IN DEATH ARE WE PRESENT WITH THE LORD?

 

BY CHRIS LEE

 

There is no doctrine, apart from the Sabbath, that shapes Adventists’ identity as completely as “the state of the dead”. In fact, some of the most energetic discussions I have with Adventists arise when their belief in annihilation and “soul sleep” is challenged by the biblical teaching about death. I have been told that I hate Adventism and desperately want to trash anything it teaches when I have explained Paul’s teaching that “to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).

Quite the contrary; I love Adventists. They are my people. Because I love my people, I try to be obedient to the New Testament commands to oppose false teachers and dangerous doctrines that twist Scripture.

I believe the notion of non-existence at death (with the underlying idea that there is no immaterial human spirit in any real sense) is seriously bad doctrine. It affects how we think about the nature of man, our fallen condition, and salvation. I believe it is important for Adventists to know what the Bible says in context about human death and why the church has believed what it has believed down through the ages.

The historic, orthodox Christian view of what happens to the spirits of post-cross believers at death can be summarized as follows: at death the spirit departs the body. The spirit returns to God where it is consciously with the Lord. At the second coming, God will bring those departed saints with Him when He comes. He will then raise up for them imperishable bodies in the resurrection.

We can systematically look at texts throughout the Bible in order to get a big-picture view of the historic doctrine summarized above. Importantly, however, the individual texts are not conclusive on their own; each one merely supports a larger picture presented in Scripture.

To formulate sound doctrine, we need to do extensive inductive Bible study in didactic passages meant to teach the church about this very topic. Therefore, I will focus in this article on two such passages: 2 Corinthians 5:1-9 and Philippians 1: 21-26. Does the Bible actually teach “absent from the body, at home with the Lord”? Does it really teach that to depart the body to be with the Lord is very much better than staying alive here on earth?

 

Adventist proof text

First, however, I will examine one of Adventism’s central passages used to defend its doctrine of “soul sleep”—a misnomer which hides the fact that Adventism actually believes people cease to exist at death. The passage is below:

Ecclesiastes 9:1-9 (NASB)—For I have taken all this to my heart and explain it that righteous men, wise men, and their deeds are in the hand of God. Man does not know whether it will be love or hatred; anything awaits him. It is the same for all. There is one fate for the righteous and for the wicked; for the good, for the clean and for the unclean; for the man who offers a sacrifice and for the one who does not sacrifice. As the good man is, so is the sinner; as the swearer is, so is the one who is afraid to swear. This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that there is one fate for all men. Furthermore, the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil and insanity is in their hearts throughout their lives. Afterwards they go to the dead. For whoever is joined with all the living, there is hope; surely a live dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten. Indeed their love, their hate and their zeal have already perished, and they will no longer have a share in all that is done under the sun. Go then, eat your bread in happiness and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; for God has already approved your works. Let your clothes be white all the time, and let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the woman whom you love all the days of your fleeting life which He has given to you under the sun; for this is your reward in life and in your toil in which you have labored under the sun.

We will examine this passage from four perspectives. First we will look at the context of the book of Ecclesiastes and examine how the whole book informs this Adventist proof-text. Then we will examine Ecclesiastes’ literary context, its context as part of the Old Testament, and finally its biblical context. We will look at the perspective Ecclesiastes’ author is presenting and at the inspired purpose of the book.

In fact, it is obvious from even a cursory reading of this passage that the author sees no difference between the fates of the righteous and of the wicked. Death is seen as an evil fate that separates mankind from the things of this world—a perspective which the author assumes is all we can anticipate. In short, this passage states that when any human dies, he or she has no more part in anything “under the sun” (anything that is done in this world). The author presents this view because he is showing how futile life and death appear apart from a relationship with God.

At the same time, however, there is a sense in which believers would agree that the dead have no part in anything done in this world: Christians do not believe that the dead are roaming the earth as spirits or poltergeists. In other words, Christians do not believe in communicating with the dead or that the dead are communicating with us. Furthermore, Christians oppose séances or any other form of spiritualism. They believe, as the Bible teaches, that the dead are either with the Lord or in Sheol awaiting final judgment. They are not here on earth “under the sun”, and they are no longer directly involved with the activities of life “under the sun”.

