6 Questions about Death Answered by the Bible

On the National Geographic Channel, Morgan Freeman hosts a documentary called The Story of God: The Story of Us. I must say that I did not know what to expect going into this series. Would this documentary serve as an attack on the Christian faith? Would the documentary serve a hidden agenda? While I do believe that the documentary (like any documentary, show, book, or movie) does hold to a particular worldview that it holds in place, I was pleasantly surprised that the first installment of the show was well done and not confrontational towards the Christian faith. Over the next few weeks, I wish to evaluate the topics presented on the show from a Christian worldview.

The first episode of The Story of God confronted the idea of death. Freeman’s documentary brought six questions to mind. This article will provide those six questions and brief answers. For each of these questions, we could devote an entire article to each. Thus, to say that these answers are abbreviated is indeed an understatement.

Question 1: Why do people die?

Death is defined as the cessation of life. Human death (Heb. “mawet;” Gk. “Thanatos”) is a direct result of sin. Solomon writes, “The wages of the righteous is life, but the earnings of the wicked are sin and death” (Proverbs 10:16).[1] The apostle Paul states more explicitly that the “wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Paul also states that “just as sin entered the world through one man (referring to Adam), and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). The Bible also acknowledges two kinds of death: physical death (Romans 5:12) and spiritual death, or “second death” (Rev. 20:14). The second death refers to an eternal existence in an abode apart from the eternal presence of God (Rev. 20:14-15; Mark 9:47-48), otherwise known as hell.

Question 2: How did Jewish believers up to the time of Christ view life after death?

In Freeman’s documentary, it was noted that the Jews of Jesus’ day did not hold a clear perception of what happened after death. However, this is not necessarily true. Whereas Old Testament is not as explicit concerning the afterlife as is the New Testament, the lack of the OT’s explicit nature of the afterlife does not indicate the absence of any teachings on the matter. The OT describes the afterlife as a shadowy place called Sheol. It is not non-existence, but it is not the same as life on earth either. Many scholars hold that the Jewish people in the OT and of the time of Second Temple Judaism[2] held to a two-tiered view of Sheol. This is clearly seen in Jesus’ Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). However, this view did not originate with Jesus. The commentators of the Faithlife Study Bible denote that “The ot more broadly contains definite hints of a hope beyond sheol for the righteous.”[3] Asaph notes in Psalm 73 that God will “guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me to glory” (Psalm 73:24). N. T. Wright also suggests that the Pharisees of the Second Temple Judaism period “held to a belief in resurrection in this period…had also developed regular ways of describing the intermediate state.[4] In that world, nobody supposed the dead were already raised; resurrection, as we have seen, describes new bodily life after a present mode of ‘life after death’.”[5]

It appears that there may have been an idea of a type of heavenly and hellish existence compartmentalized in the Sheol concept. Wayne Grudem states that “it seems likely that Old Testament believers also entered immediately into heaven and enjoyed a time of fellowship with God upon their death. However, it may well have been true that additional rich blessings and much greater rejoicing came to them when Christ returned to heaven at his ascension.”[6] In my estimation, while I do feel that the believers of the OT period entered into a paradise (a conscious existence with God), I do not feel that they had full access that would have been available until after Christ’s death.

Question 3: Does the Bible teach reincarnation?

No. Reincarnation finds its home in pantheistic (Buddhist) and panentheistic (Hinduism) worldviews. Reincarnation is the view that a soul passes from an earthly mode of existence to another mode of earthly existence until one becomes pure energy (like God). If a person lives a bad life, they may come back as a rodent in the next life. If someone lives a righteous life, they may continue to escalate the human experience until they exit the wheel of reincarnation and enter into the abode of God (pure energy). In stark contrast, the Bible teaches that “people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Heb. 9:27).

Question 4: What does the Bible teach will happen to a person after they die?

The NT expounds upon the base work given in the OT concerning the intermediate state and the resurrection. The Bible teaches that once a person dies he or she will be taken into the presence of God in what is called an intermediate state. Evidence of this doctrine is found in Jesus’ promise to the repentant crucified victim (Luke 23:43) as well as Paul’s teaching that one who leaves the body goes to the direct presence of God (2 Cor. 5:8). After the intermediate state, God will resurrect all people at the end of human history. Some will be resurrected to eternal life with God (Rev. 20:6) and some will be resurrected with bodies to face eternal punishment (Rev. 20:11-14).

Question 5: Does the Bible teach the doctrine of purgatory?

The issue of purgatory was not examined in Freeman’s documentary; however, purgatory is a doctrine held in some Christian denominations. Purgatory is the idea that righteous individuals will have to face a period of time in fire for unconfessed sins. Those in purgatory serve their time and then are ushered into heaven. But, is there any biblical evidence for such a view?

No. The only comparable teaching that is similar to the doctrine of purgatory is that of the Judgment Seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10). While one’s deeds are tested by fire, it does not appear that the person is in the fire (1 Cor. 3:13), rather one’s deeds are tested. Good deeds are offered as rewards. Bad deeds are destroyed by the fire. Thus, one can assume that purgatory does not hold a biblical basis, whereas the Judgment Seat of Christ does.

Question 6: What is the resurrection and why is it necessary?

Resurrection is the final reunification of soul and body. The body will be a glorified body which will never more die (1 Cor. 15:35ff). While the Bible teaches a duality of soul and body, it is clear that both soul and body are meant to be unified in a holistic fashion.[7] Therefore, while the soul is saved and the mind transformed, the body will be the last to be redeemed. The body will be redeemed at the resurrection of the dead.

This article has examined some of the questions that arose from watching Morgan Freeman’s documentary The Story of God: The Story of Us. Each of these questions deserve greater examination which we may do in future articles.

 

(c) April 4, 2016. Brian Chilton.

Notes

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture for this post comes from the New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).

[2] The time leading up to the first century AD.

[3] John D. Barry et al., Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2012).

[4] That is, the period between death and the final resurrection.

[5] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 133.

[6] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 822.

[7] Norman Geisler calls this view “hylomorphism” which “holds that there is a form/matter unity between soul and body.” Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2011), 736. This does not mean that there is not some form of dualism between soul and body and neither does it negate the existence of a conscious existence in the intermediate state. Rather, it holds that the soul and body are meant to be unified and will in its complete recreation.

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