- Man is a holistic being, a “living soul”
- The “immortal soul” doctrine is based on pagan mythology/philosophy
- People do not go to heaven, purgatory, or hell when they die
- Death is an unconscious state, best described in the Bible as “sleep”
- Life after death requires resurrection, not innate immortality
- Eternal life is possible for everyone through the saving grace of Christ
- There is no such thing as Eternal Torment
Don’t look now, but like it or not, your culture’s been infected with religion. You probably didn’t notice, because it’s not what you’d expect. Relax.
I’m not talking Saturday night masses…
or Sunday morning sermons…
or door-knocking missionaries.
I’m talking about a folk religion with “doctrines” shaped by speculation, myth, and tradition – with a little pop science and a whole lot of confusion mixed in.
This folk religion shapes the worldview of religious and secular people equally.
If you think that everybody is going to live forever — in one form or another — you’re infected.
If you think we have a dual nature – a physical body plus an immortal soul – you’re infected.
If you’re among multitudes who believe death frees the soul from the body, so it can live on in some spirit form, well then – you guessed it – you’re infected.
Whether they’re religious or not, many people assume these ideas come from the Bible. If they were right, I would have to agree with the atheists, philosophers, scientists, and comedians who refuse to take the Bible seriously. But that old Book is not to blame for these fantasies.
The Bible presents life and death as exact opposites. Death is not an alternative FORM of life. It’s not life on a higher plane. It’s not a ghostly spirit life as opposed to physical, material life. Death…is DEATH. When death comes, life is gone.
In the biblical story of origins, death was not part of Creation. There was no established cycle of life that included death. There was no plan for man to progress from one form of life to another. There was no need for that. Adam and Eve were the crowning work of Creation. They were perfect. They were made for LIFE. Real, physical, material life. Everlasting life in a permanent, loving relationship with the Giver of life – the Creator Himself. That was the plan!
So how did death get into the picture? Here’s the story:
“And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Genesis 2:16, 17 NIV).
This proviso against eating the forbidden fruit gave Adam and Eve a singular opportunity to exercise their free will, or free choice.
Obedience would prove that they believed God, their Creator. It would demonstrate their trust in Him as the Source of life and everything they needed.
Now the tempter, disguised as a talking serpent, was determined to break that trust. “‘You will not certainly die,’ he told them” (Genesis 3:4).
Then came the kicker: the accusation that God was holding mankind back from a higher plane of existence.
“God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5 NIV).
God had warned Adam and Eve about that tree, but the decision was theirs. Free will, free choice, meant that they had options: trust God or believe the snake. They chose the snake.
By rejecting God’s word and distrusting His motives they radically changed their relationship with Him. Alienated from Him by their distrust, and thus their disobedience, they cut themselves off from the Source of life. That broken relationship left the human family subject to death.
St. Paul, the great theologian of the early Christian church, laid it out in unmistakable terms. “…sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12 ESV).
Today’s popular folk religion believes the serpent’s lies. It sugarcoats death. It tells us that the dead aren’t really dead. Instead, they’re alive in heaven or hell or purgatory or some other intermediate place.
But if we consider God’s warning about the forbidden fruit we can’t fail to see that He was not talking about an altered state of existence. That idea came from the serpent who said, “Don’t worry. You won’t die.”
The truth, stark and unmistakable, is this: “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23 KJV).
But that’s not the end of the story. Here’s some great news! The major theme of the Bible is Restoration. It tells us that we can reclaim what Adam and Eve lost. We can be restored to eternal life in a relationship with God, the Source of life.
“The gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23 KJV).
Right there is what our folk religion has missed. There is no life IN death, but there is life BEYOND death. Eternal life is possible for all of us, through a restored relationship with God through His Son Jesus Christ.
Maybe this has happened to you. I took the earbuds out of my ears and carefully wound the cord around my fingers. Seven or eight loops and it was done. I stuck the whole thing in a little plastic bag to keep it from getting tangled up with other cords and connectors I had laying around. Neat, right? A tight little zip-locked package.
When I wanted the earbuds again I opened the little bag and pulled out the cord, only to find it tangled with itself. It’s like my winding had wound up a little spring in the cord. My loops had looped in and out of each other. I had to grab the end – or was it the beginning – and unravel the thing before I could use it.
I told you all that so I could say this: Try to put together a neatly packaged set of beliefs about the nature of life, God, purpose, death, eternity, etc., and you may eventually produce a tangle of impossible logic and conflicting conclusions.
