What Happens when we die? Part 1 Surveying the Old Testament
(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.
What Happens when we die: Between the Testaments (Part 2)
(This was preached at Hamilton Church of Christ in New Zealand on the 10th April 2011 )
(Luke 16:19 – 31 & Rev 6:9 – 11)
Last Sunday we talked about what God might have meant when he said to Adam and Eve “you will surely die” in Genesis 2:17. We considered all that we could on this subject by doing searches on the relevant words such as, death, die, spirit, soul, heaven and hell to conclude that nowhere in the OT do we find support for the notion that a human being’s personality leaves their body to continue on consciously, somewhere, after death. This point is more widely accepted by biblical scholars today than what we might realize. McNamara writes – “The general consensus [that of contemporary biblical scholars] is that the OT rejected any natural or innate immortality.”
Martin McNamara, Miltown Institute of Theology and Philosophy, Dublin, Ireland (1997).
However, there are two places, that I am aware of, that have been used from the OT to challenge this assertion which I should just quickly make comment on before moving into considering what the Jews believed in the 400 year period that separates the Old and New Testaments.
In the first of these two places, Isaiah 14:9, we are told that sheol, or the grave, is all a-stir by the rousing of the spirits of the departed to greet the king of Babylon who will be brought down there. The chapter is not to be taken literally but is not untypical of Isaiah and the prophets in personifying lifeless items or places. Trees clap their hands and deserts feel the emotion of gladness etc. Just as the King of Babylon is said to have been dwelling in the heights of heaven during his reign (v. 12) he is now said to be laid down on a bed of maggots in sheol (v.11). This is non-literal, poetic, prophetic language.
The second place in the OT which might challenge the view that the dead are dead is found in 1 Samuel 28 where we read of King Saul consulting a medium to bring up the spirit of the deceased Samuel. We must remember that in Deuteronomy 18:11 Israel was warned to never attempt to use a medium to try and contact the dead. Why would that be?
In the chapter Saul has a conversation with this “spirit” which we are told throughout the chapter is Samuel back from the dead. It is noteworthy that the medium never calls him Samuel only Saul does. In verse 19 “Samuel” tells Saul that the next day he will die at the hands of the Philistines in battle and join him in sheol. Clearly God had already abandoned Saul and would not reveal his will to him in any way no matter how hard Saul sought it. Therefore, in attempting to solicit the dead do we think that this really was Samuel rather than an impersonating spirit? According to the account in Chronicles when Saul was wounded the next day he in fact committed suicide by falling on his own sword.
Apart from these two questionable references the dead are dead in the OT until the resurrection of the dead.
Was the Hebrew OT View on the State of the Dead so consistently believed in the New Testament?
So what happened in the 400 year period between the Testaments? Was the Hebrew Old Testament view of death held consistently by the Jews over that period until we arrive at the NT era? In short; no it wasn’t! We see, for example, in Acts 23 Paul was able to divide the Sanhedrin, who were the governing body of the Jews, by declaring that he was a Pharisee (Acts 23:3) and therefore believed in the resurrection of the dead. We are told in verse 8 that the Sadducees not only didn’t believe in a resurrection of the dead but neither did they believe in angels or spirits.
Who were the Sadducees and why didn’t they believe in these things? It is believed by some that the Sadducees were a pure priestly line amongst the Jews who were ultra-conservative. In other words they believed that many foreign ideas had crept into certain sectors of Jewish thought, particularly between the testaments. Indeed F.F.Bruce tells us that the term “Pharisee” was coined by the Sadducees as a designation of their opponents as Persianizers; adopting Persian eschatological ideas sometime in the post-exilic era. Surprisingly the resurrection of the dead was thought to be one of those later foreign ideas.
Hence we can understand the trick that the Sadducees tried to play on Jesus in Matthew 22:23-33 by asking him which husband a woman would have, who had been married and widowed several times throughout her life, if all her former husband’s should be resurrected from the dead at the same time.
