Asleep in Christ

What happens when we die? Do we go directly to Heaven or Hell, or do we fall asleep and lie unconscious in our bodies until the resurrection? This latter view, called “soul sleep,” might appear scriptural (Da 12:2), and is commonly taught by Christians, but there are problems with it.

For example, as Christ was being crucified He said to one of the thieves, “To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Lk 23:43) Evidently, a better place awaits those who die in Christ, which we enjoy before we’re raised from the dead.

Similarly, Christ describes how Lazarus, a poor beggar, and an unnamed rich man, are both transported from their bodies at death; Lazarus is carried by the angels to meet Abraham (Lk 16:22a) and the rich man appears in hell. (Lk 16:22b-23) Both men are conscious in death, interacting with others in visible, tangible bodies. The rich man recognizes Abraham, who’s been dead for hundreds of years, and pleads with Him to send Lazarus to fetch some water to ease his suffering. (Lk 16:24) As Abraham refuses, he pleads to have Lazarus sent back to warn his brothers to live for God so they won’t suffer the same fate. (Lk 16:28) Abraham’s final words, closing the narrative, are indeed profoundly thought provoking. (Lk 16:31)

The details of this amazing story are entirely inconsistent with soul sleep, contradicting it at every turn. If this is merely metaphorical, and soul sleep is true, then why does Christ use proper names, focus on a prominent historical figure like Abraham, and misrepresent reality so profoundly? Nothing in the narrative indicates it’s a parable; it cannot be thoughtfully dismissed.

On the mount of Transfiguration, before the resurrection, Moses and Elijah discuss the redemption plan with Christ, so Moses isn’t asleep or with the physical remains of his body. (Lk 9:30-31) Yet Moses has a body, and interacts with both Christ and Elijah, prior to either of them dying.

Paul, nearing death, spoke of his imminent departure (2Ti 4:6), after which he planned to be with Christ. (Php 1:23) Yet this was a struggle for Him, which to choose: serving Christ longer on Earth or going on to be with Him. If Paul believes in soul sleep there can be no struggle, he only adds value by staying here to serve.

Paul tells us that God will continue to transform us beyond death, up until the day of Christ (Php 1:6), which is problematic if we’re unconscious most of that time, in the long expanse between our death and resurrection.

Enoch’s prophesy, when God comes to execute judgement on the living, before the final resurrection, is that He will bring many saints with Him (Jud 1:14-15), confirming Paul’s view of the 2nd coming of Christ (1Th 3:13), that His elect will already be with Him when He comes to judge the world. (1Th 4:14)

In Revelation, John sees under the altar of God many souls slain for their testimony, appealing to God to avenge their blood on those still living on Earth. (Re 6:9-10) This is evidently well before the resurrection and judgement, since God tells them to wait until the rest of their brothers are also killed. (Re 6:11)

The problems with soul sleep abound, and appear insurmountable; we could list many more. How do we reconcile them with the texts used to teach soul sleep? (Ps 115:17) An honest approach looks at the whole of Scripture, for a way to reconcile all of it into one, coherent, unified view which does no injustice to any text. This is our challenge.

The only way I can see to reconcile the whole is to understand the passages referring to sleep and inactivity in the grave to be merely from the physical perspective, how it appears to us who are still alive on Earth: the dead look like they are asleep and inactive. It is not an unreasonable way to understand these texts; it does them no real injustice, in my opinion, given all the evidence of soul and spirit activity between death and resurrection. There are many texts which we must take poetically in order retain our integrity (Is 55:12), why not these?

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To Be Sin

In seeking God, to know Him and walk with Him, we face an immediate obstacle: He’s holy (1Jn 1:5) and we’re sinful. (1Jn 1:8) Rather than facing our sin, it’s tempting to try to disassociate ourselves from it, to pretend that our actions don’t define us, that our bad actions don’t reveal that we’re bad people … as if just any kind of tree can produce apples, not just an apple tree.

But God tells us that we are, in fact, known by what we do: our behavior reveals the kind of people we are (Lk 6:44), whether we’re good or evil. (Lk 6:45) This isn’t like saying a tree is an apple tree because it produces apples; but rather that a tree produces apples because it’s an apple tree.

