Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Truth about Election

The fact that most people have not been chosen by God and will never believe the gospel in this lifetime does not mean God does not love them, or that he has forsaken them. Most Christians believe that there will be a permanent and eternal division between the members of the human race. It is believed that there will be a permanent division between those who are presently “holy and blameless in God’s sight,” and those who aren’t; a division between those who presently love and obey God, and those who don’t; a division between those who get to spend eternity in God’s presence, and those who must remain eternally separated from him. 

There are, of course, certain passages of Scripture are relied upon as supporting this common view. However, while Scripture does, in fact, speak of a division between people that has lasted – and will continue to last – for much of human history, it also reveals that God's story of redemption is not going to end this way. The few glimpses of the final scene of redemptive history which God has provided for us in Scripture (through the apostle Paul) do not depict a permanent division between human beings, and of multitudes of human beings in a state of eternal separation from God. Not only would this be a terrible and tragic ending to redemptive history, it would mean that God is either unable to accomplish his redemptive plan for all people, or that God is unwilling to save all people (and is thus less loving than he calls his children to be). Fortunately, the final scene with which Scripture presents us is much more beautiful and God-glorifying than this. Consider Paul’s words in Ephesians 1:9-10:

“…making known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he purposed in him unto a dispensation of the fullness of the times, to sum up all things in Christ, the things in the heavens, and the things upon the earth…” (ASV)

What’s fascinating about this passage is that Paul is not only telling us what God’s will is with regards to the ultimate destiny of everything in the universe, but he's telling us that this “mystery” has been made known to God’s elect – i.e., those whom God has chosen beforehand to believe Paul’s gospel and become members of Christ’s body. So what is the "mystery" of God's will that has been made known to those who are members of Christ’s body? It is this: that “all things” – both “in the heavens” and “upon the earth” - will be summed up “in Christ!” 

The Greek word variously translated as “sum up” (ASV), "unite in" (ESV), "summing up of," (NASB), "bring unity to" (NIV), "gather together in one" (RSV) and “bring into one the whole” (YLT) is anakephalaiomai. It is found only here and in Rom 13:9, where Paul speaks of the entire law being "summed up" in the commandment to love. In his “Modern English” translation, J.B. Phillips beautifully captures the meaning of Paul’s words in verse 10: “For God had allowed us to know the secret of his plan, and it is this: he purposes in his sovereign will that all human history shall be consummated in Christ, that everything that exists in Heaven or earth shall find its perfection and fulfillment in him.”

According to Paul, Jesus Christ is ultimately destined to “fill all things” (Eph 4:10). Christ has already sacrificed himself on behalf of all sinners as the divine pledge of their redemption from sin and their reconciliation to God (John 1:29; 12:32; 2 Cor. 5:19; Col 1:19; 1 Tim 2:3-6; 4:10; 1 John 2:2; 3:4-8). He was raised from the dead as the pledge that death itself will one day be abolished, and that all people will ultimately be made immortal (1 Cor. 15:20-22, 50-57; 2 Tim 1:10). And he has been made Lord over all and given all authority in heaven and on earth to bring about this glorious victory (Acts 2:36; 10:36; Rom 10:12; 14:9; Matt 28:18). However, we do not yet see this victory fully manifested. 

What was accomplished prospectively through Christ’s death and resurrection has not yet been fully realized in the universe. The kingdom of Satan has yet to be overthrown, and both sin (which John calls the “works of the devil”) and death (which Paul calls the “last enemy”) have yet to be abolished. Christ has not yet subjected all to himself (1 Cor. 15:25-28; Heb 2:8-9), since many created beings – both human and angelic – remain in a state of rebellion against him, and are outside of his kingdom. Only a relative few can be said to have been “subjected to Christ” and brought into his kingdom at this present time (Col 1:13). But just as the church is presently subjected to Christ and under his headship (Eph 5:22-24), so shall all created beings ultimately be subjected to him. And when this time comes, all things in heaven and on earth will finally be unified under Christ, Christ will finally “fill all things,” and God will finally be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).

When understood correctly, I submit that the scriptural doctrine of election is fully consistent with this understanding of the consummation of redemptive history, and does not entail such a deeply unsettling view of God as that found in Calvinistic Christianity. Although (as noted earlier) the traditional Christian view is that certain people were selected by God to spend eternity with him in heaven while the rest are doomed to be eternally separated from him in a place of conscious, fiery torment (which is traditionally thought to be the “default fate” for sinners), election in Scripture has nothing to do with avoiding such a fate. It is not about where or how one will spend eternity. It is not about one’s final destiny at all.

To better understand the subject of election in the Bible, consider the following examples of either individuals or corporate groups that were “chosen” or “elect” according to God’s redemptive purpose: Israel (Isaiah 45:4; Deut 7:7; Acts 13:17; Romans 9:11; 11:28), Christ (Isaiah 42:1; Luke 9:35; 23:35; 1 Peter 2:4, 6), the twelve disciples (Luke 6:13; John 6:70; 13:18; 15:16, 19; Acts 1:2, 24-25) and the Apostle Paul (Acts 9:15; see also Acts 22:14; 1 Cor. 9:1, 15). In none of these cases does election have anything to do with one’s being chosen by God to spend eternity with him in heaven rather than being eternally separated from him in “hell.” 

This is especially evident with Christ’s election: while Christ is said to be “chosen” and “elect,” his being chosen and elect has nothing to do with his spending his eternal destiny in one location rather than another (for of course, Christ’s eternal destiny was never in question). Rather, Christ’s election was all about his unique vocation and divine calling. Christ was chosen for a certain redemptive mission, and that mission involved his perfectly manifesting the will and character of God to the world, and his faithfully doing the work of his Father (a work which culminated in his sacrificial death on the cross for the sins of the world). And I submit that Christ’s election is the paradigm for how the election of the believer should be understood. Election is essentially about God’s choosing individuals or groups of people ahead of time for certain important roles or tasks (e.g., lineage and/or service). As was the case with Christ, to be elected or chosen by God involves being given a certain office or vocation (which carries with it both blessing/privilege and responsibility).

To better understand the significance of election, we should take a look at Israel’s purpose in the “Old Testament.” In the OT we find that God singled out the nation of Israel to ultimately be a blessing to the rest of the world. It is significant that God is recognized as not just God over Israel but over the whole earth and all nations (e.g. Ps. 24, 96, 1 Chron. 29:11, etc.). Early in the Biblical narrative, we find that God has a purpose and a goal with regards to the inhabitants of this planet: blessing all the families and nations of the earth through the (Jewish) offspring of Abraham (Gen 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14; Ps. 22:27; 67:2; 72:11; 82:8; 86:9; Isaiah 25:6-8). 

God’s special favor toward Israel stood at the center of his plan to bless the entire world. Just as God singled out Joseph from among his brothers to be a blessing to the entire nation of Egypt, so the nation of Israel was marked by God as the divinely chosen agent in ultimately mediating redemption to all nations (see Isaiah 61-66). As many students of Scripture have noted, Jesus seems to be alluding to the original purpose of Israel in choosing twelve Jewish disciples to continue God’s redemptive plan for the world. Just as Israel was to be a light to the nations, the twelve disciples were chosen to be a light to the rest of the darkened world (Matt 5:14), so that the world would know God and glorify him (5:16). The number twelve is significant, as twelve is also the number of the tribes of Israel.

Just as national Israel is to be the agent through which God will ultimately mediate redemption to the nations on earth, so the body of Christ is to be the agent through which God makes known his manifold wisdom to the rulers and authorities "among the celestials" (Eph. 3:10; cf. Eph. 2:4-7). Paul said that those who are “in Christ” by faith (i.e., those who are “members of his body”) were chosen to be “holy and blameless in God's sight” (Eph. 1:4). They are also said to be “predestined to be adopted through Jesus Christ” (v. 5). Paul isn’t talking about anyone being chosen for one eternal destiny rather than another here; he’s talking about what's true of believers now, and what will be true of believers during the coming ages or "eons" of Christ’s reign (Eph 2:6-7). 

Being “in Christ,” believers are presently considered holy and blameless in God’s sight (that’s why they’re said to be “justified,” and are always addressed as “saints” – even the ones who were in obvious need of further spiritual growth!). Believers are also given the special status of being “adopted” (a beautiful metaphor which Paul elaborates on in greater depth in Galatians 3:23 through 4:7). Although this status enjoyed by believers brings with it great privileges, believers are not blessed for their own sake alone. Rather, believers are called to serve others (both now and in the future) and to "wrestle" against the “principalities and powers” that are in rebellion against God and hostile towards humanity (Eph 6:10-17). In the Bible, election is always a vocational calling; the election of believers is inseparable from their calling to humbly serve and be a blessing to others.

