Have you heard about the woman who saw a shoe on the ledge of a hospital when she was inside the hospital, around the corner from the ledge? Not only that, she was dead at the time. This is according to Kimberly Clark Sharp, a hospital social worker who shared this account about a patient named Maria several years ago at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

A Popular NDE Example

I’ve heard this near-death experience (NDE) account a few times. Recently, I heard it from Gary Habermas in an episode of the Discovery Institute’s podcast Intelligent Design the Future. Andrew McDiarmid interviewed Habermas about the scientific evidence for NDEs in connection to the release of the documentary After Death. I’m familiar with much of Habermas’s research on the evidence for the death and resurrection of Jesus and recommend that you check it out — as well as the ID the Future podcast (I’m a big fan of the Discovery Institute).

Gary Habermas included the NDE about the shoe on the ledge in an essay he wrote in 1996 titled “Near Death Experiences and the Evidence.” In that essay, he stated that “the question of external evidence for NDEs is crucial to any conclusions regarding their being evidence for an afterlife.” So, he believes that NDEs can provide evidence of an afterlife. In other words, NDEs indicate that, when you die, you don’t really die; you go on living in some other place, some other form, or both.

Notice that, in his essay, Gary Habermas specified “external evidence for NDEs.” I think that goes along with something he said in the podcast interview — specifically, that he trusts only what he can verify. He said that, for example, he can’t verify claims that people talked to Jesus during an NDE. So, he’s looking for external, verifiable evidence. That’s why he’s interested in Kimberly Clark Sharp’s account of the shoe on the ledge that Maria says she saw.

What Kimberly Clark Sharp Says Maria Saw

Maria was a heart attack victim who was being treated at the hospital where Kimberly Clark Sharp worked. Sharp wrote an article published in the Summer 2007 edition of the Journal of Near-Death Studies titled “The Other Shoe Drops: Commentary on ‘Does Paranormal Perception Occur in Near-Death Experiences?’” In her article, Sharp recounted that Maria “observed a number of scenes during her resuscitation.” Sharp called it “an out-of-body experience while flatlining.”

The scene that stands out most to Sharp, Habermas, and others is the shoe on the ledge. Maria describes, in detail, a worn blue tennis shoe she saw on a ledge of the hospital. Sharp said she looked for the shoe and eventually found it in a place that Maria couldn’t have seen from where she was inside the hospital. Here’s something Habermas wrote about this incident in his essay: “It would certainly seem that the remote viewing of an object during an NDE is the explanation that best accounts for the data.”

Did Maria Really Die?

Let’s recall how Kimberly Clark Sharp described Maria’s experience:

  • Maria “observed a number of scenes during her resuscitation.”
  • “an out-of-body experience while flatlining”

Let’s consider the possibilities:

  1. Maria’s experience occurred before she flatlined or after she was resuscitated (perhaps even during her resuscitation as her heart and brain became more active).
  2. Maria’s experience occurred immediately after she flatlined — when she was clinically dead.
  3. Maria’s experience occurred when she was biologically dead (beyond clinical death), and then God miraculously raised her back to life.

Possibilities 1 and 2 best fit Kimberly Clark Sharp’s description: “during her resuscitation” and “while flatlining.” These scenarios do not imply an afterlife. It’s understood that a person can remain conscious for a maximum of 20 seconds after the heart stops beating. There’s evidence that something extraordinary happens in our brains when we’re near death and even shortly after clinical death. Then, consciousness and brain activity cease as the person undergoes biological death.

The evidence points to Maria being, at most, clinically dead and not beyond the reach of medical intervention. It would seem that, if Sharp, Habermas, and others believed Maria to be biologically dead at the time of her experience, they would at least mention — if not downright glory in — the supernatural and divine raising of this dead woman back to life. That’s especially true for Habermas, whose primary field of study is the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Perhaps I’ve missed it, but I don’t hear people talking about resurrection in connection with this story. To me, that implies that they believe Maria was at most clinically dead. Therefore, her experience tells us nothing about an afterlife.

The Shoe on the Ledge

So, we don’t have evidence that Maria was beyond consciousness. But, we still have the issue of the shoe on the ledge. Even if she were fully alive, how could she see something on an outside ledge around the corner when she was inside a hospital room? Recall how Gary Habermas described it: “It would certainly seem that the remote viewing of an object during an NDE is the explanation that best accounts for the data.”

Unlike brain activity around the point of clinical death, remote viewing doesn’t have scientific support; it’s considered pseudoscience. So, how do we explain Kimberly Clark Sharp’s claim that Maria saw the shoe on the ledge? Again, let’s consider the possibilities:

  1. It’s a coincidence.
  2. Sharp was not being fully truthful.
  3. God provided Maria with a supernatural experience.
  4. The devil provided Maria with a supernatural experience.

Let’s look at each of those possibilities.

Possibility #1

The first possibility is that it’s a coincidence. This isn’t likely, considering the details Maria provided about the shoe on the ledge.

Possibility #2

The second possibility regarding the shoe on the ledge is that Kimberly Clark Sharp was not being fully truthful. I’m not aware of any corroboration of her story. That doesn’t mean there isn’t corroboration; I’m just not aware of any. Also, she admitted to lying about one aspect of the account.

An Admitted Untruth

In Sharp’s article, she talked about two young men from a college in Canada who visited the hospital to learn more about Maria’s NDE. Sharp wrote, “I showed them from outside the building approximately where I had found the shoe because I could no longer remember which exact window it was. … They pushed me so hard for an exact location that I finally pointed to a window fourth over from the corner. Ironically, this location became my ‘truth,’ but it was a window I chose in order to end the boys’ discomforting persistence that I zero in on one specific spot.”

Carelessness with the Truth

I’m afraid this disqualifies Kimberly Clark Sharp as a reliable witness. If this were a court of law, that admission would damage her credibility and call everything she says into question. It reminds me of something I read about another NDE account in the book Waking Up in Heaven: A True Story of Brokenness, Heaven, and Life Again by Crystal McVea. McVea repeatedly tells people that she died and went to heaven. In her book, she wrote this:

“As long as your brain is still functioning, there’s a chance you can be pulled back from the brink. That’s what happened to me. … Still, I always tell people that I died and came back. … Hey, it’s easier to say I died than to start explaining patient-controlled analgesia and brain receptors.”

As I pointed out earlier, clinical death is a far cry from biological death. To quote one of my favorite movies, “There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.” Crystal McVea is not respecting that distinction.

Carelessness with the truth is a red flag, even if it seems harmless. If Kimberly Clark Sharp or Crystal McVea (or both) believe it’s okay to tell a so-called white lie because it’s easier, it’s conceivable they could believe it’s okay to tell a “white lie” because it gives people hope or comfort. So, it’s difficult to know what we can believe about their accounts. Also, these deceptions are not harmless ones.

