Tuesday, August 11, 2009

What Happens After Death?


Where do people go when they die? The question is not nearly as simple as you might think. Most Christians seem to have a belief that people immediately go on to either Heaven or Hell after they die. And yet those same Christians hold to the idea of Judgment Day, which is where God will judge everyone at the end of the age and send some to heaven and others to Hell.

The fact is, the modern Christian either often has not thought about such things, or prefers that such confusion remain in quiet resignation. But what does the Bible say about these matters?

The truth is, the Bible lists a third place in addition to Heaven (although in the Bible it is usually called the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven) and Hell. This place is referred to in the Old Testament (Hebrew) as Sheol, and in the New Testament (Greek) as Hades. In this article I will refer to it as Sheol, because I wish to distinguish it from Hell, and Hell and Hades sound rather similar. In our modern Bibles, "Hades" is often translated "Hell", and "Sheol" is often translated "the grave".

Who goes to Sheol? The simple answer is, everyone.

Take a look at these verses.

Psalm 89:48
What man can live and not see death,
or save himself from the power of the grave [Sheol]?

Psalm 6:5
No one remembers You when he is dead.
Who praises you from the grave [Sheol]?

Genesis 37:35
All his sons and daughters came to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. "No," he said, "in mourning will I go down to the grave [Sheol] to my son." So his father wept for him.

Psalm 30:3
O LORD, you brought me up from the grave [Sheol];
you spared me from going down into the pit.

Hopefully you now see that everyone does go to Sheol. Is Sheol a real, tangible place? I will soon answer this question as best I can, but first I have to explain several concepts.

Christianity's main doctrinal teachings have acquired a number of Greek ideas. Many of those who think they are preaching God's pure, unadultered Word today are actually spouting ideas of the ancient Greeks - the same guys who had gods such as Thor with his amazing hammer, came up with the idea of ghosts, and performed the Olympics naked.

This is not to say that the Greeks did not have some good ideas. I hugely admire many of their advances in medicines and mathematics. But some of their false ideas did, nonetheless, creep into Christianity.

One such idea (and you will be familiar with this line of thinking) is that while bodies are mortal, souls are immortal, and go on living after the body dies. In other words, once the body is dead, the soul begins to experience a new kind of life freed from the body. This is not entirely true.

Ephesians 9:5b
For the living know that they will die,
but the dead know nothing;

The dead know nothing? It certainly does not sound like the soul goes on living and experiencing things after the body dies. How do we reconcile this with what we know about Heaven and Hell?

The answer is that the souls in Sheol are in a completely unconscious state. They know nothing. They can sense or experience nothing, because they are not united with their bodies.

Let's look at 1 Samuel, which tells us about Saul's experience with the dead Samuel and the witch of Endor. I recommend reading all of 1 Samuel 28, but here is just enough to make my point.

1 Samuel 28:4-20
The Philistines assembled and came and set up camp at Shunem, while Saul gathered all the Israelites and set up camp at Gilboa. When Saul saw the Philistine army, he was afraid; terror filled his heart. He inquired of the LORD, but the LORD did not answer him by dreams or Urim or prophets. Saul then said to his attendants, "Find me a woman who is a medium, so I may go and inquire of her."
"There is one in Endor," they said.

So Saul disguised himself, putting on other clothes, and at night he and two men went to the woman. "Consult a spirit for me," he said, "and bring up for me the one I name."

But the woman said to him, "Surely you know what Saul has done. He has cut off the mediums and spiritists from the land. Why have you set a trap for my life to bring about my death?"

Saul swore to her by the LORD, "As surely as the LORD lives, you will not be punished for this."

Then the woman asked, "Whom shall I bring up for you?"
"Bring up Samuel," he said.

When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out at the top of her voice and said to Saul, "Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!"

The king said to her, "Don't be afraid. What do you see?"
The woman said, "I see a spirit coming up out of the ground."

"What does he look like?" he asked.
"An old man wearing a robe is coming up," she said.
Then Saul knew it was Samuel, and he bowed down and prostrated himself with his face to the ground.

Samuel said to Saul, "Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?"
"I am in great distress," Saul said. "The Philistines are fighting against me, and God has turned away from me. He no longer answers me, either by prophets or by dreams. So I have called on you to tell me what to do."

Samuel said, "Why do you consult me, now that the LORD has turned away from you and become your enemy? The LORD has done what he predicted through me. The LORD has torn the kingdom out of your hands and given it to one of your neighbors—to David. Because you did not obey the LORD or carry out his fierce wrath against the Amalekites, the LORD has done this to you today. The LORD will hand over both Israel and you to the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. The LORD will also hand over the army of Israel to the Philistines."

