The Place of Our Prayers in Heaven

Much of this blog has been about our experience after death. With this entry I will take a slightly different angle. I want to consider what we are already engaged with Heaven.

The book of Revelation is a complex book to understand. Apocalyptic literature uses symbolic images and numbers to give a message. Sometimes that message isn’t meant for you, and it is impossible to understand. Still, there are overarching lessons that can help you in some way. One way is to appreciate the power of our prayers.

In Revelation 5:8 and later in chapter 8:3-4. The “prayers of the saints” are mentioned. Here are the quotes:

And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls filled with incense, which are the prayers of the saints.

Revelation 5:8

And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel.

Revelation 8:3-4

John is simply telling us what he saw and knew about what was going on in Heaven. His revelation in these spots was meant, in part, to convey something about our prayers. What was the message? In one spot the prayers are incense, in the other they are mixed with incense. The difference is intentional.

The first setting is one of praise. It pleases God to have genuine, heart-felt praise in any form. In Revelation 5:8 it is in the form of the Seraphim and Elders prostrating themselves before Jesus (the Lamb) and in the form of our prayers, presumably prayers of thanks and praise. These prayers are like a pleasing aroma to God.

In chapter eight the setting is different. God is dealing with the treachery of mankind. The prayers in this case are presumably prayers asking for protection for God’s people from persecutors. These prayers are added to incense indicating that God is pleased that they asked, but the response is one of anger toward those who are hurting His people and obstructing the work of the Gospel.

So what can we say about prayer? First, it is always pleasing to God in some way. Even if it is a distressed prayer, God is pleased that you came to Him. Next, prayer engages God. He may have acted on a situation even in the absence of prayer, but praying matters to Him.

Already we are engaged as citizens of Heaven. Our prayers are dialog with God.

Does this continue when we are actually in Heaven? It does in a much more tangible way. Everything seems to speak to God in Revelation: Angels, Seraphim, the Elders, nature, even the altar. People do as well, both in praise and in protest.

In Revelation 6 the humans who had been martyred speak to God about the delay of Judgment Day. They say:

O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the Earth?

Revelation 6:10

This interaction is a bit surprising. It is respectful, but it is a complaint. The martyrs are eager for either Judgment Day or an act of judgment on those who killed them. This speaks to a degree of awareness of what is happening or not happening on Earth. A final, full contentment only comes when Judgment Day and the resurrection of our bodies is complete. They are put at peace, but they are asked to wait.

Could those who are in Heaven make other intercessions? It is a curious possibility, but since our prayers have direct access to God, it is unnecessary and probably impossible to request the intercession from anyone else. They may act on their own depending on their knowledge of our situation. This is beyond what we know.

It is a mistake to only think of our involvement with Heaven as a future thing. Through prayer and praise, we are engaged there now if we belong to Christ. Because we cannot see this happening, it is easy for this to seem surreal or imaginary. Realize that just because you cannot see it doesn’t make it not real. Use these images, if it helps, to help you to “see”. You may not be in Heaven yet, but you can be engaged there.

Has Anyone Escaped Dying?

The saying goes, “The only things that are certain are death and taxes.” This is more a comment on the ubiquity of taxes than anything else, but I’m sure plenty of people have escaped taxes. Have any escaped death?

There are certain overarching passages that would suggest that answer is “no”:

“The wages of sin is death.”

Romans 6:23

“For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”

1 Corinthians 15:22

There are many more, but perhaps they are hyperbolic or have a few exceptions. The Bible does use language that way. Even in the above passage, not all will be saved and made alive by Christ. You learn that from other passages.

The utility of death is easy to understand. When Adam and Eve had sinned, God made sure that they could no longer eat from the Tree of Life. As long as they continued to live they would live with a sin altered bodies and suffer all the consequences from aging to illness. Dying allows us to shed our bodies which is where our “sinful nature” resides. Death may be a consequence or punishment for sin, but it is useful in fixing that issue.

The Bible presents us with three strange candidates for skipping death: Enoch, Melchizedek and Elijah. Did this happen or is it simply a lack of reporting?

“Altogether, Enoch lived 365 years. Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.

