The journey of the dead

Mount Yasur lava fields, Tanna Island, Vanuatu. (Credit: Getty Images)

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Every society on earth has an intense interest in the ultimate destiny of people when they die. Before the wonderful message of salvation came to the shores of Vanuatu, people thought that life did not end in death.

When a person died, they assumed he or she was travelling into the afterlife. There are various interpretations of what happens to the deceased. Today, some Adventists in Vanuatu still grapple with the Bible’s teachings about death. Some cling onto the idea that life continues even after a person has departed.

Various views about the afterlife

The beliefs of the Vanuatuan people were entrenched in ancient presuppositions regarding death.1 The Aneityum people reside in the southern part of Vanuatu. This group traditionally regarded death as transient. When people died, they were on a journey to a remote uninhabited island where they would reside permanently. Thus, when death took place, the community would dispose of the body of the departed at sea. The ocean, they thought, was where the deceased began their passage to their immortal home.

Historically, for people from the small village of Waisisi, near the white sands of East Tanna, the dead were segregated into two groups: the good and the bad. After they buried the deceased, they would visit the volcanic mountain of Yasur. It was there they learned the destiny of those who had fallen. If they discovered footprints on the ashes of the mountain, they knew the deceased had ended up in the restless fires of hell. However, the absence of any footprints meant the dead had a safe passage to Ipae, the paradise of the hereafter.

In the northwest of Malekula, the people of Lekan also believed in the afterlife. For them, the journey of the deceased began after burial. The departed would start the trip from the realm of the living to a world where life goes on for the dead. The transition from this world to the next came with festivity. The journey was also a time of preparation. The spirits would help to wash up, prepare, dress and conceal the deceased. Hence, the dead became visible in the spirit realm, but not to humans. The festivities continued until the hundredth day. That is when the deceased reached their ultimate home as inhabitants of the kingdom of demons.

The people of Lolovele village, south Ambae, had a similar view. However, chiefs for each gender officiated in the transition of the deceased. Had a woman passed, the elected chief would request the service of a female spirit. This spirit would navigate the departed in a canoe across the Manaro lake to the nakamal (chief’s house) for women. Had a man died, a male spirit would take him across to the nakamal for men. A ceremonial feast took place every five days. The spirit of the deceased finally arrived at the Manaro volcano on the hundredth day. The Manaro volcano was the home and permanent resting place of the body. Similar views were also held by the people of the Banks and Torres groups of islands in the northern part of Vanuatu.

What does the Bible say?

In Eden, Satan tricked Eve into believing that “you shall not surely die” (Genesis 3:4). This false teaching will become one of the greatest deceptions of the end-time. God formed man from the dust of the ground and “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). Job asserts, “the Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life” (Job 33:4). The term “soul” comes from the Hebrew nephesh, which does not indicate a quality of life separate from the body. The nephesh is the total person, not a part of the person. In the Bible, the term “soul” is also translated as “person” (see Genesis 14:21; Deuteronomy 10:22) or “self” (Leviticus 11:43; Isaiah 46:2).

The equation for life in Scripture is: dust + breath of life = a living soul. Hence, as Job points out, if God would “gather to Himself His Spirit and His breath” (Job 34:14; cf. Ps 146:4; Ecclesiastes 12:7), “All flesh would perish together, and man would return to dust” from which he was formed (Genesis 3:19; Job 10:9, 34:15, 30:19; Ecclesiastes 3:20; Psalm 104:29; 90:3). Divine wisdom through Solomon underscores that in the grave, the “dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished; nevermore will they have a share in anything done under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:5-8; 9:5; Psalm 146:4; Job 7:10). The Bible rejects the doctrine of the “immortal soul” and the continuation of life after death.

Hope for the dead in Christ 

The words of Jesus echo down the corridors of time: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live” (John 11:25). “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on” (Revelation 14:13). Jesus is coming soon (John 14:1-3) and every eye will see Him (Revelation 1:7). The glorious return of Jesus Christ is the “blessed hope” for God’s children (Titus 2:13). Jesus says, “Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice (John 5:28).

On that day, all the righteous dead will hear the voice of Jesus saying, “Awake, you who sleep, arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light” (Ephesians 5:14). Then the righteous dead will rise from their graves and, with the righteous living, be caught up to meet Jesus in the air (1 Thessalonians 1:16,17). All those who now sleep (die) in Jesus will be brought back to life at the advent of Jesus, their bodies transformed in the twinkling of an eye from mortality to immortality (1 Corinthians 15:51). “Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years” (Revelation 20:6).

Heaven without death

It is difficult to comprehend what heaven will be like without death. All we know is that it will be much better than anything we can imagine (1 Corinthians 2:9). In this sinful world we too may one day die. Death is the cessation of life. Dust returns to dust. We await the promise and hope of being raised again when Jesus returns. Then, after a thousand years with Jesus in heaven, the beloved city will descend from God to this earth (Revelation 20:9; 21:2). The new heavens and new earth (2 Peter 3:13; Isaiah 66:22; Revelation 21:1) will have no more pain, crying or death (Revelation 21:4).

Life will be boundless. And God will become the Everlasting King of the universe (Revelation 21:3). Our ultimate destination will be far superior to the ocean, an unoccupied island or a place beneath a burning volcano. We will live with the Father, Son, Holy Spirit and the angels for endless ages. Death and Hades will have no place there.

Lui Yarakei is a theology student from Vanuatu, studying at Fulton College, Fiji.

  1. The Vanuatuan people, as part of Melanesia, were traditionally animists who believed that a living soul dwelt in every living thing (nature). Hence, the belief in the spirits of the dead was prevalent in Vanuatu. This section includes a brief summary of the various different concepts of life after death in traditional Vanuatuan society.
  2. All Bible citations in this article have been taken from the NKJV, unless otherwise stated.
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