The NT makes it apparent that our eternal God (Isa. 57:15) who is spirit (John 4:24) is both immortal (1 Tim. 6:16), that is, not subject to death, and incorruptible (1 Tim. 1:17), that is, not subject to decay. By contrast, we his creatures, who are manufactured or ‘made by hand’ from the earth (Ps. 119:73; Isa. 45:11f.; 64:8), are both mortal (Rom. 6:12; 2 Cor. 4:11) and corruptible (Gk. Rom. 1:23) by nature. (1* See my Manufactured Or Not So.)
Since man is made in the image of God, his destiny is to take on the generic nature of God as his spiritual child (2 Pet. 1:4, cf. John 1:12f.; 3:6; Heb. 12:23; 1 Pet. 4:6; Rom. 2:7,10; Eph. 1:5,11). However, there is a condition imposed by God from the beginning: man must keep the commandment and exercise dominion over creation including his own flesh (Gen. 2:17, cf. 1:26-28; Ps. 8, etc.). Since he fails to meet this condition and breaks the commandment (Gen. 2:17; cf. Rom. 7:10), he inevitably comes short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23) and is excluded. In this situation graphically described by Paul in Romans 3:19-20, man is in urgent need of a Saviour. He finds one uniquely in Jesus (Rom. 3:21-26, cf. Heb. 2:5-9).
In 2 Timothy 1:10 Paul tells us that our Saviour Christ Jesus abolished death and brought life and incorruption (Gk) to light. Here, most translations refer to ‘immortality’ rather than ‘incorruption’ (e.g. KJV, RSV, NRSV, ESV, etc.) but Vine maintains that this is a mistranslation (pp. 131,320, cf. Mounce, pp. 484f.). Though the antonym of death may well be considered as both life and ‘immortality’ (athanasia), the nuance Paul introduces by using the word ‘incorruption’ (aphtharsia) is perhaps important, as I shall seek to show below.
First, it is vital to recognize that death in this world is natural. We see evidence of it everywhere. Though natural death is widely denied in the church (which uncritically follows Augustine’s belief that this was not so at the beginning), it should not surprise us that the Bible teaches it. The insistence of the Psalmist can hardly be missed: “Man in his pomp will not remain; he is like the beasts that perish” (49:12, ESV). (Verse 20 is similar but contains an important difference: it refers to man “without understanding” as if distinguishing between man as mere animal flesh and man as made in the image of God.) Again, the book of Ecclesiastes is uncompromising: “For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return” (Eccl. 3:19f., cf. Ps. 78:39; 103:14, etc.).
Death and Corruption (decay)
This belief that death is a natural phenomenon is supported by the teaching that what depends on perishable food is itself perishable. In Matthew 4:4 Jesus quotes Moses with approval in support of the idea that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. In light of his contentions in John 6:22-63, Jesus clearly believes that while material bread (and water, see 4:10-15) can sustain animal life for a little while (cf. Heb. 2:7,9, ESV), it is futile for eternal life. As Paul is later to say, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die” (Rom. 8:13, cf. Gal. 6:7f.). While the animals (and man according to the flesh is an animal) clearly eat material food provided by God, they nonetheless die (Job 38:39; Ps. 104:21, etc.). Death as the end result of corruption by creation must then be natural. (2* See my Death Before Genesis 3.)
