Absent from the Body
Paul expected that his departure from his body would
mean his reunion with the Lord Jesus:
"So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in
the body we are absent from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight.
We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and
to be present with the Lord." (2 Corinthians 5:6-8).
Jonathan Edwards' essay 'Absent from the Body' discusses this verse in detail:
This author's discussion of the matter strikes me as very
convincing, although one must concede to the Seventh Day Adventists
there are several Old Testament verses which, if taken categorically as the final word on the matter, lean
not so much toward soul sleep as to a denial of human immortality in any
form. Of course there are also plain Old Testament promises of resurrection
and eternal life. These include the promise that the grave will be
“I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death.
O Death, I will be your plagues! O Grave, I will be your destruction! Pity is hidden from My eyes.”
There is a plain promise of resurrection in Psalm 71:20, "You, who
have shown me great and severe troubles, shall revive me again, and
bring me up again from the depths of the earth." About which, Charles
Spurgeon says, "Even when we are laid low in the tomb, the mercy is
that we can go no lower, but shall retrace our steps and mount to
better lands; and all this, because the Lord is ever mighty to save."
(Charles Spurgeon, Treasury of David, Kindle location 36391). Uniting
the whole voice of the inspired chorus of God yields not soul sleep,
but eternal life, without hiatus: " It is like the dew of Hermon,
descending upon the mountains of Zion; for there the Lord commanded the
blessing— life forevermore." (Psalm 133:3)
To Depart is Better
"For I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your
prayer and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest
expectation and hope that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but with all boldness,
as always, so now also Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by
life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But
if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what
I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard-pressed between the two, having
a desire to depart and to be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless
to remain in the flesh is more needful for you."( Philippians 1:19-24).
Upon our death believers go to be with the Lord. Paul's heavenly home-sickness
would be hard to understand if he were looking forward to...soul sleep.
"For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing,
and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Also
their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished; nevermore will
they have a share in anything done under the sun." (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6).
Jehovah's Witnesses overlook the author's apparent skepticism about the resurrection to their beloved 'paradise earth:' "...nevermore
will they have a share in anything done under the sun." The passage not only clearly denies the dead can communicate with the living,
but in saying "the dead know nothing" seems to go beyond this to deny conscious existence to the dead.
To start with general principles, Old Testament teaching can in no case be used to disconfirm the New Testament,
which is explicitly stated in the Bible to be the "better" testament:
"By so much was Jesus made a surety of a better testament."
Ideally the two should be interpreted so as harmonize! The New partakes of
the full clarity of day, while the Old can be veiled and uncertain,
until the veil is cast aside by the Messiah's advent. Given that the
New Testament is the "better," it's unwise to elevate the Old Testament above the New,
using the Old to establish doctrine which then governs the interpretation
of the New. Rather, the doctrine clearly taught in the New Testament
should govern the interpretation of the Old, whereupon, in some cases, the
Old will appear as a sketch or intimation of something more clearly
developed later. The pagans thought that the wisdom of the ancients is the best
wisdom; people may forget things, but can never learn anything new. But
if God Himself bursts into human history, as the Bible reports Him to have
done, how can human understanding of His ways be static and unchanging?
Can God never reveal anything to His people except for what they already know?
While God's truth never changes, there are several reasons to think God's revelation is progressive:
- The New Covenant is called a 'better covenant:' "But now He has obtained a more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He is also
mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, then
no place would have been sought for a second. " (Hebrews 8:6-7). As the author notes, had the first testament been perfect,
there would have been no room for a second.
- According to Jesus, some provisions in the law of Moses were as they were because the people were unteachable: “He said to
them, 'Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was
not so.'” (Matthew 19:8). If so, the law of Moses was not the perfect revelation of God's mind.
- God has at times commanded His children things He had previously forbidden
them: “In it were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts,
creeping things, and birds of the air. And a voice came to him, 'Rise,
Peter; kill and eat.' But Peter said, 'Not so, Lord! For I have never eaten
anything common or unclean.' And a voice spoke to him again the second
time, 'What God has cleansed you must not call common.'”
But God Himself had commanded Israel to keep kosher: "And every creeping
thing that creeps on the earth shall be an abomination. It shall not be
eaten." (Leviticus 11:41). If the prior command had represented God's
perfect will, what room is left for the latter?
- The normal process of teaching is progressive: "For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you
again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes
only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness,
for he is a babe." (Hebrews 5:12-13). If God's teaching of His people
began with solid food then moved on to milk, it would run counter to this
general tendency. So a scriptural teaching revealed later cannot be undone
by pointing out it may not have been clearly known to the men of earlier time.
