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what the dead really know

gift of lifegift of life #12

what the dead really know

 

 

 

In his Exposition of the Bible, John Gill gives us a long list of things that people know after they are dead. He says that when people die, their knowledge “is greatly increased.” He says that…

  • · once believers die, they know as much as God knows about them,
  • · they know about God’s perfections, purposes, covenant, grace and love,
  • · they know about Christ’s person, offices and glory; they see him as he is,
  • · they know about the gospel, angels, other dead saints that they talk with,
  • · they know about the glories and happiness of their heavenly state,
  • · they in fact know more than they ever did while living
  • · once the wicked die, they know that God exists and is judging them,
  • · they know that their suffering souls are immortal,
  • · they know that there is a future state, filled with unending torment for them.

But you can take that long list of things that Gill says people that are dead know, and throw it in the trash. All it takes is one scripture to refute all that silly speculation. Wise Solomon says in Ecclesiastes 9:5 that “the living know that they will die: but the dead do not know anything.” He teaches that death deprives all human beings of everything in life. He is not saying that death only appears to rob us of conscious existence. In fact, if death ushers all human into a new state of conscious existence and awareness, the author of Ecclesiastes has lost his argument all together. Solomon had argued that it is best for the godly not to focus on any hopes of an afterlife in the intermediate state, but to make the best of life now. He was not addressing the question of whether there would ever be life after the grave. Instead, he was arguing that one’s objective should be making the best of life now. That explains why he later instructs his readers not to “let the excitement of youth cause them to forget their Creator” (Ecclesiastes 12:1). If one is caught up in the hopes and dreams of the future, one is liable to forget that his or her present relationship with God is what really matters.

In Ecclesiastes 9:5, Solomon uses a description of what happens at death to show that dying should not be a person’s goal. It is not the solution to humanity’s problem, God is. Death ends the pursuit. death ends the race. Solomon compares two groups: those who are presently alive and those who are presently dead. He does not distinguish between different groups within these groups. All people who are presently alive have hope, but all those presently dead do not. If (as Gill supposes) the actual awareness of the dead increases, then Solomon’s argument is a wash. Solomon’s argument demands that his readers take into account the present state of the dead, and requires that they understand that the dead are presently aware of nothing. So, don’t trust in death to solve your problems. Trust in God before you die, because he can raise you from the dead.

If you have any questions about this teaching, you can ask me at jeffersonvann@yahoo.com. Join me for this entire series as we search the scriptures to learn about the gift of life.

listen to this article at Afterlife.

sorry, Socrates!

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sorry, Socrates!

I wish I could travel back in time. I’d like to go back to the time of the Greek philosopher, Socrates. I would pretend to be one of Socrates’ disciples, standing around in his jail cell. According to Plato, Socrates had a discussion about death just before he swallowed the hemlock. He told them that his death would solve his problems. He taught that death was a good thing, it separated the soul from the body, and set it free from its corruptible prison.

I would like to be there, because I would say “Sorry, Socrates!, You really don’t know anything about death.” The Bible consistently teaches that death is an enemy to be feared, not than a solution to our present problems. God’s warning to the residents in Eden was “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, because in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” If death were a good thing, bringing release from the prison of their body, that warning would not make sense.

The Bible associates death with darkness, not freedom and light. It is pictured as a place void of all awareness, a place where the souls and bodies lie and await the next event – a resurrection and its accompanying judgment. The dead are described as unconscious of what is going on around them. This is not freedom.

The term “sleep” is the single most used description of death in the Bible. It is used in the Old Testament and in the New. It is used of believers and unbelievers. It is used of people before the atonement and afterward. Now, sleep is a good thing, but only if you wake up later. The biblical hope is not death itself, but rescue from it. Jesus is the one who has the keys to set people free, and the prison that we are incarcerated in is not our physical body, but death and Hades.

Believers will be set free only when Jesus returns. Until then, we are still suffering the consequences of our ancestors’ sin – we die and return to the dust. But Jesus can raise us to life again. That is the blessed hope: “the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ” who comes to rescue us from death.

Teaching that death sets people free instead fails to reflect the Bible in three crucial areas. It is inconsistent with what the Bible says about death, it contradicts the Bible’s description of the intermediate state, and it detracts from the importance the Bible places on the resurrection. So, when people start to sound like Socrates when they describe death, we should explain to them that they are getting it wrong, too.

If you have any questions about this teaching, you can ask me at jeffersonvann@yahoo.com. Join me for this entire series as we search the scriptures to learn about the gift of life.

Listen to the audio file on Afterlife.

how to live like a conditionalist

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There are some problems inherent in asking about how we should live out the things we believe.

First, we are not all going to come to the same conclusions about how our theology should be worked out practically. The fact that we affirm – more or less – the same theological truths does not mean that we will come to the same conclusions as to how those truths should be applied. After hearing today’s speech, you will probably find yourself saying “Why didn’t he mention such and such?” or “Why didn’t he conclude this way?” I am very much interested in hearing that feedback. I don’t claim to have a monopoly on ideas about this subject, and I am definitely still in learning mode. Just consider my words today as a springboard for the discussion. We could use a number of articles on the Afterlife website on this issue, and I welcome you to contribute — particularly if you disagree with any of my conclusions.

Secondly, how any of us live out our faith involves our personal calling and giftedness. That will mean that even though you and I might agree theologically, we are going to be compelled by the Holy Spirit to live out our faith in different ways. We might even – in our most critical moments – think of each other as being inconsistent. The traditionalists have the same problem. Some of them think of this world as a gift from God, and do their best to preserve it and protect it from harm. Others of them see the planet as a tool, only useful for meeting temporary needs, and destined to be done away with in favour of a cosmic, heavenly home. So, these traditionalists look at their brothers who are trying to protect the planet , its rivers, its wildlife, and its forests – as idiots who are wasting their time on the wrapper instead of enjoying the candy bar. I think it is more consistent with conditionalism to take care of the planet because my theology says that God created this planet as a good thing – and something he intends to restore to something even better than its original perfection. I think it quite compatible with conditionalism to work alongside my traditionalist friends – and alongside atheists and people of other faiths to protect our planet as well. Some of that reasoning is theological. But some of it has to do with my own walk and my own personal experiences. I have enjoyed some of the most pristine and beautiful of the sites this planet has to offer the senses. I have also seen first-hand how ugly this world can get when left in the hands of those who don’t care about it, whether their reasons are theological, political or commercial. So, my heart beats for the protection of this whole planet, and I see that passion as consistent with my theology, because I see them both as a gift from God. But I am aware that those are two aspects of myself, and I don’t fault anyone else for not agreeing with me, because you are not me.

A third problem inherent in asking about how we live out the things we believe is that there is a danger of sometimes losing our faith and being left with only its application. The New Testament Gospels reveal how the Jewish Pharisees were guilty of this. They had emphasized personal works and the obedience to their society’s rules so much that their rules eventually became what they believed. After a century or so of teaching people to do things, or not to do things, the reasons for the commands were lost, and there was nothing left but the commands. Each generation of Christians faces this challenge. Not too long ago, evangelical Christianity was focused and fixated on obeying that portion of the scriptures that related to helping the poor and bringing justice to the suffering. This message became known as the social gospel. It was a good message, and a biblical message. But we allowed it to become our only message. As such, we became guilty of the same heresy that destroyed the Pharisees.

