Are the dead raised today? Biblical questions concerning Pastor Ekechukwu’s resurrection in Nigeria, 2001 [1]

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(Courtesy macky.net)

By Spencer D Gear

A. To die once: fact or fiction?

The reports of the resurrection of Pastor Daniel Ekechukwu in Nigeria in 2001 (death certificate issued on 30 Nov. 2001) have caused both positive and negative responses.  Here, I raise questions that go beyond those of the authenticity of this alleged resurrection amid some conflicting reports.  See examples of the conflicting information in the testimony at the “Come Let Us Reason” website. [3]  “Come Let Us Reason” reported:

Can God raise the dead? Yes of course He can. However the question we need to ask is, did He on this occasion? I’m talking about the newest sensational story coming from Reinhard Bonnke who was a guest on Benny Hinn’s program on Feb.28 2002 (and Kenneth Copeland’s program through the week of Aug.19, 2002). On Hinn’s program he showed a video produced by Cfan (Bonnkes minsitry- Christ for all nations) and gave testimony to a man being raised from the dead at a church he was preaching at in Nigeria, Africa. This video is now making the rounds everywhere as a fulfillment of many peoples prophecies of the great miracles that are supposed to occur in our time. Stories are supposedly pouring in from around the globe of thousands being saved. This is becoming a big story, but is it a fish story that keeps on growing as it’s told? I’ll let you decide.

There are contradictory accounts of how the accident happened that killed the pastor. [3a]

1. Are resurrections from the dead legitimate?

What are we to make of resurrections from the dead today? Since all things are possible with God, how are we to respond to this kind of report from Nigeria?

I am thinking particularly of biblical verses such as the following:

Hebrews 9:27 (ESV) “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment . . .” [4]
Hebrews 11:35 “Women received back their dead by resurrection.”
Luke 16:31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’ ”

2. What about . . .?

What about the resurrections of Lazarus (John 11), the raising of Jairus’s daughter (Luke 8), the raising of the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7), the resurrection of Tabitha/Dorcas (Acts 9:36ff)?

How do we explain these resurrections in the Gospels and Acts if people are appointed to die once and then face judgment?  The dilemma is similar with Pastor Eku’s resurrection.

B.    Questions about Pastor Eku’s resurrection

1. The report reads, “Although some of what happened to Pastor Ekechukwu is certainly extra-biblical, none of it is unbiblical. Indeed, neither the story of pastor Ekechukwu’s resurrection or the story of your salvation is found in the Bible, making them both extra-biblical, but neither should be discounted on that basis!” (The italic quotes in this critique are direct quotations from David Kirkwood’s article documenting this resurrection….)

To justify extra-biblical information, it is hardly a fair and legitimate method to make my salvation experience to compare with Pastor Eku’s theology of life-after-death. The doctrine of soteriology is clearly defined in the Scriptures, as is the theology of life-after-death. If my Christian experience differs from the clear statements in the written Word of God (the Bible), my experience needs to be questioned. The same must be the case with Pastor Eku’s theology.

2. David Kirkwood’s report says that “the angels lifted him on either side, and Daniel realized that there were now two of himself.” Is this illusion, delusion, after-death reality, or something else? How can this be real with two of a person when only one died? There seems to be something questionable here!

3. From where does this doctrine of “the spirit man” come? I hear this language from some Pentecostal preachers in the contemporary church, but the biblical doctrine is that human beings are holistic people, a unity of body and soul/spirit. The biblical doctrine of anthropology deals with the whole person, not differentiating the “spirit man.”  The report said, “The angels were holding him under each arm of his spirit man (which was perfectly whole).”

Here is not the place to investigate trichotomy, dichotomy or monism of human beings. I refer the reader to Wayne Grudem’s chapter on “the essential nature of man.” [5]  He helpfully outlines the biblical data on the nature of human beings: [6]

  • Scripture uses “soul” and “spirit” interchangeably;
  • At death, Scripture says either that the “soul” departs or the “spirit” departs;
  • Man is said to be either “body and soul” or “body and spirit”;
  • The “soul” can sin or the “spirit” can sin;
  • Everything that the soul is said to do, the spirit is also said to do, and everything that the spirit is said to do the soul is also said to do.

