Part 1- Popular Erroneous Views
“Eternity is very long, especially toward the end.” Woody Allen
One of my favorite movies is the 1982 Sci-fi classic Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott. It is the story of a man (Harrison Ford) in a future world whose occupation was seeking out and killing escaped “replicants.” Replicants were synthetic adult humanoid beings manufactured to be slaves for real humans. Actually, the replicants were practically human in every way and were even programmed with implanted false memories. However, they all had a sort of built in “expiration date” of only four years before they died. Occasionally some of them would escape, so licensed bounty hunters called Blade Runners would have to “retire” them early.
The story is exciting as an action film, but the plot runs deeper as it takes on questions of what is human, what is the meaning of life, and how do we (replicants and humans) face the inevitability of death. What happens when we face that final moment, as does one of the rogue replicants (Rutger Hauer) when he realizes it is his “time to die?” The question we all ask is, “What, if anything, happens next?”
In my next four articles we will examine biblically the issue “Life After Death: What Will It Be Like?” Our first installment deals with some of the more popular, but erroneous, views about this issue. The second will address the biblical teaching about what happens at the time of physical death. The third installment will examine the biblical teaching on the eternal destiny of the believer. The forth, in contrast, will focus on what the Bible says about the destiny of the unbeliever.
Popular Erroneous Views
People come to the question of life after death with all kinds of preconceptions of what it will be like. Unfortunately, most, including many identifying themselves as Christians, have serious questions as to whether or not the Bible is correct on the matter. People obtain these views from their family, religion, and even popular culture. Here is a short list of some of the more common erroneous views about life after death.
1. Total Annihilation
The annihilationist view says simply that there is no life after death. It assumes, with total resignation, that physical death is the end of conscious existence. When the body dies, so they say, and the brain ceases to function, then all conscious being is gone. All is total oblivion. This is the primary perspective of those holding a naturalistic worldview. The assumption is that human consciousness and the illusion of free will are only the temporal experiential results of the biochemical and electrochemical processes of the brain. When those processes cease, then the experiential results will cease as well. And that’s that.
Most people holding a Far Eastern worldview assume that people’s conscious spirits are immortal. So, they reason, that following physical death they are reborn into new physical bodies. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism are three ancient religions that have reincarnation as primary tenets. Other modern movements have adopted this perspective including many of the New Age movements and Scientology.
Those who hold this view actually can give no objective evidence, either scientific or historical, that it is valid. It is entirely a faith perspective, yet millions around the world, and even in America, believe it is the absolute truth.
Spiritism, also known as Spiritualism and Necromancy, is the belief that when people die physically their immortal spirits go to a disembodied spirit world. These spirits, so they say, may be contacted by the living through specially gifted individuals called mediums. Mediums have the ability to cross through the veil of death to communicate with those who have passed on to the other side. Many Spiritists also affirm some concept of reincarnation.
This belief was, at one time, very popular in the United States. In the 19th century, many professional mediums traveled the country publically demonstrating their techniques for communicating with the dead. Thousands of audiences and clients paid them big sums to contact their dead loved ones. Eventually the fad died down when the methods were proven to be false by debunkers, including the world renowned illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini (1874 – 1926).
Still, today millions of people believe and practice Spiritism. Several religious organizations are dedicated to its promotion including the National Spiritualist Association of Churches, the National Spiritual Alliance, and the United Spiritualist Church Association.
The Bible is quite clear about God’s condemnation of occult practices, especially spiritism or necromancy (see Leviticus 19:31; 20:6, 27; Deuteronomy 18:9-22; I Samuel 28; I Chronicles 10:13, 14; Isaiah 8:19; 19:3; 2 Kings 23:24; Acts 8:9-24; 13:5-12; 19:19-20). Christians should never even dabble in these dark practices.
4. “It’s a Wonderful Life”
Another of my favorite films was Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. You probably know the story of George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) who, after falling on hard times, decides it would have been better if he had never been born. So heaven sends an angel named Clarence Oddbody to rescue him and teach him a great lesson about life. It is a nice plot except for one problem; according to the story, the angel, Clarence, had at one time been a man who died years earlier. He was now working on earning his wings to become an “Angel First Class.”
It is a common misconception, even by some Christians, that when good people die they become angels in heaven. Some religious groups, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), actually teach this doctrine. They assert that humans, angels, and even God the Heavenly Father, are all of the same species.
The Bible, however, gives no indication that this is the case. People do not become angels. According to Scripture, angels are angels and humans are humans. At times, angels may communicate with humans or intervene in human affairs, but they are an entirely different order of existence.
5. Conditional Immortality
Another widely held view of life after death is called conditional immortality. This view maintains that humans are not naturally immortal and don’t even have immortal souls. So, say those holding this perspective, when people die they wait in the grave in an unconscious state until a physical resurrection at the end of time. This view is has been held by many Christians historically, and is sometimes called “Soul Sleep.” It is the official doctrine of some major groups like the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the Advent Christian Church, whose statement of faith reads:
We believe that death is a condition of unconsciousness to all persons, righteous and wicked; a condition which will remain unchanged until the resurrection at Christ’s Second Coming, at which time the righteous will receive everlasting life while the wicked will be “punished with everlasting destruction;” suffering complete extinction of being. (emphasis in original) (www.adventchristian.org)
This is also the official doctrinal stance of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They like to quote certain passages out of context that they argue teach this concept. One of their favorites is Ecclesiastes 9:5. The official Jehovah’s Witnesses Bible translation, The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures (NWT), translates that passage thus:
For the living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all, neither do they anymore have wages, because the remembrance of them has been forgotten. (emphasis mine)
The Jehovah’s Witnesses and others’ use of that passage as a proof-text for conditional immortality is problematic. The book of Ecclesiastes was written to portray the meaninglessness and cynicism of life without God. At that point in biblical history, the full doctrinal scope of life after death had not been revealed. Therefore, an obscure passage like that above should never be taken as a basis for a theological position on an issue as crucial as death. We must always interpret such passages in light of clearer biblical statements, especially in the New Testament.
So these are a few of the common erroneous ideas about life after death. In the next installment, we will examine key Bible passages that provide a clear understanding of what really happens at death.
© 2012 Tal Davis