Many Jews were content to hold the Belief in the Immortality of the Soul together with the Resurrection
Yes when we get to the NT documents the Jews were not united in their views on what happens when we die. Even the Pharisees, who did believe in a physical resurrection of the dead, were content to combine such a belief with notions foreign to the OT of going to heaven and hell as a disembodied immortal soul at the point of death. Jesus spoke numerous times to the Pharisees view on these issues.
Perhaps the best example of this can be found in Matthew 10:28. Many Christians who have argued for a conscious intermediate state, founded on the belief that a human being has two parts, a mortal body and an immortal soul, have immediately assumed that Jesus believed this to be true because he makes such a statement in this verse. Let’s not quickly forget, at this point, that nowhere throughout the OT was the nephesh “soul” spoken of as some immortal part of being human.
We must also bear in mind that Jesus is addressing a first century audience who had been conditioned by the traditional teaching of the Pharisees and influenced by popular foreign views which were now happily held by many.
When the verse is read carefully, in light of popular beliefs, Jesus is in effect saying to his audience that the popular notion they have of an indestructible soul apart from the body is false because God can destroy everything in the end time fire of hell.
The word Gehenna is a term developed from the geographical valley of Ben Hinnom where King Ahab sacrificed his sons there in following the detestable practises of the nations (see also 2 Chron 33:6). If Jesus notion of Gehenna (hell) is built upon the imagery that he adopts and uses elsewhere in the Gospel accounts from Psalm 112:10 where the gnashing of teeth ceases in extinction and Isaiah 66:24 where the corpses of the annihilated are consumed by the undying worm and unquenchable fire then this imagery is reserved for the end of the age and not for an intermediate state. Furthermore, the OT sources suggest that this takes place in this world and not in some unseen world that runs concurrent with this physical one.
It has been believed, due to the influence of a number of old commentaries, that this geographical site was a rubbish dump in NT times and always kept alight for the consumption of the rubbish produced within the city of Jerusalem. The evidence for this claim is lacking. However, there is some evidence in later Jewish folklore that Gehenna became synonymous with Sheol as a type of purgatory where disembodied souls were purged until they were released due to their supposed immortal nature (cf. 3 Enoch 44:1-6; c. 2nd -3rd century AD). Could some of these unusual ideas have been entertained earlier in the minds of Jesus original audience? If so then Jesus is declaring this a false belief as everything can be destroyed.
Was Jesus intent for his audience to think in terms of their folklore or to refer back to the OT sources; perhaps in a similar way to which Jesus used the Pharisees tradition in the telling of the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus? We note that only once is Gehenna referred to in the NT not coming off Jesus lips (Jam 3:6). Some have suggested that James is a modified older Jewish piece of literature and this might reflect the folklore of Gehenna as a present burning fire in Hades able to set alight the tongue. Gehenna is nowhere mentioned in regards to the spread of Christianity throughout the Acts period or in Paul’s letters; although Paul does speak of a fire in the end that will consume God’s enemies.
The commentator R.T. France says in regards to Matt 10:28 “The intention is not to separate man into two parts but to point out that God can destroy the whole person.” Jesus is countering popular foreign belief about what happens when we die by saying; there is not an immortal part to our makeup.
So when and how did the Jews adopt this Notion of an Immortal Soul?
So when and how did the Jews adopt this notion of an immortal soul? Many have reasoned that the Greek philosopher Plato, born in the 5th century BC, influenced Jewish thought in this direction when the Jews came into contact with these ideas some time from the late 4th century BC forward following Alexander the Great’s successful conquest of the lands belonging to the Medo- Persian Empire. I am inclined to see this as a little simplistic. Although it is not uncommon for scholars to argue that the intertestamental writings of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha demonstrate that the Jews began to adopt foreign ideas, including the belief in the immortality of the soul, this is not entirely accurate either. As Edward Fudge states there was no consistent view of what happens when we die between the testaments. In fact the predominant view in all of this literature favours what we have already established in the OT.
Edward Fudge writes – “The people of intertestamental Judaism were living, breathing, thinking folk who sometimes differed vigorously from each other on theological matters. This perfectly reasonable fact has not always come across in popular writings about this period.” (Fire that Consumes, p. 133).
It is not right to generalize on what the Jews believed during this period. For example, someone might pick up a quote like the following and quickly assume that all the Jews had changed their view on afterlife between the Testaments.
