Len and Nicole Clamp wanted to experience the joy of raising a child, and they were given the opportunity through foster parenting. Grayson joined their family when he was only seven weeks old, and they soon noticed that something was different about him: he was completely deaf. After about a year, the Clamps were given the opportunity to adopt Grayson. Because of his impairment, they decided that they would be the best parents for him, and they proceeded with the adoption. As the boy grew, they learned different ways to communicate with him.
Grayson’s deafness was caused by the absence of the nerves that connect the ear to the hearing center of the brain. Therefore, cochlear implants would not help him. But doctors working with the Clamps proposed a solution: an auditory brain-stem implant. If Grayson were approved for the surgery, he would be the first child to receive such an implant in the United States.
The doctors at the University of North Carolina Medical Center carefully mapped out the surgery, which they then performed during April 2013. On May 21, they activated Grayson’s device, and he heard his father’s voice for the very first time. In what has become a very popular online video, you can see the look of utter surprise on the boy’s face.
So shocked that it made me angry
Often, when we learn new ideas, we are greatly surprised. Sometimes these new ideas come as welcome surprises, and sometimes they are overwhelming.
Many people have the idea that when a person dies, his or her conscious soul goes immediately to heaven or hell. Thus, some readers may be surprised to learn that the Bible says that when a person dies, he or she is simply “asleep,” unconscious, awaiting the Lord’s return. I, too, was shocked when I began studying the Bible and learned this for the very first time—so shocked, in fact, that I felt angry. How could I have been wrong for so long?
A bit of study led me to the source of the popular idea that the soul goes immediately to heaven or hell when a person dies. It’s based on a philosophical idea called “dualism,” namely, that human beings are made up of two parts: a body that can die and a soul that can carry on its own existence independent of the body after the body dies. This concept originated with ancient Egyptian beliefs, which were later adopted by the Greeks. However, our concern as Christians should be what the Bible says.
How to explore the Bible
You may be amazed to learn that out of more than 1,500 Bible texts about the soul, not one of them speaks of the soul being immortal. Not one! They are all in harmony with the words of Solomon, who said, “The living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5). Unfortunately, some people are willing to throw out hundreds of clear texts in the Bible about death, about the second coming of Christ, and about the resurrection so that they can instead accept ancient Egyptian and Greek ideas about the immortality of the soul.
A very important principle of Bible study is that we start with passages that are clear and then move on to passages that are more challenging to understand. We cannot base our beliefs on one or two verses. Rather, we examine all the biblical evidence on any given topic in order to draw a correct understanding. Following is a good example.
The meaning of “today”
The closing chapters of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke tell of the final moments in Jesus’ life here on earth. Crucified on either side of Him were two robbers who reviled and insulted Him (Matthew 27:44). But while these criminals were hanging next to Jesus, something began to happen. One of the thieves saw a completely innocent Man dying on the cross who did not retaliate or complain. He even heard Jesus ask God to forgive the ones who persecuted Him! Luke gives us a remarkable account of what happened next.
One of the thieves began to experience the transformation of heart that we call “conversion.” He looked at Jesus and recognized Him as the Messiah that God’s people had been anticipating for thousands of years, and he cried out, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.”
And how did Jesus respond? “He answered the thief, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise’ ” (Luke 23:43). And it is here that we have a misunderstood text.
What is this text really saying? Did He promise the thief that “this day that I’m wearing a crown of thorns on My head and have nails driven through My hands; this day when I’m dying on a cross, when it doesn’t look as though I can save anybody—on this very day, you will be with Me in Paradise”? Jesus’ promise to the dying thief is often cited as evidence that the thief would join Jesus in heaven that very day, thus implying that the thief’s body would die, but his soul would relocate to heaven, where he and Jesus would meet again.
However, is it possible that there is a different meaning to the text?
It all depends on where you put that comma. If you put it before the word “today,” the text seems to say that the thief would be in Paradise with Jesus that very day. But putting the comma after the word “today” gives a completely different meaning: “Truly I tell you today, you will be with Me in paradise.” In other words, “This day, when I’m hanging on a cross; this day when I have nails driven through My hands and feet; this day when we are both about to die; I am telling you this day, today, that you will be with Me in Paradise.
In the first example above, Jesus promised the thief that the two of them would both would be in Paradise that very day. However, in the second example, Jesus promised the thief “today”—that very day—that someday in the future, the two of them would be together in Paradise.
You may be aware that there were no commas in the original Greek text when it was written in the first century A.D. The commas and other punctuation marks were first added to the English translations of the Bible in 1551 A.D., 1,400 years after the biblical authors wrote the New Testament.
Look for all the evidence
So how can we know where to put commas and other punctuation marks in the Bible? A good rule of thumb is that we should locate them so that the thought that’s expressed in any given verse will harmonize with what the rest of the Bible says on that same topic.
The Bible cannot be broken. Since there were no commas in the original text, but they were placed there centuries later, and since, indeed, the Bible is very clear that death is a sleep until Jesus returns, then we must place the comma where it harmonizes with the rest of the Bible. We don’t throw out the clear teaching of the Bible on the subject of death as sleep and instead accept an Egyptian and Greek idea about the immortality of the soul based on one comma that was put in 1,400 years after the New Testament was written!
The Bible clearly states in many places that when we die, we will sleep until the resurrection at Jesus’ second coming. There is no consciousness and no recognition of time. It will be like one of those nights when you lay your head on the pillow and close your eyes, and your alarm goes off seemingly moments later, but eight hours have passed. We will fall asleep, and the next moment, all who have fallen asleep in Jesus will awake to that last trumpet (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18).
So, there is no need for us to be afraid of death or of what happens after we die. As we give our hearts and lives to Jesus, we are secure in Him and never have to fear.
Chris Holland pastors at Living Hope Seventh-day Adventist Church in Haymarket, Virginia. This article is adapted, with permission, from his book Is Heaven for Real? (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press®, 2018).