Friday, October 23, 2015

What Happens Immediately After People Die – Disembodied Existence

     This is the fifth and last post in my series and covers Disembodied Existence.
     This series covers five leading thoughts about what happens to us after death, Annihilation, Catholic Options, Soul Sleep, Instantaneous Resurrection (intermediate body), and Disembodied Existence. None of these postings is an exhaustive discussion but I want to see what the Bible has to say about each.
·         Disembodied Existence – this is the soul departing the body to go to paradise (believers) or Hades (unbelievers).[1]
     Millard Erickson has a problem with belief that we will have some sort of body in the intermediate state between death and the resurrection. His problems lie with (1) the difference between Gehenna and Hades in the New Testament. He contends that Hades is temporary and only ungodly souls go there without a body. Gehenna (hell) is the eternal place of punishment and the ungodly body and soul end up there. The souls of the righteous dead do not go to Hades but go paradise, and (2) Paul’s statement that being absent from the body is present with the Lord (2 Cor 5:1-10; Phil 1:19-26).[2] Just as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists founded their belief in soul sleep because they believed our being is a soul and body that can’t be separated, Erickson’s belief in a disembodied existence after death is greatly influenced by his contention that we are dualistic with a soul that can exist without our body.[3] This means that he interprets the verses noted above in this light rejecting any interpretation that would suggest otherwise. Let’s look at each of Erickson’s issues one at a time.
     What is the difference between Gehenna (translated hell) and Hades? Jesus said, “Whoever says, 'You fool,' shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell [Gehenna]” (Matt 5:22).[4] Jesus also said, “The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment … He cried out, ‘… I am in agony in this flame’” (Luke 16:22-25). I don’t know about you, but it is really difficult to see why one should be seen as a place where only the soul goes and the other where both body and soul go. It seems that if a person is disembodied, fiery hell would not be a punishment because it is the body that suffers. The soul is not material and would not have a problem in a physical hell. But Jesus also said, “But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell [Gehenna]” (Matt 10:28). Since the rich man had a body in Hades and God will cause both body and soul to perish in Gehenna, there is no reason to believe only souls go to Hades without a body.
     The early church believed that the souls of believers went to Sheol or Hades[5] but Jesus told the thief on the cross that he would be with him in paradise (Luke 23:43). Since this means a believer’s soul does not go to Hades upon death, it must go to heaven and therefore it is only his soul and not an intermediate body of any kind. That is faulty logic since there is no mention of soul or body. He also uses Acts 2:31 in support of the soul going to heaven.[6] “He, foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption. (NKJV). However, it must be noted that the word soul is not in the original Greek. The King James and New King James added the word soul. Even if the meaning is soul, then this is talking about Jesus and the implication is that his soul first went to Hades. This is a bad verse to use if one wants to convince me that my soul will go to paradise upon my death and not have a body of some kind.
     It is interesting that Erickson uses the same verses 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 to support his position that only the soul goes to heaven and there is no intermediate body as others use to support an intermediate body. The key verse is, “While we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord” (2 Cor 5:6). Yet this verse says nothing about what it will be like in heaven. It is talking about the physical earthly body. That body will certainly die and decay without any possibility of going to heaven. Yet in the context of, “We do not want to be unclothed but to be clothed” (2 Cor 5:4), Paul speaks of death as putting on a new dwelling and this is before the resurrection. In the same way, Philippians 1:19-26 doesn’t shed any light on whether or not we will be disembodied in heaven. While Paul does say, “Having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake” (Phil 1:23-24), this does not rule out a spiritual body in heaven. It simply confirms that our current physical body will not exist in heaven.
     Putting aside Erickson’s arguments, another issue is Paul’s repeated explanations of our resurrection. The strongest argument for a disembodied existence after death for either believers or the wicked is 1 Corinthians 15:35-57. Paul elaborately speaks of the resurrected body and what it will be like and what it will not be like. Key verses for disembodiment is, “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (1 Cor 15:50). Also, “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” (1 Cor 15:52) establishes that this will occur at one time for all the dead and those who are still alive. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 also supports this position.
     The problem then, is how can we reconcile these verses with the ones used to support an intermediate body in heaven. One way was to say that Paul changed his mind from a disembodied existence supported by Rabbinical Judaism, (1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians) to an instantaneous heavenly body upon his death.[7] I don’t like this reasoning at all. It removes the Holy Spirit from the equation of inspired Scripture and places it in the hands of the human author, Paul. No, Paul didn’t change his mind, but the Holy Spirit could have revealed more to him.
     The better reconciliation is that an intermediate body after death has always been what these Scriptures teach. Paul was talking about different subjects at different times. For believers, 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians were taking about the resurrection when Jesus returns, not the time in between death and his return. Even 1 Thessalonians 4:14 suggest that we will have bodies in heaven as Jesus brings us back with him. 2 Corinthians was talking about what happens immediately after death. Luke 16 explains what happens to the ungodly after death and Revelation 20 tells about their resurrection and eternity. Paul alluded to various bodies in 1 Corinthians 15:38-41 with four categories. There is no conflict with an intermediate body that is changed at the general resurrection to the eternal body that is promised.
     My conclusion is that the disembodied state is less accurate than an intermediate body immediately after death. For those who know Jesus, it is with great expectation that we can look forward to some sort of heavenly body after death and be with Jesus. For those who do not know Jesus, there remains the physical suffering and torment between their death and final judgment, which will continue their agony forever. This makes it all the more important to turn to Jesus for salvation before it is too late.



[1] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3 ed. (Grand Rapids, USA.: Baker Academic, 2013), 1084, Kindle.
[2] Ibid., 1084-5.
[3] Ibid., 478-80.
[4] Scripture in this post will use the New American Standard Bible Update (NASU 1995) unless otherwise noted.
[5] Erickson, 1085.
[6] Ibid.
[7] W. D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism: Some Rabbinic Elements in Pauline Theology (London: SPCK, 1970), 317-18 in Erickson, 1085.

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