Category Archives: theology-acst

An attempt at systematic theology from an Advent Christian viewpoint. The ebook can be purchased from Amazon.

Appendix E: Final Punishment.

 

These writings were published previously in Afterlife website and/or From Death To Life magazine. They appear here as further evidence for the Advent Christian teaching that the final punishment of the wicked will include suffering, but will result in the second death: total extinction of being.

Bell’s Base Cards

Rob Bell does a masterful job of shaking the foundations of the modern theology of human destiny in his new book entitled Love Wins.[1] He exposes the fact that much of what people say about salvation and human destiny is not based on the Bible, therefore does not hold up to the scrutiny of direct questioning. He dares to ask direct questions – many of them.

His tactic is similar to that of knocking down base cards in someone’s house of cards. A house of cards can be an enormous thing, but it is only as strong as the first few cards one lays out. Those base cards serve as the foundation. If they are stable, one can build fortresses out of flimsy cards upon them. But topple those base cards and the entire thing falls apart. Bell’s identified some flimsy base cards in modern theology: the idea that only professing believers will go to heaven and its corollary that all others will suffer in hell forever.

He attacked those familiar base cards by appealing to scripture after scripture to show that the Bible addresses very different issues. He wanted to show that the whole of modern theology about human destiny was built upon assumptions that do not come from the Bible. He accomplished that mission. Each chapter in the book identifies a presupposition, and then proceeds to topple it by going to the text of scripture and comparing the presupposition to what scripture actually says. In short, Bell does theology and he does it well.

Nevertheless, Bell’s book is destined to be much maligned. He has taken on subjects which are practically taboo for evangelical Christians. “Heaven when you die” and “conscious eternal suffering for the lost” are concepts that are too holy for most good church people to investigate. Expect Bell to be branded a hopeless Universalist. Expect retaliation. Expect The DaVinci Code all over again.

…And rightfully so. Any good theologian worth his or her salt makes a difference. Bell has swung a pendulum, and one should expect the thing to swing back in the other direction. Paul told the Corinthians that “there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.”[2] Bad theology can mobilize good theology.

With that in mind, let me tell you where I think Bell has it wrong. He spends numerous pages showing that the gospel message is not about going to heaven when you die – then he puts the saved in heaven when they die. He can do no other, because for Bell (and most of his opponents) the human soul has to live eternally somewhere. Bell sweeps away all of the scriptural evidence that he has amassed against the concept that heaven is a destination. In the end, he says what he has been arguing against.

He agrees with his opponents that all human beings are immortal, except that, unlike them, he argues that their immortality gives human beings hope for restoration to God even after their bodies die. He argues from scripture that God is love and therefore never gives up on his own. So, as long as there is life, there is hope. He argues for the concept of future probation on the basis of two premises: God never stops loving, and human beings never stop living.

Herein is the problem: none of Bell’s opponents want to deny either of those premises. They believe that God is both loving and just. They want to agree with what the Bible says about his love, but not forget that it gives equal time to his wrath. When they talk about Judgment Day, they envision that it will be just that – a day in which God will judge humanity, and determine the eternal fate of everyone. They cannot envision a Judgment Day that extends to however many years and centuries needed to purge humanity of all sin and rescue all. Hence, they must believe that death seals the fate of all.

The all important doctrine that Bell and most of his opponents agree upon is the concept of innate immortality: that all humans are born immortal. That doctrine will leads Bell’s opponents to insist on eternal conscious suffering in hell for the lost. It leads Bell to insist that a loving God would never condemn people to such a fate for a limited life of sin; therefore he must give opportunity for restoration.

Allow me then – in Rob Bell fashion – to suggest that it is that presupposition that keeps both Bell and his opponents from seeing what the Bible says about the destiny of the lost. The Bible says that only God is immortal.[3] Immortality is a promise from God that Christ will give to the saved – it is not an innate characteristic of every human.[4] For anybody to live anywhere forever, they must have eternal life. Eternal life is promised to the saved only.[5]

What, then, is the destiny of the lost? The God of justice who gave us his truth in his word has decreed that the lost will be destroyed.[6] Since the wages of sin is death, they will die.[7] They will be appropriately punished according to the decree of a God who is both loving and just, and then they will be no more.[8] They have been granted one life to live. That one life is a gift of grace from God. Nobody deserves to live forever. God is under no obligation to give unbelievers an eternal life, either to suffer, or to repent. He is sovereign, and if he has decided that the wages of sin is death, no theologian has the right to convert the sentence.

Bell wrote a book about a victory. He envisions an eternity in which all sin is forgiven, all wrongs are righted, and love wins. He is absolutely right. Love will win because God will win. God will win because he is God, not because he is love. His love and justice work together to produce a heaven and earth without evil. Our participation in that victory is not a given. Some will not make it. That is what it ultimately means to be lost. In the end, God wins. Reader, where do you stand before God? Don’t take his patience for granted.


Review of Erasing Hell

Review of Erasing Hell by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle (Colorado Springs:, Colorado: David C. Cook, 2011) Kindle edition.

Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle have joined forces to produce a contemporary book on hell that speaks to the hearts of today’s evangelicals, but engages our minds as well. Although admitting a reluctance to take up the subject, their approach flows from people who are serious about it, and who want to faithfully represent what the Bible says about it. They did not want to “get so lost in deciphering” and “forget to tremble” (87).

The title is a bit misleading – since the authors have no intention of actually erasing hell – or letting their readers forget it. Instead, the title speaks to the almost universal reluctance that modern humanity has of even thinking about the possibility of divine punishment. Most of us “would love to erase hell from the pages of Scripture” (13), but the references to final punishment are there, nonetheless.

Some have tried to erase hell by suggesting that it is merely a temporary phenomenon – that eventually all nonbelievers will be restored and God’s love will finally win the day. The problem is, nothing in Scripture “suggests that there’s hope on the other side of the lake (of fire)” (33).

The book prescribes a solution to our problems with hell – that we wise up to the fact that God is sovereign, and he is going to punish the lost so we might as well accept it. He is the potter, we are the clay. If he chooses not to save everyone, his love still wins, because his love is intrinsic. It is not defined by what we might expect it to do. The book defends God and hell, and encourages its readers to accept both as reality.

With one exception, that reality is exactly the teachings of popular Christianity that Rob bell reacted so strongly against.[9] Chan and Sprinkler defend what the modern universalist might call the traditional view of hell – as a place where God will torment unbelievers perpetually for all eternity. The only exception is that for Chan and Sprinkler, hell takes place after the final judgment, not immediately after death. They rightly conclude that the intermediate state is “where the wicked await their judgment” (156). What they do not admit is that it (sheol/hades) is also where the righteous await resurrection, and that for both it is a state of unconsciousness the Bible calls sleep.

No, Chan and Sprinkler will not erase hell. They are uncomfortable with the thought of people suffering for eternity, but conclude that they should not “erase God’s revealed plan of punishment because it doesn’t sit well with” them (135).

The book avoids any discussion of the essential nature of humanity, but proceeds from the same presuppositions regarding that question that Rob Bell did – that human souls are indestructible. This is seen in the explanation of Matthew 25:46, where Jesus speaks of the two destinies. The book argues that “Because the life in this age will never end, given the parallel, it also seems that the punishment in this age will never end” (85). If the authors had not already concluded that both destinies involve life, they could perhaps see that Jesus is not giving a description of two parallel destinies, but contrasting two permanent destinies, where only one involves life. The punishment is not life, but death, and it is just as permanent (Gk. aionios) as the believer’s life.[10]

Since they hold this presupposition of innate immortality, although the authors quote numerous texts of Scripture where hell is described as destruction (26-29, 80, 101-102, 109-111, 130), they conclude that this cannot be taken literally in any of them. They also conclude that the fire of hell is not a literal fire (154), and that the second death will not be a literal death (106-107). Neither of those conclusions can be established by exegesis of the texts themselves. They are all based on the presupposition of the innate immortality of the soul – a doctrine borrowed from paganism and infused into Christian thought by syncretism.

For those convinced that humans already have eternal life, Erasing Hell might achieve its purpose: to encourage them to accept the traditional notion of hell as God’s best — even if it is repugnant to them. Chan admits that he does not feel that God is doing right by tormenting people for eternity, but adds “Maybe someday I will stand in complete agreement with (God), but for now I attribute the discrepancy to an underdeveloped sense of justice on my part” (141).

For me, the problem is not with God’s justice. If God created human beings immortal, his justice demands that they spend eternity suffering for their rejection of him. But that is just it. The Bible insists that humanity lost its chance at immortality in the garden of Eden. Since then, the only hope for anyone to live forever is found in Christ. Hell is designed for those outside of Christ. They have nothing immortal that would burn forever if thrown into a lake of fire. The fires of Hell will do what God says they will do. They will destroy those thrown into them, body and soul.[11]

This is both God’s justice and his love, because his new creation will be purged of all sin and evil. There will be no hell existing perpetually beside the kingdom. Christ will destroy all of God’s enemies.[12] That is the biblical hell. It ends God’s judgment and makes room for the eternal kingdom of life and love. That event is absolutely essential to God’s plan in history. No one should want to erase it.


Eternally

The ancient Greeks had ten ways of describing a process that goes on perpetually without end:

1. They could use the adverb aei, meaning ever, or always.

2. They could use the prefix aien, meaning the same idea when attached to a word describing a process, like aienaoidos, which means ever-singing, or aienaos, which means ever-flowing.

3. They could use eisaei, a combination of eis (for), and aei (ever), hence, forever.

4. They could use esaei, a variation of aei, with the same meaning.

5. They could use eis to pan chronon, meaning “for all time.”

6. They could use di’ aiōnos, meaning “through an age.”

7. They could use ton di’ aiōnos chronon, meaning “through an age of time.”

8. They could use eis panta chronon, meaning “for all time.”

9. They could use eis aidion, meaning “for ever.”

10. They could use sunechōs, meaning “continuously”.[13]

With this enormous vocabulary at their disposal, one must wonder why the New Testament authors never used any of it to describe the final state of the lost. Instead, they chose an the adjective aiōnios to describe – not the process, but the event of Gehenna hell. When describing an event, the adjective aiōnios refers to its permanence. The biblical authors use this word to highlight that hell’s consequences (judgment and death) are permanent.

· Matthew 25:46 — At the judgment, some will gain permanent life, others will suffer the punishment of death permanently.

· Mark 3:29 – Those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit will never have forgiveness. Their sin and guilt are permanent.

· 2 Thessalonians 1:9 – The lost will suffer the punishment of permanent destruction. God is everywhere, and they will be so obliterated as to be taken away from his presence. That is total annihilation.

· Hebrews 6:2 – The concept of permanent judgment – that is, judgment that leads to permanent death – was considered one of the foundational teachings of the New Testament church.

· Jude 7 – Sodom & Gomorrah – the people and the lands – were completely destroyed by fire, and Jude says that their destruction serves as an example of what the fires of hell will do. It was not a process of perpetual tormenting, but an event that resulted in permanent destruction.

God is infinite, so the adjective “permanent” always applies to him.[14] Believers are not infinite, but we are promised permanent life in place of our present temporary ones.[15] But neither of these uses of the adjective aiōnios suggest the notion that the mortal souls of unbelievers must stay alive forever and ever in order for them to receive an unending process of being punished. The proponents of a never-ending hell have placed too much emphasis on an adjective, pretending that it is an adverb. The Bible never asserts that the lost will suffer eternally. It asserts that they will suffer proportionally – that is, according to what they have done.[16] Then they will all suffer the same final fate, the second death.[17] God is just, and he will punish sinners. But God is not condemned to keep doing so for eternity.


Examining Romans 2:6-8

“(God) will render to each one according to his works: to those

who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and

immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-

seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness,

there will be wrath and fury” (Romans 2:6-8 ESV).

two questions

Like all of Scripture, Paul’s writings can lend themselves to a variety of interpretations, and this text is no exception. Two questions present themselves to the inquisitive reader of Romans 2:6-8.

· First, there is the works question: is Paul teaching salvation by works here? If so, he would seem to be contradicting what he has written elsewhere, especially in Romans.

· The second question might not be so obvious as the first, but it bears asking: What kind of judgment is Paul talking about? In other words, what is the nature of the divine wrath that Paul is alluding to? That is the wrath question.

the works question

Paul’s argument throughout the book of Romans is that works do not justify anyone – that is, no one is going to be declared righteous before God on the basis of works that he or she has done or will do.

· “For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight” (3:20).

· “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (3:28).

· “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (11:6).

Paul makes similar points in Galatians:

· “yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (2:16).

· “Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” (3:2).

· “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them”” (3:10).

So, why does Paul begin his argument in Romans by putting works in a good light, insisting that God is going to award works of well-doing and obedience to the truth? Why does Paul say that works will lead to blessing when he later says that those who rely on works are under a curse?

the context of Romans 2

Part of the answer to questions like that is that Paul is addressing a certain audience in Romans 2, an audience who will understand the meaning of his words in a particular way. He had set up his argument in chapter one by referring to godless and ignorant pagans who suppress what little truth they know, and exchange that truth for a lie, leading to both idolatry and immorality. He concludes that God is storing up his wrath against them.

In chapter 2, Paul turns to the wiser, smug, Jewish part of his audience. He asks them this question: “Do you suppose … that you will escape the judgment of God?”.[18] They probably did. They probably felt that since their sin lives were less conspicuous than those of their Gentile neighbors, God would overlook them. After all, they were not guilty of such blatant idolatry and immorality as is common among the Gentiles.

But Paul’s message to those who were less sinful (or less openly sinful) was that they are going to be judged as well. No one will escape judgment because no one is sinless. But this God of judgment is also a God of grace. He has chosen to save some in spite of their sinfulness.

God will save the repentant

Looking down upon others who are caught in destructive lifestyles and behaviors is not an attribute of someone who is going to be saved. Paul tells the self-righteous Jews of Rome that in passing judgment upon others they are condemning themselves. He tells them that the fact that they are not experiencing some of the unpleasant consequences of blatant sin is due to God’s kindness and forbearance and patience.[19] But these outwardly good people are actually storing up wrath for themselves for judgment day.[20] Their good works will not save them on that day.

There are two reasons for this. First, all sin is repugnant to God, and he sees all sin. He is not blind to the sins of respectable people. He shows no partiality.[21] Second, those who are not blatantly godless or decadent will sin, and those sins will be found out among the rest of the planet. Paul tells these judgmental Jews that their sins are causing his name to be blasphemed among the Gentiles.[22]

Paul urges these who are self-satisfied with their almost righteousness to repent of their sins. He tells them that God’s patience is meant to lead them to repentance. He pleads for them not to rely on their good works to save them.

Repentance is the beginning of the process that the Holy Spirit works in the lives of those who will be ultimately saved. The author of Hebrews listed two things that are foundational to every Christian life: “repentance from dead works and … faith toward God.”[23] The act of repenting from one’s sins takes salvation out of the “me” camp and puts it into the “God” camp. It is acknowledgment that one’s attempt to live the perfect life did not work. Thus, it is a plea for mercy and grace. The “patience in well-doing” by which the believer seeks “glory honor and immortality” does not even begin until after repentance. To suggest that someone can become saved and do actual good works without repenting is like suggesting that someone can live without being born.

the wrath question

For those who do not repent and begin a life of seeking “glory, honor and immortality”, God’s “wrath and fury” await. Like grace and repentance, this final punishment will be meted out to everyone regardless of ethnic or national pedigree. It will come to “every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek.”[24]

What is the nature of this wrath? We know that God’s wrath is currently being revealed against the ungodly.[25] The destructive and abusive lifestyles of those who do not know God are killing them regularly. The consequences of their choice to suppress the truth and obey unrighteousness destroys them, either gradually or suddenly. But for some, God’s wrath does not seem to lead to such consequences. For them, God’s wrath is being stored up until judgment day, when it will be revealed all at once.[26]

The book of Revelation describes that event this way:

“Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them.

And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done.

And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done.

Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.

And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:12-15).

This vision of divine judgment was revealed to John on Patmos. It is written in a different genre than Paul’s description of wrath and fury in Romans 2, but there can be no doubt that it describes the same future event. Comparing both texts reveals the following similarities.

1. Both descriptions are of judgment meted out by God.

2. Both depictions include all humanity.

3. Both descriptions include a division of humanity into two groups: one will suffer wrath while the other will receive life.

4. Both descriptions have the same basis for judgment: the evil works done in this life.

5. Both descriptions portray a specific event in the future. Paul calls it “the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.”[27] John sees that it will take place at the end of the age, just before the creation of a “new heaven and a new earth.”[28]

There is no indication in either of these passages of this judgment taking place in the intermediate state (the time between death and the resurrection). Although Paul says that wrath and fury awaits the wicked, he does not say that this judgment will take place when the wicked man dies. Instead, he speaks of an event in the future when God’s wrath will be poured out on all the wicked together, at the same time. He sees the same thing that John sees.

Likewise, John describes an event that takes place at the end of the age, not a process that goes on from a person’s death onward. He sees all the dead together in the same place, and then judgment begins. All the wicked are judged “according to what they had done.”[29] This allows for judgment that properly addresses each person’s sin. The notion that people will be tormented during the intermediate state as punishment for their sins is not supported by either of these texts.

the end of judgment

John sees this judgment coming to a completion, an end. He says of the wicked “they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done.”[30] The very next verse says … “Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.”[31] The symbol is the lake of fire, a large body of fire that does what fire does: it destroys. The reality that the symbol portrays is not a process but an event: the second death. Once that event is over, God is free to recreate, which he does by making a new heaven and earth. The first heaven and earth (together with the lake of fire) had passed away.[32]

Paul’s description of judgment in Romans 2 shows the same result. After an appropriate time of receiving God’s wrath and fury for their sins, all of the wicked are said to “perish.”[33] Thus Paul divides the world into two groups: those “who are being saved” and “those who are perishing.”[34] Paul teaches that all of Christ’s enemies will be destroyed, then the “last enemy to be destroyed is death” itself.[35] Paul gives no place or time for a final punishment that does not end.

the purpose of God’s wrath

Paul’s argument in Romans is that all humanity stands under the judgment of God because of sin, thus all need a Savor. He calls for the ignorant Gentile to repent and turn to God. He calls for the self-righteous Jew to repent and turn to God. He warns that a hell of just punishment awaits both.

The wrath and fury of God can be called just for two reasons: it appropriately deals with the rebellion and sins of each individual who will be punished, and will appropriately deal with the blot of sin in the universe as a whole. Once the lake of fire has burned up the last trace of rebellion in the universe, God will be free to accomplish the purpose for which his wrath was devised: granting life to his redeemed for all eternity.

That is why Paul, eager to share the good news of eternal life with the Romans, had to preface his gospel with the bad news about hell. God has a plan for eternal peace and righteousness. In order for that plan to come about, there must first be wrath and fury poured out upon those who do not repent.

both sides of the story

We seek to win our neighbors to Christ. We want them to know the joy of living with him and for him. We want them to be saved for all eternity. But we are often reluctant to talk to them about the consequences if they reject God’s offer. We do not want to be branded as a “fire and brimstone” kind of Christian. Paul in Romans 2 shows how to appropriately tell both sides of the story of God’s salvation. Our neighbors might not be interested in being saved until we can explain to them what they need to be saved from.


Hell is Permanent

Travis Allen, director of Internet Ministry for Grace to You, recently posted an article entitled Is Hell Really Endless?Allen’s article defends the concept that final punishment by God is a process that will never end. Allen rejects the view he calls Annihilationism, which is “a denial of the endlessness of hell.”[36]

Allen asserts that annihilationism “seems to be making a strong resurgence today among evangelicals. That may be an overstatement, but it is a helpful correction to the assumption many have that the view only exists among the cults and theological liberals. Most of us who are labeled annihilationist[37] argue from the same belief in an inerrant, infallible, authoritative scripture as Allen and John MacArthur do. We are solidly in the evangelical camp, and reject the concept of an endless hell on scriptural grounds. We appreciate it when that is admitted.

Allen accurately portrays our view when he says we “don’t allow (God’s wrath) to extend beyond the lake of fire.” As we read the book of Revelation, the lake of fire is precisely described as the place of final punishment, and that the lake itself will commence the second death, from which there is no possible resurrection. It is the ultimate end of the old age, and its consummation will make room for the new heavens and new earth.

The Bible teaches that every sin not atoned for by the blood of Christ will be punished thoroughly in that lake of fire, then death and hell itself will be thrown into it. These words describe an end – a solution to a problem that had a beginning. It is fitting that Revelation should give us the story of how God’s grace will eventually correct the result of the rebellion which is recorded in Genesis.

This second death will be a horrible, agonizing, event in which every transgression against God’s holiness will receive its appropriate punishment. Not until that happens – and God is thoroughly vindicated – will he “snuff every unbeliever out of existence.” He will do so because he has determined what the ultimate wages of sin are. He did not decree that sinners will have the luxury of an eternal life anywhere – not even hell. The wages of sin is death. Eternal life is a gift he has reserved for those he has saved by grace.

Allen makes four specific assertions about how we argue our case against an endless hell. Each of these assertions speak to the heart of the issue, so each is worthy of analysis and a reply.

1) Allen asserts that we redefine the word eternal.

Allen quotes John MacArthur, who asserts that annihilationists “would like to redefine the word aionios and say, ‘well, it doesn’t really mean forever.’” He refers specifically to Matthew 25:46, where Jesus describes two final destinies. Jesus says that the sheep (those who treated the least of his brothers with compassion) will go away into eternal life. The goats (those who do not treat the least of his brothers kindly) will go away into eternal punishment.

The word aionios is an adjective. Its purpose is to explain and further define another word – in this case a noun. Like any other adjective (indeed, practically any other word) aionios has more than one possible meaning. For example, the adjective “hot” may describe the day’s temperature, or it may explain that certain jewels have been stolen. The meaning of the adjective depends a great deal upon the noun it modifies. Any one adjective can have a number of possible meanings in its semantic range. The term itself has no set meaning. Its meaning is determined by the context – in this case, the noun it modifies.

Annihilationists are not guilty of redefining the term eternal. In Matthew 25:46 the term eternal is used twice. In both cases the term modifies an event in such a way as to draw attention to its finality, and so aionios should thus be translated permanent. In one case – eternal life — the noun life clearly depicts the event when believers will inherit immortality: permanent life.[38] In the other case, the term punishment also describes an event: destruction in hell. Both the noun kolasis and its corresponding verb kolazō refer to an anticipated event.[39] The Bible elsewhere describes this event as “the day of the LORD”[40] or “the day of judgment.”[41] When the noun that aionios defines refers to an event in time, then the meaning implied by aionios is not perpetual. A more accurate definition in that case is permanent. The English word eternal can mean either.

Other biblical examples of this use of aionios include:

· the permanent sin which can never be forgiven (Mark 3:29).

· the permanent weight of glory compared with our slight momentary affliction (2 Corinthians 4:17; 1 Peter 5:10).

· the permanent things that are unseen compared to the transient things that are seen (2 Corinthians 4:18).

· the permanent house (body) in the heavens compared to our temporary tent (body) on earth (2 Corinthians 5:1).

· the permanent destruction the lost will face at Christ’s return (2 Thessalonians 1:9).

· the permanent comfort and good hope we have through God’s grace (2 Thessalonians 2:16).

· the permanent glory that accompanies salvation in Christ (2 Timothy 2:10).

· Philemon’s permanent return to Colossae, after being parted from them for a while (Philemon 1:15).

· The permanent salvation made possible by Jesus, our great high priest (Hebrews 5:9).

· The permanent judgment that will take place after the resurrection of the dead (Hebrews 6:2).

· The permanent redemption secured by Christ’s sacrifice in the heavenly sanctuary (Hebrews 9:12).

· the permanent covenant made possible by the shedding of the blood of Christ (Hebrews 13:20).

· entrance into the permanent kingdom provided for all those who make their calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10-11).

Most other uses of aionios in the New Testament are when the term describes God,[42] or something that comes from God: his gospel,[43] or the fire he uses to destroy the wicked on judgment day.[44] In neither of these cases is the emphasis on duration. The emphasis is on God as the source. That is why Jude tells us that Sodom and Gomorrah serve as examples of undergoing a punishment of aionios fire. Sodom and Gomorrah were completely destroyed. The destruction was not a perpetual process, but an event in which they were punished by God, the eternal one.

Greek adjectives can appear in plural form, and when that is done to aionios in the New Testament, it is so that the term can modify a plural noun,[45] or it refers to an event predicted or promised long ago, which has now been fulfilled or revealed. The three examples of this are:

· “Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages[46]

· “who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.[47]

· The final example actually uses aionios twice, once in the sense of permanent, and once in the sense of something promised long ago “in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began.[48]

In summary, annihilationists are not redefining aionios. This article has surveyed every use of aionios in the New Testament and has not found a single reference where it has to describe a perpetual process. Once released from the shackles of the presuppositions of pagan philosophy, we are simply free to describe how the Bible consistently uses the term.

2) Allen asserts that we object to an endless hell on moral grounds.

Allen claims that annihilationists cannot fathom a holy and merciful God perpetually torturing billions of people in hell because we see it as “a form of cruel and unusual punishment.” We do often make arguments like this, but not as a means of judging God on our standards. We simply point out that the picture of God that the Bible uniformly presents is of One whose justice is always tempered by mercy. He destroyed the earth with a flood, but in his mercy saved Noah’s family and the animals with the ark. He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah for their sins, but saved Lot and his daughters by his mercy. The psalmist declares, “his anger is but for a moment, and his favour is for a lifetime.”[49]

Our real objection to a perpetual hell on moral grounds is that we see it as inconsistent with God’s character as revealed in his word. Perhaps there are those who go too far with this line of reasoning and say “if God were a God who tortured people forever, then I would not believe in him.” The only logical response to such an argument is “then you would be tortured forever.” We try not to cross that line in our arguments against a perpetual hell. We honestly believe that when all the biblical evidence is presented, God is not revealed to be a sadistic monster who will keep people alive forever simply to torment them.

3) Allen asserts that we fail to understand the theology of justice.

Allen spends four out of 13 paragraphs in his post arguing that annihilationists reject an endless hell because we do not get how sinful sin is, and how holy God is. He says our view “fails to account for a lawgiver who is infinite and eternal by nature.” He implies that if we really understood God, then we would see how a never-ending hell fits into his plan. To be fair, he admits that even those who believe in a place of perpetual torture have problems with it when they contemplate its severity. He insists, however, that those contemplations are there because of “how little we understand the sinfulness of sin on the one hand, and the holiness of God on the other.” He argues that since God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9), then we should ignore those contemplations and accept a perpetual hell on faith.

But we annihilationists are theologians too. We know how dangerous it can be when God’s people are told to accept a line of reasoning on faith, and to avoid questioning. From the Gospels, it is clear that Jesus spent a great deal of his time on earth questioning and arguing against the contemporary theologians and accepted doctrines of his day.

It is true that God’s thoughts are not our own. It does not follow that the doctrine of an endless hell clearly represents God’s thoughts. We argue that the doctrine of an endless hell is the result of the syncretistic combination of what the Bible says about final punishment with the pagan philosophy of innate immortality. The idea of a perpetual hell was created out of this syncretism. It reasoned not from the nature of sin or the nature of God but from Plato’s doctrine of the nature of man.

Since Augustine (whom Allen quotes as an authority) accepted Plato’s idea of innate immortality of the soul, he reasoned that hell must be perpetual because the soul of man cannot die. It was for that reason that he rejected the idea of a hell of limited duration as “the height of absurdity.” But if one accepts the clear statements of scripture that God alone has immortality,[50] and God will punish sinners by destroying them,[51] so that they exist no more,[52] it becomes clear that Plato’s innate immortality theory cannot be accepted on the same basis as scripture. They contradict each other.

Perhaps that is why Allen does not argue for human immortality, but chooses rather to defend perpetual hell on the basis of the sinfulness of sin and the holiness of God. But, even there, the argumentation fails. Allen argues that because God is infinite, then sins against him require infinite punishment. If that were so, then how could Jesus atone for the sins of all humanity by merely dying on the cross and remaining dead for a few days? Surely if the punishment for any sin against God requires perpetual suffering, then Christ should still be on the cross!

The Bible clearly states what God requires to pay for sins. The wages of sin is death[53] – not perpetual suffering. Not satisfied with this clear description of just punishment for sin, proponents of the concept of perpetual hell simply redefine death – as eternal separation from God. This can only be the case if the person who dies cannot really die. Again, we see that the theology behind the perpetual hell idea is not really based on the nature of God, but is derived from Greek dualism and its understanding of the nature of humanity.

Neither does the concept of a holy God require a perpetual hell. In fact, God’s holiness requires that sin and righteousness be destroyed – not kept alive and tormented eternally. There was a point in time in eternity past, when there was no sin – no rebellion. Everything was good in God’s universe. Then sin entered heaven through the rebellion of Satan and eventually came to humanity and earth by Adam and Eve’s transgression.

Ever since sin entered God’s realm, he has been at work to destroy it. There is nothing within his character that requires that he tolerate it. He has a plan that includes the undoing of the curse of sin, and the undoing of the consequences – including death. God’s holiness demands that the plan be carried out. The sin which has infected his universe will be eradicated, and all that is under him will again be his. The doctrine of an endless hell requires God to capitulate. It robs God of his sovereignty – insisting that sin is just as eternal as he is, and there is finally nothing that he can do about it.

Those who accept this notion are imprisoned by a pagan theology that finds no place in the Bible. Until they come to reject the concept of the immortal soul they will always have to place the immortal souls of dead sinners somewhere. A perpetual hell seems the logical place.

4) Allen asserts that we refuse to embrace the hard doctrines of the Bible.

Allen implies that those who accept the concept of a perpetual hell have embraced “the hard doctrines of the Bible” and that is evidence that their faith is “true” and “God-given.” The assumption, of course, is that the Bible teaches this hard doctrine. If the Bible actually teaches that hell will be perpetual, then all believers should accept it as truth, no matter how hard or easy it is.

Annihilationists argue that the doctrine of endless torture is not clearly taught in the Bible. We argue that those passages which appear to teach it are being misread. Many of our writings examine those texts because our concern is that this hard doctrine is hard because it really does not fit the evidence.

It is true that some of the doctrines the Bible clearly teaches are difficult to get a handle on. Anyone who has struggled with the implications of God’s sovereignty and how it affects man’s will can attest to this fact. God is complicated and we should not expect his word to be always easy to understand.

It is also true that accepting the things we learn in scripture is evidence that our faith is genuine. The Holy Spirit works in the hearts and minds of believers, giving them insight into what God means by what he said in scripture. We call this the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Without His guidance, believers would be prone to all kinds of deceptions and false theologies.

History has shown, however, that the illumination of the Holy Spirit does not guarantee that all Bible-believing Christians will agree with each other, or that a doctrine that is popular is also biblical. In fact, many doctrines over the ages which were extremely well-received by the Church have been proven to be unbiblical and discarded.

The doctrine of perpetual hell, which grants eternal life to sinners and requires that they spend eternity alive “outside of the mercy of God” should be discarded. While it is obviously a hard doctrine – and “an absolutely horrible, terrifying doctrine” – it has always had its dissenters who are convinced that it is not a biblical doctrine. There is no advantage to holding to an unbiblical doctrine. Holding to an unbiblical doctrine cannot be evidence of the veracity of one’s faith.

An Alternative

Annihilationists believe in a literal hell which will appear at the end of the age. It is the lake of fire of Revelation, and it will burn as hot as it needs to burn. It will be a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth.[54] It will include all those who regret their not coming to faith, and all those who defy God’s right to judge them to the very end. It is the place of final justice. All wrongs will be dealt with. In the end, God will be vindicated. Everyone in hell will understand that it is their own sins and rebellion that put them there. It will last as long as it needs to last for every deserved punishment to be meted out. It is the final historical event of the present age.[55] In it, God will destroy the lost completely, soul and body.[56]

Then, a new age will begin, after Christ destroys all God’s enemies – even the last enemy – death itself.

“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. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.”[57]

After hell ends, then there will be a new heaven and a new earth because the old order of things will have passed away.[58] Hell is aionios in both major senses in which the term is used in the Bible. It is from God, the perpetual one, who had no beginning and will have no end. Hell is also permanent, an event having a beginning, and a definitive end, and from which there will be no deliverance.

God is perpetual. He never had a beginning, and will never have an end. Human beings have a beginning. We are not infinite. God in his grace offers eternal life to those who believe in his Son. We have the opportunity to become perpetual. By trusting in Christ as our Savior and Lord, we take hold of his promise of eternal life. He intends to keep that promise by granting us immortality at his return.

He has not promised immortality to unbelievers. Their fate is to be destroyed permanently in hell. To make hell an endless process requires that unbelievers as well have immortality. That is not honoring to God nor is it taught in the scriptures.

The title of Allen’s post is “Is Hell Really Endless.” The word endless only appears once in the Bible, and refers to teachings “which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith.”[59] The Bible never uses the term endless to describe hell. Instead, the Bible says:

· “Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them on the day of the wrath of the LORD. In the fire of his jealousy, all the earth shall be consumed; for a full and sudden end he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.”[60]

· “And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end.”[61]

· “But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? The end of those things is death.”[62]

· “Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.”[63]

· “So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.”[64]

· “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.”[65]

· “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers.”[66]

The only permanent things in this universe are events that happen in history, God himself and the beings he has decided to rescue from this age into the next. Hell will not be perpetual, like God’s life. It will be a permanent event in history, but not a perpetual process.


Judas’ Eternal Sin

The three major views on final punishment of the wicked can be outlined like this:

1. traditionalism: God will justly punish unbelievers with an unending process of perpetual torment.

2. universalism: God will justly punish unbelievers for their personal sins, and eventually restore them to his favor.

3. conditionalism: God will justly punish unbelievers for their personal sins and eventually destroy them.

All three views have been honestly argued from scripture, and all three have been contested as unbiblical. As believers seek to sort out what the Bible actually teaches on this subject, they need to consider those arguments carefully. Attacks against one’s position may cause them to rethink it, or they may help them understand it more clearly, and therefore defend it more effectively.

John Piper has consistently argued for position 1 (which we call traditionalism) and has opposed both universalism and position 3 (which he calls annihilationism). One of his arguments has to do with what the Bible says about Judas Iscariot. There are four passages pertinent to this argument:

“The Son of Man goes as it is written of him,

but woe to that man by whom the Son of

Man is betrayed! It would have been better

for that man if he had not been born.”[67]

“While I was with them, I kept them in your

name, which you have given me. I have

guarded them, and not one of them has

been lost except the son of destruction,

that the Scripture might be fulfilled.”[68]

“but whoever blasphemes against the Holy

Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty

of an eternal sin.[69]

And whoever speaks a word against

the Son of Man will be forgiven, but

whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit

will not be forgiven, either in this age

or in the age to come.”[70]

Piper sees the evidence describing Judas’ fate as proving that he had committed the unpardonable sin, and therefore will never be forgiven. That speaks to the universalist position. He also claims that what the Bible says about Judas’ fate negates the conditionalist position: that Judas will be judged and eventually destroyed.

“If Judas were destined for glory

eventually (as in universalism) or even

destined for extinction (as in

annihilationism), it is difficult to

imagine why it would have been better

for him not to have been born.”[71]

Conditionalists can be thankful for this argument for at least two reasons. First, it is a “chapter and verse” approach which allows those interested in the debate to actually exegete the texts to see if they support the propositions of the argument. Secondly, it is a legitimate argument, since it involves a question to be considered. That sets the parameters for a potentially civil discussion, rather than simply choosing sides and condemning the opposition.

Matthew 26:24

Piper proposes that Judas must suffer perpetually for his betrayal. If Judas was to suffer only a finite amount of time, justice would not be served, and Jesus’ “woe to that man” remark would not make sense. The remark suggests that the betrayer would undergo a fate worse than nonexistence, that he would endure some unthinkable suffering. Specifically, Jesus said that it would have been better for his betrayer if he had not been born. Piper’s reasoning can be mapped like this:

unthinkable suffering = eternal torment

unthinkable suffering ≠ eventual restoration

unthinkable suffering ≠ eventual destruction

A biblical discussion on that line of reasoning might be helped by reference to similar passages which speak of a person’s fate as being worse than having not been born. There are a few such passages in the OT wisdom literature. Job lamented his birth, asking why he had not been stillborn.[72] He had suffered so much that he began to regret his life altogether. Job’s experience definitely qualified as unthinkable suffering, but it did not involve perpetual suffering. He was eventually restored, which (one might suppose) would be an argument for universalism. However, Job’s suffering was not punishment for his sins, and thus it is not proof of eventual restoration after final punishment. Neither does it prove either of the other positions.

David prays that his enemies’ arrows be “like the snail that dissolves into slime, like the stillborn child who never sees the sun.”[73] He asks for the LORD to make his enemy’s plans come to nothing. Having the opportunity to live and see the sun is very important. It is a terrible fate to never have had that experience. It is a life that is wasted. But what Jesus said about Judas was that his fate was worse than that of a wasted life. It was a life that could have been lived for Jesus, but was not. Judas was a disciple. He learned what the other disciples learned, saw the miracles that they saw, but he ended up turning away from that. His life was truly wasted, and that made it worse for him than for the man who was never born. David’s prayer would suggest that the reason Jesus pronounced a woe upon Judas was not so much what Judas would experience in hell as what he refused to experience in his life.

Solomon claimed “If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years, so that the days of his years are many, but his soul is not satisfied with life’s good things, and he also has no burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he.”[74] The Preacher of Ecclesiastes had known every possible achievement, yet he came to the conclusion that one could not gain lasting satisfaction from accomplishments themselves. Unless a relationship with God is in the equation, all the accomplishments in the world are meaningless.[75]

From these three OT references, one might draw a general conclusion about the stillborn metaphor. It refers to meaninglessness and futility. When we overlay that conclusion with what Jesus said about Judas in Matthew 26:24, this is what results: Judas’ life was worse than meaningless. In fact, Judas had the potential to lead the world to its Saviour, but betrayed him instead. Jesus was not so much predicting Judas’ future fate, as he was lamenting Judas’ present decisions, and stating that he would some day regret those decisions. But Jesus did not imply that Judas would be suffering for, and regretting those decisions perpetually.

John 17:12

Piper is comfortable with the idea of Judas as a “son of destruction” as long as he is allowed to define the word destruction so that it does not mean what it obviously means. He concedes that the noun apoleia in John 17:12 is related to the verb apollumi in Matthew 10:28.[76] Ok, that would mean that since God is able to destroy both soul and body in hell, and Judas is a son of destruction, then Judas will be destroyed soul and body in hell.

