What happens at death?

What happens at death?


I’m J.K. McKee, editor of Messianic
Apologetics. If you are new to the channel, be sure to subscribe for future
teachings and updates. How are today’s Messianic people to best approach the
topic of what happens at death? Do people die, and then enter into complete
unconsciousness until the resurrection? Or, do people die, and then have their
consciousness transferred to another dimension, until the resurrection? Is “soul
sleep” something that we need to be seriously considering, or does it need to
be dismissed as a false teaching? Death is one of the most difficult topics that
any human being ever has to deal with. None of us likes dealing with the death
of a family member, a close friend, or even people we do not know but still
admire. Many people regularly visit the gravesite of a loved one, whereas others
have their remains cremated and scattered into the wind. Even if you do
not regularly visit a cemetery where your loved one may be buried, thoughts
and memories of the deceased will undoubtedly still come to your mind from
time to time, and the last memory you may have of such a person–that of your loved
one’s funeral–is perhaps what you remember. The Holy Scriptures give us as
Believers a great deal of comfort, as we know that we will see those who died in
the faith again. Those of us who believe in the doctrine of resurrection know
that a gravesite is not the final destination. The Apostle Paul, writing to
the Thessalonians who had largely not originally grown up in a culture of
resurrection, corrected them with this instruction: “For the Lord Himself will
descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the
trumpet of God, and the dead in Messiah will rise first. Then we who are alive
and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord
in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one
another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-18, NASU). The doctrine
of resurrection is comforting, because the process of decomposition will be
reversed. No matter how hard the funeral industry may try to retard decay via
embalming, the placement of a body in an hermetically sealed casket, and then the
placement of a casket in a heavy airtight vault–a corpse will still decay.
But as the Scriptures so properly put it, “I will put sinews on you, make flesh grow
back on you, cover you with skin and put breath
in you that you may come alive; and you shall know that I am the LORD”
(Ezekiel 37:6, NASU). Isaiah 26:19 likewise says, “Your dead will live; their corpses will
rise. You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy” (NASU). The resurrection of our
Lord Yeshua should assure us that those who have died in faith will also be
resurrected, with bodies that will live and breathe again: “Messiah has been
raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who are asleep”
(1 Corinthians 15:20, NASU). The doctrine of resurrection is something very important
for each of us to believe, especially as it concerns salvation and what Yeshua
has accomplished for us (Hebrews 9:28). Yet undeniably connected to the doctrine of
resurrection is what happens to the deceased in the interim. What is the
intermediate condition of those who have died? Are our friends and loved ones, who
knew the Lord during their lives and were saved, simply waiting in the ground
for that day of resurrection, their bodies decaying? Or, are our friends
and loved ones, who knew the Lord during their lives and were saved, in the
presence of the Lord, awaiting to be reunited with their
bodies on that day of resurrection? Belief in a post-mortem afterlife, where
the deceased in Messiah wait in Heaven in the presence
of the Lord until the time of resurrection, has come under considerable
attack in the past century, primarily from theological liberals, but now even
from some purported theological conservatives. Even in our own Messianic
movement, the idea that “going to Heaven when you die” is not a Biblical teaching
has gained much ground in various sectors, even though there has been
little detailed engagement with the ramifications of such a view. The words
of the Maccabeean martyrs, “For if we so die, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob will
welcome us, and all the fathers will praise us” (4 Maccabees 13:17, RSV; also 9:8-9), are not heard. Ignored are the countless testimonies of faithful
Believers who have lived their lives knowing that once they die, they will
meet their Savior, having glimpses of Him in their twilight moments. And what of
the conviction of those who know that when they worship the Lord, they join in
with a company of angels and holy ones who are in Heaven right now worshiping
the Lord (Hebrews 12:22-23)? While he firmly held to the doctrine of
resurrection, Paul’s own words “My desire is to depart and be with Messiah, for
that is far better” (Philippians 1:23, RSV), or perhaps more
significantly, “I say, and rather prefer to be absent from the body and to
be at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8, NASU), get quickly left out of
the discussion. Frequently, it is not until one is facing death–either the
death of a loved one, or one’s own personal death–that the subject comes up.
