Welcome to Week 11 of our devotional series on those common Christian beliefs that have been overlooked or misunderstood. On Sunday mornings, our adult Sunday School class is reading through Dave Hansen’s A Little Handbook on Having a Soul. If you’ve ever wondered if you’re more than just a body or questioned what happens after you die, this is a book (and a class!) for you. (And you can still join, too!) In our devotional for today, we’re going to take a look at a word I’ve often heard applied to the soul, and that’s the word immortal. Is the soul immortal? What happens to our souls when we die? Do they die, too? Can they?
Immortal, Invisible, Only Wise God — guide us today by your Word and your Holy Spirit, so that in your light we might see light, and in your truth, we might find freedom, and in your will we might truly discover peace. Amen.
25 “Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. 26 For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself; 27 and he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. 28 Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice 29 and will come out — those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.
“Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” — Lyrics by Walter Chalmers Smith; performed by Jaron and Katherine Kamin (YouTube video: Click here for Video)
Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible, hid from our eyes,
Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, thy great name we praise.
Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light,
Nor wanting, nor wasting, thou rulest in might,
Thy justice like mountains high soaring above
Thy clouds, which are fountains of goodness and love.
To all, life thou givest, to both great and small.
In all life thou livest, the true life of all.
We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,
And wither and perish, but naught changeth thee.
Great God of all glory, great God of all light,
Thine angels adore thee, all veiling their sight.
All praise we would render; O help us to see
‘Tis only the splendor of light hideth thee.
Even through tears, we could only smile. “It’s okay, Daddy. Jesus is coming back,” she said, not at all meaning to make us laugh. Emma simply spoke the truth — wise and wonderful words from the mouth of babes, but in that moment her casual hope and childlike faith helped steady us as we teetered on that familiar edge of grief and relief. Sara and I had just sat with my dad at his bedside, watching the end of nine long months of struggle and pain. They were finally over. We watched as his chest strangely deflated, his last breath leaving a now utterly broken body. It was surreal and brought to mind those words of Jesus when he, too, breathed his last — “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
In the Bible, the word “spirit” can mean a number of things: wind, breath, inner life, even power or force. Which one did Jesus mean? And was it the same thing that left my dad’s body that morning he died? Was that final breath my dad’s spirit returning to the Divine?
Over the centuries, we’ve struggled to make sense of what happens when we die. Does all of us die — body and soul — when we breathe our last? Or does something of us continue on? It’s a question Christians have struggled with since the beginning. In his First Letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul insists that our greatest hope is in the resurrection of our physical bodies, echoing Jesus’ own words in John 5:25-29. We get to rise from the dead, he says, just like Jesus rose from the dead — body and soul altogether. “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain” (15:13-14).
And yet, Paul also stressed that death wasn’t the end of us, even for that relatively short time before the promised resurrection of our bodies. Listen to what he says in another letter to the Corinthians: “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens…For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:1-4).
Complicating this picture — as if it wasn’t complicated enough! — was the rise of a group called the Gnostics. They believed that our bodies weren’t creations of a good, almighty creator but instead fleshly cages imprisoning our immortal souls. Why did they think our souls immortal? Because they believed we are literally uncreated pieces of the immortal God — pieces of God ripped away by a demon and cast down to earth like little sparks of the divine. Our great hope, the Gnostics said, is to escape these physical cages of ours and return to where we really belong.
These Gnostics influenced plenty of Christians in their day, but Paul wasn’t one of them. The problem with our bodies, he said, is not the fact that we’re flesh and bone. It’s that we sin. We’ve all fallen short of the glory of God — and this has consequences. When Paul talks about us groaning under a big “burden” in 2 Corinthians 5:4, he’s talking about our sin. Death literally enters into the world and into our bodies because of sin. We die because we’ve been cut off from the God who is Life itself. As created beings, we’ve always been mortal, not immortal. That’s the nature of creation, but because we are creatures of a God who is immortal and who created us to be in relationship with him, we have the divine potential for immortality.
That’s why Paul is so bullish on the resurrection of the body. Jesus came and died in order to transform us into something immortal and imperishable and beyond sin and death. Just listen to what he says at the end of 1 Corinthians 15: “We will not all die, but we will 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 imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ … But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
I think this is why I had to laugh when Emma responded so nonchalantly to my tears that morning my dad died. She reminded me that our hope is not in the immortality of our own souls, which would make God unnecessary, but in the victory of the immortal one himself — the first of us to die and rise again. Death is not the end because we worship the One who is life itself, and he’s promised us a part in it. Thanks be to him, indeed.
Holy God, you alone are immortal, and yet you love us so much that you share that immortality with us, redeeming all of us — body and soul — through your death and resurrected life. For that we give you thanks. Amen.