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.

Marriage and the Afterlife

In my last entry, I spoke briefly about Jesus’s words in Matthew 22, where Jesus states that “in the resurrection” we will neither be married or given in marriage but will be like the angels. The true focus of that discussion with the Sadducees was that there was such a thing as the resurrection of the dead. For those of us who don’t doubt that, our focus shifts to the topic of marriage in the afterlife. So let’s concentrate on that topic.

In Romans 7, Paul confirms that marriage is a bond for our current stage of life. He says:

For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage.

Romans 7:2

That context makes marriage sound like something undesirable. That is not Paul’s intent. He is talking about the application of God’s Law to our salvation and uses marriage as an analogy. Obviously, people feel differently about their marriages. Some cannot imagine life without their spouse, others can’t wait for life without their spouse.

Marriage originally was conceived as a permanent and joyful union. Since Adam and Eve lived before sin and were created to never die, marriage would have been a part of our permanent condition. Sin not only altered our relationship with God, it damaged our relationship with each other, and apparently changed the plans God has for us. Marriage still remained a positive and honorable bond, but it would no longer be without challenges; nor would it remain a permanent condition.

So what does God have in mind for us, both in Heaven and in the New Earth? Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees, was about “the resurrection”; specifically because the Sadducees didn’t think the resurrection of the dead was literal. It is. This may mean that our time in Heaven during the “Intermediate Period”, the time between your death and Judgment Day, is yet another arrangement. Jesus said in the resurrection we are neither married or given in marriage, but are like the angels. He did not explain what the angels are like other than to imply that they are different than us in this regard. This passage from Matthew may be informed a little by a passage in Isaiah 65. Talking about the post-resurrection world, Isaiah says:

No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, and the one not living out a hundred years would be accursed.

Isaiah 65:20

This difficult passage may be only contrasting the painful realities of pre-mature death in the current age to eternal life in the next. Still, we need to possibly consider that there may be an aging cycle within eternal life, and still some form of reproduction or regeneration. The aging cycle would not be something undesirable as it is today under the curse. Possibly it could be similar to the “Immortal Jellyfish”, which is a species that goes through a maturation process only to return to the beginning of the cycle without dying.

What does this say about marriage? Nothing more than if there is reproduction or regeneration is not the same as marital, sexual reproduction.

Does this diminish our need for relationships in the afterlife? I would think not. God is a being who desires relationships, and humans were made for relationships. While our relationships in the afterlife will be different, I would expect them to be more numerous, close and trouble-free. Perhaps marriage is not in the plans for our afterlife, because of the great number of close relationships that we will have.

Considering the little information we have about marriage in the afterlife, how should it inform our marital relations now? People often project their current relationships as being unchanged by death. This comforts them. While I doubt that this is accurate, there is little need to emotionally detach from a person who has died. You may not be married anymore, but for those of us who have been given eternal life through Jesus, we will have a new and better relationship to experience. It is hard to imagine, but Scripture hints at God’s innovations that will make relationships exciting and vital for an eternity.

The Souls of the Martyrs

There are relatively few biblical passages that give us a look into Heaven.  There are even fewer that include human beings.  Revelation 6:9-11 is a short passage that does just that.  What insights does it give?

The first thing to note is that this is part of the unsealing of a scroll within the throne room of God.  The contents of the scroll are unspecified, but a good guess is that this scroll actually unveils God’s good plan for His people.  Unfortunately,  a fair degree of judgment has to fall on mankind before we get to the good stuff.  Seven seals are ultimately broken.  Most bring tragedy to the inhabitants of the Earth.  The strange exception is the fifth seal.  The fifth seal produces a vision for the author of Revelation, John.

John sees the souls of those who have been killed for being Christians.  We are all aware that we will die somehow.  When you are violently put to an untimely death because of your faith those left behind have to wonder “is this worth it”, at least a little.  The vision given is a message for the living.  The martyrs are not gone, they are living.  They are close to God, and God is caring for them.