I don’t expect Sharp or anyone else to be sinless or infallible, so I’m not saying that we shouldn’t listen to a word she says. But, I also can’t rule out the possibility that her account of Maria’s experience is inaccurate or untruthful to at least some degree.

Possibility #3

The third possibility regarding the shoe on the ledge is that God provided Maria with a supernatural experience. Now we’ve crossed a line from natural to supernatural explanations. This isn’t a problem for me, since I believe God is real. I believe there’s spirit as well as matter and that there are spiritual realms typically beyond our access. Supernatural experiences are indeed a thing. But, what exactly happened to Maria?

Frankly, it’s unclear to me. Kimberly Clark Sharp described Maria’s observation of the shoe on the ledge as “an out-of-body experience.” Gary Habermas described it as “the remote viewing of an object during an NDE.” Let’s test this against what the Bible teaches.

An Out-of-Body Experience?

It seems that Kimberly Clark Sharp believes that Maria could see the shoe on the ledge because she was — in some sense — above the hospital, looking down. Maria’s body was inside the hospital, so the implication is that some part or aspect of Maria was above the hospital and had some capacity to see.

The only passage I can think of that talks about someone being out of the body in any sense is 2 Corinthians 12. Paul wrote in verses 3 and 4, “A man — whether in the body or out of the body I cannot tell, God knows — was caught up into paradise and heard inexpressible words not permitted for a man to say.” The context isn’t death; it’s “visions and revelations” (verse 1). Paul referred to a revelation from God that could have been a physical or mental experience.

Consider these representative examples from the Bible. Elijah went to heaven physically — bodily (see 2 Kings 2:11). God gave John a mental vision of heaven (see Revelation 1). These are the two categories of experiences: physical and mental. If “out-of-body experience” means “mental experience,” that’s consistent with what the Bible teaches. While it would be an odd and misleading way to express it, that concept is biblical. But, if “out-of-body experience” means that some part or aspect of you — the soul, apparently — leaves your body, you’ve created a category not found in God’s word.

The Bible teaches that we’re created with bodies (see Genesis 2:7) and that the repentant will live out eternity with incorruptible bodies (see 1 Corinthians 15). It doesn’t describe a disembodied existence, temporary or otherwise. So, there’s no reason to believe that Paul was talking about an out-of-body experience in 2 Corinthians 12. The best explanation is that he didn’t know whether the vision involved a physical experience or just a mental one. Powerful mental experiences can seem real.

Remote Viewing?

I’m not sure why Gary Habermas uses the term “remote viewing” to describe Maria’s experience. It’s a term of pseudoscience, not science or the Bible. Perhaps he prefers this term to “out-of-body experience,” which I just addressed. Maybe he sees remote viewing as the equivalent of visions and dreams that the Bible records. If so, it’s curious that he uses a pseudoscience term rather than a biblical one.

So, I’m not sure how to address this other than to say that neither science nor the Bible supports remote viewing as a valid experience.

What Would the Purpose Be?

When God provides people with supernatural experiences, He does so with a purpose. God gave Pharaoh a dream about seven fat cows and seven skinny cows, and then He used Joseph to explain the dream, warning that Egypt would go through seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine. With this knowledge, Egypt was able to get through a seven-year famine and not have its population wiped out.

God gave visions to Daniel and John that were rich with imagery and symbolism, and He helped them understand what the visions tell us about the future that’s important for us to know.

God used a dream to warn Joseph (Jesus’ father) that he needed to take his family to Egypt because Herod had ordered the killing of all the male children in the Bethlehem area under two years old.

These instances are representative of how God provides supernatural experiences to people. I struggle to understand how seeing a shoe on a ledge fits this pattern. This incident happened decades ago, and there’s still no significance attached to Maria’s observation of the shoe other than it being evidence of an afterlife. However, the evidence does not suggest that Maria was biologically dead. It’s not evidence of an afterlife.

Maybe the significance is simply that it’s evidence of the supernatural. But, that would be an odd way for God to reveal Himself. It doesn’t fit the pattern that we see in the Bible.

Possibility #4

Just because an experience is supernatural, it doesn’t mean that it’s from God. The Bible is clear about this. So, it’s possible that the devil provided Maria with a supernatural experience. But, as far as I’m aware, neither Kimberly Clark Sharp nor Gary Habermas presents this as a possibility. That’s a serious oversight.

The Bible warns us about “false and deceptive visions” (Lamentations 2:14) and says that “false christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:24).

While I can’t say for sure that the shoe on the ledge experience is from the devil, I can’t rule out that possibility. He would certainly benefit from people believing nonbiblical ideas and trusting their experience over God’s word.

Wrapping Up

NDE proponents like to use Kimberly Clark Sharp’s account and similar incidents to illustrate that the supernatural is real and death is not the end. But, we can’t be so eager to communicate a message of hope that we latch on to exciting anecdotes that might lead us down a dangerous path. We must examine them closely, ask the tough questions, and hold them up to what God’s word tells us.

The After Death film comes out this week, and many people are already talking about it. This article isn’t an After Death film review in the sense of being an evaluation of its cinematic aspects. I’m commenting on the stories from the film as well as its general topic: “Scientists, authors, and survivors of near-death experiences discuss the spiritual and scientific dimensions of mortality and the afterlife.”

The film isn’t even out yet, so I haven’t seen it. But, I did watch a “preview” video that features “the world’s foremost experts on near-death experiences” (NDEs) whose stories are told in After Death. I’ll review what the video relays, as it offers a sampling of the film. I’m familiar with many NDE stories, including two featured in the film, as I’ve read Don Piper’s and Mary C. Neal’s books.

Reviewing the Film’s Storytellers

First, I want to say that I believe all of these people are sincere in their experiences, in their motivations, and in their walk with God. I have no reason to believe that they’re just making stuff up. I have no reason to doubt their love for God and desire to honor Him.

As I watched the video about the After Death film, the enthusiasm for witnessing and evangelism touched me. Each storyteller believes that his or her experience can positively inform and encourage people about the love and hope that God provides.

Reviewing the Film’s Stories

Next, I want to review the film’s stories and NDEs in general. To evaluate them and determine their truth, we should wrestle with several questions:

  • What are we actually talking about? NDEs or ADEs?
  • What does the Bible say about the state of being dead?
  • Are after-death experiences in the Bible?
  • Are literal NDEs possible?
  • What’s the source of literal NDEs?
  • What are your paradigms?
  • Is the Bible sufficient?

Let’s take a look at each question.

What Are We Actually Talking About? NDEs or ADEs?

