Scattered to the Wind

I very common way of disposing of somebody’s earthly remains is to have them cremated and then to dump their ashes in a place that had some significance to them while they were living. Maybe it was a trail on a mountain or at the seashore or just scattered to the wind.

This raises a practical question for one of the things revealed by the Bible–the resurrection of the body. If our remains are scattered or even if they are not, the molecules that made up that body end up as part of the soil and very likely a part of another living being, maybe even another person. Right now, your body could have in it carbon that was a part of an animal, a bug, or possibly several other people. At the resurrection of the dead do we fight for our original molecules?

This is part of a bigger question. What constitutes me? We are not just temporary chemistry with the illusion of having a consciousness. That idea, advanced by hardcore evolutionists, does not match the evidence at all. It feels more like the opposite. That I am a soul that is merely borrowing a body. That idea is common in Eastern religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.) The Bible argues that we are a soul and an earthly body, and I would argue, even a heavenly body.

What is resurrected on Judgment Day, and how can it be me? Throughout our lives we are exchanging atoms with the environment around us. We should not assume personal possession down to the atomic level. What truly distinguishes our physical, earthly self is our DNA. Even our DNA is a flawed blueprint of our earthly being as it contains mutations passed on to us from our original distortion in the Garden of Eden, all our ancestors, and some we have suffered in our lifetime. We are truly not evolving but devolving.

That is why I am skeptical that our resurrection will involve our disposed of remains much or at all. The resurrected body will be raised perfected and indestructible. I expect it will retain many unique qualities that will reflect who we are, but none of the acquired weaknesses and flaws. God retains the design of what we are physically. As Adam was made from the earth, so will we be raised from it. Not necessarily, from the earth of our old bodies, or even in the location. For this reason, choosing a burial place is more a consideration for the living than the dead.

So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.

1 Corinthians 15:42-44

Assuming that our dead body forms a literal starting point for the resurrected body may be true or may be pushing the biblical analogy of a seed too far. Either way God has the matter in control regardless of where our dead remains end up.

Is It Acceptable to be Cremated?

Cremation has become a very popular choice for dealing with our earthly remains. There are a variety of reasons why people choose cremation: cost, use of space, even environmental reasons. In the past, pastors spoke against cremation. Why? Is it a biblically acceptable choice?

The first thing to consider is the Bible’s teaching about the resurrection of our bodies. At Judgment Day all people, both saved and not, are to be raised in a physically imperishable form. (For one of many articles on this topic see the following) https://wordpress.com/post/afterdeathsite.com/825 This will be good news for those who have a part in God’s New Heaven and New Earth. It will not be so great for those who will be forsaken by God. (Use the search bar for more on all of these topics)

In the past, it was common for people to be cremated either in an attempt to stop their own resurrection or to make a statement that they didn’t believe in a resurrection. In such a context, cremation was unacceptable. That is typically not the motive today.

Another objection sometimes raised against cremation is that the Jews buried their dead and pagans burned their dead. In the case of paganism and Eastern religions, cremation did have a theological significance. These religions saw the body as something evil. Our goal was to be free of the body. Burning the body liberated the soul. Conversely, burying the body had a theological foundation that acknowledged that our body, even after death, was a part of us. We are not a soul renting a body. We are body and soul.

That said, there is no laws against cremation in the Bible. Having examples like that stated above do not create unwritten rules. God has no problem resurrecting a person regardless of how their body was disposed. It is not a given that He will use the very same molecules. You will get a body that is uniquely you that is appropriate for the New Earth or Gehenna.

Cremation sometimes can have a positive or negative psychological effect on a person before they die. Some are distressed by the thought of their bodies burning. Others are distressed at their bodies decaying or being eaten. Both are unnecessary concerns, because you will be unconnected and unaware at the time.

Scattering of ashes in a favorite place is a common practice. This too finds its origin in the idea being freed from the body. It is not the greatest witness but few think of the theological origins of such a practice.

There is nothing wrong with saving money. Nor is there anything wrong with being mindful of space or ecology. I would conclude that there is nothing wrong with cremation if that is your preference and not distressing for your relatives.

God is able to take you to the next step no matter what you do. He can even resurrect ashes flung to the wind.

Does Purgatory Exist?

The idea of Purgatory is something that most people associate with the Roman Catholic Church. It might surprise you that there are people outside of Catholicism that support the idea. The concept of Purgatory comes in two flavors: a purgatory where you work off your sins and a purgatory where you are purified to reach your final perfected state. From where do these ideas come? Let’s start with the first one.