Elsewhere Paul writes that believers are "[God's] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared in advance for them to walk in" (Eph 2:10).
God’s election of Jacob instead of Esau, and his “hating” Esau and “loving” Jacob (Rom. 9:13; Mal. 1:2-3) is sometimes thought to support the idea that God has permanently divided humanity into two groups, with one portion of humanity destined for an eternity in heaven and another destined for an eternity in “hell.” However, as noted earlier, God's election of individuals or groups is always to historic and redemptive vocation (e.g., lineage and service), and does not entail that those who weren't elected are eternally doomed. God's "hatred" of Esau was no more a literal, personal hatred of Esau and his national descendents than was Jacob’s "hatred" of Leah (Gen 29:30-31). Nor was it any different than the "hatred" Christ says we are to have toward our family and our own lives (Luke 14:26). It was an idiomatic way of speaking common among the Hebrew people to use the terms "love" and "hate" in a comparative sense, with "love" denoting a greater regard or affection for someone, and "hatred" denoting less regard or affection for someone (as opposed to positive hatred or indifference). 

God's "hatred" of Esau (that is, the nation of Edom - Gen 25:23; Mal. 1:3-4) simply meant that, in contrast to Jacob and his descendents, God had less regard towards Esau and his descendents in relation to the outworking of his redemptive plan in history. In other words, God’s love of Jacob (Israel) and his hatred of Esau (Edom) simply had reference to the higher and more preeminent position of the Hebrew nation in God’s sovereign purpose. Before Jacob and Esau were even born, God determined that Esau’s nation, Edom, would not to be the chosen people and vessel through which the Messiah would come, and through which he would ultimately bless all the nations of the earth. To affirm that God literally and absolutely hates some would be completely inconsistent with the God revealed by Jesus and his apostles. According to Christ, God loves the world, including those who do not (yet) love him (John 3:16; Mt. 5:43-48). And according to the apostle John, God’s love for this sinful world defines his very essence (1 Jn. 4:8-9, 14; cf. 1 John 2:2; 5:19).

But are not the non-elect said to be "vessels of wrath" (that is, under God’s wrath), and to be "vessels of dishonor?" Certainly, but nowhere does Scripture say or suggest that God’s wrath should be understood as eternal conscious torment in “hell.” As far as Scripture reveals, any divine wrath that fell upon Esau’s national descendents was confined to this life (Isaiah 34:5-10; Mal 1:2-3). It did not extend beyond this mortal, earthly existence. Moreover, throughout his epistle to the Romans, Paul nowhere speaks of God's wrath as something that will take place in “eternity,” during the immortal state of man’s existence (Rom 1:18, 24, 26, 28, 32; 12:19; 13:2, 4). Like the wrath that fell upon Edom, the destruction of the "vessels of wrath" of which Paul spoke (Rom 9:22) is also spoken of as being an imminent temporal judgment “upon the earth”: 

"Isaiah also cries out concerning Israel: 'Though the number of the children of Israel be as the sand of the sea, The remnant will be saved. For He will finish the work and cut it short in righteousness, because the LORD will make a short work upon the earth.'
"And as Isaiah said before: 'Unless the LORD of Hosts had left us a seed, we would have become like Sodom, and we would have been made like Gomorrah.'" Romans 9:27-29

What Paul quotes in verses 27-28 was spoken originally of the few Israelites that were saved from the ravage of the Assyrian army (Isaiah 10:22-23). This historical judgment - like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (v. 29; cf. Luke 17:29-30; 2 Peter 2:6) - was completely temporal (as opposed to "eternal") in nature - and the salvation of the "remnant" of which he speaks was no different in this regard. Paul never said a word about God's “wrath” or "indignation" being experienced by immortal human beings in an eternal state of existence. Like God’s wrath upon Edom, it is solely confined to those sharing in this temporal, mortal existence. Those of whom Paul wrote as being "vessels of wrath" were his unbelieving, first-century Jewish brethren. And the judgment for which they had been prepared was not endless torment in an immortal state of existence, but a judgment that would be similar in nature to the judgments that came upon the unrighteous previously in history.

But what about "predestination?" Does this word not imply that some have a different eternal destiny than others? Not at all. To "predestinate" simply means to "designate beforehand"; the word doesn't tell us what a person was predestined to or for. Whenever it is used by Paul in reference to believers, it never need be understood to refer to our final, eternal destiny. Instead, it refers to the destiny of certain people (i.e., members of Christ’s body) before the final consummation (i.e., before the time when all are subjected to Christ and God becomes “all in all”). The destiny given to believers is their being conformed to Christ’s likeness, before anyone else (Eph 1:4-7; Rom 8:29-30). This is a process that begins now (2 Cor. 3:18). It is this noble destiny which God marked out for those whom he "foreknew" - i.e., those whom God graciously chose beforehand for a special purpose, as part of his redemptive plan for the universe. 

Unlike the rest of mankind, those who are chosen to become members of Christ’s body are granted the faith that leads to reconciliation with God and a deliverance from sin’s dominion in this present life. And it is these whom God is going to be showing “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness” in Christ (Eph 2:7) – not in eternity (with everyone else eternally excluded), but in “the ages [plural] to come.”[1] But this in no way means that only those who are called to be believers in this life will be finally saved, for Paul calls God "the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe" (1 Tim 4:10). Believers – those whom God has chosen before the foundation (or rather, “disruption”) of the world are being saved now, and enjoy God’s grace during this life and in the ages to come. Those not chosen by God will be saved later, when the future ages of Christ’s reign reach their conclusion and he subjects all to himself.

The elect are essentially God’s pledge on behalf of the rest of humanity, and as such may be understood as a prophetic sign to the rest of the world revealing their ultimate destiny. An illustration of how God elects some on behalf of others can be seen from the scriptural theme of "firstfruits" and the "firstborn." Israel, as God’s elect nation, was known as the "firstfruits" (Jer. 2:3) and "firstborn" (Ex 3:22). But "firstfruits" serve as the pledge of the whole harvest. To offer up firstfruits to God meant that the rest of the harvest belonged to him as well. The New Testament uses this imagery as well; as those who are included in Christ’s body in this age of redemptive history, believers are known as "firstfruits" (2 Thess. 2:13; cf. James 1:18; Rev 14:4) and possess the "firstfruits of the Spirit" (Rom 8:22). But such language can only mean that an even greater, more inclusive harvest is yet to come in the future. In the same way, the "firstborn" involves and includes (in the divine economy) the whole family. Jesus is the firstborn of not the elect only, but of all creation (Colossians 1:15). While the firstborn and firstfruits are few in number, they have relation to the entire creation - all who are in need of being reconciled to their Creator.




[1] While Christ often spoke of the “age to come” during his ministry, Paul makes it clear that there is more than one age to come. Thus, the “age to come” is not an endless duration of time, since it is to be followed by another age. The “age to come” of which Christ spoke refers to the coming age of the millennial kingdom (to which every Israelite looked forward and hoped to inherit). And since this coming age is not eternal, we need not understand the age to follow it to be eternal, either (and Scripture elsewhere reveals that it is not).

Reformed Theology and the Doctrine of Election

According to my understanding of the Bible, we can rest assured that my 20-month-old daughter, Miriam, is loved by God with a perfect, unsurpassable love. We can also, I believe, have confidence that he sent his Son - Christ Jesus - into the world to save her, and that he will ultimately be successful in his mission. Thus, even though she is not yet a believer, her ultimate salvation is not just "possible" (or even "probable") but absolutely certain. We can also, I believe, be confident that the very same can be said for all of God's human creatures, whether they are children or adults. According to my understanding of Scripture, there is no human being born into this world whom God does not love with a redeeming love, and whom he has not planned on ultimately delivering from sin, pain and death. And since Jesus taught that, with regards to man's salvation, all things are possible with God,[1] I believe we can trust that God can and will ultimately reconcile all human beings to himself, irrespective of their beliefs or the condition of their heart when they "breathe their last." Our choices in this life do not determine our final, "eternal" state, and there is no verse of Scripture (when properly translated and understood) that reveals otherwise.

Most Christian churches and denominations throughout history, however, have not shared this view of what God will accomplish in the end. Instead, they have denied either God's power and ability OR his desire and will to save all people. It would seem that most Christians today - no matter what denomination they are apart of - believe that God truly wants everyone to be saved. However, it is also believed that God is - for whatever reason - unable to bring this about and make it a reality. In what sense (one might reasonably ask) could God be unable to accomplish the salvation of everyone he genuinely wants to save? That's a good question. I doubt most Christians who believe this to be the case can even say; most likely, they just accept it as being so, and choose not to give it too much thought or reflection. Perhaps it's because God just doesn't know how to bring about the circumstances in which all people will eventually choose to trust in and love him. Whatever the reason, God - according to most Christians - truly wants something to happen (the salvation of all) but, ultimately, just can't make it so. His "hands are tied."

