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It is reported that as many as 150,000 people die daily. Is there a life that exists after the one that we have all come to experience? Is there a resurrection of the dead? What happens to a person when she/he dies? Is there an intermediate state for the dead? Where will we spend eternity? This article will not attempt to answer all the questions that one may have regarding issues on the afterlife but will only seek to highlight the position of the Scripture on what it teaches regarding it. It is easy to appreciate why questions regarding death and the afterlife are usually not discussed in most cultures. Sometimes, the discussion of this very sensitive topic has been very emotional. Some people will rather not speak on it perhaps due to their ignorance or disinterest in the subject, but the Bible is not silent on it.

The Bible defines death as the cessation of life. The beginning of human life is seen in Genesis 2:7 “then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature”. Whereas the animals and vegetation had life after their creation, humankind needed the breath of God after creation before they could experience life. Whenever this breath of God is taken away, the human person loses the life that sustains and it, therefore, returns to dust “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Genesis 3:19

The Biblical Concept of Death

Like many other doctrines in the Bible, there is an observed trend of progressive revelation, that is God did not instantly reveal full knowledge on certain subjects. He gradually revealed himself to the people. Likewise, one observes that the Old Testament understanding of death and the afterlife was incomplete until the coming of Christ who revealed to us full knowledge on the afterlife. Who else but Christ could have revealed this to humankind? In the Old Testament, the general trend seen was that the Underworld (Hebrew: Sheol; Greek: Hades) was the final destiny of every person. There was no specific expectation that there was another life beyond the physical life even though there were scattered glimpses of an afterlife by some people.

After Abraham had inherited Canaan the Promised Land, it was testified of him in Hebrews 11:8-16 that he lived in expectation of a heavenly city whose builder was God. Job, in his earthly misery also looked ahead to a day when he will behold God in his flesh (Job 19:25-27). Likewise, David also spoke prophetically of Christ when he said that God will not abandon his soul to the Underworld.

It was until Christ came that we became aware of the conscious reality of an afterlife for the soul when it goes to the Underworld. In the story of the Richman and Lazarus recorded in Luke 16:19-31, Christ gave us a peek into the afterlife. It is instructive to note of this story that Luke does not introduce it as a parable as he usually did with most of the stories of Christ, Jesus was not just giving us another parable, this was a true story. The story has several lessons for us who live today regarding those who die. It also dispels several unbiblical positions that are rife in this world concerning the afterlife. Some of these are explained below:

Cessation: Some erroneously believe that there is no life after this life. Once a person dies, he ceases to exist, everything ends. This view is opposite to what Christ teaches us in the story. Lazarus, Father Abraham and the rich man all continued to exist after they had exited this world. There is life for each person beyond this grave.

Wandering Ghosts: Some people also believe that the spirits of the dead hover around, sometimes living in their houses or just moving about their loved ones or moving about to avenge those who killed them. This view is opposite to what the Bible teaches. If such a position was possible, the rich man would not have requested for Abraham to send someone to his household to warn them.

Reincarnation: The idea that good people can come back into life in the form of other people, appear in other countries or even appear like other objects or animals. This view is not supported by any teaching remotely connected to Christ and the teachings of the Bible.

Purgatory: According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Purgatory is “a place or condition of temporal punishment for those who, departing this life in God's grace, are not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions." In summary, Purgatory is a place that a Christian's soul goes to after death to be cleansed of the sins that had not been fully satisfied during life, a place for further purification from sin to prepare the believer for heaven. At this place, atonement can be made for those who have died. This doctrine of Purgatory is not in agreement with the Bible. The Bible has nothing to say on this issue, neither from the teachings of Christ nor his apostles. It is a tradition in the Catholic church. A semblance of this is seen in the apocryphal writings of 2 Maccabees 12:43-45, where Judas Maccabeus is known to have paid 2,000 drachmas of silver to make reconciliation for the dead to deliver their souls from sin.

A belief in the doctrine of purgatory suggests that the atonement of Christ was not sufficient (John 19:30). It defeats the belief that Jesus is the only propitiation for our sins (1 John 2:1). By one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy (Hebrews 10:14). Jesus died to pay the penalty for all of our sins (Romans 5:8). Isaiah 53:5 declares, but He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds, we are healed. The doctrine of Purgatory is unscriptural.

Hamistagan: It is a neutral place or state for the departed souls of those whose good deeds and bad deeds were equal in life. Here these souls await Judgment Day. This is taught in the Zoroastrian religion. Such a view cannot be tolerated in Christianity because it will suggest that a person is saved by good deeds and not by grace through faith in Christ Ephesians 2:8-9.

Soul Sleep/Dreamless sleep: This is a state of unconscious existence until Jesus comes. Some Bible verses seem to suggest that death is a state of sleep of the soul (1 Thess. 4:13; 5:10| 1 Corinthians 15:16, 18, 20, 51| Acts 7:60; 13:36| John 11:11; Matthew 9:24; 27:52). Some verses also seem to suggest that the dead do not have a conscious existence (Psalm 6:5; 115:17| Ecclesiastes 9:10| Isaiah 38:19). When the Bible talks of death as sleep, it does so figuratively. Just as sleep is temporary, so is sleep. It is a metaphorical description. When anyone sleeps, there is a certain expectation that the person will wake up again, no matter the duration of the sleep. Likewise, in John 11:11, Jesus only says that Lazarus had fallen asleep because he knew that he was going to be raised. It was in the same manner that Jairus’ daughter was also sleeping (Luke 8:49-56). So sleep is the disengagement of the soul from the body, there is however no sleep for the soul. Even in death, it still maintains its consciousness. Both Lazarus and the rich man were conscious of their existence after death.

Annihilationism: A belief that those who are wicked will perish or cease to exist. It states that after the Last Judgement, all unsaved human beings, all fallen angels (all of the damned) and Satan himself will be destroyed to not exist, or that their consciousness will be extinguished rather than suffer everlasting torment in Hell. It stands in contrast to the belief in eternal torture and suffering in the lake of fire.

In the next article, we will attempt to answer the question of where we go when we die.

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