Setting the Record Straight on Eternal Life

Basic instructions before leaving Earth” is a popular way to characterize the Bible among Christians.

It’s cute and clever, but it’s also ironic and misleading for several reasons.

The particular reason concerning us here is that, for a collection of works that supposedly provides instruction for how to get to the right place when we die, there is conspicuously little said about the afterlife. This idea of “dying and going to heaven” that is so essential to so many people’s conception of Christianity is actually nowhere to be found in all of Scripture.

In the first five books, collectively known as “the Torah” and regarded as the foundational narrative on which the rest of the Bible is based, there is no explicit mention to be found anywhere about the afterlife.

Tacitly, it teaches that humans were never supposed to die in the first place, but it wasn’t an intrinsic immortality, but was predicated upon access to the Tree of Life, and humans were made mortal by denial to it.

When the reality of death is first introduced, there is no hint of anything that might come after: man was formed from the dust of the earth and brought to life by the Spirit of God, and when he dies, he returns to his former state, “for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” So, being dead, according to this, is no different than the state of existence prior to conception and birth — you just don’t exist anymore.

The only concept of immortality that shows up in the Torah is the prospect of living on through descendants. When God promised to Abram his “very great reward,” Abram responded, “Lord YHWH, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus? You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”

God’s answer was to assure him that his descendants would number like the stars of heaven, and that they would take possession of the land; nothing was said about anybody going to heaven, though. He made no promise to Abram of personal immortality, neither in the body, nor as a disembodied soul or spirit. He only promised an enduring lineage that would inherit a portion of this earth.

A provisional (not intrinsic) personal immortality was implied, according to Jesus, by God’s later declaration to Moses: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” He didn’t say, “I was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” but “I am … ”, indicating that the patriarchs still existed in some sense, so He was still their God.

But, to take that to mean that they still exist in heaven, as disembodied spirits, is to both ignore the context of Jesus’ remark and to impose a foreign meaning upon the text, because it nowhere mentions anyone dwelling with God in heaven as bodiless souls or spirits, and Jesus was speaking specifically to the question put to him by the Sadducees about bodily resurrection from the dead.

What Dies Is Dead

For the vast majority of the biblical narrative between the time of Abraham and the time of Jesus, the only explicit discussion of the nature of death indicated only that it was the end: the body dies and reverts back to dust, and the person’s experiences are over.

“And the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it,” reads Ecclesiastes 12:7.

Someone might object, “Ah-ha! It says right there that the spirit returns to God! That proves immortality in heaven!”

But, reading it in context – both in the context of that chapter of Ecclesiastes and in the context of the Bible as a whole – it cannot mean that.

The chapter opens with, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come …”, and continues by listing a series of diminishing pleasures in life, culminating in death. The point is: remember God while you have opportunity, because those opportunities are finite. If death itself is meant to be understood by the writer as an opportunity in itself to know God, the meaning of the chapter unravels and is rendered nonsensical.

In ancient Hebrew thinking, “spirit,” or “ruach,” just means “breath.” It was the animating principle of the body. It is anachronistic projection to suppose that breath, after it has left the body, retains any individual personality or goes on to have experiences.

That certainly was not the thinking of the biblical writers, because they wrote in several places that there is no knowledge of God in death.   

“For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten,” reads Ecclesiastes 9:5.

“Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from the grave?” wrote the Psalmist (Psalm 6:5).

“I call to you, Lord, every day; I spread out my hands to you. Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do their spirits rise up and praise you? Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction? Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?” (Psalm 88:9-12)

The Final Enemy

Of course, that wasn’t the final word on death. The Bible is a progressive revelation through which God gradually revealed more and more of His plan for humanity.

In the earlier stages of revelation, while death was defined as the end of the person, there were glimmers of hope that it wasn’t final.

First, the idea of God’s judgment is found throughout the Bible, and it is a judgment that goes beyond the narrow confines of mortal life:

“And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. ‘Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.’” (Genesis 9:5-6)

In the immediate sense, this is understood to be a general prohibition against murder and the requirement that humans form governments and courts to impose capital punishment for the crime. But, it reads that God Himself will hold each and every individual person – and animal – to account for the lives of humans, which goes beyond mere legal consequences from human authorities. This implies an existence that transcends what is visible to us within the span of our mortal lives, since we see plenty of people escape or denied justice in this life.

