I have been a follower of Jesus for years and have spent a lot of time reading God’s Word, so I was astounded to find that so few Christians know the basic beliefs of Christianity. Take for example this simple question, “Do Christians go directly to heaven and unbelievers go directly to hell the instant they die?”
The Church and Immortality of the Soul
Many Christians are taught the doctrine of immortality of the soul, but the Bible doesn’t teach that. In fact, in Genesis, it proclaims that the first humans were created mortal, with only the POTENTIALITY for immortality if one reads it in context. They were told specifically to “replenish” the earth but then after they had eaten of the tree of knowledge of good and evil they were sent in exile from Gan Eden (Garden of Eden) to PREVENT them from eating also of the tree of life and BECOMING immortal. Thus, the story, if taken literal, indicates human life, like all other life is mortal.
The same word used to describe the life-force, or soul, is used for both human and other animal life in many places. “…and to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is a living soul.” (Genesis chapter 1: 30) By using Scripture we can explore the concept of the soul, or life-force ( nephesh) ) And note that it does not indicate that the soul is naturally immortal in these passages.
Job describes death as lying down and sleeping, not being awaken.
“But a man dies and is laid low; man breathes his last, and where is he? As waters fail from a lake and a river wastes away and dries up, so a man lies down and rises not again; till the heavens are no more he will not awake or be roused out of his sleep. Oh that you would hide me in Sheol, that you would conceal me until your wrath be past, that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me! If a man dies, shall he live again? All the days of my service I would wait, till my renewal should come” (Job 14: 10-14)
Job is not arguing against the concept of the resurrection. Rather, he pleads with God to hide him in Sheol (The grave) until his wrath is past, and then remember him, causing him to live again! (v.13-14) One cannot ask for a more clear statement of the hope of resurrection. Later, Job asserts that he has a Redeemer who lives, and that he (Job) will see God in a resurrected body, long after his present body has been consumed.
Daniel describes the resurrection as waking from sleep in the dust.
“And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” (Daniel 12:2-3)
Is it not clear what Daniel is predicting in chapter 12? He speaks of those who are sleeping in the dust, awakening to everlasting life. Others who awake will not see life, but suffer shame and everlasting contempt. Jesus used the same language to describe the resurrection. He said “Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.” (John 5:28-29)
Many will argue that Job and Daniel were Old Testament views and that everything changed after Jesus died came. But in John 11 Jesus comes face to face with the reality of death when his friend Lazarus dies. It is in this context that we read the shortest verse in the New Testament – “Jesus wept.” Death is real, and it is a real tragedy. Yet Jesus describes Lazarus’ death with that same metaphor that appears throughout the text of Scripture. He said that Lazarus had fallen asleep. His disciples did not get it. They thought that he was describing the beginning of Lazarus’ recovery. They assumed that if he were literally sleeping, then the worst of his illness was over, and he would soon be getting better. So Jesus had to spell it out for them and explain that his friend was already dead.
Paul teaches that most will sleep, but some will be changed without it:
“Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:51-52 )
Paul affirms what readers have seen elsewhere in the Bible. Death is a sleep from which believers will be awaken. This awakening will take place “at the last trumpet.” (The resurrection)
When Peter delivered his sermon at Pentecost he said, “Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulcher is with us unto this day.” (Act 2:29) He later said, “For David is not ascended into the heavens: but he saith himself, The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, until I make thy foes thy footstool.” (Acts 2: 34-35)
If David, who was a man after God’s own heart, did not ascend to heaven, where is he? Peter said he is still in his sepulcher! Along with Clement of Rome (who died about100 AD), Ignatius (died about 107), the Didache (about 120), Barnabus (died about 140), The Shepherd of Hermas (about 154), Polycarp (died about 155), Justin Martyr (about165), Tatian (about 172), Iranaeus (about 202), and a host of others. They are all still dead in their graves!
So where did this notion of natural immortality come from?
Almost every ancient culture has some form of notion of either an immortal transcendent being or that the dead live on in some kind of other world or afterlife so it is almost impossible to note exactly when the very first instance of that belief appeared in the human mind. The ancient Egyptians had this notion evident in their elaborate preparations for the afterlife for their dead.
But the Early Church Fathers never questioned the Biblical teaching of the mortality of man, the sleep of the dead, and the resurrection to eternal life or to judgment. They never speak of the natural immortality of the soul, nor of eternal, unending punishment of hell. They present death as the cessation of life, and immortality of the righteous achieved only at the resurrection – therefore, immortality for man is conditional.
The Bible consistently uses a metaphor for death that is viewed as neither socially or theologically appropriate among most Christians. It calls death a sleep. But if a believer slips and refers to the dead as sleeping, judging from the reaction among traditionalists, you would think that they had shot God!
A long standing tradition within Christianity asserts that death is a move to a new higher level of consciousness where the righteous are rewarded for their good deeds on earth or punished for their rejection of God and Jesus. Consequently, anyone who dares to imply that the intermediate state of the dead is one of unconscious sleep runs the risk of being branded a heretic or cult member.
Nevertheless, it would do us all well to return to biblical terminology instead of traditions that keep us from using the Bible as our guide. The biblical authors knew what they were talking about. The Holy Spirit inspired them to write words which expressed the way things really are. It is not their fault that the popular church has chosen to see and say things differently.
I have heard so many Christians refer to the passing of their loved ones as watching over them from heaven. But thinking logically, how could one enjoy their eternity in heaven if they had to witness the murders, rapes, and other crimes being committed against their loved ones on earth? And what sense does it make for God to condemn an unbeliever to the flames of hell only to pull them out at the resurrection to judge them and then throw them back into the flames? Is that the actions of a loving God?
John Wyclif, while Professor of Theology at Oxford University, translated the Bible into English. He taught soul-sleep, and that the Rich Man and Lazarus was a parable and couldn’t be used as a basis of theology. Wycliffe also declared that the fate of the wicked was everlasting punishment, not continuing punishment.
Martin Luther also emphatically rejected belief in the immortality of the soul, and held that death is a sound, sweet sleep. Had it not been for John Calvin, it is possible that Conditional Immortality (soul sleep) would have become the predominant view in the Protestant churches. Whereas Luther rejected the Roman Catholic teaching of the immortality of the soul, John Calvin re-introduced it.
Now we can understand what Jesus was doing in John 11 when Lazarus died. He was explaining to his disciples that death is not the end, because he (the Resurrection and the Life) will not allow it to be. But make no mistake about it – if there were no Jesus, death would be the end. We can call death sleep only because there is a Jesus who intends to raise the dead. So calling death sleep is a statement of faith in Christ.
Refusing to call death sleep is also a statement of faith. It reflects a faith in death itself. It joins Plato and other pagan philosophers in affirming that God created the human soul indestructible, and therefore it must remain alive after the death of the body. So the real person never sleeps but remains conscious during the intermediate state of death, and indeed for all eternity.
In 2 Timothy 4:3-4 we read, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.”
That time HAS come. So it is even more important to, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
To teach and perpetuate fables that are not biblically sound is worldly and carnal.
More to come….