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Questions On Doctrine


The Condition of Man in Death



Why do you not accept the commonly held belief that at death man goes either to heaven or to hell? This is so widely held by Christians of most denominations that it has become one of the doctrines of orthodoxy in the minds of most church leaders today?


The condition of man in death has intrigued Christian scholars throughout the centuries. Many illustrious leaders, back through the years, have differed with one another over this doctrine, not a few dissenting from the popular view. (See under Question 44.) Adventists have endeavored to follow what they believe to be the teaching of Sacred Scripture as to whether, at death, man goes to his reward immediately or rests in the grave awaiting the morn of the resurrection.

We, as Adventists, have reached the definite conclusion that man rests in the tomb until the resurrection morning. Then, at the first resurrection (Rev. 20:4, 5), the resurrection of the just (Acts 24:15), the righteous come forth immortalized, at the call of Christ the Life-giver. And they then enter into life everlasting, in their eternal home in the kingdom of glory. Such is our understanding.


I. Death as Set Forth in Scripture

In the Old Testament the term "death" refers almost exclusively to physical death. In the New Testament there are other shades of meaning, as seen in the various Greek words used. The term most frequently used is thanatos, which means either physical death, a carnal indifference to spiritual matters, or an insensibility to divine things. The Greek words for "sleep"—such as koimao, katheudo, and hupnos—quite often rendered "sleep," refer in many instances to the sleep of death.

W. E. Vine (Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, 1939, vol. 1, p. 81) remarks:

This metaphorical use of the word sleep is appropriate, because of the similarity in appearance between a sleeping body and a dead body.

Referring to meanings of "death" other than that of physical death, New Testament writers state that those who indulge in the pleasures of wickedness are "dead" while they live (1 Tim. 5:6); those who are outside of Christ are "dead in trespasses and sins" (Eph. 2:1); those who are converted to God pass "from death unto life" (John 5:24); those who have been born again are now "dead indeed unto sin" (Rom. 6:11); and those who are truly the sons of God "shall never see death" (John 8:51).*

II. Condition of Man in Death

The Scriptures clearly set forth the condition of man in death. The following texts answer many of the questions that come to mind.
*We recognize that all men, both righteous and wicked, die. But what is here meant is that the children of God will not experience the second death.


Psalm 6:5—"In death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks?"

Psalm 30:9—"What profit is there . . . when I go down to the pit? Shall the dust praise thee? shall it declare thy truth?"

Psalm 88:10—"Wilt thou shew wonders to the dead? shall the dead arise and praise thee?"

Psalm 115:17—"The dead praise not the Lord, neither any that go down into silence."

Psalm 146:4—"His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish."

Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6—"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."

Isaiah 38:18, 19—"The grave cannot praise thee, death cannot celebrate thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth. The living . . . shall praise thee."

1 Corinthians 15:17, 18—"If Christ be not raised, your faith is vain. . . . Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished."

III. The Resurrection, Not Death, the Hope of the Saints

All through the apostolic letters one is impressed with the fact that the groundwork of the gospel message was that Jesus, the Messiah, had risen from the dead. Nowhere do the apostles refer to His soul as coming back from heaven. They distinctly mention that He was raised from the dead (Luke 24:3-6). This is iterated again and again. His soul was "not left in hell (Greek hadis, "the grave")" (Acts 2:31; Ps. 16:10, Hebrews, sheol, "the grave"), though He "poured out his soul unto death" (Isa. 53:12).

The resurrection is called the hope of the Christian. (Notice John 6:39, 40; Luke 20:37; compare Matt. 11:5;


Luke 7:22.) Job declared: "I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth" (Job 19:25). And the psalmist David, expressing his hope for the future, declared, "I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness" (Ps. 17:15).

