Does God Reward Us in the Afterlife?

So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.”

Luke 17:10

These words of Jesus strike at the reason why this topic should feel awkward. As sinners, we don’t deserve a place in Heaven or the New Earth period. Nothing that we can do can compensate for our sins. The very fact that we are saved by grace should eliminate any thought of additional reward. Except it doesn’t. Jesus talks about it frequently, so does Paul.

Another passage that seems to eliminate any thought of individual reward and paint an egalitarian picture of eternal life is the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard in Matthew 20. In this story, workers are added to the workforce every three hours. At the end of the day, the workers who came in last are paid the same as those who worked all day. This is often interpreted to mean that our experience as redeemed people in the afterlife will be essentially equal.

There are two problems with this interpretation. First, the context around the parable shows that Jesus is speaking to the status of the Jews. They will be counted equal with people from other nations that come later. Also, salvation is never counted as a wage or prize that you earn. It is a gift that is beyond our earning.

When Jesus or Paul talks about reward, what could this mean? First, without grace reward is impossible. Our deeds can follow us only because our sin isn’t following us thanks to Jesus.

Then I heard a voice from Heaven say, “Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.”

Revelation 14:13

The reward is God’s choice nothing is owed to us. Therefore, the attitude noted above in Luke is part of a rewardable deed. So is love.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have the faith to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

1 Corinthians 13:1-3

When these are in place, some manner of reward is possible.

If any man builds on this foundation (grace in Christ) using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one passing through the flames.

1 Corinthians 3:12-15

This passage indicates that the saved may be rewarded or not. But what is the nature of the reward? Honor is a part of it. The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25) or the Parable of the Minas (Luke 19) give the accommodation, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Honor is also spoke of in 1 Peter 1:7.

The two parables also speak of expanded stewardship in some form. Faithful stewardship results in being put in charge of more. Whatever the “more” proves to be.

We can also expect that our reward is somehow connected to relationships. Paul speaks of the Thessalonians as his reward:

For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? Indeed, you are our glory and joy

1 Thessalonians 2:19-20

Honor, expanded stewardship and people, these are the most detailed description we currently have of our possible reward.

Reward is usually spoken of in the context of Judgment Day. Judgment Day for the redeemed is not to determine whether we are saved or not. That was determined long before that event. It is a judgment of our deeds. The reward is something primarily realized in the New Heaven and New Earth. I say primarily because an “inheritance” kept in Heaven is mentioned in 1 Peter 1:

In His great mercy He has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade–kept in Heaven for you

1 Peter 1:3-4

This could just be the whole environment of Heaven both during the Intermediate period and post-Judgment Day or it could have in view some degree of reward. We will have to wait and see.

A lack of equality in honor, stewardship and relationship leads to jealousy and resentment here on Earth. That is all a product of our sinful natures. This will no longer be an issue during any time in Heaven or the New Earth because sinful nature is gone. It will only be an additional blessing that God chooses to give.

Understanding Life After Death

One of the most shocking moments I ever had from a theological point of view happened in Jerusalem, in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, in the Chapel on top of Golgotha no less, where traditionally Jesus was crucified.  I heard a Catholic priest say these words to his tour group:  “I don’t know what eternal life is, but I like to think it has something to do with this world.  I like to think we live on in the memories of those who love us.”

My jaw must have hit the floor.  Did Jesus need to die to help people remember them? Nooo!  This priest was confused to the extreme, but confusion is not limited to him.  What happens after we die confuses many people for some reason.  The result is disagreement.

There are basically four ideas of what comes next. One is caught up in Paul’s use of the word “sleep” (see 1 Cor. 15:51 or 1 Thess. 4:13 for example).  In this model we are unconscious at our death until aroused at Judgment Day.  This model is quickly contradicted by 1 Thessalonians 4:14 which has the righteous dead returning with Jesus as he comes on Judgment Day. 

For since we believe that Jesus rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep.

1 Thessalonians 4:14

It also is in tension with Revelation 6:9-10 where martyrs are conscious, in Heaven, and asking God how long they have to wait for Judgment Day.  For that matter, also Revelation 7:9-17 which shows people in Heaven in a pre-Judgment Day setting.

Another is a time-warp model that doesn’t have you sleeping but going direct to the Judgment Day. The idea is that because God must be transcendent (above the Laws of Nature), that we are also transcendent after our death. While I do believe God can do whatever He wants with us. Assuming transcendence is a jump. This theory also contradicts the same passages as soul sleep mentioned above.

