Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Grand Design: No God Required

Recently, I read with great interest excerpts from Stephen Hawking's new book, The Grand Design. In his book Hawking posits that God is not necessary in order to account for the creation of the universe. Let me say right up front that my grasp of physics and mathematics is rudimentary at best. In addition, my intellect is quite obviously not even a pale shade of what Hawking possesses. Given my severe limitations, when compared to Hawking, it may seem an incredible act of hubris to question the conclusions of such a genius. However, in this book Hawking writes at a relatively accessible popular level and goes beyond the limits of physics and mathematics in order to draw metaphysical conclusions. So in this case, it seems that even a lay person might be able to point out a few leaps of faith in reaching his conclusions.

In ruling out God as the force behind the formation of the universe, Hawking appeals rather to gravitation as a sufficient force for creation. While his conclusion is tied to complex string theory, it seems to lead to other problems on a more basic level. Hawking is placing a good deal of faith in something that is, as of yet, not fully explained by anyone, including himself. It has been demonstrated that Newtonian physics alone cannot explain gravity. Most theories today use principles of general relativity to explain gravitation. In these models space-time is curved by matter which helps to explain the attraction between objects of mass. However, general relativity does not play nicely with the growing science of quantum mechanics where the force of gravity must be explained quite differently. In quantum mechanics, gravity is related to the attraction and exchange of virtual gravitons. At this point, no one can truly tie Newtonian physics, general relativity, and quantum theories of gravity together.

If I understand Hawking’s approach, he is proposing string theory as a possible future unifying solution, but it appears that string theory is really being used as a Trojan horse to sneak in the concept of nearly infinite parallel universes. This construct is necessary in order to explain the mind blowing degree of fine tuning observed in this particular universe. If there are nearly infinite universes, then surely one is highly fine tuned for life. Never mind that this owes more to sci-fi then it does to actual hard evidence.  These are all fascinating theories, but when it comes right down to it, we’re still no closer to really understanding why gravity actually exists as opposed to nothing existing at all. Basically we can describe the effects and facts of gravity, but cannot truly define a root cause for gravity that would bind all the various observations and theories together in a coherent way. In short, Hawking is appealing to an incredibly complex force he does not fully understand and cannot completely explain, and yet he has great faith that this force is sufficient to rule out God's involvement. To depend on this unexplained force as the sole "creator" and shaper of the universe seems like a leap of faith to me.

Hawking has an even larger problem than this. All of the most accepted cosmological models point back to a point when time-space (as well as matter, energy, and gravity) must have first come into being. Hawking says that God was not necessary to spark the existence of something from nothing, but does not adequately explain just what could other than simply resorting to his nearly infinite universes theory. Suggesting more than one universe, even universes nearing infinity, brings us no closer to an original cause. Whatever the cause, it would have to be independent of time-space, matter, energy, and gravity. Or to put it another way, the cause would have to pre-exist time-space, matter, energy, and gravity. The cause would also have to be greater than or equal to the effect, i.e. the cause would have to be greater than or equal to the observable time-space universe and all forces within it. We should also point out that we cannot logically have an infinite regression of causes, so at some point there must be an uncaused first cause which meets these criteria. Hawking doesn't explain what this might be. There is no point in appealing to gravity if you can't explain gravity, its cause, or why it exists as opposed to nothing existing. Hawking wants to tie the various theories of gravity together, which of necessity must involve matter, but we’re still left with the problem of matter coming from nothing. Whether we focus on gravity, matter, or both, we still have to deal with an uncaused first cause.

All this is to say, it takes faith to believe there is no God. Those of us involved in apologetic endeavors should be prepared to reason with those who have real questions about origins. We, unfortunately, have sometimes projected an almost anti-intellectual image of the Church, as if faith and reason are not compatible or reason somehow is antithetical to faith. There is no dichotomy here. Hawking mixes his faith in the ability of science to eventually explain everything into his reasoning and conclusions. We too take some things on faith, but that does not mean that Christianity is incompatible with reason. Rather, we believe that Christianity corresponds to reality. If that’s true, then Christianity is reasonable and can stand up to scrutiny. Belief is not dependent on blind leaps of faith, but on faith grounded in evidence. Each of us needs to grapple with the question of origins and decide whether gravity alone is a sufficient explanation for why there is something rather than nothing or if logically there must be an uncaused first caused. In his book Hawking hails the death philosophy. Let us hope that in saying philosophy is dead he is not also abandoning the underlying logic required to reach reasonable conclusions.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Objections to Jesus Being the First Fruits in a Literal Sense

I have received a couple of questions which have bearing on whether or not the resurrection of Jesus in a glorified resurrection body was a unique event or not. I would summarize the questions as:

1.       If Elijah had a glorified resurrection body when he appeared at the transfiguration of Jesus, then doesn’t it stand to reason that Moses also had a glorified resurrection body at the transfiguration?
2.       If the people mentioned in Matthew 27:52-53 were resurrected in glorified bodies, then how can you say that Jesus was the first to have a glorified resurrection body?

I want to deal with those questions here, but let me first say that I had two purposes in bringing up Moses in Part VI of State of the Dead Bible Study (the segment that occasioned the questions):

1.       Someone asked me about that particular story
2.       I want to make the point that some things that we who were raised SDA have always assumed to be true aren’t necessarily so, or at least can’t be found in the Bible. I am not trying to say that we can use Moses to prove or disprove “absent from the body, present with the Lord”. I’m only saying that there is no good biblical reason to insist that Moses has already been bodily resurrected. You can find that teaching in Ellen White’s writings, but not in the Bible.

