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 Is Death?

We all have to go through it.   This is the “After Death Site”.  So what is death?

If you are a strict materialist, you believe that death is the end of a living creature–nothing more.  This is what it looks like for sure.  But revelation from all corners of religion and near death experiences, let alone just the experience of being conscious suggests that death is something more.

Medically death is easy to measure.  The heart stops. Brain activity becomes immeasurable in a short period of time.   The experience from the inside, as reported by those who went through a near death experience, is very similar for all people.  You experience a tunnel with a light at the end.  The light has proven to be Heaven, or Hell (technically Sheol), or something that appears heavenly but is likely a deception.

What has happened? Not having direct experience myself, I lean on 2 Corinthians 5:1-4 for insight:

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.  For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked.  For while we are in this tent, we groan and are 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.

This passage is a little confusing in that it weaves two metaphors for our bodies–a dwelling and clothing.  When we are “alive” here on Earth our bodies are referred to as a tent because they are temporary and fragile.  We groan while in them, because we are aging, experience pain, and want, and Monday mornings.  That being true, we still have the will to live.  We do not want to be “unclothed”, meaning that our spiritual self would have no connection to our physical self.

Death “unclothes” us for a moment.  Our earthly body is too damaged to go on, and we drift free of it.  It is the nature of our “soul/conscious” to reconnect, but not on Earth.  We don’t reincarnate.  We are drawn away instead and reconnect to a body either in Heaven or Sheol.  This is what the Bible refers to as the “first” death.  Could this process be sloppy, allowing some to reincarnate and others to drift free like ghosts?  I don’t know, but the Bible would suggest not.

For those who have a Heavenly dwelling because of Jesus, death has a two-edged significance.  To be separated from our bodies is part of the punishment for sin.  Our bodies are sin damaged and we must leave them.  So death is bad.  But on the other side, death allows us to connect with our Heavenly dwelling (further clothed), or as 2 Corinthians says, “be swallowed up by life”.  So death is good.

For those who do not have a place in Heaven, they emerge in Sheol (please see the other articles on Sheol in this blog).  This is not good.  You are aware of the judgment that has befallen you and you have a physicality that can experience the harshness of your new environment.  It is not the final judgment, but it much like it.  Those who have experienced this through a near death experience have reported about it with terror and shame.  They did not want to return.

Death can be as scary as Halloween presents it, or it can be the greatest moment of your existence to date.  Jesus is the difference maker.

Let not your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God; believe also in me.  In my Father’s house are many rooms.  If that were not so, I would have told you.  (John 14:1-2)

The New Jerusalem (Part II)

The next thing is to try to imagine is the spectacular beauty of the New Jerusalem.

It starts with the wall.  As mentioned, the wall is not defensive.  It is more like the walls of a spaceship.  It is for moving.  But once this thing arrives on the New Earth, you can also see it is for the sake of beauty.  Most walls are eyesores, but not this one.  Though thick, about 200 feet thick, it is transparent like a crystal. In the case of this city, it is a giant cube with the city clearly visible inside.

The city must have a direction orientation (this side up) because John speaks of the foundation.  The foundation has a beauty of its own with layers that can be described in terms of crystals found on Earth now.  The walls have gates, but only 12.  These are described as being like giant pearls.  I doubt they are the product of massive oysters, but the look is similar.

Another point of contact with the current planet is found in Revelation 21:24:

And the kings of the Earth will bring their splendor into it.

What is beautiful and worthy from this present Earth will find its way into the eternal city.  What will make the cut, only God knows.

The important part is that we “make the cut”.  Our salvation does not rest on being more beautiful or better than others.  It rests on the forgiveness that comes through Jesus Christ.  We can only be there as cleansed and renewed people.

Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

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.

 

Can Near Death Experiences Be Deception?

What does it mean to die?  It certainly doesn’t mean to slip into non-existence.  When we die what is conscious and immaterial about us breaks from what is material.  People experience this sometimes as hovering above their bodies, or going through a tunnel toward a light, or they experience the horrors of Sheol, but many times the experience is of a joyful, loving Heavenly bliss.  No one who experiences these joys is interested in returning.  Life suddenly loses its interest.  But, as we know, many people are resuscitated and live to tell the story.  But is the story real and accurate?

The majority of reported experiences are of Heaven.  “Reported” may be the key word here.  Most people don’t want to report they experienced “Hell” or for that matter even remember the experience.  Those who experience “Heaven” are more willing to speak, though no one wants to be considered delusional.

I don’t doubt the reality of Heaven nor the possibility that one might experience a bit of Heaven in a NDE.  I do have some doubts that everybody who reports seeing Heaven actually did see it.

