Is man immortal? More specifically, is the soul immortal? We all know that we die, but what of our souls? Do they go on? Most would answer, “yes.” For most, the soul is an immaterial thing that dwells within a physical machine called a body. This, though a rough generalization, is the view of many religious and non-religious groups, Christians included. Throughout my first years as a Christian, there was a supposition of the immortality of mankind, usually specifically attributed to the soul. I, like many of you, had never been taught differently. However, I cannot recall a specific demonstration ever being offered as positive support for the immortality of mankind. While it was not taught explicitly, it was taught implicitly. The best I can conjure up from my memory is the premise that, since we were created in the image of God and that God breathed his spirit into us, we inherited immortality during the genesis of our creation. Can a argument be made from Genesis 1-3 (and from the rest of Scripture) for this thesis?
The first introduction we are given to humanity is on the sixth day of creation, when ‘Elohim creates male and female in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27). Humanity is to rule over the dominion of creation as physical representatives of the Divine. The word for “image” is sélem in the Hebrew and was the same word the ancients used when they created a statue or carving as earthly icons of their deities. These were not the mere outcome of arts and crafts hobbies but were considered to be the authentic ambassadors that connected humanity with their divine lords. The Genesis narrative introduces humanity as this iconic incarnation of God on earth. Mankind was to act in the same manner God could and did act upon the formless and chaotic world. Yet, it would be much too great of a stretch to imply from this that humanity was created to be immortal. The “images” of the pagans would eventually rust, crumble, break, or be destroyed by invaders. There was no assumption that these idols would remain forever without needing replacement sometime in the future. And, as such, the original readers would not have any clear didactic on the longevity of the human being.
The Mortality of Man
The next description of mankind we get is found in Genesis 2 when the narrative flashes back on the creation of the first man. We are told that “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” (Genesis 2:7). It must be mentioned that, while those “images” of other deities were made by the hands of man, this “image” was fashioned by God’s own hands. At least, that is the allusion Genesis is painting for us when it uses yâtsar as the verb for how God created Adam. Yâtsar means to fashion or to frame and was especially used of potters. Another pertinent comparison is that the spirit (or breath, it is the same word, ruach) of a god would often inhabit its physical idol. Here, we read that God breathed into his physical creation the breath of life and then man became a living being. Does this imply that mankind was now immortal? At most, perhaps. The direct contrast is between man without and then with the breath of life. Adam was literally a lifeless, breathless corpse before and after receiving the breath of life is now a living, breathing being. No clear indication has been provided yet of man’s mortality.
Then, two verses later, we are introduced to two specific trees in the garden where God houses Adam: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:9). Here is the first substantial clue we actually have of man’s immortality or the lack there of. Up to this point, all we have had is circumstantial evidence that could be skewed one way or the other. The tree of life has been a common idea among the ancient pagan mythos. From Mesopotamia, ancient China, and to Egypt, there was a common legend of a tree by which a human could gain eternal life. For example, in the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh learns of the tree’s location at a bottom of a lake. He then dives down, plucks its fruit, and returns to the surface. Exhausted from his free diving, he rests on a log. While he is resting, a snake comes from behind and eats the fruit. All of these legends echo the Genesis epic of Eden. There was a source for immortality. So, the question must be asked, was Adam immortal? If Adam could receive immortality by taking from the tree of life, then it would imply that he was not created immortal since immortality was something he had to receive after his creation.
Let us assume that you are tracking with me and so far you have not had any objections (amusing assumption is it not?). Perhaps you are already on board. Let us then throw a wrench into the gears. If man was not intrinsically immortal, then why does God warn Adam, “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” (Genesis 2:17)? This implies that Adam was in fact immortal since if he ate of this other tree he would then die. If Adam had not eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, then he would have lived. Then what was the purpose of the Tree of Life? If you didn’t know the rest of the story, you could assume that it was to remedy the effects of eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. However, God removes that as a possibility when he exiles Adam and Eve from the garden, saying, “Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever” (Genesis 3:22). This explanation for the eviction of humanity from the garden can either reinforce the original immortality of Adam or his original mortality. If Adam and Eve, and their offspring, had never eaten of either tree, what would have happened? If they would have died, then why not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? If they would have not died, then why eat of the tree of life?[There is a discussion to be had about the names of these two trees, their nature, what they represent, and why one gives life but the other death. This would have significant overlap into the discussion of the genre and intention of Genesis. But these will be for another blog time in another blog post.]
