"I think I understand what the pamphlet on death said," I told Pastor Riggs after the next prayer meeting.
"Good. What do you understand the Bible to say about what happens when a person dies?"
"According to the pamphlet," I hedged, "when a person dies they simply cease to exist. Their breath goes back to God and their body goes to the grave. When Jesus returns to earth, everyone who has died will be resurrected. Those who accepted Jesus will go to heaven. Those who didn't will be destroyed in hell."
"So, what do you think of that?" Pastor Riggs asked.
"Well, it's surely different than I grew up thinking. And it's different than what I learned later. I still have some questions."
"Great!" he shot back. "I love it when people think! When they really study things out and think them through." He sat down on the edge of one of the raised flower beds like he was settling in for another long night. "What's on your mind?"
Even though I should have expected it, I still marveled that anyone would listen to all my questions. And not only listen -- Pastor Riggs treated me as though he respected me, as though he thought I was asking intelligent questions. Even after he'd dealt with them by the hour, week after week.
"One of the Bible study principles you suggested was to read everything on a topic. So I did some more reading."
"Good. What did you find?"
"What about the thief on the cross -- the one Jesus forgave? Didn't Jesus say he'd go to paradise that day?"
"Let's look at the story," Pastor Riggs said, opening his Bible. Turning pages whispered into the evening only a moment before he said, "Here it is -- Luke 23."
We read the story together, then Pastor Riggs said, "Let's read another account about Jesus' time on the cross. And then let's keep reading until after His resurrection. It's in John, chapters 19 and 20."
We read through Jesus' crucifixion, death, burial, resurrection, and His talking with Mary in the garden.
"So on Sunday morning after Jesus' resurrection, when he talked with Mary, had he been to see His Father in heaven yet?"
I looked back down at the verses we'd just read. "In John 20:17 Jesus said, 'I am not yet ascended to my Father.' So he must not have gone to heaven until after that on Sunday morning."
"Right. So, is there a contradiction? Luke 23:43 says Jesus told the thief on Friday, 'Today you'll be with me in paradise.' But on Sunday morning He told Mary He hadn't been to paradise yet."
"Sounds like a contradiction."
"It looks like it on the surface," he responded, "but let's look a little deeper. As originally written, the Greek had no punctuation. Periods, commas, semicolons -- none of them were there. The punctuation as we see it in our Bibles today was put in by translators. I'm grateful for what they did, but I think once in a while they goofed."
"Let's look at verse 43 again," he continued. "What if the comma came after 'today' instead of before it?"
"Verily I say unto you today," I read, "thou shalt be with me in paradise." I drummed the eraser of my pencil on my open Bible. "That says 'I'm talking to you today' rather than 'I'll be with you today.'"
"Also," Pastor Riggs added, "in the Greek, grammatically, the 'today' could go with either the phrase before or the phrase after. I believe in Jesus' words in Luke 23:43 just as I believe in the rest of the Bible. But since the rest of the Bible indicates a person is unconscious in death, since Jesus Himself called death a sleep and said He hadn't been to paradise yet since He died, since grammatically 'today' could go with either phrase, and since the punctuation in our Bibles is not inspired, moving the comma makes sense to me. Otherwise, this text would conflict with many."
"True," I said. "Even Jesus would conflict with Himself."
"Right," Pastor Riggs agreed. "Does that make sense?"
"Yes," I said thoughtfully, "it does." A light breeze rustled Bible pages. "Either the Bible agrees with itself or it doesn't. And if it doesn't, then we ought to throw it out."
"You're right, Jay."
"Well, then, I need to get the rest of my questions answered so I can know for myself whether or not the Bible is worth following."
"And your next question is?"
"What about Matthew 10:28 where Jesus said, 'Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul?'" I asked. "Sounds to me like the soul lives on beyond the body. Doesn't that support reincarnation?"
"Let's look at it."
I was used to hearing that phrase. It was one of the reasons I respected Pastor Riggs. He didn't spout off his opinion or some philosophical answer. We looked at our Bibles together and read and studied until the answers came clear.
We each found the text. Pastor Riggs scanned nearby verses as he often did. "Jesus is preparing His disciples for persecution here. Why don't you read all of verse 28?"
"And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.'"
"Actually, what's the last part of the verse say about the soul?" Pastor Riggs asked.
"It can be destroyed." I scratched my head. "How'd I miss that when I was studying at home?"
"So, now that you're reading the whole thing, what does that verse say?"