Why the emphasis on “the spirit man”?4. “The next morning, when the mortician attempted to cut Daniel’s inner thigh in order to insert a tube by which he could inject more embalming fluid, he experienced a strange shock that pushed him away from the corpse. This did not surprise him, as he had experienced similar forces before and attributed them to occult powers (such things are widely practiced in Africa and highly respected by most African pastors whom I know). After a second attempt and a second shock, he concluded that Daniel must have been a member of a powerful secret society. He assumed, however, that after some occult sacrifices and incantations the powers in the corpse would subside, and he could then complete his work. (This mortician, of course, was not a Christian, but converted after Daniel’s resurrection.)  Incidentally, Daniel said that people could smell the embalming chemicals coming out of his body for two weeks after his resurrection. They would hug him and hold their noses!

I have a question: If this were God’s preparation for a resurrection, why would it resemble an occultic experience? I see some images today among contemporary Pentecostals who have the Holy Spirit’s ministry visualised as an electric current or bolt of lightning coming out of a person or “striking” a person. This type of imagery needs to be avoided as it provides overtures of the ministry of the Holy Spirit that is much like a powerful, electric force.

5. “Daniel’s wife experienced a dream in which she saw the face of her husband, and he was asking her why they had left him in the mortuary. He stated that he was not dead and that she should take him to Onitsha where German evangelist Reinhard Bonnke was preaching. She determined to do so, even though her family thought she was out of her mind.

I have no trouble in accepting that Acts 2:17 will happen in the last days between Christ’s first coming and his second coming: “‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”

How do I know that this dream of Daniel’s wife was the fulfillment of Acts 2:17?

While I also am a supporter of the gifts of the Spirit for today (I Cor. 12-14), this story raises such a lot of questions. The added information on the following website causes me to have grave reservations about this story. In fact, the doctrines of life-after-death in this story seem to be contra biblical. One critique is at: http://www.letusreason.org/popteac13.htm.

The information from Pastor Eku’s wife’s dream was that “he [Daniel] stated that he was not dead and that she should take him to Onitsha where German evangelist Reinhard Bonnke was preaching.” If this is a true statement or revelation in the dream, then this is not the story of a resurrection from the dead but a 42-hour near-death experience and then the human being was resuscitated. There’s a conflict here. The dream said that Dan was not dead, but David Kirkwood’s story stated that “Daniel said that people could smell the embalming chemicals coming out of his body for two weeks after his resurrection. They would hug him and hold their noses!

Finally they drove to the Eunice Clinic, and there Daniel was confirmed to be dead by Doctor Josse Annebunwa. There was no breathing, no heartbeat or pulse, and Daniel’s pupils were fixed. The doctor said that there was nothing he could do. A death certificate was issued at 11:30 P.M., November 30, 2001

. . . The mortician, however, had to cut the clothing in order to clothe Daniel because his body was as stiff as a board” (emphases added).

Contradictions are not of God.

This also raises the controversial issue of how we are to interpret dreams. I most surely do not support Freudian dream analysis, but we have a credibility issue as well. The dream affirmed that Daniel was still alive, but the doctor confirmed his death and issued a death certificate. Which was it?

6. Where is there biblical support for the statements that “she [Dan’s wife] regarded Reinhard Bonnke as a man of God and that in the atmosphere of faith where he ministered this miracle was possible. The faith of Nneka dictated the whole event and her faith was honored. By whom? Who honored her faith? If not God, who else?

