Excursus: The Tree of Life


{This article was originally published on the Afterlife website}.


The tree of life appears first in scripture in the creation account. In addition to all other kinds of trees that are nice to look at, and nourishing, God makes two other trees: the tree of knowing good and evil (which God prohibits man from eating), and the tree of life (which God does not prohibit).[1] After Adam and Eve transgressed and ate of the tree of knowledge, God was true to his threat and made them mortal,[2] and also banished them from the Garden so that they would not have the opportunity to eat of the tree of life, and thus gain immortality in their unredeemed sinful state.[3]

The record in Genesis leaves some unanswered questions. Were Adam and Eve created immortal, only losing their immortality after they sinned? No, God’s warning was that if they ate of the tree they would “surely die.” This seems to indicate that they had the potential to become either mortal or immortal, depending upon their obedience or disobedience to God’s expressed prohibition. They also had the potential to become immortal in their innocent sate of creation had they merely chosen to eat of the tree of life instead of the prohibited tree. They were immortable: capable of becoming immortal. This means that human beings had actually two opportunities for immortality: escape becoming mortal by obeying God’s prohibition, or simply taking of the tree of life itself. This was not superfluous. It was merely our gracious God in action, giving his creatures more grace than they deserve.

But why mention the tree of life at all? After all, apparently no one ate from it in the Garden, and we are now banished from going back to Eden. Part of the answer is that, from then on, the tree of life becomes a metaphor for the rewards of righteous, faithful living.[4] Wise and righteous living yields a relationship with God and our neighbour that is as rewarding as returning to Eden.

The tree of life is also a promise of a literal return to Eden. The Prophet Ezekiel speaks of future trees in restored Israel that are watered by a river of life, and are both good for food and healing.[5] And in his Revelation, John holds forth the tree of life as a future reality for those who overcome.[6] These prophetic images speak of a future immortality for all the redeemed. They remind us that God has a plan for returning humanity to the garden paradise from which he has banished us.

There also seems to be a hint in Genesis of another tree of life that God will offer freely to all his creatures. Through the serpent’s deception, the woman took of the wrong tree and brought death to all who are in Adam.[7] But this same woman will give birth to a son who will do battle against the serpent, and will be bruised in the process.[8] The Apostles refer to Christ’s crucifixion by saying that he was hanged on a tree.[9] Paul says that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us- for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’”[10] It is as if God is offering us a second chance at the tree of life if we put our faith in the Redeemer who died on a tree.

So, Moses was not wasting words by telling his readers of a tree in the garden from which no one ate, and to which no one now has access. That tree of life is both the tragedy of humanity’s past and the glory of our future. It told of a potential for immortality that God offered from the very beginning of creation. It is a sad commentary on human nature that – like our ancestors – so many humans are so busy acquiring other things, they do not find time for the most important acquisition of all – eternal life.

That first opportunity was lost. It was restored through Christ, “who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”[11] The gospel is good news because it says that now immortality is available again. We have a second chance at the tree of life.

[1] Genesis 2:9.

[2] Genesis 2:17, 5:5.

[3] Genesis 3:22-24.

[4] Proverbs 3:13-18; 11:30; 13:12; 15:4.

[5] Ezekiel 47:12.

[6] Revelation 2:7; 22:2, 14, 19.

[7] Genesis 3:6, 19; Rom. 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:22.

[8] Genesis 3:15.

[9] Acts 5:30; 10:39.

[10] Galatians 3:13

[11] 2 Timothy 1:10.

Excursus: “To Be Gathered”


{This article was originally published on the Afterlife website}.


What does it mean for someone who has died to be “gathered to his people”? In Genesis 25:8, Moses tells us that “Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people”(ESV). This is a particularly common expression in the Old Testament. It also describes the death of Isaac,[1] Ishmael,[2] Jacob,[3] Aaron,[4] and Moses.[5] It was applied to good King Josiah,[6] and to the entire generation of Israelites who grumbled against Moses during the exodus:

And Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died at the age of 110 years. And they buried him within the boundaries of his inheritance in Timnath-heres, in the hill country of Ephraim, north of the mountain of Gaash. And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel. (Judges 2:8-10 ESV).

Since this expression implies an equal status of all those who have died – regardless of whether or not they pleased the LORD during their lives – it has been seen by conditionalists as one more piece of evidence in favor of soul sleep.

Some have argued that this expression is inconsistent with the notion of an unconscious intermediate state. John Calvin argued that “Scripture, in speaking thus, shows that another state of life remains after death.”[7] He is suggesting that there is theological content in that ancient expression. He is saying that it provides humanity with more than a statement about death, but gives us a theological answer to those who want to know about the hereafter. Likewise, Swedenborg says that the expression meant that the departed “had actually come to his parents and relations in the other life.”[8]

Ancient Near Eastern tradition does contain some talk of life after death, but there is not sufficient evidence to conclude that these expressions about being gathered to one’s people are affirming that tradition. Those who see these expressions as providing assurance of life after death appear to be reading that idea into these texts.

Some opponents of an unconscious intermediate state approach these expressions more exegetically. Hamilton points out that in Gen. 25:8, the phrase “was gathered to his people” is separate from both the description of Abraham’s death and his burial. He argues on that basis that “being gathered to one’s kin precedes burial. Therefore, to be gathered to one’s kin cannot mean to be entombed in the grave.”[9] He points out that neither Abraham, Ishmael, Moses nor Aaron were buried in their respective ancestral graves. He agrees with Clinton in his conclusion that the expression “does not mean simply to die or to be buried in the family tomb, but it meant joining them in the other world.”[10]

We are in debt to these exegetes for pointing out that this expression does mean more than the fact that a person has died and was buried. But, in so doing, they reveal the mistaken assumption that those of us who disagree with their theology (of a conscious intermediate state) read nothing more into the expression than seeing it as synonymous with “he was buried.” By setting up that straw man it is very easy for them to defeat it, and then triumphantly declare their theological conclusion the winner of the fight.

The fact is, most of us who hold to an unconscious intermediate state do not do so because we deny the possibility of an intermediate state. We simply do not see the logic in jumping from statements like “he was gathered to his people” to theological statements that deny human mortality, and subvert the hope of the resurrection. There is an intermediate state, but the case has not been made that it is a conscious one. The dead are united in death, but that does not imply any awareness of their surroundings.

A more appropriate way of dealing with this expression theologically is to compare it to other expressions found in scripture which touch on the same topic. Conditionalists see the expression “gathered to his people/fathers” as ambiguous, so when we are looking for more content about the intermediate state, we compare such statements with “lie down (or rest or sleep) with (one’s) fathers.” That expression is used by Jacob to refer to his expected death.[11] The LORD uses it to refer to Moses’ expected death.[12] The LORD also uses it to describe David’s death when he tells him “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.”[13] The expression is used repeatedly (35 times) in the books of 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles. Sometimes the expression does refer to the place of burial, but not always. Its essential meaning must be “that the deceased is united in death with his fathers or relatives who died before them.”[14]

This also appears to be the origin of the word “sleep” as a metaphor for death, which appears in the New Testament as well. Before raising a little girl from death, Jesus said that she was sleeping.[15] Jesus told his disciples that “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” [16] At the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, some of the saints “who had fallen asleep” were raised.[17] Peter tells of scoffers who argue “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.”[18]

There are two major metaphors, then, which originate in the Old Testament and speak to the issue of the intermediate state. One speaks of the dead person being gathered to his or her relatives. The other speaks of that person lying down or sleeping or resting with those same relatives. When these two expressions are combined, they help establish a basis for some theological principles about what happens at death.

1) All who die go to the same place. Death is not a place of judgment. It is a state where one is reduced to the same status as one’s ancestors. This does not preclude a day of judgment later, but neither does it establish that judgment is taking place during the intermediate state.

2) Since death is described as sleep, the natural assumption is that the intermediate state is unconscious. The scriptures verify this assumption by describing the intermediate state as one of darkness,[19] and silence.[20]

3) The hope of the believer is found in neither of these realities, but looks beyond them. To be true to the scriptures, the believer does not look forward to death or the intermediate state. The believer anticipates the resurrection, just as someone who lies down and sleeps looks forward to the morning light.

[1] Gen. 35:29.

[2] Gen. 25:17.

[3] Gen. 49:29,33.

[4] Num. 20:26; 27:13; 32:50.

[5] Num. 27:13; 31:2; 32:50.

[6] 2 Kings 22:20; 2 Chron. 34:28.

[7] John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis. (Charleston, SC: LLC, 2009), 38.

[8] Emanuel Swedenborg, Swedenborg Concordance. {John Faulkner Pitts, ed.} (Kessinger Publishing, 2003), 27.

[9] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapter 18-50, vol. 2. (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1995), 168.

[10] Peters Madison Clinton, Hebrew Types of Heaven (Charleston, SC: BiblioBazzar, LLC, 2009), 9.

[11] Gen. 47:30.

[12] Deut. 31:16.

[13] 2 Sam. 7:12.

[14] G. Johannes Botterweck, Helmar Ringgren, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 10.

[15] Matt. 9:24.

[16] John 11:11.

[17] Matt. 27:52.

[18] 2 Pet. 3:4

[19] Job. 7:9; 10:20; 17:13; 18:18; Psalm 13:3; 49:19; 88:12; 143:3; Prov. 20:20; Eccl. 6:3-5; Lam. 3:6.

[20] Eccl. 9:5,6,10; Job 21:13; Psalm 6:5; 30:9; 31:17; 94:17; Isaiah 38:18-19.

Excursus: The Next You


{This article originally appeared in From Death To Life  magazine, issue 46}

fdtl46_16 Law enforcement officers in this age of expanding technology have a number of new tools. Among the most intriguing are age advancement photography programs. Using these programs, one can alter a photograph of someone, and produce a photo of what that someone would look like years later. For example, photos of children who were abducted years ago can now be altered so that the public can see what they would look like today. Many lost children have been found due to this important tool.

Christian believers are also interested in what we will look like in the future, especially the post-resurrection future. One of our favourite places to look for snapshots of our post-resurrection selves is 1 Corinthians 15.1 Here, the apostle Paul gives the Corinthian believers some insights into God’s plan for their resurrection. Paul does not do this simply to indulge their curiosity. This doctrinal section is intended to bolster the practical applications he seeks in his letter.

Some of those practical applications are as follows:

  1. Paul wanted the Corinthian believers to reflect upon their insignificance when God rescued them (1:26). The resurrection reminds us that God intends to transform us, so what matters most is not who we were, but who we will be.

  1. Paul wanted the Corinthian believers not to form rash predjudices that prevent them from enjoying the fellowship and ministry of others (4:5). The resurrection reminds us that we do not yet see the “finished product” God has in mind, so we should not be so quick to endorse some people’s ministry, or reject others.

  1. Paul wanted the Corinthians to avoid all kinds of sexual sin (6:18). The resurrection reminds us that our bodies are not disposable playthings. They are God’s creation, and the Holy Spirit’s temple (6:19). They are to be taken very seriously.

  1. Paul wanted the married believers in Corinth to regularly enjoy one another’s sexuality, not to deprive one another (7:5). The resurrection reminds us that although sexual relationships are temporary (Mat. 22:30), they are, nonethess, legitimate, and should not be avoided in an attempt to be “more spiritual.”

  1. Paul wanted the believers in Corinth who considered themselves “strong” to avoid actions which might be a stumbling block to “the weak” (8:9). The resurrection reminds us that we will soon be armed with abilities and powers beyond our present comprehension. But, with much power comes much responsibility.

  1. Paul wanted the believers in Corinth to discipline themselves like runners in a race, so that they might obtain the imperishable prize (9:24-25). That prize is the resurrection (Phil. 3:10-11).

  1. Paul wanted the believers in Corinth to avoid the mistakes the Israelites committed, e.g. grumbling (10:10), and idolatry (10:14), which caused them to go backward, rather than forward. The resurrection reminds us that our future selves are our real selves. We must look forward in faith, not backward in fear.

  1. Paul wanted the believers in Corinth to make God’s glory the basis for every decision they made (10:31). The resurrection reminds us that our bodies will be buried (sown) in dishonor, but raised in glory (15:43).

  1. Paul wanted the believers in Corinth to invest themselves in ministry with an attitude of love (12:31; 14:1, 39). The resurrection reminds us that those investments are not permanent. Like our present bodies, our current ministries will cease (13:8-10), but the love that should motivate them will not (13:13).

  1. Paul wanted the believers in Corinth to stop associating with skeptics who doubt the resurrection (11:32-34). The resurrection validates all our effort to reach the world for Christ. When we take our cues from those who doubt the resurrection, it is as if we are in a drunken stupor, stumbling around without stability and direction. The resurrection gives us direction, because it serves as the goal of our effort, the target that we are aiming at.

