So – You Think You’re Mortal!
“Christian” cults are usually united in one central doctrine — the complete and utter mortality of man. “The soul that sins, it shall die” they proclaim, quoting from the prophet Ezekiel. Or, they quote with relish from the Psalms, “His breath goes forth [at death]… in that very day his thoughts perish.” Or from Solomon, “The dead know not anything.” But the Bible has much more to say on the subject of mortality and immortality than cultists and sectarians — who are conditioned to expound only on certain “proof text” arguments — even realise.
REINCARNATION has become the dirtiest word of the New Age movement, in Christian circles. This is because it is considered irrational, demonic, and diabolically opposed to the precepts and the inclusions of the sacred Written Word. And, true it is that we are witnessing, correspondent to the worldwide decline of the Gentile Constantinian Church, a massive resurgence of second-century Gnosticism in the dress of the New Age Movement. It is equally true that this Movement is a subtle enemy of Faith – claiming to believe in the soul, immortality, prayer, and “Jesus the Christ.” However we may rail against the present New Age Movement, it should be seen that the early Messianic Community seized the opportunity presented by the appearance of Samaritan Gnosticism to solidify its Christology. We, too, ought to “seize the day” and solidify our Christology. Trouble is — we no longer know what is our Christology. Countless thousands of differing, bickering, backbiting and intellectually incestuous churches, denominations, sects and cults testify to the truth of our last statement!
How do we come to the REAL truth of the Word?
Firstly, we need to repent of possessing a too limited view of the Scripture. In this Messianic Ministry it is a standard feature at the beginning of lectures and Bible studies to start with, “Let us now open the pages of the Bible and expand the parameters of our ignorance.” This is usually standard procedure because I want to imprint upon the minds of my students the fact that none of us knows it all, and therefore none of us can smugly or dogmatically claim to really have a corner on the market of biblical understanding. Yet smugness continues to have its converts who look upon such a spiritual aberration as a virtue. One of the areas that produces such smugness is in the proclivity of the sects to unduly emphasise certain Bible quotations to the silence of other, perhaps more important, texts. A case in point is the doctrinal negation of man’s immortality replete with proof-texts which, in their own words, “cannot be gainsaid.”
Secondly, we need to take the Scripture as it is written (after carefully checking translations against the original Hebrew or Greek, or by comparing it with other English translations and versions).
Certainly, unlike the New Age Movement, the cults on the fringes of the Christian Community espouse man’s innate mortality. Their literature is saturated throughout with biblical references to man’s extinction at death, in the hope of what they call “the first resurrection.” Do the following Scriptures sound familiar?
“Remember I pray you that as clay you did make me, and unto dust you will cause me to return” (Job 10.9). “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. May the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1.21,22 NIV). “All mankind would perish together, and man would return to the dust” (Job 34.15). “[Man’s] breath goes forth, he returns to the earth. In that very day his thoughts perish” (Ps 146.3,4). “That which befalls the sons of men befalls beasts. Even one thing befalls them. As the one dies, so dies the other. Yes, they all have one breath, and man has no preeminence above the beasts: for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust and all turn to dust again” (Ecc 3.19,20 cf Ps 104.21-30). “The dead praise not God, neither any that go down into silence”
At this point, usually, comes the barrage of second wind.
The Psalmist calls death a sleep (Ps 13.3). The dead are asleep (1 Thes 4.15). They sleep in their graves (Mt 27.52). When David dies he went to sleep (Acts 13.36). Paul calls sleep a death (1 Cor 15.51). The righteous dead sleep in Yeshua (1 Thes 4.14). Yeshua calls death a sleep (Jn 11.11-14). One death is appointed unto men (Heb 9.27). There is no knowledge of what happens on earth after death (Job 14.12,21). The dead do not see men on the earth or the Lord in heaven (Isa 38.10,11). The dead do not know anything (Ecc 9.5,6). There is no remembrance of God when a person dies, and they cannot praise the Lord (Ps 6.5; 115.17). Job knew he would awake at the coming of Mashiach (Job 19.23-27).
Now, do we argue against these texts and plain Scriptures? In no way. That is what the Bible plainly tells us. What we need to do, however, is ask a few poignant questions about the text we are reading or studying.
- ASK what the writer actually had in mind when he wrote these statements,
- ASK what his background was, and
- ASK whether he had anything else to declare in his same book which might just throw more light on his previous comments.
