The Nature of Man
The Nature of Man
Benjamin Franklin once said: “In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.” Despite this reality it seems that our society spends an incredible amount of effort to avoid death and dying. We eat organic foods, exercise obsessively and even use expensive wrinkle-reducing creams to eliminate any sign of decay. But the truth of the matter still remains—we will all die someday.
This raises important questions for our consideration: Why must man die? What happens to us when we die? And most importantly, does God offer us any hope?
John 3:16: The Hope God Gives Us
You have probably seen “JOHN 3:16” prominently displayed on posters at football games or at other major sporting events:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
What does this verse mean and what does it teach us about the nature of mankind? What this verse does is set up a contrast between those who believe in Jesus and those who do not. It makes the following connections:
A belief in Christ = Eternal Life (Immortality)
A lack of belief in Christ = Perishing (Death)
John 3:16 illustrates the two very different potential ends for man. All men will die but, because of God’s love for the world, those who believe in Christ have a hope of a better end and a chance for eternal life.
Why Do People Die?
The apostle Paul gives us insight into the reasons why all men die in the letter he writes to the Roman church:
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23)
For the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23)
Since the Garden of Eden, man has followed his own desires and ignored God’s standards; this is what God calls “sin.” God’s word, the Bible, tells us that the ultimate result of “sin” is death. Death is the necessary consequence of sin, by sinning we set our bodies on the road towards death. A just and righteous God cannot allow those who rebel against Him to continue to exist forever. Consequently, because all men sin, one day we will all die. God told Adam after he sinned:
By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return. (Genesis 3:19)
Death cannot be avoided; it is the well-deserved result of man’s sin. But God provided a way of escape from death through His Son, Jesus Christ. Expanding the verse above we see the complete picture:
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 6:23)
God desires to give us a hope: eternal life through Jesus Christ, His Son.
What Happens to Us When We Die?
John 3:16 teaches us that eternal life (immortality) is indeed promised for those who believe in Christ. However, it is important to look at what the Bible teaches about death in order to understand the hope God promises the faithful. And in order to fully understand what happens to us when we die, we must first explore what the Bible teaches about life. The Bible describes the creation of man:
The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7)
“being” = nephesh in Hebrew, a word commonly translated in the Bible as “soul.”
This verse describes the creation and constitution of man. Man is dust into whom God has breathed life. This combination of dust and God’s breath is called a soul. The scriptures similarly describe the reverse process, which occurs at man’s death:
When you [God] take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. (Psalm 104:29)
The death of man is described as God removing his breath. If a living being (or “soul”) is described as dust with God’s breath, then dust without God’s breath is no longer a living person. The human being therefore only possesses the soul when the physical body is given the breath of life (see also Job 34:14-15).
Scripture gives us several passages that confirm that we are not conscious in death.
For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten. Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished. . . Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6, 10)
No one remembers [God] when he is dead. Who praises [God] from the grave? (Psalm 6:5)
The scriptures teach that when we are dead we do not think, we do not love and we do not hate. When dead, we do not work or plan and we are without knowledge and wisdom. In fact, we will not even remember God or be able to praise Him. In short, we will not have a conscious existence.
At this point one may wonder about several terms that the scriptures use to describe the place or abode of the dead. In the Old Testament the Hebrew term sheol, often translated “grave,” is used. This term is often used to describe a place where all kinds of people will go when they die—those who know God and those who do not know Him [see Genesis 37:35, Numbers 16:30-33]. The New Testament also uses other words Hades and Gehenna to describe the abode of the dead. For example the Greek word Gehenna, translated in the New Testament as “hell,” is the Hebrew name for the Valley of Hinnom. This valley was a geographical location outside the walls of Jerusalem on the south side and was the place where all sorts of filth and garbage, carcasses of dead animals and unburied bodies of executed criminals were thrown. The people kept Gehenna burning with fire to burn up the trash that filled it: Gehenna was equivalent of a modern day incinerator. In Jesus’ day, Gehenna had come to represent a place of utter destruction, therefore when Jesus talks about our bodies going to the grave (Gehenna), he is making the future of man perfectly clear. If God did not offer us a hope for a different future and there was no way to escape from the grave, man would be utterly destroyed!