Genesis 5:22b-23

There is clearly nothing usual about Enoch’s life. He is part of period in human history before God dialed us back to a 120 year max (Gen. 6:3). The phrase “Enoch walked with God” is somewhat enigmatic. I would not read this literalistically, but take it to be a comment on his unusual righteousness for a person born with a sinful nature like the rest of us. “God took him away”, could easily be a euphemism for death. Let’s look at the others before hazarding a conclusion.

Melchizedek was king of Salem and priest of God Most High…Without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life, like the Son of God he remains a priest forever.”

Hebrews 7:1,3

“And what we have said is even more clear if another priest like Melchizedek appears, one who had become a priest not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life.

Hebrews 7:17

Melchizedek gets more said about him in Hebrews than he does in the Old Testament (Gen. 14:18-20, Psa. 110:4). The discussion in Hebrews is about how Jesus can serve as our priest before God in Heaven. He is not a Levite by birth, but rather a priest like Melchizedek who pre-dates the Levitical priesthood. Melchizedek seems to be a person who continues to have knowledge of God from Noah. The text does not record any family history or birth and death record. Does that mean that he is not human? If he is, does it mean that he did not die? Jesus is the one with an “indestructible life” after his resurrection. This is not necessarily true of Melchizedek.

“As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to Heaven in a whirlwind.”

2 Kings 2:11

Elijah’s departure is at least recorded. Was his death a form of dying or skipping it all together. Elijah was a great man but also a sinful man, could there be another form of transformation for his flesh?

Jesus who raises from the death with an indestructible form of an earthly body is referred to as the “firstborn from the dead”. From this alone, I would conclude that Enoch, Melchizedek and Elijah all shed their sin-affected bodies in some way. Jesus’ words in John 3:13 would further support that these men did not progress from Earth to Heaven, but rather from Earth to Sheol to Heaven like the rest of the Old Testament righteous. Their descriptions remain mysterious to be sure.

There is one other way mentioned to lose our sinful bodies and gain a resurrected body without the process of death. It is a future process, however.

“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 and dead will be raised imperishable, and we will all be changed.”

1 Corinthians 15:51-52

While that sounds very good, there is no need to fret about the normal way to be “changed”. Death as a process is not necessarily pleasant, but short; and it can have some beautiful moments. The result, when you are connected to Christ, is wonderfully transformative. No more sinful nature, no more results of the curse. A serious upgrade.

Examining Near Death Experiences (Part III)

So far we have reviewed nine common (not unanimous) experiences that were discovered through extensive interviews and are reported in the book Evidence of the Afterlife by Dr. Jeffrey Long. To this point none are surprising given the information and experiences shared in the Bible. That takes us to the last three.

Encountering or Learning Special Knowledge. As with the others, not everybody indicated that this was their experience. The experience itself would provide special knowledge, but the question that yielded this response was driving at whether information was specifically given to the person. The Apostle Paul shares this about his experience, which may have been an NDE:

 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.

2 Corinthians 12:2-4

Paul saw and heard things that he was not permitted to tell to others. He does not share whether some of what he does write about came from this experience. I would assume that it did.

The study did not compare the information, but I have noted some inconsistencies from accounts reported in various books. That greatest was a report of universal salvation versus people who experienced what they called Hell. The universal salvation report would also clash with Scripture. Jesus says,

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one come to the Father except through me.”

John 14:6

The exclusivity of salvation through Jesus makes sense if indeed there is a problem of sin between man and God. Is forgiveness just something God does because He can? If so, why would Jesus be required to go to the cross to atone for sin? The same can be asked about other religions and methods of “earning” Heaven. If that can be done, why would Jesus need to do what He did?

Reports of salvation without Jesus raise suspicion. Are the claims of universal love and acceptance a deception? If so, into whose hands can we fall when we experience a Near Death Experience? There is an assumption that the contents of the experience are necessarily truth. That may be misguided.

