(This message was preached at Hamilton, New Zealand, Church of Christ on the 3rd April 2011)
With all the excitement of Easter coming some may wonder why I have to bring up such a morbid subject as “death” over these next 3 weeks. Well somebody had suggested last year that perhaps a series on this subject might be a good idea. It’s nice to have someone else suggest this because if I say anything that might upset someone I can simply blame it on that person who first suggested it.
I certainly do not expect that everyone will agree with me on my particular view of death which holds that the dead enter into an unconscious state of non-existence until Jesus Christ returns to resurrect them. You are welcome to disagree with me. In fact I know two families, who had prematurely lost a son, who became quite angry with me for challenging (quite unaware) the comfort they had found in the belief that their son continued, immediately following death, in a conscious and present state with Jesus Christ in heaven. To suggest that their son was actually dead in the grave was offensive – I can understand this; I’m not unsympathetic to human grief due to doctrinal correctness overpowering love and compassion. However, I do ask that you might give me some grace to present this view that, in the words of Dr. Brian Smith, the former principle Emeritus of the NZ Baptist College said, is the view that makes the most sense of all the Biblical data.
Is this Subject really that Important that it has to be talked about?
Is this subject really an important one to talk about as people can become quite offended and polarized over it – do people die and go straight to heaven or are they in state of non-existence (apart from being retained in the memory of God) awaiting a resurrection back to life?
I believe the subject is important otherwise I would not have agreed to speak on it and I will try to explain why. On a number of occasions Christians who have not held my view on death have justified our differences by saying; whether asleep until Jesus Christ returns, or immediately conscious and present with Christ after death, one’s first thought following death will be of being in Christ’s presence with no awareness of the passage of time; so what does it matter? This is a valid point only between the saved; “we’ll all be with Christ sooner or later!”
However, and this is somewhat remiss of evangelical Christians who reason this way. The implications of either view have an enormous impact on somebody who has not and will not receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour! Are the unsaved asleep in the grave with no awareness of the passage of time prior to the resurrection or are they in a traditional place of hell in fiery relentless torments where every minute matters on the pain scale while Christians say, between you and I, as the saved, this issue doesn’t really matter.
Weighing up all the Evidence
The question of what happens when we die is fundamentally a question of how God has made us as creatures. It is not good enough to draw on a select handful of NT passages that appears to match up with what may be more an inherited tradition than a well researched anthropology from the pages of the whole Bible and argue that these few verses settle it. “You know; 1, 2, 3 that settles it for me.”
To be content to allow such a serious topic to rest on simply finding select verses, that say what we might have already been conditioned to believe, might be like opening the Edmonds Cook Book determined to prove that it is about teaspoons by finding a select number of references to prove it – we need to test our beliefs on this subject more thoroughly than this!
Starting with the OT
Interestingly, although the NT spans only the period of the first century AD, the OT, which spans from creation to the beginning of the 4th century BC; with a prophetic outlook to the New Heavens and Earth, is seldom consulted by those who argue that death results in an immediate conscious afterlife. In arguing for my view, the OT is fundamental for laying down a foundational understanding for how God created human beings, and in so doing, determining whether we do actually have some sort of intrinsic capacity for conscious immortality beyond natural death, before examining the 1st century AD NT documents.
The Creation of the First Human Being
We read in Genesis 1:24-31 that on the sixth day God created mankind in His own image. That “image” is defined in 1:26 as being created as vice-regents to fulfil the special task of taking dominion over the earth. There is no indication that such a rule would ever be subject to death until God introduced the command to not eat from the tree of life in Gen 2:17; or they would surely die!
Are we to assume that to “surely die” would be understood by Adam and Eve to mean that their bodies of dust would return to the ground yet their “souls” or “spirits” would leave their bodies unscathed to go to an even better place, heaven, to be with God? Some punishment that would be! Is this what the word “death” might most logically mean in 2:17? If anyone is prepared to look at the 174 OT references to the word “dead”; 227 references to “death”; 266 references to “die”, as totalled up in my Strong’s concordance, and you find one single reference to suggest that death means that a person leaves their body as a spirit or soul be sure to let me know.
If we do believe that being created in God’s “image” means that we humans have some sort of immortal “soul” or “spirit” that leaves the body at death why then would God want Adam and Eve in heaven with Him eternally in Sin? Are the wages of sin heaven?
If this is not the case then maybe God has sent Adam and Eve and every sinner, prior to Christ (which they all would have been), immediately into a traditional place of hell to be tortured. I guess that they might still be there now?
Or maybe when God said they would surely die (as in 2:17) he meant that the whole person ceased to exist as a result of sin. In other words Sin is that serious before a Holy God, who alone has immortality (1 Tim 6:16), that he would un-create the human being who he had originally created to be his vice-regents over the earth.
The Bible does tell us in Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 “The dead no nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten. Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished; never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun.”
Sure, you may say, but isn’t there something in us; a “soul” or “spirit”, that survives death and therefore perhaps Ecclesiastes is only talking about a mortal body?
