Any of you who have gathered around the death-bed of a loved one have felt it. It is an awesome moment when you are called upon to be present at death.
Strange things often accompany the agony of dying. Perhaps some of you have personally witnessed a dying loved one lifting up a feeble hand heavenward and trying to describe the angels that are present or the heavenly splendor that they see. Not infrequently this vision of splendor evokes a cry of eager anticipation from the dying. Soon the last breath is heard and the forces of death take hold. A once active, breathing, speaking, loving person now lies coldly still in death.
At such a time the question of life after death cries urgently for an answer. Job asked it: "If a man die, shall he live again?" Job 14:14a. Does one simply go to sleep after death? Is death the end of all existence? Does one leave this life to begin the enjoyment of a better life?
These questions become urgent for two reasons.
Interest in the life after death is not born out of mere curiosity, rather we desire to know what happens to our loved ones who depart from this life. If the bond of love has been established in Jesus Christ, we desire to know whether our departed brother or sister continues to enjoy that bond of fellowship with Christ or not. Even this interest is not centered simply in the person. Our concern is not limited to the well-being of a loved one; chiefly the motive of our question is this, do they continue to live to the glory of God or not? We know that the purpose of life here is centered in the praise and glory of God; we likewise wonder whether God is glorified in the death of His saints or not.
Even then, we cannot divorce ourselves personally from this interest in the life hereafter. We know we are going to die. The only exception applies to those who will be upon the earth when Christ returns (I Thess. 4:16,17). We desire to know for ourselves what we may expect at the time of our death.
The promises of God are clear and sure on this point. As we consider the Scriptural truths on this subject, it is our prayer that each one who reads this may come to the same conclusion as the Apostle Paul in I Cor. 15:55-57, "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ."
We are accustomed to speak quite glibly of the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. If we consult the dictionary we are confronted with a definition similar to this one, "Immortality-- exemption from death or annihilation, unending existence, everlasting, as immortality of the soul."
This definition indicates that our thinking and "uses loquendi" of this work has been thoroughly conditioned by Greek philosophy. According to the Greeks, immortality simply applied to the continued existence of the soul after death. The late Prof. Berkhof explains this view and contends that the Bible uses the term in this way.
"Immortality in the sense of continuous or endless existence is also ascribed to all spirits, including the human soul. It is one of the doctrines of natural religion, or philosophy that, when the body is dissolved, the soul does not share in its dissolution, but retains its identity as an individual being. This idea of the immortality of the soul is in perfect harmony with what the Bible teaches about man, but the Bible, religion, and theology, are not primarily interested in this purely quantitative and colorless immortality, the bare continued existence of the soul." Systematic Theology, page 672.
Does the Bible speak of immortality as mere continuous existence? First, the Bible speaks of God as being immortal. "Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen." 1 Tim. 1:17. Likewise in I Tim. 4:14-l6, "That thou keep this commandment without spot, unrebukeable, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ which in his times he shall show, who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords, who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto, whom no man hath seen, nor can see; to whom be honor and power everlasting. Amen." Secondly, Scripture uses the word immortal as a description of the believer only once, "For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death Is swallowed up in victory." I Cor. 15:53, 54.
From this it must become immediately apparent, that the word immortal cannot and must not be applied to the wicked outside of Christ. The word itself, athanasia, means outside the scope of death, without death. The Word of God certainly does not describe the wicked as deathless. The very opposite Is true. Already in the beginning of time the warning was issued, "The day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die," Gen. 2:17. This actually happened when Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, "Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin, and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned," Rom. 5:12. The character of this death is described for us by the Psalmist, "For lo, they that are far from thee shall perish: thou hast destroyed all them that go a whoring from thee," Ps. 73:27. This is paraphrased for us in the Psalter, "To live apart from God is death, 'tis good his face to see." This same idea is presented to us in I Peter 3:12, "the face of the Lord is against them that do evil." This applied to both the body and soul of the wicked that are outside of Jesus Christ. All during their early existence and even reaching beyond, they die and sink deeper into death. Physical death brings them to a greater measure of separation from God. The apostle John speaks of a second death for the unbeliever, "and the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever... and death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death." Rev. 20:10,14. It must be apparent that the term immortality cannot be applied to the wicked outside of Christ. Their souls are not immortal, they are dead and pass into a deeper state of death continually, even unto hell.
