The Bible Teaching on Soul
NCW 75, April-June 2002
Q. Thank you for the interesting booklet, The Bible Teaching on Soul, published in August. It gave me food for thought. Have you noticed like me that all those who believe in the soul-sleeping doctrine have a similar kind of "spirit"? Is it my imagination, or is there an actual spiritual "force" that hides behind the idea that there is no human spirit?
A. It is probably unwise to make generalisations about 'spirits' which may, or may not, lie behind such disparate groups and their members as the Jehovah's Witnesses (JW's), Seventh Day Adventists (SDA), the collection of ex-World Wide Church of God (WCG) groups, Christadelphians, and many Messianic Jews. I will, however, make what I believe to be some pertinent observations.
To begin with, I have noticed that most (though not all) of these groups have little in the form of deliverance ministry and some (like the JW's) regard any and all forms of spiritual experience with grave suspicion, effectively reducing the spiritual life to intellectual perceptions and emotional feelings. Some modern groups like Christian Educational Services (CES - presently evolving into a Church denomination), who are Unitarians as well as soul-sleepers, remind me of some of the above mentioned groups. This may well be, though, because they regard the Ruach haQodesh (Holy Spirit) as a force ('holy spirit') rather than a Person (The Holy Spirit) - JW's, WCG groups, and many Messianic Jews. If such may be said to carry a 'spirit', it is a very much depersonalised one of the Godhead, in my opinion, and as a result is somewhat lacking in power (especially if they are Arians, like the JW's and CES who deny the full deity of Christ).
So whatever 'spirit' may lie behind a group or church may not necessarily be connected to its position on soul-sleeping but on other more important things like their view of the Deity of Christ or the Personhood of the Ruach (Spirit). Others, like the JW's, Christadelphians, and some Messianic Jews, carry a definite cultic spirit.
What interests me about the soul-sleeping doctrine is how it can cause psychological disorders in some people. I recently counselled a couple of people who were living in terror at the thought of suddenly becoming extinguished at death and ending up as no more than a memory in Yahweh's mind. And I can very much identify with that sentiment. No doubt they might be accused of lacking faith (as one may indeed employ such a device with anyone not accepting a particular doctrine) but as I have thought deeply about this as a minister I am convinced that such a doctrine is not only unnatural but mitigates against the whole concept of the constant building up and perfection of life. That this life should suddenly become extinguished and become no more than a data-set, flies in the face of what personality actually is - an independent entity. And the fact that we have agency - just as the angels did - suggests that Yahweh has indeed given us a true existence of some sort that is irreducible to mere thought patterns. There is substance of a non-physical nature that identifies us as to what we actually are.
Comparisons with pagan views of the immortality of the soul are, to my mind, mere red herrings. I certainly do not believe anyone can become totally independent of God indefinitely as an immortal intelligence or being. The whole modus operandi of demons strongly witnesses to me that apart from Yahweh we cannot remain awake and alive, which is why they turn to evil in order to drain the life-energy of animals (and in particular) humans.
There are the scriptural objections to soul-sleeping too, the two most potent ones being the fact that Yah'shua was transfigured with the very much alive and conscious Elijah and Moses in the presence of three astonished apostles - and whilst it may be claimed that Elijah never died, being translated, the same cannot be said of Moses, whose dead body was disputed between Yahweh's angel and Satan. Moses very definitely died, and if he did, then he can only be a memory in the mind of Yahweh if the soul-sleepers are correct. If one postulates that Yahweh recreated Moses for the apostles' sake, then this bespeaks the same kind of theatrical performance the JW's maintained happened when Yahweh 'fooled' the 11 apostles into believing Yah'shua (Jesus) was physical when in fact, they claim, He was mere spirit (and still is) and simply put on a performance to reassure His disciples. I just don't buy that sort of nonsense. And if Moses isn't enough to convince us, we have only to consider the millions of souls who perished in the Great Flood to whom the crucified Yah'shua (Jesus) went in His spirit to preach (1 Pet.3:18-20). I somehow doubt that He went to announce the good news of His Atonement and Resurrection to some memory cells in Yahweh's brain .. unless you believe Yahweh brought them back to life again for another theatrical performance.
To this I am forced to add my own many experiences concerning the spirit of man. Like many, I have had at least one out-of-body experience which would make no sense whatsoever unless I had a seat of consciousness able to project itself beyond the body and move around in three-dimensional space. Countless people have had near-death experiences, some of whom I have met, who would dismiss as absurd the claim that our consciousness is resident only within the organ called the brain. As a deliverance minister dealing with those afflicted by demon problems, I have not the slightest doubt that humans have a self-existent spirit in addition to the animating Ruach haQodesh (Holy Spirit) and Light of Christ within.