The New Testament affirms the powerful ministry of the Holy Spirit through Jesus, his disciples, and others in the New Testament, but I find no biblical support for the theology of “the atmosphere of faith.” Hebrews 11 states that supernatural actions took place “by faith” of Old Testament leaders such as Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, etc. Other unnamed individuals experienced suffering (see Heb. 11:36ff.) and were “commended through their faith” (Heb. 11:39). These supernatural happenings and sufferings have been related to the faith of individuals.  I find no biblical evidence for an “atmosphere of faith” at a gathering where Noah, Abraham or Moses was present to provide the environment for supernatural events..

“The atmosphere of faith” has reduced the Holy Spirit’s ministry to a force/atmosphere. Where do we have biblical support for such a view of faith?

7. “Many have indeed repented after hearing his testimony. If his story is all a hoax, the result of this hoax is real holiness, ” wrote David Kirkwood.

How does this stack up with Luke 16:31?  “He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’ ”

We dare not minimise our Lord’s warning in Matt. 7:21-23: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'”

Performing miracles is not necessarily a sign of spiritual acceptance with God and assurance of a person’s entrance into God’s eternal kingdom.

I have further observations about David Kirkwood’s statement:

a.    “Many” have “repented after hearing his testimony.”

I trust and hope that the testimony contained essential gospel content and not just the unbiblical invitation to “ask Jesus into your heart.”  The verses of Romans 10:9-10, 17 provide some core elements of this gospel:

“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. . .  So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”

Paul stated elsewhere that this “gospel” that he preached was “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day. . .” (I Cor. 15:3-4).  By repentance and faith are need for every person to be born again (see Acts 2:38; 26:20; Rom. 3:23-25) and to be declared righteous (justified) before God himself (see Rom. 3:28; 5:1).

b.    Kirkwood’s assessment is: “If his story is all a hoax, the result of this hoax is real holiness.”

This story relates to a resurrection that happened in December 2001, according to Kirkwood.  The death certificate was dated 30th November 2001 and Pastor Eku was supposed to be dead for 42 hours.. [6a]  Nine months later the author (Kirkwood) is saying that “real holiness” has happened in the lives of the Christian converts.  Isn’t this a little early to make such definitive claims?

The email to the “Berean Publishers” website with David Kirkwood’s article was dated September 22, 2002. [6b]   Surely we are not to believe it certain that nine months after conversion an author can proclaim with assurance that “real holiness” is happening in new converts.  Progressive sanctification takes time, but there should be a definite change in the new converts if there has been genuine conversion.  Is this what Kirkwood means by “real holiness”?  If so, I consider that better language would be something like, “Radical changes have already been seen in the lives of the new Christians who have sought repentance after hearing the gospel proclaimed in association with Pastor Eku’s testimony.”

Pastor Eku’s wife’s dream directed her to German evangelist Reinhard Bonnke. “The angel told Daniel that [that] man would help him spread the gospel of salvation.”

8. “This angel first told him that they were going to Paradise. There was no time expended in getting anywhere the angel took him. As soon as the angel said they were going to Paradise, they were there.”

This statement is consistent with the words of Jesus to the thief on the cross:  “And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).

9. “The angel told Daniel, ‘The mansion is ready but the saints of God are not. Jesus is being delayed because Christians in the church are not ready yet.’ (This is entirely scriptural; see 2 Pet. 3:12.)

Second Peter 3:11-12 states:
“Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, [12] waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!”

10. “Although there were different kinds of tortures, all of the people in hell writhed in agony under an unseen force that would wrench them repeatedly. All of them were shouting, wailing and gnashing their teeth. Pastor Daniel told me that if every Christian could see what he saw, there would be no need to preach the gospel, as every Christian would become the gospel,” Pastor Dan said.

The statement, “There would be no need to preach the gospel, as every Christian would become the gospel,” is contrary to the command to proclaim the gospel as in Matthew 28:19-20, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

It also contradicts Romans 10:14, 17, “But how are they to call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? . . . So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”

This is not meant to discount the importance of living the Christian life as a godly example before a watching world, but for people to come to Christ, more than a silent witness is needed. Words of proclamation are required.