So far all appears fairly straightforward. But there is a complication. As Moses did before him (Gen. 2:17; Ex. 32:33), Paul also teaches that death is the wages of sin (Rom. 5:12; 6:23). How can this be? Is not this tantamount to a contradiction, or can it be held at one and the same time that death is both natural and penal? (3* Contrast Mounce who says that “the NT never regards thanatos as a natural process; rather, it is a consequence and punishment for sin (Rom. 6:23)”, p.160.) Since the teaching is so explicit, this must indeed be the case. Man as flesh, as an animal, that is, dies whether he is sinful or not. (In John 6:49, cf. Mt. 4:4, Jesus does not mention sin!) This is made clear by the fact that even innocent babies, who like animals know neither the law nor good and evil (Dt. 1:39, etc.), die. (Cf. Rom. 9:11 with Job 3:16; Eccl. 6:3.) As a conscious sinner, however, man fails on the one hand to gain the (eternal) life promised to all who keep the commandments (Lev. 18:5, etc.), and on the other he earns death by breaking them. Since sin is defined as transgression of the law, he experiences its sting in death (1 Cor. 15:56). To express the issue another way, the person who knows the law (commandment) has the option of keeping the law and thereby becoming righteous or of breaking it and thereby becoming a sinner (Rom. 6:16; 2 Pet. 2:19). If he keeps it, he can gain the life promised to the righteous (Lev. 18:5; Rom. 10:5, etc.) and so overcome and escape from his native mortality. Or again, he can break it and so earn death as just recompense. If this is the biblical picture, there is little wonder that Scripture depicts human beings who pander exclusively to the flesh as animals fit to be caught and killed (2 Pet. 2:12; Jude 10).
To sum up this section then, we are in a position to say that though death is natural to the entire animal world (flesh), it can nonetheless be earned by man to the extent that he is made in the image of God and therefore knows the law. According to Jesus, the one who sins becomes enslaved by sin (John 8:34) and so dies (cf. John 8:24). Since sin is defined as breaking the law (1 Sam. 15:24; James 2:9-11; 1 John 3:4; 5:17), it is an act of the human will, a work which earns wages in death. The question is: Can the same be said of corruption or decay?
We saw above that our eternal Creator God is not only immortal (deathless) but also incorruptible (not subject to decay). As such he has neither beginning nor end (Ps. 90:2; Isa. 41:4; 43:10b, cf. Heb. 7:3). Hebrews 1:11-12 informs us plainly that unlike his creature man, he does not age but remains ever the same (Heb. 1:12, cf. 13:8; James 1:17). Like death, corruption in creation is universal. Whereas the righteous Jesus who kept the law had no need to die but did so for the benefit of his people, even he grew older (Luke 3:23; John 8:57) and clearly shared human physical corruption (decay). Even he could not prevent black hair turning white (Mt. 5:36) Why? Because corruption (decay) is inherent in the entire material creation of which he became a part at his incarnation. (The rejuvenation of creation is a popular concept with some writers. I can think of no instance of Jesus making someone or something younger!)
Corruption By Creation
The corruption of creation or its natural subjection to decay (cf. entropy) is implicitly and explicitly taught in Scripture, though this is almost universally denied by commentators on and modern translators of Romans 8:18-25 (on which see my essay at www.kenstothard.com /.). First, the very first verse of Genesis 1 tells us of its beginning implying its inevitable end (cf. Heb. 7:3). This is supported by Jesus in Matthew 24:35 and 28:20. It should be carefully noted that this was the case before the intrusion of sin which therefore cannot be regarded as its cause. Second, Jesus strongly stresses natural corruption in references like Matthew 6:19-21, Luke 12:33 and 13:1-5. In the latter passage he clearly distinguishes between natural corruption and sin. (4* Cf. 1 Thes. 3:7 where Paul distinguishes between distress, ananke, and affliction, ESV, persecution, NRSV, NIV, pace Bruce. Affliction or thlipsis can be used in more than one sense. In 2 Cor. 4:17, for example, it does not appear to refer to persecution.) Third, the apostle Paul tells us in words the sense of which can hardly be mistaken that all that is physically visible is impermanent by nature (2 Cor. 4:18). Like the law which relates to it, it is temporal and provisional (cf. Mt. 5:18; Rom. 7:1; Heb. 1:11; 8:13; 12:27). As predictions regarding the end of the world indicate, the times of distress which precede it are as (divinely) necessary as the end itself (Luke 21:25-28,33-36, cf. vv. 23f. Cf. also human old age, Mt. 5:36). Again, fourth, Paul tells us in Romans 8:18-25 that God subjected creation, including his creature man, to the futility of decay of express purpose (cf. Heb. 1:10-12). Why did he do this? Because he had something better in mind for those who were made in his image, that is, an invisible hope of glory (Rom. 8:20,24f., cf. 2 Cor. 5:5; Col. 1:5,27; 1 Pet. 1:3f.). This was integral to his plan of salvation. Again, it should be noted that there is no mention of sin in this passage. How could there be if the sinless Jesus was also corruptible and entered this world with the express intention of returning to glory (John 6:62; 17:5,24; Eph. 4:9f.; Heb. 4:14; 7:26)? In any case, Paul, like Jesus in John 6, emphasized the fact that by nature the perishable (corruptible) cannot inherit the imperishable (1 Cor. 15:50). Just as flesh gives birth to flesh, so spirit gives birth to spirit (John 3:6), and God is spirit (John 1:13; 4:24). (5* For more detail, see my Romans 8:18-25.)