What Did the Pharisees and Essenes Believe?
This lecturer was told, during a fine meal in the home of some “Dawn” believers (the original followers of Charles Taze Russell) a few years ago, that “all the Jews in Yeshua’s time believed only in soul sleep.” When I politely disagreed, the term “all the Jews” suddenly reduced to “I meant to say the Pharisees.” I again politely disagreed, quoting Josephus almost verbatim to establish that the Pharisees and Essenes accepted, believed in, taught, and promulgated the doctrine of …
- reincarnation — nothing less than the transmigration of the soul.
Indeed, current studies of the period covering the intertestamental period, the Fifth Procuratorship of Judaea, and the Zealot revolution are shedding much needed light into the belief systems that permeated Judaea. Even the idea of the resurrection has to be re-evaluated in the light of this new understanding. The sects of the Intertestamental Period and certainly from the mid-to-late Second Temple Period to the destruction of the Temple clearly espoused man’s immortality. Well, the lunch which I referred to earlier was abruptly terminated in what appeared to be microseconds and “brotherly love” started to freeze over with conversation waning so I eventually left, with my family, to return home. Strange how love turns suddenly cold when there are religious disagreements! Such is the hostile, suspicious nature of cultism (in whatever form it may appear).
What Does it Mean to Possess a “Soul”?
I also recall some years ago attending a ministerial function, and (again during a meal) the subject of reincarnation sur-faced. The Baptist gentleman who initiated the over-dinner discussion pondered aloud to his colleagues the dilemma of countering New Age philosophies circulating within his congregation. He admitted the truth of much of it, but clearly was disadvantaged as to how to successfully counter the doctrines without splitting his church. I had the temerity to enquire whether he believed he possessed “an immortal soul.” “Of course,” he rapidly replied with a look of disdain that the question had been put. “So?” he asked in an exasperated tone. “Well,” I then replied, “if we have immortal souls, and the plain definition of immortality means that we are innately and intrinsically eternal, what have WE been doing for ALL eternity?” It was a simple, sincere question, but the entire ministerial council looked surprised. Some seemed flabber-gasted. I was never invited back to further meetings.
It is a pertinent question I ask of all who believe in man’s immortality. Its a pertinent question an obvious answer to which has not been forthcoming. Proponents of immortality have not really thought the implication of their belief in immortality through to its logical conclusion. Still, I must confess, personal conviction grows in strength as it deepens in authenticity.
The Most Mysterious Text in the Messianic Scriptures
Does the human personality survive its bodily death? Is there a hidden world within us? Does the personality of man transcend time and space? Is there room in our theology for the rebirth concept in Christian dogma? Moreover, put in blunt terms, can a Messianic believer accept reincarnation and still remain loyal to the Bible as the inspired Word of God, and to the Church as the Community of Faith? Or is the very notion of the continuance of the human spirit after physical death biblically absurd? What does the Scripture tell us of reincarnation and of life after death? We have to admit the annals of ecclesiastical history reveal that the teaching of reincarnation — without the vile accumulation of Hindu trappings — was once a very definite Christian belief and that it was voted out of the Faith at the unofficial Council of Constantinople in 553 C.E. At that time those who persisted in the teaching were regimentally divorced from the Faith of Yeshua.
Sylvia Cranston writes, “Innocent children are born maimed, diseased, or mentally retarded; elderly people who have lived exemplary lives meet with dire misfortune and cruel deaths. To materialists this is unanswerable evidence for the non-existence of God. Some years ago the Reverend Billy Graham appeared on BBC in London. He was asked how, in the light of a beneficent, loving God, he could explain the heartaching suffering of children born sick or defective…For once the evangelist did not know what to say. Finally, he lamely replied: ‘The Bible says there are mysteries’ ” (Cranston in Immortality and Human Destiny, A Variety of Views [ed. Geddes MacGregor] 1985,148,149).
The apostle John was a priestly convert to Yeshua from amongst the intimate talmidim of John the Baptiser (Jn 1.19-40), a gigantic figure in his day, whose administrative agency originated in the rugged Judaean wilderness and whose ministry centred around the Jordan region. Most scholars are today admitting what this lecturer has been teaching for almost four
decades, albeit some of them rather reluctantly, that the Baptiser was not only an Essene, but the founder of the apoca-lyptic sect, the fabled “Teacher of Righteousness.” If he was any less than we have described him he would still have more or less conformed to the teachings and doctrines espoused by the Qumran monks and sectarians from which he emerged. So also would his disciples. And this is shown to be precisely the case with the apostle John.