Suppose you are a typical Christian with traditional beliefs. You are convinced that you have an immortal soul that can exist independent of your body. You see death as a transition from this present physical, bodily form of life to a spirit life.
You might not be a fan of prolific songwriter Dottie Rambo or her southern gospel music genre, but you might agree with her lyrics: “This house of flesh is but a prison. Bars of bone hold my soul.” Her view of dying? “The doors of clay are gonna burst wide open when the angel sets my spirit free.”
Millions have been comforted by these and similar sentiments. Dying and going to heaven. What could be better?
To hold such a view is easy, as long as you don’t try to fit it into the bigger picture. By “bigger picture” I mean the whole system of afterlife issues that includes the judgment, resurrection, and the eternal destiny of both “the saved” and “the lost.”
To make my point, I’ll use “the judgment.” It is widely held that “the judgment” is a singular event that will take place at a future time. Human beings – or perhaps the souls of human beings – will face the divine tribunal and then be sent to their final – and eternal – reward or punishment.
If you believe you have an immortal soul that goes to heaven (or to hell, for that matter) when you die, can you also believe in that future judgment? On what basis can your soul be rewarded or punished at the time of your death?
Roman Catholic theology “solves” this with the PARTICULAR JUDGMENT. But that solution raises still other questions about the need for multiple judgments, etc.
This tangle of confusing ideas can be resolved by adopting the holistic, biblical view of our nature. In God’s creative act, “man BECAME a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). Human life ends at death. The Bible’s favorite word for death is “sleep.” In that unconscious state we rest until the power of death is defeated by the resurrection.
“But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20).
Let’s take a look at the worms and fire Jesus spoke about. According to the King James Version, He referred to these destructive forces three times in Mark 9. Here is the passage in full. Verse numbers are included for easy reference:
 And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched:
 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.
 And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.
 And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire:
 Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.
Many who hold to the doctrines of the Immortal Soul and Eternal Torment believe that these verses provide evidence that the souls of unsaved sinners will suffer in hell forever. After all, the passage is a direct quotation from the lips of Jesus Himself.
Let’s take a close look at what Jesus said – or did not say.
Please notice that Jesus did not say “soul” in these verses. Not even once. He was clearly talking about physical organs/bodies. In verses 44, 46, and 48 He quoted from Isaiah 66:24, an Old Testament prophecy that also talked about dead bodies rather than souls.
Drawing from that verse in Isaiah, Jesus described two unstoppable, unrelenting forces of destruction. Both are physical in nature, and together they accomplish the complete decomposition of corpses.
Worms (maggots) feast on dead flesh. Note that the worm is the only thing in our passage that does not die.
The worm’s companion in the process of destruction is unquenchable fire. It consumes what the worm leaves behind.
We find the word “hell” in verses 43, 45, and 47. The King James translators chose to use that familiar word rather than “gehenna” – the Greek word used in Mark’s gospel. “Gehenna” would have been particularly meaningful to those who were listening to Jesus.
“Gehenna” was the name of a valley just south of Jerusalem. It had once been the site of child sacrifices – offerings to Molech, the fire god. Some people think it had become a refuse dump where maggots feasted and where fire smoldered continually.
Since Jesus was talking about physical organs and bodies, it was natural for Him to choose a literal, physical location to complete His word picture of death and destruction. Taken as it reads, Mark 9:43-48 deals with concrete realities; bodies and eyes and hands and feet. To some people His words may be shocking in the extreme, but Jesus was pressing home an important lesson: Don’t let anything get in the way of your salvation.
Does the vision of the souls under the altar prove that our souls go to heaven (or elsewhere) when we die? Let’s take a look at Revelation 6:9 and then consider its context.
“And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held…”
Four seals have already been opened (verses 1-8). They revealed four horses (white, red, black, and pale). These seals and horses are prophetic symbols. There are no actual seals or horses involved. It’s reasonable to assume that the fifth seal is also symbolic.
This entire seven-seals scene is a continuation of a vision that started back in Rev. 4:1. The seals themselves are in heaven, where the prophet sees them “in the right hand of him that sat on the throne” (Rev. 5:1). The things that happen as the seals are opened, however, take place on the earth (Rev. 6:1-8).
John saw an altar. He doesn’t tell us where it is located. A consistent interpretation of the seals suggests that it is on the earth, where the action under the previous seals has taken place. Many scholars think that this is a symbolic representation of the Old Testament altar of burnt offering, which first stood in the courtyard of the wilderness tabernacle and later occupied a prominent position in the temple complex.
The blood of sacrificial animals was poured out at the base of the altar of burnt offerings. John’s vision of souls under the altar may represent the lives of the martyrs who were sacrificed for the sake of “the word of God.”
