Essay: Death—Swallowed Up in Victory!
DEATH…tears come to our eyes, because we grieve, we sorrow, and we miss our loved ones. Are you afraid of death? Are you certain there is life after death? Do you wonder what happens to the spirit when it leaves the body? Where does it go? Is there a holding tank, a period of waiting, a purgatory, a time of testing to see if you are worthy to get into heaven? Do you think that you can’t know that you are going to heaven until you die? If any of these questions concern you, I don’t blame you for being afraid of death!
Death and the Resurrection
How did death become part of human existence? Contrary to popular scientific theory and teaching, it was not part of our original design. Adam and eve were created to live forever. They were given a perfect environment with total freedom and everything they needed with only one prohibition, “but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it, you will surely die.” (Genesis 2:17) You know the story. Satan tempted them, they ate, and they experienced death:
1) Spiritual death or separation from God occurred immediately. Every human being since is born separated from God.
2) Their bodies began to physically die that day also. It took 900 years to happen because they were so wonderfully made.
Since then death has been the expectation and experience of every human being and animal.
The Bible teaches in Romans 5:12 that sin entered into the world—the entire world, not just affecting mankind.
“So then, just as sin entered the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all people because all sinned—”
All calamities and illnesses are a result of sin having affected our world. What this means is that there was no death anywhere before Adam sinned! Otherwise, Jesus’ death and resurrection to abolish death means nothing!! Your faith is in vain! Don’t let so-called “science” steal that from you. Death is not nature’s way of ridding itself of the unfit, as evolution teaches. Death is the penalty for sin-–both physical and spiritual death.
In the Old Testament, God commanded an approach to him that constantly reminded his people of this truth. They had to come to worship him with a blood sacrifice. And every time they brought that animal, there was a visible demonstration that death was the penalty for sin. Something had to die; this animal was the substitute that died in their place. When Jesus began his public ministry, John the Baptist pointed to him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) Jesus’ blood doesn’t just cover sin but takes it away.
Paul writes in 2 Timothy 1:9-10, “He is the one who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not based on our works but on his own purpose and grace, granted to us in Christ Jesus before time began, but now made visible through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus. He has broken the power of death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel!”
Jesus Christ was the only sacrifice that God would accept. He hung on that cross. He took the full penalty of sin on his own person. He rose from the dead. If there were even one sin that could not be forgiven, he would still be in the grave. His sacrifice so satisfied God the judge that he could extend mercy to us who accept Jesus Christ as Savior. So God’s justice has not been violated. The penalty has been paid in full. That’s why Jesus could say, “it is finished,” a phrase that was stamped on a paid bill.
The writer of Hebrews said 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.” (Hebrews 2:14-15) Do you realize that fear of death is slavery? Such fear is bondage and is what Satan has held over us all these years.
When you trust Jesus Christ as your savior, God takes you out from under Satan’s power, and Satan is rendered powerless toward you regarding death. That’s what the word “destroy” means—to render powerless or inoperative. In this verse, it doesn’t mean to annihilate. He, the devil, is still active, still alive. But we have been taken out of his control.
Therefore, we are no longer in bondage to death. Death for the believer should hold no terror because death for us is a doorway into glory. Death is the way that we just go home. The body decays and reunites with the earth. (Ecclesiastes 12:7; Luke 8:55)
Death is part of God’s grace because it abolishes this flesh of sin. But the soul leaves this “earthly tent.” The nonphysical part of us—intellect, emotion, will and spirit if believer—is then separated from the body. We see this in Luke 8:55. The little girl’s spirit had departed and now returned.
Now this is where we get into all kinds of conjecture and false teaching. Scripture teaches that the soul of a believer goes directly to the presence of the Lord.
“I feel torn between the two because I have a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far;” (Philippians 1:23)
“Thus we are full of courage and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:8)
That sounds too easy, doesn’t it? God makes the gospel easy for us to understand, but we stumble over its simplicity. The same thing is true about eternal life. People won’t accept it as being that easy to understand.
So, let’s explore the question, “What happens to the soul?” Sometimes it helps to ask the opposite question. What doesn’t happen to it?
