Chapter 6 - Human Destiny - WHAT IS LIFE?

Chapter 6


To some the doctrine of endless punishment seems to present no difficulty. Others again are so decided in rejecting it that if only the dogma of universal restoration be discredited, they are prepared at once to adopt what seems the only alternative, the extermination of the wicked. For the one class these pages can have but a speculative interest. For the other, their practical importance ceases at the point already reached. But it is only the superficial who can ignore the difficulties that beset the problem which still claims discussion. And, moreover, the rejection of the "wider hope," just because it narrows the inquiry, deepens immensely its importance and solemnity. When our escape from pressing difficulties depends upon a single door, more care is needed than when we supposed we had a choice.

Two questions lie across the threshold of the inquiry: What is the meaning of the Greek word αἰώνιος (aiōnios)? and, Does man by nature possess immortality? If, to borrow a military term, we can mask these difficulties, instead of delaying to settle them, we shall avoid an almost interminable controversy.

It is maintained by some that αἰώνιος (aiōnios) means age-long, and nothing else; but these admit that all men have an age-long existence.[1] Others, again, contend that the word means everlasting; but these insist that all men shall exist for ever. In either case, therefore, the solemn language of Scripture, which declares æonian life to be the peculiar blessing of the believer, loses all its significance, unless we understand the word to describe the quality of the life, and not duration merely.[2]  We must conclude, then, that in all such passages the emphasis is upon life, and it is here our attention should be concentrated.

This brings in the second question. The word immortality occurs but thrice in the New Testament. In one of these passages St. Paul declares that God "only hath immortality": in the other, the believer is twice described as a mortal who is destined to "put on immortality."[3] It certainly seems strange, therefore, that any who profess to follow Holy Writ should contend for the expression "the immortality of the soul" more especially as man's spiritual condition by nature is described as death and not life? What then is life?

Here science can tell us nothing. If we seek the origin of life, Reason answers in one word, GOD. Let the existence of life be taken for granted, and then, no doubt, evolution will offer to account for all the varied forms of life in the world.[4] But until science can get rid of God, the theory is unnecessary, and therefore unphilosophical. It is the old question, Does the hen come from the egg, or the egg from the hen? If science could account for the egg, it would be entitled to put that first. But as we are shut up to believe in a Creator, it is more reasonable, and therefore more philosophical, to assume that He created the hen. This, of course, is apart from Revelation, which, for the Christian, puts the question at rest for ever.

And science can tell as little about life itself as about its origin. It has its definitions, doubtless, but these either assume or ignore precisely what they profess to give us. "Correspondence with an environment" is the latest and most vaunted.[5] The table on which this paper lies would soon be destroyed by the action of fire or water, but it corresponds with its actual environment. If however we infer that the table has life, we shall be told that a dead thing cannot correspond with an environment at all; it must have a principle of life to render correspondence possible. It appears, then, that the vaunted definition deals merely with phenomena; whereas it is life considered essentially, not in its manifestations, that concerns us here. The fact is, biology can tell us about bios, but about zōe it knows absolutely nothing.

Some will be impatient at a disquisition about life. To them it seems the simplest thing possible: life is the opposite of death, and thus the whole matter is settled. But this is to shelve the difficulty, not to settle it. And the question is of extreme importance here. If we are justified in taking life to mean existence, then death is the termination of existence, and we are within reach of the goal we seek. But this must be proved, and not taken for granted.

Our word "life" has to do duty for the two Greek words just cited. And each of these has several different meanings and shades of meaning. As already indicated, zōe is life in its principle, life intrinsic; bios, life in its manifestations, life extrinsic. But there is more in it than this. Bios may signify the period or duration of life; secondly, one's "living," or the means of life; and thirdly, the manner of life. An example of each of these phases of meaning will be found among the eleven passages in which the word is used in the New Testament.[6]  From this last use of the word, as the manner of life, there is often an ethical sense attaching to it, and this is expressed in classical Greek exclusively by bios; in Scripture exclusively by zōe[7]. Zōe again, is sometimes the equivalent of bios, as expressing the means of life; and our translators have taken it in Luke 16: 25 as meaning the period of life. It is also used to express the final blessedness of the redeemed[8] or the sphere in which it will be enjoyed; the present condition of the believer, who, it is said, "is passed from death into life,"[9] and finally and emphatically, the principle of life. The often-repeated statement that the believer "hath life" does not mean merely that he is in a state of blessedness; he is in life, but more than this, he has life in him. This is clear from the contrast, "No murderer hath eternal life abiding in him"[10]; or as the Lord said to the Jews, "Ye have no life in you."[11]

