Edit: The following article is a collection of views obtained from reading Luther, Stott, Hughes and other conservative evangelicals, and does not necessarily reflect my views. It is offered as a caution to those with a tendency for dogmatism regarding last things.
The resurrection of the dead is a subject of intense interest to every rational mind. Life is short. The grave lies open before us. Every adult has at least once asked, “If someone dies, will they live again?” (Job 14:14). When we gather for a funeral of a love one, we ask ourselves “Will we see them again?—Is there a resurrection of the dead?”
Every Bible-believing Christian says, “Yes, there is a resurrection of the dead.”
Yet that same Christian will most likely tell you that their loved one is already in heaven and is enjoying life, waiting for us to join them in heaven. Dead Christians who already enjoy the fruits of the resurrected life beforethe resurrection, is like a team crowned Super Bowl champion before the game is even played.
“Do not marvel this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the graves will hear My voice and come out, those who did good to the resurrection (anastasis) of life, and those who did evil to the resurrection (anastasis) of judgment” (John 5:28-29).
Most Christians would say the general resurrection that Jesus describes in the above two verses has not yet happened (and I would agree). Yet most Christians also believe that dead Christians are now in heaven enjoying life?
How can this be?
If the dead have not yet been raised, how can those who die in Christ enjoy “standing up again” – the literal meaning of anastasis – if they still remain in their graves?
Martin Luther, the Great Reformer who gave us the 95 Theses and helped restore the biblical truth of justification by grace through faith, would not be comfortable with modern evangelical funerals. As he would listen to pastors extol the blessings that the departed are now enjoying, he would think that these pastors have missed the timing of the resurrected life.
Luther, with a greater emphasis on the resurrection, preferred to concentrate on the scriptural metaphor of sleep in reference to death. For just as one who falls asleep and reaches morning unexpectedly when he awakes, without knowing what has happened to him, Luther believed, “we shall suddenly rise on the last day without knowing how we have come into death and through death.” At death, ”We shall sleep, until He comes and knocks on the little grave and says, ‘Doctor Martin, get up! Then I shall rise in a moment, and be with Him forever.'”
Why do contemporary evangelical Christians, contrary to Luther, believe that people who die continue to live uninterrupted, without yet experiencing Christ’s promise to raise the dead (anastasis)? Answer: Because many Christians assume (wrongly) that the Bible teaches man is naturally and inherently immortal.
Definitions of Immortal
Immortal – “Exempt from death; never to die; never-ending; perpetual” – Johnson’s Dictionary.
Immortal – “Exempt from death; able never to die; perpetual” – London Encyclopedia
Immortal – “That which lasts to all eternity, having in it no principle of corruption” Brittanica
Immortal – “The condition of being not subject to death.” Popular Encyclopedia
Immortality by definition means the state or quality of not being subject to death. The translators of Scripture used the word immortality to translate the Greek terms athanasia, which means “deathlessness,” and aphtharsia, which means “incorruptibility.”
Do you remember the birthday candles placed on your cake as a practical joke, candles that no matter how hard you tried to blow them out, you couldn’t extinguish them? Christians who believe in natural immortality believe death can’t extinguish life.
But Luther and other evangelicals have believed the Scriptures teach differently.
They see the Bible to teach clearly that God alone has immortality (1 Timothy 6:16). They feel the Scriptures declare that immortality is something that is to be sought (Romans 2:7). Immortality seems to be brought to man by the Good News of Jesus Christ appearance on earth (2 Timothy 1:10). Scripture seems to teach that a man can gain immortality when he receives the gift of eternal life (Romans 6:23). And finally, Luther and others believed that immortality is put on at the last trumpet when the resurrection (anastasis) occurs for those who have died with faith in Christ (1 Cor. 15:53).
Not so, say other Christians. God made man naturally and inherently immortal. Therefore, a man must live forever, not only beyond death but also beyond the second death, for ever and ever – because you can’t snuff out a man’s life.
Martin Luther believed the Scriptures taught immortality was conditional, and could only be received as a gift from God, and that it was not natural to any man, even Adam and Eve in the beginning. The “Tree of Life” which gave mortal man immortality was eaten of daily, but after Adam and Eve sinned, they were barred from the “Tree of Life” lest “he reach out his hand and take from the tree of life and eat, and live forever” (Genesis 3:22).
Luther felt that if a Christian believes man is inherently immortal, then you believe man is exempt from death, just as God is exempt from death. And, of course, if a man dies but continues to live, then he has not actually died.
