the New Testament, the Christian hope is firmly based on the resurrection
of the dead. Indeed the tendency to doubt the fact of a future resurrection
of the faithful called forth some of Paul’s clearest and most forceful words.
To the church at
“First and foremost, I handed on to you the facts which had been imparted to me: that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the Scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised to life on the third day, according to the Scriptures; and he appeared to Cephas (Peter), and afterwards to the twelve. Then he appeared to over five hundred of our brothers at once, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, and afterwards to all the Apostles. In the end he appeared to me…This is what we proclaim, and this is what you believed. Now if this is what we proclaim, that Christ was raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there be no resurrection, then Christ was not raised; and if Christ was not raised, then our Gospel is null and void, and so is your faith; and we turn out to be lying witnesses for God, because we bore witness that He raised Christ to life, whereas, if the dead are not raised, He did not raise him. For if the dead are not raised, it follows that Christ was not raised, and if Christ was not raised, your faith has nothing in it and you are still in your old state of sin. It follows also that those who have died within Christ’s fellowship are utterly lost. If it is for this life only that Christ has given us hope, we of all men are most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:3-8, 11-19, NEB).
It is undeniable that this passage contains a ring of authority and a weight of conviction sadly lacking in much of contemporary theological writing. For the early Christians it was the absolute validity of the fact of Christ’s having appeared alive after his death to reliable witnesses, that formed the very basis of their faith. To suggest that Christ had not been resurrected would have been to render the entire Christian venture pointless. For the resurrection of Christ, as an unimpeachable historical fact, provided the guarantee that Christ’s followers would also live again after death, or indeed escape death entirely, should they survive until Christ returned. Thus for Paul, the idea of Christianity without the past fact of Christ’s resurrection and the future fact of a resurrection of the faithful would have been the ultimate absurdity. All the New Testament writers share this unshakable conviction.
In the minds of the New Testament writers belief in life after death was inextricably bound up with a complete doctrine of “last things” (eschatology), which is quite unfamiliar to the average churchgoer. The eminent New Testament scholar J.A.T. Robinson states that the New Testament eschatological scheme has “simply been silently dismissed without so much as a serious protest from within the ecclesiastical camp…For contemporary thought today the Christian doctrine of the last things is dead, and no one has even bothered to bury it.” 
This is an astonishing admission. It is tantamount to saying that an essential element of the original faith has been dropped, and no one seems even to have noticed its loss! The fact is, Apostolic Christianity without its very distinctive doctrine of the “end-time” is unrecognizable. The whole New Testament strains towards the moment when Christ will return to establish his Kingdom on earth. Contemporary religion, if it looks forward to anything at all, expects the believer to experience an immediate presence in heaven at the moment of death.
It is the purpose of this study to show that the New Testament presents an entirely simple and consistent teaching about life after death, within the context of the related teaching of the return of Christ (the Parousia). To separate these two topics is impossible in New Testament terms, and failure to see the connection between them inevitably leads to a misunderstanding of the early Christian view.
To put the matter in straightforward terms, the New Testament offers the simple proposition that, in contrast to popular tradition, all the dead are actually dead, unconscious, “asleep,” awaiting a resurrection to life, to occur at a specific moment in the future. Traditional theology has substituted an individual eschatology for the corporate eschatology of the New Testament, and by emphasizing the moment of death, has rendered the central New Testament doctrine of the resurrection almost redundant. If the “departed” are now “in heaven” with Christ, what possible meaning can there be in their future resurrection from the grave? The New Testament does not have to face this problem. It deals only with an “awakening” to resurrection life as a corporate experience, in which all the faithful dead from Old Testament and New Testament times participate, at the same moment of future time. 
Regrettably the New Testament has been read with a totally different scheme in mind. The average reader attempts to superimpose upon the New Testament documents the popular non-biblical idea that the dead are at the moment of death immediately conscious in heaven, or hell. Yet, amazingly, as J.A.T. Robinson correctly states: “In the Bible, heaven is nowhere the destination of the dying.” 
In recapturing the original Christian outlook on death and the doctrine of “last things,” the student of the New Testament will be enabled to participate more directly in the Apostolic mind, which we should recognize as the mind of Christ himself. Indeed it is hardly unreasonable to suppose that Paul’s writings represent the authentic Christian view, if only because many of Christ’s own disciples were Paul’s contemporaries, and he could have verified his teaching on the subject in consultation with them. In establishing the New Testament point of view the proper emphasis will be restored to the resurrection at Christ’s return, this perspective having been all but obliterated by the traditional belief.
