Where Do We Really Go When We Die?
The True Hope of the Gospel

Ruth Jacob


Contents

What do the scriptures say?
God's good creation
Teachings of the Old Testament
Were they just too primitive for the idea of existing without a body?
Justice
The great hope of the Old Testament saints
What we learn from Jesus
Near-death experiences
Death - a friend?
Peter's first sermon
Paul's hope is our hope
But isn't it all spiritual really?
Who can hope for the resurrection?
And what will ultimately happen to all these people who have been resurrected?
Is there more?
Why is all this possible?

BUT WHAT ABOUT ...?
Few there be that find it
Where their worm does not die and their fire is not quenched
Tormented for ever and ever
Absent from the body, present with the Lord
Moses and Elijah's appearance at Jesus's transfiguration
Enoch and Elijah "caught up to heaven"
I say to you, today you shall be with me in paradise
Angels and demons are individually conscious spiritual creatures: won't we be spiritual beings like them after death?
Jesus Preaching to the Spirits in Prison
The Souls Under the Altar and Other Characters in Heaven in Revelation
The 'Witch' of Endor
"The Rich Man and Lazarus"

POPULAR CONCEPTS AND EXPRESSIONS YOU WON'T FIND IN THE BIBLE


BIBLIOGRAPHY

The instant you die," cried the preacher, "you will either go to Heaven - or to Hell! Where will you spend eternity?"

Was he telling the truth? The idea of an afterlife is almost universally accepted. We are all familiar with it: it is taught quite happily in almost every church and used among the general population as a comfort when loved ones die.

What do the scriptures say?

When God created the first man, so we read in Genesis, he took clay from the earth and formed it, then he breathed into it, "the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul." (Genesis 2:7). This verse says that Adam became a soul, rather than acquiring one, and the word used to describe this is living, not eternal or everliving.

Interestingly, Green, in his literal translation, renders Genesis 1:30 in this way: "... every beast of the earth, and to all birds of the heavens, and to every creeper on the earth which has in it a living soul ...":Darby similarly gives "living soul" in this verse referring to all living beings - exactly the same term as is applied to Adam once God has given him the breath of life.

God put this man into a garden where one of the trees was forbidden to him, stating that should he eat from it he would "surely die" (Genesis  2:17). The word die here is unqualified, and here is Adam, a primitive - no, the most primitive - man. God uses language that we understand: to Adam "death" meant "death". So many times we are told that God really meant that he would die "spiritually". If that is what God really meant, why didn't he say it? This interpretation is based not on scriptures but purely on tradition, and we shall see just where that tradition came from. God said, "in the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die." People have often questioned why, if death meant death, Adam and Eve didn't immediately drop down dead with the half-eaten fruit still in their hands. In the Third Millennium we enjoy knowledge that the writers of the bible didn't have (except, sometimes, by revelation). We now know that the cells of living beings, no matter how healthy they are, have a pre-programmed time of death. In other words, at a certain moment each of our cells commits suicide and the cumulative effect of this is that eventually we, as an organism, die. No one has come up with an explanation for this characteristic, but can you imagine what would happen if a person's cells suddenly acquired that tendency towards death? I suggest that this may be what happened to them: they started to die.

The story continues ... in slithers the snake, symbol of Satan, the accuser; and the first accusation he makes in the history of the world is that God lied: "Did God really say ...?" Often, when this is mentioned, attention is paid to whether God said they shouldn't eat the fruit, or whether God said there would be dire consequences. But I invite you to look in closer detail at the tempter's question: "Has God really said" he hisses "That you will surely die?" And here we still are, to this very day, repeating the lie. "Of course" (how many times have you heard this?) "Of course, when we die, only our bodies die, the real us doesn't die. We don't surely die." On his expulsion from the garden, God told Adam, "You are dust and you will return to dust." Again, should we believe this? that a person is dust and will return to dust? How heretical! How irreligious! How very much what God actually said!

God's good creation

Stepping back from this close-up, let's look at the creation as an event. The banner statement over the Genesis account is, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth". The heavens were always understood to be the rest of the universe, experienced by earth dwellers as the skies, so this opening sentence could correctly be rendered, "In the beginning God created the universe." God formed this universe in stages and this seems to set the pattern for his generally preferred way of working in the universe - through time, rather than instantaneously. We see how, after each stage of his creation God sees that it is "good". Finally, human beings are brought onto the scene, and God looks at the whole of his creation, the universe, and sees that it is "very good". (Genesis 1:31) God has formed humans from the matter that makes up the planet they live on. It is completely clear from all this that we humans are an integral part of the universe. We really do belong here. God designed and made us to belong here, as part of the universe that he made. Let's get away from the idea that we are not "really" part of the universe. It is only pagan tradition that tells us there is a part of us, the most important part, that belongs elsewhere, outside the universe; and this thought arises from the idea that the universe (matter/energy) is essentially bad, or at the very least inferior, and so unfit to be the true and proper medium for those God made and chose for fellowship with himself. Of course this concept is flawed, in that God's creation is declared by him to be "very good".

This concept of matter being intrinsically evil can be traced back to the religion of ancient Babylon, in which the creation of the material universe was an act of violence. The attitude this produced eventually, via Gnosticism, entered the modern world and thereby mainstream "Christian" doctrine, where much of its teachings remain to this day. This was a non-Christian Greek philosophy, which was already infiltrating the church during the time of Paul, and about which the apostles were justifiably very concerned. Although they also had to contend with those who were trying to drag the new believers into enslavement to the Jewish Law, Paul was clearly talking about a threat from the Greek culture when he warned, "Beware lest any man make a prey of you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ." (Colossians 2:8). Gnosticism taught that a sub-god (the demi-urge, Yahweh) created the universe and that this was an evil act which imprisoned true spiritual beings (human beings) in coarse matter and thus hindered them returning to the true God, who was beyond Yahweh. Because of this, the wicked flesh and indeed matter itself was a prison that must be escaped by the "real" person - the "divine spark" which could be found within by inner mysteries which were not known to the uninitiated, searchings, meditations, asceticism and spiritual exercises. At the same time, because the body was not seen as an integral part of the self, and was made of matter which was irredeemably evil anyway, it was of no consequence what acts were committed in the "outer" physical world. This is very much at odds with what we know about the final judgement, at which everyone will be assessed according to "the things done in his body" (2 Corinthians 5:10).

This "escape from the body" was an idea which was never expressed in Judaism; there, such an expression would be a contradiction in terms. In the Bible, a person is always said to be wherever their body is, e.g. John 5:28-29 "all who are in their graves", Daniel 12:2 "them that sleep in the dust", Isaiah 26:19 "you that dwell in the dust". Thus in 2 Corinthians 5, Paul was not addressing a Jewish understanding but a Gnostic teaching which, as just stated, was threatening the church at the time. He said his current body is like a tent which would soon wear out but he was looking forward to it being replaced with a permanent body, "Not," he emphasises, "that I want to be unclothed (i.e. disembodied) but I want to be further clothed" with the immortal resurrection-type body that he is expecting, "so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life".

Teachings of the Old Testament

Many Christian believers are aware that the Old Testament doesn't teach any kind of afterlife. The words "hell", "grave" and "pit" are invariably translated from the Hebrew word "Sheol" which meant the hidden place of the dead, or the state of being dead.

