Are souls immortal?

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Does the appearance of Moses and Elijah with Christ in glory on the Mount of Transfiguration, long after their natural deaths, prove the immortality of the soul?

The immortal soul doctrine many Christians believe is that all people are born with an internal, spiritual component (or soul) that cannot die, but departs the body at death to dwell forever either in heaven or hell.

In Matthew 17:1ff; Mark 9:2ff; and Luke 9:28-36, we read of Jesus being transfigured in the presence of Peter, James, and John. This means that His appearance in an earthly body was changed to that of a heavenly, spiritual body like we are promised when Christ returns to raise the righteous dead (1 Corinthians 15:35-57). The power, majesty, and blazing light in which Jesus appeared to His disciples were new and glorious beyond description — no doubt a preview of our immortal bodies to come.

Does this fantastic experience compel us to accept the traditional view of soul immortality? Alternate evidence is offered here. First, just after His transfiguration, Jesus referred to the event as a vision (Matthew 17:9). Moses’ and Elijah’s presence with our Lord in glory on the mount was a supernatural appearance, or visualization, provided by the Spirit of God. Such a pro-vision of deceased persons requires neither their immediate translation at death to immortality nor a final resurrection from their grave to immortality.

Beyond this, we have other reasons to view the immortal soul teaching as an unproven theory and a remnant of Greek dualism. Neither immortal soul nor immortality of the soul is a phrase of Scripture. Although hope for bodily resurrection grew through the Torah, Psalms, and Prophets, still the ancient Hebrews held comparatively vague and undeveloped views of the afterlife. A refrain of “No memory, no wisdom, no praise” fairly summarizes the Hebrew understanding of death (Psalms 6:5; 30:9; 88:11; 115:17; 146:4; Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10b; Isaiah 38:18).

The New Testament continues this case for the unconscious sleep of the dead (Mark 5:39; John 3:13; 11:11; 1 Thessalonians 4:13). It confirms their resurrection at Christ’s return as the blessed hope of all believers (1 Thessalonians 4:15, 16; Titus 2:13; 2 Timothy 4:1). And it dramatizes this point by placing the resurrection of Christ, along with His death, at the climax of each Gospel’s narrative and at the center of gospel doctrine (1 Corinthians 15:1-4ff).

First Timothy 6:16a says flatly that immortality belongs to the Lord alone. While believers can claim eternal life now, by faith in Christ (a kind of conditional immortality, cf. 2 Timothy 1:10), this is not the innate immortality claimed for all humans by much of Christianity.

In subtle and direct ways, the New Scriptures affirm that our great and blessed hope is not that we go to heaven when we die (i.e., immortality of the soul). Rather, it is that we shall be raised from the dead to immortality and eternal life (i.e., resurrection of the body) when Christ returns.

Like all the great worthies of faith, Moses and Elijah did not receive their eternal inheritance at death (Hebrews 11:13, 39, 40). God provides something better for us — “that they without us should not be made perfect” (KJV). A visionary preview of that day on the Mount of Transfiguration does not prove otherwise, glorious though it was.

— Elder Calvin Burrell


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    Calvin Burrell
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    Calvin Burrell is former editor of the Bible Advocate and former director of G. C. Missions. He retired in 2015 and lives with his wife, Barb, in Stayton, OR. They attend church in Marion, OR.