But wait: Piper is not finished. He goes on to say “the word for destruction (olethros) means ‘ruin’ (1 Timothy 6:9; 1 Corinthians 5:5). The picture is not of obliteration but of a ruin of human life out of God’s presence for ever.”[77] John 17:12 and Matthew 10:28 do not contain the word olethros. They use other words for destruction: apoleia and apollumi. A recent study of the apoleia word group used in the same way as these two texts found that the words always refer “to the literal killing of a person, with not a single exception. [78]

In fact, 1 Timothy 6:9 says that the fate of the lost will be both “ruin and destruction” (olethron kai apoleion). So, the lost will be separated from God’s presence forever, but will also be destroyed soul and body in Gehenna. What the conditionalist refuses to accept is the idea that since unbelievers will suffer ruin (olethros) that somehow negates their destruction (apoleia). Since the Bible declares both as the destiny of the lost, that is what we believe.

Mark 3:29/Matthew 12:32

The two remaining texts put forth by Piper are not specifically applied to Judas in the scriptures, but Piper uses them because they connect the idea of sin with the word aionios: (eternal). Piper argues that “there will be no forgiveness in the age to come for the unforgivable sin, and so Mark calls it an eternal sin, which shows that the word ‘eternal’ is indeed a temporal word of duration and not just a word referring to a limited period in the age to come.” He is particularly addressing universalism here, as he states that the texts rule out “the idea that after a time of suffering in hell, sinners will then be forgiven and admitted to heaven.”[79]

Admittedly, the assertion of no forgiveness in the age to come does speak against the notion of eventual restoration. Yet, conditionalists are bothered by the assumption that if a sin is eternal, the sinner who sins it must never die. Piper is implying this, as it were, through the back door. He argues that an eternal sin requires a perpetual punishment.

The word aionios can possibly mean perpetual, but its most usual meaning is permanent (as opposed to temporary).[80] A permanent sin will be punished by the permanent destruction of the sinner in Gehenna. It does not require that the sinner be granted eternal life so that he can continue to sin and continue to be punished. The wages of sin is death[81], not an everlasting life of sinning and being punished. The eternal punishment the Bible describes is a lake of fire called the second death, a permanent event.[82] It is a description of the eternal consequences of eternal sins committed against an eternal God, but it results in the opposite of eternal life. It does not, and cannot involve eternal life.

God demonstrated his great love for humans by having his own Son put to death as our substitute. Whoever believes in the Son will have eternal life, but whoever does not believe will perish. Judas looked like a believer. That made his betrayal and unbelief all the more despicable. Judas made his choice, and will one day stand before the Savior he betrayed, and receive his just punishment. Jesus was absolutely truthful in declaring that his fate will be worse than that of a man who was never born. His sin was great, and his punishment will be unspeakable. But the greatness of Judas’ sin does not give him the privilege of eternal life. That gift only belongs to true believers.


No Future

(Devotional Thoughts from Psalm 37).

This wisdom psalm from David encourages believers to think rightly about their future and that of the wicked. we need to stop worrying about wicked people and envying their strength and possessions. They may seem strong and secure now, but they will shrivel up like a dead plant (2). They will be cut off (a metaphor for death) (9,22,28,38). They will be no more (10). They will not be at their place (10). Their day is coming (13). Their weapons will be turned against them (15). Their strong arms will be broken (17). They will perish, vanish like smoke (20). They will pass away and be no more, be looked for and not found (36). They will be altogether destroyed (38). They may have a glorious present, but they will have no future (38).

LORD, help us to consistently trust in you, for only in you is there a future.


Solving The Problem of Hell

Our ancestors’ rebellion in Eden has changed humanity from what God originally intended. Because of that rebellion, humanity has inherited a sinful inclination that devastates all our attempts at being good and doing good things. We are tainted with evil, depraved to the core. Legally, we stand condemned before God, so that even our obedience is never enough to justify us. We all sin in so many ways and so many times throughout our lives that destruction in Gehenna hell is almost the only solution for a just God to apply to the problem of us.

Hell

Every life so corrupted by the initial rebellion of Adam – so separated from God by its inherently selfish sinful inclination – deserves the punishment that God warns us of in the Bible. Unfortunately, there has been so much unbiblical tradition added to what the scripture says about that punishment that the term “hell” has ceased to be a helpful word to describe it. A better term – the one Jesus used – is Gehenna. Unlike the hell of tradition, this hell does not begin at death, but begins on judgment day at the end of the age. Also, unlike the hell of tradition, this hell is not a place for the torment of disembodied spirits, but is the place for the punishment and destruction of the whole person – body and spirit.

Originally designating a valley near Jerusalem where garbage was burned, Gehenna for Jesus is a place where every sin – no matter how small it might seem – counts. It is an event and a place for the punishment of every act of violence. It is also a place for the punishment of every careless thought and word of violence. Jesus said “everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment … and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”[83] The reality of hell should make us careful about how we express our emotions.

Gehenna will also punish all those who have followed false teachers, and willfully passed on their deceptions. This idea makes modern humanity a little less comfortable, because it implies that humans are held accountable for the lies they are told as well as the lies they tell. But Jesus clearly taught that the religious leaders of his day were going to Gehenna, and taking with them all of their converts. He called the scribes and Pharisees hypocrites, because they “travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, (they) make him twice as much a child of hell as (them) selves.”[84] The reality of Gehenna should make us all wary of accepting any “new” doctrine.

The scribes and Pharisees were considered the super-spiritual of their day. If anyone envisioned what a holy man looked like, the appearance would be similar to that of a scribe (scripture expert) or Pharisee (law expert). Yet Jesus detected an inner spiritual defilement in these religious leaders. He said they “outwardly appear righteous to others, but within (they) are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”[85] He warned them by saying “You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?”[86] The reality of Gehenna should make us all yearn for genuineness in our relationship to God and obedience to his word.

The hell of tradition is a different matter. Rather than teaching that hell is a place where sin is dealt with ultimately by God, tradition teaches a hell that is a sort of repository where God puts all those pesky sinners that he could not cure. It is a place of punishment and confinement, but not destruction. Having bought into the Greek concept of the immortality of the human soul, tradition is not in a place where it can accept what Jesus literally says about Gehenna. For Jesus, the judgment will take place not during the intermediate state (between death and the resurrection), but “on the last day.”[87]

That “last day” will be truly the last day for all sinners, because they will be raised not for life but for condemnation,[88] punishment (including torment) appropriate for each of their personal sins,[89] and then destruction. Yes, destruction. God has not created anything that he cannot destroy. Jesus said that he “can destroy both soul and body in hell.”[90] Jesus compared the Day of Judgment to the day the world was destroyed by Noah’s flood,[91] and the day the people of Sodom were destroyed by fire.[92] In calling people to himself, he urged them to take the narrow gate which leads to life, not the broad gate, which leads to destruction.[93]

Gehenna is a place for that destruction of both soul and body. That is why Jesus said “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”[94]

Gehenna is not a place known for life, but death. Those who suffer on judgment day will suffer for only as long as it takes to punish them for their sins, and then they will experience the same reality as anything else that is thrown into fire: they will die. The redeemed who are not condemned to Gehenna are said to “enter life.” But those condemned to Gehenna have entered death. That is why Jesus said “if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.”[95]

Destruction in Gehenna hell is almost the only solution for a just God to apply to the problem of sinful us. Thankfully, there is another solution. Since sin is so pervasive, and its consequences in our lives so comprehensive – God has provided in salvation a solution which touches upon every problem that sin has caused for his creatures. That solution is the gospel, which explains what Christ did for us (substitutionary atonement), and what he will do (resurrection and glorification).

Substitutionary Atonement

The apostle Paul put forth an axiom which applies to every aspect of sin discussed. He said “the wages of sin is death.”[96] Carried to its logical conclusion, that axiom would place every human being who has ever lived in the fires of Gehenna for a just destruction. Fortunately, there is a “but” in Paul’s statement: “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The gospel tells us that Christ’s death on the cross can serve as a substitute punishment for the personal sins of everyone who turns to him in faith.

This substitutionary atonement is God’s idea. It is a free gift from a loving God who is determined to destroy all sin, but does not want to depopulate his universe in doing so. It is a manifestation of God’s attribute of grace. It is also a manifestation of his attribute of justice, since the punishment and death due us for our sins has been meted out on the substitute. The lesson Abraham learned on Mt. Moriah was that God will provide.[97] In that case, he provided a ram, whose head was caught in thorns. That ram served as a substitute for Abraham’s son, Isaac. The event prefigured another substitute God provided, when he allowed his own son to wear a crown of thorns, suffer punishment he did not deserve, and die. The wages of our sin was his death on the cross.

Resurrection

Since the wages of sin is death, the countryside of every country on this planet is littered with cemeteries. The sin imputed to all humanity as a result of Adam and Eve’s rebellion has resulted in just what God predicted: mortality and eventual – inevitable death. God offers a solution to this problem as well. He cannot simply reverse the curse and make it so that human beings will never die. He will not undo his just penalty. Instead, he offers a resurrection unto eternal life at Christ’s return.

This solution is once again a miraculous combination of God’s justice and his grace. His just punishment of mortality and eventual death still reigns. The cemeteries are still being filled. But the free gift of God is eternal life. This life will begin with a resurrection unto eternal, immortal life. It is the believer’s inheritance.[98] Peter says that God “has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”[99] Resurrection life is God’s solution to the problem of imputed sin, which keeps us heading to the grave.

Glorification

The axiom “the wages of sin is death” is also true spiritually. Our inherited sin has resulted in spiritual death. We not only experience death because of God’s justice, we also have died to his justice (and his grace too). Paul described this dilemma well: “For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”[100] As much as we might want to do the right thing, spiritual death causes us to continue to sin.

God has provided a solution for this sin-reality as well. For every believer who trusts in Christ for his justification, God initiates through his Holy Spirit a process that will eventually lead to glorification – a complete restoration to a sinless state. This is a work of God from start to finish. Paul says “those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”[101] He speaks of glorification as a past tense event because he is emphasizing that it is a work of God.

In the present, however, most of us do not feel all that glorified yet. Our lives are a struggle where we keep getting in the way of the Holy Spirit as he seeks to sanctify us more and more. In fact, if anyone ever starts boasting that she has arrived and no longer sins, she is calling God a liar, and his word is not in her.[102] But we can look forward to more and more victories over sin as we yield to the Holy Spirit. He is the seal and guarantee of the glorified life that awaits us.[103]

In this life, believers do not have to experience the wages of spiritual death. This is true because “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh (sinful inclination) with its passions and desires.”[104] We have been spiritually resurrected. Our baptism symbolizes this truth. Paul says “we were buried … with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”[105] Our death to sin allows Christ to live his resurrected life through us. This allows us to experience a glimpse of the glorified life now – in victory over sin.

The only way to solve the problem of the hell of destruction we all deserve is to trust in Christ for salvation now. All who do so will receive forgiveness from sins now, and the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives leading to their resurrection and glorification at Christ’s return. All others will face hell, which the Bible calls the second death. That hell is permanent. There will be no coming back, and no second chance. For sinners today, Christ is the only way to avoid destruction in hell tomorrow.

Recently, pastor Rob Bell has suggested that God’s love will eventually restore even those who are thrown into hell itself. In his bestselling book, Love Wins, Bell speaks of “a long tradition of Christians who believe that God will ultimately restore everything and everybody”[106] – even those he has thrown into hell. That long standing tradition was the belief in purgatory. It was based on another long tradition in the church – the doctrine of the immortality of souls. The reasoning was that since souls burning in hell will be alive for eternity, there is a chance that God’s mercy might eventually restore them. Bell suggests that this is God’s plan – to eventually restore all to himself and through that restoration his love will win over his wrath.

Bell’s solution to the problem of hell has much appeal to today’s society, just as the invented doctrine of purgatory did in the dark ages. It allows humanity to continue to reject Christ – the only solution God offers – and still come out alive. Bell’s problem with the traditional hell is that in it God never gets what he wants. He points out two conflicting facts: “ ‘that God is mighty, powerful, and “in control” and that billions of people will spend forever apart from this God, who is their creator, even though it’s written in the Bible that “God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2). So does God get what God wants?”[107] Bell’s solution is to suggest what pagan Christianity did: that Hell is not permanent.

But everything the Bible says about hell suggests otherwise. Hell is a second death from which there is no resurrection. The first death is temporary, because all will be raised from it to stand before God on Judgment Day. Only those whose names are on the Lamb’s book of life will be rescued from that second death.[108] Those who are not listed as having been saved will perish,[109] be destroyed,[110] and be burned up.[111]

This destruction is permanent. The New Testament had many ways of describing something that is permanent. It could talk about things that remain after other things disintegrate. In such cases it would use the Greek verb meno. Paul said that the new covenant has more glory than the old, because the new covenant remains (meno), while the old covenant was being brought to an end.[112]

Sometimes a word indicating the impossibility of destruction would be used of permanent things. Examples include the adjective afthartos (imperishable)[113] and the noun athanasia (immortality).[114] These words are never used to describe the people in hell. They are only used of God, and of those who come to Christ and so never see hell.

The word the New Testament uses of hell that causes the most confusion is the adjective aionios, usually translated eternal. The English word eternal suggests a process that goes on forever. The way the New Testament uses the word, it usually depicts something that is permanent in contrast with things that are temporary.

Notice, for example how the New Testament uses aionios to compare some things that were permanent with some things that were temporary:

• the permanent sin which can never be forgiven (Mark 3:29).

• the permanent weight of glory compared with our slight momentary affliction (2 Corinthians 4:17; 1 Peter 5:10).

• the permanent things that are unseen compared to the transient things that are seen (2 Corinthians 4:18).

• the permanent house (body) in the heavens compared to our temporary tent (body) on earth (2 Corinthians 5:1).

• the permanent destruction the lost will face at Christ’s return (2 Thessalonians 1:9).

• the permanent comfort and good hope we have through God’s grace (2 Thessalonians 2:16).

• the permanent glory that accompanies salvation in Christ (2 Timothy 2:10).

• Philemon’s permanent return to Colossae, after being parted from them for a while (Philemon 1:15).

• The permanent salvation made possible by Jesus, our great high priest (Hebrews 5:9).

• The permanent judgment that will take place after the resurrection of the dead (Hebrews 6:2).

• The permanent redemption secured by Christ’s sacrifice in the heavenly sanctuary (Hebrews 9:12).

• the permanent covenant made possible by the shedding of the blood of Christ (Hebrews 13:20).

• entrance into the permanent kingdom provided for all those who make their calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10-11).

Use of this adjective was never intended to negate the concepts of destruction and coming to an end already inherent in the idea of hell. The adjective aionios was used to show that the event of hell could not be reversed. Sadly, this reversal is exactly what Bell is suggesting. He attempts to solve the problem of hell by making it a temporary phenomenon.

God’s justice demands a hell that is hot enough to destroy, and to do so permanently. The problem of hell cannot be solved until hell itself is destroyed. Paul envisioned a reign of Christ which would destroy all his enemies, including death itself. Death would be the last enemy destroyed.[115] That means all other enemies will be destroyed – not punished for a while and then restored. Sadly, there will probably be billions in that number. Jesus said “the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.”[116] That is a terrible tragedy, but pretending that it will not be so is not going to help.

We should question the traditional view of hell (that of unending torment), because it is wrong. But suggesting that God is not serious when he warns people of their impending destruction is also wrong. Those who know about God’s grace, and his limited time offer of eternal life through Christ should be finding fresh new ways of proclaiming that truth to this generation on its way to hell. The gospel is the only solution to the problem of hell.


The Wrath to Come

The biblical prophets had a double role. As representatives of the LORD, they were free to pronounce blessing upon the people if God willed it. Often, however, they predicted his impending judgment. John the Baptist was no exception. As the forerunner to the Messiah, he proclaimed the marvelous good news (or gospel) that Christ was coming to this earth. Yet the people were not ready for their king. Consequently, John’s message was one of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The good news of the Christ to come had to be taught alongside the bad news of the wrath to come. Two very similar verses from the record of John’s ministry in the New Testament highlight this message.

“But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? “”[117]

“He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? “”[118]

These are the first major texts in the New Testament that address the issue of final punishment of the wicked. They reflect the fact that John encountered multitudes of Israelites who felt ready to embrace the coming of their Messiah, but they were actually not ready. So, John’s message was to get ready for him or face his wrath.

The crowds, and particularly the religious elite, felt that the Messiah’s coming would bring victory against Israel’s enemies, and blessing to all of those who were physical descendants of Abraham and Jacob. John’s message was that physical lineage meant nothing. If God wanted to, he could produce children to Abraham out of stones. In fact, being children of Israel meant that these people stood to be the first to fall when God’s wrath is unleashed. Thus, John’s message was that the nation had to get right with its God.

the wrath of the orchard owner

The nature of this wrath is spelled out by John with two familiar images. First, he pictures the Messiah as an orchard owner, whose axe is laid at the root of the trees.[119] He had planted the trees for the purpose of bearing fruit. If they are fruitless when he comes, they will serve as firewood. Their destruction would be fair because they will have not served their master’s purpose.

The threat that these people face could in no way be construed as any kind of eternal existence at all. They were in danger of being cut down and destroyed. The wrath that John described was not an ongoing process of perpetual wrath, but an event. That event would be eternal, in the sense of permanent. It would result in death forever – the second death.

the wrath of the wheat farmer

The second image John uses to describe the wrath to come is that of a wheat farmer during harvest time. The Messiah would gather the authentic wheat into the barn for preservation. He will then set out to remove all the chaff that is left over. He will do this by burning the chaff up.[120]

The image illustrates essentially the same teaching as the axe image did. Those who are not prepared for the Messiah’s arrival will not take part in his kingdom. They will be excluded from it because they will have been destroyed by the Messiah’s wrath. Mere appearance will not save them. Unfruitful chaff will be eliminated in the same way that the unfruitful trees will. The wrath is fire, and the fire destroys.

But John’s use of the wheat farmer imagery adds one more element to the theology he is defining. This element makes explicit what was merely implied in the use of the orchard owner image. John further describes the fire of God’s wrath as “unquenchable.”[121]

Piper insists that “the term “unquenchable fire” implies a fire that will not be extinguished and therefore a punishment that will not end.”[122] Neither the image, nor the teaching of John the Baptist support that assumption. The adjective asbestos only appears three times in the New Testament.[123] In each reference, the word describes the nature of the fire, not the process of burning. It is a warning that anyone thrown into the fire will not be able to extinguish it. It contains no promise that the process of burning will go on forever.

In both of the images John the Baptist uses, it is clear that the subjects thrown into the fire are destructible – that is the point. The trees and chaff are not thrown into fire to be tortured, but to be destroyed. The punishment is destruction. The masters of the orchard and wheat fields gain neither pleasure nor profit from this fire. It is only there to eliminate what will not meet their objectives. Likewise, God will not be pleased when he puts people into the fire of Gehenna hell. His wrath only exists because eternity is for the recipients of his grace alone. His wrath is subservient to — not coequal to – his love.

The conditionalist teaching on hell is that it will be a necessary reality at the end of the age. It does not take place at death. It takes place in conjunction with the second coming of Christ. This is in line with John the Baptist’s teaching on the wrath to come. John never mentioned the intermediate state. To him, what happens at death is eschatologically insignificant. Judgment will happen when the Judge returns.

Traditionalists have bought into the unbiblical concept of immortal souls, and must do something with those souls in the intermediate state. Thus, they highjack passages like these, and make them serve another purpose. For them, the wrath of God is not something that Christ brings with him, it is something that the wicked go to. In so doing, major elements of the text have to be explained away, because they do not fit the new referent.

1. John taught that the wrath is coming from God. Traditionalists teach that God’s wrath is something that souls go to.

2. John taught that the wrath will accompany the Messiah when he returns. Traditionalists teach that God’s wrath is currently ongoing, and is experienced immediately after death.

3. John taught that the subjects of the wrath will be destroyed by fire (burned up). Traditionalists teach that the subjects are immortal souls, who cannot be destroyed, and therefore must continue to suffer eternally.

4. John taught that the masters of the orchard and wheat farms had complete control over their dominions. They had unproductive elements which they intended to remove by destruction, and nothing could stop them. They would put an end to the problems. Traditionalists teach that God’s wrath is a process that cannot ever end. It will never stop tormenting the lost because it cannot.

Rob Bell questioned how God could be a winner in such circumstances.[124] He was right to do so. The traditionalist doctrine of hell makes God’s wrath the end. John taught that the Messiah’s wrath would be necessary, but the purpose was different. Wrath is necessary to make room for eternal peace and love. In the traditionalist approach, God’s wrath never makes an end of sin. It is eternally affected by it.

the purpose of the wrath to come

These snapshots from John the Baptist’s ministry teach of a wrath which will accomplish the greater purpose of establishing a world without evil and sin, where love and righteousness will reign eternally. They envision a harvest that will outlast the judgment. They see fruit trees productive forever, and wheat gathered safely into the barn forever. The burning fires that remove the impediments in this vision are inevitable, and they cannot be put out until they accomplish this vision of forever. But the fires are not the purpose. They will be unquenchable until they accomplish the purpose.

If this is not so, then the coming wrath serves absolutely no purpose. Today we live in a world where good and evil already coexist. There are productive trees, and hypocritical trees. There is wheat, and there is chaff. Both exist together, so God’s glory is limited by the unholy combination. The traditionalist teaching is that God’s wrath will merely separate the unrighteous, but that they will continue to live eternally in the same universe as the righteous. God’s universe will be eternally marred by the existence of this blight, and his wrath will not be able to change that. The God who once saw all creation and pronounced it “very good” will never be able to say that again.

Conditionalists suggest a different scenario. we suggest that John’s description of hell is much more realistic. Hell is a tool God uses for eliminating the undesirable elements, and that is all. The fire is real, and it does what fires do. It destroys, and makes way for something better, something indestructible. God’s love will win, not because he eventually pulls people out of hell, but because after hell has served its purpose, there will be no need for wrath. The Christ whose wrath will destroy the old things will make “all things new.”[125]


Which Assembly?

(Devotional Thoughts on Zephaniah 2:1-8).

Nation after nation were destroyed by God’s judgment, yet the peoples continued to walk in corruption, never fearing his great wrath. Therefore he made a decision. He will gather all the nations and assemble all the kingdoms for one great day of judgment. On that day he will pour out his anger, and they will all be consumed.

Fortunately, the prophets also teach that God is gathering a people to himself from among the nations, and assembling them from among the kingdoms. Which assembly are you in? Are you being gathered into Christ’s church for life, or into hell for the second death? Those are the choices.

LORD, we accept your grace, and the atoning death of Christ. Gather us to your assembly for life, not death.


[1] Rob Bell, LOVE WINS: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. (Robert H. Bell, Jr. Trust, 2011).

[2] 1 Corinthians 11:19.

[3] Romans 1:23; 1 Timothy 1:17; 6:16.

[4] Romans 2:7; 1 Corinthians 15:53-54; 1 Timothy 1:10.

[5] Matthew 25:46; John 3:15-16, 36; 4:14; 6:27, 40, 47, 54, 68, 10:28; 12:25; Acts 13:46, 48; Romans 2:7; 5:21; 6:22; 1 Timothy 6:12; 1 John 5:11; Jude 1:21.

[6] Matt. 10:28; 22:7; Luke 17: 27, 29; 20:16; 1 Cor. 3:17; 6:13; 15:24, 26; Heb. 10:39; 2 Peter 2:12; Rev. 11:18.

[7] Matt. 21:41; John 5:24; 8:51; Romans 6:16, 23; 1 Cor. 15:26, 54; James 5:20; 1 John 3:14; Rev. 21:8.

[8] Psalm 104:35; Ezekiel 26:21; 27:36; 28:19.

[9] Rob Bell, LOVE WINS: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. (Robert H. Bell, Jr. Trust, 2011).

[10] For more on the meaning of aionios, see my article “Solving the Problem of Hell.” http://www.afterlife.co.nz/2011/theology/annihilationism/solving-the-problem-of-hell-by-jefferson-vann/

[11] Matthew 10:28. For more on this fate, see Edward Fudge, The Fire that Consumes, third edition. (Eugene Oregon: Cascade Books, 2011).

[12] 1 Corinthians 15:24-26.

[13] Woodhouse’s English-Greek Dictionary, The University of Chicago Library (http://artflx.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/efts/dicos/woodhouse_test.pl?keyword=eternally&sortorder=Keyword).

[14] Romans 16:26.

[15] 1 John 2:25.

[16] Revelation 20:12-13.

[17] Revelation 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8.

[18] Romans 2:3.

[19] Romans 2:4.

[20] Romans 2:5.

[21] Romans 2:11.

[22] Romans 2:24.

[23] Hebrews 6:1. Both terms figure into Paul’s introduction to salvation in Romans (1:5, 8, 12, 17; 2:4).

[24] Romans 2:9.

[25] Romans 1:18.

[26] Romans 2:5.

[27] Romans 2:5.

[28] Revelation 21:1.

[29] Revelation 20:13.

[30] Revelation 20:13.

[31] Revelation 20:14.

[32] Revelation 21:1.

[33] Romans 2:12.

[34] 1 Corinthians 1:18; 2 Corinthians 2:15; 4:3; 2 Thessalonians 2:10.

[35] 1 Corinthians 15:26.

[36] All quotes not otherwise referenced are from Allen’s post.

[37] This is not a term we often use or appreciate. The term most of us use is conditionalist, because we argue that human immortality is conditional. Since the unsaved will not be made immortal, they cannot exist forever in a burning hell.

[38] Matthew 19:29; Mark 10:17, 30; Luke 10:25; 18:18, 30; John 3:15, 16, 36; 4:14, 36; 6:27, 40, 47, 54, 68; 10:28; 12:25, 50; 17:2, 3; Acts 13:46, 48; Romans 2:7; 5:21; 6:22, 23; Galatians 6:8; 1 Timothy 1:16; 6:2; Titus 1:2; 3:7; Hebrews 9:15; 1 John 2:25; 5:11; Jude 21.

[39] 2 Peter 2:9 NET: “the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from their trials, and to reserve the unrighteous for punishment at the day of judgment.”

[40] Isa. 13:6, 9; Jer. 46:10; Ezek. 13:5; 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14; Amos 5:18, 20; Obad. 1:15; Zeph. 1:7, 14; Mal. 4:5; Acts 2:20; 1 Cor. 5:5; 1 Thess. 5:2; 2 Thess. 2:2; 2 Pet. 3:10.

[41] Matt. 10:15; 11:22, 24; 12:36; 2 Pet. 2:9; 3:7; 1 John 4:17.

[42] Romans 16:26; 1 Timothy 6:16; Hebrews 9:14;

[43] Revelation 14:6.

[44] Matthew 18:8; 25:41; Jude 7.

[45] 2 Corinthians 4:18 “the things that are unseen are eternal.”

[46] Romans 16:25.

[47] 2 Timothy 1:9.

[48] Titus 1:2.

[49] Psalm 30:5.

[50] 1 Timothy 6:16.

[51] Matt. 10:28; 22:7; Luke 17: 27, 29; 20:16; 1 Cor. 3:17; 6:13; 15:24, 26; Heb. 10:39; 2 Peter 2:12;

Rev. 11:18.

[52] Psalm 104:35; Ezekiel 26:21; 27:36; 28:19.

[53] Romans 6:23.

[54] Matthew 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; Luke 13:28.

[55] Revelation 21:8.

[56] Matthew 10:28.

[57] 1 Corinthians 15:24-28.

[58] Revelation 21:1-4.

[59] 1 Timothy 1:4.

[60] Zephaniah 1:18.

[61] Mark 3:26.

[62] Romans 6:21.

[63] 1 Corinthians 15:24.

[64] 2 Corinthians 11:15.

[65] Philippians 3:19.

[66] 1 Peter 4:7.

[67] Matthew 26:24 ESV.

[68] John 17:12 ESV.

[69] Mark 3:29 ESV.

[70] Matthew 12:32.

[71] John Piper, Let The Nations Be Glad. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993), 123.

[72] Job 3:16.

[73] Psalm 58:8.

[74] Ecclesiastes 6:3 ESV.

[75] Ecclesiastes 12:13; 1:2.

[76] John Piper, Let The Nations Be Glad. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993), 123.

[77] John Piper, Let The Nations Be Glad. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993), 124-125.

[78] Glenn Peoples, “The Meaning of ‘apollumi’ in the Synoptic Gospels.” http://www.rethinkinghell.com/2012/10/the-meaning-of-apollumi-in-the-synoptic-gospels/

[79] John Piper, Let The Nations Be Glad. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993), 124.

[80] Jefferson Vann, “Hell is Permanent.” http://www.afterlife.co.nz/2011/theology/annihilationism-annihilationist/hell-is-permanent/

[81] Romans 6:23.

[82] Revelation 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8

[83] Matt. 5:22.

[84] Matt. 23:15.

[85] Matt. 23:28.

[86] Matt. 23:33.

[87] John 12:48.

[88] Matt. 12:37; Mark 12:40; 16:16; Luke 20:47; James 5:12; 2 Pet. 2:3.

[89] Rev. 20:13.

[90] Matt. 10:28.

[91] Luke 17:27.

[92] Luke 17:29.

[93] Matt. 7:13-14.

[94] Matt. 5:29-30.

[95] Matt. 18:9.

[96] Rom. 6:23.

[97] Gen. 22.

[98] Gal. 3:18; Eph. 1:11,14,18; 5:5; Col. 1:12; 3:24; Heb. 9:15.

[99] 1 Pet. 1:3-5.

[100] Rom. 7:22-24.

[101] Rom. 8:30.

[102] 1 John 1:10.

[103] 2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5; Eph. 1:13-14.

[104] Gal. 5:24.

[105] Rom. 6:4.

[106] Rob Bell, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition, 2011), 107.

[107] Bell, 97.

[108] Philippians 4:3; Revelation 3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15; 21:27.

[109] Luke 13:3, 5; John 3:16; 10:28; Acts 8:20; 13:41; Romans 2:12; 2 Pet. 3:9.

[110] Matthew 7:13; 22:7; Luke 17:27, 29; Acts 3:23; Romans 9:22; 1 Cor. 8:11; 10:9f; 15:26; Philippians 3:19; 2 Thess. 1:9; Heb. 10:39; 2 Pet. 2:12; 3:7.

[111] Malachi 4:1, 2 Peter 2:6; Jude 7.

[112] 2 Cor. 3:11.

[113] Mark 16:8; Rom. 1:23; 1 Cor. 9:25; 15:52; 1 Tim. 1:17; 1 Pet. 1:4, 23; 3:4.

[114] 1 Cor. 15:53f; 1 Tim. 6:16.

[115] 1 Cor. 15:26.

[116] Matthew 7:13.

[117] Matthew 3:7 ESV.

[118] Luke 3:7 ESV.

[119] Matthew 3:10; Luke 3:9.

[120] Matthew 3:12; Luke 3:17.

[121] Matthew 3:12; Luke 3:17.

[122] John Piper, Let The Nations Be Glad. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993), 121.

[123] Matthew 3:12; Mark 9:43; Luke 3:17.

[124] Rob Bell, LOVE WINS: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. (Robert H. Bell, Jr. Trust, 2011). See my review here: http://www.afterlife.co.nz/2011/featured-article/review-of-love-wins-by-rob-bell/

[125] Revelation 21:5.

Appendix D: The Resurrection

IMG_0154
 

These writings were published previously in Afterlife website and/or From Death To Life magazine. They appear here as further evidence for the Advent Christian teaching that the resurrection at Christ’s return is the blessed hope of the church.

 
 
Better Than Survival

Recently, my wife and I joined a North American mission leader’s conference, together with some 1200 of our colleagues. On the closing session of the conference, they featured a young African-American poet, Micah Bournes. I hope that what he shared is going to be on his new album, because I would love to hear it again. It resonated with me, perhaps more than some of the other things said at the conference, because it spoke of the centrality of the resurrection. Micah said that our hope was not merely to float up into the sky when we die, but to be fully and completely and miraculously resurrected.

I don’t know whether Micah is a conditionalist, but it was refreshing to hear such words. They reminded me that we who believe in life only in Christ have a message that speaks to modern day Christianity. We feel the call to remind the world that its hope in Christ is not merely survival of a disembodied soul, but a restoration of life in its fullest as we were intended to live.

a conversation in Bethany

Jesus came to Bethany four days “too late.” His friend Lazarus had died, and Jesus did not even make it for the funeral. Lots of their friends from Judea had called on the two sisters, Mary and Martha, to “console them concerning their brother”[1] but Jesus had been a no-show.

The Bible records that once Martha learned that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him, while Mary remained seated in the house.[2] The last we had heard of these two women, Jesus had instructed Martha that Mary had made the better choice by remaining seated at his feet and listening to his teaching.[3] Now, perhaps Martha has made the better choice. She is running to Jesus in her hour of grief.

The first words to come out of Martha’s mouth were “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”[4] That was probably true. There must have been a reason that Jesus had deliberately delayed going to Bethany once he was told of Lazarus’ illness. He knew that it was God’s plan that his friend succumb to that illness. It would have been torture for him to watch that happen, particularly since he has the power to stop it.

I cannot resist saying that I have often felt like Martha felt. I have wept at the passing of many relatives and friends, and have often been overcome by the irony that at the core of my hope is a Savior who can raise the dead. Resurrection, for me, is more than an appendix added on to my foundational beliefs. Like Paul, everything that I might endure in this life is “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”[5] To me, a relationship with Jesus, and the resurrection hope that emerges from that relationship are one and the same.

The early Christians annoyed the Jerusalem rulers because they shared and preached the same hope. They spent their time “proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead.”[6] In fact, sometimes their pagan listeners misunderstood them and thought they were preaching about two deities: Jesus and Resurrection.[7]

It is amazing how easy it is for people – even Christians – to go through their entire grieving process today, scarcely thinking about the resurrection. What a shame that this is not the hope the church has championed. The resurrection – not the ascension — makes sense of Jesus’ death. The hope of resurrection at the second coming makes sense of our own deaths.

Martha, reeling from the reality of her loss, saw in Jesus the epitome of that hope. She confidently affirmed of Jesus that “even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”[8] She was inviting Jesus to raise her brother from the dead. She had every confidence that Jesus could not only have prevented her brother’s death, but that even now – four days too late – he could raise him to life.

Lots of people seem to be able to produce within themselves a decent “in this life” hope. They surround themselves with positive words and music, keep making positive confessions, and avoid negative vibes like the plague. But, once the last breath in their loved one is expired, that is it. The apostle Paul says that Christians are not to be like that. He argued that if “in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”[9] If our hope ends at graveside, it is a lie.

Martha’s hope was not dampened by the fact that her brother’s corpse had already begun to rot. She believed that nothing was impossible with God. She believed that Jesus’ power was not limited by her brother’s death. She did not lie to herself. She knew her brother was dead. He was not floating in the clouds, or off somewhere nice, playing a harp. He was stone-cold, graveyard dead. But Jesus could – and can – change that.

Jesus returned Martha’s serve (to use tennis language) by simply saying “Your brother will rise again.” Forgive me for taking that promise out of its context, but I first choose to apply it to myself. I have two brothers, and both of them have fallen asleep in Jesus. When I read those words, my thoughts go to them. I can hear my Savior assuring me that their deaths, although tragic, are not permanent. I want to share these words to console others, like myself, who are facing the ugly reality of the separation death brings. God’s word to us is that our brothers, sisters, spouses, parents, and friends and co-workers who have died are not forgotten. They have fallen, but they will rise again.

But, back to Bethany. Jesus was speaking to Martha, who had just “lost” her brother. He assured Martha that Lazarus himself will rise again. He did not say that Lazarus might rise again. He did not say that he wished Lazarus to rise again. He did not say that Lazarus had already risen again. Hope for Lazarus (and for grieving Martha) lay in the certainty of a future resurrection.

The volley continues as Martha assures Jesus that she agrees with that hope. She told Jesus “Yes,” …, he will rise when everyone else rises, at the last day.”[10] That statement is both true and false. Lazarus lived in the first century A.D., and is most certainly dead today. He is among those who will hear the voice of Jesus and come out of their tombs at the last trump on the last day.[11] That makes Martha’s statement true.

But what Martha did not know was that Jesus was prepared to respond to her invitation to raise her brother that day. She had professed a confidence that Jesus could ask the father to raise Lazarus from death, and that the Father would comply with that request. What Jesus was actually telling Martha was not that Lazarus would “some day” rise, but that he would “this day” rise. So, what Martha meant by her reply was incorrect. She would not have to wait for resurrection day to see her brother’s resurrection.

Alright, I have to confess that I was taking Jesus’ promise out of its context when I insist on applying it to my brothers, Gary and Timmy Vann. Jesus was speaking to Martha. His promise applied to her brother, Lazarus. My real consolation is not that Jesus promised me that my brothers will come to life again. My real consolation is found in what Jesus said next:

“Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live”[12]

Our hope is in Jesus and who Jesus is. There will be a resurrection on the last day, and Jesus was inviting Martha to go forward in time and (in something like a vision) witness that glorious event. The wording he uses paints a picture of resurrection day. Christ, the resurrection and the life, stands with one person in front of him, a representative person whom Jesus calls “the one who has died, believing in me.” Martha (I am sure) pictures this as Lazarus. Jesus tells the fate of Lazarus (and, by extension, all others who die before his return) in one word in Greek: Zésetai — “he will live.”

“and the one who lives and believes in me will never die.”

Suddenly, the picture changes. There is another person in the picture. That person is “the one living and believing in me.” I’m sure Martha saw herself. She was “the one still living” and Lazarus was “the one who has died.” The promise of our Lord was that there would be a reunion, and that he (Jesus) would be at the center of it. This is what Martha wanted. She did not want to hear that Lazarus was in a better place. He was not. She was not interested in any conjecture about his secret survival in the intermediate state (between death and resurrection). Her hope was life in its fullest, shared with her brother whom she missed.

Jesus was sharing a glimpse into that great day when the dead in Christ (like Lazarus) will come to life again. Those who are still living (like Martha) and waiting for them to rise will also be changed. In fact, Jesus promises that they will “never die.” Any believer who is fortunate enough to still be alive when Jesus returns will be a literal referent of this promise. These fortunate ones will be changed from mortal to immortal in an instant. They will never die!

The apostle Paul first thought that Christ was going to return in his lifetime, so he put himself in the second category.[13] Later, when he realized that he would probably die before Christ’s return, he began to speak differently:

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.”[14]

Paul anticipated dying before Christ’s return, but anticipated his crown of righteousness not at his death, but at Christ’s appearing. He was not looking forward to “going on to his reward.” Instead, he longed for Christ to return with it.

