Friday, April 30, 2010

Death Is Not the End (Part Seven)

It is wonderful to know that human life is not without purpose or an end in itself. God's Word shows conclusively that there is life after death, that there is an age to come in which all those who have not been called to salvation will be raised to new life and hear what God offers to those who repent and accept Jesus Christ as their personal Savior. The resurrection from the dead provides hope for all humanity (Acts 24:15; I Peter 1:3).

But what happens when a person dies? Abel—as far as we know, the first human being to die—has been dead nearly six thousand years (
Genesis 4:8). What has become of him? What about his "soul" or his "spirit"—where is it? What is he doing now? And for that matter, what has become of all those billions of people who have died between Abel and right now?

To begin with, however, we must acknowledge a foundational truth: that the human soul is not immortal. This is a false teaching that was implanted into human religion when Satan convinced Eve of it in the Garden of Eden: "Then the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil'" (
Genesis 3:4-5). Essentially, the Devil tells her that God is a liar, she will not die, and in fact, eating of the Tree of Knowledge would make her like God, a goddess with the same abilities as the Creator Himself. Satan's deceptive assurance that she would not die—taking the sting out of God's command—was central to her decision to eat of the fruit.

Elsewhere, the Bible flatly asserts that humans are physical, mortal beings. First, of course, is God's own warning in
Genesis 2:17 that, upon eating the fruit of the forbidden tree, "you shall surely die"—in other words, sin ultimately ends in death, both the physical death of the human body and in due course the destruction of man's spiritual component in the judgment (see Revelation 20:14-15; John 5:29). The apostle writes in Hebrews 9:27, "It is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment." Twice in Ezekiel 18, God declares that souls die: "The soul who sins shall die" (Ezekiel 18:4, 20), which the apostle Paul echoes in Romans 6:23: "For the wages of sin is death." Finally, Jesus warns in Matthew 10:28 that God can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.

In fact, only God has true immortality. He is, Paul writes to Timothy, ". . . the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality" (
I Timothy 6:15-16). Human beings can have immortality only through Christ and only through the resurrection from the dead, according to the pattern set by Jesus in His resurrection to eternal life (I Corinthians 15:22, 45-52). So, while true Christians have eternal life in them through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, it is only an earnest, down payment, or guarantee of the fullness of eternal life that will be given at the resurrection (see II Corinthians 5:1-5; Ephesians 1:13-14).

As we saw earlier in
Job 32:8, man has a spirit that provides him with understanding, and Paul explains in I Corinthians 2:11 that it endows humanity with intellect. This spirit in man comes from God (Zechariah 12:1) and returns to Him when we die (Ecclesiastes 12:7; Acts 7:59). It records the events of our lives, our characters, and our personalities, which God somehow stores until the resurrection, when it will be returned, restoring each person's full memory and characteristics. However, the Bible never describes this human spirit as immortal or eternal; in fact, John 6:63 and Romans 8:10-11 explains that man needs that other spirit, God's Holy Spirit, to achieve eternal life.

So, what happens when a person dies? Again, the early chapters of Genesis provide a fundamental answer: "In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return" (
Genesis 3:19). Humans, then, die and their bodies naturally decompose, breaking down into the elemental components of which they are made. The biblical usage of the Hebrew word Sheol and the Greek Hades—which some, following pagan thought, contend is a place where the spirits of the dead live on after death—actually means "the grave" or "the pit," describing the place of burial.

Every human that has died, with the exception of Jesus Christ, remains in his grave, whether it is in the earth or in the sea. Even David, righteous and beloved of God, awaits the resurrection in his grave. In
Acts 2:29, Peter says to the crowd on the day of Pentecost, "Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. . . ."

Scripture also explains that in death, life and consciousness are absent. Solomon writes in
Ecclesiastes 9:5, "The dead know nothing," and he later adds, "There is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going" (verse 10). The psalmist writes in Psalm 146:4 about a person's death, "His spirit departs, he returns to his earth; in that very day his plans perish." Thus, while God retrieves our human spirit for safekeeping, it has no inherent life, self-awareness, or any kind of functionality. It requires a living body to work, so once the body dies, it is inanimate, a mere record of a life but without life in itself.

