Friday, September 10, 2010

State of the Dead Bible Study: Part I


In presenting this study, it is not my intent to suggest that everyone must agree on exactly what the intermediate state (the state between death and the resurrection) entails.  Augustine famously said, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity”.  This is a non-essential that we can discuss and debate without dividing over it (although I do think that it significantly affects our understanding of some of the essentials of the Christian faith). 

My main intent here is not necessarily to convince anyone, but to provide a basis for understanding why the Church has taught what it has on this topic for the last two thousand years.  At the end of the day you may still find yourself skeptical.  That’s okay.  It’s my hope that you will at the very least come away with an understanding of why your fellow brothers and sister in Christ believe what they believe. 

Once I understood the biblical basis for this Christian belief and no longer feared that it was a damnable lie of Satan, I found myself much more comfortable in fellowshipping with other Christians.  It is my sincere hope that you will experience the same liberating freedom to fellowship in the Body of Christ.

The original genesis of this study was two questions from a friend.  The first was about the Seventh-day Adventist teaching on the death of Moses and the second was about how one should understand Jesus’ story of the Rich Man and Lazarus.  In considering how best to answer these questions, it became clear to me that it is crucial to first lay a foundation for understanding death from a biblical perspective.  Having such a biblical foundation is essential to comprehending several related topics in Christian theology. This study will be divided in multiple parts that will build a biblical case for the orthodox Christian view of death.  Once this foundation has been established, I will then deal with the two cases that occasioned the writing of this study.

Part I

In part one of this study, I would like to deal with the reality of the human spirit.

The word translated “spirit” in English is the Greek word pneuma in the New Testament and the Hebrew word ruach in the Old Testament.  Most of us grew up being told that these words usually mean “breath” when used in the Bible.  That’s just not true.  These Greek and Hebrew words certainly can mean “breath” or “wind” in the right context, but that’s NOT how they are usually used in the Bible. 

Anyone who has ever opened a dictionary knows that nearly every word in the dictionary has multiple meanings that are sometimes quite different from each other.  Stop for a moment and consider how many ways you can use the word “can”, slang or otherwise. My dictionary shows at least 15 different meanings for “can”.  So how do we determine the correct meaning of a word?  The answer is fairly simple, context ALWAYS determines meaning.  In proper biblical hermeneutics context is king.  I’ll say it again, because I think most of us missed this point in our early education: “CONTEXT, CONTEXT, CONTEXT!”

According to Zodhiates’ well respected Greek lexicon, The Complete Word Study Dictionary, when “spirit” [pneuma/ruach] is used in the Bible it usually has one of the following three meanings:

1.    Man's immaterial nature which enables him to communicate with God, who is also spirit.
2.    An incorporeal, immaterial being, such as an angel.
3.    The Holy Spirit.

Why do Hebrew scholars, Greek linguists, and evangelical theologians agree on this? The answer, once again, is because of how the word is used in context.  Just try this as an experiment (really, I mean it, give it a try).  Try reading the following verses and substituting the word “breath” every time you see the words “spirit” or “Spirit”.

Proverbs 20:27 (NASB)
27 The spirit [ruach] of man is the lamp of the LORD, Searching all the innermost parts of his being.
Romans 8:15-16 (NASB)
15 For you have not received a spirit [pneuma] of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit [pneuma] of adoption as sons by which we cry out, "Abba! Father!"
16 The Spirit [pneuma] Himself testifies with our spirit [pneuma] that we are children of God,
1 Corinthians 2:11 (NASB)
11 For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit [pneuma] of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit [pneuma] of God.
1 Thessalonians 5:23 (NASB)
23 Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit [pneuma] and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Hebrews 12:9 (NASB)
9 Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits [pneuma], and live?
John 3:5-7 (NASB)
5 Jesus answered, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit [pneuma] he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
6 "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit [pneuma] is spirit [pneuma].
7 "Do not be amazed that I said to you, 'You must be born again.'
Do any of those texts make any sense at all with the word “breath” inserted?  Of course not!  Context demands another meaning.  Simply put, “spirit” does not usually mean “breath” as used in the Bible.  The suggestion that it does is a falsehood that not only violates context, but also violates essential Christian doctrine. What essential doctrines are violated?  Let me list three major Christian doctrines that are violated by such an aberrant interpretation:

  1. You may have noticed that I listed John 3 last instead of in biblical order.  I did this for a reason.  I wanted to especially highlight this text because it is essential to the message of the Gospel.  If we boiled the Bible down to its most basic essence it is this: Man sinned and experienced spiritual death.  Since then we have all been born dead in our sins, separated from God, and in need of a Savior.  Jesus paid the price for our sin and offers us life and relationship with God.  When we come to faith, our dead spirit is regenerated and is now able to commune with God’s Spirit.  Our dead spirits are born again, born of the Spirit, and we have eternal life as a present possession.  This is not merely metaphor, it is very real, it is the essence of salvation, it is central to the Gospel message.  If we turn our spirits into mere “breath” then we have destroyed the reality of a new birth and spiritual life.  To say that our “breath” is born again is nonsensical and contrary to what the Bible is teaching.  I also think it is incredibly destructive to our understanding of what it really means to be saved.

  1. Insisting that pneuma/ruach mean “breath” in the Bible violates the Christian concept of God’s being.  Christianity believes that God is pure spirit, an incorporeal, immaterial being.  That’s what Jesus is saying when he said, "God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth." (John 4:24).  In fact, Jesus is reinforcing the same teaching he delivered to Nicodemus in chapter 3.  He is implying that because God is spirit, those who worship him must have a spirit that is alive to do so.  Once again, if you insert “breath” into what Jesus is saying, His words become complete nonsense.

  1. Insisting that pneuma/ruach mean “breath” in the Bible infringes upon the personhood of the Holy Spirit.  “Holy Spirit” is hagios pneuma in the Greek.  So if we insist that pneuma must mean “breath” we end up with the “Holy Breath”.  This interpretation would be closer to the Jehovah’s Witness’ idea that the Holy Spirit is merely a force, than the Biblical teaching that He is a person.

Hopefully, it is clear that when pneuma and ruach are used in the Bible we must first consider the context and then assign meaning.  A survey of scripture will show that these words usually mean something quite different from breath especially as they pertain to God and man.

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