Doctrine of the Last Things (Part 11)

September 17, 2014     Time: 00:37:57

State of the Soul after Death and the Biblical Position

State of the Soul after Death

We have been talking about the Second Coming of Christ, but of course up until this time in history no Christian has lived until the time of the parousia, or Christ’s Second Coming. Rather, every Christian up to this point has been ushered into the afterlife, not by Christ’s return, but by death. So we want to ask ourselves now, “What happened to them?” What happens to people when they die – people who do not live until the return of Christ?

Man Longs for Immortality

Immortality is an innate human desire. We sense the despair that is wrought by the finitude of human life and long for immortality beyond the grave. Edward John Carnell, in his An Introduction to Christian Apologetics, writes as follows:

The incongruity between man’s desire for life and the reality of physical death is the most maddening problem of all. Although he sees the handwriting on the wall, man yet refuses to think that death is his final destiny, that he will perish as the fish and the fowl, and that his place will be remembered no more. Man wills to live forever; the urge is written deep in his nature.[1]

People around the world and down through history have longed for immortality. J. G. S. S. Thomason, a famous theologian, in the book Basic Christian Doctrines, writes as follows:

Belief in survival after death is not only universal but very ancient. The Egyptians held it; in Greece it was adopted by the Orphics, from whom Plato received it; the Hebrews accepted it; Jews in Christ’s day held it; Christianity has always believed it; and for primitive man, too, immortality was a certainty, not a conjecture. Survival after death was how man interpreted the ineradicable intuition rooted in the imperishable core of his being.[2]

So the desire to live beyond the boundaries of this finite existence is rooted deep within human nature.

Pointers to Immortality

What pointers are there to immortality – to survival after the physical death of the body? In the existence of one’s soul or self I think one finds pointers to the immortality of the soul or the ability of the self to survive the physical death of the body. You will remember when we did our section on the Doctrine of Man, we defended a view of human being called substance-dualism – that we are not simply material objects. We are not just bags of chemicals on bones. Rather, there is a soul, a spiritual substance or self, that is conjoined with this body, and eventually we will lose this body and the soul will persist.

There are pointers, I think, to this in human experience.

Man’s Personality

Philosophers have noticed that there is a kind of self that cannot be fully objectified. Sometimes this is referred to as the transcendental ego. One of my colleagues in the philosophy department said that on his examination for his beginning students, one of the beginning students wrote down in discussing this, “the transcontinental eagle.” [laughter] But that is not what is meant by the transcendental ego. Rather, this is the self that cannot be fully objectified.

As a thought experiment, think about the wall. Set your mind on the wall. Now think about him who thought about the wall. Now think about him who thought about him who thought about the wall.[3] You see, there is always this transcendental self that cannot be fully objectified. When you think about him who thought about the wall, there is this further self – a higher self – that is thinking about itself. You cannot get rid of this transcendental self. There is always this unobjectifiable self that still persists even when we think about ourselves.

This self seems to transcend mere physical organs. We don’t think of ourselves as being identical with our body. This transcendental self seems to transcend even the body and not be identical with it even if conjoined with it.

Man’s Rationality

We think rationally. We are not (and we certainly don’t regard ourselves as) simply determined by physical processes to draw the conclusions that we do. If everything that we thought were simply determined by the mindless interaction of physical forces, it is hard to see how we could regard that as rational thinking. It would simply be no different than having a toothache or a tree growing a limb. But in rationality there seems to be something beyond the physical – a sort of mind that is able to reason logically and not simply be determined in what it thinks; therefore, its conclusions and inferences are rational.

There are three ways in which this soul and body might relate. The influence might be solely one way – from the body to the mind. The body, through its stimuli and makeup, determines what the mind thinks. Or it might be that the mind influences the body but is not influenced in turn. The mind controls the body and determines how it shall act when we will to do certain things. Or the body and the mind might mutually influence each other. The body can influence the mind through the stimuli that it receives, and in turn the mind can affect the body by willing to do this or that.

Of those three possibilities, only the first (that there is an asymmetrical causation from the body to the mind) would be inconsistent with immortality. The other two at least allow the possibility that this self might survive the death of its body.