So, how do we honestly live out our conditionalist faith in the midst of these kinds of challenges? Let’s start by looking at some scriptures.

2 Peter 3:1-4 NLT

1 This is my second letter to you, dear friends, and in both of them I have tried to stimulate your wholesome thinking and refresh your memory. 2 I want you to remember what the holy prophets said long ago and what our Lord and Savior commanded through your apostles. 3 Most importantly, I want to remind you that in the last days scoffers will come, mocking the truth and following their own desires. 4 They will say, “What happened to the promise that Jesus is coming again? From before the times of our ancestors, everything has remained the same since the world was first created.”

Peter wrote to the churches to whom he had sent his second letter, that his purpose was to stimulate their wholesome thinking and refresh their memory. Implied in those remarks is the possibility that good, decent, biblically grounded Christians can sometimes get off target. Over time, it is possible for our minds to get focused on something different than the things we should be thinking about. It is possible to know the truth, to have experienced it, to affirm it, but still – in some ways – to forget it. Peter did not want that to happen to his churches. So, he wrote them for the purpose of giving them a kind of road map to their thinking and acting.

In a sense, that is what the entire Bible is for. Peter would agree with that because he goes on to tell them to remember what the holy prophets in the Old Testament taught, and what Jesus taught through his apostles. The apostle Paul had told the Ephesian Christians that the church was built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Jesus himself serving as our corner stone. He used the metaphor of a temple to describe the church. Partly, his reason for doing that was the same reason Peter mentions the apostles and prophets here. We, the church, cannot reinvent ourselves. Our identity is bound up not just in who we are, or who we can be. Our identity is linked to the purpose of our creator.

A second reason Peter gave for his letter was to remind the churches of something that he had taught them when he personally planted those churches. He had apparently taught this as one of the principle lessons wherever he went. The lesson was that at some point these churches were going to be invaded by scoffers, critics, who doubt the foundational truth of the literal second coming.

2 Peter 3:5-8

5 They deliberately forget that God made the heavens by the word of his command, and he brought the earth out from the water and surrounded it with water. 6 Then he used the water to destroy the ancient world with a mighty flood. 7 And by the same word, the present heavens and earth have been stored up for fire. They are being kept for the day of judgment, when ungodly people will be destroyed. 8 But you must not forget this one thing, dear friends: A day is like a thousand years to the Lord, and a thousand years is like a day.

He goes on to say that these scoffers are those who are guilty of the very kind of thing that I have been talking about. I don’t think Peter is talking about secular humanists or atheistic philosophers. Peter describes how these critics deliberately forget the biblical truths of creation and the flood. It is as if they had been built on the foundation of biblical truth, but at some point decided to slide off of that foundation.

The scoffers reason like this: It has been a long time since we have been taught that Jesus is literally coming again. He has not come again. Therefore, he is not coming again.

Peter’s response to the scoffers is very systematic.

· First, he reminds his readers that a long time ago, God said something, and “poof” – the world was created. In the beginning God created the sky and the land. God – who lives in infinity, created a time which we call the beginning, and he filled that time with meaning by inserting the present universe in it.

· Secondly, this same God who created this planet with a word, decided to judge and destroy it with water. He warned the ancient ones that he would do it, but he did not do it immediately. He waited a long time before destroying the world, and rescued eight people in the midst of the destruction.

· Thirdly, this same God who had promised to destroy the world with a flood – later promised to destroy this rescued world with fire. There would be a second day of judgment. God is consistent with himself, so we should expect this second judgment to happen. But we also have every right to expect it to happen only after a long period of time. That is how God worked in creation. That’s how he worked in the flood. That is how we should expect the judgment promised to accompany the second coming to occur as well.

2 Peter 3:9-12

9 The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent. 10 But the day of the Lord will come as unexpectedly as a thief. Then the heavens will pass away with a terrible noise, and the very elements themselves will disappear in fire, and the earth and everything on it will be found to deserve judgment. 11 Since everything around us is going to be destroyed like this, what holy and godly lives you should live, 12 looking forward to the day of God and hurrying it along. On that day, he will set the heavens on fire, and the elements will melt away in the flames.

So, Peter gives his readers a lesson in apologetics. He tells them that the scoffers will misread the long period between the warning and the occurrence of the second coming judgment. The scoffers will interpret that to mean that God is too slow for his word to matter. But Peter reminds his readers that God’s long wait time is a measure of his grace. He is patient for the sake of this planet he created. He does not want anyone to be destroyed. But he is also a God of justice. He has planned a day of judgment. It will happen. But it will happen unexpectedly. It will come like a thief, who waits patiently until the household is still, asleep in their beds up in the upper chambers of the house. Then, he violently breaks in and takes what he wants. God is not a thief. But the coming of Jesus Christ can be described that way because it will be preceded by a long period of quiet, patient waiting.

What is God waiting for? He is giving us an opportunity to spread the gospel of life only in Christ. Every day he waits is another day for us to get this message out to a world on the brink of destruction! God’s chosen means of the coming destruction will be fire – the lake of fire, which the book of Revelation calls the second death. Peter says that on that day, God will set the sky on fire, and all the elements of this world will melt away in those flames. The only thing that will remain – again, according to John’s Revelation – are those who have been redeemed by the blood of the Lamb – those whose names are found in his book of life.

Then Peter asks that all important question – a question we ourselves are taking up at this year’s conference. Since this is going to happen, how should we live now? Peter answers the question by suggesting that those who anticipate God to act again in judgment and redemption will live holy, godly lives, looking forward to that day, and hurrying it along.

2 Peter 3:13-15

13 But we are looking forward to the new heavens and new earth he has promised, a world filled with God’s righteousness. 14 And so, dear friends, while you are waiting for these things to happen, make every effort to be found living peaceful lives that are pure and blameless in his sight. 15 And remember, the Lord’s patience gives people time to be saved. This is what our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you with the wisdom God gave him–

And our reasons for living like this are not merely negative ones. We should live with a holy and righteous fear of sin and a hatred of evil, injustice, and all things wrong with this world and inside us. But we long for God’s coming day of judgment precisely because this evil world as it is now is only temporary. Peter says that we who remember what God did in the past can look beyond that final judgment and look forward to what follows it: a new sky and a new land: a new world filled with God’s righteousness.

So, Christian believers have the opportunity to get a head start on eternity. We do this, not by dying and going to heaven, but by living with heaven’s peace, purity, and blamelessness inside us now. So, even now, before the judgment day comes, there are two forces at work, which are preparing this planet for its next regeneration.

· One of those forces is the witness of those who are currently waiting for the return of the world’s rightful king. As we live like believers, our peaceful, pure and blameless lives show this world that it does not matter as much as the next world. Every effort that we can make to demonstrate the difference between us and those who do not have that hope is important. We cannot be like everybody else, because everybody else is going to burn up in hell. They think that we are chicken little. But we must continue to proclaim those words of warning to this generation that largely chooses to ignore us. We must be different, or else this world will never believe that the sky is going to fall.