11. “The most surprising thing is what happened next. The escorting angel told Pastor Daniel, ‘If your record is to be called here, you will in no doubt be thrown into hell.’ Pastor Daniel immediately defended himself saying, ‘I am a man of God! I serve Him with all my heart!’ But a Bible immediately appeared in the angel’s hand, and it was opened to Matthew 5 where Jesus warned that if one calls his brother a fool he is guilty enough to go into the hell of fire (see Matt. 5:21-22). Pastor Daniel knew he was guilty for the angry words spoken to his wife. The angel also reminded him that Jesus promised that God will not forgive our sins if we do not forgive others (see Matt. 6:14-15) because we will reap what we have sown. Only those who are merciful will obtain mercy (Matt 5:7). The angel told Daniel that the prayers he prayed as he was dying in the hospital were of no effect, because he refused to forgive his wife even when she attempted to reconcile on the morning of his fatal accident.

Does this mean that a Christian’s unforgiven sin at the point of death sends him/her to hell? Does this failure to seek forgiveness of one another pronounce the death-knell on heaven and send a person to hell? When we fail to forgive each other, it certainly means we have a spiritual problem — God cannot forgive us (see Matt. 6:14-15).  What about Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”?

The “Berean Publishers” website promotes an Arminian view of eternal insecurity. We could debate the pro’s and con’s of this theology (see my view), but there are many evangelicals who are committed to the inerrant Word of God, who would disagree profoundly with this assessment – based on Scripture. See J. Matthew Pinson (Gen. Ed.), Four Views on Eternal Security. [7]

Are we to use the theology of Pastor Eku’s after-death experience to differentiate between the eternal security views of Calvinism vs. Arminianism?  To say the least, Pastor Eku’s doctrine of perseverance of the saints will be challenged biblically by many evangelicals.

There is much scriptural material to challenge Pastor Eku’s after-death theology of Christians’ unconfessed sin sending them hell. Biblically, we know that true believers can be “caught in any transgression”(Gal. 6:1) or “sin” (1 John 1:8-9). Some Christian “brothers” are called “people of the flesh” (ESV) or “worldly” (NIV) in I Cor. 3:1, 3. Not all believers will receive the same rewards in heaven (I Cor. 3:12-14). What are we to make of the person who committed incest who is delivered to Satan “for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (I Cor. 5:5)?  In fact, some “will be saved, but only as through fire” (I Cor. 3:15). Contrary to Pastor Eku’s theology, these verses plainly teach that a Christian does not have to be a sinless, fully repentant person at death to get into heaven.

12. “Pastor Daniel wept at this revelation, but the angel told him not to cry, because God was going to send him back to the earth to grant the rich man’s request (see Luke 16:27-30). A man would come back from the dead and warn people of hell. The angel said that Daniel’s resurrection would serve as a sign and be the last warning for this generation.”

It was “the rich man’s” view in the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16) that he would request Lazarus to go back to the rich man’s family and warn them. Abraham objected, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them” (v. 29). The rich man’s unbiblical theology was: “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent” (v. 30) This is the unbiblical view of the resurrected Pastor Dan.

The Lord’s view, through Abraham, is: “He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead’ ” (v. 31).

Was this message of the rich man and Lazarus for the Jews or is it applicable to us today?

13.    “Finally, Pastor Daniel was led to the top of a mountain, at which there was a large hole full of darkness. There the escorting angel handed Daniel to a man standing there whom he did recognize a first, but soon realized it was German evangelist Reinhard Bonnke. The angel told Daniel that man would help him spread the gospel of salvation.”

This sure sounds like a public relations’ exercise for Reinhard Bonnke. However, I do not want to slight Bonnke’s ministry if he clearly proclaims salvation through Christ alone and channels the converts into Bible-believing and Bible-teaching churches.  See some assessments of Reinhard Bonnke‘s miracle crusades and ministry.

14. “As you may imagine, pastor Daniel greatly emphasizes in his preaching the need to forgive those who have wronged us, lest anyone suffer the fate he almost suffered. How important it is that we obey Jesus’ commandments regarding forgiveness and walking in love toward each other, as well as all the rest of His commandments.”