Apocrypha = Judith 16:17 (150 – 125 BC) “Woe to the nations that rise up against my race: The Lord Almighty will take vengeance on them in the day of judgment, to put fire and worms in their flesh; And they shall weep and feel pain forever.”
Even here this notion of eternal torment follows the resurrection judgment. It may just be that although the foreign notion of the immortality of the soul is not always clearly detected in this literature between the Testaments, it may nevertheless have been adopted as popular folk belief for many; as in Matt 10:28.
It is into this rather diverse world of the 1st century Jew that we now turn in considering the NT data on what happens when we die.
The Parable of the Rich man and Lazarus
Perhaps one of the most magnetic passages in the NT that has influenced many Christians to believe in going immediately to heaven or hell at the point of death is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus found in Luke 16:19-31.
As any good scholar should recognize this story, or parable, did not originate with Jesus. Nothing compares to it in the OT and it is believed that it may have originated in Egypt. LeRoy Froom, the SDA scholar, claims that there are 7 very similar stories like this parable that can be found in the extant literature. I know of two of these.
In the writings of the 1st century AD historian Josephus, Josephus argues for a subterranean Hades beneath the earth to detain “souls”at the point of death. This tells us that the Greeks themselves had such a similar story as Josephus recites it to them. This Hades is supposedly divided into two halves. On one side is the lake of unquenchable everlasting fire whereas the angel guides the righteous to his right hand to a region of light which is termed “the Bosom of Abraham” where they await to be released in the future to go straight to heaven. From here Josephus also argues for a resurrection of the bodily remains against the Greeks view that the body is to be discarded on account of all matter being inherently evil.
Also, in a late first century work known as 4 Ezra 7:26-44, at the end of the age everyone is resurrected from the dead at which time the pit of torment shall appear and opposite it the place of rest for the godly. These two places are further described as the “furnace of hell” standing directly opposite the “Paradise of delight”. The godly and godless shall be separated into these two places which will last for a period of seven years where the godless will perish like a mist. This is not an adaptation of Jesus teaching in Luke 16 as this is a Jewish work and demonstrates some common earlier source which Jesus himself modifies in the Luke account.
Notice very carefully that Jesus is not talking about heaven and hell! He is talking about Hades divided into these two places. This in itself should deter us from using this parable as a reliable description of afterlife.
The purpose of the parable was not to teach on what happens when we die, but rather to add to a string of parables that were intended to address the prideful self assurance of the Pharisees that they were approved by God as evident in their wealth- hence the poor man who longed to eat the crumbs from the rich man’s table who was dressed in purple (the Pharisee). This parable is not recognized by reputable scholars as a source for making doctrinal assertions about what happens when we die; as no parable should be. Parables are stories with fictitious characters and exaggerated details used to often address a moral issue in a subversive way, i.e. the pride of the Pharisees in their money as the sign of God’s approval in this life and for the next.
Souls under the Alter
In a similar way many suppose that a passage found in Revelation 6:9-11 teaches us that disembodied souls go straight to heaven at the point of death. Apocalyptic literature, like parables, is not the place to be establishing doctrine as this literature type is notoriously symbolic. The reference to the “alter” suggests to us the sacrifice called for by Christians to be faithful and true to God. Notice that this picture is restricted only to martyrs – those who die for the faith.
If the term “soul” is understood as the whole person, as in the OT understanding, then it appears a very symbolic picture of the life of the martyred awaiting vindication for their unjust deaths.
Because they cry out “how long, Sovereign Lord faithful and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood” it is assumed that these are disembodied souls in heaven talking and feeling; very much alive. This is not necessarily so.
In a similar way, we read in Genesis 4:10 of the blood of Abel crying out to God from the ground for vindication from such an unjust end at the hands of Cain. Notice also that this “alter”, under which these souls’ lay, is not described in John’s vision of heaven in chapters 4-5. Is the alter simply a symbol for the ground upon which their blood was spilt? Also, how big would this “alter” need to be, if taken literally, to put all these souls underneath it? This is highly symbolic!
