The Biblical Case for Everyone Going to Heaven
Published by Mike Gantt at Shakespir
Self-published 2016. Originally written 1993.
Self-published with Shakespir 2017.
I claim no copyright for this book. However, English Bibles are copyrighted – hence the notice I am required to give below. You are free to copy anything of mine you want, but you do not have the same liberty where the Bible verses are concerned.
Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the
New American Standard Bible®, (NASB)
Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995
by The Lockman Foundation
Used by permission. (www.Lockman.org)
Table of Contents
Most people think that the Bible teaches that we go to either heaven or hell when we die. However, this is because most people are insufficiently familiar with the Bible’s contents and have merely accepted someone else’s interpretation. This book demonstrates that the Bible actually teaches something different from the traditional heaven-or-hell scenario. It teaches that everyone goes to heaven.
Before you begin reading this book, allow me a confession. I make it shamelessly. Here it is: I believe the Bible.
You may wonder if I always take the Bible literally. No, but I’ve learned to always take it seriously. All human speech involves both literal and figurative elements. Television reporters often declare, “The White House said today that…” No rational adult viewer concludes that the President’s home can talk. Neither does he think that the reporter has been hallucinating. Likewise, when John the Baptist describes Jesus as “the Lamb of God” we do not think Jesus was woolly and crawling on all fours to the Jordan River. The Bible is the word of God but it comes in human speech. Since we are constantly interpreting the mixture of figurative and literal expressions that come our way in human speech by means of context and common sense, it would seem strange to do something different when we come to the Bible. And since I take seriously what television reporters say, it does not seem strange to me to take seriously what the Bible says.
The simplest reason I can give you for my believing the Bible is that Jesus believed it. If He thought it was the word of God and worthy to be trusted as such – and He did – then that’s good enough for me.
I have no written proof that everyone is going to heaven other than what is in the Bible. If the Bible is sufficient authority for you, then you can believe it and be happy. If you do not consider the Bible authoritative, I cannot be of much help to you because I have no other source I consider authoritative on this subject. In any case, I’m just passing along what I have read.
Chapter 1 – The Problem of Death
You are going to die. Sorry to be so blunt about it. I am going to die, too, but that probably doesn’t make you feel any better. Regardless, the two of us may as well face it: we are going to die. It’s a more sure bet than taxes…and that’s saying a lot.
Everyone dies. It is a universal phenomenon and no one can remember when it wasn’t so. The oldest people on the planet today aren’t much past a hundred. No one expects them to make it to two hundred either. But even if they did, no one would expect human lives to go on indefinitely. Even the ancient Methuselah was required to call it quits at age 969.
Death sometimes comes peacefully and at an old age. Other times it is more violent and can strike the very young. In a sense, none of us is ever very far away from it. Take away our oxygen and fifteen minutes later we’re history. In fact, when you pause to consider the delicacy of human life and how little physical effort is required to snuff it out (I won’t mention the gruesome possibilities, but you get the idea), it becomes a wonder that any of us live as long as we do.
Disease, accidents, and violence can lead to death, but this is not always the case. On the other hand, even if a person manages to escape all these things, the body just seems to finally wear out. Scientists tell us that our cells are constantly dying and being replenished. After a while, the replenishing just can’t keep up with the dying…and there we go.
People will go to great lengths to postpone this inevitable date with destiny. Some folks are fanatical about it, but most of us just do what seems reasonable on a day-to-day basis. Only the depressed actually try to hasten the day. But no matter how much effort is invested in living, no sane person expects to do more than postpone death. Cancellations are unheard of.
Since death is so certain you would think it might absorb our thoughts, but it usually doesn’t. It comes screaming in at us from time to time and we shove it back into the recesses of our consciousness just as fast as we can. Not all of this repression is unhealthy. God obviously wants us to focus on living. That drive is instinctive within us, and the Bible affirms that God’s nature and desire for us is life.
Perhaps, though, an occasional reminder of our mortality is just the medicine we need to live a more vibrant and worthwhile life. This is certainly one of the purposes of a funeral.
Why Do We Have Funerals?
What is the point of a funeral, memorial service, or visitation time? First and foremost, it is to provide comfort to the grieving. Every time someone dies, we have lost something. The earth has become poorer. Just like every time a baby is born, the earth becomes richer. The closer one is to the deceased, the greater the loss and, therefore, the greater the grief. Those most affected by the loss gather together to comfort one another.
Do you remember the first time you ever attended a funeral? You may have been a child. If so, the deceased was probably someone close to you because children aren’t usually taken to funerals unless they themselves need to be part of the grief relief. I remember my first time. It was awfully sad, but it was comforting, too. When we gathered at a relative’s house for a meal after the burial, it surprised me how everyone seemed to know what to do. I didn’t know what to do, but there was so much order in what was happening that I could go with the flow. There were tears, but there were smiles, too. There was some silence, but a lot of quiet talking. Above all, there was the sense that life was going to go on. More soberly, more sadly perhaps. But grief-stricken though everyone may have been, there was a common understanding that this would not be the end of the world.
Looking back on it now, I can see why, mixed with the grief, there was the understanding that life was going to go on. Death was no surprise. The adults had seen enough of it to know. I was still a child. Death had not yet made enough claims in my small world to reveal its universality to me. But it would not take too many experiences before I, too, realized that death is as much a part of this world as the air we breathe. Even when its victim is young, the surprise only has to do with the timing of the death, not the fact of it. Though it is far from the mind when you first hold a newborn life in your arms, death is the most certain part of that child’s destiny…as it is your own.
While knowing that the world will go on provides a stabilizing force to the community of mourners, it provides no meaningful hope. The one force that makes more difference in the comforting process than anything else is genuine hope – hope that there will one day be a recovery of that loss. When people have a hope of seeing that loved one again, the grief has breath in it. Without hope, the grief is suffocating. Hope causes life and light to spring out of the dark shadow that death has cast. There is a world of difference between saying “goodbye” and saying “see you later.”
Comfort for the loss, however, is not the only value in gathering after a loved one has died. Among the others is the reminder of our own mortality. Children perhaps do not need this reminder, but certainly adults can use it. We need the sobriety that it brings. It helps us to remember that we only have a limited amount of time to spend on this earth. We ought to spend it well. I used to count my money when I went to the state fair. I had so much for the day and I wanted to spend it wisely in order to make the most of the day. The same is true of life on earth.
It seems as though we do not think enough about our own mortality. I am not talking about becoming morbid; there is no value in that. But there is value in recognizing that today might be the last day we ever see anyone we love on the earth. How do we want to be remembered? What is the last emotion or reaction we want to have produced in them? I ask these questions because, though we know death is inevitable, we often live as if we never expect it to come. We think an unkind word from our lips can be covered over later. But what if there is no later for us…or for the person who suffered the wound? We never know. If we would occasionally give serious thought to the limited duration of our stay on this earth, the days we do live would be far more enjoyable – not just for us, but for those who have to live with us.
That you are reading this book means that you are not afraid to face the issue of death. You are willing to give it some serious thought. This attitude will pay you dividends not just in learning the Bible’s good news that everyone is going to heaven, but in living quietly, joyfully, obediently, and courageously day by day before your Creator who loves you.
But back to those funerals. What happens to people when they die? Burial and cremation only tell us what happens to the body of the person. What happens to the person?
What Happens to People When They Die?
If you want to know what happens to a person when she or he enters a grocery store, you follow them and watch. Therefore, if you want to know what happens to a person when he or she dies, you follow – but wait, we don’t want to follow! Not yet, anyway. Because of this, it becomes very hard to say what happens to people when they die. Is death a black hole that consumes and annihilates a person? Or is it a gateway into a more glorious existence than earth? Or is it something else? It is impossible for us to say, because all our normal methods of research fail us. Neither our eyes nor our ears can help us. Nor do our senses of taste, touch, or smell do us any good.
There are those who testify of near-death experiences. I can appreciate those who describe such things, but I am in no position to question or verify any of them. I have never had such an experience myself. We can, however, safely draw one common thread from all their varying accounts. That is that death is not a cessation of existence. This is the common theme we have heard from all the folks who believe they’ve stepped through the gates of death and made it back. But that death is not the end of existence is something the Bible had been telling us all along.
As early as the book of Genesis, in describing the death of Jacob’s wife Rachel, the Bible says:
It came about as her soul was departing (for she died)… Genesis 35:18
We see then that Rachel did not cease to exist. Rather, death marked the departure of her soul from her body. Where did her soul go? That is the question of this book. But let’s take things one step at a time. That is, let’s first become completely certain that the person who dies is going somewhere!
We see what happens to the body at death. More precisely, we know what happens to the body at death and so we don’t want to see it. It decays. It returns to dust. This is just what God said would happen when He told Adam,
“…you return to the ground,
Because from it you were taken;
For you are dust,
And to dust you shall return.” Genesis 3:19
Our bodies are comprised of the elements of the earth. Once death occurs, the body decomposes, returning to those same elements. Science confirms this.
The Bible had even earlier said,
Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being. Genesis 2:7
The word “being” in this verse is more commonly translated as “soul.” Therefore though we are made from the dust of the ground, there is more to us than just the dust of the ground. We have a soul as a result of God breathing life into us. That is, there is more to you than meets the eye. And while what can be seen of you comes from the earth, the unseen part comes from God Himself.
Back to Rachel, the obvious implication of “her soul was departing” is that she did not cease to exist upon death. If all there was to Rachel was her body, then Jacob buried dust in dust and that was that. But death is not a dead end – it is a departure. The soul departs from the body.
A Definition of Death
The Bible is already giving us a better way to understand death. If all we go on is our physical senses then we have to say that death means the end. Finis. No more. Your aunts, uncles, great-grandfather, army buddy, and school chum are all gone forever. What you saw of them is all there is. But the Bible is constantly telling us that there is more to this creation than what we can see. And all you saw of your loved ones is not all there was, or is, to see of them. We just see the “dust” part; the “breath of God” part is invisible. And while the body may be subject to decay and corruption, how could the breath of God ever stop being?
It does not really take death for us to know that there is more to a person than what we can see. There was certainly more to David than Goliath could see. We are all the time surprised by what people do. We “didn’t know they had it in them.” And what about you? How many people really know you? Probably not very many. The real you lies beneath the outward part that people see. No one can ever fully know what is inside another person, but then that’s how we know for sure that there is more to a person than what can be seen. And the most rigorous autopsy cannot reveal it – because it’s gone by that time.
Death is when that inner person is separated from the outer person. The outer person perishes because it was only for that inner person that it held together in the first place. For as the Bible also says,
…the body without the spirit is dead… James 2:26
Death, then, is when the body and spirit are separated. Until that time, they are inseparable.
Some of our workplace arguments are because we didn’t get enough sleep the night before. That’s a case of the body affecting the mind. Some of our trips and falls are because we’re preoccupied with financial worries. In this case, the mind is affecting the body. The issues of the spirit and the body are so closely intertwined that sometimes the closest examination cannot separate one from the other. A human being is not two, but rather one cohesive whole. And death is defined as the separation of the hidden part of us from the revealed part of us. Until then, it is just awfully hard to tell where the body ends and the spirit begins.
“Spirit” comes from the same word as “breath.” That’s why “in-spired” means a person has something “breathed” into them. That’s why to die is referred to as “ex-piring.” They have breathed out their last. When Jesus died on the cross, the Bible says,
…He bowed His head and gave up His spirit. John 19:30
Later, they would remove His body from the cross, but His spirit had already departed. Death had brought about the separation of His spirit and His body. He came to earth to completely live out the human experience. He did not bypass the tie to His mother’s womb; neither did He bypass the separation of spirit and body that death brings to humans.
The Bible also says,
And Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” Having said this, He breathed His last. Luke 23:46
We see, then, the connection between the spirit and breath. People stop breathing at death. The corresponding spiritual reality is that the breath (that is, the spirit) departs. Our quest in this book is to determine with certainty just where it goes.
Before proceeding any further, though, let’s dwell on the fact that death is not the end of our existence. We go on. We depart. Only our body remains for our loved ones to see, and that not for long. God forbid, but if our bodies are tragically mangled in a fatal automobile accident of what ultimate loss is this? God can supply a new body just as He supplied the first one. It’s not as though He would have to recover the missing limbs and learn plastic surgery. The essence of our being is the breath of Almighty God. Most of us never liked our noses anyway.
There is more to our existence than our bodies. This has implications not just for the day of death but for every day. As Jesus said,
Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Matthew 6:25
The more we limit daily life to physical reality, the more we diminish ourselves. The body needs attention, yes. People appreciate the fact that we bathe it, deodorize it, clothe it, and otherwise care for the thing. But is the unseen part of us less worthy of attention? Does it not daily need to be bathed, clothed, and otherwise cared for?
Every day that we ignore our unseen needs, we die a little. The greatest value in knowing that there is life after death is the hope that it brings to an otherwise limited future. But it also directs us to take very good care of that inner person, since it is that inner person who is going on, while the outer person remains to merely decompose. If it makes sense to take care of your body, and it does, how much more does it make sense to take care of the part from which you will never be separated?
Why Is There Death in the First Place?
Someone may want to ask why we have to die at all. The Bible gives that answer in the story of Adam and Eve which is too well known to repeat here. The apostle Paul looked back on it this way:
… just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned– Romans 5:12
Now I don’t know how much you may struggle with the reality of Adam and Eve, but surely no one has a problem accepting the reality of sin. It is more commonly found than death itself.
We recognize sin all the time. “He cut me off in traffic.” “She didn’t give me the raise I deserve.” “He makes me so mad!” “There ought to be a law.” We may not use the three-letter word “sin” to label all such acts but the idea is precisely the same as the Bible’s: someone did something they weren’t supposed to do or didn’t do something they were supposed to do. And we may not always agree about what exactly constitutes one of these “sins,” but few people are heard to report that nothing but goodness is happening to them all day long.
The Bible reveals to us that sin is the means by which death gain entrance into the world and claims its victims. And it has been claiming its victims from the very beginning of creation. Sin leads to death. Cause and effect. The universe is not random; it is ordered.
Someone may argue that babies who die surely have not sinned and that this invalidates Paul’s argument that sin is the cause of death. But if someone brings a snake into the house and an innocent child is bitten and dies, is it still not a sin that brought the snake into the house in the first place? Similarly, it was indeed sin that caused the death of Jesus, but not His own sin. He had none. It was the sins of those around Him that brought about His death. And thus sin causes death…one way or the other.
Of course, not all sins lead immediately to death, but there would not be death in the universe were it not for sin. God established His creation in splendor and glory and peace. Death had no shadow to cast until man sinned. The garden of Eden was beautiful. All that was necessary to preserve that state – which was without thorn or thistle – was to heed the one command that God gave the first man and woman. When our ancestors failed to do this, death became a permanent part of the human landscape.
Let’s leave the babies aside for a moment and just talk about adults. How about you? Is sin only something that happens to you…or have you yourself felt the pangs of guilt that come from sinning? I can tell you that I have felt them. In fact, if I were to number and categorize all the sins I know about, far more would show up in my account than in anyone else’s I know. But this is normal. You are probably the same way. For sins are not just a matter of outward deeds like murder and adultery, but inward thoughts like hate and unforgiveness. The words you express are a small fraction of the thoughts you think and so the main arena in which your sins are committed is viewed only by you (and God).
Therefore, every adult (except Jesus) should be able to name far more of his own sins than he can the sins of anyone else. Even the best human beings have their moments of failing. The wise Solomon said,
Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins. Ecclesiastes 7:20
And the apostle Paul said,
…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, Romans 3:23
Anyone who has ever tried to live a moral life is painfully aware of his or her shortcomings. “Shortcomings” is a good word for sin, whose root meaning includes “missing the mark.” Like an archer shooting at a bulls-eye at twenty paces, I have often felt like my arrow got tangled as I let it go and fell six inches in front of my feet. “Falling short” therefore would be a kind way of describing some of my efforts at righteousness.
Though our failures humble us, we must not allow them to excuse us from continuing to try to do right. A basketball player cannot give up free-throw shooting with the excuse that he cannot achieve perfection. He shoots every shot trying to make it even though he knows that the most he will achieve is a percentage of the total number of shots he takes. And if his success rate is 80% he does not intentionally miss two once he hits eight in a row. He shoots every time for a goal. This is the way it is with any worthwhile endeavor. Nobody is perfect. But the closer you come to perfection, the better your chance of having your picture put on a cereal box.
More practical than commercial endorsements, though, is the promise of a longer life. The Bible teaches that avoiding sin prolongs one’s days on the earth. As the daughters of a certain man said to Moses,
“Our father died in the wilderness, yet he was not among the company of those who gathered themselves together against the LORD in the company of Korah; but he died in his own sin…” Numbers 27:3
This Korah fellow had hastened the day of his own death by instigating a rebellion against Moses’ leadership. The father of these women had kept clear from that fateful insurrection and therefore had lived longer. Still, since no one but Jesus has ever lived a sinless life, death eventually came to their father.
It is plain common sense that the less one sins the longer one’s life will be. The Bible says,
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother (which is the first commandment with a promise), so that it may be well with you, and that you may live long on the earth. Ephesians 6:1-3
Yet even without knowing that the Bible says this, an adult will know that a child who avoids playing on a busy street, avoids running with the wrong crowd, avoids drugs, avoids sexual promiscuity, and so on is probably going to outlive another child who defies his parent’s instructions on all these issues. Likewise, a motorist who obeys traffic laws is probably going to live longer than one who flouts them. You can apply the principle throughout life, and you don’t need the Bible to do so. Righteous living keeps one away from the many snares of death.
Don’t let the “probably” in the previous paragraph throw you. There are always exceptions, but you don’t throw out the rule because of them. As Solomon said,
There is futility which is done on the earth, that is, there are righteous men to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked. On the other hand, there are evil men to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. Ecclesiastes 8:14
Just because he saw some exceptions to the rule that righteous living is rewarded did not mean Solomon was prepared to abandon the rule. For he also says,
Although a sinner does evil a hundred times and may lengthen his life, still I know that it will be well for those who fear God, who fear Him openly. Ecclesiastes 8:12
The wise Solomon knew that appearances can be deceiving. There may be occasions when it looks like living right is a fool’s pastime, but only a fool would find in them an excuse to abandon righteous pursuits.
Because Jesus died at age 33 do we conclude that righteous living does not pay and cannot extend one’s life? Of course not. One of the earliest books of the Bible was written for the specific purpose of showing that although the righteous life brings health and prosperity, there may always be exceptions for reasons we cannot immediately understand. I am referring, of course, to the book of Job. This dramatic account reveals that though the justice of God is continually at work in the creation, our lack of complete knowledge often makes us unable to explain the justice of everything we see from our limited human perspective.
It may even look at times like there is no justice at all on the earth. But such judgments by us are always premature and hampered by our enormous ignorance. Our judgments are premature because we have not given enough time to see what God’s response to the evil will be. Nor could we contain all the facts at His disposal. Nor can we ever be fully aware of all He is doing at that very moment. By the time a woman finds out that a new life is in her, God has already been at work for some time. God is always working out justice, though its fruit may take time to ripen. And, of course, watched pots can be notoriously slow in coming to a boil.
It is always wise then, to avoid sin, in order that life may continue as long as possible. Not only that, but each day of life is far more enjoyable if lived faithfully before God. Righteousness is its own best reward. If we do die before our time, such as Jesus did, we may trust that God will remember and see that the afterlife has adequate compensation for the loss.
Therefore, we conclude that death exists because sin exists. And death abounds where sin abounds. To avoid sin is to postpone death. But because avoiding sin completely is impossible to us, avoiding death is impossible, too. And even Jesus, who never sinned, partook of death because there was so much sin around.
Is Death Too Great a Penalty?
Does death seem too great a penalty? Should God be charged with being unfair? I don’t think so. It’s a wonder to me that He gives us seventy or eighty years to walk the earth He created, especially when the largest part of our time is spent thinking about our needs more than His or anyone else’s.
There are so many joys to be savored in this life. There are the roar and the spray of a waterfall, the smell of coffee brewing in the morning, the crack of a baseball bat connecting for a home run, the smell of grass after it’s been mowed, the chatter of children playing a game – where do you stop? The riches of this creation are endless in number.
Even where there is sin, He has shown us how to live. We forgive. We turn the other cheek. We return good for evil. We love in spite of everything else. At least this is the way Jesus lived, and the way He has told us to live. Even if we have to suffer gross unfairness like Job, Jesus, and countless others, we can be an inspiration as they have been to us. When I see a blind person playing the piano or a man without legs walk across the country on his hands, I am humbled. It makes me want to be more thankful. It makes me want to be more productive with the gifts I have been given. If the blind and crippled gave up I couldn’t blame them, but I would be so much the poorer. They prove to me that life is more important than difficulty. In the midst of sin and death, God’s love and life just shine more brightly. Nothing can douse them.
And if God has marked the end of existence on the earth with a thing called death, why should I complain? He gave me life in the first place. It is His to give and His to take away. If all He gave me was one lifetime, I’d still be in His debt. But He has promised more than that, for He has spoken all through the Bible that death is not the end. There is more. And when you consider the length of eternity compared to this life, then whether someone dies at age two or age ninety-two, how much difference will it make? The important thing is that we made an entrance into this world – even if it was only so far as a mother’s womb. For once we make it in, we always have a future!
We have seen that death is the separation of the soul from the body. It is the end for that body, but not the end for that person. Yet we are homo sapiens and cannot conceive of life without a body. What does this mean? It will become clear as we follow the Bible’s explanation of things, starting with the departure that is death.
To Where Do the Departed Depart?
Our search in the Bible must begin at the point of death, for that is where we lose contact with folks. It is from this point on that we must look to a source other than our physical senses. The Bible is a trustworthy guide in all those areas we cannot see.
If at death the spirit leaves the body, where exactly does it go? Where are our deceased loved ones – and everyone else’s? Where have the billions of human beings who’ve died gone to? And where will the future billions go? I have already given up all my chance at suspense in this book by telling you in the title. However, there is more to the story than just the punch line. It was not always true that everyone went to heaven. There was a long period of time when everyone who died went quite a different direction. Jesus Christ changed all that. I will show in chapter and verse both about the first destination, and all about how Jesus changed things.
The description of these things given by the Bible is simple, but is not quick. The problem of death was no small thing. God worked patiently over hundreds, even thousands of years to bring about His ultimate solution. The stage had to be set for the Son of God. Starting with Abraham, and the succeeding generations of descendants, God established a nation, gave it laws, and worked through its history to prepare the way. We may never know all He had to do to solve the problem of death. But we can know what He tells us in the Scriptures. And we can know that He loves us, and that He has worked painstakingly and with insufficient thanks to make sure that death had only temporary effects on us all.
The Scriptures say of Jesus,
…since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. Hebrews 2:14-15
By the time you finish this book, you should have no fear of death – either for yourself or anyone else. For, like Paul,
…I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38-39
We must, however, let the Bible tell its story in its own way. It took over 1,600 years to be written. And though the prophets trusted all along that God would solve the problem of death, it was not fully revealed until near the end of that time just how He was going to do that. If we want a clear understanding, we must follow the story from the beginning, through the middle, and to the end. If we do, then the punch line will not be merely a hope for you, but part of your daily joyful reality. The more thorough our examination of the Scriptures, the more confident will be your happiness.
If you’re like most folks who have some exposure to Christianity, you’ve probably heard that people are either going to heaven or hell. The first thing you’ll notice in our study is that the Bible paints a very different picture. When I say we’re going to let the Bible tell its story in its own way, this means we’re going to begin with what’s called the Old Testament. This makes up three-fourths of the Bible and constituted all the Bible that Jesus and His contemporaries had. Everything spoken and written in the New Testament was written in the context of what they called the Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament). Therefore, before we can fully understand what the New Testament writers are saying about life after death, we have to gain their understanding of what the Old Testament writers had been saying long before them. For there is no contradiction between the two testaments: they speak with one voice for they have but One inspiration. We will slowly and methodically rebuild the foundation of truth from the Old Testament upon which Jesus and His apostles built. (I will show you passages from both the New and Old Testaments which convey this view, though we will not get into the heart of the New Testament’s teaching about resurrection until later in the book. This foundational understanding of which I’m speaking – though it was well known to Jesus, the apostles, the New Testament church, and other Jews of that time – will probably be different from what you’ve heard, but it will be the Bible’s teaching. And I promise that we will eventually talk about heaven…and we will even talk about hell. Just remember that I have declared the conclusion in the title: Everyone is going to heaven!
So let’s be patient. You and I are a captive audience anyway. Physical researching can never uncover the mysteries of death, or any other spiritual realities for that matter. If we are to know about such things, the Bible is our only completely authoritative source. We have nowhere else to go for a sure answer. Our patience will be rewarded in knowing and understanding that the problem of death has been solved by Jesus Christ once and for all.
Chapter 2 – A Place Called Sheol
The old man was distraught. His son Joseph was missing. Only a bloodied coat was found. Apparently, a wild beast had devoured the son he had loved so much. Though the rest of the family tried to console him, Jacob refused all comfort and said,
“Surely I will go down to Sheol in mourning for my son.” Genesis 37:35
This grief he was feeling would hound him until death – or so he thought.
Years later, a famine consumed the land. Jacob’s other sons insisted on taking littlest brother Benjamin to Egypt with them in order to obtain food. Jacob protested,
“My son shall not go down with you; for his brother is dead, and he alone is left. If harm should befall him on the journey you are taking, then you will bring my gray hair down to Sheol in sorrow.” Genesis 42:38
Jacob was not about to allow the loss of another beloved son. Why should an old man, he asks, be made to end his days in such sorrow?
What we are seeing is the first occurrence of the word “Sheol” in the Bible. It arises without explanation, and Bible scholars debate the origin of the term. But regardless of where the word came from, it is obvious what it means: the place you go when you die. It seems clear that Jacob is using a figure of speech, common at least in his family, meaning death. In the same way, we might say, “She died of a broken heart; he put her in the grave.”
That going to Sheol refers to death is made all the more clear as we continue with the story. Because the brothers refused to make the trip for food without Benjamin and because the famine persisted, Jacob relented. But in Egypt, true to Jacob’s premonition, Benjamin was threatened with confinement. One of the brothers, knowing the heartache that this would bring Jacob, spoke up before the authorities for Benjamin’s release. First, he relates how they had to prevail upon Jacob to allow Benjamin to come at all. Then he quotes Jacob’s fear:
‘If you take this one also from me, and harm befalls him, you will bring my gray hair down to Sheol in sorrow.’ Genesis 44:29
Then, the son goes on to, in effect, explain the figure of speech to the Egyptians, who, like us, might appreciate a clarification:
…when he sees that the lad is not with us, he will die. Thus your servants will bring the gray hair of your servant our father down to Sheol in sorrow.
Thus we see even more clearly that to “bring down to Sheol” equates to “he will die.”
Even today, someone is likely to say that so-and-so “has one foot in the grave.” Or, “He bought the farm.” Or, “He kicked the bucket.” Though we do not always know the origin of such figures of speech, it is usually clear that they refer to dying. If we today have figures of speech referring to death, is it so strange that the ancients did as well?
References to Sheol Are References to Death
Jacob was not the only person in the Bible to refer to Sheol, not by a long shot. The term shows up frequently. And in every case, it refers to death.
For example, Israel’s great king, David, had many close encounters with death. As a military man, his life was often in danger. He also was a prophet and a poet. He wrote many of the psalms of the Bible. This includes the much-loved 23rd Psalm. There he wrote about “the shadow of death.” And just a few psalms before, he had written,
The cords of Sheol surrounded me;
The snares of death confronted me. Psalm 18:5
“The shadow of death,” “the cords of Sheol,” and “the snares of death” are vivid images conveying the way a soldier of that time might feel when threatened with death. Likewise, in some other age a writer might refer to “the grim reaper.” Even today we can relate to all these phrases and feel a cold chill.
Another psalm, not explicitly ascribed to David, reads,
The cords of death encompassed me
And the terrors of Sheol came upon me;
I found distress and sorrow. Psalm 116:3
So we quickly see that Sheol as an expression for death was not limited to Jacob, or David, but was a common one in ancient Israel.
Here are some more examples by other Bible authors showing how Sheol and death are always linked:
Because you have said, “We have made a covenant with death,
And with Sheol we have made a pact… Isaiah 28:15
Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol?
Shall I redeem them from death? Hosea 13:14
…He enlarges his appetite like Sheol,
And he is like death, never satisfied… Habakkuk 2:5
These three prophets of Israel – Isaiah, Hosea, and Habakkuk – all used the term Sheol in the same breath as the term death. These quoted snippets are not enough for us to understand what each passage was about. But they are more than enough to see that death and Sheol are used together and refer to the same thing.
Not only are the terms used together in the Bible, they are used interchangeably. Compare these two passages which we have already seen individually:
The cords of death encompassed me
And the terrors of Sheol came upon me;
I found distress and sorrow. Psalm 116:3
The cords of Sheol surrounded me;
The snares of death confronted me. Psalm 18:5
In one case it’s the cords of death, in the other, it’s the cords of Sheol. There’s no real confusion, though, because it’s the same cords.