Man’s Morality

Morality cannot be meaningful in the absence of immortality. Death would make morality meaningless. Even if there were objective moral values and duties, there would be no moral accountability – no reward for goodness; no punishment for evil. Therefore, one’s duties and values would become really ultimately irrelevant. Everyone winds up the same if there is no immortality. Thus, immortality is a condition of a meaningful, moral life. The Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky put it in this memorable phrase: if there is no immortality, then all things are permitted.

So if we do believe that the moral life is meaningful and significant, that would give grounds for thinking that there is immortality.

I don’t offer any of these as proofs of immortality, but rather as pointers to the idea that the soul could be distinct from the body and survive the death of its body.

Biblical Position

In one sense, however, all of this is somewhat irrelevant since the Christian belief in immortality is not the immortality of the soul alone. Rather, it is the resurrection of the body. We will be raised from the dead physically and so inhabit our eternal state. So even if the lights went out when we die, so to speak, nevertheless, God could still raise the dead at the end of human history upon Christ’s return.[4]

So whether or not there is immortality of the soul beyond the death of the body, the Christian hope for immortality isn’t really affected because it is rooted, not in the Greek idea of the survival of the soul through the death of the body, but rather in the resurrection of the dead – this old Jewish hope.

Let’s talk about the biblical view of what happens when a person dies.

Progressive Revelation

Here it is important to understand the notion of progressive revelation. Progressive revelation means that God has not given to humankind all of his truth that he wants us to know at once, but has revealed it gradually over time in increasing detail and fullness.

Examples of progressive revelation in Scripture would be, first, the doctrine of the Trinity. When you read the Old Testament, you would never guess that God is three-in-one. There seems to be a single person who is God in the Old Testament. There is monotheism, and there doesn’t seem to be a plurality of persons in the godhead. But with the revelation in Jesus and the development of the New Testament, God’s nature is more fully disclosed and we’ve come to learn that God is, in fact, three-in-one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

A second example would be the plan of salvation. In the Old Testament, salvation seems to belong to the Jews. Yet, in the New Testament, Paul speaks of the mystery hidden for ages in God, and that mystery is to reconcile both Jews and Gentiles together in Christ. He said this mystery hidden for ages is now fully disclosed through the teaching of the apostles to the church.[5]

So these would be examples of how progressive revelation works. God gradually unfolds his truth over the course of history. The Christian doctrine of immortality takes this form. It is something that is progressively revealed over time.

Immortality in the Old Testament

Let’s begin by talking about the concept of immortality as it appears in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament you do not have an optimistic, hopeful perspective on what happens to people when they die. Rather, the destiny of the departed (whether righteous or unrighteous) is this place referred to in the Hebrew Scriptures as Sheol. What is Sheol? Sheol is the underworld abode of the departed spirits of the dead. There isn’t any discrimination between good and evil in the concept of Sheol. Sheol is just the nether realm of the departed spirits. We are not told whether it is divided into a blessed paradisiacal place or a horrible tortuous place. Let’s look at some scriptures that refer to this idea of Sheol.

Isaiah 38:9-10, 18:

A writing of Hezekiah king of Judah, after he had been sick and had recovered from his sickness:

I said, In the noontide of my days
I must depart;
I am consigned to the gates of Sheol
for the rest of my years.
. . .
For Sheol cannot thank thee,
death cannot praise thee;
those who go down to the pit cannot hope
for thy faithfulness.

This is a rather gloomy picture of the afterlife, isn’t it? You go down to the pit, down to Sheol, where there is no praise or thanks being offered to God.[6]

We also find this referred to in the book of Job, in Job 7:9-10: “As the cloud fades and vanishes, so he who goes down to Sheol does not come up; he returns no more to his house, nor does his place know him any more.” Certainly, we don’t see any doctrine of the resurrection from the dead – do we? – in a passage like this. Rather, it seems that Sheol is this hopeless place where one goes and from which one does not return.

Also, Isaiah 14:9-11:

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 have become like us!”
Your pomp is brought down to Sheol,
the sound of your harps;
maggots are the bed beneath you,
and worms are your covering.

