Why Believe In Eternal Life?

You go to a funeral or visitation and there lies the body of a person you know. There is no movement, no sign of life. None of your senses tell you that this person still exists. There is just observable death and with it grief. Perhaps you want to believe that they are “in a better place”, but it could be just wishful thinking that we desperately need at this moment.

In another instance, you are sitting with a person in the process of dying. They seem to be having a vision. “I see Grandpa!” “The angels are coming for me!” ” I see Jesus!” You, of course, don’t see any of this. Is it real or is this just the expected delusions created by a dying brain? The same might be asked about people who have more terrifying visions. “I see fire!” “Help me!”

The sensory experience or even instrumental readings available at the time of death, all carry with them a large degree of doubt. Short of being able to freely move back and forth from this life to the next, all accounts are questionable. While I would put some weight behind the testimony of those who have had Near Death Experiences, I would consider our ability to measure or experience life after death to severely limited. Maybe someday we will have an instrument that can peer beyond death, but the current scientific orthodoxy has already decided that such a thing doesn’t exist.

That leaves us with two further means of information: one I can endorse and one I cannot. God can give to people the truth of what lies beyond the grave, if He so desires. And to a limited extend, that is exactly what He has done. When you are unequipped to investigate on your own, you are dependent on revelation. The other is a type of stolen revelation. Dabbling in the occult is tapping into the knowledge and power of other beings, evil beings, that can span the gap of death. God strictly forbids it. Why? He knows them to be prolific liars and deceivers. He knows them to hate our species, but that hasn’t kept people away.

The people of Israel were strictly warned against this type of inquiry. The people who occupied Canaan where deeply into these practices along with other disgusting forms of worship. For these reasons, they were being dispossessed of the land.

“When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. 10 There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer 11 or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, 12 for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord. And because of these abominations the Lord your God is driving them out before you. 13 You shall be blameless before the Lord your God, 14 for these nations, which you are about to dispossess, listen to fortune-tellers and to diviners. But as for you, the Lord your God has not allowed you to do this.”

Deuteronomy 18:9-14

Such practices and the desperate demand for such contact has also created a cadre of con-men and women who prey on sorrow. It leads many people to doubt that such capabilities even exist. But God was not warning about hucksters.

Revelation from Jesus, who is God incarnate, is our most trustworthy source of information. Others sources provide modest, secondary affirmation. Jesus promised to be straight with us.

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?

John 14:1-2

If we were limited to just this life, then Jesus would have said so. There was no motive to lie. But Jesus’ whole mission was to prepare a place for us. It already had been determined and revealed that people would face a Judgment Day and experience a resurrection from the dead. Jesus was preparing a further place and a better resurrection. He was going to become the way to have Heaven as a destination at death, and a New Heaven and New Earth as a home after the resurrection.

Jesus proved his reliability on such grand promises to his contemporaries by raising people from the dead, three in all; and then rising from the dead himself. Do you have someone with better credentials?

It is true that there is nothing like experience. I can guarantee that you will get you chance at that. But listening to the revelation that God has given us is more than just interesting information. It is critical and relevant to all. It is information intended for you and truthful. It prepares you for death and guides you in life. It can make you certain of things you cannot see or measure.

Reward In Eternity

The idea of receiving some sort of reward, honor or earned responsibility in either Heaven or the New Earth really bothers some people. It should make us uncomfortable a little. It is a fundamental truth that we don’t deserve to experience the joys of Heaven or the freedom of a new creation. We are sinners and we can only gain access to these places as a gift.

Still, the Bible (primarily Jesus) speaks of reward, treasure, and commendation frequently. So how can being saved by grace and receiving an earned reward go together?

It starts with serving as a disciple. One cannot even be a true disciple of Jesus without understanding that we are so chosen by grace. The same is true of being a “steward”. You don’t have the job unless you’ve been hired by God. So for a successful disciple/steward the right attitude is required. Jesus puts it this way:

So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, “We are unworthy servants, we have only done what was our duty.”

Luke 17:10

There is no room for entitlement, competition, or pride. We serve Jesus because we love Jesus, we believe in Jesus’ work, we are commanded to serve, and if we receive nothing for it, it was still the appropriate reaction to how Jesus has served us by His life and death. That said, it doesn’t mean that Jesus can’t reward or honor whoever he wishes.

