Life after Death Current Controversies
By Spencer Gear
THERE is an increasingly active presence on the internet of those who oppose the orthodox doctrine of the intermediate state. What happens at death for believers and unbelievers? If these writers are on the worldwide web (www), they are possibly active in your community and may turn up in your evangelical or charismatic congregation. We need to be aware of their errant teachings so that we can refute them.
My wife and I visited a local church in Australia in 2007 to hear an international speaker. He made this statement, “Unbelievers die but believers go to sleep”. There was no further explanation. When he made a raw statement such as that, he was not being inaccurate (see I Corinthians 15:18) but he left himself wide open to the accusation that he believes in soul sleep.
If “believers go to sleep” at death, what does that mean? Where do they go and what is their intermediate state? If he is against the false doctrine of soul sleep, he should not make statements like that, without further explanation and a refutation of the soul sleep false doctrine.
What are the issues at stake? There are three making a strong presence on the www:
a. Opposition to immortality of the soul, b. Promotion of soul sleep, and c. There is no hell, but annihilation of unbelievers at death.
To give an example of how these are presenting themselves on the web, I will illustrate with a conversation that I had with Harold, a Seventh-Day Adventist.
I have been debating with him on the “Christian Fellowship Forum”. I had written on this forum that these SDAs were “promoting false doctrine, based on the Bible”. By that I meant that in their understanding of the Bible, they were presenting false teaching. An SDA member responded:
What ‘false’ doctrine’ do we promote, based on the Bible? I didn’t know that there could be any such thing. All of our doctrines are based on the Bible. I am sorry to say that this is more than you can say about all of your doctrines. I’ll name two: The immortal- ity of the soul, The sacredness of Sunday. Try as you might, you cannot find any sup- port for either of those in any Bible.
To understand the meaning of “the soul that sins, it shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4, 20), we need to understand what happens at death. Ecclesiastes 12:7 explains that beautifully [“and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God”.] You are wanting this to mean that the human breath returns to God who gave it.
You don’t want to get a handle on what the Bible is teaching very clearly about what happens to a believer’s soul/spirit that survives death (Luke 12:4; Eccl. 12:7), is consciously present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8), [and] is in a better place (Phil. 1:23). This is a place where other souls are speaking (Matthew 17:3). Please don’t spin me the yarn that Moses’ and Elijah’s breaths were talking with them.
These departed souls were even praying [they cried out with a loud voice—surely that is desperate prayer] (Rev. 6:9-10). . .
For unbelievers who die, the soul is in a place of conscious torment (Matthew 25:41; Luke 16:22-26; Rev. 19:20–20:15).
So what is your [Harold’s] response to all of this biblical evidence for the immortality of the soul after death?
He wrote: “You keep preaching that God gave you your immortality already. Keep preaching that your ‘soul’ is immortal. Satan did that, already, so just keep it up.”
What blasphemy to attribute to Satan what God declares! What is at stake here? Orthodox biblical teaching that has been established in scripture and accepted by evangelicals throughout the history of the church on life after death (with a minority of exceptions) is being attacked by this SDA person.
These doctrines include: (1) Immortality of the soul, (2) Rejection of soul sleep, (3) The nature of heaven and hell, (4) What happens immediately the last breath leaves the human body?
What makes these topics challenging is that we don’t have as detailed explanations as we would like in the Bible. However, there are sketches that provide us with certainty about the broad sweep of these doctrines.
Let’s tackle just one of these teachings that is under threat.
The immortality of the soul
At first you might not consider this an important biblical teaching. In fact, many of the evangelicals I minister among, have rarely heard anything about human beings having an immortal soul.
Some regard the teaching of the New Testament that a person has an immortal soul to be a misunderstanding of scripture and the promotion of a Greek idea rather than Christian doctrine. Others speak of “the heresy of man’s immortal soul.”
What do I mean by immortality when applied to human beings and death? “Immortality means the eternal, continuous, conscious existence of the soul after the death of the body.” Can this be substantiated from scripture?
Job asked: “If a man dies, shall he live again?” (14:14). Jesus provides an answer in his response to Martha after the death of Lazarus,
I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this? (John 11:25-26).
So, are human beings immortal or not? Do they have a continuous existence even after physical death? The answer is, “Yes,” but with qualifications.
Paul wrote to Timothy that God “is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality” (I Timothy 6:15-16). Yet, Paul also taught Timothy that our Saviour, Jesus Christ, “abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10).
How can God alone have immortality and yet Jesus brought immortality to light for human beings through the gospel? It depends on our understanding of immortality.
God alone is life’s original Owner and never-failing Fountain. His immortality has been called “an original, necessary, and eternal endowment.” In God’s being there is no death and not even a possibility of death in any sense whatever. Now immortality (Greek athanasia) means deathlessness. . .
But although only God is immortal in the sense of being the original Owner and Fountain of life and blessedness, in a derived sense it is also true that believers are immortal. In II Timothy 1:8-12 it is clearly stated that our Saviour Christ Jesus on the one hand utterly defeated death, and on the other hand, “brought to light life and immortality [literally incorruptibility] through the gospel.”
What does this mean in a practical sense for believers and unbelievers?