The term “near-death experience” implies that the person is near death, not that they’re dead. That difference is huge. The people featured in the After Death film use the terms “near-death experience” and “NDE” to refer to their own experiences, but they all said they had these experiences when they were dead. Then, they say, they came back to life. So, it seems that “NDE” is a misnomer for their experiences.

This could just be an insignificant matter of semantics. But, the difference between “near death” and “dead” is significant both biblically and scientifically.

What Does the Bible Say about the State of Being Dead?

The Bible likens death to sleep. It records zero experiences that people had when they were dead. Instead, it teaches that nothing is going on for people who are dead:

  • “In death there is no remembrance of You; in Sheol [the grave] who will give You thanks?” (Psalm 6:5)
  • “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust give You thanks? Will it declare Your truth?” (Psalm 30:9)
  • “The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any who go down into silence.” (Psalm 115:17)
  • “His breath leaves him, and he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.” (Psalm 146:4)
  • “The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing.” (Ecclesiastes 9:5)

Don Piper believes that, in heaven, he saw people who had preceded him in death. He and other After Death film storytellers talk about worshipping God in heaven when they were dead. In stark contrast, the Bible talks about death as a silent, unconscious state. (The dictionary defines unconsciousness as “lacking awareness and the capacity for sensory perception as if asleep or dead.”)

Are After-Death Experiences in the Bible?

Does the Bible include any accounts of after-death experiences? I can think of two occasions that might look as though they fit into this category. So, let’s take a close look at them.

Moses after Death

“Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab” (Deuteronomy 34:5). “Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John and led them up a high mountain. … There appeared to them Elijah with Moses. And they were talking with Jesus” (Mark 9:2,4).

Was Moses having an after-death experience? Jude 1:9 sheds light on the matter with this one-of-a-kind account: “Michael the archangel, when contending with the devil in a dispute about the body of Moses, did not dare to pronounce upon him a railing judgment.” It’s also helpful that, in the account of Jesus’s transfiguration, Moses appears with Elijah, whom we know to be alive and in heaven (“Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven” [2 Kings 2:11]). Both men appeared to be in the same state.

Based on what we know about Moses’s experience and the state of death, the best explanation is that God raised Moses and took him to heaven. So, Moses appeared after he had died and was resurrected, but not when he was dead. It’s also notable that he wasn’t a disembodied spirit or soul.

Samuel after Death?

King Saul believed that Samuel prophesied to him when Samuel was dead. Here’s one of the problems with that: “Saul inquired of the Lord, but the Lord did not answer him by dreams, or by lots, or by prophets. Then said Saul to his servants, ‘Seek for me a woman who is a medium, that I may go to her and inquire of her’ (1 Samuel 28:6-7).

If anyone prophesied to Saul, it wasn’t God; it was the devil. That’s why God prohibited people from consulting mediums (see Leviticus 19:31). Samuel died faithful to God, and the Hebrews 11 hall of faith includes him; surely, he wasn’t possessed by the devil after his death. So, this couldn’t have been Samuel.

Why Not Lazarus and Jesus?

The Bible records several resurrections; people died, and God raised them to life again. The deaths and resurrections we have the most information about are those of Lazarus and Jesus. The Bible says nothing about any experiences they had when they were dead.

It’s also notable that there’s no indication that Lazarus or Jesus went to heaven when they died. Jesus did not tell His disciples, “Our friend Lazarus has gone to heaven. But I am going that I may bring him back.” Instead, He said, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep. But I am going that I may awaken him from sleep” (John 11:11). After Jesus rose again, He said, “I have not yet ascended to My Father” (John 20:17). It would seem that, if Lazarus or Jesus had experienced anything at all when they were dead, the Bible would have a record of it. But, that’s not at all how the accounts go.

What about the Fabled Lazarus?

You might be thinking, What about the other Lazarus? Luke 16 records a parable that Jesus told about an unnamed rich man and a poor man named Lazarus. The story says that Lazarus died and “was carried by the angels to Abraham’s presence.” At a glance, it might seem that this teaches that people go to heaven and have experiences when they die. But, that’s not the best explanation for the story based on several reasons, including these:

  • This is a parable rather than a literal happening (it doesn’t even make sense as a literal happening).
  • The parable’s lesson is that financial status and salvation aren’t connected.
  • The death and hell elements of the story are completely inconsistent with the Bible’s teaching on those matters.

Are Literal NDEs Possible?

I hope it’s clear from what the Bible teaches that it’s impossible for people to experience anything when they’re dead. So, perhaps what the After Death film’s storytellers experienced occurred when they were only near death and not dead. In other words, the instances were actual near-death rather than after-death experiences. Now we’re getting closer to something supported by both science and the Bible.

It’s a well-established fact that people can be brought back from the brink of death, and recent science indicates that extraordinary things can occur in the mind when a person is dying. Consider this finding reported in a May 2023 Newsmax article titled “Science Detects ‘Surge of Consciousness’ at Death”: “We now have a pretty good handle for potentially explaining why you see a very bright light, why something is realer than real, why it is possible that somebody could be having an out-of-body experience, why somebody could see or think they saw their relatives, but it’s coming from their own memory.”

We all have information stored in our memory that we don’t recall; we don’t even know it’s there. So, it’s possible for people to have extraordinary cognitive experiences when they’re near death. That could explain at least some so-called NDEs. Based on what we know, we can’t assume that all NDEs are supernatural.

What’s the Source of NDEs?

That being said, some NDEs seem to include elements that are supernatural, such as information that couldn’t possibly come from someone’s memory. While we can’t assume that all NDEs are supernatural, some probably are. But, we can’t assume that all supernatural experiences are from God. The Bible records supernatural events (such as Saul and the medium) that are attributed to the devil rather than God. “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14).

The After Death film’s storytellers are eager to have us believe that they experienced something supernatural, but (at least in this interview) they don’t acknowledge the possibility that the devil rather than God could be behind their experiences. We must examine and understand all supernatural happenings, and it’s not safe to assume they’re all from God.

So, how can we know where supernatural experiences are coming from? Perhaps the best test is whether or not they’re consistent with what the Bible teaches. If they’re inconsistent with biblical teaching, they must be from the one who seeks to deceive us.

As I mentioned earlier, Don Piper said he saw people in heaven who had died. But, the Bible doesn’t teach that we go to heaven when we die. 1 Thessalonians 4 says that the dead in Christ and the redeemed who are alive when He returns will go to heaven together. Hebrews 11:39-40 says that the redeemed included in the hall of faith “did not receive the promise. For God provided something better for us, so that with us they would be made perfect.” This echoes the 1 Thessalonians passage, which says that all of the redeemed will receive eternal life (immortality) only when Jesus returns.

Next, let’s look at a few things that Dale Black (another man featured in the After Death film) said about death, based on his experience.

