What Did Jesus Say About the Human Soul?

Orange LillyThe short answer to the question of our title is, “not much!”  For the most part, Jesus seems to be content enough with the Pharisee’s monistic position on the question, and does not try and dispute that.  While he chides the Pharisees for many other beliefs and attitudes that they have, he seems to be comfortable with their concept of a resurrection, at the end of all things.  He even gives a dramatic demonstration that resurrection from death is possible, when he raises up his friend Lazarus, after being dead for four days!  John 11

However, an argument of silence is not always the best support!  For example, one could argue that since Jesus said nothing to correct the Greek idea of an immortal soul, that would have also been a pervasive idea on the streets of Jerusalem at the time,  He apparently had no real problem with that idea either!  He even seems to give a nod to the idea of immortal souls when he tells his parable about a rich man and a poor beggar that lived outside his gate.

You probably know the story well.  It is just one of the many ways that Jesus encouraged us to be socially responsible to our neighbors, especially the poor among us. The beggar, also named Lazarus (but a different guy then Jesus raised from the dead) dies and is “carried by the angels” to Abraham’s side.  Eventually the rich man also dies and goes to Hell.   From his torment in Hell, the rich man sees Abraham and has a conversation with him.  Luke 16: 19-31

So ... what to do with the two Lazarus?  What can the two stories tell us about what Jesus may have believed?  One seems to indicate that when a person dies, their soul goes directly to heaven or hell.  The other story is all about how life after death is only possible through a restoration of the physical person, the body.  What should we conclude about what Jesus believed?  Here are some observations to consider:

1.      The story of the rich man and Lazarus was a parable whereas the resurrection of the friend of Jesus was a real event!  The first was teaching the principle of how we should be kind to the poor, the second was a real life demonstration that Jesus had power over death!

2.      A good rule of thumb is to avoid building doctrinal positions on parables.  You can get into trouble!

3.      In that this is a parable, Jesus was most likely speaking metaphorically, perhaps even colloquially.  We do this today all the time.  If someone journaled some of the things that they overheard us saying and someone translated that diary to another language and culture, 2000 years from now, what might they conclude that we believed by some of our “pop culture” references?   For more on this, see the story about my golfing buddies.

4.      If Jesus’ friend Lazarus, had an immortal soul that had already enjoyed the wonders of heaven for four days, why did he not talk about this?  This was no simple “near-death experience", that we read about from time to time. This was a true "death experience"!  If Lazarus had visited heaven, we would expect this amazing story to have made it in to the culture and tradition of the early church, but we never hear of it again.

One thing that I believe that we can conclude about the silence of Jesus on the question of the Body/Soul, is that He did not see it as a relevant or important enough issue to make a real case about. This is a little bit curious, considering that in the Old Testament, God seems to go to great lengths to get people to avoid concepts of an afterlife or souls that live on after death.  What has changed?  Why is there no longer a big concern what people believe on the question?

It could be that Jesus saw that “Pandora’s box” had burst open and there just was no going back.  It could be that Jesus just did not see this as an issue of salvation and thus did not waste a lot of energy dealing with it.  Or it could be that, given what He knew about the Kingdom and how that was coming, the theological problems and debates that people had at the time over body/soul and resurrection issues, were, in Jesus’ mind, somewhat irrelevant or “moot points”.

A survey of the teachings of Jesus show that the big themes that He talked a lot about were the eternal Kingdom, Judgment, Love and respect for God and the people around you, and how people could enter the eternal Kingdom by believing in Him.

