excursus: scaling the wall (part 2)

Sleep is the predominant way that the Bible describes death. That leads conditionalists to assume that death is a period of un-consciousness that everyone will experience until resurrected for judgment. Yet when we assert that assumption, opponent are often quick to build a wall of evidence, consisting of texts which appear to support some kind of conscious survival after death.

We do not believe that any of the evidence presented in favor of a conscious intermediate state is incontrovertible. We are convinced that the popular interpretations of those texts are misinterpretations. We are determined to scale this wall of evidence because we are convinced that it has led our brothers and sisters in Christ to believe something the Bible does not teach.

These articles address some of the more popular texts which are part of that wall of evidence. They reveal those inconsistencies that exist with the popular interpretations of the texts when compared to the actual texts themselves. At no point will it be conceded that the actual text itself is in error. We expect the Bible to present a coherent, consistent theology of the intermediate state.

In part 1, 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 was examined, and the text was shown to be in agreement with Paul’s theology in 1 Corinthians 15 and elsewhere. His desire to put on his heavenly dwelling was not a desire to go to heaven when he died, but a desire to be resurrected when Jesus returns.

The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) was shown to be a parable that Jesus taught the Pharisees. Its purpose was not to explain the inter-mediate state, but to warn the Pharisees not to presume that since they are rich in this life it is proof that God approves of their behavior. Jesus’ clear teaching is that death is a sleep from which one must be raised to live again.

Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross as they appear in our English Bibles “today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43) are a mistranslation. Neither Jesus nor the thief went to heaven that day. Jesus assured the thief that they would be in Paradise on the day about which the thief asked: the day he comes in his kingdom.

“WHY HAVE YOU DISTURBED ME?” (1 Samuel 28)

The Bible consistently describes the intermediate state between death and resurrection as an unconscious sleep, from which good and evil must be awakened before beginning to experience their eternal destiny. The story of Saul’s consultation with the medium at Endor seems to contradict that theology, but it really does not.

If this was really a revival of Samuel, it was a miracle of God. The medium herself was surprised to see him.[1] She probably expected a demon pretending to be him. The demons are deceivers, and one of their favorite forms of deception is pretending to be dead relatives, or ghosts. They use this tactic to incite fear, bring confusion, and keep their control over people. The LORD knows of this tactic, and for that reason expressly forbids attempts to communicate with “the dead”. Saul, himself, prohibited all such attempts at necromancy. [2] When faced with an absence of communication from the LORD due to the death of Samuel, Saul attempted to break his own rule.

Note that she did not see Samuel descend from heaven. She said she saw him “coming up out of the earth”.[3] This makes sense in light of biblical cosmology which has all the dead in Sheol, the grave, awaiting a resurrection. Normally, the only way to awake from this state of unconscious sleep is to be resurrected. Apparently Samuel was allowed to wake up without being raised, but this is an obvious exception, which should not be taken as evidence against the normal biblical cosmology.

Samuel’s question to Saul was not “why have you interrupted my bliss in heaven and brought me down”? It was “why have you disturbed me by bringing me up”?[4] These are the words of an old man aroused from a deep sleep. They are certainly not what one would expect from someone already experiencing eternal joy at God’s side. Samuel’s partial resurrection was not at all what God had promised. He did not appreciate it. Like Paul, he did not enjoy this idea of being alive apart from his promised resurrection body. Paul made it absolutely clear that he did not desire to be “unclothed” – that is, to be a disembodied spirit.[5]

By contrast, many today seem to cherish the idea of being set free from the confines of their bodies so that they can fly to heaven, released from their physical prison. When people talk like that, they sound more like Plato than Paul. The eschatological blessed hope of the return of Christ appears to be replaced by an anthropology – or even a thanatology. But the Christian hope is Christ himself. Christians put their hope in Christ, not death.

If Samuel had been in heaven when aroused by Saul, why did he tell Saul “tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me” (19)? Was God judging Saul for his disobedience, and then accepting him in heaven anyway? If that was the case, why did that lead to such fear for Saul? The evidence does not match the traditional concept of death. It makes perfect sense if Samuel intended to resume his sleep in Sheol awaiting a resurrection. Saul and his sons (including Jonathan) would join him in that sleep, and be raised at the return of Christ.

