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
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
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
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
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
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.,
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
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 BodyPresent 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
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
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).