Death is Real
There is no escaping the reality of death. When it comes suddenly,
unexpectedly, as the result of an accident or heart attack, we are
shaken. Similarly when someone still "in the prime of life" dies
of cancer or kidney failure. Such events are so common that we all
experience them. We are overcome by the sense of our own
helplessness: we cannot reverse what has happened. All human
resources are powerless to restore a dead person to life. The
grieving relative is not easily comforted.
How do people react to the fact of
death? The young frankly do not treat the matter seriously. When
they have the occasional shock - a friend is killed in a road
accident, for example - it is just "bad luck". The tragedy is soon
forgotten. The middle-aged do not care to contemplate death. It is
too far off yet to seem a real danger: "Better face it when it
comes." Older people become more aware that here is a reality they
will not escape. Their friends and relations pass off the scene.
Failing eyesight and hearing, growing physical ailments remind
them that the human frame eventually perishes.
Many people find some comfort in the idea of survival. A
mysterious inner life called "the soul" is thought to pass out of
the perishing body and to go to "heaven", where the personality
continues to live--in bliss. This view is not so confidently or so
widely held as once it was; it is now often more a pious hope than
a strong conviction. And it is very vague, as is shown by the
prayer uttered each Christmas Eve at the famous Lessons and Carols
service in King's College, Cambridge. The leader prays that the
congregation may be joined with those "who rejoice with us, but on
another shore and in a greater light" - he means those who have
died. If we were to ask, What is this "greater light"? Where is
this "other shore"? we should be unlikely to get any very definite
answers. The hope is vague.
The view which used to be held, as
a necessary counterpart, that the "souls" of evil people go to
"hell", there to suffer torments, is now very generally abandoned,
except for the Catholic Church, which maintains belief in hell,
purgatory, limbo and paradise. It must be said that there is a
certain lack of reason in the popular attitude here. For if the
"souls" of the righteous go to heaven, where do the "souls" of the
An increasing number of people
today are frankly pessimistic. They accept the fact that death is
the end of life. "I shall soon be pushing up the daisies", as one
acquaintance put it. The view has unfortunate consequences, for
the person holding it is strongly tempted to argue that his life
is all he has; it is his own to do as he pleases; and he may as
well "eat, drink, and be merry", for tomorrow he will die. This
view of life has a serious effect upon the kind of life to be
lived, which can become self-indulgent and self-centered, with the
disastrous results for society which we are seeing today.
from the Dead?
The inescapable fact is that since the dawn of history millions
upon millions of human beings have lived, died, and been laid in
the grave. If they have in fact survived in some new form, would
you not have expected to hear from them some word of consolation
for the bereaved, some information about their state, or some
warning for the living? Yet we never hear anything from them. Not
a word. Is not this strange? And where are all these millions
There are people, called
Spiritualists who believe in survival and claim to receive
messages from the dead. But thorough investigation will reveal how
unconvincing the claims are. Years ago the present writer attended
seances and read widely in the literature. The alleged messages
from the dead were so trivial and commonplace as to require no
"spirit" explanation. The descriptions of the after-life were
filled with gardens, streams, fruit-trees and sweet smelling
flowers, enjoyed in blissful idleness. Quite clearly this is just
an idealised picture of human longings. C. E. M. Joad, a serious
investigator in psychical research, commenting upon the poor
quality of alleged spirit communications, robustly declared: "It
is evident that if our spirits survive, our brains certainly do
Then there is "the pity of it". Men
and women sometimes living worthy lives, humanly speaking, being
helpful, kindly and intelligent; some even learned and expert in
their field. Need all this just be lost for ever? Is there no way
in which the life and character which is of real value can be
preserved? Naturally this raises the question, What is real value?
We shall come to that later.
How do we settle this question about what happens after death?
Where do we go for a thoroughly reliable and truthful answer?
Do we trust to our own feelings or
"intuition"? How do we know we are right? How could we expect
anyone else to accept our view on our own authority? How can any
man or woman anywhere tell us the answer? How do they know,
anyway? Do we accept the views of religious leaders, either of
individuals or of Councils or Synods? How do they know? And what
are we to think when prominent religious leaders are seen to be
divided among themselves on important issues? One prominent bishop
has declared that Christ did not literally rise from the dead;
others declare the Resurrection to be one of the foundations of
the Christian faith. Who are we to believe-and why?
