Seventh-day Adventists’ view of death places them in a minority of Christian groups.
The question of what happens after death haunts many, who try to avoid thinking about death or an afterlife. The issue has confronted humanity since its earliest days. All cultures and world religions have tried to find out what happens after death. The Egyptians developed an extensive mummification process and built pyramids as tombs for the greatest among them. The Greeks got involved in philosophical speculations. In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates tried to prove the immortality of the soul through logical reasoning. Some Eastern religions have opted for the concept of reincarnation.
“Is death necessary?” asked biologist G. R. Taylor, as he discussed research on the problem of aging and dying and the possibility of bringing about natural immortality through scientific advances.1 In the meantime, some have decided to be frozen, to be revived when cures for their diseases or the aging process has been found. Many others—especially Christians—follow Greek speculation and claim that although their bodies are mortal, their souls are not. Most humans seem to hope that death is not the end.
From the Problem Toward a Solution
Unlike animals, humans have the unique ability to reflect on their own deaths. However, while we live with the awareness that our lives are limited, we have a hard time imagining what it means to be gone forever. Yet we also have a hard time thinking that we could live forever.
The problem is that our deceased loved ones do not—and obviously cannot—inform us about life after death (Luke 16:27–29). There are so-called near-death experiences, but even then, people may be able to relate only how they experienced the dying process from which they recovered. In addition, these experiences can be interpreted differently.
There are also spiritualistic phenomena, in which the supposed spirits of the deceased appear, but these are oftentimes frightening and vague and provide no real proof of life after death. From a biblical standpoint, they could either be illusions or the appearance of demonic spirits since even Satan “disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14, NASB).2
Some obituaries and inscriptions on gravestones claim that God has taken loved ones to a better world; others reflect no hope. The obituary in 1 Corinthians 15:3 to 8 contains four statements that help to find an approach to our query: (1) Christ has died; (2) Christ was buried; (3) Christ rose from the dead; and (4) Christ appeared to different persons after His resurrection. Jesus Christ came back from the dead, and He knows exactly what is going on after humans die. He has experienced death Himself, and through Scripture, He gives us important information about this topic.
A biblical doctrine of death and afterlife should accommodate all the evidence of the Word of God, creating a unified picture in which clear and difficult texts are well integrated. To learn from Scripture, Christians should “listen with complete objectivity to what the texts teach us about the faith and hope of primitive Christianity, without mixing their own opinions and views that are so dear to them with the interpretation of the texts.”3
Death in Scripture
According to Genesis 2:17, God announced that death would become a reality if our first parents decided against the Creator. At that time, death and its consequences were foreign to planet Earth. However, the serpent—identified as Satan in Revelation 12:9—claimed that immortality could be part of humanity (Gen. 3:4). From the beginning, God’s statement about death and Satan’s statement about immortality are diametrically opposed. After the Fall (Genesis 3), when the possibility of death became a bitter reality, affecting all human beings (Rom. 6:23) and even nonhuman existence (8:20–22), Satan’s lie lived on in the concept of the immortality of the soul. While God was undeniably correct that death had come as a consequence of separation from Him, some claimed that a part of human existence was immortal. This characteristic of paganism, not found in Old Testament religion, crept into Judaism in the intertestamental period; from there, it came into Christianity.
Death in the Old Testament. In order to understand death, it is helpful to return to Creation, because, in some respects, death is an undoing of creation. Genesis 2:7 reports that God gave life to the human body He had shaped from the dust of the ground. The process can be described as dust receiving the spark of life or, biblically speaking, “the breath of life,” and thus becoming a living being. As soon as life is withdrawn, the former state—dust—reappears. This applies to humans as well as to animals (Eccl. 3:19, 20). Therefore, it is obvious that in death there is no activity (9:5, 6, 10). The deceased have no consciousness. Already in the Old Testament, death is compared to sleep (Dan. 12:2, 13), which implies unconsciousness: the dead are “sleeping” or “resting” in the earth. However, there will be an awakening or resurrection.
