CULTURAL MYTHS OF LIFE AFTER DEATH
Greek mythological influence has infiltrated Christianity since its origins. In the early days of the Church. Since Gnosticism and other beliefs were pronounced as departures from biblical teaching, early leaders of the Church easily quelled and discarded such heretical arguments. But Greek culture continued to quietly influence the Church, to the point that some of the traditional teachings we uncritically accept today have mythological underpinnings.
One of the early sources of direct Greek influence on Christianity was Athenagoras (born AD 127 in Athens). In his early days as a philosopher, he practiced Platonism (which contains a belief of the soul’s natural immortality). He initially opposed the claims of Christianity; in an effort to develop his counter-arguments, he studied Christian writings, only to find himself persuaded by what he read. Following his conversion to Christianity, he continued to cling to a belief that the soul outlives the body. In chapter 31 of his A Plea for the Christians, he says, “We are persuaded that when we are removed from the present life we shall live another life…as heavenly spirit…or, falling with the rest, a worse one and in fire; for God has not made us…that we should perish and be annihilated.” [footnote]For more information on the competing concepts of natural and conditional immortality, see The Doctrine of Immortality in the Early Church by Dr. John H. Roller, AB, Th.M, Ph.D. www.truthaccordingtoscripture.com/documents/death/immortality-early-church/John%20Roller%20–%20Doctrine%20of%20Immortality%20in%20the%20Early%20Church.pdf. Accessed May 12, 2019.[/footnote]
Perhaps never before in orthodox Christianity had it been taught that we live as a heavenly spirit in the next life. While the Gnostics were denounced for demonizing the body, this softer teaching of a post-body afterlife had a lasting imprint on orthodoxy.
Although an early adopter, Athenagoras was not the most influential Christian leader to draw from Platonic teachings and Greek myths. Clement of Alexandria was one key figure, along with his student Origen, who is quoted below:
“We shall be caught up in the clouds to meet Christ in the air, and so shall we ever be with the Lord. We are therefore to suppose that the saints will remain there until they recognize the twofold mode of government in those things which are performed in the air….
“I think, therefore, that all the saints who depart from this life will remain in some place situated on the earth, which holy Scripture calls paradise, as in some place of instruction, and, so to speak, class-room or school of souls, in which they are to be instructed regarding all the things which they had seen on earth….
“If anyone indeed be pure in heart, and holy in mind, and more practiced in perception, he will, by making more rapid progress, quickly ascend to a place in the air, and reach the kingdom of Heaven, through those ‘mansions,’ so to speak, in the various places which the Greeks have termed spheres, i.e., globes, but which holy Scripture has called heavens.”
—Origen, De Principis, II, ch. xi
Notice the hybrid relation of Greek myth and Scripture. Origen was a major contributor to western Christianity. His influence is still realized today; many major sects and denominations of Christians continue to believe in this hybrid model. Most people do not realize how much the Church borrows from Plato, who himself was influenced by Egyptian and Babylonian myths. We struggle to notice these mythological influences because our secular western culture has been fashioned by the same influences.
This is the main crisis of the Church in the west: a mythological worldview led formative Church leaders to skew their interpretations of the Bible, thereby changing the gospel. Unbelievable? It happened.
In very ancient texts, only gods could rise again after death; when a mortal or demi-god died, they had no chance of a risen afterlife.[footnote]See the ending of the Epic of Gilgamesh in which Gilgamesh steals, and promptly loses, a rejuvenating plant from the underworld. Text available at www.ancienttexts.org/library/mesopotamian/gilgamesh/tab11.htm. Accessed on May 20, 2019.[/footnote] The person’s spirit or soul would be trapped in the underworld forever. We do not find a mythological reference to a heavenly afterlife for regular mortals until Pythagoras, who recounted an Egyptian myth about floating souls aboard solar ships. Plato took it from there, and his philosophy made it into Jewish and Christian theology. Paul is rolling over in his grave.
