Life After Death – Part 8
|By: Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©2004|
|What is the biblical view of death? What is the biblical view of the afterlife—that is, life after death?|
Life After Death – Part 8
What is the biblical view of death?
Death per se is a condition of separation. According to the Bible, there are only two kinds of death. First, there is physical death, which involves the temporary separation of the spirit from the body. In the resurrection, the body is later rejoined with the human spirit. Second, there is spiritual death or the eternal separation of the human spirit from God. This condition has no remedy.
Death is not good—it has never been good. Physical death—separation from the body—is not good since man is left “unclothed” (2 Cor. 5:4; Phil. 3:21; 1 Cor. 15) and in an unnatural state. Spiritual death—separation from God—is also obviously not good since it is eternal.
“Death” and “life” are irreconcilable and opposite conditions of existence in both this life and the next. Apart from Christ, death leads to one thing only— eternal judgment (“It is given for man to die once and then comes judgment” Heb. 9:27). But with Christ, death leads to life: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die” (John 11:25-26). And, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life” (John 5:24).
The Bible teaches that prior to salvation, even as they are alive, all men and women exist in a state of spiritual death or separation from God. Their human spirits are dead to those things that God is truly concerned about (see Luke 15:24-32; Eph. 2:1; 1 Tim. 5:6; Rev. 3:1). Even though they are alive physically, they do not consider the one true God, nor do they thank Him, nor do they care about His interests. Whatever concept of God they may believe in, they do not accept the one true God. This is why Jesus Himself referred to “the dead burying their own dead,” explicitly teaching that the living human beings around him were, as far as God was concerned, spiritually dead (Luke 9:60; Rom. 3:10-18).
The Bible tells us that physical and spiritual death exist for one reason—sin. God warned Adam and Eve that if they disobeyed Him, in that day, they would die (Gen. 2:17). This is why the Bible teaches that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).
Because sin causes death, the problem of sin must be dealt with before death can be eradicated. This is the reason for the Christian teaching on the Atonement—that Christ died for the sins of the world. As Jesus taught, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Whoever receives Christ as his personal Savior is “born again” or made alive spiritually. That person receives true life after death or, in biblical terms, eternal life (John 6:47). But what actually happens, of course, is that the believer’s state of spiritual death is cancelled at the point of receiving Christ. There is no longer the possibility of suffering God’s judgment for his sins, which is the second death. Instead, at the point of physical death, he will join God forever. This is the essence of the term “saved.” But it must be stressed that the system is conditional. Men must believe in the atoning death of Jesus Christ or they cannot be saved. This is the condition: that they accept what God has done in the person of Christ.
The Christian hope then is in physical resurrection and eternal immortality based on Christ’s resurrection and life, not a mediumistic view of gradual, spiritual self-progression after death (Rom. 4:25; 1 Cor. 6:14; 2 Cor. 4:14; 5:1; Eph. 1:15-21; 2:4-10; Phil. 1:21; 3:21; Col. 3:4, etc.). Those who accept Christ inherit heaven for eternity, while those who reject God’s mercy inherit hell for eternity.
Thus, the biblical view is that the saved are with God—they go to be with Him at the moment of death (Luke 23:43; John 12:26; Acts 7:59; 2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:23, etc.) while the unsaved dead are confined and under punishment. Furthermore, there is no possibility of altering one’s condition after death. Death, then, is not extinction, as many cults teach. It does not involve a condition of reincarnation, where the soul experiences many lifetimes, as the occult believes. It does not involve a condition of ultimate union or absorption into some impersonal, divine essence, as many Eastern religions teach (Eccl. 12:5; Luke 12:46-47; 16:19-31; Acts 1:25; Heb. 9:27; Psa. 78:39; 2 Cor. 5:11; Heb. 10:31; 12:27-29; 2 Pet. 2:4,9; Rev. 20:10,15).
Of course, if the saved are with Christ and the unsaved are confined and in judgment, then the dead are not free to roam around, and therefore not who they claim to be. This takes us to our next question.
What is the biblical view of the afterlife?
What about the near-death experience [NDE] and the Bible? The biblical view of death is far different from that which is implied by the NDE, but this is not to say that the NDE is necessarily unreal or imaginary. The spirit does, in fact, leave the body at true death (Luke 8:55; 1 Kings 17:22; Eccl. 12:6-7). It is at least theoretically possible that some natural “trigger mechanism” or spiritistic influence could occasionally produce a similar result prior to death. It may be possible, then, to temporarily enter a spiritual dimension where, for example, angels (both good and evil) might exist.