In this analogy, there are only two kinds of fruit: edible and inedible (Mt 12:33), analogous to two sorts of behavior: love (keeping God’s Law 2Jn 1:6) and sin (breaking God’s law 1Jn 3:4), revealing two kinds of people: good and evil. (Jn 5:28-29) As we are in the core of our being, obedient or disobedient, holy or sinful, so we do. Our motives don’t make us what we are, they reveal who we are: we live in love or sin, obedience or rebellion, because of our inner nature. 

So, if God identifies and classifies us by our behavior, God’s redemptive plan, to redeem from fallen Man a people for Himself (Tit 2:14), cannot merely be theoretical, it must be practical. In other words, salvation cannot merely be the bestowal of a positional righteousness, there must also be fundamental change in our nature (Ga 6:15), from evil to good. To walk with God we must be transformed, regenerated, born again

As we are made new creatures in Christ, our inward behavior invariably begins to reflect Christ’s nature. (2Co 5:17) As God delivers His elect from sin’s penalty, He frees us as well from sin’s dominion. (Ro 6:14) Regeneration is thus always accompanied by a growing, practical holiness. (He 6:9) This is a miracle; only God can do this in us. (Je 13:23)

In other words, since we are what we do, to redeem us, God deals not merely with our actions, He deals directly with us; He does not merely forgive our sinful ways, He becomes our sinful selves (2Co 5:21), not only by suffering the penalty we deserve, but also in becoming what we are.

God has never sinned, and He never will; but JEHOVAH so identifies with us as sinners that He treats Himself as if He has, as if He has committed all our sins. God, the perfectly holy one, doing this for us, becoming our sin … this is infinite love. (Ep 3:19)

But God doesn’t stop here; as He becomes our sin, He makes us His righteousness. (2Co 5:21) As He becomes who we are, He is also making us as He is. He does not merely atone for our sinful behavior, He also replaces our old carnal nature with His own holy nature. He does not just forgive our sin, He begins to eradicate it, making us who were born desperately wicked, holy and righteous in thought, word and deed … this is infinite power.

The sacrifice of God, as He gives Himself for us (Ga 2:20), is real and personal: it costs Him everything … to give us everything. (Ro 8:32)

Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another(1Jn 4:11)

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Superfluity of Naughtiness

Once God has begotten us by His word (Ja 1:18), He tells us to “lay apart all filthiness,” moral uncleanness, and “superfluity of naughtiness.” (Ja 1:21a)

My dad and me

An overflow of badness spills out when we’re wanton, living without discipline or concern for holiness. Rather, we’re to “receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save our souls.” (Ja 1:21b)

Living carefully, soberly, working out our own deliverance with fear and trembling (Php 2:12), trying our best (2Pe 1:5), no matter how bad our best is, it’s simply common sense, once we’ve chosen the fear of God.

There’s no pretending we’re good, in ourselves (Ga 6:3); even on our best day (Is 6:5) we’re abominable and filthy, guzzling down iniquity like water. (Job 15:16)

But even so, there’s no giving ourselves over to sin on purpose, presumptuously(Ps 19:13), Give it no place (Ep 4:27), no quarter (De 17:2,5); lay it all aside, everything you can that isn’t Christ (Php 1:21), and then ask Him to take what’s left. (Ps 119:29)

Let’s cleanse ourselves of all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. (2Co 7:1). Without holiness, no one will see God. (He 12:14)

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Ask in Faith

If we lack wisdom, God invites us to ask Him for more; He gives to all liberally, and doesn’t scold us for asking. (Ja 1:5) In believing God will help us, as we ask Him for good things, we honor Him by acknowledging His faithfulness and goodness, and trusting Him. It shows we understand His character, and expect Him to act accordingly.

But if we don’t ask in faith, confidently knowing He’ll help us (Ja 1:6), we shouldn’t expect anything from Him (Ja 1:7); we’re acting as if God isn’t good or faithful, which exposes a double-mindedness, an instability at the core of who we are. (Ja 1:8) How so?

Being unsure of God’s willingness to help us with wisdom, when He’s told us wisdom is the most important thing in all the world, and that with all of our getting we’re to be getting understanding (Pr 4:7), is to treat Him as if He is malicious, arbitrary and fickle. This is doubting His goodness and love at the core. If we don’t trust the faithfulness of God, if we don’t even know Him, we need His help here first.

