“The Bible says that, at the point of death, our soul—our spirit—separates from our physical body and either goes to be in the intermediate state with Jesus in a place of paradise or is separated from Him in a place called Hades.”

I heard Lee Strobel say this to Alisa Childers in an interview. I have a lot of respect for Lee Strobel and highly recommend his work. However, I don’t believe that’s what the Bible says. Let’s break it down.

Soul vs. Spirit

The Bible does not conflate the concepts of “soul” and “spirit” as Strobel does here. The Bible uses the word “soul” (Hebrew nep̄eš / Greek psychē) to refer to an individual life — a person (e.g., Genesis 2:7 and 1 Peter 3:20). It uses the word “spirit” (Hebrew nᵊšāmâ / Greek pneuma) to refer to the life force — the breath of God (e.g., Genesis 2:7 and Luke 23:46). Of course, these Hebrew and Greek words are sometimes translated differently into English, and that can be a source of some confusion. However, the point is that the Bible distinguishes these two concepts.

Genesis 2:7 helps us see the distinction clearly:

The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath [nᵊšāmâ / spirit] of life, and man became a living being [nep̄eš / soul].

According to the Bible, BODY + SPIRIT = SOUL. As George Macdonald suggested, we don’t have souls; we are souls. We are souls when our bodies are animated by the spirit.

So, what happens when we die? The animation process is reversed: BODY – SPIRIT. The life force (spirit) is withdrawn, and the person (soul) ceases to be. The life force is withdrawn, and the individual life comes to an end.

What is it that separates from our physical body at the point of death? The spirit, not the soul. The death of Jesus as recorded in Luke 23:46 illustrates this:

Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit [pneuma].”

That’s when Jesus breathed His last breath.

The Bible vs. Plato

Is this just semantics? Does this matter? I’ve rightfully been accused of pedantry before, so I’d better get somewhere with this.

I understand the Bible to say that it’s the spirit (the life force) that leaves the body at the point of death. But, what if it were the soul (an individual life) that leaves, as Strobel suggested? Now we’re leaving biblical territory and heading straight toward Platonism.

The ancient Greek philosopher Plato popularized the pagan notion that people are disembodied souls who fall from heaven, get imprisoned in bodies, and then return to heaven upon death. These souls are conscious, somehow experiencing life without a body. I believe this to be impossible, as we need a brain to think and a body to sense, but it’s the prevailing view. Most Christians today believe that, upon death, people go on living. Grandma reunites with Grandpa. Mom guides and encourages her children. A dead child becomes an angel.

That might sound lovely (although I could argue that not all of the implications are pleasant), but it takes a sinister turn for the conscious souls who end up in “the other place.” According to the mainstream view, some people will experience suffering forever and ever.

The Bible, however, says, “the dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5). The animation process is BODY + SPIRIT = SOUL. Death is the reverse process: BODY – SPIRIT = NOTHINGNESS. Just as Genesis 2:7 tells us how life comes about, Ecclesiastes 12:7 tells us how it ends:

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

Death is the opposite of life. It’s the absence of life. A person ceases to be when the life force is withdrawn, returning to what they were before the life force was given. The dead are as Adam was before God breathed: nothing. Adam’s soul wasn’t in heaven, waiting to come to earth and inhabit his body. Nor did it return to heaven when he died so that Adam could go on living.

Plato would think so, though. While Plato popularized the notion that, when you die, you don’t really die, he certainly didn’t originate it. That dishonor belongs to someone else:

The serpent said to the woman, “You surely will not die!“ (Genesis 3:4).

The Intermediate State

According to Strobel, “the Bible says that, at the point of death, our soul—our spirit—separates from our physical body and either goes to be in the intermediate state with Jesus in a place of paradise … .” The only intermediate state the Bible refers to is death prior to resurrection. The Bible talks about two resurrections: the resurrection of the redeemed when Jesus returns (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) and the resurrection of the lost at the end of the thousand years (Revelation 20:5,13).

While the Bible specifically mentions Enoch, Moses, and Elijah being in heaven now, it does not say that they immediately went to heaven when they died. Enoch and Elijah didn’t die; they were simply taken to heaven. Moses died and was buried. At some point later, he was resurrected and taken to heaven (Jude 1:9). He’s an exception to the rule.

