By Pastor Doug Batchelor
An Amazing Fact: In 1876 a handful of mobsters botched a morbid plan to kidnap the body of Abraham Lincoln and hold it ransom. The hapless grave robbers were arrested just a few days later. Fearing another attempt, the government secretly hid the body of the sixteenth president in an unmarked grave for 25 years. Then in 1901, under the urging of Robert Lincoln, the president’s only surviving child, Lincoln’s body was dug up and placed inside a steel cage, lowered into a 10-foot-deep vault, and buried under tons of concrete. He’s still there today, in his tomb, on the grounds of Oak Ridge Cemetery. So do the dead care when their remains are disturbed? There’s no evidence that Abraham Lincoln ever complained about all the odd grave shuffling.
One of the most important subjects in life is to understand what happens when it’s over. Unfortunately, there is a lot of confusion about death, inside and outside the church, which makes it very difficult for the average person to understand such a vital subject.
Perhaps the greatest understatement ever would be to say that death is unpleasant. In our culture, when people die, we quickly cover them up and whisk them away. We don’t want to think about death, especially when it comes to those we love and ourselves. But the topic must be faced, not only for the practical reason that we’re all touched by it eventually, but because understanding the truth about death is actually good news if you have everlasting life.
It’s not hard to see why people are so confused about what happens when we die. Even the many and varied tombstones at graveyards reveal this state of confusion. For example, one tombstone might read, “Father is sleeping now in the arms of Jesus, waiting for the resurrection trumpet.” But a few tombstones over, one reads, “Mother is now singing on golden streets with the angels.”
So which is it? Are the dead sleeping, waiting for the resurrection, or are they alive somewhere? If so, what are they doing? There is a debate about the afterlife, even among good and honest Christians. This brief study on death will help you see what the most important document in human history —the Holy Bible —really says about the subject.
Life and the Human Soul
Before we can understand what happens at death, we need to understand the basics of how life happened. The Bible tells us that when God made Adam in the garden of Eden, the man became a living soul. “The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7).
Notice it doesn’t say that God “gave man a soul,” but rather, “man became a living soul.” The dust from the ground (the body), combined with the vital breath of life from God, produced a soul.
When someone dies, it is creation in reverse. “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7). The spirit that returns to God at death is the energizing breath of life given by God in Genesis 2:7.
“All the while my breath is in me, and the spirit of God is in my nostrils” (Job 27:3). Here Job is talking about “the breath of life” mentioned in Genesis 2:7. In fact, it’s the very same Hebrew word in both passages. At death, the body returns to dust, the breath of life returns to God, and the human soul ceases to exist.
An Eternal Reward—the Afterlife
Nobody is suffering in hellfire today, and the vast majority of people who have died are not in heaven. This might shock you, but it’s exactly what the Bible teaches.
“Behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be” (Revelation 22:12). Everyone gets his or her reward when Jesus returns. It’s important to understand this because Jesus hasn’t returned, has He? Judgment Day is still in the future.
“So man lies down and does not rise.
Till the heavens are no more” (Job 14:12 NKJV). The dead do “not rise” from the grave until the heavens are no more. When will the heavens be no more? “The day of the Lord will come … in which the heavens will pass away” (2 Peter 3:10 NKJV). The heavens pass away on the day of the Lord, when Jesus returns to the earth. Until then, the dead do “not rise” from the grave.
But aren’t there people in heaven now?
Yes. A few. They are the exceptions. The Gospels tell the story of the transfiguration, when Moses and Elijah appeared to Jesus on the mountaintop. They were real and in the flesh. Jesus spoke with them; the apostles saw them. They had come from heaven to offer encouragement to Jesus. But how did they get to heaven?
In 2 Kings 2:11, the Bible tells us that Elijah was caught up to heaven in a fiery chariot. Elijah went to heaven, even though he didn’t die. Moses died first, but the Lord raised him up and took him to heaven (Jude 9).
In Matthew 27, during the time when Christ died on the cross, there was a strong earthquake, and many of the graves around Jerusalem opened up. Many of the saints who had died—patriarchs and prophets who lived prior to the time of Christ—were raised in a special resurrection. It doesn’t name names, so we don’t know who they were. But the Bible says they came out of the graves after His resurrection and went into the holy city where they appeared to many.1 At the ascension of Christ, they ascended with Him.2 These resurrected humans were what the Bible calls the first fruits of Jesus’ successful mission.
When you go to the cemetery, does it ever make you feel creepy? Especially around sundown, are you afraid that some ghost is going to lunge out from the grave and grab your ankle? We’ve been trained in our culture to think that the dead aren’t really dead. But the Bible teaches the dead don’t come back. They can’t communicate. They certainly don’t haunt cemeteries!
Have you ever gone to bed and woken up, thinking you had only slept a short while, then you peek at the clock to discover it was hours longer than you thought? You have no awareness of time in sleep. That’s how the Bible describes the sleep of death. For the saved and the lost, it’s the same.
“Consider and hear me, O Lord my God: lighten mine eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death” (Psalms 13:3). Death is called “sleep” over and over again in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments. Jesus clearly referred to death as “sleep” when speaking about Lazarus. “Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep” (John 11:11). The apostles took Jesus literally, so Jesus clarified for them that Lazarus was, indeed, dead.
It took Jesus four days to get to Lazarus’ tomb. Lazarus’ body was decomposing, turning back into dust. Martha was even afraid of the stench of an open tomb. They reluctantly rolled away the stone, and Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth!” That’s what Lazarus did.
