It’s that Halloweenie time of year. And I don’t say that lightly. I don’t know about where you live – but in my corner of the world, Halloween decorations, orange lights and grotesque lawn paraphernalia have become commonplace. When you drive through local towns you see faux cemeteries in front yards with scary fake body parts climbing out of graves, ghosts holding hands and dancing in the wind, or smashed witches on broomsticks crashed into trees. Are there really disembodied spirits floating around our lives – often with evil intent – as these things suggest? I think it is a good time of year to remind our selves (as avid God-seekers) of scriptural teaching on the state of the dead. Many people, believers and non-believers alike, do not have a good handle on this basic question; “What happens when we die?” Today’s reading in Acts 7 gives us an excellent launching point for exploring this topic.
I will remind you that superstitious mumbo-jumbo is very appealing to human nature. We tend to be sucked-in to frightening scenarios that control our behavior – the tendency to be drawn to idolatry outlined in the Bible is good evidence of this. And almost nothing is more intriguing to human contemplation than life-after-death – mostly because there is so little known about the state of the dead. Or is there? If we base our understanding on God’s word – we actually know a great deal about what happens when we die.
Perhaps the first question we should ask is, “Is there anyone who has ever come back from the dead?” While there are a handful of resurrections in the Bible (the most famous one being Jesus’ raising of Lazarus), we know that life-after-death for these people was just temporary. Only one person ever lived on – permanently – after death. Namely; Jesus. He is clearly described as “the firstborn from the dead”. Col. 1:18, Rev. 1:5 Only one man is forever alive after death. One. Ever. And he is alive for our good – not to haunt or harm. Thus, in one fell swoop the Bible eradicates all notions of ghouls and ghosts.
There is another provocative passage that should be considered as we discuss this topic. It is the pivotal chapter about the Bible hope – the spectacular Resurrection Chapter of 1 Corinthians 15. There, it also emphasizes Jesus as the only person ever to be permanently alive again after death:
But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive. But each in his own order; Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at his coming…
Lots of fuel for mental cogitation here! Jesus is not only the firstborn from the dead, but also the first fruits – the beginning of God’s harvest plan for righteous people. Absolutely no one else has come back from the dead before or since Jesus – yet. Because we are sinful beings, like Adam, we all die. No exceptions. The gift of immortality is a future blessing bestowed on “those who are Christ’s” only “at his coming!” v.23
And this passage also has an explicit connection to today’s reading in Acts 7. Remember that chapter ended with the description of the tragic death by stoning of the amazing disciple, Stephen, and concluded by saying, “he fell asleep.”v. 60 And Corinthians just told us that Jesus is “the first fruits of those who are asleep!” So what does that tell us about Stephen?! He is still asleep (i.e. dead)! Is that consistent with Bible teaching about the state of the dead? Absolutely!
The New Testament is liberally peppered with passages that use this same figurative idea of “sleep” for dead people. Here is a list of verses that use the same word in the same way as Acts 7:
- Matthew 27:52
- John 11:11-12
- Acts 13:36
- 1 Corinthians 7:39, 15:6, 18, 20-21
- 1 Thessalonians 4:13-15
- 2 Peter 3:4
So let me now ask you this – “What characterizes sleep?” Why is that particular word chosen for describing death, by God’s inspiration? I’d submit it is chosen because sleep is characterized by unconsciousness. We go to sleep at night and we are unaware of anything until we wake up 8 hours (more or less) later. That is what death is like. Unconsciousness. Asleep in the grave. Awaiting the resurrection 1 Corinthians 15 describes;
in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump; the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised imperishable…
– v. 52
So it will be like a single moment from the minute one died – like no time has passed from the time of death/sleep (even if it has been thousands of years) – for those who are awakened/resurrected. This clearly leaves no place for disembodied, pre-judged, ever-living spirits – already entered into their reward or condemnation.
Another example is Acts 13, which tells us David (a righteous man) “fell asleep” and “underwent decay”(i.e. returned to dust). Acts 2 tells us “David is not ascended into the heavens.” v.34 So where is David now? The simple Bible answer is that he is asleep (unconscious) in the grave, awaiting the gift of immortality on the day of resurrection. Cp. Genesis 3:19
If you are not yet convinced let’s go back to the Old Testament and consider what it teaches about the state of the dead. Psalm 88 describes death as “the land of forgetfulness.” v.12 Consider these other passages as well:
Psalm 115:17 – The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any who go down into silence…
Ecclesiastes 9:10 – Whatever your hand finds to do, verily, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or wisdom in the grave where you are going…
Job 7:9-10 – When a cloud vanishes, it is gone, so he who goes down to the grave does not come up. He will not return again to his house, nor will his place know him anymore…
Ecclesiastes 12:7 – (in the context of a description of old age and death) then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit (Heb. breath of life) will return to God who gave it…
Still not convinced? Consider the hope (focused on resurrection – not immortal souls) outlined by, and for, faithful believers:
Job: I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will take His stand on the earth, even after my skin is destroyed, yet from my flesh I shall see God… Job 19:25-26
The Psalmist: But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave, for He will receive me… Psalm 49:15
Martha in discussing her dead, faithful brother (Lazarus): I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day… John 11:24
Hebrews 11: All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance…because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they should not be made perfect… vv.13, 40
So we do not have to be frightened by the craziness of Halloween type bogeymen or ghostie/zombie, living-dead stuff, my friends. It’s a bunch of superstitious nonsense. The Bible clearly teaches that the dead are dead. Gone back to dust. Not thinking, praising, planning, plotting, or active in any way. No horror movies or cemeteries should ever make believers afraid. Dead is just what it appears to be – no more life!
Rather, if we are going to fear anything, it should be the thought of not being ready (alive in faith) on that great Resurrection Day when Jesus returns to “judge the living and the dead”. Acts 10:42, 2 Timothy 4:1, 1 Peter 4:5 Better to put this fear to rest as well, by obeying God to the best of our abilities while we are alive. In discussing the time of Jesus’ return, the inspired prophet Daniel says:
At that time…everyone who is found written in the book (of Life) will be rescued. And many of those that sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, some to everlasting life, and some to disgrace and everlasting contempt. Daniel 12:1-2
May we each be among those whose names are known by God, and saved by His grace!
I share with you here a song that emphasizes the comfort and hope of this sleep-state for believers, based on the convicting words of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, entitled “The Blessed Hope.”: