After Death What?After Death - What?
Archive of Comments and Discussions - Questions and Answers From

By Neville Heath Fowler

Is there life after death, or is this life all there is? Are we just physical material beings as some claim, or are we in reality spiritual beings only appearing to be physical? Many think that we are a mixture of the two, that is, material bodies possessing spiritual ‘souls’. If so, the question arises: What happens to our ‘soul’ when we die? Is it ‘re-incarnated’ into another person, does it transmigrate into another animal, does it go to heaven or hell? If it goes to heaven, does it merge into ‘God’ or does it retain its own individuality, and if it does, what does it do in heaven for all eternity? Perhaps it might go to hell and suffer agony for ever and ever. Or purgatory, a sort of halfway house, where souls are said to suffer for a time until they are allowed to go to heaven. All of these ideas are held to be true by some. They cannot all be true. The bible reveals the truth about the nature of man. What does the bible say?

How did everything get here?

"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." (Genesis 1.1). The very first verse of the bible tells us that God is the Creator of all things.

But how did God make man, specifically?

"Then God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul."(Genesis 2:7) This is the first time that the bible uses the word "soul". It means "breathing (or living) being"; man became a "living being". Adam was made from dust (material constituents) and life. Life is a wonderful gift. When life is gone, and we see the dead body, we know instinctively that nothing is left but ‘dust’. It is not hard to understand why human imagination should have jumped to the conclusion that the life, which has fled, was the ‘soul’. But animals too consist of ‘dust’ and the breath of life, and the same process happens to them when they die. Do they too have souls? Most theologians say no. It would be much too inconvenient to countenance such an idea anyway. Some would say yes, perhaps thinking of their cherished pets whilst forgetting about the animals they eat! Vegetarians might be more inclined to say yes because they are at least consistent in their regard for animals. However, can the truth be dependent on the outlook of individuals? Christians should be prepared to put aside personal preference or prejudice from whatever background they approach the question and consider God’s word on the matter. Genesis 7:21, 22 speaks of all creatures dying in the flood, animals and men alike, "all in whose nostrils was the breath of life." God's word is clear about this. The ‘soul’ is the living being, and consists of dust and the breath of life. The Hebrew word translated ‘breath’ is ‘ruach’. All living people and all animals are living souls and all possess the same breath of life.

What happens when a person or animal dies?

"Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was; and the spirit [breath] shall return unto God who gave it." Ecclesiastes 12:7. The word translated ‘spirit’ in the King James Authorized Version is again that Hebrew word ‘ruach’. Modern translations, like the New Revised Standard Version, actually put ‘breath’ instead of spirit. What God is telling us is that when creatures die, the process is quite simply the reverse of that described in chapter 1 of Genesis. Then the breath of life from God came into the dust and Adam lived. Now the dust returns to the earth and the breath of life returns to God. Did the breath of life have any individual consciousness before it entered Adam? It did not. Nor did it when it left his body and returned to God. One begins to see how important it is to properly understand the terms used in the bible. The problem is that in a much later age those who had absorbed the pagan religious and philosophical culture of the Greeks read back into God’s word the Greek idea of immortal souls capable of life independent of the body and that is how the Hebrew word ‘neh-fesh’ meaning living being was transliterated into ‘soul’ and the Hebrew word ‘ruach’ meaning breath or wind got turned into ‘spirit’ so as to give a pagan Greek interpretation to the bible.

Is death the same for man as it is for the animals?

"For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no pre-eminence above a beast. . ." Ecclesiastes 3:19. Could anything be more plain or more definite? It was convenient, as we have observed, for men to apply the pagan idea of the possession of an immortal soul to humans but not to animals, but the bible does not support this invention.

Does the mortality of man mean that life does not continue after death?

Speaking of the man who dies the Psalmist says: "His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish." (Psalm 146:4) The Preacher says: "The dead know nothing; . . . even their memory is gone. Their love and their hate and their envy [i.e. their emotions] have all perished." (Ecclesiastes 9:6). The very first lie recorded in the bible is the lie that Satan, in the guise of the serpent, told to Eve. Tempting her to eat the one fruit in the garden of Eden that God had forbidden on pain of death, the serpent flatly contradicted God’s unambiguous warning and said to Eve: "You shall not definitely die." (Genesis 3:4). The notion of an immortal soul, the ‘real person’, that carries on living when the body dies, is derived from that untruth. It postulates a natural inevitable immortality, everlasting life, for all people, regardless of faith or behaviour. The bible says that only God has immortality (1 Timothy 6:16).

Is there no hope of a future existence for those who die?

