The USA began the 21th century with what it called a “War on Terrorism.” It’s still going on. In fact, much of the world is involved in this War on Terrorism. Strangely, this war is not between nations, and its insurgents sometimes are difficult to identify. Much of this war arguably represents a clash of civilizations. Many of those who are instigating it are fundamentalist Muslims, called “Islamists.” By means of armed force they are trying to overthrow Middle Eastern governments to establish Islamic rule that would govern according to Sharia—Islamic law. These radical Muslims want to return to something like the glory years of the great Islamic empire of the 7th through the 9th centuries, when it stretched from Spain to Afghanistan. Because these Muslim extremists are in conflict with western nations that have a Christian heritage, they also are trying to resurrect that religious war which existed in medieval times between Christianity and Islam that is called “the Crusades.”
Christianity and Islam are the largest religions in the world. Today, there are about 1.2 billion professing Muslims and about 2.3 billion professing Christians in the world. In 2013, the world’s total population was increased to 7 billion. So, adherents of Islam and Christianity, together, now represent almost half of the world’s population.
Muslim extremists seeking to impose Islamic rule by armed force represent a small portion of Islam. Yet they enjoy considerable moral support, and some financial assistance, from the Muslim community-at-large, especially that in the Middle East.
These Muslim insurgents, called mujahideen (“fighters”), inflict surprise armed attacks against their perceived enemies. Such attacks have come to be identified in the West as “terrorist attacks,” and those who conduct them are labeled “terrorists.” These Muslim terrorists often carry out their violent insurgencies against militaries of western nations and the State Israel. But they are increasingly doing so against unsuspecting civilians. Many of these terrorist attacks now occur every year, the worst being against the USA on 9-11, in 2001. The casualty and death tolls from these attacks can be very devastating to human life. In addition, it can cause upheaval in financial markets and result in much expense and effort in upgrading security precautions.
For the past several years, the premier weapon of choice by these fundamentalist Muslim insurgents has been suicide bombings. Their two primary methods have been car bombings and strapping a vest around the chest of the insurgent. These vehicles and vests are loaded with explosive materials that are detonated at the push or release of a button.
Most of these Muslim “suicide bombers,” as they are popularly called, are willing to forfeit their lives for what they believe is a worthy cause of Islam—jihad. Jihad is an Arabic word that means simply “struggle.” Islam defines jihad in various ways. There is “peaceful jihad,” in which Muslims attempt to persuade nonbelievers about the truth of Islam or turn apostate Muslims back to the faith. Then there is “spiritual jihad,” which is the struggle of the inner man between doing right and wrong. And there is “expansionist jihad,” which refers to offensive, armed struggle against “infidels,” that is, “unbelievers.”
The Koran—the holy book of Islam—designates jihad as the duty of every Muslim. However, Islam only directs Muslims to conduct expansionist jihad when a recognized imam—a religious leader or scholar who teaches the Koran or is an authority who governs by Sharia—declares a fatwah. A fatwah is a declaration that commands all Muslims to enter into expansionist jihad, and it clearly identifies who the violent offense is to be conducted against. Thus, in 1996 Osama bin Laden, a somewhat self-imposed imam, declared a fatwah against the USA.
Many Muslim suicide bombers are young in age. Most of them are less than thirty years old. An increasing percentage of them are teenagers. Nearly all are males, though lately there is an alarming increase in female Muslim suicide bombers. Ironically, it is older men who convince these young people to forfeit their lives for the supposed good of Islam. But why would these young people willingly forfeit their lives? It’s all about ideology and religion, and it starts with the Koran.
Violence Advocated in the Koran
Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam is based on a holy book—The Koran. It professedly accepts both parts of the Bible—the Old and New Testaments—as holy, but only in their original autographs. The Koran alleges that, in the long history of the transmission of hand-copied biblical manuscripts, Jews often corrupted them.
Nevertheless, both the Bible and the Koran affirm many of the same doctrines. For example, the Koran heavily emphasizes that God is numerically one, so that there is no God but Allah. (Some Christians think Muslims worship a different God than they do because Muslims call their God “Allah.” But Allah is merely the Arabic word for “god”). The Koran also strongly affirms that Allah created the universe, that all humans will be held accountable to Allah at the Judgment for how they lived their lives, and this event will be preceded by the Resurrection from the dead. The Koran constantly presents Allah as compassionate, merciful, and forgiving. All of this corresponds perfectly to especially how the Old Testament characterizes God.
