The Sting of Death - Part 1

As Believers in Y'shua HaMashiach (Yeh-shoo'-ah Hah Mah-shee'ackh = Jesus the Messiah) we accept the Holy Scriptures, both Hebrew and Greek (Old and New Testaments) as the revealed word of God. Therefore, we look to the Scriptures for the basis of our beliefs, rather than to the testimony of others, no matter how credible that testimony may seem to be, for we believe, as it is written that:

"All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work." (II Tim. 3:16-17)

Armed with this understanding, knowing that the Scriptures contain the answers to our deepest and most intimate questions about life and death, let us first explore the realm of death; then in the following chapter, The Hope of the Resurrection, we will continue with a look at how death can be overcome.

~ Death, the Nemesis of Life ~

There are many mysteries inherent to human life. None of us asked to be born, but we were, and we had no control over who our parents would be, or what might be the circumstances of our life. Some of us were born to poverty, others to riches, while most were born to an existence somewhere in between. Our gender, race, and the social status of our families at our birth were all totally out of our control. For most people, their religion has also been directly related to where, and to whom they were born and unless they have had a personal encounter with their Creator and/or Savior, as did Shaul (Shah-ool = Saul) on the road to Damascus, most people tend to believe much the same as their parents or the society around them.

Yet, almost all people, no matter what their religion, would probably agree that death is the cessation of physical life and therefore an enemy to our physical existence. For this reason death is fought, delayed and even cheated, if possible. But eventually death always wins, for as it is written:

"To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven: A time to be born, And a time to die;" (Eccl. 3:1-2a)

~ Three Views of the State of the Dead ~

Before proceeding, it is important to understand the various theories concerning the state of the dead. We can then compare these with what the scriptures tell us about what actually constitutes death. Within each of these three beliefs there are certain variations, depending upon the understanding of the particular sects (churches) which hold them. All three of these beliefs find adherents in both modern Judaism and Christianity. We will cover them briefly and then focus in on the Scriptural view point.

* Cessation of Life *

As was already mentioned, death can be defined as the cessation of physical life. Breathing stops, the blood which carries the necessary oxygen and nutrients throughout the body ceases to flow, and the physical body dies. This is true for humans and animals alike. This observation was made by King Solomon, when he wrote the Book of Ecclesiastes under the pseudonym of "the  preacher:"

"I said in my heart, 'Concerning the estate of the sons of men, God tests them, that they may see that they themselves are like beasts.' "For what happens to the sons of men also happens to beasts; one thing befalls them: as one dies, so dies the other. Surely, they all have one breath; man has no advantage over beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to dust." (Eccl. 3:18-20)

This point of view squares with what HaShem (Hah-Shem' = the Name or YHVH) told Adam on the day of sin when he and his wife Chava (Hah'-vah = Eve) ate of the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

"'Cursed is the ground for your sake; In toil you shall eat of it All the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, And you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread Till you return to the ground, For out of it you were taken; For dust you are, And to dust you shall return.'" (Gen. 3:17b-19)

This seems to be a rather dismal assessment of the state of human life. Man is born, man lives, man dies, just like an animal. Man was formed from the dust of the earth, and he returns to that state after death. It is precisely because of this point of view that "the Preacher" opens the book of Ecclesiastes with these words:

"'Vanity of vanities,' says the Preacher; 'Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.' What profit has a man from all his labor In which he toils under the sun? One generation passes away, and another generation comes; But the earth abides forever." (Eccl. 1:2-4)

This view is held by many people, especially those who do not have strong religious convictions. Man is born, he lives his life for better or for worse, and then he dies and that is that. No afterlife, no resurrection, no immortal soul. No conscious life once this physical one is finished. People with this view claim that if man has any immortality whatsoever, it is in the work they do, or the legacy they leave through their children, or in the organic material from their bodies that goes back to the soil to fertilize the growth of other life forms on the earth.

Yet, despite all of this talk about the vanity of life, the Preacher does seem to understand that there must be more to life than just being born, living a human life, and dying, for when he comes to the very end of the book of Ecclesiastes he indicates that something yet lies ahead other than complete oblivion:

"Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, For this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every work into judgment, Including every secret thing, Whether it is good or whether it is evil." (Eccl. 12:13-14)

The Preacher does not seem to understand exactly how this future judgment of human works will take place, but his statement does imply that the dead will somehow know the outcome. If this were not so, there would be no point in having a post life judgment. The Preacher also questions the possibility that an afterlife might be in store for humans when he speculates:

"Who knows if a man's lifebreath does rise upward and if a beast's breath does sink down into the earth?" (Eccl. 3:21 Tanakh)

The Preacher would like to think that such is the case, but he just does not know and is not afraid to admit his ignorance; a refreshing position for a "Preacher" to take.

* The Immortality of the Soul *

Probably the most common afterlife belief found among both Christians and Jews, is in the Immortality of the Soul. In this belief system the body and the soul are considered to be two separate entities which have been joined together at birth. Thus, the physical body becomes merely a 'shell' or 'husk' which is used as a temporary abode for the soul, which is said to be immortal and composed, not of flesh and blood, but of some nonphysical essence. At death, it is believed that the 'immortal' soul separates from the body and returns to one of three places, determined either by the person's works or their acceptance/rejection of Christ:

Of course there are other variations to the scenarios given here, but in general at least the first two points of this doctrine are believed by the vast majority of today's Christians and Jews.