It will be urged, perhaps, that in all this the simple and plain meaning of life as equivalent to existence has been ignored. But can life be thus taken as a synonym for existence at all? If so, then the table has life, for it certainly exists. Or the definition may possibly be amended by saying "conscious existence :" the table has not that. No; neither had the tree the table was made of, though it certainly had life; neither has a man in a swoon. The fact is, and it must in fairness be conceded, that "life" does not admit of any such definition. If we want its ordinary meaning we must turn to a dictionary, and there we shall find that life is that state of an organised being in which its functions are or may be performed. Death, then, is the antithesis of this. An organism is dead when its vital functions have ceased absolutely and permanently.

It has been denied that reason can tell us anything certainly of a life after death, and it will be here assumed that it cannot. As we have revelation to guide us, the admission may be freely made. Death came into the world by sin, and it is the penalty of sin. If, then, we might conclude that death puts an end to the existence of all save those who receive eternal life in Christ, the whole question would be settled. But the teaching of Scripture is explicit, that while death is a great crisis in human existence, it is not, as with the brutes, its goal. "It is appointed unto men once to die, and after death the judgment." Such is the testimony of Scripture. But the penalty of sin must follow the judgment, and not precede it. The death, therefore, which is the penalty of sin, cannot be "natural death."

The same conclusion will be arrived at from considering the warning given to Adam in Eden. It was not merely that on eating of the tree of knowledge he should become mortal. The word was, "In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." Is it not clear, then, that the ordinary meaning of death is not its primary or its deepest meaning? And further, as the crisis which we call death is merely a change of condition, why should we suppose that the death which follows the judgment will be anything else?

These difficulties are nothing to shallow declaimers against everlasting punishment, but every serious opponent of the doctrine has recognised that they are of vital moment. The advocate of "conditional immortality" is bound, not only to notice them, but to answer them fully and completely.

[1] Whether this be natural to the race, or the result of redemption, makes no difference to my argument.

[2] I say advisedly, "not duration merely." "Eternal life," Dr. Westcott writes, "is not an endless duration of being in time, but being of which time is not a measure." And again, it "is beyond the limitations of time; it belongs to the being of God." (Epistles of St. John, pp. 205 and 207.) But surely endless duration is implied in this, though it is not the main element in it.  I do not stop to discuss wherein the above statement differs from Mr. Maurice’s view.

[3] The passages in which St. Paul uses θανασα are in 1 Cor. 15:53, 54, and 1 Tim. 6:16.  φθαρσα (incorruption) Is rendered “immortality” in Rom. 2:7 and 2 Tim. 1:10.  It occurs also in 1 Cor. 15:42, 50, 53 and 54; Eph. 6:24 and Titus 2:7 (sincerity).

[4] “Of the causes which have led to the origination of the living matter, then, it may be said that we know absolutely nothing.  But postulating the existence of living matter endowed with that power of hereditary transmission, and with that tendency to vary which is found in all such matter, Mr. Darwin has shown good reasons for believing that the interaction between living matter and surrounding conditions, which results in the survival of the fittest, is sufficient to account for the gradual evolution of plants and animals from their simplest to their most complicated forms.” – Prof. Huxley, Encyclopædia Britannica (9th ed.), “Biology,” vol. 3, p. 687

[5] Professor Drummond is enthusiastic over this definition of life in his charming book of parables – it is earnestly to be hoped that Natural Law will not be taken in any more serious light.  The fact is, that having been betrayed into bracketing together Herbert Spencer and “Jesus Christ” as authors of rival definitions of “eternal life” (p. 203), his hobby ran away with him,  “Through all the centuries” (he declares) “revealed religion had this doctrine to itself.”  “It has been reserved for modern biology at once to defend and illuminate this central truth of the Christian faith.”  This, although he has rightly stated at p. 146 that “no definition of life that has yet appeared can be said to be even approximately correct”; and as he goes on to aver, at p. 228, that “to say that life is a correspondence, is only to express the partial truth . . . . there is a principle of life.”  And yet he says, at p. 215, “All life consists essentially in correspondence with various environments.”  Moreover, the words of our Blessed Lord in John 17:3, as read in the original, cannot be taken as a definition of life, and more than in John 4:34 He gave us a definition of His food.  Without attempting to discuss that crux of the grammarians as to the telic force of να, we may assume that the particle does not introduce a definition.

[7] Trench’s Synonyms

[8] Matt. 18:8,9, 25:46; Mark 9:43, 45, 10:30, ex. gr.