In fact, Sheol was so closely associated with death in the ancient Hebrew mind, that even when the word death was not specifically mentioned, everyone understood what Sheol meant. We can see this in a portion of Ecclesiastes:
Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going. Ecclesiastes 9:10
The writer did not have to explain what he meant by Sheol. Everyone in that day understood. And even in this day, though Sheol may be an unfamiliar term to us, common sense would have led us to guess that the grave probably was what the writer had in mind…because that’s the one place everyone is going. Everyone.
Since Sheol is always associated with death, then a brush with Sheol would mean a brush with death, as in:
O LORD my God,
I cried to You for help, and You healed me.
O LORD, You have brought up my soul from Sheol;
You have kept me alive, that I would not go down to the pit. Psalm 30:2-3
In this psalm, David speaks of being healed. This, he says, brought him up from Sheol. In the same way, we might say to a person who has returned to work after being out for a week with a bad case of the flu, “The dead have been raised!” Or, if she’s still sniffling we might refer to her as “the walking dead.”
Similarly, another psalm writer says,
For my soul has had enough troubles,
And my life has drawn near to Sheol. Psalm 88:3
The reader or hearer would understand him to be meaning he almost died, or he was at the point of death. Sheol communicated death to them in that same way that words like graveyard and cemetery communicate death to us.
When the kindness of God spared David from death, he could write,
For Your lovingkindness toward me is great,
And You have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol. Psalm 86:13
This reminds me of a time years ago in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. I’d lost my temper in an argument and was letting off steam by driving down what I remember to be a six-lane undivided highway far in excess of the speed limit. I was weaving through the traffic like a fiend. This went on for several minutes before I came to my senses and slowed down. There were three others in the car with me and countless other folks on that road. It is only the kindness of God that spared my life, as well as the lives of others. I didn’t deserve to be let off without an accident or ticket after driving so recklessly and irresponsibly. His lovingkindness was great toward me. I can only hope that He will one day think me worthy of the mercy He showed me which let me live longer on the earth. Though I am still ashamed of the incident and don’t put myself in a class with David, he often acknowledged the mercy of God that kept him out of Sheol and I thus have a keen appreciation of what he meant.
We could wish that the Bible had a section where you could turn and look up a dictionary definition of Sheol. Then we wouldn’t have to look at all these different passages. But the lack of such a section and the frequent use of the term without explanation, is itself of great value. First of all, since the term is used in consistent fashion we can easily determine its meaning. Pre-schoolers learn a multitude of words without consulting a dictionary. When parents and siblings use words consistently, the meanings are quickly recognized. Secondly, the lack of specific explanation shows that “Sheol” was widely known and in common use. That is, it was part of the Israel’s understanding. The writer would no more have to stop and define his term than he would if using the terms “heaven” or “earth.”
I could show you more verses (the word “Sheol” appears over sixty times in the Bible), but we have seen enough to know that a reference to Sheol is a reference to death. A figure of speech common to the ancient Hebrew mind is becoming a little better known to us.
What Is Sheol?
Is Sheol only a figure of speech? It doesn’t seem to be. Rather, it seems also to be the specific place people go when they die – the place that their spirits or souls depart to at death while their bodies remain here and return to dust. Let’s look at some more verses to make this even clearer.
Sheol was an actual place. Listen to David:
Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the dawn,
If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea,
Even there Your hand will lead me,
And Your right hand will lay hold of me. Psalm 139:7-10
The point of David’s poetic waxing, of course, is that God is everywhere. Or as the theologians might say, He’s omnipresent. But in making his point, David refers to various specific places…and Sheol is one of them. Obviously, he considers Sheol as much a real place as heaven or the sea.
Just because Sheol was a real place whose existence was widely known does not mean that people knew many details about it. The reason for this, of course, was that it was a destination for which only one-way tickets were issued. As Job said,
“When a cloud vanishes, it is gone,
So he who goes down to Sheol does not come up.
He will not return again to his house,
Nor will his place know him anymore.” Job 7:9-10
These words communicate the finality of a trip to Sheol.
The miracle of bringing someone back from the dead would not be recorded until long after Job’s time. But even when Elijah and Elisha restored some from the dead, it was understood that such restoration was only temporary. Death could only be put off for a while. Even the power of miracle resurrections eventually faded before the unrelenting power of death. (When we get to Jesus, we will see how He changed this…once for all.) It’s not like we could send scouts to Sheol in order to learn what it’s like.
If, therefore, we are looking for a detailed description of Sheol like we would find in a travel brochure, the Bible will disappoint us. Although “Sheol” appears 66 times in 17 different books of the Bible, it is never once described in any detail. Of course, that is because the people who wrote the books of the Bible wrote while they were still living – before they went to Sheol. They wouldn’t obtain enough information about it to report until after they were finished here on earth.
You would think that those folks who were raised from the dead might be a good source of information about Sheol. But when you turn to those parts of the Bible, there is no debriefing of those who came back from the dead. The Bible continually focuses its attention on this life. If some sort of map is needed for getting around in the life to come, we may assume that it won’t be provided to us until we get there.
Not only does the Bible focus more on this life rather than on the afterlife, it rarely gives much description of the physical landscape anyway. I am referring to the fact that the bulk of the Bible’s words are given to describing people’s words and their actions. It seldom describes appearances. Though we know Goliath was large and David was small by comparison, we know hardly anything of Samson’s stature…and no one even knows the color of Jesus’ hair or eyes. What we do know of the mountains, valleys, and cities of the Bible is picked up in bits and pieces. There are no extended descriptions of scenes such as we are used to finding in a novel or travelogue. The lack of a detailed description of Sheol is all the more expected for this reason.
It is sufficient for us to know that there is a place that people go when they die. That means that death is not the end. We just go somewhere else. That doesn’t mean we want to go there before our time. We are like Hezekiah, a king of Israel during the time of Isaiah the prophet. He became mortally ill and was informed by Isaiah that he should set his house in order and prepare to die. Hezekiah prayed to God that he might live longer and God granted him fifteen more years. He wrote of this deliverance from premature death in this way:
I said, “In the middle of my life
I am to enter the gates of Sheol;
I am to be deprived of the rest of my years.” Isaiah 38:10
He speaks of entering the gates of Sheol and thus regards it as a place to which he will go. He does not, however, want to go there yet. He is not eager to learn what Sheol looks like. He likes the way the earth looks and wants to stay longer.
Sheol Is a Place Separate from Here
Whatever Sheol was like, it was someplace distinctly separate from here. Contact between those on earth and those in Sheol was not allowed. There were people in those days just as there are in ours who sought such contact. Called mediums or spiritists, their activities were forbidden by the Law of Moses.
“There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who casts a spell, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead.” Deuteronomy 18:10-11
Obviously, the dead still existed. They existed, however, in a different place. There was to be no confusion of those places and no mixing of the living and the dead.
Once someone went to Sheol, they were not heard or seen in the earth anymore. Job said,
“If I look for Sheol as my home,
I make my bed in the darkness;” Job 17:13
Sheol was a place of darkness, a place unseen and unknown to those on the earth. And he says later,
“Drought and heat consume the snow waters,
So does Sheol those who have sinned.” Job 24:19
Just as drought and heat could dry up all the water, so death caused humans to evaporate. Sheol consumed humans. It left nothing but the wrapper. Just as we quoted Job earlier:
“When a cloud vanishes, it is gone,
So he who goes down to Sheol does not come up.
He will not return again to his house,
Nor will his place know him anymore.” Job 7:9-10
You and I already know that once people die, you do not see them again. Job has painted a picture for us that expresses that truth. At the same time, however, he is reassuring us that the real person (the hidden one) has moved on – just to dwell in another place.
David loved to praise the Lord. He sang. He played. He danced. And he wrote down psalms so others could join in with him. For him, life was an opportunity to sing the praises of the God of Israel. Death silenced such praise. As he said,
For there is no mention of You in death;
In Sheol who will give You thanks? Psalm 6:5
And, of course, death did silence David as far as we are concerned. We cannot imagine that he praised the Lord any less in Sheol, but we cannot hear it. What transpires there – or doesn’t transpire there – is unknown to us. It is a spiritual place; we live on earth.
The buffer of silence that exists between here and Sheol is not altogether a loss, though, for not everyone’s speech was as edifying as David’s. Therefore, the Bible says of some of the disobedient folks,
…Let the wicked be put to shame, let them be silent in Sheol. Psalm 31:17
In their case, silence would be an improvement.
Sheol is a definite place. And it is different from the earth. A different dimension.
Who Is in Sheol?
In one sense, this question hardly needs to be asked. We have seen that Sheol is nothing if not the place where people go when they die. The point to be emphasized here is that everyone who dies goes there. The Bible mentions no other possible destination for the dead, at least not in the Old Testament books.
The Old Testament covers almost four thousand years of history. For those four thousand years, and for the Hebrew people, there was one and only one place to which the dead went. It was called Sheol.
In our day we sometimes contemplate the moral quality of a deceased person’s life and thereby try to make a judgment as to the destination of their soul. As you have probably already begun to see, this sort of thinking is out of place given the Bible’s description of death and Sheol. The Hebrew mind saw Sheol as the place of the dead. All the dead. It was the inevitable destination of all who lived. As an Israelite named Ethan wrote,
Remember what my span of life is;
For what vanity You have created all the sons of men!
What man can live and not see death?
Can he deliver his soul from the power of Sheol? Psalm 89:47-48
You and I acknowledged in the first chapter of this book that death was inevitable. They knew that in Ethan’s time, too. But God had also revealed that death meant a change of location and manner of existence – not the end of existence. And so while you or I might just as easily have said, ” What man can live and not see death?” Ethan could add the part about Sheol. He had more knowledge about death than you and me. And, through the Bible, this knowledge is being imparted to us.
Everyone who was born, was born into the earth. Everyone who dies, dies into Sheol. As Paul says of the birth and death experiences,
For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. 1 Timothy 6:7
It is an undeniable fact that we come into this world with nothing. Birthing room attendants can attest to this. And it is just as undeniable that we take nothing out of it. I asked an experienced funeral director just for the fun of it. He was quick to assure me of what everyone knows. “You can’t take it with you.”
Whenever we came into the earth, what we needed was provided for us here. For this same reason, no one takes anything to that place called Sheol. Whatever is needed can be provided by God there just as He provided here.
You have seen with me the Bible portraying only one destination for those who leave this earth. This is why, as David is about to die, he says to his son Solomon,
“I am going the way of all the earth. Be strong, therefore, and show yourself a man.”
1 Kings 2:2
David and Solomon both knew only too well that death was “the way of all the earth.” And that way led to only one place.
For this same reason, Solomon could write,
“If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years, however many they be, but his soul is not satisfied with good things and he does not even have a proper burial, then I say, “Better the miscarriage than he, for it comes in futility and goes into obscurity; and its name is covered in obscurity. It never sees the sun and it never knows anything; it is better off than he. Even if the other man lives a thousand years twice and does not enjoy good things–do not all go to one place?” Ecclesiastes 6:3-6
Solomon knew that whether you were a great king or a miscarriage, you eventually went to the same place.
Years before, David had been concerned with another son – this one just a baby. The child was terribly ill and David prayed for days that the child would get better. In the end, it was to no avail; the child died. So David stopped his praying and grieving. He changed his clothes and began to eat again. His servants were shocked. David had been so upset about the child’s sickness, how could death not have upset him more? David responded to their inquiry,
“While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows, the LORD may be gracious to me, that the child may live.’ But now he has died; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.” 2 Samuel 12:22-23
David knew he couldn’t bring the baby back from Sheol. But he knew he would one day join him there. That is, he knew their separation was temporary…and he knew there was a place they would both end up.
The Bible has always been so helpful to human beings. We already knew that death claimed everyone. It granted no exemptions. What we didn’t know was what happened to folks – to the unseen part of them. You are seeing that the Bible tells us that they went to a place called Sheol. God’s main purpose in communicating this fact to His people was in order that there might be hope regarding those who have died. Though He has not told us much about the place, we do know that all the dead are there and therefore they have not been annihilated or forgotten by Him. Of course, this means hope not just for our loved ones but for ourselves as well.
I am stressing the plain and simple facts taught so far by the Bible: Sheol is the place of death, and all the dead go there. I am stressing them for two reasons: First, the Bible so abundantly teaches them. Secondly, these Bible facts seem to be largely unknown to many people today. I didn’t know them myself until I began to run across this term Sheol in my Bible reading. I then checked out Bible reference books. Most such books, both Jewish and Christian, are quick to acknowledge this Sheol reality, but for some reason it is not taught among the masses of people. Nevertheless, you have seen for yourself that all the dead, good and bad alike, were designated for Sheol at death.
You may at this point be a little frustrated with me. I tell you in the book’s title that everyone is going to heaven and all I have succeeded in doing so far is showing that everyone is going to Sheol. But as I said in the beginning, we will need patience. We are letting the Bible tells its story. We are trying to establish the context in which Jesus Christ came and did His redemptive work. Therefore, we are fully fleshing out the Old Testament perspective on afterlife. Once we’ve fully established the reality that Jesus faced, we’ll be able to describe the majesty of His accomplishment.
Why Would Anyone Want to Go to Sheol?
No one did want to go to Sheol. Going to Sheol meant dying, and, of course, no one wanted to die. No one except depressed people.
If we find out today that someone wants to die, we know something is wrong with them. It is not normal for healthy people to want to die. Rather, it is usually a sign of depression. If a depressed person says he wants to die, we are concerned but not altogether surprised. Therefore, we are not surprised when we hear Job, once his calamities have really gotten him down, saying,
“Oh that You would hide me in Sheol,
That You would conceal me until Your wrath returns to You…” Job 14:13
Job was so miserable, he just wanted to die. That’s what he was asking in his request “hide me in Sheol.” He was speaking from the same despair that also caused him to say,
“Why did I not die at birth,
Come forth from the womb and expire?
Why did the knees receive me,
And why the breasts, that I should suck?
For now I would have lain down and been quiet;
I would have slept then, I would have been at rest,
With kings and with counselors of the earth,
Who rebuilt ruins for themselves;
Or with princes who had gold,
Who were filling their houses with silver.
Or like a miscarriage which is discarded, I would not be,
As infants that never saw light.
There the wicked cease from raging,
And there the weary are at rest.
The prisoners are at ease together;
They do not hear the voice of the taskmaster.
The small and the great are there,
And the slave is free from his master.” Job 3:11-19
Though this passage does not mention Sheol by name, you see that he is talking about the one place that all go at death. Regardless of their length of life. Regardless of their station in life. Regardless of the moral quality of their life. One place.
Before he repented and was restored, Job indeed wanted to die. Moreover, he was not the only Bible hero to get so discouraged. The great prophet Elijah requested to die (1 Kings 19). And Jonah begged with all his soul to die (Jonah 4). Have you ever been that miserable? I have. Of course, we have no more right to take our own life than we do anyone else’s. Therefore, a desire for death should never be translated into action. Job, Elijah, and Jonah all exercised this restraint. They knew that God’s desire for us in those times is to strengthen us to get back in the race of life – not the rat race, but the right race.
The point here is that people wanted to go to Sheol about as much as they wanted to die – because it was the same thing. If going to Sheol was the equivalent of dying, then everyone’s natural desire was to postpone it. Everyone knew they had to go there eventually but the hope was that they could go like Abraham did:
Abraham breathed his last and died in a ripe old age, an old man and satisfied with life; and he was gathered to his people. Genesis 25:8
I hope that when you die, it will be at a ripe old age and with this same sense of satisfaction.
Why Is There a Place Called Sheol?
Sheol existed because God did not want our lives to cease at death. He never wanted death for us in the first place. He had warned Adam and Eve to keep that one simple commandment so that they would not die. Only when they disobeyed did death make its entrance into human experience. But God in His mercy provided a resting place for their unseen beings. Sheol was a place to be thankful for. It meant the dead were somewhere, even though we could no longer enjoy them.
Sheol, however, was not an entirely satisfactory solution either. Who would want to exchange the known of the earth for the unknown of Sheol? Beyond that, Sheol was never described in any glorious terms. Nothing was mentioned that made it attractive. The righteous didn’t want to go there anymore than the wicked did. The righteous were rewarded by getting to postpone their inevitable trip there, but no one was righteous enough to avoid it altogether.
Therefore, this place called Sheol was both a solution and a problem: A solution if anyone was worried that this life is all there is, but a problem in ways we are just beginning to see. This is why we are letting the Bible tell the story in its own order and at its own pace. You and I already knew that death was a problem, but the Bible tells us that there was more to the problem than we realized. In fact, death was not just a problem for us – it was a problem for God. Stick with me and I’ll show you just what I mean.
Chapter 3 – Where Is This Place Called Sheol?
I hope I haven’t dizzied you with all the Bible quotations. So far, I have used them to put forward just three basic ideas. And with at least one of those ideas, you were already as familiar as I was.
The first idea was that death is universal. To quote a Bible verse again:
There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven–A time to give birth and a time to die… Ecclesiastes 3:1-2
With this idea, everyone is familiar. You do not need the Bible to tell you this is so. We are all too aware of the reality of dying. The Bible’s purpose is not to inform us about death, but to give us a truthful, useful, and unique perspective on it.
The second idea I’ve put forward is that death is the result of sin. God had warned that death would occur if Adam and Eve committed sin. When they sinned, death entered the earth and has been here ever since – ultimately claiming every human life along the way.
The third idea is that at death the spirit of the person leaves the body and departs to a place the Bible calls Sheol. If you understand these three ideas then we have not missed a step in our walk together.
The Bible takes an experience which we all know about, in this case death, and seeks to give us understanding on the subject. The Scriptures enlighten us by explaining how death came to be. They also give us information which we would not otherwise have – that existence continues after this life in a place called Sheol.
In seeing these things, I hope you agree with me that the Bible is a very practical book. It takes the important issues of life and explains them. It tells us how things came to be the way they are. It shows the cause-and-effect relationships that exist in this ordered universe. It reveals those aspects of creation that are invisible, that cannot be ascertained by our physical senses.
The Bible is not organized like a dictionary or encyclopedia. If it was, we could look up “heaven” and then the sub-section on “who goes there” and have the answer to our question. Instead, the Bible is a collection of 66 distinct and varied pieces of writing produced by about 40 different authors. Furthermore, these authors did not collaborate, for the first one wrote about 1500 B.C. and the last one close to 100 A.D.
When you think about the Bible in these terms, you wonder if it could be understood at all by regular folks like us. But I have found this anthology of ancient literature far easier to read and understand than many things written much closer to our own time. I never quite got the hang of Homer, Shakespeare, Chaucer, or Dickens. My high school literature teachers could assure you of that. I even stumble over the dialects in Mark Twain’s books. The Bible, by contrast, seems far more approachable. I cannot imagine understanding all of it. But neither can I imagine not getting more understanding each time I go to it. Though the Bible is formidable, it is also approachable.
We learn the truths of the Bible by seeing how its various authors deal with similar themes. When that many authors spread apart by that many years see something the same way, it becomes apparent they are dealing with timeless truth. The repetition of ideas through a variety of personalities and wordings establishes clearly communicated truths upon which we may rely.
The array of quotations I give you, therefore, is not to intimidate or impress you. Nor am I being excessive in my use of them. My intent is that these quotations thoroughly assure you, the way I have been thoroughly assured, of the Bible’s teaching on this subject. If you believe that everyone is going to heaven it will not be because you read my book. Rather, it will be because through my book you read enough of the Bible to know what you believe and why you believe it. Now let’s get back to the task of laying more bricks for the wall of understanding we are building.
Which Way to Sheol?
Through what you’ve seen of the Bible so far, you may have already picked up a location for Sheol, or, at the very least, a direction. Below. Remember Jacob’s repeated lament?
“Surely I will go down to Sheol in mourning…” Genesis 37:35
“…then you will bring my gray hair down to Sheol in sorrow.” Genesis 42:38
“…you will bring my gray hair down to Sheol in sorrow.” Genesis 44:29
“…your servants will bring the gray hair of your servant our father down to Sheol in sorrow.” Genesis 44:31
In each instance the direction one took to Sheol was down. Jacob may have never been there, but he knew the direction.
And here is an excerpt of a passage from Job that we have looked at:
“…he who goes down to Sheol does not come up.” Job 7:9
Job, too, saw a trip to Sheol as a trip down. Another passage from Job, which we have not yet seen, shows the consistency of his outlook:
“Will it go down with me to Sheol?
Shall we together go down into the dust?” Job 17:16
Speaking of the wicked, Job says,
“They spend their days in prosperity,
And suddenly they go down to Sheol.” Job 21:13
Of course, Job actually envied the wicked at this point in his life. He longed for the relief that Sheol would bring, for his earthly sufferings would then be over. He talked a lot about Sheol, but of course he was depressed and we can understand the preoccupation. The oft-forgotten conclusion, though, is that he did not give in to his depression. God ultimately restored him to health, gave him double of all he’d lost, and let him live happily and prosperously for another 140 years before he eventually went down.
David was another fellow quoted in the last chapter. Remember how his bearings also showed Sheol lying below the earth?
O LORD, You have brought up my soul from Sheol;
You have kept me alive, that I would not go down to the pit. Psalm 30:3
This was not the only occasion David spoke about Sheol being down. If we add a verse to a passage we read earlier we see this:
For my soul has had enough troubles,
And my life has drawn near to Sheol.
I am reckoned among those who go down to the pit… Psalm 88:3-4
David saw things the same way as Jacob and Job, both of whom had lived centuries before him. But that’s only because all the Bible’s writers saw it the same way. Watch.
…and they descend alive into Sheol… Numbers 16:30
Moses was speaking of Korah and his rebellious cohorts. Because of their evil, God sent them to Sheol before their time. Given the location of Sheol, they had to “descend.”
…and made them go down to Sheol. Isaiah 57:9
Isaiah agrees that if you’re going to Sheol, you’re going down.
They also went down with it to Sheol… Ezekiel 31:17
Ezekiel’s perception of things falls right into line with all the others: Sheol lay below.
None of the Bible writers who use the term Sheol ever departs from the idea that it is below. Not every occurrence of this term indicates the direction in which it lies, but whenever a direction is indicated, it is always down. Sheol is never considered to be east or west, up or sideways. It is commonly and universally understood to be down.
We can contrast this with heaven, which the Scriptures always present as being up. Heaven is never below; it is never sideways. It is always above. In the same way, Sheol is always below.
A World Below
Sheol was what the ancient Hebrews called the world below, the world of the dead. You may have run across the term “nether world.” Nether comes from a word meaning down. Nether world would then mean the world that is down, or below.
Another term you may have seen is “underworld.” This term, likewise, refers to the world of the dead that lies below us. The dead have not ceased to exist. They go down to the underworld. Of course, this word also has other applications (e.g. organized crime), but those have nothing to do with our discussion here except as they carry the connotation of death.
Though the word Sheol may have been unique to the Israelites, the idea of an underworld where the dead dwelt was not. It was an idea common to other ancient cultures. Even today, a funeral director may also be referred to as an undertaker. Of course, it is only the body he is taking under, but the imagery is consistent with the age-old idea that the dead go below.
I am laboring in this book, and especially in this chapter, to scratch away some of the unfamiliarity of the word Sheol. Sure, it’s different to our ears. But the concept of an underworld for the dead is not all that foreign to our understanding. We have encountered aspects of such thinking. The Bible, therefore, is not so much introducing radically new concepts as it is clarifying the truth that lies behind many opinions. And the consistency of the viewpoint of the Bible presented by its many authors gives off a simplicity that makes the viewpoint easy to understand and accept.
For example, let’s take a passage that deals with several of the issues we have faced. It occurs in the days of Saul, the first king of Israel. Samuel was the prophet who had anointed Saul as king and given him instruction in the ways of the Lord many years before. Saul had wandered far from the Lord since those days and he died the day after this incident we’re examining took place. It is recorded in 1 Samuel 28:3-19 and, since it’s an extended story, we’ll break it up to make it easier to digest.
Now Samuel was dead, and all Israel had lamented him and buried him in Ramah, his own city. And Saul had removed from the land those who were mediums and spiritists.
The connection between Samuel’s death and the banishment of mediums will become apparent as the story progresses. Remember that Moses had forbidden communication with the dead. In his brighter, more obedient days, Saul as king had seen that Moses’ injunction was enforced.
So the Philistines gathered together and came and camped in Shunem; and Saul gathered all Israel together and they camped in Gilboa. When Saul saw the camp of the Philistines, he was afraid and his heart trembled greatly.
Saul had fought the Philistines before, but at this point they seem to have him heavily outnumbered. He is afraid and doesn’t know what to do.
When Saul inquired of the LORD, the LORD did not answer him, either by dreams or by Urim or by prophets. Then Saul said to his servants, “Seek for me a woman who is a medium, that I may go to her and inquire of her.”
Accustomed to being able to rely on the counsel of Samuel, the faithful priest of God, Saul was in desperate need of an advisor. Unwilling to seek the Lord further, Saul’s impatience leads him to seek a medium who will gain access to the deceased Samuel. Given his quickness to resort to an activity that he knew to be wrong, and which he himself had outlawed, it is easy to see why Saul was not on good speaking terms with the Lord.
And his servants said to him, “Behold, there is a woman who is a medium at En-dor.” Then Saul disguised himself by putting on other clothes, and went, he and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night; and he said, “Conjure up for me, please, and bring up for me whom I shall name to you.”
Though he has not used the word “dead” or “Sheol” it is obvious to the medium, and to us, what Saul is talking about. He says, “Conjure up,” and “Bring up for me who I shall name to you.” The dead were below, and everyone in this story knew that. Now, we know it, too.
But the woman said to him, “Behold, you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off those who are mediums and spiritists from the land. Why are you then laying a snare for my life to bring about my death?” Saul vowed to her by the LORD, saying, “As the LORD lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing.” Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?”
Notice that she asked, “Whom shall I bring up for you?”
And he said, “Bring up Samuel for me.”
Notice that Saul answered, “Bring up Samuel for me.” Samuel, righteous as he had been, was below with all the rest of the dead. Remember that no one continually does good without ever sinning. Or, as we are more used to hearing in our day, “Nobody’s perfect.”
When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice; and the woman spoke to Saul, saying, “Why have you deceived me? For you are Saul.” The king said to her, “Do not be afraid; but what do you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I see a divine being coming up out of the earth.”
The word “divine” here can also be rendered “god.” The angels were sometimes spoken of in the same terms. When we stop to consider that the spirit of a person is what descends to Sheol, then this makes all the sense in the world. Angels are spirits who have no bodies. When humans are disembodied spirits, they would resemble angels at least in this respect. But more to the point of our current discussion, notice that this being was “coming up.”
He said to her, “What is his form?” And she said, “An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped with a robe.”
Do I need to say it? “An old man is coming up.”
And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and did homage. Then Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?”
Samuel does not like being disturbed. (Now we know why all those grave markers say “R.I.P.”: rest in peace.) Notice also that he blames the disturbance on Saul for “bringing me up.”
And Saul answered, “I am greatly distressed; for the Philistines are waging war against me, and God has departed from me and no longer answers me, either through prophets or by dreams; therefore I have called you, that you may make known to me what I should do.”
Saul has made the very foolish mistake of thinking he can ignore God…and then get out of trouble by violating one of God’s prohibitions! It was Adam and Eve ignoring a prohibition from God that brought death into the earth in the first place. When will we ever learn?
Samuel said, “Why then do you ask me, since the Lord has departed from you and has become your adversary? The Lord has done accordingly as He spoke through me; for the Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, to David. As you did not obey the Lord and did not execute His fierce wrath on Amalek, so the Lord has done this thing to you this day. Moreover the Lord will also give over Israel along with you into the hands of the Philistines, therefore tomorrow you and your sons will be with me.”
It is a stern and tragic rebuke, but Saul brought it on himself. When Samuel says, “…tomorrow you and your sons will be with me,” what does he mean? Of course, he means that Saul and his sons will die in the battle. The words “death” and “Sheol” are not there but they don’t have to be. Given the context, Saul knew only too well what Samuel was saying. And now, we do as well.
The book of 1 Samuel goes on to relate how Saul and his three sons were actually killed just as Samuel had foretold. This included Jonathan who was a noble and God-fearing soldier and who favored David for the kingship even though it would have been his by natural birthright. Therefore, we have men of great morality (Samuel and Jonathan), a man of questionable piety (Saul), and two others whose morals are not characterized in this passage, all descending to Sheol at death. It was the sole place for the dead, just as the earth was the sole place for the living. Sheol was below the earth. There were no living people down there, and there is no place for the dead up here.
Someone may not agree with the way these folks view the issue of life after death, but no one could deny that they were consistent about it!
David, grieved over the loss of his friend and his king, wrote a lament for all Israel to chant. The refrain for Saul and Jonathan was:
“How have the mighty fallen,
And the weapons of war perished!” 2 Samuel 1:27
Even in this coda to the encounter with Samuel, the imagery and outlook was consistent. The mighty had fallen. Their bodies fell to earth as their souls fell to Sheol.