Although this is arguably the belief of most Christians today, there are other Christians who think otherwise. Those who disagree that God is unable to save everyone he wants to save typically identify themselves as "Calvinists" or "Reformed" Christians. According to the distinctive beliefs of this theological camp, God is not at all unable to save all people. No, he's perfectly able to do so; theoretically, he could reconcile all people to himself if he really wanted to. According to these Christians, the reason why all people will not be reconciled to God and saved is because it's not part of God's sovereign purpose (and never has been). 

Among the Christian denominations denying God's desire and will (or "sovereign purpose") to reconcile all people to himself is the Presbyterian church to which I belonged for more than thirty years. According to the Reformed theology to which this denomination (but not necessarily all, or even most, of its members) subscribes, God's sovereign desire and intention has never been to save all people. If the "official" Reformed theological position of my former church is true, then one must admit the following as being a very real possibility: My daughter Miriam (who, being only 20 months old as I write this, is not yet a believer) is not one of those whom God has ever had any real intention of saving. That is, by virtue of that which the theology of my former church explicitly affirms regarding God's redemptive purpose, it implicitly affirms the very real possibility that my daughter is, at this very moment, destined for an eternity in hell.

Like all Reformed denominations, the doctrinal stance of the Presbyterian church in which I grew up is based on the theology of John Calvin and his theological successors. One of the things John Calvin believed and taught was that only a select few have been selected and predestined by God to go to heaven, while the rest (the majority of people) are doomed to suffer God's wrath in hell for all eternity. According to Calvinism, the majority of people (the non-elect, or "reprobate") were doomed for hell before they were even born, without any hope of being saved. Their fate was sealed long before they even came into the world and took their first breath.

Historically, Calvinists have been divided over whether the fate of everyone who will ultimately end up in hell was fixed by God before the fall of man (historically known as "supralapsarianism") or after the fall of man ("infralapsarianism"). The so-called "supralapsarian" view is considered the historic Calvinist view.[2] But regardless of which view to which the Calvinist holds, the fact remains that, according to Reformed theology, there are many human beings who come into this world whom God has never had any intention of saving, and who thus have never had any hope or "chance" of being saved. They come into this world predestined for an eternity in hell, according to the sovereign purpose of the God who created them and continually sustains them in existence. Calvin even taught that all infants come into the world hell-bound - that is, until they are regenerated and saved. But according to Calvin, God has elected only some to be regenerated. Consider the following excerpts from Calvin (emphasis mine), keeping in mind that this man is highly revered by many Christians (including the leaders of the church in which I was brought up):

"We call predestination God's eternal decree, by which he determined with himself what he willed to become of each man. For all are not created in equal condition: rather, eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others. Therefore, as any man has been created to one or the other of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or to death." (Inst., Book 3, Sec. 5)

"We say, then, that Scripture clearly proves this much, that God by his eternal and immutable counsel determined once for all those whom it was his desire one day to admit to salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, it was his desire to doom to destruction. We maintain that this counsel, as regards the elect, is founded on his free mercy, without any respect to human worth, while those whom he dooms to destruction are excluded from access to life by a just and blameless, but at the same time incomprehensible judgment...But as the Lord seals his elect by calling and justification, so by excluding the reprobate either from the knowledge of his name or the sanctification of his Spirit, he by these marks in a manner discloses the judgment which awaits them."(Inst. Book 3, Sec. 7)

"The human mind, when it hears this doctrine, cannot restrain its petulance, but boils and rages as if aroused by the sound of a trumpet. Many professing a desire to defend the Deity from an invidious charge admit the doctrine of election, but deny that any one is reprobated (Bernard. in Die Ascensionis, Serm. 2). This they do ignorantly and childishly since there could be no election without its opposite reprobation. God is said to set apart those whom he adopts for salvation. It were most absurd to say, that he admits others fortuitously, or that they by their industry acquire what election alone confers on a few. Those, therefore, whom God passes by he reprobates, and that for no other cause but because he is pleased to exclude them from the inheritance which he predestines to his children." (Inst. Book 3, Sec. 1)

"And the Apostle most distinctly testifies, that "death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned," (Rom. 5:12); that is, are involved in original sin, and polluted by its stain. Hence, even infants bringing their condemnation with them from their mother’s womb, suffer not for another’s, but for their own defect. For although they have not yet produced the fruits of their own unrighteousness, they have the seed implanted in them. Nay, their whole nature is, as it were, a seed-bed of sinand therefore cannot but be odious and abominable to God. Hence it follows, that it is properly deemed sinful in the sight of God; for there could be no condemnation without guilt." (Inst. Book 2, Sec. 8)

"But how, they ask, are infants regenerated, when not possessing a knowledge of either good or evil? We answer, that the work of God, though beyond the reach of our capacity, is not therefore null. Moreover, infantswho are to be saved (and that some are saved at this age is certain) must, without question, be previously regenerated by the Lord. For if they bring innate corruption with them from their mother’s womb, they must be purified before they can be admitted into the kingdom of God, into which shall not enter anything that defileth (Rev. 21:27). If they are born sinners, as David and Paul affirm, they must either remain unaccepted and hatedby God, or be justified." (Inst. Book 4, Sec. 17)

"If those on whom the Lord has bestowed his election, after receiving the sign of regeneration, depart this life before they become adults, he, by the incomprehensible energy of his Spirit, renews them in the way which he alone sees to be expedient." (Inst. Book 4, Sec. 16, 21)

"And, indeed, Christ was sanctified from earliest infancy, that he might sanctify his elect in himself at any age, without distinction…This, at least, we set down as incontrovertible, that none of the elect is called away from the present life without being previously sanctified and regenerated by the Spirit of God." (Inst. Book 4, Sec. 18)

"As far as relates to young children, they seem to perish not by their own, but for another's fault; but the solution is twofold; for although sin does not appear in them, yet it is latent,since they carry about with them corruption shut up in their soul, so that they are worthy of condemnation before God." (Ezek. Comm. 18:4)

"We ought, therefore, to hold it as a settled point, that all who are destitute of the grace of God are involved in the sentence of eternal death. Hence it follows, that the children of the reprobate, whom the curse of God pursues, are liable to the same sentence. Isaiah, therefore, does not speak ofinnocent children, but of flagitious and unprincipled childrenwho perhaps even exceeded their parents in wickedness; in consequence of which they were justly associated with their parents, and subjected to the same punishment, seeing that they have followed the same manner of life…it was with their parents that the rejection began, on account of which they also have been forsaken and rejected by God. Their own guilt is not set aside as if they had been innocent; but, having been involved in the same sins as to reprobation, they are also liable to the same punishments andmiseries." (Isa. Comm. 14:21)

"I again ask how it is that the fall of Adam involves so many nations with their infant children in eternal death without remedy unless that it so seemed meet to God? Here the most loquacious tongues must be dumb. The decree, I admit, is, dreadfuland yet it is impossible to deny that God foreknow what the end of man was to be before he made him, and foreknew, because he had so ordained by his decree. Should anyone here inveigh against the prescience of God, he does it rashly and unadvisedly. For why, pray, should it be made a charge against the heavenly Judge, that he was not ignorant of what was to happen? Thus, if there is any just or plausible complaint, it must be directed against predestination." (Inst. Book 3, Sec. 23, 7)

Now, according to the Reformed theology of Calvin, while we may hope that my daughter is among those whom God has predestined for heaven, we cannot have any real assurance that this is the case - at least, not until it becomes evident that she has become a believer (and even then, there's always a chance that we could be mistaken about this, just as we can be mistaken about whether some adults have truly come to saving faith). In fact, we cannot have any assurance that God intends to save any newborn, infant or young child who, as far as we know, has yet to be "regenerated" by God, and has not yet given any indication that they really understand - let alone believe - the truth of the gospel. Even if my daughter does turn out to be one of those fortunate few whom God chose for salvation before the foundation of the world, the following would (according to Calvinist theology) still be the case: there are, in all likelihood, multitudes of human beings at various stages of life who came into this world whom God has never had any intention of saving, and who thus have only an eternity in hell to look forward to.