YES THERE IS! Job was a good man who lived many, many centuries before Jesus. As we know, goodness is no guarantee of success and Job suffered some serious calamities in his life, culminating in a distressing illness, yet his faith in God never wavered. When his troubles were at their worst he said: "I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: and though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God: Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another." (Job 19:25,26). Thus he proclaimed his faith in God's promise of salvation and his hope of resurrection. The New Testament confirms that Job’s hope was well founded. Eternal life is the gift of God through Jesus Christ. (Romans 6:23). Jesus said: "Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth." (John 5:28,29).

As death is a temporary state between one period of life and activity and another, could it reasonably be thought of as a ‘sleep’?

Indeed, the bible often describes death, for those who share Job's hope of resurrection, as a sleep. "And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake." (Daniel 12:2). In deep sleep there is no consciousness of the passing of time. Whether we awake from death after one year or like Daniel after many centuries makes no difference. "For a thousand years in Thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night . . . they are as a sleep." (Psalm 90:4).

But surely the New Testament teaching differs from that of the Old?

Let us remember that for the Jews of Jesus' day, for Jesus himself, and for the first Christians, the holy inspired scriptures meant the Old Testament alone. We would expect Jesus and the early Christians to have precisely the view of the nature of man, and of death, that we have outlined. Did they? Well when we turn to the New Testament we find that, as in the book of Job, the hope of believers is in resurrection from death. This could not be more dramatically illustrated than in the death of a close friend of our Lord himself. It is a touching story and well worth reading in full in the gospel of John, chapter 11 verses 1 to 45. Lazarus' sisters had sent a message to Jesus that he was very ill. Jesus was very fond of Lazarus and of Mary and Martha but surprisingly he delayed leaving to go to Bethany where they lived for another two days. Eventually he said to the twelve, "Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go to wake him out of sleep." The disciples at first thought he meant just ordinary sleep, and that it might be better to leave him be, it would help his recovery from the illness he had been through. "Then Jesus said unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead." "Then when Jesus came, he found that he had lain in the grave four days already." One can imagine the grief of Lazarus' sisters. Mary sat still in the house. Martha went out to meet him full of the turmoil of emotions which often follows bereavement: grief, and a little anger, as she said to Jesus: "Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died." Though not stated her implied question seems to have been: "Why have you been so long coming?"

Jesus said quietly to her: "Thy brother shall rise again." [Note that he did NOT say: Your brother has not really died. His soul has gone to heaven. He is really still here with us, but just not visible to us.]

"Martha saith unto him, I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day." Thus she proclaimed the traditional belief of God's people, but with the implication that we all are bound to feel in such circumstances: But what about now? We miss him so much now. And she wept, and Jesus wept to see her sorrow, and to think of all the sorrow like this in the world. He so much wanted her to have absolute confidence in God's promise of the resurrection, not as an ‘article of faith’ learned by rote but as a matter of personal assurance, believed in the heart, trusted in. This is an opportunity for him to prove that he is indeed God's Messiah, the Christ, the one whom God has appointed to come into the world to remove from the world sin and the results of sin, including death. He is the one who will call forth the dead from the grave at the last day. He will demonstrate this, here and now! But first he wants Martha to confess her faith in him. He asks her a testing question. "Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live. . . Do you believe this?" She said to him, "Yes Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world." (John 11: 25-27 NRSV).

"Take away the stone," said Jesus. "But Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days," said Martha, still practical in spite of grief. "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" replied her Lord. Looking upward Jesus thanked God for again answering his prayers, then called in a loud voice: "Lazarus, come out!" And Lazarus, the friend of Jesus, the brother of Martha and Mary, came forth from the tomb, still wrapped in the grave clothes from head to foot with even his face still wrapped in a cloth. What an amazing thing! "Loose him and let him go," said the Lord.

Jesus called Lazarus from the tomb where he had lain for four days. He did not call back his ‘soul’ from heaven to make it dwell on earth again for a few more years. Lazarus had no tale to tell about being in paradise for four days. He lived again only to die again. He now sleeps, for much longer than that four days (but with God a thousand years is as a day) awaiting again the call of his friend and Saviour to a fuller and final resurrection. For in that day he will arise, together with many who will be given glorious bodies which are no longer subject to decay. This is as certain as the fact that Jesus is "the resurrection and the life", and that he himself came forth from his borrowed tomb in a real but glorious body. "And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake." (Daniel 12:2). We await Jesus' return to this earth with God's gift of life. "We look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body." (Philippians 3:20,21). "Neither can they die any more . . . being the children of the resurrection." (Luke 20:36). How this can be is to us a mystery that lies hidden in the power of God. But just how God brought about His original creation is also a mystery to us. "He spake and it was done; He commanded and it stood fast." (Psalm 33:9) We know that it is so for we are here, and our very existence bears testimony to it. We know that His re-creation will also come to be. He has spoken, and it will be done. "We know that when he [Jesus] shall appear, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure." (1 John 3:2,3.).


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