What Doesn’t Happen to the Soul?
Not annihilation—the atheistic view.
The annihilation or atheistic view says there is no consciousness beyond this life. The soul ceases to exist the moment the body dies. Evolution supports this because it views life with no purpose in itself other than perpetuating changes in the species. There are too many verses that speak of eternal life to hold to this view. We’ll just look at a few.
Jesus tells a parable in Luke 16:19-31 about a rich man who dies and goes to the place of the unrighteous dead. From there, he can see a man named Lazarus in the place of the righteous dead. He can speak to him. But, there is a gap between them that neither of them can cross. Though not specifically doctrinal, Jesus always taught truth. In this parable, Jesus teaches there is consciousness beyond this life.
Before Christ, all spirits went into a place called sheol (Hebrew term; hades in the Greek), which is sometimes translated “hell” in our modern translations but should not be so. Sheol is just the place of the dead. It was thought to be under the earth somewhere and was divided into two compartments with a great chasm fixed between which cannot be crossed. Faithful believers in God went to the place of the righteous dead (also called “paradise” or “Abraham’s bosom, side”). It was a place of comfort, not torment. Unbelievers went to a waiting place for the final judgment. There, the rich man had memory, and visual recognition, felt pain and torment. In “paradise,” Abraham talked.
Some theologians hold the position that when Jesus Christ died on the cross, he descended into Hades, into paradise and emptied paradise. He took all those believers who were there and removed paradise to heaven. Whether paradise was in sheol or heaven is debatable. But, we do know from 2 Corinthians 12 where Paul speaks of being taken to the third heaven or paradise that they were in the same place by that time.
As soon as the payment for sin was made, access to God was possible. That is the meaning of having the veil of the temple torn. (Matthew 27:51) This curtain hid the Holy of Holies where God dwelled in the Temple. Only the high priest could enter that place once a year. The curtain was torn from top to bottom. It was 1 inch thick, 50 feet wide and could not have been torn by humans. God himself tore the veil to let us know that access to his presence was now possible.
So, today when a believer dies, she goes immediately to be with Christ. Sadly, when unbelievers die, they go to a place of torment to await the final judgment. There is no second chance.
In Acts 24:15, Paul confirms that there will be a resurrection of believers and unbelievers. This means we should expect the reuniting of body and soul of both believers and nonbelievers. All unbelievers will then be judged, and cast into the lake of fire with Satan and all his angels. That’s the second death. That’s hell. (Revelation 20:14-15; 21:8)
Not soul sleep—the insensitivity of the soul after death.
Another view is that the soul sleeps and is insensitive after death until the day of the resurrection. This view tends to come from a misunderstanding of the biblical phrase “fallen asleep.”
As we saw in Luke 16:19-31 above, the souls of the rich man, Lazarus, and Abraham were conscious after death. Each could remember, talk, and experience pain or pleasure. The place of torment was not a place of soul sleep or forgetting. As described above in Philippians 1:23, Paul would know the joy and awareness of being present with the Lord. In John 11:12-15, Jesus defined “fallen asleep” for us. He said that their friend Lazarus was dead. The phrase “fallen asleep” is used throughout the New Testament for death of believers only. The body “sleeps” in the earth until Jesus calls it forth at the Rapture.
Not reincarnation—the continual cycle of death and rebirth.
Reincarnation is an old view of life as a continual cycle of death and rebirth, broken only through self-effort so that a soul will reach the blissful state of “Nirvana.” Sadly, there is no presence of God in Nirvana, only an impersonal, featureless unity of being. Sadly still, much of this teaching has infiltrated the church.
The answer can be found in many places, but especially in Hebrews 9:27, “Just as people are appointed to die once, and then to face judgment.”
Not purgatory—place of purification
A view that infiltrated the church several centuries after Jesus’ death and resurrection is that believers’ souls must go to a place to be purified before entering heaven. This teaching has confused and caused grief to many. The term “purgatory” comes from the word “purge” meaning “to purify.” Purgatory is conjectured to be a place of temporary punishment for the souls of believers who had not fully paid the penalty of their sins while here on earth.