Even in the days of Jesus, when the Pharisees were questioning Him about matters pertaining to the future, they did not discuss the question of death, but rather the matter of the resurrection (Matt. 22:28-30). Paul's hope was definitely fixed on this climactic event. Writing to the Philippian church, he expressed the longing of his soul when he exclaimed, "If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead" (Phil. 3:11). (See also 1 Cor. 15:18, 22, 23; 1 Thess. 4:14, 17.) In the New Testament the resurrection of the Christian is referred to as "the resurrection of life" (John 5:29), and "the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 3:21).

Rewards are given to the saints, not at death but at the second advent. The resurrection of the righteous takes place at the time our Saviour returns from heaven to gather His people (Matt. 16:27; Isa. 40:10; 2 Tim. 4:8; et cetera).

Another important factor is that, at death, the saints go to the grave. They will live again, but they come to life and live with Jesus after they are raised from the dead. While asleep in the tomb the child of God knows nothing. Time matters not to him. If he should be there a thousand years, the time would be to him as but a moment. One who serves God closes his eyes in death, and whether one day or two thousand years elapse,


the next instant in his consciousness will be when he opens his eyes and beholds his blessed Lord. To him it is death—then sudden glory.

IV. The First and Second Deaths

While the expression "the first death" does not appear in the Bible, the term "the second death" is used (Rev. 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8). This second death is associated with the final punishment of the wicked, and really indicates a death from which there is no resurrection. The first death is obviously the death resulting from Adam's transgression. From this first death, or sleep, there is to be a resurrection for all mankind. This applies to all, whether righteous or wicked, as the Scriptures clearly declare that there will be a "resurrection of the dead both of the just and unjust" (Acts 24:15). Albert Barnes (on John 11:11) well remarks:

In the Scriptures it [sleep] is used to intimate that death will not be final: that there will be an awakening out of this sleep, or a resurrection. It is a beautiful and tender expression, removing all that is dreadful in death, and filling the mind with the idea of calm repose after a life of toil, with a reference to a future resurrection in increased vigor and renovated powers.

V. Some Have Returned From the Grave

If, at death, a conscious soul or spirit immediately leaves the body for either heaven or hell, then what about those who died and were raised from the dead? Did they have anything to tell us? There are at least seven instances of those who were raised from the dead: The widow's son (1 Kings 17); the Shunammite's son (2 Kings 4); the widow's son at Nain (Luke 7:11-15);


the daughter of Jairus (Luke 8:41, 42, 49-56); Tabitha (Acts 9:36-41); Eutychus (Acts 20:9-12); and Lazarus (John 11:1-44; 12:1, 9).

Doubtless some of these were dead for but a short time, for according to Jewish custom, burial took place on the day of death. (See A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures, on John 12.) Lazarus had been dead longer, however—"four days," according to Martha.

The question that naturally arises is this: Did the souls of these individuals go immediately at death to either heaven or hell? If so, it would surely be too bad to bring one back from heaven, where, having once arrived, he would naturally expect to remain forever. To bring one back from the realms of bliss to this vale of tears would be to run a risk of his sinning again, and so of losing his eternal reward. On the other hand, if one were brought back from hell, as popularly conceived, he would doubtless be very glad to be released from punishment and would have another opportunity of accepting the gospel of the grace of God.

If the soul goes to either heaven or hell at death, surely those who have been resurrected would talk of the glories of the heavenly land, or they would warn sinners in no uncertain tones of the torments of the damned. Yet there is no record of their having said a single word. How strange, if the soul or spirit survives death as a conscious entity, that we have no word at all from any of the aforementioned individuals concerning what happened during the period they were dead!


An excellent statement appears in the W. Robertson Nichol's Expositor's Bible on this question:

What was the experience of Lazarus during these four days? To speculate on what he saw or heard or experienced, to trace the flight of his soul through the gates of death to the presence of God, may perhaps seem to some as foolish as to go with those curious Jews who flocked out to Bethany to set eyes on this marvel, a man who had passed to the unseen world and yet returned. But although no doubt good and great purposes are served by the obscurity that involves death, our endeavour to penetrate the gloom, and catch some glimpses of a life we must shortly enter, cannot be judged altogether idle. Unfortunately, it is little we can learn from Lazarus.—Volume 1, on John, p. 360.