Jesus saw this eternal Kingdom as something that had in some ways, already started.  Often we think that the Kingdom will only start at the Second Coming, and in a certain sense that may be true, but Jesus presented the Kingdom as something that had already begun or was “close”.  There was immediacy to His Kingdom. He said things like:

“The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘there it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.” Luke 17:20


“And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” Mark 9:1


“Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass away, till all be fulfilled.” Luke 21:32


“Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live.” John 5:25


If we really had to decide if Jesus leaned toward monism or dualism, I believe that the sincere, objective Bible scholar would have to choose monism, based on the fact that He never talks about the immortal, conscious soul going to heaven at death (other than the parable above) but does talk about life-after-death through a bodily renewal, that happens at the “last day”.  He says;


“A time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice  and come out…”  John 5:28,29;

And,

“For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” John 6:40


However, it is interesting to note that he also hinted from time to time that those who were alive already, and believed in Him would never die!  He said;


“Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.” John 5:24


“This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” John 6:58


“Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die;  and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” John 11:25, 26

While Jesus did not say much about an immortal human soul, he does spend a great deal of time talking about an eternal after life and how people can get that, primarily by believing on him.  For Jesus, it was not Plato’s ideas that give people eternal life or even, for that matter, the Rabbi’s resurrection doctrine that gives eternal life, it is belief in Him!  It is by eating His “flesh” and drinking His “blood” that people gain eternal life. 

When Martha says, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” The response of Jesus is, “I am the resurrection and the life.”   John 11:24,25 

It is like He was letting Martha in on a secret.  While everyone was looking for a big amazing resurrection event at the end of time that would bring people life, Jesus tells Martha,  I AM the RESURRECTION, I AM the LIFE!  I AM what everyone has been looking for, waiting for!


Perhaps this was one of the reasons that Jesus never gives any big sermon on the “state of the dead”! He personifies Life!  Jesus was saying, the Sadducees look to this life alone, The Pharisees look to the end-time resurrection for LIFE, the street culture looks to the immortal soul of the Greeks for life, but I AM the LIFE!  The Kingdom of God is close, is “at hand”, even now in your midst.  The resurrection at the end of days can be a comforting thought, Martha, but I have an even better hope for you!  “I Am the resurrection and the Life!”  People who believe in me have already passed from death unto life.  They will never die!

This sounds incredible, even unbelievable!  It may be why Jesus doesn’t talk about it much.  Sometimes when He talks like this, as He does in John 6, people can’t cope and stop following Him.  And given that all of the people who accepted him did end up dying,  it seems as though we must have missed the true meaning of what he was trying to communicate.  We come up with alternatives.  Some proposals bring us back to the Greek ideas of immortal souls, or souls that receive the gift of immortality, because they believe on Him.  But what if Jesus was being more literal?  What if He really meant what He said, that people who believed in Him would never die?
   

One of the most amazing statements that Jesus makes about the dead, is that they are not really dead ! 

Here I am not talking about the idea of “soul sleep”.  If you don’t really believe in souls, how can you believe in souls that sleep?  Jesus referred to death as a “sleep” several times, but this was more likely a “figure of speech”, a euphemism, than it was meant to be a teaching on the nature of mankind, or in any way prove that people have souls that sleep during some kind of "intermediary state".  When Jesus was really pressed on the issue, he said something very radicle.  He said, “Everyone is Alive!” Luke 20:38


This is a “hard saying” for monists or for those who believe that the Bible teaches that the dead will not be raised until the Second coming, at the “last day”.  Let’s take a closer look at the statement, in Luke.  What it really says is that “to him (God), all are alive” .  Even with this qualification, one gets the impression that Jesus taught that everyone who has ever lived on this Earth, though they have died, are now alive, somewhere, somehow.

This statement comes from the story about a time when the Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection, came to question Jesus.  It is reported in three of the four gospels;  Luke 20: 27-38, Matthew 22: 23-33 and Mark 12:18-27  (This threefold witness may be an indication that this is an important story that we should take notice of!)

Whatever the Sadducees may have thought about Jesus or his other teachings, the point they took the greatest issue with Him on was the matter of the resurrection.   They no doubt felt that it was dishonest to “string people along” with false hopes of an afterlife.  Wishing to expose the folly of his teaching, the Sadducees would come to Jesus while he was teaching, and during the “question and answer period”, ask questions that would hopefully put Jesus in a corner on the logic of His resurrection doctrine.  

