Go to Hell

We have probably all said this to someone or something in anger.  Or we have said its more profane equivalent.  These words flow easily without understanding their literal meaning.  Hell is not a place I would wish on my worst enemy or on the worst of people.

Is Hell real or was it just a fable to control people with fear?  Without a doubt the fear of Hell has been abused by some, but Jesus clearly speaks of its reality.  If you take Heaven seriously, you have no ground for not taking Hell seriously since Jesus spoke of it often, maybe even more than Heaven as a destination for mankind.

To be specific, I make a contrast between two words that are often rendered as “Hell”.  Jesus speaks of Gehenna and Hades.  These are not synonyms, so they should not be translated as the same word.  Hades is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Sheol.  It is the destiny of those without the forgiveness of sins prior to Judgment Day.  The characteristics of Hades do resemble that of Gehenna, so people have tended to conflate them.  Hades and Sheol constitute the majority of references to Hell in the Bible.

When I, and most people, think about Hell, they are thinking about the final place of judgement, not a temporary one.  Because of this, I prefer to reserve the word Hell for the post-Judgment Day destination of the damned.  That convention would limit the references to Hell to the following passages that I would like to handle a couple at a time over the next few entries.

Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (Matthew 25:46)

This passage comes at the end of the Sheep and the Goats story which definitely describes Judgment Day.  Just two words describe Hell here: eternal and punishment.  We will have to look elsewhere to find the nature of the punishment.  The disturbing thing here is “eternal”.  There is no end to it.  I would be more comfortable with “permanent destruction” suggesting that the evil people come to an end, or even “long” punishment.  Eternal is tough.  What could be bad enough to deserve eternal punishment?  The gravity of this has caused some to postulate that Hell doesn’t exist, or it doesn’t exist for any human, or it actually is temporary.  I think this passage is pretty clear.  People are going to eternal punishment.

In the same chapter are these words:

And throw that servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 25:30)

Does this refer to the eternal Hell, too?  It doesn’t expressly say, but a couple of things would make me conclude so.  First, Matthew 25 is all about preparation for Judgment Day, so this seems like an outcome of that.  Then the words “outside” and “darkness” imply a separation from God, which is the ultimate judgment.  When Jesus was forsaken by His Father on the cross, it seemed that was far worse than the nails or other torments.  Jesus being forsaken results in our not needing to be forsaken, if we are connected to Jesus.

The other descriptors are “weeping” and “gnashing of teeth”.  Both sound horrible.  They also sound physical.  The final judgment is a punishment of both body and soul.  More about this later.

I would love for Hell to be either fictional or empty, but I would rather know the truth rather than be surprised by it.  I would also prefer to learn about Hell from afar rather than from experience.  Though unpleasant, please follow me as I look at the other references in the Bible.

 

 

The River of Life

One feature of the New Earth, that hasn’t been mentioned yet is the River of Life.  Once again, I don’t think this is a metaphor, but rather a physical feature running through the New Jerusalem.  That said, this river is not your usual water running downhill.

If you are familiar with the River of Life it is because it is found in Revelation 22.  Just like with magazines, a lot of us like to start at the back; so many people have read Revelation 22–the last chapter of the Bible.  You may be less familiar with Ezekiel 47.  Here is description of what is clearly the same thing.  So what is so strange about this river?

Let’s start with the source.  The river emanates from under the altar of the temple in Ezekiel and from under the “throne of God” in Revelation 22.  The temple was seen as a mini-version of what really existed in Heaven.  This is a reason to equate the future New Jerusalem with the current throne room of God in Heaven.

Water, as it spreads out and flows away, should get shallower.  This water gets deeper until it forms a river.  Along the river are trees which are identified as the Tree of Life in Revelation 22.  A presumably singular Tree of Life is mentioned in Genesis in the Garden of Eden.

This river isn’t the only thing to ever flow from beneath the throne of God.  In Daniel 7:10 a river of fire flows.  So what is this river?  The Holy Spirit manifests himself as many things:  a dove, fiery tongues and Jesus speaks of the Spirit as Living Water.  I think it is fair to understand the river as a manifestation of the Holy Spirit, and all life initiates with Him.  In Heaven and the New Earth, we may experience the Father and the Son as persons like ourselves in many ways.  The Spirit may be experienced in other ways including this river.