In addition, while it is a record of a person's life, it is not the person himself. The Bible declares that people do not go to heaven (or to hell, for that matter) after death. In the same Pentecost sermon in Acts 2, Peter asserts, "For David did not ascend into the heavens" (
Acts 2:34). Jesus Himself confirms this in John 3:13: "No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven." These direct statements confirm that all the dead, rather than going to heaven or hell or some sort of purgatory, await the resurrection in the sleep of death. They all await this call, which Paul bases on Isaiah 26:19: "Awake, you who sleep, arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light" (Ephesians 5:14).

It is encouraging to see what
Isaiah 26:19 says: "Your dead shall live; together with my dead body they shall arise. Awake and sing, you who dwell in dust; . . . and the earth shall cast out the dead." In that great resurrection, just as in the first resurrection, God will give "eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality" (Romans 2:7). Thus, not only a Christian's hope of life after death rests in the resurrection of the dead, but even though they do not realize it, it is also the hope of all those who have never had the opportunity for salvation.

When that occurs, it will be clear that, indeed, "Death is swallowed up in victory" (
I Corinthians 15:54)!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Death Is Not the End (Part Six)

In Part Five, we learned about the general resurrection, when tens of billions of people will rise from their graves to live as physical human beings under judgment, when they will have the opportunity for salvation. These people, from all ages and cultures that have existed on earth, will learn a great deal when they rise from their graves. Among the chief things that they will learn is the true way of life that God teaches in His Word, and they will be taught about God's mercy and grace. Unlike most of mankind today, they will have God's Spirit available to them so that they can believe, understand, and use the knowledge of God to grow and prepare to be members of His Family. They will be instructed to live as God meant man to live from the beginning. This time, they will have what it takes to lead successful, righteous lives.

What kind of life are they going to live? Speaking about this time through the prophet Isaiah, God helps us to see into the future:
For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former shall not be remembered or come to mind. . . . The voice of weeping shall no longer be heard in [Jerusalem], nor the voice of crying. No more shall an infant from there live but a few days, nor an old man who has not fulfilled his days; for the child shall die one hundred years old, but the sinner being one hundred years old shall be accursed. (Isaiah 65:17, 19-20)
From verse 20 comes the speculation that the Great White Throne Judgment period may be one hundred years long. If so, each resurrected individual—whether he had died as an innocent infant or an aged reprobate—will have one hundred years of living to prove to God that he is worthy of salvation and eternal life or of condemnation and eternal death in the Lake of Fire. What will such people do during this time?

They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for as the days of a tree, so shall be the days of My people, and My elect shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, nor bring forth children for trouble; for they shall be the descendants of the blessed of the LORD, and their offspring with them. (Isaiah 65:21-23)
In essence, this judgment period will be an extension of the wonderful peace, bounty, and prosperity that will mark the Millennium as humanity's true Golden Age. In this world, people struggle throughout their lives to produce a living only to see it wiped out in calamity or taken by another to enjoy. In the age to come, windstorms will not hit just as the crops ripen; war will not erupt just as a person's house is finished; and a person on the brink of retirement will not have his nest egg stolen by a honey-tongued swindler. People will live long, fulfilling lives free of fear of disaster. They will truly be blessed.
"It shall come to pass that before they call, I will answer; and while they are still speaking, I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent's food. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain," says the LORD. (Isaiah 65:24-25)
The people who rise in this resurrection will enjoy Millennial conditions with Christ and the firstfruits of God's Family living among them. Should a problem arise, even before they call for help, they will be answered. It is reminiscent of the time when Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, prayed for God's help, and while he was still speaking, God provided the answer to his prayer (Genesis 24:10-15). Quick responses like this will happen frequently during this period, allowing the people to see God working in their behalf, helping them come to salvation.

Thus, in the very best of conditions, they will live full and abundant lives apart from Satan's influence (he will already have been cast into the Lake of Fire; Revelation 20:10). What is more, they will have God's Spirit available them, just as the Tree of Life was available to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:8-9, 16-17). There will be no better environment for them to live and accept God's offer of salvation.