It should be emphasized that this article isn't "merely" about the possibility of infant damnation, only. The view of Calvin and other like-minded theologians on the subject of infant damnation was merely an extension of their view on election and salvation in general. Although John Calvin and other Reformed theologians clearly believed that some (perhaps even most) human beings who die in infancy are not regenerated by God before they die (and thus are among the non-elect, or reprobate), the issue I want to focus on is not whether one believes that some who die in infancy will be damned. Instead, the position I want to challenge is that there are ANY human beings who come into this world whom God has never had any intention of saving, and who thus have no hope of ever being saved by God. For it is this position that all honest, informed and consistent adherents of Reformed theology - the kind of theology to which my former denomination faithfully submits (as I will demonstrate shortly) - must affirm. To deny it would be to deny an essential and distinctively Reformed doctrine.

Consider, for example, the following excerpts from the Westminster Confession of Faith (a document containing an explicit affirmation of Reformed theology):

THE WESTMINSTER CONFESSION OF FAITH. A.D. 1647

CHAPTER 3 - OF GOD'S ETERNAL DECREE

3.1 God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.

3.2 Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions, yet hath he not decreed anything because he foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions.

3.3 By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death.

3.4 These angels and men, thus predestinated, and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished.

3.5 Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to his eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of his will, hath chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of his mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving him thereunto; and all to the praise of his glorious grace.

3.6 As God hath appointed the elect unto glory, so hath he, by the eternal and most free purpose of his will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by his Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by his power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.

3.7 The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of his own will, whereby he extendeth or withholdeth mercy, as he pleaseth, for the glory of his sovereign power over his creatures, to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praise of his glorious justice.

3.8 The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men, attending the will of God revealed in his Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election. So shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God; and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the gospel.

CHAPTER 10 - OF EFFECTUAL CALLING

10.1 All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, he is pleased, in his appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by his Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation, by Jesus Christ; enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God, taking away their heart and giving unto them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and, by his almighty power, determining them to that which is good, and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ: yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace.

10.2 This effectual call is of God's free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it.

10.3 Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth: so also are all other elect persons who are uncapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.

10.4 Others, not elected, although they may be called by the ministry of the Word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit, yet they never truly come unto Christ, and therefore cannot be saved: much less can men, not professing the Christian religion, be saved in any other way whatsoever, be they never so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature, and the laws of that religion they do profess. And, to assert and maintain that they may, is very pernicious, and to be detested.

Now, it is evident that the denomination to which my former church belongs (the “Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians,” or “ECO”) views this particular Reformed confession (among others) as a good expression of their theological position. Consider the following statements from ECO's "Essential Tenets and Confessional Standards"
[3]:

The Reformed understanding of the church’s confessional and theological tradition sees contemporary Christians as participants in an enduring theological and doctrinal conversation that shapes the patterns of the church’s faith and life. Communities of believers from every time and place engage in a continuous discussion about the shape of Christian faith and life, an exchange that is maintained through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Today’s church brings its insights into an ongoing dialogue with those who have lived and died the Faith before us. Voices from throughout the church’s life contribute to the interchange – ancient voices that articulate the enduring rule of faith, sixteenth and seventeenth century voices that shape the Reformed tradition, and twentieth century voices that proclaim the church’s faith in challenging contexts. The confessions in the Book of Confessions were not arbitrarily included, but were selected to give faithful voice to the whole communion of saints.

The Book of Confessions is an appropriate expression of the Reformed commitment to honor our fathers and mothers in the Faith. It begins with two foundational creeds, shared throughout the whole Church. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed is the decisive dogmatic articulation of Trinitarian faith. It establishes the vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of Christian theology. The Apostles’ Creed is the Baptismal creed that expresses the shared belief of the faithful as persons are incorporated into the body of Christ. Two Reformation confessions, Scots and Second Helvetic, and one Reformation catechism, Heidelberg, give voice to the dawning of the Reformed tradition. The seventeenth century Westminster standards powerfully express God’s sovereignty over all of life. The Theological Declaration of Barmen, the Confession of 1967, and A Brief Statement of Faith articulate the church’s fidelity to the gospel in the midst of uncongenial and sometimes hazardous cultures. These confessions, from widely different contexts, are complementary. They do not sing in unison, but in a rich harmony that glorifies God and deepens our enjoyment of the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.

Are these the only voices that could be included in the church’s theological conversation? No, but they are faithful witnesses to the gospel and appropriate expressions of the Reformed perspective on Christian faith and life. Participating in their colloquy frees us from the narrow prison cell of our own time and place by listening to the voices of our brothers and sisters who struggled to be faithful in diverse circumstances. Through their confessions of faith we are privileged to hear their wisdom in the midst of our own struggle to be faithful. We overhear conversations among our forebears that expand and enrich our apprehension of the gospel. Sometimes we simply listen in on their discussion, at other times we pay particular attention to one of their voices, and many times we find ourselves participating actively in lively instruction.

The questions of our parents in the faith may not be identical to ours, but their different approaches enable us to understand our own questions better. Their answers may not be identical to ours, yet their answers startle us into new apprehensions of the truth. We may sometimes be puzzled by their particular questions or answers, but even that perplexity serves to clarify our own thinking and the shape of our faithfulness. Throughout the conversation we are aware that all councils may err, yet because we are not doctrinal progressives we acknowledge the confessions have a particular authority over us: we are answerable to them before they are answerable to us.

This section closes with the following words:

Neither the Fellowship nor the ECO can imagine that it should or could disavow the Reformed confessional heritage. Whatever the church’s confessional and theological failings may be, they are the failings of all of us. The task now is to embody faithful ways of being Presbyterian. The most appropriate footing for a new venture is the faithful doctrinal and theological foundation provided by the creeds, confessions, and catechisms of the Book of Confessions.

Not only does ECO implicitly affirm the Reformed theology expressed in the Westminster Confessions, but we find also an explicit affirmation of the Reformed doctrines of "Total
 Depravity," "Unconditional Election" and "Irresistible Grace." In the next section entitled "Essential Tenets," we read:

Presbyterians have been of two minds about essential tenets. We recognize that just as there are some central and foundational truths of the gospel affirmed by Christians everywhere, so too there are particular understandings of the gospel that define the Presbyterian and Reformed tradition. All Christians must affirm the central mysteries of the faith, and all those who are called to ordered ministries in a Presbyterian church must also affirm the essential tenets of the Reformed tradition. Recognizing the danger in reducing the truth of the gospel to propositions that demand assent, we also recognize that when the essentials become a matter primarily of individual discernment and local affirmation, they lose all power to unite us in common mission and ministry.

Essential tenets are tied to the teaching of the confessions as reliable expositions of Scripture. The essential tenets call out for explication, not as another confession, but as indispensable indicators of confessional convictions about what Scripture leads us to believe and doEssential tenets do not replace the confessions, but rather witness to the confessions’ common core. This document is thus intended not as a new confession but as a guide to the corporate exploration of and commitment to the great themes of Scripture and to the historic Reformed confessions that set forth those themes.

Under heading III ("Essentials of the Reformed Tradition"), A ("God’s grace in Christ"), we find an affirmation of the doctrine of Total Depravity (the "T" in the acronym "TULIP"):

As a result of sin, human life is poisoned by everlasting death. No part of human life is untouched by sin. Our desires are no longer trustworthy guides to goodness, and what seems natural to us no longer corresponds to God’s design. We are not merely wounded in our sin; we are dead, unable to save ourselves. Apart from God’s initiative, salvation is not possible for us. Our only hope is God's grace. We discover in Scripture that this is a great hope, for our God is the One whose mercy is from everlasting to everlasting.

This grace does not end when we turn to sin. Although we are each deserving of God’s eternal condemnation, the eternal Son assumed our human nature, joining us in our misery and offering Himself on the cross in order to free us from slavery to death and sin. Jesus takes our place both in bearing the weight of condemnation against our sin on the cross and in offering to God the perfect obedience that humanity owes to Him but is no longer able to give. All humanity participates in the fall into sin. Those who are united through faith with Jesus Christ are fully forgiven from all our sin, so that there is indeed a new creation. We are declared justified, not because of any good that we have done, but only because of God’s grace extended to us in Jesus Christ. In union with Christ through the power of the Spirit we are brought into right relation with the Father, who receives us as His adopted children.

Notice that, according to ECO, "all humanity participates in the fall into sin," and is thus "deserving of God's eternal condemnation." This means that newborns are just as deserving of God's eternal condemnation as adults (which, as we've seen, was the view of Calvin and the Westminster Divines). Moreover, according to the doctrine of Total Depravity (or "Total Inability"), we are, by nature, completely unable to respond positively to God and his grace, and must undergo a radical spiritual transformation (in which our heart is regenerated by God) before we are able to exercise faith in Christ and be saved. All who do not undergo this transformation of the heart and exercise faith in Christ before physical death must suffer the full outpouring of God’s wrath in hell for all eternity. And apart from God’s mercifully choosing to intervene in a person’s life and causing them to undergo this transformation, no one would be saved. We would all remain in a state of spiritual blindness and hardness of heart that makes us utterly incapable of responding to the gospel of Christ with saving faith.