There is no consciousness in death. The preacher of Ecclesiastes said, "the dead do not know anything; nor do they have any more a reward, for their memory is forgotten. Also their love, their hatred, and their envy has now perished" (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6). Psalm 146:4 says of man: "His breath will go out, he returns to the earth; his thoughts perish in that day." Psalm 6:5: "For there is no memory of You in death; who shall give thanks to You in Sheol?" and Psalm 115:17: The dead praise not the LORD, neither any that go down into silence. No one is happy in heaven in this scenario!

Dead people don't praise God; they can't enjoy or speak of His goodness. Psalm 88:11-12 "Shall Your mercy be declared in the grave, Your faithfulness amidst ruin? Shall Your wonders be known in the dark, and Your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?" (the dark ... the land of forgetfulness ... these don't sound at all like descriptions of the popular notions of heaven or hell) and Isaiah (38:18) says "the grave cannot praise you, death cannot celebrate you: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for your truth."

Were they just too primitive for the idea of existing without a body?

The idea that a noncorporeal afterlife was not believed because no one had thought of it would be erroneous. The Israelites had spent 400 years in Egypt*, where there was a strong cult associated with the afterlife. Similarly, during the Babylonian* captivity, which lasted for 70 years, they were surrounded by a culture which taught an afterlife, and in both of these religious systems the consciousness of the disembodied soul after death, in eternal bliss or eternal torment, were very much part of the state religions. (Not only that, but Esther, Daniel, Nehemiah, Ezra and others who were in high positions in the Medo-Persian Empire, would have associated with people from India, as that was included in the empire and officials came from all over the empire to the capital. Hinduism, with its concepts of reincarnation and the transmigration of the soul, would not have been unknown.) Yet, again and again the authors and prophets of the Bible completely ignore it. No one is punished or rewarded at the time of their death - except when death itself is a punishment. (Later, the ancient Greeks adopted the teachings of reward and punishment in the afterlife in order to control the populace and these doctrines were then incorporated into "Christianity" when it became a state religion itself - and they have in turn been passed to us via the Roman Catholic Church.)

Moses himself spent the first 40 years of his life being brought up as an Egyptian in this religious atmosphere, yet never once does he mention, let alone endorse, any kind of afterlife of consciousness without the body. In the famous passage in Deuteronomy 27 and 28 of the "blessings and cursings", all the threats and promises applied to this life. Likewise, in the law of Moses, the worst punishment that can be inflicted is the death penalty. Not once does Moses say, "Do this and you will go to heaven" or "Do that or you will fry in hell." Why?

*Egypt and Babylon, of course, are so notorious that they symbolise throughout the scriptures whatever opposes God and his purposes.

Justice

Why is there no "afterlife" teaching in the Old Testament? Mainstream Christianity tends to assume that this lack of teaching about an afterlife is an error, or indicates a lack of revelation on the part of the Old Testament writers. Later we will look at what Jesus and the apostles taught on the subject. But for now, let us look at justice. The ancient Hebrews had a very strong sense of justice and they lived with the expectation that God would "judge" the world - in other words, that he would put right all wrongs.

This would come at a specific time. It seems that they gradually came to a stronger belief in resurrection because of Sadaq (God's justice/faithfulness). They believed that God was faithful and would therefore make things right. He would do anything to fulfil justice, even raise the dead. So resurrection was seen as the fulfilment of God's justice (sadaq). Restoring the Jews to Judea from their exile is sadaq. God delivers the oppressed and restores everything to its right relationships, and this includes destroying death

It would be unjust to reward or punish a person before they were judged. And this is reflected by Nicodemus in John 7:51 "Does our Law," he asked, "judge a man without first hearing what he has to say and ascertaining what his conduct is?"

More about the Jewish and biblical concept of Sadaq (pop-up window).

The great hope of the Old Testament saints

The prophets and other people of God of the Old Testament looked forward to the resurrection and final restoration when God will put everything right.

Job (19:26) stated, "though ... worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God"

Psalms 16:9 So my heart is glad, and my glory rejoices; my flesh shall also rest in hope;

Isaiah 26:19 Your dead shall live; my dead bodies shall arise. Awake and sing, you that dwell in the dust; for your dew is as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast forth the dead.

Daniel 12:2 And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and long-lasting ignominy. (text and translation supplied by a rabbi)

Lamentations 3:31-33: For the Lord will not cast off forever. Though He causes grief, yet He will show compassion according to the multitude of His mercies. For He does not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men.

Psalm 145:9-10 The LORD is good to all, And His tender mercies are over all His works. All Your works shall praise You, O LORD

Psalm 9:18 For the needy shall not forever be forgotten; the hope of the poor shall not perish forever.

Psalm 96:3, 7- Declare his glory among the heathen, his wonders among all people. Give to YHWH, O families of the people; give to YHWH glory and might. Give to YHWH the glory due His name; bring an offering and come in to His courts. Oh worship YHWH in the beauty of holiness; tremble before Him, all the earth. Say among the nations, YHWH reigns; and, The world shall be established, it shall not be moved; He shall judge the peoples in uprightness. Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and the fullness of it. Let the field be joyful, and all that is in it; then the trees of the forest shall rejoice before YHWH; for He comes; for He comes to judge the earth; He shall judge the world with righteousness, and the people with His faithfulness.

What or who is his glory? This is not vain sentimentalism or a wish list - the salvation and glory of God will be declared among the heathen; all the earth will worship him in the beauty of holiness.

Psalm 98:2-4: YHWH has revealed His salvation; He unveiled His righteousness to the eyes of the nations. He has remembered His mercy and His faithfulness to the house of Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God. Make a joyful noise to YHWH, all the earth; break out and rejoice and sing praise.

It seems reasonable to infer from this that "all the earth" will have something worth rejoicing about.

There are many more Old Testament scriptures in this vein.

Martha, when she met Jesus, knew this and said to him, "I know that my brother shall rise on the last day." It is often interesting to note what is not said, as well as important to absorb what is. Jesus did not say, "Your brother is at this moment with God in heaven." What a perfect opportunity, if that had been the truth! Instead Jesus tells her, "I am the resurrection, and the life!" and proceeds to demonstrate it by bringing her brother back to life.

What we learn from Jesus

So, now that we have established what the prophets taught about death, do we find this apparent lack made up in the New Testament books?

With the exception of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus never mentioned an afterlife. It seems necessary to address the meaning of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus but as the explanation is fairly lengthy, it is dealt with in a later section (discussion of this parable). For the Pharisees, to whom this parable was told, Jesus provided no explanation because the symbolism he used was familiar to them and the meaning would have been crystal clear. Suffice it to say at this point that no one present on that occasion would have understood Jesus to be putting forward any concept of noncorporeal punishment or reward.

Let's continue with Jesus's other teachings.

Luke 20:27-38: "Some of the Sadducees coming up, those speaking against a resurrection, that it was not to be, they questioned Him, saying, Teacher, Moses wrote to us, If anyone's brother dies having a wife, and this one should die childless, that his brother should take the wife and raise up seed to his brother." And they ask which of seven brothers who had married the same woman would be her husband in the resurrection. Jesus answers their question but then gets to the nub of the matter:

"But that the dead are raised, even Moses pointed out at the Bush, when he calls the Lord "the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." But He is not God of the dead, but of the living"

If Jesus had wanted to, he could have said, "Abraham, Isaac and Jacob's souls (i.e. the "real" person) are alive in heaven right now, not dead, because he is not a God of the dead." This was Jesus's big chance to correct the Jewish belief that there was no afterlife, but instead he said, there must be a resurrection, because he is a God of the living" clearly implying that at the moment, without the resurrection, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are dead - truly dead - and only after the resurrection will they have life.

