"I thought that I had passed away,
and was a blessed ghost !"
(From "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner." by S.T.C.)
The whereabouts of the dead is a subject that has fascinated and puzzled believers of God’s Word for many centuries. Any studies have been complicated by questions about the "state" or "condition" of those who have died. Often those who have died are said to be "in the glory," while others refer to them as having "fallen asleep in Jesus." The writer of this article can recall wondering, as a boy, why, if believers go to be present with the Lord when they die, why did they then have to return to collect their bodies at the resurrection ?
There are centuries of belief behind the most common view, but rarely does one see these matters examined in the light of Scripture. Often the mere suggestion that all is not correct in the prevailing view is enough to result in a person being regarded as "unsound." Yet the statements of Scripture are there for our learning and admonition, and we do well to heed the inspired Word of God rather than the traditions of men. We will seek to express our beliefs in the actual words of Scripture, consistently translated, rightly divided, and will regard the significance of figures of speech. We should also be mindful of the maxim, "The unclear should be understood in the light of the clear." Definite statements have much greater weight than inferences or de-ductions from stories or events.
“ Dust you are, and to dust
shall you return.”
The first intimation about death is found in Genesis 2:17. "The tree of the knowledge of good and evil —you are not to be eating from it— for in the day you eat from it, to die shall you be dying." This quotation from the Concordant Version of Genesis may sound strange initially, but the much greater accuracy attained by using a consistent vocabulary will clarify matters for us. "To die shall you be dying" was the penalty for disobedience. Adam did not die that day as is said in the Authorised and other versions, but a process of dying commenced which resulted in his death 930 years later. This statement is amplified in chapter 3:19, where we learn of the operation of death following Adam's transgression. There we read "You shall eat your bread till your return to the ground, for soil you are, and to soil you are returning." In the language of the Authorised Version already quoted, "Dust thou art, and to dust shalt thou return." Death is a return.
If it were not for the certainty of the resurrection that would be the end of the matter. There are numerous statements expressing the matter in different words, but no change of the facts is made anywhere in the Scriptures. Another verse which expresses the same thoughts is Ecclesiastes 12:7 "Then shall the dust return to the earth whence it was, and the spirit shall return to God Who gave it."
The writer of Psalm 115 observes that the Lord has given the earth to the sons of men, and indicates that His praise should ever be their concern, for "The dead do not praise the Lord, neither do any that go down into silence. But we will bless the Lord from this day forth and for the eon." The praise of God is to be sounded by the living, from amongst the sons of men for "The dead praise not the Lord."
The Assembler tells of the state of the dead in chapter 9 (verses 4 & 5) of Ecclesiastes:- "He who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion....The living know that they shall die, but the dead know not anything. . . . "There is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in the grave whither thou goest." (9:10)
This passage in Luke chapter 16 (verses 19-31) has perplexed many believers over the centuries. In spite of all written to the contrary in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), this passage seems to suggest that the dead are conscious elsewhere. Further, these words were spoken by the Lord Jesus, and cannot be lightly dismissed. It would take a great deal more space than is available to explain fully all the aspects of this story, so we will concentrate on the most significant points. The first of these is its setting. It is part of a long discourse given by the Lord Jesus to the mixed multitude of persons who lis-tened to His ministry.
The period of the Lord's ministry was more than four hundred years after the return from the exile in Babylon. By this time Greek culture had spread throughout the Middle East, and with it the teachings of their philosophers, "the wise men of this world." The teaching of Plato in particular had been widely accepted and had its adherents in Israel. His "Theme of the Universe" attempted to give a moral conclusion to the problems of the universe. In the absence of any discipline for sins, Plato taught that there was another life following life on earth, ("You shall not surely die !") and in that "after life" men would receive a fitting recompense for their conduct, either in the Elysian Fields or in the caverns of the lost. The Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the body (Ezekiel 37:12-14), while the Saducees did not.
