WHAT HAPPENS AFTER DEATH? PART THREE
Many Christians read Jesus’ announcements of perishing, destruction and punishment as pertaining to the eternal fate of the unsaved dead. In Matthew, chapter 25, Jesus speaks of eternal punishment and eternal life. This eternal punishment is generally believed to be eternal conscious torment in hell, even though Jesus doesn’t mention hell in this passage.
Matthew 25:41: Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal (Greek: aionios) fire prepared for the devil and his angels. Verse 46: Then they will go away to eternal (aionios) punishment, but the righteous to eternal (aionios) life.
In the first installment of this series we pointed out that the mission of Jesus was three-fold. Jesus came to facilitate salvation by His death and resurrection and, secondly, He came to teach Kingdom living. Thirdly, Jesus came with a message of warning to first century Israel as to what was to come upon them if they failed to implement Kingdom living and repent of the manner in which they were conducting themselves. This message was particularly directed to the religious leaders of first century Judaism.
Matthew 25 is a continuation of Jesus’ answer to the questions presented to Him by His disciples as recorded in Matthew 24:3. The disciples asked Jesus when the temple would be destroyed and what would be the sign of His coming and the end of the age. Jesus answers their question by showing what would take place in anticipation of these events. This matter is discussed in detail in my series, “When Does Christ Return?”
In Matthew 25, Jesus continues to respond to His disciple’s questions by giving two parables that caution them to be attentive to the warning signs He gave them so they would not be caught unaware as to the timing of His coming and the temples destruction. The return of Christ is tied to the destruction of the temple which we know took place in the first century. In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus is seen as coming in glory and separating the righteous from the unrighteous with the righteous being given access to the Kingdom and eternal life and the unrighteous being sent to eternal punishment
Many see Matthew 25:31-46 as pertaining to a final judgement where the saved go to heaven and the unsaved go to hell. Eternal fire is seen as a fire that burns forever and inflicts eternal torment on the unrighteous.
In part one of this series, we saw that hell does not represent a place of eternal punishing. Is Jesus introducing some other form of eternal punishment for the unrighteous in Matthew 25:41-46? The context of Matthew 24 and 25 is not an end of the world judgement but the destruction of the temple and first century Israelite society which is seen as tied to the return of Christ and the end of the age. We know the temple was destroyed in AD 70.
THE GREEK AION AND “ETERNAL FIRE”:
The Greek noun aion, translated age in Matthew 24:3, and throughout the NT means a segment of time. Depending on context, it can mean a long or short segment of time. It can mean a forever lasting segment of time. The context of a passage will determine its meaning. In the Septuagint (Greek translation of the OT), aion is used to translate the Hebrew olam. Olam is used dozens of times in the OT to designate a wide variety of time segments, including everlasting time. When Jonah was in the belly of the great fish, he spoke of being hemmed in by the earth forever (olam), Jonah 2:6. For Jonah, forever was only three days and nights in the water. A slave was seen as belonging to his master forever (olam), Exodus 21:6. Yet death would end such servitude. Animal sacrifices are seen as being established forever (olam). Yet we know they are no longer required. Other occurrences of olam show an everlasting time frame. David speaks of the glory of God enduring forever (elam).
The use of aion to translate olam shows the broad range of time frames this word can represent. Jesus spoke of the age (aion) that was and the age (aion) to come. The age that was, was not everlasting whereas the age to come is seen as everlasting. Context must always be the determining factor as to how aion is to be understood.
As discussed in depth in my series dealing with the timing of the return of Christ, the end of the age (aion) spoken of in the NT narrative is not about the end of the world but about the end of a segment of time called the Old Covenant age. The context of Matthew 24 and 25 is not some final judgement at the end of the physical world but a judgement that occurred at the time the temple was destroyed when Christ came in judgement against first century Israel.
In Matthew 25:41 and 46, the English word “eternal” is translated from the Greek aionios which is the adjective form of aion. This word means a segment of time just as its noun form aion. It does not have an intrinsic meaning of something that goes on without end. Its meaning in these passages must be determined by the context. The context is Jesus coming in judgement against first century Israel. Dozens of NT passages point to the expected wrath that was to come upon Israel. Apostle Paul often spoke of this wrath. One example is found in his letter to the Thessalonians.
1 Thessalonians 1:10: and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead--Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.