Please note that for both people in the John 11 “vision” the hope Jesus described is his own return. Martha’s theological understanding of the “resurrection on the last day” was spot on. Jesus’ question to her was “do you believe this?” We should ask ourselves the same question today.

Note also how Martha’s reply makes it certain what Jesus was talking about. She said “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”[15] She understood that Jesus was not talking about some nebulous survival of Lazarus’ inner soul. He was talking about his second coming, which would enable Lazarus to live again – body, soul and all.

We all know the rest of the story. Jesus demonstrated the veracity of his promise to raise all believers by raising Lazarus that day. He overcame the power of the grave and enabled Lazarus to live again.

Of course, Lazarus grew old and died again. He once again became part of that vast throng of believers who await a resurrection, at Christ’s second coming. Only, when Lazarus is raised again, it will be for keeps. Jesus is not the only one who has ever been raised from the dead, but he is the only one whom death no longer has dominion over.[16] The others, like Lazarus, were raised to die again. Christ was raised “never to die again.” That is our hope as well. It is a future better than mere survival. It is a future of victory.

Exchanging This World For Heaven

A friend recently posted a quote from Dave Hunt, who said:

“The choice we face is not, as many imagine, between heaven and hell. Rather, the choice is between heaven and this world. Even a fool would exchange hell for heaven; but only the wise will exchange this world for heaven.” – An Urgent Call To A Serious faith.

Hunt stated in another book:

“The real choice we must and do make – daily, hourly – is between heaven and this earth. … Our attitudes and actions continually reflect our unconscious answer to the question: ‘Am I willing to leave this earth right now for heaven, or is there something that holds me here and thus something on earth which stands between my Lord and me at this moment?’” – When Will Jesus Come, p. 250.

My response to that FB post will be perhaps confusing to my many friends who are not aware of my conditionalist theological position:

“This world is the place that Jesus died to redeem. This world is the place where Jesus is coming (from heaven) to rule. This world is the place that God and believers will inherit (Psalm 82:8; Matthew 5:5). The gospel is not a call for us to exchange the world for heaven. It is a call for us to accept the grace of the one who is coming from heaven to earth. A serious faith takes the Bible seriously. While Christians are called not to love the present world or the things in it (1 John 2:15), we are never called to escape it. We are called to conquer it (1 John 5:4).”

There is a difference between setting our affections on things above and setting our hopes on leaving the earth. Hunt and many others of the traditionalist view seek to blur that distinction. They believe that the hope of the believer is to go somewhere else besides earth and be with God when they die.

This is the Bible’s definition of the blessed hope:

“waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13 ESV).

When people imply that the hope of believers is going to heaven when they die, they are exchanging the biblical hope for something else. Some have been so conditioned to believe that the goal of believers is to go to heaven that they never see the contradiction when they look at biblical texts.

What are you waiting for? Are you waiting to die so that you can see Jesus in heaven, or are you waiting for the appearing of Christ on earth? If you think your goal is to escape earth, why do you think that? I challenge you to read the Bible again, and look for the hope and the inheritance it describes. The only thing the Bible calls us to escape is hell. We are called not to escape the world, but to conquer the world for Christ:

“…whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith” (1 John 5:4 NRSV).

You do not conquer something by running away from it, but by doing battle, defeating it, and claiming it for your king. That is what conquerors do. They overcome in battle, and claim new territory. Biblical faith does not urge believers to want to die so that the battle will be over. Biblical faith challenges believers to take this world back for the king it rightfully belongs to.

When human beings were placed on this earth, God did not say, “It’s OK for a while, but what I really want is for you to be in heaven with me.” No, he looked on the two people in Eden and said that it was very good. He called on them not to escape the earth but to have dominion over it, to fill it, and to subdue it (Genesis 1:26-28). He never rescinded that command.

When Jesus taught his disciples about things to come, he promised them the Holy Spirit from heaven (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7, and he promised that he would return from heaven (Matthew 24:30; Mark 13:26-27; John 14:3). He never once promised them a trip to heaven before he returned. Why would he leave that out?

What Jesus promised us was a resurrection on the last day – the day of his return:

“And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:39 ESV).

“ For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day”(John 6:40 ESV).

“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44 ESV).

“Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:54 ESV).

Our king Jesus is the only human being who has ascended to heaven right now:

“No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:13 ESV).

The only biblical hope is that he will return to take his rightful place on this earth as its king. It sounds right and biblical to talk about exchanging this world for heaven, but it is neither. The world is looking for answers. The least we believers can do is get the answers right.

The Next You

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 favorite places to look for snapshots of our post-resurrection selves is 1 Corinthians 15.[17] 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.

2. Paul wanted the Corinthian believers not to form rash prejudices 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.

3. 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.

4. 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, nonetheless, legitimate, and should not be avoided in an attempt to be “more spiritual.”

5. 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.

6. 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).

7. 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.

8. 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).

9. 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).

10. 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:

I. THE NEXT YOU IS GUARANTEED. IT IS BASED UPON HISTORICAL FACTS.

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 baptized (29)[18]; 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 precursor 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.

II. THE NEXT YOU IS INTENDED BY GOD, AND WILL HAPPEN ACCORDING TO HIS TIMETABLE.

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!

III. THE NEXT YOU IS NOT SIMPLY A RESUSCITATION OF YOUR BODY. YOU WILL BE THE SAME PERSON, BUT WITH A NEW GLORIOUS IMMORTAL NATURE.

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).

IV. THE NEXT YOU IS NOT JUST AN ADDED BONUS TO YOUR SALVATION, IT IS ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL.

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 emphasize 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.

Jesus Has the Keys

The Bibles teaches that the wages of sin is death[19] but if people are found to survive it, and have an automatic eternal life beyond it, then death is not real. The wages are paid with bogus, fake, Monopoly money. If people just “cross the Jordon” and are found on the other side of “the great divide” — then death turns out to be a blessing, not a punishment. Yet, the Bible is clear that death came upon all people as a consequence of our ancestors’ sins. The Bible says “in Adam all die.”[20] The tactic that many people take in evangelization is to immediately deny that fact. The first thing they tell the unbeliever is that they will never die, no matter what. No wander that so many people reject their “good news.” They immediately deny the “bad news.”

The truth is, we all die. Those cemeteries are full of people, not just bones. Those tombs will one day be opened at the sound of Christ’s second coming, and the people within them will come out. Jesus said “Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.”[21] They are bound to those graves until then. They are imprisoned in a dark, silent place, which the Hebrews called Sheol. The Greeks called it Hades. We call it the grave.

The good news of the gospel is that Jesus has the keys to that place. He can set people free from their imprisonment. He proclaimed “I have the keys of Death and Hades.”[22] To suggest that death is really not a prison in which people are confined before the resurrection is to – again — reject the Bible’s good news for some other good news. It is to say to Jesus, “you can keep your keys, death and Hades are not so bad.” To relish in life beyond death is to reject God’s plan to rescue us by Jesus. It is to swallow the original lie of Satan in the garden, that we will not surely die.[23] It is to presume that we are all born without the need of rescue. It does not do justice to what God actually says about death. Death is not a friend, giving us entrance into the Father’s presence. It is an enemy,[24] keeping us from our eternal destiny with him.

The Promise

“…this is the promise that he made to us- eternal life.”[25]

escape?

For many world religions, the ultimate goal of life is to escape it, because it is seen as a curse. People have to be reincarnated because they do not achieve the highest of realms, and so are condemned to keep coming back as living creatures, and keep trying again. All the suffering has to keep happening until souls can overcome their imperfections, and melt into the nothingness of nirvana.

The Bible does not depict life that way. In biblical Christianity, the ultimate goal is not escaping life, but experiencing it as God intended it. It is not escaping our desires, but realizing that God himself is the fulfillment of those desires.

a promise

Before the ages began, God made a promise.[26] He promised that all the things which make life unbearable will one day be removed. He made this possible by sending his only Son to remove the one thing that had made life something other than what God intended: sin.

Now, the crucified and resurrected Son of God stands as a marker in heaven. He is the visible symbol of all of the sons and daughters of God who will live forever. All those who are not in Christ will perish. But all of us who are in Christ will overcome all the pain, suffering and death that humanity has purchased by the original transgression.

the last day

Jesus’ promise to us is that he will raise us up on the last day.[27] Death is not an illusion, and the grave is not a recycling bin. It is a real dying, and a complete loss of life. But the Bible does not leave us there for eternity. Martha spoke to Jesus of “the resurrection on the last day.”[28] Jesus explained to her that he is that resurrection. On the last day, all who have died, believing in him, will be raised again to life.[29] All who are alive (on that day) and believe in him will be instantly transformed into immortal beings, who will never die.[30]

Non-Christian religions teach that life is the curse, and death is the way to get beyond it. The Bible teaches the opposite: death is the curse, and the promise of eternal life is the only way to overcome it.

gateway?

This is precisely why Christians should stop talking about death as if it is some gateway to a better life. The better life that the Bible speaks of will only begin at the resurrection. Death is not an entrance, it is an exit. It is not a friend; it is an enemy.[31] It is not a blessing; it is a curse.[32] It does not take us home. Jesus will take us home, when he comes back for us.[33]

a different promise

I know a lot of people who became Christians because they wanted to go to heaven when they die, and not the other place. They have essentially been promised a different promise. For example:

“Christ’s promise to his followers is that we shall join him in Heaven and partake in an everlasting life of joy, love, fellowship and purposeful activity.”[34]

“As you profess your faith in Jesus Christ, you have a steadfast promise that heaven is your eternal destination.”[35]

“In Revelation 2:7 Jesus said ‘to him who overcomes I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God’ … The tree of life symbolizes eternal life; the ‘Paradise of God’ is heaven. The promise to overcomers, then, is that they will live forever in heaven.”[36]

“To long for Christ is to long for Heaven, for that is where we will be with him.”[37]

“…the spiritual part of us relocates to a conscious existence in Heaven.”[38]

The Bible nowhere promises a change in location at death. God told the Israelites “you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people.”[39] Jesus spoke of an hour which is “coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out”.[40] The promise is life from the dead, not a different location at death.

evangelism

What would happen if believers in Jesus Christ suddenly decided to do our evangelism by sharing what Jesus actually promised? We would have to do the mature thing, and explain to people that the world has taught them that they have immortality, but the Bible says only God has immortality.[41] We would have to explain to them that their hope of life after death has nothing to do with their possessing a “soul.” Animals are called “living souls” in Scripture.[42] Our hope is a Savior, who can raise dead souls to life again.

Plato or Paul?

What would happen if the church discovered that its theology of life beyond death was borrowed from the teachings of Plato,[43] and not the epistles of Paul? Paul believed in the promise of a resurrection unto eternal life. He spoke of Christ as being the second Adam. The first Adam brought death, Christ will bring the resurrection of the dead.[44] And this will happen, not when the believer dies, but when Jesus comes again.[45] Paul wanted to know Christ, and to attain to that promised resurrection.[46]

lost means lost

What would happen if we told people that their lost loved ones are really lost. They will not be kept alive somewhere so that God can torture them perpetually because he made a mistake and made them immortal. They will be raised, punished according as their sins deserve, and then experience what the Bible calls “the second death.”[47] Hell will exist, not because God is helpless to destroy evil, but because God plans to destroy evil. And God should be feared exactly because he can “destroy both soul and body in hell.”[48]

The LORD promises eternal life, not to everyone, but only to those who believe in his Son. The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life, and those two are opposites. Death in hell will not be another form of life, but its absence. The story of salvation is not a retirement plan, but a rescue.

hope for now

The hope the Bible gives us is an affirmation of life today. It tells us that sin and all its consequences will be overcome and obliterated, and those who get eternal lives will be free to live them without the limits and pain and sorrow that exist today. But, other than that, our eternal lives will be, well… lives. They will not be some other kind of existence. Our creator made us to reflect his glory and his image. He intends us to do that for more than just threescore-and-ten.

But, since we are here now, and since Jesus is Lord of our lives now, there is no reason why we cannot start reflecting that glory and being remade into that image now. The Bible’s answer to the ugliness of life now is to replace it with the beauty of Christ now. For that reason, the Bible sometimes speaks of believers having that eternal life already.[49] It does not mean that we are already immortal, but it does indicate that our eventual deaths are no longer a thing to be feared. Death is now seen as a mere hurdle in the race, not the finish line.

pursuing God

A relationship with God is now something worth pursuing, because not even death will end that. It is a pearl of great value,[50] and I can spend everything I have on it. Even if it costs me my life, it is worth it, because “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”[51] All these things that people live for and die for – you cannot take any of them with you. But a relationship with God – that is what eternal life is for.

loving our neighbors

Some of our neighbors will be joining us in that eternal life. They believe in the promise, too. God loves them, and it makes sense for us to love them too. We will be sharing eternity together. But we have other neighbors who do not yet know about his promise, or have not yet chosen to believe it. How we treat them could make the difference. Either way, it makes sense to love them.

Without the promise, love is hard. Asking me to invest my time and resources in another person’s life is asking a lot. But, if I am assured that my time and resources are actually limitless, then loving does not seem such a challenge. Jesus once told a story about a man who was forgiven a great debt, and then refused to forgive someone else who owed him less.[52] Now that we realize the great weight that has been removed from us, forgiveness and love should come easy.

making disciples

The Lord who gave us the promise of eternal life also gives us the joy of sharing that hope with the rest of the globe. He said “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.””[53] The “all nations” is the location of our discipleship, and the “end of the age” is its duration. Jesus’ promise to be with us fits both. No matter where we are, no matter when it is, he is with us. His Holy Spirit empowers us to testify of him.

The hope of eternal life is sufficient to win every nation to Christ. There is no need to bolster the biblical promise with an imaginary location that spirits supposedly go when they die. Christ promised to come back and raise us from the dead. That promise is enough. Almost every culture has a mythology of life beyond death. Early theologians chose to borrow into some of those beliefs, adding them to what the Bible says. Now, evangelical theologians are pressed to continue alluding to those syncretistic concoctions, or else be branded as heretics.

perish

Conditionalists call on the church of Jesus Christ to go back to what the Bible tells us Christ promised. We ask believers to stop using the words “eternal life” as if they are code words for “go to heaven when you die.” They are not. Those words in John 3:16 are contrasted with the word “perish” which has also been stripped from its true meaning and used as a synonym for “burn forever in hell.” Perish is what people without eternal life do. Perish is what happens when God destroys his soul and body in hell. Perish is what happens when a sinner collects the wages of sin: death.[54]

Moses used the word for people who do “not live long in the land” because of their disobedience.[55] To him, it was not a code word for something that happens at death, but a description of death itself. Asaph said that people perish when God puts an end to them for being unfaithful.[56] Jesus said that people perish when they are killed by the sword,[57] or when they are crushed by a tower.[58] It simply means dying as opposed to living, and those are our choices in John 3:16.

remaining faithful

Our plea is not just about quibbling over which words to use as we evangelize. The promise that John records comes in this context: “So you must remain faithful to what you have been taught from the beginning. If you do, you will remain in fellowship with the Son and with the Father.” [59] Being faithful to what we have been taught requires us to pass on the promise without the pagan embellishments added by centuries of theological mismanagement. Being faithful requires that we preach the gospel as Jesus preached it.

But that is not what happened. Roman Catholic theologians, wishing to advance their syncretistic doctrine of purgatory, taught that the Old Testament was wrong, and the Greek philosophers were right about human nature: all souls survive death. Jesus’ simple promise of a resurrection unto eternal life made no sense if that was the case. So, they simply reinterpreted his words. Some of the reformers dared to challenge this abuse with all the others, but in the end, this misrepresentation of the promise continued to hold sway.

Every generation there have been bold voices who speak up and ask the church to re-evaluate her stand on this issue. That is what we conditionalists want to do. We want to steal the hope of heaven at death, and replace it with the blessed hope, which is Christ’s return.[60] That blessed hope has been overshadowed by a false, unbiblical hope for much too long.

Victory Through Resurrection

(Devotional Thoughts from 1 Corinthians 15).

It is clear from what Paul says in this chapter that some in the Corinthian churches were trying to downplay the doctrine of the resurrection. Paul encourages the Corinthians to continue to preach it, because the victory that the believer has is the resurrection. If you take away the resurrection, Christianity is an empty religion with no real hope, and believers are “of all people most to be pitied” (19). The reason is that all human beings are born mortal. We have a death sentence hanging over us because of Adam’s rebellion. We imitate Adam by being creatures who return to the dust. But the resurrection gives us an opportunity to imitate Christ, the man from heaven (48). This will happen at the last trumpet, when Christ returns (52-53). The resurrection is our victory.

LORD, give us the courage and the wisdom to keep preaching the resurrection.

What Is An Evangelical?

At the office this week, one of my co-workers (who came from a Catholic background) was asking me about my church. He had heard the term evangelical before, but was not clear on what the word implied. I told him that when a church calls itself evangelical, it tends to emphasize the gospel, rather than some church tradition or heritage. The term comes from the Greek word euangelion , meaning “good news.” My co-worker’s question brought back to my mind something that I had learned some time ago: most evangelicals do not really know what the gospel is.

Oh, they know that if they believe in Jesus they can receive eternal life (and that is certainly true). But most would be surprised to discover that this conditional statement is not the biblical good news. The Good news that the Bible teaches is something different. Consider, for example, the following texts which contain the word euangelion:

“Jesus traveled throughout the region of Galilee, teaching in the synagogues and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom. And he healed every kind of disease and illness.”[61]

A kingdom one can join

This first occurrence of the term in the New Testament is remarkable for what it does not say. It does not say that the gospel is a theological concept that someone must believe. No, the good news is not about a theological decision one makes (or prayer that one prays) as much as it is about a kingdom that one can join. Jesus himself is the king of that kingdom. He teaches about himself, and then proceeds to back up that teaching about himself with miracles that prove he is who he says he is. The gospel here is not as much about what you and I believe as it is about who Jesus is.

“Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.”[62]

When Jesus commanded us to proclaim the gospel to the world,[63] he was not referring to another gospel: a gospel other than the one he was preaching. Yet he had not been proclaiming his death and substitutionary atonement. As important as that truth is, it is not the heart of the gospel. The heart of the gospel is something else.

“But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God.”[64]

Paul called his message “the gospel of the grace of God.” He was set apart to teach and proclaim this gospel.[65] It was the good news – not that we can do something for God (like believe in his Son) – but that God has graciously done something for us. The good news is Jesus himself – a gift of God’s grace.

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.””[66]

acceptance of all that Christ is, all that he has done for us, and all that he will do

Knowing this gives the reader a fresh perspective on how Paul describes the gospel in Romans. If the gospel that is the power of God for salvation is the person of Christ himself, then the faith that leads to the righteousness of God is not just acceptance of his forgiveness. It is acceptance of all that he is, all that he has done for us, and all that he will do. The gospel does not simply draw our attention back to the cross. It also draws our attention to the eternal ramifications of the cross. It is good news, not just because of something done in the past, but also because of the future.

The righteousness of God revealed in the gospel is not simply the fact that God regards us as righteous because of what Jesus did for us. It is a righteousness that is imputed by justification, and imparted by sanctification, and realized by faith in future glorification. So, the good news that is the gospel touches us in all three tenses.

Past:

Jesus died for me. I have been saved from my sin by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. My sins are atoned for by his death. They are forgiven. I am no longer on the list of those whose destiny is eternal death.

Present:

Jesus teaches me. I stand forgiven, and have access to the Holy Spirit to affect true change in my behavior. I can now live in victory over sin, and grow in the likeness of Christ. The key to living this life is the gospel message that Jesus proclaimed when he was on this earth. He gave commands which can drastically alter my life. But I have to learn and obey those commands. I am a disciple of Christ. I must choose to live like one. The gospel is the gospel of the kingdom. If I choose to live outside of the principles taught in the gospel, I have not responded to the gospel, regardless of what I believe about the atonement.

Future:

Jesus will make me immortal. I have an eternal destiny that will begin the day Jesus breaks the clouds and returns from heaven. On that day, if I am still alive, I will be transformed, and never taste death. If I die before that happens, I will be raised to life at Christ’s command when he returns, never to die again. The gospel is good news because it shows us the destiny that is our beyond the grave. It does not deny that death is real. It shows hope beyond death.

“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you – unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures”[67]

This explains why Paul’s most extensive presentation of the gospel is found in a chapter entirely dedicated to the resurrection. There is no gospel without the resurrection. Because Christ was raised, we now can have victory over the penalty of sin in the past, and the power of sin in the present. Because Christ will raise us from the dead, we now have an eternal destiny – a future besides destruction in hell.

You cannot really understand the gospel without this perspective on the future, and that is exactly what the problem was in Corinth. The believers in Corinth had lost the good news of the resurrection. They had lost the gospel.

“how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?”[68]

eternity amnesia

Throughout the world today, this problem continues to exist. People live with no eternal hope. They live for today because they think today is all that we have. Author Paul David Tripp calls it “eternity amnesia.” He outlines the following symptoms of this malady:

1. Living with unrealistic expectations.

2. Focusing too much on self.

3. Asking too much of people.

4. Being controlling or fearful.

5. Questioning the goodness of God.

6. Living more disappointed than thankful.

7. Lacking motivation and hope.

8. Living as if life doesn’t have consequences.[69]

We can understand it when people who do not know Christ live this way. But all too often, those of us who claim to know Jesus find the same symptoms. Tripp explains that “because we fall into thinking of this life as our final destination, we place more hope in our situations, relationships, and locations than they are able to deliver.”[70]

We are victims when we should be living in victory. The victory was already obtained by Christ. Because of what he did for us, we need never live as if these temporary lives are all that we have. We can see everything that happens now in the light of the glory that awaits us in eternity. We can tolerate pain and failure because we understand them to be temporary setbacks. We can better grasp the significance of success when we see it from the standard of eternity as well. We can look on every soul we encounter as another being who is potentially immortal and glorified, which might help us tolerate their present imperfections. We can have a better attitude about our own present failures to hit the mark.

“And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world.”[71]

If you take away the resurrection, Christianity is an empty religion with no real hope, and believers are of all people most to be pitied. The reason is that all human beings are born mortal. We have a death sentence hanging over us because of Adam’s rebellion. We imitate Adam by being creatures who return to the dust. But the hope of the resurrection gives us an opportunity to imitate Christ, the man from heaven.

“As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven.”[72]

People who live without the forever perspective can only hope to accomplish “of the dust” things. No matter how happy or successful or significant their lives, that happiness, success and significance will be buried in the ground when they die. But people who have a forever perspective – a gospel perspective, can accomplish “of heaven” things. We can make an eternal difference in other people’s lives by pointing them to the Saviour. We can get our minds off of the things which enslave others, because our focus is on serving the “man of heaven.” Knowing our future can free us to truly live in the present.

“In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.””[73]

The resurrection is God’s victory, and ours. The gospel is the good news about that victory. It is the story of God entering this world of sin and pain through his Son, and taking on that sin and pain through the atonement on the cross. It is the story of the crucial battle won on the cross, and demonstrated by Christ’s resurrection. It is the story of the final victory over sin and pain through the resurrection at Christ’s return. Coming to faith in Christ is entering into that story. We know how the story ends. That is why we can have an eternal perspective.

As we celebrate the resurrection, may the knowledge that Christ’s tomb is empty help us to avoid eternity amnesia. May we not live recklessly – like there is no tomorrow. But may we live fearlessly, because there will be a tomorrow. The gospel assures it.


[1] John 11:19 ESV.

[2] John 11:20.

[3] Luke 10:38-42.

[4] John 11:21 ESV.

[5] Philippians 3:10-11 ESV.

[6] Acts 4:2.

[7] Acts 17:18.

[8] John 11:22 ESV.

[9] 1 Corinthians 15:19 ESV.

[10] John 11:24 NLT.

[11] John 5:28-29; 1 Corinthians 15:52; 1 Thessalonians 4:16.

[12] John 11:25 ESV.

[13] 1 Thessalonians 4:17.

[14] 2 Timothy 4:7-8 ESV.

[15] John 11:27 ESV.

[16] Romans 6:9.

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

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

[19] Romans 6:23.

[20] 1 Corinthians 15:22.

[21] John 5:28-29 (ESV).

[22] Revelation 1:18.

[23] Genesis 3:4.

[24] 1 Corinthians 15:26.

[25] 1 John 2:25 ESV.

[26] Titus 1:2.

[27] John 6:39, 40, 44, 54; 11:24.

[28] John 11:24.

[29] John 11:25.

[30] John 11:26.

[31] 1 Corinthians 15:26.

[32] Genesis 2:17; Deuteronomy 30:19.

[33] John 14:3.

[34] Grant R. Jeffrey, Heaven: The Mystery of Angels. (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, 1996), 7.

[35] Patricia Elliot, Heaven or Hell (Apopka, FL: NewBookPublishing.com, 2011), n.p.

[36] John F. MacArthur, 1-3 John – MacArthur New Testament Commentary. (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2007), 184.

[37] Randy Alcorn, 50 Days of Heaven. (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2006), 6.

[38] Randy Alcorn, TouchPoints: Heaven. (Carol Stream IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2008), 6.

[39] Ezekiel 37:13 ESV.

[40] John 5:28-29 ESV.

[41] 1 Timothy 6:16.

[42] Genesis 1:20, 24, 30, 2:19, 9:12,15;,16; Ezekiel 47:9 (although translators biased toward innate immortality usually translate nefesh chayah as something like “living creatures,” it is the same phrase which refers to humanity in Genesis 2:7.

[43] Dinesh D’Souza, Life After Death: The Evidence . (Washington: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2009), 48. “Christianity since Augustine does not espouse life ‘after’ death, but rather life ‘beyond’ death.” D’Sousa attributes this change to the influence of Plato’s writings on Augustine.

[44] 1 Corinthians 15:21-22.

[45] 1 Corinthians 15:23.

[46] Philippians 3:7-11.

[47] Revelation 2:11; 20:6,14; 21:8.

[48] Matthew 10:28.

[49] John 6:47, 54; 10:28; 17:3; 1 John 5:11-12.

[50] Matthew 13:46.

[51] Mark 8:35.

[52] Matthew 18:23-35.

[53] Matthew 28:19-20 ESV.

[54] Romans 6:23.

[55] Deuteronomy 30:18.

[56] Psalm 73:27.

[57] Matthew 26:52,

[58] Luke 13:4-5.

[59] 1 John 2:24 NLT.

[60] Titus 2:13.

[61] Matthew 4:23 NLT, see also Mark 9:35.

[62] Matthew 26:13 ESV.

[63] Mark 13:10.

[64] Acts 20:24 KJV.

[65] Romans 1:1.

[66] Romans 1:16 ESV.

[67] 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 ESV.

[68] 1 Corinthians 15:12b ESV.

[69] Paul David Tripp, Forever: Why You Can’t Live Without It. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011. Kindle edition, location 254-287.

[70] Forever, location 416.

[71] 1 Corinthians 15:19 NLT.

[72] 1 Corinthians 15:48 ESV.

[73] 1 Corinthians 15:52-54 KJV.

Appendix C: The Unconscious Intermediate State.

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These writings were published previously in Afterlife website and/or From Death To Life magazine. They appear here as further evidence for the Advent Christian teaching that all are unconscious during the intermediate state between death and the resurrection.

Away From The Body

2 Corinthians 5:1-10 ESV

“For we know that if the tent, which is our earthly home, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened–not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. 6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.”

This is one of those passages that have been so hijacked by traditionalist thought that the wording appears to reject much of what the same author (Paul) says elsewhere. Before addressing 5:8 itself, it is helpful to review the theology of 5:1-10, to see that it is consistent.

What Paul believed about the Resurrection

This passage looks forward to the resurrection body. If the earthly body is a tent, that resurrection body is a building fashioned by God himself (1). This earthly body can be destroyed. The resurrection body is permanent (aionios). It is a house not made with hands. But the glorious eternal body is not a present possession. It is an inheritance. This future immortal life is guaranteed (5), and the Holy Spirit is the guarantee.

Paul is not saying that he has mortality (the tent) and immortality (the eternal house) at the same time. The reason he groans (2) is that he only has this present mortal body, which suffers persecution and hardship, shipwrecks, floggings, etc. He is longing to put on that heavenly dwelling. Here Paul mixes the building metaphor with that of putting on clothing. Paul had used that metaphor in his previous letter to Corinthians, where he was addressing the same subject: the resurrection.

“For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory”” (1 Corinthians 15:53-54 ESV).

The translators have added the word “body” to the text, but it would be just as appropriate to supply the word “me” instead. It would then read “For this perishable me must put on the imperishable, and this mortal me must put on immortality. When the perishable me puts on the imperishable, and the mortal me puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” Paul is talking about the future when Christ comes to give him the immortality he promised. He is longing for that time, not the intermediate state. He is looking forward to life, not death. In this present life he expects to continue to groan, being burdened (4).

With this promise of the resurrection in mind, he considers his present state in the (mortal) body. He does not feel at home. He feels away from the Lord. He would rather be away from his mortal body, and at home with the Lord (8), but that is not his choice. As long as Christ tarries, he makes it his aim to please the Lord (9). He knows what is done in this life matters because Christ is going to judge and reward when he comes (10).

In summary, in 1 Cor. 5:1-10 Paul argues that the resurrection is essential because believers do not yet have the eternal, immortal existence that God promised them.

What Paul believed about the Second Coming.

The second coming of Christ is the event Paul has in view. The building from God is in the heavens. The only way Paul is going to experience it is for Christ to come down to earth and bring it with him. When Jesus ascended, angelic messengers told the disciples that Jesus would come back in the same way that they saw him ascend: literally, physically (Acts 1:10-11). They did not promise that the disciples would see Jesus before that event. Paul, likewise, expected the second coming to be the next time he would see Jesus. Paul said “For 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” (1 Thess. 4:16-17). That was his hope.

It was at the second coming that Paul expected to get his new house, his heavenly dwelling (2). He talked about “what is mortal” being “swallowed up by life” (4). He had previously told the Corinthians that this transformation would happen “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (1 Cor. 15:52). The heavenly dwelling that Paul expected was not a disembodied existence, but a resurrected life. This could not happen at death. It required the second coming of Christ.

Paul is walking by faith, not by sight (7). He is not relying on what some Greek philosopher has told him about human nature. He is trusting in Jesus, that he will keep his promise. By faith, he lets the Holy Spirit inside him operate. That Holy Spirit is the guarantee of what is to come (5), not what Paul already possesses. If Paul got what he wanted, he would be “at home with the Lord” (8). But if Christ does not come in his lifetime, he is willing to remain “at home in the body” until he does.

What Paul believed about the intermediate state.

Paul repeats one idea in this passage in order to stress it. He is adamant about this one thing, so he does not want the Corinthians to misunderstand him. For that reason he says he does not want to be “found naked” in vs. 3, and repeats that he does not want to be “unclothed” in vs. 4. Both statements mean the same thing. Being clothed means getting his resurrection body. Thus, there is only one thing that being unclothed could mean: the intermediate state. Paul is not looking forward to the state between death and the resurrection. That is not his hope. That is not the event that he refers to when he wants to encourage other believers (1 Thess. 4:18). That is not what he is longing for (2). That is not the time when what is mortal is going to be swallowed up by life (4). That is not what the Holy Spirit guarantees (5). A disembodied existence is not what Paul means by “being home with the Lord” (7). For Paul, home is the building from God (1). Being “with the Lord” is not going to happen until the second coming (1 Thess. 4:17).

Paul does affirm a judgment after death, but it is the “judgment seat of Christ” (10). Christ does not judge anyone during the intermediate state. He will raise the dead and then judge them. He will judge the living and the dead at the same time (Acts 10:42). This will happen only after Christ returns (Rev. 20:12-13). Humanity is right to expect a judgment of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God (Heb. 10:27). But that judgment will not occur during the intermediate state. Paul taught that the judgment is an event yet to come (Acts 24:25). It is not going on now.

Paul treats the intermediate state as both existentially and theologically insignificant. He skips over it, concentrating instead on the more important issue of the resurrection. The Bible teaches that the intermediate state is one of darkness (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), and silence (Eccl. 9:5,6,10; Job 21:13; Psalm 6:5; 30:9; 31:17; 94:17; Isaiah 38:18-19). It is no surprise, then, that Paul would not look forward to it.

What Paul does look forward to is the second coming, when Paul will be both away from his (present suffering, mortal) body and at home with the (returned, triumphant, sovereign) Lord. That is the hope he describes in 1 Cor. 5:8. That is our hope.

To Be Gathered

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.

Abraham: Macpelah

(These are devotional thoughts on Genesis 23).

Princess Sarah falls asleep in the LORD, and Abraham, whom the Hittites call a “prince of God” negotiates with them a burying place. He wanted the field of Ephron, son of Zohar. He purchased the field and the cave of Machpelah on it. This would serve later as a burial ground and resting place for Abraham, Isaac, Jacob,

Rebekah and Leah as well.

Like Sarah here, their story does not end with their being transported somewhere else at death. The patriarchs did not see death as their salvation. At death, they sleep in the dust of the earth and – like us – await their Savior who will come down and rescue them from death by raising them to eternal life.

LORD, come quickly and rescue us from the enemy, death. Many of your saints await their reward – and their rewarder.

Analyzing Ecclesiastes 9:5

“For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten” (Ecclesiastes 9:5 KJV).

Ecclesiastes 9:5 has been used as a proof-text by conditionalists from the very beginning of the debate on the afterlife. With texts like this, believers who hold to an unconscious intermediate state have suggested that one does not have to borrow a pagan cosmology to explain what happens at death. It implies that the dead are not aware of what passes, and that a resurrection will be necessary before anyone lives forever.

Barton calls the verse a “classic statement” indicating that the state of the dead is one of “a state of unconsciousness” although he warns that it is “by no means alone decisive.”[21] One has to look at what the whole of Scripture teaches in order to find answers. The problem with much of modern Christendom is that they are willing to negate the clear implications of such texts as Ecclesiastes 9:5 because they are presupposed to accept Greek anthropology, which rejected the reality of death, and redefined it as the soul going somewhere. If this “classic statement” from the Hebrew Bible is taken at face value, it suggests that death is not about going someplace. It is more about the life shutting down until God has use of it again.

Nichols listed the verse among eight Old Testament texts which uphold “the conclusion that death is a condition best described as sleep.”[22] Here are those eight texts in modern versions:

“If (the dead person’s) sons are honored, he does not know it; if they are brought low, he does not see it” (Job 14:21 NET).

“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom” (Ecclesiastes 9:10 NIV).

“For the dead do not remember you. Who can praise you from the grave?” (Psalm 6:5 NLT).

“For the living know that they will die, but the dead do not know anything. They no longer have a reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten” (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 LEB).

“For Sheol cannot thank you; Death cannot praise you. Those who go down to the Pit cannot hope for your faithfulness” (Isaiah 38:18 HCSB).

“The dead cannot sing praises to the LORD, for they have gone into the silence of the grave” (Psalm 115:17 NLT).

“His spirit departs, he returns to the earth; In that very day his thoughts perish” (Psalm 146:4 NASB).

“Are your wonderful deeds of any use to the dead? Do the dead rise up and praise you? … Can those in the grave declare your unfailing love? Can they proclaim your faithfulness in the place of destruction? Can the darkness speak of your wonderful deeds? Can anyone in the land of forgetfulness talk about your righteousness?” (Psalm 88:10-12 NLT).

The point of all these Old Testament saints is that they are seeking a resurrection because death is not the answer to their problems. It may not be the end of all existence, but it is not the eternal life which we all seek. There is hope beyond death, but not in it.

But many modern Christians stare that evidence in the face and then choose to walk away from it. They choose the doctrine of humanity that some in the early church borrowed from their teachers of Greek philosophy. That doctrine taught that death really is the answer to our problems – that we don’t need a resurrection because some part of us will continue to think and praise God in the intermediate state. Popular theology seems content with a combination of the resurrection to eternal life that the Bible teaches, and the continued conscious life that Plato taught.

Fudge has pointed out that this marriage of doctrines has not produced an altogether unified Christianity. He states that “some orthodox writers have continued to affirm the immortality of the soul, though often with a look over their shoulder, (because) many others have charged that the doctrine has serious deficiencies.”[23] He argues that this “uneasiness within the orthodox ranks” cannot be solved by affirming or denying a doctrine. In the end, “the issue really becomes a matter of exegesis.”[24]

Such will be the case only if theologians on both sides of the divide are willing to carefully examine the texts of Scripture about which we disagree. Ecclesiastes 9:5 can serve as an example. Rather than simply offering this text as a proof of our view, conditionalists need to present a careful analysis of the text, offering evidence that it does support the concept of an unconscious intermediate state for all prior to a resurrection.

The Hebrew Text with transliteration

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Ki hachayyim yodeim sheyyamutu

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Vehammetim ‘eynam yodeim me’umah

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Ve’eyn—‘od lahem sachar

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Ki nishchach zichram.

The text of Ecclesiastes 9:5 is not in dispute. There are no major differences within the various extant versions of the Hebrew Bible that would suggest another wording, or a change in grammar. An observer can look, for example, at the Westminster Leningrad Codex version, and see that there are no appreciable differences between it and the BHS version cited above, even if that observer could not read the Hebrew text.

Having established that the differences in understanding the import of this text are not caused by differing versions of the text itself, readers can then address other avenues of exegesis.

Careful exegesis involves seeking answers to certain questions within the text itself, rather than trying to read into the text what one wants it to say. Without those questions, anyone might be tempted to simply use a text for his own purposes. But exegesis requires that the reader step back from his or her own agenda, and actually seek the purpose of the original author of the text.

the book as a whole

The author of Ecclesiastes was seeking to show that life apart from God was futile, vain, meaningless. If, as tradition asserts, the author was Solomon, that argument would make sense. Who else but Solomon would be in the particular position to try out all that life has to offer, and then conclude that it all was essentially unsatisfying? Who else but Solomon would qualify as a person who had it all, yet in the end of his life would be listened to as a speaker for the congregation who urged people to seek God above all?

the passage in particular

The FaithLife Study Bible outlines Ecclesiastes 9:1-10 this way:

· 1-3 The same fate – death – awaits everyone.

· 4-6 Death deprives humans of everything in life.

· 7-10 Enjoy life while it lasts.

The phrase “I looked again…” in verse 11 shows that it begins a new line of thought. So, the passage in particular that is the immediate literary context of verse 5 is verses 1-10.