Jesus also tells us by his very actions what he thinks of death.

When Jesus referred to the dead state of Jairus's daughter and of Lazarus before raising them, he said, "she/he is asleep". (In that culture there was no awareness of brain activity during sleep - it was seen as a state of unconsciousness.) The apostles also referred to the dead as being asleep.

Jesus raised a number of dead people. Why is there no record of their experiences of being dead? This must either be because they were truly dead (i.e. unconscious) in accordance with the statements in the only scriptures that existed at that time, which we know as the Old Testament, or because the gospel writers, under God's guidance, kept from us knowledge which would have refuted that supposedly erroneous belief (thus suggesting God to be deceiving us). In any case, if they were in ecstatic happiness in heaven, wouldn't it have been the utmost cruelty to drag them back to their wretched lives on earth? Wouldn't it have been much kinder of the compassionate Jesus to comfort their relatives by telling them that their loved one was now out of all suffering, and was enjoying the blissful presence of God? Once we notice that Jesus kept missing these golden opportunities to "correct" the Jewish disbelief in an afterlife we have to conclude that either he was deliberately concealing an important truth, or that he didn't believe in it himself!

Near-death experiences

In recent years a lot has been said and written on the subject of near-death experiences. Most people don't believe that their body is a real part of them, they think that what can be sensed of a person physically is somehow not 'really them', 'not the real person'. Because of this belief, when people interpret their near-death experiences they assume that what they experienced was objective fact, seen and heard by their 'soul' or spirit, which was at the time independent from their body.

But if we start with the scripturally supported assumption that when someone is near death it is the person, not just their body that is dying, we can see that what is happening in their body is profoundly affecting what is happening in their perceptions, i.e. in their mind. Because it is happening in their brain, which is a physical part of them. This is why people have hallucinations when they take certain drugs.

LSD, for example, has been known to produce visions of 'heaven'. Christians don't generally approve of the use of narcotics and so they assume that what is seen when under their influence is either a chemically induced hallucination or a demonic vision. But many Christians generally believe that when we die our 'souls' continue to exist consciously, and this assumption gives credibility to the idea that we are met by either Jesus or something rather nasty, depending on our final destination. No way is this supported by the scriptures; it is an image that comes virtually unchanged from the old Babylonian religion (in which a person's soul was met by either an angel or a demon). Because of many Christians' belief in the immortality of the soul, they are willing to accept as objective fact whatever is seen by people during near-death experiences, despite the fact that they would reject an identical experience that was the result of narcotics use.

Let's remember what a near-death experience actually means: these people's bodies almost completely ceasing to function, during which substantial chemical changes were taking place - including, importantly, in the brain, where even minute changes can alter the perceptions significantly. We must also bear in mind that what they experienced is not the same as someone having died, really died, and coming back and telling us what it was like.

There were several people in the bible to whom this actually happened. So it is pertinent to ask why we don't have the supposedly important information that could have been given us by:

Lazarus (dead for four days)
Jairus's daughter (dead long enough for mourners to be engaged)
The Nainite widow's son (dead for long enough for his funeral to be arranged, probably at least a day)
The child raised to life by Elisha (dead for several hours)
The dead people who got up and walked around for a while at the time of Jesus's death (dead long enough to have been buried)
Dorcas (dead for several hours at least)
And of course, Jesus himself.

All of these people (and there are others) could have spoken about what it was like 'on the other side' but there is absolutely no record that they were aware of anything that had happened to them, apart from waking up! These individuals' stories would have been powerful testimonies to an afterlife, yet they don't exist. I feel the Bible's complete silence on this subject is profoundly significant, and at the risk of spelling it out too much, I find it a strong indication that a true 'afterlife' experience (as opposed to a near-death experience) is a figment of the imagination.

Death - a friend?

Some people say that death is a friend, because it gives us rest and takes us to happiness on "the other side". The Bible indulges in no such whitewash. According to the Bible, death is an enemy, and will be destroyed (1 Corinthians 15:26). Death and 'hell' (Hades, the world of the dead/the grave) will be thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14).

Peter's first sermon

Peter, on that first famous day of Pentecost, which is often thought of as the birth of the church, spoke of Jesus's recent death and resurrection: "God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it" (Acts 2:24).

Then Peter quotes Psalm 16 to demonstrate that King David foretold this: "My flesh also will rest in hope. For you will not leave my soul in Hades, nor will you allow your Holy One to see corruption" (Acts 2:26-27). Peter adds that David in a prophetic rôle, was not speaking about himself but about Jesus, because David "is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day" (v. 29) and says that Jesus is the one who has been raised up and been received by God and adds for emphasis, "For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he says himself: 'The LORD said to my Lord, "Sit at My right hand ..." (v.34). Peter states here, as a crucial point in his argument, that David is not in heaven, citing as proof the fact that David is dead and his tomb is not far away. Yet the fact of the tomb would be irrelevant if Peter thought David could be in heaven as a disembodied soul.

Peter was unsophisticated and poorly educated and, unlike Paul, was probably fully aware only of the Jewish understanding of the subject. However, Paul not only knew the scriptures but was well educated in other ways, and would have known the arguments of Plato in favour of humans possessing an "immortal soul" and experiencing an "afterlife". (Though he didn't endorse the Platonic doctrine either - in fact, he was constantly warning the believers who had daily contact with Greek culture not to be deceived by philosophy (1 Corinthians 1, Colossians 2:8).)

Paul's hope is our hope

Paul believed that our only hope was the resurrection. "If the dead are not raised," he said, speaking at his plainest, "let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die." (1 Corinthians 15:32)

Writing to another church, Paul says: "I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. 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 by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words." (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

Here Paul makes sure the reader knows he is speaking by the word of the Lord, not just giving his opinion (as he sometimes does), and he says he doesn't want them to be ignorant about the state and destiny of those who have died in Christ. (Paul talks about the person sleeping, not their soul or their body.) Having emphasised that he doesn't want them to be ignorant , he then omits to tell them that their loved ones are in heaven! Instead he describes the resurrection, and tells them that this is their comfort and hope, and the way they will get to be with the Lord (without specifying where).Jesus himself said, "I will come again and receive you to myself, that where I am, there you may be also." (Again, he doesn't specify where.) Death is never said to take anyone to be with the Lord. And what sense would it make to say "thus we shall always be with the Lord" if they were already with the Lord?

Behold, I tell you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory? (1 Corinthians 15:51-55)

But isn't it all spiritual really?

Paul says that some are asking what kind of body it will be. He explains that the body we have now is related to the one we will have in much the same way as a seed is related to the plant it produces. He says, "It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: it is sown in dishonour; 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." (1 Corinthians 41-44) Does this mean it won't be a physical body, but will be 'spirit' instead?

To find out more specifically what this body will be like we need to turn elsewhere, to Philippians 3:20-21: "the Lord Jesus Christ: who shall change our lowly body, that it may be fashioned like his glorious body". When Jesus appeared to some of the disciples after his resurrection he said to them, "See my hands and my feet, that I am he; handle me and see, because a spirit has not flesh and bones, as you see me having.' And saying this, he showed them his hands and feet. And ... he said to them, 'Have you anything here to eat?' And they handed a broiled part of a fish to him, and from a honeycomb. And taking these before them, he ate." (Luke 24:39-43) So it's very clear from this that Jesus was at pains to point out that he was not just a spirit but had a physical body - though it's equally clear that this physical body had different properties from ours.

