Soul Damage: the Problem

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Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are truly ugly realities. They can strip people of their relationships, their dignity, and even their identities. There are few things worse than having to watch a loved one deteriorate, ultimately forgetting who you even are.

Many of us know the physical effects of these types of diseases, but have you considered the relevance this has on the afterlife? Strange as it is, debilitating brain issues actually pose quite a problem to some of the most popular beliefs about the hereafter.

I recall a childhood friend I once had, and the horrific car accident his mother endured during his youth. My friend’s mother went from being an attractive, intelligent, charismatic person, to being a perpetual child in an instant. She lost her adult thinking capacities, and even her physical appearance drastically changed after the traumatic brain injury she received. First and foremost, this was truly tragic. Chances are, many of you reading this have seen something of the sort in your lifetimes.

But think about how strange this type of thing is. Someone sustains a serious brain injury, and their personality is forever changed (in this life, at least). In other words, a physical injury to the body results in a spiritual change in the person. The person has undergone nothing other than “soul damage.”

I don’t know about you, but that fact doesn’t make much sense to me. The most popular Christian (and others) belief about human existence is that we each have a soul that lives in union with a body. “We” are immaterial souls, and we live in physical bodies.

If that is true, why would a physical injury alter the immaterial soul? Why does a car wreck or a brain disease/injury completely change our personalities? Shouldn’t the soul be, well, immune to physical damage? You would surely think so. But on the popular view, it is not.

This is not the only problem, either. This brings up a major question about who we are in the afterlife as well. To further explain the problem, I have included a brief selection from The Death Myth.

“What, or who, exactly is it that is supposed to be going to heaven? It can’t be the body; our bodies will end up in either crematoriums or caskets. If it is not the earthly body that goes on, then it must be the soul.

While this may seem like a simple observation, it opens the door to some of the most difficult questions we could ever imagine. When a person has lived well into adulthood before passing away, his or her identity has been extensively developed prior to their departure from this world. But what if someone dies, Lord forbid, prematurely? The person—body, soul, identity, and all—someone is as a child is drastically different than the person they are as an adult.

You may already see the problem here. Who “we” are depends stringently upon how long we have lived and what has occurred during that time. I was different at five years old than I later was at ten years old, and different at seventeen than at thirty, and so forth. So were you. So is everyone. The unavoidable question, then, is this: what version of “us” goes on into the afterlife? Are some eternally destined to be perpetual, immature six-year-olds? Will those who tragically die before reaching adulthood remain as children forever? Will those who succumb late in their lives to devastating mental illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease or the various types of dementia carry that version of themselves into the next age?

Make no mistake about it: these questions present all of us with a number of very difficult considerations, and it would be an act of sheer hubris to suggest that I have all of the answers to these problems. But even the basic observation that the nature of the human soul—the component of our personal identities—is inextricably connected to the human body and our various substantive circumstances indicates something extremely important. Specifically, it reveals to us that any view that treats the human soul as the “real being” or the human body as something of secondary importance fails to adequately account for this connection.” (pp. 127-128)

In short, there are two major problems if we believe that the soul is the immaterial “us” that lives in a body. You know, the thing that will supposedly go live by itself after we die.

The first is that physical circumstances can radically change the soul. If someone gets hit hard enough in the head, their soul changes. Why should that be possible?

The second problem is that the person you are at the end of your life would also be the person that goes on to the afterlife. If I pass away with Alzheimer’s, and I am my soul, then I would carry that status after death. At the least, I would live like that during the “interim period”—the time between death and the resurrection.

To me, none of this adds up. The view most of us have been taught—that we are really souls who temporarily reside in bodies—just doesn’t seem to work. Is there any possible answer to this dilemma?

I believe there is. But that will have to wait until next time.

 

Thank you for reading! If you found this blog interesting, please see all the other posts on this site. You can purchase The Death Myth by clicking here.

Afterlife Confusion

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Did you know that, before anyone was called a “Christian,” they were simply called those of “the way”? The way, of course, was supposed to be the way of Jesus. It was also supposed the be the way of truth. Above almost anything else, Christians are supposed to be truth-seekers. We are asked to follow the truth wherever it leads, even if that sometimes puts us in uncomfortable territory.

It was that recent realization that brings us to the topic of this blog. One of the biggest reasons why I believe that many of us are wrong about the afterlife is that the we often contradict ourselves on this issue.

Notice I said we, and not the Bible.