These questions, when sincerely
faced, lead us to this inescapable conclusion: the opinion of one
human mind is, of itself, of no more value than that of any other.
In other words, human thinking cannot give us the answer. From
this a very important conclusion emerges; since no human mind can
pronounce with authority on what happens after death, then clearly
we need an authority coming from outside and above mankind-that is
a super-human authority.
Such an authority exists among us. It is the Bible which from
first to last declares that it is a message to the human race from
God-the Creator of the heavens and the earth, and of mankind.
The Bible writers never claim to
speak on their own authority, but only "the word of the Lord". "I
have put my words in thy mouth", as God said to the prophet
Jeremiah (1:10). Jesus accepted the writings of "the law and the
prophets" (Our Old Testament) as the Word of God. He himself
declared that the words he spoke were God's words. The apostles
said the same thing: Paul declared that "all scripture is inspired
of God" and used a term which means "God-breathed". The "breath"
(or Spirit) of God is in what is written, and so what the
Scriptures say is truth. The earliest believers in Christ, from
those who knew the Apostles personally, accepted the Old and New
Testaments as the true and reliable Word of God. For centuries the
teaching of the Bible has been the foundation for Christian
Just think what the Bible does. It
records how the human race came into being and it explains in
clear terms why there is evil, suffering and death in the world.
It tells us positively what happens after death. And it also
reveals the new kind of life which can be ours, if we will only
pay attention to its message.
There is no other book in the world
which does all this. In fact there is no book anywhere which shows
so many signs of being produced not by human minds, but by the
mind of God. Over 100 years ago Henry Rogers wrote a remarkable
book entitled The Superhuman Origin of the Bible Deduced from
Itself. He declared: "The Bible is not such a book as man would
have written if he could, nor could have written if he would." The
reason is that it is a message to us from God. That is why it
deserves our sincere attention.
It is most important that we should understand what the Bible has
to say about us, our origin and our nature. It is the only
authoritative account anywhere of how we came to exist.
The book of Genesis is about our
origin. It tells us clearly that man was a created being: that is,
he depended upon a Creator for his very life. He was not
responsible for his own origin. This is how it happened:
"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" (Genesis 2:7).
Notice man's lowly origin: from the
ground. Genesis tells us also (at 6:17 and 7:21) that the animals
too share "the breath of life" with mankind. But it is the
expression "a living soul" which claims our attention and teaches
us the first and essential condition for understanding the Bible:
we must understand Bible terms in its own sense, and not in ours.
Now to many people "the soul" suggests some spirit within man
which "survives the death of the body". But that is not at all how
it is used in Genesis, where the word translated "soul" is used of
the animals as well. In Genesis 1:21,24 it is translated "living
creature". The Revised Standard Version (R.S.V.) renders "living
soul" as "living being". So does the New International Version (N.l.V.).
The New English Bible (N.E.B.) has "a living creature".
The conclusion is clear: Genesis is
telling us that by origin and nature man was created a living
being. Of course, he has greater powers of mind than have the
animals, but basically his nature is the same as theirs.
The question as to how man's life might come to an end is treated
very early in Genesis. Adam was told by God that if he disobeyed
the commandment he had received, he would die. He did disobey, and
this is the judgement which was pronounced upon him:
". . in the sweat of
thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground;
for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art and unto dust
shalt thou return" (3:19).
The record is devastatingly simple:
death is not a door opening to a new life--it is a judgement for
disobedience. Man returns to the ground. So in the Genesis record
of the Flood, when "the earth was corrupt before God and filled
with violence . . . for all flesh had corrupted his (God's) way
upon the earth" (6:11-1 2), the waters of judgement came, and men
and animals perished in the same way:
"All flesh died that
moved upon the earth, both of fowl, of cattle, of beast . . . and
every man; all in whose nostrils was the breath of life ...died"
The Bible frequently compares the nature of man to that of the
animals. The Psalmist declares, speaking of both:
"Thou (God) takest
away their breath, they die, and return to their dust" (104:29).
The writer of Ecclesiastes is quite
categorical: he desires men to see
"that they themselves
are beasts. 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 . . . All go unto one
place: all are of the dust and all turn to dust again" (3:19-21).
Men and animals have by nature the
same fate: they all return to the ground. Some may object that the
next verse gives a different sense, but all modern versions (R.V.,
R.S.V., N.I.V., N.E.B.) put it thus:
"Who knows whether
the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes
downward to the earth?" (v.22).