Let me pause to emphasize the point that the Bible that Jesus read is consistently portraying everyone as going to Sheol. Not just the wicked, not just the rebellious Korah and his co-conspirators, not just the enemies of God, but the friends of God: Rachel, Jacob, Job, David, David’s innocent infant, Jonathan, Samuel. Throughout what we call the Old Testament, the portrayal is consistent and clear: all human beings go down to Sheol at death. Anyone today who presumes to speak on the destiny of humans after death from a biblical perspective who fails to deal with Sheol is ignorant of the Bible on one of its clearest points, or is intentionally misleading others by failing to address it. I say this so that you won’t be misled by those who teach man-made traditions about life after death which have no genuine biblical foundation. There are lots of preachers who wave their Bibles and talk about your destination being either heaven or hell, but what I am giving you in this book is truly the Bible’s perspective. Please read to the end and make up your own mind.
Remember that what we are showing is the way things were before Jesus changed them (that is, the “Old Testament” view). He has come as Israel’s Messiah and has changed this reality to a far more wonderful one. But before we know what things were changed to, we have to clearly understand what they were changed from. Otherwise, we will not fully appreciate the language used in the New Testament about resurrection. In fact, we are likely to misunderstand the New Testament on this point – as, sadly, many have. Therefore, though life after death is different now, you see me talking as if the old reality still exists. Please don’t let that throw you. We have to get clearly in our minds the way things were, and to do that I’m taking pains to fully describe the Hebrew mindset.
And while we’re at it, let’s remember that these Hebrews are not just writing what comes off the top of their heads. The prophets who wrote the Scriptures were inspired by Almighty God. They are not telling folktales, they are speaking truth. Neither do we want anyone to discount these ideas because they come from the Old Testament as if that were some less reliable part of the Bible. What we call the “Old Testament” was the only Bible Jesus knew, and He took it to be the word of God. He fully embraced its depiction of Sheol, and, as Messiah, came with a mission to do something about it. If Jesus embraced the Old Testament and its view of Sheol below for the dead, and we respect Him, then we should do no less.
Let us press on, however, for we have not nearly finished painting this picture.
Why the Dead Are Raised
Now that you have seen clearly how the Bible portrays all who die as having descended, you can better appreciate why their returning to life is always referred to as being “raised” from the dead. If dying took you down, certainly being made alive again would have to bring you up. Those who “rise” are those who’ve “fallen.” Let’s consider a few examples.
John the Baptist was beheaded by King Herod. After his death, some speculated, because of all the miracles that were taking place at the hands of Jesus and His disciples, that John may have come to life again. As Luke tells us,
…it was said by some that John had risen from the dead… Luke 9:7
Note that if John was going to come back from the dead, these folks said it would have to be by rising. Jesus had called him the “greatest” of all humans born up until that time. But even he descended at death.
Of course, Jesus Himself raised a number of people from the dead, including a man named Lazarus. Lazarus became notable for this experience as we see in John’s gospel:
Jesus, therefore, six days before the Passover, came to Bethany where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. John 12:1
Lazarus was a good man, but he had been below with all the rest of the dead. For him to return to the earth meant being raised.
We know that Lazarus was only one of a number of people raised by Jesus. When Jesus was questioned about the validity of His ministry, He offered as part of the proof of God’s involvement that dead people were raised from their condition. Here’s part of His answer:
the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up… Matthew 11:5
Notice that in each case the problem is mentioned, and then the solution He provided: The blind receive what? Sight. The lame do what? Walk. And so on, until…the dead are what? RAISED UP. Why? Because their condition was that they had been below. That is, their spirits had.
Of course, Jesus Himself “fell.” But He promised to “rise again.” That He was raised from the dead is written all over the New Testament. Here are but a few examples (the first a promise, the next three fulfillment):
From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day. Matthew 16:21
Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead… 2 Timothy 2:8
the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,” 1 Peter 1:3
Now the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant, even Jesus our Lord,
According to these Scriptures, and the many like them elsewhere in the New Testament, Jesus was to be “raised up. ” Therefore, He was said to be “risen.” The event was called a “resurrection” from the dead. He had been “brought up from the dead.” Kind of consistent, huh?
The consistency of this language and imagery is only a mystery to someone who has never been shown all that the Scriptures teach about the dead and where they go. We have been given a consistent and coherent view of the existence and location of the spirits of the dead. And you will see this view blossom into a clear perception of the created universe in the next chapter.
For now, let me point out that the Bible never says Jesus, Elijah, Elisha, Paul, or Peter (these are people the Scriptures tell us brought back someone from the dead) ever “lowered” anyone from the dead. Heaven was above, where God was. Sheol was below, where the dead were. God might “come down,” but the dead could only “come up.” Without exception. Jesus included. You have seen it yourself.
Drawing a Conclusion
Let’s stop and ask ourselves a question: Are we making too much of what we are reading in the Bible? That is, could we be taking figures of speech and making them express spatial reality that the authors didn’t intend?
For example, “kicked the bucket” and “belly up” are figures of speech for death, and not much more than that. Is that was Sheol is – a mere figure of speech? Hardly. The picture being painted by the Bible’s authors is too big, too clear, and too consistent not to be communicating something more than an idiom. Perhaps we could be reading too much into a particular sentence. But the multitude of references on the subject, along with the interlocking and complementary facets of the picture, combine to make misunderstanding almost impossible (especially when you consider there’s even more to be drawn).
This place called Sheol is mentioned repeatedly. It always refers to death. It is designated as the place to which departed spirits depart. All departed spirits – good and bad, young and old – go there. This is the only destination the dead have. It is consistently thought to be downward, below the earth. Those few people who are called back up for a while are said to be raised from there. The cumulative effect of all these words and sentences seem impossible to ignore. The Bible is trying to tell us something. No – it is telling us something. It’s telling us what happens to the dead.
(I know you must be anxious to hear about heaven and maybe even about hell, but please be patient. We’ll cover both before the book is finished. Let’s continue letting the Bible tells its story in its own way. It’s not really my fault that those who taught you the Bible didn’t show you all this before now.)
If we had found the Bible to be painting unclear and inconsistent pictures of what happens to the dead, we might be justified in rejecting its explanation. Since, however, it paints one clear and uncomplicated picture, and gives us hope about those who have died, why would we not embrace it quickly and gladly? Not only that, the Bible is not yet finished painting its picture of the world Jesus came to change. All we have seen so far is only a sketch. The picture is about to become full scale…and technicolor.
Chapter 4 – The Heavens and the Earth and the Sea
Your country – where did it come from? How about your city – what were its origins? If we want to know where things came from, their origin, we have to look to those who have written history. Either through firsthand knowledge or research, historians have recorded for us how things began. Most of us know the origin of our country and city because it was probably part of the curriculum followed in our schooling. The origin of many other things becomes known, however, only if we happen to take an interest in research ourselves or come into contact with someone who has taken such an interest.
How about you? I’m talking about the origin of you. Where did you come from? I hope you had a couple of parents around to be a continual source of that kind of information. Grandparents and great-grandparents, too. Our family, those who came before us, tell us where we came from.
The Israelites were blessed in this way. Their origins were passed down to them. They knew that they had descended from one man named Abraham who had been chosen by God. These facts were not just passed on orally but were also recorded in the genealogies and the narratives of the Bible. But Abraham’s family history included something more than most family trees. It included the history of the universe.
In the Beginning
The Hebrews were very adept at tracing family history. The lists in my family Bible only go back a few generations; theirs went all the way back to the very first man. That’s what you call thorough! In the mention of Adam, the creation of the universe was also described. Not in any great detail, mind you. But enough description to answer the question of where it all came from. Or, more precisely, who it all came from. If I want to know who brought the first airplane into existence, I am satisfied when I hear the names Wilbur and Orville Wright. I do not need to know the kinds of wrenches they used or where they bought the raw material before I can accept the answer. Even if I was interested in such detailed information and could discover it, it still would not change the answer to my original question – no matter how much detail I did or didn’t uncover. God created the universe and, for most of us, that gets to the main point. Let science discover all it can, but no matter how much it does or doesn’t discover, the answer to the question about who will not change. In the meantime, we need simple explanations of the creation from the Bible that will help all of us – whether we’re scientists or not – live morally and practically in this world. Moses summed up the story of creation this way:
“For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them…” Exodus 20:11
Not bad for a week’s work. Heavens, earth, and sea – and all that is in them! That just about covers everything. And this threefold view of God’s work is repeated at various places in the Scriptures.
Here’s an example taken from a time when a group of people were praying to Him:
And when they heard this, they lifted their voices to God with one accord and said, “O Lord, it is You who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them, Acts 4:24
To acknowledge the extent and grandeur of God’s creative ability at the beginning of a prayer would have to make almost any request that follows seem possible. And, of course, that’s the idea of addressing Him in this way – not for the effect it has on Him (as if He could be “buttered up”) but for the effect it has on us as we pray. We are petitioning the One to whom all existence owes its existence!
To describe the creation as heavens and earth and sea is helpful because it is meaningful and simple. It is natural for the human mind to want to order and categorize what it sees – to make sense of things. But there is more than one way to slice the creation pie.
Visible and Invisible
From the beginning, we have always known that there is more to this creation than what we can see. Yes, it has its visible elements, but there are also things that, though we can’t see them, are just as real. Not only are they just as real, they seem more long lasting. Take love, for instance. Can we see it? No. Does it exist? Yes. How about God – do we see Him? No. But if invisible things aren’t real then God isn’t real. And how about you? Didn’t we already decide there was more to you than what can be seen? If there is not an invisible you, then the corruption and decay of your body after death is you decaying – lifeless and waiting for the first wind to spread you a hundred different directions. People have died…but love remains. People have died…but God remains. People have died…but people remain (those same people, in Sheol below). Therefore, we know that the invisible parts of the creation are just as real as the visible parts…and more long-lasting.
The Bible sometimes uses the twofold description of creation – that is, visible and invisible, as in this verse from the New Testament speaking of Jesus:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things have been created through Him and for Him. Colossians 1:15-16
Notice that God is specifically referred to as being invisible. Also note that things created were referred to as both visible and invisible. Of course, with respect to man, it was the dust of the ground that provided the visible part and the breath of God that provided the invisible part.
The Bible also used other terms to describe the visible-invisible dichotomy. The following verse describes it in a way that affirms what we have already seen about invisible things being more long-lasting than visible ones:
while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:18
The things which are not seen are still things. They are just unseen. The universe we live in has things which are seen and things which are not seen. Two kinds of things. The “seen” you will perish; the “unseen” you will never perish.
Another way of referring to the two aspects of creation uses the words flesh and spirit. What is seen of people is called flesh. Unseen things are spirit. That’s why Jesus says,
God is spirit… John 4:24
That’s another way of saying that God is invisible. God has been teaching us from the beginning to live according to values we couldn’t see. You can’t see honesty. You can’t see integrity. You can see the results of them, but not those things themselves for they are spiritual things. Unseen.
Another Heaven, Another Earth, and Another Sea
The Bible’s purpose has always been to give understanding. To do this, it must establish order for our minds. Where there is no order, there can only be confusion. The Bible has always presented an ordered view of the creation. There were the heavens where the birds flew. There was the earth where man and beast dwelt. And there was the sea which had its own set of creatures. Each part of the creation provided the environment or home for its particular creatures.
Just as seen things had their own places normal to them, so unseen things did, too. For example, God’s home was in the heavens. That’s why people prayed, “Our Father who art in heaven.” That didn’t mean that God couldn’t see and hear everything going on down here. Obviously He could, or we’d be wasting our time praying. But His natural habitat was heaven.
God Himself put it this way:
“Heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool.
Where then is a house you could build for Me?
And where is a place that I may rest?
For My hand made all these things,
Thus all these things came into being,” Isaiah 66:1-2
We get the picture. God has a presence in the earth (His feet rest here), but His throne is in the heavens. A king, or any earthly leader, is often judged by the glory of His throne (or seat of his power). Has any king or president ever had a throne or residence as glorious as the heavens? I tell you that the poorest man on earth has the richest art collection in the world if he makes the effort to watch the sunrises and sunsets each day. A painting of a sunflower sold for $40 million a few years ago, but you can see an original for nothing.
Beyond the glory of the visible heavens, however, lies the heavens that are invisible. Obviously, the Bible was not teaching the idea that God could be reached at 40,000 feet. Or 50,000. Or even a zillion miles. There are heavens that are invisible to our eyes and to the strongest telescopes. And just as birds dwell in the visible heavens, God and the angels dwell in the invisible heavens. The difference between the visible heaven and the invisible one is not a matter of distance, but of dimension. Jesus would lift His eyes to heaven when He prayed. He did not expect to see God with His physical eyes. Rather, He knew there was another dimension up there. And it was into that dimension that He spoke.
The earth, too, has an invisible dimension. There is the realm that we see, but there is also a realm which we do not see. You remember Samuel from the last chapter. One of his tasks before he died was to anoint a successor to King Saul. God’s choice was a young man named David, but Samuel did not know that at first. All he knew was that the new king was to come from among the sons of a man named Jesse. So Samuel went to the town of this family, which was Bethlehem. Jesse’s oldest sons were named Eliab, Abinadab, and Shammah. Here’s what Samuel encountered:
When they entered, [Samuel] looked at Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is before Him.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord’s looks at the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab and made him pass before Samuel. And he said, “The Lord has not chosen this one either.” Next Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “The Lord has not chosen this one either.” Thus Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel. But Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen these.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Are these all the children?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, and behold, he is tending the sheep.” Then Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” So he sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, with beautiful eyes and a handsome appearance. And the Lord said, “Arise, anoint him; for this is he.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward… 1 Samuel 16:6-13
Though David had a handsome physical appearance, his youth, smallness, and last position in the birth order would cause no one to take him as a serious candidate for king. Only when the process of elimination pointed his way was he even considered. But God sees things we don’t see. He sees the spiritual dimension of the earth. He saw the size of David’s heart, which was not only bigger than any of his brothers’ but bigger than Goliath’s as well!
The physical heavens clothe the spiritual heavens. Our physical eyes see only the outward garment of sky and clouds, but the eyes of our heart see beyond to the unchanging reality. The same is true of the earth. Our bodies clothe our spirits. Our physical eyes see only the outward garment of face and the rest, but the eyes of our heart – though we cannot peer where only God sees – knows that there is a spiritual person inside. Therefore the Scripture says,
The heavens are the heavens of the Lord,
But the earth He has given to the sons of men. Psalm 115:16
The Hebrew mind would see this truth in two dimensions. Similarly, we have two eyes to give us the sense of depth in the physical sphere. There is a greater depth in the creation: visible and invisible. Physical creation does not exist independent of spiritual creation. It mirrors and reflects it.
The Bible is presenting an ordered universe with both physical and spiritual dimensions. As there is order in the physical side, so also there is order in the spiritual side. Physical realities are used to explain spiritual realities – as in this verse:
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
So great is His lovingkindness toward those who fear Him. Psalm 103:11
And just as the physical heavens were above the physical earth, so the spiritual heavens were above the spiritual earth. Whether we lift our eyes or bow our heads, the spiritual being within us is acknowledging the Spiritual Being in the spiritual heavens.
But what of the sea? Does it have any spiritual counterpart in the Bible’s point of view? You guessed it –
The Depths of Sheol
Israel’s prophets viewed Sheol below as something to be contrasted with heaven above. As Isaiah said,
“Ask a sign for yourself from the Lord your God; make it deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” Isaiah 7:11
As heaven is measured by height, so the ocean is measured by depth – as in the physical realm, so also in the spiritual realm.
Earlier we read from David’s Psalm 139. Let’s look at part of it again:
Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there. Psalm 139:7-8
Obviously, David is contrasting the height of the heavens with the depth of Sheol. Heaven is as high as you can go in the creation; Sheol is as low as you can go.
Job, also, reveals this three-tiered view of spiritual creation in the following passage:
“Can you discover the depths of God?
Can you discover the limits of the Almighty?
They are high as the heavens, what can you do?
Deeper than Sheol, what can you know?” Job 11:7-8
There is nothing higher in creation than heaven; neither is there anything lower than Sheol.
Sheol is often described with terms like “deep,” “depths,” “lowest” and such. Terms like “high,” “heights,” and “highest” are reserved for heaven.
Creation Is Two-Dimensional and Three-Tiered
Summing up what we have gleaned from the Bible, it presents creation as existing in two dimensions: visible and invisible. We could also say “seen and unseen” or “flesh and spirit.” And this two-dimensional creation exists in three tiers: heaven, earth, and sea (corresponding to Sheol).
Each tier of creation has its own inhabitants, both in the physical realm as well as the spiritual one. Even children are familiar with the creatures which belong to each realm: Birds for the air, fish for the sea, and so on. In the spiritual dimension, heaven was designed for God and angels, earth for living humanity, and Sheol below for deceased humanity. It’s a simple concept, but God must know that’s the way we best understand things.
In any given Bible verse, it’s not always clear which dimension is being referenced. Obviously, when it tells us to pray “Our Father who art in heaven” it is not encouraging us to picture Him hanging on to a star. On the other hand, when the Scriptures told the Israelites not to make idols of any likeness of anything in the heavens, it was speaking of the physical heavens. For how could the Israelites make a likeness of something they couldn’t see? There are other times, however, where both dimensions of creation may be in view.
For example, Moses told his fellow Israelites that to insure the blessing of God they should obey the words he had written down for them. He said God’s instruction was not too difficult for them to understand or perform. He stressed the point this way (the “it” he uses in the first sentence refers to God’s instruction):
“It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ Deuteronomy 30:12-13
We see Moses using the heavens and the sea to express great distances to which one could go. We today might use figures of speech like “outer Mongolia” or “Timbuktu.” It seems natural to take his expressions as referring to the physical heavens and the physical sea. However, the apostle Paul quotes this verse in the New Testament and uses the terms in their spiritual sense:
“Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down), or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).” Romans 10:6-7
Paul refers to the spiritual heaven where Christ ascended after His resurrection, and the spiritual sea where He had descended at death before His resurrection. The word “abyss” literally means “bottomless,” so it is understandable why it might substitute for the sea, especially in this context. In fact, abyss is used for the sea or ocean outside of the Bible, both in ancient and modern times. Obviously, Christ did not descend into the physical ocean at His death. He descended into the spiritual depths called Sheol, the realm of the dead.
Knowing this, we can feel what David felt as we see this word picture he drew:
…You have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol. Psalm 86:13
This imagery of a “man overboard” who is “sinking” toward “death” works to describe either a physical or spiritual deliverance. Here is a similar picture from another passage of David’s:
“For the waves of death encompassed me;
The torrents of destruction overwhelmed me;” 2 Samuel 22:5
Vivid and consistent imagery communicates like no other kind of speech.
By the way, I mentioned earlier that Bible scholars were uncertain of the origin of the specific word “Sheol.” One of the two main theories holds that it comes from a word meaning “hollow” or “deep.” You can easily see how that understanding would fit with everything we have learned. Even so, the way a word is used is always a more reliable guide to understanding what people mean than the origin of the word. I don’t know the origin of the word “dude” but if I hang around people who use it frequently, I’ll know what they mean. Likewise, when we look at all these Bible verses describing Sheol and its place in the universe, we get the idea.
Sheol Is a Spiritual Place
In this chapter I have shown you how and where Sheol fits into the created order or scheme of things. It is a simple view. And it is the view consistently put forth by the prophets of Israel. It is not original with me.
We had already learned that Sheol was a place distinct from the earth and that it was below. Now we can see clearly that it was part of an overall view of creation held by the Bible writers: two dimensions and three tiers.
Sheol was an actual place, but a spiritual one. What I mean is that you couldn’t see it. Not physically anyway. You could not see the spirits of the people who existed there. But then we never saw their spirits when they lived on earth either. We only saw their bodies. We can get a hint of what people’s spirits are like by their actions – but never enough to judge them.
I’ll admit that this biblical view of creation on three levels and in two dimensions does not describe it in scientific terms. But I did not take into account all the science involved when I turned on the light in this room I’m working in either. And there was a lot of science behind that little act. Neither did I ponder the mysteries of electronic circuitry and silicon chips when I turned on this computer. I just needed it to work. The Bible is not trying to be a science book. If it were, to which century’s scientists would it write? Their curriculum changes over time. The Bible is giving us an outlook to live by – for any century. Its truths transcend scientific eras. The two-dimensional, three-tiered view of the universe may seem simplistic to some, but God figured we’d probably prefer a light switch to a wiring schematic and a biography of Edison. And even if He had given us those things, they would only enlighten us insofar as the physical dimension was concerned – science can never measure the spiritual realm.
Sheol Was a Place to Avoid…as Long as You Could
Since Sheol equates to death, then to avoid Sheol would be to live a long life. This is just the way it is referred to most of the time in the Bible’s book of Proverbs. This book is filled with practical advice. Much of it is cast in terms of a parent giving instruction to a child. For example,
Do not hold back discipline from the child,
Although you strike him with the rod, he will not die.
You shall strike him with the rod
And rescue his soul from Sheol. Proverbs 23:13-14
If you’re opposed to corporal punishment, just regard “the rod” as a good tongue lashing. The point is that if you properly discipline a child, you will spare that child far worse torments. Aside from the grace of God, I attribute my longevity of life so far to the diligence of my parents who instilled in me values I still hold dear.
In a similar vein, another proverb says,
The path of life leads upward for the wise
That he may keep away from Sheol below. Proverbs 15:24
Life is like a broad place to play. But at the edge there’s a cliff. If you play close to the edge, you’re liable to fall (into Sheol). Don’t play close to the edge. There’s plenty of room in the middle, boys and girls. Be wise. So the book of Proverbs teaches us.
This collection of proverbs also warn against adult sins such as adultery (transgression of one of the Ten Commandments). It uses picturesque speech (as we are seeing the Bible continually do) by personifying the adulteress as anyone who leads astray. For example,
For the lips of an adulteress drip honey
And smoother than oil is her speech;
But in the end she is bitter as wormwood,
Sharp as a two-edged sword.
Her feet go down to death,
Her steps take hold of Sheol. Proverbs 5:3-5
“Her” ways are a fast track to Sheol. In another place, it says this of the adulteress:
For many are the victims she has cast down,
And numerous are all her slain.
Her house is the way to Sheol,
Descending to the chambers of death. Proverbs 7:26-27
The picture is designed to provoke revulsion, and help the reader avoid temptation. Temptation is alluring, but who wants to spend time with someone whose house leads to “the chambers of death,” for crying out loud?
And speaking once again of a personified temptress, the book of Proverbs says,
But he does not know that the dead are there,
That her guests are in the depths of Sheol. Proverbs 9:18
Some of the Bible’s picturesque language is beautiful – then there are stark and graphic warnings like these. For those of us to who like to read books with lots of pictures, there is nothing quite like the Bible. Picture after picture.
If you are a parent, you are in a good position to appreciate what God is trying to do with the Bible. You want your child to have a healthy respect for death so that he or she can avoid it, but you don’t want them to be excessively fearful. In God’s case, He made us aware of Sheol so that we’d know death wasn’t the end of existence. That, however, is not all of the comfort He wants to give us. Before we understand the greater comfort, we must understand how the problem affects God Himself.
Sheol Meant Further Separation from God
Perhaps now you see why I said that death was not just a problem for us, but for God, too. When Adam and Even sinned, they were expelled from the Garden of Eden. That marked a separation from God. It was not a complete separation because He made garments for them. And His care for them was shown in other ways, just as He has always continued to make His sun shine on the just and the unjust. Nonetheless, something special had been lost.
Since death took people below, it only meant further separation from God. This was one more reason why He did not want people to sin. It hastened the day of their death and removed them from the earth. The three-tiered, two-dimensional worldview conveyed this graphically. And, remember, everyone who died was going down to Sheol which was farther from God than the earth – not just certain “bad” people.
This does not mean that people who went down to Sheol were out of His reach, for the Bible says,
And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do. Hebrews 4:13
There is no place anywhere in the creation that is out of sight for Him!
And, as if we needed any specific confirmation of God’s ability to see those in Sheol, Job says,
“Naked is Sheol before Him…” Job 26:6
Indeed, all things are “open and laid bare” or “naked” to God. Therefore, we needn’t think that going to Sheol took one beyond the reach of God. But it was still better to be alive on the earth.
No one could see what life was like in Sheol anymore than a baby in the womb can see what life is like outside the womb. As you have seen after reading all these Scripture verses about Sheol, the Bible’s instructions are about how to live here on the earth. We human beings don’t know any more details about Sheol below than we do about heaven above. The emphasis of the Scripture is on life. In that regard, it tells enough about Sheol to accomplish two goals: First, to encourage us to avoid it for as long as possible. Second, to comfort us that once we die we have a place to go and are not forgotten by God.
(Yet again, you could be frustrated with me because instead of proving that everyone is going to heaven, I’ve only proved that everyone is going to Sheol. Nonetheless, I told you we had to let the Bible unfold the story in its own way, and that is what we’re doing. You’ve completed one-third of the book. Already you’re probably wondering, “Why didn’t my Bible teachers tell me more about Sheol?” Your biblical understanding of heaven is going to be solid and strong this time. Hang in there!)
And so we see that the problem of death is even bigger than we first thought. It’s a problem for God as well as us, and the problem is bound up in the very structure of the universe. Death extends the gulf between God and man by taking man down to Sheol from earth – even father away from the God whose throne is in heaven. God promised through His prophets that He would do something about this, but it was not at all apparent exactly how He was going to solve it.
Before we see what that solution would, however, we must lay a little more groundwork. The better we understand the problem, the better we will understand the solution. And this solution is a doozy – one that men and angels would study and admire for all eternity!
Chapter 5 – The Greeks Called It Hades
Remember any Greek mythology? If so, the word “Hades” may be familiar to you. He was the Greek god of the dead, and his realm existed – you guessed it – below.
The name Hades came to apply as much to the place of the dead as to the god himself. In the Greek mind it meant the lower world in which all the spirits of the dead dwelt.
The Greeks were much more descriptive of Hades than the Hebrews were of Sheol. As you have seen, Sheol was a vast domain of murky depths which the living were not allowed to know much about. Hades, by contrast, was described by the Greeks as having five rivers, each with its own name. Well-developed story lines made Hades seem like a maze through which the dead were made to negotiate. But then the Greeks had always been imaginative with regard to the unseen dimension of the universe. The multiplicity of their gods in the heavens, each with well-defined and sometimes all too human personalities, testifies to their ability to spin a good yarn.
On the other hand, the Israelites had been taught to accept whatever God revealed about spiritual reality but not to embellish it. Moses put it this way:
“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.” Deuteronomy 29:29
In other words, not all knowledge about the spiritual dimension was revealed to humanity. What God kept to Himself should not be the subject of speculation. Rather, the people of God should focus on what had been revealed – not on what had not been revealed. And not only that, but whatever is revealed should be put to practical use. Revelation is for the purpose of obeying and honoring God. All that the Bible has told us about the spiritual heavens, earth, and sea are for the purpose of giving us enough understanding to be able to live morally. What the Hebrews lacked in fancy was made up for in fact. We may call Greek thinking mythology, but we can call Hebrew thinking reality.
With regard to the multiplicity of their gods, the Greeks were right in line with the rest of ancient cultures. Polytheism was the predominant view of the world before Christ. Ancient man regarded the heavens to be populated by multiple supernatural powers. The descendants of Abraham were unique in claiming there could only be one God. (Notably, the modern world, by its view, has fully vindicated ancient Israel on this point; monotheism has so stamped out polytheism that even atheists claim it’s God – not gods – that they don’t believe in.) Even though the Hebrews espoused monotheism they did not deny that there were other lesser beings of power and personality in the heavens, for they wrote of angels and Satan. Thus, ancient cultures consistently regarded the heavens as God’s (or the gods’) dwelling place, the earth as man’s dwelling place…and the world below as that occupied by the dead.
Have you ever played that game where everyone stands in a circle and a story or statement is passed from one person to the next? The first person whispers it to the second, the second whispers to the third, and so on. By the time it gets back to the first person, the story has changed – sometimes significantly. This is why ancient cultures did not agree on the details of their view of creation, but similarities can be seen in their general outlook. Obviously, God had been on speaking terms with Adam and Eve as well as their children. Generations later, various descendants of theirs would have varying views because of the gradual corruption of knowledge that was passed from one generation to another, the greater corruption that occurred when any descendant chose to be less faithful to God, and the geographic separation of cultures that allowed varying degrees of isolation.
Some people say that the knowledge of God – what some call religion – has evolved. That is, they say humanity started with a little knowledge of God and gradually put together ideas and – wham – out came the Israelite’s (or whoever’s) view of God. But common sense and the Bible tell us that this is the opposite of what actually happened. That is, what is known can get gradually lost and misunderstood in the transference from person to person and from generation to generation (much like the game above). The views of the Greeks and other ancient civilizations were degenerative versions of the truth (just as polytheism was a corruption of monotheism). Their myths were truth decayed rather than developed. All ancient cultures shared ancestors with the Israelites. Only Noah and his family survived the flood so everyone could trace their ancestry to him. Noah knew God and taught his children. But he had a grandson named Canaan who was a problem. Generations later, Abraham would distinguish himself among the descendants of Noah, the majority of whom had become idol worshipers. It all just shows us that degradation of a message is an easily observable and understandable process.