Immediately Saul fell full length on the ground, filled with fear because of Samuel's words. His strength was gone, for he had eaten nothing all that day and night.

All right, this is freaky stuff. Personally I would really like to have a nice clean watertight theology that is not hard to accept. I would like a cute, tame theology that will sit on my desk and purr. But somehow I don't think God works this way. Personally, I can't read any meaning into this except that this woman actually called up Samuel from the dead.

Some have proposed that the "Samuel" the witch of Endor saw was actually a demon in masquerade. I suppose this could be true, but if it were, then the demon would likely have lied to Saul, but everything Samuel told Saul here was true. God had turned away from Saul and David was going to be the new king. So I do think that Samuel was literally pulled up from the dead.

How did this happen? The woman was a witch, so she must have been using satanic means. However, whether it was by Satan's power that Samuel was called up, God only allowed him to do it so that all things will work together for the good of those who love God, as the Scripture says. And Samuel did seem to give Saul a good, true message.

Now, let us get to the point I am making.

Samuel said to Saul, "Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?"

This verse tells us two very simple things. Samuel was brought up, not down, so he must not have actually been in Heaven at the time, but in Sheol. Secondly, we are told that Samuel was disturbed when Saul brought him up. That sort of word makes me think of how I feel in the morning when I am awoken from sleep. And yes, we find Scriptural phrases to the effect of the dead being in slumber.

Daniel 12:2
Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.
1 Corinthians 15:51
Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—

Luke 8:52
Meanwhile, all the people were wailing and mourning for her. "Stop wailing," Jesus said. "She is not dead but asleep."
Apparently, those who are in Sheol are in a sleep-like state where they know nothing.

Back to the Greek ideas. If the idea that the soul goes on living and experiencing after death is true, then why do we need a resurrection from the dead? The fact is, everyone will be resurrected.

Acts 24:15
and I have the same hope in God as these men, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked.

Acts 4:2
They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.

Matthew 22:30
At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.

Yes, everyone will be resurrected. There was actually sort of a mini-resurrection during Jesus' death.

Matthew 27:51-53
At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus' resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

As you can see in this verse, even Jesus was resurrected. And He too went to Sheol/Hades when He died.

Acts 2:31
Seeing what was ahead, he [David] spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that He was not abandoned to the grave [Hades], nor did His body see decay.

Look at the different translations and the Greek wording.

Basically, the idea is that Jesus' body was not left in Hades. He was resurrected!

What will our resurrected bodies be like? Probably different but very similar. See Matthew 22:30 above. We know that after Jesus' resurrection, He could still be recognized as Jesus.

Luke 26:16
but they were kept from recognizing Him.

Apparently, special intervention was needed just so that He would not be recognized. We know that His body was horribly brutalized during the crucifixion. To be hailed as a victorious conqueror of death means that He would have had to have a victorious body.

1 Corinthians 15:42-52
When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. All flesh is not the same: Men have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.

So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 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 it is written: "The first man Adam became a living being"; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.

I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.

The question is, whose souls will be raised glorious and imperishable? It seems unlikely to me that those who will not inherit eternal life will. Look at this: "So it is written: "The first man Adam became a living being"; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit."

To whom has the Son given life? To those whom He is pleased to give it (John 5:21), that is, the believers. So although the wicked will be raised to dead with those Christ has made righteous, they have not been given life by the Son, I don't think they will not have the same imperishable, glorious bodies that the believers will. Although it is possible that they will be resurrected with them.

Now, how exactly will everyone be resurrected? What about people who were burned up, or people who blew up, or fell down cliffs and had their bodies smashed to pieces, or lost arms and legs or even their heads?

Well, the fact is that their bodies will be different. I doubt they will be resurrected in pieces. God will, somehow, put them back together. For thousands of years, people took this entirely on faith, saying that of course God can do it. Well, now in our modern age, we may just have discovered the means He will use. Every single human who is or was or will be has a genetic code made up of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. That DNA is the blueprint for what kind of body you have, down to the tiniest detail.

The fact is, every single cell in your body contains the DNA necessarily to replicate your body completely. God does not need every single piece to put your body back together. He just needs one tiny cell. Or even nothing at all. God created the DNA code; copying it is not a problem for the Creator. Just to drive the point home, here's a verse.

Matthew 3:9
And do not think you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.

Not sure if Jesus meant this literally or figuratively, but the point I'm making is that raising a dead body burnt to a crisp or blown to bits is no problem for God.

Also, remember the First Law of Thermodynamics: matter cannot be created or destroyed.