· The other force Peter mentions here is the force of God’s patient love. He said that Paul had mentioned this in a letter to the same group of churches. What did Paul say to them? He might have said something like his testimony to Timothy, that God had mercy on him (Paul) so that Christ Jesus could use him as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners. Then others could realize that they, too, can believe in him and receive eternal life (1 Timothy 1:6). Or, he might have told them something like he had told the Romans that even though God has the right to show his anger and his power, he is very patient with those on whom his anger falls, who were made for destruction. He demonstrates his patience in order to make the riches of his glory shine even brighter on those to whom he shows mercy, who were prepared in advance for glory (Romans 9:22-23). And these are only two options. In the Pauline corpus, the Greek verb μακροθυμεω is found twice, and the noun μακροθυμια is found ten times. Paul’s theology reflected the awareness that God is a patient God, and the fruit of the Holy Spirit manifesting himself in the lives of Christ’s followers is patience.

2 Peter 3:16-18

16 speaking of these things in all of his letters. Some of his comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters to mean something quite different, just as they do with other parts of Scripture. And this will result in their destruction. 17 I am warning you ahead of time, dear friends. Be on guard so that you will not be carried away by the errors of these wicked people and lose your own secure footing. 18 Rather, you must grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. All glory to him, both now and forever! Amen.

Then, Peter does an interesting thing. He actually exegetes Paul here. He explains that some of the people who go around spouting Pauline theology have misunderstood him. I think Peter is referring to those who might be tempted to over-emphasize what Paul taught about God’s sovereignty in election. If a person believes that salvation is nothing more than working out the reality that some people are going to be saved by grace, and others are going to be lost, that person is likely going to rest in his own eternal security. Instead, Peter urges his readers to grow in grace and knowledge of Christ, so that they do not lose their own secure footing. In other words’ God’s grace should make us into people like God: holy, pure, and patient.

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For some of us, conditionalism is all about rooting out and exposing Plato’s heretical doctrine of humanity. They see the doctrine of the innate immortality of the human soul as a false doctrine that has done terrible damage to the truth, a result of scripture twisting, and a way that Satan has found to keep people from focusing on Christ, and keep them focusing on themselves. I agree with all that, but to me fighting Plato’s innate immortality doctrine is not the essence of conditionalism

For others of us, conditionalism is all about rethinking hell. It challenges the assumption that God’s ultimate goal for most of the human beings he created is to torture them perpetually, with no hope of relief, and no true end to sin or sinners. I challenge the same teachings, but to me fighting the perpetual hell heresy is not the essence of conditionalism either.

No, I am a conditionalist because I believe in God.

— I believe in the God who promised that his Son would come again and destroy the lost and fully redeem the saved (4). Traditionalism teaches that even Christ’s second coming will not result in the destruction of evil. Their god is too small to do that. Ours is not. The God who promised to cleanse the universe of evil once and for all – He is the God I believe in.

— I believe in the God whose love is patient, and does not want anyone to be lost (9).

— But I believe this same God is just, so he has appointed a day of fiery destruction for all those who reject his Son (12).

For me, conditionalism is at its heart a defence of who God is. He is not a God who is helpless to destroy sinners and cleanse his universe.

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I am also a conditionalist because I dare to take the word of God seriously, even if that makes me a heretic in the eyes of some others.

In every generation “truth” is often determined by the powerful majority that is willing to accept it. Anything that does not conform to that “truth” decided by the powerful becomes suspect, and those who dare to adhere to a different view of reality are branded and ostracized, or worse. This generation is no different. Aside from certain settings (like this one) there will be a price to pay for siding with conditionalism. I can tell you stories from my own experience, or that of my students – even my children – who have had to pay that price. Such has always been the case for those who dare proclaim an unappreciated truth.

We will be branded unbiblical. Well, there is a kind of biblical which is the wrong kind. Traditionalism has an arsenal of proof texts, taken out of context, misapplied, or – in some cases – mistranslated which appear to teach that all human souls must live forever apart from grace. Proponents of traditionalism love to pile those texts, one on the other, until they form some kind of wall of defence. But that wall can be scaled. The truth is on our side. It really is.

We provide for the church of Jesus Christ a valuable asset. We are a voice of dissent, speaking out against an unjust system of thought. In the end, our words of dissent will vindicate God. He is being charged with impotence, with wanting to put an end to sin, but not being able. He is not guilty of that charge, any more than he is guilty of planning to torture people forever for his own enjoyment.

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It also makes sense for conditionalists to be pro-life. We should stand up for the cause of protecting the innocent unborn from dying as a result of someone else’s choice.

— We see all human life as a gift from God. We do not deem this present life as some kind of rehearsal for a more important life in heaven. God created human beings to breathe the earth’s air, and fill the earth’s land, and have dominion over the earth’s fields, skies and seas. No one should be deprived of that life.

— We also see every human life as having the potential to be an immortal one. No, we are not immortal now, but the gospel promises that we can be. To accept God’s gospel of grace, you have to hear it. To hear it, you have to live. Abortionists claim to be pro-choice, but they are not. No one should be deprived of that right to choose eternal life.

— But the term “pro-life” is often used to protect the lives of some who are far from innocent. I can remember being at a state legislature building in Florida, where I grew up. Some protestors were picketing the building because lawmakers were planning to reinstitute the death penalty for multiple murderers. The protestors waved flags and were shouting “Thou shalt not kill.” They were quoting one of the ten commandments, and doing it out of context. I know this, because the same God who commanded us not to kill each other, commanded properly instituted governments to execute murderers. So, as a conditionalist, I consider myself pro-life, but that does not mean I agree with everything someone else says because they also use the term.

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We are quite possibly seeing the last generation or two of the Christendom that we were all born into. Churches and denominations are dying. While faith in Christ lives on, it is quite clear that the church, ministry and theological systems that once held sway in many cultures is on its way out. It is tempting to be nothing but pessimistic about this. But perhaps we conditionalists are not looking at the picture clearly. I think this is our chance to remake Christianity into what it was meant to be.

For too long, the gospel message that most people has heard has been mixed with fairy tales and half-truths. The gospel message the world has heard is not radical enough. It is not counter-culture enough. As long as Christianity continues to present a gospel with a picture of a mythological afterlife for both the saved and the lost, we will continue to reach only those who are satisfied with that story. The vast majority of those in today’s culture who have rejected popular Christianity have done so because they cannot accept those kinds of lies.

We are failing them because we are not showing them that the Bible contains truth that counters both the old myths and the new ones. Yes, turning to Christ means a radical change, and yes, it means rejecting much about our modern worldview. But if we simply cut and paste the worldview of the middle ages, with its images of demons in red pyjamas and forked tails tormenting the souls of the un-dead forever, we have immediately branded our gospel as irrelevant to the world we are trying to reach. Likewise, if we cut and paste the other picture from the middle ages – of a heaven far beyond the blue where disembodied souls of the saved escape at death – we are painting another picture of unreality. We are at once denying the reality of death and contradicting the message of the gospel. Because Jesus did not offer a disembodied place in the clouds as his solution for death. He offered an empty tomb. He offered a resurrection. And as long as we keep telling this world that God wants them in heaven, we are separating ourselves from the biblical message we claim to preach.

