What is Immortality?
That God alone is by nature immortal is a given. Scripture is clear about this in many places, but perhaps most emphatically in 1st Timothy 6:11-16, where the apostle Paul tells Timothy –
But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will display at the proper time—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. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.
Paul is urging Timothy to flee wickedness and pursue righteousness, godliness, love, steadfastness, and gentleness. This simultaneous rejection of evil and pursuance of righteousness is “the good fight of faith” which believers will engage in until reaching our heavenly home.
Yet “eternal life” is not a stretch of endless time which believers will experience while unbelievers undergo a process of annihilation in Gehenna. Rather, eternal life is that which Timothy, and all Christians, are said to “take hold of” in this present age when living as God’s people (i.e. in communion with him, hating sin, pursuing righteousness). Eternal is not primarily a quantitative term, in other words, but a qualitative one describing the kind of life which only the elect possess and will possess forever. Paul’s command to Timothy to “take hold of” eternal life concisely expresses his former command to Timothy to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.” And this is borne out in the next section of this chapter, where Paul writes –
As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may itake hold of that which is truly life.
[1 Tim 6:17-19]
The rich, along with Timothy and all believers, are to do good, lay up riches for themselves in heaven, and so take hold of, in the present, eternal life/that which is truly life. True life is marked by a certain quality, namely those mentioned above – righteousness, holiness, goodness, communion with God, fellowship with him. And this chapter of 1st Timothy is not the first place where Paul identifies “real” life with knowing God and his Son Jesus Christ.
The Living Dead?
In 1st Tim 5:3-6 Paul admonishes Timothy to
Honor widows who are truly widows. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God. She who is truly a widow, left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day, but she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives.
Note that Paul differentiates between those who are “truly widows” and those who are not, i.e. those who are “self-indulgent.” Both women are actually widows. However, the widow whose life is marked by iniquity is not considered to be a “true widow.” This phrasing is found in v.16. again in reference to widows whose lives are marked by godly qualities. And in conjunction with this, Paul differentiates between those false widows who are “dead even while [they live]” and, by implication, those true widows who are present living, who are taking hold of eternal life, placing their hope on God.
The distinction between true life and life is set in parallel to the distinction between true widowhood and false widowhood. What makes one a real widow is a certain set of moral/spiritual qualities that false widows lack; and what qualifies one manner of living as “true life” is are its definitive moral qualiities. So those who possess these qualities have life, whereas those who do not posses these qualities are “dead while [they live].”
Eternal Life is Not Perpetually Extended Life
Paul’s letter to Timothy shows us that eternal life is a kind of life characterized by certain moral qualities. Specifically, eternal life is knowing God and his Son Christ Jesus, a reality which is observable in the life of those who “truly” believe. Paul’s letter also shows us that death is, therefore, a kind of life characterized by a lack of those moral qualities, and the presence of wickedness.
Eternal life, in other words, is not perpetually extended life, it is a qualitatively different kind of life. Paul’s words to Timothy reflect his dependence upon the Lord Jesus’ teaching regarding that which is true life, which we find in several key places. For instance, in Matthew 6:25 Jesus Christ states that life is more than the body and more than clothing. This would make no sense if his intention were to communicate that life is sheer existence, temporal or perpetual. What is clearly being communicated by the Lord Jesus is that true life is life in fellowship with God. He repeats this same idea in John 5:24 –
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”
Note that those who are presently alive but unconverted are said to dwell in death, whereas those who have been converted as said to have been brought into life. Death and life are qualitative states that one presently occupies, and which one may occupt eternally, by implication.
This is repeated again in John 10:10 –
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
The present occupation of the thief is murder and destruction, whereas Christ’s present occupation is the giving of life to those who do not have it, but who are, nevertheless, alive in some sense. Like Paul, Christ differentiates between true life of Christians and the living death of the lost. That is to say, Christ identifies death as a qualitative state of existence, a state characterized by spiritual corruption and decay (i.e. unbelief and wickedness); and Christ identifies life as a qualitative state of existence, a state characterized by spiritual vitality (i.e. faith in God and his Son Jesus Christ).
Thus, the Lord Jesus states very clearly that
“this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3)
Immortality: Concluding Remarks
In Paul’s writing, we are not told that there is only one kind of life, i.e. sheer existence, and that eternal life is the endless perpetuation of that sheer existence. Rather, we are told very clearly that a life that is lived apart from communion with God is death. Moreover, we are told that a life that is lived in fellowship with God is “true” life. Those who exist as covenant breakers are, therefore, dead in their sins, while those who are in fellowship with God are alive in Christ. The immortality we will share with God is, therefore, not simply quantitative but, more importantly, qualitative. The quality of one’s life, in other words, is that which causes God to characterize it as death or “truly” life.
Thus, God’s immortality is not merely his being unable to die, as though he was a fellow member of the ontological domain we as creatures inhabit. Rather, it is the quality of his being, the superabundance of holiness and righteousness which we become partakers of by grace alone through faith alone and which, thereby, characterizes us as alive unto God.
Soli Deo Gloria