The probability is, he had nothing to reveal. As Jesus said, He came "to awake him out of sleep." Had he learned anything of the spirit world, it must have oozed out. The burden of a secret which all men craved to know, and which the scribes and lawyers from Jerusalem would do all in their power to elicit from him, would have damaged his mind and oppressed his life. His rising would be as the awaking of a man from deep sleep, scarcely knowing what he was doing, tripping and stumbling in the grave-clothes and wondering at the crowd. What Mary and Martha would prize would be the unchanged love that shone in his face as he recognized them, the same familiar tones and endearments,—all that showed how little change death brings, how little rupture of affection or of any good thing, how truly he was their own brother still.—Ibid., p. 362

Mention might well be made of one of the saints of ancient days. He died, in the regular course of events, and was buried as were his fathers before him. The divine record says: "David . . . is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day" (Acts 2:29). To say that it was David's body that was buried, and that his soul went to the realms of bliss, would certainly not be in accordance with the teaching of the Word of God. This might accord with popular theology, but the Divine Word definitely declares that "David never went up to heaven" (verse 34, Knox translation),


or "did not ascend into the heavens" (R.S.V.; compare Weymouth, et cetera). And the Cambridge Bible has the following note: "For David is not ascended. Better ascended not. He went down to the grave, and 'slept with his fathers.' "

VI. Departing, and Being With Christ

Quite frequently, when we present the considerations advanced here, the words of the apostle Paul are referred to in regard to departing, and being with Christ. If the saints do not go to heaven at death, what does the great apostle mean when, speaking of himself, he says specifically that he has "a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better" (Phil. 1:23)? Of course it will be better to be with Christ. But why, it must be asked, should we conclude from this remark that the apostle expects, immediately upon death, to go at once into the presence of Christ? The Bible does not say so. It merely states his desire to depart, and to be with Christ.

One might reason that the implication is to the effect that being with Christ would be immediately on his departure. But it must be admitted that such is not a necessary implication, and it certainly is not a definite statement of the text. In this particular passage Paul does not tell us when he will be with his Lord. In other places he uses an expression similar to one in this passage. For instance, he says, "The time of my departure is at hand" (2 Tim. 4:6). The Greek word used in these two texts, analuo, is not used very often in the Greek New Testament, but the word has the meaning " to be loosened like an anchor." It is a metaphor drawn


from the loosened moorings preparatory to setting sail. (Compare W. E. Vine, Expository Dictionary, vol. 1, pp. 294, 295.)

It should be observed that Paul does not tell us that it is his soul or his spirit that will depart. He merely says "I" have a desire; the time of "my" departure is at hand. That is the way anyone would express himself if he were leaving for a journey. When the time of leaving comes, he departs, and the whole person goes. There is no separation of body and soul. Why should this concept be changed as soon as we think of death?

There is a time when Paul could go to be with his Lord as a whole man-body, soul, and spirit—and that is at the time of the coming of the Lord. This he stresses in 1 Thessalonians 5:23. Then—body, soul, and spirit —he, and all the redeemed, shall either rise from their graves to meet Christ, or if living be translated and caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. This will be at the time of His glorious second appearing for His saints. This is the concept we hold, and we believe it is in full harmony with the teaching of Holy Writ.

VII. Absent From the Body—Present With the Lord

There is another expression, in 2 Corinthians 5:8, that is often used in considering this subject. The statement of the apostle is, "We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord." It must be recognized that there is nothing in this text to justify our coming to the conclusion that the being "present with the Lord" will occur immediately upon being "absent from the body."


The text does not indicate when these experiences take place. We simply recognize the interval of death between the two experiences. This is just as logical as to believe that one immediately follows the other—and even more so, in the light of what the same apostle has taught concerning the resurrection at the second coming of our Lord. Let us observe the entire passage and note its obvious teachings.