That is, who can tell whether there
is any difference? Incidentally, the word translated "spirit" here
is the very same as is rendered "breath" in v.1 9; which shows
that "spirit" here is the life resulting from breathing. It ceases
when breathing stops.
So the "soul" can die. The
Psalmist, speaking of the judgement God brought upon the proud
Egyptians by the ten plagues, says: "He (God) spared not their
soul from death"; and then immediately adds: "and gave their life
over to the pestilence" (Psalm 78:50), showing that the soul and
the life are the same thing.
Twice God declares through Ezekiel:
"The soul that sinneth, it shall die" (Ezek. 18:3,20). Samson, in
his final appeal to God, prays: "Let me die with the Philistines"
(Judges 16:30). But the margin of the A.V. shows that what Samson
literally said was: "Let my soul die . . ."
The soul then, is the person, the
living being. When he perishes, the soul, or life, perishes with
Does this mean that men are no better than the animals? Not quite
that, for Genesis 1:26 tells us that man was made "in the image"
of God. In other words, the physical nature of mankind is just
like that of the animals; but man has a superior mind, capable of
understanding and responding to God. The Psalmist has this most
"Man that is in
honour, and understandeth not, is like the beasts that
perish" (Psalm 49:20).
So it is understanding which
can make the difference between a man and the animals. When we
ask, "Understanding what?", then the New Testament comes
powerfully to our aid, as we shall see.
In view of the Biblical evidence so
far reviewed, it is no surprise to learn that the dead rest,
completely unconscious in the grave. Do not trust in princes or in
man, says the Psalmist, for "his breath goeth forth, he returneth
to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish" (Psalm 146:4).
David prays that God will deliver
him, for "in death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave
who shall give thee thanks?" (Psalm 6:5).
Psalm 115 says the same: "The dead
praise not the Lord, neither any that go down into silence" (v.
The writer of Ecclesiastes is most
"For the living know
that they shall die: but the dead know not anything . . .
Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished
. . . Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for
there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the
grave whither thou goest" (9:5-10).
The place of the dead is
consistently described in these emphatic passages as "in his
earth" (the dust of the ground from which man was made), "in the
grave" and "in silence".
Daniel has a remarkable statement on this subject. It is
especially significant because of the use made of the same idea in
the New Testament. His prophecy contains this reference to events
in "the last days", when God will show His power once more in the
earth, at "a time of trouble such as never was
"Many of them that
sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to
everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt"
Now that this statement refers in
part to the faithful servants of God is clear from the assurance
that they will receive "everlasting life". But look where they are
until they receive this reward: they sleep "in the dust of the
earth", a testimony entirely consistent with all we have seen so
At this point some readers may say:
"So far you have been quoting the Old Testament. Surely the New
Testament is a new revelation of Jesus and the Gospel? Does it not
say something quite different?"
Apostles and the Old Testament
To answer this question it is essential to understand what was the
attitude of Jesus, and the Apostles after him, to the writings now
known as the Old Testament. The facts are clear and beyond
question: they all accepted "the law, the psalms and the
prophets", as the inspired Word of God. They quote from them
constantly in support of their preaching; they never contradict or
cast doubt upon any Old Testament passage, but rather seek to draw
out the true significance of what was written. You would thus
expect the New Testament writings to agree in their teaching with
the Old, and so it proves. Here are a few examples.
There had been a tragedy in
Galilee. Roman soldiers had killed a number of Jews in a religious
riot. Some Jews came to Jesus to tell him of it. His response is
very significant. Do you think, he asked, that those Galileans who
died were greater sinners than all the other inhabitants of
Galilee, because they suffered such a fate? Not at all, he said,
but I tell you this:
"except ye repent ye
shall all likewise perish" (Luke 13:1-31)
Now "to perish" in the Bible means
just what it means to us: to cease to exist with no suggestion of
survival. There is no escaping the teaching of Jesus here: all
mankind will perish, unless they repent. This is just like Psalm
49: man is like the beasts that perish, unless he understands.
Here we have the first hint of the answer to our question,
"Understand what?" It has evidently something to do with
Jesus also agreed with Daniel, who
had declared that "many of them that sleep in the dust of the
earth shall awake" (12:21). This is how John's Gospel records his
". . . The hour is
coming, in which all that are in the tombs shall hear his (Jesus')
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 condemnation" (John 5:28-29). (Jesus' "all" is the
same as Daniel's "many": it is all who during their lifetime have
"heard the voice of the Son of God", v.25.)