Again, this is a very gloomy picture of the afterlife. Notice that here it speaks of these shades – a sort of ghostly spirit that is just a pale vestige of the robust person that once lived. For that reason I don’t think we can agree with those who say that Sheol simply means the grave or simply means death. Rather, as I say, it is this nether realm of departed spirits – wraiths – who are the vestiges of the people who once lived. They here are described as greeting the King of Babylon when he will go down to Sheol at his death.

Nevertheless, there are some passages in the Old Testament that provide glimmers of hope. For example, look at Psalm 73:23-28:

Nevertheless I am continually with thee;
thou dost hold my right hand.
Thou dost guide me with thy counsel,
and afterward thou wilt receive me to glory.
Whom have I in heaven but thee?
And there is nothing upon earth that I desire besides thee.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever.

For lo, those who are far from thee shall perish;
thou dost put an end to those who are false to thee.
But for me it is good to be near God;
I have made the Lord God my refuge,
that I may tell of all thy works.

Here the psalmist seems to be quite hopeful. He says God will guide him in life, but then afterward God will receive him to glory. He said, “God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” So there are at least some glimmers of hope here for something beyond mere Sheol.

In a couple of places in the Old Testament, late in the development of the Old Testament – in Isaiah and in Daniel, you do have the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead explicitly affirmed.

Look at Isaiah 26:19:

Thy dead shall live, their bodies shall rise.
O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For thy dew is a dew of light,
and on the land of the shades thou wilt let it fall.

This seems to be an explicit teaching of the resurrection of the body which is therefore called for singing and rejoicing. I think it is especially interesting that he says God’s dew of light will fall on the land of the shades – those departed spirits in Sheol. There is hope of resurrection from the dead.

Then in Daniel 12:2 we have another explicit affirmation of the hope of resurrection.[7] Daniel 12:2 says, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Here is taught a resurrection of both the righteous and unrighteous dead alike.

The [Old] Testament picture is mixed.[8] The older view seems to have been one that just speaks of this departed realm of the dead. But then in time there begins to enter in a more hopeful sort of prospect, and finally actual affirmations of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead.

During the intertestamental period, this belief in the resurrection of the dead flourished in Judaism and became a very widespread belief. In Jesus’ day it was held to by the party of the Pharisees, but it was denied by the sect known as the Sadducees. The Sadducees in Jesus’ day represented the sort of old line conservative Jews. They didn’t accept the doctrine of the bodily resurrection of the dead. Nor did they believe there were any rewards and punishments after life. They held to the older, more primitive, view that you have in those passages we read about Sheol. So the Sadducees rejected the notion of immortality and resurrection of the dead in the sense that we’ve been describing it. By contrast, the sect of the Pharisees affirmed both the immortality of the soul beyond the death of the body as well as the eventual resurrection of the body and retribution in the future life. There would be rewards and punishments.

Jesus’ Argument with the Sadducees

So, although the belief in resurrection was widespread in Judaism during Jesus’ time, it wasn’t universally held. Jews were divided about this. We see this division so explicit in Acts 23:6-10 where we have this marvelous story about how Paul uses this division between the Pharisees and the Sadducees to his own advantage. Paul has been arrested and is brought in front of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high court, to be tried. Let’s read in Acts 23:6-10 what happened:

But when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead I am on trial.”

What a clever move! He is being tried for what he preached about Jesus – the resurrection of Jesus. But he says I am on trial because I believe in the resurrection of the dead.

And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees; and the assembly was divided. For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge them all. Then a great clamor arose; and some of the scribes of the Pharisees’ party stood up and contended, “We find nothing wrong in this man. What if a spirit or an angel spoke to him?” And when the dissension became violent, the tribune [that is, the Roman tribune], afraid that Paul would be torn in pieces by them, commanded the soldiers to go down and take him by force from among them and bring him into the barracks.

Here Paul adroitly exploits just the difference that we are talking about in order to escape judgment by the Sanhedrin, and the Romans have to rescue him so violent is the dissension that ensues.