This process of deterioration was slowed in the case of the Hebrews, primarily by two things. First, God spoke to individuals called prophets in each generation. Their fresh expressions of the truth kept the knowledge of God accurate and were a defense against speculation and erroneous thinking. Second, these prophets wrote their thoughts – and these became the Hebrew Scriptures, our Bible. These writings, from Moses to Malachi, and later all the way to Revelation, in effect, etched in stone the timeless truths. When the truth was lost to later generations, people could come back to these writings and recapture what had been lost.
Notice that I said these two forces only slowed the process of corruption. The writings themselves reveal that the Israelites would lose sight of things that had once been so clear. They would fail to act on what they knew to be true. Consequently, truth would fade to the recesses of their consciousness and they’d be prone to take on the habits of cultures around them.
There is one and only one solution to reversing the devolution of our grasp of truth. That is to act on what we know to be true. When we do, God speaks more truth into our hearts. We act on that and He tells us yet more. The point being that man has never been able, and will never be able, to truthfully and morally live in the earth without acknowledging God’s active, just, and loving presence. Just as the physical part of us will suffocate without air, so the spiritual part of us suffocates without the air of God’s presence.
For the purpose of your life and my life I am saying that we should always listen to, and not ignore, the whisperings of God deep in our hearts. If we pay more attention, maybe those whisperings will not be so hard to hear. But for the purposes of this book I am pointing out why we see both similarities as well as differences between the worldviews of the Hebrews and that of other ancient civilizations.
The Rise and Dominance of Greek Culture
There is a reason why I have singled out the Greeks and their view of life after death. The Greek culture came on the world scene and made a dramatic impact which is still felt today. The rise of the Greek empire came at a time when the people of Israel had been dispersed throughout the world. In 586 B.C., their capital city of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians. Most of the Jewish population was carried off into exile. Only a portion of them ever made it back. The Jews were being dispersed throughout the world like seeds of a dandelion. (Satan thought he was destroying Hebrew thought but he was only spreading it.)
It was during the centuries between this destruction of Jerusalem and the time of Christ that the Greek empire was established. Even the Romans who overcame the Greeks, thought so highly of Greek culture that they adopted much of it. Therefore, even when the Roman empire succeeded them, the Greeks were still providing the world its most common language and culture. Thus, even as the Roman empire is prominent in the New Testament, so also are many things Greek.
As the Jews sought to live out their faith in foreign lands they realized that they needed more than ever the help of their Holy Scriptures. The only problem was that the prophets had, of course, written them in Hebrew. If the ideas of the prophets were ever to fully take root on foreign soil they would have to be translated into another language. Therefore, the first language for the Bible to be translated to was, for all the reasons mentioned, Greek. It had become the principal language of the world during the time of the Jewish dispersion in the same way that English is the principal language of the world today. If someone wants to speak to the greatest portion of humanity today, he puts his ideas into English. In that day, you would put them into Greek. This translation was called the Septuagint (a Greek word meaning 70, derived from the number of translators who are said to have produced it).
How Do You Say “Sheol” in Greek?
The Jews before Christ had only the books of Moses through Malachi – what we call the Old Testament. When the translators came to the word Sheol, they chose to use the word Hades. It was the logical choice. This does not mean that they were buying into all the exotic embellishments of Greek mythology. Sheol was Hebrew for the netherworld of the dead. Greeks said Hades when they were referring to the same place. Hades, therefore, was the logical choice for translating Sheol. It was the place of the dead. It lay under the earth. It was where everyone went when they died. This was the essential idea and in this sense the meanings were identical.
Therefore, whether you read the word Sheol or Hades, you are reading the same thing. They are synonymous terms. Where the Hebrew Scriptures would say Sheol, the Septuagint would say Hades. We run into something similar with the words “Messiah” and “Christ.” “Messiah” is a Hebrew word meaning “Anointed,” as in “He was anointed king.” The Greek word for “anointed” was “Christ.” Therefore, where the Hebrew Scriptures would say “Messiah,” the Septuagint would say “Christ,” but the meaning would be the same either way.
The New Testament Also Uses the Word Hades for Sheol
The original language of the New Testament documents was Greek. Though Jesus and all of His apostles were Jews, He had instructed them to take His message into the entire world. In doing so, they found Greek the best way to communicate to the most people. Therefore, both the Old and New Testaments, when translated from Greek, typically render Sheol as Hades, just as they typically render Messiah as Christ. Since the New Testament was written originally in Greek and not in Hebrew, you may never find the word Sheol in an English translation of the New Testament. This is part of the reason that the word seems obscure to so many. Of people today who have read some of the Bible, most have read from the New Testament. Since this reading would never expose them to the word Sheol, it would be obscure to them even though it wasn’t obscure at all to the people who wrote the New Testament.
I’m sorry about all the confusion of language but, alas, it’s one of the consequences of the Tower of Babel we are still feeling today. For our purposes, all you have to remember is that Hades means Sheol. Everything you’ve learned about Sheol applies to Hades. Here is a prime example of what I mean. Psalm 16 in the Old Testament makes a reference to Sheol. Here’s how it reads:
For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol;
Nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay. Psalm 16:10
When that same passage is quoted in the New Testament it reads like this:
Because you will not abandon my soul to Hades, nor allow your Holy One to undergo decay. Acts 2:27
Pretty simple, huh?
The other New Testament references to Hades follow the same patterns and usage as the prophets of the Old Testament. For example, we saw that death and Sheol were sometimes personified, and spoken of in the same breath:
Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol?
Shall I redeem them from death?
O Death, where are your thorns?
O Sheol, where is your sting?
Compassion will be hidden from My sight. Hosea 13:14
The apostle John, in writing the book of Revelation which sits at the end of the New Testament, takes this same approach in the following verses (while, of course, using the word Hades for Sheol):
“…I have the keys of death and of Hades.” Revelation 1:18
…he who sat on it had the name Death; and Hades was following with him. Revelation 6:8
…death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them… Revelation 20:13
Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. Revelation 20:14
If the New Testament books had come to us in Hebrew instead of Greek, then each of these four verses would have read “Death and Sheol” just as the passage in Hosea did.
Another pattern of speech used by the prophets and emulated by the apostles has to do with the destruction of cities. Remember, earlier in this chapter, when I said that Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 B.C.? Well, over a century before that time the prophet Isaiah had warned of this destruction and the exile of its citizenry. He spoke at one point in this fashion:
Therefore My people go into exile for their lack of knowledge;
And their honorable men are famished,
And their multitude is parched with thirst.
Therefore Sheol has enlarged its throat and opened its mouth without measure;
And Jerusalem’s splendor, her multitude, her din of revelry and the jubilant within her, descend into it. Isaiah 5:13-14
A pretty graphic description, but that’s what you’d use if you were pleading with people to change their lives! The whole idea was for the prophet to get the people to repent so that things wouldn’t turn out that horrible way. Jesus, being a prophet Himself, followed the same speech pattern in warning the citizens of His day:
“And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You will descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day.” Matthew 11:23
The warnings of Isaiah were proved valid in 586 B.C. when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon destroyed Jerusalem. The warnings of Jesus proved valid when the Romans crushed the Jewish nation. The most notable point of this campaign was the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. – written about in any encyclopedia you can find. It was the business of the prophets to warn people how to keep out of Sheol (Hades) – that is, to postpone death by living in a way that is conducive to a long and healthy life.
Another expression used both with Sheol in the Old Testament and Hades in the New Testament has to do with gates. You may remember that Hezekiah spoke about the possibility of premature death in these terms:
“In the middle of my life
I am to enter the gates of Sheol;
I am to be deprived of the rest of my years.” Isaiah 38:10
In ancient times, great cities had walls for protection with gates to control access. Naturally, the gates would be heavily fortified. Therefore, to “enter the gates of Sheol (or Hades)” would be a figure of speech about dying. The “city” of Sheol (Hades) had gates so powerful that once you entered, there was no getting out. Oh yes, we’ve talked about a few folks being raised from the dead, but they always had to eventually return. These gates had proven through history to be the strongest gates known to humanity. Jesus uses the same expression but at the same time shows that He has a greater power in this New Testament passage:
” …upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” Matthew 16:18
He is saying, of course, that the gates of Sheol (or Hades) would not prevail. Given all that you have now learned from the Scriptures about Sheol (Hades), can’t you feel with the disciples what a remarkable and stunning statement this was?
No one had ever spoken of this kind of power over the realm of the dead. To this point in human existence, the gates of death had proven impregnable. Hades (Sheol) was a “city” whose population only increased. It never diminished. The best humanity had been able to hope for was to stay away from these gates as long as possible. Jesus was talking about a power no one had ever exercised before. We are getting hints as to how great and magnificent would be God’s solution to the heretofore universal power of death.
Sheol = Hades
The purpose of this chapter has been to reveal why the word Sheol appears in the Old Testament but not the New Testament (and, conversely, why the word Hades appears in the New Testament but not the Old). The answer is that Old Testament books have been translated from Hebrew and New Testament books have been translated from Greek. When you realize that the words Hades and Sheol are like the words Messiah and Christ, you see the concept of a place to which all humans descended at death in both testaments.
Therefore, we now have the full Bible picture of what happened to the dead before the work of Jesus Christ. We have taken into account both Old and New Testaments. The writers of the New Testament fully embraced the Hebrew (Old Testament) outlook. This is no surprise, for the writers of the New Testament were themselves Hebrews through and through. Jesus and His apostles knew they could stake their lives on what the prophets had written.
So, you may now revise your challenge to me to say, “All you have proven so far is that everyone is going to Hades.” Even as you hear yourself say that, however, you are shaking off the man-made traditions you have been taught. The Bible’s true message is contrasting itself with traditional, though erroneous, theories. “What of hell?” you ask. We’ll get to that in a later chapter. For now, recognize that in all the Bible verses I have paraded before you, the word hell has not appeared. Neither has there been in any of these verses a notion that there was more than one place to go when one died. The notion of some going down at death while others went up is simply not biblical!
If you believe the Bible, the issue that has the most urgency for you at this point is, “What will stop this death march to the netherworld?” Whether you call it Sheol or Hades, according to the Bible it’s an insurmountable problem for every human being!
But before we begin to peel back the wrapping on God’s solution, we must take one more step of preliminary work. Can your patience bear it?
Chapter 6 – Coloring Death with Hope
Everything we’ve seen so far of the Hebrew view of death has been in black and white. We’ve seen the two-dimensional, three-tiered Hebrew worldview which was not unique in its broadest strokes. What was clearly different in the Hebrew view from other cultures, even at the broadest level, however, was the coloring. That is, the Hebrews had hope!
When the apostle Paul mentioned the idea of resurrection in the city of Athens, a center of Greek culture, some of its illustrious citizens began to sneer. Obviously, they did not think that the idea of the dead rising again was worth serious consideration. Even within the Hebrew culture, there was not unanimous assent to the hope of resurrection from the dead.
The Pharisees and the Sadducees were the two most prominent religious parties among First Century Jews, the former proclaiming the hope of resurrection while the latter eschewed the idea. Both groups revered the Scriptures, but the hope that the prophets gave for resurrection was found in the way they spoke of death. Those who did not embrace the spirit of the prophets would be slow to catch the drift.
The prophets did not come right out and say, “The dead will one day be permanently raised and here’s how it will happen.” A person who looks to the Old Testament for explicit statements like this will be disappointed. Rather, the prophets implied it, suggested it, hinted at it, and, yes, even hoped for it, in the way that they discussed death and Sheol/Hades. When the Messiah came, the details would be revealed. Until then, the promise was made in a mystery.
A Long Winter’s Nap
Sometimes in the Bible, a person’s death would be described simply as,
…and he died. Genesis 5:5
Other times, however, it might say something like this:
So Ahaz slept with his fathers, and was buried with his fathers in the city of David; and his son Hezekiah reigned in his place. 2 Kings 16:20
The text doesn’t explicitly say that Ahaz died, but we get the idea. “Slept with his fathers” is a figure of speech that communicates death. More to the point of our study, it communicates death with hope. For if someone has fallen asleep, we expect them to wake up.
The prophets would never have used sleep as an expression of death unless they had hope that there would someday be an alarm clock, wake-up call, rooster crowing, or something that would change the state of things. This is but one of the ways that the prophets colored their references to death with hope.
Here are some more examples of death described as sleep, and specifically as sleep in Sheol/Hades. You may remember this quote from Job that we read earlier:
“If I look for Sheol as my home,
I make my bed in the darkness;” Job 17:13
We can see the color of hope in the word picture he was painting: Sheol/Hades is the “bed” for those who “sleep.”
You may recall that David, too, talked about this kind of “bed”:
…If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there. Psalm 139:8
He knew that God’s presence would not forsake him even if he had to “go to sleep.” In another psalm David said,
Consider and answer me, O LORD my God;
Enlighten my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, Psalm 13:3
Jesus of Nazareth followed in the footsteps of the prophets of Israel before him. There was a time when He was desperately sought out by a man in order that he might heal the man’s sick daughter. On the way to the family’s house it was learned that the little girl had died. Jesus sought to calm the surrounding crowd by saying,
“Why make a commotion and weep? The child has not died, but is asleep.”
He was apparently too subtle for some of the folks because the narrative goes on to say that some of the people began to laugh at Him. They didn’t understand that He was speaking the way the prophets spoke – with hope. In this case it was not hope for an ultimate and lasting resurrection but for an immediate one. And His hope was fulfilled when He promptly raised the child from the dead. Let’s focus for a moment on this kind of resurrection.
Partial and Preliminary Resurrections
I have made references to people being raised from the dead in both Old Testament and New Testament times. Elijah and Elisha did it in the Old. Jesus, Peter, and Paul did it in the New. In all cases, they brought back someone from the dead to live again on the earth. None of these cases are portrayed as being permanent resurrections. In fact, someone said they might be better described as resuscitations than resurrections.
These resurrections are partial. That is, they brought back the person to life, but only to die again later. Jesus once crossed paths with a funeral procession for an only son of a widowed woman. In His compassion, Jesus raised the young man and gave him back to the mother. How long either of them lived after that is not told to us, and omission of such detail is typical for these “temporary solutions to death.”
Such resurrections were not only partial, though, they were preliminary. That is, they preceded and foreshadowed the great and ultimate resurrection that would come through Jesus Christ. When we get to the subject of His resurrection in the next chapter, this will become more clear to you. For now, we want to see how these miracles, too, hint at an ultimate resurrection. For if God has proven through experience that He is able to raise the dead, then we can have all the more hope that He will eventually do the same for all the dead…and in a more permanent fashion.
We should not need these resuscitations to prove that God can raise the dead. If He created us in the first place, what would be so difficult about re-creating us? But being the gracious Person that He is, God puts these “foretastes” of resurrection in the history of the Bible so we can be even more sure about His intentions. Once again, He’s giving us reason to have hope where death is concerned.
Has Sheol Eaten Too Much?
The prophets sometimes portrayed Sheol/Hades as a monster with an insatiable appetite. When you stop and think about all those whom death has consumed, such an image seems entirely appropriate. Moses was one of the first to express death and Sheol/Hades in this particular way:
“But if the LORD brings about an entirely new thing and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that is theirs, and they descend alive into Sheol, then you will understand that these men have spurned the LORD.” Numbers 16:30
Picture the “mouth” of Sheol/Hades opening and then watch it “swallow them up.” That’s just what happened. In this case, there was a physical as well as a spiritual swallowing.
The book of Proverbs quotes some evil people as saying,
Let us swallow them alive like Sheol,
Even whole, as those who go down to the pit; Proverbs 1:12
Once again, Sheol/Hades is portrayed as “eating” or “swallowing.”
And do you remember this verse from our last chapter?
Therefore Sheol has enlarged its throat and opened its mouth without measure;
And Jerusalem’s splendor, her multitude, her din of revelry and the jubilant within her, descend into it. Isaiah 5:14
Of course, Isaiah was familiar with the writings of Moses and the proverbs of Solomon so it is not surprising that he employs their imagery and extends it.
I almost hate to show you this next one. It’s a little gory, but then death is just not a pleasant subject.
…Our bones have been scattered at the mouth of Sheol. Psalm 141:7
The monster is consuming…please don’t make me spell it out further.
If someone’s appetite is like that of Sheol/Hades’ appetite, it’s said to be insatiable. As the prophet Habakkuk wrote:
…He enlarges his appetite like Sheol,
And he is like death, never satisfied… Habakkuk 2:5
Normal hunger is satisfied by normal eating, but when has death ever been satisfied? It is indeed a monster to humanity!
A Judgment Against Gluttony and Greed
You know what can happen if you eat too much and don’t stop? That’s right – vomit. I’ve already presented one gruesome picture so there’s no sense tip-toeing over this one. The Bible talks about a greedy man this way:
“He swallows riches,
But will vomit them up;
God will expel them from his belly. Job 20:15
If a rich man might be required to cough up his riches, might not death one day be required to cough up all it had greedily accumulated? God condemns and will judge greed, of which gluttony is simply a form.
You’ll recall that the prophets would on occasion personify death and Sheol/Hades. Such personification was not entirely for purposes of more picturesque speech. There was an element of personality implied, as this New Testament passage makes explicit:
Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. Hebrews 2:14
The devil was the one who held the power of death. He was the angel in charge of the world. It was under his dominion that sin and death took place. He was the source of temptation in the garden of Eden and is called the tempter because he didn’t quit there. Satan (which means “adversary”) indeed had the power of death, but God would ultimately judge him as greedy…for he consumed far too much. However, the evil one’s belly was showing no signs of being limited. Therefore, God decided to induce a case of indigestion (so as to “…expel them from his belly“ as we read above).
A Case of Spiritual Indigestion
The story of Jonah and the whale provides history, but also a parable for us regarding the resurrection from the dead. Jesus thought so, too, and made reference to it this way:
“An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. Matthew 12:39-40
Jesus is likening His coming experience with death to that of Jonah with the sea monster.
We have seen death consuming humanity like a monster. We have seen the place of the dead likened to the depths of the sea. And we have seen Sheol/Hades like a “belly” holding in the heart of the earth all those who had once walked on the earth. In the story of Jonah, we see him thrown overboard at sea. The waters engulf him and, like any man, he is doomed to sink and drown. But God appoints a creature to swallow him, thus sparing Jonah’s life. You wouldn’t normally associate being swallowed by a sea monster as being rescued. Neither do most people associate death with any sort of rescue. Yet, viewed in the full and proper biblical context, both are forms of deliverance.
Notice in Jonah’s story that in the midst of the sea (the place of death) there is appointed a means of saving victims (in the belly of a sea monster) in order to eventually vomit them up to safety. Of course, the fish was indeed ordered to vomit up Jonah onto dry ground.
…I cried for help from the depth of Sheol… Jonah 2:2
We have learned what “the depth of Sheol/Hades” means, and its analogy to the sea around him is unmistakable. In addition to this, the literal rendering of the word “depth” in this particular case is “belly.” The connections and ironies are getting too numerous to count. That the story is meant to signify and foreshadow something even more dramatic than the poor fellow’s own traumatic experience is becoming more and more apparent to us. This was just the meaning Jesus was suggesting to His listeners when He invoked Jonah’s name.
God didn’t order that creature to swallow Jonah because He was concerned about its going hungry. The order was given to effect the ultimate salvation of Jonah, who had been running from the Lord and avoiding a purpose that God had for him. When Jonah came to the end of the line, God was there waiting for him with a plan of rescue – though it may have looked at first glance more like disaster than deliverance.
Even so, death, though it was a judgment for sin, was also God’s plan for our ultimate deliverance from sin and death. That is, death looked like a punishment, but – seen in the longer view – was actually a protection. Death is often a relief from suffering. When disease ravages a person, death is the only thing that permanently stops the pain. We do not fully understand all the mysteries of death, or even of life for that matter. But this much we should know: in all things God has our best interests at heart. He cares more about how things are going for you and me than He cares about how they’re going for Him. Even in death, He is looking out for us.
Thus, the case of Jonah depicts death as a holding tank for humanity until God could issue the order for all its contents to be released. When Death swallowed Jesus, he finally bit off more than he could chew. The devil swallowed something he could not digest. For the first time since creation dawned, an adult died who had not sinned. Death’s claim upon Him therefore was illegal and could not stand. A completely innocent man has entered the bowels of the earth and we now have the conditions necessary to begin effecting a change which would benefit all those who had ever descended to Sheol/Hades. For as we read above,
Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. Hebrews 2:14
That is, the innocent One did not take on flesh and submit Himself to death for His own sake. Rather, He did it for the sake of all those whom Sheol/Hades was holding. He Himself would mark the beginning of the resurrection of the dead, and we are almost ready to begin describing it. For now, we simply acknowledge yet another example of the Bible implying a resurrection that would come, a solution from God to the problem of death. For whenever an appetite cannot be satisfied – whether on earth or elsewhere – something is wrong, and God will require the greedy one to cough up what he has hoarded.
How Does Your Garden Grow?
The final picture of hope we want to see – this one from both the prophets and from creation itself – is perhaps the most basic of all. Like the others, it strongly suggests a resurrection, though it also stopped short of describing that actual event. Its broad strokes use the image of the earth itself. Here’s part of a verse we read earlier which quoted Moses:
…and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. Numbers 16:33
Note that the earth closed over these people and they were seen no more. When we bury someone, we sometimes scoop a handful of dirt and then let it fall across the top of the casket. This symbolizes the act that will discreetly take place after the loved ones have left the cemetery. We bury or cremate the dead, not just for health reasons, but so that we do not see the decay that will happen to their body. If a person is dying of disease we do not desert them no matter how badly they look because they are still in that body. However, once death has occurred, the spirit has departed. There is no need for us to give any more medical treatment to the body or face its full and final corruption. Thus it returns to the earth below, even as the spirit descended to Sheol/Hades below the earth.
The prophet Ezekiel once spoke of a nation that had perished. It was called Elam and he used these words:
“Elam is there and all her hordes around her grave; all of them slain, fallen by the sword, who went down uncircumcised to the lower parts of the earth…”
The “lower parts of the earth” aptly describes the process. The earth itself is a grave for mankind.
Against the king of Babylon, Isaiah speaks of the “pit” of death:
“Nevertheless you will be thrust down to Sheol,
To the recesses of the pit.” Isaiah 14:15
Hezekiah also used the word “pit” to describe the place of the dead:
“For Sheol cannot thank You,
Death cannot praise You;
Those who go down to the pit cannot hope for Your faithfulness.” Isaiah 38:18
The earth had become a “pit” for all its slain.
In similar vein, our (by now) good friend Job says,
“Will it go down with me to Sheol?
Shall we together go down into the dust?” Job 17:16
Job’s use of the word “dust” not only speaks of the earth, the ground, and the pit, but it also reminds us of what God had said to Adam:
“…you return to the ground,
Because from it you were taken;
For you are dust,
And to dust you shall return.” Genesis 3:19
The “going to dust” is therefore a “return to dust,” a return from whence we came. God had made Adam and Eve from His breath and the dust of the ground. At death, human beings come full circle.
The dust, the ground, the lower parts of the earth, the pit – all these figures of speech portray the earth as one big graveyard for humanity. But wait a minute! Isn’t the ground where we plant things that we want to grow? Isn’t the ground what springs forth with newness every year? Aren’t the lower parts of the earth the place where seeds and roots do their work? Yes, yes, yes. Maybe instead of a graveyard, the earth is eventually going to a garden!
Once again, God has colored His pictures of death with shades of hope. The silver linings in the clouds are His! And besides all that, since God first created us from the dust of the ground, how does our returning to dust leave Him any less to work with than what He had when He started?
Getting the Picture(s)
We have seen that through multiple metaphors and a common worldview, God has spoken through His prophets that we should put our hope in Him where death is concerned. The Old Testament verses I have shown you in this chapter are but a representative sample of what can be found there. As with any important truth, multiple analogies are often needed to fully bring it to light. A single metaphor could be misunderstood, but repeated, varied, and multiple depictions turn implications and hints into substantiated hope. An object perceived from various angles is more clearly perceived than one observed from a single point of view.
All that being said, some of the prophets go beyond the hints and implications. For example, Isaiah boldly says,
Your dead will live;
Their corpses will rise.
You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy,
For your dew is as the dew of the dawn,
And the earth will give birth to the departed spirits. Isaiah 26:19 NASB
And there are many more passages and concepts from the Bible that I could put before you, all of which would only reinforce the hope of resurrection from Sheol/Hades that God was providing. Therefore, the Pharisees – not the Sadducees – represented the majority of Jews in declaring a firm and fervent hope in a coming resurrection of the dead in the era into which Jesus of Nazareth was born.
Therefore, what I have described to you in the first six chapters of this book comprises the worldview inherited by Jesus and His apostles – who were first-century Jews through and through. They believed in God and in His two-dimensional, three-tiered universe just as the prophets had presented it. Everything spoken by the Lord and written by the apostles in the New Testament uses this framework. To read the New Testament without this Old Testament context is to invite misunderstanding. Having listened to and embraced this view espoused by Moses and the Prophets, you are ready to better understand just what the Lord and His apostles meant when they spoke about resurrection.
We have described the problem of death and the hope for its solution quite long enough. It is time to begin describing the solution. Your patient reading to this point is about to be extravagantly rewarded. (Be sure that the extravagance is God’s, not mine.)
Chapter 7 – The First Resurrection
It was a dark and lonely night. The place was called Gethsemane. It was a time to pray, for there was no one on earth to whom this man could turn. The forces of envy and fear were coming together against Him. The arresting party would soon appear, and events would rapidly lead toward death by crucifixion. Into the darkness He spoke,
“My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will.” Matthew 26:39
Would He be heard? If not, it would not be for lack of volume, for another passage in the New Testament describes His manner of praying that night:
In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death… Hebrews 5:7
What silence hung over that garden was being broken by His pained cries.
The disciples were close by. They were all He had left. The multitudes He had healed and fed would be swayed to shout, “Crucify him!” just a few hours from now. The authorities, far from protecting His civil rights, would be the ones stirring the multitude into a mob. The disciples were all the following He had remaining…and He was about to lose them, too. They actually heard His cries, but it wasn’t enough to keep them from dozing off. He kept having to wake them. The undying loyalty they had professed at supper was in the process of dying before breakfast.
What was at stake here? What was going on? No one seemed to know but Jesus. He was either silent, or else when He did explain, no one seemed able to grasp His meaning. But you and I have a glimmer of what is going on. All the Scripture that we have studied to this point has given us an understanding, allowing us to see that there is nothing less at stake here than the redemption of the human race – the challenging of death itself in a way that it had never before been challenged. What Jesus was asking for in His prayers that night was not to be delivered from the cross, but to be delivered from the death that would follow it. That’s why, at first, the disciples thought His prayers had gone unheeded. It was only later they would learn that He had received exactly what He asked for: deliverance from Sheol/Hades.
In one sense, it was a very risky venture. No one who entered those gates of death had ever come back alive. Oh, we have talked about those exceptions that were temporary reprieves. But there would be no Elijah or Elisha waiting above to call Him out on the third day. Peter was too scared and too demoralized to do it. Paul wasn’t even a disciple yet. If Jesus was going to come out of the grave on the third day as He promised, God Himself was going to have to do the raising. Besides, this was to be a resurrection unlike any other. For once raised, Jesus was never to die again. This was the kind of resurrection for which the faithful had been hoping for ages. This, then, would be the very first resurrection that completely defeated death. The very first resurrection through which someone would escape from Sheol/Hades permanently. Would it work? Jesus harbored no doubts. Before letting go of this life, He said on the cross,
“Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” Luke 23:46
The words of trust seemed out of place in the sea of evil that had surrounded Him. Yet trust was the only way of life He knew. Though the human race had rejected Him, He knew deep inside that God would not forget the request He had made the night before.
This plan had been set in motion ages before when Adam and Eve first sinned. God had spoken to the serpent who tempted them and said to him,
“And I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her seed;
He shall bruise you on the head,
And you shall bruise him on the heel.” Genesis 3:15
In fulfillment of this promise, Jesus had been born of a woman, as had been all His human ancestors, David and Abraham included. His crucifixion would be Satan’s “bruising of his heel.” His resurrection, however, would be the “bruising of the serpent’s head.” A blow to the heel is painful, but a blow to the head is disastrous and decisive. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ may appear a great tragedy, but it was only a bruise to God’s heel. And through the resurrection that followed, Satan’s power, which lay ultimately in the power of death, was dealt a blow from which it will never recover. The iron grip of Sheol/Hades would finally be broken by this Divine One.
Let us now quote in its entirety a verse partially quoted above:
In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety. Hebrews 5:7
That “He was heard” confirms that what Jesus’ prayers envisioned was not a “putting off of death until a later time” as Israelites in the past (such as King Hezekiah) had prayed for, or as we ourselves might have sought. Nor did He desire one of those partial and preliminary resurrections (resuscitations) we have seen described in our review of Scripture. What Jesus desired was to “pass through” death to the other side. Life never ending. Life no longer able to be threatened by death. A completely new kind of life that was completely inoculated against death because it was born from death. This was His desire…and this is what He was granted. And because of His grace, all humanity now benefits from it. However, since we explained the problem step-by-step, we should also explain the solution step-by-step. The first step is to better understand the nature of this new kind of resurrection Jesus was inaugurating.