Christians and Hellenized Hebrew scholars developed a belief in the immortality of a person’s soul or spirit through contact with the Greeks (and other pagans who carried mythological influences). The Greeks had fashioned their mythologies from Babylonian and Egyptian views of Orphic mystery religions. Plato’s philosophy in particular blended these beliefs into a concept that is widely held today in Christian and secular circles alike within the western world.
“When the concept of the soul was further developed in the Greek world, a sharp distinction was made between the mortal body and the immortal soul which originates in the divine world. Only the latter journeys in the world to come. The idea of a journey of the soul now makes its appearance in Greek literature. According to the Orphic writings (6th – 5th century [BC]), which introduce the idea, the goal of souls is to return to their heavenly home after long travels. Hades now becomes the place of punishment, hell. Plato introduced into Greek philosophy the belief of the immortality of the soul and its many [re]incarnations up to the goal of final purification. According to the myth … the soul goes to the place of judgment after leaving the body. There the judges order the righteous … to ascend to Heaven … The idea gradually changes from a descent of the soul to the underworld, to an ascent of the soul into Heaven.”
—Gerhard Kittel[footnote]Kittel, Gerhard. Theological Dictionary of the N.T., Vol. VI, p. 568.[/footnote]
The historian George Ladd shows that these non-biblical concepts of the spirit and soul were introduced in the interim period between the writing of the Old and New Testaments.
“In the intertestamental period, a distinct development is to be noted; both pneuma [spirit or breath] and psyche [soul] are conceived as entities capable of separate existence. The Pauline usage of psyche is closer to the Old Testament than is the intertestamental literature. Paul never uses psyche as a separate entity in man, nor does he ever intimate that the psyche can survive the death of the body. Psyche is ‘life’ understood against a Hebrew background.” [footnote]George Eldon Ladd. A Theology of the New Testament, 459–60. 1974 [/footnote]
The Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (DPHL) says this about Paul’s beliefs regarding the resurrection:
“Paul’s teaching about the bodily resurrection arises out of a Jewish anthropology in which the ‘soul’ [Hebrew: nephesh; Greek: psyche] is the animating principle of human life. In mainstream Jewish thought human beings do not have souls, they are souls….
“Given this background it is perfectly understandable how in Romans 8:23 Paul describes the effects of the resurrection in terms of the ultimate ‘redemption of our bodies.’”[footnote]Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, p 810. InterVarsity Press, 1993.[/footnote]
The literal biblical concepts of body, soul, and spirit are different from the westernized version brought to us by the Greeks.
We also need to bear in mind that Platonism includes the idea that the physical realm is bad and the spirit realm is superior. Notice how current western thinking echoes that theme by fixating on an end to the world in which everything physical is destroyed. Even within western Christianity, the idea persists that only heaven exists eternally, while all physical matter will either disappear or be destroyed through God’s end-time wrath. This contradicts the land promise and the new (regenerated) earth concept that appear throughout the Bible.
Many prophecies declare that God will bring “new heavens and a new earth.”[footnote]See Isaiah 65–66; Matthew 19:28; 2 Peter 3:13; and Revelation 21:1.[/footnote] This end-time event is associated with restoration, redemption, regeneration, renewal, and cleansing after judgment takes place.
Why would Christ create and inherit the earth only to blow it up? Isaiah 45:17–18 tells us that Christ has a purpose for the earth. Fire does feature in end-time prophecy, but the lasting images are of an earth restored to its unspoiled state—not a world destroyed.[footnote]We will discuss Revelation’s treatment of fire in Volume II. See Deuteronomy 29:29.[/footnote]
“The restoration of all things” implies that in a literal sense all things will return to an Edenic state. Whether you want to call this new world the Promised Land, heaven, the Garden of Eden Part II, paradise, or the kingdom of heaven—God’s restorative work has begun but is not yet completed.
God’s great love drives him to redeem his creation; through his master plan, he will fulfill his desire to live with us forever. We see this plan summarized in Ephesians 1:10 and realized all throughout the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.
It is very important to come to a correct understanding of the Old Testament in light of the promises built into the new covenant; this foundational knowledge ensures that we preach the genuine gospel message. Once we understand the promises and covenant foundation in relation to the Big Three end-time events and the receipt of our inheritance, we will see a common and coherent theme throughout the entire Bible.