As we work through the context of Ecclesiastes in the next section, it will become even clearer why we need to consider the inspired purpose of the book before using this passage as a primary place to formulate doctrine on the conscious awareness of believers who have died in Christ.

 

The book context

In order to understand the purpose and perspective of this book of wisdom literature, let us consider a few passages. I will use the Holman Christian Standard Bible instead of my usual New American Standard Bible for these quotes because it clearly conveys the futility contained in the texts.

Ecclesiastes 1:1-3—The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. “Absolute futility,” says the Teacher. “Absolute futility. Everything is futile.” What does a man gain for all his efforts he labors at under the sun?

Ecclesiastes 4:1-3 (HCSB)—Again, I observed all the acts of oppression being done under the sun. Look at the tears of those who are oppressed; they have no one to comfort them. Power is with those who oppress them; they have no one to comfort them. So I admired the dead, who have already died, more than the living, who are still alive. But better than either of them is the one who has not yet existed, who has not seen the evil activity that is done under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 6:1-5 (HCSB)—Here is a tragedy I have observed under the sun, and it weighs heavily on humanity: God gives a man riches, wealth, and honor so that he lacks nothing of all he desires for himself, but God does not allow him to enjoy them. Instead, a stranger will enjoy them. This is futile and a sickening tragedy. A man may father a hundred children and live many years. No matter how long he lives, if he is not satisfied by good things and does not even have a proper burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. For he comes in futility and he goes in darkness, and his name is shrouded in darkness. Though a stillborn child does not see the sun and is not conscious, it has more rest than he.

Ecclesiastes 12:8 (HCSB)—“Absolute futility,” says the Teacher. “Everything is futile.”

Whenever I hear someone quote Ecclesiastes 9:5 in a discussion of the state of the dead, I always think, “Have they ever read Ecclesiastes?”

Ecclesiastes was written by Solomon (or in the voice of Solomon) during his apostasy. The context of the entire book is the futility of life apart from God. Depending on the translation one uses, the Hebrew word hebel might be translated as “futile”, “meaningless”, or “vanity”. Whichever English word is used, each conveys the truth that whatever is done apart from God is worthless and fleeting. This futility is a predominant theme of the book as demonstrated by the fact that hebel is used 33 times in Ecclesiastes.

Underscoring this theme of futility, several passages recommend that the reader live it up. Eat, drink, and be merry, because indulgence is all there is. Moreover, several passages suggest that there is no difference between the outcomes of the righteous and the unrighteous dead.

This viewpoint certainly does not reflect the worldview of one who is in relationship with God. In fact, Christians don’t believe that life is meaningless, and they certainly don’t believe that there is no difference between the eternal destinies of the righteous and the unrighteous.

In light of the underlying theme of futility, we have to ask: is Ecclesiastes teaching falsehood?

Absolutely not! Instead, it is graphically demonstrating an absolute truth. Life without God is futile, meaningless, and without any positive hope for the future. Ecclesiastes is truly and accurately portraying the bleak outlook of someone apart from God. It’s a depressing but true picture of what such a life looks like. Without God we might as well live it up, because this is all there is; life is meaningless. Fortunately, however, Christians have a hope that goes far beyond this life.

Understanding the context of Ecclesiastes raises the question, “Is this really the primary book from which we should formulate our doctrine on the state of the dead?” Of course not! This book is written to show how depressing and meaningless life apart from God is. In fact, the view of death the author presents is just as morbid, depressing, and meaningless as the view of life that he presents. It is a truthful and accurate view if one is separated from God, but it does not describe the view of those who are in Christ.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone who has ever read this book even once would want to use a phrase from it as the foundation of a doctrine on the state of the dead. This book was simply not written to establish doctrine. Ecclesiastes does have some valuable things to say about death, especially in the last chapter as it turns the reader’s heart and mind back towards God, but this book is not a primary passage for formulating a Christian doctrine on the state of the dead.