What are these “souls?” Disembodied spirits? Apparently not. They are people with real bodies who wore clothes (see vs. 11). Is such an interpretation consistent with New Testament usage? Certainly. In the NT, “soul” often means “person.”
“Two hundred threescore and sixteen souls” were shipwrecked with Paul (Acts 27:37).
“Threescore and fifteen souls” went to Egypt with Jacob (Acts 7:14).
“The first Adam was made a living soul” (1 Cor. 15:45).
“Eight souls” were saved in Noah’s ark (1 Peter 3:20).
Conclusion: Revelation 6:9 does not prove – nor does it provide evidence – that our souls go to heaven when we die.
The story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16) is told as a parable – a simple story that carries a moral or spiritual lesson. The rich man “fared sumptuously every day” (v. 19). The beggar, Lazarus, subsisted on crumbs (v.20, 21). Both men died and passed to their reward.
The rich man finds himself in hell, tormented by flames. He can see Father Abraham in the far-off distance, with Lazarus “in his bosom.” This is just the opposite of what he expected. In his society, wealth was a mark of God’s approval, while the beggar bore the stigma of divine disfavor.
The rich man begs Father Abraham to send Lazarus to him with a drop of water to cool his tongue (v. 24). Abraham denies the request, pointing out the impossibility of crossing the “great gulf fixed” between them. The rich man then pleads for supernatural intervention on behalf of his surviving brothers: “Send him [Lazarus] to my father’s house: For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment” (v.28).
In typical Middle Eastern reversal-of-fortune stories similar to this one, spirit beings cross the great gulf between the living and the dead, bringing messages from the great beyond. Here is where Jesus surprised His listeners with an unexpected twist. He has Abraham refusing the rich man’s plea. “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.” In other words, “Your brothers have the Bible. If they pay attention to its message they won’t end up like you.”
The rich man pressed his request. “Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent” (v.30).
Abraham’s words bring the story to a definitive end. “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead” (v. 31).
The message to us is clear. God has revealed truth in His written Word. If we are sincere in our relationship with Him, His Word should be sufficient. We don’t need supernatural manifestations or messages from the dead. We have the Bible. That’s enough.
You probably know people who want to believe that by telling this story Jesus was pulling back the veil to give us a glimpse of the afterlife. But Jesus was not relating an actual event. This is fiction, a made-up story like so many of His parables. It is not about death or hell or Abraham’s bosom any more than the parable of the wheat and the tares was about farming.
Two primary arguments have been raised against my suggestion that the story in question is a parable, that it teaches the importance of believing the truth as revealed in God’s written word, and that it does not reveal details of the afterlife.
First, a few people are convinced that the story depicts actual events. They believe the rich man and the beggar are real people, that the scenes Jesus described are literal, and that the rich man was actually able to carry on a dialogue with Father Abraham across the “great gulf fixed” between Abraham’s bosom and Hades. And what is it about the story that makes them certain that it depicts actual events? The fact that the beggar has a name.
Thus far, no one has offered either a biblical or a logical basis for this “name” criterion. There is simply the assertion that the story is real because the beggar has a name. Someone might insist, “It’s the only story Jesus ever told where someone has a name, so it must be a true story.” Must it, really? Is this a fact, or an opinion?
Second, some commenters insist that since the text does not explicitly introduce the story as a parable, it has to be a true account of the experiences of the rich man and the beggar. We have, of course, no biblical doctrine on which to base this particular assumption.
To follow this reasoning, we would have to conclude that the story of the shrewd steward, found earlier in Luke 16, is also factual. As are the stories of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-13), the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), the houses built on rock and sand (Luke 6:48-49), the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:23-34), the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-36), the great banquet (Luke 14:16-24), plus two of the three stories in Luke 15. Most of these are widely considered to be parables. You might argue that some of them could be based on real-life situations, but they obviously function as parables – stories told to teach moral or doctrinal lessons. But none of them is introduced as a parable.
While the story is not introduced as a parable, there is another clue that it is actually a parable anyway. Jesus introduces the main character as “A CERTAIN RICH MAN” just as He introduces the main characters in at least seven other parables recorded in Luke:
Luke 12:16 – ” And he spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of A CERTAIN RICH MAN brought forth plentifully….”
Luke 13:6 – “He spake also this parable; A CERTAIN MAN had a fig tree….”
Luke 14:16 – “Then said he unto him, A CERTAIN MAN made a great supper….”
Luke 15:11 – “And he said, A CERTAIN MAN had two sons….”