John says that he sees their souls.  The soul is the immaterial part of our being.  “Immaterial” just means that it is not properly a part of our current universe.  Are souls “material” in Heaven?  In the last verse they are given “white robes”.  This is not apparel.  Pulling on Paul’s language in 2 Corinthians 5, I would conclude that the white robes are actually a Heavenly body.  Or in other words, a physical body in Heaven to pair with the soul.

Their location is also interesting.  They are “under the altar”.  This sounds small, as if they were mice; but the dimensions of the throne room of God are likely very large.  If this throne room is what is seen descending to the New Earth in Revelation 21, then the space under the altar could be the size of Kansas.

The martyrs seem a bit disgruntled but perhaps they are just being curious.  “How long until you judge the inhabitants of Earth and avenge our blood?”  This is not a complaint about being stuck under the altar, but rather a call for justice.  God’s justice will come but not without time for repentance, time for all nations to hear the Gospel, and time for the total number of martyrs to be completed.

The final item seems like a weird criteria.  Martyrdom seems like a bad thing.  Even the martyrs don’t seem particularly fond of it.  But God has set apart special honor for those who are willing to die for Jesus.  He knows who they will be throughout time.  None who are chosen would want to miss the opportunity of this honor.  It is well worth it.  Martyrs for Christ are being made to this day.  Who knows when this will be complete, but each person brings us closer to Judgment Day.  To be a “martyr” means that somebody kills you.  You don’t kill yourself.  The Muslim idea of martyrdom is more suicide and blasphemy than honorable.  A real martyr gives a witness.  That is what the word “martyr” means.  It is a witness that shows I believe and trust God even unto death.  Jesus gave such a witness about His love for us.

The vision is brief but instructive.  In the period between death and Judgment Day, people who belong to God are consciously alive and in Heaven.  Heaven is not their ultimate destination.  Judgment Day will usher in the New Earth. Both Heaven and the New Earth are the gift of Jesus and something to look to with anticipation.

 

 

Do You Get a Body in Heaven?

Do you like your body?  Probably the majority of people have some complaint about their bodies.  Either they are the wrong shape or size or their functioning is poor.  Or both.  If you have a body that you consider beautiful, that is great.  Don’t get to comfortable with it.  Age comes to everyone.

We will all grow old, unless we die young.  We will acquire physical misfunctions.  That is the way it works in a world altered by sin.  And that is really all we deserve.  It is only by the forgiveness that comes through Jesus’ death and resurrection that we have a promise of more.

This blog has tried to bring out what is promised in the Bible about life after death.  There is Sheol and then, after Judgment Day, the lake of fire for those who remain unforgiven.  There is Heaven and then, at Judgment Day, a resurrection of the body and a New Earth for those who belong to God.  Details are limited.  Questions are abundant.

Do we get a body in Heaven?  The resurrection of the body is for the New Earth, so is Heaven a sort of body-less dream state?  There is surprisingly little said about our heavenly experience, but there is enough said to establish that Heaven is a destination for the Redeemed.  A couple of passages talk about our heavenly “physicality”.  First, 2 Corinthians 5:1-5:

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 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.

Because Paul is using a metaphor, you might not catch that “the building” is your heavenly body.  Our spirit is “clothed” with a body (house) “eternal in the heavens”.  Now that is confusing.  We know that we will have a resurrected body on a New Earth from the Bible.  How can we have also a body that is eternal, not temporary, in the heavens?  Furthermore, why would you want a resurrected, earthly body if you have an eternal, heavenly body?  What are the differences?

I will be honest, I don’t know.  But I am really excited to find out.  I also have a theory that I can neither test nor substantiate.  More about this in just a bit.  Another passage that seems relevant here is 1 Corinthians 15:39-41:

39 For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. 40 There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is of one kind, and the glory of the earthly is of another. 41 There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory.

While “heavenly bodies” may refer to the type of thing mentioned in verse 41, but I think it is referring to our heavenly bodies.  The glory of that body is different than the glory of our resurrected earthly body, but we have no details of how they are different.  They both glorious, however.

