Question: Is the soul of man immortal, or does it ceases to exist at death? D. in Crozet, VA.
Answer: The word immortal basically means not liable to death, undying or deathless. There is a debate both within the church and without about whether the soul is immortal. To truly understand this issue, we need to first understand what we mean by death.
To many people death means to cease to exist. However, this is not a biblical understanding of death. For example, God told Adam that if he ate of the Tree of Knowledge that he would die that very day (Genesis 2:17). Obviously when Adam ate the fruit he did not immediately cease to exist. So did God lie? No. Adam did die, but the immediate death was spiritual, with the physical death following after many years. The Scriptural concept of death is not ceasing to exist, but rather it means a separation. Physical death is when our souls are separated from our bodies (cf. Ecclesiastes 12:7, Psalm 146:4). Spiritual death occurs when we are separated from spiritual relationship with God, who is the source of life itself. God refers to this when He states that sin separates us from Him (see Isaiah 59:2). That is what happened to both Adam and Eve in the Garden. Their sinful obedience caused an immediate spiritual death as they were separated from the God of life.
The Bible is referring to this truth when it says that “the soul that sins, it shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4). It is not saying that the soul ceases to exist. Rather it is saying that the soul becomes spiritually separated from God as the source of true life. In essence, what happened in the Fall is that what God had created as immortal became mortal. Death/mortality entered the human race through the sin of Adam (Romans 5:12, 1 Corinthians 15:22).
But what about the verse that says that only God has immortality (1 Timothy 6:16)? Is there a contradiction? No. This is very true. Only God is incapable of dying. He cannot cease to exist. He also cannot be separated from life. He both exists and lives eternally. However, as we have already seen, man was created with a soul that while it may exist forever, it may also experience mortality. A soul can still exist and experience spiritual death. This is the picture we see of the wicked in the Lake of Fire, the final judgement of all the wicked. Their existence is described as the “Second Death” (Revelation 20:14). This is an eternal death, an eternal separation of the soul from God, from Life Himself (cf. John 1:4, 11:25, Colossian 3:4).
The situation for the human race is this: We are born into this natural world and exist in a perpetual state of spiritual death. Before coming to Christ we are all “dead in our trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1, Colossians 2:13). But the Good News is that through the redemptive, atoning work of Christ, immortality is restored to us. Through Christ our souls and bodies both regain immortality. Note these passages that assert that we are made alive in Christ—this is spiritual life and immortality: 2 Timothy 1:10, John 3:36, John 20:31, 1 Corinthians 15:22. But also note that through Christ’s death and resurrection He grants to us true immortality in both spirit and body: Hebrews 2:14, 1 Corinthians 15:42-55, Philippians 3:21, Romans 8:11 . In Christ we have the hope of eternal life and the immortality of soul and a glorified physical body (John 14:19, 1 Peter 1:3).
Another question arises: How do we know that the soul exists beyond physical death? We have seen that God can make the body and soul of a person immortal. However, does this necessarily mean that our soul automatically exists after death? Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and some other groups assert that the soul ceases to exist when a person dies. They believe that a soul is the life principle in us that stops existing when we die. Death is equal to non-existence. Well, what does the Bible say? A careful study of Scripture reveals that the Bible clearly teaches the continuing existence of the soul after death—for both the wicked and the righteous. Let’s consider the evidence.
* Paul said that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8).
* The Bible draws a distinction between the material and immaterial aspects of man’s nature. At death, the body returns to the earth, but the spirit returns to God (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
* The Bible speaks of an actual place where the dead abide after death. In Hebrew this is called Sheol; in Greek is it called Hades. It is a place where people actually exist. See Isaiah 14:9, Proverbs 9:18, Acts 2:27, Acts 2:31, Ezekiel 26:20, Job 26:5, Psalm 31:17, Ezekiel 32:21. That it is an actual place is evident, cf. Psalm 139:8, Job 14:13, Numbers 16:33, Amos 9:2, Ezekiel 31:15-17, Deuteronomy 32:22.
* In 2 Samuel 12:23, David speaks about his departed son. He states that his son cannot return to him, but that he (David) will go to be with his son. Clearly David understood that his son still existed and there was an actual place where he would join him after death.
* The Sadducees, who did not believe in life after death, tried to trick Jesus with a question about the resurrection. Jesus answered them by asserting that God is “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” which meant that He is the God of the living, not the dead (see Matthew 22:31-32). This assertion clearly indicates that the patriarchs were still in existence when Jesus was alive on the earth.
* Even though he had been dead for many centuries, Moses was still able to meet and talk with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:3).
* John saw the souls of the martyred saints in heaven, conscious and calling out to God (Revelation 6:9). In Revelation 20:4, John also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their stand for Christ. This was before they were resurrected (“brought to life”).
* In Revelation 20:12 we see the dead standing before the throne of God awaiting judgment. How could they do this is death equals nonexistence?
* In Luke 16:19-31, Jesus tells the story about the Rich Man and Lazarus. Some consider this a parable; some believe it was a true story. Either way, this account clearly reveals how both the first century Jews and Jesus Himself viewed the afterlife.
* When Rachel was dying the Bible says that “her soul was departing” (Genesis 35:18). It is evident that there was something (a “soul”) which had the capacity to leave her body.
* Paul expressed his desire to leave this life and go be with Christ, which is far better (Philippians 1:23). Obviously he saw death as an entrance to another existence. If what followed his death was only non-existence, how can that be “far better”?
* Jesus plainly told the repentant thief on the cross that on that very day he would join Christ in Paradise, the place where the righteous dead go (Luke 23:43).
* The Scriptures declare that nothing can separate the believer from the love of Christ, not even death (Romans 8:38-39).
* We should also consider the experience of the Lord Jesus. One of the essential teachings of the Christian faith is that Jesus was true Man, a human being in every way. This means He had a genuine human body, soul and spirit. With this in mind, what do we see about the after-death experience of Jesus? As noted above, Jesus told the thief on the cross that on the very day of their deaths they would be in Paradise together (Luke 23:43). As Jesus died, He released His spirit from His body (Luke 23:46). Did Jesus then cease to exist? No. The Bible tells us that He descended into Sheol/Hades (Matthew 12:40, Acts 2:27, Acts 2:31, Romans 10:7, possibly Ephesians 4:9 and 1 Peter 4:6). There He proclaimed the accomplished work of salvation to the spirits bound there (1 Peter 3:19). It was from Sheol that He ascended when He was resurrected (Acts 2:24).
In summary, the Bible clearly teaches that God created man with an immaterial aspect to his nature—soul, spirit. His spiritual nature does not cease to exist upon dying, but continues in a new existence. The Bible is also clear that the unregenerated human being is spiritually dead, but through the work of Christ can be brought to life and experience immortality in both spiritual and physical terms.