The fact is, everyone who thinks that we possess (or are) a soul that will go live by itself after death has to deal with a major problem—the Bible offers several different ways this might happen: several different places, and several different types of existence.

The first is thought to be a place for the blessed deceased. The Bible talks about heaven, “paradise,” and “Abraham’s bosom” as being locations for fallen believers. Wait, that’s three different descriptions! Which is it?

Many people have made the case that these are just synonyms for one another: that these are all the same location. In The Death Myth, I discuss all three in great detail, and explain why that is not the case. However, I don’t need to do that in this blog. The fact that there are three possibilities is all I need to say for now.

What about the unsaved, the non-believers, or what have you? Well, the Bible speaks of two different realities for these people as well: Hades/Sheol and hell. If you are wondering, the answer is no. Hades/Sheol and hell are not the same thing: not by a longshot. Sheol is the Old Testament description of “the grave,” and is simply the abode of the dead. It was not thought to be some realm for conscious souls.

Hades is a Greek concept (and a Greek god), and it is essentially the New Testament version of Sheol. Hades is the abode of the dead and, outside of Greek thought, it was not believed to be a place for conscious souls, either.

When talking about hell—the place of destruction and separation from God—the New Testament writers spoke of “Gehenna.”

The term Gehenna was derived from a valley to the south of Jerusalem, where idolatrous Jews had sacrificed their own children to the false god, Molech. After that time, it was thought to be cursed, and became a continuously-burning garbage dump. Nice place!

Jesus spoke of Gehenna often, and it was definitively the place where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” In the truest sense, Gehenna is what we think of as “hell.”

OK, so what is the point? My point is very simple: if we are to believe that deceased people go on and live as disembodied spirits, we must also accept that the Bible would be sending us mixed messages. Maybe you go to heaven. Maybe you go to hell. Maybe you go to Sheol/Hades. Maybe you go to Abraham’s bosom or paradise.

See the problem?

The deceased cannot go to all of these places at once, because they are different places! This reminds me of the scarecrow on The Wizard of Oz. When Dorothy is trying to figure out which road to travel, he points out several paths that she might take. Finally, he simply crosses his arms and points in opposite directions. This is what the Bible would be doing, if we believe in disembodied existence after death.

We would have an incoherent view on our hands. Many people unknowingly do already.

So, what is the alternative? The other path we can take is to understand that none of these destinations are intended to be locations where we will go after we die. The Bible is not telling us about a literal labyrinth for dead spirits (as many Greek viewed Hades to be), or that we will go to either heaven or hell immediately after death.

It is true that the Bible often uses imagery and parabolic language to teach moral lessons about the afterlife, perhaps most notably in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. However, parabolic language is not meant to be taken at face value. It does not show us what literally happens at death.

In closing, the Bible is also clear that there really will be an afterlife for both the saved and the unsaved. The unsaved will end up in Gehenna, that dreadful place previously discussed, with Satan and the demons. The repentant will end up in God’s newly created world, the new heavens and new earth. But both of these things will happen after Christ returns, and both will be places where we live in bodily form.

In the meantime, we “sleep.” We are unconscious until the resurrection. Daniel 12:2, John 11:11, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, and many other biblical passages, make this clear. After we take our last breaths on this earth, we will take our first breaths on the new one. But there will be no time spent in some interim world.

If we are willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads, we will keep from twisting the biblical message into knots. At the same time, we will also have a much clearer view of reality.

 

 

Thank you for reading! If you found this blog interesting, please see all the other posts on this site. You can purchase The Death Myth by clicking here.

Where I Find My Heaven

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(I have attached an accompanying song with this blog)

It’s one of the central purposes of the Christian faith. It’s the end-game of the whole enterprise, so to speak. One day, after we die, we will make it to those beautiful “pearly gates.” One day, we will make it to heaven.

Without question, going to heaven is a worthy goal to have. Or, it would be a worthy goal . . . if it were actually what we should be hoping for. But it’s not.

Dying and “going to heaven” is not what the Bible depicts as the final horizon for believers.

More than that, it’s not even the place we will go between death and the resurrection. It’s not even a “temporary stop,” so to speak. My entire case for that view is laid out very clearly in The Death Myth.

So, if heaven is not the goal, what exactly is? I mean, didn’t Jesus come (in part) to provide a way that we could live with him for the rest of eternity? Yes. Unequivocally, YES.

But he had in mind something different than many of us do. While a lot of churches are preaching about living in heaven as some type of disembodied spirit, the Scriptures have always told another story.