Doubting Him on His willingness to give us wisdom, or any obviously good thing, is like thinking He’d refuse to help us find Him (He 11:6), or to help us follow and serve Him. (2Th 3:3) It’s to reject everything He’s told us about Himself; it’s calling Him a liar (1Jn 5:10) and denying His name. At the core of our own being, we know better than this — God isn’t evil — which makes us double-minded.

If we’re content to dishonor God like this, believing lies about Him rather than seeking His grace to believe rightly in Him, He just might let us. (Pr 14:12) And it would be our own fault. (Jn_3:19)

But if we humble ourselves and come to Him (Mt 11:28), seeking His face, casting our insufficiency upon Him (1Pe 5:7) and begging Him to quicken us (Ps 119:156), to give us His life (Jn 1:4), to help us find Him and walk worthy of Him, He most certainly will. (Mt 7:8) That’s just Who He is.

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As Though they Were

JEHOVAH inhabits eternity (Is 57:15), dwelling beyond space and time; He knows everything about everything (Ac 15:18), all possible outcomes of all possibile events. He acts on the future as if it’s past (Ro 4:17); there’s no searching of His understanding. (Is 40:28)

As God created space and time, framing the world with His hands (Ps 95:5), He created it with the appearance of age, as if it had already been here a long time. The first man and woman weren’t infants, Eden’s trees weren’t sprouts, and starlight illuminated the world on Day 4. (Ge 1:16)

We know this of the stars because God made them, along with the sun and moon, to light the earth (Ge 1:15,17-18), even though He made them very far away. Since fulfilling His purpose in creating stars requires God to create starlight between Heaven and Earth as though it had been traveling for millions of years, we can be sure He did.

Yet we observe supernova’s exploding millions of light years away, moving some to reason that if God created starlight between us and the cosmos only 6 thousand years ago then He’s playing tricks on us, since these observable events never actually occurred — only existing in photons streaming to Earth, the exploding stars themselves a fiction. They insist God doesn’t play tricks or write fiction: if we see light carrying information about an event, they insist the event must have physically occurred.

But this is like claiming mature trees in Eden, having rings on Day 6 … which isn’t unreasonable … require decades of actual weather patterns before Creation, or that smooth stones in a brook on Day 3 require years of water erosion. God creating a world in motion, with the appearance of age, as if it had already been in existence for a while, isn’t a trick or fiction: it’s genius. How else should He have created the universe? Why is this such a problem?

How is it inconsistent with God’s nature to create light containing information about things that would have been? God knows how the universe would have played itself out had He made it billions of years ago; He can create the cosmos as He pleases anywhere along any space-time continuum. If He gives us a glimpse into a past that exists only in His own mind, this is no lie, but a window into another dimension as God knows it to be. (Mt 11:21)

God speaks of what will be as if it’s already been, and reveals what would have been as if it was. If something exists in the mind of God, what presumption calls this fiction?

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Of What Sort

God says the fire will try our work, our life, the harvest of our time on Earth, to see what sort it is. (1Co 3:13) If our life abides the fire, we receive eternal reward (1Co 3:14); otherwise we suffer eternal loss. (1Co 3:15)

Fire is evidently a reference to Judgment Day (2Pe 3:7), when everyone shall give account of himself to God. (Ro 14:12) The concept of sort, or type, evidently refers to whether our work is good or evil.

Since we’re made in God’s image, we intuitively understand the concept of good and evil: it’s in our DNA. God has defined it for us, but we tend to reject God’s view and make up our own as we go, even disagreeing among ourselves. But God doesn’t change (Ja 1:17), and justice demands that He use His own definition. He will.

So, what’s God’s criteria here? What’s He looking for? What makes something we do, or who we are, good or evil? What is success? What is failure?

Understanding this, is to understand everything that’s really worth understanding; to miss this, is to miss, well, everything. (Mk 8:36) Most of us will get this wrong (Mt 7:22-23), and only because we don’t want to get it right.

