3. Where Am I Going?
Where do we go from here? What is the final destiny of a human being? What does the Bible have to say about death and final things?
The first three chapters of Genesis teach the reader that death is the consequence of sin; specifically, it is the result of the disobedience of Adam and Eve. These first two human beings, living in a perfect environment, broke the covenant God had established with them and brought upon themselves the inevitable consequences of the inhibitive side of God's love. Death comes because of love? Yes, as strange as that may seem. Having said that, it should be quickly added that death is not something God likes or enjoys inflicting on people. Ezekiel makes that quite clear when he records God's words in Ezekiel 33:11:
Say to them, "As surely as I live, declares Master Yahweh, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?"
However, as is clear from Psalm 136 (see Chapter Three), the death and destruction of the wicked is an act of love, which benefits the righteous:
...who struck down great kings,
His love endures forever.
And killed mighty kings -
His love endures forever. (Psa. 136:17-18)
Consider that no matter how vile or despicable a person is, his wickedness is limited by his own lifespan. All the covenants God has ever made with people - covenants which have always been made because of God's love - have, as at least one of their penalties, the penalty of death. Look at the Noahic covenant (Genesis 9:6):
Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed;
for in the image of God
has God made man.
Or look at the Mosaic Covenant (Hebrews 10:28):
Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses.
And even the New Covenant promises death for disobedience -much to the surprise of some Christians, who seem to forget Ananias and Sephira (Acts 5:1-11). Look at Hebrews 10:29-31:
How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," and again, "The Lord will judge his people." It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
So we may conclude that death is a penalty imposed by a loving God as a result of covenant breaking. But it still hardly feels loving, does it? But consider Genesis 3:22:
And Yahweh God said, "The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever."
If human beings had eaten from the tree of life and then been unable to die, Jesus could never have become a man to die for our sins; we would therefore have been unredeemable - forever lost in our sins, like the demons.
In Christ's day, the Sadducees were a Jewish sect that rejected the idea of a resurrection. This was based on their reading of the Pentateuch, in which they found no hint of an afterlife of any kind: not once in the Pentateuch does Moses mention a resurrection of the dead. When the Sadducees asked Jesus about this, he responded by saying they were seriously in error about the question of the afterlife; to prove his point, he quoted Exodus 3:6:
Now about the dead rising - have you not read in the book of Moses, in the account of the bush, how God said to him, "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?" He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken. (Mark 12:26-27; see also Luke 20:37-38)
Jesus quoted from the Pentateuch in refuting the false teaching
of the Sadducees, not because that was the clearest Old Testament
passage bearing witness to a resurrection, but because the Sadducees
refused to accept anything but the five books of Moses as the
word of God. To the Sadducees, the rest of the Old Testament
In seeing what the Old Testament has to say about an afterlife, modern scholars are not so limited as the Sadducees; however, it must be admitted that the Old Testament rarely alludes to the afterlife, and when it does, it is without detail.
Please notice the following:
Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of Yahweh forever. (Psalm 23:6)
I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that in the end he will stand upon the Earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him
with my own eyes - I, and not another.
How my heart yearns within me!
Even these two passages, the one in Psalms and the one in Job, are not unequivocal pictures of resurrection and afterlife. Psalm 23:6 can be interpreted to mean no more than a pleasant existence in this life, understanding "the house of Yahweh forever" to be hyperbole. Meanwhile, the passage in Job is notoriously difficult to translate or make sense of. The ancient versions all differ, so no reliance can be placed on them. Everyone and his brother has proposed emendations for what is standing in the text. Origin, one of the early church fathers, argued that this passage was indeed an affirmation of immortality and resurrection. However, as Chrysostom (another early church father) pointed out, it is hard to reconcile such an interpretation with Job 14:12: "So man lies down and does not rise..." or Job 10:21: "...before I go to the place of no return..." However, Chrysostom may be overstating the problem. In fact, Job 14:12, which he raises as an objection, may actually seem to speak of resurrection:
So man lies down and does not rise;
till the leaves are no more, men will not awake
or be roused from their sleep.
If only you would hide me in the grave
and conceal me till your anger has passed!
If only you would set me a time
and then remember me!
If a man dies, will he live again?
All the days of my hard service
I will wait for my renewal to come.
You will call and I will answer you;
you will long for the creature your hands have made.