Yet another is a super vague explanation that equates “heaven” with being a part of the body of Jesus.  That doesn’t seem like a bad idea at first, but it is essentially making “heaven” (not capitalized) be a state of mind or being. Essentially, I am in heaven now because I am part of the body of Christ.  It is not Heaven a place where Jesus is. Again, Revelation 6 and 7 speak against this. 2 Corinthians 5 also speaks of our having an independent body in which we are “clothed”. We do not exist as a being assimilated into Jesus until the Resurrection.

Here is what the Scripture tells us.  When we die (like the thief on the cross), immediately we will be with Jesus in paradise (Heaven – capital H), fully awake, fully aware and loving it.  I would argue that this experience comes with a heavenly body (1 Cor. 15:40, 2 Cor. 5:1), you are not formless or ghostly.  Then, when the time arrives, we will return with Jesus from Heaven to Earth.  We will receive a resurrected body, appropriate for Earth, and go through a Judgment Day experience (1 Corinthians 3:10-15).  Judgment Day for the Redeemed is not a determination of salvation, but rather an accounting of our works and an appropriate reward.  (1 Cor. 3:10-15, et al.).  Where then?  Wherever you want.  God dwells with us on Earth, but I wouldn’t guess that Heaven is off limits either.

The Sabbath Rest for the People of God

What is your mental image of Heaven? Is it exciting, relaxing, boring or catatonic? Artists, who are usually bad theologians, have done much to shape the picture of the place. Grabbing on to the image of Jesus coming the clouds, they have formed in our heads an idea of a cloudy Heaven. Heaven is nothing of the sort.

Paul and others may have done a similar unintended thing. To diminish the idea that our physical death is the ultimate punishment, Paul refers to the physically dead as those who “sleep”. The inanimate state of our bodies bolster that image. Adding to this are several passages in the Psalms which are quoted in Hebrews which use the word “rest” to describe our general condition in Heaven. Together they may paint the wrong picture in your head. It may make Heaven seem like a large waiting room with comfortable chairs but not much going on.

The Bible does little to describe what activity we will experience in Heaven outside of worship. This probably leaves people who find a worship service to be boring further convinced that Heaven is a consolation prize that they are not excited about. My point in this article is to not be mislead by an unintended connotation of a word. We have not experienced worship in Heaven. I expect that “boring” will not be a description that anyone will ever use.

I have already spoke about the choice of the word “sleep”, but what is meant by “rest”? The historical reference used in Hebrews 3 and 4 is the people who were with Moses during the Exodus. Their persistent disobedience and impatience drives even a very patient God to distraction. God does declare that these people will not enter into the promised land in Numbers 14, but it is much later in the Psalms that God speaks in terms of rest.

So I declared on oath in my anger, “They shall never enter my rest.”

Psalm 95:11

What “rest” was being talked about? Was it simply that they would not settle down in Palestine and experience God’s favor? As this passage is quoted twice in Hebrews the author sees a parallel between the disobedient people with Moses and those of any time. He speaks of a planned “Sabbath-rest” that is intended for all God’s people. Our question is what kind of “rest” are we talking about?

Hebrews 4 and again in Revelation 14 speaks about this rest as a “rest from our labors:

Then I heard a voice say, “Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.”

Revelation 14:13

There is a lot of detail in this passage. First, to “die in the Lord” means that a person goes through physical death while being a part of the body of Christ. They are saved by their connection to Jesus. “From now on” is an interesting phrase for exactly when is this spoken? The context immediately preceding this is that it is in the midst of the tribulations caused by “the beast”. It is immediately followed by a Judgment Day picture.

Here on Earth we have to deal with a number of problems. Through the whole of Earth’s history we must deal with sin and the curse and their effects. During particular times the stress of persecution will make it even worse. To “rest” is to be free of these burdens. To rest is to no longer have particular responsibility for the struggle here on Earth, but the fruit of our time of struggle will “follow us” in the form of some type of reward.

Rest isn’t to become purposeless, for we will have other responsibilities; but they won’t be carried out in an environment of stress, resistance or evil. They will be a joy. Revelation 7:15 speaks of serving God day and night in His temple. Matthew 25:14-23 speaks of being put in charge of much. The details of these activities are not given, but it is clear that it is rewarding, active and pleasurable.