Is this not a better way to regard the death of those whom God has not yet called? We all have relatives who do not know the truth, and should they die uncalled, we do not need to grieve for them bitterly, as if they were forever lost. We can still grieve, since we will miss their company for the time being, but because God has made provision in His plan to take care of this "problem," we can accept their deaths with consolation and hope.

We have no need to worry, as some professing Christians do, that the billions across Africa and Asia who have never heard the name of Christ are lost. Far more people have lived on the earth and not heard the name of Christ than who have. This should not even worry us, for God has these supposedly forsaken people in the palm of His hand (see Isaiah 49:14-16). When the most advantageous time comes, He will call them all, and if we know our God, the vast majority of them will be saved, because He finishes what He begins (Isaiah 55:11).

In Psalm 68:20, David writes, "Our God is the God of salvation; and to God the LORD belong escapes from death." This verse can be understood to promise that He will help us "escape from death" if we are in a car accident. While it certainly covers that, escapes means "deliverances." In the context, it refers more to deliverance in terms of salvation than to saving us from physical harm.

Why do more people not believe this? He is the God of salvation; salvation is what He does! Notice Psalm 74:12: "For God is my King from of old, working salvation in the midst of the earth." He saves! He saves people from eternal death, and He is doing that and will continue to do so by helping, instructing, and shaping His character in them. Death, brought upon man because of sin, is no barrier to the God of salvation. In fact, He makes use of sin and death to form the righteous character He desires His children to have.

Those who awake in the second resurrection will rise from their graves with new physical bodies of God's creation. They will awake without spot of disease, and they will be full of vigor. Those who have been lame or blind or retarded will no longer have such handicaps. Having rested in death and woken to a new life, they will take their first steps along the path to salvation.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Death Is Not the End (Part Five)

Two of history's wisest men, Job and Solomon, contemplated the possibilities of an afterlife for human beings, and both concluded that something better awaited men and women on the other side of death. Realizing that God "has put eternity in their hearts" (Ecclesiastes 3:11), Solomon writes at the end of the book that, although the physical body "will return to the earth as it was, . . . the spirit [of man] will return to God who gave it" (Ecclesiastes 12:7). Job concludes that a time would come when, despite his being dead in the grave, "You [God] shall call, and I will answer You; You shall desire the work of Your hands" (Job 14:15). Both men knew there would be life after death.

The New Testament consistently teaches the doctrine of life after death through the resurrection from the dead (see I Corinthians 15 for the Bible's most concentrated teaching on it). While many understand that those whom God converts in this life will rise from their graves at the return of Christ to enjoy their eternal rewards (I Corinthians 15:51-52; I Thessalonians 4:14-17), the Bible reveals that all humanity will live again!

Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. And there was found no place for them. And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. (Revelation 20:11-13)
The apostle John calls the people standing before God's throne "the dead, small and great." His description is very general. Note that he does not say "some" of the dead but simply "the dead." God does not discriminate between good or bad, rich or poor, free or slave, those who lived before Christ or after Him, or any other distinction. It appears plain that He raises to life every human who has ever lived who has not already been changed to spirit!

As laid out neatly in this chapter's chronological sequence, this second resurrection occurs immediately after the glorious Millennium of Christ's reign on the earth (verse 5) and Satan's final rebellion (verses 7-10). Unlike those rising to glory in the resurrection at Christ's return, called the first resurrection (verses 5-6), this vast sea of humanity returns to life for the purposes of judgment. This Great White Throne period is a time of evaluation of each person's individual works, that is, his day-to-day manner of life.

For some reason, some commentators believe that this is only the impenitent dead—those who will be cast into the Lake of Fire, mentioned in verses 14-15. However, verse 15 clearly states that only those "not found written in the Book of Life" will suffer the second death. This is a general resurrection, as it has often been called, of unsaved mankind. It is not God's desire to condemn them to eternal death, for He wants everyone to come to repentance (II Peter 3:9). They will be judged—as His church is being judged now (I Peter 4:17)—for the purposes of granting them salvation, if they accept His calling and submit to His way of life. While it is the church's "day of salvation" right now (II Corinthians 6:1-2), for these people, it will be their first opportunity to accept God's invitation to eternal life.