Okay, so with that preamble, let me attempt to make two suppositions that I hope are points of agreement for all involved:

1.       The Bible tells us God is spirit. The Bible also tells us that angels are spirits. There are many places in the Bible where God reveals himself in visual ways. There are many places in the Bible where angels reveal themselves in visual ways and even appear to take on various forms. So it appears it is possible for spirits to be revealed in visual ways.
2.       There are several people in the OT and NT who are raised from the dead not long after death, but were not given glorified resurrection bodies. They presumably became sick or grew old and died at some point thereafter.

So hopefully we can all agree with the two suppositions above. Now I’ll state a few things that I’m sure we won’t all agree on, but I hope they are worth thinking about anyway.

1.       The Bible never says that Moses was resurrected. It just says he was dead and tells us that God buried him. To insist that Moses was resurrected with a glorified resurrection body is to read something into the Bible that isn’t there. More specifically it’s to read a teaching from Ellen White into the Bible where it does not exist.
2.       The Bible never says that Elijah was given a glorified resurrection body. It simply says that he “went up by a whirlwind to heaven”. Elijah was swept off the face of the earth into the very presence of God who is spirit. That does not require a physical body. Someday heaven will be very physical when we dwell in the earth made new in our glorified bodies. However, right now Heaven is the very presence of God and it need not be a “place” within the created physical universe as we know it. Most scholars believe Heaven, as it is today, is in the spiritual realm, not the physical realm.
3.       The fact that the disciples “saw” visual representations of Moses and Elijah in no way necessitates either one having a glorified resurrection body. God was doing something very special and intentional in the transfiguration. God allowed the disciples to see Jesus glorified, see visual manifestations of Moses and Elijah, and hear the Father’s voice for a specific reason. Moses represented the Law and Elijah represented the Prophets, but God said, “This is my beloved Son, listen to Him!” God gave an awe inspiring visual and auditory demonstration of a theme that rings throughout the New Testament. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets and supersedes both the Law and the Prophets.
4.       The Bible never says that the people in Mathew 27 were resurrected with glorified bodies. We just don’t know that. Many commentators believe that these were like many others who were raised from the dead during Jesus’ ministry. They were miraculously brought back to life, but not glorified (sometimes referred to as resuscitation as opposed to resurrection). They would later grow old or sick and die. The folks in Matthew 27 were apparently coming out of the Jerusalem cemetery and may have been people who had recently died (similar to Lazarus). Finally, the Greek (and the more literal English translations) seem to suggest that the tombs were opened by the earthquake at the time of Jesus’ death, but that the dead did not come out of those opened tombs and go into the city until after Jesus resurrection. So even if we were to assume they had been resurrected (as opposed to resuscitated) it still appears it was likely after Jesus’ resurrection. I personally think it more likely that these folks were more like Lazarus, but the bottom line is we just don’t know.
5.       I personally believe that the resurrection of Jesus in a glorified resurrection body is a singular unique event in history. I believe the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of Christian belief and without peer in human experience. It is the event we can point to as proof that Jesus is who He said He was and can do what He said. By this we know that He is God in the flesh. By this we know that we one day will rise from the dead in imperishable glorified bodies as well. The Bible seems to support the notion that there is a distinct order. Christ first, then those who believe in the Messiah, then comes the end.

    22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ's at His coming, 24 then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. 1 Corinthians 15:22-24 (NASB)

So for those who believe that Christ’s resurrection is less than unique in human history and that others have gone before, I believe it is incumbent upon them to show clearly and distinctly where the Bible teaches this. By saying this, I do not mean taking the teachings of Ellen White and reading them back into passages where they do not exist. I mean clearly showing where the Bible says that any other human before Jesus was ever resurrected with a glorified resurrection body. I have never found such a teaching in the Bible without having to read something into it that isn’t there. If I’m missing it, please let me know.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

State of the Dead Bible Study: Part VII

I once went to see the Oscar winning film Gladiator with a SDA friend of mine.  Near the beginning of the film we find out that the hero, Maximus, dreams of leaving the wars and returning to the life he loves of raising crops with his wife and son.  Unfortunately, before he is able to return to the fields that he loves so much, his wife and son are murdered and he is made a gladiator slave.  In the final scene, as Maximus lays dying in the Coliseum, we see an image of him walking through a field of ripe grain with his wife and son before him in the sunlight…….fade to black………