Others have countered, though, that Chrysostom was right after all. Even this extended passage might be understood as indicating that in reality there is no hope after death: "If a man dies, will he live again?" A rhetorical question, expecting "no" as the answer. What then follows the question would simply be Job's hope that the misery he is then suffering will not endure much longer, but that a renewal - a restoration of the good life - will soon come. Thus some have interpreted Job 19:25-27. Notice the translation of it given by Marvin H. Pope:
I know my vindicator lives,
A guarantor upon the dust will stand;
Even after my sin is flayed,
without my flesh I shall see God.
I will see him on my side,
My own eyes will see him no stranger.
My heart faints within me.
The interpretation in such a case could be simply that Job hopes
for restoration from his troubles in this life. He is not thinking
about the afterlife at all.
So does the Old Testament ever speak clearly, without question, about the afterlife? Or does the reader have to wait for the New Testament before the afterlife is clearly taught? Thankfully, there are at least two passages which speak unquestionably of the resurrection:
Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the Earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever. (Daniel 12:2-3)
But your dead will live;
their bodies will rise.
You who dwell in the dust,
wake up and shout for joy.
Your dew is like the dew of the morning;
the Earth will give birth to her dead. (Isaiah 26:19)
With these two passages, the one in Isaiah and the one in Daniel, it is clear that the idea of an afterlife was not a new invention in the New Testament. But it also is clear that the question of the afterlife was not of great importance for the people of Israel. Unlike their neighbors in Egypt and Mesopotamia, the Israelites did not spend all their time planning for the life to come. The Israelites focused on the question of life and living righteously before God today; this perhaps should be the lesson for Christians now. The words of Christ speak to this issue:
But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own (Matthew 6:33-34).
The Meaning and Nature of Hell
The underlying words translated "Hell" in the King James translation of the Bible do not all refer to the place of suffering designed for the dead who have rejected Jesus Christ. Having said this, there is no doubt that such a place exists, designed for everlasting torment for those who have chosen to follow the devil. This is abundantly clear from the following passage:
"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.'" (Matthew 25:41)
The two words in particular, one Old Testament, the other New Testament, which do not refer to the place of everlasting torment are the Hebrew sheol and the Greek hades, with one exception. Both words are best translated with the English "grave".
The word sheol has been unnecessarily troublesome to people
for a long time. Attempts have been made to equate sheol
with hades in the New Testament; one will often read that
"sheol" is the place where all the dead went, good or
bad, before the time of Christ's resurrection: it is described
as a gloomy place, a nether world.
Unfortunately, such an idea is more in keeping with Greek concepts of the afterlife than they are with biblical truth. Sheol, by its constant pairing with the words "death" (Psalm 18:5), "destruction" (Psalm 18:4-5), and the "pit" (Psalm 30:3; Isaiah 14:15); by the fact that everyone, regardless of his or her spiritual condition ends up there, should be recognized for what it in fact is: a Hebrew word which is best translated by the English word "grave". No conception of afterlife is associated with the word. It is not used to describe the place where a person's eternal soul would go after death. Instead, it is used to describe where a person's body would end up when it stopped breathing. For instance, look at Psalm 31:17:
Let me not be put to shame, O Yahweh,
for I have cried out to you;
but let the wicked be put to shame
and lie silent in sheol.
If the traditional interpretation of sheol is retained,
it is difficult to reconcile such a passage with New Testament
texts indicating that for the wicked dead there is weeping and
gnashing of teeth, or that a rich man in torment talks to Abraham.
Since both the wicked (Numbers 16:30) and the righteous (Genesis 37:35) are said to go to sheol, early in the history of interpretation, the idea developed that there were two compartments in sheol: an upper part for believers, and a lower part for the lost. The upper part was not well defined. It was a sort of limbo, where the fathers hung out until Christ died. At the time of his death, it has been traditionally explained that Jesus went down to sheol. The evidence cited is 1 Peter 3:18-20 as the main source, with 1 Peter 4:6 and Ephesians 4:9 as corroborative evidence. In sheol, the traditionalists explained, Jesus announced his salvation to the unbelievers being tormented in the lower section of sheol, and to the believers in the upper section, whom he released and brought to heaven with him; and heaven is where those believers are now. There are some problems with this popular interpretation. In the first place, the whole doctrine is constructed simply to account for the word sheol. Its biblical basis is very poor - in fact, I would be so bold as to say non-existent. Ephesians 4:9 has no bearing on the subject, as the reading in the NIV makes clear:
What does "he ascended" mean except that he also descended to the lower, Earthly regions?