Luke 16:1 – “And he said also unto his disciples, There was A CERTAIN RICH MAN….”
Luke 19:12 – “He said therefore, A CERTAIN NOBLEMAN went into a far country….”
Luke 20:9 – “Then began he to speak to the people this parable; A CERTAIN MAN planted a vineyard….”
This common style, used by Jesus in parables, supports the view that the tale of the rich man and Lazarus is also a parable, and not a literal, true story.
If you believe that Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) is a literal and factual account of actual events, please ask yourself these questions:
After the two men die, do they go to their destinations as “spirits” set free from their bodies? If so, how can the rich man experience physical pain?
If they are disembodied spirits, do they then undergo some sort of bodily resurrection that restored their physical organs so that Lazarus has a finger and the rich man has eyes and a tongue?
Is Abraham’s bosom a literal or geographical place, or is it figurative/symbolic? And what about Abraham himself? Has he been resurrected…or is he a figurative/symbolic character?
If this is a true story, how can both the rich man and Lazarus receive their rewards before the second coming of Jesus? In the light of this, what is the meaning of Jesus’ words in Revelation 22:12? (“Behold, I am coming quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be.”)
The gospel is about God’s work on behalf of sinners. He has brought salvation and eternal life within our reach by the sacrifice of His Son on the cross. He paid the price of our redemption, from the vilest sinner among us to the most innocent child. His purpose is to restore the intimate relationship He had with His human children before Adam and Eve sinned.
The apostle John wrote about God’s “end game” in Revelation 21. “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death, or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:3, 4 NIV).
That’s God’s plan, His great hope for you and me.
Our worst enemy has other plans. I’m talking about Satan and his campaign to disrupt God’s plan. His aim is our ultimate destruction. He promotes confusing ideas about God. He nurtures false doctrines that leave unsuspecting victims wide open to deadly deceptions.
If there is one satanic idea more dangerous than any other, it is the doctrine of the immortal soul. That’s right! Immortal soulism is a foundational and absolutely essential component of Satan’s strategy. It creates potentially fatal vulnerabilities in the hearts and minds of people who mistake falsehood for truth.
By convincing you that the dead aren’t really dead, the immortal soul doctrine leaves open the possibility of communication with friends and loved ones who have died. You might find yourself in contact with demons impersonating deceased people that you know, love, and respect. You might receive messages from “the great beyond” that contradict the teachings of God’s Word.
Without the immortal soul doctrine, Satan loses a vital channel of communication. Here is where Bible truth is protective: it teaches that we are mortal beings; death is an unconscious state; there is no possibility of communication with the dead; bodily resurrection is the “cure” for death; and eternal life is possible through Jesus Christ.
“For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 – from the New Living Translation).
Did Jesus tell a dying thief that the two of them would be together in Paradise that very day?
It seems that one of the two outlaws who were crucified with Jesus must have been converted right there on the cross. “And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom” (Luke 23:42).
Jesus responded, “Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
There are four questions we should ask about this promise to the thief:
1. Where is Paradise?
2. Did the thief go to Paradise that day?
3. Did Jesus go to Paradise that day?
4. If the answer to either question 2 or 3 is “No,” what did Jesus really say to the thief?
Let’s get some answers right from the Bible.
QUESTION 1: WHERE IS PARADISE?
The word “paradise” occurs just three times in the King James Bible. This is also true of most other English versions. In addition to our verse here in Luke 23, we have 2 Corinthians 12:2, 4, where Paul mentions a man who “was caught up to the third heaven . . . into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.”
Then there is Revelation 2:7, where the Spirit’s message to the churches is: “To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.”
Revelation 22:1, 2 tells us more about the location of the tree of life. “And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life….”
Some people say that Paradise is part of Hades, but the only Paradise the Bible talks about is in a supernatural, heavenly realm where God is. If Jesus and the thief went to Paradise that crucifixion day, they went into the presence of God.
But did they?
QUESTION 2: DID THE THIEF GO TO PARADISE THAT DAY?
That day was the Jewish Preparation day (Friday). The next day was the Sabbath. Take a look at this: “The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain upon the cross on the sabbath day, (for that sabbath day was an high day,) besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away” (John 19:31).
Do you get the picture? The Jews – more particularly, the religious leaders – wanted the gruesome sight on Golgotha cleaned up before the Sabbath began. Crucifixion was not an instantaneous execution. It was meant as an extended form of torture. The victims on the three crosses could linger on in agony well into the Sabbath hours, which began at sunset.
Break their legs.