It will be worth quoting further from John Robinson’s book, In the End God, in support of the general proposition thus far advanced, at total variance with contemporary belief. Somehow this fact has not permeated to the pulpit (at least in the Church of England), though writers on New Testament theology make the situation quite clear:
“The interest of modern man in Christian eschatology, if he has any interest at all, centres in the fact and moment of death. He wants to know whether he will survive it, and in what form; he wants to know what he is to expect “on the other side,” what heaven will be like, whether there is such a place as hell, and so on…  But it comes as a shock to realise how foreign is this perspective, which we take for granted, to the whole New Testament picture, upon which Christianity is supposedly based.” 
The significance of Dr. Robinson’s words “on which it is supposedly based” cannot be overestimated, for they hint at the remarkable fact that traditional thinking and New Testament teaching are poles apart, and on a matter so fundamental to the whole of Christianity.
What, then, is the New Testament position?
“For in the New Testament, the point around which hope and interest revolve is not the moment of death at all, but the day of the Parousia, of the appearance of Christ in the glory of his Kingdom…The centre of interest and expectation continued right through the New Testament to be focused upon the Son of Man and the triumph of his Kingdom in a renovated earth. It was the reign of the Lord Jesus with all his saints that engaged the thoughts and prayers of Christians, not their own prospect beyond the grave. The hope was social, and it was historical. But as early as the second century AD there began a shift in the centre of gravity which was to lead by the Middle Ages to a very different doctrine. Whereas in primitive Christian thinking the moment of the individual’s decease was entirely subordinated to the great day of the Lord and the final judgment, in later thought it is the hour of death that becomes decisive.” 
The significant point is that the radical shift in thinking occurred almost as soon as the New Testament documents recording Apostolic faith had been completed. The reason for the shift which in due course led to the “very different doctrine” has been rightly attributed by scholars to the introduction of Hellenic, i.e. Greek, ideas about the nature of the soul which run quite contrary to the Hebraic, Biblical views. It is essential for the contemporary student to realize that he has inherited, probably without question, the non-biblical Hellenic view. If he wishes to base his faith on Christ and the Apostles, this Hellenic view must go. Indeed there are solemn warnings within the pages of the New Testament against the introduction of doctrinal ideas which would render worship vain, even though Christ remains the object of that worship: “In vain they worship, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Matt. 15:9). “You make the Word of God of no effect by your tradition” (Matt. 15:6). It is “the many” who in that day will protest that they have been preaching in Christ’s name, only to discover that their work had never been recognized by Christ: “Many will say to me in that day, ‘Lord, lord, have we not prophesied in your name? And in your name cast out demons? And in your name done many wonderful works? And I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you: depart from me, you who work iniquity” (Matt. 7:22-23).
The popular idea that good men go immediately upon death to heaven, and bad men “to the other place” is founded on the Hellenic doctrine that man has an immortal soul, which cannot by definition be subject to death. In Biblical terms, however — and Scripture is on this point quite consistent from Genesis to Revelation — men are not immortal by nature. Indeed the term “soul” is used to mean “living being” or “person,” subject to death. It would be truer to say that man is a soul, not that he has a soul. Animals are also described as souls, and souls in general can be “dead” (see the original Hebrew in Num. 6:6). The following quotations will suffice to illustrate the point that in Hebraic thinking the soul is mortal and that immortality is, at the moment, possessed inherently by God alone, and not inherently by man.
Ezekiel 18:4, 20: “The soul who sins will die.”
Romans 1:17: “Those who by patient continuance in well-doing seek for glory, honor, and immortality.”
1 Timothy 6:16: “The Lord of Lords, who alone has immortality.”
2 Timothy 1:10: “Christ has brought to light immortality through the Gospel.”
Such teaching is, as J.A.T. Robinson says, “theologically commonplace” but “astonishingly unfamiliar.” “For it is still an almost universally cherished belief that the immortality of the soul is a tenet of the Christian faith, despite the fact that it rests on theological assumptions which are fundamentally at variance with the Biblical doctrine of God and man.” 
Consistent with its view of the nature of man, the Bible describes the state of the dead (in both Testaments) in terms which a child would have no difficulty in grasping:
Psalm 13:3: “Enlighten my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death.”
Psalm 6:5: “In death there is no remembrance of You.”
Psalm 146:4: “[Man’s] breath departs, he returns to the earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.”
Ecclesiastes 9:5: “For the living know that they will die, but the dead do not know anything.”
In later Old Testament thought, the doctrine of a resurrection emerges, but it is always a resurrection of the dead (not of the living!) from the “sleep” of death, and it is an eschatological event, to occur at “the end.”
Daniel 12:2: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”
The New Testament, having its roots in the Old Testament, asserts the same hope:
John 5:28-29: “The hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear his voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, and those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.”
1 Corinthians 15:22, 23: “In Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; after that those who are Christ’s at his coming.”
Entirely in harmony with this perspective are the New Testament statements about the present condition of Abraham, David, and indeed all the heroes of the Old Testament:
John 8:53: “Abraham is dead, and the prophets are dead” (the scribes and Pharisees).
Hebrews 11:13, 40: “These all died [the Old Testament heroes of faith] without having received the promises…so that without us they would not be made perfect.”
Acts 2:29, 34: “David is both dead and buried…He has not ascended to heaven” (Peter).
It is inconceivable, and contrary to any natural understanding of the meaning of words, that men who wrote thus could have believed that these heroes of the faith had already gone to their reward “in heaven.” According to the New Testament only Christ has yet been resurrected to become the “firstfruits of those who are asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). The consistent message of the New Testament is that the dead are now “asleep,” a metaphor which most naturally (and euphemistically) means that they are for the time being unconscious, at rest, unaware of the passage of time, awaiting the great moment towards which the whole of the New Testament strains, when the dead are to be resurrected and “changed in a twinkling of an eye” (1 Cor. 15:52).
The view of resurrection as an “awakening” from the “sleep” of death at a future time alone does justice to the writings of the New Testament. The Hellenic idea that the soul departs from the body at death is a flat contradiction of the New Testament scheme, and its introduction into Christian thinking has led to the utmost confusion. For what sense can be made of a scheme which places each dying Christian immediately in heaven at death (although “David has not ascended to heaven”), only to have him raised from the grave with all his fellows at a future time? An attempt to reconcile the Hebraic and Hellenic systems has led to the idea of the resurrection of the body only, implying that the soul is already “alive.” But such language is quite unbiblical. It is specifically said, as has been shown, that David himself, the whole person, is not in heaven and that the dead (not their bodies only) are sleeping in the grave, pending the resurrection (cp. the English word cemetery from the Greek koimeterion = sleeping place). It is the resurrection of dead people that the New Testament teaches, not the resurrection of dead bodies!
The fullest account of the New Testament expectation of a future resurrection of the faithful dead, and the transformation of the faithful surviving until the Parousia, is clearly laid out in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18:
“We want you not to remain in ignorance, brothers, about those who sleep in death; you should not grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again: and so it will be for those who died as Christians; God will bring them to life with Jesus. For this we tell you as the Lord’s word; we who are left alive until the Lord comes, shall not forestall those who have died; because at the word of command, at the sound of the archangel’s voice, and God’s trumpet-call, the Lord himself will descend from heaven; first the Christian dead will rise, then we who are left alive shall join them, caught up to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord. Console one another with these words” (
It is clear from this passage that Paul wishes the Thessalonians to understand that those who have already died will be at no disadvantage as compared with those alive until the Parousia; but such a remark is hardly sensible on the presumption that Paul believed that the dead were already “in bliss” with Christ.
We may now confirm the New Testament teaching about the condition of the dead
by appealing to a number of authorities on New Testament theology. One standard
text is An Introduction to New Testament Theology by Alan Richardson,
D.D., who was Professor of Theology at
On the question as to whether an intermediate disembodied state is even conceivable in Biblical terms, Alan Richardson is quite emphatic:
St. Paul, as to any other Jew of the time, a merely ‘spiritual’ resurrection (of the dead) would have appeared unintelligible. Unlike the Greeks, the Jews did not think of a man as a being made up of a body and soul; a man was a living body. If Christ was raised from the dead, he must have been raised in the body. Thus, Paul cannot conceive of those who are risen in Christ as existing in a disembodied state: they have a ‘spiritual body’ (1 Cor. 15:44). Spiritual realities, celestial or terrestrial, divine or human, are embodied in their own appropriate embodiments (1 Cor. 15:35-41). When the earthly house of our tabernacle is dissolved, we shall be clothed upon with our habitation from heaven, so that we shall not be found naked (2 Cor. 5:1-3), i.e. with the kind of nakedness which disembodied spirits endure. The notion of a disembodied person is repugnant to the Hebrew mind.” 
It remains only to consider three New Testament passages which taken alone, and without regard to the entire Old Testament and New Testament doctrine of God and men, have been used to support the traditional non-biblical picture of the state of the dead. The first of these is 2 Corinthians 5:1-8 which on the face of it, and read with a preconceived notion of what it “ought” to say, might seem to contradict the views advanced so far:
“For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven, inasmuch as we, having put it on, will not be found naked. For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed but to be clothed, so that what is mortal will be swallowed up by life. Now He who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave to us the Spirit as a pledge. Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord — for we walk by faith, not by sight — we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:1-8, NAU).