Finally, we must consider how Yahweh is able to know (have an intimate relationship with) a person before he was either formed in the womb or born into the world and to ordain him to the office of prophet such as Jeremiah was (Jer.1:5). To have an intimate relationship and knowledge of something that is yet in your mind and which you have yet not formed borders on schizophrenia with all the implications of blasphemy that that holds. One does not "ordain" a thought or an intent, but a living person. Indeed this is one of the evidences that our spirits pre-existed our physical bodies. And if the only 'spirit' within us is Yahweh's 'invisible force' and not our own, then how on earth can Paul declare: "And She the Spirit (Ruach haQodesh) gives testimony to our spirit that we are sons of Eloah [God]" (Rom.8:16, HRV)? How can Yahweh's 'invisible force' give witness to itself if it is the only spirit within man in addition to his flesh?? Here, beyond any dispute, Paul is declaring that the Person of the Ruach haQodesh (Holy Spirit) bears witness to the person-spirit (I, me) within our body. (Note: Even the Greek translation of the original Hebrew/Aramaic is clear: "The Spirit itself (tó pneúma) beareth witness with our spirit (pneúmati heemoón)..." (Nestlé)).
In the light of these New Testament witnesses, what shall we do? Insist that the Old Testament view of the soul is still literal while these passages so obviously contradict such a notion, when it is clear that it is poetic? The fact that a dead body appears to be "asleep" neither means that it is actually asleep nor that there is there is no other, invisible conscious part. Today those who believe that the spirit lives on after death still, in the Christian community, speak of the dead "sleeping", not because the spirit is asleep but because this is a linguistic idiom to describe the state of the once living body, doubtless used originally to soften the reality of the horror of what death is for those who remain living. Hebrew and Aramaic are saturated with idioms.
Aramaic scholar, George Lamsa, writes:
"'God took him' is an Aramaic idiom which means 'he died'. In Aramaic and other Eastern languages, the word 'death' is repulsive because it denotes the end of life. People say, 'He is at rest' or 'He sleeps'.
"When a king, prince, or holy man dies, we say, 'God has taken him.' 'He was not' means he was no longer in the flesh. Elijah also went to heaven (2 Ki.2:11).
"Enoch was a pious man. he died in his flesh, but his soul turn to God his Creator. Enoch, being a good man who pleased God, died a peaceful death and his soul lives forever. Jesus said: 'There are men who stand here who will not taste death, until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom' (Mt.16:28).
"St.Paul states that by faith Enoch was taken up and did not taste death, and he was not found because God took him (Heb.11:5). The Scripture states that no one has gone up to heaven except Jesus Christ who came from heaven" (Jn.3:12) (George Lamsa, Old Testament Light: A Commentary Based on the Aramaic, Holman Bible Publishers, Nashville, 1964, p.27).
Soul-sleeper advocates are, of course, quick to pick on John 3:12 but forget those persons who most certainly are spoken of as having gone to heaven. Barnes comments:
"This does not mean that no one had GONE to heaven or had been saved, for Enoch and Elijah had been borne there (Gen 5:24; compare Heb 11:5; 2 Kings 2:11); and Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and others were there: but it means that no one had ascended and "returned," so as to be qualified to speak of the things there" (from Barnes' Notes, Electronic Database. Copyright (c) 1997 by Biblesoft).
It is not possible to therefore use this scripture as a proof text that everyone who died before was asleep because only Christ has ascended to heaven. The context clearly speaks a return journey of the kind that Yah'shua (Jesus) made. As one of the Elohim (God) only Yah'shua (Jesus) can have the kind of intimate authority of the heavenly place where Yahweh lives, there being, of course, many heavens (2 Cor.12:2). Furthermore, this passage is not translated correctly in the majority of our English Bibles which use the Greek minority texts which omit a vital piece of information which is to be found in the KJV (which uses the majority Byzantine or Received Text) and in the Hebrew/Aramaic original:
"And no man has ascended into heaven but He who descended from heaven, the Son of Man, who is in heaven" (Jn.3:12, HRV).
This passage is not, after all, talking about a two-way passage but is saying that not only did Yah'shua (Jesus) make the trip to earth as the human incarnation of Elohim but that He was simultaneously in heaven! I repeat, Yah'shua (Jesus) was unique in that He was in two places at the same time, which no human can or ever will be able to do.
In this astonishing revelation about the presence of Christ we understand His true deity and why the Alexandrians tried to delete this truth from the original MSS. And even though we have come from heaven from a pre-existence we are not able to report what we experienced there on account of the veil of forgetfulness. But Yah'shua (Jesus) knew because he was there and here, and it was of heavenly things that He was speaking (v.11).
No man has ascended to heaven, having come from there, and at the same time remained there. This was the source of Yah'shua's (Jesus') supernatural knowledge of heavenly things, unlike us who have but memories temporarily sealed up or which are selectively given to us by the Ruach (Spirit). Thus we have not descended and ascended as He has.
As we take stock of all the scriptures concerning the nature of the soul and spirit we at length discover, as I said in my original essay, that it is not as simple as Western Literalists might be tempted to think. Indeed, without the greater revelation of the New Covenant, would someone from Old Covenant times have understood the meaning of Yah'shua's (Jesus') words in John 3:12 at all? I strongly doubt it. For theirs was a very terrestrial-orientated way of looking at life, and whose idiomatic language was constructed around that experience and which they tried to use in expressing difficult spiritual concepts. But in the New Covenant - and especially in the esoteric Johannine writings - the curtains of heaven are parted even wider and we are given a glimpse into realities that few, if any, human beings had been party to before. New heavenly realities reveal themselves to us - of a heavenly world which is not only inhabited by the Elohim (God), angels, and one or two translated individuals like Enoch and Elijah, but the spirits of the dead - those who perished in the flood and Moses himself. We do not disappear at death but are alive - so saith the Word of God.
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