Twin caskets lie side by side beneath the prairie sod in a little cemetery near Rockham, South Dakota. In one lies my shy, godly father, who as a Great Depression teen plowed farm fields 20 miles south. Beside him rests my mother, who had a less strenuous childhood. In the next county north, she earnestly practiced circus horsemanship tricks while herding cows.
“Doesn’t it make you feel strange?” my brother asked me on the icy February evening after Dad’s funeral. “Here we are in this warm farmhouse living room, and he’s out there in the cold ground.” Though both of us really knew our father could no longer feel the cold, we shuddered—and stared longingly into the dark, mysterious afterlife.
What happened to Mom’s three-ring-circus personality? Where is Dad’s humble, dependable spirituality? Are my beloved parents gone forever like breath from a mirror? Are they disturbed spirits roaming through some dark forest—and should I be worshiping them along with my other ancestors? Or are they Somewhere Up There, looking down on me, thrilling to my joys and feeling my pain?
It’s no wonder we’re so obsessed with the afterlife. After all, God designed us to live forever, so He didn’t program our brains to accept death. Death is so unsettling to us that if we don’t have facts about what happens next, we quickly invent some. But the good news is that the same God who gave us life tells us clearly what happens when we die.
How We’re Made
Remember your high-school algebra? Try to spot the equation in this “story problem”: “The LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). Do you see the equation? Dust plus breath equals a living being.
Does this formula hold true at life’s end? Yes, it does. Wise King Solomon said that “the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
“Hold on a second,” someone says. “Tell me more about that ‘spirit’ that goes back to God. Isn’t that the conscious, immortal soul that lives on after the body dies?”
Not necessarily. What you may not be aware of is that there are two Hebrew words for “breath.” One is neshama, which is the word in Genesis 2:7, and the other word is ruah (pronounced with a guttural h), which is the word in Ecclesiastes 12:7. Now ruah has a variety of meanings, including “spirit,” but often the word spirit means a person’s attitude. So just because Ecclesiastes uses the word that can mean “spirit” doesn’t mean that it does refer to a disembodied intelligent being. Solomon is actually just telling us that the process for death is the reverse of the process for life. The life equation was dust plus breath equals a living being. Therefore, dust minus breath equals a dead being.
However, God built into our minds a strong “life wish,” and He’s also given us an awesome imagination. Here’s another equation: A strong life wish plus a great imagination equals a powerful myth factory if we aren’t careful. And especially when it has to do with matters of life and death, the result can easily lead us to draw wrong conclusions.
The apostle Paul makes no bones about it. He says that Jesus Christ is “the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal” (1 Timothy 6:15, 16, emphasis added). So, if Deity alone has immortality, this means that human spirits or souls don’t. And sure enough, the Bible never once speaks about the soul being immortal. It never even uses the words immortal soul.
Yet Paul encourages us to seek for immortality (Romans 2:7), and he even tells us that this immortality will be given to God’s faithful people at the resurrection. “We will not all sleep,” he says, “but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:51–53, emphasis added).
But today, 20 centuries later, brows furrow. “Let me get this straight,” someone says. “Does this mean that nobody goes to heaven when they die?”
That’s right. Aside from a few Bible saints, whom I’ve mentioned in the sidebar with this article, no other human being has gone to heaven. We get hints of this surprising truth from one of Peter’s sermons. “David,” he says, “did not ascend to heaven” (Acts 2:34). The harp-strumming psalm singer knew this, too, because he wrote, “In death there is no remembrance of You; in the grave who will give You thanks?” (Psalm 6:5, NKJV).* Similarly, one of his fellow psalm writers said, “The dead do not praise the LORD, nor any who go down into silence” (Psalm 115:17, NKJV).
David’s son Solomon, who is the author of Ecclesiastes, was clear eyed about this subject. “The living know that they will die,” he said, “but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten. Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished; never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6).
But praise God, that’s not the end! Back in the most distant reaches of the Old Testament, the truth of the resurrection shone brightly. “I know that my redeemer lives,” said Job, “and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God. I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:25–27, emphasis added).
And it’s fitting that we should give the last word on this subject to our loving Creator, the Savior Himself. What happens when you die? Jesus gave the answer when He learned that Lazarus, a close friend of His, had died. “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep,” He told His disciples gently, “but I am going there to wake him up.”
Then His disciples said, “ ‘Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.’ Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.
“So then He told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead’ ” (John 11:11–14).
You know the rest of the story. Four days later, Jesus stood facing Lazarus’s tomb “Lazarus, come out!” He called. And Lazarus came to life, blinking in the light and struggling with his grave clothes.
That great Voice gives me hope as I think about those silent caskets beneath the South Dakota prairie where my parents lie sleeping. Often, as farm kids, they would tumble into a sound sleep after a busy day, knowing nothing until the alarm’s ring the next morning. A wise and merciful God has granted them just as dreamless a sleep until His glorious resurrection morning.
“According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.” (1 Thessalonians 4:15–17).
Praise God for His wisdom—and His glorious hope!
Enoch lived very early in earth’s history, before the Flood. The Bible says that he “walked faithfully with God,” and he “was no more, because God took him away” (Genesis 5:24). Genesis doesn’t clarify what this means. However, in the New Testament, we learn that “Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: ‘He could not be found, because God had taken him away’ ” (Hebrews 11:5, emphasis added). Obviously, if Enoch did not experience death, then he is still alive, either in heaven or perhaps on a planet in some other part of the universe.
Elijah was an Old Testament prophet who lived in the kingdom of Israel during the reign of the wicked king Ahab. The Bible says that while he was out walking one day with his associate Elisha, “a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind” (2 Kings 2:11). The New Testament confirms this story because Elijah was one of two people that came down from heaven to speak with Jesus on the mount of transfiguration (Matthew 17:2, 3).
Moses is also in heaven because he appeared on the mount of transfiguration with Elijah (Matthew 17:3). Enoch and Elijah were taken to heaven without experiencing death, but the Bible says that Moses died in Moab, and God buried him there (see Deuteronomy 34:5, 6). Obviously, if Moses died yet was alive with Jesus on the mount of transfiguration, then at some point he was resurrected. And the New Testament suggests this: Jude 9 says that “the archangel Michael, when he was disputing with the devil about the body of Moses, did not himself dare to condemn him for slander but said, ‘The Lord rebuke you!’ ” Apparently, Michael (who some interpreters associate with Jesus) planned to resurrect Moses, but Satan claimed him as his own. Michael refused to argue with Satan, though. He just took over and resurrected him in spite of Satan’s objections.
SAINTS RAISED AT CHRIST’S DEATH
Those are the three people we know are in heaven today. There’s one other possibility. According to Matthew 27:52, 53, when Jesus died, “the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.”
The Bible doesn’t say who these “holy people” were. Some Bible students have suggested that they were all the saints from the time of Adam who had been martyred. What happened to them after they went into Jerusalem? Again, the Bible doesn’t say. However, it would be strange for God to resurrect them and then leave them to die again. It seems reasonable to conclude that at some point, God took them to heaven.
* Bible verses marked NKJV are from the New King James Version®.
Maylan Schurch is pastor of the Bellevue Seventh-day Adventist Church in Bellevue, Washington, USA. He is a frequent contributor to Signs of the Times.®