In Revelation 21:2 we are told, not that the overcomers would be taken up to the New Jerusalem, but that the New Jerusalem descends out of heaven, to be on earth as the new abode of those whose names are in the Lamb's book of life, that God will live there with his people, and that all the nations would conduct themselves in the light that came from it.

So, our hope is the resurrection, spoken of by Job, Isaiah, Daniel, Jesus, Paul and John.

Who can hope for the resurrection?

The earth shall cast out the dead. (Isaiah 26:19)

The hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice. (John  5:28)

There shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust. (Acts  24:15)

Now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward (not last) those who are Christ's at His coming. (1 Corinthians 15:20,23)

I saw the dead, the small and the great, standing before God ...the sea gave up the dead in it. And death and Hades gave up the dead in them. (Revelation 20:12-13)

(There will be a judgement and consequences for what each person has done during their life, but that is the subject of another article.)

And what will ultimately happen to all these people who have been resurrected?

He will swallow up death in victory; (this is the resurrection of all - the end of death) and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from off all faces. (Isaiah 25:8)

You have ascended on high, You have led captivity captive; You have received gifts for men, even from the rebellious, that the LORD God might dwell there. (Psalm 68:18)

Jesus, the Lord of all, said, "If I be lifted up from the earth, I will draw all to myself." (John 12:32)

Through one man sin entered into the world, and through sin death, and so death passed to all mankind in turn, in that all sinned. But God's free gift immeasurably outweighs the transgression. For if through the transgression of the one individual the mass of mankind have died, infinitely greater is the generosity with which God's grace, and the gift given in His grace which found expression in the one man Jesus Christ, have been bestowed on the mass of mankind. (Romans 5:12,15)

Just as the result of a single transgression is a condemnation which extends to the whole race, so also the result of a single decree of righteousness is a life-giving acquittal which extends to the whole race. For as through the disobedience of the one individual the mass of mankind were constituted sinners, so also through the obedience of the One the mass of mankind will be constituted righteous. (Romans 5:18,19)

We both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all, specially of those that believe. (1 Timothy 4:10)

Now we believe, not because of your saying: for we have heard him ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world. (John 4:42)

We have seen and do testify that the Father sent the Son to be the Saviour of the world. (1 John 4:14)

Is there more?

Hope for the universe? It has never been God's intention to whisk a few selected people off to a ghetto-type heaven, while abandoning the vast majority of his creation to death, decay and final annihilation. We can see that at the very moment that God was making the universe subject to death, decay and deterioration, he planned its transformation and even put within the creation the hope of that transformation:

"The earnest expectation of the creation eagerly awaits the revelation of the sons of God. For the creation was not willingly subjected to vanity, but through Him subjecting it, on hope; that also the creation will be freed from the slavery of corruption to the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that all the creation groans together and travails together until now. And not only so, but also we ourselves having the firstfruit of the Spirit, also we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly expecting adoption, the redemption of our body"(Romans 8:19-23)

" ... the times of restoration of all things, whereof God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets that have been from of old" (Acts 3:21)

Why is all this possible?

Jesus's death and resurrection was not a Plan B that God scrabbled about and came up with after being sadly surprised by 'the fall'. It was always God's intention right from the beginning that He would complete His creation, that he was yet to make, so that it would be filled with life, love and justice, and so that death, pain and sadness would be entirely excluded; and that He would give Himself completely, doing whatever was necessary to bring that about. God created the world as an act of love; the universe and everything/everyone in it is made by him and loved by him. And God doesn't abandon what he has made and loves: he is faithful - faithful to his promises, to himself and to his one-sided covenant by which he binds himself to his creation, no matter what we do. God made the universe subject to pointlessness - in modern terms, the fact that everything has a tendency to die, decay or run down (entropy) means that ultimately it is all pointless ...

Or would be, if it weren't for Jesus.

If God had abandoned us (the universe) then we would die and everything would just run down until it was all still and its temperature had reached absolute zero. Even the dead matter would decay until the energy of which it is composed was all dissipated: then there would be nothing. And it would stay that way for the rest of eternity.

Yet this is not the case!

The Jewish people were told that the life of a living being is in its blood. Jesus had God's life in him, and that was the life that flowed in his blood. When Jesus died, he poured out his life onto the earth, into the universe, and he left it there: when he met Thomas after he came back to life he stated that he had flesh and bones, not flesh and blood. Jesus is the express image of the Father. Jesus gave his life so that we could have it, so that we, and the universe of which we are part, would experience a transformation just like his transformation at the time of his resurrection. And this is just what we see God does. Finally, God will have poured himself out so that he is everything to everyone. (1 Corinthians 15:25-28)

What a great hope!

BUT WHAT ABOUT ...?

Few there be that find it

"Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leads to life, and few there be that find it" (Matthew 7:14)

This verse has often been taken to mean that very few will have life, the rest of humanity being consigned either to the flames or to oblivion forever. However, this interpretation leaves out the action of God and of his son Jesus, who said, "The Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost,"(Luke 19:10) and, "If I be lifted up (Jesus was referring to his death lifted up on the cross) I will draw all to myself" (John 12:32). It is true there are few if any who find the way of life themselves, but God has not left us to find the way - he has sent the Way to find us.

Where their worm does not die and their fire is not quenched

This is a direct quotation from Isaiah 66:23-24: "all flesh shall come to worship before me, says YHWH. And they shall go out and see the dead bodies of the men who have transgressed against me; for their worm shall not die, nor shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an object of disgust to all flesh."

It's clear from this that this is not happening in any afterlife to conscious souls but on the earth to people who have already died. This is a fate of shame, not of torment.

Jesus quotes this verse on one occasion (Mark 9:45-49):

"If your foot should cause you to offend, cut it off: it would be better for you to enter into Life crippled, than remain in possession of both your feet and be thrown into Gehenna where their worm does not die and the fire does not go out. Or if your eye should cause you to offend, tear it out. It would be better for you to enter into the Kingdom of God half-blind than remain in possession of two eyes and be thrown into Gehenna, where their worm does not die and the fire does not go out. Every one, however, will be seasoned with fire."

Gehenna was never a place of torment (except under pagans), neither was it a "place" in the afterlife. Any first-century Jew would have been able to give directions to Gehenna: it was a rubbish dump outside the walls of Jerusalem. Convicted criminals were thrown there after they had been executed, instead of receiving a proper burial: again, it was a place of shame rather than torment - and going there meant you had suffered a dishonourable death and were already dead! Fires were kept burning there not to torment, but to disinfect - to prevent plagues spreading from the rotting rubbish, sewage, and corpses, to the living.

And then notice, Jesus says, "Everyone will be seasoned with fire." With our modern chemicals, we have forgotten one of the main properties of fire: it purifies, burns up rubbish and kills disease. But to Jesus's contemporaries, fire always symbolised purification. However, Jesus doesn't say that all will be engulfed and destroyed by fire, but seasoned by it: when we season our food we only add a very small amount of salt, which transforms the whole dish. And on the subject of salt; salt was used, not only to make food more pleasant but more importantly to stop it going bad.

Tormented for ever and ever

There are some apparent contradictions in the Bible because of this. How can God restore everything and destroy death if some of his creatures are still held in the 'second death' endlessly? It is impossible for both to be true.

We know that God will have complete victory over evil - all that harms and destroys - and that he will make new heavens and a new earth (a new universe) filled with righteousness (scriptures listed in body of article, many more can be supplied). That alone should tell us that whatever has been rendered "forever" and "eternal" is actually time limited. This is confirmed by the following facts:

Jude 1:6: Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.