The author’s purpose of the verse is to establish that death does indeed deprive all humans of everything in life. There is no hint that this is the language of mere appearance. The author 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 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 you to forget your Creator” (Ecclesiastes 12:1 NLT). 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 begins the verse with the Hebrew conjunction Ki, which establishes the grounds for the statement in the verse before: “But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion” (verse 4, ESV).

Solomon compares two groups: those who are presently alive (hachayyim) and those who are presently dead (hammetim). 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.

comparisons

Solomon compares these two groups in three texts. Before comparing them in 9:4 and 9:5, he begins the comparison in chapter 4:

“Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. 2 And I thought the dead (hammetim) who are already dead more fortunate than the living (hachayyim) who are still alive. 3 But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 4:1-3 ESV).

His first conclusion is that it is better to be dead than alive because of all the injustice, oppression and suffering that the living face. Even better than being dead is not having been born at all. Solomon looks at all there is “under the sun”[25] and his first conclusion (“I thought” [vs.2]) is that life is just not worth it. In spite of all the great things that a person can do (most of which Solomon did) and the joys of life that a person can experience (which Solomon experienced) his first judgment is a negative one.

His explanations for this cynical attitude include the following:

· “for all is vanity and a striving after wind” (2:17).

· “because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it” (2:21).

· “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income” (5:10).

· “As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand” (5:15).

· “In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing” (7:15).

then, again…

Observations like these lead Solomon to conclude at first that the struggle of life for enjoyment and accomplishment is just not worth it. But then he changes his mind. His final conclusion is that it is better to be alive (and to have been alive) than to be dead. He prefers to be among the living (hachayyim) and not the dead (hammetim). His reasons have nothing to do with what one might experience or accomplish. He has already concluded that such things are meaningless. They are meaningless because of the reality of death.

three reasons

His reasons for reversing his previous judgment are also tied to the reality of death. It is better to be alive than dead because of three things all dead people lack: awareness, reward, and something he calls memory.

AWARENESS

It is better to be alive than dead because living people have awareness of life. They are conscious of what they are doing, while the dead are not. In contrast to the living, who know that they will eventually die, the dead do not know anything.

Supporters of a conscious intermediate state exert a great deal of effort to negate the import of such a statement. Barnes says “Solomon here describes what he sees, not what he believes; there is no reference here to the fact or the mode of the existence of the soul in another world, which are matters of faith.”[26] There is no reference to such things because Solomon is not privy to the teaching of Plato and Socrates. Those teachings are indeed “matters of faith” but that faith does not have its basis in the Word of God. Solomon must speak of death and the afterlife from within the limits of Scriptural revelation.

So, Solomon says, “The dead know nothing.” Gill responds,

“this is not to be understood of their separate spirits, and of the things of the other world; for the righteous dead know much, their knowledge is greatly increased; they know, as they are known; they know much of God in Christ, of his perfections, purposes, covenant, grace, and love; they know much of Christ, of his person, offices, and glory, and see him as he is; they know much of the Gospel, and the mysteries of it; and of angels, and the spirits of just men, they now converse with; and of the glories and happiness of the heavenly state; even they know abundantly more than they did in this life: and the wicked dead, in their separate spirits, know there is a God that judgeth; that their souls are immortal; that there is a future state; indeed they know and feel the torments of hell, the worm that never dies, and the fire that is not quenched.”[27]

What an amazing amount of information the dead are aware of! Gil asserts that the lack of awareness Solomon speaks of only has to do with what is happening on earth. The awareness Gil speaks of is taking place either in heaven or hell. Solomon mentions heaven four times in Ecclesiastes, and never once mentions that people’s souls go there at death.[28] Like the rest of the Old Testament authors, he never mentions the word hell at all.[29] Yet Gill would insist that Solomon’s argument simply excludes any awareness of anything that happens one second after death.

But 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. If (as Gill supposes) the actual awareness of the dead increases, then Solomon’s argument is a wash. If one’s awareness at death actually increases, then Solomon was right in his first assessment, and he should not have changed his mind. He had previously argued that being dead was better than being alive. He changed his mind and is now arguing that being alive is better. He based that correction on the fact that death ends one’s awareness of everything.

REWARD

The second reason Solomon asserts that being alive is better is that a living person can expect a reward for what he has done. The dead get no reward.

Solomon has a great deal to say about rewards elsewhere:

· “The wicked person earns deceitful wages, but the one who sows righteousness reaps a genuine reward” (Proverbs 11:18 NET).

· “The reward of humility and the fear of the LORD Are riches, honor and life” (Proverbs 22:4 NASB).

· “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you” (Proverbs 25:21-22 NIV).

· “And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil” (Ecclesiastes 2:10 ESV).

· “Two are better than one, Because they have a good reward for their labor” (Ecclesiastes 4:9 NKJV).

His writings were part of that genre known as biblical wisdom literature, which encouraged people to be faithful to God now and expect him to bless you for it now. There was no mention of rewards after death because that was not the point.

But in Ecclesiastes 9:5, Solomon goes beyond that simple assertion. He talks about why it is better to be alive, and he asserts that the reason is that if one is alive, he can continue to receive rewards for living righteously. But he also asserts that at death, that process ends. After death, rewards and punishment have come to an end.

According to the New Testament, that system where the sovereign God rewards people for their faithfulness and genuine good deeds in this life is still in effect.

· “Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you” (Matthew 6:4 NLT).

· “But whenever you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:6 NET).

· “But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, “Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? “And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong”” (Luke 23:40-41 NKJV).

But the New Testament also speaks of rewards that believers will receive at the return of Christ:

· “”But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great” (Luke 6:35 ESV).

· “If the work survives, that builder will receive a reward.” (1 Corinthians 3:14 NLT).

· “because you know that you will receive your inheritance from the Lord as the reward. Serve the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:24 NET).

· “Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward” (2 John 1:8 ESV).

· “But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:13-14 NASB).

· “And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be” (Revelation 22:12 KJV).

So, the Bible teaches that there are two different kinds of reward. there are rewards in this life that a gracious God gives those who live as they should, and there is the reward at Christ’s return that believers will receive from him. Solomon’s statement agrees with this cosmology. That is why he affirms that being among the living is better than being among the dead.

But some read a third kind of reward into the equation. They say that people are rewarded (or punished) not only during this life and after Christ’s second coming, but that people are also rewarded immediately after death and before the resurrection. The assertion is that the intermediate state (between death and the resurrection) is a time of conscious blessing or misery prior to judgment day.

The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus[30] appears to teach that, but it actually does not. Jesus was using one of the stories of the Pharisees (who held to rewards during the intermediate state) and turning the end of the story against them. When Jesus actually taught his disciples about life after death, he always made reference to a resurrection.[31] He never referred to the believer’s reward as “Abraham’s bosom”, but called it eternal life,[32] and his coming kingdom.[33]

Somewhere between Solomon’s day and that of Jesus and the apostles, many Jews had bought into a pagan cosmology which included the belief in a conscious intermediate state. Solomon may have anticipated such a belief, because his words teach against it. He is saying not simply that the old reward system ends at death, but that during death there cannot be another. He asserts that the dead are incapable of being rewarded, good or bad.

MEMORY

The final reason Solomon asserts that being alive is better than being dead is that dead people do not have something called memory. At first glance, this seems to have two possible meanings. Either it refers to the capacity of the dead to remember, or it refers to the ability of others to remember them.

The Hebrew noun zecher is related to the verbal root zachar, the usual word for “to remember.” That means that Solomon could be saying that the capacity of the dead to remember stops at death. He would essentially be repeating what he said before – that the dead know nothing, they have no awareness. It would be in agreement with Psalm 146:4 which describes the dying this way: “His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.”

Probably, however, Solomon is speaking about the capacity for others to remember someone who is dead. The other Old Testament uses of the actual word zikram (their memory) relate to this usage.[34] If this is the meaning Solomon had in mind, he obviously took the long view. People actually do memorialize the dead, and often to the extreme. But eventually, given enough time, even the names of rock stars and presidents will fall into disuse.

Solomon’s point is that death makes a sudden and actual end to all those things that we call life. When all is said and done, Solomon is arguing that it is better to have lived than to have not lived at all. The reality of death ends our life, but it does not end our significance. Life is worth living because God lives forever. What we do matters not because we are immortal and live forever but because what we do matters to God.

Solomon’s initial approach to life was pessimistic. He argued that life was not worth living because death is real and it will happen to everyone. Upon further investigation, Solomon changed his outlook. He still believed that death is real, and it happens to everyone. But he adds two words to the equation: “except God.” If God lives, my living in the present can be worthwhile. If God lives, my having lived in the past can be significant.

The New Testament teaches that Jesus “broke the power of death and illuminated the way to life and immortality through the Good News.”[35] We now know far much about our future than Solomon did. We now have clear teaching of a resurrection, an eternity in God’s new creation – an immortal existence in the future!

But Solomon still has much to teach us about what is really important. He stared human mortality in the face, and chose not to deny it. Instead, he put his trust and his hope in the LORD, who is immortal. His philosophy became theocentric, not anthropocentric. He taught his listeners to “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”[36] And he based that command not on the illusion of an immortal soul surviving death, but the reality of an immortal God who can never die. He is the reason life is worth living!

Calvin on Psalm 31:5

clip_image010 “Into your Hands I commit my spirit.”

David’s statement of trust in the midst of trial was so spiritually significant that the Lord Jesus himself quoted it on the cross. Later, Stephen quoted the same text at the moment of his own death by martyrdom. What does it mean to commit one’s spirit into God’s hands. Does this affirm the immortality of the soul?

John Calvin thought so. He was convinced that “man consists of a body and a soul; meaning by soul an immortal though created essence, which is the nobler part.”[37] He concluded that “Christ, in commending his spirit to the Father, and Stephen his to Christ, simply mean that when the soul is freed from the prison-house of the body, God becomes its perpetual keeper.”[38]

Calvin did not come to that conclusion by reading Psalm 31. He rightly commented on David’s statement by saying “Whoever commits himself into God’s hand and to his guardianship, not only constitutes him the arbiter of life and death to him, but also calmly depends on him for protection amidst all his dangers.”[39] David was asserting his trust in God to deliver him, not his confidence in possessing an indestructible spirit.

Yet Calvin could not resist taking David’s words out of their context, and teaching that Christ and Stephen asserted something not about theology but about anthropology. His belief in Plato’s doctrine of the immortality of the soul was so strong that it led Calvin to forget his rules of exegesis.

Christ quoted from Psalm 31:5 while dying on the cross. He said “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!”[40] In doing so, he was expressing the exact same sentiment that David had expressed when he had used those words. He was not saying that his body was going to die, but that the real him was going to fly to heaven to be safe in his Father’s hands. He was saying that he trusted his Father to rescue him.

His Father did rescue him. He was raised from the dead three days later. His spirit had not gone to heaven to be with his Father at death. He told Mary “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.”[41] Christ went to the grave. He had committed his spirit – that is, his life – into the hands of the one person who could redeem it.

Stephen’s quote of Psalm 31:5 was also true to its context. Stephen knew that he was going to die. The prison-house was not his alive body, but death itself. But he also had confidence that his death would not be the end. God would rescue him from the prison-house of death in the same way that he had rescued Jesus – by a resurrection. Luke records, “as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.””[42] I heard a preacher at a funeral of a friend of mine say that Stephen did not sleep in the grave because God received his spirit. The preacher had quoted this verse. Later, I had to remind my students (who also heard this sermon) that the preacher forgot about the next verse! Luke continued “And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.”[43] Stephen’s committing his spirit to Christ was not a rejection of the reality of death. It was an expression of confidence that death would not be permanent.

Calvin’s commentary on Psalm 31 also quoted Paul’s reflection on death. He says “What David here declares concerning his temporal life, Paul transfers to eternal salvation.”[44] He was referring to where Paul says “I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.”[45] What Calvin did not point out is that Paul’s words in 2 Timothy are not words of someone who denies death. Paul’s words imply that his death would come, but he has entrusted himself to God who can rescue him from that death. Paul’s trust was not in his possessing an immortal soul, but in his possessing a resurrecting God.

That is the sentiment expressed in Psalm 31:5 by David, and reflected in the words of Jesus on the cross, and those of Stephen at his death. It is not that God has made a part of our being that will never die. It is that God has promised to restore his own by a complete resurrection. It is not about something inherent within us. It is about the faithfulness of God.

Debugging Luke 23:43

Synopsis: The traditional translation of Luke 23:43 is inconsistent with the rest of Scripture, and poses theological, biblical, historical, and grammatico-syntactical problems. It gives the wrong answer to the questions “how can we get to heaven?” and “where does the spirit go after death?” and “what happens after we die?” The verse should be debugged: that is, retranslated.

When traditionalists read our lord’s promise to the penitent thief, the result is an assurance that as soon as believers die, they will join Christ in heaven. Since that belief fits the traditionalist worldview, it poses no problems. So, the traditionalist keeps on reading. Most conditionalists are convinced that believers’ reunion with Christ will not occur until the return of Christ. Reading Luke 23:43 poses problems for us. The text as it appears in the standard versions stands out like bugged code, and we are challenged to stop and debug it.

It is not actually the text as it appears in the original Greek that is the problem. Rather, it is the text that appears in the translations that seek to convey its meaning. Those translations appear to have Jesus promising the thief an immediate reward in paradise on the same day as the crucifixion. Since Jesus went to Hades that day,[46] and both thieves were apparently still alive the next day,[47] we see theological and biblical and historical problems with Jesus making such a promise.

theology: reunion at the return, not death

Bible: Christ went to Hades, not paradise

history: Christ died a different day than the thief

The typical translations of this text are based on an analysis that looks something like this:

clip_image011I am saying YOU WILL BE in paradise

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truly today

to you with me

In this analysis, the promise to the penitent is that he will be in some place called paradise. The word “today” indicates when that will happen.

this day

A simple solution to the problem is found in the fact that the word translated “today” can also be rendered “this day.”[48] Jesus could be simply referring to the day that the thief had asked about, assuring him that they would be reunited on the day that Jesus came in his kingdom. The grammatical analysis would be the same:

I am saying YOU WILL BE in paradise

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truly this day [of Christ’s return]

to you with me

The word in the text translated “today” would be rendered “this day” – a reference to the second coming, not the day of the crucifixion. It is possible, then, to solve the problem without a change in textual analysis. This involves some speculation, however, since there is no biblical record of the word being used to refer to a day in the future.

I am saying today,

A much more satisfactory, and biblically defendable solution is found in a slight reanalysis of the text. If the adverb translated “today” modifies the verb “to say” rather than the verb “to be,” the analysis looks more like this:

clip_image014clip_image015I am saying YOU WILL BE in paradise

truly

to you with me

today

The translation would remain exactly the same, except that the comma would be placed after the word “today” rather than before it. The meaning would be the same except that Jesus’ assurance to the penitent thief would not include a specific time reference. This reading is much more acceptable to conditionalists, since it involves no reward before the resurrection. The penitent thief will be with the Lord on the same day that we are.

The apostle Paul described that day: He said “For 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.”[49] We

conditionalists look forward to being with the Lord as much as traditionalists do.

But we find no reason to disagree with Paul as to when the reunion will occur.

Luke 23:43 (in all modern translations) needs to be debugged because it

appears to have Jesus promising the reunion at death, instead of the resurrection. The question is, are there grammatical and textual reasons for the above reanalysis, as well as theological, biblical, and historical ones? If there can be found good reasons for retranslating the text within the syntax and lexicography of the text itself, then that new translation should be adopted, regardless of

how comforted some have felt from the verse as it stands. There is no integrity in

allowing a mistranslation to remain unchanged. But there must be solid syntactical

and lexicographic evidence to show that it is indeed a mistranslation.

Luke 4:21; 5:26

The first two instances of the Greek word sémeron (today) in Luke’s

Gospel seems to be consistent with the traditional translation of Luke 23:43. If

these texts were analyzed according to the pattern set above, they would appear

like this:

He began to say THIS SCRIPTURE HAS BEEN FULFILLED

 
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today

They were saying WE HAVE SEEN extraordinary things

 
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today

Yet, appearances can deceive, because in Luke 4:21 and 5:26 there

is an important word in the text that goes untranslated. That word is hoti, a

coordinating conjunction. The purpose of this grammatical term is to introduce

“an objective clause after verbs of knowing, saying, seeing, feeling, etc.”[50] It

appears with “verbs of expression or perception” and introduces a “specialized

object” clause.[51]

This term does not need to be translated in English because it is indicated

by using quotation marks around the objective clause. The problem is, in Luke 23:43 there is no hoti. That means that while it is clear in Luke 4:21 and 5:26

what the full quotation is, it is not as clear in Luke 23:43 what is being promised, and when.

Mark 14:30

Jesus’ words to Peter are especially pertinent since they involve a

direct promise to an individual – just as the words of Luke 23:43 do. Jesus’ tells

Peter that “this very night” he would deny his Lord three times. Again, this text

seems amazingly similar in construction to Luke 23:43. The words “this very night”

are clearly modifying the prediction, not the words “I tell you.” But this is merely

another instance of an untranslated hoti which makes that clear.

Luke 19:9

Jesus is assuring Zaccaeus that salvation had come to his house on

that very day. Readers of this verse who are looking for connections to Luke 23:43

see an exact match: they see Jesus promising Zacchaeus salvation today, and

promising the penitent thief entrance into paradise today. Yet, this exact match

disappears when the text is read in Greek. For, just as in the previous two texts,

the date of Jesus’ promise is made clear by the insertion of the conjunction hoti

before the word sémeron. That construction makes the word today part of the

promise, not simply the day that the promise is made.

Yet, that construction is omitted by Luke in 23:43. The Gospel writer singles

that text out as a more ambiguous quotation. He gives no other texts with similar enough wording for readers to use in concluding which verb the adverb sémeron is modifying. Yet, the Bible as a whole comes to our rescue. There are numerous texts in the Bible, with similar wording, and without the hoti conjunction. Here are some examples:

“I command you today,…”

The exact phrase “I command you today,…” in Greek is found 24

times in the Septuagint Greek translation of Deuteronomy.[52] It

contains the word sémeron as part of a direct address from one

person to another (or others), but does not contain the word hoti.

It would make sense for the translators of Luke 23:43 to use these

16 verses as a pattern for translating the more ambiguous text, but

they clearly have not. If they did, they would render it “”Truly, I say

to you today, you will be with me in Paradise.” Jesus is simply

following a pattern of an authoritative announcement, by including

the date of the announcement.

“I declare today”

A similar pattern is found in the Old Testament statements where

the word “declare” is used with the word sémeron.[53] In each case,

the adverb modifies the verb of communication, not the subsequent

verbs. Jesus’ declaration to the penitent thief would make perfect

sense if translated in the same light. He is making a declaration,

giving the date of his declaration, and then following with the full

details of the declaration. Again, the translators of Luke 23:43 have

chosen not to follow this pattern.

“hoti sémeron”

There are only seven texts in all of the Scripture where the words “hoti sémeron” appear together. In each of these texts, it is crystal clear that the adverb sémeron modifies the verb within the statement of declaration, and not anything else. These are:

· “today the LORD will appear to you” (Leviticus 9:4).

· “today the LORD has worked salvation in Israel” (1 Samuel 11:13).

· “Adonijah shall be put to death this day” (1 Kings 2:24).

· “I will surely show myself to him today” (1 Kings 18:15).

· “today the LORD will take away your master” (2 Kings 2:5).

· “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).

· “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9).

This establishes an alternative pattern of grammatical construction for authors who wish to convey that the action within a declarative statement is taking place on the day the statement is made. Luke 23:43 is not one of those seven texts. It does not follow that syntactical pattern. The fact that it is systematically translated as if it did can only be attributed to either theological bias or lack of awareness of these syntactical distinctions, or both.

resurrection hope

Having established that there is a case against the traditional translation of Luke 23:43 on biblical, historical, and grammatico-syntactical grounds, it is important to revisit the theological basis of the text. Jesus is assuring the penitent thief that his sins have been forgiven, and that – when he comes again – his Lord will raise him from the dead, and reunite with him in paradise. That assurance is consistent with the promises Jesus had made to that point.

· He promised to raise all believers “on the last day.”[54]

· He defended the doctrine of the resurrection against the skepticism of the Sadducees.[55]

· He encouraged charitable acts because those who do them will be “repaid at the resurrection.”[56]

· He agreed with Martha’s doctrine that the saved will “rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”[57]

· He called himself “the resurrection and the life.”[58]

There is no biblical record of Jesus teaching his disciples that they would reunite with him at their deaths. There is no biblical record of Jesus teaching believers that they will be rewarded at their deaths. Instead, Jesus promised “When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am.”[59] The reunion he promised was to take place at his second coming, not at death.

The parables of the second coming which Jesus taught also emphasized this principle:

· The bride and bridegroom will be united at the coming of the bridegroom.[60]

· The master went on a journey, and settled accounts with his servants when he returned.[61]

· People will be separated like a shepherd separates his sheep and goats when “the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him.”[62]

The apostles agreed with this eschatological emphasis. Paul taught that the believer’s blessed hope was “the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ”[63] Peter encouraged believers to “look forward to the gracious salvation that will come to you when Jesus Christ is revealed to the world.”[64] James told the brothers to be patient “until the coming of the Lord.”[65] John commanded his listeners to abide in Christ now, so that they would “not be ashamed before him at his coming.”[66] He saw Jesus in a vision saying “I am coming soon, and my reward is with me to pay each one according to what he has done!”[67]

So, the Bible consistently teaches that all believers will be rewarded with eternal life by Christ at his return, and that our reunion will take place at that event. Luke 23:43, as it is presently translated, seems to teach otherwise. It seems to have Jesus promising that immediately at death both he and the penitent thief would be reunited, and presumably conscious of the reunion. But when Jesus described a young girl who had died, Luke records that he said she was sleeping.[68] He did not put her in paradise. His statement agreed with the Old Testament writers, who described the dead as sleeping with their ancestors.[69] Paul taught that Jesus was the first to be raised from that sleep, and that took place not when he was on the cross, but when he came out of the tomb – three days later.[70] He went on to say that the rest of us will be raised from that sleep “at his coming.”[71]

Some of the early Christian teachers had been taught a Greek philosophic concept called the immortality of the soul. When they saw texts like Luke 23:43, they took it as proof of that concept. Yet, the Bible rejects it. In the Bible, we learn that only God has immortality.[72] Believers are promised that they will “put on immortality,” but that will happen at the resurrection, not at death.[73] Luke 23:43 is a mistranslation that has kept a lot of good Christians from seeing this truth. It is time we debugged it.

If you died today…

The billboard on the interstate highway asked “If you died today, where would you spend eternity?” The question was never asked in the Bible. It reflects a theology based on some assumptions that are not held by biblical authors. I would be uncomfortable asking the question to anyone, for fear that they might assume that I hold the theology.

First, asking where would you spend eternity assumes that everybody is going to be alive to spend eternity somewhere. The Bible does not teach that. The Bible teaches that God’s gift of eternal life is available only to those who put their trust in Christ. Eternity is not a given.

John 3:36 “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life”

John 6:40 “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.’”

John 6:47 “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.”

John 10:28 “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.”

1 John 5:11-12 “And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”

Jude 1:21 “keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.’”

Second, asking if you died today indicates that it is the time of one’s death that seals their fate. A more biblical question would be Who is your LORD today? A person’s fate is not based on the time of her death but the quality and commitments of her life.

Matthew 10:25 “It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master.”

Matthew 10:42 “And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.”

Luke 14:26-27 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”

Luke 14:33 “So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”

Acts 9:10 “Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.””

Nevertheless, the question is an honest one. My brothers and sisters in Christ who put up that sign may be somewhat confused about their theology, but their heart is in the right place. The question on the billboard reflects an urgency. It implies that thousands will drive that road every day who have never seriously considered their eternal fate. It is correct.

Perhaps you are one of those people who have never taken seriously the claims of Jesus Christ. Maybe you have thought about what would happen to you if you should die today. Probably nothing. You would probably be buried, and rot in the grave for a very long time. But one day the same Jesus who was raised from the dead the first Easter Sunday will come back and raise you from the dead

too. Then you will really face the moment of truth. It will not be the day of your death, but the day of your resurrection which you should be concerned about.

Matthew 13:47-50 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

The evil ones who trust in their own ways will suffer, be discarded and destroyed. The righteous who put their faith in Christ will be gathered and saved for eternity. If you were to die tonight, which resurrection would you be a part of? Would you have a chance to spend eternity in God’s new heaven and new earth?

Commit your life to Jesus Christ today. Then you will not have to worry about whether you die today or tomorrow. You can be safe in him.

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 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”?

The first recorded death in the Bible was that of Abel, who was killed by his brother, Cain. The Bible states that “the LORD had regard for Abel.”[74] Did that mean that Abel was taken up to heaven when he died? No, the Lord told Cain “the voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.”[75] Abel did not go to a better place when he died. He went to the ground where his brother had buried him. That was the very reason that the Lord cursed the ground for Cain. He told him that “When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”[76]

The great saint and father of the Israelite nation was Abraham. When he died, did the Bible say that he went to a better place? No, it says that “Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people.”[77] We went where his pagan ancestors had gone: the grave. The Bible says that “Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, east of Mamre, the field that Abraham purchased from the Hittites. There Abraham was buried, with Sarah his wife.”[78] Of course, it is popular for people to speak of burying a body, but still believe that the real person has gone elsewhere. Moses, the author of Genesis, entertained no such delusion.

David was called a man after God’s own heart.[79] Surely if anyone was to be granted a residence in a better place at his death, it would be David. But the Bible declares that “David himself never ascended into heaven.”[80] It was his descendant, Jesus Christ, that would sit at God’s right hand until his enemies are made his footstool.[81]

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.”[82] He had told his disciples “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him”.[83] If Lazarus had gone to a better place, it would have been cruelty to bring him back.

Even Jesus did not go back to his Father at death. After his resurrection, he told Mary Magdalene “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.”[84] He had been in the tomb, and he was raised from that tomb. His ascension forty days later came not as a result of his death, but because of his victory over death. His words to us now are not “do not fear death because it will take you to a better place.” His words to us are “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”[85]

Christians can be comforted at the death of a loved one. Our comfort comes not because we believe death takes us to a better place. The Bible says “the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing”.[86] David prayed that the LORD would deliver his life because “in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?”[87] Our comfort comes because we know death is not the end. It is a terrible prison where our body decays into nothingness while our personhood exists in a state of unconscious sleep. But our Savior has the keys to that prison. When he comes again, he will raise us from the dead and set us free from death forever.

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.[88] It is wrong to imply that the blessed hope is a better place at death when the Bible says Christ’s second coming is the blessed hope.[89]

When the Thessalonians wanted to know about their loved ones who had fallen asleep in death, Paul told them not to “grieve as others do who have no hope”.[90] His instructions for them to teach each other were as follows:

“For 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. Therefore encourage one

another with these words. ”[91]

That is all the encouragement we need. Our hope is not in some mythical place that believers supposedly go when they die. Our hope is Jesus. He will not forget us. Death is real, but so is he.

Learning to Trust

(Devotional thoughts on Ecclesiastes 3:9-22)

All go to one place: Sheol, the state of death. This is not altogether bad news. It puts us into a place where we must depend on God for a resurrection. We have to learn to trust that our LORD knows what he is doing. We begin by being thankful for the work the LORD allows us to do. Being grateful for life now is one of the lessons we can learn from its shortness. Life is a gift from He who gave it to

everyone. Ultimately, we are learning to trust him, even when the work leaves us,

and all we see is an open grave. We have to trust God for life on the other side of

the grave. Demonstrating that trust to others as we draw near our divine

appointment (Hebrews 9:27) is a way of testifying of our faith.

LORD, teach us to trust in you. Thank you for the honor of demonstrating that

trust as we face our divine appointment.

Looking at 1 Thessalonians 5:10

The Holy spirit has given us a masterpiece of precision in the Bible. Its words are crafted with such care that readers usually stumble upon the correct meaning of texts without much preparation and study. On the other hand, the human brain is a complex organ, and capable of creative interpretation. Sometimes we get rather creative in how we read the Bible.

1 Thessalonians 5:10 provides evidence of this proposition. Paul tells the Thessalonian Christians that Christ “died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.”[92] Exegetes need to ask (at least) two questions of the text here: “What does ‘awake’ and ‘asleep’ mean in this context?” and “Is this verse an affirmation of dead believers consciously living with Christ before the resurrection?”

“awake” and “asleep”

The passage within which this verse is found is 4:13-5:11. The primary subject matter is the second coming of the Lord. Paul writes “we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.”[93] In that verse, those considered awake are alive, and “those who are asleep” have died. The question had begun to present itself to believers as to what is happening to their loved ones who died after Jesus’ ascension. Paul does not tell them that it is none of their business. He has an

answer to their questions. He does not want his readers assuming (as the godless do) that the dead are gone forever. He wants them to have hope, and a specific hope – not just the anticipation of some kind of life beyond the grave.

The basis for the believer’s hope in life after death is the fact “that Jesus died and rose again.”[94] It is not based on something about human nature, or the existence of something essentially immortal within all human beings. If Jesus had not physically rose from the dead and walked out of his tomb, the hope would not be there. Jesus had been asleep in the tomb, and brought out of that sleep by a resurrection. Paul promises that Jesus will be the means by whom God will bring all the dead in Christ out of their sleep. Jesus said the same thing to Martha. He

said that he is “the resurrection and the life.” He spoke of that coming resurrection day when he said that whoever believes in him, will live then, even if he is dead now.[95] He went on to promise that whoever is living at the time of that resurrection, and believes, will never die. So, for both Jesus and Paul, there are only two classes of believer, the living (or awake) and the dead (or asleep). Both await Christ’s second coming.

Paul assures his readers that Christ is not going to return and set up his kingdom on earth without first raising those asleep in him. He says that “that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.”[96] Perhaps someone had taught the Thessalonians that the dead would stay buried until after the millennial reign, or some other event. Paul says, no, when Jesus returns, raising the dead is the first thing on his list.

The second coming will be an unmistakable cataclysmic event. It will be preceded by three unmistakably loud sounds: a command shouted from the Lord himself, the voice of the archangel, and the trumpet call. Then, all the dead will burst from their tombs.[97] When God acts to raise the dead, everyone will know it. It has not happened yet, but we will know it when it does.

with the Lord?

Those believers who are “awake” at the second coming of the Lord will be caught up in the air, together with the resurrected believers. From that time on, all believers will be “with the Lord” always.[98] This is an interesting way for Paul to put it. Many today assume that all believers have to do to be “with the Lord” is to die. But for Paul, being “with the Lord” requires Christ’s return. Until then, neither the “awake” or “asleep” believers are with the Lord. The awake are alive “in the Lord” and the dead die “in the Lord” (en kuriō),[99] but neither are “with the Lord” (sun kuriō) until his return.

So, what did Paul mean when he told the Corinthians that he “would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord”?[100] He meant, simply, that he would rather be away from his present mortal body (his earthly tent) and, at the same time at home with the Lord (pros ton kurion). That is not going to happen until the resurrection, when this temporary mortal “tent” is replaced by his eternal “building from God”.[101] Since this resurrection does not occur until the return of Christ, Paul’s theology is consistent. The hope he speaks of to

Corinth and to Thessalonica is the same: a reunion with Christ at his return.[102]

parousia

The New Testament describes the coming of the Lord as a “parousia,” his physical presence, as opposed to his physical absence. It is the combination of ousia, meaning substance or being, and para, meaning close proximity.

It’s opposite is apousia, meaning absence.[103] This meaning is implied throughout the uses of parousia in the New Testament. It always applies to Christ’s physical reappearance at his second advent. This is made clear by the New Testament uses of the word when it do not refer to the second coming, but to someone else’s physical presence.[104] For Paul, the hope of the saints is not some spiritual presence at death, but the actual physical presence of Christ at his second advent. At this parousia, those who belong to Christ will be raised to life again.[105] At this parousia, Paul will rejoice over those he has won to Christ.[106] That is because the parousia will be the time when our Lord will appear “with all his saints.”[107] In this verse, 1 Thessalonians 3:13, the English word “coming” – the most popular word used to translate parousia – leads us astray. Popular teaching – based

on this mistranslation – has Jesus coming from heaven with the disembodied souls of his saints. Then he reunites these souls with their resurrected bodies. Paul is not saying that Jesus will come with the saints. He is saying that Jesus will appear with the saints. One little word shows that this is the correct interpretation: the word all. All the saints includes those who are alive (awake) as well as those who are dead (asleep). At the parousia, these two groups will be reunited with the Lord.

alive or alert?

Midway in Paul’s description of the second coming, he starts using the words asleep and awake in a different sense. He teaches that Christ will come suddenly, like a thief. On the basis of that sudden coming, he instructs the Thessalonians “let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober.”[108] His contrast has changed. Instead of contrasting the two categories of believers (living saints and dead saints), he now contrasts unbelievers (those who will be caught sleeping at the parousia) and believers (who live in the light, and so will be ready

when Christ comes.

This change in the use of the awake/asleep metaphors has some interpreters concluding that Paul is not referring to the death state at all. The New English Translation renders 1 Thessalonians 5:10 as “He died for us so that

whether we are alert or asleep we will come to life together with him.” This translation takes Paul as rendering assurance to believers who are not ready for Christ’s return! One commentator writes “This destiny not only belongs to those Christians who are wide awake when Christ comes, but also to those who are sound

asleep.”[109] But Paddison argues that even though the verb translated “to be awake” in 2 Thessalonians 5:10 can mean to be alert, the theological logic of Paul in the entire section argues that Paul is using it in reference to the alive in Christ.[110]

Christ will come for all believers, regardless of their spiritual condition at the moment of his coming. Yet, it is not clear that Paul is giving that assurance in this text. He is, in fact, warning the Thessalonians not to be caught sleeping. It would make no sense for him to turn around and say, in effect, that regardless of their obedience to this command, Christ will accept them anyway.

the intermediate state

What does this verse tell us about the intermediate state – the state of the dead between death and the resurrection at Christ’s parousia? It does not say that believers who are asleep in Christ are presently living with him. It affirms that Christ died “for us” – and that his death is applied equally to all believers, whether living or dead. But only (as the context makes clear) at the parousia will the subjunctive clause become indicative. Only then will both categories of believers live with him. The NLT puts it well: “Christ died for us so that, whether we

are dead or alive when he returns, we can live with him forever.”

What this passage does affirm about the intermediate state is that there is a contrast between believers who are living and those who are dead. While both will live with Christ when he returns, only those who awake are living now. The dead in Christ are asleep. While their eternal inheritance is assured, their present walk has been cut short by death. They are unconscious, awaiting the parousia, when we will all be “gathered together to him.”[111] Those of us who have lost loved ones can take courage, because Christ’s death on the cross assures us that their rest is temporary, not eternal.

Paradise

Recently, my pastor and his family went on vacation, and he asked me and my family to house-sit their residence. It was an interesting experience. His house is much larger, and in a much nicer neighborhood than any I have lived in. When I went on my daily walks, I found myself contemplating the beauty and orderliness and spaciousness of the neighborhood. I was not exactly envious – God has taken care of me and mine; I have never had a reason to complain. But I could not help but be struck by the extravagance of it all.

As I was musing over this one morning on one of my walks, I found myself praying to God. He asked me to take a good look at all this wealth, blessing and provision. Then he asked me to imagine myself (as he often does) a million years into the future. Looking back on those few days in the pastor’s neighborhood helps me to keep things in perspective. It helps me to realize that my entire life is simply a short temporary stay in (as it were) a borrowed house. What my Father has in store for me, when I get where he wants me, will be so magnificent that those few days among the well-off will seem like slumming.

God planted a garden

God had taken the elements of the ground (Hebrew: ‘adamah) and created a man (Hebrew: ‘adam).[112] He picked a spot of ground on the same planet and planted a rich and beautiful garden.[113] The garden was given to Adam for three expressed reasons:

1. enjoyment.

The trees and other contents of the garden of Eden were designed to be “pleasant to the sight.”[114] Long before scientists would invent the word ecosystem God had created one, and Adam had the pleasure of watching it work. The interplay between flora and fauna was – no doubt – amazing.

Even now, after thousands of years of corruption and dysfunction caused by sin – the planet is a marvel to behold. This planet’s ecosystem combines a varied geography with the peculiarities of myriads of species of plant and animal life, and produces an unsurpassed beauty. But it is more than just beauty. Our planet is a delight to behold because it all fits together in such an orderly system.

The ancients looked at creation and saw evidence for the existence of God because the world is a design that functions well. They reasoned from the design to a designer. They argued that if one found a watch in the sand, he would never imagine that the watch just emerged out of nothingness. Its design was too complicated for that. Just looking at the planet leads people back to its creator.

Eden was like that. Every blade of grass, every tree, every marvellous species of animal life – caused Adam to reflect upon the one who created it all. It was all “pleasant to the sight” and reminded Adam of the one who gave him eyes to see. Rather than distracting Adam, all this stuff enhanced Adam’s relationship with God. That is what the next paradise will be for.

2. life

The trees of the garden were designed to be “good for food.”[115] God had

created Adam – not immortal like he was, but mortal: dependant upon the ground from which he was made. The ground would produce plants which would sustain the life of his soul. God had created him from the ground, and then breathed into his body the breath of life. The resulting combination was a living soul.[116] If Adam had not eaten, his body would have starved to death, and returned to the ground from which it had been fashioned. God wanted to preserve the man he created. He gave Adam what he needed to sustain his life.

Paradise was more than just a nice place to look at. It was designed to sustain life. That is also what the new heavens and new earth will do. Death and all associated with it will pass away.[117] Look at our future home and you will see a river of life flowing through it, and a tree of life in the midst of it.[118] Paradise will be eternal life for redeemed humanity.

3. meaning

Adam was placed in Eden “to work it and keep it.” That marvellous ecosystem

will require the human touch to ensure that it continues to be all that God intended it to be. Adam enjoyed his work. Each day brought new discoveries. He “gave names to all the livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field.”[119] Every new discovery brought Adam even more appreciation of his God, as he categorized and celebrated the magnificent provision.

That is what the next paradise will be like. We will have an eternity to continue seeing what we have never seen before, and marvelling at the elaborate richness of our inheritance.

God performed surgery

Nevertheless, the paradise of Eden was missing something that led God to pronounce it “not good.”[120] Adam needed “a helper fit for him.” Instead of forming this creature out of the ‘adamah as he had done all the others, God decided to perform the first recorded surgery, and fashion her out of ‘adam himself. Have you ever stopped to ask why the creator did so? He was creating a bride for his son, Adam. She would prefigure the bride for his Son, Jesus. She must be “a helper fit for him.” She must fit the criteria for the bride of Christ.

