The Divisiveness of Eternal Life

I love the Bible. It has taught me and changed me so much. I understand how it has been transmitted down through history. I have confidence in its divine origin. But there are a couple of passages in the Bible that I just hate. I hate that they are true. No doubt God isn’t crazy about them either. Here is the first:

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’ fulfillment of God’s Law was on behalf of all mankind. His being forsaken on the cross could be for literally anyone. That the reality is that “few” will benefit is tragic. That means “many” will suffer eternally as forgotten by God. I would be thrilled to have this not be true, but I don’t doubt the source.

The other was our “Gospel” lesson just this past Sunday. Jesus speaking:

“I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! 51 Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. 52 For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

Luke 12:49-53 (ESV)

Jesus brings peace with God, which is the most important thing; but that doesn’t equate to peace between humans. A strong Satanic resistance campaign against the Gospel’s spread and acceptance accounts for most of the divisiveness. The rest is sinful human nature. Jesus knows this. Clearly, He isn’t thrilled with the fact; but it is the only way forward.

The result has been divided families all over the world. The consequences of which vary from heartbreak to violence. When somebody becomes a Christian in the midst of a Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist or Jewish home, it doesn’t always or often result in accepting curiosity. Parents, spouses, or extended families can resort to threats, beatings, even “honor” killings. They are worried about family reputation, preservation of culture, and even the response of the gods. Jesus is seen as a Western culture invasion. But Jesus increasingly is not a part of Western culture. Jesus didn’t grow up in the United States or Europe. Jesus was a Jew. His culture is primarily the culture of God, not of some people group.

What Jesus did He did for the whole of Creation. It is a pity that the whole of Creation, especially every human being won’t benefit from it. Division on Earth will result in division in eternity. Some will have been made sinless by the death of Jesus and inherit Heaven and then at Judgment Day a New Earth in addition. Others will find themselves horrible surprised that they are consciously “alive” but excluded from the presence of God. It won’t be because they were not wanted.

When I think about my own “loved ones”, do I think they will all be with me? I hope so. There is a reasonable chance. Amongst the dead, I am not sure about the status of a couple of grandparents. God’s grace is very broad, but I didn’t see convincing evidence that God had reached them. Will my heavenly experience be diminished by their absence?

I answer this with a metaphor. In my yard there were a couple of bare spots where the grass had died. Its loss diminished my yard. Since then, grass has grown in and eliminated the bare spot. My yard looks whole again. And so will we be. We don’t want to lose anybody. Their presence would always improve our joy. We should be willing to take great risks to bring them the Gospel. The rest is on God. But maybe there will be losses. The bare spots will grow in through the beautiful relationships we will have with those who were strangers in life and with the face-to-face presence of God.

Where Is Satan?

Many people, including many Christians, regard Satan as a mythical being. It is right to say that Satan is not mentioned often in the Bible. Should he be? Need he be? The Bible makes us aware that such a being exists, but it is not about him. Satan is not the equivalent of God. Satan is a thinking, powerful, personal being–not just the personification of evil. Satan is the originator of rebellion within God’s creation. He is created by God as well. Both Jesus and the Gospel writers refer to Satan. Where is he now and what is his impact on our eternity?

We first see Satan in the Garden of Eden, which was on Earth. He tempts Eve, then Adam to question the honesty of God, and floats the idea that being like God was achievable for humans. That was the bait that sank the hook. The hook was the vast alteration of humans and all creation by the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It seems mythy (my word–so you can’t use it for Scrabble), but Jesus does not cast doubt on the book of Genesis, so I will accept it as historical. Could it be real? Why not? An being of advanced being of great knowledge and power could create the means to genetically alter two human beings with direct contact. That we can almost do. How he manages to alter the rest of creation is more of a mystery.

Satan had access to Earth, now he held dominion over it. Evil and death would be the norm. In the rest of the Old Testament, you only see Satan twice for sure and possible two more times. In Job and in Zechariah you see Satan in Heaven as an accuser. In Job, he also has access to Earth as a disrupter and tempter. Two other “maybe it’s Satan” passages tell his backstory. Isaiah 14:9-16 and Ezekiel 28:14-19 do not refer to Satan directly, but rather the king of Babylon and the King of Tyre. The descriptions seem too much for a human. Could these men have been possessed by Satan himself or even been incarnations of Satan? If so, we learn that Satan is a cherubim/seraphim and that his downfall was essentially pride and wanting to be God. Sound familiar?

