Teaching: The Dead are Dead (Part Three)

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What is death?
“Death” is the total absence of life. Some branches of theology teach that death is not the absence of life, but rather separation from God. However, that is a theological definition of death based on the doctrine that a person does not actually die when he is dead. It is not a definition based on lexical evidence. The Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek all use words that mean “die” in the sense of cease to live; they do not mean “continue to live in a separated state.”

Many ancient societies, including the ancient Greeks, believed that the soul lived on after the body died, but they did not define “death” as “separation from God.” They knew that when the body “died,” it ceased to have life. We must derive our theology from the Word of God, which never says “the body” dies. It says, “the person dies.”

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A Grave Question

Orthodox Christian teaching is that at death the soul departs to one of two literal places, “heaven” or “hell.” But this doctrine does not account for those believers who died prior to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We believe Charles F. Baker’s work entitled Dispensational Theology is representative of its confusion. In a chapter entitled “The Intermediate State: The Place of the Dead,” in the section “Sheol-Hades,” Baker writes:

It would appear that as far as the unsaved are concerned there has been no change in their state since the death of the first one. There seems to have been a change brought about by the resurrection of Christ which affects the state of the saved dead, but whether this is a change of actual location or a matter of more complete revelation is not clear. Of one thing we may be sure: the saved dead are now with the Lord awaiting resurrection. [1]

Can we really be “sure” when things are “not clear”? Such confusion is due to men making literal that which is figurative in the Bible.

What happens to the “soul” at the death of the body? In Scripture, the soul figuratively “departs.” Genesis 35:18a shows this figurative usage. “And it came to pass, as her soul [nephesh=life] was departing, (for she died)….” To where does the soul “depart”? It “departs” to sheol, which is often translated “hell,” but which biblically means the grave, or “gravedom.” [For a thorough examination of the meaning of the Old Testament Hebrew word sheol and the corresponding New Testament Greek word hades, the we refer you to the word “hell” in E.W. Bullinger’s A Critical Lexicon and Concordance to the English and Greek New Testament (Zondervan Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan).]

The following verses show two things: first, that at death the soul departs to sheol, and second, that the believer’s hope of deliverance from the grave by resurrection is secure.

Psalm 16:10
For Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell [sheol—gravedom]; Neither wilt Thou suffer Thine Holy One to see corruption

Psalm 49:15
But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave [sheol— gravedom]: for He shall receive me. Selah.

It is significant that in Psalm 49:15 the Hebrew word for “receive” is laqach, which means “to take away.” God, through Christ, will “take away” the dead from the grave.

In Greek mythology, Hades was the god of the underworld, and his name came to represent this fictitious place. The Septuagint was a second-century B.C. Greek translation of the Old Testament, and in it the word hades was chosen as the counterpart to the Hebrew sheol. As they do with sheol, many English versions of the Bible erroneously translate the Greek word hades as “hell” rather than “grave.”

In his lexicon, Dr. E.W. Bullinger makes a thorough case for the translation of both sheol and hades as “gravedom,” a word he apparently coined to describe “the state of being of the dead” in the most biblically accurate manner. This state—the grave—is different than qeber—a grave, because sheol exists only as a concept, not an actual place. Bodies buried in a qeber, a literal grave, will eventually disappear. Sheol is the figurative state, or “dwelling place,” of the dead.

Though some who champion the traditional doctrine of immediate life after death have argued that sheol was a literal place of eternal torment, Scripture plainly says otherwise. The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible states: “Nowhere in the Old Testament is the abode of the dead regarded as a place of punishment or torment. The concept of an infernal “hell” developed in Israel only during the Hellenistic period…” [2] Edward Fudge quotes Baker’s Dictionary of Theology: “Sheol is uniformly depicted in the Old Testament as the eternal amoral abode of both righteous and unrighteous alike.” [3]

A figure of speech is a legitimate grammatical construction designed to emphasize a particular point. A figure of speech arrests our attention by its departure from literal fact or normal grammatical usage. Thus to recognize a figure of speech, we must first identify the literal truth regarding the subject.

Because sheol means “gravedom,” where there is no consciousness, Scripture references referring to those in sheol walking, talking, etc., must be figurative. For example:

Isaiah 14:8-10
(8) Yea, the fir trees rejoice at thee, and the cedars of Lebanon, saying, Since thou art laid down, no feller [woodcutter] is come up against us.
(9) Hell from beneath is moved for thee to meet thee at thy coming: it stirreth up the dead for thee, even all the chief ones of the earth; it hath raised up from their thrones all the kings of the nations.
(10) All they shall speak and say unto thee, Art thou also become weak as we? art thou become like unto us?

The context of these verses is the fall of the king of Babylon (verse 4). His fall would have made the fir trees and cedars in Lebanon “rejoice,” because they were prized for lumber and often carried off to Babylon (verse 8). Via the figure of speech personification, the trees are vividly portrayed as rejoicing because no one has come to cut them down. Verse nine continues this figurative language, as the dead welcome their new companion.

When the Bible says that Jesus descended into “the lower parts of the earth” (Eph. 4:9), it means that he died and was buried in hades, or “gravedom.” In Hebrews 2:9, God’s Word says about Jesus “that He by the grace of God should taste death for every man.” For three days and three nights, Jesus was as dead as anyone else who ever tasted death. As Isaiah plainly stated regarding the death of the Messiah: “He was cut off from the land of the living” (53:8); “He was appointed a grave with the wicked in his death” (53:9).

It is too bad that sheol and hades have been translated into the English word “hell,” which has today taken on the mythological Greek meanings associated with the pagan idea of an “underworld” where the dead continue to live on in torment. E.W. Bullinger’s comments on the word hades in Appendix 131 of The Companion Bible are extremely enlightening:

The meaning which the Greeks put upon it does not concern us; nor have we anything to do with the imaginations of the heathen, or the traditions of Jews or Romanists, or the teachings of demons or evil spirits, or of any who still cling to them.

The Holy Spirit has used it as one of the “words pertaining to the earth,” and in so doing has “purified” it, “as silver tried in a furnace” (Ps. 12:6). From this we learn that His own words “are pure” but words belonging to this earth have to be “purified.”

The Old Testament is the fountain-head of the Hebrew language. It has no literature behind it. But the case is entirely different with the Greek language. The Hebrew Sheol is a word Divine in its origin and usage. The Greek Hades is human in its origin and comes down to us laden with centuries of development, in which it has acquired new senses, meanings, and usages.

Seeing that the Holy Spirit has used it in Acts 2:27, 31 as His own equivalent of Sheol in Psalm 16:10, He has settled, once for all, the sense in which we are to understand it. The meaning He has given to Sheol in Psalm 16:10 is the one meaning we are to give it wherever it occurs in the New Testament, whether we transliterate it or translate it. We have no liberty to do otherwise, and must discard everything outside the Word of God.

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You can read more about this subject here:

Is There Death After Life?

Free Online Seminar: Death & Resurrection to Life

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