The blessings and curses attached to the law of Moses were, in the
first instance, of secular weal
and woe. God promised nation Israel a hard-scrabble piece of real
estate, but His earthly promises concealed a better gift. . .eternal blessedness:
"And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit
down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew
8:11). Later, the Old Testament prophets revealed the resurrection to come:
"Your dead shall live; together with my dead body they shall arise.
Awake and sing, you who dwell in dust; for your dew is like the dew of
herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead." (Isaiah 26:19);
"And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake,
some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those
who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and those
who turn many to righteousness like the stars forever and ever." (Daniel
Finally, as God Himself came to His temple (Malachi 3:1), Jesus Christ
plainly revealed that those who believe in Him will "never die."
This is a process of education: "Indeed, our own experience teaches the
gradual unfolding of truth with our growing capacity for its
perception." (Alfred Edersheim, Bible History: Old Testament, Kindle
location 20125). It was not all fully evident at the start.
Respecting the status of the dead, not only does God's revelation become progressively more clear, but the reality described also
changes. Jesus "abolished death:" "...but has now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who
has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel..."
(2 Timothy 1:10). It is difficult to see how the status of the dead could
be precisely the same after Jesus "abolished death" as it had
been before. The Lord Himself wrought a change in the whereabouts
of the righteous dead and their proximity to God. Before, Jesus said that
no man had ascended to heaven; after, He promises to meet the thief in
paradise. Works of the human imagination like the apocryphal 'Gospel of
Nicodemus' piece together the few threads in scripture that hint of this prison break,
though the road-map is not clearly drawn in canonical scripture.
Hezekiah asserts that the dead do not praise God: "For the grave cannot praise thee, death can not celebrate thee: they that go
down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth. The living, the living, he shall praise thee, as I do this day: the father to the
children shall make known thy truth." (Isaiah 38:18-19). But Revelation portrays deceased persons, the twenty-four elders, doing
just what Hezekiah said the dead do not do: praising God: "Whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him
who sits on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before Him who sits on the throne and worship Him
who lives forever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying: 'You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and
power; for You created all things, and by Your will they exist and were created.'"
(Revelation 4:9-11). What changed is not only the
description of reality but the reality being described, like the song says: "Death in vain forbids Him rise, Alleluia! Christ has
opened Paradise, Alleluia!" (Charles Wesley).
The author of Ecclesiastes asks, "Who knows whether the human spirit
goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth?"
(Ecclesiastes 3:21), then meets his own doubt, "Then the dust will
return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave
it." (Ecclesiastes 12:7). This book offers an intellectual history;
the author tries various approaches to life, rejects them as 'vanity,' then
arrives in the end at piety and an assurance of God's judgment. At least end up where the author ends up, rather than to cut short his
explorations at an earlier and unsatisfactory phase! God does receive the spirits of those who
were His: "And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying,
'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.'" (Acts 7:59).
While God's revelation is progressive, we are not a liberty to toss out dissenting scripture.
Admittedly Ecclesiastes 9:5 is a tough nut to crack for those who believe
in the intermediate state:
"...but the dead know not anything;" this is not to be understood of their separate spirits, and of
the things of the other world; for the righteous dead know much, their
knowledge is greatly increased; they know, as they are known; they know
much of God in Christ, of his perfections, purposes, covenant, grace, and
love; they know much of Christ, of his person, offices, and glory, and
see him as he is; they know much of the Gospel, and the mysteries of it;
and of angels, and the spirits of just men, they now converse with; and
of the glories and happiness of the heavenly state; even they know abundantly
more than they did in this life: and the wicked dead, in their separate
spirits, know there is a God that judgeth; that their souls are immortal;
that there is a future state; indeed they know and feel the torments of
hell, the worm that never dies, and the fire that is not quenched: but
this is to be interpreted of their bodily senses now extinct, and of worldly
things they have now nothing to do with; they know not any thing that is
done in this world, nor how it fares with their children and friends they
have left behind them; see Job 14:21; nor therefore are they to be prayed
unto, and used as mediators with God." (Ecclesiastes 9:5, John Gill's Expositor).
The pagan peoples sometimes thought that if they could establish communications
with the dead, they would tap into an unfailing source of information
about the future. Communicating with the dead is condemned as great
wickedness in the Bible, but not, interestingly, on grounds that it is
in principle impossible. Perhaps the author wishes to stress that,
regardless of whether they repose in Abraham's bosom or in hotter
regions, the dead do not keep up with current earthly events and are
not the kind of information resource the pagans took them to be. Or
perhaps he is merely expressing views in consonance with the Epicurean
philosophy he had embraced at that point in his life, which he later
abandoned as empty and useless.