Just looking at the word “reward” as it refers to something that is given after death, we come up with this list:

Matthew 5:12/Luke6:23 Enduring persecution because of Jesus

Matthew 5:46/Luke 6:35 Loving your enemies

Matthew 6:1-4 Giving to the needy secretly

Matthew 6:5-6 Praying secretly (Could be an earthly reward as well)

Matthew 10:40-41 Supporting the workers of God’s Kingdom

Matthew 10:42 Giving a cup of cold water to a child (Indicating the scope of what God rewards)

1 Corinthians 3:14 Building on the foundation of grace in Christ honorably

1 Corinthians 9:17 Accurately and willingly sharing God’s Word

Colossians 3:24 Doing anything well as for the Lord

Speaking generically about God rewarding: 2 John 1:8, Revelation 11:18

Jesus speaks about laying up treasures in Heaven: Matthew 6:19-21, Matthew 19:21 (for giving to the poor)

1 Timothy 6:19 Treasures in eternity by being rich in good works

Receiving a “commendation” from God:

1 Corinthians 4:5

Hebrews 11:2

Matthew 25:21,23

A reward, treasure or commendation is something earned. Entrance into Heaven or the New Earth is something given through the forgiveness of sins, because there is no way we could earn it.

It is clear that for those saved by Jesus, Judgment Day is about reward and not about salvation. Salvation has already been determined. It seems that God’s reward, whatever it is, can be received while living, in Heaven, or after Judgment Day. But what is it?

For good reasons the Bible is not specific. I think our sinful nature would be tempted to abuse thoughts of specific reward. The Bible does refer to honor coming through commendation. It also speaks of heightened responsibility in the New Earth for good stewardship here. (Parable of the Talents) One last idea is that reward can be connected to the people we assist. Paul speaks of the Thessalonians as his “hope or joy or crown of boasting…our glory and joy.” The thought of ongoing joyful relationships as a reward is particularly appealing.

One counterpoint often cited to the idea of reward is the parable of the “Workers in the Vineyard”. (Matthew 20:1-16) In this story workers are hired throughout the day to work in God’s vineyard. At the end of the day, they are all paid the same; giving the idea that eternal life is egalitarian. While equality in many respects will be the feeling in the Kingdom of God, since sinful competition and favoritism will be a thing of the past, this story speaks primarily of grace and love and not reward. Late comers to God’s Kingdom are as valued as those who have been there (as a people) for centuries.

One final verse to bring out on this topic is 1 Corinthians 3:15. This is a picture of Judgment Day for those who are saved. The section speaks of building on the foundation of Christ with gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw. In other words, living in a way that is changed and honors God or simply receiving grace and being largely unchanged. Judgment Day will reveal how well our lives have been spent “by fire”. This describes some sort of supernatural judgment process. Verse 15 concludes the section in a way that shows the value of grace and the value of good discipleship:

If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

1 Corinthians 3:15

What does awareness of this dynamic of God’s Kingdom do for us? It helps us trust in mercy of God for one. It also shows a value of our lives that does confuse salvation with good living. I take away peace that I belong to God and eternal life with Him is mine, even if I frequently fail. I also take away excitement about having a God-given purpose of life. It is my hope to please God and make a difference. It is my duty.

Do You Have Oil in Your Lamp?

If you are not familiar with Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25 of the Ten Virgins, then the title of this article would be confusing. Jesus tells a story where 10 bridesmaids are waiting the coming of the bridegroom. It is a picture of waiting for Jesus’ return and Judgment Day, but it might as well also be a story of waiting for our death.

In the story, five of the bridesmaids run out of oil for their lamps, because they did not adequately plan for the long delay. What does the oil represent? It is God who gets through to us and gives us a connection to Jesus that we call faith. This connection can be weak or strong, demonstrating its presence with trust and good works or barely discernable from those without faith. It is also comparable to a living thing–like a plant. Stronger is obviously better. So to grow or even to just survive, faith requires the input of God like a plant needs water. This input comes through exposure to God’s Word and through the gift of Jesus’ body and blood in the Lord’s Supper.

Jesus instructs all of his people to have certain practices: worship, prayer, confession of sins, reading the Bible and regular participation in the Lord’s Supper. These practices not only keep “oil in our lamps”, they bring us into a more personal interaction with God, and prepare us for our life’s God-given purpose.

That said, these practices, which I call the practices of a disciple, are a way to not only prepare for life but to prepare for our death. Life is relatively short, but in the midst of troubling times it can seem to drag on for a long time. During these times it is easy to lose our zeal for God, then lose our basic feeling of being connected to God, next to drift away from critical practices and run low or out of “oil”.

One of my big concerns as a pastor is how the Covid-19 pandemic will impact people’s discipleship practices. Will be become both physically and spiritually soft during this pandemic because we acquire a habit of doing nothing?