As time went on and the biblical narrative progressed, death was still seen as an evil to be shunned and avoided, but there was nonetheless a general expectation of hope with regard to the death of the righteous – not that death was in any way good, but it was an enemy from which God would deliver them, in some undefined way: “You will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your faithful one see decay. You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand,” wrote David (Psalm 16:10-11).

As the revelation progressed still further, God’s promises for the future state of human existence grew more and more explicit. The eventual renewal of the Earth was hinted more and more, until the prophets foretold that God’s hiddenness would come to an end, there would be peace between all nations under the leadership of Israel and her King, all evil will be judged and destroyed, and nature itself would be transformed to remove all suffering and violence.

Included in these prophecies was the promise of the final defeat of death itself – eternal life through physical, bodily resurrection from the dead: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” (Daniel 12:3-4)

The Gospel Jesus Taught

When Jesus arrived on the scene, this was the common understanding of what God had in store for Israel when the Messiah arrived.

Modern readers typically think that, when Jesus said, “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”, he was talking about how people could get into heaven when they died.

That wasn’t at all what he taught. When they heard, “the kingdom of God has come near,” they understood it to mean – and Jesus fully intended it to mean – all that the prophets foretold about God’s plans for Israel in this world, on this earth. He was talking about the rule of God on earth; he was talking about heaven coming here.

Many Christians acknowledge that this was the understanding they had at the time, but think that Jesus came to correct that notion – that the prophecies were only figurative and that it really is all about dying and going to heaven after all.

But, the apostles were still laboring under the former notion when they asked Jesus, just before his ascension, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

And, he didn’t correct them on the ultimate objective, only the timing: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” he answered them.

As in, God’s rule over the earth – Jesus’ rule as the Messiah – would extend into the world through them.

Indeed, the content of their testimony to the nations was that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead constitutes the validation of God’s promise to renew the earth. His resurrection means our resurrection, explained Paul (1 Corinthians 15:12-24). The renewal of his death-ravaged body means the renewal of the entire death-ravaged world, the apostles taught.

This idea we teach about how, if you “accept Jesus into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior,” you’ll “be with Jesus in heaven when you die” couldn’t be farther from what they taught.

Note how Paul comforted the Thessalonian believers about their members who had died. He did not say, “They’re in a better place now.” He did not say, “They’re with Jesus now.”

No, he reminded them of Jesus’ resurrection, and that the dead in Christ will also be resurrected at his return to Earth, followed by the transformation and glorification of all believers who hadn’t died.

What Difference Does It Make?

“Does it matter what we believe about the afterlife? Won’t God just do what God is going to do, regardless? What harm is there in believing we go to heaven as spirits, as long as we believe in Jesus now?”

A comprehensive answer to this question is beyond the scope of my purposes of the moment, but I’m glad you asked.

The short answer is – It most certainly does matter. We can hardly claim that we “believe in Jesus” if we reject the entire narrative within which he taught and replace it with a totally different one. That’s the reason Christians, by and large, reject Mormonism and regard it as a heretical cult: they “believe in Jesus,” but they insert him into an entirely different scheme of salvation than what we find in the Bible. Which, sadly, is exactly what mainstream Christians also do. Our phony, unbiblical narrative isn’t any better than their phony, unbiblical narrative, just because it’s older and more widely mistaken as the “correct” phony narrative.

There are also practical ramifications to what we believe. What we believe about the Church, the world and our role within it – these are profoundly affected by what we believe the end result and ultimate purposes are.

But, those are ramifications we can explore another time.

My purposes of the moment are just to establish that there is, in fact, a tremendous error in mainstream, collective Christian thought.

As I mentioned in my previous installment, despite the narrative of the Bible quite explicitly teaching something different than the traditional “dying and going to heaven” paradigm of market-standard Christianity, there is still no shortage of passages that would seem, at first glance, to support that paradigm, if we’ve already made up our minds that it’s there, and I’d like to address some of the major examples.

I Go To Prepare a Place for You

Whenever I have this conversation in person, John 14 is almost always the first passage cited as an objection, which reads:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many dwelling places. If it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

It’s understandable – inevitable, really – to read this as being about “going to heaven,” if you’ve already got that idea in mind that that’s what the Bible is about.

