This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all. The hearts of men, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead. Anyone who is among the living has hope—even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!
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; never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun. Ecclesiastes 9:3-6.
I grew up memorizing verse 5 because my denomination believed in soul sleep or unawareness in death’s state. Since then I’ve puzzled over the two or three basic interpretations of this passage in conjunction with others that seem to say the exact opposite. I’ve concluded I just don’t have any definitive answers as to what happens to the dead once they die. What the state of the dead is, as in where their spirits/souls go at death, we only have clues but no concrete enough evidence for a verdict. I know, I know, there are plenty of stories about people who have had visions of heaven on the operating table but these stories could be based on chemical or a dying brain’s hallucinations fed by preconceptions. I’ve also met and heard of people who have had visions or dreams, which could be inspired by desire more than actual visions. I’m not cynical just merely pointing out the human capacity to interpret experience as fact even when it’s illusion.
So here’s my take on it and you can do what you will with it: I don’t necessarily buy into purgatory but I do believe the soul goes back to God who gave it. I also believe that the dead are barred from contacting the living again because of two passages, Isaiah 8:19-22 and Luke 16:31. The first passage talks about consulting mediums, spiritists and witches to contact the dead, which in our modern setting is equivalent to a séance or psychic. The second comes from the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man where the rich man begs Abraham to send someone from the dead to warn his brothers about his suffering. Abraham refuses and tells him, “If they won’t listen to Moses and prophets, they won’t listen even if one comes back from the dead.” Jesus gave them clues they missed because when He was resurrected they displayed their firm disbelief—or you could call it rebellion—by claiming the disciples stole His body while the soldiers slept. They refused to believe even when One came back from the dead.
What I get out of these is that death is a final goodbye to being involved in everything done under the sun. At this point in my Christian journey I worry very little about the state of the dead, the afterlife or rewards and punishments. I do have my opinions, obviously, but I’m not worried about being right about them since I know the rules above are universal. Yet all that said I believe what matters most about our reward in eternity is how we live right now between birth and death. I don’t believe God worries as much about all our victories and defeats as He does the continuous trend which dominates the journey while we live.
I like Solomon’s conclusion in every point he makes, since his emphasis pushes the idea that eternity is in God’s hands so what we do now is what matters. None of us knows what comes next really. Oh we can claim we know by faith, which is a valid argument to me, but actual factual (that rhymed) knowledge is non-existent. I was growing up with the view that if I didn’t have all my facts straight before I died or Jesus comes, my salvation would be in question. Then I realized the very people teaching me this “fact” worried about whether they had their facts straight all the time. Some flat out didn’t include all the evidence available to draw the conclusion they preached. That last issue disturbed me.
I am now at a point where I allow myself to care about truth but don’t worry about my grasp of it as much, since I know I don’t have all my facts straight anyway. Paul and the rest of the apostles claimed we were growing in our knowledge of Jesus and the truth of the gospel. I take it from this none of us have our ducks in a row where truth is concerned—even them. Growth implies immaturity or a need to become, so if the apostles were growing, what can I expect for myself or others? Getting all the facts lined up doesn’t mean anything if we sequence them wrong.
I want to explore this a little more so bear with me please. I watched a movie years ago (and own it now) where a scientist was working on a formula for renewable energy based on cold fusion. The protagonist in the story wondered why she hadn’t published her findings and she said, “I have to work out the sequence first.” The formula was intact but the sequence made a difference. As far as I can see the truth about our dominant characteristic, humanity barely gets their facts complete before they draw conclusions about what they mean. This is dangerous because then we have a Galileo problem on our hands all over again. You know the problem? Galileo discovers the sun doesn’t really move around us but we move around the sun yet the opinions based on the known facts of the day put his life in jeopardy to the point where he has to retract his claims.
He was right of course and the people threatening him were dead wrong. Those who fight against truth are…?
Most of us wouldn’t consider ourselves evil because of the connotation we put on the word. Our interpretation of it comes from extreme examples such as Hitler, Genghis Khan, Ted Bundy, or pick your favorite example from history and modern times we would all agree committed great crimes. The Bible calls anything outside the character of God evil, which means that Adam and Eve became evil the moment they ate the fruit. This doesn’t imply they were mass murderers or heinous people (though through their one act of disobedience they guaranteed the death of everyone) rather it signifies a departure from the character of God.
One of my favorite sayings follows Solomon’s assertion about madness above: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. Humanity keeps attempting to solve its problems by dent of human effort, planning or philosophy. Oddly enough (insert sarcasm here), history has never demonstrated a period where their efforts, planning or philosophy actually worked but we keep trying.
This is madness.
Humanity is basically insane with ignorance, superstition and pride. Our ignorance remains in spite of the leaps in knowledge we have made over the last century. We struggle with panic attacks in our collective psyche because we are ignorant of the outcome. We have a few facts for example about climate change yet without an historical precedent we don’t really know what they mean. Every scientist I’ve listened to recently gives the disclaimer “This is our best guess” about the facts they have uncovered. This should inform the rest of us that they are making educated guesses from the facts based on their ability to assess them not from conclusive historical or even empirical evidence. The heated arguments over what the facts mean dominate our public forum. Very few voices are reasoning for a moderate approach—that of taking care of pollution while not being paranoid about it.
Again, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. I celebrate the increases of knowledge and understanding but I see our inability to deal with our ignorance as a liability. Circumspection is a good way to live. Surrounding ourselves with as much perspective as possible allows us to see the facts differently while at the same time giving us the freedom to forgo conclusions which might be more harmful than helpful.
Humanity in general is mad—in every sense of that word. We are angry about our ignorance, helplessness against the elements, state of being and general luck of the draw. We resent being out of the loop, relegated to the fallible, stumbling, and often times devastating efforts on our part to solve our problems. Death is a cold comfort for most, while a few welcome it with open arms. Yet even those who welcome it do so in ignorance, thinking death as a better alternative to their life on earth. That’s not guaranteed.
All this is to say, in my opinion there is no solution but God alone through Jesus Christ. All other solutions might be part of God’s method but without Him to guide our efforts we are going to blow ourselves up.