Islam is a religion of obedience to the commands in the Koran. In fact, the word “Islam” means “submission.” Muslims are obligated to perform five religious acts, called “the Pillars of Islam.” These are: (1) the Shahada (which makes one a Muslim), to be confessed regularly, which is, “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammed is his prophet;” (2) Salat, which is to pray five times per day at regulated moments; (3) Zakat, which is to give alms to the poor; (4) Saum, which is the fast of Ramadan, to be observed for one particular month per year; (5) the Hajj, which is a spiritual pilgrimage to the House of God at Mecca, to be done at least once during the worshipper’s lifetime.
Along with many positive moral features of Islam, the Koran also sometimes advocates violence against “hypocrites,” “idolaters,” “unbelievers,” and “infidels.” The Koran labels apostate Muslims as “hypocrites,” and it repeatedly and specifically identifies Jews and Christians as either “unbelievers” or “infidels.” The following are some examples of hostilities advocated in the Koran:
- · “Many large armies have fought by the side of their prophet [Muhammed]…. We will put terror into the hearts of the unbelievers. They serve other deities besides God” (3:146, 150).
- · “Believers [Muslims], take neither the Jews nor the Christians for your friends. They are friends with one another. Whoever of you seeks their friendship shall become one of their number. God does not guide the wrongdoers” (5:51).
- · “You will find that the most implacable of men in their enmity to the faithful [Muslims] are the Jews and the pagans, and that the nearest in affection to them are those who say: ‘We are Christians’” (5:82).
- · “the hypocrites,… If they desert you, seize them and put them to death wherever you find them” (4:88-89).
- · “slay the idolaters wherever you find them” (9:5).
- · “Fight against such of those to whom the Scriptures were given as believe in neither God nor the Last Days, who … do not embrace the true Faith” (9:29).
- · “the faithful … They will fight for the cause of God, they will slay and be slain. Such is the true promise which He has made them in the Torah, the Gospel and the Koran” (9:111).
- · “Believers, make war on the infidels who dwell around you” (9:123).
- · “When you meet the unbelievers in the battlefield strike off their heads” (47:4).
Muslim Teaching on the Afterlife
Islam, Christianity, and Judaism generally teach that a human being consists of a physical body and a soul, if not also a spirit that is distinct from the soul, and that the soul is immortal. They furthermore teach that when people die their souls remain conscious, experiencing previous physical senses in an afterlife.
Two of the most prominent teachings in the Koran concerning the afterlife are the Day of Resurrection and the Day of Judgment. The Day of Resurrection refers to a time in the future when the bodies of the faithful will be literally resurrected from the dead. The Day of Judgment refers to a subsequent time when God will judge all people, giving rewards to the faithful and sending unbelievers to torment in hell. Because of the Bible, both Orthodox Judaism and mainstream Christianity have believed very strongly in these two teachings as well. In fact, the Koran mentions the resurrection and the judgment much more than the Bible does.
Islam also teaches that those who are martyrs for the sake of expansionist jihad will be greatly rewarded in the afterlife. The preface to one of the Koran verses quoted above is as follows: “God has purchased from the faithful their lives and worldly goods, and in return has promised them the Garden. They will fight for the cause of God, they will slay and be slain” (9:111). “The Garden” refers to the restoration of the Garden of Eden in Paradise. The Garden of Eden, of course, is mentioned and described briefly in Genesis, the first book in the Bible (Genesis 2.8-17; 3.1-24). The Koran repeatedly tells of this “Garden” in “Paradise” and explains that this Paradise is located in heaven.
Many Muslim imams teach that at death, the immortal soul of a Muslim goes immediately to Paradise in heaven to enjoy conscious bliss. They also teach that the souls of Muslims who die martyr deaths for the sake of expansionist jihad will be rewarded upon their immediate entrance into heaven. Some imams also teach that upon martyrdom, young men will be given many beautiful virgins and other physical delights in heaven. Such teaching is a strong incentive for these young Muslim men to forfeit their lives.
However, the Koran does not expressly state that Muslims go to heaven at death. Rather, it seems to indicate the opposite. Arab Christian, William J. Saal, claims of Koran teaching, “At death, the soul enters a state of unconsciousness until resurrection.” Arab Christian Mateen Elass explains more precisely, “As to what happens between the time of one’s death and the eschatological Day of Judgment, the Koran is largely silent, but most Islamic scholars hold that the soul continues in a state of sleep … until finally reunited with the body in the general resurrection of all the dead.”