John R.W. Stott and Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, two contemporary conservative evangelicals and authors, have both written in opposition to inherent immortality. Like Luther, these two men believed the Bible teaches conditional immortality. Stott expressed hesitation in placing his views on conditional immortality in writing because:
“I have great respect for long standing tradition which claims to be a true interpretation of Scripture, and do not lightly set it aside, and partly because the unity of the world-wide evangelical constituency has always meant much to me.” (Evangelical Essentials, Stott, p. 319).
In other words, though Stott believed the Scriptures teach conditional immortality, he refrained from writing a great deal on his views because modern evangelicals almost universally believe in inherent immortality, and Stott did not wish to upset the proverbial apple-cart.
Philip Hughes, who lectured at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, and who also served as one of the editors of Westminster Theological Journal, had no similar hesitations in making his views known. According to John Wenham, Hughes believed that:
“It would be hard to imagine a concept more confusing than that of death which means existing endlessly without the power of dying.”
Wenham also said Dr. Hughes wrote him a letter where he stated he had ‘“long been of this judgment and common Christian candour compelled me to state my position” in writing.
Drs. Stott and Hughes are not alone in their belief that conditional immortality is a biblical truth. Scholar William Reed Huntington (1838-1909), in his book (available online) entitled Conditional Immortality: Plain Sermons on a Top of Present Interest, gives a manuscript of a message he preached based on two texts:
In this message, Huntington speaks clearly on his belief in conditional immortality:
“Search the Scriptures through and through, my friends, and point, if you can, to a single sentence in which it is directly asserted that man is a being who will inevitably exist forever. Strong statements to the effect that man is naturally mortal are strewn with melancholy frequency over those pages, but nowhere is he declared to be immortal apart from the quickening power of Him who only hath immortality to give.” (pages 102-103)
English Baptist pastor and theologian Henry Hamlet (H.H.) Dobney (1809-1883) wrote a book entitled The Scripture Doctrine of Future Punishment where he writes:
“The Scriptures attach greatly more importance to the glorious fact of a resurrection from the dead, than the majority of evangelical Christians of the present day are wont to do…The Scriptures nowhere represent any of the human race as consciously existent in a perfectly disembodied state, as naked spirits … there is no intimation (in Scripture) of a disembodied state.” (pages 128-129).
“The Scriptures speak a thousand times of God’s being immortal, but never of man’s immortality” (p. 21).
When one reads the gospels and the writings of the early apostles, the emphasis of the Good News was on the resurrection of the dead. Author Hugh T. Kerr in Preaching in the Early Church has observed that the resurrection is “the trumpet note of Apostolic preaching.” (p. 38).
Jesse Witherspoon in Sent Forth to Preach explains why the resurrection was central to the early apostles:
“They saw triumph in the Resurrection. It was the Resurrection that revealed the triumph of the cross; it proclaimed the Redeemer in the horizon of his glorious Divine Sonship. It proved his power over the last enemy– death …. They preached a Christ who was Conqueror, and his face alive and glorious was never absent from a single sermon. All their preaching was in the key of the Resurrection. The decisive battle was already won” (p. 99).
The Apostle Paul stated “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 6:23).
Jesus Christ, the Creator of all things, has made an incredible promise to resurrect both the wicked and the good. He will call every person by name on the day of the general resurrection, and those who know Him will be made to stand up to receive immortality as a gift, and those who don’t know Him will be made to stand up to be judged for their works.
Judgment for those without Christ will vary according to the deeds done in this life. Punitive justice will be far more severe for the very wicked than it will be for others. When punitive justice has been meted out by God, the unrighteous will be handed over to die a second time, an event the Scripture calls “the second death” (Revelation 20:14).
At the resurrection, the righteous will be gifted with immortality (eternal life). The Apostle Paul wrote:
“Behold, I tell 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 trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory'” (1 Cor. 15:51-54).
Paul makes it clear that God does not bestow immortality upon the believer at death, but at the resurrection. It is then that “this mortal” shall “put on immortality.” While John writes that we are chosen to receive the gift of eternal life when we believe on Jesus Christ (1 John 5:11-13), the actual
realization of this gift takes place when the last trumpet sounds and Christ returns to “raise the dead.”
Those who believe in conditional immortality understand that to die in this life does not mean a cessation of existence. Physical death is only a state of temporary unconsciousness until the resurrection that Christ promised (John 5:28-29). The Bible repeatedly calls this intermediate state between death and the resurrection “sleep” (see I Kings 2:10; II Chronicles 21:1; Job 14:10-12; Psalm 13:3; Jeremiah 51:39; Daniel 12:2; I Corinthians 15:51-52; I Thessalonians 4:13-17; II Peter 3:4 as examples).