It would be nice if Christians could send a consistent message to the world. Mixed messages yield mixed reception. Why can’t there be just one gospel? It has been too long since Christians have rallied together from different walks of life around a common literal understanding of the Bible.
If you take only one thing from this book, it should be this point: Scripture clearly states that a bodily resurrection is our only hope. We can disagree on the details of what precedes the resurrection event, or what follows, but the vital point is that we will be with Christ on the restored earth.
Will a “millennial” earthly kingdom serve as prelude to Resurrection Day? Will the resurrection mark the beginning of God’s eternal kingdom on earth? These debates only matter if the kingdom is established on earth, not some celestial realm or mystical place.
Abraham is the first person of any significant record shown to anticipate resurrection; previous religious myths held that resurrection was only for gods. Adam and Noah likely had some awareness of God’s ability to resurrect their bodies; however, nowhere in their biblical accounts does this topic arise. Stemming from Abraham’s influence, the main monotheistic religions all shared the belief that common people had access to God’s gift of physical resurrection of the dead (modern monotheists have strayed from their roots in this regard). Abraham also offers us the main biblical example of faith in the gospel plan as initiated in Genesis 3:15.
If God can create life in the womb (Ecclesiastes 11:5), he can sustain life. If God can raise “dry bones” from the dust they came from and knit them into a newly restored body (Ezekiel 37:1–14), he can also bring back consciousness that is stored in the resting place of Sheol. If God created mankind in the beginning, he can certainly resurrect physical matter (Psalm 104:29–30) and give us glorified bodies as he glorified Christ’s resurrected body. The resurrection may sound foolish, but if we have faith to believe in a literal creation, we have enough to accept the resurrection. There are many truths we wish to understand, but God only reveals some.
The substance and timing of the end-time events described in the book of Revelation are far less important to understand than the gospel of the end times. It is of the utmost importance that we understand God’s offer of salvation to us and to the world.
Ancient and Modern Opposition
Is Christianity like all other religions in the world that pose the myth of a soul floating to heaven (or down to hell)? Or does a literal understanding of the Bible compel the belief of a physical resurrection into a glorified body? Is the Bible a symbolic book that invites interpretation based on individual preferences? Or is it a revelation from God that is meant to have one collective interpretation?
In the Hindu epic Mahabharata, Krishna argues for a form of resurrection via reincarnation, telling Arjuna, “Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.”
The eastern pantheistic religions share a belief in an eternal cosmic collectivity. Interestingly, these religions trace back to an early form of monotheism. We see traces in early Indian and Chinese written records of a monotheistic supreme creator God who rules over lesser “gods” (similar to the biblical treatment of God’s supremacy over the gods of the Egyptians and the Philistines).[footnote]As far back as the 23rd century BC, the Chinese offered sacrifices to ShangDi, the “heavenly ruler.” For more information, see “The Original Unknown God of China” by Dr. Ethel Nelson (June 1, 1998. answersingenesis.org/genesis/the-original-unknown-god-of-china/#a1. Accessed June 4, 2019). And ancient India believed in a “God of gods” known as Rudra, the eternal, unified One who contained everything seen and unseen in the universe. Rudra’s attributes are described in the Atharvashiras Upanishad, a text dated to roughly the 5th century BC. For an excerpt, see Researches Into the Nature and Affinity of Ancient and Hindu Mythology (pg 443. 1831) by Vans Kennedy (books.google.com/books?id=bU1OZhGq8qUC&pg=PA443. Accessed June 4, 2019).[/footnote]
The rise of quantum physics in our modern age raises again the ancient eastern idea that we are all part of the same consciousness. Proponents of New Age mysticism point to these scientific theories as evidence—even though quantum physicists themselves aren’t trying to promote a religious belief system.
Even though quantum physics suggests some level of human connectivity, this does not mean you and I lack an individual nature. Scientists cannot prove whether we exist as separate individuals or as part of the combined consciousness shared by all matter residing in the entire universe.
