Len and Nicole Clamp wanted to experience the joy of raising a child and were given the opportunity through foster parenting. Eventually, Grayson joined their family when he was only seven weeks old. They noticed quickly that something was different about Grayson—he was completely deaf. Grayson lived with the Clamps for almost a year and then they were given the opportunity to adopt him. Knowing he had an impairment, they decided that they could be the best parents for Grayson and went ahead with the adoption. As the boy grew, they learned different ways to communicate with him.
Grayson’s deafness was caused by the absence of the nerves that connect the ear to the hearing centre of the brain. Because of this, cochlear implants would not help him. But doctors working with the Clamps proposed a solution: an auditory brain-stem implant. If Grayson was approved for the surgery, he would be the first child to receive such an implant in the United States.
The doctors at the University of North Carolina Medical Center carefully mapped out the surgery, which they then performed during April 2013. On May 21, they activated Grayson’s device, and he heard his father’s voice for the very first time. In what has become a very popular online video, you can see the look of utter surprise on the boy’s face.
Often when we learn new ideas, we are greatly surprised. Sometimes these are welcome surprises, and sometimes they are overwhelming. It may be a little shocking to realise that the Bible says when someone dies, he or she is “asleep”, awaiting the Lord’s return. When I began studying the Bible and learned this for the very first time, I, too, was shocked—so shocked that it made me angry! How could I have been wrong for so long? But then I learned the origins of the idea of the soul going immediately to heaven or hell. The concept that the body and soul exist apart from each other comes from ancient Greek dualism, which in turn was derived from an ancient Egyptian belief.
To help us with the shock, we are going to study some misunderstood texts in the Bible. For example, I have people say to me, “Wait a second, what about the thief on the cross? Didn’t Jesus say to the thief, ‘Today you’ll be with Me in Paradise’?”
How to explore the Bible
You may find it amazing, but there are more than 1500 mentions of the “soul” in the Bible, but not one of them speaks of the immortal soul. Not one! They are all in harmony with the words of Solomon: “The living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5). Unfortunately, a number of people want to throw out hundreds of clear texts in the Bible about death, about the second coming of Christ and about the resurrection so that they can instead accept ancient Greek and Egyptian ideas about the immortality of the soul.
A very important principle of Bible study is that we start with passages that are clear and then move on to passages that are more challenging to understand. We cannot base our beliefs on one or a few verses; rather, we must see all of the biblical evidence put together.
The meaning of ‘today’
So what about the thief on the cross? The closing chapters of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke recall the final moments in Jesus’ life here on earth. Crucified on either side of Christ, both thieves reviled and insulted Jesus (Matthew 27:44). But while those criminals were hanging next to Jesus, something began to happen. One of the thieves saw a completely innocent Man dying on the cross and yet that Man did not retaliate or complain. Jesus had even asked God to forgive the ones who were executing Him. Luke tells the rest of the story: “Then he [the thief] said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:39–42).
That thief began to experience the transformation of his heart. He looked at Jesus and saw Him as the Messiah of the world. He cried out for mercy and hope for the future.
How did Jesus respond? “Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise’” (verse 43). And it is here that we have a misunderstood text.
What is this verse really saying? Does Jesus tell the thief, I say to you that on this day I have got the crown of thorns on My head and nails through My hands; this day when I am dying on the cross, when it does not look as though I can save anybody; on this very day, you will be with Me in Paradise? Or is it possible that there is a different meaning to Jesus’ words?
It all depends on where you put that comma. If you put it before the word “today”, the verse seems to say that the thief would be in Paradise that very day. But if you put the comma after “today”, look at the difference of the meaning: “Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in paradise.” In other words, This day I am hanging on the cross; this day with nails through My hands, I am making this statement to you today: that you will be with Me in Paradise. That is, you will be there in the future.
Somebody may ask, “When were the commas added?” There were no commas in the original Greek text when it was written in the first century. The commas were put in 1300 years later, during the Middle Ages.
Others may ask, “How do you know where to put in the comma?” The rule of thumb is that we should place the comma where the thought will harmonise with the rest of the Bible.
The Bible cannot be broken. If the commas were not in the original text, but were placed there 1300 years later, and if indeed the Bible is very clear that death is a sleep until Jesus returns, then we must place the comma where it harmonises with the rest of the Bible. We do not throw out the clear teaching of the Bible on the subject of death as a sleep and accept an Egyptian idea on the immortality of the soul based on one comma that was introduced 1300 years after the New Testament was written.
Repeatedly, the Bible clearly says that when we die, we sleep awaiting the resurrection at Jesus’ return (see info box, right). There is no consciousness and no recognition of time. It will be like one of those nights when you lay your head on the pillow and close your eyes and your alarm goes off seemingly moments later, but, actually, eight hours have passed. We will fall asleep, and the next moment all who have fallen asleep in Jesus will awake to that last trumpet (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18).
So there is no need for us to be afraid of death or of what happens after we die. As we give our hearts and lives to Jesus, we are secure in Him and never have to fear.
Chris Holland pastors at Living Hope Seventh-day Adventist Church in Haymarket, Virginia, and also shares the gospel via digital media. This article is adapted, with permission, from his book Is Heaven for Real? (Pacific Press, 2018).