Only in Paul's epistles do we have the Greek word ἀφθαρσία (aftharsia). Many believe it refers to 'immortality' and has been translated as such in numerous Bible translations. However, there is reason to expand the semantic range of this word to include concepts of "imperishability" or "incorruptibility." I will walk through several of Paul's epistles, and we will see that this word has an eschatological flavor—not because of the word itself per se, but because of how Paul uses the word.
I will translate the following Pauline texts, with some commentary on why I chose to render certain terms in the way I do, and then I will explain the significance of the word in Paul's narrative. Finally, I will attempt a synthesis on why this word is important and what it means for Christians today.
Also, Merry Christmas.
Rom 2:7 τοῖς μὲν καθ᾽ ὑπομονὴν ἔργου ἀγαθοῦ δόξαν καὶ τιμὴν καὶ ἀφθαρσίαν ζητοῦσιν ζωὴν αἰώνιον·
"And those who persevere by good work, seeking glory and honor and incorruptibility, will gain life eternal"
The noun ὑπομονὴν refers to 'perseverance,' especially within certain Pauline contexts. For instance, 2 Thessalonians 1:4 refers to those enduring διωγμοῖς ("persecution") and θλίψεσιν ("oppression"). Paul elsewhere tells the church to "pursue" (δίωκε) good things in 1 Timothy 6:11—among these attributes is ὑπομονήν. The conjunction καὶ linking δόξαν καὶ τιμὴν καὶ ἀφθαρσίαν suggests these attributes are a unit, or at least are meant to be taken as a single concept. Glory and honor are comparable to incorruptibility, and if one seeks after these things, there is "life eternal."
Immortality, while a likely facet of incorruptibility, is too narrow here. Rather, glory and honor suggest a kind of virtue that lacks corruptibility, especially of the human (Gentile) person not identified by the sins of Romans 1:18-32.
1Cor 15:42 Οὕτως καὶ ἡ ἀνάστασις τῶν νεκρῶν. σπείρεται ἐν φθορᾷ, ἐγείρεται ἐν ἀφθαρσίᾳ·
"In this same way also the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption."
Most of the uses of our noun in question occur in the discourse of 1 Corinthians 15.
The verbal linkage is fairly obvious with the contrast: both verbs (singular third person middle) refer to an object via the preposition ἐν ("in," "by," "among"). The contrast is highlighted by the comparative noun φθορᾷ, which in other contexts refers to slavery (Romans 8:21) and general depravity and destructive tendencies (Colossians 2:22). Paul seems to imply that the human person—the body—is born into a world of depravity and subjection by foreign powers (Death and Sin being two sides of that coin: c.f. 15:26), and instead of the person in Christ being raised again into corruption and death, she is raised instead to incorruptibility. Mortality, driven by the kingship of Death, is what is sown naturally according to the known rules of the world.
However, for Paul, to be raised by Christ is to participate in his incorruptible body: where glory and honor and an inability to be subjected to Death's reign.
We will see a further Pauline contrast in 15:50 and 53.
1Cor 15:50, 53, 54 Τοῦτο δέ φημι, ἀδελφοί, ὅτι σὰρξ καὶ αἷμα βασιλείαν θεοῦ κληρονομῆσαι οὐ δύναται, οὐδὲ ἡ φθορὰ τὴν ἀφθαρσίαν κληρονομεῖ…δεῖ γὰρ τὸ φθαρτὸν τοῦτο ἐνδύσασθαι ἀφθαρσίαν καὶ τὸ θνητὸν τοῦτο ἐνδύσασθαι ἀθανασίαν. ὅταν δὲ τὸ φθαρτὸν τοῦτο ἐνδύσηται ἀφθαρσίαν καὶ τὸ ⸃ θνητὸν τοῦτο ἐνδύσηται ἀθανασίαν, τότε γενήσεται ὁ λόγος ὁ γεγραμμένος· Κατεπόθη ὁ θάνατος εἰς νῖκος.
"But this I say, my brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood is unable to inherit the Kingdom of God, not can corruption inherit incorruption…for it is necessary for this corruption to put on incorruptibility and this Mortal to put on immortality, but whenever this corruption should have put on incorruptibility, and this Mortal should have put on incorruptibility, then this word that has been written will come to pass: Death has been devoured in victory."