This ultimate destruction is a very fitting picture to keep in mind when considering the following verses!
“If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into ‘hell’ [Gehenna]” (Matthew 5:29)
“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? [Gehenna]” (Matthew 23:33)
In these verses, Jesus is warning us that if we do not choose to follow him our future is utter destruction in the grave. And, as we have shown in previous verses, when in the grave nothing remains: our bodies are destroyed and consciousness is gone.
Is there an Alternative to Death?
The picture the Bible paints of man’s nature is clear: people have life on this Earth for a brief time, and then they die and cease to exist. Fortunately, the grave does not need to be our ultimate end. God offers hope for the bleak reality of the human condition. He gives us the hope of salvation– the hope of resurrection–through Christ!
Our hope begins with God’s work of raising Christ from the dead. The Gospels record the events of how Christ was crucified, died, lay dead in the tomb for three days, and was resurrected by God from the dead [see Matthew 27:32-28:8, Mark 15:21-16:20, Luke23:26-24:8, John:19:16-20:18]. It also describes his encounters with his disciples after his resurrection.
“Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” (Luke 24:39)
God resurrected Christ from the dead and returned him to life in a physical body. This physical resurrection, which God gave to Jesus, is also the one and only hope that God offers to humanity. We, too, have the opportunity to be resurrected when Christ returns— it is at that time that our mortal bodies will be made immortal.
We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. (1 Corinthians 15:51-53)
The apostle Paul makes it clear that Christ’s death is crucial to our own salvation. When Paul was on trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin, (a sect of Jewish Leaders), he began his defense by stating: “I stand on trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead.” (Acts 23:6) At this critical point in his life Paul emphatically stated that his hope and the hope of all who follow Christ, is the resurrection from the dead. So important is this hope, in fact, that Paul goes on later to state in his first letter to the Corinthians that without this hope our faith in Christ is useless:
For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. (1 Corinthians 15:16-18)
This passage links Christ’s resurrection to our own, making it an example of what our resurrection may be like. Because Christ was raised by God from the dead, we also have the hope that we can be raised from the dead as well. But God makes it clear this hope of eternal life is not for everyone. Rather, resurrection from the dead is God’s gift to those who believe in him. The gospel of John states:
“Whoever believes in the son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” (John 3:36)
Belief in God is what gives us the hope of resurrection to eternal life. In requiring belief in Christ as a prerequisite for eternal life, God does not mean to keep this great gift from anyone. The Bible tells us that God does “not want anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) It is God’s greatest hope that everyone would turn to Him and believe in his Son so that he can save everyone. Therefore our future is in our own hands.
What Happens to Me?
We began this article looking at John 3:16 and observing the contrast between what God will give to those who believe in Christ and what to those who do not. The believer will receive eternal life; the non-believer will perish. We have demonstrated that this means that at the day of resurrection the believer will be raised up from his unconscious death state and be granted life that, from that point forward, will never end. The non-believer, on the other hand, will perish and be denied the gift of eternal life.
Therefore the question must be posed: what will happen to me when Christ returns? Do I believe that God’s Son is the vehicle God provided to give humanity eternal life? Belief in Christ is much more than just believing Jesus existed, died and was raised or that he was sent by God to save us. Believing in Christ is believing that in him, God was fulfilling His plans for mankind: fulfilling promises He made in the Garden of Eden in His provision of hope through the gift of resurrection to eternal life through Christ. It is recognizing that without God, we would all perish.
God voices the following promise to his people Israel through his prophet Jeremiah:
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
Just as God desires to give his people Israel a hope and a future, He also desires to give hope to everyone. The choice then is yours. What hope do you have for your future?