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A Riddle Called Death
The Bible speaks in many places of death and the dead. Just where are the dead? Are they conscious? Alive? Do the dead have bodies, souls, spirits, as do mortal humans? Are the dead buried in the earth, unconscious, mere dust? Do the dead have brains, legs, ears, eyes, voices? Can the dead think, walk, hear, see, talk, move about? The Bible makes clear the "who, what, when, where and why" of the dead and solves the grim reaper's challenge, a riddle called death.

by Jerry Gentry

"O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?" (1Cor. 15:55).

"If a man die, shall he live again? all the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come" (Job 14:14).

Being dead is a scary thought, at least to most people. Being dead represents the final exit, the last time out, the end of life's script. Death is that dread departure from whence there is no coming back. The grim reaper gives no rain checks. For anyone who has witnessed first hand the death of a loved one, there is nothing worse, nothing more foreign, nothing so seemingly final as that dread time called death. But are the dead really "dead," or are they still alive in some sense, dwelling in a different dimension than we mortals now know?

Most religions of the world teach some kind of existence after death. Take Islam, for example. To a Muslim, death is a passageway to Mohammed's idea of a physical heaven filled with leisure and plenty. All the things many poor Moslems desire but cannot have in this life are miraculously provided after death. It is an unreal world, from the Biblical perspective.

For the dead Buddhist, the nearest state to heaven is "nirvana," that state of unconscious nothingness, nonexistence, disappearance from any being whatsoever, cessation of life. For the dead Buddhist, there is no pain, no sorrow, no joy, no existence whatsoever after death.

Speaking of the day of man's death, the Bible says: "His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish" (Ps. 146:4); "For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten" (Ecc. 9:5).

Concerning the whereabouts of ancient King David, the Bible says: "Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day (Acts 2:29) . . . For David is not ascended into the heavens" (v. 34).

Of a future time, the Bible says: "And ye shall know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves, O my people, and brought you up out of your graves" (Eze. 37:13).

So far the picture is clear that death is final, that in the grave nothing happens besides decay, that man's "thoughts perish" there, "the dead know not any thing," until that future time when God has "brought you up out of your graves." This terminology paints a pretty bleak, unfriendly, and sordid picture of death.

Gladly, there comes a time when this enemy called death shall be no more: "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death" (1Cor. 15:26), when "Death is swallowed up in victory" (1Cor. 15:54), when "God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away" (Rev. 21:4).

Whatever you ever thought you understood about death becomes shattered and confused when you read more about the dead, as in "It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found" (Luke 15:32). How could this prodigal son, who had never died, be called "dead" when he is still living, walking around, coming home to his rejoicing father? And what happened to make this walking dead man "alive again?" How can there be in the Bible such an apparent contradiction of terms as a man who "was dead," yet who had never died, but later was "alive again?"

If these facts are confusing enough, also consider those who are "the dead in Christ [which] shall rise first" (1Ths. 4:16)? How is it that these Christians, dead and buried, called "dead in Christ," must rise, considering that their souls have already departed, as when Rachel of old was dying and "as her soul was in departing, (for she died)" (Gen. 35:18)? The apostle Paul spoke of a time at death when he was "willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord" (2Cor. 5:8), "having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better" (Phi. 1:23).

It is true, quite plain, then, that there is more to death than meets the eye of the living? What is this "soul" that departs the body? Is the soul a person? A being? Is the soul merely a data bank, a detailed diary of a past life, a chronicle of events and experiences and actions, like so many unconscious bits and bytes of information stored on a computer disk, like a photographer's still life image?

Further complicating this issue of death and the dead, Jesus claimed of His Father that "I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living" (Mat. 22:32). How could Jesus make this bold claim, considering that all those he listed were long since dead and buried. How can "the God. . . of the living" be the God of these dead men&emdash;Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Are they dead, yet living in some sense? Consider the corollary&emdash;that the living can also be dead, as the Egyptians, in the face of terrible judgments upon their land, yet in their physical bodies, exclaimed: "We be all dead men" (Exo. 12:33). How can dead men talk? Were they speaking literally? Figuratively? Prophetically? Poetically?!! Further, just how is it that "Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and living" (Rom. 14:9)? How could Christ tell His disciples: "Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead" (Mat. 8:22)?

Further still, dear reader, can we identify those who "are spots in your feasts of charity, when they feast with you, feeding themselves without fear . . . twice dead, plucked up by the roots" (Jude 12)? Just who are these twice dead? Are they men? Are they fallen angels? How can anyone&emdash;man or angel&emdash;ever become "twice dead?" Again, what is the meaning of this apparent contradiction of terms, this enigma of logic, this riddle called death?

Is death really death? Or is death quite something else, something less than tangible, a puzzlement beyond our understanding, an insolvable mystery?

Not really. Death is death, all right. But death is more than we usually think it is. Death is certainly not a cessation of being. It is best that we read the Bible, believe the words we read, and not interpret them. You see, you are more than you think you are. The Bible teaches that the things God created are a reflection of His very being. "For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead" (Rom. 1:20). Now death is certainly an "invisible thing," "being understood by the things that are made."

The first chapter of Genesis tells us that "God created man in his own image" (Gen. 1:27). Since God is triune in His being&emdash;Father, Son and Holy Spirit&emdash;we would expect the pinnacle of His "creation," that is, man himself, also to be triune in his being. Yes, you are "spirit and soul and body" (1Ths. 5:23), though fallen, created by God as an expression of his own triune being, much as a box is length and breadth and height; much as time is past, present and future; much as matter is energy in motion creating observable events or phenomena; much as the entire universe is summed up in one great triunity&emdash;space, matter and time&emdash;nothing more.