The idea that you have to do something additional to what Jesus did for you on the cross is a particularly dangerous idea. It changes the way we are saved from being grace (a gift) to being something you at least partially do yourself. In the book of Galatians, the people of the Galatian church became convinced that they had to obey the law of circumcision in addition to their connection to Jesus’ death. This seemingly small error modifies grace and elevates human action to what Jesus did for us. Paul reacts strongly:

 Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.

Galatians 5:2-4

There is no such thing as hybrid grace. Believing that you add to Jesus in any way nullifies the promise of forgiveness through Christ. This would be likely true for anything–including Purgatory.

Such a doctrine is easily believed because people doubt the Gospel. It seems too good to be true. It also puts all sinners on the same level, which surprises and offends some people. Belief in a purgatory that earns you salvation is clearly the product of someone who is not connected to Christ and could be the cause of someone falling away from grace.

How about the other type? The doctrine of purgatory does not get formulated within the Catholic Church until the 11th century. That seems like a long time ago, but it was already a millennium into the history of the Church. The idea of being purged of sin by some process or place existed long before this in Greek religion. An attraction to Greek thinking and a misunderstanding of a couple passages in Scripture could easily produce this thinking.

One passage that could be misconstrued is what I call the “Three Little Pigs” passage after the children’s story:

 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. 11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

1 Corinthians 3:10-15 (ESV)

The purifying Purgatory is seen as a place where fire purifies you of your evil over time. This passage has fire but it is evaluating your deeds in life for the purpose of reward. This happens rapidly at Judgment Day. Verses 10 and 15 show that a person is still saved by grace. This is not a reference to a purgatory.

Another passage that could be misconstrued is Mark 9:47-49:

And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ 49 For everyone will be salted with fire.

Mark 9:47-49 (ESV)

The word translated properly as “Hell” (though it should be capitalized as a proper noun) is the word “Gehenna” which Jesus uses to describe the final post-Judgment Day place of punishment. It is a place of fire. Verse 49 is referring to the passage and process we just read about in 1 Corinthians 3. Again, it is a Judgment Day experience and not a purgatory. This is also what John the Baptist is referring to in Matthew 3:11, “(Jesus) will baptize you with fire.”

The final place of confusion is the nature of Sheol (Hebrew)/Hades (Greek). In the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, we get a peek inside Sheol:

2The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 

Luke 16:22-24 (ESV)

Hades/Sheol is also a place of fire. No one is being purified or saved by it. In fact, the rich man is being punished. It is a place of waiting. Lazarus (not to be confused with the Lazarus Jesus raised from the dead) and all of the Old Testament period righteous are waiting for Jesus to accomplish the atonement for their sins. The rich man and all who are damned are awaiting Judgment Day.

The Bible may hold out some vague hope that the Gospel can reach and save those who are damned and in Sheol.

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.

1 Peter 4:6 (ESV)

This passage stands alone in Scripture. It is in the context of Jesus’ “descent into hell” (For more on this topic, Sheol, or other after death topics; use the search box in the right column to find other articles.) Do the fires of Sheol somehow purge a person so that they can receive the Gospel posthumously? There is not enough information to conclusively know this. The one passage often cited against this, Hebrews 9:27, really is misapplied in this case. These passages do not support Purgatory as a place.

While there is plenty of fire fulfilling various purposes in Bible, there is no Purgatory.

What Do Jewish People Believe About the Afterlife?

Recently I was watching the movie Silence by director Martin Scorsese. It is a movie about Jesuit missionaries in Japan during a period when the Japanese rulers wanted to eradicate Christianity. It is a disturbing movie as you might guess. The rulers wanted Japan to be Buddhist. They were afraid of losing their culture primarily, so they did some very un-Buddhist things to Christians. In the course of history so called Christians have also done some very un-Christian things to pagans and also to Jews. Early on Jews did the same to Christians.

The covenant that God made through Moses is the centerpiece of Judaism. It is completely focused on prosperity in this life. I have often wondered what Jewish people believed about life after death beyond an expectation of a bodily resurrection, which is clearly promised in the Old Testament.

I came across a recent article in the Jerusalem post by Rabbi Stewart Weiss https://www.msn.com/en-us/lifestyle/mind-and-soul/what-do-jews-believe-about-the-afterlife/ar-AARVwFc?ocid=entnewsntp&pc=U531 It is an interesting explanation of Jewish belief. One thing that sadly didn’t surprise me is that most Jews don’t believe in life after death at all. They don’t believe the Old Testament. They may still cling to the culture and their Jewish identity, but theologically they are less Jewish than I am. Many, I am sure, are agnostic and a fair percentage are oddly Buddhist.