A fairly large group of people return proclaiming a message that Heaven is a place of pure love that everyone will experience.  They endorse universal salvation.  This pronouncement runs contrary to those who experience Sheol.  It also runs contrary to what Jesus proclaims in the Bible.  Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  He also states, “For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.”  That’s not universal salvation.  How did people come back to life with a contrary message?

Transcendental Meditation seems to have a similar capability of separating your conscious self from the physical self.  This practice is not benign.  Some practitioners have reported experiencing evil, perhaps Satan himself, in whatever dimension TM puts you.  Could death, even temporary death, also put a person into a dimensional space (not Heaven) to encounter a spiritual being who there to deceive?  I think the answer is “yes”; and all experiences, no matter how positive or blissful, need to be tested.

I would very much wish for universal salvation.  Even God desires universal salvation.  But if universal salvation is not the truth, then a message of universal salvation is extremely dangerous and is exactly the type of misinformation that Satan wants to spread.

The goal of those who experience a NDE and return with a message of universal salvation is not to deceive.  They want to spread hope and remove the fear of death.  But they are the one’s who have been deceived.  We are neophytes when it comes to experiencing death.  We don’t know what we are experiencing and could easily be misled.  Perhaps this is part of the reason why God strongly forbade practices that could lead to such out of body experiences.  A NDE just happens to us, but discerning the reality of the experience takes some caution.

What Should We Think of Near Death Experiences?

Near Death Experiences (NDE) and Out of Body Experiences (OBE) are two similar events where a person is conscious of being separated from their bodies.  Experiences like this have always happened, but because of medical advances they now happen by the thousands.

In the Bible there are visions where the person experiences beyond their physical location, but it is not a true OBE/NDE.  When Daniel sees God on His throne or when Isaiah or John experience Heaven, these would seem to be visions.  The distinction is that God is viewed directly (which should not be possible for a sinful human) and/or much of what is viewed is symbolic.  It is more of a Powerpoint than a field trip.  A biblical exception is reported by Paul in 2 Corinthians 14.  In this passage, Paul speaks of himself going to Heaven and hearing “inexpressible things than man is not permitted to tell.”  Some theorize that this happened after an unsuccessful stoning of Paul.  If true, this was a Near Death Experience.  Paul refers to what he hears as “inexpressible” which could mean that he has no words to convey it, but he also says that he was not permitted to convey it.

Death normally separates body and spirit.  Other, not recommended, procedures seem to do the same thing temporarily.  We will get to that later.   Since we know so little about the interface of body and spirit, it is hard to medically or theologically explain the moment of separation and why it is possible to do this “before our time”.

Skeptics dismiss NDE’s and OBE’s as illusions created by the brain in distress, usually blaming it on hypoxia, a lack of oxygen to the brain.  There are several facts that make the hypoxia argument not credible.  First, hypoxia makes a person confused not hyper-aware.   Many people having a NDE find themselves floating above their bodies and they can recall details of the room or even details outside of the room accurately.  This takes us to the second reason it is not hypoxia.  People can see and hear without having their eyes open and with no discernable brain activity.  It is the soul operating without the body.

Careful recording of the nature of the experience is important before drawing too many conclusions.  People tend to under-report NDE’s.  The reason is that they fear skepticism or judgment.  This is especially true if the experience is bad.  Most reported NDE’s are about a beautiful experience of Heaven.  Some even come back with a message of universal love and salvation.  These collide with experience of many, and perhaps even more than is reported, who experience what is reported as Hell.  Obviously, universal salvation is incorrect if some are experiencing “Hell” (I would reserve the word “Hell” for a post-judgment day place. What they experience is technically Sheol–see my other blogs about this).

I believe the ultimate truth about the afterlife and many other things is the Bible.  Experiences like NDE’s are interesting and exciting but they need to be tested against the facts presented in the Bible.  The Bible itself warns to “not treat prophecies with contempt.  Test everything.  Hold on to the good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:20)  NDE’s could be seen as a type of prophecy.  It is information about the afterlife that gets to us by a different means.  But that doesn’t make the information correct.  It needs to be tested, because intentional deception is possible.

Who would the deceiver be?  I am not laying this on the people who have a NDE.  I suspect Satan has ways to intercept this experience and spin it in a way that disseminates false information.  On the flip side,  I see no reason to conclude that all NDE’s are the “work of the Devil”.

So with a degree of caution, we will examine in later blogs some of the NDEs and OBEs reported in books on the topic to see if there is anything to learn about life after death.