It’s not our actions in themselves that make us good or evil, but why we do what we do (1Co 13:3), and there are ultimately only two possibilities: we’re either out to please ourselves, or God. (Php 2:21) Living merely to please ourselves, self-orientation, is the essence of all rebellion. (Ps 2:3) Each life will be characterized primarily by one motive or the other, love or selfishness, but not both. (Mt 12:33)

What pleases God? Obeying Him; cleaving to Him, loving Him and others; treating others justly, loving mercy, walking in humility(Mi 6:8)

In being overly concerned with Man’s approval we’re driven by fear of his displeasure (Jn 12:43), and this is sin (1Co 7:23), selfish and evil by definition. (Ja 4:17) We can’t be the servants of Christ if we’re slaves to fear (Ga 1:10); fear ensnares us, polluting our motives and service. (Pr 29:25)

God will inspect every activity of our lives, testing it against holiness, and expose our every motive, which will reveal our general life’s orientation, to the universe. His fire will burn up everything that isn’t rooted in Christ (Jn 15:6), in the pleasure of God. (Re 4:11) Everything He hasn’t planted will be rooted up. (Mt 15:13)

Learning to please God is a journey; His elect are growing here daily (1Th 4:1), as we purify ourselves (1Jn 3:3) to serve the living God. (He 9:14)

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The Engrafted Word

God tells us to receive with meekness the engrafted word, that it’s able to save our souls. (Ja 1:21) He tells us this after affirming He’s chosen to conceive us by His own will, not our own, with the word of truth (Ja 1:18); so, this salvation can’t be justification (Ro 4:25); it must be an ongoing process, something He’s performing in us now (Php 1:6) through His word. (Ep 5:26)

This word engrafted appears only here in our bible; it means grafted, implanted, transplanted, moved from some place beyond ourselves and permanently seeded and rooted within us. It’s the living expression of God (He 4:12) that becomes a part of our very being (Col 3:16), two distinct living things becoming a single, unique life, God’s words themselves being spirit and life (Jn 6:63), bringing healing within – salvation, deliverance, freedom.

Perhaps this is just another way of God telling us what He’s been saying all along: commanding us to hide His words in our hearts (De 6:6), to meditate in them all the time (Jos 1:8), that we might not sin against Him (Ps 119:11), and prosper in all that we do. (Ps 1:2-3) As we obey Him here He writes His laws into us (He 10:16), enabling us to free ourselves from the lies and bondage of the enemy (2Ti 2:26) so that we might live for Him. (He 9:14)

In seeking all of God, as He is through His Word, obeying all we’re able to obey, He works His words into the fabric of our being, planting them deeply within our minds and hearts, progressively freeing us to obey Him, abounding more and more in us in love for Him and others (Php 1:9), that we might approve what’s excellent, being sincere and without offence until Judgement Day (Php 1:10), filling us with righteousness by and through Christ unto His glory. (Php 1:11)

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Wherein Is Blemish

In JEHOVAH’s sacrificial system, He’s very clear about what’s acceptable: whatever is presented to Him must be perfect; asking Him to accept a blemish or defect of any kind is an abomination. (De 17:1)

It’s not that God dislikes physical defects in themselves; He cares for every living thing. (Ps 145:16) His concern evidently lies in what a sacrifice represents: He accepts an animal sacrifice as a substitute, representing an atonement for our sin. (He 9:7) It doesn’t actually take away our sin (He 10:11), it’s a picture of a metaphysical state, a place of reconciliation with Him, which we must with all diligence find. (He 4:1)

Our sin is entirely unacceptable to God (Ro 3:23); it moves Him to anger and indignation towards us. (Ro 2:8) God designed the sacrificial system to help us recognize this problem, and how He offers to resolve it: we either need Someone Who’s perfect to take our place, to accept our punishment and bear God’s wrath for us, or we must face God ourselves, alone, and be destroyed.

On the Day of judgement, every soul will face Almighty God to answer for their sin. (Ro 14:12) On that fateful Day, His face will be so dreadful Earth and Heaven will try to hide. (Re 20:11). We will all endure the indignation of JEHOVAH, one at a time, one way or another.

It’s only in finding a perfect, willing Substitute that we have any hope of surviving that Day. Our selfishness and pride is an abomination to God (Pr 16:5); asking Him to accept us as we are will be no different than offering a blemished animal on His altar here. It can’t end well.