This coming wrath had nothing to do with the eternal fate of those being punished at the time. It was a wrath with physical consequences directed at first century Israel for their failure to recognize their Messiah and respond to His message. It was punishment directed against the Jewish society which was persecuting the developing Christian community. The return of Christ also facilitated consummation of the Kingdom and the indwelling of eternal life in those who had accepted Jesus as Lord of their life. First century followers of Jesus were anticipating the return of Christ in their life time to bring salvation to them as many scriptures attest to. The writer to the Hebrews shows this anticipation.
Hebrews 9:20: Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.
Jesus came the first time to be the ultimate sacrifice for sin, thus providing salvation for mankind. His second coming took place to consummate this salvation by permanently removing the means to facilitate the Old Covenant system of animal sacrifices. This system came crashing down with the destruction of the temple in AD 70. Jesus is using the imagery of eternal fire in Matthew 25 just like He uses the imagery of Gehenna fire as covered in part one of this series. Eternal fire is not a fire that burns forever but a fire that burns people up so they no longer exist in the form they were in. Other than Matthew 25, the only other passage where eternal fire is mentioned is Jude 1:7
Jude 1:7: Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal (aionios) fire.
Obviously Sodom and Gomorrah are not still burning. Their inhabitants are not still being punished by an eternal fire. The people of these two cities were physically burned up. What is instructive is that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah are not seen as being permanently destroyed by the punishment of eternal fire. They were not permanently annihilated. This was a destruction of their physical bodies. It was a temporal destruction, not an everlasting destruction. This is made plain in Matthew 10:14-15.
Matthew 10:14-15: If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town. I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.
The people of Sodom and Gomorrah are seen as facing a judgement that, comparatively speaking, is less severe than for those who reject the message being delivered by the disciples Jesus sent to preach in the surrounding towns. This implies the people of Sodom and Gomorrah continued to exist in some manner after having been physically destroyed or that they would be brought back to life at some future time. Peter used the fiery destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as an example of what will happen to the unrighteous of his day. Peter speaks in terms of the ungodly being burned up
2 Peter 2:6: If he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly….
Like Jesus, Paul and other NT writers, Peter was anticipating the end of the Old Covenant age. The Church was experiencing a great deal of persecution from the Jewish religious community. There are dozens of references in the NT to this persecution and the judgement that would bring it to an end. This judgement had nothing to do with the eternal fate of those being judged. This was a temporal judgement restricted to a specific segment of time (aion). We know literal fire was involved in the destruction of Jerusalem just as was the case with Sodom and Gomorrah.
Some believe that since both life and punishment are presented as eternal in the same context in Matthew 25, eternal must mean the same thing in both cases. This reasoning is problematical because when Jesus discussed eternal life He spoke in terms of never dying as seen in the passages from John quoted in part one of this series. To never die is to embark on a segment of time (aion) that is truly without end. The Kingdom and spiritual salvation is always seen as everlasting in the NT scriptures. Punishment by fire is not seen as everlasting as seen in our discussion of Sodom and Gomorrah.
If the eternal fire of Matthew 25 is a fire that burns people up but does not necessarily permanently annihilate people, why is this fire seen as prepared for Satan and his angels? If Satan and the demons are spirit entities as presumed, how could a physical fire harm them? The following scripture is instructive relative to this issue:
Hebrews 2:14-15: Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death--that is, the devil-- and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.
The word “destroy” is the Greek katargeo, which means: “to make ineffective, powerless, abolish, wipe out” (Arndt, Gingrich, Bauer, Greek-English Lexicon). Christ came to destroy Satan’s power of death and drive him from the world as seen in what Christ said as recorded in John, "Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out." (John 12:31). Whether this was a banishment of Satan or his actual destruction is unclear. God at some point created and gave life to the spirit Beings that rebelled. There is nothing in scripture that says God gave them immortal life. Since fire is a physical thing and Satan and his angels are non-physical, it would appear that fire, as we know it, would have no effect on them. Christ may have been using fire in Matthew 25 in a symbolic sense to signify the destruction of Satan and his angels.
We saw in part one of this series how Jesus used Gehenna as symbolic of the destruction of the wicked. Jesus often used physical things to make a point about what happens to the unrepentant.
Luke 13:1-5: Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them--do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish."