1. She must be IN HIM.

Eve began as part of Adam. She was in Adam. She literally came from him. If

there had never been an Adam, there could never have been an Eve. She depended upon him for her life and for her destiny. The LORD God took her from Adam and brought her to Adam. Adam called her “bone of (his) bones and flesh of (his) flesh.”

In the same way, the next paradise (the new heavens and new earth) will be populated only by those who are in Christ. To be in him then, we must be in him now.

2. She must be FIT TO RULE.

Adam was a servant of God, and a ruler for God. He had been created so that

he could have dominion over the “fish of the sea and the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that was moving on the earth.”[121] God had placed all of his domains under man’s dominion. If Eve was going to be “a helper fit for him” she must be able to rule at his side, to help him rule, to reign with him.

Does not the Scripture say that we, the bride of Christ, will reign with him[122] in his eternal kingdom? The next paradise, the new heavens and new earth will only be populated by kings and queens. We learn to serve under Christ so that we can someday rule with him.

3. He must sleep before SHE CAN LIVE!

The most remarkable picture that this surgery presents us with is a picture of

Christ’s sacrificial death. “The LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man.”[123] Sleep in the Bible is a metaphor for death. Adam’s deep sleep was not death, but it was described in terms that prefigured Christ’s sleep in the tomb. Just as Adam had to fall asleep in order for Eve to be created, so Christ had to die on the cross in order to give life to his bride.

It was also essential that Adam wake from his sleep. He had to experience his resurrection so that he and his bride could come together and enjoy paradise together. So, the surgery in Eden prefigured the atonement, and the aftermath of the surgery prefigured the next paradise: the new heavens and the new earth.

Genesis 2 concludes with the record that “the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.”[124] This would be the last time something like that could be said, for shame and sorrow followed on the heels of sin – which was introduced into humanity’s story in the very next chapter. But the picture of paradise in Genesis 2 rightly ends with both bride and bridegroom enjoying the garden and each other’s company without shame. Humanity’s shame will be replaced with God’s glory. John describes the holy city as shining with the glory of God, the glory of kings, and the glory and the honor of the nations.[125]

I enjoyed my recent stay in the neighborhood where “the other half lives.” It has got me to thinking about my destiny. Do you share that destiny? Are you in Christ? Are you his bride? There will be a paradise tomorrow, but it only awaits those who are in Christ today.

Scaling the Wall (part 1)

Few people actually take the time to consider arguments for an unconscious intermediate state because as soon as those arguments appear, a wall of contrary evidence is immediately thrown up around them. Numerous passages from Scripture are used, so that readers are assured that an unconscious sleep until the Lord returns is just unthinkable. In spite of the fact that sleep is the predominant metaphor the Bible uses for death, this wall of evidence seems to indicate that there must be some sort of conscious survival at death.

When we conditionalists say that we hope for a resurrection, not survival, our opponents just assume that we ignore that wall of evidence. They assume that we quickly skip past those texts when we are doing our devotions, and try to pretend that they are not there. On the contrary, we have had to look long and hard at those texts. We stay with those texts until we can reconcile what they actually teach with what the Bible states elsewhere.

What we look for is consistency. If a biblical author states one thing in one text, we do not expect him, or another biblical author, to contradict it in another. If the popular understanding of a particular text seems to be inconsistent with another, we look for an alternate understanding. This is merely doing good theology. Once we come to an alternate interpretation that does not contradict what is taught elsewhere, then we have scaled that portion of the wall.

Our belief is that every portion of that wall can be overcome. 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 will address some of the more popular texts which are part of that wall of evidence. They are intended to 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.

“LONGING TO PUT ON OUR HEAVENLY DWELLING”

(2 Corinthians 5:1-10).

This is not the first text in which the apostle Paul has revealed his hope of life after death. He addressed the issue extensively in his previous letter to the Corinthians. He told them that the future resurrection was a reality, and that if it were not so, then “those … who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.”[126] Now, the popular interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5 has Paul saying that every believer goes immediately and consciously to heaven when he dies. So, he first teaches that the resurrection is necessary, and then he teaches that it is not. First he teaches that without a resurrection we perish, then he teaches that without a resurrection we will continue to live. Here is one of those inconsistencies that make us take a closer look at that wall of evidence.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul taught that believers who have died will be made alive again at the second coming of Christ.[127] The popular interpretation of 2 Corinthians has Paul contradicting that, and saying that believers will remain alive after their deaths and go to be with the Lord. Paul did speak of believers being raised imperishable at the last trumpet,[128] but in 2 Corinthians 5 he appears to teach that something survives which is already imperishable, “a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”[129]

We are told that this survival is actually what Paul wants. He wants to be absent from the body (by means of his death) and present with the Lord. After all, he says “we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”[130] Five years later, he told the Philippians that all his hard work and suffering was so that “by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”[131] So, apparently Paul changed his mind again.

Or, there is another interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5 – one that does not contradict what Paul teaches elsewhere. What Paul actually teaches is that believers long to put on their resurrection bodies, which are their building from God, their houses not made with hands, which will be eternal. Their present lives are mortal, perishable, like a tent that is destined to be destroyed. While in these tents, believers groan, not because they want to die, but because they want to put on their resurrection bodies and live.

The popular interpretation of this text completely ignores the words “not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.”[132] This is where Paul corrects the possible misunderstanding that he is seeking the intermediate state. That state between death and the resurrection is not what Paul longs for. Here is how Paul describes the three states:

1. In the present state, believers are at home in the body, but away from the Lord.[133] He is not visibly here with us, but has gone to heaven, and will return to raise us. He has left his Holy Spirit as a guarantee that he will not leave us in this mortal state forever.[134] So we “we make it our aim to please him”[135] no matter what state we are in.

2. In the intermediate state, believers are dead, and unclothed.[136] They have not yet put on their heavenly dwellings.[137] This is not what Paul wants.

3. In the final state, believers will be raised to life by Christ at his second coming. This is what Paul wants. He would rather be away from his present, mortal body, and already at home with the Lord.[138]

Nowhere in this entire passage does Paul speak of going someplace when he dies. He never mentions the soul or spirit – except the Holy Spirit, who is given to us now as a guarantee of the resurrection to come. Paul is not recommending or commending or anticipating his own death. He does not anticipate an afterlife, but the resurrection life. Yet the popular interpretation of this text centers on the assumption that Paul is saying he would rather die than keep on living.

There is nothing Christian about wanting to die. Life – even this present, mortal life – is a gift from God, and should be preserved and cherished. Any philosophy or theology that teaches otherwise is unchristian, and any text that appears to represent a desire for death is misinterpreted.

“THERE WAS A RICH MAN…” (Luke 16:19-31).

Those who use Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus as proof of a conscious intermediate state fall into two camps: those who insist it is not a parable, but a true story, and those who realize that it is a parable but still say that its depiction of a conscious afterlife is accurate anyway.

Conditionalists agree with most biblical scholars who recognize that the passage is a parable. It begins with the very same words as the parable of the dishonest manager: “there was a rich man.”[139] A parable is any story that can be placed (Gk. ballo) alongside (Gk. para) something else to illustrate it. There are two parables in Luke 16, each illustrating a different message, and each having a different intended audience.

Jesus taught the parable of the dishonest manager to his disciples.[140] It involved a story of a steward who faced his immanent dismissal. He decided to adjust the debts owed his master so that his kindness to the debtors would encourage one of them to hire him later. When the master found out about it, he commended him, because even though he had been dishonest toward him, he had (in a sense) been faithful to the debtors.

Jesus used this parable to teach them to be faithful with their money. The teaching that the parable is intended to illustrate is this: “make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.”[141] In other words, Jesus taught his disciples to be faithful to God, and invest their money in his kingdom.

Now, if one were inclined to take this parable as doctrine describing how believers should communicate, there is a problem. Jesus appears to be commending dishonesty. The hero of the parable is a person who succeeded because he did not do what he was supposed to. He told lies and broke promises. There was a possibility that the disciples might not understand that he was teaching about faithfulness to God, and they might think he was teaching deception as moral good. Such is the case with parables. If one does not keep in mind the main point, a parable can be misinterpreted and lead the reader to the wrong conclusions.

The intended audience of the second parable is not the disciples, but “the Pharisees.”[142] These men were enemies of Jesus and the gospel. Unlike the disciples, they were not repentant. They were not seeking to be faithful. In the story, the rich man, who dies unrepentant, pleads with Abraham to raise Lazarus from the dead and send him back to his father’s house. He has four brothers who are still alive, but he knows that they too are heading to “this place of torment”.[143]

But Abraham refuses, because the brothers “have Moses and the prophets,” and if they do not hear them, “neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”[144] The message of this parable is that those who refuse to heed the warnings of scripture will not be convinced even if they see someone (like Jesus) who is raised from the dead. He is telling the Pharisees that they already have all the evidence they are going to get. They will face judgment someday, and there will be no excuses.

The story that Jesus uses to convey this message – like the previous one – can be misinterpreted if the reader does keep in mind its purpose. This rich man did not go to hell. He “was buried.”[145] Yet, somehow in the grave he is able to see Lazarus, who is not in heaven, but was carried (bodily) to Abraham’s side. The story turns Hades – the intermediate state – into something that the Bible says that it is not. Elsewhere, the Bible describes Hades as a place of darkness[146], silence[147], and sleep[148].

In fact, eight chapters before this, Luke has Jesus describing the death of a little girl. He told the mourners that she was sleeping.[149] When his friend (also called Lazarus) died, Jesus told his disciples “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.”[150] So, either Jesus has changed his mind about the nature of death, or the story he is telling the Pharisees is not intended to teach that kind of doctrine. Why, after all, would Jesus throw his pearls (of new truth about eschatology) before the swine of the Pharisees?

The Pharisees were probably already familiar with this story, but were surprised at the ending Jesus gave it. They expected the rich man to be blessed in the afterlife, the same as he was in life. They expected the beggar to be cursed in the afterlife, the same as he was in life. The Pharisees believed what the Hindu religion teaches: that the next life carries over the judgments of this one. But Jesus’ story taught them that the blessings they are experiencing now are preventing them from seeing what God’s judgment will bring. Its dramatic reversal of fortune is the reason Jesus chose to tell the story.

The Bible consistently places judgment after the resurrection. Jesus himself had said “an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.”[151] This story places judgment before that event. Surely Jesus would not contradict himself. So, in order to take this parable literally as a description of the intermediate state, one has to assume that there will be two judgments: one during the intermediate state, and one after the resurrection.

Since Lazarus is (ostensibly) already experiencing “good things” and being “comforted” at Abraham’s side, it also appears to teach that believers are rewarded at death. But Jesus taught (above) that believers will be rewarded at the resurrection. So, in order to accommodate this story, a doctrine of multiple rewards (as well as punishments) must be devised.

If this parable is not permitted to walk on all fours, it accomplishes what Jesus intended: warning the Pharisees that they are not blessed simply because they are rich. But allowing this parable to rewrite the Bible’s clear anthropology and eschatology elsewhere is gross abuse of its words. Those who use it to teach that the intermediate state is conscious – in direct opposition to the many clear, didactic passages that teach otherwise, are allowing the obscure text to overrule the clear ones.

They also read into the story elements that are not there. There is no mention of heaven or hell. There are no spirits or souls: the rich man’s body is in torment – unless spirits have eyes and tongues. Moreover, Jesus is telling the story, but he is not in it. Judgment takes place without the only divinely appointed judge. Also, there is no mentioning of faith in the story. The rich man is judged because he was rich but not compassionate; Lazarus is blessed (apparently) because he was poor. Yet those who use this parable insist that it describes the hell that unbelievers will face, and the heaven that believers can expect when they die.

No, we will not take this parable “literally.” Doing so requires a complete rework of biblical theology. Only if one’s mind is already made up about the intermediate state would such a passage be actual evidence in favor of it being conscious. In other words, if it were not for the teaching of Greek philosophy which introduced the notion of disembodied souls in an underworld, those reading this story would never have used it to defend such a concept.

“TODAY YOU WILL BE WITH ME IN PARADISE” (Luke 23:43).

Our Lord’s assurance to the penitent thief on the cross sounds so obviously in favor of a conscious intermediate state that for some that settles the argument altogether. Yet even that evidence is not incontrovertible. The Greek of the original text contained no punctuation. By merely placing the comma after the word “today” instead of before it, the reader finds Jesus saying “I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise.” Thus Jesus gives assurance to the penitent thief that he will remember him when he comes in his kingdom, which is what the thief had asked for. In fact, two early manuscripts of Luke have the thief asking Jesus to “remember me on the day of your coming.” This may have reflected a more literal rendering of what the thief had said in Aramaic. Jesus’ response, then, might have been a specific reference to that day. The word “today” can also be translated “this day.” Jesus may have been telling the thief that “this day” (the day I come again) “you will be with me in paradise.” So Jesus’ words could be translated in such a way as to convey something different than assurance that the thief would join him in heaven that day.

There is also evidence to suggest that the thief did not die that day. That would make Jesus mistaken if he had assured the thief that both of them would go to heaven that day. John records that since Jesus died on the day of Preparation, the Jews asked that those crucified be taken down from their crosses so as not to be hanging on Passover. The soldiers intended to break the legs of each person on a cross, so that neither could revive and escape. They did so to each of the thieves on either side of Jesus because they were both still alive.

When they came to Jesus, he was already dead. To ensure that he was really dead, they plunged a spear into his side. John mentions these things because they actually fulfill two prophecies. John records “For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken.” And again another Scripture says, “They will look on him whom they have pierced.””[152]

The cruelty of the cross was that it was a painful and embarrassing way to die. However, since the pressure of gravity usually made it impossible to breathe, it was a relatively quick death. The two thieves were removed from the cross, and their legs broken. They would endure a slow death of exposure. They probably died after sundown, which would have been considered the next day by Jewish reckoning.

Jesus had taught his disciples that death was a sleep that required a resurrection to wake up from. Also, after his resurrection, he told Mary Magdalene “I have not yet ascended to the Father.”[153] So neither the thief nor Jesus made it to heaven on that day. That combination of evidence shows that Luke 23:43 as it stands in our English Bibles is a mistranslation.

{to be continued}

Scaling the Wall (Part 2)

Sleep is the predominant metaphor that the Bible uses to describe 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, consistenting 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 notr adesire to go to heaven when he died, but a desire to be reurrected 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 theif 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 theif went to heaven that day. Jesus assured the theif that they would be in Paradise on the day about which the theif 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.[154] 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. [155] 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”.[156] 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”?[157] 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.[158]

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 neighbour, 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.””[159]

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.”[160] 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.”[161]

“The LORD killeth, and maketh alive: he bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up.”[162]

“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.”[163]

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.”[164]

“Let death seize upon them, and let them go down quick into hell: for wickedness is in their dwellings, and among them.”[165]

“Her feet go down to death; her steps take hold on hell.”[166]

Hell and destruction are before the LORD: how much more then the hearts of the children of men?”[167]

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).[168]

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 Saviour.

{to be continued}

Scaling the Wall (part 3)

When anyone dares to suggest that sleep is an appropriate way to describe someone’s death, opponents are often quick to respond. They tend to build a wall of evidence, consisting of texts which appear to support some kind of conscious survival after death. Those of us who hold to an unconscious intermediate state have scaled that wall. We see inconsistencies that exist with the popular interpretations of the texts when compared to the actual texts themselves.

Some of the texts have simply been misinterpreted, like …

1. 2 Corinthians 5:1-10, which expresses Paul’s desire to put on his resurrection body at the return of Christ, not to go to heaven when he dies.

2. Luke 16:19-31, in which Jesus employs a scary tale about woe in Hades to show the Pharisees that just because they are rich today, their eternal state is not secure.

3. The bringing up of Samuel by the Medium at Endor (1 Samuel 28) was a miracle God allowed to rebuke Saul for his disobedience. It was an unusual event – all miracles are. It cannot prove that people are normally conscious at death.

Other texts have been mistranslated.

· There is some evidence to show that neither Jesus nor the thief on the cross actually went to heaven on the day that Jesus died. The traditional translation of Luke 23:43, then, is a mistake. Jesus was assuring the repentant thief that they would be together on the day about which he asked: the day Christ comes in his kingdom.

· Jonah’s cry “out of the belly of hell” (Jonah 2:2 KJV) was the cry of a man who felt he was about to die, and go to Sheol, the grave. It says nothing and proves nothing about the intermediate state.

Many of the remaining texts that serve as that wall of evidence fall into the misinterpretation category. They include the following:

“Moses and Elijah appeared and began talking with Jesus” (Matthew 17:3).

The transfiguration involved a number of miracles, including the sudden appearance of two great men from Israel’s past. The Bible specifically tells us that Moses had died and was buried.[169] Many think the Bible teaches that Elijah never died. However, there is some evidence that his ride into the heavens on a fiery chariot was a round trip. Some time after his famous trip to outer space[170] — possibly as much as two years after – king Jehoram gets a letter from Elijah.[171] Unless one argues that the Israelite postal service was really efficient, it appears that Elijah returned to write that letter. In other words, Elijah lived a normal life and presumably died a normal death.

All of this is to say that if Moses and Elijah reappeared physically to talk to Jesus at the mount of transfiguration, then both had been resurrected for that purpose. Their appearance was miraculous, and it proved the power of God, but it did not prove that they had been conscious in the intermediate state.

Yet the Bible does not specifically say that they had been resurrected. It says they appeared. Then, after talking with Jesus for some time, they disappeared. Later, when Jesus spoke to his disciples who saw it, he told them that it was a vision.[172] The appearance, and then disappearance of these two Old Testament saints was a vision designed to draw attention to the one who believers today should be paying attention to. As the voice said from the cloud “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.”[173] This story is about the doctrine of revelation: how God has definitively spoken to us through his Son. To make this story about consciousness after death is to highjack it.

“GOD … IS NOT GOD OF THE DEAD, BUT OF THE LIVING”

(Matthew 22:32)

Among the many opponents to Jesus and his message were the Sadducees. They had emerged as a sect from Second Temple Judaism who had jettisoned all belief in the supernatural. Chief among the supernatural concepts that they had rejected was the idea that God would resurrect the faithful. After a group of Sadducees learned that Jesus was in town, they approached him with a question. It was an elaborate question that (they felt) showed how ridiculous it is to believe that God would resurrect anyone.

“Now there were seven brothers among us.

The first married and died, and having no

children left his wife to his brother. 26 So

too the second and third, down to the

seventh. 27 After them all, the woman died.

28 In the resurrection, therefore, of the

seven, whose wife will she be? For they all

had her.”[174]

Perhaps these Sadducees imagined that Jesus would say “Now that you mention it, resurrection does seem a silly idea doesn’t it?” But Jesus attacked these Sadducees. He told them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.” He was arguing that resurrection was not so silly. The Bible promises it, and God is able to deliver on that promise.

In defense of the resurrection, Jesus quotes Exodus 3:6, where God identifies himself to Moses as “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” While the text does not tell us whether Amram was alive at that time, it is quite clear that Abraham and Isaac and Jacob had been dead for some time. So how can that text prove the legitimacy of the resurrection? Jesus said that God “is not God of the dead, but of the living.”[175] what legitimizes the hope of resurrection is not that people survive their deaths, but that God does.

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob will live again, because God always lives.

Again, this text says absolutely nothing about the intermediate state. It does not say that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are asleep, but neither does it assert that they are awake. The proof of the resurrection that Jesus puts forth in answer to the Sadducees’ question is the existence of God. Since God is alive, those who died are alive to him. This is much like Jesus’ response to Martha who weakly told Jesus that she knew her brother would be raised at the resurrection on the last day. Jesus responded “I am the resurrection and the life.”[176] Her problem was not her concept of the resurrection, but her failure to see that the Resurrection was standing in front of her.

“A MAN … CAUGHT UP TO THE THIRD HEAVEN”

2 Corinthians 12:2

Arguing for the legitimacy of his apostleship to some obstinate Corinthians, Paul decided to prove that he was acceptable as a spiritual leader because of the “visions and revelations” he had received.[177] He told of a time some fourteen years earlier when he had been caught up to heaven and “heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.”[178] Paul’s experience was so real to him, that he was unsure whether he was transported to heaven bodily, or whether it was a vision. Let us, for the sake of argument, assume that Paul had been transported bodily to heaven. Would that event teach us anything about the intermediate state? Obviously not. It would only prove that such a trip is possible, for someone who is alive. It would teach us nothing about a person’s state at death.

Or, for the sake of argument, let us assume the opposite — that Paul’s experience was a vision in which Paul was allowed to see heaven, but his body did not travel there. That would not be substantially different from any of the other visions of heaven recorded in the Bible. There is nothing in the text to suggest that Paul was dead. Ergo, this statement teaches nothing about the nature of the intermediate state.

JESUS “DIED FOR US SO THAT WHETHER WE ARE AWAKE OR ASLEEP WE MIGHT LIVE WITH HIM” (1 Thessalonians 5:10)

Paul unashamedly used the sleep metaphor to describe the death of believers. In this text, he divides the Christian population into two groups. There are two groups today whom Jesus has died for: those who are awake, and those who are asleep. Those of us who are awake are obviously believers in Jesus who have not yet died. Those who are asleep are those who have already fallen asleep in death and await resurrection day so that they can live again.

What is the hope of these two groups? Our blessed hope is that the Lord will return some day and reunite both groups. Jesus died for us in order to make that possible. He died for us on the cross so that whatever group we are in (dead or alive) we can be with him in eternity. There is no statement about the state of consciousness that dead believers are experiencing. In fact, this passage is about what Jesus has done, and our assurance of what he will do for us.

Those who use this passage as part of that wall of evidence hope to convince readers that it is saying that all believers are presently alive with Christ. However, behind that hope is a theological tradition that says that everyone is alive, Christian or not. The tradition affirms the concept that everyone has an immortal soul, which cannot die, and must remain alive forever. This text says nothing of such an innate immortality. The only immortality it promises is for those who are in Christ, who have benefitted from his sacrificial death on the cross.

“THE SOULS OF THOSE WHO HAD BEEN SLAIN …CRIED OUT WITH A LOUD VOICE” (Revelation 6:9-10)

It is really pulling from the bottom of the barrel to take a passage from an apocalyptic vision and try to use it to prove a doctrine, but people continue to consistently do it. We have no right to assume that beheaded souls can normally cry out than to assume that God’s throne normally has a literal lamb on it who is also a lion. The book of Revelation tells God’s truth using symbols, and to take those symbols as proof of their own existence is to misuse the text.

However, John probably knew some of those souls that he saw depicted in the vision. Some of them might have been his close friends. When he saw them crying out to God for justice, he was identifying with their cry. He wanted Christ to return and bring his judgment. But those who use this text merely as proof that disembodied souls remain alive do not believe that such souls are really crying out for justice. They think that once those souls were separated from their bodies they went to heaven and are experiencing the reward of eternal bliss. You cannot have it both ways. Either the righteous remain alive and go to their reward at death or they do not. In this passage, the righteous who have died are not yet vindicated. They wait for a resurrection.

“MY DESIRE IS TO DEPART AND BE WITH CHRIST” (Philippians 1:23)

Paul was contemplating the ramifications of his eventual death. He knew that whether he continued to live, or he died, either way Christ would get the glory. “Christ will be honored in (his) body, whether by life or by death.”[179] “For (him) to live is Christ, and to die is gain”[180] because all he has to look forward to is being raised at Christ’s second coming. That resurrection hope had become Paul’s obsession. His explained the “gain” that he hoped for later in this same letter to the Philippians:

“Indeed, I count everything as loss because

of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ

Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered

the loss of all things and count them as

rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ

9 and be found in him, not having a

righteousness of my own that comes from

the law, but that which comes through faith

in Christ, the righteousness from God that

depends on faith- 10 that I may know him

and the power of his resurrection, and may

share his sufferings, becoming like him in

his death, 11 that by any means possible

I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”[181]

As Paul was contemplating the consequences of whether or not he died in Christ’s service or continued to live, a third option emerged in his mind which he said was “far better.” He said “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”[182] He was saying that the best thing to happen for him is for Jesus to break the clouds and call him to himself. Then Paul would depart and be with Christ. That would be more glorious than either of the other options. But, until that happens, Paul is content to continue serving the Christ of the resurrection.

How stable is that wall of evidence looking now? God’s word proves many things, and it is profitable for doctrine. But it nowhere proves the conscious intermediate state. Our hope in Christ is not found in human nature, it is found in a divine rescuer. We hope not to survive death but to be raised to new life.

Set Free

In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates is in prison, awaiting his execution. A number of his faithful disciples are gathered around him, discussing his fate. Socrates seeks to cheer them up by explaining his belief that he will soon be set free from his incarceration. The prison he expects to be released from is that of his body. Plato uses the dialog between these people to prove his belief that the soul is set free from the prison of the body at death.

“Do we believe that there is such a thing as death?

To be sure, replied Simmias.

Is it not the separation of soul and body? And to be dead is the completion if this; when the soul exists in herself, and is released from the body and the body is released from the soul, what is this but death?”[183]

“And what is purification but the separation of the soul from the body … the release of the soul from the chains of the body?”[184]

So, Socrates could comfort his disciples by assuring them that death would not be a defeat for him. He could confidently drink the hemlock because it would offer him true freedom – not just a physical release from his body’s bondage, but a greater release – release from the prison of his body itself.

Many Christian theologians and preachers have suggested that Socrates was right in that confidence. They teach the same thing about death that Socrates taught: that it brings freedom. Does the Bible affirm this, or did these theologians and preachers borrow the idea from pagan philosophers?

Death to be Feared

The Bible consistently teaches that death is an enemy to be feared,[185] rather 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, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”[186] If death were a good thing, bringing release from the prison of their body, God’s warning would not make sense.

Death is Darkness

The Bible associates death with darkness, not freedom and light.[187] 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.

Death is Sleep

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.

“Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death”[188]

“After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died”[189]

“The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised”[190]

“Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.”[191]

“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”[192]

“For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.”[193]

The image of sleep is especially important as a description of death because it speaks of the reality that death is not permanent. To die is to sleep, but to be raised is to be awakened. In the interval, people reside in a state of unconsciousness called (in Hebrew) Sheol, and (in Greek) Hades. In a previous article I wrote on this intermediate state, I concluded:

“Sheol, then, is a silent, dark state or condition in which everyone exists at death, and can only live again by a resurrection from the LORD. It is always contrasted with heaven, and never equated with it. It is not the hope of the saints; rescue from it is the hope of the saints.”[194]

Resurrection: rescue from death

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.

“I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”[195]

“And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done.”[196]

The New Testament consistently presents the hope of believers as their resurrection to full bodily life by Jesus at his return.

“for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.”[197]

“Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.””[198]

“that I may know him and the power of his resurrection”[199]

“that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”[200]

Paul made it clear that his hope was not a disembodied state (being unclothed) but a resurrection to eternal life.

“For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened–not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.”[201]

Believers will be set free only at that time. Until then, we are still suffering the consequences of our ancestors’ sin – we die and return to the dust.[202] But Jesus can raise us to life again. That is the blessed hope: “the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ”[203] who comes to rescue us from death.

Summary

Teaching that death sets people free 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.

Sheol: The Old Testament Consensus

There were 400 silent years – a gap between the closing of the Old Testament prophets and the writing of the New Testament. During this time the doctrine of the intermediate state (that state between death and the resurrection) underwent a sort of evolution. Jews became immersed in pagan communities which held to the doctrine made popular by Greek philosophy: the immortality of the soul.

The Judaism that emerged from this period was not consistent on the issue of the intermediate state. Some Jews adapted the Greek concept almost whole cloth. They conceded that all human souls are immortal, and understood “that the souls of the righteous proceeded immediately to heaven at their deaths, there to await the resurrection of their bodies, while the souls of the wicked remained in Sheol.”[204] For them, Sheol became a place entirely associated with the punishment of the wicked, although their own scriptures insist that Sheol contains the righteous as well.[205]

Other Jews were not willing to concede that Sheol was exclusively for the wicked. Instead, they imagined “that there was a spatial separation in the underworld between the godly and the ungodly.”[206] These retained the Old Testament idea that all souls go to Sheol at death, adding only the Greek concept that these souls are immortal, and conscious of being in Sheol – or as the Greeks called it — Hades.

By the New Testament era, a third view (or a variation of the second) apparently became popular among the Jewish sect known as the Pharisees. Jesus must have accommodated one of their own stories when he told the Pharisees about the rich man and Lazarus.[207] In that story, the rich man dies and ends up in Hades, while Lazarus is carried bodily to a place called Abraham’s Bosom. The irony was not lost on the Pharisees, who would have expected just the opposite. For them, riches were a sign of the LORD’s blessing, while poverty was viewed as a curse. Jesus used the story to warn the Pharisees that their godless greed was disobedience to the very laws they were trusting in for their salvation.

By using that story, Jesus was by no means condoning its theology. After all, he was not declaring doctrine to his disciples. He was speaking to a group who stood in opposition to his teachings. If Jesus were teaching his disciples about the intermediate state, his words would have conformed to the Old Testament consensus.

The best place to look for answers about the intermediate state is in the Old Testament. God’s people struggled with this question for millennia before Plato was born. One has every right to expect God’s word to provide answers, and for those answers to be consistent. The vast majority of biblical references to the intermediate state are in the Old Testament.[208] By the time the Old Testament was completed, a theological consensus was clearly revealed. This Old Testament consensus reveals that Sheol is a much different place than that imagined by syncretistic 2nd Temple Judaism.

Sheol is Down There

When Jacob was told that his son Joseph had been killed by some wild animal, he was distraught. He imagined that Joseph was dead, down underneath the earth somewhere. Jacob was so upset that he thought he would die of grief. He tells his children who are trying to comfort him “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning”[209] This first reference to Sheol in the Bible reveals that the intermediate state is not a mystery that no one knows about. Jacob apparently knew that all people go there at death.

Jacob also knew that in some way Sheol is down there. The rest of the Old Testament has a number of references to Sheol that utilize the verb root that Jacob used: yarad – to go down or descend.[210] Other verb roots used with Sheol portray the same idea: nachat – to go down[211], and shafel – to be or become low.[212] Both people from within the covenant community and those without went in the same direction at death.

Some have suggested that these are all references to being buried in the grave, and that Sheol is merely a reference to what happens to the body. Thus Sheol would be taken as a synonym for Qever – the grave or tomb. But Jacob could not have been referring to a literal grave, since Joseph’s body was not found to bury.

Also, Sheol is normally associated with death in poetic parallels, not the grave. Of all the references to Sheol in the Old Testament, none directly parallel with Qever. However, the term Sheol is often paralleled with synonyms for the grave, like Bor, the pit,[213] and Abaddon, destruction.[214] This leads to the conclusion that the term Sheol has something in common with the grave, but cannot be equated with the actual grave itself. Although Sheol is often described as if it were a location, its Old Testament use leads to the conclusion that it more specifically refers to the human state after death. The location for the dead (at least those who are buried) is the grave. Their condition is Sheol.

This was the conclusion of Eric Lewis, whose examination of the 65 references to Sheol in the Old Testament led him to the conclusion that the term specified “not the place of interment, nor a presumed locality of departed spirits, but the condition of death, the death-state.”[215] Lewis suggested that a synonym for Sheol emphasizing this connotation is Gravedom. But how does one reconcile the idea that Sheol is a state with all these references to a direction (down there)?

Sheol is of Extreme Depth

Sheol is to down as heaven is to up. It is not simply six feet under. Moses spoke of the fire of God’s anger burning to the depths of Sheol.[216] Zophar said that God’s limit is higher than heaven and deeper than Sheol.[217] David described the LORD’s deliverance as being from the depths of Sheol.[218] When describing God’s omnipresence he said “If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!”[219] The LORD complained through Isaiah that Israel prostituted herself by sending envoys to all far-off lands, even sending them down to Sheol.[220]

His words through Amos describe the extent to which God was determined to go to bring punishment upon his own disobedient people:

If they dig into Sheol, from there shall my hand take them; if they climb up to heaven, from there I will bring them down. If they hide themselves on the top of Carmel, from there I will search them out and take them; and if they hide from my sight at the bottom of the sea, there I will command the serpent, and it shall bite them. And if they go into captivity before their enemies, there I will command the sword, and it shall kill them; and I will fix my eyes upon them for evil and not for good.[221]

Here again, Sheol is contrasted with heaven – not because it is a place of suffering and heaven a place of pleasure. Heaven is listed because it is a high place – like the top of Mt. Carmel. Sheol is mentioned because it is a low place, like the bottom of the sea.

Perhaps the ancient Hebrews imagined Sheol an extremely deep place because of the mystery surrounding it. Perhaps it was thought so because people went there and did not come back. Perhaps it was regarded so because it was a mystery – hidden to everyone except God himself.[222] Regardless, when the Old Testament saints spoke of Sheol it was obviously not synonymous with heaven. It was the exact opposite. Yet this is the place that all souls entered at death.

Sheol is Silent

Another stark contrast the Old Testament presents when comparing Sheol to heaven is the activity they describe to each place. Heaven and earth are places where God is praised continually.[223] But when the soul reaches Sheol that praise stops abruptly. David prays for God to “let the wicked be put to shame; let them go silently to Sheol.”[224] The deaths of his enemies would not only silence them upon earth, it would silence them in the underworld as well. Sheol is a place where the once mighty now lie still.[225] It is the land of silence, where the dead go down to silence.[226]

Hezekiah prays that God would rescue him from his sickness because “Sheol does not thank you; death does not praise you; those who go down to the pit do not hope for your faithfulness.”[227] What he was saying was that if he died, his praises would stop. Sheol was a place of silence for both the believer and the unbeliever. For that reason, it makes sense for King Hezekiah to plead with God to rescue him from death. His death would not glorify God. His rescue would — and did.

David had a similar experience when he was in threat of death, and he prayed for God to deliver him “For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?”[228] His plea is so like that of Hezekiah that they mark a certain approach to the whole concept of Sheol. To these two people of God, there was no afterlife. There was merely silence and stillness – a waiting on God to perhaps rescue by resurrection. To neither of these Old Testament saints would a residence in Sheol be considered a goal to attain. For both of them it was an inevitable consequence of their own mortality – to be avoided at all costs.

David’s son Solomon had an insatiable curiosity, and set his mind to study everything that could be studied. He wrote thousands of proverbs encapsulating his wisdom, and composed over one thousand songs.[229] His “wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt.”[230] Yet when he described Sheol, he merely warned his readers to do whatever they wanted to do before death, because “there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.”[231] His studied assessment of Sheol agreed with the Old Testament consensus. He saw it as a place where the thoughts are silenced.

Sheol is Dark

Other characteristics of Sheol found in the Old Testament consensus do not match modern views of the afterlife. Job described a person in Sheol as spreading out his bed in darkness.[232] He described Sheol as “the land of darkness and deep shadow, the land of gloom like thick darkness, like deep shadow without any order, where light is as thick darkness.”[233] David describes those “long dead” as “sitting in darkness.”[234] Jeremiah described “the dead of long ago” as dwelling in darkness now.[235] If Sheol is a place, then darkness might only imply a lack of visual awareness in that place. If Sheol is a state, then these references to darkness would imply a lack of cognitive awareness in that state.

Sheol is Sleep

David prayed to the LORD, “Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death.”[236] He anticipated that his death would find him in Sheol and doing what all others in Sheol are doing: not praising, not singing, not playing golden harps. He defined existence in Sheol as sleeping the sleep of death. The exact phrase “slept with his fathers” is found 36 times in the Old Testament.[237] It was a common expression used to describe the fact that someone had died.

Daniel described existence in Sheol as sleeping in the dust of the earth.[238] It was a condition which required an awakening – a resurrection. This sleep was never the hope of Old Testament saints. The resurrection and restoration to life was the hope. Sleep was simply a way of describing the state of death itself. Jesus used the same terminology to describe the death-state of Jairus’ daughter.[239] He said of Lazarus (in Sheol) that he had “fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him”.[240]

Conditionalists prefer to use the term sleep to describe the intermediate state for several reasons, among them: 1) it is used by the scripture itself; 2) it emphasizes the need for resurrection; 3) it places the hope of humanity not in the death-state itself, but in the LORD who will raise (awaken) the dead.

Sheol is Universal

The thing most stressed in the Old Testament concerning Sheol is that it is synonymous with death itself. In the New Testament, this is seen by the terms death and Hades appearing next to each other.[241] All those who die (the event) experience Hades (the state). In the Old Testament, this fact is seen in numerous passages where death and Sheol are placed in parallel. David, for example says “the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me.”[242] He also says “in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?”[243]

Other psalmists reflect the same association between death as an event, and Sheol as the state it initiates. The sons of Korah say of the foolish “Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol; Death shall be their shepherd”[244] Ethan the Ezrahite proclaims “What man can live and never see death? Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol?”[245]

Hannah prayed “The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.”[246] The theology of her prayer is impeccable. To die is to be brought down to Sheol, where all the other dead are. To be rescued from that condition is to be brought back to life, and that is something that only the LORD can do.

Summary

Sheol, then, is a silent, dark state or condition in which everyone exists at death, and can only live again by a resurrection from the LORD. It is always contrasted with heaven, and never equated with it. It is not the hope of the saints; rescue from it is the hope of the saints. That is the Old Testament consensus.

Did You Say “Sleep?”

Popping off, croaking, buying the farm, pushing up daisies, biting the big one, kicking the bucket, assuming room temperature, … these are some of the more colorful euphemisms for death. Not a one of them is found in the Bible.

Instead, the Bible consistently uses a metaphor for death that is viewed as neither socially or theologically appropriate among evangelicals. It calls death a sleep. But if a believer slips and refers to the dead as sleeping, judging from the reaction among traditionalists, you would think that he had shot God.

A long standing tradition within evangelical Christianity asserts that death is a move to a new level of consciousness, that those awaiting Christ’s return for reward or punishment do so in a state that looks very much like they are already being rewarded or punished. Consequently, anyone who dares to imply that the intermediate state is one of unconscious sleep runs the risk of being branded a heretic or cult member.

Nevertheless, it would do us all well to return to biblical terminology and perhaps jettison some of these traditions that keep us from using it. The biblical authors knew what they were talking about. The Holy Spirit inspired them to write words which expressed the way things really are. It is not their fault that the popular church has chosen to see and say things differently.

But in this current atmosphere where the biblical word “sleep” sparks such a response from otherwise biblically grounded saints, if conditionalists want to revive the term as a metaphor for death, they had better be prepared. Conditionalists need to know just where in the Bible the term is used for death, and what “sleep” means in the contexts of those passages.