On one such occasion the Sadducees come to Jesus with a sad story about a family of seven brothers:
The eldest son married but died before he had any children.  According to the instructions of Moses regarding such a situation, his wife married the man’s brother.  The cultural thinking of Moses’ day was that even though there was no real belief in an afterlife, we live on, in a certain sense, through the experiences of our children. Apart from any inheritance considerations, if a man should die without having children, his death was considered more terminal, more tragic, more permanent, in that he would not be able to “live on” through the experiences of his children.  One way around this dilemma was for his wife to marry his closest brother and have a child with him, that would be considered by everyone to be the dead brother’s son.  The child would receive the dead brother’s inheritance, but also in some remote way, give the deceased an opportunity at “immortality”, through the experiences of his new lineage.  

But alas, according to the story, the second brother also died without having any children with the woman so she married the next brother in line.  This continued until she had married all seven brothers.   (She must have been the carrier of some horrible disease!)  Now came the trick question for Jesus.  “Master, we were just wondering, in the resurrection that you talk about, whose wife will this woman be, for she was married to them all.”
 

I can almost see the smile on Jesus face as he sees through their plot.  Kindly, gently, He responds by telling them that the reason that they were having difficulty with their thinking was two-fold.  First of all they did not have a correct understanding of scripture and secondly, they did not have a clear understanding of the power of God.  Jesus makes a brief diversion to give a simple answer to their direct question about the woman.  “In the resurrection there is no marriage, people will be more like angels.”  But then he quickly comes back to show how they were missing the point on the resurrection because of their two-fold “misunderstanding”.
“About the idea of the resurrection, that you seem to be having so much trouble with, have you not read about the time when Moses was at the burning bush, and God spoke to him from the bush saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob’?”

Jesus appeals directly to the belief-system of the Sadducees.  Rather than quote Daniel 12 to prove the end-time resurrection, Jesus goes to the Torah, the books of Moses.  This was the only real Bible for the Sadducees, their only authority.

Of course the Sadducees had read this passage many times.  It was a pivotal point in their history!  It was the Almighty God, communicating directly to Moses, through a bush that appeared to be on fire!  It was the amazing appearance of God to Moses that started the chain of events of the Exodus, and the building up of their nation.

However,  just like what happens to us, when we read the Bible, the Sadducees had read this passage over and over, and still missed the “Big Point”.  Actually, they erred on TWO points: They didn’t understand scripture AND they were totally oblivious to the awesome, almighty, transcendent power of the “I AM”.

This one passage covered both their errors!

When God tells Moses that He is the “I AM”, this designation, in and of itself, tells us about His power.  In His very name, He is saying that He is the “Always One”, the One who was, the One who is, and the One who will be!  As we know from other passages, He is the “Ancient of Days” the “Alpha and the Omega”, the “First and the Last”, the Beginning and the End”, the Everlasting One.

Jesus then reminds the Sadducees that the text goes on to say that He IS the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The voice out of the burning bush does not say, "I was the God of your fathers", it says, "I AM the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob".

Looking into their eyes, Jesus may have seen that they still weren’t getting it! He needed to give them one more clue….

“God is not the God of the dead, but of the living!”   In other words, do you really think that the God that we serve is the God of dead people?  Is that the God we serve?

As we have seen, Luke reports this in the most profound way.  He remembers Jesus saying, “For to him, all are alive” Luke 20:38 NIV

I puzzled over these passages for many years.  Those who may not have read some of the other articles here at Timeless Themes may not know that I grew up in a faith-tradition that believes that, “the dead are dead!”  Most Christians do not see a big problem text here because they have a worldview that says that the faithful are alive and well, living in Heaven with God. However, to those who have grown up in monistic faith traditions, such as Seventh-day Adventism, a passage like this that says that "all are alive” can be a little troubling! 
 