To quote Reformed pastor and bestselling author Tim Keller,
 "...all human beings, given a hundred chances, a thousand chances, an infinite number of chances, will always – because their desires are such – will always choose to be their own lord and savior, and they'll never choose Jesus. And what God does, is he opens the eyes of some so they'll see the truth, but he doesn't open the eyes of everybody."[4] Although these words by Keller are part of his explanation of what he calls the "Doctrine of Election," this is actually a good summary explanation of the Reformed doctrine of "Total Depravity," and what it entails (i.e., that apart from God's choosing to "open the eyes of some so they'll see the truth," no one would ever "choose Jesus" and thus be saved).

Under section B ("Election for salvation and service") we find the doctrine of Total Depravity affirmed once more, along with the related doctrines of Unconditional Election and
 Irresistible Grace (the "U" and "I" in "TULIP"):

The call of God to the individual Christian is not merely an invitation that each person may accept or reject by his or her own free will. Having lost true freedom of will in the fall, we are incapable of turning toward God of our own volition. God chooses us for Himself in grace before the foundation of the world, not because of any merit on our part, but only because of His love and mercy. Each of us is chosen in Christ, who is eternally appointed to be head of the body of the elect, our brother and our high priest. He is the one who is bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh, our divine Helper who is also our Bridegroom, sharing our human nature so that we may see His glory. We who receive Him and believe in His name do so not by our own will or wisdom, but because His glory compels us irresistibly to turn toward Him. By His enticing call on our lives, Jesus enlightens our minds, softens our hearts, and renews our wills, restoring the freedom that we lost in the fall.

As is evident from the above quote, the Calvinistic doctrines of "Total Depravity," "Unconditional Election" and "Irresistible Grace" are very much bound together in Reformed theology. This is also evident from the quote by Keller, where his explanation of the "doctrine of election" would make equal sense (if not more sense) when understood as an explanation of the doctrine of Total Depravity (and perhaps of Irresistible Grace as well). According to the Reformed doctrine of election affirmed by ECO, only those individuals who are chosen by God before the foundation of the world will escape "God's eternal condemnation," of which we are told all human beings (both young and old) are deserving. It is these elect individuals alone who will be finally and eternally saved. Those not chosen by God before the foundation of the world for salvation will suffer God's wrath for all eternity, forever excluded from heaven and without hope of ever being shown divine mercy. Thus, according to the theology affirmed by the Presbyterian church to which I belonged (and the denomination with which it is affiliated), there are some people born into the world whom God has never had any intention of actually saving. And having never had any intention of saving them, it means that God has never had any intention of doing what is in their best interests. In other words, God never truly loved them at all. This, dear reader, is the shocking (and, I believe, God-dishonoring) conclusion to which the Reformed doctrine of election leads.

Imagine, if you will, a newborn child who has just come into the world. She is being tenderly embraced by her mother as tears of joy stream down her cheeks. Her proud father looks on. Now, imagine that Calvinism is true, and that neither the child nor her parents are elect (keep in mind that, according to most Calvinists – indeed, most Christians – the majority of people born into this world will not be saved, and are thus not elect). According to Calvinism, the non-elect parents love their child more than God does (for he does not really love her at all). As the parents gaze lovingly into the eyes of their newborn daughter, they want only the best for her, and are prepared to do whatever they can to secure her future happiness in this world. But as God "looks down" from heaven, he knows full well that whatever happiness may be in store for this child during her relatively brief, mortal existence on earth will end as soon as she breathes her last. God - who brought her into existence, and continually sustains her in existence - knows full well what her eternal fate will be. He knew before she was even conceived. Being non-elect, she is destined for an eternity in hell. Even as her parents look to the future with hearts full of hope for their newborn child, God looks to the future and sees their daughter forever banished from his presence, and suffering eternal conscious torment in hell. And why must this awful, nightmarish fate be hers? Why will she not ultimately be counted among the redeemed in heaven? Answer: Simply because the Calvinist God, in his sovereignty, wanted it this way. It was his "good pleasure" and "sovereign will" to forever withhold his electing love and saving grace from this girl, and from all who will share her fate. 

My hope is that what you just read makes your blood run cold, and that you find the "God" depicted above - the "God" believed in and worshiped by Calvinists and "Reformed" Christians - as horrible and appalling, and as unworthy of our faith and love, as I now do (by the grace of God). For those whose consciences have not been seared by years of indoctrination, the disturbing scenario described above will, I trust, be a sufficient refutation of the God-dishonoring system of Christian theology known as "Calvinism."






[1] In Matthew 19:23-26, we read:

And Jesus said to his disciples, "Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God." When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, "Who then can be saved?" But Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Life After Death? Part 2: The State of the Dead

In Job 14:10 the following question is asked: "Man breathes his last, and where is he?" Job is speaking of human beings in general here. Before we hear his answer, let's first take a look at what the Bible says elsewhere about the location of people after they breathed their last.

When Abraham breathed his last, where does Scripture say he went? In Genesis 15:15, God tells Abraham, "You shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age." In this verse, what does the pronoun "you" refer to? Well, we know that it was a corporeal being that was "buried." So unless God's talking to two different persons here (he's not), we can conclude that it was this same corporeal being that went to his fathers in peace. In Genesis 25:8, we read, "Then Abraham breathed his last, and died in a good old age - an old man full of years. And he was gathered to his people."[1] When we read, "and he was gathered to his people," the pronoun "he" refers to the same corporeal being who "breathed his last" and was buried. Continuing with verses 9-10, we read: "Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field that Abraham purchased from the Hittites. There Abraham was buried, with Sarah his wife." The expression "and he was gathered to his people" (which seems to be equivalent in meaning to Abraham's going to his fathers in peace) is explained by Jacob in a later chapter: "Then he [Jacob] commanded them and said to them, 'I am to be gathered to my people; bury me with my fathers in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite...There they buried Abraham and Sarah his wife'" (Gen. 49:29, 31). From this verse it is evident that for a person to "go to his fathers" or to be "gathered to his people" simply meant for them to die and join their ancestors in the grave, where all alike return to the dust of the earth. So to answer Job's question in regards to Abraham, we may say simply, "He joined his wife Sarah and other deceased members of his family in the grave."

Again, when Moses breathed his last, where was he? In Deut 31:16 God tells Moses, "Behold, you are about to lie down with your fathers" (Deut 31:16). It is evident that to go to one's fathers in peace and to lie down with one's fathers are equivalent in meaning. Since the former expression refers to persons joining their ancestors in the grave, the latter does as well. God also tells Moses (Deut 32:50), 

Go up this mountain of the Abarim, Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, opposite Jericho, and view the land of Cannan, which I am giving to the people of Israel for a possession. And die on the mountain which you go up, and be gathered to your people, as Aaron your brother died in Mount Hor and was gathered to his people. 

Finally, in Deut 34:5-6 we read, "So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD, and he buried him in the valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth-peor; but no one knows the place of his burial to this day." So where was Moses after he died? Answer: he was buried by God "in the valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth-peor." There, Moses (the once-living man who had "breathed his last) lay down with his fathers in the earth and was thus "gathered to his people." We also read of David that he "slept with his fathers" (1 Kings 2:10; cf. Acts 13:36). The same is said of Solomon (1 Kings 11:43; 2 Chron. 9:31), of Asa (1 Kings 15:24; 2 Chron. 16:13), of Jehosaphat (1 Kings 22:50; 2 Chron. 21:1), of Azariah (2 Kings 15:7), of Jotham (2 Kings 15:38; 2 Chron. 27:9); of Abijah (2 Chron. 14:1), of Uzziah (2 Chron. 26:23), of Hezekiah (2 Chron. 32:33), of Rehoboam (1 Kings 14: 31; 2 Chron. 12: 16) and of Josiah (2 Kings 22:20).

The same thing is said of the unrighteous as well. It is said of Jeroboam "that he slept with his fathers" (1 Kings 14:20; 2 Kings 14:29), of Abijam (1 Kings 15:8), of Baasha (1 Kings 16:6), of Omri (1 Kings 16:28), of Ahab (1 Kings 22:40), of Joram (2 Kings 8:24), of Jehu (2 Kings 10:35), of Jehoahaz (2 Kings 13:9), of Joash (2 Kings 13:13), of Jehoash (2 Kings 1 4:1 6), of Menahem (2 Kings 15:22), of Ahaz (2 Kings 16:20), of Manasseh (2 Kings 21:18; 2 Chron. 33:20) and of Jehoiakim (2 Kings 24:6).