Christ, who ascended from Earth to heaven, is the same Jesus
who came down from heaven to Earth in his incarnation. There
is no mention of a descent into Hell - nor would such an idea
reasonably fit the context.
1 Peter 4:6 certainly refers to a preaching of the word, but to a preaching of the word in the distant past, to people who lived at that time. It does not say that the gospel was preached to them after they had died. Theologically, there would be some trouble with that, after all. If it is appointed unto men once to die, and then comes the judgment, what would be the point of preaching to dead people? There seems no evidence that there are second chances after you're dead.
Finally, 1 Peter 3:18-20 cannot be said to prove the traditional view. Rather, the passage simply says that Christ preached through the Spirit to the spirits in prison, who disobeyed long ago. The apostate days of Noah are the days in view in this passage. The verse does not say that Christ descended and personally announced the cross to these people after his crucifixion. Rather, those people, while they were alive, heard the message. It was the message preached by the Spirit of Christ, through Noah. They rejected it, and are now in their eternal prison.
To hang any teaching about sheol on this passage would be risky indeed. Instead, we have every indication that Christ, when he died, went straight to heaven (see Luke 23:43).
The word sheol occurs only 65 times in the Old Testament. Upon examining all these references, one will find that "grave" is the best English equivalent for what is being described with this Hebrew word (see Appendix Five for a complete list).
Rest With Your Fathers
Another group of phrases which are often confusing and puzzling to the Old Testament reader are the ones which go something like "and he rested with his fathers" or "and he was gathered to his people". Many commentators have taken this to mean going to the nether world, where the spirits of one's dead ancestors are to be found. However, as with the word sheol, there is no thought of afterlife in the phrase. Instead, the phrase is a reference to the common burial customs of the time. People in ancient Israel had family tombs, where everyone was placed when they died. "Resting with one's fathers" began as quite a literal description of burial customs, as your bones were mixed with those who had gone before. Excavations of ancient tombs have revealed that some of them had floors covered wall to wall and knee deep in bones. Look at Genesis 49:29 (cf. 2 Kings 9:28 and 1 Kings 13:22):
Then he gave them these instructions: "I am about to be gathered to my people. Bury me with my fathers in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hittite..."
Ultimately the phrase became simply a euphemistic way of referring to death, like the modern "to pass away". Please notice two more passages:
At that time, declares Yahweh, the bones of the kings and officials of Judah, the bones of the priests and prophets, and the bones of the people of Jerusalem will be removed from their graves. They will be exposed to the sun and the moon and all the stars of the heavens, which they have loved and served and which they have followed and consulted and worshipped. They will not be gathered up or buried, but will be like refuse lying on the ground....(Jeremiah 8:1-2)
At that time those slain by Yahweh will be everywhere - from one end of the Earth to the other. They will not be mourned or gathered up or buried, but will be like refuse lying on the ground....(Jeremiah 25:33)
These passages stress the importance the Israelites felt for a proper burial.
The Greek HADES
Hades is used four times in the gospels:
Matthew 11:23, 16:18; Luke 10:15 and 16:23
It appears an additional seven times in the rest of the New Testament:
Acts 2:2, 2:31; Rev. 1:18, 6:8, 20:13, and 20:14.
1 Corinthians 15:55 (however, there are some manuscripts of the New Testament which have the Greek word thanatos (death) instead.
In examining these occurrences of hades the only one which cannot easily be translated as "grave" is the one in Luke 16:23, which describes the rich man being buried and then lifting up his eyes in "hell". Obviously more than the traditional sense of "grave" is in view in this passage.
Those who wish to reject a place of torment for the dead will try to explain away this passage in Luke 16:19-31 by explaining that it is a parable with only "spiritual" or "allegorical" meaning. What is peculiar about this statement, even allowing for its being a parable with allegorical meaning (which is a questionable assumption), one will find if one looks at the other parables Jesus told, that they all reference back to real situations. There are actual sowers who sow seed, there is actually seed that falls on hard or good soil. There are actually women who lose coins, men who find treasure in fields, bridesmaids who hold lamps and bridegrooms who arrive at night. To suggest that the description of a place of torment for the unrighteous dead is a complete fabrication runs counter to all the other examples of parables Christ used, which all had their roots deep in real situations that his listeners could understand. And Jesus is not likely to make use of a theological lie for the convenience of his hearers. If there were no Hell he most assuredly would not have made use of it in a parable designed to teach the truth.
