Ideas come and go on all kinds of subjects. More than fifty years ago C.R. Nichol had a debate that was published on the subject of whether or not man had an immortal soul. The man Nichol was debating argued from I Timothy 6:16 which says, “Who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen.” His argument was simple, if God alone has immortality then it is imperative that we understand that man doesn’t have immortality. Today that argument is being restored and refined by many to argue something different.
The argument now being made is that we don’t have an immortal soul but when Jesus comes again he will give to the righteous immortality. The feeling is that it fits with text like I Corinthians 15 when speaking of the resurrection from the dead and Paul said that this mortal will put on immortality and this corruptible will put on incorruption and death will be swollowed up in victory. It is also argued that between death and the resurrection the soul sleeps or waits for the resurrection and judgment before any punishment or reward takes place.
Is there a part of man that survives death and goes immediately to punishment or reward at the point of death? I believe strongly that the Bible teaches that there is indeed an immortal part of man that survives death and does not go out of existence even in the torments of hell. Here are some of the reasons for thinking that way.
When Jesus was on the cross he told the thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” If there is no immortal or incorruptible part of man that survives death, pray tell what did he mean? The plain indication is that they were both going to be alive in some way that day even though they were dying and would be together in a place of blessing. In Jesus story of the rich man and Lazarus both the rich man and the beggar died. Both were then pictured out of the body in reward or punishment. Both were conscious and aware of their past. It is obvious this relates to the time between death and the resurrection since the rich man still had five brothers back on earth.
It intrigues me that those who dislike what this story teaches always discount it by either pointing to is and saying it is just a parable or trying to take an aspect of it and ridiculing it. First, I don’t know if it is a parable or not. If it is, it is certainly a unique parable since there isn’t another parable that Jesus ever told that had the names of people in it, especially to attribute to a historical character words that they didn’t actually say. Also, the parables tend to point to the future in their application to life in the kingdom of God. This story is set in the time when Moses and the Law were still bound. Abraham said of the brothers, “They have Moses and the prophets. Let them hear them.” Second, if it is a parable, it still has to be a parable of something. What is this a parable about? Some have said it is a parable about fairness or about the misuse of wealth. It is certainly true that the over all point of riches was in view. But to take the whole story of their life beyond death and discount it to nothing is only done because doesn’t like what it teaches.
Lately, some have resorted to looking at the fact that Lazarus was comforted in Abraham’s lap and declared if this is something for every one that dies right with God then Abraham’s lap must be getting pretty full. The truth seems to me to be that Abraham’s lap or bosom isn’t being spoken of figuratively nor is it teaching that every person who dies right with God is comforted by Abraham. It does indicate that one who dies right with God is comforted by someone who is already there. Abraham happened to be the one who comforted Lazarus. If one dies and their soul sleeps between death and the resurrection or if their soul is destroyed in death or in hell immediately this whole story, whether parable or historical makes no sense.
In Acts 7 when Stephen was dying and prayed for the Lord to receive his spirit it was a misguided prayer if the conditional immortality idea is true. In 2 Corinthians 4 and 5 Paul explains why, under so much stress and challenge he doesn’t lose heart. “Even though our outward man is perishing, our inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary afflictions are working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory for which reason we do not look at the things that are seen but at the unseen. For the things that are seen are temporary but the things that are unseen are eternal.” Even before we go on into chapter five, this passage clearly teaches that we have an inward man. You can call it the soul, the spirit or factor X if you want to, but the reality is there is an inward man that doesn’t grow old or decay. It isn’t perishing. (Compare Matthew 10:28).
Then he continues his thought in chapter five. “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent we groan and are burdened, because when we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” Notice, there is no question he is describing time between death and the resurrection. He describes it as being outside the body and present with the Lord. This period was a time that he groaned for not that he might be unclothed as a soul without a body, but clothed with heaven itself. To try to make this whole discussion fit into the soul sleeping between death and the resurrection or waiting for the Lord to give them immortality at the second coming just won’t fit the description.
Think also of the transfiguration of Jesus described by Matthew, Mark and Luke, when Jesus took Peter, James and John upon the mountain with him to pray. On the mountain Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus talking of his impending death. Had they been raised from the dead early? Were they awakened from sleep long enough to come to this meeting? None of that makes sense. They were alive in God’s presence when they were sent on this mission to Jesus.
In I Thessalonians 4:13-18 when Paul described the second coming of Jesus, he told them they shouldn’t be worrying about those who had fallen asleep in Jesus. He said that When Jesus comes again he will bring with him those asleep in him and their bodies would be raised and those still alive would be changed to meet the Lord in the air and forever be with the Lord. How is Jesus both bringing the saints with him when he comes and raising them from the dead? If there is no immortal soul that goes to God between death and the resurrection if one is right with God, there is no explanation.
In 2 Corinthians 12:1-5 when Paul describes the man who fourteen years before was caught up into Paradise, into the third heaven and heard unspeakable words, unlawful for a man to utter, he couldn’t tell whether it was in the body or outside the body. The Lord only knew. But if one buys into the conditional immortality, why would he not know? How could one possibly do anything outside the body if the soul only receives immortality at the resurrection?
In Revelation 6 and 7 John describes the souls of those who had been beheaded for the witness of Jesus. Their souls were under the altar and they cried out to God, “How long until you avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth? They were told to wait for a little while and were given white robes to wear. In chapter 7 the elder asked John “Who are these in the white robes and where did they come from?” When he answers it is, “These are the ones who came out of great tribulation and have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Then it tells how they are led by the Lord by everlasting fountains of water and God wiped all tears from their eyes. These are dead people and it is their souls that are being blessed in glory.
But what about I Timothy 6:16? Doesn’t it trump all of this by declaring that only the Lord has immortality? I remember Nichols answer to that question was that the point Paul was making wasn’t that only deity had immortality but that deity only had immortality. That is all that deity possesses is immortality. The Godhead doesn’t have a body that is mortal and then possess an immortal soul. Each of the persons in the Godhead are spirit beings who have nothing but immortality. Jesus took on a body for 33 years to dwell among us. But in his nature he is like the Father and the Spirit that he is spirit. Since the time of his resurrection he still has only immortality.
In the next section of this blog I will talk more about the ones who die unprepared to meet God and what happens to them between death and the resurrection and what happens afterward in eternity.