2 Timothy 1:10
If all this is true, there is another point to ponder. In 2 Timothy 1:10 with which I started this essay, Jesus is said to have abolished death (which may or may not be the wages of sin) but not corruption. One might well wonder why especially if with Augustinians we believe it to have connections with sin (e.g. the cosmic curse that putatively stems from Adam’s sin). But if in fact sin is not involved, the implication is that Jesus did not abolish corruption when he won a great victory over death on the cross. He clearly did not have to since it was natural, the work of God himself. When he rose from the grave, his failure to experience corruption is brought sharply into focus (Acts 2:27-35; 13:34-37). In light of this we are forced to infer that he not only rose as he had died in the flesh but remained so (cf. John 2:19f.; 10:17f.). To deny this is to deny his physical resurrection.
At this point the reader might well feel profoundly frustrated especially if he/she believes that when Jesus rose he was transformed. (6* In 2011 this is still a common but clearly erroneous perception. Yet Stott claims that it is standard Anglican orthodoxy, The Contemporary Christian, p.72. See my John Stott on the Putative Resurrection Transformation of Jesus). But since the Saviour was visible, tangible and audible (1 John 1:1-3, etc.) we are forced to infer that he was still in his first Adamic body of dust as he himself explicitly asserts in Luke 24:39 and as a comparison with Hebrews 12:18-21 immediately suggests. (7* Cf. John 20:17,27-29 where again we are confronted with touching, seeing and hearing, not to mention eating, Luke 24:41f., cf. 8:55, proving conclusively, one would have thought, that Jesus was not yet transformed and ascended, cf. John 20:17.) In other words, corporeal transformation which overcomes natural futility is as necessary as spiritual regeneration (Gk ‘dei’, John 3:7; 1 Cor. 15:53), and, since flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom (1 Cor. 15:50), it must occur at ascension. Transformation, like regeneration, is exclusively the work of God and Jesus provides its paradigm at his ascension into heaven (1 Cor. 15:50-54). (8* On Jesus’ resurrection, see my Did Jesus Rise Physically From The Grave? where I argue that Jesus’ transformation occurred at his ascension and not at his resurrection.) If God spiritually regenerated us but omitted to corporeally transform us, he would have failed to complete his work of salvation (Rom. 8:30; Phil. 1:6). (9* See my Two ‘Natural’ Necessities .)
Assuming the truth of all this, the importance of translating aphtharsia as ‘incorruption’ in 2 Timothy 1:10 is plain for all to see (cf. 1 Cor. 15:53). While death is the result of the will of man and is abolished by the will of man, that is, by Jesus (1 Cor. 15:21f.), corruption or subjection to decay is the result of the will of God by whom it is also finally abolished when its purpose is achieved (Rom. 8:24f.; Heb. 12:25-29; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12; Rev. 21:1-5). The NRSV translation of Romans 8:20 is helpful here. It reads: “for the creation (and/or creature) was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it.” Clearly the one who did the subjecting was God himself. In other words, since the physical creation is temporal (Gen. 1:1; 2 Cor. 4:18, etc.) its futility is natural; it is in accordance with the divine will for God created it that way. It is integral to his overall plan and purpose. And since sin is not mentioned, man is in no way responsible (pace those who claim that he is!).