It is very interesting to notice that Jesus sided with the Pharisees on this issue. Jesus himself sided with the Pharisees against the Sadducees when he was questioned about this.[9] Look at Matthew 22:23-33. Matthew says,

The same day Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection; and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies, having no children, his brother must marry the widow, and raise up children for his brother.’ Now there were seven brothers among us; the first married, and died, and having no children left his wife to his brother. So too the second and third, down to the seventh. After them all, the woman died. In the resurrection, therefore, to which of the seven will she be wife? For they all had her.”

And you can just imagine these guys chuckling at how clever they were. They are sort of like the Internet Infidels of their day trying to stump Jesus with this silly thought experiment.

But Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God. [He really puts them in their place; he couldn’t be more blunt.] For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” And when the crowd heard it, they were astonished at his teaching.

Here Jesus teaches that the resurrection will occur but there will be a different quality of life in the resurrection. There will not be marriage such as we have here on Earth. Therefore, the riddle was simply beside the point. He appeals to the Pentateuch which was accepted by the [Sadducees][10] as authoritative Scripture from God to say that God is the God of the living including the dead patriarchs, which suggests that they are in some sense still alive.

So in Jesus’ argument with the Sadducees, we see him affirming the belief in the resurrection. The Christian movement that followed Jesus, of course, believed not only in Jesus’ resurrection, but they considered that Jesus’ resurrection was the foretaste and harbinger of our own resurrection eventually from the dead. As Paul said, “Christ is risen from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.”[11] That is, a representative sample of the harvest that will come.

So the early Christian view was essentially the same as the Jewish view of resurrection from the dead, with this difference in that one of these resurrections has already occurred. It has occurred in advance as the guarantor and harbinger of our own resurrection; that is, the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead. His resurrection is the basis upon which our hope in immortality and resurrection rests.


Question: This is kind of in my ministry. Sheol is one of the focuses and things I like to study. Just like what you said, there is so much Scripture that talks about how all men go to Sheol, but then there is a lot of negative connotations with Sheol, and then also Job asks God to comfort him in Sheol. Others say you will not abandon my heart to Sheol. It says God’s hand can go to Sheol. So it does seem like there is this combination of it being a good place of comfort and also a negative place where the evil enemies of Israel would actually go. All men go there.

Answer: Let me just say one thing. I think you quoted Psalm 16:10 about “you will not abandon my soul to Sheol.” If you look at that, what I think David is saying is not you won’t leave me there. I think he is saying you are not going to let me die. He is saying you will preserve my life. He is not predicting that he will somehow be raised, but that he is saying you won’t allow me to die. You won’t allow me to go there.[12]

Followup: OK. All right. My understanding was that all the godly men of the Old Testament, as well as the evil, unrighteous men, all went to Sheol. However, Luke 16 is kind of like the divide between the two places.

Answer: Right! Right!

Followup: Their ultimate destiny is determined before they die, but those who hoped in the future resurrection of Christ and look forward to the promise of Christ would one day be raised to heaven. However, since their sins had not been paid for as of yet (they couldn’t go to heaven yet because their sins had not been paid for), therefore they were kept in Abraham’s bosom which was basically the good side of Sheol.

Answer: OK! You are getting way ahead of me! What we’ve been talking about just to this point is what the Old Testament says and then this division between Jesus and the Sadducees. But you are talking here about the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke where the rich man wakes up in Hades in torment and he sees Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom in paradise. We will talk about that next time. I think the question that you are raising is: were these Old Testament saints in Sheol – this awful, hopeless sort of place – and then maybe they got transferred later to Abraham’s bosom after Christ came, or something of that sort?

Followup: I believe that is the same place.

Answer: I suspect that, and I think maybe that is what you think, too. It is not that there was any kind of transfer made. The difference is just the description. The description in the Old Testament was rather negative, gloomy, and pessimistic. But, in fact, I think the righteous dead were, as you say, with the Lord in Abraham’s bosom or whatever you want to call that. But that wasn’t revealed yet. That was still part of the mystery that was hidden. All we had was the revelation of this nether realm of the departed dead. I think you are right; I don’t think there is any sort of change that took place in reality. What it was was a richer, fuller description came – progressive revelation – of what was really the case all along.

