by Stephen Ferguson, December 15, 2016:

What is death exactly? 

Have you ever tried to explain what death is exactly? I bet you’ll find it is harder to define than you think.  Philosopher Steve Grand explains:

[Think] of an experience from your childhood. Something you remember clearly, something you can see, feel, maybe even smell, as if you were really there. After all you really were there at the time, weren’t you? How else could you remember it? But here is the bombshell: you weren’t there. Not a single atom that is in your body today was there when that event took place. Every bit of you has been replaced many times over (which is why you eat, of course). You are not even the same shape as you were then. The point is that you are like a cloud: something that persists over long periods, while simultaneously being in flux. Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you. Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff of which you are made. If that does not make the hair stand up on the back of your neck, read it again until it does, because it is important.[1]

Death is clearly more than the mere loss of the stuff we are made from, because in material terms we have already died several times over our lifetimes. So what is the solution to an overly material view of life and death? Most Christians would say it is belief in an immortal soul.

What a soul is: A functioning total system, not a mere part of the person

The problem with the traditional Christian view of an immortal soul is it actually has little support in Scripture, probably derives more from ancient Greek philosophy, and was caused by a gradual losing of hope in the second coming of Jesus. Anglican-Episcopalian scholar John Bowden admits as much in the nondenominational Encyclopaedia of Christianity:

Whereas the first Christians had hoped for bodily resurrection to be renewed and a restored world which would come very soon, by the Middle Ages resurrection was a remote prospect in another space and time. And whereas the first Christians simply believed that between death and resurrection the dead slept in the dust, over the cover of time ideas about their future came to be different. Christian hope was focused on heaven, to which the soul might go while the body was still buried in the ground.[2]

Adventists instead say that the word “soul,” when used biblically, refers to a total holistic system, which can’t exist without all its parts working together. Our church has been teaching this for over a century and a half. However, I think it useful to hear it from some other non-Adventists, such as acclaimed Anglican-Episcopalian Bishop N. T. Wright:

Again, much Christian and sub-Christian tradition has assumed that we all do indeed have souls that need saving and that the soul, if saved, will be the part of us that goes to heaven when we die. All this, however, finds minimal support in the New Testament, including the teaching of Jesus, where the word “soul,” though rare, reflects when it does occur underlying Hebrew or Aramaic words referring not to a disembodied entity hidden within the outer shell of the disposable body but rather to what we would call the whole person or personality, seen as being confronted by God.[3]

Controversial Eastern Orthodox Archbishop Lazar likewise says:

Without the body, the soul is not even a person, but only something “of” a person… the soul without the body cannot speak, nor remember, nor discern, nor think, nor be roused, nor see.[4]

Famous Jewish theologian Rabbi Abraham Heschel similarly taught:

The ideas that dominate the Hellenistic [Greek] understanding of the emotional life of man must not affect our understanding of Hebrew thinking. The Bible knows neither the dichotomy of body and soul nor the trichotomy of body, soul, and spirit.[5]

Are Adventists looking at both sides of the issue?

So far, pretty standard Adventist fare – with some helpful non-Adventist corroboration. However, I now want to push the boundaries. I’m doing this in part because, with the SDA Church almost tearing itself apart over the issue of women’s ordination and other “culture war” issues, I want to explore an issue that makes such debates seem pretty inane. Maybe if we focused on something really big we’d have better perspective, realizing other issues are actually really small.

Notwithstanding this external support, ex-Adventist Dale Ratzlaff argues our church has been dishonest, in only looking at half the issue:

SDAs give top authority to the Old Testament statement: “For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten.” (Eccl. 9:5) They will not, however, unless forced to do so, mention the passages in the New Testament which support existence after death.[6]

I recognize and believe Adventists can rebut most of the proof texts supposedly favouring an immortal soul, such as the story of Lazarus and the rich man, or Jesus’ promise to the thief on the cross.[7] Yet if I am honest with myself, I must admit Ratzlaff is right. For example, I am very challenged by the following two passages from Paul:

If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. (Phil. 1:22-23)

So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord—for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. (2 Cor. 5:6-8)

I think it is a stretch to say, as Adventist theologians usually argue, that Paul only meant being with God after the resurrection.[8] As most Christian scholars read it, Paul seems to suggest the opposite, emphasizing communion with God outside of our bodies immediately after death. That said, in other places Paul does affirm we only receive God’s reward at the second coming, not immediately after death (2 Tim. 4:7-8). How do we then approach these scriptural contradictions?

Distinguishing subjective from objective immortality

Perhaps there is a compromise position? We see glimpses in texts such as John 11:25, when Jesus said, “Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” As Adventists, I suspect we somewhat gloss over these mysterious sounding passages.

Perhaps the answer comes from two Roman Catholics and an Anglican – and these Catholics are associated with the Jesuits! Before you whack out the conspiracy theories, I am not saying I support their general views on the afterlife. Please don’t write comments suggesting I am advocating noonspheres or process theologies. All I am saying is they are possibly right on a single aspect. This aspect distinguishes between subjective immortality versus objective immortality.[9]

Theologian John Haught, influenced by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Alfred Whitehead, strongly rejects as unbiblical notions of an immortal soul, much in agreement with the historic Adventist view.[10] However, Haught points out that at death God can of course retain all our thoughts, memories and personalities in His own “saving memory,” just as He has numbered every single hair on our heads (Matt. 10:30).[11] This might be the proverbial breath or spirit that returns to God when we die (Eccl. 12:7; Ps. 146:4; Acts 7:54-59).

Therefore, in the interim post-mortem state immediately after death one could say we are both subjectively non-existent but equally objectively existent in God’s mind (Jer. 1:5; Luke 12:6-7). God remembers every thought we ever had, every inch of our bodies, every gene in our cells, every aspect of our personalities, and every experience in our life.

While we all know humans have limited memory and the Bible teaches the dead know nothing, a pervading biblical counter-theme is the idea that God Himself never forgets (Is. 49:15-16; 1 Chron. 16:15; Ps. 105:8; 2 Pet. 3:9). The only time the Bible talks about God’s forgetting is in the context of His forgiving our sins, or the fulfilment of the plan of salvation where He makes a new heaven and new earth (Is. 43:25, 65:16-17). This possibly explains those contradictory passages of scripture.

Further analogies on death: The Internet, sleep, Star Trek and seeds

What I mean by all this is that when we die, in that interim period before the resurrection event, we don’t personally know or experience anything. At most, we remain but an idea in God’s mind. We don’t, as most other Christians teach, exist as a conscious phantom without a body. Just as you can’t go live in an architectural drawing of a house or drive the schematics of a car, so you can’t subjectively exist without a working holistic system, which must include some form of tangible body.

Physicist and clergyman John Polkinghorne explains it this way, using the analogy of a computer:

God will download our software onto his hardware until the time he gives us new hardware to run the software again for ourselves.[12]

When my computer crashes, all the information stored on my online Internet account still objectively exists somewhere, but only on some distant server as unfathomable ones and zeros (computer code). Subjectively, from personal perception and experience, my Internet account doesn’t really exist anymore because I can’t access that data. To return to our original notion of a soul, there is no subjective existence without a functioning total system. It isn’t until I buy a new computer and then re-log online that, from a personal point of view, my online Internet account exists again.

Jesus’ example of death’s being like sleep offers another good analogy (John 11:11,14). In sleep, we subjectively lose all sense of time, regardless of the objective ticking of the clock. We’ve all probably heard of real-life stories where people have awoken from comas after decades, thinking it was still 1985, when mullets and bright pink jump suits were still hip.