Death in the New Testament. The New Testament confirms that the dead are in the grave (John 5:28, 29). David, a man after God’s heart (Acts 13:22), rests in the tomb and is not yet with God (2:29, 34). Jesus informs His disciples that where He will be, they cannot come immediately (John 7:33, 34; 13:33). They will not have access to the heavenly glory by following Him in death. “Peter is told that though he cannot follow Jesus now, one day he will (verse 36); the whole disciple group is assured that the departure of Jesus has in view the goal of their being with him in the Father’s house forever (14:2, 3).”4 The imagery of sleep is used to describe death. For instance, Lazarus sleeps in death for four days before he is raised by Jesus (John 11:11–15, 17; Matt. 27:52; 1 Cor. 15:6,18, 20; 1 Thess. 4:13–15). The Old and New Testaments, as well as Jesus’ own experience, suggest that death is a state of unconsciousness, called “sleep.”
After death. However, death is not the end. There will be a resurrection (1 Cor. 15:42–44). Believers will receive new bodies, not unrelated to their present bodies. While we have no detailed information regarding these new bodies, someone has compared our present bodies to coal and the new bodies to a marvelous diamond. Both consist of carbon, and yet they are different from each other. A child of God expects the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:22, 23). Furthermore, Jesus said He was preparing dwelling places for His people to inhabit after His second coming (John 14:1–3). Finally, death will be done away with (Rev. 21:4).
The Immortal Soul and Scripture
Only two biblical passages use the word immortality (athanasia), literally “deathlessness.” In 1 Timothy 6:14 to 16, Paul clearly states that God alone possesses immortality. In 1 Corinthians 15:53, immortality is something humans acquire only at the Second Coming. Believers who have passed away will be resurrected, and believers who are alive at Jesus’ return will be transformed and receive new and immortal bodies. Therefore, the claim that “immortality is a gift to all men in virtue of their creation and it is the total man which is immortal”5 is fictitious. The New Testament stresses that eternal life is always dependent on Jesus. Without a saving relationship with Him, there is no everlasting life―not on earth, not in heaven, and certainly not in hell (Rom. 6:23; John 3:36; 5:24; 1 John 5:11, 12). “The fate of the unredeemed is not immortality in hell, but the denial to them of immortality.”6
Another word, aphtharsia, describes what is imperishable and incorruptible. The very same results appear: God, divine qualities, and the inheritance He offers are incorruptible (Rom. 1:23; 1 Tim. 1:17; 1 Peter 1:4, 23; 3:4). Incorruptibility is a future gift to be received by believers at the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:42, 50, 52–54). Thus, it can be safely affirmed that immortality is not inherent in human beings.
Scripture and the Soul
The Hebrew and Greek terms that are translated as “soul” can be rendered in different ways. They stand for “life” (Gen. 9:4; Matt. 2:20), “heart” (“doing the will of God from the heart” [Eph. 6:6, NASB]), or emotions (the soul loves or grieves [Song of Solomon 1:7; Mark 14:34]). Soul is also frequently used for the entire person, as the following instances show: (1) humans do not have a soul but are a soul (1 Cor. 15:45; Gen. 2:7); (2) even animals are souls, that is, living beings (Gen. 1:20; 9:10; Rev. 16:3); (3) the soul can weep (Jer. 13:17); (4) the soul can be taken captive (Jer. 52:28–30); (5) the soul can be baptized (Acts 2:41); and, important, (6) the soul can die (Eze. 18:4; James 5:20; Rev. 20:4; Ps. 89:48; Job 36:14; Lev. 19:8; 21:1, 11). From this perspective it is difficult to understand that M. E. Osterhaven, after providing a correct definition of soul, could write that in Scripture, the soul “is conceived to be an immaterial principle created by God, which is usually united to a body and gives it life, however, the soul continues to exist after death in human beings.”7 Although he provided some biblical texts, most are those listed above that indicate directly or indirectly that the soul may die.