But, what precedent is there in the Bible that should make us think this is what it’s about? Given that there is none, what is the likelihood that Jesus would introduce it for the first time here, on the eve of his execution, at the end of his ministry?

If we read John 14 without that presupposition and place this passage in its proper context within that particular dialogue, within John’s Gospel as a whole, and within the entire Bible, it becomes increasingly clear that Jesus is talking about something entirely different than this idea of going to heaven as disembodied spirits when we die. He’s talking about the Trinity, and the indwelling of the Spirit of God, not a literal place to which they would go in the afterlife.

First off – and again (because this cannot be overstated) – this would be the first mention of people going to heaven, if that’s what this passage is about.

But, it wouldn’t be his first mention of his “Father’s house.”

His “Father’s house” – that being God’s house – is how Jesus described the temple on more than one occasion. Indeed, in a Jewish context, “God’s house” would never be a reference to heaven or to some spiritual afterlife, but to the temple on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem, because throughout the Bible, without exception, whenever mention is made of “God’s house,” that is the only meaning that phrase ever has. See Psalm 84, 2 Samuel 7, Ecclesiastes 5, Isaiah 2 and an endless slew of other passages besides these: “God’s house” only ever refers to the temple. (Genesis 28:18-22 would be an exception, but only in the strictest, technical sense, because it actually strengthens my overall point, because the place Jacob called “Bethel” was a place on earth that functioned as a temple.)

Also, within the temple, the innermost chamber, known as the “Holy of Holies” or “the Most Holy Place,” where the Ark of the Covenant was kept, was the place where the very Presence of God was understood to dwell.

So, when Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many dwelling places,” they wouldn’t have initially understood that to mean dwelling places for them, but dwelling places for God, and they would have been puzzled at the notion of there being many dwelling places for God, and even more puzzled when Jesus followed that up with, “I go there to prepare a place for you.”

It is only because of our presuppositions that we read that as so “obviously” being about Jesus going to prepare a place for them in heaven. His meaning was not at all initially apparent to them, because the immediate connotation would have been about there being many places for God to dwell in the temple, and God’s dwelling place within the temple was not a place where humans were permitted to occupy. The high priest was allowed into the Most Holy Place only once during the entire year, on the Day of Atonement, and that only after extensive ritual cleansing and blood sacrifice, first for his own sins and then for the sins of the nation, and if any part of the ritual was incomplete or the sacrifice unacceptable for any reason, he would be struck dead by God upon approach.

Jesus continued with, “You know the way to the place where I am going” in verse 4.

Thomas, still thinking that he was talking about the literal place of the temple and knowing that the temple, as they knew it, did not fit Jesus’ description, responded, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

To which Jesus answered, “I am the way … no one comes to the Father except through me.”

So, the “place” that he’s talking about is the Father Himself, and he himself is the way to that “place.”

After that, he then went on to explain how he is “in” the Father and the Father is “in” himself, which led to his explanation that both he and the Father would be “in” them through the Holy Spirit: “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (verse 23)

The word “home” in that verse is from the Greek moné, which literally just means “dwelling place.” Its appearance here in v. 23 is one of only two uses of the word in the entire New Testament, the other being in v. 2, from which “rooms” or “mansions” or “dwelling places” is translated.

So, yes – Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many ‘mansions’ … I go there to prepare a place for you,” but he also, in that very same passage, spoke of the Father and himself making their home with the disciples. Each will dwell in the other: they will dwell within God and God will dwell within them, through Christ and the Holy Spirit.

This accords with the themes that we find throughout John’s Gospel.

This idea of “residence” and “remaining” in said residence begins in the prologue.

In 1:14, it reads, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”

The Greek word for “made his dwelling” is skénoó, which literally means “to tabernacle” or “to pitch one’s tent.”