An orthodox Jew, listening to this story of the rich man and Lazarus, would immediately have understood it not to be a literal account, for it contradicts the teaching of the law, particularly in Exodus and Deuteronomy. In spite of the delinquencies of Israel as a whole, God remained faithful to His word. The law promised that those who observed its precepts would prosper, but the lawless would not, and the diseases of Egypt would cling to them. Persons received the due recompense for their actions in their lifetime, and beyond that the law did not go. So the rich man would have been a righteous person, while the beggar would not. Yet the words of Abraham to the rich man were, "Child, be reminded that you got your good things in your life, and Lazarus likewise evil things. Yet now here he is being consoled, yet you are in pain."
This is not the teaching of the Old Testament. It is contradictory to it so cannot be a literal story.
Also, if it is a literal story then all features must be literal including Lazarus in Abraham's bosom. And the concept of a person suffering in a future life because they have been "well souled" in this life would not be seriously considered by anyone.
This story is a figure of speech called Admission (or Epitrope), in which a thing is temporarily admitted in order to deny it. While not a common figure in English language, it does occur. For example, an enthusiastic musician might say, "When better music is written, Beethoven will write it !" Or a doctor might say, "If you are going to live a long time, you must choose your parents very carefully!" Both these statements mean something more than the words convey. The first statement means that Beethoven is dead, and so better music will never be written, for his music surpasses that of all other composers, while the second means that we can neither choose our parents nor lengthen our days, for both these matters are outside our control.
The story was told by the Lord Jesus in response to the attitude of those who heard His ministry. Note the words of Luke 14:35 "Who has ears to hear, let him hear." -- a reference to Isaiah 6, where God says that He will make Israel deaf to His words and blind to His ways. The larger context may contain teaching given on several occasions, and is addressed to those who would hear more of His ministry.
The main point of the story is to be found in the closing sentences. In response to the request of the rich man that Lazarus be sent to warn his five brothers, Abraham replies, "If Moses and the prophets, they are not hearing, neither will they be persuaded if someone should be rising from among the dead." A short time after-wards the Lord Jesus raised another Lazarus from the dead, and it was even suggested that he should be put to death again, for many people believed because of him ! But the ultimate meaning must refer to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.
Those who did not hear Moses and the prophets were not
persuaded when the Lord Jesus rose from among the dead.
In concluding our brief examination of this story, we should once again remind ourselves that 'what is unclear should be understood in the light of that which is clear.' It is neither wise nor scriptural to put inference above clear statement of scripture. This story in no way con-tradicts the teaching in Genesis, Psalms or Ecclesiastes.
The teaching in First Corinthians 15 is so clear as to make any comment unnecessary. Paul stakes everything on the resurrection, and this chapter takes us in a few verses from the point where "Christ died for our sins" to the point where God is All in all. After the resurrection nothing can impede the outcome of God's purpose! We will begin our quotation in verse 12. (1 Cor. 15:12-19).
"Now if Christ is being heralded that He has been roused from among the dead, how are some among you saying that there is no resurrection of the dead ? Now if there is no resurrection of the dead neither has Christ been roused. . . . Now if Christ has not been roused, vain is your faith, you are still in your sins ! Consequently those also who are put to repose in Christ perished. If we are having an expectation in Christ in this life only, more forlorn than all men are we."
Popular supposition believed that the dead were still alive in another place. Paul denies this by asserting that if there is no resurrection then even "those who are put to repose in Christ— PERISHED!” "If we are having an expectation in Christ in this life only, more forlorn than all men are we."
If Satan were to be believed, (Genesis 3:4) then there is no need for the resurrection! If the dead are still alive there is no need for death to be abolished! (1 Cor.15:26; 2 Tim. 1:10). But Scripture tells us that Satan was a liar from the beginning. Paul stakes everything on the resurrection, not on the immortality of the soul. Our resurrection is a direct result of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, who died for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:4) He did die for our sins. He was not unconscious, or in another place. The place and manner of His execution was such that there would be no doubt as to His death. He also was entombed in order that God's power would be demonstrated in His resurrection, and His resurrection is the sure token of our justification and also of our resurrection. His life is our life, and we look forward to His coming, and to the certainty that:—