Because of Christ’s atoning death on the cross, the believer no longer experiences eternal, spiritual death. Physical death, while sorrowful for the grieving relatives who are left behind, is really gain for the believer. Philippians 1:23 states, “I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”
What can we say about immortality for the Christian? Through His death and resurrection, Christ brought to light the incorruptibility (immortality of the soul in a derived sense) of the soul of human beings. We see this is Jesus’ promise according to John 14:19, “Because I live, you shall live also”.
Immortality is not endless existence in the sense of having no beginning or ending. In this sense, endless existence belongs only to God.
So, are human beings immortal?
A good answer to the JWs and the SDAs would be something like this: Yes, but only in the sense that their existence never ends; but in the Bible only those are called immortal who have everlasting life in Christ Jesus, and are destined to glorify him forever as to both soul and body.”
What happens to the souls of the righteous dead at the Second Coming of Christ?
I emphasise again that our knowledge from the scriptures is brief, but this we know:
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 (I Corinthians 15:22-23).
At the Second Coming, it appears that the souls of believers will be reunited with their disintegrated bodies and “made alive”.
William Hendriksen explains the verse, “It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body” (I Corinthians 15:44) to help us gain an understanding of what happens to the body at the resurrection:
At present our bodies are soul-controlled bodies; that is, they are dominated by our invisible essence, viewed as the seat of sensations, affections, desires, all of these polluted by sin. But in the future our bod- ies will be spirit-controlled bodies! . . . By means of these bodies we shall glorify God forevermore.
Is immortality an idea from Greek philosophy?
Plato and others did teach on immortality for human beings in general, but it had no parallel with the biblical view that the soul is indestructible, returns to God, and then is joined to the resurrected body (e.g. Ecclesiastes 12:7; I Corinthians 15).
Also, philosophers such as Plato taught on immortality of the soul alone. The soul was delivered from the prison of the body at death.
For the believer, the body is a temple of the soul (and Holy Spirit). Immortality, in the Christian sense, applies to the whole person, body and soul/spirit. In the final consummation, the soul/spirit and the body will be reunited according to I Corinthians 15:44.
What about the souls of believers at death?
For my birthday in May 1997, my Christian mother gave me as a gift a book I had suggested, Erwin Lutzer’s excellent popular- level book, One Minute After You Die. Three weeks later, Mum had entered her eternal destiny described so clearly in this book. Did she have a sense that her time on earth was ending? I will never know. Where did my mother go at death? Did she experience soul sleep, purgatory, or something else?
The Scriptures, although not detailed, are clear that Mum’s spirit “returned to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7). According to John 11:17-26, to live and believe is followed by never dying. Jesus was crystal clear that everyone who lives and believes in Him shall never ever die ultimately. Death for the believer does not interrupt this eternal life that began at the point of commitment to Christ while on earth.
Paul stated that “we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). To the thief on the cross, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).
The SDAs and JWs want to remove the comma to say, “Truly, I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise,” meaning that Jesus said it to the thief on that very day and that it had nothing to do with the thief being with Jesus in Paradise on that very day.
There were no punctuation marks, breaks between words, or clearly defined sentences (as we understand them in English) in the original Greek. Therefore, how do we interpret this statement? Greek scholars have called the SDA/JW interpretation various things, including “grammatically senseless” because it was obvious that Jesus was speaking to the thief on that very day. Jesus could not have been saying it in the past or in the future. Christ was giving assurance to the thief that on that very day they would both meet in Paradise.
Why is the final destiny of the redeemed variously described in the NT as heaven (Col. 1:5), Paradise (Luke 23:43), and Abraham’s bosom/side (Luke 16:22)?
We have no difficulty referring to a house as a residence, mansion, dwelling, and perhaps a palace for some. God has no difficulty referring to heaven by these various designations that mean the same place (see also 2 Corinthians 12).
There is a need in the church for clear teaching on the nature of heaven.
What about the souls of unbelievers at death?
Ladies and Gentlemen: The idea of a hell was born of revenge and brutality on the one side, and cowardice on the other. . . I have no respect for any human being who believes in it. I have no respect for any man who preaches it. . . I dislike this doctrine, I hate it, I despise it, I defy this doctrine. . . This doctrine of hell is infamous beyond all power to express.
These are the words of a prominent defender of agnosticism and an antagonist of Christ in 19th century USA, Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll.
Jesus stated in the story (parable) of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 that the rich man, the unbeliever, went to “Hades, being in torment” (v23). The “wicked servant” will go to the place where “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 24:51).
Teaching on Hades, hell, and soul sleep are critical for believers in these days of doctrinal decline in the churches.
For believers and unbelievers, when they die, the soul and body are separated. The souls go to their respective places and are alive and awake. For believers, they go immediately into the presence of the Lord.
Loraine Boettner’s definition at the beginning of this article is biblical: Immortality means the eternal, continuous, conscious existence of the soul after the death of the body.
I understand that there is an old tombstone in a cemetery in Indiana that has this epitaph: Pause, stranger, when you pass me by As you are now, so once was I As I am now, so you will be So prepare for death and follow me.
Underneath these words, an unknown person has scratched these words:
To follow you I’m not content
Until I know which way you went.
About the Author
SPENCER GEAR is a family relationships’ counsel- ling manager and a doctoral student in biblical stud- ies. He may be contacted at: PO Box 3107, Hervey Bay 4655, Australia.