In occult literature spirits have claimed the ability to induce out-of-body experiences in humans. And biblically we are told that the devil does have, in some sense, an influence over death (Heb. 2:14). In our opinion, the evidence from the testimony of psychics, gurus, occultists, etc., regarding astral projection or out-ofbody experiences indicates that the separation of the body and spirit of the living is a temporarily possible condition. Exactly where they go in something like astral travel is unknown. But one also cannot rule out demonic deception, or a manipulation of the mind that only gives people the feeling of being out of their bodies when, in fact, they are not.
Regardless, the NDE still does not supply a fully accurate description of the biblical heaven. The Bible describes heaven as an entirely new order of existence that is wonderful beyond comparison. But it is only for the redeemed. The common cultural myths—heaven as a reward for good deeds, people floating on clouds, plucking harps or polishing halos, Peter at the pearly gates checking invitations, etc.—are absent. What we can imagine from the biblical descriptions given is that the redeemed become spiritual in nature, changed completely. They become truly one with God, yet retain their unique individuality—spiritual beings who are distinct personalities and are not, as in Eastern traditions, absorbed into God. We are still who we are, but wonderfully recreated. The common analogy suggested from nature is that of the simple larva emerging as a magnificent butterfly.
Because the Scripture clearly teaches that God is love, a fact so thoroughly demonstrated at the cross, heaven will be a place that is imbued with love. It will be a completely loving environment—a place where we eternally enjoy the presence of the very essence of love, peace, joy, beauty, creativity, and everything that is sublime. This glorious future is hinted at in 1 Corinthians 2:9: “Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and which have not entered the heart of man, all that God has prepared for those who love Him.”
It is God’s nature to give, and we can only guess at what God will give those He loves throughout eternity. Jesus simply said, “Great is our reward in heaven,” and the Apostle Paul, who was surrounded with sufferings, assured us that “the sufferings of this present time are not even worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18).
Perhaps the most awesome fact of heaven is not only that we will be in the presence of Jesus, but also that we shall be “like Him” (1 John 3:2). We are reminded of the statement by C.S. Lewis that if any person on earth could now see one of the redeemed, they would be tempted to worship them as a god. Each of us shall be completely sinless, joyful, and powerful. We will not only know the personalities of the Bible, but also our own saved friends and relatives who have joined us for eternity, and even our “guardian angels” as we think of them. We will be content, with no wants. We will be with, talk with, and constantly commune with the God who loves us and has redeemed us forever. Time and space will no longer exist as we know them, but we will continue in fellowship with the Maker of time and space.
We will have every question answered, and yet because God is infinite there will be throughout eternity new things to learn about Him. But whatever we learn, we shall forever be mindful of the infinite love of God for us expressed in the life, death, and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ.
In essence, to inherit heaven is to inherit all that God is (1 Cor. 3:21-23) and all that exists in His universe as He originally intended it.
But the Bible also teaches that there is an eternal hell for those who have willfully refused the love and mercy of God. In large measure, the real hell about hell is that people choose it for themselves. Theologian Harold O.J. Brown once commented that “Hell has been called ‘the most enduring monument to the freedom of the human will.’” C.S. Lewis emphasized, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’”
In his book The Problem of Pain Lewis expanded on this idea: “If a game is played, it must be possible to lose it. If the happiness of a creature lies in self-surrender, no one can make that surrender but himself (though many can help him to make it) and he may refuse. I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully ‘all will be saved.’ But my reason retorts, ‘without their will, or with it?’ If I say, ‘without their will,’ I at once perceive a contradiction; how can the supreme voluntary act of self-surrender be involuntary? If I say ‘with their will,’ my reason replies, ‘how if they will not give in?’”
There is no other authority than the Bible when it comes to the subject of life after death. Occult experiences that are demonic deceptions cannot tell us about the afterlife, nor can cultic theology, nor endless human speculation from the dawn of time. Only God knows what death is like. And He has told us. Unfortunately, many people who swear by the passages on heaven in the Bible completely reject the passages on hell, however irrational this might be. We stress that God is “not wishing for any to perish, but for all to come to repentance. He desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Pet. 3:9; 1 Tim. 2:4). Nevertheless, for those who refuse to do so there is a place of punishment for their sins that is eternal.