I read it again. Then I read several verses before and after it. "Essentially, Jesus is saying, 'Don't let people persecuting you scare you. Even if they kill you, it's not really a big deal. Because you'll be raised in the resurrection. And they won't be able to do a thing about it. What you should fear is living so that you'll suffer the second death. There's no resurrection from that.'"
I shook my head. "I can't believe I missed the last half of that verse. I've discredited ministers because they didn't use texts accurately. Because they didn't consider context. I just did the same thing."
A frog croaked nearby. "From what I see," Pastor Riggs said, you appear to be a sincere seeker. You want to know truth. Right?"
"Is it true that it would be easier for you to believe in reincarnation than to believe that people are unconscious in death?"
"I don't question your sincerity at all, Jay. But maybe this is a good example. When we read the Bible it's so-o-o easy to see what we want to see ..."
"Instead of what it really says," I added. "I'm going to have to keep practicing those Bible study principles you shared. Several of them apply to this situation. Pray for God's guiding, an open mind, context, and read everything the Bible says on the topic. That's four out of five."
"The fifth one applies too," Pastor Riggs added. "Don't just take my word for it. When you go home, study it out for yourself."
"You must study for yourself," Pastor Riggs said, "but this points to one of the reasons it's good to study the Bible with others too. They may have seen something we missed. Or we may have an insight they didn't see. When people who want truth study together, they each grow."
"Like the Bible study class," I observed. "Everyone studies the same Bible text at home then discusses them. I'm amazed at the different insights of various people."
"That's one of the reasons Jesus established the 'church' idea. We get to know Him better by fellowshiping and studying together."
"I can see that."
I continued throwing questions at Pastor Riggs. With each, we looked at Scriptures, and there were good and reasonable explanations. I was down to the last text I'd found that contradicted the death is-sleep theory. But it was a good one to support reincarnation.
"How about 1.Peter 4:6? Doesn't it say the gospel was preached to dead people?"
He turned Bible pages then scanned. "Go ahead and read verse 6."
"For this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit."
"For this cause was..." Pastor Riggs said. "What tense of verb is 'was'?"
"Right. 'For this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead.' What tense is 'are'?"
"So," he concluded, "the gospel was preached, while they were living, to those who are dead now.
I reread the text. "Hm-m-m."
"This is an interesting text," Pastor Riggs continued. "May I give you a really loose paraphrase?"
"Verse 4 -- Your old cronies think it really strange that you don't run riot with them like you used to. Verse 5 -- But they're going to face judgment too. Both the living and dead will face judgment. Verse 6 -- But don't worry about your friends who are already dead. Yes, they'll face judgment too. But God sent people to preach to them while they were still alive."
I looked back through the verses. His paraphrase didn't do it injustice.
"In other words," he continued, "God is absolutely fair. He's not going to require of you in the judgment something that you didn't have the opportunity to know about. That sounds to me like good news!"
"You're right," I agreed. "That's wonderful news."
"The devil's trying to make God out to be an ogre. Too many people believe that. But God is kind. God is wonderful. God is patient beyond any patience we can comprehend. God is love."
Lights had glowed from the homes near us for some time. Crickets cr-r-ricked, and a frog with a bass voice croaked repeatedly into the night.
"I guess that's why I keep coming back." I sighed and shifted on the edge of the flower bed across from Pastor Riggs. "Every Christian church I've ever been in before said 'God is love,' but their doctrines denied it. Hell, for instance. A God who tortures people for hundreds and millions of years ... that's worse than Hitler!" I shuddered. "How could heaven be happy if someone you loved was frying and crying in hell?" I asked into the night, not expecting an answer. "I see the sense in what you teach."
Only nature's night sounds broke the silence for an eternity. Then I spoke again. "But I've given reincarnation twenty years of my life. My whole life was based on it. They told me the Bible and reincarnation agreed with each other. Was I wrong all this time?"
"What I teach," Pastor Riggs said, "isn't important unless..."
I picked up his words. "Unless it's from the Bible....And it has been. Everything. Everything's been straight out of the Bible." My heart was in my throat. "But we're missing something someplace. Like ... well ... the dead communicating with us. I know they do. I've heard them. I've seen a spirit with my own eyes. I've seen visions of things that no human being could know. I know it was real!"
"I don't question that it was real," Pastor Riggs said.
I held up my Bible. "If this is right," I challenged, "how can the dead communicate with us?"
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