Is Heaven For Real?

Let’s start with a very basic question. Do you think there is a Heaven? You hear that question asked every so often in books and movies and, I presume, it is asked quite often in real life. Even those who regularly attend church have their occasional doubts. Nothing brings this question into more focus than your own impending death. Is Heaven for real?

There are many sorry substitutes for a resounding “yes”. To believe in Heaven seems anti-intellectual for some. We fear that it may be myth or wishful thinking, so many are guarded. As a result, some will say that we live on in people’s memories or that Heaven is a state of mind we have while we are alive. Let me give you an example. I recently had the opportunity to go to Israel. In Jerusalem, I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is on the traditional site where Jesus was both executed and buried.  I was standing in a chapel that is on the top of Golgatha where Jesus was crucified. Golgatha was not some huge mountain or even much of a hill. It was a rocky outcropping in a garden just outside the walls of Jerusalem, maybe 25 feet tall. The chapel was in three parts, each utilized by a different church body. I was in the middle chapel and in the chapel to my right, well within earshot was a Roman Catholic priest giving a sermon and celebrating Mass with his tour group. As I listened he said something like this, “I don’t know what eternal life is, but I would like to think it was something to do with this world. I believe we will live on in the memories of those who love us and our deeds will continue to have a lasting impact.” I was both stunned and repulsed. Here we are, mostly likely standing on the place where Jesus died to win us eternal life, and a member of the clergy was equating eternal live with being remembered. I was torn by incredulity, pity and anger. Luckily, the later did not win.

Let me assure all readers, that Jesus did live. There is plenty of evidence for that. Five hundred witnesses can also attest that He did actually die on a cross and rise again. The purpose of this whole process was not, for sure, so that you can live on in somebody’s memory. That is just sad, sad garbage. Heaven is neither imaginary nor is it wishful thinking to calm us as we face death. Heaven is a place that is perhaps more “real” than this universe.

Both the Bible and the testimony of many people who have had Near Death Experiences (NDEs) attest to the reality of Heaven. Jesus speaks frequently about ascending to or descending from Heaven. This type of language would be nonsense if Heaven were a mere state of mind. In John 14:6, he goes out of his way to affirm that Heaven is not only a place, but a place for us, when he says, “In my Father’s house are many rooms”.   Perhaps that would still seem like mythical, wishful thinking for some if it were not for frequent experiences of Heaven when people’s consciences are temporarily separated from their body (usually because of medical circumstances).

Since we all will die, we should all be terribly interested in what we can learn about eternal life and the places described by the Bible that exist outside of our world and beyond our lives. I would argue that, other than how to get to Heaven, this topic is one of the most relevant topics that there is. Still, there is an interesting abundance of people who don’t want to talk about life after death. I suspect that this is caused by a deep fear of death or a still festering grief over the loss of a loved one, or maybe it the desire to be God. Whatever the cause, this is the wrong approach.

Clear knowledge about Heaven and about how God has arranged that we get there can result in just the opposite. We can look to Heaven with great anticipation and excitement. We can be as certain about what happens after our death as we are certain that the sun will rise. That is an incredibly powerful position to be in. Death really has no sting in this case, and life itself is given new and fuller meaning.

Such certainty can and must rest on the reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection and confidence in the promise of God to forgive our sins and bring us home. As Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” On the flip side, confidence that rests on ignorance or wishful thinking is extremely dangerous.

A common and dangerous belief is the belief that all of us end up in Heaven. It makes us feel better. It is what we want. If we believe this uncritically, then we don’t even have to think about the topic. I want everybody to make it to Heaven as well, but it isn’t so. The Bible is clear about this and that reality is also backed by many NDEs (Near Death Experiences), where people experience Sheol. For this reason, we should all think about this critical topic of life after death.