What about the biblical teaching on judgment following death (2 Cor. 5:8; Heb. 9:27)?

15. “It is indeed time for the church to repent and “pursue peace with all men, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). Do not listen to false teachers who say that holiness is not essential to ultimately gain eternal life. Jesus warned that only those who do the will of His Father will enter the kingdom of heaven (see Matt. 7:11). Do not listen to teachers who say that if you are once saved you are guaranteed that you will always be saved. Jesus warned His closest disciples (see Matt. 24:1-3) of the possibility of their not being ready when He returned and being cast into hell (see Matt. 24:42-25:46).”

How is this “holiness” achieved? What about the imputation of Christ’s righteousness when we are justified by faith in Christ? Romans 5:17 states: “If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.”

I cannot support the statement by David Kirkwood above concerning Matt. 24:1-3. These Matt. 24 verses are relating to the destruction of the temple.

The use of Matt. 24:42-25:46 seems to be associated with Kirkwood’s particular interpretation of the Olivet Discourse. Was this resurrection of Daniel meant to confirm an Arminian view of eternal insecurity? Is this revelation of one raised from the dead meant to give the definitive answer to end the eternal security debate? I surely hope not. Our responsibility is to “rightly divide the word of truth” and not build our theology on the experiences of a resurrected, fallible human being.

16. “Keep in mind that pastor Ekechukwu did not stand condemned just because of his one sin of unforgiveness. There were other sins he was confessing in the hospital as he was dying, but his unforgiveness annulled his prayers in which he was asking for forgiveness. If we expect God to forgive us, we must forgive others. That is what Jesus said.”

Does this mean that at the point of death one must have confessed every sin, but especially the sin of unforgiveness towards another person, to obtain the right to enter God’s eternal kingdom? Otherwise it’s to hell?

There are Scriptures that demand answers that Pastor Dan’s after-death revelations do not provide:

1 Cor. 1:30, “He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”

Phil. 3:9 , “And be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”

It is clear New Testament teaching that God declares believers to be justified/righteous, not on the basis of our actual holiness/righteousness, but on the basis of Christ’s perfect righteousness which God considers to belong to believers.
This is at the heart of the differences between Roman Catholics and Protestants, especially dealt with at the time of the Reformation. The just shall live by faith!

The biblical doctrine of justification is at stake in the theology espoused by Pastor Dan in the story of his resurrection. We are not declared righteous, based on our own goodness, holiness or righteousness. We can never be declared fully righteous if righteousness depends on us. There is always sin that remains in our lives. Pastor Dan’s experience seems to counter the biblical doctrine of justification.

David Kirkwood’s article is using this extra-biblical experience of resurrection to challenge such fundamental doctrines as that of Romans 5:1, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The aorist passive participle, dikaiothentes, that is placed at the beginning of the sentence before the main verb, conveys the sense that an event [justification] is completed before the verbal action of the main verb, “we have peace.” This gives the sense that “Since we have been justified [declared righteous] by faith, we have peace.”

I am convinced that the doctrine of justification by faith is assaulted in Pastor Dan’s theology promoted in this article. If it were not for Christ’s imputed righteousness to the believer, Paul could not say that believers have “the free gift of righteousness” [Romans 5:17 (ESV)] and that “the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 6:23) for every believer.

I see too much of the Roman Catholic view of justification in this description of Pastor Dan’s experiences as told by David Kirkwood. The biblical (Protestant) view is that justification is based on imputed righteousness. The Roman Catholic view is that of infused righteousness which God puts into a person and changes that person internally in terms of moral character. The Roman view is that God gives varying measures of justification, based on the amount of righteousness that has been infused into us.