When we consider the complex creativity of the function of our present bodies, you could say that they have a glory of their own.  It is a glory altered from the original design, accumulating genetic flaws as we move generation to generation, and slowly dying because of sin.  We can count on sin, aging, defect and disease being gone in our future bodies.  Isn’t it exciting to think about what capabilities God has in store for us and what beauty!

A metaphor that comes to mind is the girl who was awkward and a little homely in middle school, who grows up to be a knockout as an adult.  We might be quite a mess at this point, but just wait.

The converse is true for the damned.  There seems to be a body for those in Sheol, for they suffer physical torments.  The resurrection of the body is for all, but the damned are forsaken by God and cast into Hell.

So besides the vague description of differing glories, how can we have an eternal heavenly body and a resurrected earthly one?  My theory is that it has to do with where you are dimensionally.  I think Heaven is in a different dimensional space, so our heavenly bodies are constructed to be a part of that “universe”.  Our resurrected and current bodies are for this dimensional space.  Perhaps, after Judgment Day, we can move freely in both.

No More “Oi!”

Perhaps you have heard the Yiddish expression “Oi Vey”.  It is an expression of  frustration that literally means, “Woe to us”.  In Isaiah 6, Isaiah has an experience of Heaven.  What kind of experience isn’t clear, even to Isaiah.  It seems like an actual field trip.  What could be cooler than a field trip to Heaven!  Isaiah probably thought that way at first until his unworthiness to be there set in.  At that point he exclaims, “Oi li!”, “Woe to me”, “for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.”  Isaiah didn’t need a napkin at that moment.  He realized that a sinner didn’t belong with the holy, and he was a sinner because of what he had said and more.

Isaiah’s experience was both terrifying and exhilerating.  A Seraphim flys to him and touches Isaiah’s lips with a burning ember from the altar.  “See this has touched your lips, your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”  From that point Isaiah felt like he belonged.  There was no more “Oi!”

As it turns out, Isaiah saw and felt all these things without actually being in Heaven.  It was a vision of some sort.  Jesus said in John 3:13, “No one has ever gone into Heaven except the one who came from Heaven–the Son of Man.”  We can add “up to this point.”  Isaiah had not gone.  Daniel had not gone. Elijah and Enoch had not gone.  To this point no Old Testament person had gone because the true atonement for sins, which is represented by the coals in the altar, is Jesus’ death and resurrection.  They all would really go when Jesus accomplished what He came for.

When we are connected to Jesus through faith and baptism, then the “coal” has already touched our lips.  We are made holy by Jesus and belong in a holy place like Heaven.

Some people have out of body experiences of Heaven.  It is hard to say for sure what they are.  Are they a vision, a field trip or something else?  It is possible that they don’t have an “Oi” experience because of Christ.  This is certainly the experience we all should wish to have upon our death.  We certainly don’t want to experience an “Oi” because we have landed in Sheol without forgiveness and without a Savior.  That need never happen because Christ came to save “the world”.  While many are called but few are chosen, it is not because God doesn’t want us.  Those who reject Jesus will have the full “Oi” experience.

Is Heaven Somehow Incomplete?

Many people have a biblically naive understanding of the afterlife.  That is one of the motivations for this blog.  It is typical to believe that immediately at death you go to Heaven if you were “good” and Hell is you were “bad”.  Heaven is commonly viewed as “perfect”.  Whatever “perfect” is.  That belief is folk religion, and biblically wrong in so many ways.

Most importantly, you are not destined for Heaven or Hell based on whether you are good or bad.  To God’s standard we are all bad–all tarnished by sin.  We are saved based on whether we have forgiveness or not, and the only way to have forgiveness is to have Jesus’ sacrifice of himself apply to us personally.  Jesus died for all, but God has to also be able to connect us to Christ through faith and baptism.