The arrival of Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, changes things. Satan was still the dominate spiritual force on Earth, but he is no match against the Son of God, except perhaps in the fact that Jesus has human flesh. The goal of Jesus is to fulfill God’s law for all of humanity and to suffer the required punishment for sin, at least the demand for God to forsake (remove from His presence entirely), all humanity. The counter move for Satan must have been to get Jesus to fail or quit. Killing Jesus was attempted via King Herod, via Jesus himself during Jesus’ formal temptation, and lastly through the crucifixion. Did Satan understand that killing Jesus at the crucifixion was playing right into God’s hands? I think he figured it out, but too late.

Revelation speaks of Satan being driven from Heaven. This is somehow connected to Jesus’ work on Earth and likely Jesus’ death:

Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called 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 12:7-9 (ESV)

So Satan no longer has access to Heaven. Why would he in the first place? It doesn’t say, but I would surmise that it had something to do with Satan knowing that God wanted to save humans and Satan using that as leverage to delay is own judgment.

Satan is cast to Earth. Again, why? It seems that at least some of Satan’s angelic followers are thrown into “prison” :

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell[a] and committed them to chains[b] of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment;

2 Peter 2:4 (ESV)

I left the footnote annotation in this quote because it matters. Both the ESV and KJV choose the word “hell”, but the Greek word is different from any other in the Bible. I think “Gehenna” refers to what we think of as Hell–the post-Judgment Day place of eternal punishment. This is not “Sheol or Hades” either. They refer to the post death, pre-Judgment Day destination for human condemnation. This word is “Tartarus”, which is borrowed from Greek mythology. It was a prison for souls or specifically for the Titans. Here Peter uses it for a place that is possibly equated to the “abyss” found in Luke 8:31. Why isn’t Satan there? Instead, it appears that he is here with us.

Revelation 20:1-3 holds out this information:

Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit (Abyss) and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while.

Revelation 20:1-3 (ESV)

The timing of this is greatly debated and beyond the scope of this blog. It would appear that Satan himself or at least some aspect of his power or following is still at work influencing the affairs of mankind. How much of the evil in this world is our own doing and how much can we say, “The Devil made me do it?” is unknown.

Satan’s final disposition is most relevant to the topic of this blog. In Revelation 20:7-10, we get the end of it:

 And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea. And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, 10 and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

Revelation 20:7-10 (ESV)

Cartoons and even great works of art can depict Satan as the ruler of Hell, joyfully tormenting the damned of mankind. That is not the case. Satan suffers with the damned. To be forsaken by God is a torment even for God’s first and greatest enemy.

Satan is on a misery loves company campaign. God is still saving people with the Gospel, and Satan is still opposing it using every avenue at his disposal. There is no need for you to share his fate.

You’re Invited to a Wedding Feast

As a pastor I would estimate that I have done around 200 weddings in my career. Here is a bit of a confession. I don’t usually enjoy weddings that much. I’m not much of a dancer, I shouldn’t drink to excess, the food is usually OK no better, and the room is often loud, so conversation is hard. That said, maybe a wedding feast isn’t the best metaphor for conveying the joy that awaits me in Heaven and the New Earth. Probably a Packer football game would be a better metaphor for me, except this week.

For many people in many cultures, however, weddings are a blast. Probably the most anticipated social event of the year. For this reason, Jesus uses a wedding feast to convey not only the joy to be expected but several other aspects. Let’s take a look at them.

We will start with Jesus’ first miracle at Cana (John 2). While this is not obviously a statement about eternal life, the significance of Jesus making this His first public miracle suggests that it is more than a miraculous favor for the wedding hosts. Jesus creates the “best of wines” and in an overflowing abundance (120-180 gallons). The message? God is preparing the best for last for His people. It will not only be quality, it will be quantity.

In Matthew 22, Jesus tells a parable about a wedding banquet. Again, the banquet is unmistakably speaking about eternal life with God and a wedding is used as a metaphor to convey the party nature of eternal life. The point of the parable is different, however. In this case, it is about the snubbing that the initial set of guests give to the invitation. This is about the Jewish rejection of Jesus as the Messiah. The invitation then goes to everybody else:

Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ 10 And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.