In this passage, Jesus is not saying unrepentant sinners will perish by having their blood mixed with their sacrifices or having a tower fall on them. He is not instructing as to the manner unrepentant sinners will perish. He is using examples of perishing to point out that unrepentant sinners will indeed die. I submit Christ uses references to Gehenna and eternal fire in the same manner.
As stated earlier, Jesus often used analogies, metaphors and illustrations to make a point. Earlier in Matthew 25, Jesus spoke of the unrighteous as being thrown into the darkness, “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Was there to be a literal weeping and gnashing of teeth or is this illustrative of the spiritual pain experienced by those on the outside looking in.
Failure to meet the standards God has established for human behavior is called sin. Sin has the general meaning of missing the mark. Paul wrote that the consequence of missing the mark is death.
Romans 6:23: For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Is Paul speaking of physical death, spiritual death or both? Adam and Eve were told that in the day they ate of the forbidden tree (sinned), they would die. They didn’t physically die the day they ate of the forbidden tree. Scripture shows they lived for many hundreds of years after the tree incident. Instead of immediate physical death, God banished them from the garden so they would not eat of the tree of life and live forever. God also told them they would return to the ground from which they were taken. They were dust and to dust they would return. Adam and Eve did eventually physically die. One could say they spiritually died when they sinned and lost their intimate relationship with God in being tossed out of the garden.
The message that comes across here is that man is totally mortal and temporal and subject to death. There is nothing in the Genesis account to suggest that upon physical death man lives on in some other form. There is nothing in this account to suggest man has an immortal soul that lives on after physical death. We saw in part one of this series the soul is not innately immortal and that immortality is something that we seek and can only be granted by God. The scriptures teach man has a spirit and at physical death the spirit goes back to God who gave it. Is the spirit of man immortal? Does the spirit in man live on in a cognitively conscious state after physical death and therefore has the potential of experiencing eternal punishing?
THE SPIRIT IN MAN:
The word spirit appears hundreds of times in the scriptures. In Hebrew the word for Spirit is ruah and in Greek the word for Spirit is pneuma. These words have the same basic meaning. They mean air. More specifically these words denote the movement of air as in breath or wind. Ruah and pneuma are used in scripture to designate a number of attributes such as power, wisdom and understanding. These words are used to describe cognitive function. God is quoted as saying He forms the ruah within man. Job associates ruah with human understanding. Paul shows it is the spirit in both God and man that is responsible for cognitive function
Zechariah 12:1: This is the word of the LORD….who forms the spirit (ruah) of man within him.
Job 32:8: But it is the spirit (ruah) in a man, the breath (n'shah-mah) of the Almighty, that gives him (man) understanding.
I Corinthians 2:11: For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man's spirit (pneuma) within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit (pneuma) of God.
In Genesis 2:7, it is recorded God breathed into the nostrils the breath (Hebrew: n'shah-mah) of life. Here the Hebrew word n'shah-mah is used which means spirit, breath or to breathe. Ruah and n'shah-mah are used to describe the very breath of life for both humans and animals. Ruah is used to describe the very movement of air that facilitates life.
Genesis 6:17: I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath (ruah) of life in it. Everything on earth will perish.
Genesis 7:15: And they went into the ark to Noah, two by two, of all flesh in which is the breath (ruah) of life.
It is apparent the spirit God gives His created creatures imparts life and facilitates cognitive function. When physical life ends, this spirit returns to God and physical life and its associated cognitive function ceases.
Ecclesiastes 3:19: Man's fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath (ruah); man has no advantage over the animal. Verse 21: All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.
Ecclesiastes 12:7: and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit (ruah) returns to God who gave it.
Psalm 146:4: His breath (ruah) goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish (KJV).
In part one of this series we quoted from Ecclesiastes 3:18-20: where Solomon speaks of the fate of man and animals being the same. Both have the same breath (ruah) and go to the same place upon death. Solomon then asks the question, "Who knows if the spirit (ruah) of man rises upward and if the spirit (ruah) of the animal goes down into the earth?" (verse 21).
As already discussed, a basic meaning of ruah is “moving air.” However, this is not the only meaning of ruah. Bullinger, in his Companion Bible shows ruah having the meaning of “invisible force.” Ruah is frequently used in Scripture to identify the Spirit of God and in some cases to identify the spirit of man. Where ruah is used to identify spirit, its meaning is more in line with the idea of invisible force. Sometimes ruah is used to identify the force of ones anger as we will see. Ruah is also used in Scripture to define the exercise of God’s power which in reality is the exercise of His Spirit.