I strongly affirm that all Scripture is inspired, inerrant, infallible, and useful for teaching and training. We need to be careful, however, to rightly use God’s word for its intended purpose. Ecclesiastes is intended to teach us about the futility of life apart from God, not about the state of those who have died in Christ.

 

Literary context

The book of Ecclesiastes is part of what is known as “wisdom literature”. Wisdom literature is not usually intended to be didactic doctrinal literature. Wisdom literature teaches us certain truths, but it often uses highly poetic language and other literary devices to do so. Because wisdom literature is designed to portray certain truths about life in very memorable ways, we need to be very careful in drawing our doctrine primarily from wisdom literature. Rather, we should use didactic passages to interpret the wisdom literature.

Let me give you a graphic example of literary devices from the wisdom literature of Psalms.

Psalms 137:7-9—Remember, O LORD, against the sons of Edom The day of Jerusalem, Who said, “Raze it, raze it To its very foundation.” O daughter of Babylon, you devastated one, How blessed will be the one who repays you with the recompense with which you have repaid us. How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rock.

If we weren’t careful in our hermeneutical methods, we might formulate a doctrine that says that those who kill the children of their enemies will be blessed by God! We know, however, that this conclusion can’t be our “marching order” because we have didactic passages that teach something very different. For example:

Matthew 5:43-44—“You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.’ “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

 

What are we to make of Psalm 137?

The Psalms show the full range of human emotion. They often show people crying out to God in their anguish and pain in the rawness of human experience. They encourage us to open our hearts to God, to pour out our thoughts to Him, to allow Him to comfort us, and ultimately to allow Him to conform us to His way of thinking. The Psalms are not primarily intended for the formulation of doctrine. They tell us much about worship, the relationship between God and man, and the woes and joys of life. We can learn much from the Psalms, but they must be interpreted based upon didactic teaching literature or we could easily formulate wrong doctrine.

There is also one more point we must make about wisdom literature. It frequently advances truisms that are usually true in most cases, but not always true in every individual case. We could give many examples of these types of truisms in Proverbs, but one should suffice:

Proverbs 22:6—Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it.

While this principle is usually true, we could probably all cite cases in which things did not turn out this way. We should not then formulate a doctrine claiming that any parent with a rebellious child must have failed to train them in the way they should go. In fact, some parents have worked very hard to train their children only to have them go astray. The proverbs are not meant to teach absolute rules that apply in all cases. Rather, wisdom literature articulates general truisms about life.

Much more could be said on this subject, but these two examples illustrate why we do not want to use wisdom literature as our primary source for doctrine. To formulate strong doctrine, we must start with didactic passages and then rightly interpret and apply the truths contained in wisdom literature in light of the teaching passages.

 

Testament context

The entire Bible is inspired and the entire Bible is true, but Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God. The teachings of Jesus and His apostles revealed truths that were only partially known or were unexplained mysteries in the Old Testament. This fact does not mean that the New Testament corrects the Old Testament; rather, the New Testament provides more information that expands and clarifies many things that were not fully known in the Old Testament. Some examples of things that were either mysteries or partial mysteries in the Old Testament but were more fully revealed in the New Testament include: the nature of God’s Messiah, the Trinity, the church, resurrection, and death.

In the Old Testament death is a rather vague, shadowy concept not fully understood by the Jews nor fully revealed by the Old Testament writers. The New Testament, in contrast, gives us much more information about what we can expect at death and why we have such hope. Because the ministry and the gospel of the Lord Jesus uncovered many of the Old Testament mysteries, we need to allow the New Testament to shed light on the Old Testament. If our doctrine is primarily formulated on Old Testament passages, it is not nearly as strong as if we start with the New Testament and then interpret the Old Testament in the full light of Scripture. Because of Jesus, therefore, we have a much clearer picture of death revealed in the New Testament.