The real goal is not heaven, but a remade creation. We should be hoping for what will really be awaiting us: a new heaven and a new earth. While both God and the angels live in a realm of existence that we call “heaven,” it is not for us. Heaven is for them, and them alone. However, we are heading to the same place that the angels are: to the same place that God Himself is heading towards. We look for a world where,

“There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever” (Rev. 22:5).

There is even more to this. Despite the obsession with living as immaterial souls or spirits when we die—which is an idea that comes much more from ancient Greek philosophy than from biblical testimony, I have to add—the Bible is crystal clear that the afterlife is a tangible thing.

We will have bodies. We will not be immaterial “spirits.”

The apostle Paul—who authored nearly half of the books within the New Testament—was absolutely emphatic about this, when he dealt with a group of Christians (the Corinthians) who believed that the goal was to get rid of these useless bodies and live as spirits. To that notion, he offered the following advice:

“Earthly people are like the earthly man (Adam) , and heavenly people are like the heavenly man (Jesus). Just as we are now like the earthly man, we will someday be like the heavenly man.

What I am saying, dear brothers and sisters, is that our physical bodies cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. These dying bodies cannot inherit what will last forever.

But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies” (1 Cor. 15:48-53, NLT and my emphasis)

We are never getting rid of bodily existence. Instead, God will replace our fallen bodies with incorruptible ones.

And we will go on to live in heaven at that point, right? Nope. Once again, we will not. The book of Revelation explains the type of place we will inhabit—the new heavens and new earth.

“Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them . . . He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new’!” (Rev. 21:1-3, 5 NIV)

A new creation: a new heaven, and a new earth. There, we will live with God and His angels, apart from sin, death and suffering. And we will do it with, guess what, new bodies. My hunch is, so will the angels and even Jesus himself (because they already do).

I don’t want to die and go to heaven—I would rather have what God has promised us.

 

Thank you for reading! If you found this blog interesting, please see all the other posts on this site. You can purchase The Death Myth by clicking here.

Is Anyone Watching (Part two)

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(For those interested, I have attached an accompanying song for this blog)

Most everyone who has been on this earth for very long has lost a loved one. I certainly have. More than that, I can almost guarantee that every person reading this has heard something like this before: “we know that she (or he) is in heaven right now, watching over all of us.”

In part one of this topic, I talked about us—the living—and how we view the deceased. I ask you to consider whether or not the belief that the dead are now watching over us is a good thing, or a bad thing. In general, I think that question could be answered in two different ways. For some, the thought that deceased loved ones are watching over them is extraordinarily comforting. For others, this prospect brings with it an overwhelming feeling of dread and paranoia.

As I said, not all people are good, and not all people are worth remembering.

But let’s consider the other side of the coin. Would it really be a good thing for those who have passed away to “watch over us?” They have supposedly moved on to a place of perpetual bliss, but you have to ask the question: what sort of life would that be like?

Is that really a heavenly existence?

I feel that most of us who talk about how the “dead are watching over us from heaven” have not thought this through very far. No offense intended by that statement. None at all. But I’m not sure that is what any of us should even want.

If you fall in the camp that finds comfort in the belief that a lost love one is watching over you, consider how that loved one might see things. Do you want your mom, dad, brother, sister, spouse, friend, or—Lord forbid—your child, seeing what happens in your life after they are gone?

Think hard about that question.

It’s all well and good to think that they might be celebrating with us at, say, our college graduation, our wedding, or at the news of a big job promotion. But we also know what that sort of ability (the ability to see our lives) would also bring with it. Every time we fall short; every time we fail; every time we lash out in violence or anger; every time we suffer; every time we make others suffer; every time that tragedy strikes; and every time that one passes away . . . they would be watching.

Would your mom or dad want to watch you die? That question ought to be rhetorical. No: who would want that?

Besides these issues, there is one really huge problem with this belief. Wouldn’t the ability to see everything we are doing essentially equate to having God-like knowledge and understanding? Isn’t it God—and God alone—who is supposed to be able to peer into every person’s life, and track his or her every move?  It troubles me that most of us are so eager to grant those abilities to deceased human beings. It should bother those of us who do it.

Clearly, God can handle this ability—but even He mourns our losses; “Costly in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints” (Ps. 116:15). We of course know that Jesus wept (inconsolably) at the death of his friend Lazarus. However, it’s a little crazy to think that deceased human beings can endure seeing all of the death and suffering that occurs in our world. Don’t you think?