Heaven is not the default destination of a human being. Jesus speaks of many heading to destruction in Matthew 7. Romans tells us that everybody falls short of the glory of God in chapter 3. Our default is to be damned, but Jesus’ death and resurrection is enough that anyone who is connected to Jesus through faith and baptism is not condemned and has eternal life (John 3). Eternal life has nothing to do with the quality of our behavior and whether we were good enough. Eternal life is completely the gift of God, and it is a very good thing this is so, for even a partial responsibility for gaining eternal life would put it out of our reach.

Having a wrong idea about who goes to Heaven and why is clearly the worst of the misconceptions about eternal life, but there are many more. Some of these misconceptions are likely to be held by you. Ask yourself from where they came.

 

Sheol in the Book of Job

The oldest book of the Old Testament is not the first one. It is the book of Job. When Job lived exactly is unclear. That he and friends knew about Sheol is abundantly clear, because they use the word many times.   In discourses like you find in Job or in the poetry that you find in Psalms, a certain degree of translational caution is in order. Some poetic license is used in these books. Also, in Job, several people speak who do not speak the truth. Consequently, determining the meaning of a word like Sheol or deriving doctrinal information about it using these books must be done with caution. The good news is that we can learn the meaning of Sheol from other places. While one might poetically refer to a non-existent place of the dead and call it Sheol, the reality of the place is established by its use in other books. So it is proper to understand Sheol as a place even in Job, Psalms and other poetic passages. You just have to double check what you glean from them.

Job first speaks of Sheol in 7:9

As a cloud vanishes and is gone, so he who goes down to (Sheol) does not return.

Job is despairing of his life, but is even more concerned at this point with his death. He knows that he will eventually go to Sheol and considers it to be a one-way trip. This is not to discount Job’s belief in his eventual salvation. Job does speak of the resurrection at the last day in Job 19:25-27:

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!

Job, a righteous man, speaks of Sheol and the resurrection of the body, but not of Heaven! It makes you wonder that if Job received knowledge of Sheol and the resurrection by revelation from God, why would God withhold information about Heaven?   Gaps like this leads the skeptic to conclude that Heaven is a theological innovation of a later time, but God has His reasons for rolling out information at appropriate times. He doesn’t need to share those reasons with us.

In Job 11:8, Job’s friend Zophar speaks of the mysteries of God. His statement is a metaphor comparing the scope of the mysterious nature of God to the height of the heavens and depth of Sheol. Often when the word heaven is plural it is referring to the universe. Sheol is repeatedly referred to as the lowest place, but does this comparison mean that it is part of this universe? Here the poetic nature of the reading would not justify such a conclusion. Nonetheless, if it were just a grave, a grave would not be considered very deep. Clearly Zophar is referring to something else.

Job 14:13 provides an interesting contrast to what Job said in 7:9. Earlier, he did not wish to die, but as his suffering continues he now begs to be hid in Sheol until God’s wrath is done.  So what is more desirable, to suffer in this world or be in Sheol? The question is pondered further in chapter 17:

If the only home I hope for is Sheol(grave), if I spread out my bed in the darkness, if I say to corruption, “You are my father” and to the worm, “My sister”, where then is my hope? Who can see any hope for me? Will it go down to the gates of Sheol (death)? Will we descend together into the dust?

Truly this is a sad passage. Job grasps for any kind of hope, because suffering stifles hope. It is easy to see why translators might choose “the grave” and “death”, because Job speaks of corruption and the worm. That makes it sound like we are talking about the condition of the body. But Jesus speaks in the terms used in this passage as well. We’ll address these passages later, but for now lets note that Jesus wasn’t speaking about the fate of the earthly body.

Job seems to have a hard time deciding whether Sheol is a desirable or undesirable place. In Job 21:13, he gripes about the injustice that exists in life. He notes that wicked people sometime have a good life, and they go to Sheol peacefully. Since Job’s life is such a horrible trial, it is understandable that he is a bit jaded. To note, he doesn’t seem to see Sheol as a place of justice. In other words, it’s not a place where the evil people get what’s coming to them. To him it is just the common fate of us all. Jesus would paint a significantly different picture. So would Job’s friends. One of his “buddies”, Bildad, describes death and Sheol as a punishment for sin in 24:19. Whether ultimately saved or damned, Sheol exists because of sin.  Bildad is at least correct about this.