If we continue to walk with God through all situations, we will have oil to spare. People who die with oil to spare, approach their immediate death with joy and expectation. They leave a marvelous example for those they leave behind and give a reason for happiness in the midst of loss.

Having oil in your lamp is one part of our preparation. Being active in pursuing our God given purpose is what I will cover in my next blog.

The Parable of the Talents and Judgment Day

In Matthew 25, Jesus gets His disciples ready for Judgment Day. In a series of stories He tells them what they should be doing now in preparation for that unavoidable day. One of the stories is the Parable of the Talents. It links for us the importance of good stewardship to Judgment Day results.

Stewardship is the idea that God has put us (humans) in charge of certain aspects of His creation, and we are to be good caretakers and managers of these things while we are alive. The parable of the talents uses money as a metaphor for all of these things. What things are we talking about?

Money is one of them. God has created a planet that sustains an economic system and places us with certain abilities to earn money, which God expects to be managed in a certain way. We are to be wise and efficient, generous, but not trusting or dependent on money rather than God.

There are other stewardships as well. We are stewards of our time, our abilities (both learned and supernaturally given), our bodies, the planet itself, and the knowledge of God that we receive. In general, we are to acknowledge that these things are from God, we want to help others with them, we want to respect the asset itself, but we never want to confuse the asset for God himself.

So here is the Parable of the Talents:

“For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. 15 To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. 17 So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. 18 But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. 20 And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here, I have made five talents more.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here, I have made two talents more.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. 29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Matthew 25:16-30

Notice that the three stewards are given unequal amounts of money (a talent is about 20 years wages for an average worker). We have different portfolios made up of money, time, talent, relationships, health and natural resources. We are only responsible for what we have. The more we have, the more the responsibility and expectations.

Two of the three make the most of the opportunity. They use their lives well and bring a proportional return that would represent good done with the right attitude and motivation, bringing people to the forgiveness and eternal life that God offers, strengthening the faith of others and enhancing their discipleship, raising genuine praise for God, respecting His creation and resisting evil.

Their life work doesn’t save them. Like everyone, we are saved by Jesus’ life work. We are saved by a gift that covers the multiple failures and many sins. The Judgment Day evaluation of our stewardship is for the sake of reward. Since we are saved as a gift, do we deserve a reward? Absolutely not, but God does it anyway. What reward? The Bible is vague about this, but notice that the Master offers to put the faithful stewards in charge of even more– an impact that they will experience in the New Earth.

The third guy is the interesting and scary one. Who does he represent? He receives something, but in the end there is no return. Can somebody really produce nothing with their lives? This man represents those who hear God’s plan to save them but don’t believe it. They may even be culturally Christian, but they don’t expect a Judgment Day or eternal life, they only live for this life.

The Master seems angry and harsh, but consider the lengths that God has gone through to save us. Jesus’ death on the cross is no small thing. To reject it is a great offense on top of all of our sins. The unfaithful steward is bound and thrown into “outer darkness”, a place where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” I don’t think I need to explain where that is.

It is interesting to compare this unfaithful servant with a representative person described in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, which is also a Judgment Day picture. That will be the topic of the next blog entry.

Earth Day and a Doomed World

There are many “end of days” scenarios.  The most common used to be a nuclear holocaust, leaving only cockroaches.  That one isn’t completely gone.  Probably, now it is easier to imagine a virus that eliminates all human life,  still leaving only cockroaches.  Global warming, a massive asteroid strike, zombie apocalypse, you name it.

I’m not making light of the fears.  The fears are real.  In fact, the Bible guarantees an end of life as we know it.  2 Peter 3:10 asserts:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.

This won’t be of human making.  This will be from God.  When?  We don’t know.  God will take His time, hoping that more people will reject their love of sin and desire to have God’s forgiveness.  God is patient, but not eternally patient.

If this world is destined to be destroyed by fire should we bother to take care of it?  The answer is a resounding “Yes!”

There are many flaws that God has placed into the world as a part of the curse.  Add to it the damage we do the world because of our sin.  The planet is stressed, but we can make things better.

It is important to note that the Earth was not made for us.  It was made for Christ.  Still, people have a very valuable stewardship role to play until the “day of the Lord”.

Stewardship is a God-given management role that God bestows on us.  We are stewards of many things and our stewardship will be one aspect of our lives that will be examined on Judgment Day.  On Judgment Day our eternal salvation still depends on our connection to Jesus, but our reward for faithful discipleship will examine our works.  That is what is meant by “the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.”  Judgment Day for the Righteous

Caring for the planet is a Christian’s responsibility.  It is everyone’s responsibility.  Doing a good job of this shows gratitude and recognition of our Creator.  It becomes a form of worship that praises God for the beauty and ingenuity that He has invested in this special place.

The Earth may be a small planet in a vast universe, but there is nothing common about it.  Life doesn’t exist here merely because there is water. It is the perfect size, with the perfect star, within a necessary distance from that star.  It has a moon that creates perfect tides, a perfect atmosphere with exactly the right amount of oxygen that both protects us from destructive radiation while allowing the right amount of visible light for photosynthesis.  It is also a clear enough atmosphere in a solar system between the spiral arms of our galaxy, so that we can look out and see the beauty, power and creativity of God displayed throughout the universe.  It is special.

We dare not abuse it for profit or convenience.  While able to absorb and adjust to some of our folly, it is not beyond our ability to seriously throw the planet out of balance.  Respect that.  Live, but live wisely.  Use as little as possible.  Throw away even less.  If you can make up for the carelessness of others, do so.  It is for our mutual good, but it is also for the glory of the Creator.

 

Advent and Eternal Life

Advent is normally seen as a type of countdown to Christmas.  We have special calendars and wreaths with candles that graphically display the arrival of Christmas and remind us of the first coming of Jesus.

Advent has another aspect, though.  From the beginning, Jesus’ plan was to prominently come into this world twice, though in some form He has always been here.  With His first coming the main mission was to fulfill God’s law for the whole human race and to pay the price for humanity’s sin.  Mission accomplished.  Jesus’ second coming is to judge all of mankind, destroy the tainted creation that this universe is, and to instantly remake it free from sin and the curse.  Advent should also remind us that Jesus is coming again, and that could be at any time.  You should expect this mission to be accomplished as well.

The Christmas holiday is a defined number of days away.  If I am caught unprepared I have no one to blame but myself.  Jesus’ coming again, and for that matter my own death, are coming; but they are an indefinite number of days away.  Both could be today.  How do you prepare for such things?

In Matthew 25, Jesus tells three parables that basically give us two ways to prepare for Jesus’ return and an explanation of what Judgment Day will be like.  The same “preparations” make good ways to be ready for our own deaths at any time.

The first parable is a story of ten bridesmaids waiting for a bridegroom.  In ancient Israel they used to play a game where the bridegroom would not announce when he was going to arrive in town for the wedding.  The goal was to sneak in and catch the wedding party unprepared.  The bridesmaids would have oil lamps burning in case the bridegroom came at night.  The wise ones brought extra oil in case it took a very long time.  In this parable the oil represents faith.  Faith, like oil, can run dry.  This need not happen.  God provides the means for faith to remain vital always.  God’s Word and the Lord’s Supper provide the “oil” necessary to remain connected to Jesus until you meet Him face-to-face.  This is the most critical way to be prepared.

The second parable tells the story of a landowner who leaves three men in charge of differing amounts of money.  The money in this case represents all the different things that God provides that require us to be good managers of it.  This includes our financial means, the time we are given here, our skill set (both learned and spiritual gifts), our opportunities to serve, our relationships with others, the planet itself, our knowledge of the Gospel, even saving faith itself.  God expects a return on this investment.

Judgment Day is a two-fold event like Advent.  On the one hand, it clearly and finally segregates those whose sins are forgiven through Jesus from those who rejected the one and only way to be saved.  On the other, Judgment Day is an evaluation of the works of those who are saved.  Noble deeds without forgiveness are of temporary value.  Standing on the grace of God, God empowered good stewardship gets an additional reward.  What type of reward will it be.  It doesn’t say, but you can bet it will be more than worth any effort we make.

Advent’s annual message is this.  Life is valuable when spent in service to God, but it is short.  Be ready for its end at any time.  Jesus has already put in place a way to eternal joy.  Don’t miss out when the time comes to inherit what He has prepared.

 

 

How Many Will Be Saved?

It’s hard to say how many people have lived since the beginning.  Population growth suggests that a large chunk of those who have ever lived are still alive now.  Add to it those who died in the womb and you have a very large number.  But how many will be saved in the end and how many will be damned?  Speculation varies from a rather small number saved to everyone.  Let’s look at the few Scriptural clues we have.

Let’s start with my least favorite verse in the Bible, Matthew 7:13-14:

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.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

“Few” and “many” are relative terms.  At minimum, this passage suggests that a minority find life.  Is this passage about eternal life or just living properly?  I think its wording suggests, at minimum, that destruction refers to entering Sheol.  It probably is speaking about entering Hell, but let’s leave that open for now.