Let me rant for a moment about the value of culture. Many people strongly identify with a religion when they in fact only identify with a culture. Culture is important, but when weighed against whether we have an eternity with God or an eternity exiled from God culture is an insignificant thing. Culture changes all the time. You can have a distinct culture and cultural identity but share the same knowledge of God with people outside your culture. If the rulers of Japan in the movie were interested in being Buddhist, they would not have tortured anyone. The same can be said for the current government of Myanmar. Truth about God is far more critical than anything else. The truth about the God who created us all is that He does not tolerate sin let alone torture. Doing it in His name makes the offense many times worse.

Now back to the question of the Jewish understanding of the afterlife. I found that there are more parallels to my Christian belief than I expected. The article spoke of four phases of existence. The first we are experiencing now. The next is known as Gan Eden (Heaven or Paradise).

The second phase is Olam Haba, or Gad Eden (heaven or paradise). This may be a spiritual paradise where we experience an overwhelming closeness to God, or, in some opinions, a kind of “holding zone” for our souls, awaiting an eventual reordering of the universe.

The Jerusalem Post, Stewart Weiss

This is much like Heaven as I have described it. We enter a paradise in the presence of God. It is “spiritual” in the sense that it is not of this dimensional space. It is also experienced during the Intermediate Period between our death and Judgment Day. I would add that it might also be part of our experience after Judgment Day.

Weiss has a third phase that would equate with the Millennium in some Christian theologies. This is something that occurs on Earth, pre-Judgment Day. It is where the Messiah radically changes humanity for the better. Weiss does not say if this is experienced only by the living. Some Christian theologies sneak an extra resurrection of the righteous in at this point. Others leave it as a primarily Jewish affair. Amillennialists, of which I would count myself, don’t expect a future worldly rule of the Messiah until after Judgment Day. References to a “1000 years”, and to knowledge of God spreading over the world are seen as happening now as the Gospel is spread.

Finally, there is the resurrection of the dead. He does not share details, but I would agree that the Bible both Old and New Testaments speak of this as the final, eternal phase.

The big difference, not mentioned in the article, is how one gets to take part in all of this. Jesus is not recognized as the Messiah or as the necessary atoning sacrifice for sin. Entry into the bliss of Heaven and the Resurrection is based on being good enough and that God will “balance the scales”.

The description of what is to come matters little if we are not a part of it. Redemption has come. The Messiah came to win redemption. Jewish or not, don’t miss out on what Jesus has won for us. Especially, don’t ignore this salvation for the sake of culture.

Does God Reward Us in the Afterlife?

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

Luke 17:10

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

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

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

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

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

Revelation 14:13

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

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

1 Corinthians 13:1-3

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

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

1 Corinthians 3:12-15

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

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

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

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

1 Thessalonians 2:19-20

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

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

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

1 Peter 1:3-4

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

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

Are There Levels of Hell?

One book that I remember reading in high school and enjoying was Dante’s Inferno. Actually I read the whole Divine Comedy . It details a fictitious trip through Hell, then Purgatory, and finally Heaven. Within the Inferno section of the poem was a description of Hell containing nine levels. On each sinners experienced eternal punishment that fit their crimes. At the very bottom was Satan chewing on the classic traitors of history.

Interesting book but not biblical. Yet Jesus says a few things that suggest that Hell is not a uniformly miserable experience. For instance, when sending out his disciples on their first mission trip, Jesus instructs his disciples to shake off of their feet the dust of cities that will not welcome them. He says of these cities:

I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

Matthew 10:15(NIV)

Descriptions of Hell are very few. Really the most detailed descriptions are of Sheol/Hades. Revelation refers to the “Lake of fire” as the final place of judgment that we call “Hell”. Jesus’ words above refer to the “day of Judgment”, so he is not talking about experiences in Sheol but rather post-judgment day. So how could they differ? Both would include being forsaken by God, for that is the penalty for sin.

In the next chapter Jesus says,

Woe to you Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No you will go down to (Hades) If the miracles there were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.

Matthew 11:21-24 (NIV)

It would seem that the opportunity to believe and be saved that should have been enhanced by seeing miracles performed, actually creates a more grievous punishment if the miracles are ignored, rationalized away, or attributed to Satan. It is the later that most likely happened in these places.