Of course, we know it’s not saying that Jesus literally pitched a tent and dwelled among them as a nomadic wanderer. It evokes the time when God dwelled among the Israelites within the tabernacle that housed the Ark of the Covenant, which was the prototype for the temple planned by David and built by Solomon. He’s likening Jesus’ incarnation to God dwelling among them in the wilderness: the Word is comparable to the Glory Cloud of God’s Presence and Jesus’ human form is likened to the tabernacle in which the Presence of God takes residence. The implication is that Jesus is himself the “new tabernacle,” the “new Ark of the Covenant” by which God’s presence dwells in the midst of His people: in the national history of Israel, God first dwelled on earth through the tabernacle, then through the temple, and now through the person of Jesus.

This idea is reiterated in chapter 2, when Jesus cleansed the temple. When the religious leaders confronted him, he said, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days,” not meaning, of course, the literal temple building, but his own body – he was the temple, the place where God dwelled on earth.

This theme of “Jesus as the temple” is taken up again in chapter 4, when Jesus meets with the Samaritan woman at the well.

“Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem,” she said (verse 20).

At the time, and for centuries going back to when Israel and Judah split nearly a thousand years earlier, there was a rival place of worship at Mt. Gerizim in Samaria. According to the Law of Moses, there could be only one true place of worship, where the Presence of God dwelled on earth, and so only one legitimate temple. The Jews claimed Mt. Zion in Jerusalem as that place, while the Samaritans claimed it to be Mt. Gerizim.

There was, of course, a correct side to the controversy raised by the Samaritan woman, and she was on the wrong side of it, but that was soon to be moot, according to Jesus.

“Woman, believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth,” Jesus answered her (vs. 21-24).

At that moment, “my Father’s house” referred to a literal house in a literal place, and genuine, acceptable worship was tied to that place and to that building. But, that was all soon to change. Worship would no longer be tied to any one location, because Jesus himself was the new temple, and his presence – God’s Presence in Jesus – would soon no longer be bound to one location, nor even one person.

That’s why the curtain in the temple was torn in two at the moment of Jesus’ death: the Holy of Holies was no longer the exclusive place where God’s Presence resided, because the sin that kept man alienated from God had been atoned for.

With the barrier of sin done away with, God’s Presence could now dwell in us, in the followers of Jesus Christ. Now we are the temple of God where His Spirit dwells. Just as God dwelled on earth through the tabernacle, and then the temple, and then through Jesus, now He dwells on earth through the Church.

We are the “house of God,” but not in the sense of being a building, but in the sense that we are God’s household, His family.

This is all building toward that state of existence we find described at the end of the book of Revelation:

“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ And the One who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’” (21:3-5)

This is the reversal of the curse of Genesis 3, prior to which God dwelled with man on earth in the Garden of Eden.

Paul alluded to the same idea when he wrote, “And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:6-7)

Notice how Paul wrote that in the past tense. In Paul’s view, this is something that has already happened. We are already dwelling in those “many rooms” in the Father’s house that Jesus went to prepare.

He, as well as Jesus in John 14:1-3, was referring, not to us “going to heaven” when we die, but to Jesus’ ascension back to the Father after his resurrection. With Jesus at the right hand of the Father, humanity dwells representatively within the Godhead. And, with the descent of the Holy Spirit to dwell within the Church on the Day of Pentecost, the fullness of the Godhead now dwells within us. We are in God and God is in us.

As in, the Church is the beginning of that renewal of creation pictured in Revelation 21, which will be consummated when Jesus returns and we are resurrected from the dead as he was.

Today, You Will Be With Me in Paradise

Another frequent objection is from the conversation Jesus had with the condemned criminal on the cross next to him in Luke 23.

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” the man said, to which Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

This is typically understood to mean that the man would be with Jesus in heaven that very day after they both died.

And, if that’s what that means, it would certainly present a problem for my position.

But, it would also create problems for a lot of existing Christian tradition, including the biblical accounts themselves, while my position would actually resolve all of those problems.

There is a tradition that interprets 1 Peter 3:18-22 to mean that, between his death and resurrection, Jesus descended into hell in spirit to preach the gospel to imprisoned spirits.

I don’t think it means that at all. I think it’s saying that Jesus, through the Holy Spirit in Noah, preached to spirits now in prison (i.e., death), while they were alive on earth during the time of Noah. The idea that he did so in spirit during the time between his death and resurrection just doesn’t make sense, since the point of the passage is that Christ died in the flesh, but was made alive – i.e., resurrected – by the Spirit, and so it defies the essential premise of the passage to take it as describing something he did as a disembodied human spirit before the Spirit resurrected him. Rather, the point of the passage is that the Spirit of God who spoke through prophets and holy men like Noah through the ages is the very Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead.