C.    How do we deal with resurrections/no resurrections in the New Testament & contemporary experience? [8]

D.A. Carson’s article, “Unity and diversity in the New Testament,” [9] helped me to understand this issue more clearly.  Carson provides an excellent framework for assessing this apparent contradiction of support and negation for such resurrections (and other controversial subjects). Carson’s analysis helped me gain insight in the following areas. [10]

1. Beware of making absolutes out of  language that has no such intention

When Paul and Jesus, for example, addressed contemporary problems in a New Testament church, it is sometimes easy for us today to read their words and apply them universally for all ages. We see this with Paul’s use of the wearing of head coverings (1 Cor. 11:2ff), women to keep silent in the church (I Cor. 14:33-40), and the forbidding of women to teach (I Tim. 2:11-15).

Jesus also used strong antithetical language when addressing issues. He told us to “judge not, that you be not judged” (Matt. 7:1), yet in the same sermon, only a few verses later, he urged us to engage in judgment: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.. You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:15-16).

How do we put these together, not judging and the call to judge false prophets?

One of the values of a theological discipline such as systematic theology, is that it forces Bible students to come to a balanced view, based on all the information in the Bible. We must not pit Jesus against himself or Paul against Paul in our teaching. This is a call for careful exegesis and analysis.

We must beware of making absolute for all times (e.g. all Christians must not judge each other; women are forbidden from teaching men) what had a contextual application in the first century church. [11]

2. Diverse circumstances

We must remember the many and diverse situations in the New Testament that become controversial when one author is compared with another author or an author’s teaching in one place is compared with his teaching in another place at another time. These writers wrote to many different situations with particular instructions to address the problems in those circumstances and to teach God’s word authoritatively.

For example, we can get into trouble and controversy when we compare the teachings of Paul with those of James on the place of works in or associated with saved people. The “faith of Abraham” is used by Paul to teach that people are justified by faith. Paul’s circumstances, the issues at stake in that church, led him to use the example of the faith of Abraham in that way.

However, James, in another situation and circumstance uses the faith of Abraham, not to teach about justification, but about faith without works being dead.

These two authors are not teaching contradictory messages, nor might they be ignorant of what each other is teaching.

Those who teach doctrine must be alert to how these biblical authors use these various arguments in Scripture, even though a given person (e.g. Abraham here) is used to stress two very different doctrines.

When we teach these doctrines (e.g. justification, works associated with the saved), we must use the local context to determine the meaning.

Remember, context, context and context so that we do not fall into the error of accusing Paul of contradicting James or vice versa. [12]

3. How God’s sovereignty functions

When we consider apparent differences of view on the same topic in the Scripture, it is fundamental that we examine the purpose of the writing before announcing our conclusions.

For example, it is wrong to conclude that because women were last at the cross and first at the tomb of Jesus to observe the resurrection, that women should be ordained as pastors. Because Jesus had twelve male disciples does not necessarily prove that women can’t be elders. There are other issues involved and we must not interpret outside of the context and purpose of a passage.

However, there are fundamental Christian beliefs where there are large areas of the unknown. Take, for example, the Incarnation, the Trinity and the relationship of God’s sovereignty to human responsibility. Romans 8:28 shows that God’s sovereignty can function in Scripture and life to cause God’s people to trust his sovereignty.

In areas of the unknown, while it is critical that the context of a passage must be carefully investigated, it is wise to stick with the specifics of Scripture. We must use the logical capacity that the Lord has given us, but in these areas where there is so much “unknown,” it is best to stick with the biblical data/examples. God is not a fundamentally contingent being – he is not limited to what we say or do. He can and does intervene sovereignly.

Human beings are called upon to believe, choose, obey, repent, etc., but people’s responsibilities, according to the Scriptures, never function so that God must depend on our actions to make the world function. [13]

4.    How truths and arguments function in Scripture

We have various truths and arguments functioning together in Scripture, but some of them seem to lead to apparent contradictions. As in the issue we are discussing, how can there be a statement that we are appointed to die once and yet there are examples of resurrections in the Bible (and now in Nigeria with Pastor Dan) where people died or will die more than once?  Sounds contradictory, doesn’t it?