Jesus suggests that seeing miracles would have at least prompted a temporary repentance if not salvation in some of the classic places of sin. This is not true in some devoutly Jewish towns.

What makes their experience “more bearable”? This question remains unanswered. It is not necessarily that there are circles of more intense suffering or longer sentences (because they are all eternal). The suffering of Hell is primarily psychological. It is being forgotten and excluded by God. To have nothing but to remember that Jesus was right there proving himself with miracles no less and you did not believe has to be an agonizing thought.

Might there be other circumstances like these? Perhaps a person ignored the love and constant witness of family out of pride or rebellion. Maybe others were among the ranks of the clergy and rejected their faith for flimsy reasons. In the quotes above both Bethsaida and Capernaum were the home towns of original disciples (Andrew and Peter respectively). Ignoring a witness or being offended by it because it came from family might be a source of greater “intolerability”.

In Dante’s fiction the punishment was made to fit the crime. In the end, the crime of damned will end up being rejecting the sacrifice the Son of God made to forgive their many lesser sins. One level suffices for all. Only the knowledge that this was easily avoidable makes it worse.

The Fate of Angels

If you don’t know the Bible hardly at all, you might think that people become angels when they die. This errant idea is told to children when somebody dies. It is propagated by movies (i.e. It’s a Wonderful Life), songs, and even art (like the George Floyd mural seen on the news). It cuts against popular culture to say this but angels seem to be a species of their own, you can’t become an angel, angels are not described as having wings, angels and cherubim are not the same thing, and evil angels don’t share the same fate as evil people until Judgment Day.

We can say that some angels sinned:

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into (hell) and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment…

2 Peter 2:4 (ESV)

I put parentheses around the word “hell”, because it is used too liberally as an English translation for many words in Hebrew and Greek in my opinion. At least ESV footnotes this translation. One would expect Hades was the translated word, but it is not. A new word shows up: Tartarus.

There are a number of words or phrases that are place names associated with existence after death or at least existence outside of life on Earth: Sheol, Hades, Heaven (ouranos), Gehenna, lake of fire, Tartarus, and the Abyss . It is confusing as to what are synonyms and what describes distinct places. Context and comparing translations are the only way to figure it out. We know the Hades and Sheol are the same from a Hebrew to Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. Also you can tell that Hades and the “lake of fire” are distinct things from Revelation 20:14 where Hades is thrown into the lake of fire. Then they are not distinct anymore. What does Gehenna describe? I think context suggests that Gehenna is Jesus’ word for the lake of fire.

What do we mean by “Hell”. I mean that place of final judgment. That would then be English for Gehenna or lake of fire. If you mean the place of immediate judgment. Then use it for Sheol or Hades, but using it for all of the above covers up the fact that there are distinct places. Is Tartarus another synonym? It is only used once. Like Hades it is word borrowed from Greek mythology. Tartarus was an abyss used for suffering of the wicked and the prison for the Titans. Using the world “Tartarus” sounds like borrowing from another religion, just as the use of “Hades” does. I have another theory. That other cultures have similar ideas of what exists beyond our universe by the use of forbidden cultic practices that permitted communication with the dead.

Peter’s choice of the word “Tartarus” wasn’t adopting Greek mythology, but was using a commonly understood word to describe some place that was actually there. Further, using the context of the Bible, I think we can equate “Tartarus” here in 2 Peter with (abyssou) the abyss used in Revelation 9:2, 9:11, 11:7, 20:1, 20:2. This is different than how Job and Jonah used what could be translated as abyss. In those cases, it is more a concept of being in the “deep”.

So if we work with that theory, what is Tartarus? It would seem to be another realm of reality that is segregated from our universe, Heaven, and Hades/Sheol at the present time. It seems to be used as a prison for evil angels. Peter says that they are being kept there until the judgment (Judgment Day), for a final destination of Hell, with Satan and with people (Matt25:41). A further description of the angels in prison is given in Jude:

And the angels who did not stay within their authority, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day…

Jude 1:6

If there are disobedient angels in Tartarus, then what are demons? Revelations 12:9 does the most to equate demons with some segment of disobedient angels.

And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is call the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world–he was thrown down to the Earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.

Revelation 12:9

So some disobedient angels end up in Tartarus and some here. Incidentally, a common understanding of the sin referred to in 2 Peter is what is described in Genesis 6:2–sexually crossing over to humans.

