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Immortality a conditional gift to be bestowed at the resurrection

The Scriptures are the only source of information concerning our future destiny. Job asks, "If a man die, shall he live again?" This is the question which it is the special function of the Bible to answer. From no other source can we procure an answer. If we speculate upon it as a philosophical problem, we grope in the dark. There is no process in nature from which we can reason on the subject. There is no real parallel to resurrection. A seed deposited in the ground springs again, and renews its existence by the law of nature. The power to spring again is part of itself. Not so with man. To use the words of Job (14:7-10):

"There is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease. Though the root thereof wax old in the earth, and the stock thereof die in the ground, yet through the scent of water it will bud and bring forth boughs like a plant. But man dieth and wasteth away: yea, man giveth up the spirit, and where is he?"

Where is he? The answer is a simple one; he is nowhere. The dust has returned to the earth as it was, and his life-spirit has returned to God who gave it: and though both dust and life continue to exist as separate elements, the man who resulted from their organic combination has ceased to be; and if he ever "live again", it will be the result of a fresh effort on the part of Almighty power.

That he will live again, is one of the blessed teachings of the Word of God. "Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead" (1 Corinthians 15:21). It was the peculiar mission of Christ to bring this truth to light. He proclaimed himself the "Resurrection and the Life" (John 11:25), adding, "He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live." He came, not simply to re-infuse spiritual vigour into the deadened moral natures of men, but to open a way of deliverance from the physical law of death which is sweeping them into the grave, and keeping them there. He came, in fact, to raise the bodies of men which are the men themselves from the pit of corruption, and to endow them, if accepted, with incorruptibility and immortality. Paul says: "He will change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body" (Philipians 3:21). This is connected with the resurrection, for Jesus himself says, "This is the Father’s will, which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day" (John 6:39). Thus, life and immortality are said to have been "brought to light by Jesus Christ, through the Gospel" (2 Timothy 1:10). In fact, this very aim of the sacrificial work of Christ, as the Saviour of the world from sin, and as the reconciler of the world to God, from whom all men have gone astray, was to offer men everlasting life. This will appear from the following citations from the New Testament:

"I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly" (John 10:10).

"God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him" (1 John 4:9).

"Ye will not come to me, that ye might have life" (John 5:40).

"I am the resurrection and the life" (John 11:25).

"God so loved the world, that gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16).

"Thou (the Father) hast given him (the Son) power over all flesh that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him" (John 17:2).

"My sheep hear my voice...I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish; neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand" (John 10:27-28).

"This is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son" (1 John 5:11).

"This is the promise that he hath promised us, even eternal life" (1 John 2:25).

"The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Romans 6:23).

"That being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life " (Titus 3:7).

"Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life " (Jude 21).

There is one obvious reflection on the reading of these passages; if immortality be the natural attribute of every son of Adam from the very moment he breathes, there is little meaning in testimonies which, one and all, speak of immortality as a future contingency, a thing to be sought for, a reward, a thing to be given, a thing brought to light through the gospel, etc. There is complete obscurity in such language if immortality be a natural and present possession. How can a man be promised that which is already his own? The divine promise is that God will award eternal life to those who seek for glory, honour, and immortality. This is the strongest proof that human nature knows nothing of immortality at present.

What is this immortality? Theologians would lead us to suppose it was a mental quality, like conscience or benevolence - a thing of spiritual condition - an essence which is itself without reference to time or space. As death has come to have an artificial theological significance, so immortality itself, the promised gift of God through Jesus Christ, has been frittered away into a metaphysical conception - beyond the comprehension, as it has been placed beyond the practical interest of mankind. Bringing commonsense and Scripture teaching to bear on this point, we find that immortality is the opposite of mortality. The one being deathfulness in relation to being, as such, the other is deathlessness in the same relation. Both are terms definitive of duration rather than of quality, of life, although quality is implied in both cases. A mortal is a creature of terminable existence; an immortal, one so constituted that his life is endless. Yet the terminability of the one, and the endlessness of the other, are the result of the established conditions of their natures respectively. Man is mortal, because his organism tends to decay. If that organism could go on working from year to year, without deterioration or liability to disorder, he would be immortal, apart from violence, because life would be constantly sustained and manifested. But it is not so, as we know to our sorrow; his nature contains within it the seeds of corruption, and hence it runs down to unavertable dissolution. The finest constitution will succumb at last to the gradual exhaustion going on from year to year. To be immortal, we require to be incorruptible in substance; because that which is incorruptible cannot decay; and an incorruptible living organism will live for ever. Hence the immortality of the New Testament is a promise of resurrection to incorruptible bodily existence:

"It is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body" (1 Corinthians 15:42-44).

