I am thankful for the body of Christ that challenges me in so many different ways. I am constantly challenged to greater acts of love and good deeds, to higher standards of living and holiness, to steadfast commitments of engaging fellowship and community. Also, I often find I am challenged in my understanding and study of scripture. Last Sunday brought one of those challenges.
The challenge came about like this…
I made the statement in our adult Sunday school class that I was teaching that “the death rate for humans is 100%.” I was asked what I meant by that so I further explained that everyone who has ever been born has also died. Then came the question that challenged my understanding of scripture, “What about Enoch, did he die? What about Elijah, did he die?” For a minute I was stumped. I can remember sitting in a class years ago as a new believer where the teacher spent quite a bit of time explaining the verses that talk about Enoch and Elijah supposedly escaping death. I can also remember others making reference to them not seeing the grave, so, of course the first thought in my head and the answer that I gave was, “No, they didn’t die.” But for some reason that didn’t sit well with me. Was this really what the bible said? As I considered my response that afternoon, I decided to give in to the nagging sense that I had given the wrong answer to that question. So I dove into the word, and this is what I came up with.
First, the scriptures concerning the passing of Enoch and Elijah.
Enoch lived sixty-five years, and became the father of Methuselah. Then Enoch walked with God three hundred years after he became the father of Methuselah, and he had other sons and daughters. So all the days of Enoch were three hundred and sixty-five years. Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him. Genesis 5:21-24 (NASB95)
And it came about when the LORD was about to take up Elijah by a whirlwind to heaven, that Elijah went with Elisha from Gilgal. When they had crossed over, Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask what I shall do for you before I am taken from you.” And Elisha said, “Please, let a double portion of your spirit be upon me.” He said, “You have asked a hard thing. Nevertheless, if you see me when I am taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if not, it shall not be so.” As they were going along and talking, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire and horses of fire which separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind to heaven. Elisha saw it and cried out, “My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw Elijah no more. Then he took hold of his own clothes and tore them in two pieces. 2 Kings 2:1, 9-12 (NASB95)
The Burr in My Saddle
At first glance, these verses may seem to imply in their vague wording that these two men of God were able to escape physical death because God took them. But if these verses truly teach that there have been two people in the history of the bible who have escaped the tragedy of physical death, then what are we to do with all of the other verses that would teach otherwise? For instance, here are just a few examples:
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned… Romans 5:12 (NASB95)
Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam… Romans (NASB95)
For the wages of sin is death… Romans 6:23 (NASB95)
For as in Adam all die… 1 Corinthians 15:22 (NASB95)
And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment… Hebrews 9:27 (NASB95)
These few verses clearly teach that through Adam all have sinned and therefore, all are subjected to death. Just as Job pointed out that all the living will be brought to the meeting house of death (Job 30:23 NASB95). Ashes to ashes; dust to dust. So, are we to assume then that these verses don’t apply to Enoch and Elijah? That somehow they were the exception to the rule as revealed in scripture?
Secondly, if they escaped death then it would imply that they did not need God’s redemption and deliverance from sin. We know that Jesus is the One who came to abolish sin and death through His finished work on the cross. He accomplished what no one else could for all who are under the penalty of death because all have sinned. So does this exclude Enoch and Elijah? Because if they did escape the grave, the only way I see that as being biblically possible is if they didn’t sin.
Furthermore, if they were sinless, then the statement concerning the Son of God being sinless would not be unique. And in fact, it would imply that the ministry of the only begotten Son along with His Holy Spirit would no longer be necessary because mankind (at least two of them) had found a way to righteousness, holiness, and justification apart from them. God could have avoided the whole tragedy of the crucifixion by simply giving us the example of Enoch and Elijah to follow.
Thirdly, along with that, there is the whole resurrection thing. As I understand it, there are basically two categories of people that will be represented at Christ’s second coming – the living and the dead. Apart from the controversies about the timing of the rapture, scripture clearly states that there are those who are dead who will rise first and then there are those who are alive and remain, both of which will be caught up together with the Lord. So which category would Enoch and Elijah be placed in, the living or the dead? If this view is correct that they escaped physical death, then they aren’t in the grave. At the same time, they aren’t on earth with us either. Therefore, we would assume that resurrection and rapture will not apply to them.
Furthermore, Paul says that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable but at the last trumpet we will be changed. Through God’s plan of resurrection, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, this perishable will put on the imperishable and this mortal shall put on immortality. Then will come about the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory.” So, does this apply to everyone except Enoch and Elijah because death and its sting doesn’t apply to them?
These are some of the thoughts that have challenged the challenge I was presented with in class. Here are some principles and thoughts that helped me remove this burr in my saddle…
Principles of Interpretation
Have you ever come across a verse or set of verses that are confusing, cloudy, and seem to contradict the rest of scripture? Kind of like the ones we have been discussing here about Enoch and Elijah. One thing to remember when we are reading the bible is that it is in complete unity with itself. Although there are many human writers who contributed to the bible, God is the one single author whose Holy Spirit moved upon men to speak and write His word. Therefore, because there is really only one Author, and He is infinitely wise, the bible is in perfect order with itself and avoids contradiction. So if we find ourselves up against verses that seem to be doing just that, then we must be missing something in our understanding and study.