Question: I agree with progressive revelation, but I think the Old Testament did teach about the multiple personalities of God. Genesis elohim, the Shema where the word used is for a complex unity not a singular unity for “The Lord your God is one God.” Then you had Psalm 110, “The Lord said to my lord, ‘Sit on my right hand.’” At least, if not the Trinity, there are allusions to a multiplicity of persons.

Answer: I don’t care to dispute about that right now. As you say, some people would see at least hints of some sort of composition in the godhead in the Old Testament. Maybe that is the case, but I think we’d all agree that certainly it wasn’t fully explicit as what we have in the New Testament. If Jesus had never come, never lived, I don’t think anyone would have developed the doctrine of the Trinity simply based on the Old Testament.

Question: My understanding of progressive revelation is that it became progressively more clear although . . .

Answer: Well, now wait. I would say more information, not just more clarity. There is actually more information, too.

Followup: My question then is: there is two places in Job that I think are a little bit more clear as to the resurrection. I’ll only mention one of them. Job 19:25-26. You could even go to verse 27.

Answer: Ah, yes. Right.

For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then from my flesh I shall see God,

This seems to be the idea of physical immortality.

Followup: I can’t really think of a different way to interpret it than after my body is destroyed yet my body will exist somehow.

Answer: Yes.

Followup: The other one, if I may, is Psalm 71:20. This is not necessarily speaking of the bodily resurrection but it does mention this “depths of the earth” idea.[13] I would like your opinion on that one.

Answer: That one says,

Thou who hast made me see many sore troubles
wilt revive me again;
from the depths of the earth
thou wilt bring me up again.
Thou wilt increase my honor,
and comfort me again.

Right. I think there it is a little more difficult to press that for literality rather than saying he is just saying that God is going to restore his fortunes, but perhaps in this life.

Followup: The last thing I just want to hear a few words on is Ezekiel 37.

Answer: Oh, yes. I didn’t mention Ezekiel 37, but maybe we can go ahead and turn there. This is the famous vision of dry bones that Ezekiel has. This is clearly a use of the idea of the resurrection as a metaphor for the restoration of Israel. In Ezekiel 37 he talks about how he sees this vision of dry bones and then they are clothed with muscle and sinew and skin and are restored again. It is a description of physical resurrection, but here it is used as a metaphor for the restoration of the nation of Israel. This is how Israel will be restored. But nevertheless you are quite right in saying this shows that the belief in the resurrection of the dead and of the physical body was a Jewish belief that was held in Israel. So we could add Ezekiel 37 to Isaiah 26:19 and Daniel 12:2 as one of the explicit references to resurrection of the body in the Old Testament. But I didn’t mention Ezekiel 37 because it is used in a metaphorical sense there to talk about the restoration of Israel. Nevertheless, you are quite right in saying that this does show belief in the idea of resurrection from the dead.

What we will do next time is talk about immortality in the New Testament. We will look at the problem of what happens to a person when he dies. Does he go immediately to heaven or to hell? If so, then how do you make sense out of the resurrection of the dead when Christ returns if people are already in heaven or in hell. That is the problem we will sort out next time.[14]


[1] Edward J. Carnell, An Introduction to Christian Apologetics: A Philosophic Defense of the Trinitarian-Theistic Faith (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2007), pp. 23-24.

[2] J. G. S. S. Thomason, “Death and the State of the Soul After Death” in Contemporary Evangelical Thought Vol. 3: Basic Christian Doctrines [ed. Carl F. H. Henry] (Dallas, TX: Digital Publications, The Electronic Bible Society, 2002), p. 270.

[3] 5:01

[4] 10:03

[5] cf. Colossians 1:25-28

[6] 14:56

[7] 20:03

[8] Dr. Craig misspeaks and says “New” Testament here; he clearly meant to say “Old” Testament.

[9] 25:00

[10] Dr. Craig misspeaks and says “Pharisees” when he clearly meant to say “Sadducees.” It is the Sadducees whom Jesus is debating, and it is they who accept the authority of the Pentateuch (which is why Jesus is appealing to it).

[11] cf. 1 Corinthians 15:20

[12] 30:07

[13] 35:11

[14] Total Running Time: 37:57 (Copyright © 2014 William Lane Craig)