Death, a Door to What?
Is death an enemy or a friend? A dead-end street or a door to life? What conditions await the dead? Are they blessed? Or distressed? Or at rest? Who, if any, go to heaven? Has anyone ever returned from death’s own realm to describe it? Is there hope that anyone ever will? Many and varied are men’s opinions, but what does the Bible say? This article gives its authoritative answer.
“DEATH is something for which most of us are not ready. It’s something that just doesn’t fit into our scheme of things.” So spoke the eminent Dean Pike of New York’s cathedral of St. John the Divine in a Sunday sermon early this year. And true it is, the human mind recoils instinctively at the very thought or mention of death. Continues Dean Pike: “We cover up our uneasiness by the use of soft phrases—’she passed on’ or ‘passed away’—or by the kindly jargon of the professional morticians who set up a haze of vagueness with talk about ‘sleep’ and talk about ‘paradise’ with no careful definitions.”
A sample of attempted definitions paints a vivid picture of the human mind’s seeking some escape from the inevitable. Death has been called a “glorious adventure . . . a divine promotion,” “the gateway to another form of existence,” “the open door to eternal freedom.” Others boldly assert: “I believe that personal consciousness survives the shock of that physical episode we call death.” “I shall not in any part, in any way, die. The whole of Me, of the real Me, Me myself, will escape death.” “Therefore I may hope and even believe . . . that ‘there is no death—what seems so is transition.’”
“And just how do you plan to escape death? “ asks the skeptic. With a benign smile his religious friend informs him: “Why, my good man, you do not really die. The inner you, your immortal soul, that deathless spark of God within you, lives on eternally.” Says a Catholic authority: “The soul is the difference between a corpse and a living being. . . . It is endowed with spiritual faculties, . . . which will enable it to live and operate when separate from the body. Not being material, it can never be destroyed.” Then what happens to it at death? Says a Presbyterian authority: “The souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, . . . and the souls of the wicked are cast into hell.” And what awaits them there? Answers evangelist Billy Graham, “Heaven is a literal place, . . . what a glorious place it will be with streets of gold, the gates of pearl . . . and the tree bearing a different kind of fruit every month.” As for hell: “There will be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. I believe . . . there is literal fire in Hell, but if there is not literal fire in Hell, then the Bible is talking about something far worse when it speaks of the flames of Hell. Whatever it is going to be is so horrible that it cannot be expressed in the language of man.”
But many persons find themselves caught in between, so to speak, feeling unworthy of heaven and surely not deserving of hell. For these, Catholic doctrine provides a convenient niche: “It is a much more pleasant thought,” they opine, “that there are people not quite good enough for heaven, yet not bad enough for hell, and that these are sent to purgatory until they are purified sufficiently for heaven.”
Which do you prefer? Which thought stirs you most toward religious living? Heaven’s gain? Or hell’s pain? The threat of a fiery future is thought indispensable by many to the gaining and holding of converts, and statistics seem to give some support to this. For instance, Billy Graham’s “detailed picture of Heaven [given above] brought 145 listeners to their feet to pledge themselves to Christ. But 350 signed up on the night he described Hell.”
How do such teachings leave you? Satisfied? Or fearful? Or perhaps confused, some have thoughtfully asked, “How can a God of love torture men, even the wicked, eternally, sending them through excruciating pains for their delinquencies?” Noting the horror of the civilized world at the maniacal madness of Adolf Hitler, who baked people alive in huge ovens, they asked, “Is God worse than Hitler? At least his victims eventually succumbed to merciful oblivion. They tell us God does not even allow that to his victims, but they must roast and fry and bake and sizzle for ever and ever!” Many are those who have turned in disgust from a heaven and a God who could show such heartlessness.
GOD’S WORD TO THE RESCUE!
Sharp and clear comes the voice of God’s Word, to liberate “all those who for fear of death were subject to slavery all through their lives.” (Heb. 2:15, NW) No mere human philosophizing or “educated guessing,” this! God, who made the human soul, tells us its destiny for sinning: “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” (Ezek. 18:4) What was that? ‘It shall fry?’ No! “It shall die.”