“I was a spirit. I had a soul.”

Black said he had this realization during his after-death experience. In contrast, the Bible says that “God is spirit” (John 4:24) and that human beings result from the combination of body and spirit: “The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). Body + spirit = soul. So, we aren’t spirits; we are enlivened by God’s spirit. We don’t have souls; we are souls. In the Bible, a soul is simply a living person.

“I used to live in that body.”

Here, Black seems to say that he was disembodied in his after-death experience; he said he saw his body when he looked down. As far as I’m aware, the only bit of scripture that might seem to mention a person without a body is 2 Corinthians 12, in which Paul wrote, “I knew a man in Christ over fourteen years ago — whether in the body or out of the body I cannot tell, God knows — such a one was caught up to the third heaven” (verses 2-3). However, the context isn’t death (either near death or after death); the context is “visions and revelations” (verse 1). Paul was writing about a vision or a revelation that God had given him.

Based on the context of the passage (and the teaching of the whole Bible), perhaps the best way to interpret this is that Paul didn’t know whether he was physically or mentally taken to heaven. Perhaps Paul figured that God could have taken him there bodily or simply in a vision. If that’s the case, it’s interesting that Paul couldn’t make that distinction, which would indicate how powerful the mental experience was; what seemed tangible could have been all in his mind.

“You’re already in eternity.”

Black also made this statement in the video interview. In contrast, 1 Corinthians 15:52-53 says that the redeemed “will put on immortality” “at the last trumpet” (when Jesus returns). Over and over, the Bible talks about eternal life as a contingent and future reality.

“Once the body had died, we were, as Dr. Mary [Neal] just said, not only alive but more alive. You will never die.”

Frankly, this one makes me shudder. Here’s why:

“The Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘ … You will surely die.’ … The serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die! For God knows that, on the day you eat of it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God'” (Genesis 2:17,3:4-5).

I’m afraid that what Dale Black and Mary Neal said sounds very much like the lie the devil told Eve. Now, I want to pause here and say that I have no reason to doubt that the After Death film storytellers are sincere Christian people. I think they would be horrified if they thought they were perpetuating the devil’s deception.

The doctrine of soul immortality has been in mainstream Christianity so long, most assume it must come from the Bible. Sadly, historians know more about this than many pastors do. The doctrine came into Christianity in the third and fourth centuries through theologians heavily influenced by Greek philosphers (especially Plato and Pythagoras). The Greeks got the teaching from Egyptian pagans. Keep tracing the concept of the immortal soul back in time, and you’ll end up at the tree of knowledge.

What Are Your Paradigms?

Our paradigms — our frameworks for understanding — are extraordinarily important. They contain lenses through which we see, and they entail premises upon which we build our beliefs. I see at least two paradigms at work here: (1) afterlife vs. death and resurrection, and (2) heaven and hell vs. life and death.

Afterlife vs. Death and Resurrection

The After Death film producers and storytellers appear to have an “immortal soul” paradigm. This paradigm says that, when you die, you don’t die; you go on living in some other place or form (or both). Maybe they don’t use the term “immortal soul,” and they might not believe that we always existed (only that we’ll never stop living once we’re alive). But, they use the term “afterlife,” which indicates that death is actually life. As Black put it, “You will never die.” Jason Pamer, one of the film’s producers, said that God “created the afterlife.”

But, as we’ve seen, the Bible doesn’t teach that there’s an afterlife. Instead, it tells us that the devil planted that idea in Eve’s head. While the Bible doesn’t teach that there’s life after death, it does teach that there’s life after resurrection. The afterlife is the devil’s paradigm; death and resurrection is God’s paradigm. 

Heaven and Hell vs. Life and Death

After Black said, “You will never die,” he went on to say, “The only question is where you will go when you die.” Notice how, in that paradigm, our eternal destiny is a matter of location. The implication is that we’ll go to heaven or hell.

The Bible talks an awful lot about our eternal destiny. But, do you know how many times it puts the concepts of heaven and hell together? About four. Do you know how many of those instances are in the context of our eternal destiny? Zero. No passage talks about “going to heaven or hell” when we die or any other time.

A few verses talk about Jesus taking the redeemed to heaven when He returns, and the Bible indicates that they’ll be there for a thousand years before going to the new earth where they’ll spend the remainder of eternity. Many verses talk about people going down to the grave when they die; sometimes the word is translated as “hell.” At times, the context is the second death (the wages of sin) rather than the first death.

So, I’m not saying that the Bible doesn’t talk about heaven and hell. What I’m saying is that it doesn’t talk about them together in the context of eternal destiny. Instead, it talks about life and death. Consider John 3:16 and Romans 6:23, perhaps two of the best-known texts about eternal destiny. These are just the tip of the iceberg. While you won’t find any heaven-and-hell passages about eternal destiny, you’ll find countless life-and-death passages about eternal destiny from Genesis to Revelation.

The devil’s paradigm is all about location: what matters is where you end up — heaven or hell. God’s paradigm is all about status: what matters is how you end up — alive or dead. Once I made this paradigm switch in my own mind, everything came into sharper focus and made far more sense.

Is the Bible Sufficient?

The After Death film producers and storytellers want to inform and comfort people about death and eternity. They’re putting their stories out there because they want to give people hope. I admire and share that desire. Mary C. Neal said, “My heart is for people who are still trying to figure out if there really is a spiritual world, and I can assure you there is.”

Again, I admire and appreciate her heart. But, we cannot and must not use unbiblical teachings in an attempt to inform and encourage others. I think again of the account of Lazarus’s death. When he died, Jesus didn’t try to comfort Lazarus’s sister Martha by saying, “Your brother is in a better place. He’s more alive than ever!” Instead, Jesus said, “‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to Him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day’” (John 11:24). If it were true that Lazarus had simply passed over into heaven, it seems that Jesus and Martha would at least mention it. Instead, their hope was in the resurrection at Jesus’s return.

My heart, too, is for people who are trying to figure out if there’s a God and if there’s hope for the future. But, I find sufficient knowledge and comfort in God’s word. I’ll take Paul’s advice, and leave you with 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18.

“The Lord Himself will descend from heaven. … And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we shall be forever with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.”

Some define hell as everlasting and utter separation from God. This certainly is supported biblically. However, many believe that people can be endlessly and utterly separated from God — Life Himself — and still be alive, experiencing unending suffering. How can someone be alive if they’re endlessly and completely separated from the Creator and Sustainer of all?

When people are alive, they’re connected to the Life Source; they have the breath of God in them. Even people who are far from God now are connected to Him enough to be alive; they’re still tethered to the Creator. God maintains that connection to give them an opportunity to choose Him. That opportunity spans their lifetime. When they die, their choice is sealed.