Look where the dead are: "in the
tombs" ("sleep in the dust of the earth", Daniel); they "come
forth" by resurrection ("they awake", Daniel); they come forth
either to life or to judgement. The harmony between Jesus and
Daniel is complete; the Lord is endorsing the teaching of the Old
Testament on this important matter of the place, the state, and
the fate of the dead.
The Apostles uphold the same
teaching. John, in the best-known verse of the New Testament,
"God so loved the
world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever
believeth on him, should not perish, but have everlasting life"
The words we have emphasised are
frequently ignored, but there is no escaping the verdict that
those who do not "believe on" Jesus (in the way the Scriptures
explain) will perish, that is cease to exist.
The Apostle Paul has the same
message. Writing to the believers in Ephesus, he tells them that
before they came to know and believe in Christ, they were "without
Christ having no hope, and without God in the world" (Eph.2:1 2).
This is a shattering saying. It tells us plainly that if we are
not related to God through Christ, in the way He requires, we are
"without hope". How precious must be that "understanding" which
can save us from such a fate!
The Apostle James tells his readers
not to make too confident assertions of what they will do at some
future time. You never know what will happen tomorrow, he says;
and then adds:
"What is your life?
For ye are a vapour that appeareth for a little time, and then
vanisheth away" (James 4:14, R.V.). The R.S.V. and the N.I.V. have
: "You are a mist that appears . . . and then vanishes."
Daniel's description of the dead as
"sleeping" in the grave is reproduced by the Apostle Paul. The
believers at Thessalonica were mourning the death of some who had
believed in Christ:
"I would not have you
ignorant, brethren, concernmg them which are asleep (he means in
death), that ye sorrow not, even as the rest who have no hope ....
For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven ... with the voice
of the archangel and the trump of God, and the dead in Christ
shall rise . . ." (1 Thess. 4:13,16)
Notice what this passage is saying:
the faithful believers who have died are "asleep"; those who do
not believe have "no hope"; Christ personally (note "himself")
will descend from heaven; and the faithful dead will rise-from the
grave of course. Here are basic teachings which are found
throughout the New Testament. They are foundation truths of the
Resurrection of the Dead
It has always been hard for those who believe in survival after
death by some immortal soul or spirit, to explain why the New
Testament lays such great emphasis upon the resurrection of the
That it does so is beyond question.
Jesus assumes that it is true, in telling the Jews not merely to
invite their rich neighbours to a banquet, hoping to get a return
invitation, but to invite those in need, "and thou shalt be
recompensed at the resurrection of the just" (Luke 14:14). The
faithful dead are to be raised from their graves; that is when
they will receive their reward.
The Apostle Paul devotes a whole
chapter to asserting that the dead will rise. He makes a special
point of arguing that if Christ did not rise from the dead, then
no one else can either. In that case, "they also which are fallen
asleep in Christ have perished" (1 Cor. 15:18). (Note the
implication here: if in this case even the believers in Christ
have "perished", how much more those who have not believed!)
But there is no doubt about it,
says Paul: Christ did rise from the dead (see his impressive list
of actual witnesses in verses 3-8 of this chapter); and so Christ
has "become the first-fruits of them that are asleep" (v. 21).
Twice within three verses Paul has described the dead as "asleep".
Such is his agreement with Daniel.
In the remainder of this chapter
Paul declares that for the faithful dead there is to be, after
their resurrection, a change of nature: "Flesh and blood cannot
inherit the kingdom of God." Our present nature is mortal and
corruptible; but when the dead are raised, they are to be
"changed": for "this corruptible must put on incorruption, and
this mortal must put on immortality". This is the way "death is
swallowed up in victory" (vv. 50-54).
So we arrive at the clear Bible
truth that the reward of the righteous does not consist of some
"spirit existence" somewhere; it will be the granting of an
incorruptible body, one that will not waste away and perish as our
present one does, but will no longer be subject to death. The
reason is remarkable: God has a work for the faithful to do in the
future. Those who are granted resurrection from the grave will
move about in the world as real, tangible people, engaged in the
practical task of enlightening the nations of the world in the
truths of God which they have either ignored or perverted for so
many centuries. This will be the purpose of the rule of Christ
over the nations when he returns, as the Bible says he will.