Many, because of all of the rhetoric that has been floating around, are confused
and do not know what to believe about the time between death and resurrection.
They do not know what to think between hearing things about Hellenistic
philosophy, the different dimensions of life and death, Sheol and the grave,
and whether or not the human being is unique among God’s creatures in
comparison to the animals. It is easy to say that this is a topic worthy of our
discussion, lest we be confused any longer. An evaluation of the subject
matter, and an impetus not to oversimplify things, is needed. The
subject of death and resurrection is supposed to be something elementary
(Hebrews 6:1-2), meaning that it is to already be understood by mature men and
women of God. Is our inability to understand this properly as Messianic
Believers an indication that we are not as mature as we should be? What are the
motives of Believers who are convicted that when they die they will be
immediately transported into the presence of their Savior, and the motives
of the who think that they will just fall
asleep into sheer unconsciousness and be buried? When surveying the debate over
the intermediate state between death and resurrection, there are people in today’s
independent Messianic community who are confused. Most of Messianic Judaism’s
position on the intermediate state between death and resurrection has been
the same as most of evangelical Protestantism: a Believer in the Messiah
departs this Earth for the presence of the Lord, with the person’s consciousness
(sometimes called a “soul”) to be returned to his or her reanimated physical body
at the time of resurrection. Today, however, instead of hearing things like
“In My Father’s house are many dwelling places…” (John 14:2), many independent
Messianics will instead declare “…the dead do not know anything…”
(Ecclesiastes 9:5). The doctrine of psychopannychy –more commonly known by the
vernacular “soul sleep”–is often not viewed as heresy in today’s
evangelicalism, but is instead viewed as a theological aberration. I would not
consider Messianics who believe in what is commonly called “soul sleep” to be heretics, but I would consider their interpretations of Scripture to be
questionable, misguided, usually materialistic, and a
bit one-dimensional–especially in view of the over 100 billion galaxies in our
known universe, and especially in light of diverse scientific research proving
the existence of multiple “universes.” To further complicate things, some of the
passages, that psychopannychists bring to the attention of Bible readers, have
sometimes been viewed as being anti- resurrection. Today, a sizable number of
independent Messianics believe in psychopannychy, or at least concede that it has
valid points. Outreach Israel Ministries and Messianic Apologetics have never
advocated any kind of “soul sleep,” always firmly adhering to the Bible’s complete
teaching of an intermediate afterlife for all people (whether in the presence
of the Lord in Heaven or separated from Him in Hell) until the resurrection. But,
perhaps contrary to popular thought, we have always affirmed the reality of a
future resurrection, never advocating a permanent disembodied afterlife. It has
been our observation that as the independent Messianic movement has
expanded, people from traditions outside those of mainline Judaism and
evangelical Protestantism have brought their theology of psychopannychy with
them. They frequently make it their duty to “correct”
everyone. This influence is often coupled with a wide amount of disrespect that
has been encouraged toward our Protestant theological heritage, and is
now being coupled with disrespect toward our Jewish theological heritage (in
particular, the beliefs of the ancient Pharisees). The doctrine of psychopannychy
is now an avant-garde teaching in many sectors of the Messianic movement, with
some actually claiming that it is “revelation” that the Father is restoring
to His people. It has become quite en vogue in parts of today’s Messianic
movement to advocate that any belief in a disembodied afterlife is one of the
so-called “lies” of the Christian Church that must be discarded,
with information on this subject presented in a very harsh manner. When
people hear this–especially those who have lost loved ones and have had to go
through some kind of grief counseling– they can be easily confused and not know
what to do. C.J. Koster, founder of the Institute for Scripture Research, is
quite direct in stating, “One of the most popular doctrines of the Church is
that of ‘going to heaven.’ Nobody is going to heaven. The Reign (Kingdom) of heaven is
coming to earth – that is what we read in Scripture! The ‘going to heaven’ was a
popular Pagan doctrine.” For some of
today’s Messianics, this is all that needs to be said.
