What is mankind's true hope? Is it an immortal existence in heaven — looking on God's face throughout eternity? Or is the hope of the Christian a resurrection to eternal life — and rulership in the Kingdom of God through endless ages?
TODAY, Christianity is divided into literally hundreds of sects and denominations — with many interpretations about life, death, and the hereafter. But why should there be so many different ideas regarding man's afterlife? Why should there be such a state of confusion regarding what the reward of the Christian really is? Why do so many believe they are (or have) an immortal soul which survives death in heaven, limbo, paradise or hell? The biblical teaching on this subject of man — what he is, his purpose in this life, his destiny and how to reach that destiny — is crystal clear. Isn't it high time that we cleared away the cobwebs of denominational and sectarian confusion and looked into the Word of God to see what it says about man's ultimate destiny — and how he is to attain that goal?
A Common Assumption
As a young boy I was taught by my parents, by churchmen, teachers and others, that we were born with immortality, and that every believer in Jesus Christ was destined for heaven — way up beyond the clouds. I fully believed this. I thought, like all others who accepted Christ, I would some day go to heaven and live there forever. Concurrent with this idea that 1 was immortal, or that I had an immortal soul somewhere in me, I also heard a great deal about a resurrection of the dead. These two concepts seemed, even to my young mind, to be contradictory. If I were immortal, then why would I need to be resurrected? I found that men had various ideas to attempt to reconcile this paradox. Some taught that at death the righteous go off immediately to their reward in limbo, paradise or heaven, but the wicked go instantly to hell, where these immortal souls would burn forever and ever. Notice how firmly this same idea of an "immortal soul" was fixed in the mind of Benjamin Franklin. In his autobiography, Franklin tells that he once considered starting his own "sect," to be called "The Society of the Free and Easy." He said his "intended creed" for this new religion was to contain what he believed to be "the essentials of every known religion." Notice how his list of "essentials" included a belief in the immortality of the soul. "That there is one God, who made all things. That he governs the world by his providence.... That the soul is immortal. And that God will certainly reward virtue and punish vice, either here or hereafter." To the best of my memory, I was taught as a child that at death you go immediately to your reward (usually in heaven) or punishment (usually to hell fire) and remain there until the final Judgment Day. On this day the souls of the righteous in heaven and those in hell were supposed to be reunited with their resurrected bodies — where they would then share the joys (or pains) of eternity — depending upon whether they were saved or lost. Let's face it. A lot of contradictory ideas regarding what happens after death have been promulgated. There is much confusion on this important question — and "God is not the author of confusion" (I Cor. 14:33). Where did these unscriptural, confused ideas about what man is and his ultimate destiny really originate? When I began studying the Bible diligently, I found it did not contradict itself. Rather, I found the same consistent teaching regarding what man is — and what is his destiny — in both the Old and New Testaments.
Egyptian Belief in a Resurrection
Before we go to the Bible, let us briefly see what some of the ancients taught on this subject. A few years ago, I visited the empty tombs of some of the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings, near Luxor, Egypt. I was surprised to see that Egyptian hieroglyphics on the walls of the Pharaohs' tombs depicted a rising up (or resurrection) to life after death. But how could those ancient Egyptians, steeped in paganism and cut off from the truth of Almighty God, have known the truth about the resurrection? This puzzled me. King Tut (Tutankhamen) was buried in a most elaborate tomb. His remains were later removed and placed in the Cairo Museum, along with many articles and artifacts (chairs, table, bed, etc.), where they have since been viewed by millions. But why did these Pharaohs make such elaborate burial preparations, including having their dead bodies mummified? The simple answer is that they believed in an afterlife, when they would open their eyes in a resurrection. Then they would be able to enjoy all of these material objects (including, in some instances, food) at the very instant of their resurrection. But where did the ancient, pagan Egyptians learn this truth? The Bible or history does not reveal this clearly. Noah knew about the resurrection. So did his sons Shem, Japheth and Ham — and the Egyptians descended from Mizraim, the son of Ham. So you can see why the Egyptians were not ignorant of this truth. But we also must remember that the patriarchs Abraham (who believed in the resurrection — see Heb. 11:19, 35), Jacob, and Joseph (Pharaoh's Prime Minister), had spent many years in Egypt. Since the patriarchs understood that God would resurrect the dead, it is possible that even they may have communicated this truth to the Egyptians.