"But . .
But are there not some passages in the New Testament which support
the idea of survival after death? There are a very few passages
sometimes quoted in this way. But when they are carefully
examined, they will be found to be in harmony with the teaching of
the Bible as a whole. We treat here some of the better known ones.
In the Old Testament the word translated "hell" means no more than
a concealed or covered place. Translated as "hell" 31 times, it is
also rendered "grave" 31 times, in passages like these:
(Jacob, mourning the
loss of his son Joseph): "I will go down into the grave to my son,
mourning.(Gen. 37:35). "In the grave who shall give thee (God)
thanks?" (Psa. 6:5). ". . . there is no work nor knowledge, nor
wisdom, in the grave whither thou goest" (Eccles. 9:10).
Hence the prophecy about Christ:
"Thou (God) wilt not leave my soul in hell...", means quite simply
that God would not leave his life, or himself, in the grave, as is
shown by the rest of the verse: "...neither wilt thou suffer thine
Holy One to see corruption" (Psa. 1 6:10).
In the New Testament this passage
is quoted by the Apostle Peter (Acts 2:31). He uses the Greek term
usually translated "hell", showing that he understood it in the
same way as the Psalm.
There is, however, in the New Testament another and very
interesting word translated "hell", represented in English as "Gehenna".
This was the name of a place just outside the city of Jerusalem.
The following explanation from Grimm-Thayer's Greek-Engllsh
Lexicon of the New Testament is very helpful:
"Gehenna: ... the
valley of lamentation ... is the name of a valley to the South and
East of Jerusalem, so called from the cries of little children,
thrown into the fiery arms of Molech, an idol having the form of a
bull. The Jews so abhorred the place after these horrible
sacrifices had been abolished by King Josiah (2 Kings 23:10) that
they cast into it not only all manner of refuse, but even the dead
bodies of animals and of unburied criminals who had been executed.
Since fires were always needed to consume the dead bodies, that
the air might not become tainted by the putrefaction, it came to
pass that the place was called 'Gehenna of fire'."
Now Gehenna is used 12 times in the
New Testament, 11 of them by Jesus himself. Here is one case:
"If thine eye offend
thee (cause thee to stumble, R.V.), pluck it out: it is better for
thee to enter into the Kingdom of God with one eye, than having
two eyes to be cast into hell (Gehenna), where their worm dieth
not and the fire is not quenched" (see the whole passage, Mark
Jesus' meaning is this: If there is
anything you are doing with your hand, anywhere you are going with
your feet, anything you are seeing with your eyes, which is
preventing you from entering the Kingdom of God, then stop doing
it; for otherwise you will end up being destroyed with the wicked
in death. The worm and the fire are symbolic agents of
destruction. They are not everlasting, but they continue their
work till all is consumed. So Gehenna becomes a type of the
judgement upon the wicked in the last day.
All other uses of Gehenna will be
found to contain the same idea.
The Old Testament passages already considered have shown that the
"soul" means "the person" and his "life". It can sin and it can
The word so translated in the New
Testament is used about 100 times. It is rendered soul 58 times,
life 40, and mind 3. One of the sayings of Jesus is significant.
Having told his disciples that anyone who desires to be one of his
true servants must "deny himself, and take up his cross, and
follow me", he goes on:
"For whosoever will
save his life shall lose it: and whosoever shall lose his life for
my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall
gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man
give in exchange for his soul?" (Matt. 16:25-26).
The English reader would think two
different words were being used here, "life" and "soul". Yet it is
the same original word throughout, a fact which the R.V. and the
R.S.V. versions recognise by translating "life" in all four cases.
Another passage often quoted is:
"Be not afraid of them which kill the body, but are not able to
kill the soul ..." This sounds very impressive, but the second
part of the verse says: " . . but rather fear him (that is, God)
which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" (Gehenna-Matt.
So the soul can be destroyed.
Jesus' meaning is not hard to follow: If a faithful servant is put
to death, he will get his life (or soul) back-at the resurrection
of the dead, as we have seen. But the unfaithful servant will be
totally destroyed in death, in the judgement symbolised by Gehenna.
His "soul", or life, will perish with him.
The Rich Man and
If the reader is not familiar with this passage (Luke 16:19-31),
he is recommended at this point to study it carefully.
