted by a resurrection. In chapter 6, John records Jesus talking about the promise of inherited life seven times.[60] But he is careful to also point out that this inheritance will come to pass by means of a resurrection, which will take place “on the last day.”[61] Believers possess eternal life now in the same way that a rich person’s young daughter possesses all the wealth she is due to inherit.

Immortability

If there is an innate characteristic that gives hope to all humanity, it is not immortality. It is immortability. God created humans with the potential for immortality. It is that reality within each of us that drives us toward two goals that appear to be polar opposites. On the one hand, we see all human life as valuable (because God has invested it with immortability) and therefore seek to protect it. Every person on earth has a right to live, and that right should be protected. We believe in the sanctity of human life. Therefore, Christians should be on the front lines in the battle to protect the unborn, the aged, and all those who are in danger of being prematurely killed by a society that marginalizes them. This includes all those who are in danger of dying from starvation, war, domestic violence, or preventable disease due to government corruption and lack of accountability. To be pro life is to seek to protect it in all its forms, because all human life is potentially immortal life.

On the other hand, this chance to gain immortality by entering God’s kingdom through obedience to and faith in Christ is worth risking this present life for. We believe in persevering in our faith “even to death”[62] if that is necessary. Our Lord said that “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”[63] The believer who is confident of his standing in Christ is willing to risk his life as a witness to that confidence. Both the sanctity of life and Christian martyrdom stem from the fact that humans are immortable: we

[1] Genesis 2:7.

[2] Louis Berkhof,  Systematic Theology  (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1949), 192. quoted in Freeman Barton, Heaven, Hell and Hades  (Lenox Mass:Henceforth … Publications, 1990), 16.

[3] Genesis 3:19.

[4] Genesis 2:19.

[5] George Wisbrock, Mortal By Design.  (Chicago Ridge IL: by author, 2003), 13.

[6] Genesis 18:27.

[7] Job 10:9.

[8] Ecclesiastes 3:19-20.

[9] 1 Corinthians 15:47-49.

[10] Deuteronomy 20:16.

[11] Joshua 10:40; 11:11,14.

[12] Isaiah 2:22.

[13] Isaiah 42:5.

[14] Genesis 7:22 speaks of the breath of the spirit of life (~yYIx; x:Wr-tm;v.nI) (nishmat-ruach chayim) referring to the animating breath in all the men and animals that died in the flood.

[15] Psalm 104:29.

[16] Psalm 146:4.

[17] Clarence H. Hewitt, Faith For Today.  (Boston: The Warren Press, 1941), 106.

[18] David A. Dean, Resurrection Hope. (Charlotte: ACGC, 1992), 40.

[19] James A Nichols, Jr., Christian Doctrines (Nutley NJ: Craig Press, 1970, 119.

[20] Genesis 3:5.

[21] Genesis 3:22-24.

[22] Ecclesiastes 3:18-20.

[23] William West explores this contradiction in Resurrection And Immortality  (Xulon Press, 2006), 77.

[24] Theophilus of Antioch ad Autolycum (shortly after 180 AD) quoted in Alister E. McGrath, ed. The Christian Theology Reader (Malden Mass: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 646.

[25] Matthew 19:16.

[26] Matthew 19:21.

[27] William Newton Clarke, An Outline of Christian Theology (BiblioBazaar, LLC, 2009), 452.

[28] 1 Corinthians 15:52-53 NIV.

[29] Acts 3:21 NKJV.

[30] Viewing mortality as an anthropocentric issue places too much emphasis on humans as created rather than humans as redeemed. Conditionalists argue that viewing mortality as an anthropocentric issue distracts believers from seeing the connection between human need for resurrection life and the solution for that problem offered in the atonement.

[31] 1 John 5:12.

[32] 2 Timothy 1:9-10.

[33] 1 Timothy 6:16.

[34] Genesis 3:22 NIV.

[35] Christopher W. Morgan, Robert A. Peterson, Hell Under Fire (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 206. These authors discredit the conditionalist argument for exclusive immortality of God because they are seeking to defend the traditional concept of hell as the perpetual torture of immortal human souls.

[36] Genesis 2:17.

[37] Romans 5:12 NLT.

[38] Romans 6:23.

[39] Malachi 4:1; Matthew 5:22,29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5.

[40] See also John 4:14; 5:21; 10:28; 17:2.

[41] Romans 2:6-10.

[42] 2 Timothy 1:8-11.

[43] Luke 10:25-37.

[44] James Hastings, ed.  Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics Part 2 (New York: Kessinger Publishing, 2003), 548.

[45] Luke 10:29.

[46] John 10:28; 17:2; Acts 13:46, 48; Romans 5:21; Galatians 6:8; Titus 1:2; 3:7; 1 John 2:25; 5:11-12; Jude 21.

[47] Matthew 25:31-46.

[48] Matthew 25:34.

[49] Mark 10:17-31.

[50] Mark 10:17.

[51] Mark 10:23.

[52] John 3:1-21.

[53] John 3:3.

[54] John 3:14.

[55] John 3:3, 5.

[56] John 3:15-16.

[57] John 3:17-18.

[58] John 3:35.

[59] John 3:36.

[60] John 6:27, 33, 35, 40, 47, 51, 53.

[61] John 6:39, 40, 44, 54.

[62] Rev. 12:11.

[63] Matthew 10:39; 16:25.

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