Adam’s sleep a picture of Christ’s death

“So the LORD God caused a deep sleep

to fall upon the man, and while he slept

took one of his ribs and closed up its

place with flesh. And the rib that the

LORD God had taken from the man he

made into a woman and brought her to

the man. Then the man said, “This at

last is bone of my bones and flesh of

my flesh; she shall be called Woman,

because she was taken out of Man””

(Genesis 2:21-23 ESV).

The first place in the Bible where sleep is used as a metaphor for death apparently occurs before death existed. While in the garden paradise of Eden, Adam is anesthetized by God and surgery is performed, the result of which is Eve. Thus the Bible says that man comes from woman, and woman also comes from man.[247]

One curious thing about this incident is that it seems to have a parallel in the gospel message. Just as Eve came into existence because of the sleep of Adam, so the Church of Christ comes into existence because of his death. Because Christ slept in the tomb, his bride came into being.

If there is anything to this assumption, notice what it is telling readers about the nature of death itself. Adam’s sleep was a state of unconsciousness. He was “put under” so that he would not experience the changes taking place in his body. The purpose of this unconscious state was not to heighten his awareness, but to suppress it. One might conclude, then, that the purpose of the intermediate state is the same.

Job describes death as lying down and sleeping, not being awaken

“But a man dies and is laid low; man

breathes his last, and where is he?

As waters fail from a lake and a river

wastes away and dries up, so a man

lies down and rises not again; till the

heavens are no more he will not awake

or be roused out of his sleep. Oh that

you would hide me in Sheol, that you

would conceal me until your wrath be

past, that you would appoint me a set

time, and remember me! If a man dies,

shall he live again? All the days of my

service I would wait, till my renewal

should come” (Job 14:10-14 ESV).

In chapter 14 of Job’s story, he laments that human beings are not like trees. A tree may be cut down, but given the right conditions, it may sprout back again from the apparently dead stump. But, Job complains, human beings are not like that. When a man’s life comes to an end, he lies down and sleeps, not to wake up again.

Job is not arguing against the concept of the resurrection. Even in this chapter, he pleads with God to hide him in Sheol (death) until his wrath is past, and then remember him, causing him to live again (13-14). One cannot ask for a more clear statement of the hope of resurrection. Later, Job asserts that he has a Redeemer who lives, and that he (Job) will see God in a resurrected body, long after his present body has been consumed.[248]

So, since Job is not arguing against the notion of a resurrection, why does he insist that death is a sleep that one does not wake up from? He is contrasting the fate of humans with that of trees. Trees have something within their nature that allows them to bounce back from apparent death. God has not put such a nature within us. If we want to live again, we will need a resurrecting God. Sleep is an appropriate metaphor for death because if you see people sleeping, you expect them to wake up. Think about that the next time you walk through a cemetery. These “sleeping places” are monuments to the fact that we all depend upon God for our future life.[249]

David calls death a sleep

“How long, O LORD? Will you forget me

forever? How long will you hide your face

from me? How long must I take counsel in

my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the

day? How long shall my enemy be exalted

over me? Consider and answer me, O LORD

my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the

sleep of death, lest my enemy say, “I have

prevailed over him,” lest my foes rejoice

because I am shaken. But I have trusted in

your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in

your salvation. I will sing to the LORD,

because he has dealt bountifully with me”

( Psalm 13:1-6 ESV).

David’s lament in Psalm 13 is the complaint of a soldier who keeps losing battles, and wonders how long he can continue to hold out. The shame of the losses is coupled with the embarrassment of the taunts he hears from his enemies. They are exalted over him. They rejoice because he is shaken. Nevertheless, David is forced to trust in God’s steadfast love, and hope in his salvation. He has no one else.

David’s question to his LORD in Psalm 13 is “will you forget me forever?” If the LORD does forget his servant, he will “sleep the sleep of death” and his enemy will have prevailed over him. Death would be the ultimate failure. It would mean that God had lost a soldier, and the enemy had gained a decisive victory, and a reason to boast.

How could David have said such a thing if he believed that death was “going to his reward” or “going home to be with the LORD” or “getting promoted to heaven”? The Holy Spirit speaks of death here, not as a victory but as a defeat. Granted, it is only a temporary defeat. In Psalm 16, David predicted that the Messiah would die, but that he would not be abandoned to Sheol. He would triumph over death.

Peter, preaching at Pentecost in Acts 2, reminded his listeners of that triumph. Death is real, but Christ has overcome it. But David himself did not overcome it. He sleeps, and awaits a resurrection. In Peter’s words, “Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day.”[250] The old warrior did indeed sleep the sleep of death, but not before the LORD heard his cry and delivered him from his enemies.

Jeremiah speaks of Babylon’s perpetual sleep

“Babylon shall become a heap of ruins,

the haunt of jackals, a horror and a hissing,

without inhabitant. “They shall roar

together like lions; they shall growl like

lions’ cubs. While they are inflamed I will

prepare them a feast and make them

drunk, that they may become merry,

then sleep a perpetual sleep and not

wake, declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah

51:37-39).

“for a destroyer has come upon her,

upon Babylon; her warriors are taken;

their bows are broken in pieces, for

the LORD is a God of recompense; he

will surely repay. I will make drunk

her officials and her wise men, her

governors, her commanders, and her

warriors; they shall sleep a perpetual

sleep and not wake, declares the King,

whose name is the LORD of hosts”

(Jeremiah 51:56-57).

In the prophet Jeremiah’s day, the enemies of God’s people were the oppressive Babylonians. Jeremiah predicted that the great empire of Nebuchadnezzar would get drunk and fall to sleep, never to wake up again. He was prophesying the empire’s destruction,[251] in which it will fall,[252] come to an end,[253] perish,[254] and become a heap of ruins without inhabitant,[255] “a land of drought and a desert, a land in which no one dwells, and through which no son of man passes.”[256]

Jeremiah described the death of a people. It makes sense that he would use that metaphor that his ancestors did to describe that fall into a state of nothingness: sleep. It would not make sense if Jeremiah actually believed that death was a passing from one state of consciousness into another. He could have threatened an even more violent state of conscious torment in hell for God’s enemies, but he does not.

Babylon will rise no more, but someday, each individual Babylonian will stand before God and be judged for his personal sins. That day is not what Jeremiah is predicting. The end of Babylon’s judgment is death: a state of perpetual sleep. Judgment day for the individual Babylonians will come later.

In the New Testament book of Revelation, John picks up on this same imagery to describe another Babylon, doomed to destruction. He warns God’s people to come out of her …

“lest you take part in her sins, lest

you share in her plagues; for her sins

are heaped high as heaven, and God

has remembered her iniquities”

(Revelation 18:4-5 ESV).

“her plagues will come in a single day,

death and mourning and famine, and

she will be burned up with fire; for

mighty is the Lord God who has judged

her” (Revelation 18:8 ESV).

John describes the ultimate judgment day, which Babylon’s perpetual sleep only serves to predict. He is describing ultimate punishment, ultimate destruction. Jeremiah had spoken of the first death, John warns of the second.

Daniel describes resurrection from sleep in the dust

“And many of those who sleep in the dust

of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting

life, and some to shame and everlasting

contempt. And those who are wise shall shine

like the brightness of the sky above; and those

who turn many to righteousness, like the stars

forever and ever” (Daniel 12:2-3).

It is not clear what Daniel is predicting in chapter 12, but it is clear that he uses resurrection language to describe it. He speaks of those who are sleeping in the dust, awakening to everlasting life. Others who awake will not see life, but suffer shame and everlasting contempt. Jesus used the same language to describe the resurrection. He said “an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.”[257]

So, to both Daniel and Jesus, the anthropology and cosmology are the same: death is a sleep. The resurrection awakens all from that sleep. Judgment and eternal destiny occur at the resurrection, at the awakening. Judgment does not occur during the intermediate state, but afterward.

There are some who claim that all this talk about death as a sleep is simply Old Testament language of appearance, and that the New Testament corrects that misunderstanding by showing that the intermediate state is a conscious one. But the New Testaments speaks even more clearly than the Old in describing death as a sleep.

Jesus describes a dead girl as merely sleeping

“When they arrived at the house, Jesus

wouldn’t let anyone go in with him except

Peter, John, James, and the little girl’s

father and mother. The house was filled

with people weeping and wailing, but he

said, “Stop the weeping! She isn’t dead;

she’s only asleep.” But the crowd laughed

at him because they all knew she had died.

Then Jesus took her by the hand and said

in a loud voice, “My child, get up!” And at

that moment her life returned, and she

immediately stood up! Then Jesus told them

to give her something to eat” (Luke 8:51-55

NLT).

This story, which appears in all three synoptic Gospels, shows Jesus’ attitude toward the dead. He knows the pain that death causes, and will have opportunity to demonstrate his own grief at the death of his friend Lazarus.[258] Yet he also knows that death is only a temporary phenomenon. In that since, it is not really a death, but a mere sleep.

Make no mistake. This girl was really dead, and the scripture makes it clear that she was. Yet Jesus was there. He is the resurrection and the life. He knew that this day would not end in mourning, but a miracle. He chased all the mourners away, and woke up a little girl from her nap.

Now, if this little girl were with the angels in heaven, or even in Abraham’s bosom, and Jesus knew that, it would not have been such a nice thing for him to return her to this world of woe. But the language that Luke (and Matthew and Mark) uses matches that which the Old Testament writers had used of death. It describes this girl’s state as one of sleep, not wakefulness. Luke presented her as one who needed to be woken.

Luke’s parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (16:19-31) contradicts the view that the Old Testament presents, and that which Jesus himself ascribes to. In that parable, Jesus speaks of the dead being conscious in the death –state, and aware of what is going on in the land of the living. Advocates of a conscious intermediate state have simply chosen to accept this view of death, instead of the one proposed in Luke 8.

Conditionalists refuse to accept the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus as definitive teaching on the intermediate statement for several reasons, some of which can be seen in the contrast between these texts:

1. Luke 8 reflects a literal event in the life of Jesus and a real human being, a small girl. Luke 16 reflects a story that Jesus told, which probably did not originate with him. He used one of the Pharisees’ stories, and ended it with a twist that they did not expect.

2. The focus of Luke 8 was a real death and a real resurrection. The focus of Luke 16 was the selfishness of the Pharisees and their refusal to follow the law by having compassion on the needy. In which passage would it be more natural for Jesus to convey didactic teaching about the intermediate state?

3. The witnesses of the event described in Luke 8 were Jesus himself, the young girl and his parents, and some of his disciples. The hearers of the story in Luke 16 were the Pharisees, who “were lovers of money” and “ridiculed him” because he taught that “you cannot serve God and money.”[259] In which context would it have been more appropriate for Jesus to share insight about the mystery of the intermediate state?

4. The literary context of each passage is also important to consider. Luke 8 appears in a conjunction with a group of passages which emphasize who Jesus is. His authority and power are expressed in the chapters immediately preceding and following the story in chapter 8. In that context, it makes sense to show Jesus as having power to raise the dead. Luke 16 is within a group of chapters emphasizing the opposition and antagonism of those (like the Pharisees) who wanted to see Jesus done away with. In that context, what Luke wants to show is the reason why these people hated Jesus, and why his journey to Jerusalem would lead to the cross. A literal description of the intermediate state would not add to Luke’s purpose for Luke 16.

5. In the final analysis, it must be admitted that these two texts do represent two alternative views of the intermediate state. In the one, people are asleep, and must be awakened by resurrection. In the other, people are awake, and are experiencing some sort of afterlife. In Luke 8, there is no reference to judgment. In Luke 16, all those who have died are already being judged.

6. One cannot combine these two views of the intermediate state without distorting one into insignificance. Conditionalists accept the teaching of Luke 8 as normative, and choose to see the description in Luke 16 as representing what the Pharisees believed — not what Jesus believed — about the intermediate state.

Matthew described saints who were raised from sleep

“And behold, the curtain of the temple

was torn in two, from top to bottom. And

the earth shook, and the rocks were split.

The tombs also were opened. And many

bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep

were raised, and coming out of the tombs

after his resurrection they went into the

holy city and appeared to many” (Matthew

27:51-53 ESV).

Adding to the confusion of the events taking place on the night in which our Savior died, a number of God’s saints who had died before he did were raised to life at the moment he died. These presented themselves to the wonderment of those who had seen them die, be buried, and mourned their passing. These resurrections were demonstrations both of the power of God to raise the dead, and of the significance of the death of Christ.

Yet there are no descriptions of what these saints had experienced while being dead. They were not noted as having experienced any afterlife, but for having been raised to life again. In fact, Matthew describes them as “saints who had fallen asleep.” It was not merely their bodies who had fallen asleep, but the saints themselves. This is seen in the Greek construction of the sentence, where the word “bodies” is neuter nominative plural, and the words “the saints” and the participle translated “who had fallen asleep” are masculine genitive plural.

The anthropology/cosmology of Matthew agrees with that of Luke 8. These people had been dead, and are described as having fallen asleep. The miracle of Christ’s death on the cross caused these dead saints to revive.

Jesus says that Lazarus has fallen asleep, and the disciples misunderstand Jesus description of his death as sleep

“After saying these things, he said to

them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen

asleep, but I go to awaken him.” The

disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has

fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now

Jesus had spoken of his death, but

they thought that he meant taking

rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them

plainly, “Lazarus has died”” (John

11:11-14 ESV).

Jesus comes face to face with the reality of death when his friend Lazarus dies as recorded in John 11. It is in this context that we read the shortest verse in the New Testament – “Jesus wept.”[260] Death is real, and it is a real tragedy. Yet Jesus describes Lazarus’ death with that same metaphor that appears throughout the text of scripture. He said that Lazarus had fallen asleep.

His disciples did not get it. They thought that he was describing the beginning of Lazarus’ recovery. They assumed that if he were (literally) sleeping, then the worst of his illness was over, and he would soon be getting better. So Jesus had to spell it out for them and explain that his friend was already dead.

Now that we can read all of John chapter 11, we understand what Jesus was doing. He was explaining to his disciples that death is not the end, because he (the Resurrection and the Life) will not allow it to be. But make no mistake about it – if there were no Jesus, death would be the end. We can call death sleep only because there is a Jesus who intends to raise the dead. Calling death sleep is a statement of faith in Christ.

Refusing to call death sleep is also a statement of faith. It reflects a faith in death itself. It joins Plato and other pagan philosophers in affirming that God created the human soul indestructible, and therefore it must remain alive after the death of the body. So the real person never sleeps but remains conscious during the intermediate state, and indeed for all eternity. Conditionalists urge our brothers and sisters to put their faith in Christ, the Resurrection and the Life.

Stephen falls asleep (dies) after being stoned

“And as they were stoning Stephen,

he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive

my spirit.” And falling to his knees

he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord,

do not hold this sin against them.”

And when he had said this, he fell

asleep” (Acts 7:59-60 ESV).

A few years ago in the Philippines, my best friend died. One of his memorial services was preached by a pastor of a denomination which teaches a conscious intermediate state. This pastor explained (using Acts 7:59) that my friend was not really dead because God had received his spirit, which flew to heaven the moment he died. The pastor explained that some people teach soul sleep, but that this text teaches against it.

Sitting in the service that day, I held my tongue. Funerals are not the place for theological debate. But later, I brought up the passage again to my students at the Bible college. I showed them that the pastor had failed to look at the context. The next verse says “And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” Luke’s description of Stephen’s death does not argue against death as sleep, but is evidence for it.

Paul teaches that most will sleep, some will be changed without it

“Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall

not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,

in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye,

at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will

sound, and the dead will be raised

imperishable, and we shall be changed”

(1 Corinthians 15:51-52 ESV).

Paul contributes to the doctrine of the intermediate state by affirming what readers have seen elsewhere in the Bible. Death is a sleep from which believers will be awaken. This awakening will take place “at the last trumpet.” But he also teaches that there are two exceptions to the general rule that all will sleep in death:

1. Some will not experience the sleep of death because they will be alive when Jesus returns. They will not sleep in death because they will be immediately changed: made immortal without ever having experienced the sleep of death. Oh, what a glorious thing it would be to be part of that group. Come, Lord Jesus!

2. The other exception is Jesus himself. He slept in death, but he has already been raised from the dead. Paul calls him “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”[261] He is the only one who has presently been raised immortal. His resurrection is the guarantee that we also will be raised to life some day. So, even if we miss the opportunity to be a part of that special group who will be changed into immortal beings without ever tasting death, we still have reason to celebrate. Christ’s resurrection gives us hope.

Long after the revelation of the gospel, Paul continued to speak of those who had died as having fallen asleep.[262] He was not ashamed to use that metaphor to describe what takes place at death. We should not be ashamed to do so either. To “fall asleep” or to “go to sleep”, or merely “to sleep” is an accurate, biblical statement describing the reality of death. On the other hand, to “go to heaven” or to “go home” or to “go to one’s reward” are statements which are neither biblical nor accurate.

The Christian hope is not going somewhere at death, but a Savior, who is coming to wake us up from death. That is why to “fall asleep” is a statement of faith for the believing Christian. It says that we have put our trust in a Savior who cares for us, and will not let our defeat by the enemy death be the last word.

The Body Apart From the Spirit

“For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.” James 2:26 ESV

James is the apostle from Missouri, because Missouri is the “show me” State.[263] James taught that it is not enough just to claim that you have faith in Christ, you need to prove that faith by your actions. He asserts this by two means in the last two verses of what we call James chapter two: a reference to Rahab (2:25) and the assertion that a workless faith is as dead as a spiritless body (2:26).

Rahab’s story can be found in Joshua 2. She was a Canaanite prostitute who (together with all the other inhabitants of Jericho) was afraid of Israel because she knew that the LORD was too powerful for them to resist. So, she did the only wise thing to do. She changed sides. She helped the Israelite spies, hid them from their pursuers, and orchestrated their escape. It was this action that earned Rahab a place among the Israelites, and preserved her and her family.

James uses Rahab as an example of someone who has faith, and acts out that faith by doing something. He is teaching that a true believer is someone who both has faith and proves it by his actions. James is not teaching that works alone saves. If he were, he would be in contrast with the teachings of Paul. What James teaches is that although faith must exist, or there is no salvation, that faith must also produce works, or it is not genuine faith.

Both James and Paul agree that genuine faith is necessary or there is no real salvation. James is concerned with defining what genuine faith does. Paul was concerned with the same thing. He encouraged the Corinthian Christians to test their faith to see if it was genuine.[264] He encouraged the Galatians to put to death the deeds of the flesh and produce the fruit of the Spirit.[265]

Both apostles would agree with this definition:

real salvation = faith proven by works

James uses his “body apart from the spirit” analogy to prove the exact same thing. He is arguing that “‘faith’ that has no results, or ‘works’ is not real faith at all. It is ‘dead faith’.”[266] It is only apparent. It is a faith which does not really exist. Another way of saying what both James and Paul teach is:

Faith without works does not exist

Those who teach against conditionalism see much more in this verse. They see a confirmation of their definition of death as a separation of the mortal body from the (supposed) immortal spirit. Wiersbe states (based on this verse) that “death takes place when the spirit leaves the body,” but that “death is not the end. It is the beginning of a whole new existence in another world.”[267]

Likewise, Lahaye argues that, in scripture, “death never refers to the cessation of life, but rather to the separation of something from that to which it belongs.” So, he argues that the second death cannot be destruction, but must imply “separation of a man from God.”[268]

Both of these interpreters latch on to the idea that death is defined as separation (“the body apart from the spirit”) and conclude that James implies their view of humanity by what he said about faith. They conclude that the Greek philosophers were correct in asserting that death is not the cessation of life, but its return to its pure bodiless state. They conclude that human life continues to exist, and use James’ words to defend that conclusion.

How scripture defines death

Conditionalists refuse to accept those presuppositions. Our approach toward understanding this verse involves two studies. First, we ask ourselves how James represents death, and does his description agree with what had been said about death in prior biblical texts. James is not describing the mere death of a body, and the continued life of something called the spirit. He is describing the death of a person. He says that a person is dead when the body (what you can see) is no longer animated by the spirit (what you cannot see). By doing so, James is not describing humans as being made up of two parts. He is merely pointing out the fact that death is real, and that its results can be observed by the living. The living can tell if a dead person’s spirit has ceased to animate his body.

The creation of Adam was described in this way: “then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.”[269] Death is described in scripture this way: “and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”[270] So, yes, death can be described as separation. But nowhere in the Bible is this separation described as the continuation of existence. The separation of the body from the spirit is the separation of the person from life itself.

Life does not return until the resurrection. Jesus teaches “an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.”[271] The location of all those who await that resurrection is not heaven or hell, but “the tombs.” Death is not described as the continuation of life, but of its cessation.

James’ statement in 2:26 is in complete agreement with this description of death. It does not require any further speculation about what happens to the spirit after the body is separated from it. It does not pursue any rabbit trails about the nature of the body in comparison with the spirit. It simply affirms that death is real, and that a dead body is obviously dead. This affirmation makes sense because James is talking about the reality of faith – how it can be authenticated by observation, just like a corpse shows that a person is really dead.

James’ logic

After studying the scriptural context, conditionalists then move to a study of the logical argument James is making in his letter. To make James’ words teach that death is not real is to totally destroy the logic of his argument about faith. He is stating that faith proves its authenticity by producing works, and that an inauthentic faith cannot. True faith produces true works, but false faith cannot. Rahab could have proclaimed her faith in God, but it would not have saved her if she had not acted on it by protecting the spies.

James’ description of the saved person is:

real salvation = faith proven by works

James’ description of the living person is:

real life = the body animated by the spirit

Once the separation has occurred, life no longer exists, just as once you take away the works, there is no authentic faith. It ceases to exist.

Traditionalist interpreters have taken James’ statement and turned it into something that rejects his premise. They make James assert that the spirit in man continues to live after the body dies. James makes no such assertion. He was concerned to show that a corpse proves that life is not there, just as an inactive profession proves that real faith is not there.

If James believed that a person’s spirit continued to consciously survive the body’s death, his argument would have missed its point. His words do not affirm anything more about the nature of death that what is revealed in the other scriptures. Anyone looking for evidence of immortal souls or spirits must read it into James’ words, because he merely states that a body dies. He does not affirm that the spirit is the real person, and that it lives on after death. If James had made such a statement, it would have defeated the logic of the actual argument he was making.

We conditionalists take a dissenting view from what is popularly believed about questions of life and death. We do so because we understand that the traditional view is often supported by flagrant misrepresentations of biblical texts like this one.

The Waiting Station

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Solomon taught that “the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing” (Eccl. 9:5). For him, the intermediate state between death and resurrection was not a time to look forward to. Like all other biblical authors, he looked forward to the resurrection unto eternal life. He never denied the reality of death. Indeed, he taught that all people now living know that their death is coming. But after death, no one knows anything.

He taught that the intermediate state is universal. everyone will experience it, and all will experience it the same: a state of unconscious survival. It is not non-existence. It merely is a state of existence where one is not conscious or aware of the passage of time and cannot know anything.

This was Solomon’s view, and he held that view with other Old Testament writers: “Those who are wise must finally die, just like the foolish and senseless, leaving all their wealth behind” (Psalm 49:10 NLT).

Death happens to everyone, and no one can “take it with them.” It is a universal event that all will experience. Being wise will not keep you from experiencing death. The wise will join the foolish in that one place. The Hebrews called it Sheol.

It was the place of waiting on God. Sooner or later, we will all meet at that station and await the resurrection train to take us to our next destination. The station (Sheol) itself is not our destination.

“But he said, “My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he is the only one left. If harm should happen to him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol”” (Genesis 42:38 ESV).

Jacob did not want his sons bringing Benjamin down to Egypt. He thought he had already lost Joseph to Sheol, and didn’t want to lose Benjamin as well. Such a loss would only mean death for Jacob, and joining his sons in Sheol.

But – wait a minute. Isn’t Sheol just another word for hell? No, it is not. The Hebrews did not see Sheol as a place of punishment for anyone. Sheol is the station where everyone waits in an unconscious state for resurrection to their final state: either eternal life or eternal death. Jacob expected to one day go to Sheol. He would never have expected to go to hell, and he would have never expected Joseph to go to hell.

“Oh that you would hide me in Sheol, that you would conceal me until your wrath be past, that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me!” (Job 14:13 ESV).

Job actually looked forward to death and the intermediate state (Sheol). He wanted to forget the pain and unfair treatment he had experienced in life. His hope was not that he would be rewarded at death, but that death would be hidden (in a state of unconsciousness) and the resurrected back to life at an appointed time when God remembered him. That is the hope of the New Testament as well.

“Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28-29 ESV).

We are all waiting for that hour. For some of us, we will be alive when the train comes in. Others are in their tombs, and waiting at the station. The Greeks called the station Hades. And it corresponds to the Hebrew Sheol. It is a state of unconsciousness where the dead wait for life. It is not the final state. Ears which have long since crumbled to dust will one day hear again. They will hear their master’s voice, calling them to their eternal destiny.

Even Jesus himself waited at the Hades station between his death on Good Friday and his resurrection to life again on Easter Sunday.

“For David says concerning him, “‘ I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’ “Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses” (Acts 2:25-32 ESV).

Peter preached that Jesus waited at the Hades station, but was not allowed to wait long. After three days God raised him from his state of unconscious sleep and gave him life again. Unlike everyone else who has gone there, Jesus was not abandoned to Hades, and his body never saw corruption. His resurrection is our guarantee that we, too, will one day be raised to life.

Paul put it this way:

“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:20-23 ESV).

Paul knew very well when the resurrection would come. It would take place “at his coming.” He was using a harvest metaphor to explain what happens at death. Death is a kind of planting of a person in Hades until the time of harvest comes. For Christ, his time of harvest has come, for he was the Firstfruits. For us, we await our time of harvest, which will happen at the second coming of Christ. The point is, our reward does not come at death. We are planted in the ground, and await the one who has the power to raise us up again. Until that happens, we sleep. Christ experienced this sleep as well. He did not cease to exist, but he did cease to function, and was absolutely dead from Good Friday until Easter Sunday.

The intermediate state is not a time of purgatorial purging of sin, nor is it a time of reward or punishment. Jesus told a story where he seemed to be saying that (Luke 16:19-31) but he was not teaching his disciples doctrine about the intermediate state. He was teaching the Pharisees about true riches (16:11). He adapted a story from their own folklore and twisted the ending so that the Pharisees “who were lovers of money” ((16:14) could see that God cares more about people like Lazarus than he does about their money. Jesus never intended this story to contradict all that the Bible teaches about the unconscious state of death. To use this story in that way is to take it out of its original context intended purpose.[272]

The Bible teaches that the waiting station of Sheol/Hades is a time when the eyes see no light: “Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death” (Psalm 13:3 ESV).

There is no awareness of things that are happening. There is no consciousness of either good or evil. And that is how it really should be. God’s people could not experience joy if they saw their loved ones suffering and falling into the devil’s traps.

The Bible teaches that absolutely no worship takes place in Sheol/Hades: “For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?” (Psalm 6:5 ESV). If you want to worship God, you had better not wait until you die. You will be invited to no angelic choruses. That is all the more reason for you to raise your voice in praise to the God who promises you a resurrection unto eternal life – a chance to praise his name for eternity in a resurrected body with resurrected lungs that can shout, and resurrected hands that can clap, and resurrected feed that can dance!

Death is a waiting station. It is not a time of reward. It is a time where we all pay the price for our ancestor’s rebellion, because the wages of their sin is death for all. But the waiting station is not the end of the journey. Thanks be to God who promises a resurrection unto eternal life at Jesus’ second coming. See you there!


[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.

[21] Freeman Barton, Heaven, Hell, and Hades (Charlotte NC USA: Advent Christian General Conference, 1981), 58.

[22] James A Nichols Jr., Christian Doctrines (Nutley, NJ USA: The Craig Press, 1970), 220.

[23] Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes (Carlisle UK: The paternoster Press, 1994), 22-23.

[24] Fudge, 22, 26.

[25] Eccl. 1:3, 9, 14; 2:11, 17ff; 3:16; 4:1, 3, 7, 15; 5:13, 18; 6:1, 12; 8:9, 15, 17; 9:3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 10:5.

[26] http://www.sacred-texts.com/bib/cmt/barnes/ecc009.htm

[27] http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/gills-exposition-of-the-bible/ecclesiastes-9-5.html

[28] Eccl. 1:13; 2:3; 3:1; 5:2.

[29] The Old Testament uses the word Sheol to describe where all go at death. See Gen. 37:35; 42:38; 44:29, 31; Num. 16:30, 33; Deut. 32:22; 1 Sam. 2:6; 2 Sam. 22:6; 1 Kgs 2:6, 9; Job 7:9; 11:8; 14:13; 17:13, 16; 21:13; 24:19; 26:6; Psa. 6:5; 9:17; 16:10; 18:5; 30:3; 31:17; 49:14f; 55:15; 86:13; 88:3; 89:48; 116:3; 139:8; 141:7; Prov. 1:12; 5:5; 7:27; 9:18; 15:11, 24; 23:14; 27:20; 30:16; Eccl. 9:10; Isa. 5:14; 7:11; 14:9, 11, 15; 28:15, 18; 38:10, 18; 57:9; Ezek. 31:15ff; 32:21, 27; Hos. 13:14; Amos 9:2; Jonah 2:2; Hab. 2:5. It cannot refer to hell in the traditional sense, because it includes all the dead, not just the unrighteous or unbelievers.

[30] Luke 16:20f.

[31] John 6:39,40,44,54.

[32] Matt. 19:29; 25:46; Mark 10:30; Luke 18:30; John 3:15f, 36; 4:14, 36; 5:24, 39; 6:27, 40, 47, 54, 68; 10:28; 12:25, 50; 17:2-3.

[33] Matt. 8:11; 16:28; Mark 14:25; Luke 13:29.

[34] Deut. 32:26; Psa. 9:7; 34:17; 109:15.

[35] 2 Timothy 1:10 NLT.

[36] Ecclesiastes 12:13 ESV.

[37] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 1. (Forgotten Books), 190.

[38] John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Vol. 1. (Forgotten Books), 190.

[39] John Calvin, Calvin’s Bible Commentaries: Psalms, Part I. (Forgotten Books), 429.

[40] Luke 23:46 ESV.

[41] John 20:17 ESV (emphasis mine).

[42] Acts 7:59 ESV.

[43] Acts 7:60 ESV (emphasis mine).

[44] John Calvin, Calvin’s Bible Commentaries: Psalms, Part I. (Forgotten Books), 431.

[45] 2 Timothy 1:12 NIV.

[46] Acts 2:27,31 states that Jesus was in Hades until his resurrection, not paradise. Paul, in Eph. 4:9-10 calls it the “lower parts of the earth” and says that Christ descended there. Yet he says that a person having visions from God might be “caught up into paradise” (2 Cor. 12:3).

[47] John 19 says that the soldiers broke the legs of the two thieves because they were still alive, but Jesus had already died that day. The thieves were taken down from their crosses alive, and left to die of exposure after dusk (which, according to Jewish reckoning, would have been the next day).

[48] Genesis 22:14 LXX; 2 Corinthians 3:15.

[49] 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 ESV (emphasis mine).

[50] H.E. Dana, and J.R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament. (Toronto: The Macmillan Company, 1957), 252.

[51] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar: Beyond The Basics. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 762.

[52] Deut. 4:40; 6:2, 6; 7:11; 8:11; 10:13; 11:8, 13, 22; 12:14; 13:1, 19; 15:5; 19:9; 27:4, 10; 28:1, 13ff; 30:2, 8, 11, 16.

[53] Deut. 26:3; 30:18; Zech. 9:12.

[54] John 6:39, 40, 44, 54.

[55] Matthew 22:23, 28, 30, 31.

[56] Luke 14:14.

[57] John 11:24.

[58] John 11:25

[59] John 14:3 NLT (emphasis mine).

[60] Matthew 25:1-13.

[61] Matthew 25:14-30.

[62] Matthew 25:31-46 (emphasis mine).

[63] Titus 2:13 .

[64] 1 Peter 1:13 NLT.

[65] James 5:7-8.

[66] 1 John 2:28.

[67] Revelation 22:12 NET.

[68] Luke 8:52.

[69] 1 Kings 2:10; 11:21, 43; 14:20, 31; 15:8, 24; 16:6, 28; 22:40, 50; 2 Kings 8:24; 10:35; 13:9, 13; 14:16, 22, 29; 15:7, 22, 38; 16:20; 20:21; 21:18; 24:6; 2 Chr. 9:31; 12:16; 14:1; 16:13; 21:1; 26:2, 23; 27:9; 28:27; 32:33; 33:20.

[70] 1 Corinthians 15:20.

[71] 1 Corinthians 15:23.

[72] 1 Timothy 6:16.

[73] 1 Corinthians 15:53-54.

[74] Genesis 4:4 ESV.

[75] Genesis 4:10 ESV.

[76] Genesis 4:12 ESV.

[77] Genesis 25:8 ESV.

[78] Genesis 25:9-10 ESV.

[79] 1 Samuel 13:14.

[80] Acts 2:34 NLT.

[81] Psalm 110:1.

[82] John 11:23 ESV.

[83] John 11:11 ESV.

[84] John 20:17 ESV.

[85] Revelation 1:17-18 ESV.

[86] Ecclesiastes 9:5 ESV.

[87] Psalm 6:5 ESV.

[88] 1 Corinthians 15:26.

[89] Titus 2:13.

[90] 1 Thessalonians 4:13 ESV.

[91] 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 ESV.

[92] 1 Thessalonians 5:10 ESV.

[93] 1 Thessalonians 4:13 ESV.

[94] 1 Thessalonians 4:14 ESV.

[95] John 11:25.

[96] 1 Thessalonians 4:15.

[97] 1 Thessalonians 4:16.

[98] 1 Thessalonians 4:17.

[99] Revelation 14:13.

[100] 2 Corinthians 5:8 (NIV).

[101] 2 Corinthians 5:1.

[102] For a more comprehensive treatment of 2 Corinthians 5:1-10, see “Away from the body”

(http://www.afterlife.co.nz/2011/bible/away-from-the-body-2-corinthians-5-8/).

[103] In Philippians 2:12, Paul contrasts his presence (parousia) with his absence (apousia).

[104] 1 Corinthians 16:17; 2 Corinthians 7:6-7; 10:10; Philippians 1:26; 2:12; 2 Thessalonians 2:9.

[105] 1 Corinthians 15:23.

[106] 1 Thessalonians 2:19.

[107] 1 Thessalonians 3:13.

[108] 1 Thessalonians 5:6.

[109] Keith Krell, “No Sleep Walking” (https://bible.org/seriespage/no-sleep-walking-1-thessalonians-51-11).

[110] Angus Paddison, Theological Hermeneutics and 1 Thessalonians, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 186.

[111] 2 Thessalonians 2:1.

[112] Genesis 2:7.

[113] Genesis 2:8.

[114] Genesis 2:9.

[115] Genesis 2:9.

[116] Genesis 2:7.

[117] Revelation 21:4.

[118] Revelation 22:1-2.

[119] Genesis 2:20.

[120] Genesis 2:18.

[121] Genesis 1:28.

[122] 2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 20:6; 22:5.

[123] Genesis 2:21.

[124] Genesis 2:25.

[125] Revelation 21:22-26.

[126] 1 Corinthians 15:18.

[127] 1 Corinthians 15:23.

[128] 1 Corinthians 15:52.

[129] 2 Corinthians 5:1.

[130] 2 Corinthians 5:8.

[131] Philippians 3:11.

[132] 2 Corinthians 5:4.

[133] 2 Corinthians 5:6.

[134] 2 Corinthians 5:4-5.

[135] 2 Corinthians 5:9.

[136] 2 Corinthians 5:4.

[137] 2 Corinthians 5:2.

[138] 2 Corinthians 5:8.

[139] Luke 16:1-13.

[140] Luke 16:1.

[141] Luke 16:9.

[142] Luke 16:14.

[143] Luke 16:27-28.

[144] Luke 16:31.

[145] Luke 16:22.

[146] Job 10:21-22; 17:13; Lamentations 3:6.

[147] Psalm 31:17; Ezekiel 32:21,27; Psalm 94:17; 115:17; Isaiah 38:18; Ecclesiastes 9:10.

[148] Psalm 13:3; 1 Kings 2:10; 11:21, 43; 14:20, 31; 15:8, 24; 16:6, 28; 22:40, 50; 2 Kings 8:24; 10:35; 13:9, 13; 14:16, 22, 29; 15:7, 22, 38; 16:20; 20:21; 21:18; 24:6; 2 Chr. 9:31; 12:16; 14:1; 16:13; 21:1; 26:2, 23; 27:9; 28:27; 32:33; 33:20.

[149] Luke 8:53.

[150] John 11:11.

[151] John 5:28-29.

[152] John 19:36-37 ESV.

[153] John 20:17 ESV.

[154] 1 Samuel 28:12.

[155] 1 Samuel 28:3.

[156] 1 Samuel 28:13.

[157] 1 Samuel 28:15.

[158] 2 Corinthians 5:4.

[159] 1 Samuel 28:16-19 ESV.

[160] Hebrews 11:39-40 NET.

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

[162] 1 Samuel 2:6 KJV.

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

[164] Psalm 9:17 KJV.

[165] Psalm 55:15 KJV.

[166] Proverbs 5:5 KJV.

[167] Proverbs 15:11 KJV.

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

[169] Deuteronomy 34:5-7.

[170] 2 Kings 2:11.

[171] 2 Chronicles 21:12.

[172] Matthew 17:9 (ESV, KJV, NASB, NET, NKJV, NRSV, HCSB, LEB).

[173] Mark 9:7 ESV.

[174] Matthew 22:25-28 ESV.

[175] Matthew 22:32.

[176] John 11:25.

[177] 2 Corinthians 12:1.

[178] 2 Corinthians 12:4.

[179] Philippians 1:20.

[180] Philippians 1:21.

[181] Philippians 3:8-11.

[182] Philippians 1:23.

[183] Plato, Phaedo, Kindle version, location 705.

[184] Plato, location 754.

[185] 1 Corinthians 15:26.

[186] Genesis 2:17 ESV.

[187] Job 38:17; Psa. 107:10, 14; Matt. 4:16; Luke 1:79.

[188] Psalm 13:3 ESV.

[189] John 11:11-14 ESV.

[190] Matthew 27:52 ESV.

[191] 1 Corinthians 15:6 ESV.

[192] 1 Corinthians 15:20 ESV.