The white robe is also obviously symbolic for the righteousness that these martyrs have attained through the faithful sacrifice of their lives. John is calling his audience to be similarly faithful to death if needed; to make up the full number required to bring in the end of the age. I wouldn’t think that phantom souls could dress in literal white apparel, do you? Such a vision appears to be drawn form a common source as the contemporaneous works of 2 Baruch 23:4-7 and 4 Ezra 2:34-41 also tell of a number that needs to be made up and white clothes etc.
We also notice that this scene is viewed by John after the 5th seal has been opened and in anticipation of the opening of the sixth seal. In Rev 20:4 their cry for “vengeance” is answered in their coming to life at the end of the age. Why would they need to come to life if they are already literally alive, wearing white clothes and talking in heaven? The coming to life to reign with Christ in Rev 20:4 seems somewhat superfluous.
Personally I do not recognize the genres of parable nor apocalyptic as sound bases upon which to argue for a conscious intermediate state.
Next Sunday we will consider the hand full of NT passages that one reputable scholar (Richard Bauckham) has suggested as the only NT sources available by which one might infer from them a belief in a conscious intermediate state prior to the resurrection.
What Happens When We Die? Part Three Tricky NT Passages
(This was preached at Hamilton Church of Christ in New Zealand 17th April 2011 )
( Luke 23:38-43 & 2 Corinthians 5:1-8)
Last Sunday we considered how the Jewish writings, between the testaments, reflected some foreign ideas that were beginning to creep into what some Jews believed about what happens when we die. An appreciation for these developments helped us to form awareness that the parable that Jesus told about the Rich Man and Lazarus was in fact a part of the folklore of the Pharisees that is nowhere found in the OT. Similarly the clothing of martyrs in white robes, making up a full number of the slain, was not an original idea in the book of Revelation; it shows up in other Jewish apocalypses (see 1 Enoch 47:1-4; 2 Baruch 23:4-5; 4 Ezra 2:33-41; 4:33-37).
In concluding that the genres of Parable and Apocalyptic are unreliable sources, upon which to solidly build doctrinal beliefs, I made a reference to a top UK scholar by the name of Richard Bauckham who said this – “The NT hope for the Christian dead is concentrated on their participation in the resurrection (1 Thess 4:13-18), and there is therefore little evidence of belief about the ‘intermediate state’. Passages which indicate, or may indicate, that the Christian dead are with Christ are Lk. 23:43; Rom. 8:38f; 2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:23; cf. Heb.12:23. The difficult passage 2 Cor. 5:2-8 may mean that Paul conceives existence between death and resurrection as a bodiless existence in Christ’s presence.” Richard Bauckham. Eschatology.’ New Bible Dictionary, 2nd ed., ed. J.D.Douglas, et al. (Leicester: IVP, 1982), 346.
Having spent a couple of decades studying and understanding the development of Jewish thought on this subject Bauckham omits the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) and Souls under the Alter (Rev 6:9-11) from his list for the obvious reasons which we covered last week. Bauckham puts before us only 4 passages which might suggest a conscious intermediate state. I am aware that there are other odd verses that have been cited as support for a conscious intermediate state also and I am happy to consider those if anyone wants to talk about them. However, Bauckham does not acknowledge these “extras” as serious support for the traditional belief in a conscious disembodied intermediate state.
A 2004 Debate on Hell at the Baptist College
In 2004, when studying at the Baptist College, I remember the class having an organized debate as to the subject of hell. Half the class, with surnames A – M, had to argue for “hell” as a place of annihilation and the other half of the class, surnames N – Z were to argue for “hell” being a place of eternal unceasing conscious torment for the unsaved. Seeing I was border line with a surname beginning with N I decided to jump the chasm that divided the class to argue for “hell” as a place of annihilation. As part of my ammunition for the battle I took along my IVP Bible Dictionary from which I quoted this very reference from Bauckham to demonstrate how little support the NT offered for arguing for a conscious intermediate state that would be required to support the traditional view of eternal conscious torment. At the conclusion of reading the quote to the class our venerable lecturer, Dr. Martin Sutherland, said “even then I don’t believe you can make a convincing argument for a conscious ‘intermediate state’ from 2 Cor 5:2-8 [the difficult passage]. Christian hope is always portrayed as an embodied hope.”
