Separation from God

THE CHRISTIAN RELIGIOUS WORLD was given more to think about as a consequence of public announcements made by Pope John Paul II in late July and early August 1999. He presented views on heaven and hell to tourists who gather Wednesday afternoons at the Vatican to see him. His public announcements were reported in the news media through many outlets, including the “Washington Post” and affiliated newspapers in mid-August. The press release said, under the caption: “Pope’s Revelation Is Causing Hell of a Controversy”:

“Pope John Paul II has just revealed what the tabloids are calling ‘a shocking truth’ about heaven and hell, and his revelation is turning into a serious theological sore point between Roman Catholics and American Protestant evangelicals.

“In several recently public appearances, the pope took a few minutes to muse on the nature of heaven, hell and purgatory for the audience of some 7,000 tourists who gather every Wednesday afternoon at the Vatican. ‘Forget the popular notion of actual physical places—fluffy clouds above, an inky inferno below’—he told the audience. ‘Think of hell as a state of mind, a self-willed exile from God.’

“‘Heaven,’ he said in late July, ‘is neither an abstraction nor a physical place in the clouds, but a living and personal relationship with the Holy Trinity. Better to think of hell,’ he explained the next week, ‘as more than a physical place, as the state of those who freely and definitely separate themselves from God, the source of all life and joy.’

“The pope’s discourse reflected more his tendency toward philosophical abstraction than new Catholic ‘discovery.’ Catholic teaching does not deny that hell may be a geographical spot where God will banish sinners but considers that concept merely a visual aid based on scant biblical references.

“The pope was describing instead what Catholics consider the core essence of hell: knowledge that you failed to choose salvation in God. But to Protestant fundamentalists in the United States, who prefer the physical burning pit described in the Bible, any suggestion that hell is simply an abstraction is a dangerous, even blasphemous notion.

“Copies of the pope’s speeches began circulating among evangelical leaders, who accused the pontiff of ‘soft selling hell,’ said R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of the Southern Baptists Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY.

“‘My concern here is the temptation to make hell a state of mind, to psychologize hell,’ said Mohler. ‘As attractive as that may be to the modern mind, that is not the hell of the Bible. Jesus himself spoke of hell as a lake of fire, where the worms would not die and the fire would not be quenched. It’s all very graphic.’”

From Hieronymus Bosch to the creators of the animated TV series “South Park,” artists, writers and theologians have tried to mentally transport Christians to a miserable place called hell as a sure deterrent to sin. Early Christians tried to locate hell as a spot on the sun or a comet, but most used their imagination to keep alive the image of a Gothic torture chamber. Lately though, that image is fading, say evangelicals, as modern Americans focus less on the wages of sin and more on the uplifting message of self-help. While 70 percent of Americans say they believe in heaven, only 50 percent believe in hell.


“The Orlando Sentinel” published the reactions of area religious leaders to this papal pronouncement, and considered other concepts, saying:

“The pontiff’s remarks surprised a few area religious leaders who supported his position.

“‘The pope basically reiterated standard Catholic teaching, that hell is a state, rather than a place, said the Rev. Joseph Hart of Orlando’s Mary, Queen of the Universe Shrine.

“There is very little known about hell,’ Hart said. ‘You can’t use hell as a deterrent, like the electric chair.’”

The Rev. Charles Horton of College Park Baptist Church agrees.

“‘I think the pope has helped us to bring about an awareness of the fact that people make a virtual hell on earth for themselves by their choices and lifestyle,’ he said. ‘Hell is eternal separation from God’s love. A separation from God is worse than fire.’”

For Lutherans, hell is “the logical consequence of the choices that human beings make in excluding God from our lives,” said the Rev. Barry Snowden, of Epiphany Lutheran Church in Oviedo.

The concept of hell has long had a hold on the popular imagination. Dante, in the 14th century, told a story of cosmic rebellion in which Satan (Lucifer) and his angels rebelled against God, only to be cast out of heaven, and into their underworld domain.

In the 1700’s, scientists thought hell might be on the sun or a comet. In the past decade, Trinity Broadcasting Network and other evangelical organizations spread tales that in Russia, a microphone lowered two miles below the surface of the earth had recorded the sound of souls in torment.

The notion of a physical hell after death predates Christianity.

For ancient Greeks, it was Hades, surrounded by the River Styx. The dead were ferried across by the boatman, Charon. Their concept of the afterlife evolved from a muddy bog to what the philosopher Plato called a place of “temporary punishment for the curably wicked and eternal punishment for the incurably wicked.”

For Greek Orthodox Christians, hell is “a separation from God, that in our exercise of free will we bring upon ourselves,” said the Rev. Mark Elliott of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Maitland. “The soul is in torment because it is separated from God.”