The Hope of Resurrection Was Alive and Well Early in the New Testament
You have seen how the Old Testament aroused the hope of resurrection. That hope is demonstrated in the New Testament in various ways. In one case, Jesus informed the sisters of a deceased man named Lazarus that He would raise Lazarus from the dead. One of the sisters, thinking that Jesus was speaking not of one of those partial and preliminary resurrections but of the great resurrection to come, said,
“I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” John 11:24
Her faith in a great resurrection of the dead was typical of devout Jews in that time, just as we saw in the previous chapter.
Just because there was a hope for a resurrection, however, does not mean there was clarity and certainty about the shape that resurrection would take. For example, Jesus told His disciples on several occasions that He would rise from the dead. At one of those times their response was described this way:
And they seized upon that statement, discussing with one another what rising from the dead might mean. Mark 9:10 NASB (1973)
Again, even though there was a prevailing view among many people that resurrection would come, there was great uncertainty about its details because the Scriptures had not spelled those out, at least not in any easily discernible form. This is all the more reason people hung on Jesus’ words when He began to describe what resurrection would be like.
Jesus Confirms That There Will Be a Resurrection…and Makes News in the Process
You’ll recall that the Sadducees represented a minority opinion in Israel that there would be no resurrection. They were a small but powerful group. Though they disagreed with the Pharisees on resurrection, they fully agreed with the Pharisees that Jesus of Nazareth was a menace. Both parties sought to discredit Him as He taught before large crowds in the temple area by asking Him questions designed to embarrass Him. On one such occasion, some of these leaders approached Jesus with a question that they were sure would cause Him to lose face in front of the multitude that was listening to Him. This account is taken from Matthew 22:23-33.
On that day some Sadducees (who say there is no resurrection) came to Jesus and questioned Him, asking, “Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies having no children, his brother as next of kin shall marry his wife, and raise up children for his brother.’”
First, they give Him the respectful greeting of “Teacher” (this is, of course, to set Him up for a fall in front of the crowd). Then they begin describing the problem. They quote a passage from Moses. This marital regulation may seem unusual to us today, but let’s avoid the temptation to study it because that would be a digression. Suffice it to say that it was indeed a part of Moses’ law to the Israelites and therefore was to be obeyed by them. Since Moses was considered authoritative by everyone present, this allowed the Sadducees to present the dilemma:
“Now there were seven brothers with us; and the first married and died, and having no children left his wife to his brother; so also the second, and the third, down to the seventh. Last of all, the woman died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife of the seven will she be? For they all had married her.”
You see now that it was not the regulation itself that was being questioned, but its seeming inconsistency with the idea of resurrection. The Sadducees were pointing out that if a Jewish family tried to obey God in a case like this, they would have quite a family problem on their hands come resurrection day. Of course, the “seven” brothers exaggerates and dramatizes the dilemma but that’s fair game in a discussion like this. The Sadducees’ point is that the Scriptures are not implying resurrection, but rather that this life is all there is. We can suppose that the Sadducees considered their argument airtight, and that it was their very best one. People usually go up against the best with their best. However, to the amazement of everyone present, Jesus hardly blinked an eye as He responded,
“You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”
Can’t you hear the crowd gasp, jaws drop, and don’t you even feel your own heart in your throat as you hear the word “heaven”? Heaven, did He say? Yes, dear, I think He said heaven. Oh my God!
Pause, dear reader, and let yourself hear what that crowd had just heard.
Being two thousand years from the scene and having some exposure to the good news of Jesus Christ, we today are somewhat insulated from the wondrous and thrilling shock they felt as they heard that the dead would not merely rise to earth again, but all the way to heaven! This was unexpected and unheard of. These folks were doing good to maintain hope that the dead would be raised at all, especially in the face of disapproval from respected scholars such as the Sadducees. To hear that they and their loved ones would be in heaven once the resurrection occurred was more than anyone had hope for (and certainly more than the Sadducees had ever contemplated). In the swirl of events that week, this deliriously joyful hope would momentarily be lost. But when the crucified Jesus of Nazareth came bolting out of the grave three days after His death, that hope came bolting out with Him. And when He ascended into heaven forty days after that, hearts were ablaze with excited hope that indeed this resurrection led to…heaven.
The rest of the episode with the Sadducees is an anticlimax, so let’s finish it quickly and get back to the mind-boggling point.
“But regarding the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God: ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”
The passage Jesus is quoting, like the one about the widow remarrying, comes from the Law of Moses. Since the Sadducees had invoked Moses to start the challenge, Jesus invokes Moses to drive home their error. At the burning bush, God identifies Himself to Moses by His present relationship (“I am the God of…”) with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Since all three of these men were dead by the time of Moses, the Scripture is implying that these three still exist. They were, of course, in Sheol/Hades below…with everyone else – waiting on resurrection. The Sadducees were right to try to infer things from the Scriptures, they were just inferring the wrong thing.
Our episode concludes with this statement:
When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at His teaching.
“Astonished” for sure! The multitude had been taken aback by Jesus’ bold declaration that the dead would be raised, not to earth, but to heaven. Let’s let the magnitude of this revelation fully sink in on us.
The Resurrection Leads to Heaven of All Places!
As you can tell from all that I have shown you in the first six chapters of this book, there was an expectation for an eventual resurrection from the dead, but not all the way to heaven, for Pete’s sake! Heaven was for God and the angels. It was not a place to which man entertained hopes of going. We really ought to make some attempt to understand and appreciate the surprise that confronted people when they heard that resurrection would lead not merely back up to earth, but all the way to heaven. Now that’s what you call being RAISED from the dead!
We today have become jaded by so much use of the word “heaven.” And our elders have not taught us enough about the three-tiered, two-dimensional worldview (including, of course, Sheol/Hades) that imbued God’s people throughout the biblical age. We have thus become dulled to the extravagant benefit God is pouring out on humanity to even consider heaven as a destination for us! Going back to the Bible’s view, however, allows you feel what believers in Jesus’ time felt as they heard the “good news” about heaven. Indeed, from their point of view, it was staggeringly good news. And their humble point of view is the one we ought to adopt as our own.
Adopting this humble perspective, you can now see more clearly why all those partial and temporary resurrections were inferior to this one. Those resurrections only brought a person back up to earth. The resurrection Jesus was speaking of would take people all the way to heaven. Also, those resurrections only put off death for a while longer. The resurrection Jesus was talking about passed through death and lived forever on the other side of it. Every time we saw an individual raised from the dead in the Scripture, it was only a hint and foreshadowing of the more permanent (that is, eternal) resurrection that God had in mind.
As you have seen, the Old Testament books outlined the resurrection; they never cataloged the details. The New Testament books, since their writing coincided with Jesus’ resurrection, does give details – as we have just begun to see. Without the details, the Sadducees could complain that it just didn’t make sense for all those dead people to pop up (here on earth) – it would only be crowded and confusing. The Pharisees and others might not have had an answer for such an objection, but they weren’t about to let go of an idea that was clearly scriptural in origin. Jesus solves the puzzle by explaining that the resurrection leads to heaven where the problems of getting married, having children, and lack of elbow room are not issues.
Hundreds of years before Christ, Jeremiah had prophesied for the Lord,
‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Jeremiah 29:11
In this way, God gave hope to a human race whose every member faced an ultimate destiny of death. This vague hope, however, was gloriously transformed into the specific hope of heaven through Jesus Christ. This demonstrates the truth that the apostle Paul proclaimed to those who believed in Ephesus – specifically, that God is
…able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think…
People had longed for a reunion with their loved ones, and even with ancestors. God responds, “How’d you all like a trip to heaven – and I’ll pay the tab!” Certainly no one has the power of God, but neither does anyone have His grace.
A New Kind of Body
Though Jesus had told His disciples on at least three different occasions that He would rise from the dead on the third day after His crucifixion, the gospels record no all-night vigils in anticipation of the moment. The disciples were too scared and depressed. Some women dutifully went to the tomb the morning after the Sabbath in order to more permanently prepare the body for burial. They hadn’t had much time before sundown on Friday. They were the first to see that the stone securing the grave had been moved. Angels appeared telling them that the Lord had been raised just as He said. Just as He said.
Jesus began making appearances to the women and His other disciples. It was “show and tell” time. They had wondered “what ‘rising from the dead’ might mean.” He was going to let them see firsthand. Nothing like hands-on training – especially when the mission of these witnesses would be to communicate to the world what they had seen and heard for the last few years, and particularly what they had seen and heard over the last few days.
That first Sunday morning Jesus began appearing to the apostles He had chosen and
…presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days… Acts 1:3
Don’t forget – Jesus had been in that tomb since before Friday evening. The whole Passover Sabbath had passed. The disciples had had plenty of time to think. They needed no further proof that He was dead. By contrast, they needed solid evidence if they were to believe He was alive. Three days to prove you’re dead and forty days to prove you’re alive forevermore – hmm – sounds about right.
Paul catalogs Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to His disciples in this way:
…He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also. 1 Corinthians 15:5-8
Jesus was leaving no doubt as to His status as the first permanent escapee of Sheol/Hades. One of the things that became clear to the disciples during these forty days was that His body was different. It was what you might call…heavenly. His disciples did not always immediately recognize Him and could be startled when He appeared among them. In one of these instances Jesus said to them,
“Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” Luke 24:38-39
Obviously, some of them were afraid they were just seeing a ghost. One of the disciples named Thomas had not yet seen Him and refused to believe unless he himself got to feel the crucifixion’s nail scars in His hands and feet. To his shame, Jesus obliged him about a week after his defiant remark. Here is the exchange they had:
Then He said to Thomas, “Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.” Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” John 20:27-28
The nail scars existed only as identification markers and obviously not as open wounds. Jesus had the power to appear and vanish at will. He was no longer restricted by doors, locks, and walls. He did eat in front of them but you get the impression it was more to calm their nerves than to satisfy a hunger. This body of His was obviously not bound by the same laws that bind a normal human body.
The final act they saw Jesus perform in that resurrection body was to ascend into heaven – the very thing you would expect a heavenly body to do! At this point, it seemed clear that the forty days were merely a brief stopping-off point on the way to an ultimate destination. Jesus had said that day in front of the temple that in the resurrection “they are like angels in heaven.” Thus He continued His resurrection when He ascended into heaven. Though it hadn’t been made explicit in the Old Testament, heaven had been the intended destination all along. It’s where the resurrection leads!
Heaven, Our New Home
When Jesus ascended into heaven, He was fulfilling His promise that He had spoken on the evening before His death:
…I go to prepare a place for you. John 14:2
Prior to this, as you have seen, there had been no place for humanity in heaven. And, not that it needed confirmation, Jesus had said earlier in His earthy ministry,
“No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man. John 3:13
He is speaking of Himself, of course, when He says “Son of Man.” He is thus confirming that no one else had ever ascended into heaven. But He didn’t need to, for, as we have seen, everyone understood that heaven was the domain of God and angels – not people. To “prepare a place” for us there was to do something wonderfully beyond human imagination – rearrange heaven to make room for humanity.
We have seen that there is order in the creation. In the physical realm, some creatures live primarily in the sea, some on the land, and some are designed for the air. Human beings had been designed to live on the earth. And when they died, there was nothing to do but have their bodies return to the ground from which they had come while their spirits descended to Sheol/Hades – the place designed for their indefinite confinement. But resurrected human beings are not designed for the earth or made from its dust, but rather for heaven. They are equipped to live there with a body designed for the heavens, not for the earth, and certainly not for the regions below the earth. That was a place for disembodied spirits.
Given all this, it is not hard to understand the intense excitement and hope of these disciples about whom we read in the New Testament. They had heard some good news that was immeasurably good and immeasurably new! We share their excitement when we believe what they did – that God raised Jesus from the dead in order to make heaven above a permanent home for all those who have died.
The Firstborn from the Dead
We are seeing that Jesus was the first person to rise from the dead…the way He did. That is, all the way to heaven with a new body to suit the new environment. Therefore, the Bible speaks of Him being the “firstborn from the dead.” This is a beautiful word picture and truth. The lower parts of the earth had been a tomb. Through Jesus, it became a womb. Jesus became the first-born of a whole new species of being: resurrected humanity.
People had come back from the dead before but no one had ever gone forth from it. That is, no one had ever been birthed from death. Because Jesus was born from the dead, He will therefore never die again. Death is no longer a threat to Him. He was raised not to live more of an earthly life, but to live forever a heavenly life. We do not know what life is like in heaven, but we do know that it is God’s home. His presence fills the earth, yes – but His home is in heaven! If in the resurrection humans live like angels in heaven it means that they are that much closer to God – a thrilling thought for anyone who wishes to know Him better.
For all those who believed that God would not forget the dead, this news brought a joy that could not be contained. It brought an excitement to a hope that had only been vague. To be comforted that your loved ones still existed somewhere below was one thing, but to be told that you will enjoy eternity with them forever in heaven is quite another. Jesus’ status as “firstborn from the dead” implied that His was just the beginning of what God was doing.
The birth of Jesus from the dead had been promised in the Old Testament, but only His actual resurrection made the promise recognizable. The second psalm had read:
‘You are My Son,
Today I have begotten You. Psalm 2:7
We might have thought that this applied to Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem to Joseph and Mary. But in the New Testament Paul explains that it applies to Jesus being raised from the dead. Listen:
“And we preach to you the good news of the promise made to the fathers, that God has fulfilled this promise to our children in that He raised up Jesus, as it is also written in the second Psalm, ‘You are My Son; today I have begotten you.’ Acts 13:32-33
The resurrection of Jesus from the dead was a new birth, a new creation, a new beginning for the human race. Through Jesus, there is now a heavenly prototype for these new creatures – resurrected (that is, heavenly) human beings.
A Heavenly Prototype
We have seen how Jesus first stated, and then demonstrated, what had been hidden from so many generations of mankind – the exact nature of the resurrection. That is, He explained and then exemplified God’s long-awaited solution to the problem of death. God’s solution is not to eliminate death’s existence but to redirect its results.
In Jesus we have the heavenly prototype. He is the beginning of the solution. Jesus is in heaven, sure. But that’s where He was before. So far, heaven hasn’t had any net gains. The rest of the dead are still where they have been all along. In the next chapter, however, you will see how quickly things changed.
In the physical creation, everything reproduces after its own kind: people, animals, plants. Before God could have a new human race, He needed a new Adam after whom and in whose image He could reproduce that new race. Once He did that, everything else would be a matter of due course. Jesus was that new Adam. His is the first resurrection. Now that we see Jesus safely back in heaven, let’s see how He’s going to get everyone else there.
Chapter 8 – The Resurrection of the Rest of the Dead
Before proceeding with the actual details of how and when the resurrection of the rest of the dead takes place, we should pause and consider something. That something is that the main point of this book has now largely been accomplished. We have demonstrated through the testimony of the Bible, including Jesus Christ Himself, that everyone is going to heaven. All that follows in this book are details about, and reinforcement of, that truth. Let me explain.
We accepted the Bible’s hope that the dead would one day be raised. Jesus came along and revealed an amazing fact about that resurrection – that it would lead to heaven. He then demonstrated this by dying and, after a brief stop below, going there Himself. Thus Jesus has established – by word and deed – the main point of this book: that the dead are raised, and that resurrection leads to heaven.
We already knew that everyone dies. Jesus said that when the dead are raised, they are like “angels in heaven.” He mentioned no other possible destination. Nor does He mention the possibility that only some of the dead will be raised. “The dead” would have to mean “all those who have died.” If the dead are raised to heaven then all those who have died are raised to heaven. That’s everyone!
Let’s review it again. The Bible showed that all who died had one and the same destination: Sheol/Hades. Likewise, the Bible has shown that all who are raised have one and the same destination: heaven. If we believed the Bible when it told us of a place to which all fell at death, shouldn’t we believe it when it tells us of a place to which all rise at resurrection?
It is true that we do not have a way to verify that all who die will end up in heaven, but neither did we have a way to verify that all who died went down to Sheol/Hades. When the Bible explains about unseen things, we trust. Just as we trusted that death led to Sheol/Hades, we can trust that resurrection leads to heaven. Keep in mind that the Bible’s explanation of these things concerns the death of people – not just the death of certain people. Likewise the Bible’s explanation of resurrection was about the resurrection of people – not resurrection of certain people. Just as the problem of death concerns all of us, so the Bible’s explanation comforts all of us.
You could say at this point that you do not want to believe the Bible, but where else are you going to turn for a reasonable and credible explanation of unseen things? Surely you would not prefer to be ignorant or ill-informed about these things! For me, there is no more trusted source of truth in the earth today than the Holy Scriptures of ancient Israel. As Jesus said, Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35).
This is important, so let’s cover the basic facts one more time. Everyone who lives, dies. Check. Everyone who dies is dead. Check. The dead are raised to heaven. Check. Therefore, everyone is going to heaven. Check!
The only way you could not go to heaven is to never die, but we have already agreed that this just doesn’t happen. Therefore, you may as well get ready for heaven, because that is where you are going. When you get there, you will enjoy life forever with those you were afraid you might have lost. And you will never again be threatened by death, for you and your loved ones will be living above it.
My prayer for you is that you never lose sight of this truth that everyone is going to heaven. I ask God that it will be with you every day you live on this earth. For it will make you happy and it will inspire you to love people in ways you never thought possible. It will cause you to worship and honor our Creator in your heart and to think very appreciatively of Him. We already knew that we should think highly of God, and have always wanted to, but it’s dwelling on a fact like this that makes such devotion effortless.
We will now proceed to the how and when – that is, the details – of the resurrection of the rest of the dead. But in all the discussion that follows, and in all the rest of your life, do not lose sight of the main point: everyone is going to heaven.
The Resurrection Two-Step
When you read the New Testament, it becomes obvious that the apostles saw the resurrection occurring in two steps (or stages): first Jesus, then the rest of the dead. Let us pick up Paul in mid-sentence and demonstrate this:
that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Philippians 3:10-11
When Paul wrote this, the resurrection of Jesus was past and the resurrection of the rest of the dead was future.
A new how-to book: “How to Raise the Dead in Two Easy Steps” by God. Step one: raise Jesus Christ. Step two: raise the rest. In between the two steps, tell the whole world about what you’re doing.
Telling the world is just what the apostles did: they pursued their mission of proclaiming the good news to the whole world, commencing with the first resurrection. The word “gospel” means “good news.” “Everyone is going to heaven” would certainly qualify as good news, wouldn’t it? That’s what they preached. With God, even the dead can dance. Let’s call it the resurrection two-step!
The apostles preached the resurrection of Jesus Christ as accomplished fact and the resurrection of the dead as coming soon. Here are some lines from the book of Acts that describe the apostles’ work and message. These first two refer to events in Jerusalem:
As they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to them, being greatly disturbed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. Acts 4:1-2
And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. Acts 4:33
And then in Athens, Greece, where resurrection to heaven seemed an even stranger idea (“him” refers to the apostle Paul):
And also some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were conversing with him. Some were saying, “What would this idle babbler wish to say?” Others, “He seems to be a proclaimer of strange deities,”–because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. Acts 17:18
Later, after Paul had spoken the message to others in the city, this was the response:
Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer, but others said, “We shall hear you again concerning this.” Acts 17:32
And then, there was the time Paul was being tried before both Jewish and Gentile authorities for the practice of his ministry. Part of his defense went like this:
“But this I admit to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect I do serve the God of our fathers, believing everything that is in accordance with the Law and that is written in the Prophets; having a hope in God, which these men cherish themselves, that there shall certainly be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked.” Acts 24:14-15
You can see that the message you and I are believing is nothing other than the message that the apostles preached.
Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop
If someone is “waiting for the other shoe to drop” they are, of course, waiting for the completion of an event that is already underway. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the first and necessary step for getting all the dead out of Sheol/Hades. The verses that follow in this section all portray Christ’s resurrection as the first part of something bigger.
Speaking of heaven, this book of the New Testament says,
…Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us… Hebrews 6:20
If there is a forerunner, there must be other runners.
In a similar way, Paul speaks of God’s working through Jesus in this manner:
…so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; Romans 8:29
If there is a first-born, there must be subsequent born. And there must be many of them.
Along the same lines, Paul speaks of Jesus’ resurrection as the first fruits of a harvest:
…Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, 1 Corinthians 15:23
If there is a first fruits, there must be a full harvest.
When would the grand resurrection take place? We just read it – at the coming of Christ.
The Coming of Christ Brings the Resurrection of the Dead
As the apostles went about spreading this good news about the resurrection of the dead to come, they found that non-Jews sometimes needed a little extra coaching on the subject. The Greeks, as we have seen, were sometimes mystified by the concept. A little of this coaching is seen in a letter Paul wrote to some disciples in Thessalonica, a city situated in northern Greece.
In this passage, taken from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, we get to see how the apostles foresaw the resurrection of the dead taking place and how life would go on from that point. I will now quote the passage piece by piece, commenting as we go.
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.
Notice that Paul is using “those who are asleep” as an expression for those who have died. Obviously, no one would be grieving over someone who was taking a nap. Pagan cultures often did not have the hope of ever seeing their loved ones again. Paul wants this Greek population to have the same hope of a resurrection of the dead that had always animated his thinking as a pious Jew. He even uses the idiom of hope common to his culture, “those who are asleep.” Only now, the hope is more immediate because resurrection is no longer vague and distant. Jesus has crystalized the hope and its timing is soon.
For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.
The whole point of Jesus dying and rising was to assist all those who had died. Jesus had been in heaven long before this whole problem of death ever started. He did not have to be bothered with it. He came to this earth in order to solve the problem for others. Therefore, Paul says, if God brought up Jesus it was certainly with the intention of bringing up those who had fallen asleep. And just as God brought Jesus back with Him, so He would bring with Him all those who had fallen asleep. To “bring with Him” reminds us of heaven. That’s God’s home and if He brings you with Him, He’s bringing you to heaven.
For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.
Paul says that he and his contemporaries will not precede those who have fallen asleep. That is, they shall not make it to heaven before those who have already died.
For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.
When the Lord comes, Paul says, the dead will rise. This is the same thing we read earlier.
Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.
Once the dead have all been raised to heaven, Paul says, the rest of us shall go there without having to go to “sleep” in Sheol/Hades first. The “clouds” and the “air,” of course, refer to heaven. Once there, we will always be with the Lord – because that’s where He is! Paul then says,
Therefore comfort one another with these words.
Talk about comfort – these words give it! No wonder they are often read at funerals. Of course, there is still a measure of grief at funerals because they mark the beginning of a separation. But parting should be “sweet sorrow” and the good news of Jesus Christ makes it so. Because of Him, any such separation is guaranteed to be temporary.
To review, the apostles taught that at the Lord’s return, the resurrection of the dead would occur. From that instant on, people would no longer descend at death, but would ascend. Thereafter, all those who died would no longer “sleep” but would go directly – that is, without the “sleep” of Sheol/Hades – to be with the Lord (and all those who had died previously).
Has the Other Shoe Dropped?
As you have seen from the 1 Thessalonians 4 passage, none of us gets to heaven before the dead. And the dead don’t get there until Christ comes. Therefore, if you think that Christ hasn’t come yet, you are faced with the prospect of going down at death to Sheol/Hades and remaining there until He does come. You still know you are going to heaven but there is a delay involved.
On the other hand, it is not necessary to believe that Christ’s coming is still future. It is obvious that the apostles expected that event to occur in the first century. It was considered a future event as the apostles penned the writings that came to be collected and called the New Testament, but not a far distant event. If they considered it near future in the 1st Century A.D., it seems wise that – almost two thousand years later – we should consider it distant past. That is, if we consider them trustworthy. For what it’s worth, I would stake my life on anything they said.
The Second Coming of Jesus Christ was a spiritual event. He had come the first time as man and He came the second time as God. We didn’t see Him because you don’t see God with your physical eyes. He is spirit. Invisible. No one saw the dead raised to heaven, but then no one saw them descend to Sheol/Hades either. We just took the Bible’s word for it. There were no “eyewitnesses” to the Second Coming for it was entirely a spiritual event. How could you have eyewitnesses to something that is invisible?
Almost two thousand years later, though, we can look back and say that it must have happened just as Jesus and His apostles said. Probably the most noticeable evidence we have today that the Lord did come when He said He would is the displacement of polytheism and the predominance of monotheism in the world since then.
In antiquity, each nation had its own god or gods. Animals were sacrificed to these gods, and temples and idols were commonplace throughout the world. Even the Greeks and Romans, who are admired for their smarts in so many other areas, held to these beliefs and practices. Today these ideas are considered myths and most people get nervous if someone wants to sacrifice animals. And even atheists (and agnostics) say that what they don’t believe in (or aren’t sure about) is God – not gods. If the Second Coming of Christ doesn’t explain such a radical and universal change, what does? The Greeks weren’t stupid. They were trying to put names and faces on spiritual realities above with which we no longer have to contend. This will become more clear to you in the next chapter where we discuss the new heavens and new earth which came with the Second Coming.
(For a more thorough explanation, see my book Whatever Became of Jesus Christ? The Biblical Case for the Second Coming as Accomplished Fact. It’s about half the length of this book.)
Even if you cannot bring yourself to believe that Christ’s coming has already occurred, it only delays the timing of these events in your mind. It wouldn’t change them for you in any other way. You can still take comfort in your ultimate destination. You simply believe that you and everyone else who has died and will die goes to Sheol/Hades below awaiting the resurrection of the dead. But if you believe that the first shoe dropped (the resurrection of Christ) and you didn’t “see” it, what’s so hard about believing that the other shoe has dropped (the resurrection of the dead at the coming of Christ) just because you didn’t “see” it? Of course, some people have a problem believing in shoes at all. Since God is such a shoe, however, I am sure you are not one of those people. Otherwise you would have had no interest in this book, which is based on the Bible – the source of all we know about unseen “shoes.”
Therefore, I am going to proceed on the basis that you agree with me in accepting the Bible’s perspective that Christ’s coming was imminent in the 1st century. For this reason, in the 20th Century it is no longer a matter of prophecy, but rather a matter of history. That being the case, you and I and everyone else can count on going straight to heaven when we die. No passing go, no collecting two hundred dollars. All those who’ve died before us will be there waiting. I would say that God is kind…but even the British aren’t given to that degree of understatement. How much less, this American.
One More Time, From the Top
In writing his first letter to believers in the Greek city of Corinth, the apostle Paul had need to review the resurrection of the dead with them. The disciples there had clung to the idea that Jesus had been raised from the dead, but some of them had lost hope in the resurrection of the rest of the dead. It is a lengthy chapter and I hope you won’t think it too tedious to attempt. The advantage this extended passage offers is that it is focused on the very subject on which we are focused. We won’t understand everything in it (not everyone will understand my expression “not passing go and not collecting two hundred dollars” above either). Yet, enough material will be clear that we can confirm our understanding of the resurrection of the dead and that is our purpose. This will be the entire chapter of 1 Corinthians 15:1-58. As with the passage from 1 Thessalonians 4, I’ll break it up and comment as we go.
Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.
This chapter comes near the end of Paul’s letter. He has already dealt with a number of other problems and questions that the church had. He has saved the most important issue for near the end, which accounts for his emphatic tone. You can almost hear him draw his breath in deep as he writes the words.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also. For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.
One of the problems in Corinth had been their dividing themselves up according to which apostle was favored. This is why you see Paul explaining his place among the apostles. His point is that the Corinthians had been letting the messengers divide them instead of letting the message unite them.
Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
Now you see what I meant: some of them had gone soft on the idea of the dead being raised. He proceeds to straighten them out.
But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.
If you give up on the resurrection of the dead, Paul says, you lose your basis for saying Christ has been raised from the dead. And if Christ has not been raised, then all of Paul’s preaching and that of the other apostles has been in vain. In other words, if you give up on the second shoe, guys, you may as well give up on the first. And if you give that up, we’re all still barefooted. Paul doesn’t relent from this line of reasoning either, for he goes on to say,
Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.
If you give up on the idea of the resurrection, everyone who’s died is a goner, and all of us are just a sad joke. The resurrection of the dead must be a pretty important idea – huh, Paul?
But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep.
Feeling he has made his point sufficiently, our apostle puts things back on a firmer footing.
As we said earlier, if there is a first fruits, there must be a full harvest. The Jews among the church in Corinth would have found this reference particularly interesting. In the Law of Moses, several national feasts for Israel had been established. One was the Feast of First Fruits and another was – how’d you know? – the Feast of Harvest. God was foreshadowing His resurrection work in Christ with these annual festivals. What a memory device! The first fruits was to be presented to God as that which was without blemish or flaw. If it was acceptable, the idea was that the full harvest would be bountiful. There could be no doubt that Jesus of Nazareth as a first fruits of humanity would be acceptable to God in His temple in heaven. Is that son of a Jewish carpenter not the most glorious demonstration of humanity ever produced? There could also therefore be no doubt that the harvest of the full resurrection would be fully maximized. Paul’s use of the “first fruits” metaphor would not be lost on his readers – especially the Jewish ones. He did not intend it to be. He was hammering home his point.