For example, David is counted among the redeemed. The Bible says, ”The patriarch David … died and was buried, and his tomb is still here among us. David himself never ascended into heaven” (Acts 2:29, 34).

Let’s look at two times when people died and then came back to life to see what we can learn about where they were or what was going on when they were dead.

The story of Jesus’s friend Lazarus is recorded in John 11. Lazarus got sick and died. His body was wrapped in cloths and buried in a tomb. Four days later, Jesus—declaring Himself to be “the resurrection and the life“—called Lazarus back to life. Lazarus got up and walked out of the tomb.

The Bible doesn’t say anything about those four days for Lazarus. It seems that, if something happened, we would hear about it. If Lazarus had been in heaven, I think we’d learn of him being rather disgruntled to have to come back to earth. But, I’m speculating.

We get a clearer picture from Jesus’s death. After He died, did He go anywhere? Did He experience anything? We do know this: After He rose, he said, “I haven’t yet ascended to the Father” (John 20:1:17).

But, Jesus might have gone to hell, right? After all, He died with our sin. That leads to the next point.

A Place Called Hades

According to Strobel, “The Bible says that, at the point of death, our soul—our spirit—separates from our physical body and either goes to … paradise or is separated from [Jesus] in a place called Hades.”

What’s “Hades”? According to paganism, Hades is the underworld—the place where dead people are alive. According to the Bible, Hades is the grave—the place where dead people are dead.

Revelation 20:5,13-14 describes Hades as the grave where people are dead and from which they are resurrected at the end of the thousand years:

“The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. … Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one by his works. Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.”

An exception to this is found in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, recorded in Luke 16. Jesus’s story includes this: “In Hades [the rich man] lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom” (Luke 16:23). The context and the rest of the Bible point to this parable being metaphorical (rather than literal), teaching about character (rather than the afterlife and eternal destiny). I wrote more about it in another post.

Do people go to Hades when they die? If we use the word “Hades” the way the Bible does, yes, because the Bible uses “Hades” to mean “grave.” Everyone who dies the first death goes to the grave. And, according to the Bible (Revelation 20, etc.), those who experience the second death go to an eternal grave.

So, the question returns to what’s going on in the grave. According to Plato and Dante, there’s a whole lotta conscious torment going on. According to the Bible, there’s a whole lotta nothin’ going on.

The wages of sin is death, not eternal conscious torment. There will be no more crying or pain. That doesn’t apply just to the saved. No more. Period.

That’s really good news.

Mainstream Christian theology teaches that hell is eternal conscious torment. I contend that the Bible doesn’t teach that. A few passages in the Bible do seem to refer to eternal conscious torment. One of them is the story about the rich man and Lazarus.

Jesus told this story, and it’s recorded in Luke 16:19-31. A beggar named Lazarus and a rich man died. The beggar “was carried by the angels to Abraham’s presence.” The rich man was in torment in Hades. He saw Abraham and Lazarus from afar, and he begged for Abraham to “send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool [his] tongue.” Abraham told the rich man that he got all of his good stuff during his lifetime. Besides, people can’t go from paradise to Hades.

As was the case with other parables, this is a story that Jesus told to make a point. It’s important to understand, from the context, what point He was making. The context is not the afterlife and eternal destiny; it’s how we treat people and live our lives. Also, because it’s presented as a parable and not typical biblical narrative, it’s likely a metaphor rather than a literal happening. Still, let’s put each point to the test:

  • Do the saved go to be with Abraham? The Bible says this nowhere. It says something else.
  • Are people conscious after they die? The Bible says this nowhere, unless it’s in the context of resurrected people.
  • Can people in hell see people in heaven? The Bible says this nowhere.
  • Can people in hell talk with people in heaven? The Bible says this nowhere.
  • If you were suffering in hell and had the chance to ask something of heaven, what would you ask for? Common sense tells us that we would ask to be rescued — certainly more than a drop of water.
  • Would God send a dead person to talk to the living? The Bible says this nowhere, nor does it make sense. (Some might think this happened with Samuel and Saul after Samuel’s death, but that interpretation isn’t consistent within the story or with the Bible as a whole.)
  • Is hell a place where people are hanging out? The Bible says this nowhere.