 

Biblical context

The analogy of faith dictates that we may never interpret any passage in such a way that it contradicts something that is taught elsewhere in Scripture. The Bible is internally consistent. We know that if we ever interpret anything in such a way that it contradicts something else in the Bible, it is not the Bible that is in error; we are. This principle of hermeneutics, therefore, means we cannot interpret Ecclesiastes 9:5 in such a way as to contradict other parts of the Bible. We cannot use Ecclesiastes 9:5 to contradict Paul’s teaching in I Corinthians 5 and Philippians 1. If we do so, it is we who are in error, not the Bible. The Adventist interpretation of Ecclesiastes 9:5 puts it in conflict with other parts of the Bible. That fact means the Adventist interpretation must necessarily be wrong.

By now it should be apparent that the understanding of Ecclesiastes 9:5 we had when we grew up Adventist is not supported within the context of the passage, the book, the literature form, the testament, or the Bible as a whole. Overall, it is a very weak “proof text” indeed, and it rather surprises me that some still use it.

Now that we have examined Adventism’s central Old Testament passage supporting their view of soul sleep, let us turn to the New Testament and discover what its central didactic passages teach us. We will begin with 2 Corinthians 5:1-9 and examine it passage by passage.

2 Corinthians 5:1—For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

Paul here uses the symbolism of a tent to represent our current perishable bodies. Significantly, a tent is not a permanent dwelling but is easily torn down, just like these physical bodies. The good news, however, is that we can look forward to the resurrection when we will receive an imperishable body from Heaven that is permanent and will never be torn down.

2 Corinthians 5:2-4—For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven, inasmuch as we, having put it on, will not be found naked. For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed but to be clothed, so that what is mortal will be swallowed up by life.

Paul has already compared our current bodies to temporary tents. We groan in these bodies that grow older every day. We experience aches, pains, sickness and frailty, and yet few of us really look forward to the unnatural intermediate state of death when these bodies will be torn down like a tent. To be unclothed spirit without body is not a natural state, nor is it the final state. The Christian worldview is not a platonic view that seeks to be set free from the body. The Christian worldview is very physical. What we truly anticipate is the final state when our spirits will be clothed with imperishable eternal bodies. It is worth noting that the idea that we can be “unclothed” or “naked” strongly suggests that there is something real there to unclothe—our spirits.

2 Corinthians 5:5-9—Now He who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave to us the Spirit as a pledge. Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord—for we walk by faith, not by sight—we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord. Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him.

This passage is the source of the oft-repeated Christian refrain, “Absent from the body, present with Lord”. These words are clear. In fact, I don’t know how Paul could be any more clear. When we are in these bodies, we are absent from the Lord. When we are absent from these bodies we are at home with the Lord.

Ask yourself this question: if we don’t have spirits, only breath as Adventist doctrine teaches, how could we possibly be absent from our bodies and at home with the Lord? The only way Paul’s teaching makes any sense at all is if we have a real spirit that can be absent from the body and be with Christ awaiting the resurrection.

Also please note two other very important things:

  1. Paul says he would actually “prefer…to be absent from the body”! This startling assertion can only make sense if he is consciously with Christ. Think about it: who in their right mind would prefer to be non-existent over being alive on earth with loved ones, doing the work the Lord has given us to do? Paul can’t possibly be saying he would prefer to be non-existent or unconscious. It also doesn’t work to say that Paul is merely looking forward to the second coming and the resurrection because he specifically says that he is talking about a time when he is “absent from the body” and “at home with the Lord”. This state cannot be the resurrection because he is “absent from the body”. Paul is describing a conscious existence in which he is absent from the body and present with the Lord—a state which he sees as preferable to being alive on earth.
  2. Paul indicates that it is possible to be actively pleasing to the Lord when in the body or when absent from the body! The Greek verb used here is in the present tense and active voice. The only way we could possibly be actively pleasing to the Lord when absent from the body is if we are conscious and active in some way. To say that Paul is talking about a non-existent or unconscious state makes his teaching nonsense. And again, it simply does not work to claim that Paul is only looking forward to the resurrection; on the contrary, he specifically refers to being “absent from the body”. There’s just no viable way to get around Paul’s words.