Lazarus, the beggar, dies and is
"carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom". The rich man dies,
but when he is "in hell, in torments", he can see "afar off"
Lazarus in Abraham's bosom. He begs Abraham to send Lazarus, "that
he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue .
But the request is rejected-the former rich man must suffer his
punishment. Besides, says Abraham, "between us and you is a great
gulf fixed", so that no passing over from one place to the other
is possible. The rich man then asks Abraham to send Lazarus to
warn his five brothers, lest they suffer the same fate as he has
done. This request too is rejected, in terms we shall consider
further in a moment.
Now there are certain features of
this narrative which make it impossible to take it literally.
Abraham's bosom as the place of the righteous after death; the
conversation between Abraham in bliss and the rich man "in hell";
the idea that one might be sent with water from the one place to
the other "to cool the tongue" of a sufferer. The conviction that
this is not a literal account of the states of the dead, but a
kind of parable, or symbolic narrative, becomes a certainty when
it is realised that all these details were part of the tradition
of the Pharisees at the time, as Josephus, the Jewish historian of
the first century, shows in his Discourse Concerning Hades. So
Jesus was employing some of his opponents' own ideas to confound
But it is in the last few verses of
the passage that Jesus' real point emerges. When the rich man
requests Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers, Abraham
replies: "They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them."
When the rich man says, "Nay, father Abraham, if one went unto
them from the dead, they will repent", Abraham replies: "If they
hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded,
though one rose from the dead."
Within a short time this saying was
strikingly fulfilled. Jesus raised Lazarus-the real Lazarus-the
brother of Martha and Mary, from the dead. The miracle created a
sensation among the people, but far from "being persuaded", the
leaders of the Jews were only the more resolved to kill him. Very
shortly after that, Jesus himself rose from the dead. Despite the
powerful evidence of witnesses, the Jewish authorities were
determined to deny his resurrection and to reject his claim to be
the Son of God. They had not really accepted the teaching of their
own Scriptures, "Moses and the prophets", and they would not
accept the claims of Jesus to be the expected Messiah.
This was the whole point of the
parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. It perfectly conveyed the
point Jesus wanted to make. It has nothing to teach us about the
state of the dead. For that we must go to the evidence of the
Bible as a whole.
The Thief on the
Luke 23:39-43 contains the account. Jesus hangs on the cross. One
of the two thieves, crucified with him, confesses that he is being
"justly condemned", but "this man (Jesus) has done nothing amiss".
Then, turning to Jesus, he says, "Lord, remember me when thou
comest into thy kingdom" (v.42).
This is an astonishing request.
Look what it implies:
- that to the thief Jesus was
- that the thief expected Jesus
to survive the crucifixion;
- that at some future time,
Jesus would be "coming into his kingdom";
- that at that time Jesus would
be able to "remember him" and to restore him to life.
All these assumptions agree
entirely with what the New Testament teaches. Now look at Jesus'
Now that is just how the Greek
letters appear in the oldest manuscripts: they are all capitals;
the words are not separated; and there is no punctuation. So how
do you understand Jesus' answer? Is it,
"Verily, I say unto
thee, Today thou shalt be with me in paradise"?
Or is it,
"Verily, I say
unto thee today Thou shalt be with me in paradise"?
It makes all the difference in the
understanding of Jesus' promise. How are we to decide?
Grammatically either sense is possible. Semeron (today) may
be taken either with the first verb, or the second. But there are
- Jesus was using a familiar
Hebrew form of statement commonly found in the Old Testament.
Here are three examples from one chapter (Deuteronomy
"I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day . .
. Know therefore this day, and consider it in thine heart . . .
Thou shalt keep (God's) commandments, which I command thee this
day . . ."
To declare something "this day" (or today), was a form of
solemn statement with full assurance of truth. Similar
expressions occur 42 times in the book of Deuteronomy alone. So
Jesus was using a well-known Hebrew form to underline the
seriousness of his words, "I say unto thee today . . ". The
thief could be assured that what Jesus promised would indeed
come to pass.
- Where was Jesus "that day"
anyway? Not in glory, in heaven. He was in the tomb. As
he prophesied himself to the scribes and Pharisees: "The son of
man shall be three days and three nights in the heart of the
earth" (Matt. 12:40). "Heart" is a Hebrew idiom for "midst";
he meant he would be in the grave.
- What are we to understand by
"paradise"? Once again we must be careful to get our
understanding from the Bible itself, not from human traditions.