Many, thinking they’ve found a fire escape in Christ, will hear Him say, “Depart from me, you workers of iniquity, for I never knew you” (Mt 7:22), and will face the court of Heaven on their own.

To find shelter in that stormy Day, we must enter into His rest by faith. God is, in fact, offering Himself to be our sacrifice (2Co 5:21); there can be no excuse for neglecting His offer. (Ac 17:31)

The door to the kingdom is open, and it always will be: it will never, ever close (Re 22:17), but Christ warns us to strive to enter, for only those few who love the truth will find Him. (2Th 2:10)

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Goodness and Severity

God is awesome in every respect; He’s extreme, infinite in every facet of His being. Everything He is and does should move us to worship.

If we prefer to focus on some particular part of God, rather than taking the whole of Him, we find imbalance, a false god. He is love, most certainly (1Jn 4:8), but He’s also light (1Jn 1:5), even a consuming fire (He 12:29), a terror to all who live in sin, to be feared by us all. (Php 2:12)

God calls us to behold His goodness and severity together (Ro 11:22), to be awed in both Heaven and Hell at once. (Re 15:3) We’re to glory in His kindness (Lk 6:35) as well as His justice, vengeance and fury. (Re 18:20)

It’s only in seeking God in all His attributes at once, where they converge in fullness and glory, that we discover Him. As we take in all of God honestly, delighting in all His ways, drinking in everything about Him without bias, preference or reservation, we’re sanctified, changed, transformed more and more into His likeness by His Spirit. (2Co 3:18)

Behold the beauty in God’s grace (Ep 1:6) and mercy as He redeems sinful Man and makes us His own (1Jn 3:1), yet also feed in the majesty of His wrath as He tramples His enemies underfoot. (Is 63:3)

Rejoicing in all the attributes of God, glorying in everything about Him (2Co 10:17), is seeing Him as He is (1Jn 3:2), and not as we wish for Him to be. (Ro 1:23) This, and nothing less, is receiving Him, which is in itself the work of God. (Jn 1:12-13)

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God So Loved

I was taught, and I’ve believed for a long time now, that truth is more important than people, that principle is more important than relationship. But as think a bit more critically, I’m seeing a very basic problem here for the very first time.

Certainly, any sense that people are in some way unimportant is an error: God so loves us that He’s willing to become our sin (2Co 5:21) and die for us, suffer on our behalf, in our place, and take upon Himself our eternal punishment! (Jn 3:16)

What can be more important than the very life of God? If He so values us that He would give Himself for us (Tit 2:14), how can we possibly conceive of anything being valued more? So we’re each infinitely valuable to God, implying our relationships are also infinitely important. (1Jn 4:11)

Yet this cannot mean that people and relationships are more important than truth, for we’re to buy the truth and sell it not, not for any price, ever. (Pr 23:23) Wisdom, instruction, understanding … this is all priceless (Pr 4:7); there’s never a good time to sacrifice principle for convenience, or to build relationships, or even to alleviate suffering.

True principles are eternal, part of the nature of God Himself. (De 32:4) Christ, Himself the Truth (Jn 14:6), could never sacrifice truth or principle for anything or anyone, and neither should we. (1Pe 2:21-22) So, what’s more important?

There’s evidently a problem inherent in the thought itself: it presumes one of two choices is more important than the other, that we ought to be comparing them, willing to choose between the two. But is this itself aligned with truth? Should we be comparing the importance of truth, part of the nature of God, with the importance of people, for whom Christ died?

Evidently not. This is a prime example of the false dilemma logical fallacy; it’s a false way, a vain thought, a pattern of false reasoning that’s easy to fall into.

Whenever the enemy presents our choices, as he often does via situational ethics, we can bet he’s not dealing us a full hand. Be on the alert for his way, his game, and don’t let him dictate the rules. That isn’t his place.

If our principles don’t place infinite value on people, we don’t have the right principles (1Co 13:2-3); and sacrificing truth or principle is tolerating darkness within, alienating ourselves from God and others such that we can’t be in authentic, wholesome, godly relationships. (1Jn 1:6)

There’s always a right way (1Co 10:13), one that honors truth in God and supremely values people: God is Light (1Jn 1:5) and God is love (1Jn 4:16); we need never choose between the two.

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