The truth of this is borne out by God’s own description of what constitutes a soul. In fact, he lists the component parts of the very first human soul, saying: “Jehovah God proceeded to form the man out of dust from the ground and to blow into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man came to be a living soul.” (Gen. 2:7, NW) Note, please, that it was not the soul that God thus breathed into man, as if that soul were something intangible, separate from the physical man. Rather it required both the inbreathed “breath of life” and the body, made of the “dust from the ground,” to produce the human soul. Man did not have a soul; man was a soul. Therefore the separation of the body of dust and the breath of life would mean the death of the soul.
If the soul cannot die, then why was it that when Joshua’s forces captured the city of Hazor “they went striking every soul that was in it with the edge of the sword”? Why did David pray for deliverance from his enemy, “lest he tear my soul like a lion, rending it in pieces”? (Josh. 11:11, NW; Ps. 7:2) The conclusion is inescapable that the soul can be touched by destructive instruments; the soul can and does die.
“BUT WHAT ABOUT HEAVEN?”
“Surely David’s soul could not possibly suffer such an end as that,” protest the critics. “His immortal soul and those of all other faithful men before and after him had the transcendent glory of heaven awaiting them. No mundane thing, however powerful or sharp, could hinder their souls on their way to glory.” Ah, but did David’s “soul” really waft its way to heaven at his death? The apostle Peter answers flatly: “David, . . . both deceased and was buried and his tomb is among us to this day. . . . David did not ascend to the heavens.” (Acts 2:29, 34, NW) No, David, just like Adam, did not have a soul; he was a soul, and so David, the soul, died, was buried and had still not been raised to heaven in the apostles’ day. Moreover, neither had anyone else, aside from Christ Jesus himself. Jesus’ plain words still stand irrefutable: “No man has ascended into heaven but he that descended from heaven, the Son of man.” (John 3:13, NW) Since Jesus was the “firstfruits” of those raised to heaven, no one else could precede him. (1 Cor. 15:20) Jesus’ special prayer, “I wish that, where I am, they also may be with me,” shows further that even when this heavenly hope was opened up it was just a very special provision, and then not for all mankind, but for only a precious few, a “little flock” of Kingdom heirs.—John 17:24; Luke 12:32, NW.
WHERE DOES HELL FIT IN?
The question now arises, “If only a few go to heaven, then what of all the other faithful men and women who ever lived upon this earth?” Faithful Jacob, thinking his beloved son Joseph was dead, said disconsolately, “I shall go down mourning to my son into Sheol!” (Gen. 37:35, NW) Sheol is the Hebrew word which English Bible translators have rendered as “hell,” so “hell” is the place to which the righteous Jacob expected to go. Do not be surprised at this, for righteous Job even prayed to go there! Said he: “Oh that thou wouldest hide me in Sheol!”—Job 14:13, AS.
A shocking statement, this? Not at all, for surely these men were not worthy of torment and surely Job would not have prayed to go to hell had he thought it a place of torment. That would be asking for trouble! No, “the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not anything, . . . for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in Sheol, whither thou goest.” (Eccl. 9:5, 10, AS) Sheol, or Hades, is nothing other than the common grave of mankind.
But what of the “hell fire” mentioned at Mark 9:47, 48, King James Version? True, Jesus showed there the undesirableness of being “cast into hell fire: where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.” However, the word “hell” here is not a translation of either Sheol or Hades, heretofore mentioned, but rather of the word Gehenna. Therefore this text cannot be linked up with those that speak of conditions in Sheol or Hades, for previous scriptures have shown that there is no knowledge, device or wisdom in the place designated by those words, and hence neither could there be any sense of pain there, nor ability to suffer from fire, even if such fire existed there.
What, then, is this new word, Gehenna? This Greek word comes from a Hebrew expression, gey hinnom, or “Valley of Hinnom,” which in turn refers to the ancient valley of that name, outside the south and west walls of Jerusalem. This valley became the city’s dump and incinerator, for disposal of garbage, filth, offal, bodies of dead animals and dead criminals considered too vile for a resurrection. It came to symbolize total destruction, which was actually the purpose of the superheated flames, kept burning continuously and intensified by addition of brimstone, or sulphur. The jagged sides of the valley were strewn with refuse, making them a breeding ground for worms and maggots.