The word was originally Persian and in the Old Testament is
translated forest, orchards, and gardens. Isaiah declares that
when the time comes for the Lord to "comfort Zion", He will
"make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the
garden of the Lord (51:3).
The Greek translators of the Old
Testament (about 200 years before Christ) rendered the Hebrew
"garden" here by paradeisos, the word used by Jesus in his
reply to the thief. Now the reference in the Isaiah prophecy is to
the prosperity and fertility of "the Land of Promise", the land
occupied by Israel in the years before Christ. So "paradise"
stands in the Bible for the new Kingdom of peace and joy which
Christ will establish when he returns to the earth, when "he comes
in his kingdom", as the thief believed he would. Thus understood,
the passage owes nothing to Greek legends, but is quite consistent
with the teaching of the whole Bible.
The small number of other passages
which are sometimes brought forward to support the idea of
survival of the soul after death will also be found, on careful
examination, to be quite consistent with the rest of Scripture.
The question may well be asked, If the survival of some soul or
spirit after death is not taught in the Bible, how has it become
so widely believed among religious people?
The explanation is simple. Some
such idea of survival was common in all the pagan religions of
antiquity, in all nations. It represented a common longing of the
human mind. It was a distinctive mark of early Christianity that
it rejected this false belief. The first Christians understood the
perishing nature of mankind. They looked for the new life,
promised through the Gospel, not at death but at the return of
Christ when the faithful dead would rise from their graves. As
time went on, however, "mass conversions" of formerly pagan
nations occurred in the Roman world.
Inevitably many converts brought
their pagan notions with them. Further, the leaders of the
Christian Church tried to make its teaching harmonise with the
ideas of the philosophers, derived from Greek sources. The
immortality of the soul was common among them.
But wherever there has been a
serious attempt to discover what the Bible is really saying, there
has been also a return to the beliefs of the early Christians.
Such a return occurred during the Reformation in Europe in the
16th and 17th centuries. The truth has been acknowledged openly in
more recent times by distinguished theologians. Look at these
In 1897, B. F. Westcott, Professor
of Divinity at Cambridge, commenting on 2 Timothy 1:10, wrote:
"The central fact of
our creed . . . is not the immortality of the soul, but the
resurrection of the body. Our Saviour brought life and
incorruption (not immortality) to light. . . Bearing this truth in
mind, we can see the force of Paul's words: 'The Lord Jesus shall
fashion anew the body of our humiliation' (Phil. 3:21, R.V)" -
Some Lessons of the Revised Version of the New Testament,
In 1924, Bishop Gore (of London)
"I think . . . that,
in the doctrine of human nature, the proposition that the soul of
man is in its essence incorruptible, and so necessarily immortal .
. . is derived from Greek -philosophy and not from Scripture."
- The Holy Spirit and the Church, p.288, footnote.
Appalled at the spread of
irreligion in the war years, the Church of England set up a
Commission under the chairmanship of the Bishop of Rochester.
Members of many religious communities took part. The report,
Towards the Conversion of England, published in 1945, contains
"The idea of the
inherent indestructibility of the human soul (or consciousness)
owes its origin to Greek, and not to Bible sources. The
central theme of the New Testament is eternal life, not for
anybody and everybody, but for believers in Christ as risen
from the dead." - p. 23.
(The italics in these quotations
are the present writer's.)
These are remarkable declarations
indeed. All that we have been finding in Scripture is here
confirmed. Men and women do not automatically survive death. By
nature they perish in the grave. Those who are to attain to
eternal life will do so as a result of resurrection from the grave
at the coming of Christ.
From our brief review of the teaching of the Bible on this
important subject one thing becomes clear: the message it contains
is vital to us all, for if we take no notice of it, we shall
perish. That is why its message is called "the Gospel", that is
"the good news". Just how essential it is Paul showed in reminding
his readers in Corinth of "the gospel which I preached unto you .
. . by which ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I
preached unto you . . . (1 Cor. 15:1-2).
To the Romans he wrote:
"I am not ashamed of
the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto
salvation to every one that believeth (Rom. 1:16).
How much our perishing race needs
this "good news"! What a marvellous thing it is that this message
of life still exists among us, for here it is, in the pages of the
Bible, in the very words of Jesus and his apostles. Let us make it
our aim to get to know this "word of life" while we still have the
opportunity, for our very future is at stake.
-- FRED PEARCE