Only the children of God are immortal. Their souls are immortal and their bodies must put on immortality. They are delivered from the power of death through Jesus Christ who is the "resurrection and the life," John 11:25. Principally this life is infused in the child of God when God regenerates him, John 3:3. This rebirth delivers us from the power of sin and death. "Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God," I John 3:9. It is this life of Christ that places us in a relationship with God, "For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous and his ears are open unto their prayers," I Peter 3:12. In the power of this life we seek God, "Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return unto the lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon," Isa 55:6, 7, This infusion of life in us is called the first resurrection and through it we look forward to the final resurrection of body and soul in the life hereafter, "Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ and shall reign with him a thousand years... and I saw the dead, small and great stand before God... and the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them ... Behold the tabernacle of God is with men." Rev. 20:6, 12, 13; 21:3.
The weight of this question can be appreciated only with a proper understanding of the nature of death. Let it be emphasized from the outset that death is not natural. Because we live in the sphere of death we become conditioned and accept death as something ordinary. We expect to die, it is the inevitable end of all men, "It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment," Heb. 9:27. Death is under the direction of our Sovereign God, He alone takes life. In fact it may even be said that when God has accomplished His purpose with man, He slays him and thereby delivers him through physical death to his everlasting abode.
Christ Jesus has delivered His people from the curse of death. As the perfect High Priest He sacrificed His blood upon the cross as the payment for the sins of His elect, "Wherefore in all things it behooved him to be made like unto his brethren that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people," Heb. 2:17. Through the blood of atonement, Christ completely redeemed His people from death, He removed the curse forever, I Cor. 15:55-57.
Why must the believer pass through physical death? From the above we understand that death is not punishment for the child of God. The curse of physical death was also removed by Christ. We must place physical death in the context of the purpose of God for all things. The whole earth is under the curse of death. This includes all mankind, Rom. 3:23, and the whole of the creation, Rom. 8:22. It is the purpose of God to save His people by delivering them out of the curse of death. Time is the means within which God unfolds His perfect counsel. This indicates to us that the full realization of the everlasting must await the end of time, I Cor. 15:25-28. Hence our whole life is a passing through the valley of the shadow of death, Ps. 23:4. Physical death is the means that Christ uses to separate us from the sphere of the curse when our purpose on earth is finished, and to deliver our soul to a higher realm of glory to await the reunion of the body in the resurrection. Death for the believer is not a curse, rather it is the servant of Christ which delivers us unto life everlasting, II Cor. 4:16.
There must be not a doubt in our minds that the believer immediately upon death enters into a conscious state of glory.
To make this clear we must expose the fallacy of what is commonly called "soul-sleep." According to this view the soul becomes unconscious after death and is awakened in the resurrection. Proponents of this view seek support from Scripture by making reference to texts that describe death as a sleep. "But we would not have you to be ignorant brethren, concerning them which are fallen asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope," I Thess. 4:13. Or "As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness," Ps. 17:15. Similarly Peter quotes from Ps. 16, "Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption," Acts 2:27. From these texts they reason furthermore that in the instance of those who were resurrected from the dead and brought back to this life, none describe for us or relate anything concerning the blessed life they experienced after death. They would take literally the words of Jesus concerning Lazarus, "Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep," John 11:11. Besides these evidences, they reason that it is impossible for a soul to function in this life without a body, it must also be true after death. It is irrational to imagine that a soul can be active and conscious without a body.
In answer to these conclusions by the Anabaptists and Russelites and all who follow this reasoning, we maintain that whenever Scripture speaks of death as a sleep, it does so simply from the point of view of the body. Careful study of the texts that speak of death as a sleep will reveal that in every instance reference is made to the physical aspect of death. This is quite in harmony with reality. The force of physical death is likened to sleep; the body lies dormant, oblivious of all surrounding, to be laid to rest and raised in the resurrection. Hence burial of the body is described as a being sown in corruption, but raised in incorruption," I Cor. 15:42. Concerning those who were raised from the dead and returned to this life, we need but remember that these were exceptions and cannot by any reasoning be made the rule. God had a special purpose for the raising of Lazarus, and it may well be that God preserved his soul in a dormant state while awaiting the return to this life. It would be quite contrary to God's justice if He would so ordain that these should receive a taste of the heavenly glory and then return to the sphere of death only to die again.