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The biblical message is that death is not a release, but a prison. The good news is that our Saviour is coming, and he has the keys to that prison. The biblical message is not that death is our friend, but that death is the enemy. The good news is that destroying death is on God’s list of things to do. Granted, it is the last item on his list, but God always accomplishes the things on his “to do” list. The biblical message is not that death is a blessing, or a graduation or a promotion. It is a curse, a consequence of the fall, a direct result of the sin of our ancestors in the garden of Eden. We did not cause this curse. We inherited it. It is present in our DNA. Each of us comes complete with our own self-destruct code. The sequence has started, and there is nothing anyone can say to abort it. The countdown begins with our first breath, and – so far – it always ends the same. Death is a reality, and we are not doing anyone any favours by denying that reality.

What I am suggesting is nothing short of a new Christianity based on the real gospel: the gospel of life only in Christ. I suggest we strip ourselves of the trappings of the old mythological cosmology. There is an even older story. It is the story of a promised new creation. Now, living like a conditionalist means living as if we are going to inherit that new creation. I invite you all to help me do some thinking about what that kind of life entails.

what little boys are made of

gift of lifegift of life #6

what little boys are made of

The nursery rhyme asks “What are little boys made of?”  — and answers “Snips & snails & puppy dogs tails and such are little boys made of.” Little girls fare slightly better.  They are made of “sugar and spice and everything nice.”  No one believes that these statements reflect the actual chemical makeup of boys and girls.  But anyone who watches these little darlings play can understand what the original author was getting at.

The Bible gives us a much more scientifically accurate description of what little boys and girls are made of – and their parents too.  In Genesis 2:7, Moses, describing the creation of Adam, says that God formed him “from the dust of the ground” or “of dust from the ground.” Our bodies are composed of the same elements found elsewhere in nature.  In 1 Cor. 15:47, Paul tells us that our ancestor Adam was “a man of dust” and we share his nature.”

But what about the soul? Well, the Bible’s actual use of the word shows that it does not refer to a separate spiritual element. “When Moses first used the Hebrew term nephesh, he was referring to animals. In Gen. 1:20, Moses records “And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living souls, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky.” The phrase in Hebrew is nephesh chayah (souls of life). It is obvious from the context that Moses refers to fish and sea mammals, and birds, not people. This first use  of nephesh highlights a contrast with the Greek philosopher Plato’s teaching that only human beings have souls.” Then, just a few verses later, that same Moses, describing the creation of Adam, says “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul (Genesis 2:7)” He uses that exact same phrase nephesh chayah that he had used to describe the final product of the creation of animals. Just like the animals, human beings are made of the elements of nature, and given life from God. So, our souls are us, when we are alive. Our souls are bodies with breath in them.

The New Testament tells us something about our soul that does not fit the popular idea either. In Matthew 6:25, Jesus says “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Lot’s of Christians know that verse. What lots of Christians do not know is that the word for “life” in that verse is psuché, the New Testament Greek word that corresponds to the Old Testament Hebrew nephesh. So, Jesus is saying that bodies wear clothing (which seems logical) but he also says that souls eat and drink. Now, that does not fit our theology, so Bible translators are quick to rescue us from the embarrassment of having to recheck our theology, and simply translate the word psuché as life. But there is no reason to hold to two contradictory terms for translating the same word here. The soul is the life of a living breathing creature. If that is the only possible meaning in Matthew 6, it makes sense to interpret it that way elsewhere as well.

And the Bible does not teach that anyone’s soul is immortal. In fact, it implies that souls can die. For example, the psalms contain many pleas for deliverance, and 119:175 is one of them. It says “Let my soul live, that it may praise you…” The word nephesh has cognates in at least two other ancient near eastern languages that mean “throat.” That at least suggests that a soul may simply be the word for the body with breath in it. As such, it makes sense that animals have souls as well. They are living creatures, bodies with breath in them.

If you have any questions about this teaching, you can ask me at jeffersonvann@yahoo.com. Join me for this entire series as we search the scriptures to learn about the gift of life.

listen to the audio file at Afterlife.

not a better place

gift of lifegift of life #5

not a better place

I overheard two men talking the other day, and caught the last bit of a conversation they were having. I do not really know what they were talking about, but based on what I heard, I can hazard a guess. They concluded their talk with “she’s in a better place.” My guess is that they were talking about a loved one who is now dead. Perhaps they were consoling themselves with thoughts that their loved one was no longer suffering and in Jesus’ protection until his return. But I wonder if those men knew what they were talking about. Does the Bible describe death – even the death of a believer – as “a better place”?

When Jesus faced the death of his friend Lazarus, he wept. He knew that death was not a better place for Lazarus. He did not console Lazarus’ sister Martha with the notion that her brother was not really dead. Instead, he told her that “your brother will rise again.” He had told his disciples “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him”. If Lazarus had gone to a better place, it would have been cruelty to bring him back.

We really need eternal life because we are all going to die, and death is not a friend.  The Bible calls death three things for all human beings, no exception:

  1. An enemy: Paul says “The last enemy that will be destroyed is death.”  (1 Corinthians 15:26).
  2. A prison: Jesus says that death is locked, but that he has the keys (Revelation 1:18).
  3. A curse. Moses said that life is a blessing, but death is a curse (Deuteronomy 30:19).

Death is the absence of life and breath and consciousness.  It is not a good thing, and not a better place.

“The world needs honest Christians. It needs people who do not hide behind fairy tales, and deny the existence of death.  It needs people who will tell them that death is real, but that Jesus is real too.  The world needs hope that extends beyond the cemetery.  Believers can offer that hope, but we have to do so with integrity. It is wrong to say that death is a friend when the Bible calls it an enemy.  It is wrong to imply that the blessed hope is a better place at death.  Titus 2:13 says we are now “waiting for our blessed hope,” and that blessed hope is “ the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”  It is the second coming, not death, which is the focal point of the New Testament promises. 

So, let’s be biblically honest and mature.  Let’s stop telling people that death is a release, or a homecoming, or a graduation, or any such thing.  Death is death, and it is not a better place.  We Christians are looking forward to being in a better place, but that place is coming down from the sky when our king returns.  The gospel only offers one blessed hope, and we owe it to the world to get that message right.

If you have any questions about this teaching, you can ask me at jeffersonvann@yahoo.com.  Join me for this entire series as we search the scriptures to learn about the gift of life.

 

(listen to the audio file at Afterlife)

to die is gain

SDC10734

The apostle Paul told the Philippians that, to him, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”[1] It is quite clear to the reader that if Paul keeps on living, he will keep on serving Christ. Thus, “to live is Christ” must have been a reference to his intention to do just that. But what did Paul mean when he asserted “to die is gain”? Partly, that is answered by the previous verse, in which he expressed his intention that “Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.”[2] So, “Paul is picking up on the two possible resolutions of his imprisonment, freedom or execution…”[3] If he is set free, it will mean the opportunity to reach more souls with the gospel, to plant more churches, and to honor Christ by bringing more people into his kingdom.