I was very impressed with Ridley Scott’s film which later won best picture.  On the way out of the theater I remarked to my SDA friend how much I enjoyed the movie.  His comment to me was, “I liked it right up until the point where it got into all that spiritualism.  I couldn’t recommend it because of the spiritualism.”  I was stunned.  A well crafted film that managed to combine epic story-telling, action, and breath taking cinematography had just been dismissed out of hand because of one beautifully artistic scene near the end.  The entire movie was worthless because it promoted “spiritualism”. 
Had my friend said he disagreed with the idea that a polytheistic Roman who died apart from Christ would be in Heaven, then I could have heartily agreed with him.  But that wasn’t why my friend was so offended.  He was offended by the portrayal of conscious existence at death.  I have run into this same attitude with close family members as well.  Any art that so much as hints at conscious existence at death is written off as being either “spiritualism”, or more often, “satanic”. 
Perhaps I should not be surprised by this as I grew up believing that the idea of conscious existence at death was the first lie Satan ever told.  So therefore any teacher, preacher, movie, song, TV show, or book that suggested a conscious existence at death must be satanic in so far as they were promoting Satan’s lie.  But if conscious existence at death is Satan’s lie and those who teach it are false teachers, what does that say about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?  Jesus tells a very interesting story in Luke, chapter 16.
Luke 16:19-31 (NASB)
19 "Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day.
20 "And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores,
21 and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man's table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores.
22 "Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham's bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried.
23 "In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw* Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom.
24 "And he cried out and said, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.'
25 "But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony.
26 'And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.'
27 "And he said, 'Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father's house—
28 for I have five brothers—in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.'
29 "But Abraham said*, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.'
30 "But he said, 'No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!'
31 "But he said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.' "
Now I have heard some try to dismiss this passage by saying, “Well, it’s only a parable and the main point isn’t the state of the dead.”  This may very well only be a parable, but if it is, then it is the only recorded parable of Jesus where he uses a name for one of the characters.  Because of this, many commentators believe that Jesus is recounting actual events involving people some in the crowd would have known.  However, I’m fine with assuming that this is a parable.  I also agree completely that the main point isn’t the state of the dead. 
However, neither of those points allows us to dismiss the significance of the illustration Jesus is using here.  Assuming this is a parable, then we can say that Jesus’ parables ALWAYS made use of something TRUE from life to illustrate an even greater spiritual TRUTH.  It just doesn’t work to say that Jesus was illustrating a truth by using a falsehood.   Can you imagine Jesus saying, “You know that point I was making? Well, it was a true point, but the way I went about making it was absolutely false.  In fact, I was using an illustration that is a satanic lie to make my point.  My illustration is dangerous spiritualism, but the point is still valid.”?  Why would Jesus say something that was completely false and thereby mislead generations of Christians?  Why would he wait until the 1840s to raise up a group to correct the misconception he started over 1800 year’s before?  That’s a long time to leave Christians confused and misled by a satanic illustration.
It almost feels like blasphemy to write the paragraph I did above, and yet that’s essentially what those who try to explain away this passage are saying when you peel away all their layers of double talk.  We’re talking about God in the flesh.  We’re talking about the greatest teacher, preacher, and prophet to ever walk among us.  This is the illustration He chose and the people in His illustration are conscious and communicative at death.  If we accuse other teachers and preachers of spiritualism and promoting the lies of Satan when they say such things, should we accuse Jesus of the same thing?  Well, I guess one might if they were consistent, but it would be a grave mistake. 
This isn’t “spiritualism”.  It reflects a spiritual reality that Christ knew to be true and the rest of the Bible confirms.  Although I would not want to make a passage like this the primary source of my doctrine, Jesus’ illustration fits perfectly with the rest of His teaching and the didactic teaching of His apostles so I can accept this story as representing spiritual reality.  I don’t need or want to explain it away and dismiss it.
I believe we have been guilty of falsely accusing some of our Christian brothers and sisters of spiritualism for preaching and teaching things that the Bible itself preaches and teaches.  I know I have to personally repent of such accusations that I have made.  My accusations and judgments were made out of my own ignorance, but I bear the responsibility for that ignorance. 
Now that I know what the Bible teaches on this subject, I can now watch films that depict a conscious existence at death without becoming angry and agitated.  I may not agree with every theological implication in the way it is presented, but I can at least enjoy the story for its artistic merit without fearing a satanic deception.  But much more importantly, now that I know what the bible teaches on this subject I am now much more comfortable fellowshipping with Christians who believe that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.
Based upon much prayer and Bible study, I now believe that at death I will be consciously with the Lord awaiting the resurrection of my perfect imperishable body.  I don’t know exactly this means or what it will be like, but perhaps it will be just a little like Ridley Scott’s vision of walking through a beautiful field of ripened grain, surrounded by sunlight and loved ones.
I hope this study has been helpful.  I’ve certainly enjoyed presenting it.  Now that we’re done with the study, please let me know if there are additional questions or items for discussion.  Thank you for reading!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