Why does Solomon question whether the ruah of man rises upward and the ruah of an animal goes down into the earth? As discussed in Part One of this series, Solomon may simply be asking a rhetorical question within the context of his acknowledgement of both man and animals being of the same breath and dying by having their breath leave them. As already discussed, ruah is not limited to identifying the movement of air such as in breath. Bullinger, in his extensive comments on this word in the Companion Bible, concludes that context must be considered in determining how a writer is using this word. For example we see this in Psalm 139:
Psalm 139:7: Where can I go from your Spirit (ruah)? Where can I flee from your presence?
Here ruah is used to express the presence of God which is more in line with the idea of an invisible force and not moving air as is true in the breathing process. In Genesis 1:2 it is recorded that God’s ruah hovered over the waters. Here the meaning of ruah appears to denote the power of God being used in the creative process. So as can be seen, ruah is used in a variety of ways and context is critical in determining how it is being used. Solomon uses ruah some 22 times in Ecclesiastics and in different ways.
1:6: The wind (ruah) blows to the south and turns to the north. Here, ruah is being used to describe the movement of air.
7:9: Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit (ruah), for anger resides in the lap of fools. Here ruah is being used to reference a frame of mind.
10:4: If a ruler's anger (ruah) rises against you, do not leave your post; calmness can lay great errors to rest. Here ruah relates to emotional expression.
It may just be that Solomon is using ruah in 3:21 to designate the loss of breath resulting in physical death and in 12:7 he is using ruah to show that the invisible life force that God gives to us at birth is what returns to God at our death. It appears both humans and animals have this life force. Since the scriptures reveal that humans are made in the image of God and nothing is said of animals being made in this manner, it would appear that the Spirit given to man at birth and returned to God at physical death is of a different nature than the spirit given to animals.
While the spirit given to animals appears to return to God as does the human spirit, there is no scriptural evidence that an animal spirit retains or is given conscious cognitive function beyond physical death. There is abundant scriptural evidence that a "saved" human is provided a transformed body having conscious cognitive function after physical death. Some believe this will first occur at a future resurrection associated with a future return of Christ. Others believe this occurs at the time of physical death.
As I have mentioned elsewhere on this website, I have always been puzzled by Christians who believe that when they die they inherit eternal life and go straight to heaven to be with the Lord while at the same time believing they will be resurrected to life at a yet to occur return of Christ. If you are already in heaven enjoying the benefits of eternal life, why be resurrected to an eternal life you already have?
Some respond to this puzzlement by saying when the Christian dies he only goes to heaven as a disembodied spirit. Entrance into heaven upon physical death is seen as an intermediate stage between our physical death and a future resurrection when we will have our physical transformed into a spiritual body. Under this perspective, many of the saved have been enjoying heavenly bless for hundreds or even thousands of years while still awaiting a transformed body. I keep waiting for someone to provide sound scriptural evidence for this perspective.
While resurrection from the dead is clearly taught in scripture, it is an event that first century church leaders clearly believed and taught was going to occur in their lifetime in association with what they believed was the imminent to them return of Christ. If these events didn't happen in their lifetime as believed and taught by the writers of NT scriptures, we have a scriptural creditability problem of great proportion. (See my series entitled "When Does Christ Return."
Under the Christian theological system, provision of an immortal body appears to be possible only through the resurrected Christ who has been given immortal life by the Father and has thus provided the means by which the Father can give immortal life to us humans.
Revelation 1:18: I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.
John 11:25: I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.
Jesus plainly teaches He was dead but is now alive forevermore and if we express faith in Him we will live even though we die. Jesus is speaking of post-mortem life. Life after physical death. The only way we humans can live beyond physical death is for the immortal Spirit of God to unite with our mortal human spirit to make it an immortal spirit.
John 6:63: The Spirit (pneuma) gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit (pneuma) and they are life.
Romans 8:11: And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you. Verse 16: The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God (KJV).
Philippians 3:20-21: …The Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.
