A Biblical View of the Afterlife
edited: Sunday, May 13, 2001
By Joshua YJ Su
Posted: Sunday, May 13, 2001
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A brief study of the Bible's teachings on what happens after death and whether to communicate with the dead. Published in IMPACT magazine, a Christian magazine in Singapore.
For Impact Magazine
Deadline 21st July 2000
Revd. Dr. Soh Guan Chin
Interest in the Afterlife
Death is a reality we face in this life. Indeed it is the greatest finality for it is the end of life as we know it as flesh and blood human beings. It is an event in a person’s life that spells the end of life on earth and always affect those around them deeply; whether family, friends or colleagues. The reality of our mortality is therefore a subject of constant concern and interest.
The very impact of our mortality raises the question of the possibility of eternity, of life after death. It stirs our inquiry into who we are, into asking the question, “What is man?” In particular, do we somehow live after death? This is an issue that has been raised since the dawn of human civilisation and has persisted ever since because it is ever present with us as long as there are human beings and human civilisations.
Death and the possibility of life after death, of an afterlife, is a matter of continuous religious and philosophical enquiry. In this modern day and age, popular and philosophical views are influenced by Existentialism, a philosophical school of thought that emphasises the importance of understanding life on the basis of our finiteness and mortality. In this vein, death is nihilistic. To die is to come to an absolute end without any further existence and thus disappear from this world and from existence. Life is to be understood in terms of what it means in the face of the certainty of our always impending departure from existence. However, in this view, there is no afterlife. We are what we are when we live, while we are alive. Once we die there is no future and there is no further consequence. This is in fact a very different view from the major ancient religions which have plenty of adherents today. These religions have each its own particular view of what each human being is. Yet, in spite of such differences, there is a common factor that there is some form of existence after death and such an afterlife means that the human being in some sense persists in existence, albeit in a different form, after death. It is even possible for that person to come back to life on earth in some form as a different person or as a different being or entity. For our purpose, we want to focus specifically on the biblical view of this matter.
The Biblical View of the Afterlife
The Bible leaves us in no doubt that there is an afterlife. This comes across in a number of ways. In the Book of Genesis, the very first book of the Bible and the book that begins with God creating the world and mankind, man is given the unique status of being the only creature that is made with God’s breath in it (Genesis 2:7). This already implies that man shares something of God’s eternity. Man was warned against eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil or he will surely die (Genesis 2:17). When he did eat of it he was expelled from God’s presence and fellowship and from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3). Yet he did not immediately die physically. Therefore the idea of death in the Bible is not primarily physical cessation of biological life but the lost of true being and true life, which is life and being in fellowship with God. Physical death is but one consequence of this spiritual death and not considered the most significant factor. The loss of life and being as God meant man to have is the central issue. When, in the same book, Cain murdered Abel (Genesis 4:1-12), God confronted Cain with the statement that his brother’s blood cried out from the ground to Him. This again implies that there is life after death. In fact it suggests that Abel persists as a person with his own identity even after death and requires avenging for being murdered.
The Bible, in the Old Testament, clearly specifies that there is a place for the soul (or spirit) of the departed called Sheol, for which there are about 30 references (for example Psalm 86:13). A typical belief is that the body returns to the ground but the spirit returns to God at death (Ecclesiastes 12:7). It is the pervasive and normative view of death in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, “Hades” is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew “Sheol” for which there about 10 references (for example Matthew 11:23). Therefore this view is true of both Testaments and held by Jesus Himself without modification. Yet Jesus did add to this concept of the dead the related ideas of Paradise and Gehenna. To the thief who was crucified beside Him at the cross, He said to him that he will be in Paradise with Him because of his confession of faith in Him (Luke 23:43). In His warning against being judgmental, He taught that those who hate their brother in the faith are in danger of Gehenna (Matthew 5:22). This is the place of fiery burning for punishment of sin. It would seem that Paradise may be a part of Sheol reserved for those who believe in Him. Gehenna (about 12 references) is the place of torment after the Final Judgement for all who reject Him. However, understanding what Sheol means is the principal issue here. It is the teaching of the Bible that very clearly identifies a place where the physically dead go to. This ascertains that the person survives in a spirit form, with his or her identity intact, after physical death. The difficulty in this matter for us who read English Bibles is that all three words are usually translated as “hell”, thereby losing the important distinctions between them.
The Resurrection and the Afterlife
What is often less noticed is that the Bible’s teaching on the Resurrection has very major implications for life after death. In I Corinthians 15:12-58 it is taught that the dead will come back to life with a newly given physical body that is unique to each. In Hebrew 9:27 it is specified that it is appointed to each once to die but after which comes judgement. In Revelation 20 to 21:8 it is clearly stated that all will come back to life in the Resurrection to face the Final Judgement where all who are saved enter into eternal life in the New Heaven and New Earth while all who are guilty will enter into the Lake of Fire for eternal punishment, or eternal death. This means that, quite unlike the nihilistic idea of death where one exits from existence and therefore will bear no consequence after this life, the Bible teaches that the consequences of one’s life determines the eternal outcome for each far beyond death into eternity. Indeed no one can never escape the consequences of one’s life on earth and the choices and actions one makes in the here and now. We will each and everyone reap the corresponding result. Therefore, not only is there an afterlife, we will be resurrected back with a physical body at a predetermined time by God, and then face the final and eternal outcome as a body and soul human being into eternity. If we put this together with the earlier teaching about Sheol, it suggests that there is a waiting period between one’s physical death, when one’s spirit or soul goes to stay in Sheol, until one is resurrected again as a fully embodied human being.