So, then, Jesus’ words above quoted had reference, not to a place where live things were tormented, but rather to a place where dead things, vile things, were cremated, reduced to ashes, destroyed. His words were calculated to induce in the Jewish mind, familiar with these things, a vision of the fate awaiting evil ones, the same fate he held out to goatlike opposers of his servants in the last days: “everlasting cutting-off,” in a destruction as complete as of garbage in a superheated incinerator.—Matt. 25:41, 46, NW.
WHAT HOPE IS THERE FOR THE DEAD?
“A good question,” someone will say. “If only a few go to heaven and all others either to rest in Sheol or Hades or perhaps to a Gehenna of complete and final annihilation, why, just where does that leave us? We might as well put our hopes to rest as well and forget about any future beyond this present life.” But no, we are not forced to such a pessimistic conclusion as all this, for again God’s Word comes to the rescue with a solid, substantial hope for all those who wish to avail themselves of it.
That hope is the resurrection, one of the Bible’s strongest themes throughout. “Abraham . . . reckoned that God was able to raise [Isaac] up even from the dead.” Job prayed to God “that thou wouldest hide me in the grave [Sheol, hell], . . . appoint me a set time, and remember me!” Yes, the firm hope of all faithful men of olden times was “that they might attain a better resurrection.”—Heb. 11:17-19, NW; Job 14:13; Heb. 11:35, NW.
But actually their hope would have been an unnecessary and ridiculous thing if the religious doctrine of man’s deathlessness were true. How so? Because “resurrection,” taken from the Greek word anástasis, means “a raising up,” or a restanding, to life. Now if one is not actually dead, how can he be restood to life? We are told by some that when man dies he is more alive than ever. Were that so, there would be no need for a resurrection. It would be superfluous, especially if the person had gone to heaven immediately at death. Why should he then be brought back into an earthly body in a resurrection? No, it is only because men “go down into silence” at their death that the resurrection is necessary.—Ps. 115:17.
DEATH YIELDS TO LIFE
“However, now Christ has been raised up from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep in death. For since death is through a man, resurrection of the dead is also through a man. For just as in Adam all are dying, so also in the Christ all will be made alive.” (1 Cor. 15:20-22, NW) Yes, Jesus’ resurrected life, witnessed by over “five hundred brothers,” now assures us of our resurrection hope, “for just as the Father has in himself the gift of life, so he has granted to the Son to have also in himself the gift of life.”—1 Cor. 15:6; John 5:26, NW.
This fabulous gift the Son Christ Jesus presents first to his “little flock” of Kingdom heirs. It is during the second “presence” of the Lord that “those who are dead in union with Christ will rise first.” (1 Thess. 4:15-17, NW) Those still living when his invisible presence begins must continue faithfully serving him till death, at which time they will be instantaneously rewarded with a heavenly resurrection. After these persons, to the number of a “hundred and forty-four thousand . . . purchased from among mankind as a firstfruits to God and to the Lamb,” have thus been resurrected to life in the heavens, then Jesus’ priceless gift of life will be extended to others. (Rev. 14:1, 4, NW) Then there will be a further fulfillment of Jesus’ words: “All those in the memorial tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who did good things to a resurrection of life, those who practiced vile things to a resurrection of judgment.” (John 5:28, 29, NW) This larger resurrection will include all the faithful men before Jesus’ time as well as since then who have died or will die faithful, but without the heavenly hope. It will also include unwitting practicers of “vile things,” such as the thief to whom Jesus, in his dying hours, promised: “You will be with me in Paradise.”—Luke 23:43, NW.
RESURRECTION—THE DOOR TO LIFE ETERNAL
Then, amid paradisaic conditions on earth, man’s true hope of “eternal freedom,” of eternal life, will be realized. Not by virtue of a separate “immortal soul” will this be accomplished, thus crediting the power of the accomplishment to man’s indestructibleness, but rather by the resurrection of dead souls back to life, to the honor of the only one powerful enough to perform such a miracle, Jehovah God. He will do it, not by overlooking the fact of death, but by coming to grips with death and hurling it and its companion Hades (hell, mankind’s common grave) into the “lake of fire,” “the second death.” (Rev. 20:14) In this highly symbolic language of Revelation we see portrayed our real basis for triumph over death. Our “door to life” is, not the scourge of death, but the gift of resurrection. For this gift and its future prospects we render thanks and homage, not to inherent immortality, which we do not possess, but rather “to God, for he gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!”—1 Cor. 15:57, NW.