Friday, January 17, 2020

Do Deceased Believers Sleep until the Resurrection?

To judge from 1 Cor 7:1-40 Paul believed in the imminent appearing of the Lord and that the final resurrection would occur within his own lifetime. Otherwise he likely would not have made such unreasonable demands on believers.1 Paul seemed to think that believers alive in his day would live to see the final resurrection (1 Thess 4:13-18).2 But what of those who had died earlier? It is a question that still plagues pious believers and systematic theologians.

If one thinks that Paul and other early believers had some insight into answering this question, one might be led to believe that the soul of a believer who dies is immediately translated into the presence of the Lord (2 Cor 5:6-10; Phil 1:21-23; Luke 23:39-43; Rev 6:9-11, 7:13-17). But Paul’s comments in 1 Thess 4:13-18 suggest that such may not be the case. Paul’s final words in this passage (i.e., “and so we shall always be with the Lord”) raise the question of where dead believers were before they were resurrected if they were not at that moment with the Lord? Shouldn’t deceased Christians have gone to be with the Lord as soon as they died? If Paul was right in 2 Cor 5:6-9 dead believers should have been accompanying the Lord on his return. As Paul said to living believers in 1 Thess 3:13: may the Lord establish your hearts unblameable in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. Paul’s statement in 1 Thess 3:13 seems to be in direct contradiction to 1 Thess 4:13-17. Apparently one can make either argument from the Bible: the souls of believers sleep till the resurrection or they go directly to be with the Lord.

            This kind of dissonance in the New Testament has led some to project an intermediate state between a believer’s death and the resurrection, which some refer to as “soul sleeping.”3 In other words when believers die, their bodies decay but their souls sleep (1 Thess 4:14) until they are awakened at the resurrection by the Lord’s cry of command, the archangel’s call and the sounding of God’s trumpet (1 Thess 4:16).

The theory of soul sleeping may have evolved out of the similarity that biblical writers find between sleep and death. For example when Stephen was killed, he is quoted as saying: “Lord do not hold this sin against them.” And the author of Acts adds: “And when he had said this he fell asleep. And Saul was consenting to his death” (Acts 7:59-8:1; see also, Mark 5:39-40; John 11:11-15; Dan 12:2; 1 Cor 11:30; 15:6, 20; Jer 51:39, 57: Ps 13:3). Indeed, the states of sleep and death resemble one another so closely that at a certain point even today one cannot immediately tell one state from the other.4

The truth of the matter is, however, that no one, not even the biblical writers, knows for certain what happens when life leaves the body. What we think we know is based on our faith or lack of it. At least one author of a biblical book apparently agrees that knowledge of what happens when we die is known to no one. The author of Ecclesiastes writes: “All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all return to dust again. Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down to the earth” (Eccl 3:20-21 RSV; compare 9:10).5

How do you see it?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1That he recognized the demands to be unreasonable is suggested by 1 Cor 7:20-21, where he was willing to suspend his rule in all the churches of remaining as you are and allowed slaves to gain their freedom.
2As he put it to his readers: “The dead in Christ will rise first, then we who are alive…”(1 Thess 4:17).
3See the discussion in Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_mortalism
5In the epilogue Eccl 12:7 must be read in the light of Eccl 3:19-21 and 9:10.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Of Prophets and Prophecies

In the biblical tradition a prophet is believed to be an individual God has selected as spokesperson to deliver a particular message in a particular ancient context. The prophet can be male or female (Exod 15:20-21; Jdg 4:4; 2 Kgs 22:14; 2 Chron 34:22; Neh 6:14; Isa 8:3; Luke 2:36; 1 Cor 11:4-5). The God of biblical faith apparently did not practice gender discrimination in selecting people for the responsible role of prophet (as New Testament writers did: 1 Tim 2:8-15). A prophecy is believed to be a communication originating with God/the spirit of God that is directly transmitted through the prophet (Deut 18:18;1 Sam 10:10; 2 Chron 18:10-11; Jer 14:13-16, 26:12; Ez 37:1-10, 38:14-23; Amos 7:12-17, 8:1-14; 2 Pet 1:21): the voice is the voice of the prophet but the words are believed to be the words/Word of God (Jdg 6:7-10; 2 Kgs 21:10-12, 24:2; Zech 7:7-12; Luke 1: 67-79; Heb 1:1). Prophecies take various forms. For example, a prophecy may be a doxology (Exod 15:20-21), a psalm (Luke 1:67-79), a rebuke (Jer 26:12-13), a prediction (John 11:49-52), or even an act of a prophet (Jer 13:1-11).