The Tree of Life is seen lining the river.  It, too, is an outgrowth, tool or manifestation of the Holy Spirit.  Revelation 22 says, “The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”  What healing will we need in the New Earth?

The honest answer is, “I don’t know”.   In Genesis, Adam and Eve were not forbidden access to the Tree of Life until after they had been exposed to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  The reason was so that they would not “live forever”.  Here the reason is so that we will live forever.  Our physical bodies, though recreated, still may need the steady input of the Tree of Life; and not to worry, the Tree of Life is always in season.

I expect that our resurrected bodies will have some type of genetic information within them and some type of chemical metabolism.  Sustaining this metabolism indefinitely is whatever is in the Tree of Life.  It is the Spirit’s way of keeping us whole and alive.

No Eclipse in This City

This week was the long anticipated solar eclipse in the United States.  My city was very near the region of totality.  We experienced a 99% eclipse, which oddly barely dimmed the light.  As we continue to look at the New Earth, specifically the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 (this is the sixth entry), we find a wrinkle to the “new order of things” that relates to the celestial bodies.

I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.  The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.

In the new Jerusalem you don’t need to go to a temple because you encounter God, the Father and Jesus, everywhere.  The presence of God is an interesting study in the Bible.  God is everywhere and somewhere at the same time.  He occupies a throne in Heaven and He also dwells in His people and fills all things.  You get the sense that His presence is different in each place, but very real.  Still, God’s presence isn’t something you can always sense in every place.  Not so in the New Jerusalem.  How we will encounter God in this city, I cannot say.  But I do believe it will be exhilarating, joyful and always desirable.

God’s presence in the New Jerusalem is so palpable that the city literally glows with God’s glory.  The physical radiation that accompanies God, His shekinah, makes the directional lighting of the sun, moon or any lamp irrelevant.  There is no darkness of any sort in the New Jerusalem.

On no day will its gates ever be shut, or there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it.  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.

As mentioned before, the walls of the city are not for a protective purpose.  Once the city has arrived on the New Earth, there is no need to shut the gates; not just because there isn’t any night, but because there isn’t any danger.  Evil is excluded.  The evil that affects us all is gone.  The human inhabitants and visitors to the city have left their sinful nature behind.  They are what we are meant to be–loving, truthful, good.

That part is more exciting than a new planet.  We will be literally new people.  You won’t have enemies or people you can’t trust.  You won’t be in competition but rather you will be in love, with everyone. We won’t need armies, police or really even laws. We will be with God, each other and a restored nature.

Is anything the same?  Will there be anything carried over from the current Earth to the New Earth?  “The glory and honor of the nations” is mentioned.  This could be simply a reference to the fact that there will be redeemed people from every nation, but it could also speak to pure elements of human culture–the very best of what we are today.

It is hard to imagine, but it isn’t hard to know that this is where you want to be.  Who will make it?  Only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.  Jesus, the Lamb, has always known who will be His.  Their names are recorded in a book.  His people will know that He died for them and they will be bonded to Him through baptism.  Some will be His almost all their life.  Others will be late arrivers, coming to faith in old age.  Praise God if you belong to Jesus.  If not, it’s better late than never, as the saying goes.

The New Earth in Revelation (part 3)

We left off at Revelation 21:5 in my last entry.  Verses 6-9 are important but not about the New Earth, so I will pick it up at verse 9:

One the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.  And he carried me away in the Spirit to mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.

An angel takes the writer, John, not only to a different place but also to a different time.  The time that the New Earth is being set up post-judgment day.  Being taken “in the Spirit” doesn’t necessarily mean “out of body” but in this case it must.  John sees the “new” Jerusalem coming down like a landing space ship.  It is called “the wife of the Lamb” because in Isaiah 62:4, God speaks of Jerusalem being called “Beulah”, which means married.  The Church is also referred to with such a metaphor, but in this case, I think it is referring to the new Jerusalem.  So what makes it Jerusalem?  It is the city where the visible presence of God resides.  It will probably bear no resemblance or use any material from the Old City of Jerusalem, but the old Jerusalem prefigured this city of the future.

A question I have is whether this New Jerusalem is actually something that exists in Heaven already.  Is this the throne room of God that we see in all of the visions of Heaven?  We can’t know this, but it seems a real possibility to me.  In that case the following description, which we often attribute to Heaven, actually is a description of both Heaven and the New Jerusalem.

