Resting at Death

RESTING AT DEATH

What does it mean to be raised physically, to appear with God in glory, or to see God as he is? What will our bodies be like in the resurrection? Like the bodies of angels.[footnote]See Matthew 22:30 and Luke 20:36.[/footnote] Our bodies will be transformed to be just like Christ’s resurrected body, as Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 15 and here in Philippians:

“But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”

—Philippians 3:20–21

If these passages mean to say that we’ll get a new spirit-body in heaven, then what is the waiting for? It makes no sense to wait for Christ to come if we’ll receive a spirit-body when we die. But of course these passages teach nothing of the sort. Paul never speaks of this spirit-body concept.

The appeal of this spirit-body concept likely comes down to a lack of patience. People want salvation now, forever asking, “Are we there yet?” But Scripture states we are to wait for judgment and the resurrection; only then will we receive our rewards. The crown of life (eternal life) is the main prize that we receive.

Many end-time passages stress the need to wait. This waiting takes place on earth, not standing in line outside the pearly gates.

Once the waiting period finally ends, then rewards will be handed out.[footnote]See “Rewards at the second coming” in Appendix 3.[/footnote] This too will happen on earth.

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.”

—Romans 8:19

And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”

—Romans 8:23

“…so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

—1 Corinthians 1:7

Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.”

—1 Corinthians 4:5

“But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”[footnote]Here we are waiting on earth, not preparing to go to a different realm. The gift of the resurrection comes from heaven to earth.[/footnote]

—Philippians 3:20

“…and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.”

—1 Thessalonians 1:10

“…waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”

—Titus 2:13

“So Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.”

—Hebrews 9:28

“…waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet.”

—Hebrews 10:13

“…waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!”

—2 Peter 3:12

“But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace.”

—2 Peter 3:13–14

Many books have been written about the state of the dead and the spirit state. It is interesting to see the historical progression of different religious views and mythologies regarding the dead, along with resurrection and spirit-body concepts. At first there were two main competing viewpoints, and then one emerged as the dominant Church view. By viewing the historical record, we can see clearly just how things got so far off track from the original biblical teaching.

The Bible is very clear as to the state of the dead: asleep until the resurrection. William Tyndale made a very simple, logical argument about the resurrection and the state of the dead that summarizes the biblical concept very concisely. Tyndale starts with sarcasm in this dialogue but then ends with very sound statements. Notice the last sentence in particular.

“Nay, Paul, thou art unlearned; go to Master More, and learn a new way. ‘We be not most miserable, though we rise not again; for our souls go to Heaven as soon as we be dead, and are there in as great joy as Christ that is risen again.’ And I marvel that Paul had not comforted the Thessalonians with that doctrine, if he had wist [known] it, that the souls of their dead had been in joy; as he did with the resurrection, that their dead should rise again. If the souls be in Heaven, in as great glory as the angels, after your doctrine, shew me what cause should be of the resurrection.’”[footnote]William Tyndale. An Answer to Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue, bk. 4, ch. 4, p. 118. Parker 1850. [/footnote]

The old English is a little rough, so here is a modern summary:

What need is there for the resurrection if a person believes he goes to heaven when he dies and then immediately receives a glorified spirit-body? Why have a resurrection at all? Why didn’t Paul comfort the Thessalonians with statements like “Don’t worry, your loved one is now in bliss enjoying heaven in a spirit-body”?

Paul clearly stated the only hope the Thessalonians had was to wait for physical resurrection—the same resurrection Christ had received. Yet today we tell people at a funeral, “Uncle Joe is in a better place now playing golf with St. Peter and Aunt Josephina,” or something along those lines. We say this to make the bereaved feel better. This is our culture.

The idea that Uncle Joe is conscious right now with a new body that doesn’t have cancer is very comforting. However, this perpetuates a mythological way of thinking. Doesn’t this bypass judgment day? Should any good person be entitled to receive a spirit-body immediately upon death, or does such a reward violate the biblical order?

It doesn’t sound as good to say, “Uncle Joe is at perfect rest now waiting for the resurrection when Christ comes again.” Most of the western world believes in the spirit realm as the immediate destination for “good” people, whereas the literal biblical scenario is by far a minority position today.