1 Corinthians 15 reveals that the real, permanent You is not the present you, but the next You. Paul invites you to look ahead into your future as a glorified saint. He encourages some imaginative personal eschatological thinking. His argument can be summarized as follows:


The evidence for the next you includes these verifiable facts: 1) The Resurrection of Christ (3-8); 2) The apostolic witness through preaching (12-15) {and, by extension, all those who have spent their lives preaching the gospel since the apostles}; 3) The faith of Christians throughout the ages and the changed lives that faith has produced (17-19); 4) The commitment to Christ demonstrated by those who have been baptised (29)2; 5) The commitment to Christ demonstrated by those who have suffered in ministry (30-32).

Paul’s argument is that every aspect of the Christian faith and life points toward the next you. Every breath you take in this life, every word you say, everything you do, is a precurser to that permanent expression of you-ness in the next life. Rather than implying that this life is meaningless compared to the next, Paul implies the opposite. This life is important because it sets the stage for the main event throughout eternity. The next you will validate the significance of the present you. The present you is an investment in the future you.


Paul uses the analogy of a harvest to explain the chronological order of the resurrection. The sequence of God’s resurrection/harvest is: 1) Christ, the firstfruits of the harvest (20); 2) those who belong to Christ (the dead resurrected, then the living transformed and raptured) (51-52); 3) the millennial reign (25-26) during which all of Christ’s enemies will be destroyed; 4) the end (of the harvest) which is the final resurrection of all the remaining dead (24) (see Rev. 20).

The resurrection, then, should not be just a minor blip on our theological radar screens. It belongs to those events by which God is shaping the destiny of his universe. In his providence, the next you is just as important as creation, the exodus, the incarnation, the cross, or Christ’s resurrection. Seen in that light, your existence today takes on new significance. You may think of yourself as caterpillar-like, but God has planned your butterfly-hood!


Paul’s argument is that the next you will be the same you – only different. The seed and plant analogy assures that you will be the same person (37). The resurrection is not a re-creation, starting over with all-new materials (and hopefully getting it right this time). No, the seed and plant analogy speaks of a continuation of a life with which God originally intended to bless his universe forever. Sin entered your life and corrupted it, making it necessary for you to die. But God loves you too much to let that be the last note of your song.

The resurrected you will be the same you, purged of all those things that cannot abide eternal existence, and transformed into something extraordinary. The different flesh/ splendor analogies assure that your nature will be different (39-41). The next you will be as different from the present you as humans are different from animals. The difference will be as pronounced as the difference between celestial and terrestrial bodies.

The Adam/Christ analogy explains the essence of that transformation. Your new nature will “bear the likeness” of Jesus Christ! (49). All those inherited predispositions and character flaws and physical defects which identified you with your ancestors Adam and Eve will have been replaced. The stuff that the next you will be made of is described as “from heaven” (49) and “imperishable” (50).


Paul describes your present state: “of the dust of the earth” (46), perishable (50), mortal (53). That is not what God wanted. Satan has intervened and tricked humanity into the rebellion that has resulted in the present mortal state. God cannot endure that forever. He plans to purge his universe of the disease that humanity has become, so that it can once again be pronounced “very good.”

Your future state is imperishable and immortal. The next you is more than just a revived you. The next you will be you as God intended you to be. By his death on Calvary’s cross, Christ won the battle which has made the next you possible, but you have not yet received all the spoils of the victory personally.

Paul described his resurrection chapter as essentially the gospel message that he preached (1-2). It is right for believers to emphasise the benefits we already have because of the death of Christ: forgiveness of sins, permission to approach God in prayer, guidance from the indwelling Holy Spirit, etc. But let us never forget that the gospel is not complete if it stops there. You have not heard the whole gospel if the message you have heard fails to include the next you.

Jefferson Vann

Auckland, New Zealand



1Unless otherwise stated, all Bible references are from 1 Corinthians, ESV.

2Note that the baptism Paul mentions here is not some kind of ritual proxy baptism. He is refering to those who become believing Christians and then are baptised at the prompting of evangelists like John the Baptist and others. Since John and many other Christian evangelists had already died, those they baptised have been baptised for (at the prompting of) the dead. Paul’s point is that since there will be a resurrection, those baptisms do matter.