While the Koran does not clarify this issue, it sometimes mentions the faithful in Paradise in the context of the Day of Resurrection. This suggests that this Paradise is only experienced by means of resurrection. Also, the Koran states concerning the faithful on the Day of Resurrection, “The Trumpet will be blown and, behold, they will rise up from their graves and hasten to their Lord. ‘Woe betide us!’ they will say. ‘Who has roused us from our resting-place?’” (36:51-52). This seems to say that the souls of the faithful were resting, as if in a state of sleep, awaiting their resurrection.
Yet the Koran can seem to contradict this viewpoint. It says, for example, “Never think that those who were slain in the cause of God are dead. They are alive, and well provided for by their Lord; pleased with His gifts and rejoicing,” as if they enjoy these comforts immediately upon death (3:169). And this passage seems to implicitly affirm the immortality of the soul by denying death.
The Common Christian View of the Intermediate State
Christian theologians call the time in the afterlife between death and resurrection “the intermediate state.” Both Catholic and Protestant scholars believe that, prior to Jesus’ resurrection, the immortal souls of all people who die go to “the place of the dead.” In the Old Testament, this place is called “Sheol;” in the New Testament, it is called “Hades.” These two words refer to the same place because Sheol is a Hebrew word, and Hades is its Greek equivalent.
Protestants believe that when Jesus ascended to heaven he took all righteous souls in Sheol/Hades with him, where they have enjoyed conscious bliss ever since, yet without their physical bodies. Catholics believe likewise, but only for those who died with no un-confessed, venial sins; all others go to Purgatory, a concept repudiated by Protestants.
Today, Protestants and many other Christians, such as Evangelicals, believe as many Muslims do, that at death the souls of the faithful immediately go to heaven to enjoy conscious bliss if not to experience rewards. However, heavenly rewards require a preceding judgment, and the Bible does not tell of judgment prior to resurrection.
Does the New Testament teach this common Christian viewpoint, that at death the souls of all believers immediately go to heaven to be with Jesus and be consciously happy there? Like the Koran, the New Testament is rather silent on this subject of the intermediate state. It does have a bare few passages that touch on the subject. But this is not the case with the Old Testament, which has much to say about the intermediate state. This situation suggests that the New Testament says very little about the intermediate state because it assumes what the Old Testament says about it, as if it does not need to be repeated. If so, neither Jesus’ sayings nor his actions changed anything that is taught in the Old Testament about the intermediate state. So, let us first examine this subject in the Old Testament. And we will also consider what distinguished biblical scholars have to say on this matter.
Sheol in the Old Testament
The word Sheol occurs in the Old Testament sixty-seven times. It never occurs with the article, which suggests it is a proper name. Its derivation is uncertain. What is certain is that it refers to what ancients in the Near East called “the underworld.” They called it this because they believed that the place of the dead was located “under” the surface of the earth. Indeed, the Old Testament says twenty-five times that when people die their souls go “down” to “Sheol.” Philip S. Johnston well explains about Sheol in the Old Testament, “It always means the realm of the dead located deep inside the earth.”
What is the condition of souls in Sheol? Job describes Sheol as “the land of gloom and deep darkness, the land of gloom and chaos, where light is like darkness” (Job 10.21-22). Wise King Solomon explains that “the dead do not know anything” and “there is no activity, planning, or wisdom in Sheol” (Ecclesiastes 9.5, 10). Since there is no memory there either, it is called “the land of forgetfulness” (Psalm 6.5; 88.12). In Sheol, there is no praise of God or thankfulness directed toward him (Psalm 30.9; 88.11; Isaiah 38.18-19). Instead, there is nothing but “silence” in Sheol (Psalm 31.17; 94.17; 115.17). Thus, all souls in Sheol are unconscious and at “rest,” as though they are asleep (cf. 1 Samuel 28.15; Daniel 12.13; Revelation 6.11; 14.13). As mentioned above, this condition called “rest” corresponds to a passage in the Koran.
The Intermediate State in the New Testament
Jesus sometimes taught on the afterlife. He clearly taught the resurrection of the dead (Mark 12.18-27 and parallels). And he repeatedly predicted his own resurrection. When he went to Bethany to resuscitate his friend Lazarus from the dead, he told his disciples, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him” (John 11.11). They misunderstood and Jesus explained, “Lazarus is dead” (v. 14). Jesus thus followed the common Old Testament practice of characterizing the dead as “asleep.”
Another time when Jesus spoke on the afterlife he related more particularly about the intermediate state. He said that “just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12.40). Here is a clear statement alluding to Old Testament teaching about Sheol, but without calling it by name. Jesus meant that when he died his soul would immediately go to Sheol, located in the center of the earth. This statement should be compared with one he made while hanging on the cross; it has been widely misinterpreted to support the traditional Christian belief about the intermediate state.