We are inclined to think as the world does in believing our soul will go to heaven upon death, given how eager we are to be with the Lord. But this hybrid concept of resurrection undermines the importance of physical resurrection and diminishes God’s key promises to his people.

The Old Testament clearly identifies Sheol as the resting place of the soul; the New Testament uses the Greek word “Hades” to refer to the same place. Repeated over and over again throughout both Testaments is the promise of physical resurrection of the dead. The bodies lying in the grave will be awakened from rest by a voice. Christ will bring the preserved spirits of the saints to earth and restore our bodies on resurrection day. This is the clear message of ultimate salvation.

But what about other traditional ideas about the afterlife? Won’t our soul float to heaven after death? What about our meeting with father Abraham or St. Peter, our heavenly mansion, our golden harp, or our place in the heavenly chorus? If these traditional beliefs about the afterlife do not come from Scripture, what are their historical sources?

Beliefs about an immediate afterlife in the heavenly realm are derived from Egyptian, Babylonian, and Greek sources (see citations to follow). These first made their way into the Babylonian Talmud, then into the Church through the cultural influence of Alexandria, Athens, and Rome.  No Bible passage states any joyous spirit-body activity—or any other type of activity at all. The person is simply “resting.” Scripture is literally silent otherwise.

So what happens at death? We don’t have enough space here to go over the detailed history of all the differing traditional viewpoints. But we can look at some key passages to get the literal biblical perspective. This biblical perspective is of course informed by a focus on the resurrection of the dead, not an immortal spirit-body or floating souls.

The Bible states that, upon death, a person’s spirit goes back to God. The Bible is mostly non-descriptive about what happens to consciousness during the period between death and just prior to the resurrection. “Sleeping” or “resting” are by far the most used terms. In some cases, Scripture states outright that the dead don’t do anything. The body is still a corpse in the grave during this period.

A good clarifying passage is found in Isaiah 38:9–20. Here King Hezekiah describes what he expects to experience in Sheol; this is the typical Old Testament perspective.

What does the New Testament have to say about the current status of Hezekiah and other Old Testament saints?

“God raised [Christ] up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. For David says concerning him,

“‘I saw the Lord always before me,

for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken;

therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;

my flesh also will dwell in hope.

For you will not abandon my soul to Hades [Sheol],

or let your Holy One see corruption.

You have made known to me the paths of life;

you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’

“Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says,

“The Lord said to my Lord,
‘Sit at my right hand,

until I make your enemies your footstool.”’

—Acts 2:24–35

It is very hard to read this passage in a figurative sense or imagine that Peter is describing resurrection in a spiritual sense, knowing that Christ physically rose from the dead. Peter knew and preached after Pentecost that the following details about David were true:

·       David’s corpse was still in the grave;

·       David did not ascend into heaven (as of the day of Pentecost, resurrection had yet to occur);

·       David was resting in the state of Sheol (“Hades” in Greek);

·       David received the promise that the Messiah would be his Descendant;

·       David’s only hope was that the Messiah would defeat death (to make an enemy one’s footstool was to gain total victory over that foe).

The main enemies of God are death, sin, and the devil. The Bible prophesies that each of these will be destroyed.[footnote]See 1 John 3:8; Revelation 21:4.[/footnote] Christ is to reign until all enemies are defeated.

Isn’t David in heaven right now playing a harp or singing in the heavenly choir? This concept is nowhere to be found in the Bible. None of the Old Testament saints have been resurrected yet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death, but that has not happened yet for us. (Spiritual death is another matter.) Romans 6:5–9 explains that Christ defeated death for himself, and we believers will be resurrected like him when death is finally eradicated in the future.

If Sheol is the resting place for the spirit or soul, why would David state confidence that his soul would not remain there? Because David believed in the resurrection.[footnote]See Psalm 16:10; 17:15; and 49:15.[/footnote] Why did David state that Christ’s body would not see corruption? Because David knew of his resurrection.