Again (Philippians 3:20-21):

"Jesus Christ...shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body."

To obtain immortality, is to be transformed from our present weak, frail, corruptible condition of body, into a perfect, incorruptible, powerful condition, in which we shall no more be the subjects of weakness, pain, sorrow, and death, but shall be like the Lord Jesus Christ in his present exalted state of existence.

This transformation occurs at the return of Jesus Christ from heaven, as is evident from the following testimonies:

"Jesus Christ shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom" (2 Timothy 4:1).

"But every man in his own order (of resurrection): Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming" (1 Corinthians 15:23).

"Your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory" (Colossians 3:3-4).

"Behold, I show you a mystery: we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump; for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall all be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory" (1 Corinthians 15:51-54).

From the last testimony, we learn that the faithful in Christ Jesus who are in the land of the living at the second advent of their Lord and Saviour will, after they have been judged, undergo an immediate transformation into the incorruptible nature of the spiritual body, without going through the process of death. Hence the statement is "we shall not all sleep". So that some perhaps now living will be exceptions to the general rule of mortality, and shall not taste of death.

As to the nature of the resurrected body, we find in one of the passages quoted from Paul’s epistles, the words, "It is raised a spiritual body". Some think this means a gaseous, shadowy, spectral body, that a man could drive his hand through. On the contrary, the righteous in the perfected state will be as real and corporeal as mortal men in the present life. We learn this in the most unmistakable manner. Look at the following statements:

"He shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body" (Philippians 3:21).

"We know that when Christ shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:2).

Here is a starting point: Christ is the pattern after which his people are to be fashioned. If, therefore, we would learn knowledge in regard to the nature of the righteous in the future state, we must contemplate the nature of Christ subsequent to his resurrection. We are enabled to do this, because Christ appeared to his disciples after his resurrection, and had several interviews with them. We find him aiming to give evidence to his disciples of his reality, when they were terrified by his sudden appearance, thinking him an illusion before their eyes. He said:

"Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me and see; for a spirit (phantasma, apparition) hath not flesh and bones as ye see me have. And when he had thus spoken, he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they yet believed not for joy, and wondered, he said unto them, Have ye here any meat? And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish, and of an honeycomb; and he took it and did eat before them" (Luke 24:38-43).

Here is positive proof that Christ was as real and corporeal after his resurrection as he was before. The body that was laid in the tomb by Joseph of Arimathea was the body that afterwards arose and appeared as "the same Jesus" - "I myself" - to the disciples, who handled him, and who ate with him. This is proof that the righteous in the resurrection will be as tangible and bodily as he was then, seeing that they are to be "fashioned like unto his glorious body". It is suggested that Christ’s nature was transformed into intangible essence after his ascension; but there is nothing to support such a suggestion. The supposition is simply gratuitous and undeserving of consideration. It is excluded by the evidence of Christ’s reality and identity after his ascension. Even if this were not so, the suggestion would be without standing ground. Since there is no statement to the effect that Christ ceased to be bodily after his ascension, the only rational alternative would be to assume that no such change took place, and that Christ remained, and continues to be the same real though glorified personage who exhibited his hands and feet to his assembled disciples. But the fact of his bodily continuance is borne out in the statement made by the angels to the disciples, just after the ascension:

"Why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven" (Acts 1:11).

What would the disciples understand by "this same Jesus"? Would they not think of the blessed Saviour, who, a few days before, had eaten bread in their sight, and said to them, "a spirit (or phantasm) hath not flesh and bones as ye see me have?" Undoubtedly; and they would look forward to the time of his re-appearance, with the prints of the nails in his hands, and the mark of the wound in his side, which it is evident, from Zechariah 13:6, will be the subject of anxious and interesting curiosity to Jewish beholders at his coming. Therefore, the proof remains that the righteous in the resurrected state will be substantial as their Lord and Master, instead of the bodiless entities generally imagined.