Encountering a Boundary or Barrier. There are very few descriptions in the Bible about a trip to Heaven. Those that exist are all focused on the throne room of God. There is also reason to conclude that these were visions. They definitely were not bodily trips to Heaven, nor are NDEs. A vision is not even a movement of the soul to Heaven. It is information about Heaven delivered to the soul. Would the throne room of God count as a place of no return with the only way to experience it is via a vision?

Of people experiencing an NDE, 31% reported that they encountered a point which they could not pass. The reason, or what was beyond, is not laid out. The only thing like it in Scripture is not in Heaven but rather in Sheol. In the account of Lazarus and the Rich Man , the rich man can speak to Abraham but he cannot go to Abraham neither can Abraham go to him.

But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’


Luke 16:25-26

A Return to the Body, Either Voluntary or Involuntary Isaiah, Daniel, Paul and John all have their vision or NDE come to an end. All would seem to prefer to stay . The same can be said for those who experience an NDE.

All we know is this life. There is something within us that clings to this life as long as we can. When people die, we often speak as if life is the prize and Heaven is the consolation prize. This is not the case. In Revelation 7 a picture of people in Heaven is given to us. John is asked if he knows who are these people. He defers to his questioner who tells him, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation…” While “great tribulation” may refer to an event or period of human history, a more likely understanding is that is how this life is referred to in Heaven. It is certainly not an endorsement. The good news is that something truly better does exist for those who are connected to Christ. We just fail to understand how much better.

Examining Near Death Experiences (Part II)

In my last entry I discussed six of the common factors found in Near Death Experiences (NDE) as detailed in the book by Jeffrey Long, MD entitled, Evidence of the Afterlife. Scripture remains the solid proof, promise and explanation of an afterlife; but finding or interpreting the experience of people in light of Scripture can give a connection to real events and broader understanding.

Here are some other common experiences listed in the book:

A sense of alteration of time or space. It is always mind-bending to imagine different scales of time or that time didn’t always exist. God reveals himself to be transcendent. Essentially, beyond the constraints of time or physical laws. A well-known passage that gets at this is:

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord is day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.

2 Peter 3:8

This statement is not a mathematical formula for converting God time to ours. It refers to God’s transcendence and to possibility that the experience of time will differ from Earth to Heaven to Hell. Science would suggest the same thing. While the measurement of the time difference is vague, the general experience is that there is a change of time and space and that you are aware of a difference.

Life Review. We have all heard the expression “my life flashed before my eyes” in connection to a brush with death. This would seem to be a review of your whole life, but particularly your sins. The Bible speaks of Judgment Day, but there is clearly also a “judgment” made at our death. I don’t think it is the same thing. Judgment Day is a future event. The judgment made at our death would be the determination of what comes next. We will all have failures that flash before our eyes, because we are all sinners. Are the sins that we see flash before our eyes our downfall, or are they what has been covered by the death of Jesus? This is what matters at that moment.

Not all people are saved. Scripture reveals it will be a minority. And not all people experience something heavenly in a NDE. Obviously, people would be reticent to announce, “I went to Hell/Sheol”. Those who return with a universalistic message of everyone is saved find themselves in conflict with both the words of Scripture and the experience of many people. Did they misunderstand something? Or is it possible for a NDE to be a deception?

Either way, to experience a life review fits what I would expect.

Encountering Unworldly (Heavenly) Realms. The Bible recounts several Out of Body Experiences (OBE) that took the writer to Heaven. You can find them in Isaiah 6, Daniel 7, Zechariah 3 and Revelation 4,5 and 7. Paul also refers to an OBE/NDE he had in 2 Corinthians 12. It is often hard for the person to discern exactly how they are experiencing this. They cannot tell if it is a vision or actually being there. They cannot tell if this is out-of-body or in the flesh. The Biblical experiences all show the person the throne room of God. It is not a tour of the whole of Heaven or even just another part. NDE recorded after medical emergencies typically reveal another landscape, a very beautiful one, presumably outside of God’s throne room.