We should appreciate that biblical beliefs are unique among other modern religions in regard to the state of the dead. We need to look at cultural foundations to determine where we obtained our information. One would need to go back prior to the Epic of Gilgamesh to find the most ancient beliefs of the afterlife.  The Mesopotamian culture that produced Gilgamesh believed in an afterlife trapped in the underworld. Later, Egyptian, Babylonian, and Greek mythology began to popularize the idea of a soul going “up” to heaven for the average person.

Immortality of the Soul?

Some people have reported a “floating soul” experience during an operation—an apparent separation from the body during a near-death incident. I myself once experienced something like this. But it is impossible to obtain empirical evidence about the immortality of the soul, regardless of the observations. This is a matter of belief, not a fact. We should differentiate between these sorts of claims and the Bible’s consistent message—the same theme repeated over a 1,000 year period. Near-death experiences are inherently subjective, colored by the individual’s prior knowledge and beliefs. There is no consistency found.

The “floating soul” and spirit-body concepts have made their way into Judaism and Christianity, culminating in today’s popular view that each person has an immortal soul. But we must be very careful. God alone is the true God, he alone is immortal, and God alone grants immortality. Anything else is heresy.[footnote]See 1 Timothy 1:17; 6:16; and John 17:1–3.[/footnote]

“Behold, I tell you a mystery:  We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’”

—1 Corinthians 15:51–54

There is a huge difference in believing a person has an immortal soul or spirit versus believing God has the power to grant immortality at the resurrection. First Corinthians 15 is very clear that we are mortal (“a body of death”). Our only hope is in God to raise us. Our bodies will be redeemed at the resurrection.[footnote]See Romans 8:11, 23.[/footnote]

The soul finds its definition in the relationship between the body and the spirit. We can find some helpful background in the creation narrative:

“Then the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath [spirit] of life; and man became a living soul.

—Genesis 2:7, KJV

God put “spirit” into Adam. Now living, Adam’s soul came into being.

The same formula is true in us. Our bodies, comprised of dust (physical elements), combine with breath (spirit) to form a soul (a living being).[footnote]Though we tend to amend this definition to a living human being, the Bible doesn’t explicitly exclude nonhuman life. For example, Genesis 1:21 tells of the “souls” with which God populated the seas, though most English translations render this “living things” or “living creatures.” And in Revelation 8:9, we read, “A third of the creatures which were in the sea and had life, died” (NASB); psyche, the word translated as “life” in this passage, appears elsewhere as “soul.”[/footnote]

When breath leaves a body, the soul retreats and we are left in the state of Sheol; the body becomes a corpse. You do not have a soul. You are a soul—so long as you have the breath of life.

God’s Life-giving Spirit

Many people confuse “soul” with “spirit,” or use “soul” as a metaphor for their inner being, as in “my soul is troubled.” In English, “soul” and “spirit” are basically interchangeable. But biblically speaking, these do not have the same meaning. There is complete confusion about who we really are as beings.

To repair our understanding of what it means to be a living being, let’s look at a biblical teaching on death:

Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.”

—Ecclesiastes 12:7

What returns to God here is the spirit—God’s animating breath. According to the ancient concept of breathing, breath wasn’t just proof of life—breath was life. Death was the absence of breath. This concept features in Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones (Ezekiel 37:1–14): God’s breath of life re-enters the dead, and life resumes. This vision closely resembles the creation account of how human life began. Before exploring any potential figurative meanings of this passage (such as the restoration of Israel as a geopolitical entity in 1948), we must acknowledge the literal image of the promised day of resurrection.

Just before Jesus’ death on the cross (Luke 23:46) and Stephen’s martyrdom (Acts 7:59), each asked God to receive his spirit. These accounts are perfectly consistent with Old Testament descriptions of the spirit leaving the body (as in Ecclesiastes 12:7 above).

Creation of life and salvation of life are similar in that each is granted by the Spirit. This is no coincidence.

The Spirit gives life physically and spiritually. We are saved today spiritually and saved physically at the resurrection—due to the same Spirit of God. We see this concept clearly in Romans 8:11.