So let’s have a look at these four passages that Bauckham has referred to as possible support for a conscious intermediate state.
(1.) Luke 23:43 The Thief on the Cross
In the first session in this series I made mention of two families that I knew back in Auckland who had both lost sons prematurely. One of these, a Dutch family; and I am told that the Dutch see things in a very “black and white” way, forcefully quoted this verse to me in defence of the hope and comfort that they had found in it. That is; that their deceased son was immediately present and conscious with Jesus as a disembodied “soul” or “spirit” in “paradise” at the point of death. In their understanding, as in many peoples, it is believed that Jesus was telling the thief on the cross next to him that he would be with Jesus in paradise that very day that they died.
What did the Thief request that Day?
Seldom is the context of this verse considered, in particular the thief’s request, when determining what Jesus meant in his answer to the request. In verse 42 the thief asks Jesus to remember him when he returns to establish the Kingdom of God. Some manuscripts say – “remember me when you come with your kingly power.” Obviously the thief hoped to be granted, by Jesus, a better resurrection into a future Kingdom once the present age is wound up; in other words, at the Second Coming. Jesus did not ignore, or replace, the thief’s request with a hope for an immediate intermediate state at the point in which he was to breathe his last. How do we know this?
We know this because on that very day when Jesus died his body was taken by Joseph of Arimathea and laid in state for 3 days. If, as some reason, Jesus went to “paradise” then death is nothing more than an illusion which we should all welcome as a release from the pains and ailments of this physical life. No, death is an enemy; it is the wage of Sin. Anyway, where is “paradise”?
Where is Paradise Anyway?
The word is only ever used 3 times in the NT. Although it is not used in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus some of the extra-biblical Jewish literature understood “paradise” as part of Hades in the subterranean underworld. Is that where Jesus went? The later Apostles Creed believes so – whereas one version of the creed states “he descended to the dead, on the third day he rose again” another says “he descended into hell” prior to His resurrection. Such a belief is supposed from a misunderstanding of 1 Peter 3:18-19 where it is thought that Jesus preached to the “spirits in prison”, in Hades, within that 3 day period. Verse 19, in fact, tells us that Jesus preached to these “spirits in prison’ after he was “made alive by the Spirit”, i.e. resurrected from the dead.
In 2 Cor 12:4 we get a different impression of where “paradise” might be. Paul speaks of “paradise” as the “third heaven”. Many Jews in the 1st century had come to believe that heaven had 7 levels, as reflected in the work The Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah (7:24- 27), where disembodied souls were parted to the right and to the left of a throne, another spirit world above, where this physical world is “never spoken of”. Paul was himself unsure about such an experience because he is uncertain as to whether this was in the body or out of it.
And just to confuse things further; in Rev 2:7 “paradise” is synonymous with the New Jerusalem which was the anticipated hope at the end of the age (Cf. Rev 22:1-6.
So what did Jesus mean when speaking of “paradise”? He meant his coming again in kingly power in line with what the thief requested and understood of the future coming Kingdom. Therefore, the emphasis in this verse lies with the promise being given that day, and not the Kingdom being redefined as a spirit world. Let’s now read the verse by re-inserting the comma to create a emphasis in Jesus response; the original Greek does not supply a comma, this is the translators call. “Truly thee I tell to-day, with me thou wilt be in the paradise” (Marshalls Interlinear Greek-English). Even though the reputable scholar Leon Morris disagrees and argues for an immediate “paradise” he does, however, acknowledge that a future kingdom hope is another possible interpretation of Jesus words.
(2.) Romans 8:37-39 Not even Death can Separate us from the Love of God.
To say that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the “love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” does not define for us how God has made us as human beings. Therefore, what we understand on that foundational issue, in approaching this passage, will undoubtedly affect how we will interpret it. Defining what it is to be a human being is something that we wrestled with in the first session.