Popular conceptions of Heaven and Hell are a bit muddled as well.  The Bible makes you aware that there is an intermediate state, which is essentially the time between your death and Judgment Day.  Post Judgment Day the destination of God’s people is a “New Heaven and Earth”  with resurrected physical bodies.  The post-Judgment Day destination of the unforgiven is described as:  a lake of fire, Gehenna (which evokes a picture of a burning garbage dump), and a condition of being forsaken by God.  God won’t hang around to torment you.  Rather, God will permanently forget you.  That place and condition is what I prefer to call “Hell”

So where is Heaven in all of this?  It is the current dwelling place of God and the angels.  It will persist until Judgment Day when Heaven itself will be modified.  It is the immediate destination of those who die (I don’t buy the “soul sleep” paradigm and address that in a later blog), but there are some things incomplete about Heaven and our experience of it.

Don’t get me wrong, the experience of Heaven will leave our experience of life so far in dust.  We will see God, be without sinful nature, have no exposure to Satan, possess a heavenly body and no longer experience the discomforts of the curse.  It is hard to even imagine how good all that will feel compared to current life, so it is even harder to imagine what will be lacking.  While we consciously experience Heaven, our earthly bodies will still be in some state of decay or ash, and our earthly bodies are a part of what makes us.  The final release from the consequences of sin will happen at the resurrection.

For that matter, it would seem that the same is true for Heaven, the place.  Heaven has not been perfect.  Heaven hosted Satan’s rebellion and the corruption of a large minority of angels.  Heaven has experienced war.  God isn’t just going to make a New Earth.  He is going to make a New Heaven.

If you search the internet on the topic of Heaven, you will get a wide variety of interpretations, including mine.  You will encounter quite a few who suggest that we never will see Heaven, rather we are destined only for the resurrection and the New Earth.  They are right in saying that this was the Jewish, Old Testament expectation.  They might also state that the idea of our souls inhabiting Heaven forever is a Greek idea.  I agree in part.  The folk Christian idea is heavily influenced by the Greeks.  The Bible shares God’s revelation, which is the only reliable source on this topic.  It does speak of Heaven, even a Heaven we can inhabit, but it is a temporary dwelling with something even better to follow.

The Immediate Judgment

When we sin, God knows.  You can’t slip things by Him.  Because we don’t see God, we sort of forget that He sees.  It is similar to what happens to us in a hotel.  We get into an empty hallway and we feel all alone even though possibly every room is full.  So we talk loudly as if no one is there to hear.  But everyone hears us.

God knows our sin, but for those who are connected to Jesus through faith and baptism God sees Jesus, and we live as forgiven for as long as faith remains.  In a way, we have been judged as righteous from the moment God connected us to Jesus

For as long as we live, forgiveness through Jesus is possible for anyone whom God can bring to faith.  Their fate has not been sealed.  You can’t plan on it, but even on a death bed it is possible for somebody to be saved and avoid the permanent judgment of God.

Is death the line in the sand, the point of no return?  Or is Judgment Day when eternal fates are sealed?

The Bible clearly indicates that some kind of judgment accompanies death.  With our death, we either enter Heaven because we are forgiven and therefore righteous or we enter Sheol (see my other blog entries about Sheol), because we are sinners without a Savior. Is that the final judgment?

Hebrews 9:27-28 is often evoked on this topic:

Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and He will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for Him.

The understanding of most is that the judgment accompanying death is immediate and final, but what is the function of Judgment Day in that scenario?  Is it merely a technicality?  The passage is making the point that Jesus doesn’t die multiple times for sin.  To bolster the point, the writer appeals to the fact that we don’t reincarnate.  Hebrews 9 doesn’t technically answer our question.  1 Peter 4:6 may speak to our question better.  I’m quoting New King James here because NIV is a lousy translation of this passage.

For this reason the gospel was preached also to those who are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.

The uncomfortable yet literal understanding of this passage is that the Gospel was preached to dead people with the end goal of having them live or, in other words, be saved.  The context of this passage is Jesus’ descent into Hell (Sheol) mentioned in 1 Peter 3:19.  If we are to understand this passage as the Gospel was preached to living people who have subsequently died, then the second half of the sentence doesn’t make much sense and you are not literally translating the original text.  You are adding (now) dead, which is what the NIV does.