At the last judgment, God will honor each person’s choice and accordingly grant them either everlasting life or the second death (the death from which there’s no resurrection). After that point, there will be no life connection — not even a tether — for those who, in their lifetime, chose to stay in rebellion against God.

What would be the purpose of such a tether between the unrepentant and the Life Source? What would be the point of God keeping them alive? I can think of only one purpose: cruelty on the part of the One who is Love. That’s one of the many reasons why the notion of everlasting suffering in hell isn’t just unbiblical; it’s unthinkable.

“Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped” (Philippians 2:5-6).

But, Lucifer did. He said in his heart, “I will ascend into heaven. … I will be like the Most High” (Isaiah 14:13-14).

The first lie ever told is that God can’t be trusted because He’s withholding something that we deserve. Lucifer told himself this lie and believed it. Then, he told the second lie — wrapping it up in the first one — and got Adam and Eve to believe both of them:

“You surely will not die! For God knows that, on the day you eat of it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4-5).

Perhaps the most insightful definition of sin is missing out on what God has for us. As always, the devil flips that on its head and presents a counterfeit, aiming to convince us that we’re missing out if we choose to live God’s way.

The consequence of sin is the second death — the death from which there’s no resurrection. The devil tells us that, instead, sin is the ticket to real living. Only the repentant will inherit eternal life and experience the fullness of life that we can only imagine now. In a sense, the second death (hell) is the ultimate missing out. That’s the tragic irony of the two lies.

I’m listening to some lectures about the Bible. Here’s something that was said about digital information and, ultimately, about human beings:

“Messages do not require embodiment. They can exist in their own right. Software has no mass. Now, what does that mean? If time is a physical property and software has no mass, it has no time dimension. What that really means is, the real ‘you’ is eternal, whether you are saved or not. The issue is, where are you going to spend it?”

If I may, I’ll make the analogy abundantly clear:

Human beings do not require embodiment. We can exist in our own right. We have no mass. Thus, we have no time dimension. The real ‘us’ is eternal, whether or not we’re saved. The issue is where we’re going to spend eternity.

Is this biblical? Let’s take a look.

Spirit and Soul

Genesis 2:7 says this about human life:

“The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath (nᵊšāmâ) of life, and man became a living being (nep̄eš).”

I included the Hebrew words to show how the Bible makes an important distinction that I think is missing in the analogy. The word nᵊšāmâ is sometimes translated as “spirit.” The word nep̄eš is sometimes translated as “soul.” So, the text basically says this: When you add the spirit of life to a body, you get a soul. BODY + SPIRIT = SOUL.

According to the Bible, a soul is simply a living person who is a blend of body and spirit. Indeed, a soul depends on both body and spirit to exist. Without that combination, you have just a lifeless body and some breath. There’s no evidence that God created human beings to be independent of a body at any point.

I believe that it’s that breath (spirit) that’s a better fit for what was said in the lecture. Let’s take the analogy again. It connected digital information with human beings (which the Bible sometimes calls “souls”). This time, let’s connect the analogy with the spirit (breath) instead of the soul:

Spirit does not require embodiment. It exists in its own right. It has no mass. Thus, it has no time dimension. The real spirit is eternal, whether or not we’re saved. The issue is whether or not our bodies are made alive by the spirit.

Now, that’s biblical (and more sensical). The Bible describes the spirit as everlasting, in the sense of “without beginning or end.” But, here’s the thing. God is spirit. He alone has immortality. God is the breath of life. Living human beings are not the breath of life, the spirit. We aren’t spirit; we have spirit. Anyone is alive only because God’s spirit has been breathed into a body. That’s what Genesis 2:7 and other passages say.

Ecclesiastes 12:7 explains death, which is the reverse process:

“The dust returns to the earth where it was,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”

The spirit — God’s breath — returns to Him when we die. The spirit — God’s breath — cannot die. It’s the life force itself.

When the concepts of spirit and soul are conflated, the issue is confused. When you put “soul” where “spirit” belongs, it makes human beings immortal — a quality that belongs to God alone. It also upends the concept of death.

Heaven and Hell?

That brings me to the final point I quoted above: “The issue is, where are you going to spend [eternity]?”

In an “immortal soul” paradigm, location is all-important. Everything is about heaven or hell. It’s a common refrain. But, this paradigm isn’t biblical. I’ve already covered one point about that — God alone has immortality. Here’s another one: The Bible uses a “location paradigm” only a handful of times, and it’s always to express extremes (the highest place versus the lowest place) in order to express totality. Here’s one example, Job 11:8, which is representative of every instance that the Bible uses the words heaven and hell together:

“God’s wisdom is higher than heaven.
What can you do?
It is deeper than the depths of hell.
What can you know?”

The Bible’s “heaven and hell” paradigm is not related to being saved or lost. When it comes to being saved or lost, the Bible has a different paradigm: life and death. Forget the paradigm of “heaven and hell.” Embrace the paradigm of “life and death.” Everything will come into focus. You’ll see the thread through every page of the Bible.

The devil conspires to confuse the issue. He seeks to scare us into false belief or turn us off to God. He hopes to hijack what belongs only to God. In the devil’s paradigm, the issue is where we’re going to spend eternity: hell or heaven. In God’s paradigm, the issue is how we’re going to spend eternity: dead or alive.

I just finished reading the book 10 Mistakes People Make About Heaven, Hell, and the Afterlife by Mike Fabarez. Fabarez holds the popular view that hell is eternal conscious torment. He referenced Revelation 20:14 (“Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire”), saying that the last term the Bible uses for hell is “the lake of fire.” I was sorry that he didn’t continue to the rest of the verse, which truly contains the last term the Bible uses for hell: “This is the second death.”

Fabarez went on to say that “the lost will be consigned permanently, physically, and consciously to experience a kind of living that is described as death.” I had to read it again: “A kind of living that is described as death.” That is mighty strange.

This is why it’s important to understand what the Bible teaches about death if we are to understand what it teaches about hell. Hell is “the second death.” In fact, the Hebrew and Greek words that are sometimes translated as “hell” are sometimes translated as “grave.” According to the Bible, hell is the grave.

Just as the first death is nonexistence, the second death is nonexistence. It’s not “a kind of living.” That’s what the devil wants us to believe. As he told Eve, “You surely will not die! … Your eyes will be opened.” Only in that deceitful paradigm is death “a kind of living.”

Two Vastly Different Paradigms

It’s critical to understand the differences between the two worldviews. Let’s look at the distinctions in two important areas that relate to death and hell.

Spirit vs. Soul

  • Pagan paradigm: “You have a soul that is immortal.”
  • Biblical paradigm: “You are a soul that depends on the immortal spirit (breath) of God because God alone has immortality.” (See Genesis 2:7, and notice the Hebrew words.)