I also like to think of a Star Trek transporter, a common theme in the science-fiction genre, as yet another familiar analogy. The Star Trek transporter is broadly based on scientific concepts founded on quantum physics (i.e., this is potential science and not just fiction). In the Next Generation episode Relics, Starship Enterprise engineer Scotty is trapped in the transporter buffer for what is objectively 75 years. However, from Scotty’s personal experience it subjectively feels like a virtual instant. Similarly, as individuals we will subjectively experience the resurrection as if there has been no passage of time at all; it will be like the “twinkling of an eye” (1 Cor. 15:52).

Paul’s example of a dormant seed (1 Cor. 15:37,38) probably offers the best illustration of these concepts. Seeds can objectively lie dormant for a very long time – hundreds of years, in fact. Whether the wait is objectively a year or a hundred years, from the subjective perspective of a new plant, the length of time is irrelevant, because time effectively stops while waiting to restart at germination. Thus, only a germinated plant is personally and subjectively alive, although a dormant seed in stasis does objectively exist in a sense too, as a potential plant-in-waiting.

A new idea or simply reformulating an old idea?

I would suggest this distinction between subjective immortality and objective immortality is not a new idea, and it is not a repudiation of traditional Adventist teachings about the state of the dead. It is simply a reformulation of our beliefs with a little more nuance. I still strongly believe the dead know nothing, and only come subjectively alive again at the resurrection. Yet we likewise now appreciate what Jesus possibly meant when He ushered those mystical-sounding statements about those believing in Him never dying.


[1] Steve Grand, Creation: Life and How to Make It, cited in Good Reads, <http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/359880-think-of-an-experience-from-your-childhood-something-you-remember>, retrieved 12 Feb 15.
[2] John Bowden, “Resurrection,” Encyclopedia of Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1030.
[3] N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 2.
[4] Archbishop Lazar (Puhalo), Tlingit Herald, (St. Nektarios American Orthodox Church, Seattle, vol. 5, no. 6:3-9), 19, quoted in Fr. Seraphim Rose, Life After Death, 237; “The Debate Over Aerial Toll-Houses,” Orthodox Life, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Jan-Feb, 1981), pp. 23-37 <http://orthodoxinfo.com/death/tollhouse_debate.aspx>, retrieved 29 Apr 15.
[5] Abraham Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 320, 331.
[6] Dale Ratzlaff, Doctrine of Seventh-Day Adventists: An Evangelical Wake-up Call (Casa Grande: LAM Pub., 2009), Kindle Ed., Loc. 5145 at 75%.
[7] I am sure you’ve heard it all before, but the standard Adventist response points out that the story about Lazarus is just a parable, while the whole passage concerning the thief on the cross hinges on a comma, which is grammar that doesn’t exist in the original Greek.
[8] Angel Rodriguez, “2 Corinthians 5:1-11,” Biblical Research Institute (Washington: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 11/05), <https://adventistbiblicalresearch.org/materials/bible-nt-texts/2-corinthians-51-11>, retrieved 10 March 15.
[9] And to emphasize my disagreement with other aspects of their broad approach to the afterlife, Whitehead only believes in objective afterlife, to which Haught rightly says, “Whitehead’s sense of a purely objective kind of immortality is simply not enough to soothe our anxiety in the face of death”: John Haught, Christianity and Science: Towards a Theology of Nature (New York: Orbis Books, 2007), 154-155 and see further 164-165.
[10] Ibid.
[11] John Haught, Making Sense of Evolution: Darwin, God and the Drama of Life (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 107; Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation: God, Evolution and the Problem of Evil (Louisville: John Knox Press, 2008), 86.
[12]Cited by David Van Biema, “Christians Wrong About Heaven, Bishop Says,” Time, (07 Feb 08), <http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1710844,00.html>, retrieved 21 Jul 14.


stephen-ferguson-resizedStephen is a 37-year-old lawyer from Perth, Western Australia. He is married to Amy, and has a one infant child, William. Stephen was raised within the Adventist Church and is a member at Livingston SDA Church. Stephen’s legal expertise is in planning, environment, immigration and administrative-government law. His education includes tertiary qualifications in history, political science, anthropology, law, military studies, management, theology and town planning.

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