Though not less real than mortal man, the glorified saints will possess a different kind of nature. They are, in the present state, "natural bodies", but then, they will be "spiritual bodies". Here is the distinction. Natural or animal bodies are sustained in life by the blood, as saith the Scriptures in Leviticus 17:14, "The life of all flesh is the blood thereof". The blood is the medium of animal vitality, with which it becomes charged by the action of the air on the lungs. The life principle or "spirit" is thus applied only in an indirect manner. The blood is proximately the life-giving agent; bodies sustained by it are simply blood bodies. Their life is not inherent; it is dependent on a complex function which is easily interfered with. It is applied by a process so delicate as to be easily marred by external influences and accidental circumstances. Therefore, life is uncertain, and constant health and vigour almost impossible. Our constitutions are easily impaired, and we are liable to be afflicted with distressing infirmities and pains which easily become dangerous: hence the lucrative profession which is accredited with the skill to "cure" unfortunate humanity. And they cannot "cure". The disease is too deep for their skill. It is in the constitution, it is in the blood; it is deep-grained and incurable. All that the doctor can do is to patch a humanly-unmendable mortality.

The Lord Jesus Christ is the only true physician. He offers us resurrection to spirit-body existence. He promises to fashion us like unto his own glorious body. He undertakes that though we may be afflicted with all the pains that flesh is heir to in this present life, yea, disfigured by all the distortions of disease; though we may die loathsome deaths and be laid in the grave a mass of festering corruption, we shall be raised to a pure and incorruptible state, in which our bodies shall be "spiritual bodies"; not because ethereal, which is not their characteristic, but because directly energised by the spirit of God, and filled in every atom with the concentrated inextinguishable life-power of God himself. This is the testimony of Christ (John 3:6): "That which is born of the Spirit is Spirit." He had said, "that which is born of the flesh is flesh". Mortal men and women are born of the flesh; therefore, they are but flesh - a wind that passeth away and cometh not again; but let a man be "born of the spirit", and he is no longer the frail and perishable offspring of Adam. His corruptible has put on incorruptibility. He is an invincible, all-powerful, immortal son of God. "They are the children of God", says Jesus, speaking of the resurrection which is unto life, "being the children of the resurrection."

Paul says (Romans 8:11), "He that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his spirit that dwelleth in you." Here is a second birth to be effected by the spirit of God; and on the principle laid down by Christ, all who are the subjects of this operation of the spirit upon their mortal bodies will be "born of the spirit" and will, therefore, be "spirit" in nature or "spiritual" bodies - bodies sustained in life by the direct operation of the spirit of life, without the intermediate agency of the blood - immortal, bloodless embodiments of the spirit of life in flesh and bones, like the Lord Jesus; not pale and ghastly as a human body would be without blood, but beautiful with the radiance of the Spirit. Living by the thorough permeation of the life-spirit in the substance of their natures, they will be glorious and powerful, "pure as the gem, strong as adamant, and incorruptible as gold", glorious in the sense of physical luminosity, as exemplified in the Lord Jesus when he shone with the lustre of the sun on the mount of transfiguration, and, according as it is written:

"They that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever" (Daniel 12:3).

Powerful, in the sense of being vigorous and inexhaustible in the power of the faculties, as it is written:

"The everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary. There is no searching of his understanding. He giveth power to the faint, and to them that have no might he increaseth strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall; but they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary, and they shall walk and not faint" (Isaiah 40:28-31).

Incorruptible in the sense of being undecaying and imperishable in nature, and therefore entirely free from any liability to pain or disease. In this perfect condition, the righteous will have a boundless eternity before them - everlasting joy upon their heads; no more dullness of mind; no more fretting and heart-failing at the afflictions of mortal life; no more sorrow, no more growing old; no more passing away; but all perfection, harmony unbroken, love unquenchable, joy unspeakable, and full of glory. This will be the happy state of the righteous; this the consummation of that blessed promise, "He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces" (Isaiah 25:8). This precious life and immortality, brought to life by Jesus Christ through the gospel, is not to be indiscriminately bestowed. All men will not attain to it; only a few will be counted worthy. The precious gift is freely offered to all; but it is conditional. It is not to be given to the faithless and the impure. Perfection of character must precede perfection of nature. Moral fitness is the indispensable pre-requisite, and God is the judge and the prescriber of the peculiar moral fitness necessary in the case. This is proved by the following passages:

"To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory, honour and immortality, (God will render) eternal life" (Romans 2:7).

"If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments" (Matthew 19:17).

"He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life; and he that believeth not the Son, shall not see life" (John 3:36).

"These are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing ye might have life through his name" (John 20:31).

"Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptised shall be saved" (Mark 16:15-16).

"He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation" (John 5:24)

"He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live" (John 11:25).