Revelation gives the idea that there is some sort of breakout or that there could be (depending on how Revelation is to be understood.) Since Tartarus is a place, could not the whole contingent of Satan and his angels have been placed there?

Either this all seems too complex or mythological for you or it makes you wonder how we fit in a broader struggle between God and part of His creation, and what is possible in that struggle.

The ugliness of this world can and should be accepted as a human product, but I wonder how much is initiated and antagonized by forces beyond our recognition. Jesus and the New Testament writers speak of this broader scale war. Our information about it is very limited. Clearly the methods of conventional warfare cannot remove the spiritual enemy only the people who are co-opted by it. Spiritual warfare as described by Paul in Ephesians 6 and the extension of the Gospel to new people, seems to be our role.

Confusing Heaven and the New Earth

One thing that seems to escape many Christians, even clergy and theologians, is that Heaven and the New Earth are two separate places. The idea that there is just Heaven and Hell has been broadly taught for generations. We have even gone soft on these. “Heaven” is almost never capitalized. Does this mean that the editors of various hymnals and Bible translations consider “Heaven” to be a concept rather than a place with a name? And many Christians don’t believe in Hell.

If you are of the impression that there is only Heaven and Hell, where did you learn that? What Bible passages were used? Or was this just the general description given you as a child by adults who never studied the Scripture for this topic? Such an idea can become entrenched in our mind. We are certain that it must be in the Bible, but it is not.

A couple of linguistic things add to our confusion. First, the Greek word for “Heaven” is used to describe “the atmosphere” (first heaven), “the universe” (second heaven), and the dwelling place of God or what I would describe as “Heaven” (third heaven).

“Hell” an English word with a long history of where it came from, is often sloppily assigned to two Aramaic words, “Gehenna”, which was just transliterated into Greek (so it is a Greek word too), and “Sheol” which is translated into Greek as “Hades”. I think it is interesting that one word is just borrowed by Greek (like the word “hard drive” is rarely changed in other languages) and the other is assigned a word with a lot of meaning. “Hades” is also a place of the dead for the Greek people. From this I would conclude that “Gehenna” and “Sheol” are not synonyms. They are two place names, and the latter conceptually fits with the Greek idea of Hades. The result is the tendency to merge places that exist before Judgment Day with those that only exist after Judgment Day.

Heaven, as most of us would think of it, clearly exists now. It is the visible dwelling place of God, the Cherubim (also called Seraphim) and the angels. It will continue to exist after Judgment Day but will not be the visible dwelling place of God. The New Earth is something spoken of in both Old and New Testaments. It is not Heaven and only will exist after Judgment Day. It becomes the formal dwelling place of God with the arrival of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21.

Sheol/Hades is a place for the damned (and until Jesus made atonement for sin, the Old Testament righteous) that exists today. What I would call “Hell”, Jesus calls “Gehenna”, and John calls the “Lake of Fire”; does exist until after Judgment Day. That it is something distinct from Sheol/Hades is established in Revelation 20:14 where Hades is thrown into the Lake of Fire. I guess at that point they become the same thing.

So will we be in Heaven forever? With the resurrection of our bodies on Judgment Day, the New Earth will become both our permanent dwelling and the dwelling place of God (Rev. 21:1-4); but there are some clues that Heaven remains in the mix somehow. First there is this:

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

2 Corinthians 5:1

Does Paul mean “heavens” as the universe or as the current dwelling place of God? Is “heaven” wherever God dwells or a place of its own? I believe Paul is not speaking of the universe and that Heaven is a place, even after God dwells with man on the Earth. Another passage:

According to his (God’s) great mercy he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you.

1 Peter 1:3-4 (NIV 1984)

We do go to Heaven when we die. God and probably the New Jerusalem are a part of Heaven that is eternal, but will move to the New Earth. Still, I think this is saying that part of our eternal inheritance is Heaven, the place. The New Earth and Heaven could be our home eternally. There is the movement of the New Jerusalem, which could be the sum total of Heaven, to the New Earth. This would create a parallel to the merging of Sheol and Gehenna described above, but symmetry is all that interpretation has going for it.

While I can see that some of the questions that can be raised about our eternity are unanswered, merging Heaven and the New Earth doesn’t honor the Scriptures, which clearly describes them as distinct. Either way, these things are ours by grace. God prepares for us a body or bodies and a sin and curse free place of existence where we are with Him.

The Wages of Sin

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

Genesis 2:16-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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