I believe Jesus allowed Lazarus to be in the grave for four days so there would be no doubt that Lazarus was very dead. Some skeptics suggest that other resurrections in the Bible were probably due to coma, arguing the people weren’t really dead yet. But Lazarus had been embalmed and wrapped up. If he had been alive, he would surely have suffocated to death! The stench of his decomposing body wafted out of the open tomb and gagged them. But Lazarus came out alive at Jesus’ command.
If that happened today, FoxNews and CNN would have called Lazarus for an interview. What do you think would have been their first questions?
Despite the fact that this is one of the most public miracles of Jesus, and all the Gospel writers knew about it, we find nothing regarding Lazarus commenting on his experience.
Lazarus has the answer to the biggest question in history! But there’s no comment. Why? Jesus tells us Lazarus was asleep. Lazarus had a fever, he was sick, he lost consciousness, and eventually he died. He didn’t know anything until, all of a sudden, he woke up feeling great, wrapped up in something like perfumed first-aid bandages. He didn’t know what was going on. He was hearing Jesus call him. That’s all he knew. He stumbled to his feet and shuffled to the shiny entrance. To him it was like waking up from a nap.
Some believe that while the body might perish, the soul remains conscious. But the Bible tells us in Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6, “For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun.”
Talking to the Dead
Paul, to the Thessalonians, writes about death, “I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep” (4:13). Paul wants you to understand the truth about death because not understanding this opens you up to deception in the last days.
In fact, there are several prominent television programs that feature folks who allegedly talk to or “channel” the dead. Some of them reveal things only loved ones would know. According to the Bible, it’s not dead people. It is either trickery or Satan’s minions. They know a lot about us, even our secrets. They can use these bits of knowledge to trick you into thinking you’re talking to your dead loved one.
I miss my brother Falcon and would love to talk to him. But I can’t. He’s dead. If anyone appears to me with red hair and freckles claiming to be my brother, as much as I miss him, I know from the Bible it’s not my brother. Either my mind is playing tricks on me or it’s the devil.
There are hundreds of scriptures on the subject of death, so how can the church be so confused on this topic? How has the devil been able to bamboozle Christians? Why has he bothered to put so much energy into deceiving the church on this subject? Because he’s going to use it to his advantage before Jesus comes again! “In the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils” (1 Timothy 4:1).
Why the Truth About
Death Is So Important
Of course, you’ve heard reports of near-death experiences, of people on the operating table who floated around the room. Yet researchers have shown that when people temporarily stop breathing, they will quickly build up too much carbon dioxide in their system and hallucinate. Some have interpreted these events as visions, but it’s dangerous to base your theology on an operating table dream or hallucination.
“He said, I will go forth, and I will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets” (1 Kings 22:22). There are going to be in the last days lying spirits in the mouths of false prophets. Revelation 16 says these unclean spirits go forth to the kings of the earth, working miracles to deceive. That will have a trickle-down effect and deceive people into thinking they should embrace a certain theology based on the testimony of demons posing to be the spirits of the dead.
“For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders” (Matthew 24:24). The spiritualism infecting the church today is going to be used by the devil in the last days to deceive, similar to how he deceived Saul. Israel’s troubled king, in the desperation of his last days, went to see a witch. He saw a devilish apparition, not the dead prophet Samuel, that greatly discouraged him, and he committed suicide the next day.
How can we avoid being deceived in the last days? “They received the word of God with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so” (Acts 17:11). The Word of God is our only sure foundation. “If they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isaiah 8:20). It doesn’t matter if it looks and sounds just like your departed grandma or Mary the mother of Jesus, and it knows all the intimate secrets only they would know. If someone dead appears to you, it’s of the devil or your brain is not functioning properly.
The Fate of the Righteous
“For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first”
(1 Thessalonians 4:16). Jesus made it very clear that this resurrection is in the last days …
“Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life;” [the first resurrection] “and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation” [the second resurrection, at the end of the thousand years] (John 5:28, 29).
“This is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:40 NKJV, my emphasis). The words of Jesus could not be clearer! How many are raised when they die? None. The saved are raised up at the “last day.”
One more: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming” (1 Corinthians 15:22, 23 NKJV). The dead believers are raised at Jesus’ coming!
The Bible promises that one day, “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain” (Revelation 21:4). Unfortunately, death is a reality in our world today—and it does and should cause us sorrow. But, most important, you don’t need to be afraid of death. Jesus promises, “He who has the Son has life” (1 John 5:12 NKJV).
That life begins now because Christians don’t die permanently! You might experience a momentary dreamless sleep, but Jesus will awaken you on that great day. You don’t need to be afraid of death if you have Jesus. So I invite you today to accept the fullness of His Word and take His grace into your life.
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A Misunderstood Bible Passage Regarding Death
How do we explain what Jesus told the thief on the cross? “Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). It seems, at first glance, that Jesus is telling the thief that on that very day, both of them will be in heaven together. This is an unfortunate mistranslation. The original Greek had no punctuation, so translators had to guess about where to place a comma. They decided on the common rendering of the text.
But they got it wrong. It should read: “Verily I say unto thee today, shalt thou be with me in paradise.” Jesus is saying, even though right now I don’t look like a king, I’m telling you right now that because you called me Lord and King, you’re going to be with me in heaven.
We know it’s a misplaced comma because Jesus didn’t go to heaven that day! Three days after that promise, Mary saw Jesus after His resurrection and grabbed hold of His ankles. He said, “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father” (John 20:17). He could not have been in heaven on Friday! The Bible makes it clear that the thief did not go to heaven with Jesus Friday afternoon.