These accounts mesh somewhat with Revelation 7:

They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them nor any scorching heat.17 For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Revelation 7:16-17

We have a great interest in the landscape and lifestyle of Heaven. A misinterpretation of the Bible leads to art and the idea that Heaven is on clouds, or that we are bodiless or that it is one unending worship service. Clearly from NDE and Revelation 7 it is not in a cloudbank. Everyone experiences great beauty, but the beauty is different from place to place. Some can compare what they see to what God had created on Earth. For others, what they see defies words as it is very different from what is on Earth. Do these descriptions simply project a person’s expectations? I doubt it, for some of those witnesses didn’t expect a Heaven at all.

Why would some experience Heaven even as non-believers and others experience Hell? This is a mystery. God uses it often to turn around a life or point of view. The experience can seem like a mistake with people being told that it is not their time and sent back, but seems to be more complicated than that. Not every NDE happens with prophetic purpose. Perhaps our capabilities to retrieve people medically from death have made the boundary between Earth and Heaven more permeable, but in the end God’s will in done.

There are just a few more common experiences in NDE. I will discuss them next time.

Examining Near Death Experiences

I believe in life after death because God has given me faith in Jesus Christ as my Savior, the forgiveness of my sins, and the promise of entrance into Heaven and eventually also the New Earth. This faith is the combination of the Holy Spirit working on me through the use of God’s promises and Jesus’ story in the Bible. I have no personal experience of dying or Heaven.

That may not be true for everyone who is still alive. Medical interventions have drastically increased the number of Near Death Experiences (NDE). Though I would not count them as an equal source of information to the Holy Spirit and the Bible, they do represent information that needs to be explained.

In the book, Evidence of the Afterlife, Dr. Jeffery Long publishes the findings of an extended study of those who report leaving their bodies, sometimes hearing conversations they should not have been able to hear within this world, experiencing people and places beyond this world, and returning to their bodies and normal life.

Dr. Long looks at demographics such as religion to consider whether expectations have created false memories. He is convinced that the NDE experience is genuine and not the product of hypoxia as the brain dies, nor false memory. He notes that not all NDE’s are identical, but considering that an NDE is an abnormal state, one would expect some variation. He would also note that there are a set of frequently occurring experiences. Let’s consider what these may be.

The first is simply leaving your body. This would not fit with a materialist view that consciousness is simply brain chemistry and resident in the body. It fits very well with the biblical model of the soul and body separating, ultimately because of sin. It would also support the idea that consciousness is either connected to the soul or is the soul.

The ability to briefly move independent of the body and to see or hear things within or even outside of the room containing the body is further proof of the veracity of the experience. It suggests a brief lingering between our body and our life-after-death destination.

The second is heightened senses. This is an intriguing surprise. Our sensory organs and the sensory portions of our brain are part of the body. How can senses be greater without the body? This common experience (74% of those surveyed) suggests that some of our sensory faculties are a part of the soul. This allows for a heightened experience of color and beauty, also sound and music. It may suggest the formation of a heavenly body, though awareness of having a body is not reported.

The third is the experience of intense and generally positive emotions. The Bible warns us that some, in fact a majority, will experience Sheol at their death. Those experiencing this would be unlikely to share it, thereby creating biased information among reported data. What is primarily reported here is such things as love, joy, happiness, warmth, safety, belonging, forgiveness and understanding. These are emotions that would be expected from Heaven and the experience of meeting God.

The fourth, and maybe the most well-known, is passing through a tunnel. People sometimes describe the tunnel as soft. They experience movement, sometimes at great speed. While the tunnel is not necessarily dark, they know that they are moving toward a bright light. What could this be? I would theorize that Heaven isn’t a part of the space-time dimension in which we now exist. You will not find Heaven by traveling far enough out. I expect it forms a type of parallel universe, as does Sheol. The tunnel is a form of transition from one realm to the other. Whether it has anything to do with Einstein’s “wormhole” concept, I do not know.

The fifth, is experiencing a mystical or brilliant light. Dr. Long reports that 64.6% of respondents report seeing this light. God is described in 1 John as light. While this could be read as being metaphorical, it can also be understood as a statement about his being. The one account offered by Long in the first chapter of his book speaks about an interconnectedness of other lights, including the reporters, to the main light. I think this is intriguing about the Bible speaks about our being a part of the body of Christ. It is connectedness to Christ that saves us.