But "eternal" cannot mean "eternal": go to the location of Sodom near the Dead Sea, and you will see no fire burning endlessly there. God also says, in Ezekiel 16:53: I will restore their fortunes, both the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters, and the fortunes of Samaria and her daughters.

But we don't need to rely on logic alone. Let us look back to the Greek text from which our Bibles have been translated.

The Greek word here is aion, which has passed unchanged into English, and translates eon, or age, or era.

The KJV translates this one word sometimes as age, sometimes, beginning of the world, course, eternal, ever, for ever, for ever and ever, for ever more, never, world, world began, world without end, while the world standeth.

When Jerome translated the Latin Vulgate, he took aion and translated it with an agenda (see comments above on the link to the Babylonian religion). The Bishop's Bible copied him, KJV copied the Bishop's, and English translations ever since have tended to do the same. If you refer to Young's Literal Translation, you will see that Revelation 20:10 reads "to the ages of the ages," not "for ever and ever".

With the purpose of discovering how a tradition which was quite separate from the Roman Catholic tradition (unlike our own) translated this phrase, I consulted the Synod translation of the Bible into Russian, and found that the Eastern Orthodox translators chose veka and its derivatives. Veka in Russian means age or era, and is the word used when saying, for example, the 18th Century, or the Stone Age, or even "I haven't seen him for ages". (Russian also has words which really do mean "for ever".)

This phrase, "the ages of the ages", or sometimes "the age of ages" is directly parallel to the scriptural phrases "the King of Kings" and "Lord of Lords" and "Song of songs". It means the pinnacle, or ultimate. Yes, there is fire. Cleansing fire. (A discussion of what this means, given the symbolic nature of Revelation and the nature of God, is for another article.) It lasts until the age of ages.

If this is true, does it mean that when we are saved we will only live for a limited amount of time - to the end of the ages? No: what is very clear is that those who are resurrected (and that's everyone) will have immortal bodies (immortal means undying), and that they are all part of the "all things" which God will reconcile to himself through Jesus, through whom and for whom they were made (Colossians 1:15-21).

Absent from the body, present with the Lord

In the epistles the challenge is really to find anything that suggests anything other than complete death followed by resurrection - that is, if you accept the plain meaning of scripture instead of putting in a "spiritual" interpretation. Such verses are few and far between. The following is usually quoted with that interpretation:

We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord. (2 Corinthians 5:8)

Now, this might look quite a reasonable support for "going to heaven when we die" - until we look at the passage in which it appears, and then even this starts to look a little shaky.

2 Corinthians 4:17-5:13, For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen.

(taking into account that he is about to talk about the resurrection body replacing the present body, this must mean the things that are not seen now)

for the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal. For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed,

(the tent represents the mortal body we have now)

we have a building from God, a house not made with hands,

(the building is something permanent)

eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed with our habitation which is from heaven,

(this "habitation" or "house" is from heaven, i.e. it comes to us, rather than us going to it. This would be in keeping with Paul's accounts of what the resurrection will be like)

if indeed, having been clothed, we shall not be found naked. For we who are in this tent groan, being burdened, not because we want to be unclothed, but further clothed,

(we are groaning, i.e. longing, not to be without a body but that we should have our new immortal resurrection bodies)

that mortality may be swallowed up by life.

He is not saying that mortality doesn't matter because there is another kind of ("spiritual") life, but that we should look forward to our present mortal bodies being transformed to be immortal.

Now He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who also has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.

There is the phrase under consideration, but does it mean that the body is dead? I feel the explanation may come later in this passage.)

I note that he doesn't say merely "in the body" but "at home in the body". This is a puzzle. Does Paul believe that he cannot be with the Lord while he is in his mortal body? Is he talking about dying and being with the Lord as a disembodied soul? Yet he has just said that he doesn't expect to be without a body. Young's literal renders this: "we have courage, and are well pleased rather to be away from the home of the body, and to be at home with the Lord," and the Concordant Literal version gives: "Being, then, courageous always, and aware that, being at home in the body, we are away from home from the Lord." Puzzling, but maybe it will become clear later on.

Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. Knowing, therefore, the terror of the Lord, we persuade men; but we are well known to God, and I also trust are well known in your consciences. For we do not commend ourselves again to you, but give you opportunity to boast on our behalf, that you may have an answer for those who boast in appearance and not in heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; or if we are of sound mind, it is for you.

Is this the explanation, then? Does "absent from the body, present with the Lord" refer to times when Paul is beside himself, but to God? Is he talking about the visions which he describes later in this letter? Is this the experience he describes as "away from the home of the body"? Reading on, I believe this is what Paul is talking about:

for the love of Christ compels us, because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died; and He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again. And we know that whatever we do for others, especially the weak and those who can't help themlselves, we are doing for Jesus Himself (Matthew 25:40).

Here is a further indication of the kind of person Paul was:

2 Corinthians 12:2-3:
I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knows;) such an one caught up to the third heaven. And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knows ...
It is generally accepted that this could have been an indirect, modest way for Paul to state that it was he himself who had this experience.

Paul seems always to be torn between being mentally present with the believers, for their sake, or being caught up with the Lord. For instance, when he is talking about speaking in tongues, he says, "I thank my God I speak with tongues more than all of you" but then, in reflection of how he must have pulled himself together on so many occasions, he says, "but in the church it would be better for me to make use of five words of which the sense was clear, so that others might have profit, than ten thousand words in a strange tongue." (1 Corinthians 14:18,19)

Moses and Elijah's appearance at Jesus's transfiguration

There are two accounts of this event. One of them states outright that it was a vision. The other says that "they saw Moses and Elijah", rather than that Moses and Elijah were actually there.

(Of course, the main point about the transfiguration was not whether it was really Moses and Elijah, but that Jesus was the only one who was authoritative.)

When Jesus was transfigured, Matthew tells us that Jesus's face shone and his clothes became bright white - fact. Matthew then says that Moses and Elijah "appeared to them, talking with him". Luke says Moses and Elijah were suddenly there, appearing in splendour; but Mark does it just the same as Matthew: fact for Jesus's transfiguration and shining, appearance for Moses and Elijah. And as they are leaving the place, Matthew tells us that Jesus said "Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead."

Luke (9 30-32) says this: And, behold, there talked with him two men, who were Moses and Elijah: who appeared in glory, and spoke of his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem. But Peter and they that were with him were heavy with sleep: and when they were awake, they saw his glory, and the two men that stood with him.

and Matthew 17:3 says: "Moses and Elijah appeared to them"

I don't know whether the "behold" in the Luke account has any great significance - whether it indicates something that happened suddenly, or that this was something to see, or look at; to "behold".

Any answer comes from speculation, or from assumption: possible speculations include:

Moses and Elijah came from heaven to visit Jesus: this incident seems to support that idea only to those who already believe people's disembodied souls "live" in heaven (i.e. circular reasoning - believing something because you already believe it). The text does not state this, and the argument that it is implied is weak.
Time travel! after the general resurrection, Moses and Elijah travelled backwards in time to meet Jesus at this particular time and place. Also, Jesus's appearance was as it might be in his resurrection body. Jesus was not limited by space after his resurrection; why should those with a resurrection body be limited by time? If we consider this, though, we have to ask why the appearance of time-travelling post-resurrection people isn't a regular phenomenon - both then and now - to give practical help and information, and persuade people of the truth of the Gospel.
a vision: Matthew particularly seems to support this explanation. He narrates that "Moses and Elijah appeared to them" and that Jesus referred to the event as "the vision".