It is clear from all these texts that all people – whether pious or profane, believer or pagan, righteous or unrighteous - are said to "lie down" or "sleep" with their ancestors. Jacob - a believing, righteous man - desired to "lie with his fathers" (Gen. 47:30), and his death is called being "gathered to his people" (49:29, 33). And speaking of the wicked it is said, "He shall go to the generation of his fathers" (Ps. 49:19). This is said not only of single individuals, but of whole generations (Judges 2:10). When people were said to go to their fathers at death (Gen. 15:15) and to go down to their children who were dead (Gen. 37:35; cf. 42:38; 44:29, 31), nothing more was meant than that they joined them in the grave, where all alike return to the dust from which we were made (Gen 3:19; 18:27). As David's death was quickly approaching, he told his son Solomon that he (David) was about to "go the way of all the earth" (1 Kings 2:2; cf. Josh 23:14). That is, after his death David knew he would return to the dust, where his fathers "slept" (see Daniel 12:2). And David's fate after death would later be contrasted with that of the Messiah's, who it was prophesied would not see corruption after death: "For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption" (Ps 16:10; cf. Acts 2:24-31). Here, the Messiah's "soul" refers to the Messiah himself, and his not being abandoned to "Sheol" is equivalent to him not seeing "corruption," or returning to dust in the tomb in which he was buried. But what is Sheol?

The Domain of the Dead

While several derivations for the Hebrew word she'ohl' have been offered by Biblical scholars, it may have been derived from the Hebrew verb sha'al' meaning "to ask, request." It may thus be understood to denote something which (in a figurative sense) continually asks or craves for more (Prov. 27:20; 30:15-16; Hab. 2:5). Judging from how the word is consistently used in Scripture it can be reasonably inferred that Sheol simply denotes "the grave" in a general sense - i.e., wherever the dead reside. That is, Sheol denotes the domain or "resting place" of the dead, where both man and beast return to the dust of the earth (Job 17:16), whether this takes place in a keber (a tomb or place of burial - Gen 23:7-9; Jer. 8:1; 26:23) or elsewhere (Gen. 37:35; Isa 14:9, 11, 15, 19). That Sheol refers to the grave in a general sense (i.e., wherever the dead reside and return to dust) becomes especially evident when we consider the fact that the contents of Sheol are such as can belong only to the grave. We read of gray hairs as being in Sheol (Gen 42:38; 44:29, 31), gray heads (1 Kings 2:6, 9), bones (Ps 141:7; Ezekiel 32:27), sheep (Ps 49:15), material possessions (Num 16:32-33), and swords and other weapons of war (Ezekiel 32:27). Worms and maggots are also spoken of as if present in Sheol (Job 17:13-14; 24:19-20; Isaiah 14:11; cf. Job 21:23-26). And it is noteworthy that Korah and his company were said to go down to Sheol "alive," which would make little sense if Sheol denoted a supernatural realm of "disembodied spirits." When Sheol is understood to denote the grave in a general sense, what we're told in Numbers 16:32-33 makes perfect sense. Korah and his company simply went down alive to the place where their corpses would reside and ultimately return to dust. Although their resting place was much deeper in the earth than most other places of burial, they were in Sheol nonetheless.

Because burial was the typical way in which the Hebrews disposed of their dead, Sheol is appropriately described as being beneath the surface of the earth (Ps. 63:9; 86:13; Prov. 15:24; Isa. 7:11; 57:9; Ezek. 26:20; 31:14; 32:18; Prov. 15:24). The dead descend or are made to go down into Sheol, while the revived are represented as ascending or being brought and lifted up from it (1 Sam. 2:6; Job 7:9; Ps. 30:4; Isa. 14:11, 15). And like the caves and other burial places used by the ancient Hebrews, Sheol is described as a place with gates (Job 17:16, 38:17; Isa. 38.10; Ps. 9:14) and as having a "mouth" or place of entrance: "As when one plows and breaks up the earth, so shall our bones be scattered at the mouth of Sheol" (Ps. 141:7) - i.e., at the entrance to the grave. "Therefore Sheol has enlarged its appetite and opened its mouth beyond measure, and the nobility of Jerusalem and her multitude will go down, her revellers and he who exults in her" (Isa. 5:14). Sheol is also described as marking the point of greatest possible distance that persons could be from the heavens (Job 11:8; Amos 9:2; Ps. 139:8) - hence the expressions "depths of Sheol" (Deut. 32:22; Ps. 86:13; Prov. 9:18) and "depths of the pit" (Ps. 88:6; Lam. 3:55; Ezek. 26:20, 32:24), which denotes the lowest places of burial.

Sheol, or the grave, is further described as a place of silence (Ps. 3:17, 6:6, 30:10, 88:13, 94:17, 115:17). It is called the "land of forgetfulness" (Ps. 88:12), where all who reside there are without any memory of the past, as well as forgotten by the living (Ps. 31:12). In Job 40:12-13 God declares, "Look on everyone who is proud and bring him low and tread down the wicked where they stand. Hide them all in the dust together; bind their faces in the world below." Here "the world below" (literally, "the hidden places") undoubtedly refers to Sheol, and (as elsewhere) is associated with "dust." Job calls this silent resting place of the dead "the land of darkness and the shadow of death: a land of darkness as darkness itself; and of the shadow of death, without any order; and where the light is as darkness" (Job 10:20-22; see also Ps. 88:12; Job 3:5, 16; 12:21-22; 17:13; 1 Sam. 2:9; Ps. 44:19, 107:10, 14, where similar statements are made). This is, of course, fitting imagery if Sheol refers to those darkened places concealed from mortal eyes where corpses return to dust. Sheol is also described as a state of corruption and destruction (see Job 26:6, 28:22; Ps. 88:11, 16:10; Job 4:18-20; Ps. 49:9-20; Prov. 15:11, 27:20; Acts 13:26) where one's form is said to be "consumed" (Ps 49:14). David prophesied that God would not abandon the Messiah's soul (i.e., the Messiah himself) in the grave, or let him see corruption (Psalm 16:10; cf. Acts 2:27). Since David is employing Hebrew parallelism (i.e., where the writer expresses the same thought in slightly different words), it follows that for God to abandon Christ in the grave would mean to let him "see corruption" (which is a reference to his physical body, which would have begun to decompose had God not raised him from the dead on the third day).

Since death comes to all, Sheol is appropriately referred to as the "appointed house for all the living" (Job 30:23; 17:13; Eccl. 11:5). It is here that the dead meet (Ezek. 32; Job 30:23) and rest from their earthly toil in silence without distinction of rank or condition - the rich and the poor, the pious and the wicked, the old and the young, the master and the slave: 

Why did I not die at birth, come out from the womb and expire? Why did the knees receive me? Or why the breasts, that I should nurse? For then I would have lain down and been quiet; I would have slept; then I would have been at rest, with kings and counsellors of the earth who rebuilt ruins for themselves, or with princes who had gold, who filled their houses with silver. Or why was I not as a hidden stillborn child, as infants who never see the light? There the wicked cease from troubling, and there the weary are at rest. There the prisoners are at ease together; they hear not the voice of the taskmaster. The small and the great are there, and the slave is free from his master. Job 3:11-19 (cf. Isa. 57:2; Rev. 14:13). 

The state of those who have died is the same for all, irrespective of the character or social status they possessed while alive. In Ecclesiastes 12:5, Solomon tells us that, at death, "man goes to his eonian or age-abiding (Hebrew: olam) home." This is undoubtedly a reference to Sheol. Previously he had declared, "All go to one place; all are of the dust, and all return to dust again" (Eccles 3:20). Though a grim and sobering reality to be sure, this is our common lot as mortals.

It would not be inaccurate to describe Sheol as "the domain of the dead." At the same time, it must be remembered that to speak of "the dead" in Scripture is to speak of that which remains after a person's breath or "spirit" has departed and returned to God. In other words, to speak of "the dead" is to speak of a lifeless body (James 2:26) - i.e., a corpse, or the remains of a corpse. So if Sheol refers to the domain or resting place of "the dead" - and "the dead" refers to that which remains after a person dies and begins to return to the dust - then Sheol is wherever a person's dead body (or the dust to which a person's dead body has returned) resides.

Job Answers His Question

Let us now return to the question posed by Job: "Man breathes his last, and where is he?" As we've seen above, when man breathes his last he goes to Sheol (the grave) where he is represented as "sleeping" in the dust of the earth until the resurrection. And not surprisingly, this is exactly how Job answers his own question in vv. 11-15:

As water disappears from the sea, and a river becomes parched and dries up, so man lies down and does not rise. Till the heavens are no more, they will not awake nor be roused from their sleep. Oh, that you would hide me in Sheol, that you would conceal me until your wrath is past, and that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me! If a man dies, shall he live again? All the days of my appointed time I would wait, till my renewal should come. You would call, and I would answer you; you would long for the work of your hands.