Matthew 22:8-10

Notice that the invitation is to both “good” and “bad”. It speaks of the time of evangelization in which we are currently living. Behavior or character is not a pre-condition. Obviously, many non-Jews reject the Gospel as well, but the end result is still a “wedding hall filled with guests.” Jesus’ death and God’s promise could save so many more than will be saved. People foolishly reject it as fiction or choose other priorities.

A problem exists with one guest:

11 “But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. 12 And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Matthew 22:11-13

The wedding garment is representative of the righteousness that Jesus provides for us. We don’t do anything ourselves. It is a gift, but absolutely necessary. Though invited, this guest also rejects the Gospel and consequently finds himself in Hell which is described as “outer darkness..(where) there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

This is wedding that you don’t want to miss, and don’t have to. The invitation is extended to you. The necessary righteousness is given to you. Why would people reject it and face the only alternative? You tell me.

The other wedding metaphor used to describe eternal life is in Matthew 25:1-13. Here a common wedding week game is used to teach. In Jesus’ culture the bridegroom would go away and build a room for he and his wife at his parents’ home. Then he would sneak back to the bride’s town where the wedding was held. The game was that the bridesmaids had to catch him returning. In this parable the bridegroom comes at night, and lamps that represent a person’s faith in Jesus as their Savior have to remain lit. The problem is that the bridegroom and Jesus’ return is a long time in coming. Some of the lamps run out of oil just as some people’s faith, when unfed, dies out.

When the festivities kick off the following happens:

10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’

Matthew 25:10-12

The promise of eternal life through Jesus is out there now. It has to create faith in a person now. It is too late after you die or when Jesus is visibly returning. It is a disaster to be shut out.

These comparisons of eternal life with God to a wedding feast are definitely double-edged. First, it will be great to be a part of it–a party, a joy. The invitation is extended. The requirements for entrance covered by God. But the other edge is a warning of disaster. To reject it or to be shut out due to neglect is the worst thing that can happen to a person. May it not happen to you.

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.

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.

The Way That We Are Made

What makes a human being special, if anything? A Materialist would say that nothing is special. We are just a biological robot doing what chemistry is forcing us to do with no specific purpose. Materialism is a very disparaging philosophy that doesn’t fit our experience. I don’t believe it at all. I experience myself making choices, contemplating my existence, living with purpose; and even though I have not died and returned from the dead yet, I have a sense that I am not limited to my physical lifespan. That may lack scientific vigor, but the atheistic claims of a Materialist do as well, and are clearly rubbish.

Human beings are more than interesting chemistry. Complex chemistry is a part of our being, but not the whole of it. Most people have thought so. The dissenters have a clear bias–they don’t want God to exist.

The Bible says something different about humans. It says we were created in the “image of God”. What does that mean? I don’t think it is the common meaning of the term “image”. The Bible declares several times that God is a spirit or is spirit. While the meaning of “spirit” is also vague, I would gather from usage that it means that God is not set in his appearance by a defined physical form. Part of being created in the “image of God” is having a part of our being not connected to a defined physical form.

Our bodies are a “defined physical form” the way I am using the phrase. The Bible speaks of humans as also having a “spirit”. Our spirit may be what we experience as consciousness. But our spirit is not the whole of us. We are body, and possibly bodies, and spirit. Our spirit can be liberated from connection to our body. That is what death is. Our spirit can interact with our body. That is why we can control it and that is what is observed when mapping brain activity.

We know that our earthly body can die and decay. Our spirit cannot, which is another aspect of being made in the image of God. We are eternal. While I do not believe in reincarnation, I understand the Bible to say that we can have a heavenly body (1 Corinthians 15:40, 2 Corinthians 5:1). In that case, our spirit is interacting with a body made for the physical dimensions of Heaven. I also know from the Bible that we will have a “resurrected” body. In this case, our spirit is interacting with a recreated, indestructible body built for the physical dimensions of this universe. Being eternal, we will never lapse into non-existence.

Being created in the image of God means, among still other things, that we have an eternal, non-material part that can interact with material bodies that can exist within their respective physical realms. This is theorizing that Heaven is a parallel universe to this universe rather than a remote part of it. The same can be said for Hell. How we will spend eternity depends on our relationship with God.