Again, the remarks of J.A.T. Robinson are helpful. He
points out that “this passage is commonly interpreted to mean, in clear opposition
to 1 Corinthians 15, that our spiritual body is waiting for us to put on at
the moment of death. H.L. Goudge in his commentary on 2 Corinthians disposes
adequately of such an exegesis. He insists that to read this passage as primarily
about the condition of the individual at the hour of death is to see it through
modern spectacles. Here as in 1 Corinthians 15,
The second passage, which can be misread in the light of traditional belief that the moment of death is crucial, is Philippians 1:23, where Paul expresses his longing “to depart and be with Christ.” It must be noted that the passage does not say that an immediate presence with Christ was expected. This would have been to undermine the Apostle’s own teaching on the subject. Furthermore, in the same epistle, only a few verses later, we find him defining his goal. It was that “I may finally arrive at the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:11), and this event is everywhere seen as occurring at the Parousia (cp. 2 Tim. 3:8, where Paul hoped to receive a crown of righteousness, in company with all Christians, “at that day”). It is then also that Paul expected to receive his glorious resurrection body (Phil. 3:20-21).
A third favorite text clutched at in support of the popular view is Luke 23:43, where Jesus said to the thief on the cross: “Truly I tell you today you will be with me in paradise.” The words are supposed to prove, contrary to the whole New Testament teaching on the subject, that Christ expected to be immediately with the Father.
The difficulty raised by such a view will be seen at once by noting that Christ himself expected to be dead in the grave for three days and nights (Matt. 12:40) and not with his Father. Indeed Jesus specifically stated in John 20:17 that on the Sunday of his resurrection he had not yet ascended to the Father. It is inconceivable that such statements could have been made, if he had been thought of as present with the Father from the moment of death. It is, of course, true that in two New Testament examples, Jesus and Stephen, the spirit was commended to God at the point of death. But it is equally clear in view of all the other evidence that the spirit is not synonymous with the person surviving consciously, but simply refers to the “life force” and perhaps also the matured disposition of the dying person which he entrusts to God pending the resurrection. This is not the person himself, for “he [Stephen] fell asleep” (Acts 7:60). In Hebrew terms the spirit makes the difference between a living soul and a dead soul (both expressions are quite natural to Hebrew thought). The expression “dead soul” (Num. 6:6) should be sufficient to dispose of the immortal soul concept.
Alan Richardson states that Luke 23:43 “cannot be held to contradict the general New Testament view.” 
The solution to the three passages cited as supposedly teaching an intermediate presence with Christ (between death and resurrection) is simply that from the dying person’s point of view, the very next moment of consciousness, following the loss of consciousness at death, will be the moment of “reawakening” “at that day,” the glorious day of Christ’s return. But this does not in any way alter the fact that historically many millennia may elapse before the dead regain consciousness in resurrection. For the dead themselves, there will be no awareness of the passing of time, and it is thus that the metaphor of sleep is so appropriate. In this sense it is quite possible to speak of departing and being with Christ. Nevertheless the New Testament resurrection is a future resurrection from death, of dead people; it is never the resurrection of the already living!
At the risk of laboring the point, we will append statements from leading authorities on the New Testament. First a passage from another work by Alan Richardson, D.D.:
“The Bible writers, holding fast to the conviction that the created order owes its existence to the wisdom and love of God and is therefore essentially good, could not conceive of life after death as a disembodied existence (‘we shall not be found naked,’ 2 Cor. 5:3), but as a renewal under new conditions of the intimate unity of body and soul which was human life as they knew it. Hence death was thought of as the death of the whole man, and such phrases as ‘freedom from death,’ ‘imperishability,’ or ‘immortality’ could only properly be used to describe what is meant by the phrase eternal or living God, ‘who only has immortality’ (1 Tim. 6:16). Man does not possess within himself the quality of deathlessness but must, if he is to overcome the destructive power of death, receive it, as the gift of God, ‘Who raised Christ from the dead,’ and put death aside like a covering garment (1 Cor. 15:53-4). It is through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that this possibility for man (2 Tim. 1:10) has been brought to life and the hope confirmed that the corruption (
11:7) which is a universal feature of human life shall be effectively overcome.  Rom.