There are several more common experiences noted in the book, Evidence of the Afterlife, I would like to continue discussing these in my next entry.

Who Will Be Saved and Who Could Have Been?

The Bible is a considerably large body of knowledge, still there are times when I think, “So little information and so many questions.” I wish the Bible gave me more on a specific topic, but I and everybody else are left with a mystery.

Today’s mystery for your consideration is a seeming contradiction within the pages of Scripture. One set of passages seem to suggest that God will only save a rather small minority of people which He foreknew. Another set of passages seem to suggest that God wants all to be saved and that there is hope that over time a significant portion of those people can be saved. Those are opposing views at least on the surface. They have given birth to different theological traditions with different approaches to ministry. I believe that the Bible doesn’t contradict itself. Apparent contradictions are just failures to understand. How do these passages come together?

Here are some of the passages that suggest a very limited salvation:

13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

Matthew 7:13-14

Jesus doesn’t just give good news. This is arguably the worst news from his mouth. Another to consider:

 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.

What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, as it is written,

“God gave them a spirit of stupor,
    eyes that would not see
    and ears that would not hear,
down to this very day.”

Romans 11:6-8

This passage contains the term “elect”. The elect are those God chooses for eternal life and actually foreknows before the creation of the world. Here, speaking specifically about certain generations among the Jews, it also speaks of God shutting down or at least not opening up these people to saving faith.

There are more passages like these, but for the sake of brevity, let’s show some of the opposite.

This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

1 Timothy 2:3-4

The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

2 Peter 3:9

The 2 Peter passage has always bothered me. If Matthew 7 above is true, aren’t we not sending more people to damnation the longer God let’s this world move on? Also, does God really desire everyone to be saved when he clearly declared that certain groups of people had crossed a line and would never be included?

The Apostle Paul, author of two of these passages on either side of this issue, declares at one point, “The mystery of faith is great”. Even he struggled to understand how this all goes together. So we should set our expectations of full understanding rather low.

Here are the parts that can be drawn from this mystery. God never created human beings to damn a portion of them. He takes no pleasure in doing it. God is a being who strongly abides by his own law. He doesn’t compromise it because he can. As such, the giving of a truly free will to our common ancestors, Adam and Eve, has resulted in billions of people who cannot know or believe God at all on our own. Further, the majority will not come into a necessary faith in God’s Son even with the help of God’s Holy Spirit. Why not? I know not.

Certain generations or people groups have proven so corrupt and provocative to God that God has declared that he would not even try with them. These blanket disownings are found in the Old Testament, but the main one affecting certain Jews persists until Jesus’ time at least. This suggests that the problem could be genetic at the core of it.

The toughest thing to wrap your mind around is how can God foreknow and call “elect” those who will be saved before the creation of the world and in “real time” act and ask us to act as though anybody and everybody can be saved? This where we have to admit that we cannot fathom what it is like to be God.

It is pretty clear from Scripture that people will be damned even though Jesus died for everyone’s sin. The breakdown in saving everyone comes in making the connection between people and Jesus. Forming that bond has its limits. The result is significant losses and even though it deeply grieves God and everybody who cares, God will not use his unlimited power to fix this.

It is not right to develop a form of fatalism in response to the first set of passages I quoted. Unlike God, I do not know who will believe the promise that a person can have eternal life with God and immediate forgiveness of their sinfulness simply by believing God’s promise and baptism into Jesus’ death. I will only continue to proclaim this to people because I care about them and hope that they can believe.

The way God dealt with the problem of human sin through Jesus was a surprise. Maybe God still has another surprise to deal with unbelief.

May you be one of the elect.

Are There Levels of Hell?

One book that I remember reading in high school and enjoying was Dante’s Inferno. Actually I read the whole Divine Comedy . It details a fictitious trip through Hell, then Purgatory, and finally Heaven. Within the Inferno section of the poem was a description of Hell containing nine levels. On each sinners experienced eternal punishment that fit their crimes. At the very bottom was Satan chewing on the classic traitors of history.