But what else did he mean? How is death gain? Ascough asserts that “The use of the word in Phil 1:21 is clearly drawing on the imagery of the marketplace, where Paul states that it is more ‘profitable’ for him to die.”[4] In what sense? Before looking at the text to seek answers to that question, I will survey the answers usually given by those who hold traditionalists views of the intermediate state.

GAINING A BETTER LOCATION

Some say that Paul had in mind the gain of a new location, immediately at death. The soul, unencumbered by its body, is set free to travel to heaven, and that is the gain that Paul anticipated.

“They are not lost, they are only moved. Moved, by the way, to a much better place.”[5]

“he was talking about his departure to somewhere better than earth.”[6]

“theologians and Bible expositors have been careful to distinguish between the present heaven where God now dwells and where believers go at the moment of death and the future heaven where believers will spend all eternity.”[7]

“Death would send Paul to the place of everything that was truly dear and precious to him. ”[8]

Has Paul made the case, in Philippians or anywhere else, that heaven is where he intends to go at death? Keep in mind that the word for heaven in Greek is simply the normal word for “sky.” [9] Anyway, here is what Paul asserts about the sky:

  • God’s wrath is being revealed from the sky now.[10]
  • No one can ascend to the sky.[11]
  • There are many false “gods” in the sky and on the land, but only one true God.[12]
  • Jesus came from the sky, and at our resurrection we will bear his image.[13]
  • Paul saw a man caught up in the third sky in a vision.[14]
  • Angels are in the sky.[15]
  • All things in the sky and the land will one day be united in Christ.[16]
  • The Father God is the source of the whole family in the sky and on the land.[17]
  • The Master of slaves and the Master of masters lives in the sky.[18]
  • Every knee will bow to Christ “in the sky and on the ground and under the ground.”[19]
  • Christians are registered citizens in the sky, “and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”[20]
  • The believer’s hope (Christ) is laid up for them in the sky.[21]
  • Christ created the sky and the land, and plans to reconcile the whole creation to himself.[22]
  • Christ will descend from the sky to raise the dead at his return.[23]
  • Christ will be revealed from the sky with his mighty angels at his return.[24]

Once the popular and somewhat misleading translation “heaven” is replaced with the common term “sky,” it is easy to see that most of these passages do not argue for a separate location for people to go when they die. However, because so many mistaken assumptions have been read into the texts, some of the passages do require a bit of explanation.

  • The “third sky” of Paul’s vision (2 Corinthians 12:2) is the third creation of the sky. Paul saw into the future – a future after the present sky and land has been destroyed and replaced with the future, eternal sky and land. It is the third sky and land because the first had been destroyed during Noah’s flood. The second sky was that which Paul could see normally by looking up. To see into the future sky required a vision. To live in that future would require a resurrection. For the purposes of this study, it is sufficient to comment that this passage in no way implies continued existence after death.
  • Ephesians 1:10 speaks of the future as well. when all things in the sky and the land are united in Christ. At present, all the holy angels in the sky are united in Christ, but some of the angels are fallen, and will suffer the same fate as Satan, whom they are following to their destruction in Gehenna. Likewise, not all the things on earth are – at present – united in Christ. But in the fullness of time, all those things not yet in Christ will either be reconciled with him, or destroyed by him. Again, there is nothing intrinsic in this verse that demands a conscious intermediate state.
  • Many modern versions translate the phrase pasa patria in Ephesians 3:15 as “every family,”[25] which suggests that there are families already residing “in heaven.” But the NIV version follows another traditional translation option, rendering the phrase “the whole family.”[26] This translation makes the most sense in context, because Paul had just pointed out the fact that Christ is the only one (of the family) who has ascended to the sky, and because of that he can now give gifts to the others (in the family) who are still on the land.[27] So, the “whole family” consists of Christ who is in the sky, and his followers who are not. So, there is no evidence of believers going to heaven when we die in this text either.
  • The post-resurrection future is also in view when Paul speaks of every knee bowing at the name of Jesus (Philippians 2:10). To suggest that Paul also meant that there are presently knees in heaven bowing to Christ, and that those knees belong to saints who have ascended – goes way beyond the boundaries of Paul’s message. It was to these Philippians that Paul revealed that his objective was attaining to the resurrection from the dead.[28] He – that is, Paul — did not imagine bowing his knees to Christ during the intermediate state. Knees are part of the body which is alive. Bowing knees requires that we have knees. The resurrection at Jesus’ return will give those under the ground (whose bodies have decayed) knees again to bow before our Savior.
  • Neither does being registered citizens in the sky kingdom require that believers go anywhere at death. Paul told the Philippians (3:18-21) that there are two kinds of people: there are enemies of the cross of Christ, and us. The god of the enemies is their own belly, and their glory is their shame. They set their minds on the things of the present world. Their end is destruction. But our God is our Savior, and our glory is his return. Our citizenship/ loyalty is directed to the sky where he is. Our end will be the transformation of our lowly bodies to be like his – when he returns. So, once again, Paul is looking ahead to the return of Christ. He is not speaking at all about the intermediate state.
  • Paul spoke of the Colossians as having a hope laid up for them in the sky (1:5). Was this hope different than that he had been proclaiming in his other epistles? No, not at all. It was the hope of glory.[29] But when will those Colossians (and the rest of us) be glorified? “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”[30] The hope the Colossians had was Christ, who is coming down for them from the sky. Their hope was not going to the sky (or anywhere else) after death.

So, after looking at every verse in the New Testament where Paul discusses the word ouranos, we find that not one of them support the concept that it is a destination that Christians go when they die.

GAINING A REWARD FOR FAITHFUL WORK

But some insist that Paul taught that believers gain their reward for faithful service to Christ at death:

“Death is a homecoming for the Christian. Paul sees it as gain because he sees is as the reward for offering himself as a living sacrifice on this side of the veil.”[31]

  • In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul spoke of two homes: our present home (our present body) and our future home (our future glorified body). But that passage has been ripped from its context and applied to the intermediate state! Traditionalists insist that Paul had another home in mind: a home in heaven between death and the resurrection. But a careful reading of 2 Corinthians 5 shows that Paul stated twice that he was not thinking about the intermediate state. The intermediate state was just that – an intermediate state or condition between life in this home, and life in the next. Paul called that state being naked. He longed for the glorified resurrection body because “by putting it on we may not be found naked.”[32] And then – just in case his readers were not paying attention – he said that believers are presently groaning “because we do not want to be unclothed, but clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.”[33] Paul never spoke of death as going home.