There is only one other option that fits both what is said in 1 Samuel 28 and the traditional cosmology of going to heaven or hell at death. If Samuel had been “brought up” instead of “brought down” he must have been in hell. Samuel served God well in life, but just for the sake of argument, let us assume that it was not enough and he wound up being tormented in hell. Would that scenario rescue the text of 1 Samuel 28 from its apparently contradictory state? No, even if we assume Samuel is in hell, it doesn’t explain what Samuel actually said to Saul:

And Samuel said, “Why then do you ask me,

since the LORD has turned from you and

become your enemy? 17 The LORD has done

to you as he spoke by me, for the LORD has

torn the kingdom out of your hand and given

it to your neighbor, David. 18 Because you

did not obey the voice of the LORD and did

not carry out his fierce wrath against Amalek,

therefore the LORD has done this thing to

you this day. 19 Moreover, the LORD will give

Israel also with you into the hand of the

Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons

shall be with me. The LORD will give the army

of Israel also into the hand of the Philistines.”[6]

These are the words of a prophet who defends God for his justice, who condemns Saul for his disobedience, and who champions David for his faithfulness. Perhaps one might imagine Samuel in hell gloating over the fact that Saul and his other sons would soon be joining him, but that would include Jonathan as well – a man whom the Scriptures approves.

No, Samuel could not be in hell. He is approved by God, yet he is somewhere that requires him to be “brought up” so that he can communicate with Saul. Sheol is that place.

People sometimes casually cast forth this story as part of that wall of evidence proving that people are alive after they die. They go on to use this as prove of their assumption that this disembodied state is part of God’s reward to believers. Death should not be the reward for which the believer seeks. We should seek our reward in resurrection life.

The story of the medium at Endor is the exception that proves the rule. It is an example of someone who apparently did experience life apart from his resurrection body (although briefly). Samuel went back to sleep. He is part of that group who were “all were commended for their faith, yet they did not receive what was promised. For God had provided something better for us, so that they would be made perfect together with us.”[7] He will experience resurrected life when all believers do – at the second coming. His unusual experience at Endor is not the norm.

“OUT OF THE BELLY OF HELL” (Jonah 2:2)

Yet another Old Testament prophet appears to have been sent to the wrong place. The King James Version of Jonah 2:2 reads “I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice.” Some actually have the audacity to quote this text as proof, not only that there was such a thing as hell in Old Testament times, but that people were alive in it.

Most modern translation correct the foul-up, which is merely a translation issue. The King James translators were apparently all traditionalists, and sought every opportunity to place the concept of hell-at-death in the Bible. When they encountered the Hebrew word Sheol, and the context made it possible for them to translate it as hell, they did so. But numerous times the word Sheol obviously referred to the place that a righteous person went at death. No fear, they simply translated Sheol in those passages as “the grave.” For example:

“And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said, For I will go down into the grave unto my son mourning. Thus his father wept for him.”[8]

“The LORD killeth, and maketh alive: he bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up.”[9]

“O LORD, thou hast brought up my soul from the grave: thou hast kept me alive, that I should not go down to the pit.”[10]

But when the bad guys were getting theirs, these KJV translators saw a good opportunity to show people that when a bad guy dies, he goes consciously to hell, not unconsciously to the grave. So they translated the same Hebrew word – Sheol – as hell. For example:

“The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God.”[11]

“Let death seize upon them, and let them go down quick into hell: for wickedness is in their dwellings, and among them.”[12]

“Her feet go down to death; her steps take hold on hell.”[13]

Hell and destruction are before the LORD: how much more then the hearts of the children of men?”[14]

Translating the same word in such a different way was dishonest, and – to be fair – some modern translations have sought to correct it. The NLT has Jonah speaking from “the land of the dead” which is OK, except that it gives the impression that Sheol is some kind of physical territory. The NIV simply says “From the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry.” That is a much better translation, since it parallels the previous stich “In my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me.”

But most modern translations (e.g. ESV, NASB, NET, NKJV, NRSV, HCSB, LEB) simply choose not to translate the word Sheol. Not wanting to appear as watering down the traditional concept of hell, they leave the word untranslated – which leaves its interpretation up to the reader. The problem with that is it refuses to correct the misconceptions that readers have had in the past. So, people are still free to imagine Jonah and David and Jesus and others in some place called hell, when all the Scripture says is that they all went to the grave. The difference is that Jesus was raised from Sheol (or its Greek equivalent, Hades).[15]

Those of us who are convinced of the unconscious intermediate state are not going to change our minds because others quote texts which have been mishandled and abused. We ask for actual didactic evidence from the Bible that people survive death. Lacking that, we will trust what the Bible actually says about our hope. It is not survival of the soul, but the return of the Savior.

{to be continued}


[1] 1 Samuel 28:12.

[2] 1 Samuel 28:3.

[3] 1 Samuel 28:13.

[4] 1 Samuel 28:15.

[5] 2 Corinthians 5:4.

[6] 1 Samuel 28:16-19 ESV.

[7] Hebrews 11:39-40 NET.

[8] Genesis 37:35 KJV (also Genesis 42:38; 44:29, 31).

[9] 1 Samuel 2:6 KJV.

[10] Psalm 30:3 KJV (also 49:15; 88:3; 89:48).

[11] Psalm 9:17 KJV.

[12] Psalm 55:15 KJV.

[13] Proverbs 5:5 KJV.

[14] Proverbs 15:11 KJV.

[15] Psalm 16:10; Acts 2:27-31.

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