"We should learn to view our death [as] . . . a fine, sweet and brief sleep, which brings us release from . . . all the misfortunes of this life, and we shall be secure and without care, rest sweetly and gently for a brief moment, as on a sofa, until the time when He shall call and awaken us together with all his dear children to His eternal glory and joy." (A Compendia of Luther's Theology, p. 242).
It has long been my belief that churches should create safe zones for people to question long-held church beliefs, particularly if those beliefs, often presented dogmatically by church leaders, seem to contradict the God-breathed and infallible Scriptures. Our canon--that means our standard and guide--is the Word of God alone. Our interpretations of God's word are sometimes faulty; but the fault of our faultiness (pardon the pun) is in us, not God. Therefore, it is incumbent upon church leaders, in my opinion, to create safe zones where people are free to question other's long held, sometimes cherished beliefs. We have that freedom on Tuesdays, and the discussions are often very interesting. Let me give you an example.
In our study of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, several questions were about Jesus saying, "Our friend Lazarus is asleep; I will go and awaken him" (John 11:11). Was Lazarus really dead? If Lazarus was really dead, why did Jesus call being dead being 'asleep'? How is death like sleep? Was Lazarus in 'heaven' when he was dead, and did Jesus call him back from heaven when He raised Lazarus to life? Would Lazarus want to have come back from heaven? Is the 'spirit' of man something that exists independently and separate from the body?
One of our church members, a marvelously deep thinker with a passion for Scripture, gave us his belief that the miracle of Lazarus was a 'type' of the resurrection -- the day to which Jesus referred when He said,
"Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear My voice, and will come forth; (some) to a resurrection of life, and (some) to a resurrection of judgment." (John 5:28-29)Our church member, who came from a Lutheran background before coming to Emmanuel, went on to explain that the Scriptures nowhere speak of man's 'spirit' existing apart from the 'body.' The soul of man, he argued, is the totality of man. A human being is not an angelic being; never was, and never will be. Men are mortal by nature, for God alone is immortal (I Timothy 6:16). Therefore, for eternal life to occur in a human being, this eternal life must be a gift from the only eternal One by nature, who alone has the power to resurrect mortal life and sustain it eternally.
Jesus Christ was sent by God to this world "to give eternal life to those who believe " (John 3:15). The last enemy destroyed in the life of a believer is death (I Corinthians 15:26). Eternal life is not experienced until the resurrection! The Apostles and early Christians all placed their hope in the resurrection, not their death. According to this gentleman's view, every person who dies will sleep until the resurrection. From the dead person's perspective, physical resurrection is instantaneous to the closing of one's eyes at the moment of death, similar to way a person falls asleep under anesthesia, only to awaken immediately--though many hours may have passed.
At 'the hour' of resurrection, that means, in 'the fullness of time," Jesus Christ will raise everyone who has died , some to a resurrection of life (eternal), and others to a resurrection of judgment. Believers in Christ escape the 'wrath to come' (I Thessalonians 1:10). Unbelievers will be judged after the resurrection for each and every sin committed in this life. Every act will be examined and morally weighed, every 'idle word and thought' measured against the standard of God's purpose for life, and then the righteous Judge will give out varying sentences of punishment to the wicked. No lost person will be punished the same. God is dispenses His judicial wrath in accordance to the severity of earthly sins. The isolation of hell, the blackness and loneliness of separation from mankind and God, not to mention the gnawing worm of conscience, memories, and regrets, will last longer for some than others. However, once the judgment commences, it is 'unquenchable' -- it can't be stopped (Luke 3:17). The divine sentence of punishment that the resurrected unbeliever experiences called the 'second death' (Revelation 21:8). After the righteous sentence has been fulfilled in time, the mortal person will cease to exist, for Jesus said,
"Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matthew 10:28).
When the gentleman in our small group finished, a few of the men looked shell-shocked. Some turned to me and asked what I thought. I replied, "One of the advantages of knowing history is the ability to recall debates like this one from times past."
I then proceeded to explain how Martin Luther, John Milton, John Locke, Isaac Watts, Robert Hall, the Anabaptists, and a host of other evangelical Christians believed very similarly to what they had just heard from our friend. I then mentioned that evangelical Christians have never been in full agreement on these issues. The skillful and influential John Calvin wrote a book 'refuting' Luther's beliefs on death as sleep and the mortality of man. Calvin's book title is rather long: Psychopannycia: Or a Refutation of the Error Entertained by Some Unskilful Persons Who Ignorantly Imagine That in the Interval Between Death and the Judgment the Soul Sleeps, Together with an Explanation of the Condition and Life of the Soul after This Present Life." After its publication in the 16th century, very few evangelicals publicly opposed the eloquent John Calvin.
However, one of those orthodox believers in Christ who did challenge Calvin was the even more eloquent Isaac Watts. This follower of Christ who authored many wonderful hymns including "Joy to the World," "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," "O God Our Help In Ages Past," and others, once wrote:
"There is not one Place of Scripture that occurs to me, where the word Death, as it was first threatened in the Law of Innocency, necessarily signfies a certain miserable Immortality of the Soul, either to Adam, the actual Sinner, or to his Posterity.... (The Ruine and Recovery of Mankind - p. 228).Ultimately, our standard for belief is not the writings of men, but the Word of God. I think it quite fascinating that a group of men in Enid, Oklahoma in 2014 can discuss the resurrection of Lazarus from John 11, and through simple discussion jump immediately to the heart of a major disagreement that occurred 500 years ago between Martin Luther and John Calvin.
Who's right? It's definitely worth discussing. There are strong points on both sides.
One of these days, we'll all see the truth clearly.