The whole of our earlier arguments were that the OT consistently portrayed being human as a psychosomatic whole. In other words everything lives and everything dies – nothing of us consciously survives. It is for this reason that the state of death can be spoken of in the NT by the use of the metaphor “sleep” (cf. John 11:11-15; 1 Cor 15:51-52). However, we believe that God holds every human being in His memory in view of the resurrection of the dead when Jesus Christ comes again. In that sense death does not separate us from God’s love that will raise the dead because we are not forgotten. To suppose that Paul is saying that the dead are conscious in an intermediate state is an inference from the passage that is based upon the preconceived notion of “soul immortality”. There is nothing explicit in this passage to say that the dead are conscious prior to the resurrection. Therefore, on the strength of the OT view of being human, I would reason that the memory of one’s life is not lost from the love of God by death in view of the resurrection of the dead – God will not forget us in the grave!
(3.) Philippians 1:23 cf. Hebrews 12:23 Paul desires to Depart and be with Christ
On this passage I’m going to offer an interpretation that you have never heard before; it’s new. In verse 20 Paul wants Jesus Christ to be exalted in his body whether by “death or by life”. In fact Paul is writing from prison in anticipation of what might be the death sentence (1:7). In other words a martyr’s death for Paul will exalt Jesus Christ as this will in some way identify Paul more fully with Christ who was crucified. In this sense there is a strange type of posthumous “gain” for Paul to die this way (1:21). Yet to be spared from such a death, in the meantime, will allow for some more fruitful labour to be achieved in the churches (1:22). Paul is torn between the two in verse 23 where on the one hand he sees a martyr’s death as a departure to be with Christ.
A Premature Departing Death just like Christ
What Paul might be suggesting here is not a conscious presence with Christ at the point of death but rather identification with Christ in the way he might die, as a martyr, in the hope of a more glorious resurrection. In the Greek we read – ejpiqumivan e[cwn eijV to; ajnalu:sai kai; ou;n Cristw:/ einai – “the desire having for the to depart and with Christ to be”. This might be like saying “I want to depart and be like (with) Martin Luther King” who was assassinated in 1968 as a hero in many people’s eyes. In other words, I want to follow in his footsteps. Indeed to identify with him will be a gain to Paul in a way which natural death, as an old man, does not afford. Such a special privilege of dying as a faithful martyr is characteristic of the message of the book of Revelation and seen as becoming like “Christ who was slain” (Cf. Rev 13:8).
Can we back this Interpretation up?
How can I possibly come to such a conclusion you may ask? Well in Phil 3:10-11 Paul clearly tells us that he wants to know the fellowship of sharing in Christ’s sufferings so as to become like Christ in His death – martyrdom; this is a “gain” by way of identity. This is not to attain an immediate conscious presence with Christ; rather, it will lead on to somehow attain to the resurrection from the dead. So, Paul’s “gain” in a premature “departure” to be with Christ may be in the sense of identifying with Christ in death so as to attain a better resurrection. Philippians 1:23 should not be sought to be interpreted independently from weighing up the meaning alongside Phil 3:10-11 with an appreciation of Paul’s anticipated death sentence.
In regards to Bauckham offering Hebrews 12:23, as a comparison with Philippians 1:23, the Hebrews quote is clearly in the context of the End time “heavenly Jerusalem” when the things of this world will be “shaken”. Perhaps Bauckham is suggesting that the “departure to be with Christ” might be understood as Paul giving no thought for an intermediate state but rather having his thoughts completely focused on the resurrection hope; many Conditionalists would explain Phil 1:23 in this way.
(4.) 2 Corinthians 5:1-8 Paul wants to be Clothed with the Eternal House from Heaven
In verse 1 Paul talks of an “eternal house in heaven”. This is not an individualistic hope; he says we have this eternal house; not I have an eternal house. This sounds like the New Jerusalem that comes down out of heaven at the end of the book of Revelation. When Paul says he groans with longing for this “eternal house” he is in effect saying he desperately wants to see the end of the age arrive along with God’s new house/Kingdom (v.2). Paul speaks of that day of cosmic transformation by the use of the metaphor “clothed” in verse 3. Notice very carefully that if he does not experience that clothing of the “eternal house” coming down from heaven within his life-time he will be found “naked”!
