God is Different

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1 Timothy 6:16 is one of the foundational verses for conditionalists. In it, we see a theological principle that we are not ready to relinquish in favor of popular teachings. It is the principle that God is the only being in the universe who has immortality. His immortality is exclusive. In that respect, he is different from all other beings.

“The only One who has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light; no one has seen or can see Him, to Him be honor and eternal might. Amen” (HCSB).

The verse is the second part of a doxology: a pause to praise the God of whom the author is writing. In its context, Paul is encouraging Timothy to keep pursuing eternal life to which he was called, but has not yet attained. It is a promise from the only one capable of making that promise: God, who alone possesses that thing that Paul urges Timothy to pursue.

Comparing 1 Timothy 1:17 to 6:15-16 has led some scholars to suggest that Paul did not originate this text. He may have been quoting an already existing liturgy. That would explain how Paul quotes the text as if it is already known by Timothy and his companions at Ephesus. The principles found in those texts would have already been accepted as part of the Christian message.

Paul asserts four things about God here:

1. God’s Power is Eternal.

The phrase kratos aionion (just before the “Amen”) asserts that God’s battery never runs out. He never needs to be recharged. What a contrast this is to what Paul says about himself. He tells Timothy that when he was facing his lion’s den “the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it.”[1]

But Paul said that now that his work was done, he was about to die. His battery was running out.

“For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.”[2]

He speaks of an ending of his life, and a new beginning, at the resurrection when Christ appears. These are not the words of someone convinced that he has eternal life already. They are the words of one who realizes that God alone possesses unending power and life.

2. God’s Authority is Eternal.

He is to be honored for eternity. He is the King of kings and Lord of lords (6:15). That suggests, that everyone who has authority now derives that authority from him. It also suggests that the same is true of anyone who will ever be in authority. All honor will go to him. But all honor does not presently go to him. Perhaps that is why the adjective aionios (eternal) does not apply to the noun time’ (honor) in this verse. But someday, God’s chosen king will return. Then the kingdoms of this world will “become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15). So, from the standpoint of eternity, his authority is the only one that will last forever.

3. God is different from the other “gods.”

The “gods” of the first century Roman empire are idols made of stone or wood or metal. Those idols sometimes represent spirit beings, but have limitations that the God of the Bible does not have. They can be seen. God cannot. They can be approached by anyone with the ability to fashion them, or the means to procure them. The God whom Paul praises in this doxology does not dwell inside an image. His dwelling is in unapproachable light (fos aprositon). God is not a good luck charm to be manipulated by humans for their own desires and prosperity. He is distant.

Paul is not saying that God never approaches us. The gospel tells us that God came near in the person of Jesus Christ, and chose to make his dwelling among us (John 1:14). The Holy Spirit dwells inside believers, who are his temple (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19). The author of Hebrews tells us that by prayer we can “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).

So, what Paul affirms in 1 Timothy 6:16 applies to God’s nature. There is a fundamental difference between the Christian God and the pagan Gods. The pagan gods are things to be manipulated. They can be used to bring a person good luck or prevent bad luck. But the God of the Bible will not be put to the test. His power can never be used for anything other than accomplishing his will at his prompting.

4. God’s Life is Immortal.

In the Bible, this word athanasia is never used as an attribute of anyone else but God this side of the resurrection at Christ’s second coming. It is never used to describe a human soul or spirit. Yet it has come to be popular and “orthodox” to make all kinds of concessions to God’s exclusive immortality. Matthew Henry, for example, says that God “only is immortal in himself, and has immortality as he is the fountain of it, for the immortality of angels and spirits derived from him.”[3] So the hypothetical “box” in which we might put all immortal beings is actually not exclusive at all. It contains not only God, but all of those sentient creatures created by him, both human and angelic. Perhaps we should be grateful that cats and dogs did not make the grade.

Lately evangelical scholars see the dilemma in accepting what Paul said about God in 1 Tim. 6:16. Their conclusions, however, are ultimately the same as Matthew Henry’s. Peterson, for example, states the “orthodox” position quite well in his recent debate with Fudge. He said that “Plato held to the soul’s natural or inherent immortality. By contrast, evangelical Christians hold that God alone is inherently immortal (1 Tim. 6:16) and that he confers immortality to all human beings.”[4] But once the “and that he confers” is added to the equation, the dilemma begins. 1 Tim.6:16 says nothing about God conferring his exclusive attribute to all human beings. Either that attribute is exclusive or it is not. Conditionalists see no clear contrast between the view of Plato and that of our brother evangelicals who hold Peterson’s view.