So if you harbor an image of Heaven and the New Earth that is dull and purposeless, think again. What we rest from is difficulty. What we experience is life that is truly life.

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.

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.

An Expectation of Sheol

All his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted and said, “No, I shall go down to Sheol to my son, mourning.” Thus his father wept for him.

Genesis 37:35 (ESV)

The above quote comes from the story of Joseph. His brothers, in spite, had just sold Joseph into slavery and then reported him as dead to their father Jacob. Joseph was the favorite son of Jacob, and he is crushed by the news. He basically says that he will mourn until he dies, and then he will go where Joseph is–Sheol.

Sheol, the place of the dead, is where every Old Testament person expected to go. They are divided as to whether the experience will be a conscious or unconscious experience. None of them really look forward to it.

There is an expectation of bodily resurrection someday. This can be found in the oldest book in the Old Testament, Job, and it is briefly taught at the end of Daniel. Time will elapse between their death and the resurrection, however.

As mentioned in previous blog entries, translators have struggled with what to do with word, “Sheol”, and its Greek counterpart, “Hades”. Some translations have decided to make it “the pit”, “the grave” or even “Hell”. Usually it is marked with a footnote acknowledging that the word is “Sheol”. Basically, an admission that the translators were not sold themselves on the translation. For this reason Sheol is unknown to most Christians.

Is Sheol Hell? I capitalize both, because both are place names. And no, Sheol is not what I mean when I use the word “Hell” as a place name. “Hell”, for me, corresponds to the final place of forsakeness and suffering reserved for the damned. This corresponds with the word “Gehenna” or the description, “Lake of Fire” found in Revelation 20. Sheol/Hades is dumped into the Lake of Fire in Revelation 20:14. Clearly, it is a distinct place.

Does Jacob expect to suffer after death then? Not necessarily. Sheol is spoken of 63 times in the Old Testament. I am not certain how the people of the Old Testament acquired their knowledge of Sheol. It may have been from revelation from God, but not necessarily. Near Death Experiences and even the forbidden occultic arts could have given to society scraps of information about Sheol. It is allowed to remain in inspired works because it serves God’s purpose in telling the stories. At no place, is there a theological treatise on the nature of Sheol.

In general, Sheol is described as either unconsciousness or unawareness. It is always pictured as the wages of sin and bad. That makes it surprising that all, even the righteous, express an expectation to go there. Sheol is spoken of in poetic terms in Isaiah. It becomes a synonym for death, even though it retains the nature of a place name.

The Old Testament holds only a very modest hope for eternal life. The most detailed description of life after death applies to the New Earth described in Isaiah 65. This description itself is problematic as it describes existence more in terms of long, pleasant life rather than eternal life.

The lack of information about eternal life and the complete absence of an expectation to go to Heaven raises some interesting questions about the nature of revelation. If one sees the religion surrounding Yahweh (whether Jewish or Christian) as the product of humans, then you would explain the doctrine of eternal life as a development–something added later either because it was borrowed from somewhere else or imagined by somebody later. If, rather, you understand both Old and New Testaments as an ongoing dialogue between God and humanity, you understand that God can reveal information when He chooses to reveal information. Theological development is people having more information then they had before.

Sheol is “developed” by Jesus in the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man. No one would have better and more information about such a place than Jesus. In the story, Lazarus, a poor beggar, dies and is carried to Abraham’s side. The story does not immediately identify where Abraham is. From the Old Testament we should expect that this is Sheol. The rich man also dies and is take to Hades. Here the place is named. He is conscious. He is tormented by flames. Still, he is able to converse with Abraham. Lazarus, however, is being comforted. His place in Sheol is not a place of suffering.

Many jump to the conclusion that Abraham and Lazarus must be in Heaven. That is where the righteous go. But Jesus blocks that conclusion in John 3:13 by telling us that no one has gone into Heaven, at least not yet. Abraham and Lazarus are in a separate parts of Sheol divided by a chasm from the rest, but not prohibiting some communication between the two parts.

Some church bodies have given names to the pleasant part of Sheol. The Catholic Church refers to it as the “Limbo of the Fathers.” Others just refer to it as Abraham’s Bosom. Most just ignore it.

Sheol as a destiny for the righteous awaited the atonement for sins that Jesus would complete. I expect “Abraham’s Bosom” to still exist as a place. But it is now an empty place. Our expectations are now happily turned to Heaven. That humans should occupy Heaven awaited not only atonement but the expulsion of Satan and his minions as described in Revelation 12.