Take them down from the crosses.
Leave them to die on some loathsome acre where the sight of their mangled, bloodied bodies and their cries and moans would not distract from the faithful observance of Sabbath.
Pilate yielded to the request. He gave the order. Of course, there was no need to break Jesus’ legs. He was already dead. The Roman soldiers made sure of it. But they did break the legs of the two thieves.
The sun set. The day was over. Jesus was dead. The converted thief? Was he in Paradise? No. His legs were broken. He suffered on and on. He wasn’t going anywhere.
QUESTION 3: DID JESUS GO TO PARADISE THAT DAY?
From Jesus’ own words we know that He did not expect to go to Paradise when He died. Listen to what He told the religious leaders when they asked Him for a sign that He truly was who He claimed to be:
“For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40).
The term “three days and three nights” applies to time in an inclusive sense; the people who heard Jesus would have counted a part of a day as a complete day. “The heart of the earth” is widely understood as referring to the tomb or sepulcher.
This “three days and three nights” sign pointed to the Resurrection. The grave would only hold Jesus that long. He had told His disciples, “The Son of man is delivered into the hands of men, and they shall kill him; and after that he is killed he shall rise the third day” (Mark 9:31). (See also Mark 10:34; Luke 9:22; Luke 18:33; Luke 24:7; Luke 24:46; Acts 10:40; and I Corinthians 15:4.)
When Mary Magdalene encountered Jesus after His resurrection, He told her, “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father” (John 20:17). He had not yet been in Paradise, in His Father’s presence. He had been in the tomb just as Jonas (Jonah) had been in the belly of the whale.
If we take the words of the Bible in their simplest and most straightforward sense, we conclude that neither Jesus nor the thief ended up in Paradise on the day of their crucifixion.
If that’s the case, what about my fourth question?
QUESTION 4: WHAT DID JESUS REALLY SAY TO THE THIEF?
It would be great if we had the original manuscript of Luke. But we don’t. We don’t have an original manuscript of any portion of the Bible. What we DO have is a huge collection of source documents in various forms: scrolls, tablets, plates, and books dating back to ancient times.
Our oldest copy of Luke, written on papyrus, comes from approximately 200 AD. Scholars refer to it as Papyrus 75 – or simply P75. What do we learn from this manuscript?
First of all, the manuscript is in Greek, where there are only block letters – what we would call uppercase or capital letters. There are no chapter or verse divisions and no spaces between words or even between sentences. There are a few scattered dots between some of the words, but aside from that, manuscript P75 has no punctuation.
If the King James Version (KJV) followed the model of that manuscript, it would have Jesus saying, “Verily I say unto thee today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” See? No comma!
Truth is, commas do not appear in New Testament manuscripts until many centuries after manuscript P75.
The men who first composed the contents of the Bible were inspired by the Holy Spirit. (See 2 Timothy 3:16.) The same cannot be said for the translators and copyists who introduced punctuation. The position of a comma in a sentence was an act of interpretation, not of translation. In the case of Luke 23:43, the comma was inserted by a translator who believed that good people go to Paradise immediately after they die.
Let’s get back to our verse. The word “today” is an adverb. It answers the question, “When?” It can apply to either “I say” or “you will be.” In other words, we could read, “I say to you today” or “today you will be . . .” Grammatically speaking, either way is correct.
Were it not for the interference of that translator’s comma, we would be left to interpret Jesus’ words for ourselves by prayerfully studying the context and related Bible passages. But the comma is there, in the KJV and most, if not all, other English versions. And that comma determines the role of “today” in the sentence.
Let’s look at it in the New King James Version (NKJV): “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” That adverb, “today,” applies to “you will be.”
Now let’s move the comma. Put it after “today.” “Assuredly, I say to you today, you will be with Me in Paradise.” See the difference. Changing the position of the comma changes the meaning. Now the “today” applies to “I say to you.”
This phrase, “I say to you today,” matches several similar phrases found in the Greek version of the Old Testament – which was familiar to the Christians of Luke’s day.
The bottom line here is that Jesus did not promise the “good” thief that they would be in Paradise together that very day. Jesus died that day, went into the grave and rose on the third day, just as He had predicted. The thief didn’t die that day. His legs were broken by the Roman soldiers, who took him off his cross before the day ended at sunset. They left him to die a lingering death in a field outside Jerusalem. But he died in the hope of a future resurrection.
Somewhere, somehow, this criminal had learned the truth about the second coming of Christ. Maybe he had heard it from Jesus Himself. Maybe he had heard one the disciples preach. Whatever the case, he knew what to ask for as he hung beside Jesus on the cross: “Lord, remember me WHEN THOU COMEST INTO THY KINGDOM” (Luke 23:42 NKJV).