The onus is ours, however, as conditionalists, to back up this bold claim that God’s immortality is exclusive. Ours is the minority position. That is why a study of the terms used in the Bible to imply immortality is helpful. The study shows that the concept of immortality does not apply to angels and human beings by default. This adds justification for our being obstinate enough to hold to the exclusive immortality of God in spite of its being an unpopular doctrine.

The noun athanasia only appears three times in the canonical Bible. It makes no appearance in the entire Old Testament. Besides 1 Tim. 6:16, it only appears in 1 Corinthians 15:53-54.

For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”

The ESV translators, normally sticklers to word-for-word accuracy, betray their theological bias here by supplying the word body twice in verse 53, even though there is no Greek equivalent in the original. Paul actually agrees with what he stated in 1 Tim. 6:16. Since God alone is immortal, something will have to change in order for human beings, who are perishable and mortal, to become immortal. That change will take place at the resurrection. There is no indication in the text itself that human mortality pertains only to our bodies. That is a concept that is assumed by the proponents of natural or inherent immortality, and denied by conditionalists, who propose that immortality is only potential. 1 Cor. 15 and 1 Tim. 6:16 both serve as evidence for the potential immortality position. While 1 Cor. 15 shows that immortality (athanasia) is not currently a present possession (even for the saved), 1 Tim. 6:16 identifies the one being who is the exception to that rule, and presently has athanasia.

The Apocrypha provides seven more instances of the term. While we cannot rely on the Apocrypha as a standard for proof of a doctrine, we can consult it in order to establish how certain terms were used, which is a reflection of their understood meaning. Were we, for example, to find numerous references to athanasia as a natural human attribute it might show that intertestamental Jews viewed humans as naturally immortal beings.

4 Maccabees 8-18 contains an account describing the torture of seven young men and their mother by the Tyrant (Antiochus IV). Instances of the term athanasia occur in two places. In 4 Maccabees 14:4-5 the writer says that “none of the seven youths proved coward or shrank from death, but all of them, as though running the course toward immortality, hastened to death by torture” (RSV). From this we can infer that intertestamental Jews did have the concept of immortality, but saw it as something to be earned through diligent faithfulness to God. It was certainly not an attribute taken for granted as the natural possession of all human beings.

The second occurrence of athanasia refers to the mother, who, “as though having a mind like adamant and giving rebirth for immortality to the whole number of her sons, she implored them and urged them on to death for the sake of religion” (4 Maccabees 16:13). The mother is pictured as encouraging her sons to stay true to their faith in God with such zeal that it is like she was giving birth to them all over again, this time for immortality instead of mortality (as it was in the first instance of her giving birth to them). Again, there is no innate, inherent immortality described here. Immortality is something to be gained by a martyr’s death for the seven sons. Their mother, who gave them natural birth, did not in so doing impart to them immortality.

All the other instances of the term athanasia occur in The Wisdom of Solomon. Notice this revealing statement about the destiny of the righteous:

Wisdom 3:1-4 RSV

But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. For though in the sight of men they were punished, their hope is full of immortality.

As in 4 Maccabees, athanasia is seen as potential for humans, because the righteous will be resurrected, but athanasia is not an inherent attribute.

Wisdom 4:1-7 RSV

… in the memory of virtue is immortality, because it is known both by God and by men. When it is present, men imitate it, and they long for it when it has gone; and throughout all time it marches crowned in triumph, victor in the contest for prizes that are undefiled. But the prolific brood of the ungodly will be of no use, and none of their illegitimate seedlings will strike a deep root or take a firm hold. For even if they put forth boughs for a while, standing insecurely they will be shaken by the wind, and by the violence of the winds they will be uprooted. The branches will be broken off before they come to maturity, and their fruit will be useless, not ripe enough to eat, and good for nothing. For children born of unlawful unions are witnesses of evil against their parents when God examines them. But the righteous man, though he die early, will be at rest.