In the Old Testament, some believe it is the underworld of Sheol, which can be translated simply as ‘the grave.’ Other rabbis, in the 2nd century B.C., believed it was Gehenna, named for an infamous valley south of Jerusalem where an early pagan cult sacrificed children. Gehenna was considered “a cosmic disposal site for the wicked,” according to historian Alan Weinstein, author of “The Formation of Hell.”

“Today, Jews don’t talk much about hell from the pulpit,” said Rabbi Alan Londy, of Temple Israel in Orlando.


The real separation from the living God is death. (Matt. 22:32) Conspicuous by its absence is a definition of death in the papal announcement, as well as all the other commentaries. Yet, to understand a concept it is so important to define terms being used.

Death is man’s greatest enemy; and the Bible alone, of all the sources of information available to man, furnishes us with definite information concerning the future of those who are struck down by this dread monster. God’s Word promises that a time is coming when there “shall be no more death;” and furthermore, that those who have died shall live again. (Rev. 21:4; John 5:28) A knowledge of the Creator’s provision for a dying race should be a real solace to those who mourn for their beloved dead.

Added to the ghastly specter of death itself, is the almost universal uncertainty of what lies beyond the grave. What happens to an individual the next moment after the heart stops beating? Is that individual still alive in some mysterious way, actually hovering around the undertaker’s parlors while his friends are gathered to mourn his passing? Or has he departed to some unknown and ‘beautiful isle of somewhere’? Or, in the event that the deceased was not a Christian, is he now in the traditional regions of the damned, where he is doomed to suffer an eternity of torture in a hell of fire and brimstone?

It is difficult to entirely dismiss these questions from our minds. We may partially console ourselves in the thought that at least many of our close friends and relatives who have died were good characters, and faithful believers in Christianity as they understood it, and hence, according to our accepted beliefs should now be happy in heaven. Yet, all of us have had some dear friends, and probably relatives, who have died outside the pale of orthodox belief and practice, and we cannot help wondering what has become of these. Are they now suffering, or are they happy?


Science tells us that there is no evidence of the continuance of human life after the heart stops beating. This being an age of materialism, many are inclined to accept this view. The claim is that so far as the life principle is concerned, man is no different than the lower animals; that the higher intelligence of the human species is not due to the traditional theory that man has hidden within him a separate intelligence called a ‘soul’ or a ‘spirit,’ but to the fact that he possesses a superior, a more refined, organism than does the brute creation.

The following are a few of the scriptural passages which show clearly that science is right as far as the present condition of the dead is concerned. Ecclesiastes 9:5 reads, “The living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing.” Psalm 49:10-12 is also to the point: “Wise men die, likewise the fool and the brutish person perish, and leave their wealth to others. Their inward thought is, that their houses shall continue for ever, and their dwelling places to all generations; they call their lands after their own names. Nevertheless, man being in honour abideth not: he is like the beasts that perish.”

In Genesis 2:7 we are told that “the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” Later, after the transgression of this originally-perfect pair, God said, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” (Gen. 3:19) In Psalm 146:4, David makes an emphatic declaration as to the condition of those who return to the dust. We quote, “His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.” There is no mistaking the fact that these words describe a dead man as being absolutely unconscious, even his thoughts having perished.

The psalmist explains, ‘His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth.’ If a man, as a conscious, living being, was brought into existence by the union of the material body with the breath of life, it would seem reasonable that when these two elements are separated, life would cease; and this is exactly what the text states: ‘In that very day his thoughts perish.’

Some may wonder about the ‘breath of life,’ thinking perhaps this may be that traditional ‘something-or-other’ that continues to live on after the body dies. A Biblical passage describes the process of dying, showing exactly what becomes of the two principal elements which Divine, creative wisdom has combined to produce human life. It reads: “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was; and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.”—Eccles. 12:7

The key to a proper understanding of this text is found in the word ‘return,’ used with respect to both the body and the spirit. The body is said to return to the earth. This is because its elements originally came from the earth. It follows, therefore, that if the spirit returns to God, it must have been with God before it entered the human organism. If to be with God in this sense means to be in heaven, then it follows that if the ‘spirit’ here referred to is a conscious entity, capable of enjoying life in a spiritual heaven, it means that every one of us must have been in a spiritual heaven before we were born; else it could not be said that we ‘return’ when we die.


