What is Life?
The Apostle James has a very plain statement to make about the nature of man, in fact he asks and answers the very question – “What is your life?”. Is it an immortal force from God that can never be extinguished, come what may? Or what? Here’s the apostle’s answer:
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit”; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that” (James 4:13-15).
How strange those words sound in relation to the permanence and indestructibility expressed in the popular conception of the nature of human life. But they are perfectly consistent with the teaching of the New Testament as a whole.
Jesus the Teacher
Here are some of the teachings of the Lord Jesus on the subject:
“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mark 8:36,37).
These words are not intended to describe the value of a man’s life in the whole scheme of things but, rather, the value of his own life to himself. They teach that it is foolish for men to sacrifice their lives to obtain something which, without life, they can neither possess nor enjoy. For, when Jesus spoke of the “soul”, he meant the “life” of an individual, and that life is our most precious commodity because it gives us the opportunity to get to know God and the Lord Jesus. Here’s another example from the lips of the Master:
“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul…”
Without a doubt this passage, as far as it goes, tells us that those who are able to kill the body are not able to kill the soul. We should, however, be led very far astray if we left it at that for, when we read on, we find that the sense of the passage is quite changed when it is completed.
“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
Once again the word “soul” here means ‘life’, as it is translated in many other passages in the New Testament. God is able, Jesus was teaching, to utterly destroy our existence in … “hell” (or “Gehenna“, as in some other translations) has reference to a certain locality where the carcasses of criminals and animals were destroyed near Jerusalem. For the Jews of the First Century it was a place of destruction … If you are concerned that Jesus was talking about eternal torment in Hell, notice that the emphasis is on destruction, not on torment or torture.
If it be asked “Who is it that can kill the body and cannot destroy the soul, or the life?”, the answer must be that there have been many persecutors, over time, who have tried to eliminate the followers of Jesus. But they cannot destroy the life force from God, because He – and He alone – can do that, if He chooses. But if God wishes that life to continue, He has the power and the means of remaking that person, by resurrection, and granting them the gift of everlasting life.
The God of Abraham
Sometimes there are references back to the Old Testament that need some thinking about. For example, the Lord Jesus once referred his adversaries to what had been said to Moses at the burning bush:
“… about the resurrection of the dead – have you not read what God said to you, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living” (Matthew 22:31,32).
These words most definitely challenge the popular view concerning the afterlife. Jesus used them to the Sadducees to prove the resurrection of the dead; for this Biblical teaching was something they denied. He said “God is not a God of the dead – but of the living”. Now if Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were, in fact, not dead but alive in heaven, how would the fact that God called Himself their God have proved to the Sadducees that they were to be raised from the dead?
The whole point Jesus was making was that, in spite of the fact that they were dead and buried, God still called Himself their God – because he was going to raise them from the dead at the appointed time. Therefore, said Jesus, He is not a God of the dead – the eternally dead – but of the living, for they will live again in the resurrection of the just.
If we turn to the letters in the New Testament, we find there many enlightening passages in relation to the nature of man. In the popular conception of man’s nature, death is set forward as unpleasant, while it lasts, but something that ultimately confers great gain. For many, the grave is seen as the gateway to a new and fuller life in heaven, it is thought of as the way of escape from this ‘vale of tears, fears and sorrows’.
The Bible does not use such language. Instead, death is spoken of as something which is to befall all men as the result of sin, not a means of escape. It is the great enemy of man which threatens all his aspirations. Indeed, it is called “the last enemy”.
Reflect upon the tone of these passages and ask yourself how well they fit the popular conception of the nature and effect of death.
“(God) has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began, but has now been revealed by the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel”
(2 Timothy 1:9,10)
“In accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who ‘will render to each one according to his deeds’: eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honour, and immortality” (Romans 2:5-7)
“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23)
“For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:53)
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16)
“For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And If Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished” (1 Corinthians 15:16-18)
This, then, is part of the testimony of the New Testament concerning the nature of man. What your conclusions will be as a result or reflection upon the passages to which your attention has been directed, I cannot tell. But it is a vitally important topic for each of us, if we are to understand the peril that faces us once this mortal existence is over.
The Lord Jesus Christ has brought “life and immortality” to light, through the gospel, and we need to know and find out about that. Immortality will not just happen; it is not something automatic, inherent or intrinsic.
It is something about which we really need to know. And we can only know about it – given that it is beyond our immediate experience – by reading God’s Word and believing what that teaches us.
When the serpent said to Eve “You shall not surely die”, he was lying. We surely will cease to exist for ever – unless we find out about God’s offer of salvation, and make that our own.