It is important to note that the concept of the Immortality of the Soul was in existence long before our Savior, Y'shua HaMashiach, walked the earth in the first century CE. It was a common belief among some of the Jews of Y'shua's day, especially among those who had come under the influence of the Greek culture, called 'Hellenism.' This should come as no surprise, since the origin of the doctrine of the Immortality of the Soul is admitted by all knowledgeable religious teachers as coming from Greek philosophy. It is interesting to note, however, that the sect of the Essenes (who were anti-Hellenistic to the extreme) also believed in the doctrine of the Immortality of the Soul.

Probably the earliest, and most complete, treatise on the Immortality of the Soul comes from the famous Greek philosopher,  Plato. Plato was born (c. 428 BCE) in Athens, Greece, to a distinguished family. He was greatly influenced by an older philosopher named Socrates, and was probably in his twenties when  Socrates was brought to trial on a charge of impiety, and for corrupting the youth of Athens by questioning authority. He was found guilty and given a death sentence. Socrates' execution was self inflicted when he drank a tea made from hemlock, an extremely poisonous plant. He is said to have taken the poison willingly because he felt that it would release his 'soul' from his physical body and he would then be free to join the great philosophic 'mind' that exists eternally in the spiritual realm. Socrates' death is described in detail in Plato's Phaedo, one of the most famous stories in all of ancient literature.

Another Greek philosopher who believed in the Immortality of the Soul was Aristotle (c.384-322 BCE - his life also overlapping that of Plato). Aristotle believed that what lived on after death was the 'intellect' of the individual, and at death the 'intellect' departed to join the 'universal intellect' where it was 'illuminated' for all eternity. Aristotle not only taught that man had an immortal soul, but that animals, and even plants, did also. The Catholic Encyclopedic Dictionary, under the entry entitled Soul, concurs with Aristotle's position:

"As defined by the Schoolmen, following Aristotle, it [the soul]  is the primary principle of life. Thus plants are said to have a vegetative soul, animals a sensitive soul, man a rational soul. In man, the soul is the principle of all his vegetative (growth, etc.) sensitive (feeling) and rational (thinking, willing) activity. "The human soul is said to be the substantial form of the body indicating the intimate union of soul and body that constitutes one human nature.  Vegetative, sensitive and rational souls are simple, i.e., have no parts. But vegetative and sensitive souls can only exist and operate independently of the body; in other words the human soul is spiritual. From the spirituality of the human soul is deduced its  immortality." (p. 179)

In the Jewish world, Philo of Alexandria, Egypt (c. 20 BCE to 50 CE), a contemporary of Y'shua, is perhaps the leading proponent of the doctrine of the Immortality of the Soul. However, his teachings are thought to have been unknown in Judea and the Galilee during his lifetime and, therefore, Philo's influence was not felt much within the Jewish world until later.

However, there were other writings that existed during that time, with which Jews of Y'shua's day would likely have been familiar. Many of these writings taught the Immortality of the Soul and are primarily found in the Apocrypha (spiritual books which were not canonized as Scripture) and the Pseudopigraphy (books written by unknown individuals who used the name of a famous figure from Scripture such as Adam or Abraham.) Following is an excerpt from one of these writings called The Wisdom of Solomon:

"But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seem to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, and their going from us to be their destruction, but they are at peace."  (Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-3)

The Christian world, like the Jewish world, acquired the doctrine of the Immortality of the Soul from Greek philosophy. Today the vast majority of Christian faiths proclaim the Immortality of the Soul as a primary doctrine, and because of mainstream Christianity's acceptance of this doctrine, it has become the predominant belief in all Western thought. In addition, most Christians also incorporate the resurrection of the body as a part of their doctrine, saying that the immortal soul is reunited with the body at the time of resurrection. However, as we will come to see, the Immortality of the Soul and bodily resurrection are basically incompatible concepts.

While the doctrine of the Immortality of the Soul is very comforting to those who believe they are going to be among the 'righteous' (for it offers the individual an afterlife that begins immediately upon death), it has no factual basis in the Scriptures. Nowhere in the Scriptures is the term 'immortal soul' found, and nowhere in the Scriptures is this concept put forth in any recognizable manner. On the contrary, the Scriptures, both Hebrew and Greek, speak of resurrection as being our hope for the future. Resurrection does not make sense if one's 'soul' is permanently alive and conscious in heaven, hell or purgatory. If such were the case, a resurrection would not be needed, for the individual would still be alive.

* Reincarnation *

A variation on the doctrine of the Immortality of the Soul, is a belief in reincarnation. In this concept once the 'soul' is released from the physical body at death it then reenters another living entity. Again, there are variations in belief as to how this takes place. Some believe that the 'soul' can only move into another human body, while others hold that the 'soul' can enter any type of living creature including plants. In English there are three different terms used for this 'process:' reincarnation, transmigration of souls, and metempsychosis.

In the doctrine of reincarnation it is held that  souls' can exist entirely apart from any physical creature. In other words, 'souls' are thought to have an independent existence, with all of the 'souls' having existed prior to being joined with a human body. It is unclear where or when they originated.

The supposed purpose of reincarnation is the perfecting of the 'soul.' The individual 'soul' has to keep returning to earth, within various life forms, until it is 'perfected.' Once this perfection has taken place the 'soul' is 'reunited' with a resurrected body for eternity. Exactly which of its many bodies it is permanently reunited with is also  unclear.

Although the doctrine of reincarnation has close ties with ancient pagan beliefs, it is still accepted by a few Christian sects and at least some Jewish mystics. It fits in closely with modern 'new age' teachings.

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