One Bible story often cited as evidence that God actually kills people is that of Ananias and Sapphira. But did God actually kill them? It is a serious thing to falsely charge someone with taking the life of another. Let’s take a look – a careful look – at the account and consider the possibilities:
“But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession, And kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land? Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God. And Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the ghost: and great fear came on all them that heard these things. And the young men arose, wound him up, and carried him out, and buried him. And it was about the space of three hours after, when his wife, not knowing what was done, came in. And Peter answered unto her, Tell me whether ye sold the land for so much? And she said, Yea, for so much. Then Peter said unto her, How is it that ye have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? behold, the feet of them which have buried thy husband are at the door, and shall carry thee out. Then fell she down straightway at his feet, and yielded up the ghost: and the young men came in, and found her dead, and, carrying her forth, buried her by her husband. And great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard these things.” (Acts 5:1-11)
The setting was that of the early church soon after Pentecost when many people were joining. Some were suffering economically because of their commitment to truth. Others were being very generous with their means to help those in need to the point that they considered their property to be possessions of the entire church (Acts 4:32). Evidently, Ananias and Sapphira had sold a piece of property for a certain sum and agreed between them to say they had sold it for a lesser sum while keeping the difference for their own use. However, they pledged an amount representing it as the total sale price of the property. They could have just given a portion (“after it was sold, was it not in thine own power?” v4) – they were free to pledge whatever portion they wanted. Perhaps they wanted to look good in the eyes of the church by appearing so generous. Scripture, in the verses just before, held up, as an example, the generosity of another individual in a similar circumstance:
“And Joses, who by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas, (which is, being interpreted, The son of consolation,) a Levite, and of the country of Cyprus, Having land, sold it, and brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.” (Acts 4:36-37)
Likely, Ananias and Sapphira’s decision would have (it certainly should have) troubled their consciences but they went ahead with the deception anyway.
When Ananias brought the money to the apostles, Peter confronted him about the deception and Ananias immediately dropped dead. It looks like very swift and well-deserved justice and that is how it is usually explained and understood.
But let’s first examine the facts about the incident – what we know and don’t know:
- Satan had filled Ananias’ heart.
- We don’t know how Peter knew their secret.
- Peter accused Ananias of lying to the Holy Spirit.
- It doesn’t specify who, if anyone, killed Ananias or Sapphira.
- It doesn’t state the cause of death except to say that they “gave up the ghost.”
- There is no indication that Peter knew what would happen to Ananias or that Peter condemned Ananias to a particular fate.
- Peter (or scripture) never said God would kill Ananias or made Him responsible in any way.
- Ananias and Sapphira had failed to follow through on fulfilling their vow or promise to pay what they had pledged as scripture says they should have done ( Deut 23:21-23).
On top of all of that, remember that Satan is actively looking for opportunities to destroy, discredit the church and malign God’s character:
“Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour:” (1 Pet 5:8)
Giving Up the Ghost
The term “gave up the ghost” is interesting. It is used 10 times in scripture (KJV) and 18 times when variations such as “yielded up the ghost” or “giveth up the ghost are included. With a few notable exceptions, the deaths were not violent deaths at the hands of others inflicting death. Those exceptions are Herod, Jesus and Ananias and Sapphira. We might learn something by taking a look at what “giving up the ghost” means.
The case of King Herod (Acts 12:21-23) is dealt with here. Properly understood, he did not die as a direct result of an angelic blow. Scripture does not say how long after “the angel of the Lord smote him” he died and, in fact, history records that he died several days later.
In the case of Jesus, who killed Him? Notice the same wording used in this verse:
“And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit: and having said thus, he gave up the ghost.” (Luke 23:46)
“Gave up” (here and in the cases of Ananias and Sapphira and Herod) in the Greek is in the active voice which represents the subject as the doer or performer of the action. Jesus had said:
“Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father.” (John 10:17-18)
Both Jesus and Ananias and Sapphira yielded/gave up the ghost. They did it; it was not done to them.