[193] 1 Thessalonians 4:15 ESV.

[194] Jefferson Vann, Sheol: The Old Testament Consensus.

[195] Revelation 1:18 ESV.

[196] Revelation 20:13 ESV.

[197] Luke 20:36 ESV.

[198] John 11:24 ESV.

[199] Philippians 3:10 ESV.

[200] Philippians 3:11 ESV.

[201] 2 Corinthians 5:2-4 ESV.

[202] Gen. 3:19; Job 10:9; 34:15; Psa. 90:3; 104:29; Eccl. 3:20.

[203] Titus 2:13 ESV.

[204] Richard N. Longenecker, “Grave, Sheol, Pit, Hades, Gehenna, Abaddon, Hell” in Donald E. Gowan, ed. The Westminster Theological Wordbook of the Bible. (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2003), 189.

[205] Hezekiah, for example, lamented that at the age of 39 he must walk through the gates of Sheol, being deprived of the rest of his years (Isaiah 38:10). And David spoke of his hope that God would rescue him from death by saying confidently that God would not abandon him to Sheol (Psalm 16:10). Both of these men of God understood entering Sheol as synonymous with dying.

[206] Anthony A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1994), 99.

[207] Luke 16:19-31.

[208] References to Sheol in the Old Testament outnumber those of Hades in the New Testament over 6 to 1. Also, most of the New Testament references merely use the term Hades without explaining it.

[209] Genesis 37:35.

[210] Genesis 42:38; 44:29, 31; Num. 16:30, 33; 1 Sam. 2:6; 1 Kings 2:6, 9; Job 7:9; 17:16; Psalm 55:15; Prov. 1:12; 5:5; 7:27; Isaiah 14:11, 15; Ezekiel 31:15, 16, 17; 32:21, 27.

[211] Job 21:13

[212] Isaiah 57:9.

[213] Psalm 30:3; Prov. 1:12; Isaiah 14:15; 38:18; Ezekiel 31:16.

[214] Job 26:6; Prov. 15:11; 27:20.

[215] Eric Lewis, Christ, The First Fruits (Boston: Warren Press, 1949), 48.

[216] Deuteronomy 32:22.

[217] Job. 11:8.

[218] Psalm 86:13.

[219] Psalm 139:8.

[220] Isaiah 57:9.

[221] Amos 9:2-4.

[222] Job 26:6; Prov. 15:11.

[223] Psalm 69:34; 113:3; 145:3-7; 148:2.

[224] Psalm 31:17.

[225] Ezekiel 32:21, 27.

[226] Psalm 94:17; 115:17.

[227] Isaiah 38:18.

[228] Psalm 6:5.

[229] 1 Kings 4:32.

[230] 1 Kings 4:30.

[231] Ecclesiastes 9:10.

[232] Job 17:13.

[233] Job 10:21-22.

[234] Psalm 143:3.

[235] Lamentations 3:6.

[236] Psalm 13:3.

[237] 1 Kings 2:10; 11:21, 43; 14:20, 31; 15:8, 24; 16:6, 28; 22:40, 50; 2 Kings 8:24; 10:35; 13:9, 13; 14:16, 22, 29; 15:7, 22, 38; 16:20; 20:21; 21:18; 24:6; 2 Chr. 9:31; 12:16; 14:1; 16:13; 21:1; 26:2, 23; 27:9; 28:27; 32:33; 33:20.

[238] Daniel 12:2.

[239] Matt. 9:24; Mark 5:39; Luke 8:52.

[240] John 11:11.

[241] Rev. 1:8; 6:8; 20:13-14.

[242] 2 Samuel 22:6.

[243] Psalm 6:5.

[244] Psalm 49:14.

[245] Psalm 89:48.

[246] 1 Samuel 2:6.

[247] 1 Corinthians 11;8-12.

[248] Job 19:25-27.

[249] The word cemetery comes from the Greek koimeterion, which is related to the word koimesis, used in the New Testament for both death and natural sleep.

[250] Acts 2:29 ESV.

[251] Jeremiah 51:1, 3, 20, 48, 53-54.

[252] Jeremiah 51:8.

[253] Jeremiah 51:13.

[254] Jeremiah 51:18.

[255] Jeremiah 51:37.

[256] Jeremiah 51:43 ESV.

[257] John 5:28-29.

[258] see John 11.

[259] Luke 16:13-14.

[260] John 11:35.

[261] 1 Corinthians 15:20, 23.

[262] 1 Corinthians 15:20; 1 Thessalonians 4:13, 14, 15.

[263] http://www.sos.mo.gov/archives/history/slogan.asp

[264] 2 Corinthians 13:5.

[265] Galatians 5:19-24.

[266] Wayne A Grudem, Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999), 322.

[267] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament. (), 194.

[268] Tim La Haye, The Popular Encyclopedia of Bible Prophecy. (Eugene Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 2004), 137.

[269] Genesis 2:7 ESV.

[270] Ecclesiastes 12:7 ESV.

[271] John 5:28-29 ESV.

[272] For more information about the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, see Edward Fudge, The Fire That Consumes (Cascade Books, 2011) chapter 14: Jesus: Fire (Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus).

ACST Appendix B: Human Mortality (part 2)

SDC11016

These writings were published previously in Afterlife website and/or From Death To Life magazine and/or Henceforth Theological Journal. They appear here as further evidence for the Advent Christian teaching that human beings and other creatures do not presently possess immortality.

 
Let My Soul Live

Let my soul live, and it shall praise You;

And let Your judgments help me. (Psalm

119:175 NKJV).

In a long acrostic poem which mostly praises the word of God, an unknown psalmist asks the LORD to keep him alive, so that he can continue praising him, and continue learning from him. It seems a simple request, and most commentators ignore it. Yet, it has a surprise for the modern Christian. When it is translated literally (as the NKJV does above), it suggests a possibility that popular evangelical Christianity has rejected: the possibility of a soul dying.

What? Did I hear you correctly? Is it possible for a soul to die? Many believe that souls are immortal. Yet this biblical poet does not seem to have gotten the memo. He does not simply say “Let me live” as several modern versions translate it.[1] Nor does he say “May I live” as another version puts it.[2] He is in danger of literal death, from who knows what, and describes that threat as the death of his soul.

Some are quick to say that the author could not possibly mean that he thought his soul could die. Figart, for example, states “…this is not saying that those who have died and are in heaven do not praise the Lord; rather, it simply means that, here on earth when a person dies, his soul leaves his body; thus there is no life in the dead body from which to praise the Lord. So David realized this and wanted to remain alive so he could praise Jehovah before men. ”[3] Likewise, Manton affirms “A man may praise God in Heaven; but from their bodies no service is performed for a long while in the other world; there is no such service there as here; as reducing the stray, instructing the ignorant, propagating godliness to others who want it, by our counsels and example.”[4] Both men suggest that what the psalmist really wanted was for his body to stay alive, because (as everybody knows) the soul of a believer can never die.

But the actual text has the psalmist stubbornly refusing to accept what everybody knows — that his soul’s immortality is a given. Long before the apostle Paul affirmed that God alone has immortality,[5] this Old Testament believer simply prays that his soul continue to live, so that he can continue to worship and learn. Unlike the later Greek philosophers who would suggest that death is an illusion, this Hebrew poet seems to think that death is quite real, and that it would entail that his praising and learning would stop, because his soul (his whole being, including his body) would cease to function. For this Hebrew poet, death is not the gateway to praise, but the interruption of praise. Death is not going to God, where he can get closer to God, but the absence of a relationship with God. He does not want to die and go to heaven, he wants to continue to live so that he can keep his link to heaven.

This psalmist is not alone in his view of the nature of death. Solomon said: “The living at least know they will die, but the dead know nothing. They have no further reward, nor are they remembered. Whatever they did in their lifetime — loving, hating, envying — is all long gone.”[6] He encouraged people to take advantage of their conscious lives, because “when you go to the grave, there will be no work or planning or knowledge or wisdom.”[7] And this psalmist would add “no praise, and no learning from the word.” Death is not continuing to live; it is an interruption in life.

dying souls

This is not the only place in the Old Testament where souls are said to die. Samson’s last words were not “Let me die with the Philistines” as every major English version translates it. What he actually said was tamut nafshi im-plistim (let my soul die with the Philistines).[8] Samson, like the psalmist, seemed to think that his death would be total.

When Moses commanded “anyone who kills a person” to remain outside the Israelite camp for seven days, his actual words were kol horeg nefesh (anyone who kills a soul).[9] Was Moses deluded? Is it that he merely did not have access to the right theological word-book? Hebrew has several words for body, and flesh. But Moses chose a word that indicated the whole person, the soul (nefesh). He had used that word when he described the creation of Adam. He said “The LORD God formed the man from the soil of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”[10] The words translated “living being” are nefesh xayyah – alive soul. Moses defined living people as alive souls, and so dead people would be dead souls. His theology is consistent. It just does not agree with the theology that many have been taught.

silent souls

The reason the psalmist did not want his soul to die was that “The dead do not praise the LORD, nor do any who go down into silence.”[11] Indeed, in death there is no remembering or thanking God.[12] Souls are silenced, so that they cannot praise. They are not experiencing joy and life beyond the grave; they are in a kind-of holding pattern, a time of waiting. They are not floating around on the clouds, but unconscious in their tombs, awaiting the voice of Jesus, who will raise them to life again – either for permanent life, or permanent judgment:

“Do not marvel at this, for an hour is

coming when all who are in the tombs

will hear his voice and come out, those

who have done good to the resurrection

of life, and those who have done evil to

the resurrection of judgment”[13]

Paul described this intermediate state (between death and resurrection) as a sleep. He said that Jesus is the only one who has been raised from that sleep, but that believers await his return, so that we, too may be raised:

“But in fact Christ has been raised from

the dead, the firstfruits of those who

have fallen asleep. For as by a man came

death, by a man has come also the

resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam

all die, so also in Christ shall all be made

alive. But each in his own order: Christ

the firstfruits, then at his coming those

who belong to Christ”[14]

Popular theology has no place for that sleep. God’s word does. It places all dead souls in the grave, where they sleep until raised. Jesus told his disciples that a dead girl was sleeping.[15] Then he woke her soul up. He said that dead Lazarus was sleeping, and that he was going to go wake him up.[16] He did wake up Lazarus’ dead soul, just as he intends to wake all souls now dead. That is why the blessed hope is not floating away to heaven when we die. The blessed hope is the glorious appearing of or Saviour,[17] who has the keys of death and Hades, and can rescue our souls from death’s prison.[18] He can make our dead souls live again. The good news of the gospel is not that we have souls that will live forever. It is that we have a Saviour who will not let our souls die forever.

The Tree of Life

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).[19] After Adam and Eve transgressed and ate of the tree of knowledge, God was true to his threat and made them mortal,[20] 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.[21]

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.[22] Wise and righteous living yields a relationship with God and our neighbor 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.[23] And in his Revelation, John holds forth the tree of life as a future reality for those who overcome.[24] 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.[25] But this same woman will give birth to a son who will do battle against the serpent, and will be bruised in the process.[26] The Apostles refer to Christ’s crucifixion by saying that he was hanged on a tree.[27] 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.’”[28] 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.”[29] The gospel is good news because it says that now immortality is available again. We have a second chance at the tree of life.

Defining Conditionalism

Some recent online discussions have centered around what is meant by the term “conditional immortality” or its synonym “conditionalism.” These are essentially anthropological terms. They describe the nature of humanity as the Bible represents it. They affirm that human beings have the potential to become immortal, but that immortality is not innate: it is not something we are born with.

Conditionalism in Genesis

The early chapters of Genesis prove to be very helpful as a guide to understanding human nature. They show that human beings are creatures, like the animals, but that human beings were intended to be more than that. They were created in God’s image and likeness, which implies a special authority from God and responsibility to him. God tested this responsibility in the Garden of Eden by planting two special trees in Eden: the tree of life (which, if eaten would have granted Adam and Eve immediate immortality), and the tree of knowing good and evil.

Of these two trees, only the latter was prohibited. The first humans were allowed to eat of all the other trees, including the tree of life. If our ancestors had simply made the correct decision, they would have remained alive forever, along with all their descendants.

Instead, they were deceived to believe that it was the other tree that actually held promise. Satan had told them “For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). That statement was the truth, but it implied a lie: that the tree offered immunity from death. Instead “being like God” merely meant having experienced both good and evil. God had known both the good of his original creation and the evil of Satan’s rebellion. Taking of the tree of knowing good and evil would cause humans to experience evil personally – thus wreck the purity of Eden, and human intimacy with their creator.

God’s response to that sin led to a further consequence: human mortality. The persons of the Triune One speak among themselves and say …

“Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good

and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of

the tree of life and eat, and live forever-” therefore the

LORD God sent him out from the Garden of Eden to work

the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man,

and at the east of the Garden of Eden he placed the cherubim

and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way

to the tree of life. (Genesis 3:22-24)

Before the fall, human beings had the potential to become immortal. They had the potential to become something more than what they were. As a consequence of the rebellion in Eden, this opportunity was taken away.

God wanted human beings to be immortal. He still does. He wants to establish a relationship with us that will bring glory and joy to both parties forever. Yet God cannot endure unrighteousness forever. Until a solution can be found that will undo the Eden rebellion, God cannot grant immortality to human beings. He was thus forced by his own nature to banish us from paradise.

So, although intended for immortality, human beings are now reduced to the same nature as the animals God has placed us over. The ancient scientist Solomon recognized this:

“I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that

God is testing them that they may see that they themselves

are but beasts. For what happens to the children of man

and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies,

so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man

has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go

to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return”

(Ecclesiastes 3:18-20).

This is the bad news the Bible gives us, which serves as the backdrop for the good news of eternal life available through Christ.

Conditional Immortality

Conditionalists proclaim Christ, and his second coming as the time when God is going to grant immortality to the saved and undo the Edenic curse. But Advent Christians have also championed the truth of this bad news: that all humanity is mortal and subject to real death. We feel that it is dishonoring God’s word to say that humans are both mortal and immortal at the same time.[30] We also feel that it is inconsistent evangelism to claim that Jesus offers eternal life and then teach people that they already have eternal life.

So, instead of teaching people that immortality is innate (that is, that all human beings are born with it), we teach that it is conditional. God offers eternal life to those who put their faith in Christ: those are the conditions. One of the first post-apostolic writers to express conditionalism was Theophilus of Antioch:

“God did not create humanity as either mortal or immortal, but, …

with the capacity for them both. If humanity inclined towards

those things which relate to immortality by keeping the command-

ments of God, then it would receive immortality as a reward from

God… On the other hand, if humanity should incline towards those

things which relate to death by disobeying God, then humanity

would be the cause of its own death.” [31]

When a certain man came to Jesus once, asking “what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”[32] – Jesus did not challenge his theological inference that eternal life is something that must be obtained. If immortality were innate, then Jesus should have stopped the man and pointed that out. Instead, Jesus agreed with the man that he needed eternal life, and then challenged the man to follow him – that he might get what he was asking for.[33]

The Gospel is all about how God offers us what we do not have on the basis of his grace, through the atoning death of Christ. Christ’s death has met the conditions. Following Christ is the solution to the curse of Eden. A conditionalist is someone who does not trust in her own innate ability to live forever, but trusts in Christ’s completed work on the cross, and looks forward to the day when Christ will make her immortal.

Conferred Immortality

Conditionalists also take death seriously, and that leads to our special appreciation of the gift of immortality. We understand the awful consequences that are the result of sin entering God’s creation, and that makes us appreciate Christ all the more. When we read Romans 6:23, it makes perfect sense as it is: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” But if a person believes that immortality is not conferred as a gift, but is an innate possession, they have to supply some interpretation for Romans 6:23 to fit their view. It then reads “For the wages of sin is death (but only death of the body, because the real person is the soul and it cannot die), but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (except that eternal life is actually a right we have by birth, so Christ does not give it).”

William Newton Clarke complained that conditionalists “argue from the silence of scripture regarding the natural immortality of man, and from the uniform association of ‘eternal life’ with Christ.”[34] He was exactly right – although it is hardly reason for complaint. Scripture is silent on the natural immortality of humans because it rejects the notion. Eternal life is either conferred upon the faithful or it is innate by reason of creation. There is no logic that allows for both, or any scripture that proves both.

Future Immortality

Conditionalists have never argued against the concept of human immortality. We simply insist that that great gift will be given to humans at the appropriate time. It has not been the possession of all humans from birth. Instead, it will be given to some humans at the return of Christ. Speaking of that return, Paul says that it will happen “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:52-53 NIV).

That glorious day will be the beginning of “the times of restoration of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began.”[35] The fact that raising the dead is first on Christ’s list when he returns should be an encouragement to us. It should enable us to face the death of our loved ones (or even our own eventual death) with courage, knowing that although death is real, it is only temporary.

Life Only In Christ

The doctrine of human mortality is Christocentric, not anthropocentric.[36] It reveals Christ as the giver of life, not just the one who can “get you to heaven.” John states the options bluntly: “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”[37] The Bible is about Jesus Christ. The Old Testament pointed forward to him, the New Testament points back to him. Human mortality is the need which only Christ could meet. Paul says that God “saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”[38]

Over against this clear teaching from the Bible on human mortality is the persistent mistaken notion that humans are born with immortal souls or spirits that consciously survive the death of their bodies. This view sees the references to death in the scripture as usually referring to this physical death, and therefore irrelevant on the subject of the soul’s survival. The view thus confirms both mortality and immortality at the same time. Any scriptural evidence in favor of human mortality can immediately be dismissed as not pertinent, since it (in the innate immortality view) always refers to the material aspect of human existence, and not the spiritual.

Scriptures that Clash with the Innate Immortality Tradition

The innate immortality tradition reflects Greek dualism. It is a worldview that is read into scripture, rather than being a part of it. It has become embedded in Christianity the way many other non-biblical traditions have. By taking a closer look at doctrines taught in scripture, the clashes between those doctrines and the innate immortality tradition become more evident.

1 Timothy 6:16

In chapter 15 we noted that scripture teaches that God “alone has immortality” (1 Timothy 6:16). The innate immortality view denies this, although its proponents do exercise a great deal of verbal gymnastics to try to affirm it.[39] At issue, then, is not simply the doctrine of human nature, but the doctrine of God’s nature as well. To claim immortality for sinful humanity is to deny it as an exclusive attribute of God. But when the first humans sinned, God said that they “must not be allowed to … live forever.”[40] Their sin had not only affected their relationship with God (resulting in banishment from his presence in Eden), but it changed them. They had been immortable (capable of becoming immortal by eating of the tree of life). Now they were simply mortal.

Some argue that the term “immortality,” when it refers to God, has a different meaning than when it refers to all other beings. They argue that “the meaning of ‘immortality’ in the Bible largely depends on its context.”[41] They see this as adequate justification for ignoring the contradiction found in the traditional doctrine of the immortal soul, and affirming both the exclusive immortality of God and the universal immortality of humanity as dependent upon him. Conditionalists see this as double-speak. While it is true that all words depend on their context for meaning, there is nowhere in the context of 1 Timothy 6:16 that redefines the term or assumes a distinction between how it is used by Paul there, compared to how he or other biblical authors use it elsewhere.

Genesis 2:17

This is precisely what God (with tears in his eyes) warned Adam and Eve would happen if they disobey his Edenic prohibition. He said “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”[42] That phrase “you shall surely die” is a combination of two forms of the same verb. The word mot (tAm) is the infinitive absolute of the verb “to die” and refers to the state of mortality that was humanity’s fate after the rebellion in Eden. From the moment they ate of the tree, humanity became a dying race. The second word is the imperfect tense of the same verb. The word tamut (tWmT’) refers to the eventual and inevitable death that would come to each member of the race as a result of the fall. Together these two forms of a verb reflect a Hebrew idiom that accentuates the certainty of an action. Thus the translations render the phrase “you will surely die.” The innate immortality doctrine turns this into an empty threat since it claims that the real essence of a human person never dies.

Romans 5:12

Paul tells us that “When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned.”[43] Sin and death have been a matched set in human experience ever since that initial sin in Eden. It is not merely the body which sins, but the whole person. That is why we need a Savior, not just someone who can raise us from the dead. Christ is both. He can restore our inner beings as well as raise our bodies. Both have been affected by sin; the wages of that sin is death to both, and the gift of God is eternal life for both.[44]

John 3:16

The Bible speaks of a coming day of judgment when all those who are not redeemed by Christ’s blood will totally perish in the fires of Gehenna hell.[45] When the Bible speaks of believers being saved, it usually refers to this event. In other words, to perish is not simply to die. To perish is to utterly die. It refers to the ultimate, permanent death in Gehenna, not to the temporary death at the end of this life. So when Jesus told Nicodemus that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” he was speaking of the two ultimate fates of mankind. To perish is to be ultimately destroyed. To have eternal life is to escape that destruction. Many texts point out the same distinction.[46] The innate immortality doctrine blurs that distinction because it insists that no human being ultimately perishes. Thus all human beings ultimately have eternal life.

The innate immortality view distorts a crucial and essential doctrine of the Christian faith: the purpose of Christ’s death on the cross. According to the Bible, Christ’s death was to protect us from ultimate destruction, not to get our souls to heaven when our bodies die.

1 Corinthians 15:22-23

The Bible is also explicit on the issue of just when believers will gain the gift of immortality. It did not happen at our birth, and it will not happen at our death. Believers will be made alive at the return of Christ. Paul says “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” Paul compares two events in history. The first event was the fall of humanity in the garden of Eden. As a result of that event, human nature became a fatal condition. The second event is the return of Christ to this earth.

The analogy Paul uses to describe the resurrection is a crop harvest. Each resurrection is a stage in the harvest. Since Christ is the Firstfruits, he was resurrected first. This took place three days after his death. The second stage of the harvest includes “those who belong to Christ” when he comes. This is the believers’ resurrection. Paul does not speak of Christ restoring souls with their risen bodies. Instead he speaks of the whole person being “made alive.” This is when the promise of eternal life will be fulfilled for us.

The doctrine of innate immortality also subverts this plain teaching of scripture. According to that view, no human being ever dies, so none will ever need to be made alive. The concept of the resurrection takes a back seat to the more immediate idea of conscious survival of death. It makes the return of Christ less crucial, and rather anticlimactic.

Summary

The consequences of original sin in the Garden of Eden include the mortality of all human beings, which makes homo sapiens no different from the animals in terms of mortality and eventual death. This dark reality is the backdrop upon which the

brilliant light of eternal life offered by Christ emerges in scripture. In contrast, the tradition of innate immortality dilutes the teachings of scripture. Believing that one is already immortal by nature can make one less appreciative of the nature of God, the influence of sin, the purpose of Christ’s death on the cross, and the reason for his second coming.

Confusion in defining the term

Often in theological discourse, the same terms are used for different concepts, and sadly, this is the case for conditional immortality as well. John Stott, for example, defended the view described above, but did not call it conditional immortality. He defined conditional immortality as the view that “nobody survives death except those to whom God gives life.”[47] While that is technically accurate, it does not represent the teaching of conditionalism. In conditional immortality as described above, everyone will be resurrected and face judgment. No one will survive death apart from that resurrection.

Wayne Grudem asserts that “some versions of conditional immortality deny conscious punishment altogether, even for a brief time.”[48] The doctrine of conditional immortality as described in this article assumes both conscious punishment of the lost, and ultimate destruction of the lost.

The whole question of the final fate of the lost is not subsumed under the term conditionalism. The issue with conditionalism is whether there is anything immortal in human nature to suffer punishment for eternity. Conditionalists answer, no. We teach that death is real. The first death is real in that life ceases until the resurrection. The second death is real in that life ceases, and there is no longer any hope of resurrection.

While the second death will be preceded by a period of torment, it is the death which follows which is permanent. It is not the process of punishing which is perpetual (as if the word aionios was an adverb), but the event of punishment which is permanent (since aionios is an adjective). The Bible describes the fate of the lost as eternal punishment, not perpetual punishing.[49]

Millard Erickson uses the term “conditional immortality” to describe the state of Adam (and Eve) before the fall. Adam “was not inherently able to live forever; but he need not have died.”[50] Thus, he adds another use of the term which does not quite fit our definition. Erickson defines death as “the termination of human existence in the bodily or materialized state.”[51] He is free, then, to speak of Adam’s death as becoming certain at the fall, their “potential mortality” becoming actual.[52] Yet he still keeps the door open to Platonic dualism by drawing a sharp distinction between physical death and spiritual death. The second death is spiritual death made permanent. He does not explain why there must be a physical resurrection for that to happen.

Should we jettison the term?

Seeing that there is confusion on how the term is used, is this a case for jettisoning the term “conditional immortality” for a more precise one? Probably not. In most cases, those who disagree with us at least grant us audience so that we can explain exactly what we mean, in order to lessen any confusion. It is in the act of clarifying terms and defining meaning that we confront the text of Scripture, and that is precisely what theological debate was intended to accomplish. If, in the end, my opponent in religious dialog confronts the texts of scripture and yet still disagrees with my interpretation of them, we can still walk arm in arm as brothers.

If, for the sake of argument, we entertained the idea that the term “conditional immortality” is no longer useful as a theological instrument, what would take its place? Some prefer the term annihilationism. The church tradition that this author comes from has not chosen to adopt that term. Although we feel it accurately describes the fate of the lost, we are not comfortable with its emphasis. Conditional immortality reflects the “good news” side of the Biblical message. It speaks of the gift of eternal life which is available to all who meet the conditions of faith in Christ and repentance from sin.

It also points to the fact that Christ has met the conditions that make eternal life possible for his church. It is “our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light.”[53] Thus, the term is Christocentric. The ultimate question regarding one’s eternal destiny is not whether one has a “soul” but whether one has a Savior. It is not what you have done your eternal spirit but whether you have obeyed the Holy Spirit. As John put it, “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”[54] Ultimately, eternal life is not going to depend on having a part of you that survives death. Eternal life is going to depend upon your relationship with God through Jesus Christ, his Son. There are eternal haves, and eternal have-nots. That difference is what conditionalism is all about.


[1] “Let me live that I may praise you, and may your laws sustain me” (New International Version). “Let me live so I can praise you, and may your regulations help me” (New Living Translation). “Let me live that I may praise you, and let your ordinances help me.” (New Revised Standard Version).

[2] “May I live and praise you! May your regulations help me!” (New English Translation).

[3] Thomas O. Figart, Meaningful Meditations. (n.c.: XulonPress, 2004), 399.

[4] Thomas Manton, One Hundred and Ninety Sermons on the Hundred and Nineteenth Psalm, vol.3. (London: William Brown, 1845), 485.

[5] 1 Timothy 6:16-17.

[6] Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 NLT.

[7] Ecclesiastes 9:10 NLT.

[8] Judges 16:30.

[9] Numbers 31:19.

[10] Genesis 2:7 NET.

[11] Psalm 115:17 ESV.

[12] Psalm 6:5.

[13] John 5:28-29 ESV.

[14] 1 Corinthians 15:20-23 ESV.

[15] Mark 9:24.

[16] John 11:11.

[17] Titus 2:13.

[18] Revelation 1:18.

[19] Genesis 2:9.

[20] Genesis 2:17; 5:5.

[21] Genesis 3:22-24.

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

[23] Ezekiel 47:12.

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

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

[26] Genesis 3:15.

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

[28] Galatians 3:13.

[29] 2 Timothy 1:10.

[30] William West explores this contradiction in Resurrection And Immortality (Xulon Press, 2006), 77.

[31] Theophilus of Antioch ad Autolycum (shortly after 180 AD) quoted in Alister E. McGrath, ed. The Christian Theology Reader (Malden Mass: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 646.

[32] Matthew 19:16.

[33] Matthew 19:21.

[34] William Newton Clarke, An Outline of Christian Theology (BiblioBazaar, LLC, 2009), 452.

[35] Acts 3:21 NKJV.

[36] Viewing mortality as an anthropocentric issue places too much emphasis on humans as created rather than humans as redeemed. Conditionalists argue that viewing mortality as an anthropocentric issue distracts believers from seeing the connection between human need for resurrection life and the solution for that problem offered in the atonement.

[37] 1 John 5:12.

[38] 2 Timothy 1:9-10.

[39] Page 104.

[40] Genesis 3:22 NIV.

[41] Christopher W. Morgan, Robert A. Peterson, Hell Under Fire (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 206. These authors discredit the conditionalist argument for exclusive immortality of God because they are seeking to defend the traditional concept of hell as the perpetual torture of immortal human souls.

[42] Genesis 2:17.

[43] Romans 5:12 NLT.

[44] Romans 6:23.

[45] Malachi 4:1; Matthew 5:22,29,30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:33; Mark 9:43,45,47; Luke 12:5.

[46] See also John 4:14; 5:21; 10:28; 17:2.

[47] David L. Edwards with a Response from John Stott, Evangelical Essentials (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity, 1988), 316.

[48] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 1150 (footnote 12).

[49] Matthew 25:46.

[50] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1985), 613.

[51] Erickson, 613.

[52] Erickson, 614.

[53] 2 Timothy 1:10 ESV.

[54] 1 John 5:12 ESV.

ACST Appendix A: The Exclusive Immortality of God

066

 

These writings were published previously in Afterlife website and/or From Death To Life magazine. They appear here as further evidence for the Advent Christian teaching that God is the only being who presently possesses immortality.

 

 

Clarifying Evangelical Conditionalism

The process of theological debate requires a constant stating and restating of one’s position so that all parties are aware of where each other stands. If this does not happen, we run the risk of misrepresenting each other in the conversation. Some of my recent articles were presented in hopes of accurately defining the position of evangelical conditionalism.[1] This is another attempt to clarify what evangelical conditionalists believe.

Evangelical Conditionalists believe that only Jesus can save sinners.

Many in the theological debate wrongly conclude that anyone who challenges the traditionalist teaching on hell must be a theological liberal. In reality, conditionalists are usually quite conservative in their view of God, the Bible, and especially salvation. We believe that there is only one way to salvation, and his name is Jesus Christ. Jesus said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”[2] Other religions, or inspired human effort might help people change their ways, but they are not the way back into a relationship with the Father. Only Jesus is the Way. Other religions, or inspired human effort might come to some aspects of the truth, but only Jesus is the Truth himself. Other religions, or inspired human effort may improve someone’s quality of life, but they can never impart eternal life. Only Jesus can do that.

At this juncture, traditionalists might argue that this is a point of essential agreement between themselves and conditionalists. Indeed it is. Yet we challenge our traditionalist brothers and sisters to embrace that final aspect of John 14:6 in its entirety. Traditionalism teaches that all human beings are born with a soul which has immortality regardless of whether that soul has accepted Christ or not. Thus, that immortal soul has no need for Jesus, and is in no danger of losing eternal life. Their destiny is to live forever whether or not they have come to Christ. Christ does not mean exclusive life to them, but life in a better location.

Conditionalists, on the other hand, believe and teach what we call life only in Christ. We see life not as an innate possession, but as a potential possession. The difference is Christ. Instead of trusting in an inborn quality in our nature, we trust in Christ. Our hope is built on nothing less that Jesus’ blood and righteousness. Christ is our life.

Evangelical Conditionalists believe that only God has immortality.

Although conditionalism is usually defined as an anthropological

tenant, it has just as rightful a place among the doctrines of theology proper. At the heart of our teaching is what Paul declared about God: that he “alone has immortality.”[3] That is, if there were a box in which all the beings of this universe who could not die were placed, it would be occupied by the LORD alone. No created being – not even the angels in heaven – share that attribute with him, for since they owe their existence and life to God, they cannot claim immortality.

Human beings (even human souls) are just as much created beings as the angels, and therefore share their mortality. The hope being immortal is just that: it is a hope. The Bible never speaks of human immortality this side of the resurrection at Christ’s return. Human immortality is a promise. We possess it only in that potential form. It is the inheritance of the saints.

Evangelical Conditionalists believe that only the Saved will Live Forever.

Biblical eschatology presents a series of prophesied events that will take place simultaneously with – or be initiated by – Christ’s second coming. At the end of that stream of events there will be an ultimate consummation of all things. The Judgment Day will be one of those events, but it too will have an end – “the second death.”[4] After this, Jesus will recreate heaven and earth for our eternal habitation and his eternal glory.[5]

Eternity is an exclusive club, and non-members are not allowed. Those whose names are not listed in the Lamb’s book of life will have been destroyed (soul and body) in hell.[6] That would make it impossible for them to participate in eternity. Traditionalists teach that God is obligated to keep human souls alive forever because he made them immortal. The Bible does not teach that. Traditionalists teach that God will torment these souls for eternity. The Bible teaches that those in hell will be tormented as punishment for their particular sins, some with few stripes, others with many.[7] That reflects the justice that was prescribed in the Old Testament law.[8] God is just. His justice does not require torturing people for eternity for the sins of a few years. But even if one could justify punishing people forever, it would still require immortality, which the Bible is clear that sinners do not have.

Another point in which traditionalists and conditionalists disagree is that most traditionalists insist that punishment in hell begins the moment the sinner dies. Conditionalists place reward and punishment at the point in time that the Bible does. The Bible says “the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.”[9] Both destinies begin at the second coming of Christ. Neither the believer’s eternal life nor the damnation of hell begin at death. Instead, death is a period of unconscious sleep for both. For traditionalists, hell begins at death, is interrupted by an unnecessary second judgment, and then resumes again.

Conditionalists love the message that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life..”[10] We do not choose to redefine that message – by changing the reward to something else besides eternal life. Immortal existence in God’s recreated universe is OK with us. We do not have to go to our reward at death. We prefer to wait for our reward to come to us in the person of Jesus Christ. Only after he returns will eternal life be meaningful.

Conditionalists believe that this present world consists of haves and have nots. The Bible says “that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.”[11] Only the saved will live forever. The lost will be … well… lost.

 

God is Different

1 Timothy 6:16 is one of the foundational verses for conditionalists.  In it, we see a theological principle that we are not ready to relinquish in favour of popular teachings.  It is the principle that God is the only being in the universe who has immortality.  His immortality is exclusive. In that respect, he is different from all other beings.

“The only One who has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light; no one has seen or can see Him, to Him be honour and eternal might. Amen” (HCSB).

The verse is the second part of a doxology: a pause to praise the God of whom the author is writing.  In its context, Paul is encouraging Timothy to keep pursuing eternal life to which he was called, but has not yet attained.  It is a promise from the only one capable of making that promise: God, who alone possesses that thing that Paul urges Timothy to pursue.

Comparing 1 Timothy 1:17 to 6:15-16 has led some scholars to suggest that Paul did not originate this text.  He may have been quoting an already existing liturgy.  That would explain how Paul quotes the text as if it is already known by Timothy and his companions at Ephesus.  The principles found in those texts would have already been accepted as part of the Christian message.

Paul asserts four things about God here:

1. God’s Power is Eternal.

The phrase kratos aionion (just before the “Amen”) asserts that God’s battery never runs out.  He never needs to be recharged.  What a contrast this is to what Paul says about himself.  He tells Timothy that when he was facing his lion’s den “the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it.”[12]

But Paul said that now that his work was done, he was about to die.  His battery was running out.

“For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come.   I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.   Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.”[13]

He speaks of an ending of his life, and a new beginning, at the resurrection when Christ appears.  These are not the words of someone convinced that he has eternal life already.  They are the words of one who realizes that God alone possesses unending power and life.

2. God’s Authority is Eternal.

He is to be honored for eternity. He is the King of kings and Lord of lords (6:15).  That suggests, that everyone who has authority now derives that authority from him.  It also suggests that the same is true of anyone who will ever be in authority. All honor will go to him.  But all honor does not presently go to him.  Perhaps that is why the adjective aionios (eternal) does not apply to the noun time’ (honor) in this verse.  But someday, God’s chosen king will return.  Then the kingdoms of this world will “become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15).  So, from the standpoint of eternity, his authority is the only one that will last forever.

3. God is different from the other “gods.”

The “gods” of the first century Roman empire are idols made of stone or wood or metal.  Those idols sometimes represent spirit beings, but have limitations that the God of the Bible does not have.  They can be seen. God cannot. They can be approached by anyone with the ability to fashion them, or the means to procure them.  The God whom Paul praises in this doxology does not dwell inside an image. His dwelling is in unapproachable light (fos aprositon). God is not a good luck charm to be manipulated by humans for their own desires and prosperity.  He is distant.

Paul is not saying that God never approaches us.  The gospel tells us that God came near in the person of Jesus Christ, and chose to make his dwelling among us (John 1:14).  The Holy Spirit dwells inside believers, who are his temple (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19). The author of Hebrews tells us that by prayer we can “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). 

So, what Paul affirms in 1 Timothy 6:16 applies to God’s nature.  There is a fundamental difference between the Christian God and the pagan Gods.  The pagan gods are things to be manipulated. They can be used to bring a person good luck or prevent bad luck.  But the God of the Bible will not be put to the test. His power can never be used for anything other than accomplishing his will at his prompting.

4. God’s Life is Immortal.

In the Bible, this word athanasia is never used as an attribute of anyone else but God this side of the resurrection at Christ’s second coming. It is never used to describe a human soul or spirit.   Yet it has come to be popular and “orthodox” to make all kinds of concessions to God’s exclusive immortality. Matthew Henry, for example, says that God “only is immortal in himself, and has immortality as he is the fountain of it, for the immortality of angels and spirits derived from him.”[14] So the hypothetical “box” in which we might put all immortal beings is actually not exclusive at all. It contains not only God, but all of those sentient creatures created by him, both human and angelic. Perhaps we should be grateful that cats and dogs did not make the grade.

Lately evangelical scholars see the dilemma in accepting what Paul said about God in 1 Tim. 6:16. Their conclusions, however, are ultimately the same as Matthew Henry’s. Peterson, for example, states the “orthodox” position quite well in his recent debate with Fudge. He said that “Plato held to the soul’s natural or inherent immortality. By contrast, evangelical Christians hold that God alone is inherently immortal (1 Tim. 6:16) and that he confers immortality to all human beings.”[15] But once the “and that he confers” is added to the equation, the dilemma begins. 1 Tim.6:16 says nothing about God conferring his exclusive attribute to all human beings. Either that attribute is exclusive or it is not. Conditionalists see no clear contrast between the view of Plato and that of our brother evangelicals who hold Peterson’s view.

The onus is ours, however, as conditionalists, to back up this bold claim that

God’s immortality is exclusive. Ours is the minority position. That is why a study of the terms used in the Bible to imply immortality is helpful. The study shows that the concept of immortality does not apply to angels and human beings by default. This adds justification for our being obstinate enough to hold to the exclusive immortality of God in spite of its being an unpopular doctrine.

