Ananias and Sapphira

Examination of the facts

The story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts chapter 5 has been seized upon by critics of the Christian ethic in order to disparage Christianity. What kind of a man was Peter, they ask, that he should strike this man and woman dead for what appears on the surface to be a minor case of deceit? Ananias and his wife had sold a piece of land with the avowed purpose of giving the entire proceeds to the Cause but in reality keeping back part of those proceeds for themselves. Deceit, hypocrisy, yes, but not a crime justifying so extreme a punishment as death. In this modern day of ours it would not even be considered a crime, just an instance of "being smart". In the hurry thus to condemn the Apostle Peter the story itself is not considered with the attention it deserves.

First of all, the background. The Christian church had just commenced its development. The incident occurred not long after Pentecost, when, by means of the fervent preaching of the Apostles, a nucleus of three thousand people accepted the faith on the first day and came together in spontaneous fellowship. A few days later another five thousand were added. Repeated references to the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the multitude implies that the general atmosphere was highly charged with emotion and excitement. Conviction that Jesus Christ had indeed risen from the dead and ascended to his Father in heaven, and would speedily come again to establish his Kingdom upon earth, was general, and the assemblies of the believers were characterised by intense enthusiasm and zeal for further evangelism. The Lord had commissioned them to preach the Gospel in all the world for a witness unto all nations before his return and the end of the Age, and they were setting about that commission in no uncertain fashion. To that end there was a wholesale selling of land, houses, and any other kind of valuable property, and presentation of the proceeds to the Apostles both for the prosecution (pursuit) of this evangelism and to meet the needs of the poor among their number. Loud were the hallelujahs and expressions of praise to God as each successive donor came forward to add his contribution to the total; in their sincerity and zeal no one thought of doing other than present the whole of the money received from the particular sale.

In such an atmosphere Ananias came forward. He had sold some land and here was the price received. Secretly, and with the connivance of his wife Sapphira, he had retained part of the money for himself but the onlookers were not to know that; he allowed them to go on thinking that, like themselves, he had given the whole of the receipts to the cause. He stood before Peter, the money in his extended hand, basking in the approbation of the surrounding believers. Peter was not deceived. He knew the truth of the matter although how he knew it is not explained. It may be an example of knowledge imparted by reason of his attunement with the Holy Spirit —as we would say, inspiration—or it might have been his shrewd knowledge of human nature and something in Ananias’ attitude which did not ring true. At any rate, he knew.

It is important to notice that Peter did not condemn or pass sentence on Ananias. His words define a clear statement of the offence, nothing more. "Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Spirit, 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" (vv.3‑4) The printed record cannot reproduce the tone of the words or the demeanour of the speaker. They may have been spoken in indignation and anger; they may have been uttered in accents of infinite sadness. We just do not know. The consequences we do know. Ananias, smitten either by remorse or terror, fell to the ground and died immediately, to the consternation of the onlookers. Heart failure, obviously, but what caused it? There is no indication or evidence that Peter was responsible, no statement that he called upon miraculous power to strike the offender dead there and then. Neither is there any suggestion that Deity intervened in any way to bring about this unhappy man’s death. There is no clue whatever to the cause, only the bald fact that upon hearing the Apostle’s measured reproof Ananias fell down and breathed his last.

Here we should recall the highly emotional and excitable atmosphere prevailing at the moment. Ananias’ mind must already have been in a state of strain, what with that and also the inward knowledge of his own deception. To that might well have been added one further factor. A believer in Christ and a son of Israel, he would have known the history of his people well. As he listened to Peter’s declaration that he had attempted to deceive, not man, but God, did there flash into his mind, from his knowledge of the past, the story of Achan? Achan, in the days of Israel’s entry into the Land of Promise under Joshua, was guilty of exactly the same crime. Israel had been instructed that the spoil of the conquest was to be consecrated to God and offered to him; no man might keep any for himself. Achan coveted a wedge of gold, some silver, and a goodly Babylonian garment, and he kept back these items from the spoil he brought to the general offering, and hid them in his tent. The element of deceit rendered the offering inacceptable to God; disaster came upon Israel and men lost their lives in consequence. The sin of Achan came to light and he was put to death with all his family, and his possessions destroyed, in accordance with the custom of those days. Is it possible that Ananias, in one self‑revealing moment, realised that he had defiled this present offering to God in the same fashion, and saw himself as worthy only of the same fate that befell Achan? He had tried to cheat God! That sudden realisation coming on top of the tenseness of the moment might well have been sufficient to induce the heart failure which caused his death.

Three hours later his wife came in. By then the dead man had been buried; the Judean summer forbad delay in such matters. There is a different element in Peter’s words to Sapphira. They imply a knowledge of what was to come. "How is it that ye have agreed together to tempt (test) the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of them which have buried thy husband are at the door, and shall carry thee out." (v.9) It seems a cruel, almost savage, statement, but here again much depends upon the tone in which it was spoken. The same words uttered sadly, regretfully, slowly, could be those of a man sorely troubled and distressed over the whole matter and conscious only that this woman must in any case now be apprised of her husband’s untimely death. It seems certain that Peter was given a fore‑glimpse of the coming event; the same faculty of prevision which is evident in so many instances in Scriptural narrative was Peter’s at this moment and he must have seen in his mind’s eye what was going to happen in a few minutes. It need not he thought that he exercised miraculous power to cause Sapphira’s death, only that he knew she was going to die—as die she did. The extent to which Peter’s words accentuated the shock she would have experienced anyway on hearing of her husband’s death is not possible to estimate; she might well have realised that her own share in the plot had helped to cause the tragedy and that had she dissuaded him from the scheme he might yet be alive. The shock which killed her might not have been altogether, or even in great part, due to Peter’s words but to the realisation of her own guilt in the matter and its tragic outcome.

In line with the general level of understanding of the times the spectators would ascribe the happening to Divine intervention. The judgment of God had come upon this guilty pair. The whole thing created a profound impression and without doubt everyone connected with the infant Church took a little more care with their own personal life in the community. To what extent, if any, there was specific Divine judgment in the matter may be open to debate; one has to remember that Judas Iscariot likewise misappropriated funds entrusted to him without any immediate retribution. The narrative states the facts but does not attribute them to any kind of Divine intervention.

Did this lapse affect the eternal destiny of Ananias and Sapphira? There have always been some to insist that the couple are eternally lost; it is possible that the prominence given to their story in the Book of Acts highlights their case more than those of many others who have lapsed from their high standards in this or other ways. There is no reason for thinking that these two were other than perfectly sincere converts to the faith, overtaken by the temptation to win full plaudits from their fellows without meeting the corresponding obligation. The fault was one of greed; it was not flagrant immorality or deep‑rooted hostility to righteousness or love of evil. They wanted God to have part of what they had but not all. Many Christians are like that today in things much more important than money. "Some of self and some of thee" runs the old hymn, and in a spiritual sense that is much the same thing as the withholding of the portion which led to the premature deaths of Ananias and Sapphira. It does not seem very reasonable to think that the tremendous potentialities inherent in two intelligent creatures to whom God had given life should be vitiated and extinguished by what was, after all, not a very terrible crime, when there is no evidence at all that those two beings were already irrevocably committed to evil. And God has "no pleasure in the death of him that dieth" but would rather by far that he turn from his evil ways, and live. Perhaps the right view of this question is that stated by Canon R. H. Charles in his "A Critical History of the Doctrine of a Future Life" when he says "the idea that forgiveness is impossible in the next life has only to be stated in order to be rejected; for till absolute fixity of character is reached, repentance and forgiveness, being moral acts, must be possible under a perfectly moral Being."