What does being “Found Naked” & “Unclothed” Mean?
What might being “found naked” mean as a metaphor? It means the state of death. In other words he doesn’t want to face an interim in the grave waiting for the “eternal house from heaven”; which is the collective hope of all the saints! Paul groans in this life/body because he doesn’t want to be “unclothed”, in verse 4, before the city from on high arrives. When that city arrives then the mortal will be swallowed up in life; as in 1 Cor 15:54, at the resurrection of the dead. When Paul says in verse 6 – “as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord” he means Jesus Christ hasn’t returned yet. In verse 6 he is not considering the intermediate state. So in verse 8 he is saying I would prefer Jesus Christ to return with the corporate hope of the “eternal house in heaven” i.e. “at home with the Lord”. Rather than striving on in this life and age. He would much rather that this hope comes quickly than be “found naked” (v. 3) or “unclothed” (v.4), which means in the grave.
In all honesty, the passage which Bauckham says is the “difficult one” I find the easiest one to explain because an intermediate state is clearly distinguished form the resurrection hope of the “eternal house in heaven”.
So far in our series, in dealing with these few seemingly problematic passages in the NT, it might be thought, by some, that I am resorting to special pleading to get around them. I sincerely don’t believe this to be the case. This hand-full of passages would make up no more than 1 % of the data used to favour the traditional popular view which is mistakenly thought to be more robust than what it actually is!
If I were to list every passage in the NT that speaks of the return of Jesus Christ, the Second Coming and the resurrection of the dead it would soon become apparent that this is where the genuine emphasis on Christian hope lies.
It is to this hope of resurrection that we will turn next Sunday as we consider afresh the significance of the empty tomb as the only genuine key available for answering the question that every human being will grapple with in their lifetime – “what happens when we die?”
What Happens when we die: The Significance of the Empty Tomb (Part 4)
(This was preached at Hamilton Church of Christ in New Zealand 24th April 2011 )
(Daniel 12:1-4 & 1 Corinthians 15:12-26, 50-58 )
In all that we have covered over the last 3 weeks on the subject “what happens when we die” listen again to these words spoken by the angel on that first resurrection morning (Matthew 28:5-7) “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He is risen from the dead…!’”
That message should have dropped into its original Jewish setting with the power of an atomic bomb! In Isaiah 26:19, penned some 700 years before the angel made this announcement, we read of an anticipated resurrection hope for the nation of Israel – “But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust wake up and shout for joy. Your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead.”
This is incredible! After all that we had established in our first session in that the Jews understood that nothing consciously survives the issue of death, God reveals through the prophet Isaiah that one day the Jews could anticipate an astonishing re-creation from the grave.
Also, King David in Psalm 16:9-10, written 1000 years before the angel made this announcement, penned this phenomenal prediction that the anticipated future Messiah’s would not decay in the grave – “Therefore, my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body will also rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave, not will you let your holy one see decay.”
And again in Daniel 12:1-2, centuries before the angel made this announcment, a general resurrection of all people from their graves is anticipated in the future – “But at that time your people – everyone whose name is found written in the book – will be delivered. Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.”
See also Dan 12:13; Psalm 17:15; Ezekiel 37:12-14; Job 19:25-27.
The Diffusion of the Hope of Resurrection in the Face of Death
This is amazing! Even though the Hebrew understanding of what it is to be human, throughout the OT, did not in any way suggest that anything of the person consciously survives death there was, woven between these pages, an anticipated hope of being resurrected out of the grave at the end of time.
Therefore, when the angel announced on that first Sunday “He has risen from the dead” why didn’t the message drop with the power of an atomic bomb into the hearts and minds of the original Jewish audience whose Scriptures anticipated this event? The reason why they were blinded to the significance of this historic event was because the pay load of dynamite, which this announcement was charged with, had already been diffused by the subtle introduction of foreign ideas about what it is to be a human being and what happens when we die. Some Jews were already entertaining ideas about a disembodied afterlife that were no longer dependent upon the OT notion of a future resurrection from the dead.
Christ is risen from the dead-so what?