It is John who weaves all the basic principles and requirements of the doctrine of reincarnation into the Gospel penned by him some time after the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem (70 C.E.). His Gospel contains the following principles
regarding transmigration. For, to properly believe in reincarnation we must have
- the pre-existence of the spirit or soul
- its origins in God’s thoughts
- its inevitable incarnation in flesh
- and a life of learning to discipline the will
- the doctrine of new birth
- the outworking of karma, or “cause and effect”
- an emphasis on “new names”
- and the spirit’s ultimate return to God.
Certainly, the disciples of Yeshua believed that theirs was the last life needed to be lived once Messiah was accepted by faith. They would enter the glorious Temple of God “and go no more out” (Rev 3.12) into a new physical existence. It is personal karma that must be worked out, or reversed (Rev 13.9,10). Such takes enormous patience and faith. Yet, they clearly understood that in Adam dwelt the breath of lives (Gen 2.7 Hebrew) and that the prophet Elijah was to return immediately prior to the conclusion of the age (Mal 4.5). They saw Elijah return in the person of John the Baptiser (Mt 11. 7-14). They were encouraged by the letter of James (Ya’akov) which mentioned reincarnation, and the writings of Paul (Sha’ul) which majored on it.
Again, it is John who records a remarkable question asked by Mashiach’s disciples of the Lord and Saviour of men.
“As Yeshua passed by he saw a man who was blind from birth. His talmidim [disciples] asked him, Rabbi! Who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (Jn 9.1,2).
Now just stop and THINK for a moment! The Jews of the time believed that the transgressions of parents could produce defective offspring. This is a heavily documented fact. But how do we explain the certitude that the disciples — including John — believed it was possible for the man born blind to have sinned in order to be — born blind? Sorry to state the obvious but the disciples had to have believed in “an inner spark of the Divine” to even put the question to Yeshua! They obviously believed that he had lived previously! Again, this is a tacit admission that they acknowledged man’s inherent immortality! And why not? The vast majority of Jews of the time believed in transmigration (Mt 16.13,14; Mk 6.15; Mt 11.7-14 etc). And, for that matter, many still do. Yeshua had the opportunity to put the disciples straight. He could have said, “Look fellas! You lot and John the Baptist got it wrong. There is no such thing as reincarnation.” He could have said it, but He didn’t. Our Lord Yeshua’s sidestep in avoiding the entire issue, on that occasion, is golden. Such is the value of researching Jewish thought-form. Without so doing much of the so-called “NT” will remain in a cloak of mystery and beyond the reach of Gentile under-standing with its “done-to-death,” albeit impressive, Graeco-Hellenistic mindset.
What Luke 16 Actually Teaches
On another occasion, in Luke 16 Yeshua talked about Lazarus and the Rich Man. This parable of Mashiach does not discuss “hell.” “Hell” is not the contention. Yeshua is relating to Sheol, which was comprised of at least two dimensions of reality — Paradise in which the “righteous” resided waiting patiently for the Messiah “to open [its] gates” (Testament of Levi 18.10) and the “depths” reserved for the “wicked” (Prov 9.18). But here Yeshua gives a parable in which Lazarus is found (after death) in Paradise, a distinct location in the netherworld dimension ofSheol, in “Father Abraham’s close embrace” (Lk 16.22). The Rich Man is also dead and is located in another department of Sheol and “tormented in the fiery environment” (Lk 16.24b). He doesn’t call for Abraham to pour a bucket of water over him, or to grab the nearest fire-hose and quench the flames. Oh no! What he does is request Lazarus to bring him a mere “drop of water” to “cool his torment.” Why request Lazarus, and not Abraham — and why only a single “drop of water”?
- The answer is singularly astonishing once we crack the code of first-century Jewish thoughtform!
