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.

Are Those Who Die in the Womb Saved?

A pregnancy is a powerfully emotional experience.  If you really want a child, then the baby in the womb in precious and you feel connected to this child very early in the pregnancy.  If you didn’t want a child, the same connection can be felt, but sometimes the desire to be free of the upcoming responsibility can trump any recognition of the pregnancy being your child.

As we know, whether for human reasons or biological reasons, not every pregnancy results in a live birth.  Is the deceased child a person with an eternal existence?  If so, when does it start?  Even more important, what happens to them?

I will be up front.  The Bible doesn’t give us much information about these questions, so definitive answers are elusive.  The Bible teaches that a human is both a body and a soul.  These aspects of ourselves are separable.  Because of sin, our body dies and remains dead until the resurrection.  Our soul assumes a different body in Heaven or Sheol depending on the status of our relationship to Jesus.  Can a body and soul be separate at the beginning of life as well?  We don’t know, for sure.

The Bible speaks of us being “sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5)  This is an acknowledgment that sin is part of our nature and therefore a part of our genetics and body.  Does it automatically mean that we have a soul from conception?  It could, but it’s not clear.  The Bible also speaks of God knowing people in the womb (i.e. Jeremiah, John the Baptist).  You don’t need the Bible to tell you that being born doesn’t make you into a human.  You are a human before you are born.  But when?

Science tells us that the fertilized egg is genetically distinct from the parents.  It is not a “part” of the mother.  But science as a whole struggles with what consciousness is and what is the unique value of a human being.  We have no way to measure a soul.

To fill the void that the Bible leaves on this emotional question, the doctrine of the “Limbo of the Unborn” was created by the Roman Catholic church.  This is a place of comfort, but without the visible presence of God meant for those who die unbaptized.  Such a place is not found in Scripture, but it acknowledges our human conundrum.  We are born sinners.  We are not born saved.  But God is merciful.  That is His character. Still God operates strictly by His Law.  So what does He do?

I can share a bit of anecdotal evidence from a relative of mine.  He experienced an out-of-body experience following a truck accident.  In this experience he met someone in Heaven who identified himself as a biological brother.  The only problem is that he didn’t have a deceased biological brother to his knowledge.  He had arrived at the hospital as DOA (Dead on Arrival) but doctors were able to revive him.  Later, he relayed the experience to his mother.  She revealed that she had a miscarriage of a male child that she had never told to him.

Make of this what you want.  I personally don’t think that all of the unborn are saved.  The Bible shares that a relative few are saved among the living.  However, I also believe that God has His way to reach those who haven’t or can’t be reached by the power of the Gospel during their lives, however brief.  This thinly attested belief will have to do for now.

Do You Get a Body in Heaven?

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

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

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

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

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Are Dust and to Dust You Shall Return

The title of this blog are the words we say when applying the ash cross on the forehead of a person on Ash Wednesday.  Which is today.  It is a reminder of something, of which we strangely need to be reminded:  We will die.

Death can seem to be surreal.  We re-spawn in video games.  For all the violence seen on TV, we really don’t look at death but for a moment.  It has the effect of de-sensitizing us about our mortality, more than making us aware of it.  Death happens in hospitals and nursing homes and behind police tape.  Most of us don’t see it nearly enough.

But without a doubt, we will die.  Even if we live to be very old, it will come for us faster than we ever imagined.

Remembering that we will die is important.  It forces us to confront what will come next.  If makes us consider what is the purpose of this brief life we live on Earth.  If we don’t consider that we will die, will we really live correctly?

The Ash Wednesday ritual doesn’t just speak morbid reality at us, and put a black mark on our heads.  The mark is in the shape of a cross.  Ironically, a cross was originally a form of torturous capital punishment.  But God used it to creatively fulfill an unbreakable law on the behalf of everyone who would be connected to Christ.  Jesus was forsaken so that we would not have to be.  The result is eternal life with God.

Yes.  I will die.  My body still has to die and is built to die.  But I won’t have to be exiled from the one source of all good.  More than that, my body, which will decay away, will be resurrected by the power of God.  That is His promise.  It is regrettable that death is a process I must endure.  My sin makes this so.  But Jesus Christ has created a real solution to my dilemma.  Death no longer has permanent power over me.  In fact, I kind of look forward to it.  The best part of my existence is on the other side.

Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent, and, yes, it is a little dark.  But it is a darkness with a very bright light that is following it.  With a black, ugly, ashen cross smeared on my forehead, I am remind and I proclaim that I am dust; but I am dust that will rise again.

If you are in the area and read this today, we invite you to our Ash Wednesday services.  At Redeemer, Evansville, they are at noon and 6pm at 1811 Lincoln Avenue.  At Redeemer, Newburgh the service will be at 6pm at 7811 Oak Grove Road, up on the hill on the south side of the road.

Resurrection? Are You Sure?

What is your expectation of life after death?  Reincarnation? A spiritual existence? A dream state? Heaven? Nothing?

What is the basis of your expectation?  Observation? Real or imagined experience? Your upbringing?  Revelation from God?

From observation you might conclude that we merely cease to exist or that we experience some sort of spiritual liberation from the body.  The ravages of what we see happen to our body, lead several world religions to  teach that escape from the body is the goal, even if it takes several cycles to achieve it.

How strange it is for God to reveal in the Bible that eternal life in a body is the goal.  Both Old and New Testaments speak of the resurrection of the body.  Many Christians don’t even have that as part of their model for eternity.  They hold to a semi-heretical view that we live in Heaven as some sort of spirit.  This is not biblical, but is an inherited worldview from other cultures.

It is hard to imagine both the how and the why of the resurrection of the body.  This is especially true if you understand that Heaven and a heavenly body will come first most likely.

God hasn’t provided the all the details, but here is what we know.  The resurrection of the body will include both those who have been forgiven and those who have not.  People who are still alive at the date of Christ’s return will be instantly changed from a living, but flawed body, to a resurrected body.  A resurrected body isn’t just a repaired version of what we have now.  Some people have been “raised” only to die again at a later date.  To this point, only Jesus has a resurrected body.  So “resurrected” isn’t the same as “reconditioned”.

For those who have been forgiven through their connection to Jesus, the resurrection and life in a new Heaven and new Earth will be the ultimate experience.  How can it be an upgrade from Heaven?  We will have to wait and see, won’t we.

The Bible gives just enough information to be intriguing.  Add to it, if you wish, the reports that come from Near Death Experiences.  The upgrade from this life, where we have pain, illness, aging, interpersonal strife and sin, to Heaven, where there is none of this, is staggering.  Can there even be a further upgrade?

God is good and God is creative, so I am confident that the answer is yes.  From the vantage point of our current ignorance, I can say that the Bible sees us as both body and soul.  Even with a heavenly body, that does not leave us “naked” (2 Corinthians 5:3), our current body is still a part of us.  It is not completely redeemed until the resurrection.

Will God use our remains to make this resurrected body?  Should we be careful about how we dispose of our remains?  The bible puts no restrictions on the disposal of dead bodies, so I think we can conclude that nothing that happens with our remains is an obstacle for God in resurrecting us.

Here is just a theory.  Our genetics produce our body.  The Bible speaks of inheriting a sinful nature from our conception.  So it follows that our genetics have been altered from what they would have been had sin never entered the equation.  Our ideal genetics are like the Word of God speaking us into existence.  They are His information coding our design.  God will “re-speak” our ideal genetics and thus resurrect the ideal us.  It may or may not include any existing material from our remains.  We may or may not resurrect where we are “laid to rest”.  But we will resurrect, and it will be great for those who belong to Jesus.