What would cause Ananias to essentially give up his life? Note that Satan had filled his heart (or mind)” which is very much like:
“And supper being ended, the devil having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him;” (John 13:2)
Not only was Ananias’ mind determined to do wrong, to lie but it was “filled” by Satan. When his sin was exposed, the revelation of what He had done in contrast to the giving spirit of the other disciples and the guilt of allowing his mind to be filled by Satan was overwhelming. The feelings of guilt and shame in the presence of the leadership of the church and in his situation could have essentially caused him to give up on life. Perhaps something like a heart attack was involved and, in fact, there is a condition known popularly as broken-heart syndrome and medically as stress-induced cardiomyopathy:
“Stress cardiomyopathy is now a well-recognized cause of acute heart failure.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Takotsubo_cardiomyopathy, accessed 170528)
Here is a description of broken heart syndrome from the famed Mayo clinic:
“Broken heart syndrome is often preceded by an intense physical or emotional event. Some potential triggers of broken heart syndrome are … News of an unexpected death of a loved one … Losing — or even winning — a lot of money” (http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/broken-heart-syndrome/symptoms-causes/dxc-20264170, accessed 170528)
This University of Iowa source gives a little more detail:
“Severe physical and emotional stressors—the death of a loved one, a catastrophic event, financial loss, a serious medical condition, a car accident, or an emotional memory or anniversary—have been well known to cause transient heart stunning. The connection between emotion and cardiac death has long been documented in the medical literature, and there have been many reports of seemingly healthy people who have dropped and even died during a natural disaster or traumatic event.” (https://uihc.org/health-library/ask-expert-what-broken-heart-syndrome, accessed 170528)
Why would anyone blame God for the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira when there is no actual evidence He did it and there is another, perfectly-logical explanation? We need to be careful what we charge God with.
If God Killed Ananias, We Have a Problem
If God personally and directly took Ananias’ life, we have another problem. Think of Jesus’ encounter with the woman caught in adultery. What was His reaction? How did He treat her?
“… he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.” (John 8:10-11)
There was complete forgiveness there. We need to judge God and His actions – what we attribute to Him or not – by His character and not the other way around. The greatest revelation of His character and what we need to focus on and even sometimes interpret scripture by is the example of His Son who came for a specific reason:
“And we know that the Son of God is come, and hath given us an understanding, that we may know him that is true, and we are in him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and eternal life.” (1 John 5:20)
Jesus stated that He came to help us know what the Father is like. Jesus’ statements that His character was a reflection of His Father’s character and the character Jesus showed as recorded in the gospels must outweigh (or at least make suspect) the description of a single incident where we think God executed justice by killing someone. That is especially true when the account does not even directly say that. We need to carefully examine the scriptural account and go by the weight of evidence. Anyone who will not do that “can’t see the forest for the trees” as the expression goes.
So let’s see if there might be evidence that God was not responsible for killing Ananias and Sapphira. We have already seen the possibility that the trauma of having their sin exposed may have led to the sudden deaths of Ananias and Sapphira. Ultimately, they were to blame. But was anyone else responsible to any degree?
Was Peter Acting Correctly?
Why did Peter act so differently than the example of Jesus? We tend to automatically think that Peter was in the right here and he was acting as God’s representative. Perhaps that is because Ananias and Sapphira were so wrong or because Peter was an apostle. But let’s ask some questions about Peter’s actions:
- Did Peter have a record of speaking or acting impulsively and not considering the effect of his actions? Yes, and here are a few examples:
“Then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee. But he turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.” (Matt 16:22-23)
“Peter answered and said unto him, Though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended. Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, That this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice. … Then began he to curse and to swear, saying, I know not the man. And immediately the cock crew.” (Matt 26:33-34,74)
“Then Simon Peter having a sword drew it, and smote the high priest’s servant, and cut off his right ear. The servant’s name was Malchus. Then said Jesus unto Peter, Put up thy sword into the sheath: the cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?” (John 18:10-11)
- Did Peter act blamelessly in all situations? No, Paul had to rebuke him openly for his attitude towards the Gentiles:
“But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed.” (Gal 2:11)
- Did Peter act as an accuser of the brethren, in this case?
Peter openly exposed and accused Ananias before the apostles (“laid it at the apostles’ feet” – Acts 5:2) Jesus, when he replied to those who brought the woman caught in adultery did not openly expose them (John 8:8-9). He did the same in the case of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:40-43) and probably others.
- Did Peter even try to cast out Satan? Peter perceived that Ananias was very much under the influence of Satan (Acts 5:3) yet he did not follow the injunction to cast out demons:”Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give.” (Matt 10:8)
- Did Peter follow the advice of how to deal with a man overtaken in a fault?
“Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.” (Gal 6:1)
Granted, that was written by Paul later but the principle should have been followed in the church before that. Peter did not have a record of acting in the spirit of meekness.
Matthew 18:15-17 gives the instructions to first deal privately with one caught in a trespass, then to involve other witnesses if the private correction is not received and only as a last resort to make a public confrontation if the person remains unrepentant. And even then, the worst punishment was to be excommunication, not execution.
- Did Peter urge Ananias to repent?
