I have been to more than one funeral where the Minister has given comfort to the bereaved family by ‘suggesting that their loved one is now in some state of happiness and peace – generally believed to be Heaven.
Yet at a later point in the Service the same man has read part of the apostle Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians – which focuses on the resurrection of the dead. It’s difficult to see how these two ideas go together.
Are We Immortal?
The assumption that Heaven is our natural destination is closely linked to the idea that we have some divine and indestructible spark within each of us that survives death – often called an “immortal soul”. Now, the Bible has nothing to say about such a thing because it has never heard of it. It was never part of the original Christian message. The first written statement of Christian belief in an immortal soul is dated about 150 years after Christ.
According to this teaching, anybody and everybody is heaven-bound. The gate to the entrance of a village church near where I live in Cornwall, England, has written over it: “Death is the gate to life”. That may be a clever thing to write above a gate but it just cannot be! For it would mean that eternal life, or immortal existence, comes about without any effort on our part.
This is where we need to bring Bible teaching to bear. And we find that every comment from Jesus of Nazareth emphasizes that eternal life is not automatic. We are expected to make some effort if we are to attain it. Nothing happens for nothing.
Of course God is a God of love; that’s certainly Bible teaching. His love is beyond our comprehension and I readily acknowledge my complete dependence on it. Yet the Bible makes it very plain that it is a love with a standard. “The Lord is… not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance“ (2 Peter 3: 9). Notice: all must come “to repentance”.
And the verse which is perhaps best known for its expression of God’s love makes a similar point: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life”. The word ‘perish’ is a desperate word – it means oblivion – so it really matters that this verse also makes eternal life conditional, not automatic. We have to “believe” or perish!
No Tree of Life
Without belief and we all perish – there is no afterlife! It was a death sentence handed down to all Mankind in the Garden of Eden. You may remember that God’s decision resulted from Adam and Eve’s flagrant breach of His command that they should not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When they both had eaten, God said:
“Behold, the man has become like one of us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put out his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”
Have you ever asked yourself ‘What is the point of this prohibition if they were already inherently immortal?’ The only sensible solution is that they were mortal, not immortal; and so are we.
Writing to believers in Rome, the apostle Paul promises that God:
“will render to each one according to his deeds: eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honour, and immortality” (Romans 2:6,7).
How shall we understand these words unless we are to be actively involved in our own quest for immortality? There is certainly no sense of inherent immortality here. It was the work of the Lord Jesus to undo the harm Adam had brought, thus it can be said of him that he:
“has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10).
No Jesus – no gospel; and there would be no hope of immortality. The inescapable truth is that whenever the apostles spoke of eternal or immortal life, they were always thinking of the resurrection of the body [or better still, the resurrection of the dead]. This was the truth at the heart of their message, and the false idea that we have an immortal soul which goes to heaven – or hell – at death destroys all that Christ has done through his resurrection.
The physical resurrection of Jesus underpins the whole of the Christian message and hope; if the tomb was not empty all the claims of Christ become empty and his effectiveness to save men and women from permanent death is destroyed. But the tomb was empty for the Lord had risen!
In 1 Corinthians chapter 15, the passage that is often read at the graveside, Paul makes it abundantly clear that the bodily resurrection of Jesus is absolutely crucial to the Christian hope. It is the clear explanation contained in this chapter that makes any supposed survival of a conscious existence in Heaven such an obvious contradiction. For, Paul says:
“If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is vain and your faith is also vain” (1 Corinthians 15:13,14).
And, he continues, with never-ceasing logic:
“If the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable” (15:16-19).
This is a remarkable passage. If there is no resurrection then Christ is still dead and if that’s the case the Christian faith is worthless – we are still in our sins! It is his resurrection that makes the difference and demonstrates the merit of his shed blood to save sinners who believe. Paul now expresses the true Christian hope, the one we all must make our own:
“But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (15:20).
Don’t miss out on this genuine offer of salvation!