It was Lazarus whom he had offended while alive, not Abraham. He was attempting in his torment to reverse karma. Not only so, Yeshua is utilising the lever of reincarnation to drive his point home to the Pharisees who were attentive to his parable (Lk 15.1-3; 16.14 for the context of the pursuing parables), and who themselves believed in the doctrine of trans-migration. That’s why he referred to a “drop of water” for the parched tongue of the Rich Man (Lk 16.24). The “drop of water” is a reference to the “waters of forgetfulness” which is a prime requisite of the principle of transmigration which anyone familiar with the teaching would immediately realise. Did the spatiotemporal purging fires of Sheol accomplish their task of equipping the Rich Man’s spirit for his next life? According to the parable there was an improvement in his character. He who fared sumptuously each day to satiate his own self-interest (Lk 16.19) had now at least become concerned about his other family members (Lk 16.28).
We press the point that this is not an isolated biblical incident. The most neglected book in the Bible — “Job” — contains astonishing information about life after death. The ancient patriarch also believed in transmigration. “And Job arose and rent his robe, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground and worshiped saying, Naked came I out of my mother’s womb,and naked shall I there return…In all this Job sinned not, nor attributed God with folly” (Job1.20-22 Hebrew). That Job connected God with the karmic cycle of rebirth should not surprise the serious student of the Scriptures and history. Job appears to have been none other than Pharaoh Cheops who built the Great Pyramid, a staunch believer in immediate life after death (or, depending on how you look at it, life after life).
Arguments Against Immortality Still Persist
One of the major arguments presented against the idea of man’s immortality is that the Bible emphasises ‘hell’ (in one of its forms) as nothing less than the burial plot, man’s final physical resting place. Indeed, they have a case. After all, the word ‘hell’ is an English term meaning nothing more than a hole in the ground! It is argued, almost convincingly, that Mediaeval peasants talked of ‘planting potatoes in hell [in the ground] for the winter.’ The Hebrew Sheol (it is said) is the word most often used to refer to the grave. Well, to some extent this is correct. But Gentile Christians ought to ask Jews what their own terminology really means! In the Jewish thoughtform sheol represented a magnified burial site. And sheol was only one Hebrew word for ‘the grave.’
Please note these further words and look them up in their contexts: geburah (Gen 35.20); bei (Job 30.24); geber (Gen 50.5); beer [pit, or sunken well] (Ps 55.23 ‘pit of destruction’ = beer’shachath: 69.15 etc); shachath [place of bodily corruption] (Job 17.14; Ps 16.10; 49.9); bor [pit or sunken well. It is also translated to represent a prison] (Ps 28.1; Isa 49.19).
These words signify a burial plot, and no thought is entertained of conscious awareness beyond the grave. But with the advent of the idea of sheol our vision is enlarged. For, despite what the cultists say to the contrary, the Hebrew sheol refers to the STATE of the dead. And while it CAN most certainly include the grave, it also signifies “the unseen state, the underworld.”
This is the reason behind Jacob’s sorrowful dirge, in mourning for his son Joseph, “I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning” (Gen 37.35). This was not wishful thinking on Jacob’s part, nor a pitiful flight into poetic eloquence. He thought his son was dead. He did not expect to rejoin his son in the same grave, but rather he knew he would see him again in Sheol — his own final earthly destination — beyond the grave. Granted, while sheol was often used as a mere synonym for death itself (Num 16.33; 2 Sam 22.6; 1 Kings 2.6 etc) there are other references that even speak of God entering Sheol, as a place quite apparently distinct and divorced from the grave (Deut 32.22; Job 11.8; Psa 139.8).
At this juncture we need to quickly cover another aspect of death and dying. That is the biblical revelation concerning the Hebrew, rephaim. On several occasions rephaim is associated and connected with the underworld, Sheol.
Rephaim actually means the “shades” or “shadows” of the departed dead. In the common language of today we would describe shades as the spirits of the dead. That is how the Bible describes them, always linked with the departed dead in the netherworld. “The SHADES below tremble…Sheol is naked before God” (Job 26.5-6). “Sheol is stirred…it rouses the SHADES to greet you” (Isa 14.9). “The SHADES are there…in the depths of Sheol” (Prov 9.18). Not only are the departed spirits considered “shades” of their former selves, in early primitive Israelite thought (especially during the reign of Saul) the ancestral dead were thought of as being quite able to exert eerie, foreboding influence on the lives of the living in dramatic ways (see 1 Sam 28.13. In this famous passage of Scripture the term rendered “ghostly form” in the New English Bible comes from the Hebrew elohim — God or gods). Further, Psalm 16.13 refers to the dead as “the gods [qadosh] who are in the earth.”