Sometime after the first century ended, when all the apostles were dead, there arose a teaching that God’s forgiveness of the believer’s sins did not wipe out the believer’s need to pay penance for his/her sin. Penance is voluntary self-punishment or reparation to show repentance for wrongdoing. According to this teaching, failing to do penance in this life requires the need to be punished in another place before being finally saved. This teaching negates grace and goes back to the Old Testament concept of law. This teaching says salvation comes by initial faith plus additional works. Like all error, this teaching involves a wrong concept of God.
What started out as error in teaching soon became tradition that was later incorporated into the state church of the Roman Empire, now known as the Roman Catholic Church. Century after century, there arose biblically oriented groups who tried to “purge” the church of this erroneous teaching, but to no avail. Martin Luther denounced it. John Calvin called it a “deadly fiction of Satan, which nullifies the cross of Christ.” Yet, modern Protestants, while avoiding the name “purgatory,” frequently teach the doctrine of “the middle state,” a realm of progressive development!
The logical consequence of this teaching is believers feeling continual guilt for not doing enough to pay for sin committed while on earth. Anyone who is caught up in salvation by works finds it hard to accept God’s full grace on every believer. You start with the “yes but’s” and the “what if’s.” What if you didn’t acknowledge all your sins and/or pay the penance for all your sins before you died? What about the man who experienced a deathbed conversion and had no time for paying his penance for his sins? Then, it must be done after death, right? So, you go to purgatory to be punished for, or purged of, previous sin. Purified so you can finally be perfectly pure and worthy to enter heaven.
How does this purification take place? According to this teaching, there are several options:
· Option 1: The living can do good works or self-punishment in your place.
· Option 2: The living can pray for the dead to be relieved of their suffering and for God to have mercy on them.
· Option 3: A purifying fire in purgatory burns away bad deeds.
· Option 4: high-ranking church official can grant an indulgence, or remission of punishment still due for a sin
Is there scriptural support for the existence of a purgatory? Absolutely none! Is there scriptural teaching against it? Lots. The New Testament is filled with truth that counters this error-filled teaching.
1. It is God’s job to perfect us!
Philippians 1:6 teaches, “For I am sure of this very thing, that the one [God] who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”
1 Thessalonians 3:13 teaches, “so that your hearts are strengthened in holiness to be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.”
Colossians 1:22 teaches, “but now he [God] has reconciled you by his physical body through death to present you holy, without blemish, and blameless before him–”
We read in Hebrews 9:14 that Christ died to clear our consciences of guilt from sin for which he has already paid.
If anyone would be the best candidate for “purgatory,” it would be the thief crucified next to Jesus on the cross. According to Jesus’ own words in Luke 23:43, the thief went directly with Jesus to God’s presence, to “paradise.” He didn’t have time to pay penance for all his sins. Yet, Christ himself said he would be in paradise that very night with Jesus. Jesus certainly wasn’t going to purgatory first!
2. Purgatory violates two scriptural truths.
What is truth: tradition or the scripture? Tradition is never truth unless it is totally and completely based upon scripture and nothing else.
Truth #1: Belief, not behavior, is the basis for receiving eternal life.
Jesus said in John 5:24, “I tell you the solemn truth, the one who hears my message and believes the one who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned, but has crossed over from death to life.” The believer in Christ crosses over from death into eternal life—instantly—by believing.
Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so that no one can boast.” Our salvation and entrance into heaven is entirely based on God’s grace alone, nothing we can do.
Truth #2: Only the blood of Jesus cleanses from sin, not man’s work or suffering.
The New Testament is clear on this subject. For example, Colossians 2:13-14 says,
“And even though you were dead in your transgressions and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, he nevertheless made you alive with him, having forgiven all your transgressions. He has destroyed what was against us, a certificate of indebtedness expressed in decrees opposed to us. He has taken it away by nailing it to the cross.”
Jesus canceled ALL our debt of sin. ALL our sins were forgiven on the cross—past, present and future. And, since all our sins were future at that time, all are forgiven the moment we believed, not just those from our own pasts.