Eternal Status

  • Pagan paradigm: “What matters is where you spend eternity — hell or heaven.”
  • Biblical paradigm: “What matters is how you spend eternity — dead or alive.” (See John 3:16.)

Wrapping Up

All of that being said, I appreciate Fabarez’s sincere effort to understand and share what the Bible teaches. A love of truth is paramount, and I think he has that. None of us gets it all right. But, if we love truth more than we love our current beliefs, we’ll be fine.

You might want to read 10 Mistakes People Make About Heaven, Hell, and the Afterlife and decide for yourself. I’d like to hear your observations.

Most of us have wondered what hell is like. One of the best clues we have about the nature of hell is what happened with Jesus on the cross and in the grave.

Jesus laid down His life to atone for sin. He died to atone for sin. He went to the grave to atone for sin. With His death, He fully paid the wages of sin for those who trust Him with their salvation.

Those who do not trust Jesus with their salvation will pay the wages themselves. They will atone for their own sins. How? The same way Jesus did—by dying the second death. This is the death from which there’s no resurrection (unless you’re God—unless you are the life force yourself).

Jesus is not suffering eternal torment to atone for sin. Those who trust themselves for their own salvation will not suffer eternal torment to atone for their sin. They will go to the grave, as Jesus did. It’s no surprise, then, that the word usually translated as “hell” in English Bible translations means “grave.”

Hell Is the Grave

So, when we ask what hell is like, we ask what the grave is like—basically, what it’s like to be dead. After Jesus’ resurrection, He had no experience to report. After Lazarus’s resurrection, He had no experience to report. In the Bible, people whom God raised from the dead had nothing to report. God resurrected them from nothingness: “The dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5).

Just as God brought Adam into existence from nonexistence (Genesis 2:7), we return to nonexistence when we die (Ecclesiastes 12:7). That’s why the word usually translated as “hell” in English Bible translations means “grave.” That’s why the Bible refers to the destruction of the lost as “the second death” (Revelation 2:11, 20:6, 20:14, 21:8).

When we seek to understand what hell is like, we can take clues from Dante’s Inferno (still good for literary value), Far Side cartoons (still good for a laugh), or the Bible. (If you’re thinking that the story of the rich man and Lazarus is the model, please read this).

“It Is Finished”

It comes down to this: Why would the lost receive a different consequence for sin than Jesus did? Why would Jesus pay a different price for sin than the lost will? The old covenant atonement system required the death—not the eternal suffering—of an innocent lamb. The wages of sin is death.

Regarding Jesus’ atonement act, “it is finished” and complete. Regarding the atonement for the lost, it will be finished and complete. There will be an end to suffering. “’There shall be no more death.’ Neither shall there be any more sorrow nor crying nor pain” (Revelation 21:4).

The debate about what happens when we die essentially comes down to two opposing views: non-existence vs. a new form and/or place of existence. Either death is the cessation of life (and therefore existence), or death involves a journey to “the other side” or “a better place” where life goes on. Which is it? How can we know?

How Do We Know What’s True?

We can consult three sources as we seek to understand what happens when we die: scripture, experience, and observation. Let’s take a look at each.

The best source of information about what happens when we die is the Bible. That’s because it’s the Creator’s word that has been well-validated over the millennia. No other scripture passes the tests that the Bible passes when it comes to trustworthiness.

Experience and observation are helpful sources of information about what happens when we die only in this sense: They provide nothing substantive. Althought it records a few resurrections from the dead, the Bible records zero accounts of experiences people had while they were dead. Lazarus had no stories to tell (John 11-12). Jesus said only that He had not yet ascended to the Father (John 20:17).

(By the way, you might wonder about the Lazarus who features in the story Jesus told in Luke 16. Rather than a literal account, it’s a parable that Jesus told to teach the concept that your economic status doesn’t determine your salvation. Learn more about that story.)

To follow is a bit more on what the Bible says about the two schools of thought about what happens when we die.

What Happens When We Die: View #1

View #1 is non-existence—that death is the cessation of life. Here are just a couple of representative Bible texts that support this position:

  • “The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5).
  • “The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any who go down into silence” (Psalm 115:17).

According to the Bible, death is non-existence. Just as a body infused with God’s spirit (breath) comes into existence (Genesis 2:7), a person ceases to exist when God’s spirit (breath) leaves the body (Ecclesiastes 12:7).

The Bible uses the term “soul” to denote a living person (Genesis 2:7, 1 Peter 3:20, etc.). The concept of “soul” is completely distinct from “spirit,” which is the immortal breath of God or the life force (Genesis 2:7, Job 33:4, etc.). A person does not have a soul; a person is a soul. A soul is a combination of body and spirit; it depends on both to exist.

What Happens When We Die: View #2

View #2 about what happens when we die is a new form and/or place of existence—that death involves a journey to “the other side” or “a better place” where life goes on. Here’s what the Bible has to say on the matter:

“The serpent said to the woman, ‘You surely will not die! For God knows that, on the day you eat of it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God’“ (Genesis 3:4-5).

God had told Adam and Eve that they would die if they ate from the tree of knowledge (Genesis 2:17). In direct opposition to God’s word, the devil told Eve that she wouldn’t die. Instead, she would be elevated to a higher plane of existence.

View #2 is a lie perpetrated by the devil. In the third and fourth centuries, the lie entered mainstream Christian theology by way of Greek philosophers who adopted the idea from Egyptian pagans. Here’s what a few historians have to say on the matter:

  • “The notion of the soul going to heaven when you die and the body being left behind on earth: That’s a notion that is widespread in the Christian tradition nowadays. It comes from Plato, and I worry that there’s a spirituality attached to that, which is specifically Platonic and not Christian” (Phillip Cary, Philosophy and Religion in the West).
  • “Many early Christians had a deep respect for Pythagoras. … Jerome (c. 347 – 420) praises Pythagoras … and credits Pythagoras for his belief in the immortality of the soul, which he suggests Christians inherited from him. … Pythagoras studied with the Egyptian priests at Thebes” (”Pythagoras,” Wikipedia).
  • Some ancient writers claimed that Pythagoras learned the doctrine of metempsychosis (the transmigration of souls) from the Egyptians (see Pythagoras: His Life, Teachings, and Influence by Christoph Riedweg and Life of Pythagoras by Porphyry).

Historians know that the concept of an immortal soul (life after life) isn’t biblical; many theologians do not. Most Christians aren’t aware of the concept’s origin and geneology.

Good News for the Redeemed

On the surface, without its origin revealed, it might seem that View #2 about what happens when we die is preferable. Life on a higher plane or in a better place certainly sounds better than non-existence. But, as always, God knows what He’s doing. Just as He created human beings to begin with, He can revive people who died.