For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.
Through Adam everyone dies; through Christ everyone will live again. Pause to note that Adam is not stronger than Christ. That is, it is not as though sin and death extended to all human beings through Adam but resurrection to heaven extends only to some human beings. No. As all human beings were affected by sin and death through Adam so shall all human beings be affected by resurrection to heaven through Christ. But it takes place according to an order, for God does everything in order.
But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death. For He has put all things in subjection under His feet. But when He says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is evident that He is excepted who put all things in subjection to Him. When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all.
This section has to do with those things that would happen when Christ came again. Again, that was when the dead were raised.
Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them? Why are we also in danger every hour? I affirm, brethren, by the boasting in you which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die daily. If from human motives I fought with wild beasts at Ephesus, what does it profit me? If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. Do not be deceived: “Bad company corrupts good morals.” Become sober-minded as you ought, and stop sinning; for some have no knowledge of God. I speak this to your shame.
It would not serve our purpose to try to unravel all Paul is saying here. Do, however, note the obvious point that he is chastising them for giving up on the idea that the dead are going to be raised.
But someone will say, “How are the dead raised? And with what kind of body do they come?” You fool! That which you sow does not come to life unless it dies; and that which you sow, you do not sow the body which is to be, but a bare grain, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body just as He wished, and to each of the seeds a body of its own. All flesh is not the same flesh, but there is one flesh of men, and another flesh of beasts, and another flesh of birds, and another of fish. There are also heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one, and the glory of the earthly is another.
Apparently, there were some in Corinth who thought like the Sadducees who challenged Jesus about the whole idea of resurrecting the dead. They could conceive of bodies in no form other than that which they already knew. For this reason, Jesus said that they did not understand “the power of God.” The power of God does not raise seeds in the same form that they fell into the earth. How much does an apple tree resemble an apple seed? How much does a tulip resemble a tulip bulb? When God raises something to new life He gives it a new body – just as He sees fit. No one has to tell Him how to make it. We have seen from the Gospels how the resurrected body of Jesus was different and more suited to its new environment – heaven. Paul is telling the Corinthians that they shouldn’t have been surprised at the idea that the resurrection body was different. It’s just the way God does things.
There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. So also it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living soul.” The last Adam became a life-giving spirit. However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural; then the spiritual. The first man is from the earth, earthy; the second man is from heaven. As is the earthy, so also are those who are earthy; and as is the heavenly, so also are those who are heavenly. Just as we have borne the image of the earthy, we will also bear the image of the heavenly.
As you read Paul jogging back and forth between Jesus and Adam you can lose your balance. The fundamental idea that you cannot miss, however, is that there is a correspondence between the two. Specifically, just as Adam began a race that lived on earth in natural bodies so Jesus begins a race that will live in heaven in spiritual bodies. As we saw above, the consequences of Christ are as extensive as the consequences of Adam. Life on earth came to us through Adam; life in heaven comes to us through Christ.
Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
Did you notice that this is the same idea we saw in the 1 Thessalonians 4 passage that we covered earlier in this chapter? Paul describes what happens in the instant of the Lord’s coming: the dead rise and the rest of us are changed. We are no longer “mortal” but are now “imperishable.” Death has become a doorway that leads straight to the next life. There is no waiting period in Sheol/Hades for those of us who live on this side of the coming of the Lord. Death has been re-wired and re-routed. God turned the curse of death into a blessing. It is not the first time He has turned a curse into a blessing, but it is the most profound example we could imagine! Death used to take people farther from God; now it just brings them closer.
For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory. “O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.
Obviously, if everyone is going to heaven then whatever you do for God is “not in vain.” And our reception in heaven will be in due proportion to how well God thinks we have done here. Therefore, everything matters! Nothing is in vain. If you have given even a cup of cold water in Christ’s name to one who is thirsty, it will not escape notice or reward.
We have now completely covered chapter 15 of 1 Corinthians. Difficult, perhaps – but certainly profitable. And you can always go back and spend more time with it – as you can any of the passages quoted in this book. Your profit will only increase.
By the way, did you notice Paul quoting a verse that we ourselves have already seen? Just above, Paul wrote, “O Death, where is your sting?” Here is the Old Testament passage he was quoting, which you may remember:
Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol?
Shall I redeem them from death?
O Death, where are your thorns?
O Sheol, where is your sting? Hosea 13:14
In Hosea’s time God revealed the “what.” In Paul’s time God revealed the “how.” Sheol/Hades was a solution, but it was also a problem. How would God solve that problem? The resurrection of the dead to heaven. Since Paul chastised those folks in Corinth for letting go of the idea, let’s you and I be sure we never even relax our grip on it!
Tah – Dah!!!
That was my approximation of a trumpet fanfare. We need to give fanfare to our Creator’s mighty triumph over death – even if it sounds as poor as mine. Through thousands of years of patience and forbearance, God has worked to bring about this great result for us. He deserves credit for what He has done.
The stage had to be set for Jesus and that’s what all those centuries of ancient Israel were leading up to. Not that each century didn’t have a special significance of its own. But it all paled in comparison to the culmination of God’s work: the resurrection of the dead, the destruction of the source of polytheism, and the establishment of the kingdom of God. Jesus went into the heart of the earth that He might open it as a womb. He became
…the firstborn of the dead… Revelation 1:5
And because He was the firstborn who opened this womb, as well as because of who He was and is, He is called holy:
(as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”), Luke 2:23
And this led, of course, to the resurrection of the rest of the dead – the full harvest – in fulfillment of God’s promise made through Isaiah:
Your dead will live;
Their corpses will rise.
You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy,
For your dew is as the dew of the dawn,
And the earth will give birth to the departed spirits. Isaiah 26:19
Indeed, God turned the tomb into a womb, the graveyard into a garden, and the curse into a blessing. God made death into a birthing mechanism. Because of His love for us, God married death (through the crucifixion of Jesus) and made it a mother. Death now births new creatures to live in heaven. And just as we once left our mother’s wombs to find new life outside of it, we will one day leave this world to find new life outside of it.
God is love. The first resurrection was not for His own sake, but for ours. The first resurrection – that is, the resurrection of the one – took place that there might be a resurrection for everyone. Those who died before Christ’s coming rose in a mass exodus from below. Those of us who die since then, go one by one. As one man brought death into the world, so one Man brought life into death. As we had nothing to do with Adam’s bringing the curse of death, so we had nothing to do with Christ’s turning it into a blessing.
It is impossible to overestimate the love and patience of our Creator. Let us give our lives to Him in grateful and reverent response. Let us seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. Let us live the remainder of our lives not for the lusts to which we are accustomed, but for the will of God which is that we should love others as He has loved us.
Even while acknowledging God’s great work and giving Him much thanks, there are more important details to add to this grand story. We turn to them in the next chapter.
Chapter 9 – The New Heavens and the New Earth
The resurrection of the dead at the coming of Christ may have been invisible, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a whopping big event. We see spectacles and extravaganzas in the physical realm. It should not surprise us, therefore, that there are occasions for hoopla in the spiritual realm. The Second Coming of Jesus Christ was the granddaddy of them all!
So magnificent, important, and significant was this event that it was called the creation of a new heavens and a new earth. Not since the original creation had change occurred on such a grand scale. Raising that many dead humans to new life in heaven would be a sight for angels to see, the likes of which none of them had seen since the beginning of the universe. To describe it in terms less grand than “a new heavens and new earth” would just not do it justice.
The term “new heavens and earth” was appropriate not just because of its grandness of expression, but also because of its accuracy of description. New heavens and a new earth actually did come into being, replacing the old. Not the physical, mind you. But a new spiritual heavens and earth came into being at that time.
Think about it from God’s point of view. You’ve built a house, and you’ve put living people on the ground floor. At death, they have to go down to the basement. There is a point in time where you are going to bring all the dead out of the basement to live with you on the upper floor. Some remodeling of the house is called for, isn’t it? Remodeling is just what God had to do. In order to bring about the resurrection of the dead, God had to re-order the spiritual dimension of creation.
There had never been anything wrong with the physical dimension of creation. There still isn’t. Look at it. Have you ever seen anything like it? (Figure of speech.) The mountains, the forests, the rivers, the oceans. There is nothing wrong with physical creation. It’s glorious! By contrast, it’s the spiritual side of things where the problem has been. It’s in the unseen realm that a solution and re-creation were required.
Behind the Scenes
The whole point of the Bible is to get us to look at things spiritually. This means nothing more than looking at things from God’s point of view. God is spirit, so to look at things spiritually is to look at things from His point of view.
To look at things spiritually is to look behind the scenes. This physical creation is a veil behind which lies the spiritual creation. Your body is the veil of flesh which clothes the real and eternal you. In the same way, all physical creation clothes spiritual reality. The Bible opens our eyes to see through the veil where our audience sits…so that we can live accordingly. We don’t see everything behind the veil. Some things are none of our business. But we see enough of God, His love, and His value system, to make sense of life and to live with an awareness of His loving, watchful eye – that we might please Him in the process.
We have seen how the Bible shows us what happens behind the scenes of death. All we knew of death was what we saw in the physical realm; the Bible opened our eyes to what death meant in the spiritual realm. It meant descent below to a place called Sheol/Hades. Then it told us of how Jesus came and broke free from its grip and how He intended to raise all the dead to live with Him in heaven. It also told us that once He raised the dead to heaven, all those who died thereafter would no longer descend but rise immediately to be with all in heaven. But this new order of things entailed a reconstruction of the spiritual realm. Hence, a new heavens and a new earth.
Just as the prophets had promised a deliverance from death, they also promised a new creation:
“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth…” Isaiah 65:17
“For just as the new heavens and the new earth
Which I make will endure before Me,” declares the LORD,
“So your offspring and your name will endure.” Isaiah 66:22
And Jesus Himself said,
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.”
Of course, it is possible that we could take these expressions as referring to a new physical heavens and earth rather than a new spiritual heavens and earth. We are about to see, however, that just as a road atlas would be useless in locating Sheol/Hades, it is equally useless in locating the new heavens and earth. Let’s focus on this new creation one level at a time, starting with the lower compartment.
Just before we do, though, let me caution you to buckle your seat belt. All the pictures the Bible has given us of the unseen realm so far will seem like still shots compared to the motion picture you are about to see. If, however, the Bible is going to describe how new heavens and earth take the place of the old, you would expect a certain amount of swirling and moving, wouldn’t you?
What Happened to the Sea?
The book of Revelation describes the coming of Christ. This extended apocalyptic epistle is not something you could put on the easy reading list, but it culminates in a grand picture of the new spiritual universe that we simply cannot ignore. It should go without saying that the book of Revelation is describing the spiritual side of things. For when you describe Jesus as a lamb with seven eyes and seven horns you are obviously not wanting people to take you to be giving a physical description of Him.
It takes the apostle John several chapters to paint his closing scene, but let me quote just a portion of it:
Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. Revelation 20:11 – 21:1
In this scene, we see the old heaven and earth passing away. Jesus had told us about that. We also see the new heavens and the new earth. Isaiah had told us about that. We see as well how, given this explanation, it is impossible to take Isaiah, Jesus, and John in any sense other than spiritual.
We are trying to focus on the lower compartment of the universe (Sheol/Hades). What has happened to it? First of all, it was required to give up all the dead who dwelt there. This would be the resurrection of the dead promised by the prophets and Jesus. And then in the new creation there is no sea. That is, there is no place for the dead below. But if, after the resurrection, all rise immediately at death you wouldn’t need a place below for the dead anymore, would you? A place for everything and everything in its place. This is the God of order who created all things.
I lived in St. Louis for fifteen years. Most of the homes there have basements. The winters are cold. Basements provide storage and recreational space which are of great practical value. I was raised in South Carolina where the winters are milder and far fewer homes have basements. My mother could hang clothes to dry on the line outside on all but the most uncomfortable winter days. We could get by okay without a basement. The original creation had a basement because it was needed. Satan had power in heaven and he wasn’t about to let any of us up there. If God wanted to keep us – which He did – He had to provide a place for us to be stored below until the time came when He could fix things. Jesus of Nazareth was that time. Once He established a climate in heaven that was friendly to us (we’ll see more about this in a minute when we examine how the heavens changed), there was no longer a need for a basement in the creation. That’s why the new heavens and earth don’t have one.
“The sea gave up the dead which were in it,” was how the apostle John described it in our passage from Revelation. This paints a picture in our minds of the spiritual region below giving up all the dead it held. And John confirms this by stating immediately that “death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them.” Some Greek minds may have sneered at the idea but it would have to be a thrill to anyone who had aunts or uncles down there. To hear of their liberation and escape to God’s own refuge of heaven would warm the heart of anyone who had lost a loved one. It is like the joy we feel when captives of a terrorist group are freed and returned to their loving families back home.
Long before John’s time, David had painted a similar picture. Let’s look at it.
God is to us a God of deliverances;
And to GOD the Lord belong escapes from death.
Surely God will shatter the head of His enemies,
The hairy crown of him who goes on in his guilty deeds.
The Lord said, “I will bring them back from Bashan.
I will bring them back from the depths of the sea; Psalm 68:20-22
The resurrection of the dead was a colossal “escape from death.” It was God bringing “them back from the depths of the sea.”
Jonah had foreshadowed it all so many centuries before. Sheol/Hades was in mind when God had the great sea monster swallow up, as it were, all who had fallen overboard. The resurrection of the dead was the vomiting up of all that the monster of Death had swallowed.
Isaiah, too, gave a picture that belongs in this album.
In that day the LORD will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent,
With His fierce and great and mighty sword,
Even Leviathan the twisted serpent;
And He will kill the dragon who lives in the sea. Isaiah 27:1
This monster had no desire to save people for God. He delighted only in keeping people from God. Once God established the new heavens and new earth, his services would no longer be required.
Not only was the monster of the sea killed, but also “there is no longer any sea.” God dried it up and made everything solid ground. This He had foreshadowed when He dried up the Red Sea for the Israelites to pass through. As this passage puts it:
Thus He rebuked the Red Sea and it dried up… Psalm 106:9
All God has to do is say the word and things this monumental happen. If He can dry up a physical sea then He is probably able to dry up a spiritual sea. He has done just that and this is why you and I will rise at death – because in the new creation that’s the only direction you can go. There is no longer any place to sink!
For this reason, Jesus’ walking on the water was more than a miraculous rescue mission for His disciples whom He loved. It symbolized His power over death. All men who walk on water sink. At least this has been my experience. I assume yours is similar. Jesus, however, defied the normal way of things and walked on it like it was dry land. This foreshadowed that He would defy death and not succumb to its power. And by the path He cut, we do the same thing. In the new creation, the sea of death is dried up. We walk across to God.
Even the promise of “new heavens and new earth” implies the absence of a sea. Otherwise, God might have had the prophets promise a new heavens and new earth and new sea. But praise be our Creator forevermore, we don’t need a new sea. A place has been made for us in heaven!
Goodbye forever, Sheol/Hades.
The New Heaven
Since the resurrection takes the dead to heaven, let’s talk about that next. Heaven had been the exclusive domain of God and the angels. But not all the angels were good guys. As we have seen, Satan was a problem. A number of the angels followed him in his rebellious ways. We may not see all these things clear as crystal but the Bible makes it obvious that there was some evil in the heavenly realm. That much is certain.
We have already seen that the flame of evil on earth was lit from a spark in heaven. To be blunt about it, Eve of earth was tempted by Satan of heaven. If God punishes sin on the earth, would He let someone in heaven get away with it? No, though it might take a while to bring about complete justice – especially when you consider that God wouldn’t want to crush Satan while humanity was still in his grip. The new heavens and new earth marked the deliverance of Satan’s victims and the simultaneous punishment of Satan and his crew.
Let’s go back and view another scene from the book of Revelation:
… The dragon and his angels waged war, and they were not strong enough, and there was no longer a place found for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation, and the power, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, he who accuses them before our God day and night. Revelation 12:7-10
You see that tempting us to do evil was only the beginning for Satan. He subsequently accused us before God. It is not a very nice person who leads you to do wrong…and then reports you to the authorities for following the leading!
It is wrong for us to protest, “The devil made me do it.” But it would be equally wrong to say he had nothing to do with it. His desire is for unrighteousness just the same way that God’s desire is for righteousness. Though Satan’s power is great, you can see that it was not great enough for him to avoid being kicked out of heaven. He and the angels that followed him were being ejected to make room for the resurrection of the dead. Remember, Jesus told the crowd that day that the dead were going to be “like angels in heaven.”
The heavens had been fouled by the devil’s ways. The heavens therefore had to be cleansed of that evil. The new heavens are the result of that cleansing. Satan lost his exalted place. God made heaven the new home of resurrected humanity. If you and I had ever gone to the old heavens we would have had to share it with Satan. But he has no place in the new heavens. Jesus made sure of that. That’s why Jesus could say, just before He submitted to the crucifixion and all that followed, “I go to prepare a place for you.” He went to heaven to clear the place out. As He had run the money changers out of the temple, so He ran the devil and his crowd out of heaven. No longer would His Father’s house be a robbers’ den (Matthew 21:12-13).
The New Earth
The new earth was different alright. At least spiritually speaking. According to John’s picture, it had become a lake of fire. After the region below had been emptied out of humanity, what was left of it was thrown into this lake. This would refer to spiritual powers. And we just saw how the evil spiritual powers were thrown down out of heaven. They, too, ended up in this lake of fire that was consuming the earth. Therefore, all the evil forces that had been in heaven above or in the spiritual sea below were now on the earth.
The fire refers to wickedness (that is, sin or lawlessness) and to the judgment of God that deals with it. Here are some verses from the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel to show you what I mean:
For wickedness burns like a fire;
It consumes briars and thorns;
It even sets the thickets of the forest aflame
And they roll upward in a column of smoke. Isaiah 9:18
“Behold, My anger and My wrath will be poured out on this place, on man and on beast and on the trees of the field and on the fruit of the ground; and it will burn and not be quenched.” Jeremiah 7:20
“Behold, I am about to kindle a fire in you, and it will consume every green tree in you, as well as every dry tree; the blazing flame will not be quenched and the whole surface from south to north will be burned by it. All flesh will see that I, the LORD, have kindled it; it shall not be quenched.” Ezekiel 20:47-48
This is the way the prophets talked about the destruction of Israel that would come if the people did not repent. Their words were fulfilled in the destruction that led to Israel being exiled in the 6th Century B.C. from the land God Himself had given them almost a thousand years before.
The time of the Second Coming of Christ was a time like that. It was the latter part of the 1st Century A.D. Jerusalem had been destroyed again (70 A.D.) and the Jews had been exiled again. And this time, the whole world was ablaze with the sins of man and the judgments of God. It was a time called the great tribulation. But now watch what happens in this earth as we roll the picture from the point at which John left it as he was describing the new universe that had no sea:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.” Then He said to me, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost. He who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son. But for the cowardly and unbelieving and abominable and murderers and immoral persons and sorcerers and idolaters and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” Revelation 21:1-8
This is the new earth. All the evil from above and below is added to whatever was already here on earth. The flames of sin and judgment are everywhere. But into its midst descends a beautiful place called Jerusalem. It is the place of trusting and obeying God. In this place, the flames of sin and judgment do not burn…or even leave the scent of smoke. I didn’t continue with John’s description but you can read it in your own Bible. This place of beauty and rest has twelve gates, three opening in every direction. Talk about accessible! In it, there is never any night time and the gates are never closed. Talk about convenient hours! In its center is a river of the water of life. And also the tree of life. The tree of life was last heard from in the story of Adam and Eve. After they had sinned, they were denied access to the tree and the garden altogether. But now God is opening gates in every direction and staying open 24 hours a day to encourage people to take from it. This is all a description, of course, of the kingdom of God. Eternal life. And it is eternally available in the new earth in which we now dwell.
God indeed has renewed His creation. He has wiped every tear from our eyes. Haven’t you felt Him wiping the tears of grief you’ve felt for your loved ones who’ve died? The mourning and crying and pain associated with death are things of the past. He has made all things new. Death is just a brief parting in the life span of eternity. Sure, there are a mess of problems here on earth, but God is here, too. He will be our Father; He will not leave us as orphans. This Jerusalem (the kingdom of God) is a spiritual city so it doesn’t matter whether you live in Tokyo, Japan or Tyler, Texas – it’s close by. There is no place below to fall and the only way to go when you die is up. Indeed, our God has made all things new. Beautifully and gloriously new.
A Whole New Ball Game
The new ball game that Jesus gives us puts us on equal footing with the devil. God has leveled the playing field and we have a fighting chance. Actually, God has tilted the field in our favor. Since death now leads directly to heaven, even when we lose we win. Maybe this is why Paul quoted this verse from the Psalms and then commented on it in this way:
Just as it is written, “For Your sake we are being put to death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. Romans 8:36-37
Through the love of God, even losing can be turned into a winning proposition. Maybe this is why Jesus wants us to turn the other cheek. It will lead to ultimate victory.
The new heavens and new earth (that is, the new two-dimensional two-tiered universe) replace the old two-dimensional three-tiered universe. This change took place when the Lord Jesus came in His glory. And things have been that way ever since. And they will be that way forevermore. This is because the coming of the new heavens and earth represent the coming of the kingdom of God. All I have described to you is the coming of the kingdom of God. And the kingdom of God never ends. Now that death has been changed to lead directly to heaven you do not have to worry about this arrangement ever changing. It took God too long and cost too much blood to achieve this outcome. He made sure it would last an eternity.
Therefore, the motion sickness you may have felt as the Bible described the goings and comings of heavens and earth should ease off, and you can unbuckle your seat belt. We are back to a still shot. As Isaiah said,
“…the new heavens and the new earth which I make will endure before Me…” Isaiah 66:22
And because they endure, you and I can endure. And when you turn in your earth suit upon leaving this realm, another will be waiting for you to clothe you in your eternal home.
Given all that the Bible has said about death and resurrection, you would not think we would need any reinforcement of the idea that everyone is going to heaven. Yet it shows up again and again…as in the last line of this quote from Isaiah.
Lift up your eyes on high
And see who has created these stars,
The One who leads forth their host by number,
He calls them all by name;
Because of the greatness of His might and the strength of His power,
Not one of them is missing. Isaiah 40:26
“Not one of them is missing” has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?
Now, I know some of you have been wondering about hell, so let’s deal with that next.
Chapter 10 – But What About Hell?
Many people skim the book’s table of contents and jump straight to this chapter or to the one following on “bad people.” If you do so, you are depriving yourself of a true biblical understanding of the afterlife. If you want to read this chapter first, go ahead. However, afterward I encourage you to go back and read the book from the beginning so that you will have a solid understanding of what the Bible teaches about death and how it affects human existence. If you’re not sure you want to invest that much time, then please at least read Appendix II which is a one-page summary of the book. If you’re one of those who have reached this point by starting at the beginning and working your way to it, then I commend you. However, you don’t need my commendation because you have already realized that the things you have learned have been reward enough.
In all this explanation of what happens at death, you have not heard me talk about hell. There’s good reason for that. In all my years of studying the Bible, I cannot recall a single word that is subject to as much confusion as this one. I hope to deal with it in this chapter without muddying the clear waters of the Bible’s teaching that we have seen so far. I wouldn’t even bring it up at all except that when the statement is made, “Everyone is going to heaven.” someone is sure to ask, “But what about hell?”
We have already talked about the fact that the way a word is used is the best way of determining its meaning. That doesn’t mean that dictionaries are useless. They provide much help. But dictionaries are always tracing the meaning of words people use…and never quite catch up. That’s why Noah Webster’s great work keeps getting updated with new editions. That’s also why, even though my dictionary told me that “bad” meant unfavorable, I should not take it as derogatory when young people describe a new band’s music as particularly “bad.” Such are the confusions of language and its usage.
The word “hell” is used in a variety of ways that make its meaning particularly hard to nail down. People say, “Go to hell!” They also say, “All hell broke loose.” Is hell a place or an event? They say, “He’s surely going to hell when he dies.” And they say, “He made her life a living hell.” Is hell after this life or during this life? People say, “The fires of hell will consume souls for all eternity.” And they called the man who was president when I was born “Give-’em-hell Harry.” Is hell a matter of the gravest importance or is it fit for nicknames? When a word can be stretched to communicate this many different ideas, its use is bound to be subject to confusion.
When people ask about hell, I am seldom sure how they mean it. And for that reason, quick answers usually add to the confusion. Does the Bible teach that there is a hell? Well, it depends on what you mean by hell. If by hell, you mean a place of torment by fire after this life where bad people are forever confined, then the plain answer is no. The Bible does not teach about such a place. You have seen for yourself what the Bible teaches about life after death. It used to be that everyone went down; since the work of Jesus Christ everyone goes up. Sheol/Hades used to be the common destination for all who died. Now it’s heaven. There was no place called hell mentioned anywhere in all that discussion of death and resurrection. That’s why I never brought up the subject of hell – because the Bible never did. Everyone is going to heaven, and hell has nothing to do with that except…
If by hell you mean a place of torment on this earth that often leads to death, then the plain answer is yes. The Bible does teach about such a place. You saw John’s picture of it in the last chapter. That picture portrayed the great tribulation of sin and judgment. He called it a lake of fire.
The Lake of Fire
Recall that the lake of fire represents man’s sin and God’s resulting judgment against it. In John’s description of the new heavens and new earth in the last three chapters of the book of Revelation, he portrays this fire burning on the earth. (Remember, there is no longer any sea so there is no nether region.) The heavenly Jerusalem descended into the midst of this fire which was covering the entire earth. This represents the coming of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God was the central subject of Jesus’ teaching, and the culmination of all that God had been working toward since man first sinned. A synonym for the kingdom of God is the kingdom of heaven (the four Gospels use the terms interchangeably, as they do the term “eternal life”). The kingdom of heaven is an especially fitting term for John’s picture because Jerusalem descends from heaven. In other words, in the midst of the hell we see all around us (that is, the sin and destruction we see all around us) down comes the kingdom of heaven and in those places we have “heaven on earth.”
Have you ever experienced “heaven on earth?” Most people will say yes. It marks those times when it seems to you that all is right with the world, at least from where you stand. You can probably also admit to having experienced a “living hell” at one time or another. This is the picture John was painting of the world in the time of the kingdom of God (that is, heaven in the midst of hell).
The point of John’s picture is that we should seek the refuge of God’s presence in the midst of the trouble that consumes the earth and our lives. Here is how one of John’s Jewish ancestors painted a picture with a similar point:
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
Will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress,
My God, in whom I trust!”
For it is He who delivers you from the snare of the trapper
And from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with His pinions,
And under His wings you may seek refuge;
His faithfulness is a shield and bulwark.
You will not be afraid of the terror by night,
Or of the arrow that flies by day;
Of the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
Or of the destruction that lays waste at noon.
A thousand may fall at your side
And ten thousand at your right hand,
But it shall not approach you.
You will only look on with your eyes
And see the recompense of the wicked.
For you have made the LORD, my refuge,
Even the Most High, your dwelling place.
No evil will befall you,
Nor will any plague come near your tent. Psalm 91:1-10
Whether it is portrayed as the protective wings of a great bird or the protective walls of Jerusalem, the meaning is the same: God is a refuge for those who look constantly to Him.
Yet someone will ask “Can God really be a refuge in the midst of a lake of fire?” Hear what Isaiah said:
“Who among us can live with the consuming fire?
Who among us can live with continual burning?”
He who walks righteously and speaks with sincerity,
He who rejects unjust gain
And shakes his hands so that they hold no bribe;
He who stops his ears from hearing about bloodshed
And shuts his eyes from looking upon evil; Isaiah 33:14-15
Living for God’s pleasure provides the ability to survive in a world abounding in evil. More than survive, we can actually thrive and be an encouragement to others.
Did you ever hear the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego? Those are the names three Jewish boys were given by their Babylonian captors. When the cream of Israel’s population was deported from Jerusalem in the 6th Century B.C., these three bright young men were among the exiles. In Babylon they were ordered to worship an idol, a false image of God. It was the image of Babylon’s king. When they refused, they were threatened with execution – the means of which would be placement in a fiery furnace. Undaunted, they steadfastly refused to bow to the image. The unseen God of all creation would be their only object of worship. It was therefore ordered that they be cast into the flames. The fire was so hot that some of the guards actually died getting the three prisoners in there. Yet for all this, the three Hebrew youths were unscathed by their time in the furnace. Afterward, not even the smell of smoke could be detected in their clothes. It seems there was a fourth presence in that fire with them. It was like the “shield and bulwark” of God. It was like “the river of the water of life which flowed from the center of a heavenly Jerusalem.” Get the picture? We can survive and thrive in this world!
Remember, in John’s picture a new Jerusalem descends from heaven into the midst of the flames. Therefore, the city is encircled by those flames. The twelve entrances are so that people can come from any direction. In the old heavens and earth, Jerusalem, the city of God, was located only in the Middle East. Through Jesus Christ, God has made the beauties, glories, and protections of Jerusalem transcend physical location. No matter where a Jew – or Gentile, for that matter – lived, this Jerusalem would be accessible.