It shone with the glory of God and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal,.  It had a great high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates.  On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel.  There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west.  The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

If you Google “new Jerusalem” and go to “images” you will see how various artists have wrestled with this description.  Did it look like a walled city of the past?  If so, why?  I think this describes something more like a city within a crystalline cube.  It is four sided, at least at the base.  The dimensioning is given in the next section.  The names on the gates remind me of gates at a football stadium, especially Lambeau field which happens to have a gate named after the Oneida Indian tribe.  Walls would not be needed to keep out enemies as in the past, but would walls be needed because of the mobility of this city?  Something similar to the “Death Star” in Star Wars, only beautiful.

Jaspar is a stone that is not typically clear.  John grasps for gems he knows.  I think it looks more like a diamond.  Its beauty is something that probably defies words, and it will be a big part of our eternal existence.

The New Earth in Revelation (Part 2)

We are looking at what Revelation 21 has to say about the new heavens and new Earth.  We left off with the following:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God with with men, and he will live with them.  They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

This is hard to imagine.  We read that God walked around the Garden of Eden and Adam and Eve interacted directly with God, but we have no similar experience.  There is a perceived distance now that will be taken away.  The fact that God will actually live with us is stated twice for emphasis.  It’s a big deal.

This passage demonstrates God preference for the human race.  He wants to be with His people.  I love that, but I don’t truly understand it.  I think that we can be a pain, but we will be different then.  We will not have a sinful nature.  All our undesirable but “human” traits like selfishness, clannishness, faithlessness, unrighteous pride (and I could go on) will not be a part of humanity.  That’s not just a blessing for God.  It will be a blessing for us.  Truly something for which to look forward.

There will be other changes as well.  There will be no more death, mourning, crying or pain, which is connected with the “old order”.    One thing for sure that is part of this old order is what the Bible calls “the curse”.  Do not think of an old Italian grandma putting on a spiteful magical spell when you think of the curse here.  This is something more like God taking a step back from maintaining the order of things.  It isn’t all “very good” anymore as it was in Genesis.  With the curse comes loss and suffering from various quarters:  natural disasters, poor health, aging, cycles of death and decay.  These are part of our current natural order.  A different natural order will exist then.  The specifics of this order are not revealed but it does spur the imagination of what is possible.

For instance, I ate something that might have sat out too long, the next day my digestive tract complained.  No more of that in the new order.  Hospitals?–won’t need them.  Nor will we need funeral homes, police departments, auto repair, dentists, most of government.  Won’t need pastors because God is right there.  Probably 90% of our jobs exist because of the curse.  What will we do?  Don’t worry, there will be plenty to do all and all enjoyable.  Labor is part of this order.

This description is very similar to what is found in Revelation 7:16-17, which is a description of Heaven, hence some of the confusion.  Heaven will be trouble free as well. Heaven will be living with God.  Clearly there are differences, but the differences are hard to discern.  Revelation 21 goes on to say:

He who is seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new! Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

It’s exciting to think what may be very different from what we experience today.  Perhaps even the laws of physics will be changed.  Biology will be vastly altered.  I would not go so far as to assume that there will be nothing familiar.  It is just that the familiar will be greatly improved.  Earth 2.0.  You can write that down because God guarantees it.

The New Earth in Isaiah

The New Earth appears in several passages in the Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments.  One of the weirdest, and hardest to reconcile with the rest of scripture, is found in Isaiah 65:17-25.  I will emphasize that this is my take on this difficult passage and I have more questions than answers.  Prophecy is often purposely unclear.  Some aspects are meant only to be understood when either hindsight or the Holy Spirit unlocks its true meaning.  For prophecies in Isaiah, the mode in which he received them could be a part of the issue.  Isaiah’s prophecies read like verbal descriptions of visions.  Visions that were presented almost like Powerpoint presentations.  What I mean is that one “slide” could be the present, the next Jesus’ first coming, the last Judgment Day; and there is no sense of elapsed time.  Hindsight shows you that there is elapsed time.

With respect to Isaiah 65, Isaiah may be interpreting the vision in terms he and his immediate readers would understand.  We need the rest of scripture to give us “hindsight” into how to understand some the things that he writes.

The section starts with great clarity as to what it is about:

Behold I will create new heavens and a new earth.

This passage is not about Heaven.  It is not about a “millennium”.  It is about a to be created new universe with a new earth.

The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.