State of the Dead Bible Study: Part VI

Before addressing the questions dealing with the death of Moses and the Rich Man and Lazarus, I had asked for the opportunity to first lay a foundation for my thoughts.  I believe I am now ready to address these two cases starting with Moses.
If you grew up Adventist, you probably grew up believing that Moses was bodily resurrected from the grave with a perfect, imperishable, resurrection body just like we will have some day. But the question arises; do we really have any strong biblical reason to believe that Moses was the first person to be resurrected from the grave with an imperishable resurrection body?  Although the point may be debatable, I personally don’t see any particularly good reason to think that Moses was the first to rise from the grave with a resurrection body and I can think of at least one very good theological reason to think this is not the case. Let’s start with what the Bible has to say on the death of Moses.
Deuteronomy 34:1-12 (NASB)
1 Now Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho. And the LORD showed him all the land, Gilead as far as Dan,
2 and all Naphtali and the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, and all the land of Judah as far as the western sea,
3 and the Negev and the plain in the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar.
4 Then the LORD said to him, "This is the land which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, 'I will give it to your descendants'; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there."
5 So
Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD.
6 And
He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor; but no man knows his burial place to this day.
7 Although Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died, his eye was not dim, nor his vigor abated.
8 So the sons of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the days of weeping and mourning for Moses came to an end.
9 Now Joshua the son of Nun was filled with the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him; and the sons of Israel listened to him and did as the LORD had commanded Moses.
10 Since that time no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face,
11 for all the signs and wonders which the LORD sent him to perform in the land of Egypt against Pharaoh, all his servants, and all his land,
12 and for all the mighty power and for all the great terror which Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.
That’s it.  Those are the very last versus of the Torah.  We’re basically told three things:
  1. Moses died.
  2. God buried Moses.
  3. No one knows Moses’ burial place.
It is likely that God buried Moses in a remote spot and did not allow anyone to know where it was because the children of Israel would have worshipped the spot and/or the body if they had known where it was.  The Israelites had a tendency toward this type of idolatry as evidenced by the fact that they were worshipping the bronze serpent that Moses had made as late as the time of Hezekiah.  Even this good thing had been turned into a false object of worship and had become a snare to them.  It is likely that the tomb of Moses would have been a snare to them as well.
But whatever the reason for God burying Moses, not a single thing is said or even suggested about resurrecting Moses in a resurrection body.  You would think that if such a significant event in history had occurred, the Bible might mention it.  If Moses was the first fruits from the dead, that is, the first to receive an imperishable resurrection body like we will one day enjoy, then you would certainly think the Bible would say so, but it doesn’t.
A Jewish tradition arose stating that Michael the Archangel (no, Michael is not Jesus, but that’s another study) was assigned the task of burying Moses by God.  According to this tradition, Michael and Satan disputed over the body of Moses.  This tradition was evidently recorded in a noncanonical work variously referred to as “The Testament of Moses” or “The Assumption of Moses”.  In his epistle, Jude alludes to this tradition about the burial of Moses.  It should be noted that such an allusion to popular tradition does not mean that “The Testament of Moses” was inspired, only that Jude found this well-known story to be helpful in illustrating the point he was making.
Jude 1:9 (NASB)
9 But Michael the archangel, when he disputed with the devil and argued about the body of Moses, did not dare pronounce against him a railing judgment, but said, "The Lord rebuke you!"
Jude’s main point in using this illustration has nothing to do with Moses at all.  Rather Jude is making a point about showing proper fear and respect regarding spiritual beings that are more powerful than we are.  But what I want us to note is that Jude is not saying that Michael resurrected Moses.  To the contrary he is alluding to a Jewish tradition that said that Michael buried Moses.
Now let’s look at what God tells Joshua after the death of Moses.
Joshua 1:1-2 (NASB)
1 Now it came about after the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, that the LORD spoke to Joshua the son of Nun, Moses' servant, saying,
2 "
Moses My servant is dead; now therefore arise, cross this Jordan, you and all this people, to the land which I am giving to them, to the sons of Israel.
God just says that Moses is dead.  There is no hint whatsoever that Moses has been resurrected in a resurrection body.  If this had happened, how could God say that Moses was “dead” in any sense of the word?  Surely after we have our resurrection bodies we will no longer be referred to as “dead”!  Compare what God says about Moses to what the angels say about Jesus at His resurrection: "Why do you seek the living One among the dead? He is not here, but He has risen.” - Luke 24:6-7.  There’s a big difference!  God simply says that Moses is dead, but when Jesus rises from the dead with a resurrection body the angles make it clear that He is not among the dead, He is “living”.

But here’s the biggest reason that I don’t think it’s theologically possible for Moses to have risen from the grave with a resurrection body.  If Moses had risen from the grave with a resurrection body then he would be the first fruits from the dead and not Jesus Christ.  The Bible tells us clearly that Jesus is the first fruits from the dead.

1 Corinthians 15:20-23 (NASB)
20 But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the
first fruits of those who are asleep.
21 For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead.
22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.
23 But each in his own order: Christ the
first fruits, after that those who are Christ's at His coming,
Other people in the Bible had been brought back to life after dying (resuscitation), but they all eventually grew old or sick and died again.  Only Jesus has been resurrected from the grave with a perfect imperishable resurrection body guaranteeing that one day we will have resurrection bodies just like His.  If Moses had done it first, then Jesus would not be the first fruits from the dead.

So here is a summary of the reasons that I think it is highly unlikely that Moses was resurrected from the grave with a resurrection body:

  1. The Bible never says that Moses was resurrected; only that he was buried.
  2. The Bible specifically calls Moses “dead”.
  3. Jewish tradition does not claim that Moses was resurrected with a resurrection body, only that Michael buried him.
  4. Jesus is the first fruits from the dead, the first to have an imperishable resurrection body, not Moses.

So why were we taught our whole lives that Moses rose from the grave with a resurrection body?  We were taught that because of this account in the Gospels which is rather embarrassing for SDA theology.