Paul adds in 1 Thessalonians 5:9, “For God did not destine us for wrath but for gaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” And, he stresses in Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
So, the soul of the believer, after departing the body, is forgiven of all sin and cannot do anything to earn God’s favor and pardon apart from faith in Jesus Christ alone.
3. What about praying for the dead?
This concept is definitely not biblical. It was practiced by pagan religions and incorporated into Jewish thought and writing before Jesus’ birth. Jesus never perpetuated this thinking. The apostles never taught it. Paul certainly never gave it any credence in his writings. Yet, the superstitious practice crept into the church by the late 2nd century. As the church moved away from God’s grace and more toward purifying through good works here on earth, the doctrine of purgatory took hold because it gave relatives hope if their loved ones were not perfect.
So, by the close of the 4th century, prayers for the believing dead were found in all the church liturgies with the assertion that such practice was from the apostles themselves. What started as error became tradition, and then tradition became doctrine claimed as truth. The same may be said of the idea that you can do good works to pay for the sins of dead loved ones waiting in purgatory.
The practice of devotion to the believing dead is consoling to us. It can be consoling to the dying persons who don’t think they are good enough to get into heaven yet. It gives to the afflicted survivors a sense of power to relieve their friend’s suffering. Yet, it deludes everyone away from the truth and robs practitioners of true comfort and joy through understanding complete forgiveness given through God’s grace alone to every believer.
The bottom line is this: 1) prayers for relief from suffering are useless since there is no purgatory, and 2) prayers for the dead unbeliever to be saved are useless since there is no second chance once this physical life ends.
4. What about praying to the dead?
There is no scriptural support that saints and martyrs intercede with God either for the dead or for the living. In fact, offering prayer to a “saint” or martyr is not only unreasonable but also idolatrous. Jesus firmly teaches in Matthew 4:10 that we are to give our worship to God only, “You are to worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”
In Hebrews, we read:
“Therefore since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace whenever we need help.” (Hebrews 4:14-16)
“but he holds his priesthood permanently since he lives forever. So he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.” (Hebrews 7:24-25)
Jesus is our high priest; we can always go directly to him. We are all saints. We have perfect access to him. That’s why the veil was torn. No one, living or dead, is closer to God than you are! And Jesus continually intercedes for us—listens to us and works on our behalf.
Romans 8 discusses this further:
“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how we should pray, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with inexpressible groanings. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes on behalf of the saints according to God’s will.” Romans 8:26-27)
Jesus’ very Spirit lives inside every believer bringing our prayers directly to God. No one, living or dead, is closer to God than we are with the Spirit living inside of us! There is no scriptural indication that dead believers dwelling in heaven can even hear us or know what is going on in our lives. They have no power. Jesus has the power to do anything in our lives. Trust Him. Pray through His Spirit living inside you.
5. What about babies and children who die before choosing Christ on their own?
· Trust the character of God who is not a vengeful dictator with a whip.
· Depend on the grace of God. Understanding God’s grace tells me that none of us deserve to be saved. None of us ever could make it to heaven on our own merit. It is only his grace that accepts me because of what Jesus already did. Jesus died on the cross for all sin, for all people. Jesus died for the sins of those babies and children and mentally deficient ones as well. He tells us that the kingdom of God already belongs to them.
· Jesus paid the penalty for everyone. God has the right to extend his grace to babies and children who have not yet reached the age of being able to reject him.
· According to Matthew 18:2-6; 10; 19:1, the Lord places great value on little ones. Children are born with an innate sense of belief or trust in the existence and love of God the Father and love for Jesus. They don’t have to be convinced until, as they grow older, adults convince them not to believe it and thus reject Jesus. That is certainly causing one of his little ones to stumble. The culprit deserves punishment.
Conclusion: since scripture is silent about this, it must be of no concern to us. God is still in charge. We don’t have to figure everything out. Jesus, in his teaching, refers to little ones who believe in him. We must trust our God, who knows every heart and judges by the intent of the heart not by our rules.
What Does Happen to the Soul of a Believer?
