The idea of someone taking something "to the grave," has long intrigued me. People speak of taking a secret "to the grave." Other people take cherished possessions with them "to the grave." The more cynical among us sigh and say, "You came into this world with nothing, and you'll leave it with nothing."
We have heard of eccentrics who have been buried with their Cadillacs, or of certain fanatical admirers of a sport, movie star or entertainer who wish to be buried with their memorabilia. In history class we learned about the Pharaohs of Egypt who entombed themselves with all the comforts of home: food, clothing, jewelry, beds, linens—even chariots and dozens of miniature statues of all their servants! One Chinese emperor had life-sized statues of an entire army made to guard him into the afterlife!
Even in my own family this idea of taking things with us when we die has occurred. My father was buried in what he called his "traveling pants." Similarly, many people have asked to be dressed in their best clothes when they are buried so they make the best impression when they get to the "other side."
On a lighter note, there is the joke where one comic asks another, "How much did old Howard Hughes leave?" and the other replies, "He left it all!"
To Dust We Return
How can we take anything with us when we die? Ecclesiastes 9:5 says, "The dead know nothing." Earlier in the book, Solomon had written:
For what happens to the sons of men also happens to beasts; one thing befalls them: as one dies, so dies the other. Surely, they all have one breath; man has no advantage over beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to dust. (Ecclesiastes 3:19-20)
Though Satan had told Eve in Genesis 3:4, "You will not surely die," God corrected this lie in verse 19: "In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return."
Is man, then, no better than the animals? Does he just die and that is it? Genesis 2:7 relates that God Himself "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being [soul, KJV]." We should note that this verse does not say man has a soul, but that he is one. This word in Hebrew, nephesh, is better rendered as "creature" or as the New King James does, "being." Nephesh is also used for animals (Genesis 1:20), dead bodies (Numbers 9:6), even dying (Job 11:20; Jeremiah 15:9).
Animals are living, breathing creatures like us. Both men and beasts have the same physio-chemical existence, and both die the same death. But there is a huge difference beyond these similarities!
God reveals His purpose for mankind in the first chapter of His Book, Genesis 1:26-27:
Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
When God molded Adam of the dust, He shaped him in the outward form of Himself; He gave this unique form to man alone. Besides this, God gave man dominion over his environment, and to do this job, He gave him abilities like His own. Man can think, reason, make decisions and plan. He can originate and evaluate ideas and bring them to completion. He can communicate and express complex concepts that can be understood by other men. Mankind understands and marks the passage of time.
No animals have these abilities! But there is more: Man has a unique ability to imagine and desire life after death (Ecclesiastes 3:11)! Men want to live forever! The problem is that without the revelation of God, they have NO IDEA how to attain it!
Life After Death
People in our modern world do not understand death; to them it is a fearful, unknown blank. Religions around the world have sought to explain what happens after we die, but they all come far short of the truth. Some say we go to heaven or hell or purgatory. Others say we are reborn as another creature—a slug, a fish, a cow or another person. A few think we join some sort of cosmic consciousness. Of course, there are also those who believe that nothingness is the reward of men.
This may seem strange, but Jesus actually thanks God in Matthew 11:25-26 for keeping men ignorant of these matters: "I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Your sight." This is wise of God because the knowledge of man's destiny puts those who understand it under obligation to strive for it. And most of the people on earth are not prepared to do so.
We would be in the same quandary if God had not opened our minds to the truth. Several of the heroes of the Bible write of their awareness of God's plan for us:
» Job: Oh, that You would hide me in the grave, that You would conceal me until Your wrath is past, that You would appoint me a set time, and remember me! If a man dies, shall he live again? All the days of my hard service I will wait, till my change comes. You shall call, and I will answer You; You shall desire the work of Your hands. (Job 14:13-15)
» David: As for me, I will see Your face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied when I awake in Your likeness. (Psalm 17:15)
» Daniel: And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars forever and ever. (Daniel 12:2-3)
» Paul: But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit [which] dwells in you. . . . For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. (Romans 8:11, 18)
And God both raised up the Lord and will also raise us up by His power. (I Corinthians 6:14)
For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. . . . Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. (I Corinthians 15:22, 51-52)
For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body. (Philippians 3:20-21)
When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. (Colossians 3:4)
For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. (I Thessalonians 4:16-17)
There is life after death! We find, however, that it is a gift of God (Romans 6:23), and that it is so precious that He does not give it to everyone without qualification (Matthew 19:16-21; 25:31-46; Acts 13:48; James 1:12; Jude 20-21).
Man's Unique Element
Humanity has one characteristic that other living creatures lack. Job's young friend Elihu describes this extra element in Job 32:8: "But there is a spirit in man, and the breath of the Almighty gives him understanding." When God breathed the breath of life into Adam, he must also have imparted a spirit, an essence, that gave humans all those abilities beyond what animals have.
The apostle Paul also mentions this in the New Testament: "For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him?" (I Corinthians 2:11). This "spirit in man" endows humans with the ability to understand, reason, plan and create. It joins with the physical brain and assists in our thinking. The Bible often uses the word "spirit" to refer to a person's mind, intelligence or attitude.
What happens to this spirit in man when we die? Wise Solomon had the answer: "Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it" (Ecclesiastes 12:7). Why does God take it back? Because—somehow—it is a perfect recording of each person's entire life! All the person's memories, actions, words, attitudes, strengths, weaknesses, victories, defeats, decisions and plans are recorded by man's spirit!
Herbert W. Armstrong used to liken the spirit in man to a spiritual tape recording of our lives. In today's parlance, we might say it is similar to a multiple gigabyte hard disk or computer chip that is constantly saving our personal information. This is a disk that never crashes!
When God chooses to resurrect us, He will return our human spirit to us, and it will be as if we had never died (Ezekiel 37:5, 10). Some, of course, will be raised to immortality, and they will be completely composed of spirit, both body and mind (John 3:3-8; I Corinthians 15:35-49; I John 3:2). Others will, however, be raised back to physical life—like the "dry bones" in Ezekiel 37—and have a chance to receive the Holy Spirit and prove themselves to God (Ezekiel 37:11-14; Revelation 20:11-13).
What will determine which resurrection we rise in? The record of our lives! The character that is recorded in our spirit will be the only thing we "take through the grave"! God will access our lifelong file and make a judgment based upon how we have lived.
Of course, God's grace is freely given (Ephesians 2:4-9); we cannot earn it. We do, though, have the opportunity to qualify for a reward based on how much we grow in character (Luke 19:11-27; Matthew 25:14-30). Jesus says, "In My Father's house are many mansions [offices, positions of authority]. . . . I go to prepare a place for you" (John 14:2). In His Kingdom He will place each of us in a position that best suits our strengths, where He can depend on us to make proper decisions in harmony with God's will.
So much depends on our every thought, attitude, word and deed! Each second of our lives is being minutely recorded, so we had better make it a record we will not be ashamed of!
God has given us a priceless opportunity to participate in the first—the better—resurrection (Hebrews 11:35; Revelation 20:4-6)! It is a gift that makes the Publishers' Clearinghouse Sweepstakes or winning the lottery seem like pocket change by comparison. Though we all stumble along the way, we need to strive to grow in character so that we can say like Paul:
The time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing. (II Timothy 4:6-8)