“For the Christian, death brings a better inheritance, a better fellowship, and a better body.”[34]

  • No, for the Christian, Christ brings all these things. But he will do so at the proper time, and in the proper order. The resurrection order is “Christ was raised as the first of the harvest; then all who belong to Christ will be raised when he comes back.”[35]
  • The Greek mystery cults glorified death, but Christianity did not. For the Christian, death remains a part of the curse upon humanity. The LORD warned Adam that the consequence of sin would be death.[36] Death would not be a gateway to another life or location. It would be punishment for sin. The LORD spoke of death as a prison, with “gates of deep darkness.”[37] Those gates will not be opened until our Savior returns with the keys. That is why John’s vision of Christ in Revelation depicted him with keys in his hand.[38]

“For the believer, when he departs from this life he goes to be immediately in the presence of Jesus Christ and as the believer stands before Jesus he receives his reward.”[39]

  • Not quite. The prophet Isaiah said “Say ye to the daughter of Zion, Behold, thy salvation cometh; behold, his reward is with him.”[40] Jesus applied that text to himself and his return when he said “behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be.”[41] So, according to the Rewarder, our reward is not coming at death, but at his second coming. Who should we believe? I choose to believe the rewarder as to the timing of the reception of his reward.

“while we are on this earth, our life belongs to Christ; after this life, because our life belonged to Him here, we gain the reward of eternal life with Him there.”[42]

  • Yes, our reward will be eternal life. But not only will our reward be when Christ comes, it will also be where Christ goes. He is not coming back to take us to heaven. He is coming back to take his rightful place as the rightful “ruler of kings on earth.”[43] His capital will be the new Jerusalem, which John sees coming down out of the sky from God “like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.”[44] To place the bride in heaven when her groom is reigning on earth would be a cruel thing. It would also make it impossible for us to do what the New Testament affirms that we will do. We will reign with him.[45]

“He (Paul) had served the Lord faithfully and now looked forward to receiving ‘a crown of righteousness’ (II Timothy 4:6-8).”[46]

  • Pardon, your slip is showing. Paul was referring to the day of Christ’s return. He specifically stated that the crown of righteousness would be rewarded not only to him that day, “but also to all who have loved his appearing.”[47] We will all receive the reward of eternal righteousness at the same time – not at various times as we each die. The specific day is clear: it is the day of Christ’s appearing (epiphania).

“For every believer there will be one final promotion – Death. That is why we are told not to fear it.”[48]

  • Nowhere ever in Scripture is death called a promotion. It is a curse, a prison, and an enemy.[49] It is never a friend. Paul could not have contradicted himself as an author of Scripture, inspired by the Holy Spirit to produce God’s infallible word. His assertion that his death would be gain cannot be explained by interpreting it in such a way as to make him recant something that he has already said about death. That would be bad theology. Positing that Paul meant that death would be gain in a way that denies its enemy status is bad hermeneutics.

GAINING LIFE FREE FROM THE CURSE

Some simply deny the reality of death altogether. They assert that when the believer appears to die, he or she will simply live on in an eternal life somewhere unseen, and free from all the troubles of this life.

“The deceased will never know another moment of sickness or pain and will live eternally to worship our Lord.”[50]

“What we call death is a transition from a dying body in a dying world to a world of light and life.”[51]

“to die should be seen as a gain … because it would mean that we would be freed from this trouble-filled life on earth to rejoice in Christ’s presence in Heaven.”[52]

  • It may sound comforting to believe that death is a transition to a better world, but that comfort comes with a price. It is a denial that the better world of which the gospel speaks comes not at death but at our Savior’s return. It denies the reality of death, by making it only the appearance of death. To suggest theologically that death is not real leads to a very interesting conundrum: our eternal life is based on the atoning death of Christ on the cross. If death is not real, then what of his death? With the assertion that death is a mere transition to another life elsewhere, the very basis of our salvation stands challenged.

“death is the retirement of this earthly tent with all its weaknesses and temptations and the unification of the Lover to His beloved.”[53]

  • This statement reflects a misreading of 2 Corinthians 5. Paul did compare our earthly bodies with tents, and envisioned a greater, more permanent “eternal dwelling in the heavens.”[54] He spoke of groaning in this body “desiring to put on our dwelling from heaven.”[55] But the crowd who believes that they will retire to mansions in heaven when they die fail to see that Paul was speaking not of the intermediate state, but of the resurrection. Paul longed not to be unclothed, but to be clothed upon with his immortal body. That did not happen when Paul died. It will happen when Paul is raised from the dead.

GAINING THE PRESENCE OF CHRIST

“living this life with Christ was good, but dying and being in His presence was better.”[56]

“Death is therefore a personal gain for Paul because it means departing the body and being with Christ, and that is better by far.”[57]

“Gaining Christ was Paul’s great passion and goal in all his did. … Paul wanted what would bring the deepest and most lasting satisfaction to his life, namely, being with Christ in glory.”[58]

“Oh to have such an affection for Christ that my life is utterly Christ-centered and my death is a welcome transition to the embrace of my Savior!”[59]

“Christians should view their own forthcoming death as an appointment in Jesus’ calendar, which he will faithfully keep.”[60]

“even in death we gain victory over the grave because when we die and leave this earthly body we still get to be with Him in Heaven if we live for Him on earth.”[61]

“death was to be welcomed as something that brought him closer to the Christ he loved.”[62]

“When our time on earth is over and we die, we will gain eternity with our Lord and Savior.”[63]

“He is either doing the Lord’s work or he is with Christ in Heaven.”[64]

  • Every Christian longs to be in the presence of Christ. But the Bible tells us that we will be with him – not when we die – but when he returns for us. Paul taught that “the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.”[65] Note that this is the only event in which Paul claims that any believer (including himself) would be “with the LORD.
  • To make death our expectation point – the point in which we expect to be reunited with our Savior – glorifies death. It also steals from the glorious event of the second coming, an event which Christians are told to long for.

What did Paul mean by saying that his death would be gain? Perhaps he was not referring to his personal gain at all. Maybe he was speaking of those who would dare to trust Christ after hearing of his martyrdom. He had already noted that his imprisonment had been instrumental in spreading the gospel:

“I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.”[66]

So, it could be that Paul, realizing that his imprisonment was advancing the gospel, might suppose that his death as a believer might lead to even more who would be willing to count everything a loss for the sake of Christ. We do not really know his reason for stating that his death would be gain.

Many feel that he was explaining himself when he said that he had a desire “to depart and be with Christ – which is far better.”[67] They see this as Paul explaining that when he died, his soul would depart this earth and he would be with Christ. But that text actually refers to the second coming. The verb analuō is only found in one other place in the New Testament, it describes a master returning from a wedding feast.[68] So, it is just as linguistically appropriate to translate Paul’s words “having a desire for the return, and to be with Christ – which is far better.” That fits with what Paul had taught elsewhere about his hope to be with Christ at his second coming.

Paul divided all Christendom into two categories. Those who are still alive, and those who have fallen asleep.[69] For those of us still alive, we live with the joyful expectation that some day our Savior will burst the clouds and descend upon this world he rightfully owns. But for those in the second category, those saints which sleep, their next conscious moment will be welcoming the returning Christ. From the standpoint of eternity, nothing is lost by those who have died in Christ. Their gravestones and tombs serve to mark lives which had been invested in Christ, and that investment will result in gain for them and their Lord.