According to Job, when a man dies he is in Sheol, which denotes the place where the dead reside and return to the dust. Notice that, like the rest of the inspired writers of Scripture, Job speaks of death as being like a "sleep" from which the dead must be awoken (of course, to speak of the dead as "sleeping" is to employ figurative language to describe the state of death; this figurative "sleep" language will be examined in a little more detail later on). Notice also that, for Job, those who reside in Sheol were thought to no longer be exposed to God's "wrath." Rather, they were in need of being "remembered" by God. Job's words above make perfect sense if the state of the dead was understood to be a temporary state in which man's living, conscious existence has been put on hold. Another interesting thing to note is the second question Job asks: "If a man dies, shall he live again?" Today, one of the most popular questions asked by "Christian evangelists" is, "Where will you spend eternity when you die?" But no one in Scripture ever asked such a question. Job's concern was not where he would go after he died, but whether he would live again (i.e., whether he would be restored to life, or resurrected). For Job - and, I believe, for all the saints in the Bible - resurrection was understood as being the only possible entrance into "life after death."

That dead people were understood to be wherever their dead remains were (and thus no longer conscious) was also believed by king David: "The dead do not praise the Lord, neither do any that go down into silence" (Psalm 115:17). "For in death there is no remembrance of you: in Sheol, who shall give you thanks?" (Ps. 6:5) "Shall the dust praise you? Shall it declare your truth?" (Ps. 30:9) "Will you show wonders to the dead? Shall the dead arise and praise thee? Shall your loving kindness be declared in Sheol, or your faithfulness in destruction?" (Ps. 88:10-11; cf. verse 12 and Ps. 118:17, and Isa. 38:18-19, where similar things are stated). Statements such as these make perfect sense when we identify "the dead" as simply the physical remains of those whose life and breath has departed from them. Because a dead person was identified as the physical remains of a person whose breath and life had departed from them (e.g., a corpse or the dust to which corpses begin to return) rather than a disembodied, immaterial being existing in some other location (e.g., heaven or "hell"), those who were dead were thought to have lost all capacity to engage in any vital activity (of which worship was seen as the greatest).

Psalm 146:3-4 may be used to sum up the views that have been advanced so far: "Put not your trust in princes, nor in a son of man, in whom there is no help. His breath goes forth, he returns to the earth; in that very day his plans perish." Here, the Psalmist is describing the very reverse of what took place at man's creation, showing his dissolution by tracing back the steps taken in his formation. Just as God formed man from the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils the "breath of life" to make him a "living soul," so, at death, the "breath" or vital power that God imparted to us "goes forth," and we immediately begin to return to the elements of the earth from which we were made.

Notice that the person himself is not identified with the "breath" that is represented as going forth at death, but with that which inevitably "returns to the earth" (i.e., the body). The Psalmist also declares that, on the day of a person's death, his "plans perish." The word translated here as "plans" is ‛eshtônâh  - which, according to Strong's (H6250), means "thought." While this is the only occurrence of ‛eshtônâh in the OT, the Greek word used to translate it in the LXX (dialogismos) appears more often in the NT, and can denote "the thinking of a man deliberating with himself" (see, for example, Matt 15:19; Luke 5:22; 6:8; 24:38; Rom 1:21; 1 Cor. 3:20; James 2:4). From these considerations we may reasonably infer that death was thought to put an end to all of man's deliberations and plans. But why might this be so? Answer: because when a person dies, his brain is no longer functioning. And with the cessation of all mental activity, the plans conceived in his mind necessarily "perish." This fact is consistent with what we are told elsewhere in the OT, where those who die are spoken of as being "no more" (Gen. 42:13, 36; Lam 5:7; Ps. 39:13; cf. Matt. 2:18).

That David's son Solomon held to the same view as his father (as well as Job and others) is evident from his words in the book of Ecclesiastes. Consider the following passage where, like Job, Solomon refers to the state of the dead as being one in which people are no longer being troubled or oppressed:

Then I returned and considered all the oppression that is done under the sun: And look! The tears of the oppressed, but they have no comforter. On the side of their oppressors there is power, but they have no comforter. Therefore I praised the dead who were already dead, more than the living who are still alive. Yet, better than both is he who has never existed, who has not seen the evil work that is done under the sun. Eccl 4:1-3

That the dead are not engaged in any kind of conscious activity is taught even more explicitly by Solomon later on in the same book. In Eccl 9:3-6 we read: 

This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion.[2] For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun.

Here Solomon is not merely saying that the dead know less than the living (while still perhaps knowing some things); rather, he's making the much more radical claim that the dead don't know anything at all. Note also the fact that the complete lack of knowledge that the dead are said to have is contrasted with the knowledge possessed by the living that "they shall die." The knowledge of one's own mortality is an example of the most basic kind of knowledge possessed by adult human beings.

But what if someone were to reverse Solomon's statement to instead read, "For the dead know that they have died, but the living know nothing?" Every reasonable person would understand such a statement to be completely false. The author would be rightfully interpreted as making the absurd claim that, while the living aren't aware of anything at all, the dead (in contrast) are! Thus, as it reads, this verse provides irrefutable evidence that the author believed death to be the termination of conscious existence. For Solomon, "the dead" are those who have begun to return to the dust of the earth because their "spirit" (i.e., the "breath of life") has departed from them and returned to God (Eccl 12:7). Having ceased to be "living souls," they have consequently lost the capacity to know or do anything at all.

The solemn words in v. 10 with which Solomon concludes this passage may be used to sum up the ancient Hebrew understanding of man's state after death: "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going."

Summary of David and Solomon's View of Death

There is an impressive consistency between the view of death found in the Psalms and in the work of David's son, Solomon. If all we had were the works of these two kings of Israel we could summarize the Scriptural view of death as follows: When man dies he begins to return to the dust of the earth from which he was made (Ps 90:3; 104:29; 146:4; Eccl 3:18-21; 12:7). Death frees men from their oppressors (Eccl 4:1-3). Those who are dead are "no more" (Ps 39:13). While the living know that they will die, the dead know nothing (Eccl 9:5). Their love and their hate and their envy have perished (v. 6). "Sheol" is where the dead reside (Ps 6:5; 16:10; 30:3; 31:17; 49:15; 88:3; 89:48; 116:3; 139:8; Eccl 9:10), and is called man's "olam (age-lasting) home" (Eccl 12:5). There is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol (Eccl 9:10). Sheol is sometimes referred to as "the pit" (Ps 30:3, 9; 55:23; 88:4, 6; 103:4). Man's nephash ("soul") goes to Sheol (Ps. 16:10; 30:3; 49:15; 86:13; 89:48). Sheol is described as a place of corruption (Ps 16:10) and destruction (Ps 40:2; 55:23) where one's form is "consumed" (Ps 49:14). Those who are in Sheol are said to be "dust" (Ps 30:3, 9). Sheol is represented as being a place of silence (Ps. 3:17; 6:5; 30:9; 88:12; 94:17; 115:17) and darkness (Ps 88:12). God's steadfast love and faithfulness is not declared in Sheol, and his wonders and righteousness are not made known there (Ps 30:9; 88:10-12). Those who reside in Sheol have no remembrance of God (Ps. 6:5; 88:12) and do not praise or worship him (Ps 6:5; 30:9; 88:10-12; 115:17).

Death is "Sleep"

There can be no denying the fact that, in Scripture, dying is figuratively called "falling asleep," and being dead "asleep" (see, for example, Deut 31:16; 2 Sam 7:12; 1 Kings 2:10; 1 Kings 11:43; 1 Kings 14:31; 1 Kings 15:8; 1Kings 15:24; 2 Chron. 28:27; 2 Chron. 33:20; Job 3:13; 7:21; 14:21; Ps 13:3; 17:15; 76:5; 90:3-6; Jer. 51:39; Isa. 26:14; Dan. 12:2; Matt 9:24-25; Matt 27:51–52; John 11:11–14; Acts 7:6, 59–62; Acts 13:36; 1 Cor. 11:30; 1 Cor. 15:6, 16-18, 20, 32, 51; 1 Thess. 4:13–16; 5:10; 2 Pet 3:4). What is disputed, however, is to what exactly this "sleep" metaphor applies. Does it refer to some aspect of man's nature that is not essential to his continued existence as a conscious person, and which he may live without after death? To put it another way, is it a person's body that is represented as being "asleep" after death, while some other "part" of them remains "awake?" Or, does this metaphor pertain to the total person as a unified and integrated whole, and to that which makes human persons who and what they are? If the former, then it would mean that we do not need our bodies in order to be alive, since "sleep" is a metaphor for death. If the latter, then any such notion that people continue to exist in a "disembodied" state after death is both false and unbiblical, and consequently ought to be rejected.