Humans were not created by God to be in an antagonistic or forsaken relationship to Him. We were created for Him, to be with Him. But that relationship was broken a long time ago. When we come into being at our conception, we do not arrive with a good relationship and with an unblemished image of God. God creates us, but in the sense that He created the biological system of reproduction that makes us. We do not start from scratch. As such, we inherit physically a nature that is antagonistic to God and under God’s judgment. (Romans 7, Psalm 51:5 et al). The only fix for us is Jesus. Jesus’ actions created the opportunity to repair our relationship with God. God seeks us out to connect us to Jesus; and, if successful, to restore us to what we were originally intended to be.

Would we know this without being told about it by God? I doubt it. We would only experience a vague sense of something amiss. We would see a troubled and often ugly world made painful by human actions. We would walk blindly into our own deaths, perhaps expecting the end of our existence. Finding instead a far worse continued existence.

Created in the image of God is what we are for better or worse. Thank God, He did not abandon us to a hopeless fate.

What Is Eternal Life?

I want to tell you of an encounter I had on Golgotha, the place where Jesus was crucified. I am not speaking metaphorically here. I was in Jerusalem a couple of years ago. We were visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This is a church in the old city of Jerusalem, where the traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion and of Jesus’ burial lie within one building. Many people, including me, don’t appreciate that Golgotha and the rich man’s tomb were so close together; but John’s gospel records that the place of crucifixion was in a garden. It was an ugly act placed in a beautiful place near the gate of the city. I expect it was to show Roman dominance.

When you enter at the ground level through the main door, the top of Golgotha (the place of the skull) is just up about the equivalent of two normal floors of a building to your right. The tomb is around a corner to your left. Our group went up to the Chapel on top of Golgotha first. The chapel is a somewhat sad story of in-fighting among the groups that control the church. There are three altars. The far right altar is Roman Catholic, the middle Orthodox, the left Arminian. We were in the middle and a group (presumably Catholic) was in the right portion of the chapel. I couldn’t help but overhear the presentation being made by the priest, who sounded American. To my shock he said, “I don’t know what eternal life is, but I think it has something to do with this Earth; we live on in the memories of people.”

I almost had a stroke. Here we are on the likely place where Jesus died and a member of the clergy suggests that eternal life is being remembered. In reflection on the statement made by the priest, I guess I assumed that everyone is clear about the nature of eternal life; and, clearly, I assumed too much. When we let worldly doubts, fears, and academic criticism get into our heads, we can believe that real existence beyond our deaths is impossible. The Jews also had a group, the Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection of the body. When this becomes your worldview, references to eternal life are nothing more than wishful thinking or, as the priest said, memories.

My question is, “What would Jesus’ dying on a cross 2000 years ago have anything to do with whether people remember me or not?” The answer is, “It doesn’t.” On that rock on which we stood Jesus literally suffered being forsaken by His Father. That selfless act enabled a promise of God to work. God extends to humans the opportunity to be connected to Jesus. When connected through baptism in the name of Jesus (not some other ridiculous formula), the forsakeness of Jesus becomes the fulfillment of what God’s law requires of us. Because we have not kept God’s Law, we are required to be damned (forsaken). Jesus takes that sentence for us. Having been made right with God, we can live with God in the joy and glory of Heaven (a real place and thus capitalized) and also in the New Earth (also real and as a proper noun capitalized). If you can’t tell, the failure of many books and bible translations to capitalize both Heaven and Earth when referring to the place is a pet peeve of mine.

It is also important to note here that eternal life does not just mean existence. After your death you will exist regardless of your standing with God. That is how you are made. You will actually exist, not just in memory. It is just that if you exist as a being forsaken by God, the experience will be so hopeless and horrifying that calling such an existence “life” is a gross disservice to the word. The Bible is not even thrilled with called our current existence “life”. Existence in Heaven and the New Earth is real life. Once there you will not care if people remember you. You will be having too much fun. Life after death is not some version of the Disney movie, “Coco”. Maybe that is where the priest learned his theology.

So take heart. Jesus has opened the door to life. This is not some vague concept. It is more concrete that you are now.

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