Luke 9:28-36 (NASB)
28 Some eight days after these sayings, He took along Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.
29 And while He was praying, the appearance of His face became different, and His clothing became white and gleaming.
30 And behold, two men were talking with Him; and they were
Moses and Elijah,
31 who,
appearing in glory, were speaking of His departure which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
32 Now Peter and his companions had been overcome with sleep; but when they were fully awake, they saw His glory and the two men standing with Him.
33 And as these were leaving Him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three tabernacles: one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah"—not realizing what he was saying.
34 While he was saying this, a cloud formed and began to overshadow them; and they were afraid as they entered the cloud.
35 Then a voice came out of the cloud, saying, "This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!"
36 And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent, and reported to no one in those days any of the things which they had seen.
The transfiguration creates no problems whatsoever for evangelical Christian theology because Christianity has always believed that the dead do not cease to exist, but are consciously awaiting resurrection.  So to have Moses appearing with Christ raises no problems at all because it is in harmony with the rest of what the Bible says on death.  But it creates a HUGE problem if you happen to teach that there is no spirit and death is a state of non-existence.  If you teach that, then you are backed into a corner and have to find a way to explain how Moses could be dead and also be present at the transfiguration.  The only way out of such a thorny dilemma seems to be inventing the story that Moses was resurrected.  Never mind that the Bible never says any such thing.  This seems to be a necessary invention if you are going to maintain that there is no spirit and people are non-existent at death. 

All this raises the question, why insist that there is no spirit and that people are non-existent at death in the face of so much biblical evidence against this view?  The answer is simple and it has nothing to do with good hermeneutics.  The SDA teaching on the state of the dead is a necessary teaching that is required to maintain the integrity of another key SDA distinctive, the Investigative Judgment.  Exploring how the SDA teaching on the state of the dead is necessarily linked to the SDA teaching of the Investigative Judgment is beyond the scope of this study, but anyone with a basic working knowledge of both aberrant doctrines will likely be able to make the connection.

In part seven, I’ll talk a bit about Lazarus and the Rich Man.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

State of the Dead Bible Study: Part V

"The dead know nothing.”  We have probably all heard that phrase dozens of times and most of us believed that was the definitive statement on the state of the dead.  Most of us believed that phrase proved those who died were unconscious or non-existent.  But what does this partial quote from Ecclesiastes 9:5 really mean when examined in context?

Let’s start by talking about the concept of context.  In biblical hermeneutics, context can be seen as a series of ever expanding concentric circles.  So to really examine the context of a text we must first consider the context of the immediate passage it is found in, then consider the context of the book it is within, then consider the contextual implication of the type of literature it is, then consider its context within its testament, and lastly consider its context within the whole Bible.  Then and only then can we say that we have examined the context of a text.  So let’s trace the context of Ecclesiastes 9:5 through each ring of the contextual spiral.


Ecclesiastes 9:1-9 (NASB)
1 For I have taken all this to my heart and explain it that righteous men, wise men, and their deeds are in the hand of God. Man does not know whether it will be love or hatred; anything awaits him.
2 It is the same for all. There is one fate for the righteous and for the wicked; for the good, for the clean and for the unclean; for the man who offers a sacrifice and for the one who does not sacrifice. As the good man is, so is the sinner; as the swearer is, so is the one who is afraid to swear.
3 This is an evil in all that is done
under the sun, that there is one fate for all men. Furthermore, the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil and insanity is in their hearts throughout their lives. Afterwards they go to the dead.
4 For whoever is joined with all the living, there is hope; surely a live dog is better than a dead lion.
5 For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten.
6 Indeed their love, their hate and their zeal have already perished, and they will no longer have a share in all that is done
under the sun.
7 Go then, eat your bread in happiness and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; for God has already approved your works.
8 Let your clothes be white all the time, and let not oil be lacking on your head.
9 Enjoy life with the woman whom you love all the days of your fleeting life which He has given to you
under the sun; for this is your reward in life and in your toil in which you have labored under the sun.
When we examine the book context I will deal more fully with the perspective that the author of Ecclesiastes is presenting and the inspired purpose of the book.  However, it can readily be seen from this passage that from the author’s perspective there is no difference in the fate of the righteous and the wicked.  Death is seen as an evil fate that separates us from the things of this world which the author views as being all there really is to hope for. The context of the passage is that the dead have no more part in anything “under the sun” (i.e. anything that is done in this world). 

The author presents this view because he is showing how futile life and death appear apart from a relationship with God.  However, there is a sense in which this is also true from a believer’s perspective as well. Christians do not believe that the dead are roaming the earth as spirits or poltergeist.  Christians do not believe in communicating with the dead or that the dead are communicating with us. Christians do not believe in ghosts or séances or any other form of spiritualism.  The dead are either with the Lord or in Sheol awaiting final judgment.  They are not here on earth “under the sun” and they are no longer directly involved with the activities of life here “under the sun”.  As we work through the next section, it will become even clearer why we need to consider the inspired purpose of the book before using this passage as a primary place to formulate doctrine on the consciousness or knowledge level of believers who have died in Christ.


