March 22, 2018

Cliff's Edge: Dogmatic About Death

Clifford Goldstein


eath, even in the best of circumstances (whatever those could be)—what a bummer but, certainly, not the bummer that popular theology has made it. You know: immediate ascent to some perch in the Elysian Fields where, from there, our beloved dead view things like the killing fields here; or torment in the fires of hell under the earth as eternal punishment for the 80, 60, 20(?) years of inherited sin on it. Even the ilk of atheists have perverted death, bad enough already, with their myths (to quote Czeslaw Milosz) that “for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged.”

In contrast, Scripture portrays death as this silent unconscious repose (Ecclesiastes 9:5; 1 Kings 2:10) for (with rare exceptions) everyone until either the first resurrection and eternal life (John 5:28, 29; Revelation 20:6), or the second (Revelation 20:14, 15) and eternal destruction. (And it’s the destruction, not the act of destroying, that’s eternal, thank you. [See 2 Thes. 1:9; Mal. 4:1; Matt. 10:28; Ps. 37:20.])

From the moment that I learned the biblical truths about the state of the dead and hell I just loved how fair, how sensible they were and what they revealed about the goodness of God, who does not torture anyone, even the worst, forever. (Search the word “forever” in the Old Testament and see that, in many cases, it isn’t used for eternity. [See in Exod. 21:6; Lev. 23:21; 1 Sam. 28:2; 1 Chron. 28:4; Isa. 32:14; 34:10; and Jonah 2:6—“The earth and its bars closed behind me forever.” Wasn’t it three days?])

I have for decades been discussing death and hell with the Messianic Jew who, in 1979, baptized me in the Jordan River but who cannot understand my dogmatism about death. Scripture, he says, remains ambiguous about the immediate fate of the dead because, well, it’s not that important, anyway.

Not important? Death, or the specter of it, infects every living moment. Who doesn’t breathe without the stone realization that their or their loved ones’ next breath could be their only one left? At birth, before even, we’re old enough to transition into a corpse. Like eggplant and oysters, we die; unlike them—as (to quote Milosz again) “persons and organisms at the same time”—we know it, an altogether tough rub for beings hard-wired enough like us to fold before the infinite gap between the bit of time that we limp upon the ground and the eternity that grinds us into it.

Not important? What but “a vapor” (James 4:14) is our life, this eruption of protoplasmic metabolism, compared to what comes after? “It is not to be doubted,” wrote Frenchman Blaise Pascal, “that the duration of this life is but a moment” . . . and “the state of death is eternal, whatever its nature.” In 1789, George Washington, at 67, died—a 67:229 ratio of life to death, and counting. Julius Caesar, dead at 66 in 44 BC—66:2062 and getting only worse.

The point? We exist here mostly dead.

So, would the Lord—who, through His written Word, has revealed, just for us, dimensions of reality (even with radio telescopes and electron microscopes) otherwise out of our reach —leave us in ambiguity about the harshest, longest and most inescapable snag of our fallen existence? Before you finish this column how many homes, how many families, will be irreparably ripped to shreds by the death of a parent, a child, a sibling, a spouse? And yet what happens at death isn’t important enough for our God to let mourners know the immediate fate of those mourned?

How many times does Scripture call death a sleep? “And Ahaz slept with his fathers” (2 Chron. 28:27, KJV). I’ve counted 39 between Deuteronomy 31:16 and 2 Chronicles 33:20 alone. And what it is about “For the living know that they will die; But the dead know nothing,” (Eccl. 9:5) that is so hard to understand? Or “His spirit departs, he returns to his earth; In that very day his plans perish” (Ps. 146:4)? Paul said “And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished” (1 Cor. 15:17, 18). How bizarre is that if those “fallen asleep in Christ” are enjoying the bliss of heaven now?

Sure, we know the text where Jesus supposedly says to the thief on the cross “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43) except that Jesus didn’t go to paradise that day (John 20:17). However, the comma placed before “today” was not in the original manuscript but came later and which, if placed after the word “today”—Assuredly, I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise—makes the text fit perfectly with the rest of Scripture, including John 20:17. And how nice that, through faith in Jesus, we can even right now know that Jesus is saying, to each of us, too: I’m telling you right now, that you will be with Me in paradise.

And what about Paul’s “absent from the body and present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8) statement? What about it? Who among us, struggling with the toils of life and the tenuousness of our treasonous flesh haven’t thought about how nice it would be to close our eyes in sleep and shed this tent of fat and decay, and then the next thing we know is to be present with the Lord when He returns? Paul wrote to Timothy that he was waiting for the crown of righteousness, not at death, but which the Lord “will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Timothy 4:8)—a text that makes no sense if Paul expected to go immediately to heaven. Instead, we shed our flesh in death, and the next thing we know is that “on that Day” we along with Paul are taken by Jesus to paradise. That’s what we are promised in Jesus, who came to give us life, even “life more abundantly” (John 10:10, NKJV).

And, of course, there’s the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31), with Lazarus enjoying himself in the bosom of Abraham while the rich man is being tortured in a hell that’s close enough to Abraham’s bosom for Abraham and the rich man to chat. A literal account of death? (For starters, how is the beggar going to fit in Abraham’s bosom, and is he the only one there?) However, if we take this story, not as a commentary on the state of the dead but as the obvious parable that it is about how now, in this life alone, is the time to get right with God, then it doesn’t contradict texts about death as an unconscious sleep until the resurrection.

Much of humanity will exist here as ash and dust much longer than as flesh and bone. How nice to know, then, from God’s Word, what this ash and dust entails for those who are this ash and dust (and for a long time, too): a quiet sleep that, from the perspective of the dead, instantly eases into the first resurrection and eternal life, or into the second and eternal destruction. And because of what Jesus has done, we can have that first option, death as only a moment of silent repose until the resurrection to life.

That’s the truth of God’s word. And, despite my dogmatism, nothing is unimportant or ambiguous about it.

Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His latest book, Baptizing the Devil: Evolution and the Seduction of Christianity, is available from Pacific Press.