When You Die

A lot of what you might have heard from Christians about death is not accurate to what the Bible actually says. Yes, that's a bold claim, but it's a claim worth investigating. As far as most people have understood it, one of the most basic principles of the Bible is that humans are spirits trapped in physical bodies, and that when those physical bodies die, the souls are released to either heaven or hell, where they'll remain forever.

But this is quite far from the actual picture painted by the Bible. For most of the Biblical characters we know in the Old Testament, death is viewed as very final, being experienced as unconscious sleep, or even a shadowy near-non-existence (Isaiah 14:9-11). Hebrew concepts like Sheol and Gehenna do not neatly line up with common Christian concepts of life after death.

The book of Ecclesiastes paints an especially dim picture of the end of human life. This represents the perspective that a lot of people in the Old Testament times adopted, especially in the parts prior to the exile.

"The living at least know they will die, but the dead know nothing. They have no further reward, nor are they remembered. 6 Whatever they did in their lifetime—loving, hating, envying—is all long gone. They no longer play a part in anything here on earth." Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 NLT

While this is something of a bleak picture, it's worth noticing that this remark about the dead no longer having anything to do with what happens on earth is a big relief to anyone who fears being haunted by ghosts, or having the events of their lives altered by the influence of departed people. The dead are gone, and they have no more part to play in what happens on earth.

Ecclesiastes goes on: "Yes, remember your Creator now while you are young, before the silver cord of life snaps and the golden bowl is broken. Don’t wait until the water jar is smashed at the spring and the pulley is broken at the well. For then the dust will return to the earth, and the spirit will return to God who gave it." Ecclesiastes 12:6-7 NLT

For many of the Jews, death was simply the end. The elemental dust that we are (Genesis 2) returns to the earth, and the breath of life (again Genesis 2) returns to God who gave it. While this may sound kind of hopeless to Christian ears, we have to remember a couple things about the culture and beliefs of Israel.

First, the Jewish people who returned from the exile did eventually gain the belief that the dead would be resurrected at the end of time (Daniel 12:1-3). By the time Jesus came around, his people simply took this to be a given - that at "the last day," people would be resurrected and judged (John 11:24). When Jesus' friend Lazarus died, his sister Martha expressed her belief that her brother would rise again at the last day. This confirms that the religion of the Old Testament did not lead people to believe in immediate life after death, but rather in resurrection of the dead.

Secondly, in earlier parts of the Bible, it is important for us to notice how important offspring are to many people. For the likes of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, having a lot of descendants was important not only because it was nice to have kids, but because people saw themselves as living on primarily through their legacy. A person would live on, in a sense, through their descendants, because death was essentially the final end of an individual. We can see traces of this line of thinking in the way that the Bible repeatedly speaks of people joining their "fathers" or ancestors in "sleep" when they die, and also in the way that later members of this culture speak of descendants being "in" their ancestors (see Hebrews 7:9-10).

For many Christians, these concepts about death are shocking and somewhat offensive, since most of our cultural understanding about death has been that there is an eternal heaven and an eternal hell existing in parallel, and that everyone who has ever died went to one of those places or the other. Actually looking at the evidence presented in the Bible requires that we re-align our worldview a bit and appreciate what's actually stated there.

Many people live in fear of death. The Biblical message about Jesus does not end up being as hopeless and despairing as the image presented by Ecclesiastes on its own. Jesus made the promise of resurrection more certain, not only by speaking about it, but also by giving the world a foretaste of that power in his own resurrection.

"For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” John 6:40 ESV

Questions:

  • Read 1 Corinthians 15:12-19. If were is no such thing as resurrection of the dead, what would be the point of Christian faith?

  • Read 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 What hope does this give us? What does it say will happen to death itself?

  • Read 1 Corinthians 15:35-58. What does Paul mean by a "resurrection body"? What makes this kind of body different than the normal bodies we have now?

  • If the dead who are saved go directly to heaven after they die, is there a point in having a resurrection of their bodies? Why or why not?

  • Watch this video by the Bible Project about the Hebrew concept of "soul." What does it tell you? What are some surprising things presented in this video?

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