There were plenty of other voices, shouting insults at Jesus, mocking Him, cursing Him. But Jesus heard the thief. Their bodies hung deformed and twisted in excruciating pain. It was the worst time of their lives. In fact, it was the darkest hour in the history of the human race. There, in that blackest and bleakest of days, Jesus answered the thief’s plea.
Here is what His answer sounds like to me: “Right now, today, when there is no hope, no relief in sight, nothing but faith to hold on to – today, when things could not possibly get any worse – today I vow that I will not forget you. You will be with Me in My kingdom – in Paradise.”
If these few paragraphs are catching you at a “down” time – at a time when you are uncertain about your own eternal future – take heart. Jesus is ready, today, to give you the same assurance He gave to the dying thief.
These three words should put to rest all the arguments about whether or not you have an immortal soul. They cut through the myths and misunderstanding about human nature. And they show how it is possible for mortal beings like us to live forever.
The words I’m talking about are preserved in Paul’s first letter to the Christian believers in Corinth. He writes about the future day of Resurrection, when “the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:52).
Elsewhere he writes about that same great day this way: “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise. . .” (1 Thessalonians 4:16).
So, Resurrection Day is when the Lord Himself returns to this planet. Believers commonly refer to this event as the Second Coming of Christ.
That’s when the “dead in Christ shall rise.”
That’s when “we shall be changed.”
What kind of “change” is Paul talking about? It’s the change that must happen to all who will live forever in God’s perfect universe. Here are the three words:
“PUT ON IMMORTALITY.”
I’m not making this up. I’m simply pointing out something that a lot of people seem to have missed. Here it is in Paul’s own words: “This mortal must PUT ON IMMORTALITY” (1 Corinthians 15:53).
We are mortal. We have no natural immortality. No immortal soul. In order to live forever we must be changed. We must PUT ON IMMORTALITY.
It hasn’t happened yet. But it will happen for all who are “in Christ” when He returns.
Let’s take a look at the infamous story of the first Israelite king, Saul, and his encounter with the witch of En-dor. The story is one of the primary pillars propping up belief in body-soul dualism and the immortality of the soul. For those who have such a viewpoint, it offers concrete evidence that the dead are not truly dead but are, in fact, alive in spirit form.
You can read the whole story for yourself in 1 Samuel 28. Here it is in a nutshell:
The Philistine army, was ready to attack. Saul knew that his army had little chance of victory in the impending battle. He inquired of the Lord through priests and prophets, seeking counsel and encouragement. No answer came. Saul panicked.
Seeking some alternate way to avert disaster, he went to En-dor to see a witch. He asked her to put him in touch with Samuel, the recently deceased prophet of the Lord. She complied. Saul conversed with Samuel. He came away from the encounter as a hopeless, helpless, broken man. He committed suicide on the field of battle the following day.
Among theologians there are various interpretations of this strange story. Here is my clumsy attempt to summarize the two primary schools of thought:
[A] — The witch either had the power to bring Samuel up from the dead, or God sent Samuel back from among the dead to speak with Saul – making it look like the witch did it.
[B] — The witch called up an evil spirit disguised as the prophet, and Saul only thought he was talking with Samuel.
Full disclosure: I agree with [B]. The narrative itself offers clues to proper interpretation and raises questions that challenge [A].
1 Samuel 28:3 holds an essential part of the story: “Samuel was dead.” The beloved prophet had been the spiritual leader of the nation nearly all his life. It was he who had anointed Saul as king. He had been Saul’s counselor and confessor. He had loved Saul and grieved when the king departed from the will of God. He died, “and all Israel had lamented him” (v 3).
The verse continues: “And Saul had put away those that had familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land.” The fact that this policy was necessary reveals the persistence of spiritism, necromancy, witchcraft, etc., within the territory of ancient Israel – in spite of God’s commands.
Centuries earlier, Moses himself had warned the Israelites against occult practices. “For all that do these things are an abomination unto the Lord” (Deuteronomy 18:12). He said the Lord would drive the Canaanites out of their land specifically because they had practiced these abominations.
Repeated warnings came from God through Moses:
“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Exodus 22:18).
“Regard not them that have familiar spirits, neither seek after wizards, to be defiled by them: I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:31).
“The soul that turneth after such as have familiar spirits, and after wizards . . . I will even set my face against that soul, and will cut him off from among his people” (Leviticus 20:6).