Interesting book but not biblical. Yet Jesus says a few things that suggest that Hell is not a uniformly miserable experience. For instance, when sending out his disciples on their first mission trip, Jesus instructs his disciples to shake off of their feet the dust of cities that will not welcome them. He says of these cities:

I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

Matthew 10:15(NIV)

Descriptions of Hell are very few. Really the most detailed descriptions are of Sheol/Hades. Revelation refers to the “Lake of fire” as the final place of judgment that we call “Hell”. Jesus’ words above refer to the “day of Judgment”, so he is not talking about experiences in Sheol but rather post-judgment day. So how could they differ? Both would include being forsaken by God, for that is the penalty for sin.

In the next chapter Jesus says,

Woe to you Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No you will go down to (Hades) If the miracles there were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.

Matthew 11:21-24 (NIV)

It would seem that the opportunity to believe and be saved that should have been enhanced by seeing miracles performed, actually creates a more grievous punishment if the miracles are ignored, rationalized away, or attributed to Satan. It is the later that most likely happened in these places.

Jesus suggests that seeing miracles would have at least prompted a temporary repentance if not salvation in some of the classic places of sin. This is not true in some devoutly Jewish towns.

What makes their experience “more bearable”? This question remains unanswered. It is not necessarily that there are circles of more intense suffering or longer sentences (because they are all eternal). The suffering of Hell is primarily psychological. It is being forgotten and excluded by God. To have nothing but to remember that Jesus was right there proving himself with miracles no less and you did not believe has to be an agonizing thought.

Might there be other circumstances like these? Perhaps a person ignored the love and constant witness of family out of pride or rebellion. Maybe others were among the ranks of the clergy and rejected their faith for flimsy reasons. In the quotes above both Bethsaida and Capernaum were the home towns of original disciples (Andrew and Peter respectively). Ignoring a witness or being offended by it because it came from family might be a source of greater “intolerability”.

In Dante’s fiction the punishment was made to fit the crime. In the end, the crime of damned will end up being rejecting the sacrifice the Son of God made to forgive their many lesser sins. One level suffices for all. Only the knowledge that this was easily avoidable makes it worse.

The Fate of Angels

If you don’t know the Bible hardly at all, you might think that people become angels when they die. This errant idea is told to children when somebody dies. It is propagated by movies (i.e. It’s a Wonderful Life), songs, and even art (like the George Floyd mural seen on the news). It cuts against popular culture to say this but angels seem to be a species of their own, you can’t become an angel, angels are not described as having wings, angels and cherubim are not the same thing, and evil angels don’t share the same fate as evil people until Judgment Day.

We can say that some angels sinned:

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into (hell) and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment…

2 Peter 2:4 (ESV)

I put parentheses around the word “hell”, because it is used too liberally as an English translation for many words in Hebrew and Greek in my opinion. At least ESV footnotes this translation. One would expect Hades was the translated word, but it is not. A new word shows up: Tartarus.

There are a number of words or phrases that are place names associated with existence after death or at least existence outside of life on Earth: Sheol, Hades, Heaven (ouranos), Gehenna, lake of fire, Tartarus, and the Abyss . It is confusing as to what are synonyms and what describes distinct places. Context and comparing translations are the only way to figure it out. We know the Hades and Sheol are the same from a Hebrew to Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. Also you can tell that Hades and the “lake of fire” are distinct things from Revelation 20:14 where Hades is thrown into the lake of fire. Then they are not distinct anymore. What does Gehenna describe? I think context suggests that Gehenna is Jesus’ word for the lake of fire.

What do we mean by “Hell”. I mean that place of final judgment. That would then be English for Gehenna or lake of fire. If you mean the place of immediate judgment. Then use it for Sheol or Hades, but using it for all of the above covers up the fact that there are distinct places. Is Tartarus another synonym? It is only used once. Like Hades it is word borrowed from Greek mythology. Tartarus was an abyss used for suffering of the wicked and the prison for the Titans. Using the world “Tartarus” sounds like borrowing from another religion, just as the use of “Hades” does. I have another theory. That other cultures have similar ideas of what exists beyond our universe by the use of forbidden cultic practices that permitted communication with the dead.