The Generic Nature of God
By referring to ‘incorruption’ here as opposed to ‘immortality’, Paul avoids both repetition and redundancy, for if the abolition of death spells life, it obviously spells immortality. (10* Cf. Stott who in his Guard the Gospel thinks, wrongly in my view, that ‘life’ and ‘immortality’ may be synonymous, p.38. Hendriksen suggests a hendiadys, p.233.) On the other hand, if Paul is deliberately focusing on incorruption as opposed to immortality, his expression is full of significance. It means that we who receive salvation become possessed of the very nature of God as his spiritual children (1 Pet. 4:6; 2 Pet. 1:4; John 1:13; 3:6). Like God himself of whom we are born again (John 1:13) we become both immortal and incorruptible (cf. 1 Cor. 15:53). And so, like Father like son (John 3:6a, cf. 1:13). Through the grace of Christ we are made (generically) perfect in him (cf. Heb. 2:10-13). The image/likeness of God in which we were potentially created is finally consummated (2 Cor. 3:18, cf. Rom. 8:29; Heb. 1:3).
If my argument holds, what about tradition which teaches in the words of Mounce’s Dictionary (p.138) that “Corruption is first of all an element of the natural world ever since the sin of Adam and Eve (Rom. 8:21)” What about original sin, the fall of Adam, cosmic curse and the redemption of creation? The answer is that these are misunderstandings inherent in and arising out of the Augustinian worldview. The creation/fall/ restoration scheme of things beloved by so many Christians is fundamentally false. (11* It is little wonder that modern science has its problems with church dogma. By contrast, the Bible presents a different view. Regrettably, atheistic scientists believe the church and so subject both it rightly and the Bible wrongly to ridicule!) The fact is that the physical creation, epitomized by the flesh which derives from it, is regarded pejoratively throughout the Bible. It always comes a distant second best to the Creator himself (e.g. Ps. 102:25-27; Isa. 45:11f.; 51:6,8; Mt. 24:35, cf. Heb. 3:3). In brief, perhaps the most powerful arguments against the corruption of creation by sin are: first, that it is inherently temporal as opposed to eternal. Since it had a beginning (Gen. 1:1), it will certainly have an end (Mt. 24:35; Heb. 12:27; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12). Second, since it is physically visible, it is inherently impermanent (2 Cor. 4:18). Third, it was ‘made by hand’, a depreciatory OT expression (Job 10:8f.; Isa. 48:13; 64:8) which stands in strong contrast with what is ‘not made by hand’ in the NT (Heb. 9:11,24). Fourth, the sinless Jesus in contrast with his Father (Heb. 1:11) grew older (Luke 3:23; John 8:57, cf. Mt. 5:36) and was about to disappear (Heb. 8:13, cf. Acts 1:9). (12* See my tabulation of the differences at the end of my Creation Corruptible By Nature .) Fifth, the entire argument of the letter to the Hebrews assumes creation’s corruption by nature or, more specifically, by the will of God (Heb. 11:3, cf. Rom. 1:20; 4:17; 2 Cor. 4:18). (13* In this regard, David deSilva’s commentary on Hebrews is the best I have read.)