Immortality and the Greeks
Notice what the famous historian Edward Gibbon, in his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, has to say about the development of the idea of man's immortal soul: "The writings of Cicero represent in the most lively colours the ignorance, the errors, and the uncertainty of the ancient philosophers with regard to the immortality of the soul.... the philosophers who trod in the footsteps of Plato deduced a very unjustifiable conclusion, since they asserted, not only the future immortality, but the past eternity of the human soul..." (The Modern Library Series, New York, Random House, I, 15, 2, pp. 398-399). Then Gibbon shows how the belief in an immortal soul came to be looked upon as "truth." "The important truth of the immortality of the soul was inculcated with more diligence as well as success in India, in Assyria, in Egypt, and in Gaul.... It is incumbent on us to adore the mysterious dispensations of Providence, when we discover that the doctrine of the immortality of the soul is omitted in the law of Moses... " (ibid., pp. 400-401). How did this belief affect the Jewish people? Gibbon says that the Sadducees "rejected the immortality of the soul as an opinion that received no countenance from the divine book" (ibid, p. 402). He then adds that "the immortality of the soul became the prevailing sentiment of the synagogue under the reign of the Asmonaean princes and pontiffs. "Their [the Jews'] zeal, however, added nothing to its evidence, or even probability; and it was still necessary that the doctrine of life and immortality, which had been dictated by nature, approved by reason, and received by superstition, should obtain the sanction of divine truth from the [so-called] authority and example of Christ" (ibid). But Christ, by teaching and example, never gave credence to the spurious doctrine of the immortality of the soul. But what about the Greeks? They and other ancient peoples did not believe in a resurrection. They believed man had an immortal soul within him, and when he died this soul went off to some place of afterlife. It was this Hellenistic idea of an immortal soul which later influenced the beliefs of some of the Jewish people, and many professing Christians. But, remember, this idea of man being immortal, or having an immortal soul, did not come from God or His Word. It came directly from the pagans. For proof of this, look up this subject in any good encyclopedia. For example, check the article "Eschatology" in any of the later editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Do Souls Die?
What does the Bible teach about man? What happens to him at death? Is man an immortal soul? We are told, "The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul" (Gen. 2:7). Man was created a "living soul" (Hebrew, nephesh), but it does not say that man was created an immortal soul. Rather, it goes on to show that man was mortal — that he would "die" (Gen. 2:17). This word nephesh (translated as "soul") is also used throughout the Hebrew Scriptures to refer to the lower creatures God had created. Can the soul die? "The soul that sinneth, it shall die" (Ezek. 18:4, 20). In many instances the Bible speaks of souls being killed, of them dying and perishing. When the New Testament writers quoted the Old Testament passages where the word nephesh ("soul") was used, they used the Greek equivalent, psuche, meaning "a living being," identical in meaning to the Hebrew word nephesh. Notice what Jesus said regarding the soul (psuche): "Fear him [God] which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell [Gehenna, the lake of fire]" (Matt. 10:28).
Job, quoting Eliphaz, wrote: "Shall mortal man be more just than God?" (Job 4:17.) And in Deuteronomy we are told that it was possible for a man to "smite him [his neighbor] mortally that he die" (Deut. 19:11). "Mortal" means that which can die. In the New Testament Paul taught that a Christian should not let sin rule in his "mortal body" (Rom. 6:12). He also spoke of a Christian's "mortal body" being quickened or made alive (Rom. 8:11). At the resurrection "this mortal must put on immortality" (I Cor. 15:53, 54). Paul spoke of Christians' bodies as "our mortal flesh" (II Cor. 4:11). But he added that the time is coming (in the future) when our "mortality" will be "swallowed up of [eternal] life" (II Cor. 5:4). Paul was also inspired to pen a promise of immortality: "To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, [they will be granted] eternal life" (Rom. 2:7). Did you notice that man must seek, as a gift from God, immortality. Why? Only God has immortality to give: "Who only [referring to the King of kings — verse 15) hath immortality" (I Tim. 6:16). "Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever" (I Tim. 1:17). Eternal life or future immortality was nowhere offered to ancient Israel or to the Gentile nations during the Old Testament period. But God's grace, His free gift of eternal life, "is now made manifest by the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel" (II Tim. 1:10).
Is Man Conscious in Death?
If man is mortal, not immortal, then what happens to him at death? Does his soul immediately waft off to heaven, hell or someplace where he is conscious; or does man go to the grave to "sleep" until the time of the resurrection? David was inspired to write: "His [man's] breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish" (Ps. 146:4). This scripture reveals that man ceases to think at the time of his death. David's son Solomon revealed that "there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave [sheof], whither thou goest" (Eccl. 9:10). This is the clear teaching of your Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Man is mortal. He will die. In death he is as one who is "asleep," awaiting the resurrection. There is absolutely no mental or physical activity in the grave! (Ps. 6:5; 115:17.) Numerous resurrections (back to a physical life) are recorded in the Bible, but there is not one word about the dead having had any knowledge of what occurred during the interval when they were dead. Lazarus had been dead "four days" (John 11:17), but was raised from the dead by Jesus Christ. And he had no knowledge or consciousness during that period of time — rather he was as one in a deep sleep — in a state of unconciousness. Christ said: "Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep" (verse 11). Also, in our time, there have been numerous examples of people actually brought back to life through heart massage and electrical or drug stimulation — after their hearts had stopped for some time — yet no such person ever reported having any consciousness during the time when he was technically "dead." Does science have the answers to explain what man is, what happens at death, what man's ultimate destiny is to be, or how man can reach that destiny? No, for only God can reveal the answers to these vital questions; and He has made known this truth only in the Bible.
What Is Man's Hope?
Man has no other hope held out to him — other than the hope of the resurrection. According to the Bible, this is man's only hope. In the next installment, we shall examine the scriptures pertaining to the resurrection in the Old Testament, and we shall see the biblical proof that the resurrection, as shocking as it may seem, is Old Testament theology as well as new. Don't miss reading the next article in this three-part series.