There is no legitimate way we can get an unconscious or non-existent state out of this didactic passage without doing incredible mental and verbal gymnastics. The words are as clear as they could possibly be. If you were Paul and wanted to state that to be “absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord”, how could you state it any more clearly? Paul has made his point abundantly clear to anyone willing and able to hear it.

There’s one more thing we need to remember as we study the words of Scripture. The most basic rule of hermeneutics (the science and art of proper biblical interpretation) is that the strongest, most dogmatic Christian doctrine should be based on New Testament didactic (teaching) passages. Starting from the solid foundation of very clear teaching that is given to the New Testament Church, we are then able to rightly interpret the Old Testament including the wisdom literature. Be very suspicious of dogmatic doctrine that seems to flip-flop this most basic hermeneutical principle. When a doctrine has been based largely on Old Testament wisdom literature, it deserves careful scrutiny.

 

To die is very much better

We have seen that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. We have also seen that we can continue to be actively pleasing to the Lord when absent from the body. While this passage is abundantly clear, Paul has also given us a companion passage that, while equally didactic, is very personal. He was in prison and possibly facing death as he wrote the book of Philippians, and he reflected on the possibility that his life might be nearly over. I will end this article with a detailed look at Philippians 1:21-26 as Paul confidently declares that dying would be very much better for him, even though staying alive would be more necessary for the church.

Philippians 1:21—For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

Paul sees death, not as a non-existent state, but as a state that can actually be described as “gain”.

Philippians 1:22—But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose.

In fact, Paul is so eager to be with the Lord that he can barely choose which possibility he prefers, living or dying. Also note that there is no indication at all that the options are living on in the flesh or being non-existent. Rather the most natural way to understand Paul’s dilemma is to understand the choices as living on in the flesh or living on in the spirit.

Philippians 1:23—But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better;

Both possibilities, living on in the flesh or living on in the spirit, are desirable to Paul. Paul knows that if he remains in the flesh he will be able to continue his work and serve the fledgling church. However, he also knows that being with Christ is a far better thing.

The only way that being with Christ can be considered better than continuing on in this life is if it is a conscious existence with Christ. If the choice were between staying and continuing his work or becoming non-existent, then it would be a pretty easy choice. Who would be torn between living and being non-existent? That choice would make nonsense of the dilemma that is tearing Paul in two different directions.

It also doesn’t work to say Paul is only looking forward to the future resurrection at the second coming. It’s obvious by the way he is struggling with the options that he is debating two immediate possibilities: living on in the flesh now or departing and being with Christ now.

Philippians 1:24—…yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake.

Again, ask yourself what contrast Paul is making here. What is the direct contrast to “remain on in the flesh”? The most direct contrast is to “depart in the spirit”.

Philippians 1:25-26—Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith, so that your proud confidence in me may abound in Christ Jesus through my coming to you again.

As Paul struggles with where his desire should be placed, he ultimately displays a selfless character. As badly as he wants to depart and be with Christ, he instead accepts that he will remain and continue the work. Of course, this decision to remain would be no struggle at all if the only other possibility was to be non-existent. This entire passage, and the dilemma Paul faces, are both predicated upon the biblical teaching that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. This reality is the only reason that Paul would have such a hard time choosing where to place his desire.

As Christians, it is very comforting to know that to die is gain. To die is to be in the very presence of our Lord. In fact, being with Christ at death is desirable and can even be considered very much better than our present condition. As Christians, it is also comforting to know that when the Bible says we will be “absent from the body and at home with the Lord”, we can simply accept it for what it says and claim this promise as reality.

Finally, Paul explains in 2 Timothy 1:9-10 why the facts of death and life were veiled in the Old Testament. He says that God’s purpose and grace were granted to us “from all eternity, but now have been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”

Before Jesus fulfilled the law including taking its curse which condemned the whole human race, and before He abolished death by rising from the tomb, the truth about life and immortality could not be known to us. The truth about our death and life has been revealed in the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Only after He completed His ministry could we know the truth about our condition in death and our security in Him.

We can know that, if we have trusted in the Lord Jesus as our Savior because of His finished atonement, when we die we will not enter an unconscious non-existence. Instead, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. †

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