Jesus was crucified between two criminals. At first, they both ridiculed him. But one of them began to change his mind about Jesus. He also repented of his evil deeds and acknowledged that he deserved death. Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23.42). Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (v. 43). This statement has been understood generally as follows: when Jesus and this criminal died, their immortal souls went immediately to Paradise in heaven to enjoy conscious bliss, or they went there at Jesus’ ascension to heaven.
Support for this view is garnered from two New Testament passages. In one of them, the Apostle Paul relates about an experience he (or someone else?) had in which he “was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. For I know that such a person … was caught up into Paradise” (2 Corinthians 12.4). Paul was not sure whether it was a body or an out-of-body experience. And he seems to be espousing the Jewish belief that there are three levels of heaven, with the third and uppermost level being where God dwells.
The other passage is in the book of Revelation. This author quotes the heavenly Jesus as saying, “To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God” (Revelation 2.7). Paradise, here, probably refers to the abode of the resurrected righteous—the holy New Jerusalem (Revelation 21-22).
Thus, Jews used the word “Paradise” in different ways. They applied it to the Garden of Eden and to either heaven or a particular place in heaven. They also used it to refer to a place in Sheol. The crucified Jesus did so when he spoke to the criminal on the cross. Jeremiah Jeremias explains concerning Jesus’ use of the term “Paradise” in his conversation with that criminal, “Paradise is according to Lk. 23:43 the abode of the souls of the redeemed in the intermediate state between death and resurrection.”
Jesus once taught what seems to have been a parable about the afterlife. It was a about a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus. Jesus said, “The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side” (Luke 16.22-23). The rich man begged “Father Abraham” to send Lazarus to help relieve his suffering. But Abraham said, “between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us” (v. 26). The word in the Greek text here translated “side” is kolpos, which means “bosom,” “breast,” or “chest” (cf. John 1.18; 13.23). Scholars often refer to it as “Abraham’s bosom.”
In this teaching, Jesus draws upon Jewish ideas concerning the intermediate state. These ideas were quite fluid over the course of time. Jesus seems to have advocated a particular Jewish belief, that Sheol/Hades is divided into two compartments: one for the souls of the righteous, apparently called “Abraham’s bosom,” and the other for the souls of the unrighteous, with a great gulf separating these two compartments. Because of what the crucified Jesus said about Paradise to the criminal on the cross, it seems that Jesus thought of Abraham’s bosom as synonymous with the Paradise in Sheol.
So, the New Testament does not seem to support the common Christian view that souls are immortal and that at death, righteous souls go to heaven to be with God and Jesus and be eternally happy. Rather, the Old Testament clearly affirms that souls go to Sheol, located deep inside the earth, where they sleep during this intermediate state, awaiting the resurrection. And the New Testament does not change this teaching. Those few passages which are thought to do so, such as Philippians 1.21-23 and 2 Corinthians 5.1-8, should be interpreted to mean that when the righteous die, the next thing they will know and experience will be the resurrection since their souls will have been asleep in Sheol/Hades, thus being unaware of time expiring during that intermediate state. David E. Aune (Revelation 6-16, WBC [Nashville: Word, 1998], 410) claims, “the notion of an intermediate state has often been read into 2 Corinthians 5:1-5 … though this view is doubtful.” Martin Luther said of these two passages that when the trumpet sounds for the resurrection of the righteous, soul sleep in Sheol will be like an alarm clock going off that wakes a sleeping person in physical life.
Later Christians Adopt Neo-Platonic Dualism
Early church fathers clearly and strongly believed in this biblical teaching about the intermediate state, that at death all souls go to Sheol to sleep and await resurrection. However, Christians eventually adopted the Greek philosophical view about life and the afterlife, called “dualism,” which had been developed earlier, in the 4th and 3rd centuries bc. It is as follows: (1) the human soul is immortal and good; (2) the fleshly, human body is evil or the source of evil; (3) the soul is imprisoned in the body; (4) physical death represents a liberation of the soul from the prison house of the body; (5) all immortal souls in the afterlife go through various stages of progression in order to attain pure knowledge, perhaps through a series of reincarnations; (6) the concept of the resurrection of the body is nonsense (which Christians rejected).