Next a quotation from Dr. Paul Althaus in The Theology of Martin Luther:
“The hope of the early church centered on the resurrection of the Last Day. It is this which first calls the dead into eternal life (1 Cor. 15, Phil. 3:20 ff). This resurrection happens to the man and not only to the body. Paul speaks of the resurrection not ‘of the body,’ but ‘of the dead.’ This understanding of the resurrection implicitly understands death as also affecting the total man....Thus the original biblical concepts have been replaced by ideas from Hellenistic Gnostic dualism.  The New Testament idea of the resurrection which affects the total man has had to give way to the immortality of the soul. The last day also loses its significance, for souls have received all that is decisively important long before this. Eschatological tension is no longer strongly directed to the day of Jesus’ coming. The difference between this and the hope of the New Testament is very great.” 
Thus, we might add, the well-defined outline of the simple New Testament program for the future became blurred, and the faith was successfully undermined. It is time that Christian people take seriously the matter of restoring that clarity of vision.
The well-known biblical scholar William Barclay makes the same point: “The Scripture does not speak either of the resurrection of the body or the resurrection of the flesh.”  His intention here is to point out the subtle, yet highly significant difference between the traditional idea that only the body will be resurrected (since the soul has already gone to heaven!), and the New Testament teaching that the whole man will be resurrected from “sleep.”
William Tyndale, English reformer and father of the English Bible, points to the same truth. He pointed out that Paul did not comfort the bereaved with an ethereal doctrine of the spirit existence, but he led them to fasten their hope on the coming of Christ and the resurrection (1 Thess. 4:15-17).
We will conclude with three quotations from Martin Luther:
“Now, if one should say that Abraham’s soul lives with God but his body is dead, this distinction is rubbish. I will attack it. One must say, The whole Abraham, the whole man, shall live. The other way you tear off a part of Abraham and say, ‘It lives.’” 
Althaus points out that “Luther generally understands the condition between death and the resurrection as a deep, dreamless sleep without consciousness and feeling.” 
“For just as a man who falls asleep and sleeps soundly until morning does not know what has happened to him when he wakes up, so we shall suddenly rise on the Last Day; and we shall know neither what death has been like or how we have come through it. We are to sleep until he comes and knocks on the grave and says, ‘Dr. Martin, get up.’ Then I will arise in a moment and will be eternally happy with him.” 
The authorities cited above show that what is proposed by this article is no private opinion, but one backed by responsible expositors of Scripture. What is astonishing is that the implications of the doctrinal gulf which exists between the New Testament and contemporary religion are not taken more seriously.
The conclusion that should be drawn from a study of this nature is that traditional theological ideas are not necessarily a safe guide to the doctrines of the New Testament. In some quarters a whole system of theology has been erected on the false premise that the dead are alive in heaven. It is highly significant that the first recorded lie in Scripture was precisely in support of the innate immortality of man. It was the serpent who declared “You will not surely die” (Gen. 3:4), in flat contradiction of the divine statement that “You [the living soul] will surely die” (Gen. 2:17). It is indeed impossible to reconcile the worship of Mary and prayer to the saints with the Apostolic teaching, when both she and they are in New Testament terms at present unconscious, “asleep” in death, awaiting the first resurrection! (Rev. 20:4).
 In the End God, p.27.
 The New Testament in fact teaches two resurrections. The first, involving the Christian dead only, to occur at the return of Christ (1 Cor. 15:23); the second involving all “the rest of the dead” at the close of the millennium (Rev. 20:5, 12, 13).
 Ibid., p. 105.
 The reader will, perhaps, agree that this is a fair statement of his own experience. I recall as a child being told of my grandfather’s death. I well remember thinking that grandfather must now be “in heaven,” though the question had not been openly discussed. Little did I know that I had accepted popular thinking on the matter, but certainly not first-century Christian doctrine.
 Ibid., p. 42-43, emphasis added.
 Ibid., p. 42, emphasis added.
 Ibid., p. 91, emphasis added.
 An Introduction to New Testament Theology, pp. 345, 346.
 Ibid., p. 196, emphasis added.
 In the End God, p. 106.
 Introduction to New Testament Theology, p. 346. An alternative solution has been proposed by some expositors, namely that the comma has been misplaced and that Luke 23:43 should read: “Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in paradise.” This makes some sense in view of the thief’s request: “Remember me when you come into your Kingdom,” which would have been recognition in the future. Jesus’ reply is that even today, he can assure him of a place in that (future) paradise.
 A Theological Word Book of the Bible, pp. 111, 112, emphasis added.
 It should be noted that a specific warning against “gnosis,” falsely so-called, was given by Paul (1 Tim. 6:20).
The Plain Man Looks at the Creed,
 “Table Talk,” cited by Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, p. 447.
 Ibid., p. 414.