It can be difficult to read through the Bible objectively, given the way that so many folktales and traditions have been added to Christian beliefs over the years. In addition to the Greek culture that influenced the nation of Israel, we have inherited a number of superstitions from the unfortunate ignorance of the mediaeval period, appropriately called the Dark Ages. This period is usually considered dark because the classical learning of ancient Western civilisations—the Grreks and the Romans — was all but lost after barbarian conquest of Rome. Civilisation quite literally unravelled in the wester half of the Roman Empire, especially after AD 527, when the Roman government, under Justinan, retreated to Constatinople in the east.
The loss of classical learning in areas such as philosophy, engineering and science produced a vacuum of knowledge that was often filled by superstition. This period of Europe’s history was a rough one, complete with harsh pandemics and bloddy invasions by Vikings and Muslims. As we would expect, people longed to make sense of their brutal existence, so they readily absorbed superstitious notions as a means of explaining their world and the human condition.
Some of the traditions that made their way into Christendom were relatively harmless: black cats were said to be evil spirits that could sever your connection with God simply by crossing your path.
Breaking a mirror could prove to be bad luck, not only because mirrors were expensive but also because a reflection was somehow a reflection of your soul. Knocking on wood for good luck was once a nod to the spirits of the trees. It was later baptised into Christianity by associating the wood with the cross. Ladders were used to retrieve bodies from the gallows, so it was easy to be persuaded that the spirits of the hanged congregated under ladders, which made walking under them bad luck.
There was also an element of dualism in most of these pagan traditions that found easy acceptance in a Dark Ages Christianity that had been heavily influenced by the sun-worshipping pagan convert Constantine. Tossing salt over one’s shoulder or hanging a horseshoe over one’s door may have supported spiritualistic superstition, but these actions didn’t directly influence one’s understanding of death and dying. Other traditions, however—such as the widespread notions that people became angels after death and that the dead must burn off their imperfections in purgatory before being admitted into an ethereal paradise— had a deeper and more significant influence and these ideas continue to be a part of people’s thinking about death even in our day.
Besides 2000 years of superstitious baggage, we also come to the topics of death and dying with strong emotions. It’s hard to be objective, because the subject can be so painful. Most of us have experienced the profound impact of losing someone we’re close to and some of us live in the shadow of the Grim Reaper ourselves, because we’ve been told we’re dying.
These factors make it all the more necessary for us to sit quietly with a Bible and ask ourselves what it actu- ally says and what it doesn’t say.
It’s significant that in 1513 the church, still emerging from the Dark Ages, issued an official pronouncement against those who suggested that the human soul was not immortal. The fact that the leaders of the church apparently felt the need to take such an action suggests that growing numbers of believers were discovering the biblical picture of death. Among those making this discovery was Martin Luther, the great champion of righteousness by faith and one of the early Reformers. Luther commented on more than one occasion that according to the Bible, the dead did not have a conscious existence but were merely asleep. His belief regarding death was what led him to question the teachings of purgatory and the worship of departed saints.
William Tyndale produced one of the first English translations of the Bible, and he also recognised the Bible’s perspective that death is like sleep. In 1529, Sir Thomas More objected to Luther’s doctrine that “all souls lie and sleep till doomsday.” Tyndale, in his Answer to Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue, defended death-as-sleep vigorously as the doctrine not only of Luther but of the Bible. He responded to More’s condemnation with a statement that demonstrated his understanding that mediaeval Christianity had been contaminated by pagan philosophy.
“Ye, in putting [departed souls] in heaven, hell, and purgatory, destroy the arguments wherewith Christ and Paul prove the resurrection. . . . The true faith [sets forth] the resurrection, which we be warned to look for every hour. The heathen philosophers, denying that, did [set forth] that the souls did ever live. And the pope joineth the spiritual doctrine of Christ and the fleshly doctrine of philosophers together; things so contrary that they cannot agree, no more than the Spirit and the flesh do in a christian [sic] man. . . . And again, if the souls be in heaven, tell me why they be not in as good case as the angels be? And then what cause is there of the resurrection?”
In 1683, John Tillotson, who later became archbishop of Canterbury, made the telling admission that the doctrine of the immortality of the soul was rather taken for granted, than expressly revealed in the Bible.
A more recent proponent
Another well-known proponent of the biblical position on death as sleep was Dr Emil Brunner, professor of systematic theology at the University of Zurich and guest professor at Princeton. He openly admitted the influence of Greek paganism on Christian thought.
“Widely spread among all peoples and at all times is the idea of a survival of the soul after death, i.e. the view that death means the separation of soul from body. This view appears in many varied forms, from primitive animism to the philosophical doctrine of immortality. It assumesthe form of the Indian teaching of Karma about the reincarnation of the soul in another life in a state corresponding to its ethical worth. Again it appears in the idea, first found in ancient Egypt, of an other- worldly judgement, in which some souls will be assigned to a joyful and radiant world, others to a dark, joy- less and tormented existence in the beyond.
“For the history of Western thought, the Platonic teaching of the immortality of the soul became of special significance. It penetrated so deeply into the thought of Western man because, although with certain modifications, it was assimilated by Christian theology and church teaching, [it] was even declared by the Lateran Council of 1512–1513 to be a dogma, to conradict which was a heresy, and like- wise from Calvin onwards it was assumed in post-Reformation Protestantism to be a part of Christian doctrine. Only recently, as a result of a deepened understanding of the New Testament, have strong doubts arisen as to its compatibility with the Christian conception of the relation between God and man, and its essentially pre-Christian origin has been ever more emphasised.”
Brunner was quite right. The idea that our souls leave our bodies at death is at odds with the biblical understanding of our relationship to God. If we are essentially spirit beings, what is the point of a physical existence? In the same passage, Brunner goes on to point out that “if Plato, and by extension the Greeks, are right, then death isn’t much of a problem at all. It really can’t hurt you. And if nobody really dies, then the Bible is making too much of a fuss of it.”
If we reject the idea that death actually means a total cessation of life, we actually diminish the seriousness of sin. The Bible teaches that the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). It is not a conscious existence in some other realm. We don’t merely cross an invisible barrier into the spirit world when we die. We cease to exist. We are lost to God’s universe.
But because Jesus knew what sin would do to us, He gave His life to make sure we could be reunited with the Creator. His death was very real so that our eternal lives can be real as well. There is no need to let pagan mythology blur the lines between Christ’s life and His death.
Be assured that Jesus really died and He really lives. You don’t have to be perplexed about what your future holds. You will—if Jesus doesn’t return before the moment comes—really die. And after that you will really live.
This article is adapted, with permission, from Draining the Styx, by Shawn Boonstra, Pacific Press, 2014.