Is Death, Death?

Notes from the third in a series of sermons I am preaching at my church (audio to follow).

Many people are afraid of death and often times we cover our fear with humour. Woody Allen said, “It’s not that I’m afraid to die. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” A more ancient wit, Benjamin Franklin, once said, “Nothing in life is certain except death and taxes.” Joel Fox once added, “Nothing is certain but death and taxes. Of the two, taxes happen annually.” An unknown humorist said, “There will always be death and taxes; however, death doesn’t get worse every year.”

Humour aside, when most people talk about death they sound more like they are drawing their inspiration from the Devil’s lie,  “You will not surely die,” (Gen. 3:4), than from God’s truth. Today however we will turn to the Bible and ask the question, “Is Death, Death?” Today I want to make six points about the Bible’s teaching on death:

1. At death the “spirit” [or “breath of life”] returns to God while the person returns to dust.

Genesis 2:7 says, “The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living being [soul].” In contrast Genesis 3:19 threatens a “return to the ground, since from it you were taken: for dust you are and to dust you will return.” Notice it is “you”, not just “your body” that returns to dust. So Job says, “If … he [God] withdrew his spirit and breath … man would return to the dust” (Job 34:14-15). The Psalmist says of all creation, “When you [God again] hide your face they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust” (Psa. 104:29-30). It is said of the princes among men, “When their spirit departs, they return to the ground” (Psa. 146:4).

The Philosopher says, “I also thought, ‘As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?’” (Ecc. 3:18-21). Although the sceptic later decides that meaning can be found in the fear of God and the keeping of the commandments, he never abandoned his belief that at death “the dust returns to the ground it came from and the spirit [the breath of life] returns to God who gave it” (Ecc. 12:7).

2. The death of the person is the death of the “soul”.

In the Bible, a corpse is referred to as a ”dead soul,” even though the word is usually translated “dead body” (Lev. 21:11, Num. 6:6). Even of Jesus it is said, “He poured out his life [soul] unto death” (Isa. 53:12, Matt. 26:38). The prophesy, “… you will not abandon me [my soul] to the grave …” (Psa. 16:10), Peter says was fulfilled in Christ’s resurrection (Acts 2:27). So Christ’s “soul” died. His “soul” was in the grave.  His “soul” was raised to life by resurrection. Our only hope is resurrection (See below).

When “Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father into your hands I commit my spirit'” it is said that, “he breathed his last” (Luke 23:46). Jesus’ spirit was not the “real” Jesus. The “real” Jesus did not go to heaven when he died, he was “three days and three nights in the heart of the earth!” (Mat. 12:40). So when he met Mary after his resurrection he says, “I have not yet returned [or better ascended] to the Father” (John 20:17).

3. Scripture speaks of persons being buried not just the body.

In the Bible it is people, not just corpses that are buried. It was Abraham not just Abraham’s body that was buried in the cave of Machpelah (Gen. 25:8, 10). David, not just his body was buried in the city of David (1Kgs 2:10). “Godly men buried Stephen …”  (Acts 8:2). Not just his body. So too, when Jesus died, it was Jesus they laid in the tomb not just his body (John 19:42). This is an important fact to realise.

4. Scripture speaks of the dead, good and bad alike, as being unconscious or “asleep”.

The Psalmist says, “No one remembers you when he is dead” (Psa. 6:5a). He asks rhetorically, “Who praises you from his grave?” (Psa. 6:5b). He later answers his own question: “It is not the dead who praise the Lord, those who go down to silence” (Psa. 115:17). Even the elite among us die and “… on that very day their thoughts perish” (Psalm 146:4, KJV). Solomon is explicit. He says, “… the dead know nothing …” (Ecc. 9:5). Hezekiah said, “For the grave cannot praise you, death cannot sing your praise; those who go down to the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness” (Isa. 38:18). Scripture stands squarely opposed to Christian tradition here.

We are told that righteous David “rested with his fathers“ (1Kgs 2:10). We are also told that wicked Ahab, the worst king Israel ever had, “rested with his fathers” (1Kgs 22:40). Tradition tells us that the righteous when they die go immediately to heavenly bliss. The wicked on the other hand are supposed to be in torment. How then can it be said that wicked Ahab is at rest? Again, tradition is found to be in error when measured against the word of God.

5. Our hope is a resurrection “awakening” not just of “the flesh” but of the whole person.

Isaiah said, “But your dead will live; their bodies will rise.  You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy. Your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead“ (Isa. 26:19). Daniel said, “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2). There are many more Scriptures that teach these same truths: The dead are asleep. They sleep in the dust of the earth. The only hope they have is of a resurrection awakening to eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ.

6. That resurrection will only occur when Jesus comes again.

In many churches the second coming has become something of an anticlimax. A distraction at best. A cause of division at worst. Yet the New Testament gives the second coming pride of place. Again, if everybody understood these simple truths: The dead are asleep. They sleep in the dust of the earth. The only hope they have is of a resurrection awakening to eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ when Jesus comes again – then the second coming would assume it ‘s full significance. It is not until the Lord himself comes down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God that the dead in Christ will rise (1Thess. 4:15-17).  The Lord Jesus Christ “shall judge the living and the dead” but only “at his appearing and his kingdom” (2Tim. 4:1). This is the climax of all that we hope for!

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