Matthew 27:52 (among other verses) seems to provide us with an answer to this question. There, the Gospel writer records that "…many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised." At face value, this verse appears to stand at odds with the common idea that, following death, people are alive and conscious in a disembodied state. According to Matthew, it is not merely the bodies of the saints, but the saints themselves who are depicted as having "fallen asleep." Similarly, Luke tells us that, after praying for those who were putting him to death, Stephen "fell asleep" (Acts 7:60). And when speaking of his friend Lazarus, Christ told his disciples that Lazarus had "fallen asleep" (John 11:11) - and by that he meant that Lazarus had died (v.13). But if this metaphor applied to anything other than that which was essential to Lazarus' personal identity, then it would have been inaccurate to say that Lazarus died or "fell asleep" (for the name "Lazarus" applies to the whole person, and not to some unessential part of what makes him who he is). And when Christ raised Lazarus from death, there is no suggestion that the "real" Lazarus was alive and well in a disembodied state, waiting for Jesus to call him back from heaven so that he could reanimate his body. Instead, John’s language presupposes that the "real" Lazarus – i.e., the person himself - was indeed dead and in a tomb. When, at Christ’s command, Lazarus' "spirit" returned to his body, the dead man was "awakened" from his "sleep."

In addition to Matthew 27:52, Daniel 12:2 also sheds much light on the nature of death and the "sleep" metaphor used in Scripture. There, we read that, at some future time, "Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt." Here, the "sleep" metaphor obviously applies to that which returns to the dust of the earth - i.e., the physcial, human body. And since it is human persons who are said to "sleep" in death, then it can be reasonably inferred that human persons are constituted by, and inseparable from, their physical body. 

At this point it may be well to ask, "What is it that makes sleep an appropriate metaphor for death?" We know that during physical sleep, bodily functions continue uninterrupted. Though no longer under voluntary control, the body continues to function as it does when the person is awake. Even muscular activity remains. But in death this is not the case. In death, all bodily function has ceased. Thus, the similarity between death and sleep is not to be found here. But when we consider the effect of sleep on the cognitive functions, it is quite a different story. As everyone knows from experience, sleep reduces the mind to a state of unconsciousness. In fact, "sleep" is defined as "a natural and periodic state of rest during which consciousness of the world is suspended." When sleeping, a person possesses neither conscious awareness nor voluntary control over oneself; to be both consciously aware and asleep (even in a dream-state) are necessarily mutually exclusive experiences. The major qualitative difference between the sleep state and the waking state, then, is the presence or absence of consciousness, or mental awareness. Thus, when referring to death, the "sleep" metaphor appropriately emphasizes the absence of consciousness and mental awareness. 

Thus, when used as a metaphor for death, "sleep" is a highly appropriate word to convey the idea that the dead are not engaged in any kind of conscious activity (Eccl 9:10). Those who believe the dead are conscious may argue that the Greek word most commonly used by Paul in reference to the dead (koimao) - and which is most commonly translated "sleep" - does not necessarily refer to a state of sleep, or suggest the idea that a person is unconscious; rather, it can denote a conscious state of rest from labour and troubles. They may also argue that the Greek word hupnos would be more appropriate if Paul and the other NT authors wanted to convey the idea that the dead are unconscious. However, the word koimao can and does apply just as naturally to a state of unconsciousness as the word hupnos. In the LXX, for example, the word koimao was used to convey the same meaning of "sleep" as hupnos (e.g., Judges 16:14, 19, 20; 1 Kings 19:5; Ps 3:5; 4:8; 13:3; Prov. 4:16). Job 14:12 is especially relevant, for here both koimao and hupnos are used in reference to the "sleep" of the dead. In Psalm 13:3 hupnos is used in the expression "sleep of death," and in Psalm 76:5 the word appears yet again in reference to death. The same goes for Jer. 51:39 ("sleep a perpetual sleep").

Moreover, in the NT koimao seems to have been used and understood to convey the same general meaning as hupnos (Matt 28:13; Luke 22:45; Acts 12:6). John 11:11-12 is especially significant. There, we read (ESV):

After saying these things, he said to them, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep (koimaō), but I go to awaken him (exupnizō, "to awake out of sleep")." The disciples said to him, "Lord, if he has fallen asleep (koimaō), he will recover." Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest (koimēsis) in sleep (hupnos).

Notice that when Jesus told his disciples that Lazarus had "fallen asleep" (koimaō) they thought he was talking about literal sleep (hupnos). Jesus then has to tell them plainly that Lazarus was dead - and when he spoke of "Lazarus" he was talking about the dead occupant of the tomb he was soon to visit, not a disembodied spirit that was relaxing somewhere in a conscious state of existence. So while it's true that hupnos is the more technical word for "sleep," koimao is often used to convey the same meaning. And when applied to the dead, I submit it carries the same idea (since those who are dead appear to the living to be "sleeping" or "reposing").

Moreover, in Matt 28:13 it would be pretty strange if koimaō didn't suggest an unconscious sleep! So while the word koimao doesn't necessarily suggest an unconscious state (as does hupnos), it is completely consistent with it. And there is good reason to believe that an unconscious state is being implied when this word used in reference to the dead. During the intermediate state, the dead are "resting" in the sense that they are no longer engaged in conscious thought or vital activity, as are the living (Job 3:11-19; Ps 6:5; 30:9; 88:10-12; 115:17; Eccl 9:5-6, 10).

Any objection that the Biblical metaphor of sleep refers "only" to our physical bodies presupposes that which first needs to be proved: namely, that we, as human persons, are constituted by something other than our physical bodies, and that our capacity for consciousness and mental activity can continue after death in a so-called "disembodied state" of existence. In other words, to argue that the sleep metaphor refers "only" to our bodies presupposes that human persons are not constituted by their bodies, and that the possession of a body is not essential to our existence as human persons. Although this widely-held view of human nature can be traced all the way back to the religious and philosophical beliefs of the earliest civilizations of human history (i.e., the Assyrians, Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, etc.), and is a view held by people from nearly every religious tradition in the world (both past and present, East and West) I believe the Biblical record is entirely against it. Consider the following two simple arguments from Scripture:

Argument 1:

1. According to Scripture, when a person's "spirit" departs from them and returns to God, it is the person himself who is said to "return to the earth" (Job 10:9; Psalm 90:3; 104:29; 146:4).

2. It is the person's body that "returns to the earth," not their spirit (which is said to "return to God").

3. Therefore, a person is constituted by their body, and not by their spirit.

4. Consequently, a person can have no personal existence after death in a so-called "disembodied state."

Argument 2:

1. When Christ died, his "spirit" returned to God, its source (Luke 23:46), and his body was entombed (Matt 27:59-60).

2. After his death, Christ was always said to be wherever his body was, not where his spirit went (Matt 12:40; John 19:33, 40, 42; Acts 2:39, 13:29; 1 Cor. 15:3-5; cf. John 11:17, 43-44).

3. Therefore, Christ, the person, was constituted by his physical body, and not by his spirit.

4. Consequently, Christ had no existence as a human person in a so-called "disembodied state" between his death and resurrection.





[1] It's interesting to note that, from Joshua 24:2, we learn that Abraham's people were idol-worshipping pagans. Thus, the people to whom Abraham was gathered when he died were deceased idol-worshipping pagans!

[2] When Solomon says, "A living dog is better than a dead lion" (probably a proverbial saying), he's simply making a value judgment regarding two different states, and pointing out what would have been obvious to those reading. Life, in general, is a blessing and not a curse. Generally speaking, people would rather be alive than dead. His meaning may be better understood by what he says just before this proverb: "But he who is joined with all the living has hope." In general, those who are alive choose to remain alive because they at least have hope of some temporal good, or of experiencing that which makes life worth living. While we don't know what the future holds, as long as we're alive there is at least the possibility that we will experience some degree of happiness (whether the enjoyment be intellectual or physical or spiritual). Because the dead know nothing, they have lost the capacity to experience happiness. And for those living who aren't in an utterly pitiable condition (i.e., those who are "oppressed" and without comfort - Eccl 4:1-3), it would seem that the possibility of being happy is worth the risk of not being happy. Thus, for Solomon, life is, in general, considered a blessing simply because of the hope that it offers those still alive. A living dog (while not considered a noble animal among the Hebrews) is still better than a dead lion by virtue of the fact that it is alive, and (generally speaking) being alive was considered better than being dead.