            Nevertheless believing that God was speaking through the prophet did not ensure that God actually was speaking through the prophet, which raised questions about the source of the prophecy (1 Kgs 22:5-20). This in turn led to the recognition that not all prophets were sent by God, but some were false prophets (Matt 7:15; 2 Pet 2:1: 1 John 4:1). And apparently some believed that God even sent forth lying spirits to deceive the prophets (1 Kgs 22:20-23). How should one then distinguish between true prophets, false prophets, and deceived prophets? It is not unlike a problem that contemporary church folk have: how does one identify an authentic word from God (if such there be) amidst all the contradictory religious teachings of today’s religious groups both Christian and other than Christian?

The answer that the ancient Israelites came up with was the following: if the word does not come to pass or come true then it is not a word that the Lord has spoken” (Deut 18:15-22). That only works, however, with predictions, and there were some predictions that the biblical texts represent as true sayings of God that did not come true—as, for example, the prophecy that there would always be a descendant of David ruling Israel (2 Sam 7:1-13; Jer 33:17-18). Today, however, Israel is no longer a monarchy, and its leaders do not claim descent from David! Here is a second failed prophecy: Ezekiel prophesied that the ancient city of Tyre would be utterly destroyed and no longer inhabited (Ezek 26:15-21), but today Tyre is a thriving city in Lebanon.

Early Christians co-opted some of the “Old Testament” prophecies to prove that the founding events of their faith had been foreseen by the prophets. The theory behind this way of reading the “Old” Testament must have gone something like this: We are in a new situation and the old covenants obviously no longer apply to the new people of God (Jer 31:31-34; Heb 8:8-13). For the new people of God everything is new (2 Cor 5:17). But on the other hand they also believed that the Word of the Lord would live forever (Isaiah 40:8; 1 Pet 1:24-25). They reasoned that it is simply not possible that a word of the Lord could be rendered obsolete after being spoken in its original context. What the prophet spoke lives on to apply to future contexts as well. Therefore the word of the Lord can also apply to the early Christians in their new situation. From that perspective Matthew read Isaiah in the light of the new people of God (Matt 1:18-23).

For example, Matthew took the prophecy that Isaiah made to King Ahaz of Judah during a political crises in the eighth century BCE. The birth of a peasant child to a nameless young woman, Isaiah said, prophesied God’s presence with his people and the survival of the Kingdom of Judah (Isa 7:1-25) in that ancient context. The prophecy came true; Judah did survive. Matthew, however, focused on only one verse in the passage (Isa 7:14) and ignored the ancient context and the fact that the prophecy was fulfilled in Isaiah’s day. He asserted that the prophecy also related to the birth of Jesus (Matt 1:18-23). “Hooks” in the verse written by Isaiah making Matthew’s explanation of Isaiah 7:14 seem plausible are the words “virgin” and “Immanuel.”1 On the basis of only two words Matthew ignores the plain meaning of Isaiah’s fulfilled prophecy and finds a deeper spiritual level to the passage, by reading it in the light of later Christian faith.2

In my view, however, Matthew has simply misused Isaiah in an attempt to justify early Christian belief. The kindest thing one can say about such an approach is that it simply is not a cogent reading of Isaiah—particularly in the light of Paul’s comment that prophecies are imperfect (1 Cor 13:9) and will pass away (1 Cor 13:8). In other words, Isa 7:14 related only to Judah in the political crisis of the eighth century BCE.

How does it seem to you?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1The word virgin (parthenos) only appears in the Septuagint (Greek version of Hebrew Bible). The Hebrew reads ‘almah, a young woman (of marriageable age).
2See Hedrick, “Prophecy Fulfilled or simply Creative Reading,” Wry Thoughts about Religion, Friday February 14, 2014: http://blog.charleshedrick.com/search?q=prophecy