This may make you a little sad.  I don’t think this means that we will forget about our relationships nor that the good God worked through us and for us will be forgotten.  Rather the pain and difficulty inherent in our present time will become a memory that fades away.

But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy.  I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more.

These words stand for themselves, but the next part is where it gets weird.

Never again will there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not live out his years; he who dies at a hundred will be thought a mere youth; he who fails to reach a hundred will be considered accursed.

For people who probably had a life expectancy of 45 years, this might seem like quite an upgrade, but God has promised us “eternal” life.  Verses about eternal life have to inform our understanding here.  Will there be infants and old men?  Living and dying?  Being accursed?  Sin and the wages of sin, should be eliminated with the death of our bodies and the removal of Satan’s kingdom from the system.  No other passage in scripture would lend support to aging, dying, or being accursed.  For this reason, I would have to consider this a literary device, or an interpretation of what Isaiah sees, to make a point–things will be changed for the good.

No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat.  For as the days of a tree, so will the days of my people; my chosen ones will long enjoy the works of their hands.  They will not toil in vain or bear children doomed to misfortune for they will be a people blessed by the LORD, they are their descendants with them.  

Surely they understood that trees die.  But in comparison it must have seemed that certain species lived forever.  A question raised here is whether the reference to children and descendants are also a literary devices.  Maybe.  With resurrected bodies, it is possible that the new earth might include procreation.  A passage in Matthew tells us that “in the resurrection” which means “in the new earth”, that we will be like angels neither married or given in marriage.  Some take the leap to suggest that means we must be asexual in the new earth, but to be honest I don’t know what the angels are like.  If the new earth is a return to Eden in a way, I would have to assume that Adam and Eve were going to procreate with or without the fall into sin.  I think this topic remains a mystery for now.

Before they call I will answer, while they are speaking I will hear.

Like the Garden of Eden, God is there in visible form.  He will live with us.

The wolf and lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will be the serpent’s food.  They will not harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

Some people want to read this metaphorically.  I think it is probably quite straight forward.  God’s plan is to redeem creation, not just people.  While there is no reference to nature in Heaven, there is a reference here.  Also like the Garden of Eden it is a death-free system without predators.  A place of beauty and of peace.  Could our pets be a part of this “nature”?  We will see.

 

The New Earth: A Return to Eden

Imagine a world in many ways similar to this one.  There are plants and animals, the full spectrum of God’s original creation.  We have bodies.  We eat, sleep, do pleasurable work, maybe even are sexual.  But this world has some profound differences.  First, we never die or get sick.  There is no war, crime, abuse or sin of any sort.  We don’t believe God exists by faith.  We see Him and speak with Him all the time.  Can you imagine this?  If so, where am I?

You might want to say the Garden of Eden, and that would be a close answer.  But this is a description of God’s ultimate, post-Judgment Day plans for us.  It is the New Earth.

I will say again, I am stunned as to how few Christians are familiar with even the idea of a new heaven and earth.  This includes clergy.  As you will see it is clearly declared in the Bible.  There is probably a more complete description of the New Earth than there is of Heaven.  People either haven’t read these passages or they have conflated the concept of Heaven with the New Earth. (If you haven’t read it, see: “Our Oversimplication of Life After Death“)

Let’s look at the passages about the New Earth, starting with the most basic 2 Peter 3.  Some of our questions will be answered, we can infer some things, but be prepared to have more questions than answers.

Starting with 2 Peter 3:10:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief.  The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.

Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be?  You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.  That day will bring about destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat.  But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and new earth, the home of righteousness.

This passage foretells the complete annihilation of not only the planet but the whole of the universe.  All gone, down to the atomic level.  But this is not the end of all things.  In fact, it is something of which to look forward.  Why?  The creation as it now stands is messed up.  Its “order” has been disordered by Satan, by us and intentionally by God; and to get it back to the way God wants it, it must be destroyed and rebuilt.

In this passage we have very little detail of what the “new heaven and new earth” will be like, except that it is the “home of righteousness”.  We can infer some details from these words.  There will be no Satan, no sinfulness, no rebellion against God.  There will be no separation of God from His creation.  It will be somewhat like the Garden of Eden minus the way to mess it up.  We may maintain a knowledge of what evil was, but we will never go there again.

This was the understanding of life after death even in the Old Testament.  Next entry I will go to perhaps the most confounding passage on this topic or any in the Bible–Isaiah 65.