Enoch and Elijah "caught up to heaven"

Some suggest that, since Enoch "did not see death" and Elijah was "caught up to heaven" they are now alive in heaven, the presence of God. I argue below that this is not so, but even if it were, how would that support conscious existence in "heaven" after our death? After all, the argument is based on the assumption that these two did not die and are therefore in heaven with God - hardly an endorsement of an afterlife doctrine! Let's move on to consideration of this.

We need to bear in mind, when considering this subject, that Jesus's authoritative statement was that "No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven" (John 3:13). "Heaven", in this case, must be defined according to the surrounding context. We should be clear whether "Heaven" in this case refers to the abode of God, and by implication to God Himself, since it was customary to use the term "heaven" as a euphemism for God Himself, or whether it refers to the sky and the heavenly bodies such as stars. We can determine this from context. Jesus says (John 3:12): "If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things? (i.e. things that pertain to God) No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven." Therefore, Jesus is clearly saying that no one (apart from Himself) has ascended to the abode of God, and by unambiguous implication this necessarily excludes Enoch, Elijah, and anyone else.

Genesis 5:24 tells us that "Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him." Whatever this means, it can't mean that Enoch did not die (in fact, everywhere else in scripture, saying that someone "is not" is equivalent to saying that they have died, e.g. "Rachel weeping for her children because they were not" (Jeremiah 31:15 and Matthew 2:18)). Hebrews enlarges a little on this by saying, "By faith Enoch was taken away so that he did not see death, 'and was not found, because God had taken him'; for before he was taken he had this testimony, that he pleased God." (Hebrews 11:5) This seems to have been something God did for Enoch's protection because Enoch pleased Him. Where God took him is a matter of speculation, but one thing we can be sure of: he did die in the end. Genesis 5:23 states that that "all the days of Enoch were three hundred sixty-five years," and therefore must have finished his days, i.e., he must have died. Certainly, the person who wrote Hebrews included Enoch as those who had "died in faith" (chapter 11:5,13).

Now to Elijah.

Tradition has it that Elijah was taken up to the presence of God without dying, in a fiery chariot. This may make for a great traditional spiritual song, but does it give us a true picture? Let's look carefully at what the biblical witness really says.

When they had crossed over [the river Jordan], that Elijah said to Elisha, "Ask! What may I do for you, before I am taken away from you?" Elisha said, "Please let a double portion of your spirit be upon me." So he said, "You have asked a hard thing. Nevertheless, if you see me when I am taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if not, it shall not be so." Then it happened, as they continued on and talked, that suddenly a chariot of fire appeared with horses of fire, and separated the two of them; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. (2 Kings 2:9-11)

Once again, we must determine from context whether "heaven" refers to the abode of God, or whether it refers to the sky. Certainly, it is the visible, natural sky which is meant in the following: Genesis 8:2 The rain from heaven was restrained. Genesis 15:5 "Look now toward heaven, and count the stars" Exodus 9:23 And Moses stretched out his rod toward heaven; and the LORD sent thunder and hail, and fire darted to the ground. Joshua 10:11 the LORD cast down large hailstones from heaven Joshua 10:13 the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day.

When we look at the account of Elijah's disappearance, we see that the fiery chariot's function was not to carry Elijah away but to separate Elijah and Elisha so that Elisha would not be taken away with Elijah. It was actually the whirlwind, not the chariot, that carried Elijah up towards "heaven". A whirlwind is part of the natural world, just as rain, stars, thunder, hail and the sun are, in the above quotations. A whirlwind, being an effect of the earth's atmosphere, would be unable to carry anything beyond the atmosphere. Elijah was swept up towards the sky by the whirlwind and wasn't seen again. Whether he died as a result of this or was set down alive somewhere else for a while is not known.

I say to you, today you shall be with me in paradise

It is helpful to be aware that the Greek manuscripts don't contain any punctuation and that this was added later by translators. Punctuation can interpret words to a surprising degree, even to the extent completely reversing the meaning. For example, students were asked to punctuate the following words:

     woman without her man is nothing

Men punctuated it thus:

     Woman,     without her man,     is nothing

Whereas the women rendered it:

     Woman!     without her,     man is nothing

So, let's see how this passage reads, with the punctuation removed:

he said to Jesus Lord remember me when you come into your kingdom and Jesus said to him verily I say to you today you shall be with me in paradise

As I understand it, the thief was a Jew who, albeit late in the day, recognised Jesus as the Messiah; and as such the resurrection (which is taught even in Job, thought by some to be the oldest book) was the central future hope, so his request was that the Messiah would remember him kindly in the day of resurrection and restitution. In this context, then, Jesus saying, "I tell you today, you shall be with me in paradise" would have made sense to the thief (after all, it was the thief he was talking to).

Jesus also did not speak to him of being with him in paradise "tomorrow", a day when both would be dead. And on the day of Jesus's resurrection and thereafter, the (now dead) thief was clearly not with him as he made his appearances to the disciples.

Yet in a literal sense, this man also asked Jesus to remember him "when you come into your kingdom". And although he would not have realised it, it was that very day, "Today," when Jesus actually came into his kingdom - the day when he triumphed once and for all over evil and won the whole universe back to fill it with God's life and love: "He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." (Philippians 2:8-11)

Angels and demons are individually conscious spiritual creatures: won't we be spiritual beings like them when we are disembodied after death?

The concept of spiritual entities such as angels and demons is completely different from disembodied souls. We should not confuse spirits with souls (See What do the scriptures say?). Neither angels nor demons are physical beings, nor have they ever been.

We are physical beings, and always have been. As mentioned above, God told Adam, "You are dust and you will return to dust." In Psalm 103:14-16, we see that YHWH makes allowances for us because of this: "He remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourishes. For the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more."

In contrast, although angels are mentioned many times throughout the Bible, we are told only once what they are made of, as in Psalm 104:4: "[YHWH] makes His angels spirits, His ministers a flame of fire." And this is endorsed in Hebrews 1:7: "And of the angels He says: "Who makes His angels spirits and His ministers a flame of fire."

We cannot extrapolate from the existence of angels and demons, who are spirits, any kind of noncorporeal afterlife. Angels and demons, we are told, interact with the living, not the dead, with angels acting as servants and messengers of good, and demons attempting to consume, possess and enslave. The next section addresses this issue in more detail.

Jesus Preaching to the Spirits in Prison

Christ ... put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit (this refers to his bodily resurrection, not anything airy-fairy and noncorporeal); in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. (1 Peter 3:18-20)

There are two notions that usually arise from this:

This is seen as an event that took place after Jesus's death, but before his resurrection (which is equivalent to saying that Jesus didn't fully experience death - a heavy blow to the very foundations of our hope).
The 'spirits' are assumed to be the disembodied souls, in hell, of the people who were drowned in the flood of Noah.

I believe these are both false assumptions, and this is why.

The word used for 'spirits' in the original Greek is pneumasin, from which come pneumonia and pneumatic (both to do with breath, or the action of air). The word for persons (sometimes translated souls) is psucai, from which we derive the words psychology and psychiatry - obviously different concepts from each other: spirit and soul don't mean the same thing at all.

Why does he say it was 'spirits' rather than 'people' who did not obey? If this referred to humans, it would mean that they had been disobedient when they were 'in their flesh' (for want of a better term).