The Bible doesn’t paint death as a deliverance from what is undesirable about life. Death is the direct result of sin. It is punishment, and it’s a punishment that every human being has earned through sin. What lies on the other side of death is also the consequence of sin, at least in part. This is true of whether we are talking about Sheol for the righteous or for the unrighteous, or even for that matter in one way, if we are talking about Heaven.

Humans are properly a body and a soul (call it consciousness if you like). Having those two things segregated as they are by death is undesirable, even though one might argue that having soul and body together in a life like Job’s is worse.

Next Time:  There is more to say about Sheol, but lets take a break and look at some of what the Bible says about Heaven

Is Sheol My Destiny?

We have talked about the fact that the Old Testament people did not speak about going to Heaven or Hell exactly, they spoke about going to Sheol.  Sheol was a place for the righteous (like Jacob) and the unrighteous (like Korah).  Scripture that we will cover later reveals that Sheol is a place with two parts separated by a chasm or void.  The one part was relatively pleasant, the other a hellish place of torment.  Before completing what the Bible has to say about Sheol/Hades, I want to address a common question I have heard since teaching about this topic.

Do we go to Sheol?  It is important to note that Jesus’ victory on the cross made a tremendous difference in mankind’s after death destiny.  Jesus stated in John 3:13 that no one had gone to Heaven up to that point.  That would change with Jesus’ victory on the cross.

Ultimately, after Judgment Day, the Bible says that humans will be part of a New Earth or what I would call “Hell” (the Bible uses the terms “lake of fire” or “Gehenna”).  Until Judgment Day, when we die we are either sent to Heaven or the bad neighborhood of Sheol.  This is what theologians call the “Intermediate Period” (The time after our death but before Judgment Day).  Both destinations change with Judgment Day.  The idea that we “sleep” until Judgment Day or that we defy time and immediately move to Judgment Day does not work with Revelation 6:9-10.

I found the picture above on the internet.  It does a decent job of illustrating what I am talking about. (I have a few issues with it.  What it calls Hell present is what the Bible calls Sheol or Hades.   The chasm it shows is not between Heaven and Sheol but rather is a part of Sheol)  So, back to the original question.  If you are connected to Jesus through faith and baptism, then you will not go to Sheol.  But it is good to realize that Sheol is something different than what we normally think of when we say Hell.

Next time:  What Job says about Sheol

Sheol in the Old Testament (part 1)

Most people’s understanding of what the Bible says about existence after death doesn’t go beyond a simple heaven and hell, so I expect that many of you are surprised to know that the Old Testament people didn’t exactly expect to go to either place.  They spoke about Sheol, and that is what I have been explaining in the last several blog entries.

The first time we see the word Sheol used is in the story of Jacob (Gen. 37:35, 42:38, 44:29,31). Moses records this story around 1500 BC. Jacob himself would have lived around 2000 BC. It would be a mistake to assume that either of these men are the inventors of the idea of Sheol. I wouldn’t even conclude that they were the first recipients of revelation about Sheol. We have no definitive idea of how mankind found out about Sheol. The use of the word by these men simply means they knew something about it. But what?

When Jacob finds out the false information that his son, Joseph, is dead, (Actually his brothers had sold him to slave traders); he goes into full-scale mourning. He suggests that his own grief is going to kill him and that he will go down to Sheol (usually translated as “grave” here) to his son. Since there is no body, Jacob doesn’t mean that he will be put into the family tomb with his son. He fully expects to be where his son already is. It is important to note that both Jacob and Joseph are among God’s chosen people. They are reserved for eternal life, even if that promise wasn’t entirely clear to them. Still, Sheol is the place where even the righteous expected to go in Old Testament times.