Scripture provides abundant proof that believers expected immediate glorification at death. Even though we cannot fathom this wonder as e.g. how a soul can consciously exist without a body, yet we believe that with God all things are possible.
Paul wrote to the Philippians, "According to my earnest expectation and my hope, that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but that with all boldness, as always, so now also, Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain," Phil. 1:20, 21. Asaph declares the same confidence in Ps. 73:23, 24, "Nevertheless I am continually with thee: thou hast holden me by my right hand. Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel and afterward receive me to glory." Christ Himself expressed this confidence when He shouted to the malefactor, "Today thou shalt be with me in paradise," Luke 23:43. Both would immediately enter into this conscious state of glory, for paradise is further described for us in II Cor 12:2-4, "I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell God knoweth;) such a one caught up to the third heaven... How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words which it is not lawful for a man to utter." This obviously was the very throne of God. John saw a vision in the Isle of Patmos and beheld, "the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus and for the word of God," Rev. 20:4, and they are not sleeping, but, "lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years." This describes this present period in which the gospel is preached and the church gathered. There is no doubt, but that every believer may expect to awake and "still be with thee," Ps. 139:18, at the moment of our physical death.
As glorious as this conscious state may be, it is not the final glory. Even then the whole church is not yet complete, for the cry arises, "How long O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?" Rev. 6:10. Awaiting the resurrection of the body and the gathering of the complete church, these saints in heaven look forward to a still better day when, "God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes... for the former things are passed away. And He that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new." Rev. 21:4, 5.
There are some, the Roman Catholics, who claim that even the children of God may expect to experience conscious suffering after death. This is claimed in their doctrine of purgatory. The only Scriptural proof they allege is found In I Cor. 3:13,15,"Every man's work shall be made manifest; for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is... If any man's work shall be burned he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire." Their view is that through Baptism we are freed from original sin, by means of the Eucharist we are freed from mortal sins, and by means of penance and purgatory we are freed from venial sins (sins of the flesh, not directly against the law of God). According to this view there must yet be a sanctifying process after death. Their proof text nevertheless does not apply, no more than their reference to II Macc. 12:42-45 of the Apocryphal books. The reference to I Corinthians does not even speak of a literal fire upon the person, rather a refinement as a fire and that too at the end of the world. The doctrine of purgatory denies the sufficiency of the one complete sacrifice of Christ that covered all our sins once for all, Heb. 9:25, 26.
The unrepentant wicked who are outside of Christ are the only ones that will experience conscious suffering at the moment of their physical death. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus makes this clear, "The rich man also died and was buried; and in hell he lifted up his eyes being in torments and seeth Abraham afar off and Lazarus in his bosom, Luke 16:22, 23. Even as Lazarus immediately enjoyed conscious bliss, so in contrast the rich man experienced conscious agony.
The wicked cannot find any comfort in some annihilation after death. God's righteous judgments shall stand unto eternity. When God says the soul that sinneth it shall die, that shall take place in a temporary state of suffering and descend into a deeper state of woe after the judgment when all the wicked shall, "go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched, where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched," Mark 9:43, 44.
You notice that the subject of this chapter is, "Our life after death." That makes it personal. It is not first of all an abstract idea of life after death, but personally my and our life after death.
This is extremely important for all who take the Word of God seriously. There is a state of conscious suffering or joy awaiting every man at the moment of physical death. Within the abode of joy, the people of God lift up their hearts in praise unto the God of Salvation and sing, "Worthy Is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing," Rev. 5:12 Within the abode of suffering, there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, Matt. 24:21.
There is only one way into the state of conscious glory, that is God's way of salvation in Jesus Christ. No man can earn entrance, for all our deeds are evil, we are by nature "covenant breakers, without natural affection, implacable unmerciful; Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them," Rom. 1:31, 32. The way of salvation is the way of perfect righteousness accomplished by our Lord Jesus on the cross, Eph. 2:1-10.
Confess your sins, repent of your evil way, and hear the voice of Jesus, "Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest," Matt 11:28. That rest is at the foot of the cross where He merited heaven for all His own.
As Christ dwells in us we shout triumphantly, "I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live; yet not I but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me," Gal. 2:20. In that life we shall never die, John 11:26.
Say this, and you surely may say with conviction, "O death, where is thy sting, 0 grave thy victory; thanks be unto God which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" I Cor. 15:55-57.