I conclude then that while death is penal as wages paid to sinful man, decay is ultimately a beneficent work of God which has eternal life (salvation) or an invisible (Rom. 8:20,24f.), or sure (Heb. 6:19) or living (1 Pet. 1:3) hope and a better resurrection in view (Heb. 11:35, cf. Luke 20:34-36). Whereas the warped will of man deceived by the devil brings in death as penalty (Rom. 5:12) and requires atonement, the perfect will of God brings decay into this present age with a view to transformation and eternal life in the age to come (cf. Rom. 8:21). In other words, man must gain life by regeneration before he can gain imperishability or incorruption by transformation (cf. John 3:16; Rom. 5:8-10). After Jesus had been raised from the dead and was still corruptible flesh (Luke 24:39; John 20:17, etc.), he was necessarily transformed at his ascension and exalted to God’s right hand never again to return to corruption (Acts 13:34). And since it is his will that we be with him (John 6:37,39; 10:28; 12:26; 14:3; 17:24; 1 Thes. 4:17), we follow in his steps (Heb. 2:10-13; 10:19f., etc.).
To sum up, death as wages depends on the will of man who freely breaks the law; corruption or decay depends on the will of God who gives those who believe justification and eternal life. (This is not to deny, of course, that spiritual or moral corruption impacts on natural physical corruption and becomes an exacerbating factor.)
So, finally, it remains to add that while we are constantly told that we are sinful by birth (14* E.g. Josh & Sean McDowell, pp.149,156, etc.), the unshakable truth is that we cannot earn wages and be sinful till we break the commandment(s), John 8:34; Rom. 3:23; 5:12; 6:23, contrast 1 Pet. 2:22). On the other hand, as flesh, we are, like Jesus, certainly born corruptible, the offspring of the earth and of a creation divinely subjected to decay and aging (Heb. 1:11). That is why innocent babies sometimes die like innocent animals. (Infant mortality was significantly high in the ancient world.) For the rest of us the need to escape from the trap purposely set by God (cf. Luke 21:34-36) and attain to our invisible hope of glory is paramount (Rom. 8:24f., cf. 1 Pet. 1:3f.), and this is achieved through faith in Jesus (Col. 1:27). (15* See my Escape .) Once he had been perfected (Heb. 2:10; 12:2; Acts 5:31), Jesus himself escaped by ascension, transformation, exaltation and heavenly session. He was thus enabled to lead the way of all his brethren into heaven and the presence of the living Father (2 Cor. 4:14; Gal. 1:4; Heb. 2:3,10-13; John 3:16). This had been his goal from the beginning (John 13:3; 16:28). It was the plan of salvation.
A Final Question
If we ask if Jesus would have died if he had remained on the earth, the unequivocal answer must be positive. He would have continued to age or experience decay until he disappeared (Heb. 8:13).* In this case his death would have been natural not penal. However, his ascension transformation was basic to the divine will and purpose (John 3:13; 6:62). As man he achieved perfection in heaven as his Father always intended. Furthermore, by being transformed at his ascension he provided the paradigm of the transformation of the saints at the end of history who neither die nor undergo resurrection. (See further my When Was Jesus Transformed?, Did Jesus Rise Physically From The Grave?)
All this seems to prove conclusively that the idea of the redemption of the physical creation from a putative curse is fallacious.
* In light of classical mythology the failure of theologians to distinguish between immortality and corruption is surprising. According to Bullfinch in The Age of Fable, when the goddess Aurora prevailed on Jupiter to grant Tithonus immortality, she forgot to ask for eternal youth too. As a consequence Tithonus gradually succumbed to age and was shut up in his chamber. Finally, Aurora turned him into a grasshopper.
The moral of this story is that immortality without incorruptibility is futile. 2 Timothy 1:10 along with 1 Timothy 1:17 and Romans 2:7 are usually mistranslated and hence misleading.
F.F.Bruce, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Waco, 1982.
D.DeSilva, Perseverance in Gratitude, Grand Rapids, 2000.
W.Hendriksen, The Epistles to Timothy and Titus, London, 1959.
Josh & Sean McDowell, The Unshakable Truth, Milton Keynes, 2010.
W.D.Mounce, WBC Pastoral Epistles, Nashville, 2000.
Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words, Grand Rapids, 2006.
J.R.W.Stott, Guard the Gospel, London, 1973.
The Contemporary Christian, Leicester, 1992.
Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary, Nashville, 1985.