Consider the enormous number of people who will rise in this resurrection! A conservative estimate of all who have ever lived on the earth is upwards of 50 billion people and growing all the time. These billions will awake to a paradise on earth, which will have been made beautiful, prosperous, and productive under the care of the sons of God. The newly resurrected may suppose they have gone to heaven, but they will soon learn that the blessed meek inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5).

What a massive effort it will take to feed, clothe, house, and teach such an incredible population! Making matters even more difficult is the fact that they will come from every age, ethnic group, religion, language, and culture that has existed since the time of Adam! They will range from jungle dwellers of Borneo to the most sophisticated and intellectual cosmopolitans of modern times, from barbarous Mongols under Genghis Khan to vegetarian peaceniks heralding the Age of Aquarius, from animist tribesmen to Buddhist monks. We can hardly fathom the massive cost, infrastructure, organization, and leadership it will take to give care and instruction to so many people as will happen in this great period of judgment.

The Old Testament also contains a snapshot of this general resurrection, though it concentrates on the resurrection of the manifold millions of Israelites who have lived down the centuries. This is the famous prophecy of the Valley of Dry Bones in Ezekiel 37:
The hand of the LORD came upon me and brought me out in the Spirit of the LORD, and set me down in the midst of the valley; and it was full of bones. Then He caused me to pass by them all around, and behold, there were very many in the open valley; and indeed they were very dry. And He said to me, "Son of man, can these bones live?" So I answered, "O Lord GOD, You know." (Ezekiel 37:1-3)
The people whose bones these were had been dead a long time. The bones were dry, as if no juice of life could ever enliven them again. The prophet's reply is essentially, "Only God could make them live again. To me, they look hopelessly dead." But we know, as Jesus instructs, "with God all things are possible" (Matthew 19:26).

Again He said to me, "Prophesy to these bones, and say to them, ‘O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: "Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. I will put sinews on you and bring flesh upon you, and cover you with skin and put breath in you: and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am the LORD."'" . . . So I prophesied as He commanded me, and breath came into them, and they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great army. (Ezekiel 37:4-6, 10)
Notice what God says will happen in this resurrection: He will give them breath—the breath of life—to fill their lungs, and He will return to them their flesh: their sinews and skin. Clearly, God will raise them up to physical life again on the earth, not to some kind of ethereal existence in a celestial Xanadu. They will soon realize that their ideas of life after death were greatly mistaken and that the God of Israel, the One who raised them from the dead, is the one true God.

Next time, we will discover God's reasons for giving them this new lease on life.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Death Is Not the End (Part Four)

This world views death as more than just an end of life—as the end. While the various religions and some philosophies dangle an afterlife of some sort before their adherents, the fear of the unknown after we breathe our last breath transforms death into a dark and brooding Grim Reaper. To superstitious minds, death is written with a capital D, and on his skeletal frame he wears a hooded black cloak and in his cadaverous hand he carries a massive scythe, which he uses to cut down humanity. This terrifying specter, an avenging demon with eyes of hellfire, travels the earth, constantly reaping a harvest of human souls. No wonder people fear death!

A common definition of death—right out of Webster's Dictionary—is "a permanent cessation of all bodily functions." Obviously, because the word "permanent" is in it, a Christian did not write this definition. Death truly is a cessation of all the body's vital functions, but it is not permanent for anyone. Including "permanent" in the definition denies the power of God, who says He will give life to the dead through the act of resurrection (John 5:21; Romans 4:17; Revelation 20:12).

