by Bethany Reise

When Jesus taught his disciples, he gave them an important admonition: “Watch out for and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”[1] Leaven, in this case, refers to the teachings of the religious leaders of the day. It is of utmost importance to heed Jesus’ warning, because as Galatians 5:9 cautions, “a little leaven leavens the whole lump.[2] False teachings and Greek philosophies have crept into the church and metastasized, leading millions astray. One common deception in the church today concerns what happens to a person after they die. The majority of Christians believe that after death, a person either goes directly to heaven to praise God forever or straight to a fiery place called hell, where they are eternally tormented. This “little bit of leaven,” namely the Greek philosophical belief in the immortal soul, directly impacts many foundational Christian beliefs, ultimately corrupting the gospel of Jesus Christ, the message of salvation about the Kingdom of God.

For many Christians in the world today, what happens after you die is quite simple. After death, immediately the righteous will go to live in heaven forever and the wicked will be eternally tormented in hell. Evangelical Pastor Erwin Lutzer sums up this common belief rather well in his article titled, “One Minute After You Die.” He writes:

“Those who find themselves in heaven will be surrounded with friends whom they have known on earth. Friendships, once rudely interrupted by death, will continue where they left off. Every description of heaven they have ever heard will pale in the light of reality. All this, forever.

Others—indeed many others—will be shrouded in darkness, a region of deprivation and unending regret. There, with their memories and feelings fully intact, images of their life on earth will return to haunt them. They will think back to their friends, family and relatives; they will brood over opportunities they squandered and intuitively know that their future is both hopeless and unending. For them, death will be far worse than they imagined.”[3]

The majority of Christians today will see nothing wrong with this view and probably agree with Lutzer’s statement. They, like Lutzer, are looking forward to life in the heavenly realms, while perhaps feeling a sense of sorrow for the poor souls who are destined to be eternally tormented in the fires of hell. However, this common understanding of life after death is completely unbiblical.

This belief has its roots in Platonic philosophy, which was later adopted into the Christian faith by the early Church fathers. According to Platonic thought, the soul is a separate entity from the body and immortal in nature. Author of The Moral Quest, Stanley J. Grenz writes that the Platonists believed that “the real person is the immortal, immaterial soul.”[4] He goes on to explain that the “soul simply uses the body that houses it for a time, while longing form the great day when it casts the body aside.”[5] Greek philosophy began working its way into the church as early as the third century. Many of the Church fathers of this era supported and expounded upon the Platonic understanding of the immortal soul, including Origen, Tertullian, and Augustine.[6] These Platonic philosophical beliefs quickly fused with Christian doctrines and over time, they began to overshadow and replace biblical truth. In his work titled Origen De Principiis, Origen writes:

“… The soul, having a substance and life of its own, shall after its departure from the world, be rewarded according to its deserts, being destined to obtain either an inheritance of eternal life and blessedness, if its actions shall have procured this for it, or to be delivered up to eternal fire and punishments, if the guilt of its crimes shall have brought it down to this…”[7]

The writings of these early Church fathers, such as Origen De Principiis, provide numerous examples of how philosophy became entangled in Christian thought and produced the foundations for false doctrines like the immortality of the soul. The apostles cautioned believers about the dangers of false teachers and implored them to test the Scriptures and take heed to sound doctrine, but despite their warnings, deceitful and unbiblical teachings made their way into the church.

When interpreted without the influences of Greek philosophical thought, the Bible presents completely different understanding of the human soul. According to Genesis 2:7, “the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”[8] The Hebrew word for “soul” is nephesh. The word means “life-breath” and can be applied to any living creature.[9] It does not imply a separate body-soul dualism. In fact, in the Hebrew language there is no separate word for body because there is no differentiation between the body and soul.[10] Robert C. Pingpank states in his essay titled, “Immortality and Resurrection,” that “[f]or the Hebrews, man is a united organism with many complex parts which draw their life and activity from nephesh, which is not a separable aspect of the body.”[11] Clearly, the Hebrew people understood man to be a whole and complete being with no separation between body and soul. They also learned from their Scriptures that man is mortal and that he will not live forever, for God alone is immortal.[12] For instance, Psalm 146:3 refers to “mortal man” and Psalm 144:4 says that “[m]an is like a mere breath, his days are like a passing shadow.”[13] According to Ezekiel 18:4, “The soul who sins will die.”[14] This understanding of the soul as the whole being of an organism and the belief in the mortality of man directly impacted the Hebrews’ perception of death, and ultimately their understanding of the gospel.