Physical death and spiritual death are both examples of the absence of God’s Spirit. In physical death, his animating breath is gone. And so long as the Holy Spirit does not dwell within us, we remain in spiritual death. We are dead physically and spiritually without the Spirit. The Spirit is the breath of life, and the Spirit is the provider of faith for our salvation (and also provides our ability to do good works).

Here James compares physical death to spiritual death:

“For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.”

—James 2:26

As breath animates our body, good works animate our faith once we are sealed with the Holy Spirit (that is, born again and baptized). We receive the Spirit, both physically and spiritually, as a gift. Grace always comes before works of the law.

God spoke, exhaled his breath, then creation of physical matter happened. God breathed his Spirit into that physical matter—the dust of the ground—and then life happened. He will breathe into the dust from our corpses on resurrection day—then eternal life will happen.

We do not need to understand all of this on a scientific level. We need not propose how God might recover all the scattered saintly dust from millennia past, nor debate whether any dust will do. The breath of God is a mystery of our faith, a bridge between the heavenly and earthly realms. Looking to science for clarification is futile, as science has no idea how life truly began; scientists continue to ask for tax dollars or charitable donations to fund their search for answers.

Like the ancient saints, we can only accept these mysteries by faith.

The root words in Hebrew and Greek for “spirit” in the Bible would be translated most literally as “breath.” Speaking and breathing are closely related to life itself in most ancient myths and cultures.

Are writings in Ecclesiastes and Genesis just poetry with metaphors or other analogous language? Should we embrace the ancient concept of divinely delivered breath as literally accurate? How might mythologies from ancient cultures be coloring our preconceived notions of the nature of the world? Do we unconsciously try to make the Bible fit our preexisting beliefs? These are all vital questions. Inerrancy holds that all biblical writings are essentially true, but there is a wide gap between believing the Bible holds subjective truth and actually discovering what objective truth is. The main difficulty, as we’ve explored before, is determining whether a particular biblical writer meant to record history, record the future, or express spiritual truths through poetic or figurative language. Inerrancy of the Bible depends on the existence of an objectively accurate interpretation.

If you believe the Bible is inerrant, you shouldn’t claim that the symbolic language is open to personal interpretation. If there is only one Word of God, there must be one corporate interpretation for us to discern. We may have some disagreements about minor doctrinal points, but God only meant for us to preach a single gospel. And the gospel collapses without the promise of bodily resurrection.[footnote]See 1 Corinthians 15:12–19.[/footnote] So strict adherence to a physical, bodily resurrection is a necessary unifying trait in the body of believers.

Be careful not to add your personal beliefs or preferences to the gospel message. By fitting in with the world, you water down the truth. Do not dilute the complete gospel message that the justified dead are raised to eternal life on the day of resurrection.

Dust is a word that doesn’t carry as much weight today as it did for ancient cultures. They associated dust (or earth, clay, ground, or land) with the creation of humanity—an event that connected the physical realm and the spiritual realm. The foundation of who we are is based upon physical matter and Spirit. It doesn’t matter if dust is a metaphor for physicality—it has physical meaning to convey. According to the oldest records available to us, the ancient view was that humans were created from out of the earth.

Redemption through Resurrection

As you read the following passages, try applying both physical and spiritual interpretations. Is this literal, physical dust, or a symbol expressing a spiritual truth?

For I know that my Redeemer lives,

and at the last he will stand upon the earth.

And after my skin has been thus destroyed,

yet in my flesh I shall see God,

whom I shall see for myself,

and my eyes shall behold, and not another.

My heart faints within me!”

—Job 19:25–27

“When you hide your face, they are dismayed;

when you take away their breath, they die

and return to their dust.

When you send forth your Spirit, they are created,

and you renew the face of the ground.”

—Psalm 104:29–30

Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise.

You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!

For your dew is a dew of light,

and the earth will give birth to the dead.

“Come, my people, enter your chambers,

and shut your doors behind you;

hide yourselves for a little while

until the fury has passed by.[footnote]This verse is speaking of Sheol rest.[/footnote]

For behold, the Lord is coming out from his place

to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity,

and the earth will disclose the blood shed on it,

and will no more cover its slain.”

—Isaiah 26:19–21

“I shall ransom them from the power of Sheol;

I shall redeem them from Death.

