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.