People are made of matter. Matter can be moved from place to place and changed in form, such as would happen if someone were blown up or burned. But all that matter is still in existence, and I'm sure God can easily put it back together. God set up the earthly rules; He can break them if He wants to.

An interesting note is made by Paul in the 1 Corinthians verses I gave above. He compares our resurrected bodies and our natural bodies to plants and seeds. Genetically, a wheat plant is a wheat seed, though structurally they are different. You plant a seed in the earth for a long time (sound like Sheol?) and it eventually comes back out in a different form, yet the farmer knows well that the thing he planted is the same thing now growing in his garden.

What happens after the resurrection? That is when Heaven and Hell come in. The fact is, currently Hell does not exist. It is a place that will come into existence but has not yet. See these verses in Revelation.

Revelation 20:11-15
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. 13The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

So the dead in Hades/Sheol will be released, and then the ones who are not written into the book of life will be thrown into the lake of fire. In the next chapter, Revelation 21, we read more.

Revelation 21:1-4
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."

Notice anything? First off, we've got a new earth. There is no longer a sea on the earth. And the new Jerusalem, the Holy City, was coming down out of heaven from God. God will now dwell with men.

The Hebrew word translated "heaven" is samayim, and it is actually more of a plural word. We sometimes see modern Bibles using the word "heavens", which is actually rather accurate to the Hebrew. The Greek word is sometimes used in the plural, but not always.

There are three different uses of the word "heaven(s)" in the Bible. The first use refers to the layer of air below the atmosphere. The second use refers to the starry skies above the atmosphere. And the third refers to the actual place of God's domain, what people conventionally think of when they picture Heaven.

If you don't believe me, see these verses.

Genesis 1:1
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Genesis 6:17
I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it. Everything on earth will perish.

Genesis 27:39
His father Isaac answered him, "Your dwelling will be away from the earth's richness, away from the dew of heaven above.

Genesis 28:17
He was afraid and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven."

Deuteronomy 4:39
Acknowledge and take to heart this day that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth below. There is no other.

Deuteronomy 10:14
To the LORD your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it.

2 Samuel 22:8
"The earth trembled and quaked, the foundations of the heavens shook; they trembled because he was angry.

1 Kings 8:27
But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!

1 Kings 8:30
Hear the supplication of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place. Hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive.

John 3:13
No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.

What? No one has ever gone into heaven? Actually, I do think that this verse means what it says. From the verses I quoted in Revelation it seems more likely that God will come and dwell with us on the new earth. We will not actually go to Heaven in the conventional sense, in the sense that we will go into the third heaven, God's current dominion, but God's kingdom will come on earth. We typically think of the kingdom of heaven as the place where man makes his dwelling with God. But if you look at Revelation 21 again, you will realize that it says God will make His dwelling with man.

Like I said earlier, the term typically used for what most people think of as "Heaven" in the New Testament is "the kingdom of God". Matthew was the only NT writer to use the alternative term, "the kingdom of Heaven". The kingdom of heaven and kingdom of God are apparently differentiated from the typical use of the word "heaven".

What does Jesus mean when He says that no one has gone up to heaven except God

Some Objections

Many will disagree with what I say here and have seemingly valid reasons for doing so. For instance, one might point out what Jesus said to the thief on the cross:

Luke 23:43
Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with Me in paradise."

Jesus clearly said to that thief that both of them would be going to Paradise (Heaven) straightaway after they died, right?

Many say that of course that's not what Jesus meant. They instead claim that Sheol/Hades has two different divisions. One is Paradise and the other the abode of the lost. Right?

Actually, no. Let's review an extremely clear verse we went over earlier.

Ephesians 9:5b
For the living know that they will die,
but the dead know nothing;

Dr. E.W. Bullinger explains in The Companion Bible: "None of our modern marks of punctuation are found [in Bible texts] until the ninth century... The punctuation of all modern editions of the Greek text, and of all versions made from it, rests entirely on human authority, and has no weight whatsoever in determining or even influencing the interpretation of a single passage"

The fact is, the phrase "I tell you the truth today" was a Hebrew idiom that signified solemn honesty in what one was saying. The comma is placed entirely wrong! The placement of that one comma changes the entire English meaning. Let's read it again taking into consideration the proper punctuation.

Luke 23:43
Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth today, you will be with Me in paradise."

As you can see, Jesus does promise the thief on the cross that he will be in Paradise with Jesus, but not right away. To make it even more clear, we might change the order of the words in the Hebrew expression. "Today I tell you the truth, you will be with Me in paradise."

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