If those who purport “human extinction at death” are right, and none of us possess anything remotely resembling a “spark of the Divine” then WHY does the prophet Isaiah (whose very writings are used by these same people to demonstrate that man is nothing more than material dust) proclaim the descent of the king of Babylon into Sheol in vivid, dramatic terms that can only be understood within a context of inherent immortality?
Speaking of the very human Babylonian king, Isaiah cries in rapture: “How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of the Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the Mount of Assembly in the far north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’ But you are brought down to Sheol, to the depths of the pit” (Isa 14.12-15).
The ancient king of Babylon was destroyed by Yahweh. The future king of Babylon will also be destroyed by Yahweh, and Israel will rejoice in a song of scorn and mock her former oppressor (Isa 14.3). When the king arrives in Sheol he is greeted by pagan kings who preceded him, but they are nothing of their former selves. Rather, they are shadowy replicas — shades — of their greatness. The Babylonian emperor will lie in mud and filth and be covered in worms and maggots.
“Sheol beneath is stirred up to meet you when you come; it rouses the shades to greet you, all who were leaders of the earth. It raises from their thrones all who were kings of the nations. All of them will speak and say to you: ‘You too have become as weak as we! You too have become like us!’ Your pomp is brought down to Sheol, the sound of your harps; crawling maggots are the bed beneath you, and squirming worms your covering” (Isa 14.9-11).
The scene that greets us causes inner revulsion. Its enough to scare the socks off your feet. Or, at least, it should be. Sure, it can well be said that Isaiah is using symbolic language to describe the fall of the king of Babylon. We agree. Of course he is! And we could argue that the imagery is indeed pagan to the core. Of course it is! That cannot be argued.
- BUT the point is that the prophet IS using pagan imagery! He is using borrowed language of the nations surrounding Israel to describe in lurid forms and terminology what HAS occurred to Babylon’s king.
If what he is saying is patently untrue, then Isaiah is introducing paganistic values without proper cause into the holy Spirit-inspired volume that we call the Sacred Scriptures. This cannot be the case. The emperor of Babylon died and entered
Sheol to be greeted in dreamy pomp and vague ceremony by shadowy shades who had lost all hope of escape from the grip of the subterranean world of the dead.
There can be no doubt that life persists after the death of the body. We can laugh about it, deride those who believe in it. After all, the Bible seems to tell us that we are dependent upon the resurrection from the dead to gain immortality. Yet, with the advances of knowledge into first century cultural attitudes and religious beliefs, it has become imperative that the concept of resurrection be reconsidered in the light of the Jewish thoughtform of the first century, which is vividly reflected in the Messianic Scriptures. We must not give in to the temptation of interpreting the NT through modern twentieth century European religious dress. Yeshua made it quite plain that “God [said] I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” He rapidly added: “God is not the God of the dead but of the living” (Mt 22.32). Concerning Abra-ham, Isaac and Jacob –the Fathers of the Faith — Yeshua did not consider them dead at all: rather, “All are alive for God” (Lk 20.38).
In Hebrews 11 — the faith chapter of the Bible — we read mention of those men and women of God who loved not their lives to the death, and who worked awesome miracles because they had finally mastered the forces that shape human destiny. After discussing these saints and the fact that “they all DIED in faith not having inherited the promises” (11.13) the unknown author proceeds to inform us that they (the saints who were DEAD) could have returned to this earthly pilgrimage — “to bend their way back again” (11.15 Greek). Instead they “desire a better, that is, a heavenly” (11.16 “country” appears in some versions but is not in the earliest mss).
The answer that the rebirth theory offers to the problem of evil in “undeserved” suffering completely exonerates God from charges of cruelty, injustice, favouritism. God is not placed into the role of universal policeman, for karma, the Pauline law of “cause and effect,” is self-operative: “Whatsoever we sow we reap” (Job 4.8; Gal 6.7).
We can say confidently, therefore, that based upon the Holy Scriptures life persists after our decease. We can also declare, confidently, that those who do not believe they are immortal are in for the surprise of their life when they die! As for this lecturer, I am not afraid of facing the truth. I have done so many times in my life, and I expect to do so many more times before God calls me “home.” My ultimate truth is “Mashiach and Him crucified,” not just for me personally, but also for my world. When all is said and done I pray sincerely that the evil I have put into the world will not cause others to suffer too much, and that my little life will somehow fit into God’s plan for the Kingdom, when death will be no more. May His Kingdom come.