They think that born again Believers being transported into the presence of
the Lord at the time of death is a pagan doctrine, and thus it must be rejected. We
who believe in a disembodied intermediate time in Heaven are said to
be denying the blessed hope of the resurrection
(1 Thessalonians 4:13). We are said to be denying the reality that Heaven is
coming to Earth, and that Yeshua will reign over this planet. We are said to
have denied that God is concerned about restoring the whole human person (1
Thessalonians 5:23). They think that further examination
with Scripture passages that strongly point to Believers departing to an
intermediate time in Heaven prior to the resurrection is not necessary. Yet this
kind of argument leaves out some very important data: it assumes that everyone
who believes in a disembodied intermediate state for Believers in
Heaven denies the doctrine of resurrection–which we surely do not! No
one should ever deny the fact that the orthodox (that’s small “o” orthodox) Jewish
and Protestant traditions–which today’s Messianic movement largely benefits from–
are united in their shared conviction that there will be a resurrection
of deceased bodies in the eschaton (Daniel 12:2). The doctrine of resurrection
sets the Biblical message strikingly apart from paganism, because it advocates
that our Creator is very much concerned with the physical human body every bit
as much as He is concerned with the immaterial human consciousness. It is
right to say that various Christian teachers and pastors have overemphasized
“going to Heaven” in popular preaching –perceived as some form of endless
disembodied bliss in the clouds–at the expense of underemphasizing the Second
Coming of the Messiah, where physical bodies of deceased persons will be
resurrected and His reign will come to Planet Earth. It is not incorrect to
assert that some have adopted a dangerous Platonic idea that matter is
evil, and that instead all we need to be concerned about is something spiritual
or metaphysical. N.T. Wright, among today’s evangelical scholars, has been correct to
remind us, “the meaning of ‘resurrection’ as ‘life after life after
death’ cannot be overemphasized.” As the people of God, we are responsible for
remembering that the world God has made is “very good” (Genesis 1:31), and that
physical matter is by no means inherently evil. If we can view physical
matter as “very good,” it will lead to us properly
fulfilling His mission and our dominion over the Earth, rather than spurning it.
It is also important for us to remember that those who believe in psychopannychy
have often been divided into two sub-groups: sectarian cultists who deny
key Biblical doctrines such as Yeshua’s Divinity, and theological liberals. For
almost two centuries, liberal theology has widely advocated that Holy Scripture
should be treated as some kind of inspirational theology, but not as
accurate history. Liberals have to often deny an intermediate state for the dead,
because if Believers are waiting in the presence of the Lord in Heaven prior to
resurrection, then unbelievers must be similarly waiting in some kind of
intermediate punishment prior to their resurrection and final sentencing. (Their
actual position on the doctrine of resurrection is frequently uncertain.)
Sectarian cultists, however, are simply guided by an ethos of wanting to inflict
as much damage as they can on what they perceive as any cardinal doctrine of
evangelical Christianity. Messianics who have recently adopted a belief in psychopannychy are largely those who want to give evangelical Christianity a similar
kick in the tuchas, not often being guided by wanting to be constructive and
discuss the issues. Frequently, they are very contentious and mean-spirited about
their newfound “Truth,” and want everyone to know that they now deny some kind of
“pagan belief” of going to Heaven. This approach breeds nothing less than
confusion among brethren, and does not encourage an objective analysis of the
Scriptures. It certainly does not help those who are grieving over the loss of
a loved one who knew the Savior. In contrast to this, we should be those who
want to give a fair hearing to the issue, examining what the Scriptures say about
the human constitution, the intermediate state of the dead prior to resurrection,
and the ideology of a person wanting to go to the presence of the Savior at the
time of death or just to a place of burial. Denying something simply because
“the Church taught it” is insufficient; what matters is that one’s convictions
are confirmed by a fair examination of Biblical texts. I have discovered via
experience that not all Messianics who embrace a belief in psychopanbychy hold
to it indefinitely, as there will often be a revaluation of the view when a
relative or close friend dies, or when one’s own self is struck with the
question of death. Many realize that they get caught up in a fad, and that they
have been influenced by sensationalistic rhetoric of little substance. If you all
found this content enjoyable and useful, please be sure to drop a thumb’s up for
this video. As always, we thank you for your continued support of our ministry
efforts. God bless and shalom, and we’ll see you again with our next update!

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