Ecclesiastes 1:1-3 (HCSB)
1 The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem.
2 “Absolute
futility,” says the Teacher. “Absolute futility. Everything is futile.”
3 What does a man gain for all his efforts he labors at under the sun?
Ecclesiastes 4:1-3 (HCSB)
1 Again, I observed all the acts of oppression being done under the sun. Look at the tears of those who are oppressed; they have no one to comfort them. Power is with those who oppress them; they have no one to comfort them.
2 So I admired the dead, who have already died, more than the living, who are still alive.
3 But better than either of them is the one who has not yet existed, who has not seen the evil activity that is done under the sun.
Ecclesiastes 6:1-5 (HCSB)
1 Here is a tragedy I have observed under the sun, and it weighs heavily on humanity:
2 God gives a man riches, wealth, and honor so that he lacks nothing of all he desires for himself, but God does not allow him to enjoy them. Instead, a stranger will enjoy them. This is futile and a sickening tragedy.
3 A man may father a hundred children and live many years. No matter how long he lives, if he is not satisfied by good things and does not even have a proper burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he.
4 For he comes in
futility and he goes in darkness, and his name is shrouded in darkness.
5 Though a stillborn child does not see the sun and is not conscious, it has more rest than he.
Ecclesiastes 12:8 (HCSB)
8 “Absolute
futility,” says the Teacher. “Everything is futile.”
Whenever I hear someone quote Ecclesiastes 9:5 in a state of the dead discussion, I always think, “Have they ever read Ecclesiastes?” Ecclesiastes was written by Solomon (or in the voice of Solomon) during his apostasy.  The context of the entire book is the futility of life apart from God.  Depending on the translation you use the Hebrew word, hebel, might be translated as “futile”, “meaningless”, or “vanity”.  Whichever English word is used, they all convey the truth that whatever is done apart from God is worthless and fleeting.  This is a predominant theme of the book as demonstrated by the fact that hebel is used 33 times in Ecclesiastes. 
There are several passages that recommend that the reader live it up.  Eat, drink, and be merry because this is all there is.  Several passages suggest that there’s no difference between where the righteous and unrighteous dead end up.  This is certainly not the world view of one who is in relationship with God.  Christians don’t believe that life is meaningless and they certainly don’t believe that there is no difference between the righteous and the unrighteous. 
So is Ecclesiastes teaching falsehood?  Absolutely not!  It’s graphically demonstrating an absolute truth.  Life without God is futile, meaningless, and without any positive hope for the future.  Ecclesiastes is truly and accurately portraying the bleak outlook of someone apart from God.  It’s a depressing picture, but a true picture of what such a life looks like.  Without God we might as well live it up because this is all there is, life is meaningless.  Fortunately, Christians have more hope than this.  Christians have a hope that goes beyond this life.
So this raises the question, “Is this really the primary book from which we should formulate our doctrine on the state of the dead?”  Of course not!  This book is written to show how depressing and meaningless life apart from God is.  The view of death the author presents is just as morbid, depressing, and meaningless as the view of life that is presented.  It is a truthful and accurate view if you are separated from God, but it does not describe the view of those who are in Christ. 
It’s hard to imagine that anyone who has ever read this book through even once would want to make a phrase from this book the foundation of their doctrine on the state of the dead.   That’s just not why this book was written.  It’s not that I don’t think the book has anything of value to say to us on death, I think it does especially as it turns the reader back towards God in the last chapter, but this isn’t the primary place where we want to formulate a key Christian doctrine on the state of the dead.  I also want to strongly affirm that I believe all scripture is inspired, inerrant, infallible, and useful for teaching and training.  However, we need to be careful to rightly use scripture for its intended purpose and make sure we are teaching what is intended.  Ecclesiastes is intended to teach us about the futility of life apart from God, not about the state of those who have died in Christ.

Ecclesiastes is part of what is known as “wisdom literature”.  Wisdom literature is not usually intended to be didactic doctrinal literature.  Wisdom literature teaches us certain truths, but it often uses highly poetic language forms and other literary devices to do so.  Because wisdom literature is designed to portray certain truths about life in very memorable ways, we need to be very careful in drawing our doctrine primarily from wisdom literature.  Rather we should use didactic passages to interpret the wisdom literature.
Let me give you a graphic example from the wisdom literature of Psalms.
Psalms 137:7-9 (NASB)
7 Remember, O LORD, against the sons of Edom The day of Jerusalem, Who said, "Raze it, raze it To its very foundation."
8 O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one, How blessed will be the one who repays you with the recompense with which you have repaid us.
9 How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rock.
Now if we weren’t careful in our hermeneutical methods, we might formulate a doctrine that says that those who kill the children of their enemies will be blessed by God!  Now we know that this can’t be because we have didactic passages that teach something very different.
Matthew 5:43-44 (NASB)
43 "You have heard that it was said, 'YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.'
44 "But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
So what do we make of Psalms 137?  The Psalms show the full range of human emotion.  They often show people crying out to God in their anguish and pain.  They show the rawness and pain of the human experience.  They encourage us to open our hearts to God, pour out our thoughts to Him, allow Him to comfort us, and ultimately allow Him to conform us to his way of thinking.  The Psalms are not primarily intended for the formulation of doctrine.  They tell us much about worship, the relationship between God and man, and the woes and joys of life.  We can learn much from the Psalms, but they must be interpreted based upon didactic teaching literature or we could easily formulate wrong doctrine. 
Wisdom literature also frequently advances truisms that are USUALLY true in most cases, but not ALWAYS true in every individual case. We could give many examples of these types of truisms in Proverbs, but one should suffice.
Proverbs 22:6 (NASB)
6 Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it.
While this is usually true, we could probably all cite cases where things did not turn out this way.  We should not then formulate a doctrine claiming that any parent with a rebellious child must have failed to train them in the way they should go.  This is not always the case. Some parents have worked very hard to train their children only to have them go astray.  The proverbs are not meant to be absolutes in all cases, but general truisms about life.  This is often the nature of wisdom literature. 
Much more could be said on this, but hopefully these two examples make the point as to why we want to be very careful about using wisdom literature as our primary source for a doctrine. To formulate strong doctrine we start with didactic passages and then rightly interpret and apply the truths contained in wisdom literature in light of the teaching passages.

