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In this column, Ben Witherington answers questions about the Bible and:

The soul immediately after death
John 5:16's "sin unto death"
The virginity of Mary

Q: Where in the Bible does it support the belief in predestination?

There are several texts usually thought to support the notion of predestination, mostly in the Pauline epistles. For example, Ephesians 1:3-14 is thought to suggest this idea, as does Romans 8:29-30. On closer inspection, the former text is speaking about Christ being the one destined by God for various things, and those who are 'in Christ' (Christians) receiving benefits. One is said to enter the body of Christ by grace through faith, according to the same text. Romans 8:29-30 stresses that God has destined those who are in Christ to be conformed to his image. That is the believers' destination. This, however, does not mean that a person can't derail this process. Apostasy is a real possibility referred to in a host of texts (see, for example, 1 John 5:16-17; Hebrews 6:4-5). What the predestination texts suggest is that God has a plan and is executing it, and unless the believer opts out, this plan will come to fruition.

Q: The Christian Bible teaches that reincarnation does exist. God himself preexisted and entered into the body of Jesus. The Christian Bible teaches that God's son appears on the earth three times, twice as the son of man. Is that not talking about reincarnation?

You may be confused. There are no New Testament texts that speak of God entering into the body of Jesus. Rather, we are told in texts like Philippians 2:6-11 that the pre-existent Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, took on flesh--flesh which was created in Mary's womb by means of the miracle of the virginal conception (see Luke 2). Neither does the Old Testament or the New Testament teach that God's Son appears on earth three times. Rather, we are told that Jesus appeared for the one and only time during the reign of Herod the Great--though, to be sure, texts like Mark 14:62 indicate that he will return at the time of the final resurrection and last judgment.

Q. What does the Bible say about death? Do we immediately go to heaven, or is our soul in an interim existence?

A text like 2 Corinthians 5:1-10 makes evident that Paul believes that for the believer, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Since the Lord is in heaven, this suggests that a faithful believer immediately goes to heaven when he or she dies.

Q. Is there a biblical basis for a belief that hell is real or that it exists?

Yes, indeed. There are various texts that suggest hell exists. For example, we have the parable of Jesus about the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. That parable makes evident that this life is the place of decision. How we believe and behave here will determine our eternal destiny. The parable suggests that once you go to hell, you cannot come back. In other texts, Jesus refers to hell as Gehenna, an Aramaic term based on the name Hinnom, the valley just south of Jerusalem where garbage was regularly burned (see Matthew 18:8-9). The image of hell as similar to Gehenna--a place where the fire does not go out and the worm never dies--suggests a very unpleasant place (see also Matthew 13:42, 50).

Q. What is the sin unto death it talks about in 1 John 5:16?

See the answer above. It appears to be the sin of apostasy, of the rejection of God's grace and love. It can also be called the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit (Mark 3), in which people call evil good, and good evil.

Q. In your interpretation of Bible, who or what is Satan? Is he an entity, or is it a state of mind?

Satan, or the devil, is depicted in various places in the Bible as a personal being (see, for example, Matthew 4:1-11). In texts like Job 1-2, he is depicted as the adversary who accuses God's people, often unjustly.

Q. I strongly disagree with your answer regarding the perpetual virginity of Mary. For example, in Indonesia today, all cousins are referred to as brothers and sisters; the qualifying question is "of the same womb?" Further, considering the culture of the Jewish family at the time of Christ (and indeed today), why did Jesus give his mother into the care of a disciple (John) and not to one of His brothers and sisters? This act would have been the greatest insult to His family (brothers and sisters) had they existed. One other point: If Christ did have brothers and sisters, then there would be descendents of these alive today, brothers and sisters of the living God with sinful fallen natures.

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