This leads to the question, “If man is mortal and his soul is his whole being, what happens to a person after they die?” According to the Bible, the fate for both man and beast is the same: both die and return to the dust from which they were created and their breath returns to the LORD who gave it to them.[15] In the Old Testament, the destination of the dead is a place called Sheol, and in the New Testament, the realm of the dead is a place known as Hades. Both hades and sheol are interchangeable and simply refer to the netherworld, the grave, or the pit.[16] In the grave there is only silence: there is no praise, no love, no hate, no activity or planning.[17] On the day that a man dies, even his very thoughts perish.[18] Psalm 13:3 describes this state of unconsciousness as the “sleep of death.”[19] The New Testament understanding of death remains the same, consistent with the Old Testament beliefs. When Jesus said that he was going to awaken his friend Lazarus who had been sick, his disciples were confused. They thought Lazarus would get better if he slept and cautioned Jesus against waking him. However Jesus had spoken of his death not a literal sleep, and so “Jesus then said to them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.”[20] The Bible is very clear that the resting place of the dead is the grave and that it is the same for all men, both the righteous and the unrighteous.

Contrary to popular belief of today, the dead are still in their graves, sleeping. Surely, if the righteous were resurrected and go immediately to heaven after death, David would be among them. After all, he is called a man after God’s own heart. However in the book of Acts, Peter clearly says that David “is both dead and buried” and that he has not “ascended into the heavens.”[21] According to I Corinthians 15:20, “Jesus has been raised from the dead” and is the “first fruits of those who are asleep.”[22] Therefore, since Christ is the first fruits, there is no one who has been resurrected before him. It is only upon Christ’s return at his Parousia that the righteous will be resurrected to inherit the gift of immortality.[23]

The grave is not the final destination for the dead in Christ. However, neither is heaven. In his book, In the End, God – A Study of the Christian Doctrine of the Last Things, Cambridge biblical scholar John A.T. Robinson writes that “Heaven in the Bible is nowhere the destination of the dying.”[24] Once again, the influences of Platonic thought invaded Christian theology and contributed to the deception that followers of Christ go to heaven when they die. Plato believed that after death, “the immortal soul finds its ultimate fulfillment as it becomes one with an eternal, transcendent realm.”[25] This notion was adapted and adopted by the early Christian fathers and ultimately crafted into the belief that after death the righteous go to heaven. This belief has been taught in most Christian denominations ever since. However, according to Scripture only one man has gone to heaven and that man was Jesus.[26] If man were to go to heaven after he died, it would be contrary to the promises of God and the even the gospel of Christ.

According to Scriptures, the righteous will inherit the earth. This is in accordance with the promise that God made to Abraham in Genesis 17, where God says that he will be the father of many nations and inherit the land. Abraham did not receive the promise during his lifetime though, and neither did his descendants because as Hebrews 11:13 says, “all died in faith, without receiving the promise.” They have not yet inherited life or immortality. This even includes Enoch who walked with God, whom God took.[27] This promise to Abraham is affirmed all throughout both the Old and New Testament. In fact in Psalm 37 alone, the promise that the righteous will inherit the land is mentioned over five times. Jesus even speaks of the righteous inheriting the land in his Sermon on the Mount where he says, “Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.”[28] The concept of the righteous inheriting and ruling with Christ on the renewed earth is at the heart of the gospel that Jesus preached.

During his life on earth, Jesus’ main mission was to preach the gospel.[29] The message that Jesus proclaimed is summed up in Mark 1:14-15, where it says that Jesus comes into Galilee “preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’”[30] Jesus taught and preached about the earthly kingdom that God promises will be fully realized and established after the Second Coming of Jesus and the thousand year reign. In this kingdom, the righteous will be “kings and priests” to God and they shall “reign on the earth.”[31] There will be no more death, and no more mourning, pain, or crying and God will dwell with His people.[32] Jesus expressed utter awesomeness of the final Kingdom of God in one of his parables where he said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid again; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”[33] Paul too understood the incomparable glory of the coming kingdom when he quoted Isaiah 64:4, saying that “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.”[34] The glorious kingdom of God was the heart of the gospel message that Jesus preached and the reason that Jesus urged all who would hear him to repent and believe the good news.

However, as Paul writes, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God.”[35] A person must first be reborn through repentance and the acceptance of word of God, that is, the gospel of the Kingdom of God.[36] This is because every man has “sinned and fall[en] short of the glory of God” and it is written that no immoral person may enter into the Kingdom of God.[37] Jesus was sacrificed for the sin of the world, and through his blood there is forgiveness of sin and salvation for those who put their faith in him.[38] According to Hebrews 5:9, has become “to all those who obey him, the source of eternal salvation.”[39] However, those who are disobedient and reject Christ and his teachings will not have entrance into the kingdom of God.

The Bible is clear that those who are immoral and do not know God or obey the gospel of Jesus will not inherit eternal life in the Kingdom of God and will be destroyed. According to II Thessalonians 1:9, they “will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power.”[40] However, in His infinite mercy and love, God has made provision for those who never heard the gospel and did not reject Him. The Bible is clear that even though the wicked perish at the Parousia, some will survive the Second Coming and live during the thousand year reign that follows. Isaiah speaks of the millennial period where people will be born and will die. [41] During the thousand year reign, Christ will “rule the nations with a rod of iron” and “reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet.”[42] The gospel will go out to all the nations and all those who live on the earth who have not received immortality will have the opportunity to accept the word of God and learn kingdom principles.

