Generally speaking, though there are always thinkers who deny it throughout history, in every nation, people, tribe, and tongue regardless of religious belief and quality of life there has always been a belief in the immortality of the soul.
Plato taught that upon death the physical body dissolves into parts while the soul remains intact and cannot be dissolved into parts because it is spiritual in nature and not physical. C.S. Lewis argues in Mere Christianity, that “…if I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probably explanation is that I was made for another world.” Lewis is saying God gave men certain qualities (talents, aspirations, longings, etc.) that will not reach fruition in this world, and that from recognizing such realities he concludes that God has made another world where these qualities will reach their full potential, a world where we’ll live with Him forever. We could also speak of the lack of justice on the wicked. Our consciences testify that too often the evil grow in their evil deeds and those who suffer too often increase in sorrow in this life (think Psalm 73). That this is so often the case has led many to a belief in an afterlife where the wicked and the righteous receive what they’re due. Generally speaking, these thoughts sum up man’s opinions about why there must be an immortal state after this life and what that life entails.
Now, let’s get a bit more specific and go to the Scripture to see these things.
So let’s ask what appears to be a simple question on the surface. How does the Bible define the term immortality? We could use the term immortality in the sense that Paul uses the word in 1 Timothy 6 where speaking of God he says, “…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 forever. Amen” (1 Tim. 6:15-16). Here Paul makes it clear that it is God who alone has immortality, and because He alone has immortality He is the only Sovereign, the King of kings, the Lord of lords, to whom belongs honor, weight, and glory forever. If anyone one else has existence, that existence comes from the God who has always existed. All others had a beginning, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit never did.
But, since this passage clearly states God alone has immortality, does this imply that no one else will experience or have immortality? That answer from the Bible is clearly no. Adam and Eve could rightly be considered immortal beings before the fall. If they had obeyed God’s command and abstained from eating the fruit they would’ve continued to be immortal. But they chose poorly. So now upon physical death the body does return to dust (Gen. 3:19). But we know, because of the work of Christ, the souls of believers gain a blessed conscious immortality with Christ in glory while the souls of unbelievers gain a horrific conscious immortality apart from Christ in hell.
So yes God alone has immortality in the sense that only He has always been and never had a beginning. But also no, God is not the only One who has or experiences immortality because in another sense we too have immortality. The difference between our immortality and God’s is that ours is a created immortality. Paul makes this clear in his second letter to Timothy when he says Christ Jesus “…abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10).
Theologians of old have described the immortality of the soul in these three ways:
Man in the Image of God
Man, as opposed to all the other creatures God made, was made different. Genesis 1:26-27 says God made man in His own image. This does means mankind is higher than the beasts because man has the ability to reason and ponder his own existence. Implied in this as well is the truth that mankind is higher than the beasts because man was made to commune with God, to worship God, to glorify God. How does man find out about the purpose he was made? God has placed eternity in his heart (Ecc. 3:11). Nowhere does the Bible give us any hint that God places eternity in any of the other creatures He made. That man is made in God’s image, and that God is eternal and immortal necessarily implies man, and man alone, will also have an eternal and immortal existence.
The Presence of Sheol and Glory
Throughout the Old Testament we see the wicked go to a place called sheol. In Psalm 49:14-15 the Sons of Korah declare, “Like sheep they (foolish man in his pomp, see v5-13) are appointed for Sheol; death shall be their shepherd, and the upright shall rule over them in the morning. Their form shall be consumed in Sheol, with no place to dwell. But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for He will receive me.” Here sheol is explained as a place of judgment not blessing. There is even a contrast to the wicked who are appointed for sheol and the upright who will rule over them. Then in v15 the Psalmist gladly declares that God will rescue him from such judgment. That the place of sheol exists and that it is contrasted with a place of blessing throughout the Scriptures, implies that man has an immortal existence apart from the body after death.
In the New Testament we see a similar reality being taught. In Matthew 10:28 Jesus says, “And do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” The contrast between Satan who can only kill the body and God who can destroy both soul and body in hell assumes the soul of man continues on after physical death. Likewise in Luke 23:43 Jesus tells one of the thieves next to Him on the cross, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in paradise.” Both Jesus’ and this thief’s body will expire very soon, but that Jesus pronounces the presence in paradise implies their souls lived on. Lastly a passage where no comment is needed, John 11:25, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet he shall live…”
Confident and Delightful Expectation
The immortality of the soul is also seen in the numerous passages that speak of the confident and delightful expectation of the righteous. Job 19:25-27, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has thus been destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!” Psalm 16:9-11, “Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption. You make known to me the path of life; in Your presence there is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Paul in 2 Cor. 5:1-5 speaks of the same expectation saying, “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.”
Here the tent that is our earthly home is our body and the building from God eternal in the heavens is our entire glorified state. So while is here in this body he is longing to be clothed with the eternal, “…that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” We could also point to Paul’s monumental boast that is the entirety of Romans 8, where he delights in the no condemnation, no separation grace of God that will one day end in future glory where the sons of God will be revealed. These confident and delightful declarations of expectation imply the soul’s continuance after physical death.
Lesson? The activity of the soul is not a mere by-product of brain function that ceases when the brain dies with the body. We cannot after death live on in this life through our children and grandchildren though we love them dearly and will in a sense always remain in their hearts. Even if we make a name for ourselves in this life and leave behind a lasting and famous legacy or influence, we cannot after death live on inspiring many, eventually we all will one day be forgotten. That our souls will continue on for all eternity ought to sober us in this life. Indeed, living in light of eternity brings our present existence much clarity about what really matters.