The critical issue is “how various truths and arguments function in Scripture” [14] and how that should govern our use of them. While Carson’s principle was directed at practitioners of systematic theology, I am convinced that it can save us from many errors in interpretation in other areas of biblical doctrine. We so often miss the forest for the trees – stopping to peer at every Greek word in microscopic detail and forgetting that it’s part of a big picture that involves context, context and context (the words and phrases around the statement under contention, the paragraph in which the verses are located, the chapter and book in which they are found, and the analogy of the whole of Scripture..

My problem with this issue of resurrection lies in the fact that it appears that Heb. 9:27 and Luke 16:31 suggest that people are not raised from the dead, but Heb. 11:35 and other references suggest that there are genuine resurrections. The God of truth does not speak with a forked tongue.

Let’s start with Heb. 9:27 (“And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment”).  The paragraph seems to include 9:23-28 (at least in the NIV and ESV), and the main point of it is to highlight Christ’s work as heavenly, true, original, superior, and final. What function does 9:27 play in this argument? It is merely to find something convenient with which to compare the finality of Christ’s work. Its purpose is not to teach us absolutes on life-after-death. The analogy is to provide an example to show that Christ did not “offer himself repeatedly” (v. 25) or “to suffer repeatedly” (v. 26), but “he has appeared ‘once for all’” (v. 26) to deal with sin by his one sacrifice. Verse 28 makes it clear that human beings dying once, as a general rule, is to show that Christ has been “offered once” as a sin bearer. The rule of human beings “appointed” to “die once” (v. 27) is a general illustration, but it does not pre-empt the possibility of Lazarus’s resurrection or that in Nigeria in December 2001.

One death is what commonly happens to almost all people, but this verse has nothing to say about possible exceptions to that rule. It is talking about the finality of Christ’s work, not the possibility of resurrection for dead people. It is a generalisation by way of example — nothing more.

For Luke 16:31, it is a little harder to determine the purpose and larger context. But it seems that a similar argument can be made for this verse. The context of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is that of 16:1, or maybe 15:1-2. However, both of the contexts are minimal, and it’s not nearly as easy to fit it in as it is to fit the parable of the lost son into 15:1-2. If chapter 16 of Luke is part of the same occasion as chapter 15 (unlikely, in my view), then probably what has happened at the end of ch. 15 is that the Pharisees have rejected the implicit appeal in Jesus’ equating them with the older brother. Jesus is now instructing his disciples about the Pharisees’ attitude (cf. 16:14-15). Thus 16.19-31 could be read in the light of the Pharisees’ reaction and Jesus could be saying something about the unbelief of first century Jewish culture. If the contexts weren’t connected, Jesus is probably trying to teach his disciples something about how they should relate to people in their own culture (as is 16.1-15).

D. Conclusion

The fact that Jesus said something about first century Jewish culture doesn’t mean that he would say the same thing for 21st century Nigerian or Australian culture. Because the writer of Hebrews used life-after-death as an example of Christ’s sacrifice, it does not make Heb. 9:27 a definitive statement against the miracle of resurrection for all times. It was an illustration on the subject being discussed in Heb. 9:23-28.

Nineteenth century commentator, John Brown, put it well: “If Lazarus, the son of the widow of Nain, and some others, underwent it twice, they are exceptions to the general law. When men die, they do not die that they return to life, and then die again.” [15]

This article is not an attempt to squirm out of alleged biblical contradictions (people die only once — but there are those who were resurrected according to the biblical record). This is a call for biblical interpretation that functions within the immediate and larger contexts of the document in which it is written.

What does all this mean? We can’t say that all people everywhere can only die once and that anyone who says that they did otherwise is contradicting Scripture. We have to weigh up their cultural context, what purpose the experience served, and what fruit was demonstrated. (This would apply equally to any near-death experience.)

This is by no means a final word on the subject (God has not given me such authority), but I consider that this is a reasonable base from which to work. Carson’s principle of how items of information function in their context is such a helpful methodology for biblical interpretation of all topics, but especially of those that are controversial and have apparent contradictory elements.