"I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely" (Revelation 21:6).

These testimonies give the deathblow to Universalism. They predicate salvation upon conditions which exclude the majority of mankind. They restrict it to a class which has always been small among men, and effectually disprove the mistaken theory of benevolence which proclaims the "universal restoration" of every human being. This may represent Christianity as a very "narrow" affair, but no narrower than its divinely-intended scope. "Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way"; this is its characteristic, and not without wisdom. The development of an approved family from the sons of men is its object. The world’s vast populations are merely incidental to this plan. They come, and they go; and, as flesh, they profit nothing. They come from nothing, and go whence they came. It is only the theory of universal human immortality that gives rise to the idea of universal human salvation. When human nature is looked upon at its true standard of vanity, the difficulty vanishes.

Those who are excluded from eternal life are divided into two classes - first, those who hear the word and reject it; and second, those whom circumstances preclude from hearing it all - such as the pagans of ancient times. The second class includes a third, viz., those whose misfortunes prevent them from believing, even if they hear the word, such as very young children. The fate of the first class (those who hear the word, and reject it) is plainly stated. They are to be presented for punishment:

"He that rejecteth me and receiveth not my words...the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day" (John 12:48).

"He that believeth not shall be damned" (Mark 16:16).

The punishment is inflicted at the resurrection, as Jesus says: "They that have done evil (shall come forth) unto the resurrection of damnation." This "resurrection of damnation", however, this is not a resurrection to unending life, or to hell fire in the popular acceptation. It is a resurrection to judicially administered shame and corruption. They shall of the flesh, to which they have sown, reap corruption (Galatians 6:8) which ends in the triumph of the worm and fire over their being - that is, in death. They rise to the shame and confusion of a divine and frowning rejection, in which "few stripes" or "many stripes" are inflicted, according to desert - differences in the duration and intensity of suffering as justice may demand, after which the wicked are finally engulfed in the "second death", which obliterates their wretched existence from God’s creation. Being of no use, they are put out of the way, and disappear for ever, "where the wicked cease from troubling".

A paganised theology delights in assigning them to endless existence of torment. This idea is based upon certain obscure New Testament expressions which are supposed to countenance it, but which, when properly understood, have no such terrible significance. "Unquenchable fire" is one of those expressions; it is supposed to imply the eternal conscious existence of the wicked, but reflection will show it involves the opposite. If the fire is not quenched, there is no escape from consumption. This phrase is used in this sense in Jeremiah 17:27, Ezekiel 20:47, and other places. The same is true of "worm dieth not". Herod’s worms died not, and the consequence was that he died (Acts 12:23). If they had died, he would have recovered. "Everlasting punishment" is affirmed of the wicked; but this does not teach eternal torment. Aionian, translated "everlasting", does not necessarily import unending perpetuity. Aion, age, from which it is derived, denotes a period of time. As we know, from other parts of Scripture, that the punishment of the age of retribution terminates in death, we are enabled to see the "aion" of the punishment is only co-extensive with the duration of that punishment.

Some imagine that the application of this principle to the phrase "eternal life" destroys the hope of immortality, by making it a thing of possible terminability. If there were nothing beyond the phrase "eternal (aionian) life", we should have an uncertain foundation for the hope of endless life. We should in that case simply be informed that there was an age-pertaining life - a life pertaining to the coming age of God’s intervention in human affairs, but should not, by the phrase, receive any information as to the nature of that life or the extent of its duration. But the case stands not in this uncertain state. We are explicitly informed by other testimonies, that while aionian punishment ends in death, the life to be conferred in that same aion is inextinguishable.

"They which shall be accounted worthy to obtain that world . . . neither marry nor are given in marriage; neither can they die any more, for they are equal unto the angels" (Luke 20:35-36).

"There shall be no more death" (Revelation 21:4).

"They shall never perish" (John 10:28).

"He will swallow up death in victory" (Isaiah 25:8).

"This mortal must put on immortality" (1 Corinthians 15:53).

If immortality had an end, it would not be immortality. Aionian life is unending life. We know this, not from the use of the word Aionian, which would tell us nothing on the subject, but from testimonies like those quoted.

Immortality is a gift to be bestowed at the resurrection. The proposition is plain, and the evidence conclusive. May it be the happy lot of all who read these pages to inherit the glorious gift.

(Extracted from Christendom Astray by Robert Roberts with slight amendments to reflect the current state of affairs among the nations. Copies of his excellent guide to understanding the Bible are available by contacting us).


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