God Breathed into the Body of Dust the Breath of Life
In Genesis 2:7 many Christians have traditionally assumed that man is comprised of 3 or 2 parts; a body, spirit and soul and one of these must be immortal after all the Presbyterian/Reformed tradition states unequivocally in the Westminster Confession CF XXXIV, 1 (34.1) that souls have an immortal subsistence apart from the body. This is simply not so!
God formed the first man Adam from the dust and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. This term “breath of life” is a translation from the Hebrew word ruach which is variously translated as breath, wind or spirit. The word is used some 389 times throughout the OT; 224 times in the AV as “spirit” and elsewhere as wind or breath as in Gen 2:7.
It is generally used to speak of the animating principle of all creaturely life. We read in Job 34:14-15 “If it were his [God’s] intention and he withdrew his spirit and breath, all mankind would perish together and man would return to the dust.”
Similarly in Ecclesiastes 3:19-21 “Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath [spirit]; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?”
Perhaps both Solomon and Job do not reflect the consensus of all the 389 OT references to spirit ruach; well they do! Nowhere in any of these references to “spirit” is it a word that is used to suggest some form of spiritual subsistence to the body that lives on as a conscious entity beyond death!
Man became a Living Soul
We read in Genesis 2:7 that when God breathed, into the nostrils of the dust that he had formed into a man, the “breath of life” (spirit Ruach) man became a “living being” (NIV). In the AV it says man became a “living soul”. “Ah ha the “soul” is immortal then and it is that which lives on consciously beyond death!” No read it again! The combination of dust and spirit results in life. Therefore when the spirit is removed from the dust the human ceases to be a “living soul”. The term “soul”, or “being” in my NIV, is translated from the Hebrew word Nephesh. This word is used 755 times throughout the OT.
Although traditionally thought to be that which distinguished human beings from the animals, and the immortal bit that survives death, it is in fact the exact same word used of animals as living creatures. Where in Gen 1:21 we read of the “great creatures of the sea” the word “creature” is Nephesh as used exactly of humans. The word shows up again and again to describe animal creatures; e.g. Gen 2:19; 9:10, 12, 15, 16.
Human beings are not distinguished from animals as having “souls”. All living creatures are defined as “souls”! The Hebrew OT concept of “soul” is quite different from what we have come to define as a soul in western thought.
It could be said, therefore, that the term “soul” means a living breathing creature combining both dust and spirit. However, this is too simplistic! The word Nephesh is used contextually in some 14 different ways throughout the OT. For example in Genesis 34:3 it is used of an emotional attachment of the heart. Although used in some 14 different ways never once in its 754 uses is it used of some immortal subsistent phantom that is contained in a body and released at the point of death! In fact the OT speaks plainly against such a false notion! In Ezekiel 18:4 we read “The soul that sins; it shall surely die.” In Leviticus 18:29 any “soul” (Nephesh) that defies God’s commands shall be “cut off” from the people; in other words put to death. Souls can be killed!
Well maybe neither “spirit” or “soul” is the part that leaves the body and lives on consciously in an afterlife. Surely when a person dies they go to either “heaven” or “hell” in the form of some sort of indestructible personality as tradition has informed us! What does it mean when we read many times of the ancients being “gathered to their fathers” when they die? Does this mean more than the cemetery?
The word heaven (although having more than one Hebrew word translated as such) is used 318 times in the AV. Never once is a human being spoken of as going there at death; or ever for that matter! The closest we get to such an idea is in Proverbs 30:4 where we read “Who has gone up to heaven and come down?” Paul in Ephesians 4:7-10 alludes to this quote to define the unique nature of Jesus Christ who has been resurrected from the grave and ascended to heaven to come again one day.
The AV uses the word “hell”; or Sheol , 31 times so maybe here we’re in luck in supposing that people go somewhere at the point of death in the OT. Never once in my NIV does the OT throughout use the word “hell”. Why is that; because it rightly translates Sheol as the “grave” and not as “hell”. On this point the AV is misleading because of the preconceived ideas attached to the word “hell”. Traditional notions are powerful and very difficult to overturn in people’s minds even though all the evidence might be brought to bear on the subject; don’t worry I understand this.
When God said the day you eat of it you will surely die (Gen 2:17) the reason that Adam and Eve did not return to the dust from which they were formed was not because God meant “spiritual death” in the sense that the human spirit was no longer connected to God as some have tried to argue. This is simply nonsense! Adam and Eve did not die that very day, which meant that the “breath of life” would be removed from the dust body and the person would cease to be a living soul, because, as the original act of God’s grace He sacrificed innocent animals to death in Adam and Eve’s place.
Why did God do this – he did this in order to cover their nakedness and in so doing he extended the existence of the human race to continue to procreate and fill the earth in order that God could work out His masterly redemptive plan for both humanity and the whole of creation. The fact that Jesus Christ himself followed this original pattern of becoming an innocent sacrifice for humanity is significant in light of the approach of Easter and in plumbing the real significance of the empty tomb.
About Armand Newrick
Armand Newrick has had a keen interest in theology since his teenage conversion and came to the conditionalist position about eight years into his walk with the Lord. He is married to Suzanne and they have two children Daniel and Emma.