[1] Philippians 1:21.

[2] Philippians 1:20 ESV.

[3] Gordon D. Fee, Listening to the Spirit in the Text. (Grand Rapids, Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000), 11.

[4] Richard S. Ascough, Paul’s Macedonian Associations. (Tūbingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 2003), 119.

[5] Jason Roberts, Moments of Victory. (Xulon Press, 2006), 96.

[6] Christian Nwobu, The Seed of Your Words. (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2010), 25.

[7] Ron Rhodes, The Wonder of Heaven. (Eugene Or: Harvest House Publishers, 2009), 132.

[8] Lester Hutson, Philippians: God’s Love Letter. (Lester Hutson, 2007).

[9] Louw-Nida Greek Lexicon: “space above the earth, including the vault arching high over the earth from one horizon to another, as well as the sun, moon, and stars – ‘sky.’ ”

[10] Romans 1:18.

[11] Romans 10:6.

[12] 1 Corinthians 8:5-6.

[13] 1 Corinthians 15:47-49.

[14] 2 Corinthians 12:2.

[15] Galatians 1:8.

[16] Ephesians 1:10.

[17] Ephesians 3:15.

[18] Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 4:1.

[19] Philippians 2:10.

[20] Philippians 3:20.

[21] Colossians 1:5.

[22] Colossians 1:16, 20, 23.

[23] 1 Thessalonians 4:16.

[24] 2 Thessalonians 1:7.

[25] ESV; NASB; NET; HCSB; NRSV.

[26] see also KJV; YLT, and NLT “everything.”

[27] Ephesians 4:8f.

[28] Philippians 3:10-11.

[29] Colossians 1:27.

[30] Colossians 3:4 ESV.

[31] Matt Chandler, Jared C. Wilson, To Live Is Christ to Die Is Gain. (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2013), 38.

[32] 2 Corinthians 5:3 ESV.

[33] 2 Corinthians 5:4 NET.

[34] Mark Hitchcock, 55 Answers to Questions about Life After Death. (Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2005), 76.

[35] 1 Corinthians 15:23 NLT.

[36] Genesis 2:17.

[37] Job 38:17 ESV, NET, NRSV.

[38] Revelation 1:18.

[39] Oliver E. Summers. What Is God Up To? – Why Earth? – Why Eternity? (Xulon Press, 2008), 355.

[40] Isaiah 62:11 KJV.

[41] Revelation 22:12.

[42] Darlene Jones, One Day @ A Time. (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2010), 165.

[43] Revelation 1:5 ESV.

[44] Revelation 21:2. NLT

[45] 2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 20:6.

[46] Vern E. Spencer, Playing by the Rules. (Xulon Press, 2003), 134.

[47] 2 Timothy 4:8 ESV.

[48] Danny L. Callahan, Triumphant Warriors in a Turbulent World. (Xulon Press, 2008), 101.

[49] 1 Corinthians 15:26.

[50] Denise Hamilton, Trials to Treasure. (Xulon Press, 2008), 144.

[51] Randy Alcorn, In Light of Eternity: Perspectives on Heaven. (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, 1999), 151.

[52] Gregg Joseph Kretschmer and Jason Christian Ravizza, The Waging War Within – A Devotional for Winning the Daily War. (Bloomington, IN: Westbow Press, 2011), 21.

[53] Bill Rudy, Secrets of the Heart. (Jacksonville, FL: Logos Publishing, 2004), 105.

[54] 2 Corinthians 5:1 HCSB.

[55] 2 Corinthians 5:2 HCSB.

[56] Anthony Weber, Learning to Jump Again. (Bloomington, IN: Westbow Press, 2011), 148.

[57] James P. Ware, Paul and the Mission of the Church. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books,2011).

[58] John Piper, Desiring God, Revised Edition: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist. (Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2011), 281.

[59] Will Owens, Unshakable Joy in Uneasy Times. (Bloomington, IN: Crossbooks, 2010), 28.

[60] J. I. Packer, Concise Theology. (Wheaton, IL: Foundation for Reformation, 1993), 248.

[61] Sally Ray Cohran, A Lily of Love. (Xulon Press, 2010), 80.

[62] Alister McGrath, Knowing Christ. (New York: Doubleday, 2002), 2.

[63] Samuel Keith Curran, I-Witness Devotions. (Xulon Press, 2007), 267.

[64] Don Piper, Cecil Murphey, Heaven Is Real. (New York: Penguin Group, 2007).

[65] 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 ESV.

[66] Philippians 1:12-14 ESV.

[67] Philippians 1:23 HCSB.

[68] Luke 12:36.

[69] 1 Corinthians 15:6, 18, 20; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-15; 5:10.

consumed

IMG_0789“…gather for the great supper of God…” (Rev. 19:17).

  • Tomorrow will be a day of complete devastation for the unsaved.
  • The fury of God’s wrath will destroy and consume all his enemies.
  • Fire will be the means of that destruction.

God’s word gives us so much insight into our future. But there is a temptation that accompanies the task of reflecting on what God says on the issue of tomorrow. God has a lot of good news to share with us, but he also has a lot of bad news. The topic of the future – after Christ returns – contains the good news of restoration and glorification, but it also contains the bad news of judgment and destruction of the lost. Modern day evangelicals have an aversion to that bad news, so some try to avoid the issue altogether.

Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle confessed to having been in that camp, at first. They wanted to erase hell, but eventually concluded that the concept of hell is biblical, so they had to write about it. They could not “erase God’s revealed plan of punishment because it doesn’t sit well with” them.[1] My chief complaint against their work is they spent more time defending one of the traditional views of hell than they did exegeting the actual texts that describe hell in the Bible.[2] If they had paid more attention to those texts, they would have found that God himself intends to erase hell – after it has done what he plans for it to do.

a great supper of God

Revelation 19:17 mentions a great supper, in which God consumes all his enemies. This is, perhaps, one of the passages predicting punishment that is quoted and referred to the least by theologians and pastors. We are generally uncomfortable with the imagery – I can give you that. But I think there is more to it. The imagery of complete consumption of the lost hints that the lost can be utterly destroyed. They are not immortal, invincible , inconsumable souls. Taking passages like this seriously might mean rethinking hell.

a consuming fire

The Scriptures teach that God is a consuming fire.[3] This attribute of God usually refers to his ability to destroy his enemies utterly. Nadab and Abihu discovered that God was not limited to just making them uncomfortable forever. He could – and did – consume them with fire.[4] The prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel also saw a visual demonstration, when Elijah’s sacrifice was totally consumed by fire from the sky. The Scriptures say “the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The LORD, he is God; the LORD, he is God.””[5] Isaiah also described God’s judgment on the Assyrians as “a flame of devouring fire” kindled by “the breath of the LORD.”[6] These passages show us that there is background evidence in Scripture which lends credence to the concept of utter destruction as the right and proper punishment for sin and sinners.