1. Reference to the Earthly  House.—Evidently making reference to the body, Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:1 of the "earthly house." Then he continues, in verse 2, stating that "in this we groan." Again referring to the earthly house, he calls it "this tabernacle" (verse 4). He states in verse 6 that while we are absent from the Lord, "we are at home in the body."

2. Reference to the Heavenly House.—Making reference to the future state, Paul speaks of a "building of God . . . eternal in the heavens" (verse 1), and says that this is "our house which is from heaven" (verse 2). When the change takes place and we put on immortality, he remarks that it is in order that "mortality might be swallowed up of life" (verse 4). Then it is at the resurrection, it seems to us, that Paul expected to be "present with the Lord" (verse 8), for he says in 1 Corinthians 15:53 that at the second coming of Christ "this mortal must put on immortality."

3. Reference to the Intervening Period.—That the apostle Paul has in mind an intervening period between the experience of being in the "earthly house" and that of putting on the "house which is from heaven," is evident from what he mentions in the same passage. Note his remarks: We do not wish to "be found


naked" (2 Cor. 5:3); we are not desirous of being "unclothed" (verse 4). This intervening period we believe to be the state of death. What we really desire is "to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven" (verse 2; compare verse 4).

It is in this connection that he declares that mortality is to be "swallowed up of life" (verse 4). Thus the whole passage, when carefully considered, makes clear what the apostle has in mind. He is thinking, not of death, but of the resurrection day, when "this mortal must put on immortality" and "this corruptible must put on incorruption" (1 Cor. 15:53).

This reveals the importance of a careful study of the context in order to arrive at a sound exegesis of a passage of Scripture.

VIII. An Appropriate Word of Caution

Every precaution was taken by our beneficent Creator in the beginning that there should not be an immortal sinner. Man was given free access to the tree of life. But when he sinned, that continuing access was denied him. No longer could he pluck its wonderful fruit. He was barred from the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:24). And why? "Lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever" (verse 22). Hence, it is evident that God never intended there should be an immortal sinner. Immortality is promised to sinful men only on condition that they have been saved by grace and live in fellowship with God.

Satan, on the other hand, is the responsible author of the doctrine that the sinner will live forever. We find him announcing this to Eve at the time of the Fall. God


had said, "In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die" (Gen. 2:17). The devil, however, flatly contradicted God, and said, "Ye shall not surely die" (Gen. 3:4). In the Hebrew this is actually stronger, and might be read: "It is certain ye shall not die."

Matthew Henry, in commenting upon this, pointedly remarks: "This was a lie, a downright lie; for . . . it was contrary to the word of God." Unfortunately this teaching that the sinner will not die—in other words, that he will live forever, irrespective of his character clearly has its origin with him who is "a liar, and the father of it" (John 8:44). The Saviour said not only that the evil one is "a liar," but that he was "a murderer from the beginning." He evidently had reference to the experience just noted.

Another caution needs to be observed. In speaking for God, we must be careful that we do not give the sinner the impression that he may obtain eternal life without turning to God, repenting of his sins, and becoming a new creature in Christ Jesus. Eternal life is a gift from God (Rom. 6:23; 1 John 5:12).

Years ago the prophet Ezekiel referred to some in his day, men who were false prophets, who were out to deceive the people. These deceivers, said Ezekiel, promise life to the sinner even though he continues in his iniquity (Eze. 13:22). We thank God that the Christian can go to a world perishing in sin, and carry the wonderful offer of life and salvation through Christ our blessed Lord. We can proclaim with full assurance that if men accept Him, turn to God, and are born again, they may have "everlasting life." This is the message of John 3:16: "Whosoever believeth in him


should not perish, but have everlasting life." This is a remarkable offer, but we are also ever to remember that those who believe not the Son "shall not see life" (John 3:36).

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