Could it be that Judgment Day is the line in the sand, the point of no return?  We are given marching orders to spread the Gospel to the living.  It is of urgent importance that people hear about Jesus’ death and resurrection and the promise of salvation through that event while they live.  I cannot go to Sheol to preach to the dead.  But did Christ do that?   Does He still do that?  The ancient church, particularly in the East believed that He did.  I hope so, too.

Christ’s Descent into Hell (final)

In this final installment, I want to share with you a few more probable references to Christ’s descent in Scripture and then tie up a few loose ends on the topic.

There are a series of passages in Isaiah that can be understood to refer to the liberation of the Old Testament redeemed. The clearest is Isaiah 49:6 where the Father speaks to Jesus and says,

It is too little of the thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and bring back the preserved of Israel…

Typically this passage is understood in a very metaphorical way, which dismisses what it is really saying. The “preserved” in Israel are clearly not already in Heaven according to this language. They need to be “raised up” and “brought back”. This isn’t just speaking of people alive at the time of Jesus or part of the exile at the time of Isaiah. It makes perfect sense that this is speaking of people who already are deceased or will become deceased before the time of Jesus. These people need to be raised from Sheol.

The same understanding informs the meaning of Isaiah 42:7b,c, “I give you …to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” Jesus did not lead any jailbreak during his earthly ministry. To understand this solely as freeing people from their dungeon of sin, doesn’t quite follow the pattern of the passage. The things spoken of in Isaiah do have a broader spiritual application, but Jesus also actually did these things for some during His earthly ministry (like healing the blind). So for these passages to be understood as a literal liberation from the prison of Sheol makes perfect sense.

Captives are also mentioned in Psalm 68:18, which is quoted in Ephesians and Isaiah 61:1, which is quoted in Luke 4:18.

With this many passages either directly speaking about or alluding to the liberation of the Old Testament redeemed, there is little doubt the Christ’s descent into Sheol accomplished at least this much.

This doesn’t keep modern theologians from being a little embarrassed about the topic of Christ’s descent, also called “the harrowing of hell”.  The mythology that grew up in the Eastern Church about this topic leads some to want to dismiss the whole topic as a myth.

Modern people are sensitive about confusing a myth with a historical truth. There are many religious myths in the world including some that hang around Christianity in non-canonical literature.   Depending on your view of scripture, you may even consider some biblical stories as fictional. So is this one of them?

Without a doubt, some segments of Christianity have approached the story of Christ’s descent with a degree of embarrassment, preferring to see it as an intentional metaphor of some sort. Also the presence of similar ideas of life after death in other religions makes people wary of the even the idea of Sheol. Adding to the pressure to paint this as a myth is the desire for there to be no Sheol, Hell or final judgment at all.

Still there is a clear testimony in the Old Testament of the expectation of Sheol after death for both the righteous and the unrighteous. There is a reasonable explanation as to why other cultures expected basically the same thing. There is also a future hope that this would be changed. Christ’s descent to Sheol is very reasonably the thing that changed the fate of the Old Testament righteous.

Christ’s descent into Sheol is therefore foreshadowed in the Old Testament, spoke of in the New Testament albeit somewhat obscurely, and clearly testified to in the earliest Christian literature. Together they make a coherent whole.

A cosmology that includes only a heaven, the current universe and a hell has no more proof or disproof from our scientific understanding of reality than does a cosmology that contains a Sheol and an Abyss. We don’t know with certainty where any of these places are but we know enough to doubt that reality is only three-dimensional space.

So is Sheol just a metaphor for death and Christ’s descent just a metaphor for his suffering or burial? You won’t get me to buy into that explanation, and that is saying something. As I embarked on this study I honestly did not know the teachings of either the Orthodox nor the Roman church on this topic. In fact, I would have to admit that I am biased against these church bodies if anything. But, when you start with trying to understand what Sheol is without confusing it with hell or the grave, the testimony of scripture points to a real descent of Christ to Sheol to liberate the Old Testament redeemed and even to attempt to save some of the Old Testament damned. That was a real paradigm shift for me, and a very hopeful one.