Quite often, the term soul designates the entire human being: the soul that weeps is the person who weeps. Where soul is distinguished from body, it does not describe a part that can be separated and exist independently. Furthermore, the term is not used in connection with immortality. “Neither nephesh (the Hebrew term for ‘soul’) nor psychē (the Greek term for ‘soul’) connotes an immaterial, immortal entity or part of humanity, capable of independent, conscious existence apart from the body.”8
The acceptance of the unbiblical concept of the immortality of the soul has led to a number of serious consequences, to erroneous doctrines and practices, and to distortions of the biblical message.
Unbiblical doctrines and practices derived from the immortality concept include (1) a presently existing purgatory and/or hell; (2) indulgences; (3) prayers, alms, and masses for the dead; (4) the veneration of Mary and the saints; (5) the teaching of reincarnation; and (6) the practice of spiritualism.
Through the centuries, the second coming of Jesus lost its importance in many churches. With the decline of the hope of the Second Coming, the teaching of the resurrection of the dead was partially lost. Also, the teaching of the judgment at the end of the world’s history became superfluous, since souls were believed to be already in heaven, purgatory, or hell.
If the concept of natural immortality were true, God would be a liar who cannot be trusted. God would also be without compassion, allowing people in heaven to watch the pain and suffering of their loved ones still on earth. God would be an unjust tyrant who punishes people in hell forever, when they have sinned for a limited time. The doctrine of the natural immortality of the soul creates a cruel picture of God and distorts Scripture, which teaches that God is love and cares for us (1 John 4:8, 9; Mal. 1:2).
We have to make a decision whom to trust.
You will surely die.
Jesus is the gate to eternal life.
You will not surely die.
Death is the gate to eternal life.
A number of passages appear to conflict with what has been said thus far in this article. A careful study of these creates an integrated biblical doctrine. Two are here considered:
Luke 16:19 to 31 records Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus. After his death, poor Lazarus is carried to Abraham’s bosom, while the rich man is tormented in a place separated by a chasm from the place of bliss. Yet Lazarus is able to talk to Abraham, who is within seeing distance, a concept irreconcilable with the biblical teaching of the new earth. It is often held that this parable teaches the immortality of the soul and a kind of already existent hell. The context and the passage itself indicate that Jesus’ message was not about the state of the dead but about how to live and the need for accepting Scripture: “‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead’” (Luke 16:31). Jesus simply used a well-known story to illustrate important truths, without endorsing the story. In parables, details should not be interpreted unless Scripture does it. An Old Testament illustration for this truth is found in Judges 9:8 to 16, in which trees talk and elect a king. Here the point is that the one who was most unworthy has usurped the kingship. Careful scholars do not base biblical doctrines on parables or similes; these are often figurative (as the trees clapping in Isaiah 55:12).
Since the old manuscripts were uncials (written with capital letters only) with no punctuation and no space between the words, Luke 23:43 can be translated, “‘Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise’” or “Truly I say to you today, you shall be with me in Paradise.” According to John 20:17, on Sunday, Jesus had not yet ascended to His Father. He was not in Paradise on Friday, but rested in the grave. Thus, the second translation option is preferable.
While Seventh-day Adventists are in the minority of Christian groups holding this view of what happens after death, several Protestant scholars have affirmed conditional immortality, the sleep of death, and the resurrection. Among these are Oscar Cullman, Emil Brunner, Reinhold Niebuhr, and, more recently, J. W. Wenham, J. R. Stott, and Clark H. Pinnock.
Since death affects all human beings, we must prepare for it (Ps. 90:12) by setting our priorities straight. In ancient Thessalonica, two burial inscriptions have been found, obviously from the same period. One says, “No hope.” The other one reads, “Christ is my life.” Two inscriptions and two different philosophies of life: resignation and assurance. The Scriptures say assurance.
Ekkehardt Mueller, ThD, DMin, is a former Associate Director of the Biblical Research Institute at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A.
NOTES AND REFERENCES