The soul of a believer goes to HEAVEN—the spiritual realm in which the glory of God’s presence is manifest, and in which dwell the angels of God, and all believers who have departed this world. Heaven is a place that human words are inadequate to fully describe. We don’t know everything, but we do know what God has revealed to us through His Word.
In Acts 7:55-60, Stephen got a glimpse of heaven for us. Heaven opened, the glory of God was visible, and Jesus was standing ready to receive his spirit. According to v. 60, “Then he fell to his knees and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died [fell asleep].” Where do you think his spirit (soul) went then? Ecclesiastes 12:7 says, “and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the life’s breath returns to God who gave it.”
Jesus spoke about this to his disciples in the book of John.
“And if I go and make ready a place for you, I will come again and take you to be with me, so that where I am you may be too.” (John 14:3)
Jesus is preparing a place for us so we can be with Him.
“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, so that they can see my glory that you gave me because you loved me before the creation of the world.” (John 17:24)
Jesus wants us to be with Him in glory!
As referenced before in Philippians 1:23 and 2 Corinthians 5:8, WE KNOW THAT for those who belong to Christ, heaven is the immediate destination after death.
The Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write in 1 Thessalonians,
“For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so also we believe that God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep as Christians. For we tell you this by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will surely not go ahead of those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be suddenly caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” (1 Thessalonians 4:14-18)
We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” Jesus brings the souls of the dead believers with Him. So, they must be with Him first.
And finally, David wrote in Psalm 16:11, “You lead me in the path of life; I experience absolute joy in your presence; you always give me sheer delight.”
We say when a Christian loved one dies, “I lost my mother, brother, etc.” We didn’t lose them. We know just where they are. And death is gain, not loss. We need to change our terminology. Some use the phrase “they passed” rather than passed away. The believer just passed from here into the presence of the Lord. Paul said departing to be with Christ was better by far. In fact, according to Jesus’ parable in Luke 16:19-31, we receive comfort there.
Do we get a temporary body? Scripture doesn’t say. The Christian believer may rest assured that God, who so wondrously created the soul for the body is able to take care of it also while it is outside of the body. One thing is for sure. We are released from the struggle with sin through being set free from our mortal body.
“In other words, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting people’s trespasses against them, and he has given us the message of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:19)
But there’s more. Christ’s resurrection guaranteed our resurrection. “Resurrection” is a word only used for the body, not the spirit. According to 1 Thessalonians 4:14-18 (referenced above), the spirits of those believers who died will be returning with Jesus. Graves will be opened and resurrected bodies will join with their spirits in the air with the Lord. This will only be visible to believers—living and dead. Christ’s second Coming, standing on the Mount of Olives is visible to everyone.
The hope of heaven transforms our perspective on death. The Scriptures nowhere teach that as believers we are immune from or should deny the reality of sorrow that death can bring. But in Christ, we share in his victory over death! We grieve, but we grieve not as those who have no hope, rather as those who are certain of our reunion with loved ones who have gone before, of receiving a glorious body that will never weaken or decay, of entering a wonderful new life beyond our fondest dreams, and of forever being with the Lord!!
If you have not trusted the Lord Jesus Christ, being separated from Him forever is the punishment for sin. Why should you be separated when that penalty was paid for you? All you have to do is recognize that you are a sinner and worthy of the punishment then believe that Jesus Christ took that punishment for you and accept Him as your substituted and your Savior. A pardon cannot be forced on anyone. A pardon must be accepted. The death of Jesus Christ was SUFFICIENT for all sins, but it is EFFICIENT only when you personally put your faith in Him.
Remember what Jesus promised in John 5:24,
“I tell you the solemn truth, the one who hears my message and believes the one who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned, but has crossed over from death to life.”
Isn’t that wonderful? The way to heaven is a one-way street. There is no going back. Eternal life would not be eternal if it did not last. Because of our God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ, the sting of death has been removed. It has not power to enslave us any longer. I invite you, if you have never trusted the Lord, to do so today, right now.
“Now when this perishable puts on the imperishable, and this mortal puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will happen, “Death has been swallowed up in victory. ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” (1 Corinthians 15:54-57)