The entire Bible is inspired, the entire Bible is true, but Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God.  The teachings of Jesus and his apostles made things plain that were mysteries in the Old Testament or that were only partially known.  This does not mean that the New Testament corrects the Old Testament, only that it provides more information that expands and clarifies many things that were not fully known in the Old Testament.  Some examples of things that were either mysteries or partial mysteries in the Old Testament, but were more fully revealed in the New Testament, would include; the nature of God’s Messiah, the Trinity, the Church, resurrection, and death.
In the Old Testament death is a rather vague shadowy concept not fully understood by the Jews or fully revealed by the Old Testament writers.  The New Testament gives us much more information about what we can expect and why we have such hope.  That’s why we need to allow the New Testament to shed light on the Old Testament.  If our doctrine is primarily formulated on Old Testament passages it is not nearly as strong as if we start with the New Testament and then interpret the Old Testament in the full light of scripture.  This is true of the topic at hand. We have a much clearer picture of death revealed in the New Testament.

The analogy of faith dictates that we may never interpret any passage in such a way that it contradicts something that is taught elsewhere in scripture.  The Bible is remarkably internally consistent.  We know that if we ever interpret anything in such a way that in contradicts something else in the Bible, it is not the Bible that is in error, but us.  So this means we CANNOT interpret Ecclesiastes 9:5 in such a way as to contradict other parts of the Bible.  We cannot use Ecclesiastes 9:5 to contradict Paul’s teaching in I Corinthians 5 and Philippians 1.  If we do so, it is we who are in error not the Bible.  The SDA interpretation of Ecclesiastes 9:5 puts it in conflict with other parts of the Bible. That means the SDA interpretation must, of necessity, be wrong.
In conclusion, it should be apparent that the understanding we grew up with of Ecclesiastes 9:5 is not supported by the context.  It’s not supported within the context of the passage, the book, the literature form, the testament, or the Bible as a whole.  Overall, this is a very weak “proof text” indeed.  It rather surprises me that some still use it.
At this point I am done with laying the foundation for our discussion.  In parts six and seven, I’ll tackle the specific questions that were originally asked about Moses and about Luke 16.

Monday, September 13, 2010

State of the Dead Bible Study: Part IV

In part three we studied Paul’s teaching on death in II Cor. 5:1-9.  We saw that to be absent from the body is to be present from the Lord.  We also saw that we can continue to be actively pleasing to the Lord when absent from the body.  In part four, I would like to look at Philippians 1:21-26.  Although this is still a strong didactic (teaching) passage, it is a much more personal one for Paul.  Paul is in prison and possibly facing death.

Philippians 1:21 (NASB)
21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Paul sees death, not as a non-existent state, but as a state that can actually be described as “gain”.

Philippians 1:22 (NASB)
22 But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose.
In fact, Paul is so eager to be with the Lord that he can barely choose which possibility he prefers, living or dying.  Also note that there is no indication at all that the options are living on in the flesh or being non-existent.  Rather the most natural way to understand Paul’s dilemma is to understand the choices as living on in the flesh or living on in the spirit.

Philippians 1:23 (NASB)
23 But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better;
Both possibilities, living on in the flesh or living on in the spirit, are desirable to Paul.  Paul knows that if he remains in the flesh he will be able to continue his work and serve the fledgling Church.  However, he also knows that being with Christ is a far better thing.  The only way that being with Christ can be considered better than continuing on in this life is if it is a conscious existence with Christ.  If the choice were between staying and continuing his work or becoming non-existent, then it would be a pretty easy choice.  Who would be torn between living and being non-existent?  That would make non-sense of the dilemma that is tearing Paul in two different directions.  It also doesn’t work to say Paul is only looking forward to the future resurrection at the second coming.  It’s obvious by the way he is struggling with the options that he is debating two immediate possibilities: live on in the flesh NOW or depart and be with Christ NOW.

Philippians 1:24 (NASB)
24 yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake.
Again, ask yourself what contrast Paul is making here.  What is the direct contrast to “remain on in the flesh”?  The most direct contrast is to “depart in the spirit”. 

Philippians 1:25-26 (NASB)
25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith,
26 so that your proud confidence in me may abound in Christ Jesus through my coming to you again.
 As Paul struggles with where his desire should be placed, he ultimately displays a selfless character.  As badly as he wants to depart and be with Christ, he instead accepts that he will remain and continue the work.  Of course this would be no struggle at all if the only other possibility was to be non-existent.  This entire passage, and the dilemma Paul faces, are both predicated upon the biblical teaching that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.  This is the only reason that Paul would have such a hard time choosing where to place his desire. 

As Christians, it is very comforting to know that to die is gain. To die is to be in the very presence of our Lord.  In fact, being with Christ at death is desirable and can even be considered very much better than our present condition.