The Hebrew word here translated ‘spirit,’ is ruwach. Strong’s Bible Concordance is a noted authority on the Hebrew and Greek languages. It defines this Hebrew word ruwach as ‘wind,’ or ‘breath.’ It is the same Hebrew word that is translated ‘breath’ in Genesis 7:15, where it is said to be possessed by the lower animals. We quote: “They went in unto Noah into the ark, two and two of all flesh, wherein is the breath [ruwach] of life.” If the use of the word ruwach to describe the breath or spirit of life in human beings means that we have within us an intelligent entity of some sort that continues to live after the body dies, it also means that the lower animals inherently possess a similar intangible something which can never die.

But when we reason in harmony with the Word of God, all is clear. Genesis 2:7 declares that God created man out of the dust of the ground and ‘man became a living soul.’ Obviously, when the body returns to the earth, and the breath or spirit of life returns to its original source—to God who gave it—it leaves the individual in exactly the same condition as he was before birth, which was a condition of nonexistence.

To settle this question even more definitely we need only to turn to Ecclesiastes 3:19-21, where the Hebrew word ruwach is again used, and there it is said that the breath (ruwach) of both man and beast goes to the same place at death. We quote: “That which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath [ruwach]; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knoweth [that] the spirit of man that goeth upward [to heaven], and [that] the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?”

The records of the New Testament on the subject of death agree fully with those of the Old Testament. Jesus indicates that the dead are in a condition of unconsciousness, which he likens to sleep. In John 11:1-46 we have a wonderfully revealing account of the sickness, death, and awakening of Lazarus, a dear friend of Jesus. Martha and Mary, sisters of Lazarus, were also friends of the Master, and when their brother was taken sick they sent word to Jesus supposing that he would come at once to their aid.

But, instead of going immediately to the bedside of his friend Lazarus, Jesus tarried. After some time had elapsed, he said to his disciples, “Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep.” (vs. 11) The disciples misunderstood this, supposing that Jesus referred to natural sleep. Then he said plainly, “Lazarus is dead.” (vs. 14) A little later, at the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus addressed this dead one in a loud voice saying, “Lazarus, come forth.” And we are told that “He that was dead came forth.” (vss. 43,44) Not a hint here that Lazarus’ ‘soul’ was either in a heaven of bliss, or a hell of torment. According to the record, he was asleep in death. Jesus believed in the ‘sleep of death.’

In the account of the awakening of Lazarus from the sleep of death we have emphasized the fact that the scriptural hope for life beyond the grave is in the assurance that there is to be a resurrection of the dead, rather than in the supposition that man possesses inherent immortality. The Apostle Paul fully agrees with this. In I Corinthians 15:12-18, he concludes that if there be no resurrection of the dead, then “they … which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished.”

In Revelation, we also find the same uniformity of thought as to the unconscious condition of the dead. The Revelator says, “The sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them.” (Rev. 20:13) According to the text just quoted, those that are in the scriptural ‘hell’ are declared to be dead. This means that they are not alive and being tormented. The text also reveals that the hope of the dead is that they shall be brought out of hell—raised to life.

The answer to the question, ‘Where are the dead?’ is that they are now in a state of unconsciousness; that all hope for life beyond the grave is centered in the scriptural assurance that through the mighty power of the great Creator, exercised by the Divine Christ during the coming kingdom period, there is to be a “resurrection of the dead, both of the just [righteous] and unjust [unrighteous].”—Acts 24:15


What was the origin of the false theory so generally accepted in both heathendom and Christendom, that ‘there is no death’? The Bible so clearly teaches that death is a grim reality, and man’s worse enemy. From whence came the idea that it is a friend, and the gateway into another life?

The answer to these questions is found in the Genesis account of the fall of man into sin and death. Satan, operating through the serpent, in discussing the matter with mother Eve prior to the transgression that brought death, said, “Ye shall not surely die.” (Gen. 3:4) God has said that the penalty for disobedience would be death—“Thou shalt surely die.” (Gen. 2:17) The testimony of the entire Bible is consistent with this original statement of what would constitute the penalty for sin. “The wages of sin is death,” declares Paul. (Rom. 6:23) “The soul that sinneth, it shall die,” says Ezekiel.—Ezek. 18:4.

In Revelation 20:2,3, the thought is expressed that the ‘old serpent’ who deceived mother Eve has continued to be a deceiver ever since. History reveals that this is indeed true. Every deceptive effort possible has been made throughout the ages to bolster up Satan’s lie, “Ye shall not surely die.” As a result, nearly everybody today who attempts to believe in a future existence at all, bases his faith on the supposition that man possesses inherent immortality; whereas, the Scriptures are clear on this point saying, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” See: Ezekiel 18:4. See also: Acts 2:22-36; 3:13-15.

The condition of death is oblivion, or nonexistence. All who are in this condition are separated from the Bible’s living God.

Dawn Bible Students Association
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