The Bible tells about a few of these instances and promises mass resurrections in the future. The dead will live again. When the redeemed are resurrected, they will be raised to eternal life. Eternal life for the saved will begin, not one at a time, but all together (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Hebrews 11:39-40, etc.).

We don’t have to worry about our deceased loved ones building new lives in eternity without us. Those who have lost a child will get to pick up right where they left off and raise that child themselves. Eternity will begin when we all can experience it together. We can content ourselves about our loved ones who rest in peace—those who are asleep in Jesus (Daniel 12:2, 1 Corinthians 15:51, etc.). The next thing they know, they will join the Lord in the air with all of the redeemed (1 Thessalonians 4:17). We will put on God’s immortality (1 Corinthians 15:53), and we all will gather together for the marriage supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9).

Good News for the Lost (and the Universe)

After God resurrects the lost and reveals His judgments, the lost will experience the second death (Revelation 20:11-15, etc.). The second death is like the first death in this way: it is non-existence. The second death is unlike the first death in this way: it’s not followed by a resurrection. The lost, along with the devil, will cease to exist forever (Ezekiel 28:19, Malachi 4:1,3, etc.).

After the second death, “‘There shall be no more death.’ Neither shall there be any more sorrow nor crying nor pain, for the former things have passed away ” (Revelation 21:4). This promise isn’t just for the redeemed; it’s for the universe. The lost will not suffer forever; they will cease to exist forever. The loving God will mercifully put them out of their misery. The redeemed will not be enjoying eternity while the lost suffer in torment in some corner of the world. The lost will be ashes under our feet (Malachi 4:3).

Non-existence is preferable to eternal suffering. This concept is biblical, reasonable, and fair. And, it’s consistent with a loving God.

Wrapping Up

What I’ve shared here is what the Bible has to say in a teeny-tiny nutshell. It says much, much more about what happens when we die. Be sure to subscribe to the blog and YouTube channel to learn more. Also, check out my course on Death & Hell: What Does the Bible Say? If you have questions or comments, please drop me a line or use the comments below.

The mind vs. brain debate fascinates me. It raises quite a few intriguing questions. Are the mind and the brain the same thing? If not, what’s the difference? Can the mind and brain exist independently of each other? Can we experience consciousness without a brain? Are out-of-body experiences possible?

3 Mind vs. Brain Theories

I’m aware of three different theories in the mind vs. brain debate. Here’s a synopsis of each.

Theory #1

Matter is all there is. We have a material brain but not an immaterial mind. Things such as thoughts, memories, hopes, and personality are simply brain chemicals and electrical signals.

Theory #2

We have a material brain and an immaterial mind. The mind accounts for things such as thoughts, memories, hopes, and personality. The mind and the brain are independent of each other.

Theory #3

We have a material brain and an immaterial mind. The mind accounts for things such as thoughts, memories, hopes, and personality. The mind is dependent on the brain to function.

Comparing Theories #2 & #3

The mind vs. brain question is an intriguing one. But, I find the difference between Theories #2 and #3 most interesting. While each one states that we have both a material brain and an immaterial mind, they diverge at a critical point.

Theory 2 states that the mind and the brain are independent of each other. So, if this theory were true, we could have consciousness without a brain or a body. This would make out-of-body experiences and disembodied souls possible. When the body dies, the mind (consciousness) could go on living without it.

Theory 3 states that the mind is dependent on the brain to function. So, if this theory were true, we couldn’t have consciousness without a body. When the body dies, the mind (consciousness) dies with it.

Which Theory Is Likely to Be True?

How do we figure out which mind vs. brain theory is true? Some people claim to have experienced consciousness without a body (out-of-body experiences and many “near death” experiences), suggesting that Theory #2 is valid. But, at least so far, science doesn’t seem to back this up. Reason tells us that there’s reasonable doubt; several other possible explanations exist. Sometimes people make the stories up. Sometimes they’ve simply experienced natural phenomena such as dreams, memories, vivid brain activity, or misperceptions of sensory input.

That leaves us with the possibilities of Theory 1 and Theory 3. Science has yet to provide a definitive answer. It’s worth considering what the Bible has to say. It says quite a bit, and good evidence points to its validity as a source. So, let’s look at a few passages that provide insight into the mind vs. brain debate.

  • “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life [Hebrew nᵊšāmâ = spirit], and man became a living being [Hebrew nep̄eš = soul].” (Genesis 2:7)
  • “The dust returns to the earth where it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 12:7)
  • “He, who is the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, will reveal at the proper time. He alone has immortality.” (1 Timothy 6:15-16)
  • “The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing.” (Ecclesiastes 9:5)

These passages are quick representations of what the Bible, as a whole, teaches about life and death, our material and immaterial components, and how those components relate to each other. (If you’d like to see more passages to be sure these are representative, hang around my blog, my Facebook page, my Twitter profile, and my YouTube channel, because I talk about this stuff a lot. I also encourage you to study for yourself with the help of Bible Gateway and Blue Letter Bible or whatever tools you find helpful.)

Let’s bring together what these four passages tell us. A living person (a soul) is a combination of a material body made from dust and an immaterial spirit that is the breath of life from God. In other words, Body + Spirit = Soul. At death, the material separates from the immaterial (the dust and the spirit/breath return). It is indeed the spirit (God’s breath) and not the soul (a living person) that returns to God and continues to exist because God alone has immortality. (People will not “put on immortality” until the resurrection that happens when Jesus returns. See 1 Corinthians 15:53-54.) When a person dies, their consciousness also ceases (“the dead know nothing”).

God loves to create interdependent systems. A human being is a remarkable system of matter and spirit dependent on each other in order for the human being to exist, to be alive. Beautifully, earth and heaven come together to form a soul, a living person. God wouldn’t have it any other way.

Mind vs. brain Theory #3 is the only one of these three theories that’s consistent with what the Bible teaches. The notions of out-of-body experiences and disembodied souls aren’t biblical. Any such experiences that people believe they have are better explained otherwise.

There’s much more to say on these matters, so stick around. This simply serves as an introduction to stimulate our minds—those marvelous combinations of matter and spirit.

I’m famous (not at all) for pointing out that the Bible teaches that people don’t have immortal souls. That, when we die, our souls don’t just live on and go to heaven. It helps if we first understand the simple formulas for life and death that the Bible provides:

life = body + spirit

death = body – spirit

The formula for life first appears in Genesis 2:7, which says that “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.” The breath of life is spirit. A living being is a soul. You can see this in the original language and the ways those words are used elsewhere. Body + Spirit = Soul (a living being).

The formula for death is easy to see in Ecclesiastes 12:7, which says that “the dust returns to the earth where it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” Body – Spirit = Nothing. The death process is the reverse of the life process.