O Death, where are your plagues?

O Sheol, where is your sting?

Compassion is hidden from my eyes.”

—Hosea 13:14

God plans to unite us with him, but first he must redeem us from eternal death and release us from Sheol (or Hades[footnote]Hades is used as the Greek equivalent of Sheol in the Bible, but Greek thinking actually associates Hades with hell or the underworld. So although we talk about Christ “descending into hell” in the Apostle’s Creed, Christ didn’t go to Dante’s Inferno but to Sheol, the resting place of the dead.[/footnote]). In Hosea’s words, God must “ransom” us out of the ownership of death. To redeem is to gain possession.

Humanity is under the power of death and the devil. Someone needs to pay our ransom to release us from captivity. Through Christ’s death on the cross and his fulfillment of the law, God has indeed paid the price.[footnote]See 1 Corinthians 6:20; Hebrews 9:15.[/footnote] He will finalize the transaction at the resurrection.

Under the law we are destined to die, but we are no longer under the law (Galatians 5:18) once we are gifted the promise of our inheritance. Christ paid our fines at the cross as a gift to us, thus fulfilling the promises and prophecies we encounter from Genesis 3:15 and onward.

God’s redemption plan is to give the inheritance to us so that we can have an everlasting relationship with him as part of his family. He calls us heirs, children, and brothers and sisters in Christ. His master plan is to reunite the family.

God spells out his plan through his promise to Abraham—the promise that is for all peoples of all points in history. Abraham believed in God’s promises—even trusting God to deliver his son Isaac from the dead—and God credited this faith as righteousness. Before Abraham could demonstrate his belief, God had already given him the unconditional promise through grace. So Abraham’s faith was itself a gift, and not a righteous work for salvation. God graciously declared Abraham righteous—Abraham didn’t prove his righteousness or earn his own salvation.

Our faith is focused on God, the one who gives us our faith. Faith is a gift from God, not something we create through belief. Belief is secondary. It is important, but not the key aspect of faith.

“Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.”

—Romans 4:4–5

Notice that belief is not what justifies a person; only God justifies.

Faith comes by hearing God’s Word and then believing in his promises, just as Abraham did long ago. We receive faith as a pure gift. Grace needs to come first, then we can believe. Faith follows grace just as the law follows grace. God gave grace to the nation of Israel by taking them out of Egypt (as stated in his preamble to the Ten Commandments in Exodus 19:4). They were then supposed to live out their faith based upon a belief in grace; unfortunately, the people of Israel focused on works, relying on their own imperfect obedience to God’s law for their salvation.[footnote]See Romans 9:31–33 and Hebrews 4:2.[/footnote]

“Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus. He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.”

—Acts 3:19–21

Peter turned out to be quite an evangelist after receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Three thousand were baptized after his previous sermon (Acts 2:14–41). He knew Christ was coming back, having seen the Transfiguration vision of glory that would fulfill the promise of the kingdom on the earth and restore everything back to God’s original intent. This is why the disciples asked if the kingdom promises were going to be restored after Christ’s resurrection (Acts 1:6). They knew the promises to Abraham were not yet fulfilled. But they did not yet realize that God had a bigger plan for the Old Testament saints—a plan that would be fulfilled with us.[footnote]See Hebrews 11:10–16, 39–40.[/footnote]

God’s plan to bring the kingdom to earth implies a return to the unspoiled Eden. He will restore everything back to a state of perfection; the world will be as it was before humanity’s fall into sin, but without the existential threat of death and the devil. Such a resolution will fulfill God’s promises to Adam and Eve, the patriarchs, and humanity itself.

But this ultimate fulfillment is yet to occur. What about the thief on the cross? Wasn’t he promised paradise on the day of his death? For that matter, what is paradise? Is it the geographical coordinates of earthly Eden? Is it God’s heavenly realm, not yet come to earth? Is it a kingdom to be established in the Promised Land?

“And [the thief] said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And he said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you,* today you will be with me in paradise.’”