The Greek GEHENNAH
This word translated "Hell" occurs twelve times in the New Testament, eleven of those occurrences being in the first three Gospels:
Historically, the Greek word is derived from the Hebrew ge-hinnom (the Valley of Hinnom). It is a place just outside of the city walls that was used as a trash dump; it was generally always on fire and became a vivid picture of a place of grief and torment.
OTHER NT DESCRIPTIONS OF HELL
Other passages in the NT which describe Hell are as follows:
2 Thessalonians 1:9
2 Peter 2:17
20:6, 10, 14
OBJECTIONS BY THOSE WHO REJECT HELL
A favorite passage of those who reject Hell - as well as those who reject the idea that at death an individual goes straight to heaven or hell, is Ecclesiastes 9:5 and 10:
For the living know that they will die,
but the dead know nothing;
they have no further reward,
and even the memory of them is forgotten....
Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave [Hebrew, sheol], where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.
One difficulty for those who would try to use these two verses for such a meaning as they derive from it is the simple fact that they must take the two verses out of context, a notoriously easy thing to do with the book of Ecclesiastes. For instance, as a joke I like to say that Ecclesiastes 10:19 is my life verse:
A feast is made for laughter,
and wine makes life merry,
but money is the answer for everything.
Out of context, one has a verse that contradicts the rest of
A phrase repeated throughout the book of Ecclesiastes is "under the sun" or "under heaven." As Solomon writes near the beginning of the book,
"Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher.
Everything is meaningless."
What does a man gain from all his labor
at which he toils under the sun?....
I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives. (Ecc. 1:2-3, 2:3b)
Therefore, Solomon's point in the passage in question, Ecclesiastes 9:5 and 10, is that with death, all the plans and hopes that a person might have had are gone. If we read the entire passage we will see that it gives little hope to those who imagine this speaks of people having no consciousness after they are dead; such an idea misses the whole point.
This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun:
The same destiny overtakes all. The hearts of men, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead. Anyone who is among the living has hope - even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!For the living know that they will die,
but the dead know nothing;
they have no further reward,
and even the memory of them is forgotten.
Their love, their hate
and their jealousy have long since vanished;
never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun.
Go, eat your food with gladness,
and drink your wine with a joyful heart,
for it is now that God favors what you do.
Always be clothed in white,
and always anoint your head with oil.
Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun - all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.
From the perspective of the living, what Solomon says is certainly
true. A dead body doesn't do much of anything except slowly start
to smell bad. In his book, Solomon has turned his back on God
and is trying to find meaning to life by looking at what's going
on around him. Strictly looking at the way things run on planet
Earth, he found it impossible to see any rhyme or reason to anything
that was going on. Therefore, life became meaningless and whether
you were good or bad, smart or foolish, you still were going to
die and what was the fun in that? The value of the book of Ecclesiastes
is that it shows very starkly the necessity of God revealing himself
to people and telling them what he wants because for sure, as
Solomon discovered, what God wants is not something we can guess
for ourselves, just looking at conditions here on this planet.
A second passage that is sometimes used in the same way as the passage in Ecclesiastes 9:5 and 10 is Psalms 146:4. Its effectiveness for denying that the dead continue to be conscious depends on using the King James translation, and then taking the verse out of its context:
His spirit goes out,
he goes back to his ground;
in that day his thoughts do perish.
However, look at the wider context in a better translation:
Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortal men, who cannot save.
When their spirit departs,
they return to the ground;
on that very day their plans come to nothing.
Obviously to imagine the text in Psalms refers to the dead becoming
unconscious is ludicrous.
Another objection against the concept of Hell is sometimes raised with Jeremiah 7:31 which records:
They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire - something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind.
The argument will be, "look, if the idea of burning children wasn't
in God's mind, then how can you imagine that he would have thought
about burning human beings for all eternity?"
The answer, of course, is again that the passage is taken out of context. What had not entered God's mind was the idea of sacrificing children as burnt offerings to him. The only acceptable burnt offerings were those of animals. But God does speak of fire coming upon the wicked in judgment, for instance upon Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19:24 and in the book of Amos, time after time (Amos 1:4, 7, 10, 12, 14; 2:2 and 5).
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