Quantum physics would tell us that dust doesn’t really exist in any specific location at a final level—rather it “moves” in cosmic consciousness. Since everything is connected somehow within this quantum realm, there is some new reality we are yet to perceive. However, these cutting-edge scientific ideas are not new at all; eastern religions have promoted the idea of cosmic collectivity for thousands of years. Scientific progress merely allows us to use different words to describe our big ideas about the universe. There is little we can prove. Science cannot displace faith.
No human (aside from Christ when he was on earth) has ever proven anything substantial about how God created or sustains the universe. Without proof, there can be no claims. We only need to read Job 38–41 to see an explanation of God’s understanding compared to humans. Either God has revealed it, or we can’t know it.
After God spends those four chapters reminding Job of everything he doesn’t understand about the world, Job replies,“Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).
Job’s summary says it all. Most of the book seems to point to the wisdom and righteousness of Job. But in the end, he repents and turns to God, confessing that he really didn’t know or comprehend much at all. Job was humbled. God favors humble people who turn completely to him.
As Christians, we shouldn’t need scientific proof of God’s existence or other matters of faith because we have our answer already. Faith is the evidence of the unseen (Hebrews 11:1–3). In faith, we read passages about the outpouring of the Spirit (such as Galatians 4:6) and receive these spiritual gifts from the heavenly realm.
A person who has received grace by the Holy Spirit knows it came from an unseen source, so this person has “proof” of the faith God provided. But a nonbeliever who wants proof of the unseen needs to have an open, humble heart like a child or they will reject God before he has a chance to supply the “proof.”
“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
This verse has created a lot of confusion. Many think it means that a person needs to have a simple, very basic faith—like a child’s naïve belief in Santa Claus. But faith is not a belief. Jesus’ main point is that a child brings nothing to the table. Children simply trust in something else, not themselves or their own degree of belief. There are no degrees of faith itself, as it is 100 percent based on grace. There are only degrees of humility based upon how much we trust in God versus our own understanding. Belief is secondary to the gift itself.
Though Peter spent three years at Jesus’ side, he stated God did not distinguish between his faith and that of a newly converted Gentile (Acts 15:8–11). God requires us to humble ourselves and adopt a child-like attitude if we wish to obtain faith to be saved into the kingdom of God.[footnote]See Matthew 18:3–4.[/footnote]
God cannot enter and merge with a sinful heart. So God gives us a new, clean heart instead.[footnote]2 Corinthians 6:14–16 teaches that we also should refrain from mixing good and evil.[/footnote] We are to be born again, not simply scrubbed clean. We are a new creation.[footnote]See 2 Corinthians 5:17.[/footnote]
First comes an encounter with the Word (gospel); then we either believe or reject the message. We need to embrace God’s gift of faith without relying on our senses or any scientific method. Proof comes through the experience of the Spirit working in our lives in an ongoing relationship. God wants us to believe and trust in him alone, not in our own understanding or in our ability to make choices. He will let us test and prove his goodness (1 Thessalonians 5:21), but we won’t be able to prove certain things (for one example, see Ecclesiastes 11:5).
We certainly know from Scripture that God wants to be connected to us through his Word and Spirit. God approaches us in his paradoxical manner, offering to help us begin anew as a spiritual creation in an old physical body. Then we experience the paradox of many-yet-one, becoming part of the one body of believers. This isn’t the eastern cosmic collective, but we do share the same Spirit and the same baptism.[footnote]See Ephesians 4:4–6.[/footnote] One of Christ’s great priestly prayers is found in John 17.
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”
Science, mythology, philosophy, and religious clashes have not affected the substance of this gospel message in the several thousand years that have passed since its inception. The gospel message predates even Sumerian culture. No other message has traveled further through time, and it has withstood challenges from other religions and beliefs all the while.
This message remained constant through numerous prophets, messengers, and biblical authors. Perhaps our perceptions of what the Bible says have changed over time, but the Bible is not at fault for our own misinterpretations.
Hidden in plain sight is the oldest message in history, repeated through countless passages of the most widely published book of all time.