Peter’s choice of the word “Tartarus” wasn’t adopting Greek mythology, but was using a commonly understood word to describe some place that was actually there. Further, using the context of the Bible, I think we can equate “Tartarus” here in 2 Peter with (abyssou) the abyss used in Revelation 9:2, 9:11, 11:7, 20:1, 20:2. This is different than how Job and Jonah used what could be translated as abyss. In those cases, it is more a concept of being in the “deep”.

So if we work with that theory, what is Tartarus? It would seem to be another realm of reality that is segregated from our universe, Heaven, and Hades/Sheol at the present time. It seems to be used as a prison for evil angels. Peter says that they are being kept there until the judgment (Judgment Day), for a final destination of Hell, with Satan and with people (Matt25:41). A further description of the angels in prison is given in Jude:

And the angels who did not stay within their authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day…

Jude 1:6

If there are disobedient angels in Tartarus, then what are demons? Revelations 12:9 does the most to equate demons with some segment of disobedient angels.

And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is call the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world–he was thrown down to the Earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

Revelation 12:9

So some disobedient angels end up in Tartarus and some here. Incidentally, a common understanding of the sin referred to in 2 Peter is what is described in Genesis 6:2–sexually crossing over to humans.

Revelation gives the idea that there is some sort of breakout or that there could be (depending on how Revelation is to be understood.) Since Tartarus is a place, could not the whole contingent of Satan and his angels have been placed there?

Either this all seems too complex or mythological for you or it makes you wonder how we fit in a broader struggle between God and part of His creation, and what is possible in that struggle.

The ugliness of this world can and should be accepted as a human product, but I wonder how much is initiated and antagonized by forces beyond our recognition. Jesus and the New Testament writers speak of this broader scale war. Our information about it is very limited. Clearly the methods of conventional warfare cannot remove the spiritual enemy only the people who are co-opted by it. Spiritual warfare as described by Paul in Ephesians 6 and the extension of the Gospel to new people, seems to be our role.

Why Not Reincarnation?

A large chunk of the population of the world expects to be reincarnated. This includes Hindus, Buddhists and many other who have incorporated this idea into their “spirituality”. Reincarnation gives the promise of continued life. While judgment or karma is expected and is meant to motivate an unselfish life, reincarnation gives hope for self-progress and self-redemption in the end. It also gives reason to judge people for their current condition and creates a fatalistic attitude with not much motivation to change the world. It is an interesting idea, but is real?

Experience doesn’t settle the question. All of the Near Death Experiences (NDE) that I am aware of have given the individuals who had them an experience of Heaven or Sheol. None have said, I was a dog, worm or even another person. There are some who claim other “memories” experienced in dreams, flashback type of experiences that do give the impression that the person had a previous life. How can this be explained? Perhaps one experiences what they expect in certain neural states. Either type of experience may possibly be introduced by outside spiritual forces (i.e. God, Satan, angel, demons, etc.) to inform or deceive. Whatever the answer, experience is not conclusive.

The Bible rules out reincarnation by giving us a picture of Heaven or Sheol immediately upon death and by these words:

And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who eagerly wait for him.

Hebrews 9:28

Many people are choosing a mixed, and consequently inconsistent, system of beliefs that merge Jesus and reincarnation. Granted these people are hardly what you would call theologians. It is clear for those who know the Bible, that reincarnation is not a part of the human experience if the Bible is truth. Here you have to look at the weight of evidence and have the help of God to understand why the Bible is to be trusted versus any of the writings of Eastern religion.

Jesus comes from a determined place and time, not some vague story. He backed his teachings with miracles before eye-witnesses. He rose from the dead and was seen by both friends, skeptics, and enemies. His coming was accurately foretold by prophets who lived long before him. I don’t think any other self-proclaimed revelation from God can claim such support.

The biggest difference between what the Bible presents as our eternal destiny versus Eastern religions is not the one life versus many. It is that God saves us out of love and does the work Himself versus a system where you raise yourself through lifestyle and knowledge. Wisdom, knowledge, kindness and good works have their place in Christianity, but not as the cause of being saved. They are the result of being saved. We are motivated by love and a sense of God-given mission.