I always liked the way Jesus was able to see the trap, come back with a good answer and win the argument.  I would always get a little distracted by the sidebar comment that Jesus makes about living like angels and how there would be no marriage in the new world, but I would always come way, just a little unclear of the big point that Jesus was making.

While these three accounts posed a challenge to my belief-system, I found this to be exciting, rather than disturbing.  In my experience, I have found that if we find a problematic statement that challenges our established beliefs, we need to pay special attention to that passage!  Just like the scientist who observes something that might contradict a long held theory, it is here that we need to take a closer look!  Rather than avoid or dismiss the problem, I believe that we should examine every facet of the “problem passage” as we might a diamond.  It is here where we may experience growth in understanding.  It is here where we may see new portraits  of the Creator, the Redeemer, His universe, and His power!  We need to be willing to let the flower of God’s truth unfold!  If that means looking carefully at the Bible texts that seem to contradict what we believe to be true, that’s OK!

After years of struggling with this dilemma, trying to think of a logical, rational solution as to how the “dead could be dead”, as we believed, and yet at the same time be “alive unto God”, I finally let it rest in God’s hands, satisfied to let it all be cradled in mystery.  It was only then, as is often the case, that insight came. For me it was one of those, “Eureka moments”!  The answer was simple, profound, satisfying!   It did not contradict the teaching of my faith-tradition, there was no new wild thought or stand-alone teaching that would challenge any established doctrine of Christianity, it was a simple unfolding of a flower, beautiful at every stage!

Jesus told the Sadducees that one of the big reasons why they erred was because they did not understand the power of God.  What they did not understand, and what we often forget, is the transcendent nature of God.  Transcendence is a big theological word that simply means that God, while He exists in our reality, He also exists in ways that are completely beyond our understanding or perception.  The Bible teaches that He is “above all things”, that He is “all-knowing”, “all-powerful” and “everywhere present”.  It is this “everywhere present” that I believe that Jesus is referring to here as he speaks to the Sadducees.  This was the “power of God”, that they did not understand.  It is also one that we don’t think about very much.  Yes we might repeat a creed, or sing a hymn that says that we believe that God is “omnipresent”, and have a vague idea of God being present everywhere in our universe, and perhaps other realms as well, all at the same time.  But do we ever think much about His omnipresence in time?

This, I believe is what the Scripture is talking about when it refers to God as being the “Alpha and the Omega”, the “First and the Last”, the “Beginning and the End”.  It’s not just that God is everywhere at once, but that He exists in all time, at once.

Some might accuse me of having read too many science fiction novels that deal with time travel, but this is not God traveling back in time to be present with Abraham.  This is our transcendent God, being present in all time at once.  People experience the passing of time, but God does not.  People die, but God does not.
I do not believe that the idea of God being omnipresent in time, is in any way strange or absent in Scripture.  It is quite common for Christians to say, “He knows the “end from the beginning”. In fact the whole idea of Bible prophecy would not be possible if God were not present through all time, past and future. 

God can say to Jeremiah,


“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart;  I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”   Jeremiah 1:5

God knew King Cyrus would be a friend of the Jews and help them rebuild the temple, long before he was even born.  Isaiah 44:28

With God a day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years is as one day.  2 Peter 3:8

Jesus, the Lamb of God, is represented as having been slain, from the foundation of the world. Revelation 13:8

This goes beyond science fiction!  We serve a God who is currently present in all time!  This is how, Jesus could say to the Sadducees, “to God, all are alive.”   In other words, from God’s perspective, all are alive.  It’s not that Abraham, Jacob and Isaac have died and gone to heaven.  From God’s perspective, they have never died!  He is not the God of the dead, He is the God of the living!  As strange as this may seem to our minds, trapped as we are in linear time, progressing ever forward, one hour at a time, God is timeless! He exists in all time past, present and future, right now!  It is just as easy for God to walk with Abraham today, as it is for Him to walk with my unborn great grandchild.  All are alive to Him!