This is part of the reason why the concept of Sheol is so confounding to us today. We are used to thinking that the righteous go to heaven, and assume that this has always been true. Trying to stay true to this idea, translators have had to come up other ideas of what Sheol meant that didn’t describe a conscious, after death destiny. Hence they equate Sheol with the grave or a nebulous concept of death, whenever a righteous person uses the word. If you let yourself get past this bias, however, you will realize that most people in the Old Testament spoke of going to Sheol after their death and understood it to be a place of conscious existence. The promise of eternal life with God in the Old Testament is more often a reference to the resurrection of the body at Judgment Day.

As Jacob speaks about his death, he refers to going “down” to Sheol. This is reflective of where he believed Sheol to be. In ancient cosmology, Sheol was beneath the earth. The fact that the ancient people didn’t accurately understand the structure of the universe is not grounds for dismissing all of their ideas, but it does weigh on the degree of literalism we would attach to their words.

The fact that the Bible is the Word of God, does not mean that all the words in it are the Word of God. The Bible is not a running monologue where God speaks. Saying that the Bible is God’s Word means that God inspired the recording of these words and that the teachings of these words, sometimes through whole stories or even whole books accurately convey the truth.  Individuals within the stories may express their own understanding, even if that understanding is inaccurate. This is very different from some modern, liberal theories on the Bible that dismiss the Bible as being the product of human editing, cultural bias, and imagination. I am saying that the type of literature that each book of the bible is affects the degree of literalism with which you understand it and whether you can take a verse out of its context.

All we can say is this so far, Jacob’s family believed in a place where the dead went. They may or may not have had a proper understanding of where that was. God may not have given them information on Sheol’s location, and people like Jacob simply filled the void by referring to Sheol as being down.

We might assume that the knowledge of the Old Testament people, if accurate, always came in the form of revelation from God. While this is often true, we will see later that there is another more nefarious way information about Sheol could have come to the broader culture.

The idea of going “down” to Sheol could have also been created by many experiences other than revelation. The most obvious is lowering the body into a grave. Volcanic activity may have led others to assume that Sheol was in the middle of the earth.

The next reference to Sheol comes from the story of the rebellion against Moses by the sons of Korah, which is found in Numbers 16. In the story of the rebellion of Korah, God wanted to assert, for the whole population of Israel to see, that He is in charge and that Moses and Aaron are His representatives. Before it all was over Korah, two of his followers and their families were swallowed up by the ground and “went down alive to Sheol”. Fire also came from God and consumed 250 other men who had sided with the rebels. This judgment brought further rebellion against the leadership of Moses and a plague ended up taking the lives of 14,700 people before it was stopped.

The story illustrates a number of things. First, it is not beyond a God of love to also be a God of justice. God desires the well-being and salvation of people, but He does not tolerate rebellion and people trying to do things their own way. Second, this incident shows Sheol to be the destination of the condemned as well. While the bodies of Korah and his followers definitely went down, the location of their final destination is uncertain.

The next spot we find Sheol is in a monologue given by God in Deuteronomy 32. Earlier in chapter 32 Moses recounts the provocative nature of the behavior of the people of Israel toward God. In verse 20, God speaks Himself of His displeasure and His plans for discipline. Then in verse 22 God says,

For a fire had been kindled by my wrath, one that burns to the realm of Sheol below. It will devour the earth and its harvests and set afire the foundations of the mountains. (NIV, 1984)

Once again, the concept of down is interjected, this time by God. Where “below” refers to is unclear. What is added to this picture of Sheol is the idea of the “fire of God’s wrath”. This wrath currently was burning in Sheol, but would expand to judgment in this world. Given this description should Sheol then be seen as Hell? That would depend on what we understand by “Hell”. If Hell is the place of final, eternal judgment then the answer would be “no”, as we shall see. Also militating against such an interpretation is the fact that the chosen are also seen as going to Sheol.

Next Time: Is Sheol my destiny?