Ironically, Eastern religions are very do-it-yourself compared to Christianity, but the goal is to cease to exist as an individual. One ultimately merges with an impersonal God. In Christianity, Jesus merges you to Himself for the sake of making you righteous and worthy of eternity. He does so without eliminating you as a person. Rather he emphasizes just how valuable you are.

Do not count on having another life and another chance. Definitely don’t count on your own abilities to merit eternal life. Count on Christ.

Confusing Heaven and the New Earth

One thing that seems to escape many Christians, even clergy and theologians, is that Heaven and the New Earth are two separate places. The idea that there is just Heaven and Hell has been broadly taught for generations. We have even gone soft on these. “Heaven” is almost never capitalized. Does this mean that the editors of various hymnals and Bible translations consider “Heaven” to be a concept rather than a place with a name? And many Christians don’t believe in Hell.

If you are of the impression that there is only Heaven and Hell, where did you learn that? What Bible passages were used? Or was this just the general description given you as a child by adults who never studied the Scripture for this topic? Such an idea can become entrenched in our mind. We are certain that it must be in the Bible, but it is not.

A couple of linguistic things add to our confusion. First, the Greek word for “Heaven” is used to describe “the atmosphere” (first heaven), “the universe” (second heaven), and the dwelling place of God or what I would describe as “Heaven” (third heaven).

“Hell” an English word with a long history of where it came from, is often sloppily assigned to two Aramaic words, “Gehenna”, which was just transliterated into Greek (so it is a Greek word too), and “Sheol” which is translated into Greek as “Hades”. I think it is interesting that one word is just borrowed by Greek (like the word “hard drive” is rarely changed in other languages) and the other is assigned a word with a lot of meaning. “Hades” is also a place of the dead for the Greek people. From this I would conclude that “Gehenna” and “Sheol” are not synonyms. They are two place names, and the latter conceptually fits with the Greek idea of Hades. The result is the tendency to merge places that exist before Judgment Day with those that only exist after Judgment Day.

Heaven, as most of us would think of it, clearly exists now. It is the visible dwelling place of God, the Cherubim (also called Seraphim) and the angels. It will continue to exist after Judgment Day but will not be the visible dwelling place of God. The New Earth is something spoken of in both Old and New Testaments. It is not Heaven and only will exist after Judgment Day. It becomes the formal dwelling place of God with the arrival of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21.

Sheol/Hades is a place for the damned (and until Jesus made atonement for sin, the Old Testament righteous) that exists today. What I would call “Hell”, Jesus calls “Gehenna”, and John calls the “Lake of Fire”; does exist until after Judgment Day. That it is something distinct from Sheol/Hades is established in Revelation 20:14 where Hades is thrown into the Lake of Fire. I guess at that point they become the same thing.

So will we be in Heaven forever? With the resurrection of our bodies on Judgment Day, the New Earth will become both our permanent dwelling and the dwelling place of God (Rev. 21:1-4); but there are some clues that Heaven remains in the mix somehow. First there is this:

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

2 Corinthians 5:1

Does Paul mean “heavens” as the universe or as the current dwelling place of God? Is “heaven” wherever God dwells or a place of its own? I believe Paul is not speaking of the universe and that Heaven is a place, even after God dwells with man on the Earth. Another passage:

According to his (God’s) great mercy he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.

1 Peter 1:3-4 (NIV 1984)

We do go to Heaven when we die. God and probably the New Jerusalem are a part of Heaven that is eternal, but will move to the New Earth. Still, I think this is saying that part of our eternal inheritance is Heaven, the place. The New Earth and Heaven could be our home eternally. There is the movement of the New Jerusalem, which could be the sum total of Heaven, to the New Earth. This would create a parallel to the merging of Sheol and Gehenna described above, but symmetry is all that interpretation has going for it.

While I can see that some of the questions that can be raised about our eternity are unanswered, merging Heaven and the New Earth doesn’t honor the Scriptures, which clearly describes them as distinct. Either way, these things are ours by grace. God prepares for us a body or bodies and a sin and curse free place of existence where we are with Him.