Here is no denial of the reality of death, but a glimpse beyond it, to a resurrected virtuous person, known both by God and by men. The ungodly, though they might produce a prolific brood, will be uprooted. Notice, again, that there is no mention of athanasia as a common trait held by all humans. A resurrection unto immortality is only the hope of the righteous.

Wisdom 8:13-17 RSV

Because of {wisdom} I shall have immortality, and leave an everlasting remembrance to those who come after me. I shall govern peoples, and nations will be subject to me; dread monarchs will be afraid of me when they hear of me; among the people I shall show myself capable, and courageous in war. When I enter my house, I shall find rest with her, for companionship with her has no bitterness, and life with her has no pain, but gladness and joy. When I considered these things inwardly, and thought upon them in my mind, that in kinship with wisdom there is immortality…

Wisdom, as defined by the wisdom literature of the Bible and related works like The Wisdom of Solomon is the ability to make correct moral choices which lead to God’s favour. In the Bible, those correct moral choices usually led to a long healthy life, but by the time The Wisdom of Solomon was written, one’s eternal destiny was also seen as a consequence of living wisely. It is the route to eventual athanasia. It is a narrow path that does not include everyone on the planet. It is not innate, nor is the immortality it produces.

Wisdom 15:1-3 RSV

But thou, our God, art kind and true, patient, and ruling all things in mercy. For even if we sin we are thine, knowing thy power; but we will not sin, because we know that we are accounted thine. For to know thee is complete righteousness, and to know thy power is the root of immortality.

In the New Testament we found that athanasia was an exclusive attribute of God, but a hope for humanity. In this final reference to athanasia in the Apocrypha, we see a relationship with God as the only means of obtaining to that hope.

Athanatos

In the Apocrypha, there are a few instances of the corresponding adjective that we would translate immortal as well. Although this word does not appear in the New Testament, it is helpful to see how it was used.

It is said of Eleazar that “in no way did he turn the rudder of religion until he sailed into the haven of immortal victory” (4 Maccabees 7:3). The most that can be inferred from this metaphorical statement is that Eleazar is counted among those who finished the course of faith, and awaits a resurrection unto immortality. It does not imply that Eleazar was already immortal by nature. It is said of the aforementioned seven young men that “just as the hands and feet are moved in harmony with the guidance of the mind, so those holy youths, as though moved by an immortal spirit of devotion, agreed to go to death for its sake” (4 Maccabees 14:6). All this implies about these youths is that although their devotion was undying, they were not. You cannot prove that people are immortal from a passage that records their deaths.

Later, the author of 4 Maccabees does state that these “sons of Abraham with their victorious mother are gathered together into the chorus of the fathers, and have received pure and immortal souls from God” (4 Maccabees 18:23). There is a hint of some kind of rewarded state here, but perhaps the reward is merely the certainty of a resurrection unto immortality. At any rate, 1 Corinthians 15 states that the resurrection is when the reward will be realized. If some intertestamental Jews imagined a conscious intermediate state, they were mistaken.

One use of athanatos is found which draws a distinction between God’s

righteousness (which is said to be immortal) and secular man’s covenant with death.

Wisdom 1:12-16 (RSV)

Do not invite death by the error of your life, nor bring on destruction by the works of your hands; because God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things that they might exist, and the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them; and the dominion of Hades is not on earth. For righteousness is immortal. But ungodly men by their words and deeds summoned death; considering him a friend, they pined away, and they made a covenant with him, because they are fit to belong to his party.

Here again, there is no mention of a man, or even a part of man, which is immortal by nature. In fact, immortality belongs to the righteous One. Human beings are mortal.

Athanatos is also found in The Wisdom of Sirach:

For we cannot have everything, human beings are not immortal. What is brighter than the sun? And yet it fades. Flesh and blood think of nothing but evil. He surveys the armies of the lofty sky, and all of us are only dust and ashes (Sirach 17:30-32 New Jerusalem Bible).

Here is perhaps the clearest expression of human mortality in the Apocrypha. It says that men do not have the attribute that Paul said only God has. He will always last, but we are “dust and ashes.” The statement is in perfect agreement with the New Testament.