We know from the Creator’s record that there are multiple realms of existence, the earthly and the heavenly, the seen and unseen. Science has long focused on that which can be seen, while downplaying what cannot be measured or observed. But now quantum sciences are trying to understand the unseen elements of the universe. What is the relationship of the seen to the unseen? Some eastern religions state that the unseen and the seen are one. Platonism teaches that everything that can be seen is bad and only the unseen is good. The Bible teaches that what is seen will be restored and the unseen will merge with it someday (see Ephesians 1:7–14, especially verse 10). This teaching culminates in the ending of Revelation.
Sometimes it is easy to spot age-old lies. But when you find it difficult to distinguish the truth, instead of relying on your own understanding (invention), rely on the Creator’s words (revelation) found in the Bible. All will finally be revealed on “the last day.”
Here are some verses to consider:
“How you are fallen from heaven,
O Day Star, son of Dawn!
How you are cut down to the ground,
you who laid the nations low!
You said in your heart,
‘I will ascend to heaven;
above the stars of God
I will set my throne on high;
I will sit on the mount of assembly
in the far reaches of the north;
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.’”
Created beings have always wanted to live forever and ascend to heaven; even before the creation of humanity, angelic beings faced the same urges. Satan, for one, fell. And when humanity had its turn, we quickly fell into sin also.
“But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’”
Let’s get to the heart of the matter:
“Son of man, say to the prince of Tyre, Thus says the Lord God: Because your heart is proud, and you have said, ‘I am a god, I sit in the seat of the gods, in the heart of the seas,’ yet you are but a man, and no god, though you make your heart like the heart of a god.”
“But when his heart was lifted up and his spirit was hardened so that he dealt proudly, he was brought down from his kingly throne, and his glory was taken from him.”
As we can see, God does not like it when his created beings do not listen to his Word and become proud. When we claim immortality of our soul or try to climb our own way into heaven, we fall for age-old tricks that only lead to more false beliefs. So we need to be very careful to match our beliefs to what is clearly stated in the Bible.
The devil lured Adam and Eve with the promise of immortality; today, 79 percent of Americans today believe they have an immortal soul.[footnote]“Americans Describe Their Views About Life After Death.” October 21, 2003. The Barna Group. www.barna.com/research/americans-describe-their-views-about-life-after-death/. Accessed May 20, 2019.[/footnote] This cannot be a coincidence. Humanity, as ever, is being deceived.
Many thorough studies have been published about the similarities and differences of Hebrew beliefs compared to other ancient cultures. Given God’s direct revelation, the biblical perspective should differ considerably from the majority cultural viewpoint regarding immortality in particular. But the devil tricks us into following worldly wisdom instead of sticking to God’s true gospel message.
If we can get back to the unvarnished biblical concepts, we’ll find an extremely unique perspective on eternal life and how to pass into the afterlife. Once understood, the biblical concept is seen to bear few similarities to the teachings of other religions. In fact, each of the other major religions treats the afterlife in a manner very similar to the others—which is to be expected, as they are based upon human understanding, not divine revelation.
We should be able to spot manmade belief systems with relative ease. Each will have established its own justice system, declaring which deeds, laws, rules, or steps will result in salvation.
In contrast, God reveals a paradoxical justice system in which law and grace work together in tandem because of just and merciful nature. He judges our deeds, yet he forgives us our sins. He hates evil, yet he showers us with goodness. As we saw in previous chapters, God saves us through his gift of grace, then satisfies his law through the righteousness of Christ.
We may wish to improve our nature, but we cannot sufficiently improve ourselves to meet God’s standards. Rather, it is belief in God’s nature that initiates our faith. Judgment is part of the law, and God is justly against all things that violate his nature. However, the law is also a gift and is part of God’s Word (gospel).
As easy as it is to fixate on the idea of obtaining immortality, our first priority is to achieve total reliance on God. Without his Spirit, we cannot sustain life or obtain eternal life. We are dead eternally without the Spirit. When we stop breathing, we have no hope unless the breath of God returns to us and transforms us into a new body. Only by his Spirit breathing into the dust of the physical realm can we enter eternal life. But God only resurrects those who have had Christ’s righteousness imputed to them. Only these will be able to pass judgment.