When we understand the triune being of man, then the meaning of the dead and death becomes clearer. It is not that man has three parts, but that man is three, just as a box exists only in three dimensions, never fewer. Length and height only represent a mathematician's theoretical plane, not a box. Breadth and length are, again, only a theoretical plane, not at all a box. Without the understanding that man is triune in his being, death is an insolvable riddle, an impossible puzzlement. With the understanding of what man is, we can then begin to understand what death is. Death is hell's soul buddy, man's greatest and last enemy to be destroyed. Of a yet future time, the Bible says "And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death" (Rev. 20:14).

Can you imagine a world where there is no death? What an awesome possibility! What an incredible reality! To understand death, we must go beyond the mere bedside of our dying loved one, where our emotions are whipsawed, our hearts are torn and our minds are paralyzed.

We must know above all that death is our enemy, not our friend. Death is a destroyer of life, not a preserver and liberator of the soul, as Plato taught. Death is a hostile, merciless foe, never a trusted mate, never a benefactor of man. Death strikes at the very core of our essence and sucks the very breath out of our being, thus rendering our bodies cold, flat, useless.

When we humans experience death, we are experiencing the ripping apart of our very being. Can you imagine a box with one of it's dimensions ripped away. What is left is something, but it could hardly be called a box. Can you imagine time without a future&emdash;where only past and present exist? Can you imagine tossing a basketball into the air, but never making a basket, never even seeing the ball again once it leaves your hands, having no observable phenomena? These examples bring to light the impossibility of having less than what something is. When the grim reaper strikes and death takes our last breath away, something awful happens. Something so terrible, so appalling that only God in heaven could solve that riddle called death.

When we begin to understand that ghastly thing called death, and what God did to solve the mystery of death, then the answer to the riddle becomes clear. The Bible teaches that death is sin's price&emdash;"For the wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23). All men have sinned&emdash;"For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23). God sent his Son to die, to pay sin's price, for all who would believe it, thus providing the ultimate solution to the riddle we call death. Hallelujah!

Praise God that death's ultimate riddle is solved. Jesus paid sin's price of death for all who believe. But how does that curse of death come together in time&emdash;past, present and future, into a cohesive, understandable whole? What is the complete answer to this riddle?

For the Christian who presently dies, having "fallen asleep in Christ" (1Cor. 15:18), with sin's price fully paid at calvary, what happens to you now? The body only goes into the earth, the grave, where all "thoughts perish." However, thoughts are a process not of our body, but of our mind (soul), which departs "to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord" (2Cor. 5:8), to a special place in heaven where the Apostle John "saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held. . . And white robes were given unto every one of them" (Rev. 6:9-11).

From among all departed and saved souls since Adam, there are an "hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth. . . [who] follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth. These were redeemed from among men, being the firstfruits unto God and to the Lamb." (Rev. 14:3-4). Moses, Enoch and Elijah are names from among these who are already fully redeemed, body, soul and spirit (Mark 9:4; Heb. 11:5), and a multitude of others (Mat. 27:52-53). Those faithful who die during the Great Tribulation period will also be "before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them" (Rev 7:15). For all believers, at death, "the spirit shall return unto God who gave it" (Eccl. 12:7), along with the soul, which await the resurrection.

Both soul and spirit of the dead saint goes to heaven, or paradise, while the body returns to the dust until the resurrection. The soul and spirit of man, without the body, are just as incomplete as is a box with one side ripped away; just as incomplete as time with only past and present, but no future; just as incomplete as an accurately tossed basketball that disappears into thin air and never pops the net. Whatever these soul/spirit essences are, they are less than the whole man, without full executive capability. In heaven they are resting, praising, being "comforted," (Luke 16:25), hoping for the long prophesied resurrection. These soul/spirit essences in heaven cry "with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?" (Rev 6:10). This is before the Great Tribulation judgments are poured out on the earth.

The Bible speaks of death and the dead in more than one sense, each sense being part of the overall riddle. There are those who die; their bodies are buried, and their soul/spirit essences are departed, either to heaven or hell, awaiting a resurrection. These are "they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation" (John 5:29).

There are also the walking dead on this earth, as the Egyptians&emdash;"We be all dead men" and the prodigal son who "was dead" before he repented. Those who "have done evil," remain unforgiven and are walking "dead in trespasses and sins," (Eph. 2:1), cursed, still under sin's penalty of death, already adjudicated, but not yet sentenced. To living believers, He says: "And you hath he quickened" (Eph. 2:1). You are no longer the walking dead, no longer under sin's penalty, which is paid by Jesus Christ through faith. You were once among the walking dead, but are now "alive again," just as the repentant prodigal son. Of these, Jesus said "And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever" (Joh 14:16). Forever means forever, even through death. And for those "twice dead" sinners, these are those who die a physical death, unrepentant, "dead in their trespasses and sins," awaiting the second death, to be cast into the lake of fire.

The riddle called death is solved for all of us&emdash; body, soul and spirit; past, present and future. Sin's price is paid, for all believers, for all time. Death has no more sting; the grave's victory is short lived, awaiting "a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust" (Acts 24:15), some to "life everlasting" (Gal. 6:8), some to "the damnation of hell" (Matt. 23:33). Will you believe in death's only remedy? Will you accept Jesus' blood, in full payment of sin's price of death hanging over your head? Will you remove from among the walking dead, believe in Jesus Christ who paid sin's price at calvary, and send the grim reaper back to hell from whence he came? The choice is yours.

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