There seems to be a lot of fascination in the world today with what happens when we die and what will happen toward the end of this world and when Christ comes again. Dr. Raymond Moody wrote a best-seller called “Life after Life” that detailed the near-death experiences of men and women who “died” and then came back to tell stories of weightlessness, bright lights, and reunions with loved ones. There are thousands of websites today about necromancy or trying to communicate with the dead. There are many movies and books, like the Left Behind series, that paint a picture of the sort of thing that many think is going to happen in the future of Christ “rapturing” up His people from this world and leaving behind the rest.
The branch of theology that deals with the doctrines concerning death, the condition of man after death, the end of this world period, the resurrection to come, the judgment and the final destiny of the good and the wicked is called eschatology. The word comes from a combination of 2 Greek words, eschatos and logos. Eschatos simply means last or last things. And logos means a word or a study of. So it means the study of last things.
I’ve found eschatology to be one of the most powerful motivating subjects to study. It makes me all the more determined to obey God in my life, all the more eager to share the gospel with the lost, all the more concerned about the faithfulness of my brothers and sisters in Christ, all the more clearly seeing what’s important in life and what is not. So I’d like us to study eschatology for the next few weeks. What happens when we die? What will happen when Christ comes back? What is revealed to us about heaven? What’s revealed to us about hell? And questions like that.
We’re going to start with a little study of the nature of man, because what we believe about the nature of man will largely determine what we believe about what happens when we die. If man is just what we see, if man is just flesh and blood and bone, just material stuff with electrochemical reactions going on, then death means no more consciousness, no more experiencing, no more anything but a decaying lump of meat and bone; you, as a thinking, willing, feeling, experiencing being, are just no more; you don’t exist anymore. But I think we can see from the Bible that there is more than just material and biological function to man.
We are made in the image of God.
Genesis 1, on the 6th day of creation after God had made the heavens and the earth and every other living creature, He said, “Let’s make man in our image, according to our likeness.” Genesis 1:27, “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”
What does that mean? I’ve heard some say that it was only Adam and Eve that were created in the image of God. But by sin they messed up that image. That image was lost. And the rest of humanity has inherited from Adam and Eve more the image of the devil and that we are not born into this world in the image of God. John Calvin and John Wesley and others spoke of this image of God as having been destroyed by the Fall. But I think that’s a misunderstanding. This image of God that Adam and Eve were created in is still inherent in every human being. In Genesis 9:6 when Noah and his family came off the ark and God gave them permission to kill and eat animals for food, but forbid manslaughter, God then gave the reason why you don’t kill your fellow man. And the reason was this, “for in the image of God He made man.” Man is made in the image, in the likeness, of God. That’s why it’s so offensive to God to murder another human being. The only way that statement makes sense is if man still has in the image of God. And then there’s James 3:9 which is talking about the misuse of our tongues. And it says, “With it [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God…” And he argues that this is a contradictory, inconsistent use of our tongues, to bless or praise God, but then turn around and curse men. It is inconsistent, because men have the likeness of God. We are still made in His likeness. It wasn’t lost at the fall. (See also I Corinthians 11:7).
What is that likeness, that image that each and every one of us shares with God? It’s something not seen in animals. God had just created all the animals when He said “Let’s make man in our image, according to our likeness…” It is something that makes us different from all the animals. And it’s not a physical likeness. John 4:24, Jesus said, “God is spirit.” God does not have a physical flesh and blood body (Lk 24:39). He is spirit. It’s on a spiritual level that we are made in the image of God. But it’s not that we all share God’s character. We’re not all loving and compassionate and patient and trustworthy and self-controlled and so forth like God. And neither were Adam and Eve in the beginning. If they were they wouldn’t have eaten of the fruit of that tree that God commanded them not to. The character of God is a part of God’s image that God wants us to choose to develop with His help (see II Cor 3:18; Eph 4:24; 5:1; Col 3:10; Heb 12:10; I Pt 1:15; II Pt 1:4; etc.). But it’s not the part of His image that we are all created with.
Definitely part of how we are made in the image of God that’s pertinent to our study of death and the afterlife is that…
We are reasoning freewill spirits inside our bodies.
Let’s notice first just the fact that we are not just bodies, but spirits or souls or selfs inside our bodies.
- Zechariah 12:1, “the Lord stretches out the heavens, lays the foundation of the earth, and forms the spirit of man within him.”
- Isaiah 26:9, “At night my soul longs for You, Indeed, my spirit within me seeks You diligently…”
- Matthew 10:28, Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”
- II Corinthians 4:16, “Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.“
- In II Corinthians 12:2-4 Paul speaks of himself in the 3rd person and tells of a visionary experience he was given by the Lord and says that he was caught up to the third heaven and heard inexpressible words which a man is not permitted to speak. And he says he does not know if he was in the body or out of the body when it happened. It shows that Paul viewed man has being more than just a body. Paul viewed man as a self, a spirit in a body, and that it’s possible for a man to be out of his body.
- In II Peter 1:13-15 Peter is explaining why he’s writing the letter of II Peter and that it has to do with the fact that he knows he’s about to die soon. He refers to being alive as “as long as I am in this tent“. He viewed his body as a tent, a place of temporary residence. He himself was not the tent. He lived inside the tent. And he spoke of death as a laying aside of his tent and a departure. So Peter apparently saw a twofold nature to man, not just a body, but also a spirit, a soul, a self inside the body.
Like God, and unlike animals, the spiritual part of us is reasoning and choosing and responsible for its choices. II Peter 2:12 is a good verse to show that the ability to reason and make our own choices is something that sets us apart from animals. II Peter 2:12, speaking of certain false teachers, it says, “But these, like unreasoning animals, born as creatures of instinct to be captured and killed, reviling where they have no knowledge, will in the destruction of those creatures also be destroyed“. So these false teachers are said to be acting like animals in a way. But notice the two things said here about animals that distinguish them from us. Animals are unreasoning and creatures of instinct. “Unreasoning” speaks of the vast difference in intelligence between animals and humans. They are incapable of our abstract thinking and creativity. They are unable to think critically, examine evidence and form judgments and conclusions. They do not have the capacity to contemplate God and His will. And the description “creatures of instinct” means they can’t help what they do. They’re just reacting to stimuli as they were made to react to it. Geese fly south for winter. Salmon swim upstream to spawn. Bees pollinate and head back to the hive, because that’s their instinct, that’s what they were made to do. So they are not responsible for their behavior. It’s just how they were made. That’s why we don’t read of animals being able to sin and we don’t read of any judgment day for animals. But that’s how they are different from us. God has made us with the ability to make our own choices. We don’t have to “fly south” or “swim upstream” with the rest of humanity. We can choose to seek God and love God and serve God and love people or not. We have the freedom of choice. And that’s why we are able to sin and are accountable for what we do. Romans 14:2 “So each one of us will give an account of himself to God.” II Corinthians 5:10, “For we must all stand before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” That we will give an account and be judged assumes that we are choosing freewill responsible individuals.
– James Williams