While I don’t need independent confirmation of God’s revelation, it does exist. Near Death Experiences include both seeing Heaven and Sheol as briefly described by Jesus. The expectation of the resurrection of our bodies still stands as a future promise awaiting Judgment Day.

The Wages of Sin

You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil you shall not eat, for in the day that eat of it you shall surely die.

Genesis 2:16-17

For us death is the norm. All of us understand that we will one day die; and even if death seems surreal to us now, the day is coming when it will seem quite concrete. It is hard to imagine a world where there was no such thing as death. Death is an integral part of our world now.

Adam and Eve most likely didn’t understand what death was. At least they couldn’t grasp the scope and the gravity of what it meant. One transgression, the only one they could make, would not only be a mistake, it would change the world.

My personal theory is that touching the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil released a means of genetic change. Something like a virus. It infected and changed Adam and Eve and through heredity impacts us all. It also infected and changed, every living thing and made death a part of the “circle of life” which would have been an ongoing line not a circle. Through some other means it also impacted the non-living part of the environment. The world became an unbalanced and dangerous place that didn’t work the way it did at creation. Now it would be far less cooperative. These changes were the direct result of sin. Evil was known because now it was part of the system.

The well-known passage from Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death…” has many levels of meaning. The original sin and set of consequences got it all started. This passage is not said to us as if it were something we could really avoid. The story of Adam and Eve is recorded primarily so that we can understand why we, otherwise eternal creatures, live in a system that includes death. We are sinners by birth. The Sermon on the Mount was not given to lay down a list of achievable standards. It is primarily given to convince people that they are sinners. Jesus’ discourse with the “rich, young ruler” was not given to tell people they can save themselves by giving away their wealth to the poor. It was given to convince a man who thought he kept God’s law that he did not. He was a sinner.

The result is death. Genetically we are doomed to die, because genetically we are sinners. Further, as sinners we are doomed to experience ultimate death, spiritual death, exile from God; because that is the way God has made it. His Law requires death. No rebel will share in the good things that God has made for long.

If that were the end of the story, then God should have ended the story right after Adam and Eve’s transgression. Why let the rest of us be born into a hopeless situation? But Romans 6:23 says more, “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Creation was allowed to continue on in its sinful condition because there would be hope of life restored.

The way the “wages of sin” have been paid out has varied over the ages. One aspect of consequences of rebellion has been the aging process. We start moving toward our ultimate physical death immediately. The pace wasn’t always the same. People born before Noah and then tailing off after Noah lived much longer lives. I don’t think this is mythical. Genetic modification done deliberately by God hasn’t the pace. Personally I am not complaining. To live 900+ years in a cursed world is unappealing. In fact, to live the full life expectancy of 120yrs, sounds like 30 years too much to me.

The spiritual aspect has differed too. Before Jesus had made eternal life with God a possibility, humans fell into two categories as they do now. Those who believed God and were claimed by Him and those who remained rebellious. Their fates after death were to be sent to a common place: Sheol (in Hebrew) Hades (in Greek). The only other hope expressed in the Old Testament referred to a resurrection connected to Judgment Day. There was no talk of humans in Heaven at that time. There had been no such promise expressed by God.

As you look for how Sheol fits into the execution of “the wages of sin is death”, it would seem that it was only a partial execution of the Law, especially for the faithful. Though rid of their genetically sinful bodies, the faithful were neither transported into the visible presence of God nor completely banished from God. The story of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31) gives the most comprehensive description of what Hades was like. In it, Lazarus is comforted in the “bosom of Abraham”, while the rich man suffers in hellish conditions. The two can communicate but are clearly segregated due to the judgment of their lives that already occurred. The sins of Lazarus, Abraham and other faithful have not yet been paid for by Jesus, neither has a full execution of death. The rich man is suffering a fuller sentence, but has yet to receive full abandonment by God. The experience of the sentence for sin would be radically changed by Jesus’ victory on the cross and then later by Judgment Day.

The wages of sins would fully by paid. It is just of matter of who pays them. For those who believe the judgment of God, that they are sinful, and the promise of God, that their sin can be forgiven, Jesus pays the price. Jesus is forsaken which fulfills the Law. For the rest, Judgment Day brings the final piece. They are put outside of any aspect of God’s presence. This is the ultimate sentence of death. To arrive at this point it takes more than to be born sinful, it takes rejecting God’s own effort to remove the sentence.

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