I am not trying to lay a guilt trip on anyone. That is not my intent in saying any of this. As I noted earlier, I don’t believe most of us have thought this through. But now we can. It is not too late to change the way we think about death, or the way we speak about the deceased.

The next time that tragedy strikes, and someone you know leaves this world, think about how you speak of him or her. Whenever we either say or hear, “this person is looking down at us from heaven,” ask yourself what all that would actually entail.

Is it really a good thing for them if they are now “watching over us”? Is it really a good thing for us, either?

Personally, I answer “no” to both questions.

 

Thank you for reading! If you found this blog interesting, please see all the other posts on this site. You can purchase The Death Myth by clicking here.

The (Real) Rich Man and Lazarus

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It’s everyone’s favorite biblical parable! Well, at least for those who are looking to explain what happens when we die. A favorite—do doubt. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most misunderstood stories in the Bible.

While many people believe this was Jesus’ way of telling us that the dead go on to live as disembodied spirits, was it? Is that really the message that Jesus was trying to convey?

A close evaluation of this story may actually suggest something different. For those who are not familiar with the tale, it appears in Luke 16:19-31. I will now provide a brief sample from The Death Myth, in order to briefly explain the parable.

“Essentially, the story goes as follows: there is an unnamed wealthy man who encounters a poor beggar named Lazarus on his way to and from his estate, on what is apparently a regular basis. The rich man “lives in luxury every day,” while Lazarus is financially destitute and is living on the streets outside the rich man’s property. To make matters worse, Lazarus is most likely a leper (v.20), and is regarded by others as being even lower than the dogs that came to lick his wounds. Though not directly stated, it is clearly inferred that the rich man cared nothing for Lazarus and was quite content to maintain their radically different living conditions. Thus, the story tells of a cruel-minded person of means and a kind-hearted person of poverty. For this reason, it is strongly implied that Lazarus was religiously faithful and the rich man was spiritually bankrupt.”

As the story progresses, we learn what becomes of these two men after they die. Good old Lazarus goes on to a place of peace and comfort, called “Abraham’s bosom.” Meanwhile, the rich man heads to the dark side of the underworld, called “Hades.” The script had been completely flipped; the suffering man had been rewarded with a good life, and the nasty miser was now being treated to a life of torment.

This parable is one of the central texts used as evidence that the soul continues to live apart from the body during the “interim period”—that is, the time between death and the resurrection (i.e. where the dead are right now). It seems so straightforward. Good people die and go to a good place, and bad people die and go to a bad place. And this happens immediately after death.

Simple, right?

Not quite. There are serious problems with using this parable in such a way. The first problem is the most obvious one—this parable is, well, really a parable! Jesus’ favorite teaching method was to use short, fictitious stories (parables) to teach people important lessons about real life. The stories themselves were not literally true, but they were most definitely spiritually true. The events didn’t happen, but the lessons they reveal are very real.

I know of no other parable that is taken literally in all of Scripture. Not one. And to be sure, this story is absolutely a parable. It is chock-full of imagery, like chasms and fire. It follows a string of other parables within the Gospel of Luke (the Lost Sheep, the Lost Son, the Shrewd Manager, etc.). It even has unknown, or even purposely unnamed, characters. We don’t know who Lazarus was; this was almost certainly not the Lazarus that Jesus raised from the dead. The “rich man” isn’t even given a name. If being named (or unnamed) is what determines whether or not a character really existed, then it appears that at least half of the story is fictional right out of the gate.

Friends, this parable is viewed literally by many people for one reason: a literal reading would lead us to believe that we will live apart from our bodies when we die. Beyond this story, the evidence for that belief is quite scarce, and is also typically based on more metaphor.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that a literal reading of this parable goes against the most common belief about the state of the dead: that believers die and go to heaven. Both cannot be true at the same time. We might go to Abraham’s bosom, or we might go to heaven, but we can’t do both. The same applies to Hades and hell. That’s for sure.

What, then, is the purpose of Jesus’ story? If it doesn’t tell us what happens during the interim period, what does it tell us? In my mind, it tells us two major things.

First, it tells us that there is going to be life after death (ultimately), and that the choices we make now will determine what that life looks like. As I have said many times, the whole discussion of the afterlife within the Bible revolves around the return of Jesus and the resurrection. At that time, we will receive the reward or punishment that is due to us.

Along with that, it also shows that there will be a “reversal of fortunes” that occurs in the afterlife. Those who righteously suffered will be exalted, while the unrighteous will be debased.