Communicating with the Dead?
The fact that there is a period of existence between death and resurrection raises the question of whether it is possible to communicate with those who have died. We will touch on this briefly as our final note.
The simple answer from the Bible is that it is possible but forbidden. Deuteronomy 18:11 lists consulting with the dead as one of the reasons why God was destroying the Canaanites and giving the land to Israel. Yet it is also a recognition that such a practice is possible. In place of such practices God put in place His prophets (Deuteronomy 18:14-22) to speak to Israel. A true prophet is a person called by God Himself to receive God’s message, not the prophet’s own message, to speak to His people. The clear implication is that God does not want us to find guidance by any consultation with the dead, or by any form of occultism or divination or spiritism, but by direct relationship with Him.
An incident of note is 1 Samuel 28:3-20 when King Saul asked a medium to raise up for him the soul of the prophet Samuel who had died to give him a message. This is an isolated incident where God permitted it. But it was permitted on the basis that Samuel return to pronounce God’s judgement on Saul. This would imply that anyone who consults the dead incurs God’s judgement.
Some might complain that it is then not possible to sort out what misunderstanding or problem one may have with those who have died. The answer to this is that we are required to sort such matters with people who matter to us while they are alive. There is no room and no excuse to let them die and then try to find a way to resolve matters with them. If one has unresolved issues with those who have died one can only sort it out with oneself and with God and find His answer.
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|Reviewed by John Domino
|Good article; well written. It provides hope for the lost. Amen!|
|Reviewed by Birdie Houston
|Great job Joshua ! Great article|
|Reviewed by panayoti
|Well how much more acurately can one describe it?,i think as a theological student i can aplaud your work and give it the golden seal of approval,in a day and age like this when the biblical views of such afterlives are being misunderstood by so many we the people need more informing on such topics,and we also need to know which falsities on this subject there are to look out for such as the so called "soul sleep" doctrine which really has no standing evidence to support it.|
|Reviewed by David New
|The majority of the information in this article is correct. Joshua Su Yuanjin did a good job. He is a good writer as well. However, he made one serious mistake in my opinion. He indicated that based on DT. 18:11 and I Sam. 28 that it is possible to communicate with the dead. He was careful to point out that the Bible prohibits this practice, which was a good point to make. But these passages do not suggest that communication with the dead is possible any more than references to astrology in the Bible mean that the stars can actually predict our future. Deuteronomy 18:11 is referring to a host of ungodly practices. However, the passage in Deuteronomy is not saying that the casting of a spell has any real power or that consulting with the dead is possible. The Bible teaches that the dead cannot and will not be allowed to communicate with the living. Jesus Christ said in Rev. 1:18, He holds the keys of DEATH AND HADES. This means that in order for any communication by the dead to occur, it must be done with the permission of Jesus Christ. This alas is not possible. He will not allow it. One of the best passages in the Bible that deal with the issue of communication with the dead or from the dead is found in Luke 16:19-31. This passage is known as the “Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.” Some students of the Bible do not believe this passage is a parable. But whether this passage is a parable or not, it teaches us an important lesson. In the passage, the Rich Man is in torment in Hades. The Rich Man not wishing that any of his family join him in Hades, asked Father Abraham to send Lazarus “from the dead” to warn his family. Verse 31 is the reason communication by the dead will not be allowed. The power to transform lives is in the Word of God. God speaks to us of sin and judgment to come from the Bible. God will not allow departed spirits to compete with “Moses and the prophets.” Indeed, as Father Abraham said even if one “rose from the dead” they will not be “persuaded.” To be sure, the event in I Samuel 28 was a real communication from the departed Samuel to Saul. However, this event should be seen as an exception to the rule. God in His sovereign will, allowed this communication to occur. The woman at Endor did not make this event happen. She could not and did not summon Samuel from the dead. She was a fake. Jesus Christ has the sole control over the spirit world. Departed spirits cannot act against His will. And it is the will of God that we come to Him through the Word of God and not by communications with the dead or anything else. I strongly recommend to the reader to consider any individual who claims to communicate with the dead or to come back from the dead or to have an out of body experience to be either: a) a faker, b) an individual suffering from a hallucination, or c) demon activity is involved in some manner such as imitating a dead person. Overall, I think Joshua Su Yuanjin did a good job. I enjoyed reading his article.
|Reviewed by Holly Dreger
|Excellent! Very well written and a fabulous overview! Bravo !|
|Reviewed by Sean Samuels
|Perfection...I couldn't have said it better myself!|
|Reviewed by Steve
|Yes. You hit the nail on the head as to exactly how life after death is described in the bible.|
|Reviewed by Darlene Zagata
|Excellent. Very informative and well-done.|
|Reviewed by Nellie Feng
|very well written !!!|