The noun athanasia only appears three times in the canonical Bible. It makes no appearance in the entire Old Testament. Besides 1 Tim. 6:16, it only appears in 1

Corinthians 15:53-54.

For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”

The ESV translators, normally sticklers to word-for-word accuracy, betray their theological bias here by supplying the word body twice in verse 53, even though there is no Greek equivalent in the original. Paul actually agrees with what he stated in 1 Tim. 6:16. Since God alone is immortal, something will have to change in order for human beings, who are perishable and mortal, to become immortal. That change will take place at the resurrection. There is no indication in the text itself that human mortality pertains only to our bodies. That is a concept that is assumed by the proponents of natural or inherent immortality, and denied by conditionalists, who propose that immortality is only potential. 1 Cor. 15 and 1 Tim. 6:16 both serve as evidence for the potential immortality position. While 1 Cor. 15 shows that immortality (athanasia) is not currently a present possession (even for the saved), 1 Tim. 6:16 identifies the one being who is the exception to that rule, and presently has athanasia.

The Apocrypha provides seven more instances of the term. While we cannot rely on the Apocrypha as a standard for proof of a doctrine, we can consult it in order to establish how certain terms were used, which is a reflection of their understood meaning. Were we, for example, to find numerous references to athanasia as a natural human attribute it might show that intertestamental Jews viewed humans as naturally immortal beings.

4 Maccabees 8-18 contains an account describing the torture of seven young men and their mother by the Tyrant (Antiochus IV). Instances of the term athanasia occur in two places. In 4 Maccabees 14:4-5 the writer says that “none of the seven youths proved coward or shrank from death, but all of them, as though running the course toward immortality, hastened to death by torture” (RSV). From this we can infer that intertestamental Jews did have the concept of immortality, but saw it as something to be earned through diligent faithfulness to God. It was certainly not an attribute taken for granted as the natural possession of all human beings.

The second occurrence of athanasia refers to the mother, who, “as though having a mind like adamant and giving rebirth for immortality to the whole number of her sons, she implored them and urged them on to death for the sake of religion” (4 Maccabees 16:13). The mother is pictured as encouraging her sons to stay true to their faith in God with such zeal that it is like she was giving birth to them all over again, this time for immortality instead of mortality (as it was in the first instance of her giving birth to them). Again, there is no innate, inherent immortality described here. Immortality is something to be gained by a martyr’s death for the seven sons. Their mother, who gave them natural birth, did not in so doing impart to them immortality.

All the other instances of the term athanasia occur in The Wisdom of Solomon. Notice this revealing statement about the destiny of the righteous:

Wisdom 3:1-4 RSV

But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. For though in the sight of men they were punished, their hope is full of immortality.

As in 4 Maccabees, athanasia is seen as potential for humans, because the righteous will be resurrected, but athanasia is not an inherent attribute.

Wisdom 4:1-7 RSV

… in the memory of virtue is immortality, because it is known both by God and by men. When it is present, men imitate it, and they long for it when it has gone; and throughout all time it marches crowned in triumph, victor in the contest for prizes that are undefiled. But the prolific brood of the ungodly will be of no use, and none of their illegitimate seedlings will strike a deep root or take a firm hold. For even if they put forth boughs for a while, standing insecurely they will be shaken by the wind, and by the violence of the winds they will be uprooted. The branches will be broken off before they come to maturity, and their fruit will be useless, not ripe enough to eat, and good for nothing. For children born of unlawful unions are witnesses of evil against their parents when God examines them. But the righteous man, though he die early, will be at rest.

Here is no denial of the reality of death, but a glimpse beyond it, to a resurrected virtuous person, known both by God and by men. The ungodly, though they might produce a prolific brood, will be uprooted. Notice, again, that there is no mention of athanasia as a common trait held by all humans. A resurrection unto immortality is only the hope of the righteous.

Wisdom 8:13-17 RSV

Because of {wisdom} I shall have immortality, and leave an everlasting remembrance to those who come after me. I shall govern peoples, and nations will be subject to me; dread monarchs will be afraid of me when they hear of me; among the people I shall show myself capable, and courageous in war. When I enter my house, I shall find rest with her, for companionship with her has no bitterness, and life with her has no pain, but gladness and joy. When I considered these things inwardly, and thought upon them in my mind, that in kinship with wisdom there is immortality…

Wisdom, as defined by the wisdom literature of the Bible and related works like The Wisdom of Solomon is the ability to make correct moral choices which lead to God’s favour. In the Bible, those correct moral choices usually led to a long healthy life, but by the time The Wisdom of Solomon was written, one’s eternal destiny was also seen as a consequence of living wisely. It is the route to eventual athanasia. It is a narrow path that does not include everyone on the planet. It is not innate, nor is the immortality it produces.

Wisdom 15:1-3 RSV

But thou, our God, art kind and true, patient, and ruling all things in mercy. For even if we sin we are thine, knowing thy power; but we will not sin, because we know that we are accounted thine. For to know thee is complete righteousness, and to know thy power is the root of immortality.

In the New Testament we found that athanasia was an exclusive attribute of God, but a hope for humanity. In this final reference to athanasia in the Apocrypha, we see a relationship with God as the only means of obtaining to that hope.

Athanatos

In the Apocrypha, there are a few instances of the corresponding adjective that we would translate immortal as well. Although this word does not appear in the New Testament, it is helpful to see how it was used.

It is said of Eleazar that “in no way did he turn the rudder of religion until he sailed into the haven of immortal victory” (4 Maccabees 7:3). The most that can be inferred from this metaphorical statement is that Eleazar is counted among those who finished the course of faith, and awaits a resurrection unto immortality. It does not imply that Eleazar was already immortal by nature. It is said of the aforementioned seven young men that “just as the hands and feet are moved in harmony with the guidance of the mind, so those holy youths, as though moved by an immortal spirit of devotion, agreed to go to death for its sake” (4 Maccabees 14:6). All this implies about these youths is that although their devotion was undying, they were not. You cannot prove that people are immortal from a passage that records their deaths.

Later, the author of 4 Maccabees does state that these “sons of Abraham with their victorious mother are gathered together into the chorus of the fathers, and have received pure and immortal souls from God” (4 Maccabees 18:23). There is a hint of some kind of rewarded state here, but perhaps the reward is merely the certainty of a resurrection unto immortality. At any rate, 1 Corinthians 15 states that the resurrection is when the reward will be realized. If some intertestamental Jews imagined a conscious intermediate state, they were mistaken.

One use of athanatos is found which draws a distinction between God’s righteousness (which is said to be immortal) and secular man’s covenant with death.

Wisdom 1:12-16 (RSV)

Do not invite death by the error of your life, nor bring on destruction by the works of your hands; because God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living. For he created all things that they might exist, and the generative forces of the world are wholesome, and there is no destructive poison in them; and the dominion of Hades is not on earth. For righteousness is immortal.

But ungodly men by their words and deeds summoned death; considering him a friend, they pined away, and they made a covenant with him, because they are fit to belong to his party.

Here again, there is no mention of a man, or even a part of man, which is immortal by nature. In fact, immortality belongs to the righteous One. Human beings are mortal.

Athanatos is also found in The Wisdom of Sirach:

For we cannot have everything, human beings are not immortal. What is brighter than the sun? And yet it fades. Flesh and blood think of nothing but evil. He surveys the armies of the lofty sky, and all of us are only dust and ashes (Sirach 17:30-32 New Jerusalem Bible).

Here is perhaps the clearest expression of human mortality in the Apocrypha. It says that men do not have the attribute that Paul said only God has. He will always last, but we are “dust and ashes.” The statement is in perfect agreement with the New Testament.

Afthartos

Another adjective – sometimes translated “immortal” in versions of the New Testament – emphasizes the unfailing, imperishable, or incorruptible nature of the noun it modifies. If this adjective were found applied to beings other than God, it would serve as evidence that the NT authors assumed that these beings possessed immortality. In Romans 1:23 Paul explained that idolatrous humanity “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” Notice that only God is placed in the “beings having immortality” box. Man and animals are comfortably placed in the “all others” box.

In 1 Tim. 1:17 Paul ascribes “honour and glory for ever and ever” “unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God.” If the term immortal applies to all other created beings (or at least the higher ones: angels and humans) one wonders why Paul would bother mentioning the attribute. But if the attribute is exclusive to God alone (as Paul later states in chapter 6), his mentioning it here makes perfect sense.

Some might argue that the term “immortal” is appropriate to describe men’s

spirits or souls, but not their bodies. As such it might be appropriate to speak of God being immortal in an absolute sense. He has no body to corrupt or perish. This logic only applies if the principles of Platonic anthropology are true. Plato argued that the soul of man is immortal because it is simple, and cannot be divided into composite parts. The notion of human immortality is the result of combining this principle from pagan philosophy with biblical theology. One question onditionalists ask is “can the Bible be left alone to answer the question of human mortality, or must we borrow from pagan theology to do it?”

All other references to afthartos in the New Testament[16] use the term to

describe the hope of believers after the resurrection, or some kind of character trait that is imperishable in the sense that it does not fade away with time. There is not one single use of the term applied to human nature itself, body or soul. If this attribute is such an essential part of human identity, one would expect this adjective to be used repeatedly throughout the New Testament in reference to human nature itself.

God’s Identity

Often when God is identified in the Bible, this exclusive attribute is part of his title, identifying him as different from all other beings. He is the Living God.[17] He is the eternal God.[18] He is the immortal God.[19] He is the everlasting God.[20] His name and attributes endure forever.[21] By contrast, humans are God’s creatures. As such they are dying.[22] They are mortal.[23] They are perishable.[24] They fade away like the colour on a leaf.[25] They return to the dust from which they were made.[26]

God is different. He is exclusively immortal. This, as well as his other exclusive attributes – like holiness and omnipotence – make it appropriate for us to worship him exclusively. Conditional immortality is – at the heart of the issue – a doctrine which seeks to preserve what the Bible says about God.

 

The Stewardship from God

The epistles in the New Testament offer readers a picture of the gospel in missions and church context. We seldom read them that way, choosing rather to pick a verse here, a paragraph there, and try to apply those isolated texts to our personal lives. That usually works, though, because God’s word does have implications for our personal lives. It would be helpful, however, for us to read through an entire epistle every once in a while, and try to figure out its message to the people it was written to.

We conditionalists often quote 1 Timothy 6:16, because it teaches that God’s immortality is exclusive. That is a great proof-text for our message, because it blows a hole in the concept of innate immortality in humans. But are we taking that text out of its context? The only way to answer that question is to actually look at the epistle as a whole. Once we understand the message of 1 Timothy, we can then see how 6:16 fits within that message.

the context

Ephesus was a major city in the Roman world during the first century, and the church founded there would be a major player in the task of evangelizing that world. We read about Ephesus in the book of Acts,[27] 1 Corinthians,[28] Ephesians,[29] the epistles to Timothy,[30] and The Revelation.[31] Ephesus was an important city financially for the empire, located on a port at “the greatest harbor in Asia,”[32] and serving as an economic centre for the province of Asia Minor. Roman inscriptions from the time of the emperor Claudius indicate that the city had a problem with corrupt leaders, stealing funds earmarked for the preservation of its great temple.[33] Ephesus had bad stewards.

the apostle

Reading the letter, it is not difficult to point out the major characters it presents. There is, of course, Paul the apostle, sent by God and seeking to obey his command to spread the gospel and plant churches among the Gentiles. Paul was never the “pastor” of the church at Ephesus. Neither was he a duly registered representative of a governing body of elders. His authority was his message, and the fact that many in Ephesus first heard the gospel as a result of his ministry.

the missionary

He addresses the book to Timothy, whom he regards as his true child in the faith. Timothy is a disciple of Paul as Paul is of Christ. He was sent by the apostle to proclaim the gospel, to evangelize, and to maintain the work of the churches already planted. He served as a representative of the churches to Paul, and a representative of the apostle to the churches. Timothy was not the “pastor” of the “church in Ephesus.” He was more of a missionary, seeking to further establish the church – which consisted of several congregations meeting in several places throughout the city.

the false teachers

The antagonists in 1 Timothy are a group of people who are influencing the church to be something other than what God and Paul intended them to be. They are referred to as “certain persons” who are teaching a “different doctrine.” [34] They are false teachers, but the exact content of their false teachings is not revealed, and has been a matter of a great deal of speculation. It is not too difficult to get an idea of what they taught by paying close attention to what Paul said against them. They are people who know the gospel message, but swerve from it,[35] wandering away into vain discussion.[36] They do not understand what they are talking about,[37] but still keep talking. They have rejected their former faith and have shipwrecked it.[38] They lie like demons,[39] perpetuating silly myths[40] instead of the gospel. These guys are bad news, yet they are teaching within the congregations of Ephesus.

the gospel as truth entrusted

1 Timothy proclaims the good news of life only in Christ as the most valuable thing the world has ever known. This “glorious gospel” is a truth which has been “entrusted” to Paul, and he has passed it on to the Ephesians.[41] Paul was formerly a blasphemer, rejecting that truth, but he was forgiven, and is now charged with proclaiming it. He tells the world that Christ came to save sinners,[42] and that whoever believes in him will gain eternal life.[43]

As he declares this truth, Paul cannot help but stop and glorify the only God, who is the King of ages, immortal, and invisible.[44] God wants all people to be saved and to come to know this gospel truth.[45] He wants his church to serve as a pillar and buttress of this truth.[46] If people within the churches do not discipline themselves to act appropriately, it is like they are denying their faith.[47] The truth entrusted is the message that the church must pass on to their generation, and the next. Anything that people do within the church that hinders that proclamation needs to be confessed and corrected.

stewardship as a motif

Paul describes that obligation to protect and proclaim the gospel as the theme for the epistle. Scattered throughout its six short chapters are terms that reflect the concept of stewardship. The false teachers are promoting speculations (distractions) rather than the “stewardship from God which is by faith.”[48] The term stewardship in Greek is a combination of the word for house, and the word for law. It is also the word from which we get the English term economy. Stewards in rich households were usually trustworthy slaves that were given management responsibilities. When Paul used the term, he was referring to the valuable gospel that has been entrusted to the church. The false teachers were not living up to that trust.

By contrast, Paul says that God found him faithful, and appointed him for service (as a steward of the gospel).[49] Paul, in turn, entrusted that mission to Timothy,[50] who was commanded to entrust it to the faithful leaders in Ephesus.[51] These leaders must not be lovers of money or greedy for dishonest gain.[52] They must have proved themselves by managing their own households well, before being appointed to manage God’s household.[53] These leaders are valuable assets to the church as well, and should be well provided for financially, because the Scriptures teach “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.”[54]

Key to the strategy of winning Ephesus to Christ was the personal godliness of the church members. While training for physical fitness is valuable, training in godliness is valuable in every way.[55] That godliness is not just spiritual piety. It works its way into everyday life, by producing a love for family that takes care of aging parents.[56] By properly managing their households, believers “give the adversary no occasion for slander.”[57]

Those members of the congregations in Ephesus who actually are slaves should do well by their masters, and not take advantage of them if they are believers as well. Instead, “they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved.”[58] Their masters, the “rich in this present age” are encouraged not to put their hopes on “the uncertainty of riches” but on their Master, God, “who richly provides us with everything to enjoy.”[59]

The false teachers are described as people known for their heated arguments and personal vices, and for their mistaken assumption that godliness will necessarily make someone rich.[60] Paul encourages Timothy to be financially content, but to pursue the attributes of godly living: “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.”[61] These attributes point people to the LORD who made them possible by his grace. This was the stewardship from God, the strategy to win people to eternal life by means of showing God’s miraculous work in the lives of believers.

6:16

The point of mentioning God’s exclusive immortality in this epistle is to show that the only thing of real value in this life is the promise that we, too, might someday share that attribute. Presently, God is invisible, immortal, and dwells in unapproachable light. But those who are being saved have his promise that someday we, too may share in his immortality. Since that is the case, the last thing believers would want to do is get sidetracked by false teachings, and miss out on the only thing of eternal value this life offers – hope of the next life.

Sharing the gospel is a stewardship from God. We are called to manage his household by providing for the needs of those within it, and by bringing others into it. Like Timothy, we are charged with the task of guarding the deposit entrusted to us.[62] The gospel is our resource. Faith in Christ is our currency.


[1] http://www.afterlife.co.nz/2012/featured-article/defining-conditionalism-conditional-immortality/ and http://www.afterlife.co.nz/2012/featured-article/what-is-an-evangelical/ and http://www.afterlife.co.nz/2011/featured-article/the-logic-of-conditionalism/

[2] John 14:6 ESV.

[3] 1 Timothy 6:16.

[4] Revelation 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8.

[5] Revelation 21:1-2.

[6] Matthew 10:28; Revelation 20:15.

[7] Luke 12:48.

[8] Deuteronomy 25:3.

[9] John 5:28-29 KJV.

[10] John 3:16 ESV.

[11] 1 John 5:11-12 ESV.

[12] 2 Timothy 4:17.

[13] 2 Timothy 4:6-8.

[14] Matthew Henry – The Matthew Henry Commentary on the Bible (1 Tim. 6:16).

[15] Robert A Peterson, in Two Views of Hell: A Biblical and Theological Dialogue. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 88.

[16] 1 Cor. 9:25; 15:52; 1 Pet. 1:4, 23; 3:4

[17] Deut. 5:26; Josh. 3:10; 1 Sam. 17:26, 36; 2 Kgs 19:4, 16; Psa. 42:2; 84:2; Isa. 37:4, 17; Jer. 10:10; 23:36; Dan. 6:20, 26; Hos. 1:10; Matt. 16:16; 26:63; Acts 14:15; Rom. 9:26; 2 Cor. 3:3; 6:16; 1 Tim. 3:15; 4:10; Heb. 3:12; 9:14;10:31; 12:22; Rev. 7:2.

[18] Deut. 33:27; Rom. 16:26.

[19] Rom. 1:23.

[20] Gen. 21:33; Isa. 40:28.

[21] 1 Chr. 16:34, 41; 2 Chr. 5:13; 7:3, 6; 20:21; Ezra 3:11; Psa. 100:5; 106:1; 107:1; 111:3, 10; 112:3, 9; 117:2;118:1ff, 29; 119:160; 135:13; 136:1ff; 138:8; Eccl. 3:14; Jer. 33:11; 2 Cor. 9:9.

[22] Gen. 35:18; 2 Chr. 16:13; 24:22; Job 24:12; Luke 8:42; John 11:37; Heb. 11:21.

[23] Job 4:17; Rom. 1:23; 6:12; 8:11; 1 Cor. 15:53f; 2 Cor. 4:11; 5:4; Heb. 7:8.

[24] 1 Cor. 15:42, 50, 53f; 1 Pet. 1:23.

[25] Psa. 37:2; Isa. 64:6; Jam. 1:11.

[26] Gen. 3:19; Job 10:9; 34:15; Psa. 90:3; Eccl. 3:20.

[27] Acts 18:19, 21, 24; 19:1, 17, 26, 35; 20:16f.

[28] 1 Cor. 15:32; 16:8.

[29] Eph. 1:1.

[30] 1 Tim. 1:3; 2 Tim. 1:18; 4:12.

[31] Rev. 1:11; 2:1.

[32] Robert C. Linthicum, City of God, City of Satan. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991), 296.

[33] Robert McQueen Grant, Gods and the One God. (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1986), 27.

[34] 1 Tim. 1:3,6.

[35] 1:6; 6:21.

[36] 1:6.

[37] 1:7.

[38] 1:19.

[39] 4:1.

[40] 4:7.

[41] 1:11.

[42] 1:15.

[43] 1:16.

[44] 1:17.

[45] 2:4.

[46] 3:15.

[47] 5:8.

[48] 1:4.

[49] 1:12; 2:7.

[50] 1:18.

[51] 3:1-13.

[52] 3:3, 8.

[53] 3:4, 12.

[54] 5:18.

[55] 4:8.

[56] 5:4.

[57] 5:14.

[58] 6:2.

[59] 6:17.

[60] 6:2-5.

[61] 6:11.

[62] 6:26.

ACST 66: The End

IMG_2335b

One of the most crucial elements of anyone’s theology is how one sees it all culminating – what happens at the end of the end times. It is at this important place that a major divergence can be detected between conditionalist theology and its counterparts.

1. In universalism, God eventually restores all to himself by finally converting all people, whether before death, or in the fires of hell – however long that might take.

2. In traditionalism, God is said to be glorified through an eternity where hell and heaven – thus righteousness and sin –coexist.

3. In conditionalism, hell does its work by destroying all evil and evildoers, leaving a universe with no evil and no sin. Then, God’s ultimate goal of a new universe under his unchallenged dominion can be realized.

out with the old

John’s revelation describes this culmination in three stages, beginning with the disappearance of this present sky and land,[1] and concluding with the appearance of another sky and land, a new universe. John says “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.”[2] Between the old universe and the new, there will be a two-stage divine dealing with all sin and evil. Those two stages are the Judgment Day, and Gehenna hell. The first stage brings justice against sinners, the second obliterates sin and evil altogether. The first is the great white throne judgment, the second is the lake of fire, the second death. Without these two events, what John saw in Revelation 21:1 could never happen.

John sees our Savior, seated at an enormous white throne. He had come to rule on a throne on earth a thousand years before. Now his throne is outside of earth, and is designed for a different purpose. All the dead who had ever lived stand before him. The sea which had swallowed many who died and were buried there, gives them up. Death and Hades (where all the dead go now) give up the dead. No one who has ever lived will miss this cosmic appointment. The author of Hebrews says that “people are appointed to die once, and then to face judgment.”[3] He did not mean that judgment happens immediately at death. He was referring to this great white throne judgment. It is our destiny. All who have ever lived will experience these two things: death, and the judgment day.

Books are opened, including the book of life. This is the Christ book, the Lamb’s book of life. It contains the names of all those who are saved by grace through Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. None of these need fear this great judgment day. Their sins have been covered. God is vindicated in forgiving them of all their sins because of what Jesus did for them. So, why are they there? The judgment day is a vindication of God’s holiness. All who have ever complained that life is unfair will have their day in court that day. They will see that no sin gets by the utter holiness of God. There will be no rewards passed out on judgment day. There is no merit in a life filled with good deeds, because none of those good deeds are good enough to make up for our inherent depravity.

There will be no levels of forgiven. The Lamb’s book of life grants mercy and forgiveness to all who are in Christ, not based on what they have done, but based on what Christ has done. And Christ did not come to thank us for doing good things, but to rescue us from the consequences of our sins. The book of life is an exclusive book. Not everyone’s name is written in it. It is also the only fire insurance that God offers. He has a fire prepared for everyone else. There will be many who have led decent lives by my standards whose names will not be found in that book. That is the Lord’s business, not mine. Perhaps there will be some that I knew as scoundrels whose names will be called out that day. I will have nothing to say. The Lord will not ask me my opinion, nor should he. It is his grace, not mine.

There are no levels of forgiven, but there will be many levels of un-forgiven. The many books opened at the great white throne judgment will detail the entire lives of all the unsaved. Painful detail will be taken to show each thought, each action, each wrong relationship, each transgression, each sin. There will be no hiding, no escape from this judgment. All the trials that all criminals have ever faced will be nothing compared to the terror of this day for unredeemed humanity. God, in his mercy, has been putting off his wrath against all sinners, knowing that this day of his vindication is coming. All those who trusted in their own works to get by will finally see that none of their works qualified.

Perhaps it is not wrong to suggest that another book will be opened that day. The Lamb’s book will list all of those reserved for life. The life stories of the lost will record the reasons they will not make it to the other side. Perhaps the word of God will also be opened that day. It would serve to show how all those who failed to meet God’s holy standards, and how those who rejected Christ are without excuse for doing so. John simply said “the books were opened” but it would seem odd for one of those books not the be the Bible itself.

John’s purpose in revealing the great white throne judgment is not to go into the details of the punishments that sinners will face. His purpose is to show that all the unsaved will be thrown into hell and suffer the second death. There are indications that the lost will experience torment, just as the demons will. The message of the third angel was “”If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.””[4] Some of the lost may not suffer as much, based on their own sin history. At the heart of what John sees is a just God. He will not cause any undeserved suffering.

The ultimate punishment for sin is hell itself: Gehenna, the lake of fire. This picture of the second death that John sees is eternal, not that it goes on forever, but that it destroys sin forever. Jesus called it eternal punishment, and contrasted it with the eternal life that believers will experience.[5] It is helpful here to remember that the word eternal is an adjective, describing the permanence of an event, not an adverb, describing a perpetual process. In Paul’s words, hell is “the punishment of eternal destruction.” In John’s words, it is the second death.

Traditionalists make much use of that word eternal as a means of defending their notion that hell will be a process that goes on forever and ever. Conditionalists reject that idea of hell on many grounds, but of great importance is the fact that a hell that continues forever cannot serve the purpose that John says hell will serve. Hell is to remove the old and make room for the new. That is why the Greek term aionios is used to describe hell. Note the number of times the term aionios is used in the New Testament to portray something that is permanent, compared to something that is temporary.

· the permanent sin which can never be forgiven.[6]

· the permanent weight of glory compared with our slight momentary affliction.[7]

· the permanent things that are unseen compared to the transient things that are seen.[8]

· the permanent house (body) in the heavens compared to our temporary tent (body) on earth.[9]

· the permanent destruction the lost will face at Christ’s return.[10]

· the permanent comfort and good hope we have through God’s grace.[11]

· the permanent glory that accompanies salvation in Christ.[12]

· Philemon’s permanent return to Colossae, after being parted from them for a while .[13]

· The permanent salvation made possible by Jesus, our great high priest.[14]

· The permanent judgment that will take place after the resurrection of the dead.[15]

· The permanent redemption secured by Christ’s sacrifice in the heavenly sanctuary.[16]

· the permanent covenant made possible by the shedding of the blood of Christ.[17]

· entrance into the permanent kingdom provided for all those who make their calling and election sure.[18]

The word points to the definitive end of sin and sinners, and to the definitive beginning of a new life under Christ’s control. That is why the second death can be aionios without the torments experienced on the judgment day being so. The punishment is eternal destruction.

The new sky and land described in Revelation 21 are conspicuous for the absence of anything related to sin and sinners. This is understandable, seeing as the great white throne judgment has dealt definitively will all sins. It has either by grace declared sins forgiven through Christ, or has meted out punishment prescribed by law upon those without Christ. Then, the lake of fire destroyed completely those who were not found to be in the Lamb’s book of life, causing them to experience the second death.

For that reason, John includes two parenthetical statements about those who will not make it into the new universe, because they will have been already destroyed prior to it’s appearance. First, he describes those who do not have a place in eternity because their character was found to be decidedly fit for destruction, not preservation. That short list is found imbedded in chapter 21:

· cowards,

· unbelievers,

· the corrupt,

· murderers,

· the immoral,

· those who practice witchcraft,

· idol worshipers,

· and all liars[19]

As John describes what he sees when he looks at the holy city, New Jerusalem as it descends and rests upon the new earth, he notes that it lacks all those kinds of people who made the old Jerusalem an unholy city. His point is that they did not make the cut. God has not hidden them in some corner of the new universe so that he could take pleasure in torturing them. John does not see them because they were among the “former things” which have already “passed away.”[20]

Later, John again describes all those who will not be allowed to enter this new universe. He says “nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”[21] This speaks against the idea that God will keep the lost in some kind of purgatorial torment until they finally stop hating him. There is no place for this kind of repentance after judgment. Once the second death has occurred, there will be no resurrection from it, so no one whose name was blotted out of the book of life will ever enter eternity.

The results of sin have also been eliminated from this new creation. This includes all sickness, disease, trauma, emotional distress, and death. John says that the Lord “will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”[22] Note that John is describing the new universe, and nowhere does he mention the existence of a pocket within it where people are still suffering. In fact, the point is, all suffering has ceased. The weeping and gnashing of teeth has ended. The new universe is here.

Finally, this new eternal existence will no longer be shrouded in darkness for part of the time. John sees an eternity in which “there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light.” The darkness we experience now is an opportunity for rest and a challenge to trust instead of fear.But in the coming eternal state, the rest and work are the same thing. Trust is complete, and fear is completely gone.

in with the new

John also sees a universe so clean and purified of all sin and sinners that it is now capable of supporting the unqualified presence of God. He writes “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying: “Look! The residence of God is among human beings. He will live among them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them.”[23] The only thing close to this was when the LORD lived in a tent among the Israelites, but his Holy Spirit left that tent due to the sinfulness of those people. In fact, he had only lived there as a sort of foretaste of this time predicted, when he will choose to live among all people in undivided fellowship.

John writes that these redeemed human beings “will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.”[24] This is the mark of protection and possession.What John saw indicates that eternity will not contain any whose hearts and souls are not completely submitted to the LORD. The bride of Christ is described as the new holy city, the new Jerusalem. Like the old Jerusalem, this people will reflect God’s glory. Unlike the old Jerusalem, so fraught with violence, corruption and sin, this new city is God’s moral perfection.John “saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.”[25] The bride imagery is fitting, because this new people will be beginning a whole new existence, together with their husband, the Lord Jesus Christ.

The church is the bride of Christ today, but our relationship is an anticipatory one. We have been betrothed to Jesus, but have not yet begun our life together with him as husband and wife. Our relationship is one of faith and trust in a promise. On the day when we enter into eternity, that promise will be permanently fulfilled. John saw that pictured as a city coming down from the sky. It was perfection, and ready for the realities of eternity.

John also sees the tree of life. That glorious image of the immortality that humanity was prohibited from taking will be available to all in eternity. The sin which prohibited us from living forever will have been eradicated, so it makes sense that the good things God wanted us to have in the garden would reappear. These include his presence, a renewed relationship with him, abundant provision, and permanent life.

God’s message to us in the Bible begins with paradise lost, and ends with this paradise regained. At it’s heart is a tree, representing God’s gift of permanent life. That is God’s will, his wish, his desire for us. Jesus Christ is the one who has made that wish come true. His sacrifice on the cross “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light.”[26] We take hold of that promise by believing the gospel.

Permanent life is our destiny.


[1] Revelation 20:11.

[2] Revelation 21:1 ESV.

[3] Hebrews 9:27 NET.

[4] Revelation 14:9-11 ESV.

[5] Matthew 25:46.

[6] Mark 3:29.

[7] 2 Corinthians 4:17; 1 Peter 5:10.

[8] 2 Corinthians 4:18.

[9] 2 Corinthians 5:1.

[10] 2 Thessalonians 1:9.

[11] 2 Thessalonians 2:16.

[12] 2 Timothy 2:10.

[13] Philemon 1:15.

[14] Hebrews 5:9.

[15] Hebrews 6:2.

[16] Hebrews 9:12.

[17] Hebrews 13:20.

[18] 2 Peter 1:10-11.

[19] Revelation 21:8 NLT.

[20] Revelation 21:4.

[21] Revelation 21:27 NRSV.

[22] Revelation 21:4 NRSV.

[23] Revelation 21:3 NET.

[24] Revelation 22:4 ESV.

[25] Revelation 21:2 NIV.

[26] 2 Timothy 1:10.

ACST 65: The Reign

SDC10013

 

When Jesus began his earthly ministry among us, he urged people to repent – not so that they could go to heaven, but because God’s kingdom was coming down from heaven.[1] The gospel he preached was the good news of the inauguration and soon arrival of that kingdom. It was called the gospel of the kingdom.[2] Yet, the church has seldom emphasized the future reality the Bible refers to as the kingdom. In fact, Christian scholars have questioned whether the phrase “kingdom of heaven” implied some future event:

“For many years scholars argued over the Greek expression most commonly translated, “the kingdom of God”, as to whether it might better be translated, “the reign of God.” The argument revolved around whether Jesus was speaking of a geographical realm into which the faithful will enter at his future coming, coincident with the resurrection and judgment, or whether he was referring to a dynamic reign already present and active in human history, and expanding with his ministry.”[3]

Some of Jesus’ statements can be read as if he was referring to this dynamic reign, this dominion over a domain. He commanded his disciples to seek the kingdom.[4] He compared the kingdom to a field currently planted with various seeds,[5] a mustard seed currently sprouting in a field,[6] and yeast currently permeating a loaf of bread.[7] There is obviously a current aspect of the kingdom.

Yet, much of what Jesus said about the kingdom is profoundly future oriented. Those who are poor in spirit and persecuted now are promised the kingdom as an inheritance later.[8] Those who uphold the commandments will be called great in the coming kingdom.[9] Many who think they are religious will, in fact, never enter this kingdom.[10] Many who claim that Jesus is their Lord will not enter it.[11] Jesus taught us to pray for this kingdom to come, and when it does, what God wants will happen on earth, just as it is happening in heaven now.[12] Burge urges us to put what the Bible says about both aspects of the kingdom in perspective:

“the vast majority [of texts] look toward the coming of God’s kingdom to this earth, when Messiah, David’s greater son, will sit on the throne of David in Jerusalem and reign over Israel and the world forever. … Our modern fascination with the present should not be allowed to obscure this fact, nor cause us to miss so much of what the Lord has revealed to us, for our benefit, about his coming kingdom.”[13]

Christ’s spiritual/physical reign over the earth will begin immediately upon his return, but will manifest itself in a number of special events: The last world war (Armageddon), The greatest reunion (The Marriage Supper of the Lamb), and the restoration of all things (The Millennium). This will be a time for redeemed humanity to undo all the damage done to this earth by Satan since the fall. It will also be an age of warfare against all the spiritual beings who have fostered rebellion against Christ and his kingdom.

Most of what we know about this millennial reign is found in the first six verses of Revelation 20:

“Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. 2 And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3 and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while. 4 Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 5 The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.”[14]

Some believers honestly question whether the statements in Revelation 20 should be interpreted as referring to a literal reign of Christ on this earth. They question the need for such a limited reign, not seeing why the earth must be subjected to another earthly reign after Christ returns. Those objections should be taken seriously, and answered from Scripture. The following is an attempt to do so:

objection #1 There is no need for a millennium

We are used to seeing Christ’s return as the culmination of the eschaton. His return will bring about the judgment of the lost, and the eternal reward of the saved. Placing a millennial reign before the judgment and restoration suggests another event, and one wonders why it is necessary. Paul taught the Corinthians that we will all be changed in the blink of an eye at the sounding of the last trumpet.[15] Since both the resurrection and the rapture/ translation of the saints occurs immediately at Christ’s parousia, why place an earthly reign between the parousia and the eternal reign?

The answer to this objection can also be found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. He told them that Christ must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The reign must precede the end.[16] The order is as follows 1) Christ returns, 2) the dead in Christ are raised immortal, 3) they reign with him until he puts all his enemies under his feet (destroys them), 4) Christ hands the kingdom over to his Father.

Also, many prophecies relating to the reign of Christ over Israel require the kind of environment one would expect in the millennium.

“’Nevertheless, I will bring health and healing to it; I will heal my people and will let them enjoy abundant peace and security. I will bring Judah and Israel back from captivity and will rebuild them as they were before. I will cleanse them from all the sin they have committed against me and will forgive all their sins of rebellion against me. Then this city will bring me renown, joy, praise and honor before all nations on earth that hear of all the good things I do for it; and they will be in awe and will tremble at the abundant prosperity and peace I provide for it.’”[17]

“Then the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD Almighty, and to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. If any of the peoples of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the LORD Almighty, they will have no rain.”[18]

“And you will be called priests of the LORD, you will be named ministers of our God. You will feed on the wealth of nations, and in their riches you will boast.”[19]

objection #2 there is no place for a literal millennium

Peter said that the earth will be destroyed on the day of the Lord’s return.[20] Some have objected to a literal millennium because there will be no old earth in which to reign. Christ will make all things new.

But 2 Peter 3 is the very passage that compares a day with the Lord to 1000 years. That day will begin with the Lord’s sudden appearance “like a thief.” It will conclude with the heavens and the earth being destroyed and laid bare.[21] The sequence of events is precisely the same as in Rev. 20. The day that Peter describes is the whole sequence of events, and is not limited to a single 24 hour period.

objection #3 there will be no time for a literal millennium

A similar objection is based on what Jesus said about the resurrection, implying that the resurrections of both the righteous and the wicked take place at the same time.[22] In the Revelation 20 text, the millennial reign occurs between these two resurrections.

Again, the context of John 5 shows that Jesus uses the term “time” in a way that allows for it to mean a long period of time. In verse 25 he speaks of this present time in which the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. He speaks not of resurrection but of salvation. This “time has lasted for thousands of years. So, it is not without reason to assume that the time of the resurrection that Jesus refers to in John 5:28-29 might begin at the resurrection of the saved and end at the resurrection of the lost one thousand years later.

objection #4 there is no purpose for a millennium

Paul taught that the moment Christ returns, believers will be reunited with their Savior, and will never be absent from him again.[23] For some, teaching an earthly reign just takes away from the majesty of that reality. They see no purpose to a mundane kingdom on earth when eternity has already began for believers as soon as their bridegroom appeared.

But Paul was not outlining the whole of the eschatological timetable in 1 Thessalonians 4. He was addressing the question of what has happened to those believers who had fallen asleep (died) before the return. Paul taught that when Christ returns, He will raise the dead in Christ and rapture the living in Christ. From that time alone, believers will never be separated from Christ again. The millennium will not change that reality.

But the earthly reign has a purpose. The earthly reign is God’s fulfillment of his promises to his people. He promised that we will reign with Christ, and assist him in the overthrow of his enemies.[24] The millennium is God’s affirmation of human dominion over the planet. It is not necessary. Jesus could destroy all sin and sinners the moment he returns. But his destiny and ours is to reign together, and together clean up what Satan has done to this planet.


[1] Matthew 4:17.

[2] Matthew 4:23.

[3] David Burge, Heaven is Not My Home. (Auckland: Resurrection Publishers, 2010), 9.

[4] Matthew 6:33.

[5] Matthew 13:24.

[6] Matthew 13:31.

[7] Matthew 13:33.

[8] Matthew 5:3,10.

[9] Matthew 5:19.

[10] Matthew 5:20.

[11] Matthew 7:21.

[12] Matthew 6:10.

[13] Burge, 11.

[14] Revelation 20:1-6 ESV.

[15] 1 Corinthians 15:51-52,

[16] 1 Corinthians 15:22-25.

[17] Jeremiah 33:6-9 ESV.

[18] Zechariah 14:16-17 ESV.

[19] Isaiah 61:6 NIV.

[20] 2 Peter 3:10-14.

[21] 2 Peter 3:8-12.

[22] John 5:28-29.

[23] 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.

[24] 2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 20:6.