Another principle that is good to remember at times like these is that ambiguous or confusing wording should always be interpreted in light of the clear, plain, and unambiguous. The best commentary on scripture is the rest of scripture, therefore, always allow scripture to interpret scripture. If something seems muddy and contradictory, chances are there are other passages in the bible that will help to shed light and clarify what is confusing.
In our issue with Enoch and Elijah, the wording of the verses in these stories is definitely cloudy. What seems to be an interruption and a threat to the unity and continuity of the rest of scripture needs to be interpreted with the light of other scriptures that are clear. Here is what we know to be clear as I have demonstrated above:
1. The bible teaches that from the time of Adam until now, all have sinned therefore all have died.
2. Jesus is our only hope for redemption from the curse of sin and the penalty of death. Mankind’s righteousness apart from Christ is nothing more than filthy rags.
3. God has a future plan for us when we will fully realize our eternal redemption from physical death, in the future.
These things we know for sure. From these three principles alone it should cause us to rethink our position concerning the deaths of Enoch and Elijah. The harmony of scripture forces us to reexamine the wording of these verses and ask ourselves, “If the whole of scripture teaches something that is contrary, then these verses probably aren’t teaching us that Enoch and Elijah escaped death, so what are they saying?”
But, first, what about that tricky little phrase in Hebrews that talks about Enoch not seeing death?
By faith Enoch was taken up so that he would not see death; and he was not found because God took him up; for he obtained the witness that before his being taken up he was pleasing to God. And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him. Hebrews 11:5-6 (NASB95)
I intentionally waited until I had established the other evidence first before tackling this verse. I believe it is this little phrase in Hebrews that often muddies the waters causing us to misrepresent and misinterpret the others. Is there possibly another explanation for this phrase in Hebrews that harmonizes with the rest of scripture?” Answer, I believe there is because Jesus made a very similar statement to the Jews in the gospel of John.
Jesus, Abraham, and Death
“Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he will never see death.” John 8:51 (NASB95)
The Jews proceed to mock Jesus in their frustration and tell Him that He is demon-possessed. They then try to explain to Him that even Abraham and the prophets all died.
The Jews said to Him, “Now we know that You have a demon. Abraham died and the prophets also; and You say, ‘If anyone keeps My word, he will never taste of death.’ Surely You are not greater than our father Abraham, who died?…” John 8:52-53 (NASB95)
Jesus, in a masterful way, uses their own example of Abraham against them by using him as an illustration of one who did not see death.
“Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” John 8:56 (NASB95)
What I believe Jesus is pointing out is that Abraham, by faith, saw the day of the Messiah and was spared of seeing the tragedy of death and eternal separation from God. This brought rejoicing and gladness not despair for the patriarch.
In Revelation a distinction is made concerning death that is critical to understand. It teaches that there is a death after death for those who do not place their faith in Christ.
Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. Revelation 20:14-15 (NASB95)
Norman Geisler in his Systematic Theology series writes this:
“Those who are only born once (physically) will die twice (physically and eternally); however, those who are born twice (physically and spiritually) will die only once (physically).”
And this is what I believe Hebrews is saying about the faith-filled life of Enoch, “…without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.” Enoch was taken up so that he didn’t see death although he did see the grave just as the Jews pointed out about Abraham and the prophets. This is also the mark of every true believer who will never see death, even though they may see the grave.
In these references concerning the passing of Enoch and Elijah, could it be that scripture is simply using colorful and descriptive language to describe their faith at the point of death? In the case of Enoch, the point being his life of faith allowed him to walk with God in such a pleasing way that when he took his last breath it wasn’t viewed as a tragedy but simply as the next step in a life that had been and continues to be lived well with his Lord. I have known modern day saints of God who have passed who would fit this description.
In the case of Elijah, the whole context of that passage is about the mantle passing from Elijah to Elisha because Elisha had enough faith to ask his master for a double portion of his spirit to rest upon him. Therefore, God rewarded Elisha’s faith by giving him a visible sign that his request had been granted, just as Elijah had prophesied. These were extraordinary circumstances for sure, but not so extraordinary as someone avoiding the consequences of sin and rewriting biblical doctrine.
Therefore, I am standing behind my original statement I made in class, “the death rate of humans is 100%” because this is what scripture clearly teaches. But for the person who puts their faith and trust in Jesus Christ and are born again, the grave is only temporary while our spirit waits in the presence of the Lord to be reunited with an immortal, imperishable body on the day of resurrection. The grave does not have the last say, God does.
Once again, I am thankful for the body of Christ for this challenge as it has reminded me that it is critically important to:
Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. 2 Timothy 2:15 (KJV)