Some years ago I read a magazine article about a medium—a woman who supposedly converses with the spirits of the dead. The reporter described with some amusement her wild red hair, her flashy jewelry, her overdone makeup (in attempting to compensate for her 60+ years). But after following her around for a day, the reporter admitted to being impressed by the supernatural knowledge the medium possessed, also noting how she had a seizure when they passed a church. At one point during the interview, the medium told the reporter that she had a momentous secret to share with her. Leaning toward her confidentially, she whispered, "There is no death."
I thought about that for a while, then decided, "She got it half right."
Christians, of course, believe that the soul survives physical death—else what use is heaven? But many other religions and cultures do, too. So let's just say, for argument's sake, that since the prevailing world view is in favor of immortality of the soul, that it's a fact. What then? Are we all just ghosts for eternity?
Chapter 11 of the Gospel of John describes Jesus' raising Lazarus from the dead. (We say that so casually. Ho hum, another day at the office.) Lazarus' sisters Mary and Martha had sent word to Jesus of their brother's illness, but He delayed coming until He was sure Lazarus was dead (v. 14). By the time He finally arrives at the family's home in Bethany, Lazarus has been dead four days (v. 39). One of my old commentaries says He waited because of the superstition that the soul of the newly dead lingers near the body for three days before leaving to its—wherever. Other commentaries insist He waited so that there would be no doubt that Lazarus was dead. At any rate, before Jesus goes to visit the tomb, He has this interesting conversation with Martha, to wit:
"Lord," Martha said to Jesus, "if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask."
Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again."
Martha answered, "I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day."
Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"
"Yes, Lord," she told him.
Sixteen verses later He's calling Lazarus out of the tomb. And Lazarus comes.
On the face of it, Jesus' assertion (that I italicized) is absurd, along the lines of His claim to predate Abraham (John 8:58). But when He successfully brings back to life a man who has been dead for four days, our notions about what is absurd are turned upside down, spun, and drop kicked.
I believe Jesus was saying that, for the believer, death amounts to a nonevent. It is so transitory as to lose any impact whatever—it will be as if it never happened. After the soul is released from his old, decrepit, time-bound housing, he receives something new to replace it. The Apostle Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 15:51-55:
Listen, I tell you a mystery [a secret]: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, 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. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory."
"Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?"
Throughout this chapter (1 Cor. 15), Paul is describing the resurrection of the body, patterned after the Resurrection of Christ. But there is a catch: it only applies to the saved. Paul was writing to Christians, and Jesus refers twice in three sentences to someone who "believes in me." For those souls who have lived out their allotted time in disregard of God, something else is coming down the pike: some kind of . . . negative selection. Jesus alludes to it in the parable of the sheep and the goats. But Revelation clues us into another secret, a disturbing one: there are two separate resurrections of the dead. And . . . a second death.
In the Apostle John's apocalyptic vision, he writes:
I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years. (Rev. 20:4-6)
The first resurrection is of those who remained true regardless of the pressures or temptations to abandon a life of faith. John describes the persecutions that his contemporaries were experiencing, but my commentaries agree that all believers throughout time who persevere in their faith will share in this resurrection (see Phil 3:7-11), which culminates in the receiving of reward and authority (James, Paul and Peter refer to it as a "crown"—obviously an analogy for something we cannot yet comprehend.) A few verses later, John describes the second resurrection:
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Rev.20:11-15)
Reading between the lines, we ascertain that: (1) a complete record is kept, amounting to a book, of every person's actions during his life; (2) no one is cleared, or justified, because of what is written in this book—see Rom. 3:10-12; (3) when justification is not found in the book of the individual's life, then the Book of Life is checked for the person's name; (4) no one's name who is at the second resurrection is written in the Book of Life, so (5) they all go into the lake of fire.
The lake of fire, incidentally, is where Satan and his employees have just been tossed. The punishment that was never meant for human souls kills them, mercifully; there is no such relief for Satan and his staff, who are tormented "forever and ever."
Since so much appears to be riding on this Book of Life, we might better investigate how one gets nominated to it. The most complete descriptions of it are given in the following passages from Revelation (although Ps. 69:28, Dan. 12:1-3, and Phil. 4:3 also mention it):
He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I [Jesus] will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels. (Rev. 3:5)
All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world. (Rev. 13:8)
The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast. (Rev. 17:8)
Nothing impure will ever enter it [the new heaven], nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb's book of life. (Rev. 21:27)
Before anyone ever lived, in a realm outside of time, the "Lamb slain from the foundation of the world"—Jesus—recorded the names of all those who belonged to Him. Being outside of Time, the Savior could see at a glance who would choose Him. Those who make that choice, and stick to it, are the ones whose names are in His book. (Some commentaries say that at the beginning of time, everyone who would ever live was listed in the Book, but as their lives indicated their choice not to be included, their names were erased. That view works with Scripture, too.)
Is all this too fantastic to believe? Or when it comes to the fate of your soul, is it easier to believe a woman who can't be trusted with jewelry and makeup? That is your choice—Christianity is based on the individual's ability to choose his destiny. And, frankly, I don’t want to be a ghost. I don’t want to commune with a ghostly mother--she died of cancer in 1978, and I miss her intensely. I want to have life forever as it was meant to be, and I want to see her glorified in the Lord she loved.
Because, seriously, how creepy is THIS?