Hell is described in the Bible in a variety of terms: “outer darkness,” “the resurrection of judgment,” “the black darkness,” “the punishment of eternal fire,” “the place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth,” “eternal punishment,” etc. (Matt. 3:7-12; 8:12; 22:13; 25:46; Mark 9:43.48; John 5:29: Rev. 19:20; 20:10-15, etc.).
But why must hell be eternal? First, because God is an infinite being. Sins committed against Him require the full magnitude of a divine punishment based upon infinite holiness. Who can deny that infinite holiness might justly require eternal punishment? Further, without the punishment of evil, there is no justice in eternity. But can eternal justice coexist with temporal punishment if no amount of limited punishment has absolute meaning when compared to the timelessness of eternity? In other words, if, in eternity, there is to be divine justice—punishment of evil corresponding to the offended sensibilities of infinite holiness—one would think it must last forever or, by comparison, be ultimately meaningless. To punish someone for a million years and then bring them into heaven for all eternity is, comparatively speaking, hardly any punishment at all.
Second, those who were never redeemed in this life will continue in the same spiritual condition they nurtured on earth. Their unredeemed personality will exist eternally. In their feelings, thoughts, and will they shall constantly be expressing the fruits of their sinful nature. In other words, they will continue to sin forever. But the punishment for eternal sinning can only be eternal punishment.
Whether or not we can adequately comprehend hell, the Bible clearly teaches it. Jesus Himself taught that the unrepentant “will go away into eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:46).
Alternate cultic views cannot be defended biblically.
Conditional immortality teaches that the human spirit is not innately immortal. But no Scripture anywhere proves this, and it goes against the implication of man being created in God’s image, and, therefore, of having an eternal spirit. On the other hand, to say that the human spirit is immortal but that it will be annihilated in judgment rather than face eternal punishment is also lacking in biblical support.
Universalism, the teaching that all will be saved, is also contradicted in scores of Scriptures, some of which we have cited.
Those who advocate the above beliefs frequently appeal to (1) philosophical arguments (e.g., infinite love and eternal punishment are mutually contradictory); (2) humanistic arguments, none of which are convincing (e.g., men are too good to be damned); and (3) scriptural or exegetical arguments (e.g., that the specific Greek and Hebrew words for eternal really do not mean eternal).
But the biblical words for eternal do mean eternal, and the words for punishment do mean punishment.
In fact, the Scriptures are as clear on the doctrine of eternal punishment as they are on justification by faith or the deity of Jesus Christ. It is only emotional appeal, humanistic thinking, contaminated philosophy or preexisting bias against hell that can make a “case” for these unbiblical options.
The scriptural teaching on eternal punishment is not obscure or uncertain; the very difficulty of the doctrine argues for its biblical clarity. Given the natural tendency to reject something so unpleasant as hell, only scriptural certainty could explain the Church’s position of acceptance for 2,000 years.
The problem is that many people today, including some Christians, refuse to accept what the Scriptures and their Lord plainly teach. In 2,000 years, all exegetical arguments that have ever been put forth to reject the doctrine of eternal punishment have failed. Therefore, conditional immortality, annihilationism, and universalism are mere humanistic speculations, not biblical or theological truths—and certainly not legitimate options for Christians.
In an area where neither reason nor emotion is sufficient, to reject the clear scriptural teaching on life after death is to assume agnosticism. As Dr. Packer observes, “To fall victim to secular philosophy and ideology has been a characteristic Protestant vice for three centuries, and it is one from which evangelicals are by no means free.”
If each of us will die one day, then the most important thing in life is to have assurance that death can be entered safely. Whether or not we fear dying, we need not fear death if our sins are forgiven through faith in Christ.
- Malachi Martin, Hostage to the Devil (New York: Bantam, 1977), p. 482.
- John Weldon, “New Age Intuition,” and “Self Help Therapy: Inner Guides and Imagination as Personal Healers,” unpublished ms.
- Harold O.J. Brown, The Protest of a Troubled Protestant (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1969), p. 213.
- C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: MacMillan, 1946), p. 69.
- C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: MacMillan, 1971), pp. 118-119.
- Detailed refutations of unorthodox views relating to scriptural arguments, interpretation and biblical words are found in Robert Morey’s Death and the Afterlife (Minneapolis: Bethany, 1984).
- J.I. Packer, “Evangelicals and the Way of Salvation,” in Kenneth Kantzer & Carl F. Henry, eds., Evangelical Affirmations (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1990), p. 110.