Outside are the flames, but Jerusalem is inviting. That’s why John says,
Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life, and may enter by the gates into the city. Revelation 22:14
We gain access to this city of God’s refuge by mending our lives. Mending them not in the sight of other people, but in the sight of God Himself. Changing our lives in people’s eyes is relatively useless. To please God we must change our thoughts and motives as well as sometimes our actions. It’s the inside that God cares about. Sure, there are tough times in this world, but they should provoke us to run to God. We must run to Him, however, with all our hearts. A half-hearted love will not be enough to get us into His kingdom. Let us return now, however, to the subject from which we’re fleeing: hell.
The term John used is “lake of fire,” but other Bible writers use other terms. Yet the connection is easily seen. Let me show you what I mean.
The city of Jerusalem was built on a hill. Actually, several hills. The most well-known is Mount Zion. That’s why you’ll find the terms Mt. Zion or Zion used in the Bible as synonyms for Jerusalem itself. The valley that lay just outside the city to the south and west was called Gehenna. Some have called it the city dump, but the important point is that it was outside the city walls.
In the Old Testament, this area goes by the name “valley of Hinnom.” The “Ge” in Gehenna means “valley” so you can see how the word evolved. Thus the valley of Hinnom came to be known as Gehenna.
Jerusalem was, of course, the capital of Israel and therefore the residence of its kings. Not all of Israel’s kings were good. Some were pretty bad. A couple of them sacrificed their sons in the fire to pagan gods in the valley of Hinnom. A later king of Israel who was very good, Josiah by name, was troubled by what his predecessors had done. He therefore defiled the place and made it into a receiving ground for trash. A contemporary of his, the prophet Jeremiah, began using the place as a figure of speech to describe Jerusalem’s future if they did not repent. The coming destruction of the nation would be so bad, he would say, that the dead bodies were going to have to be burned in the valley of Hinnom because there wouldn’t be enough room or time to bury them. Unfortunately, this word picture proved all too descriptive of what ended up happening to this earthly Jerusalem. Jeremiah’s book of Lamentations describes the horror of what came upon that place. The glorious city was turned into an ash heap.
The Bible is not unique in taking place names and using them as a figure of speech to communicate an idea. If someone has “met his Waterloo” then they have experienced a career-ending defeat. Waterloo was a real place in Europe where Napoleon was finally defeated. There is a figurative meaning of Waterloo therefore, in addition to its original literal meaning. The same thing is true of a building complex in our own nation’s capital of Washington called Watergate. It was the scene of a political burglary which led to the downfall of a president. Through that process the word has come to have a meaning beyond that of a specific location. Political scandals are, in our time, commonly referred to as “Watergates” or “something-gates.”
Gehenna, then, was a valley just outside Jerusalem used for dumping and burning that came to symbolize destruction and shame. It could be contrasted with Jerusalem itself which symbolized glory and life. Therefore, John’s picture at the end of Revelation was of a Jerusalem with flames burning outside. Another way of expressing the flames would be to say that Gehenna was outside. And that’s the way Jesus used the term Gehenna.
For Jesus, Gehenna was the alternative to the kingdom of God. He mentions it several times in the Sermon on the Mount. The subject of this teaching by Jesus is how to enter the kingdom of heaven. It contains the Lord’s Prayer and the Golden Rule. It describes a place of safety in this world for those who “practice their righteousness” before God rather than men. Peace in the storm, if you will. Since the kingdom of God is eternal, the destruction outside it is eternal. That’s why it’s sometimes called “eternal fire.”
What Does “Eternal” Mean?
When I was in the eighth grade, some of our history class took a week-long field trip to Washington D.C. One of the sites we visited was the tomb of President John F. Kennedy. It was the temporary set-up with the white picket fence that preceded the permanent stone memorial. Nonetheless, the eternal flame was already there. Why did they call the flame eternal? Because it was to never go out. Things that are eternal don’t end.
The kingdom of God is eternal. It will never end. Therefore, its alternative of Gehenna, or flames will never end. That’s why there is eternal destruction. It coincides with an eternal kingdom. When the only Jerusalem was earthly it was subject to corruption. There were times when, rather than being a place of refuge, it became a death trap. Just before the destruction by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, Jeremiah was warning the people to leave the city for safety’s sake. Jesus gave a similar warning in His day. Those who heeded Him were spared the devastation that fell on the city in 70 A.D. at the hands of the Romans. The unseen Jerusalem, however, that is governed by God Himself is not subject to corruption. Therefore, it is eternal. There is never anything but goodness inside; there is never anything but trouble outside.
Now there are some people who think that the kingdom of God that Jesus was describing has nothing to do with this life, but only the afterlife. I can see why those people would view the flames as referring to something after this life. For the flames of destruction are the alternative to the place of peace and life. But it seems impossible to me in reading the Sermon on the Mount to deny that Jesus’ words are directed at living this life. And since the kingdom is something to be sought and entered in this life, so also are the flames something to be avoided and fled from in this life.
The rest of the Bible writers seem to agree for they are constantly using the figure of fire and burning to symbolize God’s anger at, and judgment of, sin in this life. For example, the prophet Isaiah writes,
When the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and purged the bloodshed of Jerusalem from her midst, by the spirit of judgment and the spirit of burning, Isaiah 4:4
As we’ve seen, burning represents the wrath of God in response to our sins. He loves us, but He hates and must judge sin. Just because you love your children does not mean you love everything they have ever done. Haven’t you had to discipline them? After the discipline, however, you call them to your bosom. And if we read on in this passage of Isaiah we see him drawing along the lines that are now becoming familiar to us:
then the LORD will create over the whole area of Mount Zion and over her assemblies a cloud by day, even smoke, and the brightness of a flaming fire by night; for over all the glory will be a canopy. There will be a shelter to give shade from the heat by day, and refuge and protection from the storm and the rain. Isaiah 4:5-6 NASB
In the midst of the earth’s destruction is a place watched over by God. He is unseen, but we can believe that He is watching, and that everything we do matters to Him.
The little New Testament book of Jude which sits just before the book of Revelation says this about “eternal fire:”
just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the cities around them, since they in the same way as these indulged in gross immorality and went after strange flesh, are exhibited as an example in undergoing the punishment of eternal fire. Jude 1:7
Jude is telling us that the destruction of those two infamous cities is an example of the punishment of eternal fire. They were cities on the earth. Therefore, eternal fire burns on the earth and destroys godless civilizations. Do we not see the flames of destruction licking at the heels of our own nation? How safe are our streets? How secure is our prosperity? To the degree that we seek the unseen Jerusalem of godly living before Him we will find relief from the flames of His judgments. But even if the whole nation does not repent, you can find a place of protection in the midst of destruction. Look to Him every day.
We see, therefore, that the flames that the Bible warns us about burn in this life and on this earth. They are the wrath of God against sin. As Jesus Himself said,
“I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled!” Luke 12:49
Notice the fire He is talking about casting will be “upon the earth” – not somewhere else. The fire came with the kingdom and like the kingdom, is eternal.
As we saw in the last chapter, the prophets of Israel forewarned of the destruction of their nation using just this kind of terminology. If it was apt for describing the destruction of that nation, is it not also apt for describing the rise and fall of all nations? And is it not apt for describing the continual judgments that have been with us on the earth since the kingdom came?
If by “Hell” You Mean Destruction on the Earth in This Life…
During the American Civil War there was a certain general in the Union Army who burned down my hometown. I’m not complaining; it was his job. His name was William Tecumseh Sherman. There were a number of places in the South scorched in the wide path of destruction he left in his “march to the sea.” His defense to those who protested that his methods were too harsh was, “War is hell.” Those who wrote the Bible would agree.
Therefore, if by “hell” you mean destruction on the earth in this life brought on by war, disease, famine, earthquake, and much more then the Bible supports your thinking. In this sense there is indeed a hell and its flames are burning even now. Television news is largely a peek at such flare-ups locally and around the world.
We are not left in such a hell without God, however, for His presence is here for us. (Remember the heavenly Jerusalem descending to the earth which was covered with a lake of fire.) God is not far away. We can call upon Him and live for Him. We can be protected. But more than that, we can bring relief and refreshment to others. Into the hearts of humanity God speaks, and if we listen and respond, then deliverance will become more prevalent than disaster. God has provided the means, but we humans must use our wills for good.
Years ago my wife and I owned a duplex. We lived in one side and rented out the other. One night a fire started on the other side. By the time the tenant told me, it was much too big for me to handle. I was thrilled to see the fire department arrive. They had more water than I could have ever produced with my garden hose. In John’s description of the new Jerusalem, there was a river of water coming out of its center. In other words, there is more than enough water to douse the flames of evil. And it is even possible for the smell of smoke to be removed from our clothes.
But If You Mean a Flaming Torture Pit After This Life…
I have not found in the Bible reason to believe that there will be any destination awaiting those who die other than heaven. I have already shown you what I found the Bible to say about those who die and what happens to them. If a flaming torture pit were awaiting some who died, then the Bible has taught us falsely about life after death. If the Bible is false, I give up.
There was no place of flaming torture in the original creation. There was heaven above, earth here, and Sheol/Hades below. In the new creation there is only heaven above and the earth here. What flames there are, burn on earth. And beyond heaven and earth, there’s nothing else. If there is no place called hell for the afterlife in the original creation or in the new creation, then there is no basis for believing that the afterlife includes such a place.
This is all the more true when you examine the Bible’s description of the movements of the spirits of those who die. In the beginning, they descended at death. Since the resurrection, all rise to heaven. This supposed afterlife destination of “hell” is never mentioned in these descriptions. Where then do people get the idea?
Why There Is So Much Confusion About the Word “Hell” in the Bible
We have already discussed the widely varying ways in which people use the word hell, but what about the Bible? Surely we could look there and find the word used consistently. Unfortunately, that is not so easy.
Of course, all our English Bibles are translations, with the Old Testament having been originally written in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek. There are quite a number of English Bibles in existence today and that is a wonderful thing. Each Bible is translated with different readers in mind, but all translations seek to be faithful to the original – just faithful in different ways. For example, some translations serve readers for whom English is a second language. These would employ a smaller English vocabulary than, say, a translation striving for word-for-word correspondence. Similarly, some versions are paraphrased, using modern idioms. Others strive to be literal, believing the ancient idioms can be understood one way or the other. Of course, the way English is spoken has changed over each century so this is yet another reason for new English translations. As you can see, there are legitimate reasons for English translations to differ.
One of the problems that all translators have had is when to use the English word “hell.” Historically, four words have at least sometimes been translated as hell. When I say historically, I am referring primarily to the King James Bible which was translated in 1611. Those four words that are sometimes translated as hell are Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, and Tartaros. You have seen the Bible’s usage and explanation of the first three words. The fourth only occurs once in the entire Bible and I will give its explanation in a moment. The problem is that among the many English translations there has been no uniform way of translating these four words. Therefore, confusion.
The solution is to turn to the literal English translations which are likely to transliterate the words rather than translate them. That is, a literal translation is likely to render “Sheol” as “Sheol” rather than trying to find a matching English word. This makes all the more sense in the case of a word like Sheol or Hades for which there is no modern English word which matches its meaning. A notable example of such a literal translation is the New American Standard Bible (NASB), which is available at most any bookstore and certainly online (). Unless you can read Hebrew and Greek, such a literal translation is your best hope for sorting out a confusing word issue like this.
In the NASB, “Sheol” in Hebrew is rendered as “Sheol” in English all 66 times it occurs. “Hades” in Greek (New Testament) is consistently rendered as “Hades” in English the 10 times it occurs. Sheol and Hades, therefore, are transliterated at each occurrence, rather than translated. Gehenna and Tartaros, however, are translated to “hell” – yet consistently, which reduces confusion. The 12 occurrences of “Gehenna” are always footnoted with the indication that the literal word is “Gehenna.” “Tartaros” occurs only once and is translated as “hell” without a footnote.
While the work is tedious, you can see how invaluable the literal translations are, especially ones which are searchable online or for which there is an exhaustive concordance. Such translations allow you to read each occurrence of the word and determine from all the uses what its meaning is. If the words are mixed and translated inconsistently, the Bible reader is definitely at a disadvantage. Appendix I in this book lists every occurrence of all four of these words so that, regardless of which translation you are using, you will know all the verses in which these four words occur.
In this discussion, it may have dawned on you that the word “hell” per se is not even in the Bible. You know very well what Sheol means and that Hades is its equivalent. Gehenna has to do with judgment and Tartaros has to do with angels (further explanation to come). If you were a translator, which of these words would you translate as hell? Especially given the fact that “hell” does not always mean the same thing in English, as we have seen. See what I mean by calling it a confusing term?
By the way, if all Bible study were this complicated, it would not be very practical or enjoyable for most people. Let me assure you, however, that such situations are rare. Do not let this one translation issue discourage you about the practicality and worth of reading the Bible – in any translation. (Just think – if our ancestors hadn’t been disobedient with the Tower of Babel, we might not even have this problem.) Now back to the matter at hand.
When you lump these four words together, or translate them inconsistently, you get earthly judgment mixed up with afterlife. That’s why some people think hell is after this life. The confusion of words caused them to put judgment on the wrong side of death. All those warnings in the Bible about awful judgment to come are not about things that happen after this life. They are warnings about things that can happen during this life. There is a judgment after this life when we go to heaven and I will tell you more about it in the next chapter. But the warnings of destruction are so that we might preserve the well-being of our nation (that is, whichever nation of which you are a part) for our children and our grandchildren after us. If the state of the physical environment that we leave our posterity is important, how much more the moral environment? As we saw with Sodom and Gomorrah, death does not lead to the fires of judgment. Rather, the fires of judgment lead to death. That’s worth repeating. Death does not leave to the fires of judgment – rather, the fires of judgment lead to death.
Fire and burning are always associated with the word Gehenna but seldom with the word Sheol or Hades. One of the rare times that fire is mentioned with respect to Sheol/Hades is a parable Jesus told in Luke 16. This, added to the inconsistency of translation, seems to confirm the idea in some people’s minds that there is a place called hell after this life. But if you examine the passage closely and in context (which we will do in the last chapter of this book), you will see that it teaches something quite different.
Now comes the explanation of the single occurrence of Tartaros. It was a Greek term referring to a place below Hades where the “Titans” were confined. The Titans were the predecessors to the Greek gods. In 2 Peter 2:4, the apostle Peter says that angels who sinned were confined there. Of course, we know that when the lower parts of invisible creation gave up the dead, all the remaining spiritual powers were thrown up to the earth. Peter, being a Jew, wouldn’t have believed in “Titans” but he might use the term as something to which his Greek-speaking disciples could relate. In any case, you wouldn’t want to build a Bible doctrine out of one occurrence of a word.
In the jumble of these different words, you can see how a teaching saying that at death some go up to heaven while some go down to hell might sound like it came from the Bible. But you have seen too much of what the Bible actually teaches to buy into such an idea. It would make the Bible into a bundle of contradictions, which it most certainly is not.
If you would like more clarity on all this, you can always take the references in Appendix I and study them one at a time. If you do, you will find that – and this is consistent with all that I have shown you – Sheol (Hades) is the place the dead used to go before the resurrection. Tartaros is where certain evil angels were kept before the resurrection. And Gehenna is the place of judgment and eternal (that is, continual) destruction on the earth that we can avoid if we walk in the light of the kingdom of God.
Therefore, I pause to invite – rather I implore – you, come out of hell and enter into the glory of your Maker, Jesus Christ our Lord! This is the kingdom of God, about which He taught us in the Sermon on the Mount and throughout the gospels and the rest of the Scriptures. To all who obey Him He gives an eternal – that is, continual – salvation. See Him who is unseen…and see Him always.
Let us set aside all the details about these four terms and deal with this idea of a flaming torture pit in the afterlife at gut level. First, we’ve seen what the Bible has to teach about death and resurrection. There was no such place as hell mentioned. Why should we add in the idea? We would only do so from preconceived notions or from traditional thinking – neither of which is biblical. It is not wise to add to the word of God. In fact, He commands us to neither add to it nor take away from it (Deuteronomy 4:2).
Second, such a punishment would be inconsistent with the nature of God. Since this life is finite and eternity is forever, then it would only be a matter of time before the punishment would outweigh the crime. It has always been God’s nature to requite us less than our sins deserve, not more. We saw in the first chapter that death was the punishment for sin. If there is something called hell after that, then God would be making us pay twice for the same crime. Moreover, death (especially the way God deals with it) can be called a just punishment for our sins. This eternal torture pit, however, would have to be called cruel and unusual. Cruel and unusual punishment is something of which God is incapable.
Third, God’s judgments – both in their warnings and in their executions – are intended to provoke repentance in us. A judgment which would allow no repentance and relief would be utterly inconsistent with God’s ways.
Fourth, if there were such a flaming torture pit awaiting any portion of humanity after this life, then every one of us ought to be tarred and feathered if we ever become concerned about any other issue! What would it matter if your whole life on earth went wrong, just so you could avoid that unending fate? If the plane is headed for a crash and only passengers with parachutes survive, then nothing would matter but making sure everyone had a parachute. Nothing!
Take a look at those who say that heaven and hell await us. See if they are concerned only with getting parachutes for everyone they can. You will notice that they are beset with the same weaknesses and worries of life as everyone else. They say they are concerned about the unending fiery torture pit but they walk and drive past neighbors every day without saying a word about it. One of the rare times they’ll talk about it is when someone like me comes along, and then only to argue. Again, if you truly believed some were going to hell and you loved them, you would subordinate every other concern in life to keeping them out.
We conclude then that there is no reason to fear a hell which lies after this life and lasts for an eternity. There has never been more than one destination for those who die, though that destination was gloriously changed through the grace of Jesus of Nazareth, Messiah of Israel. You and I can thank Him forever that it is His home in heaven to which everyone is going. You will enjoy your loved ones once again.
On the other hand, there is plenty of reason to fear the hell whose fires are consuming people on this side of death. The problems that plague humanity are, unhappily, familiar to us all. We do not have to watch television news to know about it. Murder, drugs, sexually-transmitted diseases, homosexuality, abortion – these and the judgments they bring are consuming people all around us. And then there are the more subtle, yet even more common, sins of greed, lust, bitterness, arrogance, anger, hate, unforgiveness, and more that infect our hearts. These, too, bring judgments upon us.
Perhaps the flames are consuming you now. There is relief close by. Call on God and live life His way, beginning with the secrets of your heart. His righteous and loving presence is the refreshment you need. And He is the God who, even if the flames completely consume you, will receive you back in heaven as the prodigal son – new clothes, welcoming party, and all!
Chapter 11 – But What About Bad People?
Allow me to repeat something I said at the beginning of the previous chapter. Many people skim this book’s table of contents and jump straight to this chapter or to the one preceding it on “hell.” If you do so, you are depriving yourself of a true biblical understanding of the afterlife. If you want to read this chapter first, go ahead. Afterward, however, I encourage you to go back and read the book from the beginning so that you will have a solid understanding of what the Bible teaches about death and Sheol (Hades). If you’re not sure you want to invest that much time, then please at least read Appendix II which is a one-page summary of the book.
Besides “What about hell?” the other objection likely to be raised to the idea that everyone is going to heaven is “What about bad people?” We will answer this question from several angles.
Who Are These Bad People?
Who is bad? Of course, I don’t mean who is “hip,” “groovy,” “cool,” or “awesome.” I am using the word in its most basic sense as the opposite of good. Who, then is bad?
Jesus said something that bears greatly on this subject. He was approached by a well-to-do and law-abiding countryman who regarded Him as a good man. Here is their initial exchange:
“Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.” Mark 10:17-18
Most people don’t protest when they are called good. In deflecting the praise ascribed to Him, Jesus was not being falsely modest. He was calling attention to a truth that ought to govern all our thinking: Only God is good. We need to let that sink in.
When I was in the seventh grade my social studies teacher introduced us to a system of grading called “the curve.” Rather than having a standard range for the assignment of letter grades, she would first score all our tests. If there were a hundred questions and the best score was 90, then 90 would be an A. Under the system I was used to, 90 would only have been a B. I saw an opportunity for improvement in my grades without any increased study on my part. The only thing that might spoil my plans would be if someone in the class always scored a hundred percent. Then the curve would be of no effect.
We typically think like Jesus’ questioner. That is, we look around at the world we live in and mentally divide people into good and bad – and, of course, include ourselves with the good. But Jesus is pointing out that in doing this we are unconsciously leaving God out of the equation. When you include God, it blows the curve. In the test of goodness, He scores a hundred percent and we all fail. That’s why we all die and He lives forever.
Jesus seemed always conscious of the goodness of God, and man’s inherent evil nature by comparison. For example, when He was giving His Sermon on the Mount and teaching on prayer He said,
“Or what man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!” Matthew 7:9-11
The people Jesus was teaching were His disciples, His very own students and followers. And He called them evil in comparison to God. At the beginning of this message He had called them the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Even the salt of the earth and the light of the world – that is, the best of humanity – is evil when compared to God!
“God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all” said the apostle John (1 John 1:5). There is not a speck or hint of anything unseemly in God. He is goodness and love personified. We certainly want to be like that. And it is the most wholesome thing in the world when we “hunger and thirst for righteousness.” But there is something unwholesome in thinking we more closely resemble God than we do our weak and failing human brothers and sisters.
Jesus warned against this unwholesome attitude in several ways. Here is one of them:
And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 18:9-14
The Pharisee was not even looking at God. All he could see was himself and this other fellow. Dividing the world into those who are righteous and those who are wicked, it is obvious to him which side of the fence each of them was on. He was “thankful” that he was not on the wicked side. On the other hand, all the tax-gatherer could see was God and himself. And it was obvious to him where the line was to be drawn. He knew God was the righteous one and he was the wicked one. Therefore, he sought mercy from God – because that’s what you can expect from someone who’s righteous. Both men wanted a good shake from God. The Pharisee thought he could get it by virtue of his own goodness. The tax-gatherer, by contrast, thought he could get it by virtue of God’s goodness. The tax-gatherer got it.
The tax-gatherer’s view of life was much more in line with reality. He counted God as an active participant in this world. Measuring himself against the standard of God, he fell short but trusted God would bring him up. On the other hand, the Pharisee excluded God from the game. For all his religiousness, he did not even include God in his formulation of who was good and who was evil. He just lived his life according to what he could see with his physical eyes and when you graded humanity on the curve, he figured he was definitely in a higher percentile than the tax-gatherer. If only he had included God’s score in the curve, it would have awakened him from his false sense of superiority. God’s score of 100% makes a curve of no effect.
I was guilty of the Pharisee’s mindset. When I was in my twenties, I used to drive home late from work. On the way, I would pass a part of town where drunks could be seen staggering and sleeping on the curbside. I told myself that surely God must be more pleased with me, for I went home when I got drunk and didn’t abandon my family for the streets. When I would lose my temper with my wife I told myself that I wasn’t as bad as those husbands who beat their wives. I could always think of someone worse than me so I didn’t have to think of myself as a bad person. But once I began to consider Jesus of Nazareth, my thinking changed. I saw myself as having a lot more in common with the drunks on the street than with Him. And I saw a lot more similarities between my behavior and that of wife-beaters than I did between my behavior and His.
This business of comparing ourselves to other people not only gives us a false sense of reality, but actually contributes to declining morals. You can always look around and find someone who seems worse than you. Therefore, we justify ourselves and don’t make strong efforts to improve. We don’t necessarily beat our chests and shout, “I’m righteous.” But neither do we make concentrated and sustained efforts at being more like God. As a result, morals keep getting pulled lower and lower. The whole class’s grades go down because we threw out the valedictorian’s score and focused on the lowest score, just trying to beat it. In a period when society’s morals are declining, this attitude only intensifies the downward spiral.
The toxicity of this moral environment is made worse by the judgmental attitudes with which we increasingly view each other. Like the Pharisees, we’re always noticing the bad in others because this keeps us from ever feeling like we ourselves need to change – that is, repent.
Therefore, if you take God out of consideration, “bad” is only a relative term. But since it is He who gave us life and He who raises us from the dead, it is only fitting that He should be included in our consideration of who is good and who is bad. And when we include Him, the question “But what about bad people?” becomes “But what about us?”
God Raises Both the Righteous and the Wicked
Do you remember this statement from Paul that we read earlier?
…there shall certainly be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. Acts 24:15
By now, you should be able to see how the righteous and wicked are divided up. Jesus is the righteous. That was the first resurrection. The wicked means everyone else. That was the resurrection of the dead.
The first resurrection was truly the resurrection of the righteous. One of Jesus’ many titles was “the Righteous One.” Take note: One. The apostles were quick to catch on to Jesus’ point that no one was righteous compared to God. Paul made the point emphatically in the book of Romans. He used both Old Testament passages and personal experience to drive it home:
…both Jews and Greeks are all under sin; Romans 3:9
as it is written, “There is none righteous, not even one;” Romans 3:10
for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, Romans 3:23
Jesus Christ is the only one hundred percent righteous person who ever lived – and that’s because He was, and is, God. Every one of the rest of us has at least a little something to be ashamed of. True?
God drew the line between the righteous and the unrighteous by raising all the righteous at the first resurrection (there was only One that fell into that category) and everyone else at the second. We got included in the resurrection because the Guy who got there first put in a good word for us.
Without Jesus and until Jesus there was no resurrection of people. No one was found righteous enough to deserve exclusion from the penalty of death. And our being locked up under the power of death was the very problem that brought Jesus here. As Paul says in another place:
It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all. 1 Timothy 1:15
As long as we, like Paul, are seeing our trip to heaven at death as a gift of God’s mercy, rather than an award for our goodness, we are standing on solid ground. But if we still think the word “sinner” or “bad” is a label best reserved for people less righteous than ourselves then we have never gotten a good look at Jesus Christ and are living like Pharisees.
Would we look down our noses at Paul and say, “Yeah, Paul, you’re right; you are the foremost sinner in the world” or are we better off adopting his attitude as our own?
There Is Varying Glory in the Resurrection
Since Jesus Christ is the only one righteous and everyone is going to heaven does this mean our goodness is of no interest to God? No, no, and a thousand times no! It is of the utmost interest to God that we do good and not evil. It has been this way with Him from the beginning and will never change. God loves righteousness and He wants us to love it, too.
If you are a parent, you know the joy of bringing a child into the world. That child does not have to win your affection and devotion. You are seeking that child with open arms even before the moment it springs from the womb. The child’s goodness does not win your love, the child itself wins your love. For even when the child is not good, you still love. And deeply so. As time goes on, your continual interest in the child- rearing process is for goodness – both goodness from the child and goodness for the child. If you and I can feel this way having played only a part in the child’s creation, how much more does God care, having orchestrated the whole thing?
God rewards righteousness both in this life and the one beyond. Just because all go to heaven does not mean that all will share in the same glory once we get there. Jesus has the place of the greatest glory in heaven because in the whole history of mankind no one ever showed so much goodness.
In analyzing the goodness of Jesus we must take into account how much evil was done to Him. For it is much easier to show goodness when goodness has been shown to you. When people are nice to us we tend to be nice to them. This is human nature. But divine nature is seen when goodness is shown in return for evil. After all his miracles of kindness and the humble life He lived, Jesus was utterly rejected by humanity. He was executed in cruel fashion to the taunts and jeers of bystanders who had ample reason to be grateful to Him. In return, He changed the destiny of the entire human race so that they would exist forever with Him in heaven. Never had so much goodness been shown in return for so much evil.
As you saw earlier in this book, no one really anticipated the nature of the resurrection from the dead. Even Jesus’ disciples expected His kingdom to be one of earthly glory and prestige. In fact, two of them asked for a place of privilege in it. Let’s listen in on the exchange:
They said to Him, “Grant that we may sit, one on Your right and one on Your left, in Your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” Mark 10:37-38
They did not realize that they were asking to be treated as shabbily as He was. For the more one bears up under undeserved suffering in this life, the more God will honor that person in the life to come. Of course, Jesus was God in the flesh but, as we have said, He didn’t get the highest place of honor in heaven just because of that. He earned it by the way He lived on earth. One of the two men who made this request of Him was himself executed because of his proclaiming the good news of a resurrected Jesus. His name was James. I am sure you will see him shining brighter than many in heaven.
Have you noticed that there is varying glory among the lights of the sky? The sun is brighter and bigger than the moon. Some stars are brighter or bigger than others. The lights in heaven are not uniform. Paul used this as an analogy to the resurrection of the dead in that long 1 Corinthians 15 passage that we read together. Here was that particular part:
There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory. So also is the resurrection of the dead… 1 Corinthians 15:41-42
You see what I mean? When those two disciples asked Jesus to be able to “sit with Him in His glory” they thought they were asking to be Vice-President and Secretary of State, or something like that. But they were unwittingly asking for glory in heaven for that’s where Jesus’ kingdom is. To “sit in glory” there would mean a life marked by intense goodness in the face of intense evil.
The varying glory in the resurrection, however, has not to do just with great and dramatic moments but with everything we do. Everything. Do you recall this from the passage where Hades gave up the dead?