In part five, I would like to deal with a passage that comes out of Old Testament wisdom literature.  If you grew up Adventist, you probably grew up believing that Ecclesiastes 9:5 was the definitive statement on the state of the dead.  We will examine this text in the context of its immediate passage, the context of the book, the context of the literature type, the context of its testament, and the context of the entire Bible.  I submit to you that this passage, as we were taught it, was ripped from its context at EVERY level of the hermeneutical spiral.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

State of the Dead Bible Study: Part III

In part two of our study we took a systematic approach to some scriptures that support the orthodox Christian view of what happens to the spirits of post-cross believers at death.  At death the spirit departs the body.  The spirit returns to God. The spirit is consciously with the Lord.  At the second coming, God will bring those departed saints with Him when He comes.  He will then raise up for them imperishable bodies in the resurrection. 

We systematically looked at several texts to get a general overview, a big picture view if you will.  However, I noted that I would not necessarily consider each of the texts I presented to be conclusive in and of themselves, merely supportive of a larger picture presented in scripture. 

To formulate sound doctrine we need to do more extensive inductive Bible study in didactic passages meant to teach the Church about this very topic.  In part three I would like to spend our entire time looking at just such a passage, 2 Corinthians 5:1-9.

2 Corinthians 5:1 (NASB)
1 For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
Paul here uses the symbolism of a tent to represent our current perishable bodies.  A tent is not a permanent dwelling.  It’s easily torn down, just like these bodies.  But the good news is that we can look forward to one day, at the resurrection, having an imperishable body from Heaven that is permanent and will never be torn down.
2 Corinthians 5:2-4 (NASB)  
2 For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven,
3 inasmuch as we, having put it on, will not be found naked.
4 For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed but to be clothed, so that what is mortal will be swallowed up by life.
Paul has already compared our current bodies to temporary tents.  We groan in these bodies that grow older every day.  We experience aches, pains, sickness and frailty, and yet few of us really look forward to the unnatural intermediate state of death when these bodies will be torn down like a tent.  To be unclothed spirit without body is not a natural state, nor is it the final state.  The Christian worldview is not a platonic view that seeks to be set free from the body.  The Christian world view is very physical. What we truly look forward to is the final state when our spirits will be clothed with imperishable eternal bodies. It is worth noting that the idea that we can be “unclothed” or “naked” strongly suggests that there is something real there to unclothe, namely our spirit. 
2 Corinthians 5:5-9 (NASB)  
5 Now He who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave to us the Spirit as a pledge.
6 Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord—
7 for we walk by faith, not by sight—
8 we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.
9 Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him.
This passage is the source of the oft repeated Christian refrain, “Absent from the body, present with Lord”.  This seems pretty clear. In fact, I don’t know how Paul could be anymore clear. When we are in these bodies we are absent from the Lord.  When we are absent from these bodies we are at home with the Lord.  Now if we don’t have spirits, only breath as SDA doctrine teaches, how could we possibly be absent from our body and at home with the Lord?  The only way Paul’s teaching makes any sense at all is if we have a real spirit that can be absent from the body and be with Christ awaiting the resurrection. 

Also please note two other very important things:

  1. Paul says he would actually “prefer…to be absent from the body”!  Now this can only make sense if he is consciously with Christ.  Think about it, who in their right mind would prefer to be non-existent over being here with loved ones and doing the work the Lord has given us to do?  Paul can’t possibly be saying he would prefer to be non-existent or unconscious.  It also doesn’t work to say that Paul is merely looking forward to the second coming and the resurrection because he specifically says that he is talking about a time when he is “absent from the body” and “at home with the Lord”.  This can’t be the resurrection because he is “absent from the body”.  Paul is describing a conscious existence, absent from the body, present with the Lord, which he sees as a preferable state.

  1. Paul indicates that it is possible to be actively pleasing to the Lord when in the body *OR* when ABSENT from the body!!! The Greek verb used here is in the present tense and active voice. The only way we could possibly be actively pleasing to the Lord when absent from the body is if we are conscious and active in some way.  To say that Paul is talking about a non-existent or unconscious state makes his teaching nonsense.  And again, it simply does NOT work to claim that Paul is only looking forward to the resurrection because he specifically refers to being “absent from the body”. There’s just no viable way to get around this although some try.

I just don’t see how we can get an unconscious or non-existent state out of this didactic passage without doing incredible mental and verbal gymnastics.  This is as clear as it could possibly be.  If you were Paul and wanted to state that to be “absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord”, how could you state it anymore clearly? Paul has made his point abundantly clear to anyone willing and able to hear it. 

A final word before closing this installment, remember this most basic rule of hermeneutics (the science and art of proper biblical interpretation). The strongest most dogmatic Christian doctrine should be based on New Testament didactic (teaching) passages.  Starting from the solid foundation of very clear teaching that is given to the New Testament Church we are then able to rightly interpret the Old Testament as well as other forms of biblical literature such as wisdom literature.  Be very suspicious of dogmatic doctrine that seems to flip flop this most basic hermeneutical principle.  When a doctrine has been based largely on Old Testament wisdom literature, it deserves careful scrutiny. 

The New Testament didactic passage we looked at in this part gives us an excellent basis for the Christian doctrine of “absent from the body, present with the Lord”.  Next time we will examine another New Testament didactic passage that is equally strong and convicting.