The words of this title are taken from II Timothy 3:5, where the apostle Paul speaks of men who shall manifest themselves in the last times. In the first verse of the chapter he warns the church that “in the last days perilous times shall come.” He goes on to describe various characteristics of the world in those last times, saying in verse 5 that the wicked will have a form of godliness but will deny the power thereof. In brief the meaning is that there will be a certain outward, formal godliness, service of God; but the content, the power, the ability of God through the Word of Christ to save His people, will be denied. The wicked in the last days will attempt to realize and establish and maintain a kingdom which is outwardly and formally the kingdom of God; it will bear a resemblance to the kingdom of God as it is pictured in the Scriptures. Certainly the devil and the powers of evil will use this form of godliness to deceive many, to gain the support of the world for the kingdom of antichrist. That this is true is evident from a study of the prophecies of Daniel and of John in the book of Revelation. But this kingdom will not be the true kingdom of God which is heavenly, the kingdom which is characterized by the power of godliness. Those who belong to the kingdom of Christ have a godliness which has power to make them the citizens of that kingdom. But the wicked who shall become manifested in the last days will have but a form of it, an empty and powerless godliness, which is no real godliness at all, but mere deception and fakery.
But the church must not be lulled into thinking that all of this shall take place only immediately before the end of all things. It is true that this form without power shall reach its clearest manifestation shortly before the final end in the kingdom of antichrist. But Paul is speaking here of the last days, according to the first verse of the chapter. This must mean the days of the new dispensation, which according to Scripture are the last days. This means therefore that those who have this form without power are always present in the world, and are increasingly manifested as the end approaches. Therefore, the teaching of Scripture is that this form without power is already present in the world in which we live, and that we are to recognize this as a sign of the coming of Christ’s kingdom.
This phenomenon described in Scripture is strikingly evident in an article entitled “Life After Life,” which appeared in the January issue of Reader’s Digestmagazine. In this condensation of his book the author, Dr. Raymond Moody, claims to be objective in his investigations of the experiences of people who have “died” in the medical sense of the word, but who have been revived and brought back to this life to tell of their experiences during the period of time in which they were “dead.” He is careful to emphasize that the experiences that he has chronicled do not constitute proof in the scientific sense for life after death, but that they have left him with “feelings, questions, analogies, puzzling facts to be explained” (p. 215). It is to our benefit to examine some of his findings and to attempt to draw conclusions from them, bearing in mind what Paul says about the form of godliness without the power thereof.
The form of godliness evident in the experiences recounted in this article is amazingly parallel to the testimony of the Scriptures regarding the whole matter of death, resurrection, and appearance for judgment. There are several aspects to this experience of “death” and resuscitation, most or all of which are present in the accounts of all with whom Dr. Moody talked. For one thing, immediately at the time of clinical death, there was a loud ringing or buzzing sound heard by those who died. Immediately they entered a sort of long, dark tunnel or valley; as one man expressed it:
Suddenly I was in a very dark, very deep valley. It was as though there was a pathway, almost a road, through the valley, and I was going down the path. Later, after I was well, the thought came to me: “Well, now I know what the Bible means by the ‘valley of the shadow of death.'”
Many of those who have had these experiences could also describe what it was like to be dead, outside of their physical bodies. They were detached from their physical bodies, and seemed to float freely as objective observers of attempts to revive their physical bodies, attempts which later they were able to describe with astounding accuracy. The author terms these “spiritual bodies.” In these spiritual bodies they are unable to communicate with others, are invisible, and not bound by physical barriers, being able to move rapidly from one place to another. Those in this state do not hear in the usual sense, but were able to understand the thoughts of others even before they were spoken.
But perhaps the most striking element of all in this life after life is the “being of light” which those who have died encountered. Says the author: “Typically, at its first appearance this light is dim, but it rapidly gets brighter until it reaches an unearthly brilliance. Not one person has expressed any doubt whatsoever that it was a being. It has, moreover, a very definite “personality,” which the author goes on to describe in terms of love and warmth. This being immediately begins to question those involved, asking what they have done with their lives. “All insist,” writes Moody (p. 204), “that this question is not asked in condemnation, to accuse or threaten them. They still feel total love and acceptance coming from the light, no matter what their answer may be.” Then follows what is described as a panoramic review of the person’s life, though not for the information of the being. “‘It is obvious that the being can see the individual’s whole life displayed, and that he himself doesn’t’ need information. His only intention is to provoke reflection,” p. 204. A further description of this being of light is given:
“It was beautiful and so bright, so radiant, but it didn’t hurt my eyes. It’s not any kind of light you can describe on earth. I didn’t actually see a person in this light, and yet it has a special identity, it definitely does. It is a light of perfect understanding and perfect love.” (p. 204)
Though there is certainly more detail that could be given and is given in this article, the above is sufficient indication of the form of godliness which characterizes the accounts of this life after life. But what must we say about all of this? Surely there is here a form of godliness. In fact, the resemblance between the accounts given of such experiences and the expressions of Scripture is startlingly close. Think, as did one person who had such an experience, of the valley of the shadow of death of Psalm 23. Think, in connection with the descriptions of the kind of body possessed by these persons after physical death, of the spiritual nature of the resurrection body of I Corinthians 15. In connection with the “being of light,” consider the descriptions of God and Christ given inRevelation 1 and Revelation 4. In connection with the “light of perfect understanding and love,” call to mind the Scriptural picture of perfect covenant fellowship and communion in the life hereafter. And, although Scripture does not specifically tell us how the judgment according to works will be carried out from a very practical point of view, is it not possible that the experiences of these persons shed some light on this question? In this light, we as Christians can and may learn something from such experiences and accounts, in the right sense of the word; not as proof of what Scripture says, for Scripture needs no proof, but requires faith; but in the sense of added light and understanding. We need not totally reject all that is said in this article.
But yet the truth of the matter is that there is evidenced here form without substance and power. Instead of acknowledging the sovereign God of heaven and earth, there are references to a “being of light,” or by Jews to “an angel.” Never is there a correlation drawn between the testimony of Scripture and these experiences, so that the latter are properly interpreted in terms of the former. But perhaps the clearest evidence of the lack of the power of godliness is the following:
In most cases, the reward-punishment model of the afterlife is abandoned and disavowed, even by many who had been accustomed to thinking in those terms. They found, much to their amazement, that even when their most apparently sinful deeds were made manifest before the being of light, that being responded not with anger and rage but rather with understanding and even humor. (These sins, of course, were not of a particularly grievous nature). (p. 207)
Add to this that there were no really negative experiences in the afterlife, and the result is a denial of election and reprobation, of eternal reward and punishment according to the works done in the flesh.
From those who have this form without power, Timothy admonishes, we are to “turn away.” We must not be partaker in their sins, for then our end is the same as theirs. But we must remain faithful to the Scriptures and their testimony concerning the things which take place after this life. And we must recognize these things for what they are: signs of the end times, indicating that our Lord is soon coming back. When he does, those who have disavowed the idea of reward and punishment will surely be surprised, for God is not mocked. But God’s people, believing the Scriptures, can look forward without fear to the life hereafter in the confidence that we belong to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ, both in life and in death.