The afterlife elements of this story are so inconsistent with the rest of the Bible, it seems pretty clear that it was simply a fable Jesus used to make a point about how we should treat people and live our lives. It certainly doesn’t seem that He was explaining heaven and hell, because it’s a complete disconnect from the rest of the Bible’s teaching on death and the final destiny of the lost.

“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.

When it was announced that President Trump had COVID-19, some people responded with glee. Some even hoped that he would die.

In my last post, I wrote about people on Facebook responding to tragic news stories by clicking on the laugh reaction emoji under the headline. Many people were laughing that a marriage is over, that relationships are strained, that a man is struggling with addiction, that people are sick, and that people are dying. Laughing.

When it comes to the pleasure and ill-wishes regarding President Trump’s illness, some people offer what they consider to be justification for their attitudes:

  • Trump deserves it because he didn’t take COVID-19 seriously and take necessary precautions.
  • Trump deserves it because his policies cause other people to suffer and die.

Let’s give them the complete benefit of the doubt and assume that their “justifications” are valid. Would it then be appropriate for them to take pleasure in Trump’s illness and even hope that he dies?

To answer that question, let me offer a contrast.

“I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies, says the Lord God.”
Ezekiel 18:32

The death of anyone? Even a person who causes his own death because of his recklessness? Even a person who is responsible for the deaths of others? Are you telling me that God didn’t smile — even a little bit — when Hitler died?

“As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why will you die?”
Ezekiel 33:11

Not only does God find no pleasure in death, He pleads with us to choose life instead. This is in particular reference to the second death. The first death is the end of a lifetime on earth. The second death is a future event — after resurrection — that we typically refer to as hell (see Revelation 2:11; 20:6,14; 21:8).

The second death is a natural consequence for those who choose to disconnect from the source of life. The second death is for those who rebel against God — against goodness, light, and life. Do they deserve death? Would their death be justified? When all is revealed, I believe that we will find the answer to be yes. Still, God will have no pleasure.

That is the spirit that we desperately need. We each need a heart that sorrows when others are hurting, a heart that seeks to bless rather than curse, a heart so full of love that there is no room for hate. We need the heart of God.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.”
Matthew 5:43-44

When I read the first pages of the Bible, I notice that the word “good” comes up frequently. The first use of the word “good” in the Bible is in Genesis 1:4, when “God saw that the light was good.” The word is used seven times in Genesis 1, culminating in this: “God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good.”

The first use of the word “evil” in the Bible is in Genesis 2:9: “The tree of life was also in the midst of the garden, along with the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” It is used a second time in Genesis 2:15-17: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and to keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.’”

Here we see the introduction of the twin dichotomies of good and evil and life and death, which is a theme repeated throughout the Bible. Notice that the classical philosophical dichotomy of heaven and hell is not present here, nor is it present anywhere in the Bible as a dichotomy related to eternal destiny.

Eve and Adam ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil once they believed that God could not be trusted. The human knowledge of evil began when the first humans chose not to trust God. (Similarly, the universe’s knowledge of evil began when Lucifer chose not to trust God. See Isaiah 14:12-14.)

The knowledge of good and evil has been growing since its inception. Someday, when the knowledge of good and evil is fully mature, the question of whether God can be trusted will be settled for all time. Can God be trusted? Just how good is good? Just how evil is evil? These are the questions that will be answered when the knowledge of good and evil is fully mature.

At that time, eternal destinies can be realized. The life-and-death dichotomy that was established in the garden of Eden will come to fruition. Those who choose to trust God will receive eternal life, and those who choose not to trust God will receive eternal death.

  • God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
  • The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 6:23)
  • He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death. (Revelation 2:11)

I mentioned that the classical philosophical dichotomy of heaven-and-hell as eternal destiny is not found in the Bible. Notice, too, that the classical philosophical idea of eternal suffering cannot be concluded upon consideration of all of the Bible passages regarding the final destruction of those who do not trust God. Ashes do not suffer (see Ezekiel 28:18, Malachi 4:1-3, 2 Peter 2:6, and Revelation 20:9,15). Good news!

Suffering is a result of evil. Once the knowledge of good and evil is fully mature, it stands to reason that no one will choose evil again. That will be the end of evil, which will mean the end of suffering. More good news!