Let me interrupt myself by asking a few questions:
Why did God want to ban mediums, witches, necromancers, and the like?
Was it because He wanted to deny to the bereaved the comfort of contact with their deceased loved ones?
Was it because he didn’t want human beings to obtain knowledge from “the great beyond?”
Was God arbitrarily withholding some good thing from His chosen people?
Isn’t it possible that this prohibition was protective; that occultism would put people in contact with “the dark side” – demons or devils or evil spirits?
Okay, enough questions.
1 Samuel 28:4 says that the long-running conflict between Saul and the Philistines had come to a head. The armies were in position for a decisive battle, and Saul didn’t like the way things looked. “And when Saul saw the host of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart greatly trembled” (v 4).
Without Samuel to counsel him, what could he do but pray? “And when Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord answered him not” (v 6). No prophet came forward in response to his prayers. No vision appeared. No supernatural sign of any kind. God, it seemed, had deserted him.
This should have come as no surprise to Saul. His presumption, disobedience, and rebellious spirit had cost him God’s favor. It was his beloved friend and mentor, the prophet Samuel, who had told him, “Thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord hath rejected thee from being king over Israel” (1 Samuel 15:26).
Now, on the eve of battle, where could he turn? Only one way. Away from God.
“Then said Saul unto his servants, Seek me a woman that hath a familiar spirit, that I may go to her, and inquire of her. And his servants said to him, Behold, there is a woman that hath a familiar spirit at En-dor” (1 Samuel 28:7).
En-dor and nearby cities and villages were in the region assigned to the tribe of Manasseh. It was a Canaanite stronghold, and the tribe of Manasseh was supposed to drive out the inhabitants and occupy the territory. According to Joshua 17:12, “the people of Manasseh could not take possession of those cities, but the Canaanites persisted in dwelling in that land.” It’s possible that the woman King Saul went to see was a leftover Canaanite who communicated with the Canaanite “gods” of the underworld.
Whoever she was, she wasn’t supposed to be there. It seems that the king had no misgivings as to how thoroughly his ban on practitioners of the occult had been carried out. He knew there must be a witch or two left in the land.
With two of his men Saul disguised himself and went to see the woman that night. “He said, I pray thee, divine unto me by the familiar spirit, and bring me him up, whom I shall name unto thee” (v 8). She was alarmed. She knew about King Saul’s orders. Perhaps this was an attempt at entrapment. “Wherefore then layest thou a snare for my life, to cause me to die?” (v 9).
Saul swore an oath in God’s name, promising that “there shall be no punishment happen to thee for this thing” (v 10). “Bring me up Samuel” (v 11).
The narrator doesn’t give us the details of her incantations as she conjured up the apparition. He skips right to the moment when the woman put two and two together and knew she had been duped. “And when the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice: and the woman spake to Saul, saying, Why hast thou deceived me? For thou art Saul” (v 12).
He allayed her fears, saying, “Be not afraid: for what sawest thou?” (v 13). His question is important to those of us who want to know what was really going on there. Saul was there, but he saw only the woman. He did not see the apparition.
She replied, “I saw gods ascending out of the earth” (v 13). Notice that she used a plural noun, “gods.” The Hebrew word used here is often translated in the singular sense as “god” or “God,” but the King James translators decided on the plural form.
So, what did she actually “see?” As a medium or necromancer, she thought that the underworld was inhabited by the spirits of the dead along with the demons and deities who ruled the place. She may have “seen” multiple spirits “ascending out of the earth.”
Saul, however, was only interested in one spirit. “What form is he of? And she said, An old man cometh up; and he is covered with a mantle. And Saul perceived that it was Samuel” (v 14).
Here is where the story serves up a big question mark to those who believe that righteous people go to heaven or paradise when they die. Certainly, Samuel was a righteous man. According to common belief he should have been somewhere “up there.” What was he doing in the underworld?
For some of us, Samuel “coming up” is a clue that the woman was seeing an apparition disguised as the dead prophet – “an old man. . .covered with a mantle.” King Saul had nothing to go on but her description, and based on what she said, he “perceived” that it was Samuel. “He stooped with his face to the ground, and bowed himself” (v 14).
The narrator then takes Saul’s perspective as it recounts the ongoing dialogue. It relates the experience as through the eyes and ears of Saul, who believed that he was conversing with Samuel. But the conversation was not necessarily an objective reality. Saul could have been speaking with an imposter.