But, there is nonetheless an enduring tradition that understands this passage to mean that Jesus descended into hell, in spirit, before he rose from the dead, which cannot be the case if he was also with the crucified man in heaven during that time.

However, besides all that, Jesus himself said he wasn’t in heaven that day after his death.

When he appeared to Mary Magdalene outside his tomb after his resurrection, he said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

If he hadn’t yet ascended to heaven, then he wasn’t in heaven that day after he died.

So, what does Luke 23:43 mean? What did, “Today, you will be with me in paradise” mean, if Jesus himself wasn’t in paradise that day?

Well, let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that Jesus was talking about the man going to heaven in spirit or soul-form while his body was dead on the cross or buried.

What is a “spirit” or a “soul”?

Well, “spirit,” in Hebrew, is “ruach,” and in Greek is “pneuma.” They both literally just mean “breath” or “wind.” As I mentioned before, they speak of the animating principle of the body.

“Soul” is “nephesh” in Hebrew and “psyche” in Greek, both meaning “life” or “self” or “mind.”

There are a lot of nuances to each of these terms, but for the sake of brevity, there is nothing about any of these terms and their usage in Scripture to indicate that they are intended to convey the survival of consciousness apart from the body. The Bible simply does not teach any concept of the immortality of the soul or spirit. Maybe an argument could be made that the Bible leaves room for that (I don’t think it does), but it certainly doesn’t explicitly teach this.

But, just for the sake of argument, let’s say that it does.

Again – what is a “soul” or a “spirit”?

Of those who claim that they are immortal and can survive the death of the body, I’ve never met anyone who could tell me what they actually are. Those terms are just placeholders for “consciousness existing independently of the body.”

We do know what they are not, however.

They are not physical, by definition. They are not made up of matter/material. The body is physical. The soul and spirit are not.  

Not being physical, they have no form, no mass, no weight. These are physical properties, which souls or spirits, by definition, do not have.

These are also the properties needed to exist in space: in order to have location, something must exist within space, and so must have mass, form and weight, which souls/spirits do not have.

Modern physics understands space and time to be the same fundamental physical property of the universe, referred to as “space-time.”

That means that if something doesn’t exist within space, it doesn’t exist within time, either.

Also, we do not have souls. If “soul” means “consciousness that survives the death of the body” (or “consciousness” on any terms), we do not have souls, we are souls.

As souls, we experience the passage of time only through sensory input delivered to our brains by our sense organs. That’s why, when we’re in a deep sleep, we have no idea how much time passes outside of our own minds. Between the time we fall asleep and wake up, it seems to us as if no time passes at all.

All of this adds up to mean that, regardless of whether there is any such thing as a “soul” or “spirit” that can survive the death of the body, questions like, “Where was Jesus’ spirit between his death and resurrection?” are meaningless. His spirit wasn’t anywhere, because it has no form, mass or weight, and so it has no location in space.

The same goes for the thief on the cross, and for everybody else.

When we die, we don’t experience anything, because our eyes, ears and other sense organs are dead, as is the brain that would receive that information. So, it’s just like it was before we were born or conceived – nothing.

We don’t know that it’s nothing, though. It’s just like when we sleep. We don’t experience any passage of time. We close our eyes in death, and then less than a moment later, we open our eyes at our resurrection to meet Jesus at his return.

So when Jesus told the crucified criminal, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” he was, of course, telling the truth. But it wasn’t “today” for Jesus. Jesus has returned to the Father, but he has not yet entered the paradise he promised to the man on the cross, because that hasn’t happened yet. That “paradise” will be here, on earth, when Jesus returns to renew creation and raise humanity from the dead. But, for that crucified criminal beside him, his “today” has yet to finish. When we awake at the resurrection, we’ll have been conscious of the past 2,000 years since Jesus’ crucifixion. For that man on the cross next to him, though, his crucifixion will have been only moments before.

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1 Response to Setting the Record Straight on Eternal Life

  1. Pingback: No, That’s Not Christianity | The Third Helix

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