There was a time when there was only good. Then evil entered the picture. But evil is a companion of good for a limited time only. One of these days, if we choose to trust God, our knowledge of evil will be only a memory. We will spend eternity steeped in a fully-mature knowledge of good. That is the best news.

The image above is a depiction of souls burning in the flames of Purgatory as displayed on the facade of the Church of Ánimas (Capilla de Ánimas) in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Source/License

“The practice of praying for the dead is, I think, the fundamental origin of the doctrine of purgatory. … We often want to pray for those we love who die. It’s actually fairly hard in certain Protestant services I’ve been at … where you don’t pray for the dead. My heart wants to pray for the dead that I love. That means that I’m one of those Protestants who thinks that there might be something to the doctrine of purgatory.”

This was said by Phillip S. Cary, an American philosopher who serves as a professor at Eastern University. I heard it in a course he teaches: The History of Christian Theology.

Purgatory is said to be a place or state of suffering inhabited by the souls of sinners who are atoning for their sins before going to heaven.

Let me provide the context for the first sentence in the quote by Dr. Cary: “The practice of praying for the dead is, I think, the fundamental origin of the doctrine of purgatory.” Earlier in the lecture, Dr. Cary mentioned that Augustine of Hippo, in his autobigraphical narrative, asked readers to pray for his mother, who was dead. Dr. Cary believes that the doctrine of purgatory developed from this request. The reasoning goes like this: It doesn’t make sense to pray for someone in hell, because it won’t do any good. It doesn’t make sense to pray for someone in heaven, because they don’t need it. Therefore, there must be a third place where the soul of a dead person can be, where prayers could be beneficial.

The reasons for believing

Dr. Cary teaches that the doctrine of purgatory is not from the Bible but that it was developed during the Middle Ages, likely based on a personal request made by Augustine — a theologian of the fourth and fifth centuries. The doctrine of purgatory relies on the soul being eternal (or, at least, existing after death). Dr. Cary’s course contains a lecture about the state of the soul after death, and he makes it clear that the idea of an eternal soul is from Plato, not the Bible. He contends that the Bible teaches that, after death, the soul sleeps until resurrection. (I, too, find this in my own study of the Bible.) It is relevant here to note that Augustine was greatly influenced by Plato.

Despite all of this, Dr. Cary “thinks that there might be something to the doctrine of purgatory”. Why? His own words: “My heart wants to pray for the dead that I love.”

What was the reason that the medieval mainstream church created the doctrine of purgatory? According to Dr. Cary, it seems that they wanted to provide an explanation for Augustine’s request for prayers for his dead mother.

These are self-described Christian scholars and theologians. Their reason for believing (or wanting to believe) is not “because it is what the Bible teaches” or “because it is consistent with Bible teaching”. This particular belief is not in the Bible, nor is it consistent with Bible teaching about death or salvation. That does not seem to be a concern of these scholars and theologians.

The source of authority

I understand that not everyone shares my view of sola scriptura, that the Bible is the sole source of authority for Christian faith and practice. I believe that because I believe this:

The Bible is a reliable collection of historical documents written by eyewitnesses during the lifetime of other eyewitnesses. It contains falsifiable claims that would have shut down the Christian movement at its start if the claims had been untrue. Although the documents were written by about 40 authors over a period of about 2,000 years, they are coherent in message. The Bible reports events that were the fulfillment of specific prophecies, and it contains prophecies that have been fulfilled in post-biblical times. Much of the Bible is confirmed by the writings of contemporaries and by archaeological findings. The Bible is by far the best attested writing from antiquity.

In other words, I trust the Bible as sole authority because I believe there is strong evidence that supports it as the word of God.

The basis for belief

Many doctrines of the mainstream church come, not from the Bible, but from pagan philosophy or non-biblical, non-apostolic tradition. Do you know which ones? This post isn’t really about the specific doctrine of purgatory. It’s about ideas and where they come from. It’s about our reasons for believing. The doctrine of purgatory is just one example.

It is important that we know where ideas come from, especially the ideas we embrace or reject. It matters why we believe what we believe. We would be wise to base our beliefs — not on desires or hopes or an attempted explanation of one person’s notion — but on evidence. Only then can we build a thoughtful faith that is less likely to be shaken — and more likely to be true.