This is the moment that theologians dig their trenches, rally troops, stock reinforcements, and strategize for the polemical war games. Genesis is not ignorant of the question but rather it offers suggestions for both possibilities. When you ask of Genesis, “Was man created to be immortal or mortal?”, Genesis answers with a big fat annoying, “Yes.” The way the Genesis account was structured suggests that mankind was made with either mortality or immortality being possible but this would be conditioned upon mankind’s choice. Until that choice is made, mankind was one of Schrödinger’s cats in a superposition of both mortal or immortal. Just as the nature of mankind was both soil and spirit and not just one or the other, so was his destiny at the onset of creation. A choice would eventually be made about which reality he would live in: one of his own making or the one God had already made.[tweetthis]”…mankind was one of Schrödinger’s cats in a superposition of both mortal or immortal.”[/tweetthis]
God alone has immortality
Inherit anthropic immortality being non-existent explains why the Apostle Paul describes God as “he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Timothy 6:15-16, emphasis mine). It is then Jesus “who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10). It is “to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Romans 2:7). This then would explain why many early church fathers taught that humanity was not made either immortal or mortal:
St. Theophilus of Antioch (115-181 AD)
“But some one will say to us, Was man made by nature mortal? Certainly not. Was he, then, immortal? Neither do we affirm this. But one will say, Was he, then, nothing? Not even this hits the mark. He was by nature neither mortal nor immortal. For if He had made him immortal from the beginning, He would have made him God. Again, if He had made him mortal, God would seem to be the cause of his death. Neither, then, immortal nor yet mortal did He make him, but, as we have said above, capable of both; so that if he should incline to the things of immortality, keeping the commandment of God, he should receive as reward from Him immortality, and should become God; but if, on the other hand, he should turn to the things of death, disobeying God, he should himself be the cause of death to himself. For God made man free, and with power over himself.“
In fact, it wasn’t until about the 3rd century, with the influence of Origen and Greek philosophy, that the immortality of the soul became popularized. If you would like to read more, there is a cheap ($0.99) e-book on Amazon called The Doctrine of Immortality in the Early Church, by Dr. John Roller worth checking out. But, I digress.
Mankind was created with the capacity of immortality but not the attribute of immortality. It was conditioned upon the harmony with which he would live or not live with in God’s created masterpiece. If he chose to resonate within the hymn of the Creator and the orchestra of creation, immortality would be the natural intended byproduct. If he chose to reject God’s reality and substitute his own (thank you Mythbusters), then his outcome would be limited to his own finality. The earth would eventually assimilate Adam back into the dirt from which he was made (Genesis 3:19). Immortality emanated from the Creator and to be removed from the Creator was also to be removed from eternal life.
So what of the “image of God” that mankind bears? While we bear the likeness of God, it does not follow that we are the complete image of God. Adam in his pre-sin state was not equal with God. He still had limitations. In being powerful, he was not all powerful. In being a ruler, he was not the Ruler. In being creative, he was all creative. Bearing the image of God simply means that we bear the finite attributes of the infinite. Thus it would logically follow that immortality would be one of these attributes that we do not share: in being alive, he was not immortal.
One might assume this all to be nothing more than a fun little dilly-dally in Bible Land, that this has no serious larger implications. However, this under-lying foundation about the man’s immortal conditioning sets the stage for larger discussions to be had. Allow me to illustrate just one:
If man is not born immortal and his logical end is the death of his entire being, how then do we interpret such passages as Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The Christian world is unanimous about those in Jesus living forever, as was originally offered to Adam. However, many often make “death” to mean some type of eternally on-going punishment that is sentenced upon men. “Death” then becomes a secondary class of living, albeit a life under punishment. Perhaps the simpler explanation is that sin’s natural ending is to cave in on itself which accumulates in its ultimate and final destruction (i.e. death). When God’s redemptive work comes to a conclusion then those who are in Christ will go on into eternal life but those not in Christ will go on into a literal death which lasts forever. Immortality is made possible by the one Immortal experiencing death so that all the mortals may experience immortality. Jesus then reverses the human narrative back to Creation when once again humanity is able to chose which reality it will live within. Humanity’s continuance may then be reestablished.
This is why eternal life is taught as something to be inherited (Matthew 19:29; Mark 10:17, Luke 18:18) because it is not inherent. In contrast, Jesus stated, “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (John 5:26), which echoes 1:4, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” Jesus, being inherently immortal, as evidenced from his resurrection, came that that life might be given to men. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God seeks to make it possible again for men to have access to the tree of life but first the harmony destroyed by the man’s disharmony must be restored. It is no surprise then that we find the tree of life at the end of the Story (Revelation 22:3) when God’s redemptive work in the world has been completed. Since Genesis 3, the tree of life has been absent from humanity. Nowhere else is it to be found in Scripture, other than a couple of metaphors in the Proverbs. Through God Incarnate immortality has been set yet again within humanity’s reach.
Schrödinger’s cat t-shirt
BY THE WAY, there’s a great t-shirt of Schrödinger’s cat available on Amazon. If you are a nerd or have a nerd in your life, this would be a great gift idea. Plus, without any extra expense to you, I get a VERY small kick-back. WIN-WIN! Please note that the description does say it’s 100% cotton, but in the reviews people have pointed out that it is a 50/50 Polyester Blend.