Therefore, “Christ has risen from the dead – so what!” “So what” when death had been re-interpreted to assume that the “real identity” of a person never really died anyway? Why would we require a resurrection from the grave if death has been reinterpreted as nothing more than a release of the “real person” from the body? Even in Athens, the heart of the Greek culture of that time – “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject’” (Acts 17:32). The pay-load of the announcement had also been diffused for many throughout the Greek speaking world into which the Apostle Paul took this message.
Tracing the Origins of the Lie
When God originally said to Adam in Gen 2:17 “the day you eat of it you will surely die” the serpent responded to Eve’s defence against the temptation with these famous words – “You will not surely die” (Gen 3:4). How accurate are the words of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ – “He was a murdered and a liar from the beginning.”
Even though God substituted the animals to cloth Adam and Eve nakedness of sin, so that they were spared the death penalty that day, their mortality was sealed and they eventually returned to the dust from which they were formed as God had said.
Perhaps Adam and Eve continued to believe the serpent’s lie that they wouldn’t die; but they must have smelt a rat when the gray hairs started coming along with all those achy joints and wrinkles. Despite the 100 % strike rate of death we still pedal the original lie that was fed to the original parents of humanity – “you will not surely die”. We hear it at funerals, we see it on TV, we tell it in our Saint Peter at the pearly gates jokes and somehow we would really like to believe it.
Perpetuating the Lie will keep the World in Ignorance of the Truth
However, as long as the world continues in the belief of some sort of natural survival of the “real person” from death, and as long as we believe we’re off to new spiritual worlds unseen when we die, then the announcement of the angel that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead will continue to be of little, if any, significance to humanity. This is a humanity who desperately needs to know that death is real and therefore Christ’s resurrection from the dead is the logical antidote to the grave.
Christ Resurrection and Ours are Inseparable
So inseparable is the NT hope of participating in a resurrection from the grave, with Christ’s resurrection from the tomb, that the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:12- 14 – “But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith!”
To put it another way; if we believe that when we die we go consciously straight to heaven or hell as a spirit our preaching is useless and so too is our faith! And worse still we may even be affirming, in ignorance, the Devil’s original lie that diffused the dynamite of the angel’s announcement on that first resurrection morning!
Paul tells us in 1 Cor 15:18 that if Jesus Christ wasn’t literally resurrected out of the grave then – “those also who have fallen asleep in Christ [died] are lost!” How could they be lost if the tradition is correct that says they are safely in the arms of Jesus in a conscious interim state. Wouldn’t such a belief render the future resurrection unnecessary?
Christ is the Firstfruits of those who sleep in Death
Christ is the ‘firstfruits’ of those who have fallen asleep Paul tells us in 1 Cor 15:20. In other words he is the model upon which the end time resurrection harvest of the dead will follow. We are told in verse 23-24 that there is an order for this – “Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.”
When does the resurrection of the dead take place; at the point of an individual’s death? No; when he [Jesus Christ] comes.
It is amazing to me that although this resurrection hope is so conspicuous throughout the NT there are many Christians for whom such a notion seems completely foreign; even after having been a Christian for many years! And so it is no surprise to hear a Christian, who has had their attention brought to this NT hope, to ask “how are the dead raised?” Indeed Paul anticipates just such a question in verse 35.
How are the Dead Raised?
Paul likens the details of the future resurrection to planting a seed in the ground. This kind of analogy for such a truly miraculous event is one which his audience might better grasp. He says in verse 36 that a seed doesn’t come out of the ground, as the plant that it will be, unless it first gets put into the ground to die. So will it be with the resurrection of the dead Paul tells us in verse 42; “The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable.”
Nowhere are we told with more specificity that death is truly a state of unconsciousness in the grave in anticipation of a future resurrection from the grave. 1 Cor 15:51-55“Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will be changed in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable and will be changed. For the perishable must cloth itself with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written [in Hosea 13:14] will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’”
Yes the announcement of the angel on that first resurrection morning was packed with dynamite for those who have ears to hear – “He has risen from the dead.” However, what one believes about death and afterlife is critical for how one understands the true significance of the empty tomb and the angel’s announcement that he has risen.