—Luke 23:42–43

Regarding the asterisk above, it is important to remember that our English translations of the Bible are derived from ancient texts that do not include punctuation. So while this comma preceding “today” is a common choice among the various English translations, it could just as easily have been placed after “today” instead.[footnote]See “The Comma of Luke 23:43” by Grace Communion International. (www.gci.org/articles/the-comma-of-luke-2343, accessed June 4, 2019). This article addresses the need to interpret the passage without relying on the arbitrary comma, though it ultimately equates “paradise” with Sheol. That conclusion poses its own problems, as we see below.[/footnote] [footnote]It is worth noting the Greek renderings of Luke 4:21 (biblehub.com/text/luke/4-21.htm) and 19:9 (biblehub.com/text/luke/19-9.htm). In both verses, Jesus announces an event that has unambiguously happened in that moment: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled”; “Today salvation has come to this house.” The Greek conjunction hoti appears in each verse to connect “today” to the event. But Luke 23:43 does not contain this conjunction. By declining to use hoti in this instance, Luke decided not to explicitly connect “today” to the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise.[/footnote] That little comma significantly impacts the meaning of Jesus’ statement. Let’s look at the two variants.

1.    “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

According to this rendering, on the day of Christ’s death, the thief and Christ went together to a place called “paradise”—which Jesus implied was equivalent to his kingdom. Yet we know from other passages that Christ went to Sheol and the grave, not heaven, immediately upon his death.

Did the thief also “descend into hell” as the Apostle’s Creed would say? Even if we define hell as Sheol in this instance, could that be paradise—a picture of Christ’s kingdom?

By placing a comma before “today,” we force a figurative interpretation of at least one element of the passage. Clearly paradise, Sheol, and the kingdom cannot literally refer to the same place. So Jesus couldn’t have been speaking of paradise as a literal place in the earthly or heavenly realms because he himself did not go to such a place at that time. A non-literal paradise is deeply unsatisfying, and an immediate fulfillment is the whole point of insisting on this comma placement, so we are left awkwardly isolating “with me” as the single figurative clause in an otherwise literal passage. In other words, “Today you will be in paradise, and I’ll be there too just as soon as I descend to hades, rise from the grave, spend another 40 days with my disciples, and then ascend to heaven.”

2.    “Truly, I say to you today, you will be with me in paradise.”

According to this rendering, Christ assured the thief that he could have confidence of salvation. “Today” marked the initiation of the promise. The thief’s fate was assured but not to be completed at that moment. Every other person throughout history receives the same “now and not yet” salvation message. Christ meant for the thief to have assurance “today” that he would enter the future kingdom on the day of resurrection. Every part of this passage is thus literally true.

The word translated here as “paradise” is parádeisos, an ancient Persian word meaning “garden” or “park.” The garden paradise concept is repeated many times in the Bible, often with references to a future “tree of life” echoing Eden (We will study these references in greater detail in Volume II). The paradise awaiting the thief—or any “good” person—must look like one of these two options:

1.    A person’s soul floats to a heavenly afterlife upon death, but we don’t know what exactly happens because the Bible doesn’t state specific details about paradise or Sheol. According to popular imagination, we might receive some sort of heavenly body with which to play golf with St. Peter or sing in the heavenly choir.

2.    Following the resurrection event, believers will live together with Christ in the Promised Land, the kingdom of heaven on earth. Christ did not mention details on the cross, but many other passages of Scripture describe what God has in store.

There are plenty of ideas of what a pre-resurrection paradise might look like, and some allow for a future “completed” paradise of resurrected bodies on a fully restored earth. But these hybrid approaches still rely on the immortal soul myth. Scripture does not promise us a spirit-body prior to the resurrection of the dead. We must take care not to supplement biblical promises with mythological teachings of instant gratification.

God can create, sustain, or destroy a person if he wants. It is nonsense to think ourselves immortal. Angels and other created beings can die if God elects. The fallen will die, as we see in Psalm 82:6–7.[footnote]Christ quoted this Psalm for another purpose in John 10:34–36.[/footnote] God can do anything he elects within his nature. His immortality and power over mortal creatures is absolute. Any view of the afterlife that insists on the immortality of human souls contradicts that truth, and is therefore myth, not the true gospel.