1 Corinthians 15: 42-44: So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.
Immortal life is not something we are born with. It is not something carried over to our physical bodies from a former existence. The scriptures show we are mortal through and through. The only way we can live beyond physical death is to experience resurrection. Resurrection to immortal life is only seen in scripture as granted within the context of reconciliation with God. Therefore, immortal life is only seen as a glorious state and not as a suffering state. There is no scriptural evidence that God gives immortal life to someone and then consigns them to eternal punishing.
As referenced earlier in this series, some believe humans have preexisted their human birth Those who believe this will cite scriptures that suggest preexistence for humans such as the following:
Jeremiah 1:5: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations."
God says He knew Jeremiah before He formed him in the womb and set him apart before he was born. Forming Jeremiah in the womb and speaking of his birth all suggest this is when Jeremiah had his beginning. It is a real stretch to conclude God is talking about knowing Jeremiah as a conscious, cognitive person that was inserted into the womb of his mother and then born as a human. It is much more reasonable to conclude God is speaking of facilitating the human birth of Jeremiah with a specific purpose in mind which Jeremiah would carry out.
As already stated, the Christian theological system appears to allow for the granting of eternal life only to those who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. If we are totally mortal and immortality is only obtainable through faith in Christ resulting in a glorious existence with God, where does this leave the billions of humans who have lived and died never knowing, understanding or responding to the Christ event?
Scripture indicates all humans will be resurrected to face judgement. Will they be resurrected to a temporary mortal existence after physical death and given opportunity to respond to the Christ event and receive eternal life? If, upon physical death, the human spirit goes back to God who gave it, what is the current status of the spirits of the billions of "unsaved" humans who have lived and died? Are such spirits cognitively conscious or cognitively unconscious?
Some who teach a resurrection of the unsaved dead to physical life believe this will take place during a hundred year period following a thousand year reign (the millennium) of Christ on earth. During this reign of Christ the earth will be transformed and prepared to handle the project of teaching billions of resurrected "unsaved" humans the pathway to salvation. The saved dead will be resurrected at the beginning of the millennium (first resurrection) and play an instrumental role in making the earth ready for this great resurrection (second resurrection) of the unsaved dead. After the hundred year period a third resurrection will take place where the physical bodies of the incorrigibly wicked dead will be brought back to life and, along with any living unrepentant wicked, will be cast into a lake of fire to be simply burned up and be no more. This perspective is based on a futuristic perspective as to the timing of the return of Christ and on placing the “dry bones” prophecy of Ezekiel 37 and various passages in Malachi 4 and Revelation chapter 20 into a future to us context. I discuss the problems with these futuristic perspectives in various essays throughout this website.
Many futuristic interpretations of escatological (end time) events are problematic. A careful study of the scriptures and secular history shows that many events discussed in scripture that are believed to be future have already been fulfilled. The scriptures teach there will be a resurrection of all humans who have ever lived. Apostle Paul taught that both the righteous and the wicked will be resurrected. Jesus gave the same indication. Our quest is to determine what is meant by resurrection and when does it occur. Has it already occurred? Has it already occurred for some while it will first occur for other in the future?
Acts 24:15: I (Paul) have the same hope in God as these men, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked.
Matthew 12:41: The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here.
Matthew 11:24: But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you."
Such passages of scripture as these indicate a resurrection for all humans including those who lived before the Christ event and never had opportunity to accept the sacrifice of Christ. These scriptures even suggest different levels of judgement based on ones behavior during ones physical existence.
In addition to the idea of there being a resurrection of the unsaved dead to temporal physical life where salvation is offered, others believe the unsaved dead are given a spiritual existence somewhere in the cosmos where opportunity is given to respond to the salvation message. Some see this as a place of remedial correction or punishment for sin. The Catholic idea of purgatory was developed as a place of remedial punishment for those whose sins do not quite qualify for condemnation to “eternal torment." After a period of corrective punishment, individuals are ushered into heaven.
Scripture teaches resurrection to life is going to happen to all humans. Resurrection is simply being made alive after having been dead. Life and death are seen both as spiritual and physical in scripture. Resurrection to immortal life seems to apply only to the saved dead. If immortal life is only granted to the saved, to what kind of life are the "unsaved" resurrected to? Is immortality only for the comparative few who are “predestined” by God to receive salvation (Calvinism)? Is immortality limited to only those who, in this life, choose to accept Jesus as savior (Arminianism)? Will immortality be granted to most humans who have ever lived? Will all humans be granted immortality? We will continue to explore this issue in part three of this series.