In the story of David committing adultery with Bathsheba, having her husband killed and trying to cover up the whole affair he was finally brought face to face with what he had done. But it was all done in a very non-condemning way – considering the circumstances – by Nathan telling a story which prompted David (who did not realize that the story was to illustrate his past own actions) to condemn himself:
“… As the LORD liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die:” (2 Sam 12:5)
David’s reaction to “being caught” was repentance and turning to the Lord. It is interesting that David apparently had a high enough regard for Nathan the prophet to later name one of his sons Nathan:
“And these be the names of those that were born unto him in Jerusalem; Shammua, and Shobab, and Nathan, and Solomon,” (2 Sam 5:14)
In contrast to Nathan’s approach, Peter was very forceful in his dealing with Ananias, accusing him directly of lying to God. His actions do not seem to be in accord the will of God:
“The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” (2 Pet 3:9)
It is interesting that Peter wrote that verse. Perhaps, by later in his life, he had learned the importance of giving opportunity for and urging repentance.
- What was the result of Peter’s action?
The immediate effect was to produce a spirit of fear:
“And great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard these things.” (Acts 5:11)
This is not the sort of attitude towards His newly-founded church that God would want to produce:
“For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” (2 Tim 1:7)
God does not favor the use of fear (in the sense of being afraid) to control the actions of people and would far rather have people give willingly and cheerfully (not fearfully) with no coercion:
“Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver.” (2 Cor 9:7)
- Did Peter Say God Killed Them?
One point to Peter’s credit was that he (or the commentary in the book of Acts) never attributed the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira to God; Peter never threatened to kill them or suggested that God or angels would. On the contrary, Peter stated shortly after this incident that healing was from God and that sickness and oppression were from the devil:
“How God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Ghost and with power: who went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him.” (Acts 10:38)
Insights from Other Cases
Simon the Sorcerer
This is a very interesting incident involving Peter and from just a short time after the story of Ananias and Sapphira:
“And when Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money, Saying, Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost. But Peter said unto him, Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money. Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee. For I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity. Then answered Simon, and said, Pray ye to the Lord for me, that none of these things which ye have spoken come upon me.” (Acts 8:18-24)
The story was similar in that an individual had a financial temptation and wrong motives. Peter’s reaction was somewhat similar and he actually went further than when he confronted Ananias in that he said to Simon “thy money perish with thee” suggesting he might have expected a similar fate for Simon as that which happened to Ananias. At least Peter here urged repentance. The difference was in the reaction of Simon compared to Ananias. Simon repented and asked for prayer and he may have reacted differently because of his different perception of the love and forgiveness of God. Or, he may have heard of the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira.
Paul’s Reaction When He was Smitten
Paul, then called Saul, was also “smitten” (in quite dramatic fashion) to get his attention:
“And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem. And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.” (Acts 9:1-5)
“The pricks,” in other translations, are rendered as “goads” and refer to cattle prods. It is here used in reference to the calling of Paul’s conscience to convict him that the direction he had taken against the church was wrong. Later, Paul was relating his experience to king Agrippa and said:
“Whereupon, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision:” (Acts 26:19)
Saul could have reacted like Ananias, instead he repented, followed God’s instructions and became Paul, the great apostle to the Gentiles.
What About the Sin Against the Holy Spirit?
Didn’t Ananias lie to the Holy Spirit? Isn’t that the unforgiveable sin and therefore worthy to be punishable by death?
“Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven (apheimi) unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven (apheimi) unto men.” (Matt 12:31)
If one keeps ignoring the Holy Ghost, the voice of God calling for repentance, it will eventually be silenced or, better, not recognized. A person thus cannot receive forgiveness. It is important to know that the word “forgiven” is from the Greek word “apheimi” and is referring to forgiveness being received, not to forgiveness being granted. (Download a PDF file of an e-book looking at this in detail.) God, from His side of the two-part forgiveness transaction, always grants forgiveness.
Can’t Accept It?
I recognize that some people will not accept the explanation given above. It may come down to how we want to see God. Some might want Him execute swift vengeance and, in some cases, that may be something they desire to see for someone else in their lives.
Some will not take the time to look into this in so much detail but will just say “But it plainly says God killed him.” Well, no, it does not say that – just read it. We must compare to the wider picture and ask questions like:
- Can you see Jesus doing that?
- How does this fit the overall message of scripture?
- Did Peter’s actions represent God’s character?
- What was the state of Ananias’ mind?
- Is there a reasonably-plausible natural cause of death?
- Does the Bible actually say who killed them?
It is a serious thing to charge someone with killing another. We should be careful about so charging God without direct evidence.
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