Endnotes:

[1] This article is a response to, “The Resurrection of Pastor Daniel Ekechukwu,” David Kirkwood. Retrieved on October 5, 2002 from: http://www.bereanpublishers.com/. At this URL, you will need to use the “Search” facility to find the article.
[2]  I retired as an Australian family relationships’ counselling manager in 2011 to pursue doctoral studies. I completed my PhD in New Testament in 2015 (University of Pretoria, South Africa) and currently live in Brisbane, Qld., Australia. To contact me, please use the contact form on this website.
[3] See “The Rich man’s prayer is answered! Bonnke raises the dead,” “Come Let Us Reason” Ministries, retrieved on October 12, 2002 from: http://www.letusreason.org/popteac13.htm
[3a]  Ibid.
[4] Unless otherwise stated, all biblical quotations are from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Bibles, 2001 (ESV).
[5] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994, ch. 23, pp. 472-487).
[6] Ibid., p. 473 ff.
[6a] “The Rich man’s prayer is answered!  Bonnke raises the dead”, “Come Let Us Reason” Ministries, retrieved on October 12, 2002 from: http://www.letusreason.org/popteac13.html.
[6b]  See “The Resurrection of Pastor Daniel Ekechukwu,” David Kirkwood. Retrieved on October 5, 2002 from: http://www.bereanpublishers.com/. At this URL, you will need to use the “Search” facility to find the article.
[7] Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2002. This book includes the views of Classical Calvinism (Michael S. Horton), Moderate Calvinism (Norman L. Geisler), Reformed Arminianism (Stephen M. Ashby), and Wesleyan Arminianism (J. Steven Harper).
[8] The content of this section is substantially that of my son, Paul Gear.
[9] D. A. Carson, “Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: The Possibility of Systematic Theology” (pp 63-95) in D. A. Carson & John D. Woodbridge (Eds.), Scripture and Truth. Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Paternoster Press; Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1983/1992.
[10] The headings in this sections are mine.
[11] Carson wrote: “Paul, like Jesus before him, tends to absolutize the language used in addressing the current problem. . . Jesus, preacher that he is, regularly uses strong, antithetical language to tackle each side of a complex question. One of the values of systematic theology, therefore, is that Jesus’ or Paul’s approach to a host of issues is likely to receive more balanced scrutiny than by the reductionist methods of those who pit Jesus against Jesus and Paul against Paul” (Carson, p. 87).
[12] Carson’s explanation of this concept was, “The question of the diverse circumstances that call forth New Testament writings sometimes becomes more controversial yet when author is compared with author – Paul with James, for instance, or John with Paul. . . If the ‘faith of Abraham’ is used by Paul to teach that people are justified by faith and by James to teach that faith without works is dead, it does not necessarily follow that the two authors are ignorant of the other’s work or in disagreement with it.”, ibid., p. 88. He also wrote: “Systematic theologians should be careful to note how various truths and arguments function in Scripture and they should be very cautious about stepping outside of those functions with new ones” (ibid,. p. 93).
[13] Carson explains it this way: “[I]t is surely worth observing, for instance, that God’s sovereignty functions in Scripture to engender confidence in His people (e.g. Rom. 8:28) and to ensure final judgment, but it never functions to reduce man to the status of an irresponsible robot. Similarly, man is encouraged to believe, choose, obey, repent, and so forth, but his responsibilities in these areas never function in the Scriptures (as they sometimes do in other Jewish literature) to make God fundamentally contingent. . . To limit oneself primarily to copying the functions found in Scripture is to adopt a methodological control that will ensure that one’s systematic theology is a little more biblical than would otherwise be the case” (ibid., p. 94).
[14] Ibid., p. 93, emphasis added.
[15] John Brown, Hebrews. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1862/1961, p. 429.

The call is for workers to be “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:16)
Copyright (c) 2007 Spencer D. Gear.  This document last updated at Date: 7 October 2015.