According to the Bible, “spirit” does not equal “soul”; Genesis 2:7 makes a clear distinction between them. The soul does not return to God upon death; the spirit does (because it’s God’s breath, the life force). The soul (living being) ceases to exist until the resurrection—when the spirit (life force) reenters a body.

I posted something about this on my Facebook page recently. Someone asked a really good question in response: “What do we do with the imagery in Revelation 6 that depicts a bowl of souls, which are crying out for God’s justice?”

The referenced passage is Revelation 6:9-10. “When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony they had held. They cried out with a loud voice … .”

Here’s my answer.

3 Possible Interpretations

When the meaning of a passage isn’t immediately and obviously understood, we must first identify the possible interpretations. I can think of three for this passage:

  1. This is literal language referring to disembodied souls of dead martyrs.
  2. This is literal language referring to martyrs who died and were resurrected.
  3. This is symbolic language.

Next, we must consider each possibile interpretation.

Possibility #1

Possibility #1 is that this is literal language referring to disembodied souls of dead martyrs.

This isn’t consistent with what the Bible teaches about life (a soul is a living person that is a combination of body and spirit) or death (death is like sleep, the dead know nothing, and the dead are silent).

This possibility doesn’t make sense considering that the souls were given robes (verse 11). What would a disembodied soul do with a robe?

Similarly, it doesn’t make sense that disembodied souls would be in a certain location. There’s no matter to occupy space. Even if they were embodied, being under an altar—literally rather than symbolically—is mighty strange. But, then, the rest of the passage is mighty strange if it’s literal.

That leads to the last point for Possibility #1. The rest of the passage is replete with elements that make more sense as symbols than they do as literal things (e.g., animals of symbolic colors, a pair of scales, and a rider named Death who is followed by Hades). Why would this one part be literal when it’s surrounded by symbols?

Possibility #2

Possibility #2 is that this is literal language referring to martyrs who died and were resurrected.

The Bible certainly teaches that the dead will be resurrected, so we’re okay there; it’s more a question of timing. After martyrs died in Bible times, they “did not receive the promise. For God provided something better for us, so that with us they would be made perfect” (see Hebrews 11:35,37,39-40). It’s fair to say that this references the resurrection of the dead in Christ at the second coming. It certainly indicates that, at the time of the writing of Hebrews, they had not been resurrected. Were they resurrected between the writing of Hebrews and the writing of Revelation? It’s highly unlikely, and there’s nothing to indicate that.

That being said, it’s possible that this is a representative selection of martyrs who were resurrected and ascended to heaven. But, I’m not aware of any mention in the Bible of a special ascension other than Moses, Elijah, and Enoch. Plus, this would leave us with that mighty strange notion of people literally being under an altar.

Possibility #3

Possibility #3 is that this is symbolic language.

As I’ve mentioned, a literal interpretation doesn’t make sense in a few ways. The entire passage makes more sense if it’s taken as symbolism.

What’s happening in the Revelation 6 passage is strongly reminiscent of what the Bible says about Abel, the first martyr (who happened to be murdered in relation to a sacrifice on an altar). After his murder, God said to Cain, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying out to Me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10). Hebrews 11:4 says that Abel “still speaks through his faith, though he is dead.” Hebrews 12:24 references “the sprinkled blood that speaks better than that of Abel.”

These references to Abel indicate that, metaphorically, he communicates. The symbolism is a good match for Revelation 6:9-10. The same thing is being communicated: martyrs must be avenged. The next seal (the sixth, beginning in verse 12) introduces that vengeance (God’s justice).

The passage also connects to something Jesus says in Luke 18:6—“‘Shall not God avenge His own elect and be patient with them, who cry day and night to Him?’”


Possibility #3—that this is symbolic language—makes the most sense of the three possibilities, and it’s the only one that’s consistent with the rest of scripture. As always, the Bible provides a coherent message.

“Faith without works is dead” (James 2:20).

How would you put this into your own words? Would you say, “Faith without works goes to heaven“? Might you say, “Faith without works returns to God“? Surely you wouldn’t say, “Faith without works will burn in hell forever.” Surely.

It’s more likely that you would say something such as, “Faith without works is nothing.” That makes more sense, right? That seems to be the point that James is making in James 2:14-26.

James understood that death was nothingness. Afterall, that’s what the whole of scripture tells us. So, how did death come to mean “going to heaven” or “returning to God” or “eternal torment”?

The Spirit versus the Soul

Some interpret the spirit returning to God as the person returning to God. However, the creation account tells us that the spirit is the breath of God, the animating life force that makes a body a living person, or soul (Genesis 2:7). At death, the spirit (breath) returns to God who gave it. But the breath is not the person; it is what animates a body, resulting in a living person (soul). On the cross, Jesus said to the Father, “Into Your hands I commit My spirit” (Luke 23:46). At that point, He stopped breathing and died; He didn’t go to heaven (John 20:17). He went to heaven later, after His resurrection (Acts 1:9-11).

The Notion of an Immortal Soul

Another explanation is that the notion of an immortal soul entered mainstream Christian theology by way of Greek philosophy. The philosophers got it from pagans, not scripture. The Bible teaches that God alone has immortality (1 Timothy 6:16).

The Good News about Death

James tells us that works animate faith. Just as the spirit (God’s breath) brings a body to life, works bring faith to life. “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead” (James 2:26).

James makes a fantastic point with a brilliant analogy. Usually, we pay attention only to the point. But, it’s also worth noting what he understood about death. He did not see it the same way most Christians do today.

According to the Bible, death is nothingness. It implies a lifeless body that returns to dust, resting in peace. It is good news that, for those who trust God, there will be a resurrection to eternal life when Jesus comes again (1 Thessalonians 4:16). But, there is also good news in the fact that death is nothingness. It means that those who do not trust God will be sentenced to eternal nothingness rather than eternal suffering. Not only is that good news, it is consistent with the Bible and its broadest theme—that God is love.

Today I was about 10 feet away from three bald eagles. My camera was within reach, but I chose not to take a photo.

I was driving through the Northwoods of Wisconsin when I saw an eagle swoop down and land alongside the road just ahead. As I got closer, I could see three eagles on the roadside. I pulled over.

At once, I was thrilled and disgusted. Thrilled, because I was so close to three magnificent bald eagles. Disgusted, because they were feeding on a deer carcass.

Eagles gotta eat, y’all.

As an animal lover, I hate to see this sort of thing. But I know it’s a matter of survival. I also know that it’s a matter of time before it won’t be this way anymore.

In the Bible, Revelation 21:4 tells us about the future:

“There will be no more death.”

Death will be a thing of the past. No one and nothing will die ever again. I’ll get that bald eagle close-up shot—and a million more.

Is the Bible true?