What we read is Saul’s truth. Theologian Grenville Kent calls this a case of “focalized narration.” Let’s look at one of his examples:
In an earlier Israel vs. Philistine episode, the Israelites decided to weaponize the ark of the covenant. They carried it onto the field of battle, supposing that its presence would assure their victory. “And when the ark of the covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel shouted with a great shout…” (v 5).
Up to this point the story has been told from the perspective of the Israelites. Then the narrator shifts to the Philistine point of view. They heard the “great shout” from the Israelite side, and “they understood that the ark of the Lord was come into the camp” (v 6).
The Philistines mistakenly assumed that the ark was a deity – similar to their own gods of wood and stone, only much more powerful. That was their truth. They had “heard” and “understood” – and had come to a false conclusion.
The misperception led to panic. “Woe unto us! for there hath not been such a thing heretofore. Woe unto us! who shall deliver us out of the hand of these mighty Gods?” (v 8).
Grenville Kent makes an important point. The writer of 1 Samuel sometimes lets us see things through the eyes of his characters. From the Philistine point of view, we see the ark of the covenant as a god. In reality, it wasn’t. From King Saul’s point of view, we hear the voice of a dead prophet.
People used to tell me that I sounded just like my father on the phone. If I answered a call at his house the person at the other end of the line would assume that they were talking with him. If I didn’t interrupt and get Dad on the line, the conversation could be completed, and goodbyes said, without the caller suspecting the truth. The caller would remember having had the conversation with my father, not with me.
Could something like that have been happening when the doomed King Saul engaged a spirit medium on the last night of his life? According to the account in 1 Samuel 28, the witch of En-dor mediated the contact between Saul and an apparition she described as “an old man…covered with a mantle.”
It seemed to Saul that her incantations had succeeded in enticing the recently deceased prophet, Samuel, out of the realm of death. Saul “perceived” that it was Samuel, though he never saw him.
During his years as a counselor to the king, Samuel had delivered scathing rebukes. The prophet had declared Saul unfit to rule over Israel and announced, in no uncertain terms, that his reign would end and the kingdom would be given to another. (See 1 Samuel 13:13-14 and 15:13-28.)
Up to this point in the story the apparition had revealed nothing Saul did not already know. But then, this: “Moreover the Lord will also deliver Israel with thee into the hand of the Philistines: and tomorrow shalt thou and thy sons be with me: the Lord also shall deliver the host of Israel into the hand of the Philistines” (1 Samuel 28:19).
This was new. What was going on? Was this an add-on punishment for Saul? Was it something the living prophet had forgotten to tell him? Was the apparition an inspired messenger of God, bearing a genuine prophecy? Let’s break it down and see what we come up with.
First, “the Lord will also deliver Israel with thee into the hand of the Philistines: …the Lord also shall deliver the host of Israel into the hand of the Philistines.” Did that happen? The Philistines defeated the Israelites in battle the following day, but Saul himself proved the prophecy false by taking his own life rather than falling into the hands of the Philistines.
Second, “tomorrow shalt thou and thy sons be with me.” This suggests that the wicked, rebellious king would end up in the same situation as the godly prophet. Could that be true? That’s pretty hard to swallow if you believe that the righteous and the wicked have different after-death destinations.
But what about the prediction about Saul and his sons dying? Did it happen? Well, Saul died, along with three of his sons: Jonathan, Abinadab, and Melchishua. But Saul’s fourth son, Ishbosheth, survived and assumed his father’s throne. (See 2 Samuel 2:8-12). Clearly, this part of the prophecy failed as well.
We can safely judge the apparition as a false prophet, and certainly not the prophet Samuel. But King Saul himself bought every word and went out into a hopeless night, convinced that his doom was sealed. It was.
This story has aroused the critical curiosity of theologians for the last 2,000 years. Was Samuel (or the ghost/spirit of Samuel) actually in touch with King Saul, or was the whole thing a demonic deception? Among theologians, opinions vary. Many who believe that souls/spirits survive death are inclined to accept the story at more or less face value.
Many current teachers and preachers assume the worst – that Samuel, or his spirit, really appeared and communicated with Saul. This belief, combined with the doctrine of the immortal soul, is risky. It leaves people vulnerable to evil spirits who can impersonate the dead. Those most in danger are the grieving, who crave some contact with loved ones who have died.
For our own good we all need a thorough understanding of God’s Word. Its truths may be unpopular. Its teachings may require some digging. But it is the best defense against deception and false doctrine.
 Grenville J. R. Kent, “‘Call Up Samuel’: Who appeared to the Witch at En-dor? (1 Samuel 28:3-25),” in Andrews University Seminary Studies, Vol. 52, No. 2, 141-160.