Though the notion that a human being is not naturally immortal may sound strange to modern evangelical ears, the major question that should be asked is “Does the Bible teach conditional immortality rather than natural immortality?”
If, as one concludes that the Bible does indeed teach conditional immortality, then the second question Christians often ask is, “Are there other Christians throughout the centuries who have believed the Scriptures teach conditional immortality?”
The answer is a yes.
Conditional immortality has been believed by many Bible-believing Lutherans, Anglicans, Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Methodists and other Christians throughout the centuries.
Some of these Christians include Martin Luther, William Tyndale, John Frith, George Wishart, Robert Overton, Samuel Richardson, John Milton, George Wither, John Jackson, John Canne, Archbishop John Tillotson, Dr. Isaac Barrow, Dr. William Coward, Henry Layton, Joseph N. Scott, M.D., Dr. Joseph Priestly, Peter Pecard, Archdeacon Francis Blackburne, Bishop William Warburton, Samuel Bourn, Dr. William Whiston, Dr. John Tottie, Prof. Henry Dodwell, Bishop Timothy Kendrick, Dr. William Thomson, Dr. Edward White, Dr. John Thomas, H.H. Dobney; Archbishop Richard Whately; Dean Henry Alford, James Panton Ham, Charles F. Hudson, Dr. Robert W. Dale, Dean Frederick W. Farrar, Hermann Olshausen, Canon Henry Constable, William Gladstone, Joseph Parker, Bishop John J.S. Perowne, Sir George G. Stokes, Dr. W.A. Brown, Dr. J. Agar Beet, Dr. R.F. Weymouth, Dr. Lyman Abbott, Dr. Edward Beecher, Dr. Emmanuel Petavel-Olliff, Dr. Franz Delitzsch, Bishop Charles J. Ellicott, Dr. George Dana Boardman, J.H. Pettingell; twentieth century—Canon William H.M. Hay Aitken, Eric Lewis, Dr. William Temple, Dr. Gerardus van der Leeuw, Dr. Aubrey R. Vine, Dr. Martin J. Heinecken, David R. Davies, Dr. Basil F.C. Atkinson, Dr. Emil Brunner, Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr, Dr. T.A. Kantonen, and Dr. D.R.G. Owen.
It would be well worth your time to Google any of the names above and read their writings online. It is very unwise to accept the teaching of someone else without critically examining the issue for yourself. “We are to search the Scriptures,” we are told, “for in them we will see testimony of Christ.” Your life – in it’s essence, existence, and sustenance – rests in the power and authority of Jesus Christ. He holds the “keys of life and death” (Revelation 1:18).
I close with a few applicable truths that precede from a belief in conditional immortality:
1. The resurrection from the dead is the “Christian hope.” If resurrection occurs at the same time for all those who died in Christ during all generations, then everyone is raised from the dead at the same time. That means our loved ones will be raised by the power of Christ – to enjoy the blessings of Christ – on the same day we are raised from the dead (or) on the same day we “are caught up to be with Christ” (I Thessalonians 4:17) if we’re alive when He comes.
2. When you close your eyes in death, the next conscious thought you have – a thought which is instantaneous to final closing of your eyes – is the hearing of Christ’s voice (John 5:28-29) when He calls your name to raise you from my grave. It’s like going to sleep before surgery. You close your eyes and the next thing you know is you are awakened. From your perspective, the awakening is instantaneous to the closing of your eyes, regardless of how much time has passed.
3. When the bestowal of the gift of life eternal is tied to the resurrection, then the resurrection of Jesus Christ as the first fruits of all those who rise in Him seems to becoms the center of Christian teaching. It is the resurrection to eternal life that was the preaching of the apostles and the early church (see I Corinthians 15). Without the resurrection, our faith is in vain.
4. It is only with an understanding of conditional immortality that one can comprehend that the rewards of Christ are received equally by all those who are raised in Him (e.g. “for we are co-heirs of Jesus Christ” Romans 8:17), while the punishments of the wicked will vary accordingly and proportionally to the evil the wicked have done in this life.
5. “But the wicked will be utterly destroyed” (Psalm 37:38), and “the righteous will walk on the ashes of the wicked in that day” (Malachi 4:3). Conditional immortality allows for the judgment of the wicked to vary according to their sins – sins which will be exposed and punished by a righteous God who takes vengeance on evil doers punitively, personally, and proportionally. In the end, after judicial punishment, the wicked will be handed over to “the second death.”
Whether you agree with Luther, Stott, Hughes and other evangelicals who teach that immortality is conditional, my prayer is that the anastasis of the dead will become central in your preaching and teaching, and you will not succumb to the common error of assigning immortal life to people without the vivifying and sustaining grace and power of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Posted by: Wade Burleson