Why would the people from that era be singled out, rather than any other - or rather than preaching to all those who had died before Jesus's appearance?

Both Peter and Jude speak of angels being imprisoned in chains:

the angels that did not keep their own position but left their proper dwelling have been kept by him in eternal chains in the nether gloom until the judgement of the great day (Jude 1:6)

Peter speaks of "sinning angels" in the same breath as Noah:

God did not spare sinning angels, but delivered them to chains of darkness, thrust down into Tartarus, having been kept to judgment; and did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah the eighth, a herald of righteousness, bringing a flood on a world of ungodly ones (2 Peter 2:4,5)

and we know that it is angels who are spirits (they are spirits, they don't have spirits - just as we are souls, and don't have souls):

Of the angels he says, "Who makes his angels winds (or spirits - same word), and his servants flames of fire." (Hebrews 1:7)

So, as I see it, these spirits in prison were a group of angels who had taken a wrong turn and been disobedient at the time of Noah's flood. Had they hindered people believing Noah rather than helping them?

the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons (1 Timothy 4:1)

or were they the culprits referred to in that rather puzzling statement that "the sons of God took the daughters of men " which has led to all kinds of wild speculation!

Whatever their crime, these were the spirits to whom Jesus preached.

So when did Jesus do this?

Jesus died, and was dead for three days. To emphasise - he didn't pretend to be dead but really go off astral-travelling on some other mission during that time. Ephesians 4:8-10 is often quoted in connection with this idea:

"When He ascended on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men." (Now this, "He ascended" - what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? (i.e. was buried) He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.)

Peter had made graphically clear on the Day of Pentecost that no one could ascend to heaven while they were dead and buried. Including Jesus. Peter said, "We know King David can't have ascended to heaven because his bones are buried here (there's his tomb, check for yourselves!)." And he went on to say that Jesus is the one who has ascended to heaven because he has broken out of death (literally, physically: his bones are not buried here).

The Souls Under the Altar and Other Characters in Heaven in Revelation

Revelation 6:9-10, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, "How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?"

We need to be aware of a few facts as we read this passage. First of all, Revelation is a book full of symbolism: it was never intended to be taken literally. Those who were closer in time and culture would have found the symbols much easier to decipher than we do. Under the altar in the Jerusalem temple was a place to contain the blood from the sacrifices. "Soul" and "life" are interchangeable here, because the life, Moses says, is in the blood. So this is saying that God is aware of the blood that they are shedding, the life that they are giving for his sake.

We see a similar idea when God says to the murderer, Cain, "The voice of your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground" (Genesis 4:10). Abel is dead and it is his life-blood that cries out, not from heaven, not from hell, but from the ground, where it has been spilt.

The 'Witch' of Endor (1 Samuel 28-29)

First, let's look at why Saul visited the medium in the first place. It was because he was afraid of the Philistine army and had asked God for guidance. God had not answered in dreams, or through prophets, or through the Urim and Thummim (a method they had of enquiring of God). So God wasn't talking to Saul through legitimate means; why then would he communicate to him through a medium when consulting her was prohibited? Saul knew that his purpose was not to get a message from God, but from Samuel. (Evidently he had never grasped that Samuel's messages were dependent on God giving them, just like the other - living - prophets, through whom God had just refrained from speaking to him.)

Only the medium 'saw' 'Samuel'. Certainly she saw something she wasn't expecting: she saw something that looked like Samuel, because when she described what she saw, Saul identified it as Samuel from her description - and after all, that was who he was expecting because that was the person he asked her to summon. If Saul could see Samuel himself, whyever would the medium be telling him what she was seeing? It wouldn't make sense.

The medium also perceived that the person engaging her services was Saul, and this gave her a shock.

At a séance the medium speaks the message from the supposedly called-up dead person, using a different voice. If Samuel had a disembodied soul that really was conscious somewhere else, then according to traditional theology, he must have been summoned from either torment in hell or bliss in heaven. In either case, why would he say, "Why have you disturbed me, to bring me up?"? Again, this doesn't make sense: he would not have come "up" from heaven, nor would he have complained at being removed from a place of torment.

The medium then speaks a prophecy which purports to come from Samuel. Of course, we are not supposed to turn for advice to mediums. Saul knew that, too. And we know from Jesus's teaching about the judgement that delivery of a prophesy does not necessarily indicate that the person's life is on track. The prophecy says that he will lose the kingdom to David (this happened) and that this is because he did not "execute his fierce wrath on Amalek", that the following day the Philistines would win the battle and he and his sons would die (this also happened). Yet there is another reason given in 1 Chronicles 10:13: "Saul died for his unfaithfulness which he had committed against the LORD, because he did not keep the word of the LORD, and also because he consulted a medium for guidance."

If we come across something that a medium says in any other context, we don't pay any attention. In fact, most Christians take the view that what happens in a séance is either a deliberate deception on the part of the medium or is the work of Satan, who is the father of lies - we certainly don't give it any weight doctrinally, so why give this one weight because her words can be read in the pages of the Bible? The Bible is just reporting here something that happened, because one of its functions is to be a history book for the early Hebrews.

We must make sense of this story in the light of the overwhelming evidence of scripture, rather than thinking that a story of a séance is something to base our doctrine on! I would rather base my doctrine on the prophets, the apostles and most of all Jesus. Their witness on this subject is unanimous.

"The Rich Man and Lazarus"

The tale is not original to Jesus; he used a familiar story, adapted to make his point, which was already hundreds of years old and did not come from Jewish tradition: it can be read in the Gemara Babylonicum (hence we know that the rich man's name was Dives, even though Jesus never mentioned it). What was the point that Jesus intended to make? We have to look at the surrounding text to piece that together. Immediately before telling this parable, Jesus makes the following remarks:

The Law and the Prophets were until John; from then the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is pressing into it. But it is easier for the heaven and the earth to pass away than one tittle of the law to fail. Everyone putting away his wife, and marrying another, commits adultery. And everyone marrying her who has been put away from a husband commits adultery. (Luke 17:16-18)

and launches into the Lazarus parable without further preamble. Yet these comments, especially as a prelude to such a parable, seem like a string of non sequiturs if we take the parable to be addressing any question about an afterlife.

Surely Jesus wasn't given to talking nonsense, flitting from one subject to another with each new sentence! No, his comments on this occasion are all connected, so we have to look again and see how they make sense. As this parable is so often the linchpin on which the doctrine of an afterlife hangs, it seems worth paying some attention to it.

"There was a certain rich man; and he was accustomed to don a purple robe and fine linen, making merry in luxury day by day. And there was a certain poor one named Lazarus who had been laid at his porch, being plagued by sores, and longing to be filled from the crumbs that were falling from the table of the rich one. But coming, even the dogs licked his sores. And it happened, the poor one died and was carried away by the angels into the bosom of Abraham. And the rich one also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hell, lifting up his eyes, he sees Abraham afar off and Lazarus in his bosom.

And calling he said, Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering in this flame. But Abraham said, Child, remember that you fully received your good things in your lifetime, and Lazarus likewise the bad things. But now he is comforted, and you are suffering. And besides all these things, a great chasm has been fixed between us and you, so that those desiring to pass from here to you are not able, nor can they pass 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, so that he may witness to them, that they not also come to this place of torment). Abraham said to him, They have Moses and the Prophets, let them hear them. But he said, No, father Abraham, but if one should go from the dead to them, they will repent. And he said to him, If they will not hear Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if one from the dead should rise." (Luke 16:19-31)

All we know about the rich man is that he wore purple and fine linen, and lived in luxury. Jesus gave no hint of whether he was good or bad. In fact, to the people to whom he was telling the story, fine clothes and luxury were considered a sign of God's blessing and approval because this is the reward promised throughout the Old Testament to those who love God and keep his commandments. Poverty, disease and disgrace is threatened to those who do not. Similarly, there is no indication that the poor man, Lazarus, is virtuous and godly or completely otherwise. All we know of him is that he was a beggar who was covered with sores and lay at the gate of this rich man.