Early church fathers established in their writings a strong demarcation between this Neo-platonic view of immortality of the soul and the Jewish view of resurrection. Christians later adopted this philosophical teaching on immortality of the soul, and they added to it that when genuine Christians die their souls go immediately to heaven to enjoy conscious bliss, which many Greek philosophers believed about all souls. These Christians did not adopt this viewpoint due to it being taught in the Bible, but solely because it is more palatable. Such a teaching not only detracts from the concept of the resurrection of the dead, it renders resurrection unnecessary, and this is despite the fact that Jesus’ resurrection is the foundation of Christianity. That is, what use is resurrection when you have all the same benefits with this Greek, philosophical viewpoint?
Alan F. Segal produced a magisterial book entitled Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion (2004). It is about religious beliefs of the West and Near East on the afterlife. He states, “Apostolic Christianity at first wanted nothing to do with immortality of the soul” (p. 705). He adds, “the Church Fathers took aim at immortality of the soul as the doctrine to defeat…. fixing on immortality of the soul as a hostile doctrine because immortality of the soul vitiated the special salvation that the cross brought to the faithful alone. If immortality were a natural property of the soul, no one would need a Savior” (p. 534). He recounts, “The pagan world, on the other hand, was comfortable with immortality of the soul. Christians from that world carried this doctrine into Christianity and set up an opposition between immortality and resurrection inside Christianity. The more intellectual the Christian audience, the more immortality of the soul appealed” (p. 533). Segal further observes, “the immortality of the soul,… has triumphed in Western philosophy in the last two hundred years” (p. 714). Segal alleges, “Modern America, Christian or not, has ineluctably retreated to the position of the pagan philosophers of late antiquity: Our souls are immortal by nature” (p. 715). He explains, “For the ancient Hebrew only God was immortal, but we think we share that immortality with God” (p. 716).
Indeed, the Apostle Paul describes God as “the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God,… It is he alone who has immortality” (1 Timothy 1.17; 6.16).
Can the West do anything about these radical, Muslim, suicide bombers? This War on Terrorism really begins with ideology about the intermediate state that extremist imams preach in their mosques. Therefore, western governments should fight fire with fire by exposing this Islamic propaganda via such media outlets as Radio Free Europe, setting the historical record straight about what early Christianity taught about the intermediate state and what the Bible really says about it. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was quoted on a Times magazine website as saying of the Iraq war, “If you think how to defeat an insurgency, you defeat it not just militarily but politically,” thereby affirming her office. But the insurgents’ motivation for fighting is mostly about religion, which the U.S. ignores.
Propaganda has always been a feature of war. The U.S. has used propaganda in war, especially against Japan in WWII. Who knows if a U.S. government media endeavor to set the record straight might cause some of these Islamic suicide bombers to rethink forfeiting their lives only to wait in Sheol for who knows how long to learn of their fate. It might not take much persuasion for some of these young people to change their minds.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright brings to our attention in her recent book, The Mighty and the Almighty (2006), the historic refusal of the U.S. federal government to engage religious ideology by enhancing its expertise on this subject. This lack led to the Branch Davidians debacle near Waco, Texas.
The U.S. Department of State should have a sector that studies religious ideology for the sole purpose of assisting in the formation of U.S. foreign policy. It has an affairs bureau for almost everything conceivable except “Religious Affairs.” But alas, does our (arguably) doctrine of separation of church and state prevent our federal government from exposing religious dogma of its enemies with its own propaganda? Maybe not, if that propaganda is restricted to setting forth accurate history and what religious texts say.
As a former member of the U.S. armed forces, I am grieved that America has not been doing all it can to protect its own—our men and women in uniform who have risked their lives especially against misguided, Islamic suicide bombers in order to protect our home front and liberate peoples in other parts of the world, such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
 The Bible sometimes advocates violence as well, but that is the subject for another article.
 These quotations are taken from the most renowned English translation of the Koran in the West, that of N.J. Dawood’s 5th revised edition published in 1990 (1st edition published in 1956) by Penguin Books.
 William J. Saal, Reaching Muslims for Christ (Chicago: Moody, 1993), 35).
 Mateen Elass, Understanding the Koran: A Quick Christian Guide to the Muslim Holy Book (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 131.
 At blueletterbible.com, enter search words “down Sheol” for NASB to see 25x in OT.
 Philip S. Johnston, Shades of Sheol: Death and Afterlife in the Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2002), 71.
 All biblical scriptures are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.
 So, the word lestai in the Greek text of Matt. 27.38 (cf. Mark 15.27) means “murderers” not mere thieves.
 Jeremiah Jeremias, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich, 10 vols. (ET Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), 5:769.