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Texts for this Week: Matt. 10:28; Eccles. 9:5; Isa. 8:19, 20; John 11:11–14, 21–25; 1 Thess. 4:16, 17; Rev. 16:13, 14; Matt. 24:23–27; 2 Thess. 2:9–12.

Opening Question: “What is the condition of a human after they die and why is that question of importance?

The lesson this week covers some interesting ideological territory that has created a great division in human thought. It has to do with the spiritual underworld and also with the ideas people have about death. We will begin with the death part first.

What happens when a person dies? This is a question to which all thought systems have to provide an answer. There are two prevailing opinions. The majority opinion is that consciousness does not end at death. Rather, the essence of a person, commonly known as their soul, survives death and continues on in some other form. The basic idea is that there is an immortal part of every human being, a part that is inherently immortal so it cannot die. One of the most popular concepts is that this soul thing enters human life at the point of conception and remains part of a human until the point of death at which point it migrates to some other place. The most common idea is that if the person lived a good life, their soul migrates to a good place, like heaven for example. If the person has been bad, their soul goes to a bad place, like hell where the soul is tortured indefinitely. Or, if the person has not been very bad, they may go to some intermediate place where some restoration of the soul can take place before they then go to the good place. In some thought systems, the journey of the soul is then quite short, just the length of a human life, while in other systems, the journey is very long going through any number of reincarnations until it finally gets to its good place. Whatever the case, what is necessary in each of these systems is the understanding that death does not end human consciousness. After death, the soul can still see and understand, and in some cases, respond to those who are still living. These days, stories of what are called near-death experiences are used and cited to support the idea that consciousness does not end at death. People who have these experiences recover and tell of wondrous things they saw while nearly dead.

One of the spin-offs of the idea that death does not end conscious life is the possibility of an underworld, a world that is commonly called the world of spiritualism. We are not going to delve deeply into this idea because it is often dark, but the essential idea is that there are entities – spirits, devils, ancestor spirits, other beings – that are able to communicate and even guide those who are still living. Being able to contact and communicate with these spirits is attractive to many people because they are thought to be beyond the grave therefore possessed with powers of understanding and prediction that normal, living people do not have. The thought is that a person living now can be advantaged by seeking guidance from these spirits.

The other side of this issue is that at death, human consciousness ends, that death is much like a deep sleep where the person has no conscious thought going on, where they cannot be communicated with, where they can offer no guidance. It does not take much thought to realize that this second position immediately disallows what the other side contends, that there can be no punishment of the dead, no communication with departed loved ones, no guidance to be given from those whose lives have ended. And the whole matter of spiritualism raises major concerns as to what entities are out there if the dead know not anything? This becomes a very significant item when placed in the context of a great controversy between good and evil.

For those who believe the Bible to be the word of God, it becomes important to ask if the notion that there is consciousness after death fits the biblical data. Of course, those that hold to this position have their favorite texts to interpret in a manner favorable to their ideas, but a careful and over-arching look at the Bible certainly favors the minority opinion, that when a person dies, there is no more consciousness.

One of the best places to establish the grounds for this second opinion is the Genesis story of the creation of humans where we learn that human beings did not get souls when they were created. Instead, the Bible clearly states that humans BECAME living souls. God breathed into Adam the breath of life and he BECAME a living soul. This means that when God breathed into Adam the breath of life, he became a living, sentient entity. By contrast, it also means when the breath of life goes, the living ends. In truth, this word soul is used to describe living, breathing things. It is applied even to some living things other than humans. Its original meaning is preserved in the English language in maritime language, where we say a ship was lost along with all souls onboard. The souls mentioned here were living human beings not some inherently immortal entities.

Another thing to consider is the many, many references in the Bible that refer to death as a sleep. There are said to be some 53 occasions where death is referred to as a sleep. You can look for those for they are easy to find, to include the several cases where Jesus explicitly spoke of dead people as being asleep.

A third line of thought – and this is a very important one – is that, especially in the New Testament, any hope a person has of eternal life is not tied to the presence of an immortal soul but to the promise of a resurrection. The Apostle Paul is very clear about this in his writings. In 1 Thessalonians 4, the point is made clearly that the dead will rise first when Jesus comes. And in an even more emphatic passage in 1 Corinthians, Paul talks of the resurrection: “For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished” (1 Cor. 15:16–18, NKJV). Indeed, if the souls of the dead go to their reward at death, what is all this talk about a resurrection about? The idea of an immortal soul and a resurrection simply do not fit together.

Now to a few thoughts of the implications all this would have when viewed as being in the context of a great controversy between good and evil. The book of Revelation depicts a great and final struggle where various entities will be involved in trying to deceive the inhabitants of the world. Chapters 13 and 16 in particular have verses that talk of these false entities performing signs and miracles in order to lead people astray from God. The prospect of having supernatural powers beyond death become a very powerful and even alarming possibility for deception. It would be easy for people who think there is consciousness after death to be taken in were someone like a much-loved relative to appear and do signs and wonders for them. The emotional power of that would be extreme.

We conclude here with the observation that, in the great and final struggle that will overtake the world just before Jesus returns, having a firm knowledge of truth will be the best protection.

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