In time, each of them died. First, I'd like to consider the description of the afterlife scene, to see whether it fits in with plain scripture - or even with common sense - as a literal account of what happens after death.

"The poor one died and was carried away by the angels into the bosom of Abraham." There is no other place in the Bible where anyone is carried into Abraham's bosom at death. Why should it be Abraham who opened his arms to receive them? It was not reconciliation to Abraham that Jesus came to bring about, but reconciliation to God.

The story goes on, "And the rich one also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hell, lifting up his eyes." If this parable is intended to teach an afterlife of heaven and hell, why, in the entire Bible, is this person alone, of all the possible God-haters and criminals, picked out as an example of what happens after death to those worthy of punishment? In fact, given particularly that this is the only instance of such a description, it seems a very odd description altogether.

But perhaps the oddest of all is the prayer of the rich man to Abraham. "calling he said, Father Abraham, have pity on me ..." Strangely, the rich man prays, not to God, but to Abraham and, what's more, Abraham doesn't correct him in this. Instead, he replies, "Child, remember that you fully received your good things in your lifetime, and Lazarus likewise the bad things. But now he is comforted, and you are suffering." There is no suggestion that the suffering is a punishment for sins, he simply tells him that in his lifetime he had received good things, and Lazarus evil things. And he adds, "a great chasm has been fixed between us and you, so that those desiring to pass from here to you are not able, nor can they pass from there to us." Is Abraham suggesting that anyone might want to pass from the place of bliss to the place of torment?

The rich man begs one more thing: "Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father's house; (for I have five brothers, so that he may witness to them, that they not also come to this place of torment)." Abraham's reply is instructive: "They have Moses and the Prophets, let them hear them." Hear them about what? The rich man wanted someone to show them how to escape the "place of torment" in which he was suffering. But Abraham's reply implies that Moses and the prophets had taught a way to avoid this terrible fate, and therefore that Moses and the prophets must have taught the doctrine of endless torment! But search all the writings of Moses and the prophets and you will not find any such doctrine.

May I suggest what this parable does mean?

Let me emphasise again, this is a story told to make a point, and it was told to Pharisees. Jesus pitched what he said to his audience. If he was talking to peasants, he used plain language and took his illustrations from rural and family life, with which they were familiar. But Jesus himself was well read and able to argue scripture and doctrine with the best of them, and on this occasion he was talking to people who would understand the symbolism of the tale as he told it. So we have to look at why Jesus would choose Pharisees to tell this story to.

The parables and other comments in these chapters seem designed to answer the criticism against Jesus for accepting and associating with those considered sinners, while the Pharisees felt themselves in no need of instruction or forgiveness. Jesus speaks of a search for a lost sheep and a lost coin, and tells about a forgiving father (but a self-righteous and unforgiving brother). He mentions divorce and remarriage as an illustration of the Jews' unfaithfulness to God: it would have been wrong for them to abandon their form of worship before the law was done away with. But now Jesus says, "The Law and the Prophets were until John; from then the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is pressing into it." (Luke 16:16) and by so saying he announces the end of the law and the impropriety of continuing to follow it. And for this, and their rejection of the messiah, God was about to exclude them for a time, as Paul says (Romans 10:19): "But I say, Had Israel no knowledge? First Moses says, You will be moved to envy by that which is not a nation, and by a foolish people I will make you angry," while the Gentiles whom they regarded as dogs, were to enjoy the Good News.

The Jewish priests were literally clothed in purple and fine linen and ate luxuriously every day. Also, they above all others had access to spiritual wealth. Gill says, "by the rich man are meant, the Jews in general; for that this man is represented, and to be considered as a Jew, is evident from Abraham being his father, and his calling him so, and Abraham again calling him his son." The Jewish religious professionals considered the Gentiles and their spiritual comforters poor, disgusting and no better than dogs ("the dogs licked his sores"). The Gentiles wanted to know God (he begged for the leftovers from the rich man's table).

"The poor one died and was carried away by the angels into the bosom of Abraham." Gentiles, when they heard the Good News, received it. They died to sin and were brought by the messengers ("angel" means "messenger") to the faith of Abraham (the father in faith of the uncircumcised). Jesus similarly speaks of the Gentiles coming to faith in Matthew 8:11,12: "Many shall come from the east and west and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven."

"The rich one also died and was buried." This signified the end of the Law of Moses with its rituals ("the Law and the prophets are until John").

"Being in torments in Hell, lifting up his eyes, he sees Abraham afar off and Lazarus in his bosom." Jesus thus describes the chagrin of the Jewish religious professionals to see the Gentiles enjoying the Good News and the faith of Abraham while their own religious riches had been taken away from them (as indeed they were within a generation) and they, religiously and politically, were dead in the grave ("Hell", i.e. Hades). And because they had so hardheartedly rejected the Good News and their Messiah, God had temporarily blinded their mind, "a great chasm has been fixed" so that at that time they were unable to believe the Good News. The Jews also had the advantage of having Moses and the Prophets, who had written enough to make recognition of the Messiah possible when he arrived on the scene. But since they didn't turn to God's way when the Messiah turned up, they would be hardened against being convinced when he rose from the dead.

And so we see that this parable was intended as a warning (unheeded by most) that the Gentiles would come into the faith of Abraham from which the spiritually rich Jews had alienated themselves. That is why Jesus prefaces the parable by talking about the Law and Prophets: the religious Jews relied on the Law and the Prophets, and thought they were being faithful to God, but Jesus is saying that they have been left behind because now the kingdom of God is being preached and everyone seems to want to get in apart from them! And there is nothing new in the analogy of adultery as representing unfaithfulness to the covenant between YHWH and the Jewish people.

POPULAR CONCEPTS AND EXPRESSIONS NOT FOUND IN THE BIBLE

On the whole, little can be gained from refuting these individually, except to point out their conspicuous absence from holy writ.

"There's a heaven to be gained and a hell to shun."
"Where will you spend eternity?"
"soul sleep"
"going to heaven" (with reference to human beings and animals)
"ever-living/immortal/eternal soul"
"disembodied soul"
"hell is separation from God"
"the wages of sin is death and hell"
"our bodies die" (in the Bible, it is the person who dies or "falls asleep")
"It is appointed unto man once to die, and after that - no hope"
"Behold the Lamb of God, who will try to take away the sin of the world."
"Behold the Lamb of God, who will fail to take away the sin of the world."
"Jesus died so we could go to heaven"
eternal separation from God
"One day God will be unable to save us"
"souls have/are a spiritual substance"
reincarnation
transmigration of the soul

BIBLIOGRAPHY
Absolute Assurance in Jesus ChristCharles Slagle
Enoch and ElijahJames Coram (Concordant Studies)
Eternal Torment vs. ReconciliationDave Baughman
ExpositorJohn Gill
Five Pillars in the Temple of Partialism Shaken and Removed  J F Witherell
New Scientist (issue unknown)
The Two BabylonsAlexander Hislop


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