Many argue that a loving God could not possibly damn anyone.  While that seems logical, two passages you must consider on the topic are Matthew 25:41 and as an explanation John 3:19-20:

Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and the people loved darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.

My main point is that a verdict of damnation is spoken to a significant population of human beings.  This happens despite the giving of Jesus (the light) and the promise of forgiveness of sins and eternal life.  Many just prefer evil and they get the consequence of unforgiven evil.

Without Jesus there is no forgiveness.  Without forgiveness there is no Heaven or New Earth.  If the “destruction” referred to in Matthew 7 is Hell, then those “on the left” are a majority of mankind, and there is no way to tell how large of a majority.  If it refers only to “Sheol” then there is a small hope that it could be less, depending on the meaning of 1 Peter 4:6:

For this is why the Gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.

This is an enigmatic passage without other Scripture to help to clarify it.  It comes in the context of Peter speaking about the descent of Jesus to speak to “spirits in prison”.  Does it tell of the Gospel being preached successfully in Sheol?  Let’s hope so, but let’s also preach the Gospel like this is our only chance.

In the end, whether a minority or not, a large and diverse population of humanity makes it to Heaven.  Revelation 7:9 describes it this way:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out in a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Jesus’ self-sacrifice, the “narrow door”, results in the salvation of a great multitude.  Let’s work so as to make it greater.

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.

 

 

What Distinguishes Sheol from Hell?

If you are not familiar with the terms Sheol, Gehenna, etc. please see some of the previous blogs at this site.

The Bible has a number of terms that describe places of after death suffering:  Sheol, Hades, Gehenna and the Lake of Fire.  In many versions of the Bible and in many people’s minds, these all get lumped under the term “Hell”.  More careful study shows you that Hades and Sheol are the same thing (just a different language for each word).  Gehenna and the “lake of fire” are most likely the same as well.  The thing that distinguishes these groups is the Sheol is before Judgment Day and Gehenna is after Judgment Day.  But is that the only difference?

The descriptions used for these places can seem confusingly similar:  fire, worms, anguish.  The similarities between Sheol (Hades) and the Lake of Fire (Gehenna or Hell as we call it) are probably a key reason why they are conflated in most people’s understanding of the destiny of the damned.

The same could be said for Heaven and the New Heaven and Earth.  Both have God’s direct presence and the absence of sin, Satan and suffering, but they are not the same thing.

The fact that Sheol and Hell are different is made by Revelation 20 where Sheol (Hades) is dumped into the Lake of Fire.    A qualitative difference is found in Psalm 139.  Psalm 139 speaks of the presence of God:

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;  if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

The Old Testament people expected to go to Sheol at their deaths. Part of Sheol, sometimes referred to as “The Bosom of Abraham” or “The Limbo of the Fathers” was a place of comfort, but still outside the visible presence of God.  Psalm 139 may be referring to just this good neighborhood of Sheol or, more likely, the whole thing.  The final judgment involves God forsaking a place and its contents.  So a key difference may be that Sheol is still without the absence of God, even for the damned.  That doesn’t make it nice.  But it certainly suggests Hell is worse.  It is hard to imagine being forsaken by God.  It is not like we are conscious of His presence even now.  But when God is gone so are all good things.  Hope, friendship, happiness, every good thing gone.

Another difference is the company one would have in Hell.  There is no reference of Satan or demons in Sheol.  The classic picture of demons enjoying the tormenting of the damned is non-biblical fantasy.  Sheol seems to be for people.  The Lake of Fire, says Revelation 20, is prepared for Satan, his cohorts, and those in Sheol.  The point is made that their torment is “day and night for ever and ever”.  So no rest or reprieve for them.  They suffer together.

That God would make punishment eternal offends many people.  The suffering seems disproportionate to the sins.  In the end, those who suffer in Hell didn’t want God.  They have rejected His love, rejected His rule and (for people) rejected that great sacrifice made to save them.  Hell is essentially getting that for which you asked.  The eternal nature of Satan, angels and people is simply a part of what we are.

Sheol may also be different in that it holds a dim ray of hope.  Jesus’ post-crucifixion descent into Sheol seems to be for the purpose of saving some who are there. 1 Peter 4:6 makes this point.  What is criteria?  Are those in Sheol capable of faith?  Did Jesus go more than once or reach out to more than “those who disobeyed in the days of Noah?(1 Peter 3:18)  We don’t know.

The differences, though small, point to the importance of Judgment Day.  Judgment Day is the “line in the sand”.  Things change for the worst for those without Christ.  Things change for the better for those who are in Christ.