And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. Revelation 20:12-13
What do you suppose was written in those books that the dead were judged by? Everything they did. Jesus said we have a God who counts and knows the number of hairs on our heads. If we are subject to this much attention, how likely is it that some of our activities might have escaped His notice? Some people strive for stardom or celebrity because they desperately crave attention. If they only knew how much attention they are already getting! And that stardom in heaven is possible for everyone.
Therefore, even though everyone is going to heaven, God will show honor where it is due. You should, therefore, live daily in such a way that will secure the type of seat you would like to have. Beyond that, however, righteousness is not something to be pursued only because it brings reward in the life to come. We saw in the last chapter something of how it can spare us from much (though not all) trouble in this life. Unrighteous living invites judgment. Moreover, righteousness is its own reward and brings peace in this life. Thus we have abundant reason to seek the righteousness of God.
And one more thing. When we arrive in heaven do we want to be hanging our heads in shame because of the miserable and ungrateful way we’ve lived our lives on earth? Wouldn’t it be better to show up before Him eager because we thought better of the folly of our selfishness and began making amends while we were still on earth?
None of us will “deserve” heaven but we can at least make it look like God didn’t make a mistake when He invited us.
Just Be Glad You Got in the Door
In our pursuit of righteousness, let’s be sure we don’t fall back into attitudes of thinking ourselves superior and worthy of more honor than the next guy. Jesus told a parable to help us with just this issue:
And He began speaking a parable to the invited guests when He noticed how they had been picking out the places of honor at the table, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for someone more distinguished than you may have been invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this man,’ and then in disgrace you proceed to occupy the last place. But when you are invited, go and recline at the last place, so that when the one who has invited you comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will have honor in the sight of all who are at the table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 14:7-11
In other words, let’s just be thankful we got in the door of heaven and not go counting the number of “really bad” people who will have to sit behind us once we get there. We might get a rude surprise.
Jesus wanted to make sure that we understood how God views things differently than the world views them. Thus He warned us,
“But many who are first will be last; and the last, first.” Matthew 19:30
Even though God is a God of justice, many inequities show up in this life. There are many people living quiet, honest lives whom we know nothing about. In the ages of heaven, God will allow us to see the glory of their lives that never made the evening news. Many of us will be so humbled by the stories of their simple faith and love that we truly will be thankful that we ourselves even got in to the same place as these folks.
Imitating, Not Begrudging, Generosity
That all are going to heaven is an act of God’s generosity. And generosity is not something that can be coerced. It must come from the heart of the giver himself. And once it does, no one should begrudge it. Once again, a parable from Jesus on the subject:
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. When he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place; and to those he said, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ And so they went. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.’ When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. When those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.’ But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? ‘Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?’” Matthew 20:1-15
It would not be very becoming in God’s sight for us to be envious that others got into heaven with us. As any parent at Christmas time knows, the doling out of presents sometimes provokes envy instead of gratitude. Yet we love our children and try to teach them better.
Alas, there are many Christians who object to the idea of everyone going to heaven with just this sort of attitude. It always dismays me. Why should we begrudge the Lord His generosity? Would we actually be happier if some were kept out?
In the time of David, a warring band had carried off the women, children, and goods of David and his 600 men. (You can find the full account in 1 Samuel 30:1-25.) Just returned from a journey, 200 of them were too weary to go in pursuit. Nonetheless, the 400 achieved victory with the help of God, recovering from the enemy every person and every item that had been taken…plus some. On the return, some of the 400 insisted that the 200 who didn’t make the journey should be cut out of any of the extra spoils taken in the battle. David, however, would not allow it. Since the Lord had given the victory, the spoils belonged to all. And it was made a law in Israel. It is interesting that in the account, the Bible applies the adjectives “wicked” and “worthless” not to the 200 who were too exhausted to make the trip, but to the ones who wanted to cut them out of a share. Of all the attitudes revealed in this story, it is more than apparent which ones God would have us adopt and which ones He would have us reject. What is generously given ought to be generously shared. I’d like to say that again. What is generously given ought to be generously shared.
Rather than begrudging God’s generosity, we do best to mimic it. If we don’t, we can only expect a cooling of God’s affections toward us. Another parable:
Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven. For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’ And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. Then summoning him, his lord *said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.” Matthew 18:21-35
Do you have problems forgiving people? Imitate God. For to the extent that you withhold mercy from others you withhold it from yourself as well. As the Bible elsewhere says,
For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. James 2:13
And for this reason it also says,
The merciful man does himself good,
But the cruel man does himself harm. Proverbs 11:17
Has the world hurt you? Forgive. It’ll heal you.
Reconsidering the Bad People
So, the first and best answer to the question, “But what about bad people?” is “Are there any other kind?” For only when we begin to understand and become truly aware of God’s character is our sense of right and wrong adjusted to reality.
And even if someone has led what seems to us to be a despicable and worthless life, should our limited awareness of the details of the circumstances and issues of the person’s life be accepted as his final judgment? Think about your own family. You can say what you want to them but woe to the outsider who says anything bad about them. If we are so zealous for what is ours, even when they are wrong, should we deny that God would be as protective for that which is His? Especially when we ourselves are among the ones He’s protective of? We never know all the details of a person’s life, and had we been in their shoes we might have performed even more poorly than they did.
None of this means that our actions don’t matter, or that we shouldn’t repent. All our actions matter, and all of us should live a life of repentance toward God. If we see someone else doing evil, we ought to go to school on it – seeking to improve ourselves – rather than just mentally condemn them. For the apostle Paul says,
But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. Romans 14:10
Our goal, therefore, is not to put down our brother. Or even to try to be better than him. It is to try to be a better person today than we were yesterday. Every day.
When you try to live this way, you become so much more aware of your own shortcomings. After all, since most sins have to do with thoughts or motives, no one could possibly know as much about your sins as you do. And having this kind of awareness makes you all the more likely to rejoice when you hear that bad people go to heaven, for it’s only then that you have assurance that you yourself will make it.
Chapter 12 – O Death, Where Is Your Sting?
It has been the greatest privilege of my life to tell you that you are going to heaven. Regardless of whether you are a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, agnostic, atheist, or anything else, you are going to heaven when you die. God created you and when you die He will re-create you. Even if you don’t believe in Him now, you will then. The kindness of Jesus Christ is indescribably comprehensive and final. Eternal, you could say.
And not just you, but everyone is going to heaven. Therefore, I am informing you not just for your own sake, but also for the sake of those you love. If you grieve for a lost loved one, be aware that your separation will one day end in glorious reunion. Feel free to tell your neighbors this good news of Jesus as well. They, too, deserve to know the comfort that God has established for all of us.
That you are going to heaven does not mean that you may not have to go through quite a bit of hell before you get there. You may be in the midst of it right now. The best thing I can recommend to you is to acknowledge that God is truly present in all of His creation…including your corner. Build all your thinking around this reality and you will begin to sense a river of living water coming up from deep inside of you which will refresh and protect you from the flames. This water is the stream of the thoughts of God which come from His Holy Spirit – the same Holy Spirit who guided Jesus of Nazareth. Just knowing that we will all one day escape these flames and live forever with Jesus in heaven should already be providing some comfort to you.
Though it may not always appear so, morality and justice control this universe. The book of Job shows that we cannot always fully understand or explain God’s workings at any given point in time. But that does not at all mean that all things won’t eventually be revealed. They will be. In the meantime, the Bible explains morality from God’s point of view and gives insight to all the activities of life, explaining how we may bring morality to all that we think, say, and do. That does not mean everyone must become a Bible scholar. Truth can be found in many places. And, in the end, all of our problems stem from not living up to the standards found in our own consciences. In other words, it’s not so much the truth we don’t know that’s killing us; it’s the truth we know but aren’t living up to. Nevertheless, know that if your conscience is weakened, the Bible is the surest place you can go to have it strengthened.
We owe the synagogues and churches an incalculable debt, for they have preserved for us and passed on to us the Old and New Testaments. However, the Bible belongs to all humanity and can be read, enjoyed, and obeyed by every human being regardless of religious background or lack thereof. And regardless of your view of religion, it is your relationship with Jesus the Person that will make all the difference in the world. To love Him and live for Him brings untold joy, and though you will also have pain, He will wipe every tear from your eye. To ignore Him is to court trouble and disaster. There is enough pain in this world as it is. I am trying to spare you from as much of it as I can. That means not pointing you to an institution but to a Person named Jesus.
There are two ways to live in this world. One is seeking the unseen Jerusalem in our midst. To put it another way, to be constantly aware and respectful of God’s presence. This won’t make us weird, but rather it will make us normal. For how normal can it be to go around ignoring someone who’s always near and watching every thought and intention of your heart – with love as His only motive? The other way to live is to turn your back on this heavenly Jerusalem. That is what is called in the book of Revelation the “second death” – separation from God. For when we are separated from the God who made us and rescued us from ourselves, we are truly dead. It’s a matter of life or death: Life with God or life without Him. And life without Him is walking death.
I used to think that some people would go to hell after they died and for this reason I tried to warn them about their potential fate. Studying the Bible, however, gave me a more accurate idea of hell’s location and timeframe. As you’ve seen, it’s not a problem after this life; it’s a problem in this life. The more of its fires that can be put out, the longer and happier people will live on the earth, and the more joyous will be the reception once we go to heaven.
Our goal is not to live happily on earth, but rather to live righteously. We’re not opposed to being happy; we rather like it. However, any happiness not based on righteousness will be short-lived. Relating to Jesus means seeking every day to know His will and do it. We are not seeking to make ourselves happy; rather, we are seeking to make Him happy. People who seek to make themselves happy are driving society toward the fires of judgment.
Perhaps the simplest and most graphic example I could give in our generation is that America’s insistence upon sexual freedom may very well bring our nation, as well as many of us individually, to an early grave. God gave sex in the context of marriage. You can no more remove it from marriage without consequences that you can jump off a cliff and repeal the law of gravity. In a nation where deviance from marriage between a man and a woman as the sole expression of sex is tolerated, trouble in on the horizon. But in a nation where it is celebrated, trouble will never leave. Even then, however, God loves the sinner and hates the sin. So when the sin is burned off, out comes the spirit for a new life with God. Nonetheless, we will all enjoy our welcome into heaven if we have begun our repentance while we were still here on earth.
We have much repenting to do in America. We have been blessed above all nations, but we Americans today have squandered our privilege and lived decadently. We ought to be ashamed. And if we accept our shame before God, He will heal our souls and strengthen us to do right in His sight.
I do not have a church or synagogue or group of any kind for you to join. Rather, I have pointed you to God – specifically, to Jesus Christ. What I have sought to do in this book is give you the information that I have gained in reading and studying the Bible. What you do with that information is between you and God. I have shown you where these truths are in the Bible. There may have been points in the book where you wished I’d just told you something rather than printing all those passages and asking you to read them. But now you have the benefit of being able to make up your own mind on the subject based on the same data I had at my disposal. It’s just you and God and the Bible. There is no one else – nor should there be anyone else – to tell you what to believe. God endowed you with a conscience and you are as able as any of the rest of us to recognize truth. If this truth means half as much to you as it does to me, then I will forever be happy that I called your attention to it. More importantly, I’ve called your attention to Him because of whom it is true.
The State of Your Loved Ones and the Cleansing Effect of Death
Under the original order of things, all souls descended at death. This was of some comfort to those surviving the death of a loved one, but nothing like the comfort that comes with the resurrection brought about through Jesus Christ. As the apostle Paul spoke of the fulfillment of what the prophets had promised,
“Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?” 1 Corinthians 15:54-55
Therefore, your deceased loved ones are above, waiting on you. Like a crowd of runners gathering at the finish line after they have finished, they are waiting to congratulate the other runners as they finish. They are cheering for you even now. They want you to do your best.
There are many of your loved ones whom you can easily picture in this position. You know of their love for God and you, and the mental images come without much effort. But even those who did not seem to love God or you will have been changed through the process of death and though it may take more effort to imagine, you can expect that they, too, have this kind of attitude. Jesus said as much.
Jesus told a story about a rich man that shows even under the first order of things, death had a cleansing effect on the mind. It caused a dramatic change in attitude. It’s a story that has parallels to the story of Jonah. Before Jonah’s episode in the sea, he was running from God as hard as he could. No obstacle seemed to stop him or even slow him down. He booked passage and paid the fare on a ship that was going the opposite direction from the one the Lord sent him. When a terrible storm arose, he remained asleep below. Even when it became clear that the storm was a judgment against him, he preferred death in the high seas to repenting. Only when he was inside the belly of the great fish did he finally decide that running from God was impossible. He went past the point of no return and found God still there with a safety net. When he came to his end, he came to his senses.
It stands to reason that once this veil of flesh is removed and we are face to face with God, spirit to spirit, that we would see things in a whole new light. But now to this story Jesus told about rich man. He told it in the midst of an exchange with the Pharisees. They were probably His severest critics; they were also objects of His intense love. His love is seen best in His continued and extended corrections of them. For parents who love their children, correct them when they are wrong. The Pharisees were probably closer to the truth without being there than any other group in the New Testament. They certainly saw more than the Sadducees, and far more than the Romans. Sometimes, however, being so close to the truth can make it almost impossible to take that last step, because it requires admitting that you didn’t have it all. For this reason, Jesus spent extra time with them in the hope that they would take that definitive step of repentance. Many, including a little fellow named Paul, did.
On the occasion of this story, the Pharisees were complaining about Jesus’ attraction of, and association with, what they considered to be the more unworthy portions of humanity. Tax-gatherers and sinners, they called them. Here then is the story with just a little of what preceded it. It is taken from Luke 16:14-31.
Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, were listening to all these things and were scoffing at Him. And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God.”
Jesus once again reveals the root of hypocrisy – seeking people’s approval instead of God’s. If you want God to think you’re righteous, you’re on the right track. If you want people to think you’re righteous, you’ll always be led astray. Jesus went on to say,
“The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since that time the gospel of the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the Law to fail. Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery.”
The Pharisees had set up their own system of interpreting the Scriptures which allowed them to decide who was and wasn’t acceptable to God. The coming of the kingdom of God, however, meant that God alone would determine who entered and who didn’t. And the sins of the Pharisees would keep them out as much as anyone else. Remember, the kingdom of God is God’s rule, Jerusalem in the midst of flames. It is not referring to what happens when you die. The Pharisees had made themselves God’s judges of everyone’s outward behavior, but God Himself was wanting to rule people’s hearts. Jesus now tells the story that will show the Pharisees how differently they’ll feel once they die. (By the way, the “Lazarus” mentioned in this story has no apparent relation with the Lazarus whom Jesus brought back from the dead during His earthly ministry.)
“Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father’s house–for I have five brothers–in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ But he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’”
I made a brief reference to this story in the chapter “But What About Hell?” because it is one of the very few occasions where fire is ever mentioned in connection with Sheol/Hades. For this reason, some people cling to the idea that hell is something that doesn’t occur until after death. But let’s analyze the story and see if Jesus doesn’t have something different in mind.
Luke told us that the Pharisees were lovers of money and the story is about a rich man. The context also told us that Pharisees judged everything by outward appearance while God looks on a person’s heart. The Pharisees would have seen the rich man as “blessed of God,” while Lazarus represents the “sinners” who the Pharisees despised. Because they judged by outward appearance, the Pharisees assumed that the rich man was godly because he had been blessed with riches and the poor man was cursed with poverty because he was ungodly and disobedient to God. The point of Jesus’ story was to illustrate God’s true view, and how clearly we see it once we have died and the veil of this world has been removed from before our eyes. Only then, the story also points out, it will be too late to change anything we have done on earth.
Jesus told this story before His crucifixion and resurrection, when the old order was still in effect. Hades below is the location of all the discussion between rich man and Abraham. But the story could be updated to reflect the new order, with heaven above as the location, and everything else about the story would remain the same. I’ve already shown you how the Bible says that there will be varying glory in the resurrection and that it will be based on how we live here.
The flame of this story is obviously the torment of regret – the rich man’s regret over the way he had treated the poor man. Hence, the otherwise strange request for a moistened fingertip to touch the tongue. If this account was meant to communicate the presence of literal flames then the request would be “Water, Water!” from anyone. A moistened fingertip would be useless. Rather, the mention of Lazarus’ finger communicates that because the rich man would not give Lazarus what Lazarus desired in the first life, neither could Lazarus give to the rich man what the rich man desired in the second. In the afterlife, it is too late for the rich man to do right toward Lazarus because the rich man is no longer rich and the poor man is no longer poor. Lazarus no longer has need of a crumb. What’s done on this earth is done and cannot be undone. If someone needs your kindness, show it to them now. At death, the chasm is fixed and can’t be changed.
There are those who take all the best in this life and look down on others. But in the life to come, many who are first will be last and many who are last will be first. Don’t wait until heaven to do God’s will. Do it now, and you’ll be glad then. Don’t do it now and you’ll regret it then.
When you are in heaven and there remember your life on earth, do you want memories of your life on earth to bless you or haunt you? The choice is yours. And there is still time to repent. Once you die, however, events are fixed and the account of what you did here cannot be changed. I do not know exactly how our memories of life on earth will affect our life in heaven, but God is making it clear that the better we live here, the more we will enjoy things there.
The most important point of Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus is the rich man’s attitude. Do you notice how dramatically it changed after he died? The Pharisees were Jesus’ mortal enemies, but death would remove the enmity. In that instant, they would see Him for who He really is. The Pharisees, as a group, would never respond to Jesus’ call to repent on earth. Yet, once they died, they would immediately repent…and would be wanting to send back word for everyone else to repent, too! Only then it would be too late.
Jesus’ story teaches us the radical effect death has on one’s perspective. The picture painted by the parable is of a hard-hearted rich man instantly transformed into a humble and zealous reformer. This is why I say you can expect even your loved ones who didn’t seem to love you in return, or even God, to have a completely different attitude in the life to come. You see, everyone repents; it’s just a matter of time. Death marks the point at which even the proud become humble. Better therefore to go ahead and humble ourselves now, and do good to others in need while we still have the chance.
The State of Everyone’s Loved Ones
It is not just your loved ones who are safe in the hands of God. It is everyone’s loved ones. For the victory achieved by Jesus Christ was over death itself.
Everyone is someone’s loved one. Everyone. Even if they erred, they were once held as precious…for everyone came to earth as an infant. And they were led astray. God gave us enough free will that we can make ourselves and others pretty miserable. And for long periods of time. But not forever.
Everyone on earth is therefore loved by someone. And if not by anyone else, by God Himself. Therefore, there are no unloved ones on this earth. Only loved ones. And that’s whom resurrection is for: loved ones. It’s their reunion.
Since God loves everyone, we should, too. We are going to love them in heaven. We would be wise if we would go ahead and start loving them on earth.
Everyone is going to heaven and the Scriptures emphasize this with verbal exclamation points. Jesus says,
“And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself.” John 12:32
He was certainly lifted up, and we have seen described how He is drawing all men to Himself – in heaven.
As we have seen, Paul writes,
For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.
1 Corinthians 15:22
Paul follows a similar logic in this passage, alluding to Adam and Christ:
So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. Romans 5:18
Paul also writes,
For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers. 1 Timothy 4:10
As I have shown you throughout this book, there are advantages to those who believe God’s message that everyone is going to heaven that go beyond just getting there. Nonetheless, everyone gets there. Paul also writes,
This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time. 1 Timothy 2:3-6
Speaking of Jesus, the apostle John writes,
…He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world. 1 John 2:2
I have included these verses and more like them in Appendix III – Individual Bible Verses. But at this point in the book, excessive exclamations points can be distracting. It’s time to rest the case.
Those Who Contradict
There will be those who contradict the biblical message that everyone is going to heaven – even while claiming allegiance to the Bible. Do not be deceived. Hold fast to what you have learned. You probably know more scripture passages about the afterlife than most of them. The “heaven-or-hell” theory is born of confusion and biblical illiteracy. The starting point for any truly biblical doctrine of the afterlife is the destination of Sheol/Hades for all who died, so clearly taught in the Old Testament. Remember, the Old Testament was the Bible for Jesus and His apostles. They accepted it as truth. Unless critics can show you from the Scriptures how Sheol/Hades was changed by the work of Christ they cannot have a biblical doctrine. Even if they do rightly understand Sheol/Hades, their challenge then will be finding a scriptural explanation for their “heaven-or-hell” theory. They can only do so by distorting the scripture verses about Gehenna which warn of God’s judgments on earth.
Beyond this, however, do not worry about those who contradict. God’s truth has always had its critics in the earth…and yet God’s truth always prevails. Cling to the truth, and endure with it. The God of truth will surely sustain you.
Living Free From the Fear of Death
It is God’s desire that humanity live free from the fear of death and overcome evil with good in this world. This is why Jesus came from heaven to become a human being. And this is why the Bible says,
Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. Hebrews 2:14-15
The fear of death produces a certain slavery within us. We are not free. The fear of death drives us onto paths we might not otherwise take.
We are afraid of death because we are atheists and we fear the “nothingness” it will bring. Or we are afraid of it because we have some reverence for God but aren’t sure how He’ll deal with us. Or we’re afraid because we’re agnostic and don’t know what we don’t know. In all these cases, fear takes the reins of our hearts whenever it wishes and we become its slaves. As a result, we serve our fears and not the cause of righteousness.
God does not desire slaves, but rather sons and daughters. For this reason He made a place for us to come home to. It’s called the new heavens. We do not have to be afraid of death – either for ourselves or for anyone else. This does not mean we want to rush it, but neither does it mean we would do anything just to avoid it. Honor before God is what transforms mere existence into life.
“If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” John 8:31-32
We have learned from the Bible the truth about what happens after death. This truth sets us free from the grip of death’s terror. And the only way it could set us free is if it applied to all humanity. Only when I know that the very least of Jesus’ brothers is spared can I truly be free. For in the end I must consider myself that very least brother.
Remembering Always What Jesus Has Done to Death
Jesus has not set us free from the fear of death by removing death as a possibility, but rather by changing the effect it has on us. From the physical side, we see death just the same as ever. But in our hearts we now know what happens on the spiritual side of it…so we no longer have to be afraid. Specifically, we know that Jesus has transformed death into a gate that opens to heaven.
If you will remember once again from John’s picture at the end of Revelation, the heavenly Jerusalem wasn’t the only thing in the midst of the lake of fire. The gates of Sheol/Hades had been thrown there, too, when the sea was emptied out. And so there are two gates to God: The one, a loving presence in the earth called the new Jerusalem. It has twelve gates open in every direction. The other, the gates of Sheol/Hades which now lead nowhere but up. If we live, it is for Him. If we die, it is to Him.
In the Old Testament’s book of Judges a story is written about how Samson, in his great strength, moved the gates of a city to a mountain top (Judges 16:1-3). This foreshadowed how Jesus would move the gates of death from where they led below to where they lead above. Same gates; different destination.
Death, which was to have been Satan’s ultimate victory over God, has now become God’s ultimate victory over Satan. For this reason, the Bible says that Jesus
…abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, 2 Timothy 1:10 NASB
This is the gospel – the good news – of Jesus Christ: that death has been abolished. Death is not a dead-end, but a doorway. Therefore, we are immortal creatures. And all this has come to light by means of the gospel of God written in the Scriptures.
Death cannot hurt you. Don’t be afraid of it anymore – either for yourself or for anyone else. And don’t let anyone else be afraid of it either. Tell them what Jesus has done. It never was the problem we feared. And what problem there was, He fixed through His resurrection and reconstruction of the spiritual universe. What God promised, He has performed. God is faithful. He is the bank that can never fail.
Though death may threaten every corner of this earth until the whole planet is consumed in its darkness, we will not be afraid. It is nothing more than a cloud that momentarily blocks the sunlight of God’s presence. When that cloud passes, we shall once again see the heavenly rays. But even if it does not, we shall simply pass through it and see those rays on the other side.
Thus, by the love of God, this is the confidence of the human race and all its members:
…Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for You are with me… Psalm 23:4
Appendix I – Four Key Words
Below are the four words which are at least sometimes translated as “hell” in the King James version of the Bible. In parentheses is shown the way each word is translated in the New American Standard Bible. Beneath each word is listed every chapter and verse occurrence of the word along with a count. If you take the time to study each of these words in their context, you will see clearly that Sheol/Hades (and Tartaros) refer to a netherworld of afterlife (which was emptied in the resurrection) while Gehenna refers to the fires of judgment on the earth in this life.
Sheol (always transliterated as Sheol)
Genesis 37:35; 42:38; 44:29, 31
Numbers 16:30, 33
1 Samuel 2:6
2 Samuel 22:6
1 Kings 2:6,9
Job 7:9; 11:8; 14:13; 17:13, 16; 21:13; 24:19; 26:6
Psalms 6:5; 9:17; 16:10; 18:5; 30:3; 31:17; 49:14, 14, 15; 55:15; 86:13; 88:3; 89:48; 116:3; 139:8; 141:7
Proverbs 1:12; 5:5; 7:27; 9:18; 15:11, 24; 23:14; 27:20; 30:16
Song of Solomon 8:6
Isaiah 5:14; 7:11; 14:9, 11, 15; 28:15, 18; 38:10, 18; 57:9
Ezekiel 31:15, 16, 17; 32:21, 27
Hosea 13:14, 14
Total of 66 times
Hades (always transliterated as Hades)
Matthew 11:23 16:18
Luke 10:15; 16:23
Acts 2:27, 31
Revelation 1:18; 6:8; 20:13, 14
Total of 10 times
Tartaros (translated as “hell” without a footnote)
2 Peter 2:4
Total of 1 time
Gehenna (always translated as “hell” with a footnote showing “Gehenna”)
Matthew 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23: 15, 33
Mark 9:43, 45, 47
Total of 12 times
Appendix II – Summary of the Book
The Old Testament presents a clear and consistent view of human afterlife: every person who dies descends to a place called Sheol. That’s the Hebrew term; the Greek word for it is Hades. This depiction, of course, sharply contrasts with the traditional view that righteous human beings go to heaven while wicked human beings go to hell. Nonetheless, it is beyond dispute that the Old Testament identifies but one destination for the dead: Sheol (Hades).
Anyone who contradicts this is either ignorant of the Old Testament or dishonest about its contents. Most people just assume that the Bible teaches the traditional view without ever examining the Scriptures themselves on this subject. Such examination is complicated by the fact that the traditional view has dominated the minds of translators such that only study in the original languages or in literal translations with concordances allows a clear view of what the Scriptures actually teach. Most people don’t have the time or resources for such study so they are at the mercy of what they have heard. Thus there are many people who think they have a biblical understanding of the afterlife, when all they really have is a story that someone told them was biblical – with maybe some isolated “proof texts” thrown in for reinforcement. (If you don’t trust my portrayal of the Scriptures, you can do your own word studies with any exhaustive English-Greek-Hebrew concordance; Appendix I will give you a start, but you can just as easily start with your own Bible and concordance.)
This worldview of Sheol (Hades) below as the resting place of all the dead was fully embraced by Jesus and, of course, His apostles. After all, the Old Testament was the Bible to them. They based their lives and everything they believed upon what it said.
The apostles wrote the New Testament based upon what Jesus had taught them. What Jesus taught was that resurrection would come for the dead, and it would lead to heaven. This was a stunning revelation for while many had looked forward to a resurrection of the dead, they expected it to be on earth…not in heaven.
Just as there was only one destination identified for the dead in the Old Testament (Sheol/Hades), there was only one destination identified for the resurrected in the New Testament (heaven). After His own resurrection, while proving to His disciples that He had permanently conquered death, Jesus opened their minds to see how this entire plan had been prophesied and foreshadowed in the Old Testament. Thus Jesus was not departing from the Old Testament but rather bringing to light what had been hidden there all along. Afterward, He Himself demonstrated the routing of resurrection when He ascended to heaven.
There is much more that can be said about the two truths outlined above, and the book indeed says much more. However, these two truths are the essential foundation upon which we may know that everyone goes to heaven. For if the Old Testament said that all who died went below to Sheol (Hades), and the New Testament says that all who die are resurrected and go to heaven, then it follows that the Bible says everyone is going to heaven.
Appendix III – Individual Bible Verses
While the biblical case for everyone going to heaven is based on looking at the Scriptures as a whole, there are individual verses which encapsulate this truth as well. Here are some of them:
1 Corinthians 15:22
1 Timothy 2:3-4
1 Timothy 2:5-6
1 Timothy 4:10
2 Timothy 1:10
2 Peter 3:9
1 John 2:2
1 John 4:14
And here are some verses that make the same point, though perhaps a little more subtly:
Ezekiel 18:23, 32
1 Corinthians 13:4-5
1 Corinthians 15:54-55
2 Corinthians 5:18-19
These verses express or demonstrate principles or foreshadowings:
1 Samuel 11:12-13
1 Samuel 30:1-35
2 Kings 23:10
2 Chronicles 28:3
About the Author
Most people think that the Bible teaches that we go to either heaven or hell when we die. However, this is because most people are insufficiently familiar with the Bible's contents and have merely accepted someone else's interpretation. This book demonstrates that the Bible actually teaches something different from the traditional heaven-or-hell scenario. It teaches that everyone goes to heaven.