To reach a proper understanding of death, we should consider what two of history's wisest men, Solomon and Job, wrote about death, starting with Solomon in Ecclesiasties 3:18-19:

I said in my heart, "Concerning the condition of the sons of men, God tests them, that they may see that they themselves are like animals." For what happens to the sons of men also happens to animals; one thing befalls them: as one dies, so dies the other. Surely, they all have one breath; man has no advantage over beasts, for all is vanity.
This is quite a cynical perspective of death. Solomon penned Ecclesiastes in his old age, when he could look back on his wearisome years of searching for answers and experimenting and come to a few conclusions about life. An inference about death appears in verses 20-21: "All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to dust. Who knows the spirit of the sons of men, which goes upward, and the spirit of the animals, which goes down to the earth?"

Again, his outlook seems negative. He concludes that in many ways human beings are no better than animals, which is certainly the case when they try to live without God. Men simply die like beasts; like animals, people are air-breathing, fleshly creatures, and when we can no longer breathe or our flesh is starved, diseased, wounded, or exhausted, we die like them. When we die, our bodies decompose, returning to dust just as their bodies do.

Yet, in verse 21, Solomon raises a question: "What do we really know about the human spirit as opposed to the spirit of a beast?" (paraphrased). Do we really know that a man's spirit goes upward and a beast's spirit returns to the earth? What can we observe? If we use scientific methods, what can we really find out? Nothing, because such a question involving spiritual matters is beyond science, beyond man's ability to measure or record.

Previously, in verse 11, Solomon had written that God has put eternity in man's heart—a yearning to live forever—so he has already conceded that God gives man the edge over beasts. He realizes that man is a special creation of God, made after the God-kind, who has been given dominion over the earth and all in it (Genesis 1:26), so his skeptical question conceals the fact that he believes that man's chances for life after death are far better than an animal's.

Ecclesiasties 12:7 reveals that, by the time he reaches the end of the book, Solomon has made up his mind on this question. He writes, "Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it." His conclusion is that, yes, there is a possibility of life after death for humanity. A person's spirit returns to God for safekeeping, yet that is as far as his understanding can take him. He does not know what happens next. However, he is wise enough to know that his conclusion leads to a truth: Since we do have a chance to live again, depending on God's judgment of our works, we had better fear God and keep His commandments (verses 13-14).

If any of the Bible's writers are gloomier than Solomon, it is Job, who begins his discussion of humanity's potential after death with marked negativity: "Man who is born of woman is of few days and full of trouble. He comes forth like a flower and fades away; he flees like a shadow and does not continue" (Job 14:1-2). Clearly, he woke up on the wrong side of the ash heap that morning! In verses 7-12, he compares man's chance of an afterlife unfavorably even to a tree's:
For there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its tender shoots will not cease. Though its root may grow old in the earth, and its stump may die in the ground, yet at the scent of water it will bud and bring forth branches like a plant. But man dies and is laid away; indeed he breathes his last and where is he? As water disappears from the sea, and a river becomes parched and dries up, so man lies down and does not rise. Till the heavens are no more, they will not awake nor be roused from their sleep.
Like Solomon, Job is probably referring to man without God; he sounds doubtful that anyone cut off from Him will live again. Due to the severe trial he is enduring, he views life with a terribly jaundiced eye. Why would a man want to live again after a life like this one? This life is so brief and full of turmoil that a tree seems to have better prospects of living again than a man does! Unlike a tree, a person who has died does not shoot out new and green to live again; if a man is planted in the ground, he does not pop out of the soil after gentle rain and sunshine! No, without God, a dead person just lies in his grave.

Notice, however, what he believes are his own chances for an afterlife:

Oh, that You would hide me in the grave, that You would conceal me until Your wrath is 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 hard service I will wait, till my change comes. You shall call, and I will answer You; You shall desire the work of Your hands. (Job 14:13-15)
He desires to die and rest in his grave until God recalls him to life! If nothing else, Job understands that with God is the power to give life even after death. Many commentators see this as Job's wish that there were an afterlife, but it is his hope. At the time, it was his only and most fervent expectation. He hoped that God would judge him as a righteous man and call him from his grave to live again, changed from dust to something far better, because God would desire to see him and engage in a close relationship with him again.

Despite their cynicism regarding mankind in general, both Solomon and Job conclude that death is not the end of the line for those who fear God and have a relationship with Him. Next time, we will see that even those who now live apart from God will have the opportunity to live again.