How does all this relate to what Jesus believed in the soul and the Resurrection?  Well, when we understand, (or remember) that Divinity is present in all Earth time, the Greek concept of a soul is no longer a big necessity to facilitate an afterlife experience. There is no longer a need for any kind of transition state, souls do not need to sleep, or wait.  The “resurrection” suddenly becomes an event that even the Sadducees could get behind!   

When Jesus returns, that amazing event breaks through all time!  No longer does the resurrection require a collection of dry bones from thousands of years, scattered over land and sea.  No longer does there need to be a rebuilding of the body inside the grave, a pulling together of bones, flesh and organs.  No longer does the "spirit" of the dead have find and "jump in" to a body coming up out of the earth.  Now, Jesus simply finds His friends and “raises them up”, fully alive, from where ever they are, in time. 

The return of Christ, the “resurrection event” happens not only at the end, on the “last day”, it is literally the “end of time”, as we know it!


With this proposal of the resurrection event, many of the rather mysterious saying of Jesus start to make more sense!  Suddenly there is no problem for Him to say, “behold I come quickly” or “this generation shall not pass, until all be fulfilled”, or “some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” or, “those who live, and believe in me, will never die!”

On that wonderful day, not only will the Lord come for me, wherever I am, whenever I am, he will also come in my fathers day, Luther’s and Paul’s day.  No longer is it a problem, as some have proposed, that Paul pictured himself among the living saints, when he says, “we who are alive and remain”. 

Now we can get an idea of what Jesus was really talking about when he said, on that day, Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.” Matthew 24:40,41

Now, even though the thief on the cross did not die on Friday, we can see how Jesus could say to him, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise!”.  The Second Coming will burst through those dark clouds and fulfill the promise to the one who believed in Him, in His moment of greatest need, when everyone else at his feet were losing faith in Him!

But the second coming doesn’t stop there, It continues expand through time.  God fulfills his promise to Daniel that he would at the “end of days”, rise to receive his inheritance.
 

The great eschatological event promised to the faithful by the prophets, ripples through time and the faithful are gathered, while they are still alive in their time.

This, I believe, was Jesus understanding of the Kingdom that is close and even in our midst. This is how Jesus could say,


“Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live.” John 5:25  (No longer do we have to wonder how the dead will hear when they have no ears, Jesus comes to them, in their lifetime, while they are still alive!)

I suspect the reason that he spoke of these things in riddles and cloaked language is because He knew that people might have a hard time understanding the concept of non-linear time, and how one day it will end.  Sometimes when He got too deep, people gave up on his teachings and no longer followed him.

But we are not as limited in our thinking as they.  We have caught glimpses of the relativity of time.  We can appreciate and accept how the God of Prophecy must transcend and occupy all time.  When we follow these ideas through to their logical conclusion, we may suddenly see that the day of the “resurrection” becomes so much simpler!  There is no longer any image of Jesus or angels searching for fragments of DNA that have deteriorated over centuries of time.  We need not worry about people who have been lost at sea and eaten by the fishes, or the martyrs that were burned at the stake, or loved ones that chose to be cremated by a raging fire.  To a God that is alive and present in all earth time, the “resurrection” is a simple matter of collecting people, where they are in time, before they experience death!  The Second Coming event, the resurrection day, is a wave that ripples through all earth time, gathering His own to Himself.  Time shall be no more, and the amazed faithful shout out, as they stand on this earth, fully alive to see the second coming of Jesus, reach their generation, “Oh Death, where is thy sting, Oh grave, where is your victory!”

As an added bonus, this proposal also brings much resolution to the questions that thoughtful Christians are having about the evidence that is all around us for a long chronology of life on this earth.  If we, like the Saducees of old, would hear Jesus' admonition that the reason we are having so much difficulty understanding these difficult problems is that we forget about the awesome, transcendent power of God, our problems may be solved. 

When we remember that God is present throughout all time, it may suddenly become clear how there could be a a recent, literal six-day creation week, and at the same time we can dig up evidence of life on this planet from the ancient past.  For more on this please check out our articles on the nature of Creation.