Second, the story tells us that there will never be enough evidence to appease those who desire more and more of it. The rich man begs (as Lazarus once did, ironically) Abraham to send a messenger to warn his family that they are heading for their doom as well. Abraham told him no; absolutely not! They had the Scriptures to learn this lesson from. Besides, they wouldn’t change anyway. Not even if a dead person rose to pay them a visit! (see Luke 16:29-31 for this dialogue)

There will never be enough “proof” for some people. Many who saw the risen Christ didn’t even believe it!

Jesus’ parable of the Rich man and Lazarus has a rightful place as one of his finest teaching tales. It warns all of us about unbelief, and the incredible results of it. It shows us that all people will one-day be righteously judged and appropriately sentenced. It even shows us that God has already offered all the proof we need, and that a rejection of that proof will result in an afterlife of anguish and separation from God.

It does not, however, illustrate what literally happens to each of us at the moment we die. In other words, this parable is really a parable.

 

 

Thank you for reading! If you found this blog interesting, please see all the other posts on this site. You can purchase The Death Myth by clicking here.

 

Is Anyone Watching? (Part One)

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Throughout my time researching the issues surrounding death and the afterlife, it has occurred to me that people have mixed feelings about where the dead presently exist (or, don’t exist). However, I may have underestimated just how important this particular issue is for many people.

For the moment, never mind the question as to whether or not it would be preferable for the deceased to have to watch the living. That will be the topic of my next blog (part two). Right now, the focus is on those of us who are alive in this world.

It is extraordinarily difficult to lose those who are closest to us; no doubt about it. In fact, there may not be anything more difficult to endure. For some, there is great comfort in the thought that their lost loved ones are in a “better place.” While they no longer fill our lives with joy, we can at least believe that they live in a place of peace and comfort. This is particularly true for those who have had to watch a mother, a sister, a brother, or any other close friend or relative, suffer until his or her exit from this world.

More than simply existing somewhere as disembodied spirits, it is often believed that our loved ones may even be watching over us, observing our daily lives. That, too, is a source of comfort for certain people.

While that sentiment is certainly true for some, there is of course another side to this issue. There seem to be at least as many people who have the opposite perspective. For them, the prospect that their deceased friends, family members, or acquaintances, are tracking their every move provides no comfort or solace. Instead, it offers an almost paralyzing sense of dread: a haunting, debilitating feeling of discomfort.

The reasons for this should be obvious—not everyone in the world is a kind, generous, and caring person. Some people are rotten to the core, and are not really worth remembering. Worse, some people may not even deserve to be remembered (if we can help it).

This is a hard pill to swallow, but swallow it we must.

We all know a widow or widower who had a tumultuous marriage, and is now attempting to move on with his or her life. We all know someone who had an abusive father, or a vindictive, controlling mother. We might know someone who is scared to enter into a new relationship, sell their home, change locations, or make any number of other decisions, out of fear that a deceased person would not approve of it.

“Will Sam understand if I date again?” “Is Sharon upset that I did not visit her grave this week?” “What would mom think if I sold the house that she and dad built?” The list could go on and on.

We know these people, or perhaps we might even be one of these people. This is the other side of the coin.

I can only offer my “2 cents” on this issue. Through researching all of the biblical evidence available to us, as well as issues like near-death experiences (NDEs) and communicating with the dead, I have concluded that deceased human beings do not exist anywhere at present. They are not in heaven, experiencing a life of bliss. They are not suffering in hell, either. Most importantly, the dead are not watching us. They are not there to praise our good deeds, nor are they around to condemn our perceived mistakes and failures.

Dead means dead: gone, deceased . . . the absence of life.

I am also quick to add that all people will one-day stand before God, and that He will decide our appropriate rewards or punishments. This will occur at Christ’s return. The dead will live again, and will someday be in one of the places people assume—and falsely, I believe—they are currently living in.

In the end, I have made this case through the entirety of The Death Myth, and it is up to each reader to decide whether or not my view makes the best sense of things. As for me, I do not spend one second of my life thinking about what the deceased are doing, or what they may be thinking about me personally. I certainly remember them, but I do not worry about them. To me, nothing good can come from a preoccupation with the dead.

The good people who have passed from my life would rather me spend that time focusing on God or my living family and friends, anyway.

Of course, it is also up to each reader to assess the implications of either worldview. Do you find joy in thinking that the dead are watching you, or do you find liberation in the thought that they are not?

I suspect that every person may answer that question a little differently.

 

 

Thank you for reading! If you found this blog interesting, you can purchase The Death Myth by clicking here.