Whole monographs could be written on this particular section, and I believe it is a concretized exposition of 1 Corinthians 15:26, where Death is utterly annihilated. However, some exposition is needed. The contrastive nature of φθορά and ἀφθαρσία confirms Paul's distinction between a present reality (φθορά) guided by the dictatorship of Death, and Paul's hope in ἀφθαρσία, where Death cannot exercise rule over any Mortal.
Paul uses similar words that are complementary, but they are not synonymous. He uses ἀθανασίαν which does refer to immortality (literally 'not dying'), which displays an affinity with his chosen vocabulary. The corruptible Mortal must be clothed in both incorruptibility and immortality, in order that both concepts may abolish Death. One can be immortal, and still sin, at least in theory. However, to be incorruptible suggests that the future eschatological age is a place where all of those in Christ are in a state of 'not dying' and also in a state of being unable to be corrupted by Sin and Death.
No longer does Death reign, nor will Death have any presence in God's Kingdom. Rather, the mortal person, she is enveloped by Christ in the power of the Spirit, where Death has no sting.
Eph 6:24 ἡ χάρις μετὰ πάντων τῶν ἀγαπώντων τὸν κύριον ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦν Χριστὸν ἐν ἀφθαρσίᾳ.
"Favor be with all of the one's who are loving our Lord Jesus Christ in incorruptibility."
Paul ends his exhortation to the church with battle imagery earlier in chapter 6. Paul, here, is capitalizing on said imagery and exhorting the believers to remain incorruptible. Instead of referring in a blanket sense to immortality, Paul desires that they live a life "loving" God and the Messiah. This is characterized by εἰρήνη ("peace") in 6:23, and suggests that warfare, spiritual or literal, should not characterize the believer's identity: for these things corrupt, but faithfulness to God is incorruptible.
2Ti 1:10 φανερωθεῖσαν δὲ νῦν διὰ τῆς ἐπιφανείας τοῦ σωτῆρος ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ⸃, καταργήσαντος μὲν τὸν θάνατον φωτίσαντος δὲ ζωὴν καὶ ἀφθαρσίαν διὰ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου,
"And made manifest now through the appearance of our Savior Jesus Christ, the one indeed annihilating Death, and having illuminated life and incorruptibility through the Gospel."
The theophany of the Messiah signals something interesting. Life and incorruptibility are connected (same case ending) and suggest, in already similar fashion, that Paul is playing these terms together in a complementary way. To have the life of Christ is to have incorruptibility. Death being utterly annihilated, removed from the cosmos, suggests that now life and incorruptibility may reign. Only once Death has been destroyed can these two things thrive. This suggests a coordinate meaning with 1 Corinthians 15, where Death/Mortality/Corruption are first destroyed, so that Life/Immortality/Incorruptibly may reign supreme in the Kingdom of God and Christ.
Tit 2:7 περὶ πάντα σεαυτὸν παρεχόμενος τύπον καλῶν ἔργων, ἐν τῇ διδασκαλίᾳ ἀφθορίαν, σεμνότητα,
"In all things making yourself a model of good works by teaching, incorruptibility, dignity."
In a short word, this pericope is concerned with how one lives as a minority within a world of oppression. By living in a manner worthy of the name of Christ, one must live by these three nouns (though one is not limited by them). I translate the preposition ἐν as "by" because I think the active agency on the part of the recipients of Titus are enjoined to live a certain way: hence, make yourself a model "by" doing these three things.
Immortality, unlike elsewhere, is not in view in most of Paul's uses of ἀφθαρσία. Rather, the noun in question refers to the conduct and character of one's witness to the world: not being guided by corruption or falsity, but rather through the incorruptibility of Christ.
In short, the term ἀφθαρσία, while it may denote a concept of immortality, is far more concerned with the character of how one lives, and what one inherits. Incorruptibility refers to something given by God eschatologically, it must be sought after (Romans 2:7), and Death and depravity are the chief opponents to this ἀφθαρσία. Death, with its reign of decay and slavery, cannot co-exist with ἀφθαρσία. Only one may win, and one might say, one already has.
Thus, ἀφθαρσία has an ethical component that cannot be ignored or dismissed. Eschatology, at least in Pauline perspective, is about ethics and the life of hope lived for future anticipation.
Merry Christmas again.