At the end of the thousand years, Satan who was imprisoned for that period of time will once again go forth to deceive the nations. He will raise up an army against the saints but will be defeated by fire from God. At this time, the wicked will be resurrected in what is known as the second resurrection. Following that resurrection there is a great judgment and all whose names are not written in the book of life will be thrown into the lake of fire and experience what is known as the “second death.”[43] However, since the wicked do not inherit immortality, this second death is not referring to burning in hell forever. Psalm 37 provides a clear contrast between fate of the righteous and the wicked when it states that “those blessed by Him will inherit the land, and those cursed by Him will be cut off.”[44] In addition to being “cut off,” it also speaks of the wicked as “wither[ing] quickly like the grass,” “fading as the green herb,” and vanishing like smoke and being no more.[45] The wicked will perish and be no more, they are burned up like chaff. There will be no eternal burning or torment.

Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians that if anyone should preach a gospel other than the gospel of Christ he is accursed.[46] However, as a result of the Platonic concept of a separate and immortal soul, a twisted gospel and hope of salvation has emerged and are being preached as truth from the pulpits of many churches today. The message that “if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” is not the whole gospel because it leaves out the Kingdom of God, which was the very gospel that Jesus preached! Instead it this false gospel motivates by fear of eternal torment, distorts God’s character, and provides a false hope of a future life in heaven. This gospel message and the hope it confesses contradict both the Scriptures and promises of God, and it even ignores the very words of Jesus! The teachings of Jesus were consistent with the Old Testament: he called people to repent and believe the message of about the coming kingdom of God to be established on the earth, as promised to Abraham and those who are his descendants by faith. The gospel is the only message that leads to salvation, so understanding the gospel as proclaimed by Christ is of utmost importance. It can be clearly seen that the influences of Platonic philosophy have penetrated to the very heart of Christian theology and the consequences of this are devastating. Therefore, it would be wise to heed the warning of Jesus and his apostles and to “beware the leaven” of the religious teachers, always being sure to search the Scriptures and “examine everything carefully, and hold[ing] fast that which is good.”[47]

[1] Matt 16:6 (NASB)

[2] Gal 5:9 (NASB)

[3] Lutzer, Erwin. “One Minute After You Die.” Billy Graham Evangelical Association. (accessed September 21, 2012).

[4] Stanley J. Grenz, The Moral Quest (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 143.

[5] Ibid

[6] Stump, Keith. “What Is Man?.” Church of God Cyber Auxiliary. (accessed September 21, 2012).

[7] A. Cleveland Coxe, Ante-Nicene Fathers. Volume 4: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Part First and Second, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. (New York: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885). Chapter: ORIGEN DE PRINCIPIIS.

[8] Gen 2:17 (KJV)

[9] Pingpank, Robert C. “Immortality and Resurrection.” Philosophy and Religion. (accessed September 21, 2012).

[10] Orr, James. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1939.

[11] Pingpank, Robert C. “Immortality and Resurrection.” Philosophy and Religion. (accessed September 21, 2012).

[12] 1 Tim 6:16 (NASB)

[13] Ps 144:4, 146:3 (NASB)

[14] Ezk 18:4 (NASB)

[15] Psalm 115:17, Ecc 3:19-20, 12:7 (NASB)

[16] Strong, James. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc, 2007.

[17] Ecc 9:5,6,10 (NASB)

[18] Psalm 146:4 (NASB)

[19] Psalm 13:3 (NASB)

[20] John 11:11-14 (NASB)

[21] Acts 2:29,34 (NASB)

[22] I Cor 15:20 (NASB)

[23] Rev 20:6,15 (NASB)

[24] Robinson, John A. T. In the End, God – A Study of the Christian Doctrine of the Last Things. London: James Clarke & Co, 1950

[25] Vlach, Michael J. “Platonism’s Influence on Christian Eschatology.” Theological Studies. pdf (accessed September 25, 2012).

[26] John 3:13 (NASB)

[27] Heb 11:5 (NASB)

[28] Matt 5:5 (NASB)

[29] Luke 4:43 (NASB)

[30] Mark 1:14-15 (NASB)

[31] Rev 5:10 (NASB)

[32] Rev 21:4 (NASB)

[33] Matt 13:44 (NASB)

[34] I Cor 2:9 (NIV)

[35] I Cor 15:50 (NASB)

[36] I Pet 1:23-25 (NASB)

[37] Rom 3:23; Eph 5:5 (NASB)

[38] Col 1:14; Eph 2:8 (NASB)

[39] Heb 5:9 (NASB)

[40] II Thess 1:9 (NASB)

[41] Isa 65:17-25 (NASB)

[42] Rev 12:5 (NASB); I Cor 15:25 (NASB)

[43] Rev 21:8 (NASB)

[44] Ps 37:22 (NASB)

[45] Ps 37:2,10,20 (NASB)

[46] Gal 1:9 (NASB)

[47] I Thess 5:21 (NASB)

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