Afthartos

Another adjective – sometimes translated “immortal” in versions of the New Testament – emphasizes the unfailing, imperishable, or incorruptible nature of the noun it modifies. If this adjective were found applied to beings other than God, it would serve as evidence that the NT authors assumed that these beings possessed immortality. In Romans 1:23 Paul explained that idolatrous humanity “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” Notice that only God is placed in the “beings having immortality” box. Man and animals are comfortably placed in the “all others” box.

In 1 Tim. 1:17 Paul ascribes “honour and glory for ever and ever” “unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God.” If the term immortal applies to all other created beings (or at least the higher ones: angels and humans) one wonders why Paul would bother mentioning the attribute. But if the attribute is exclusive to God alone (as Paul later states in chapter 6), his mentioning it here makes perfect sense.

Some might argue that the term “immortal” is appropriate to describe men’s

spirits or souls, but not their bodies. As such it might be appropriate to speak of God being immortal in an absolute sense. He has no body to corrupt or perish. This logic only applies if the principles of Platonic anthropology are true. Plato argued that the soul of man is immortal because it is simple, and cannot be divided into composite parts. The notion of human immortality is the result of combining this principle from pagan philosophy with biblical theology. One question conditionalists ask is “can the Bible be left alone to answer the question of human mortality, or must we borrow from pagan theology to do it?”

All other references to afthartos in the New Testament[5] use the term to describe the hope of believers after the resurrection, or some kind of character trait that is imperishable in the sense that it does not fade away with time. There is not one single use of the term applied to human nature itself, body or soul. If this attribute is such an essential part of human identity, one would expect this adjective to be used repeatedly throughout the New Testament in reference to human nature itself.

God’s Identity

Often when God is identified in the Bible, this exclusive attribute is part of his title, identifying him as different from all other beings. He is the Living God.[6] He is the eternal God.[7] He is the immortal God.[8] He is the everlasting God.[9] His name and attributes endure forever.[10] By contrast, humans are God’s creatures. As such they are dying.[11] They are mortal.[12] They are perishable.[13] They fade away like the color on a leaf.[14] They return to the dust from which they were made.[15]

God is different. He is exclusively immortal. This, as well as his other exclusive attributes – like holiness and omnipotence – make it appropriate for us to worship him exclusively. Conditional immortality is – at the heart of the issue – a doctrine which seeks to preserve what the Bible says about God.


[1] 2 Timothy 4:17.

[2] 2 Timothy 4:6-8.

[3] Matthew Henry – The Matthew Henry Commentary on the Bible (1 Tim. 6:16).

[4] Robert A Peterson, in Two Views of Hell: A Biblical and Theological Dialogue. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 88.

[5] 1 Cor. 9:25; 15:52; 1 Pet. 1:4, 23; 3:4

[6] Deut. 5:26; Josh. 3:10; 1 Sam. 17:26, 36; 2 Kgs 19:4, 16; Psa. 42:2; 84:2; Isa. 37:4, 17; Jer. 10:10; 23:36; Dan. 6:20, 26; Hos. 1:10; Matt. 16:16; 26:63; Acts 14:15; Rom. 9:26; 2 Cor. 3:3; 6:16; 1 Tim. 3:15; 4:10; Heb. 3:12; 9:14;10:31; 12:22; Rev. 7:2.

[7] Deut. 33:27; Rom. 16:26.

[8] Rom. 1:23.

[9] Gen. 21:33; Isa. 40:28.

[10] 1 Chr. 16:34, 41; 2 Chr. 5:13; 7:3, 6; 20:21; Ezra 3:11; Psa. 100:5; 106:1; 107:1; 111:3, 10; 112:3, 9; 117:2;118:1ff, 29; 119:160; 135:13; 136:1ff; 138:8; Eccl. 3:14; Jer. 33:11; 2 Cor. 9:9.

[11] Gen. 35:18; 2 Chr. 16:13; 24:22; Job 24:12; Luke 8:42; John 11:37; Heb. 11:21.

[12] Job 4:17; Rom. 1:23; 6:12; 8:11; 1 Cor. 15:53f; 2 Cor. 4:11; 5:4; Heb. 7:8.

[13] 1 Cor. 15:42, 50, 53f; 1 Pet. 1:23.

[14] Psa. 37:2; Isa. 64:6; Jam. 1:11.

[15] Gen. 3:19; Job 10:9; 34:15; Psa. 90:3; Eccl. 3:20.

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