Final judgment is described as a lake of fire.[7] This would lead to the inference that the lake of fire is where and when God will finally, utterly consume all his enemies. But proponents of other views of hell suggest that God cannot and will not consume, or utterly destroy anyone. Origen suggested that “the God of fire consumes human sins.”[8] He taught a doctrine of the fire of God slowly purging sin from the universe. This view (usually espoused by Catholics) claims that hell will burn until it has destroyed all sin, but sinners themselves will emerge from it.

On the other side of the spectrum, the popular evangelical teaching is that hell consists of “a fire that does not consume.”[9] They insist that the fires of hell must be a perpetual process. So, in effect, they also reinterpret the phrase “consuming fire.” For them, the fire is like the appearance of God before Moses as a burning bush, which did not consume the bush. The lost are protected from the destructive nature of the flames (like the three Hebrew young men in the fiery furnace) but not its pain and torment. For them, “Hell is a place where the unsaved are tortured forever.”[10]

consumption and fire in Revelation

But we must ask not what fire can mean, and what a consuming fire can mean. We must ask what the metaphor of God as a consuming fire does mean in the context of the passages in which it is found. Of particular interest in this study are the two concepts of consumption and fire in the book of Revelation. Let us search the text, and discover the meaning in the text. Let us not use the excuse that the book of Revelation is symbolic. Symbols are a legitimate means of revealing truth. There is always enough data in the text of any biblical book so that we can discern the facts behind the figures of speech it employs.

eating

  • John writes of conquerors who will eat of the tree of life in the paradise of God.[11] Adam & Eve, and all of us who have been born from them have been prohibited from this consumption. But after sinners and all evil have been eradicated, this meal will once again be possible.
  • John reflects Jesus’ condemnation of false teachers at Pergamum, who, like Balaam in the Old Testament , corrupted God’s people by teaching them that certain detestable practices are permitted. The practices he mentions specifically are sexual immorality and eating foods which had been sacrificed to idols.[12]
  • John reflects Jesus invitation to believers in the church at Laodicea to open the door to him, because he is standing at the door, knocking. He promises to come in through the door that they open, and enjoy a meal with them.[13]
  • John has a vision in which he is given a little scroll, and told to eat it. It tasted sweet to his mouth, but turned bitter in his stomach.[14]
  • In the predicted “great supper of God” an angel calls out to “birds that fly directly overhead” – suggesting birds that clean up the dead after battle. They are told “to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all men, both free and slave, both small and great.”[15] The image is of a battle where the only thing left of the enemy is the dead bodies of the fallen. The birds are the clean-up crew.

Again, no one is arguing that every statement in these texts is literal. There is symbolism involved. But even the symbols used in these texts suggest that something has really been consumed. There is no indication that the eating is some kind of ever-enduring process.

burning

  • In the first trumpet of the seven trumpets vision, one third of all the land, the trees and the grass are burned up because of a plague of hail and fire, mixed with blood. They are all said to have been burned up.[16]
  • The Great prostitute is said to be made desolate and naked. Her flesh is devoured and she is burned up with fire.[17]
  • Babylon the Great is also said to be “burned up with fire,” and the people who had “committed sexual immorality and lived in luxury with her” will see the smoke – the evidence of her destruction – and “weep and wail.”[18]
  • Satan, the beast, and the false prophet, and all “the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars” will be throne into the lake of fire.[19] Each will suffer torment for as long as is necessary. But the torment is not the purpose of this lake of fire. No, this is “the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”[20] A lake of fire consumes what is thrown into it. This is the natural reading of the text. It also fits the picture of God as a consuming fire that is evident in the previous Scriptures we have surveyed.

destruction in the rest of the New Testament

The teachings of the rest of the New Testament serve as a corresponding affirmation that the final state of the lost will be complete destruction:

“fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”[21]

“And in the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, “Ha! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are- the Holy One of God.””[22]

“Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.[23]

“Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot- they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all– so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed.”[24]

“Moses said, ‘The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you. And it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people.’”[25]

“If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”[26]

“We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.”[27]

“Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”[28]

“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.[29]

“For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. For, ‘Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.’ But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.”[30]

“those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority. … like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction.[31]

Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”[32]

consumption by fire in the rest of the New Testament

The rest of the New Testament also utilizes the metaphor of consumption in fire as a description of God’s judgment on sinners.

“His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clean out his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire.””[33]

“Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age.”[34]

“And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?””[35]

“For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.”[36]

“This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken- that is, things that have been made- in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”[37]

“waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!”[38]

In the face of all this evidence from Scripture that the LORD plans to consume his enemies by destroying them with fire at the final judgment, it makes sense to believe this truth, and teach it in our churches. Let us have an end to redefining biblical words and misapplying Scriptural texts. Let us take God at his word regarding the fate of the lost, because he is a consuming fire. The world needs to know that!


[1] Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle, Erasing Hell (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2011), 135.

[2] See my review of the book here: www.afterlife.co.nz/2011/featured-article/erasing-hell-review-by-jefferson-vann/

[3] Deut. 4:24; 9:3; Isa. 33:14; Lam. 2:3; Heb. 12:29.

[4] Leviticus 10:1-2.

[5] 1 Kings 18:38-39.

[6] Isaiah 30:30,33.

[7] Rev. 19:20; 20:10, 14f.

[8] Origen, Homilies on Leviticus. Quoted in Joseph T. Lienhard, ed. Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. (Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 278.

[9] R.T. Kendall, The Parables of Jesus. (Grand Rapids, MI: Chosen Books, 2006), 355. Kendall argued that hell is a place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, and that cannot happen if one is burned up or annihilated. But, anyone can imagine that just before an execution, the condemned would respond to their immanent demise with either grief or anger, or both. Their weeping and gnashing of teeth would be a very natural reaction to their fate, but would by no means prohibit them from subsequently being executed.

[10] http://creationsciencestudy.wordpress.com/2014/03/03/what-is-hell-like/

[11] Revelation 2:7.

[12] Revelation 2:14, 20.

[13] Revelation 3:20.

[14] Revelation 10:9-10.

[15] Revelation 19:17-18.

[16] Revelation 8:7.

[17] Revelation 17:16.

[18] Revelation 18:1-18.

[19] Revelation 19:20; 21:8.

[20] Revelation 21:8.

[21] Matthew 10:28 ESV. (This and all subsequent references will include underlining for emphasis. The emphases are mine).

[22] Luke 4:33-34 ESV.

[23] Luke 17:26-27 ESV.

[24] Luke 17:28-30 ESV.

[25] Acts 3:22-23 ESV.

[26] 1 Corinthians 3:17 ESV.

[27] 1 Corinthians 10:9-11 ESV.

[28] 1 Corinthians 15:24-26 ESV.

[29] Hebrews 2:14 ESV.

[30] Hebrews 10:36-39 ESV.

[31] 2 Peter 2:10, 12 ESV.

[32] 1 John 3:8 ESV.

[33] Matthew 3:12 NET.

[34] Matthew 13:40 ESV.

[35] Luke 9:54 ESV.

[36] Hebrews 10:26-27 ESV.

[37] Hebrews 12:27-29 ESV.

[38] 2 Peter 3:12 ESV.