The Special Status of Martyrs

The word “martyr” gets in the news these days in the context of suicidal Muslim terrorists.  It is ironic that such people are called “martyrs”.  The word actually means “witness”.  What does their actions and their death say about their theology?  I hear, “God is full of hate”, “I am full of hate”, and “I will do anything to advance my selfish ambitions for the afterlife.”  Not exactly a compelling witness.

Christians have long used the word “martyr” for those who lost their lives because of their faith.  They did not commit suicide or even seek death, their lives were taken from them out of hatred for God or his message.  Their witness was “The gift of eternal life is better than this life”, and “I am not afraid to die because I trust God”.  That is a very different witness.

Martyrdom for Christians is not something isolated to the first century.  While the Romans took their share, genuine disciples of Jesus have been killed through the centuries, sometimes even by nominal Christian institutions.  Today, Christians are under the greatest threat of death in Muslim and Communist countries.

A strong theme, maybe even the main theme, of the book of Revelation is that martyrdom for the sake of Christ is well worth it.  Martyrs get special mention in Revelation 6:9-11, 12:11 and 20:4.  What do these passages teach us about this special class of people?

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had be slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained.  They called out in a loud voice, “How long Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?  Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed. (Rev. 6:9-11)

This passage is important because it rules out the idea of soul sleep or that we go immediately to Judgment Day at our death.  It also lines out one of the criterion for the timing of Judgment Day–there are a preset or pre-known number of martyrs.  You might think this a strange and morbid standard, but to be a martyr is a high honor.  Those who experience this are chosen for this.  Their location “under the altar” brings to mind where the blood of the sacrifices was poured.  Only the sacrifice of Christ has merit in saving others.  But the death of the martyrs hasn’t historically deterred faith in Christ but it has counter-intuitively advanced it.  They are a sacrifice pleasing to God in the sense that they truly trusted him, and their deaths advanced the Gospel.

The gift of a “white robe” is common for all who die in Christ.  It is probably not clothing but a reference to a heavenly body that is pure.  The desire for judgment may be a surprise.  It doesn’t feel like love for your enemy.  Such judgment is just, however.  It doesn’t preclude the possibility of repentance and forgiveness.

In Revelation 12 the martyrs are honored and their praise is sung.  In Revelation 20 it speaks specifically of souls who were beheaded.  This is probably synecdoche and actually refers to all martyrs.  Here they have the honor of reigning with Christ.  What is that?  In this context, it would seem that they are part of God’s divine council, which actually participates in making decisions executable on Earth.  This honor would make sense since their lifetimes were cut short on Earth.

Is Heaven Somehow Incomplete?

Many people have a biblically naive understanding of the afterlife.  That is one of the motivations for this blog.  It is typical to believe that immediately at death you go to Heaven if you were “good” and Hell is you were “bad”.  Heaven is commonly viewed as “perfect”.  Whatever “perfect” is.  That belief is folk religion, and biblically wrong in so many ways.

Most importantly, you are not destined for Heaven or Hell based on whether you are good or bad.  To God’s standard we are all bad–all tarnished by sin.  We are saved based on whether we have forgiveness or not, and the only way to have forgiveness is to have Jesus’ sacrifice of himself apply to us personally.  Jesus died for all, but God has to also be able to connect us to Christ through faith and baptism.

Popular conceptions of Heaven and Hell are a bit muddled as well.  The Bible makes you aware that there is an intermediate state, which is essentially the time between your death and Judgment Day.  Post Judgment Day the destination of God’s people is a “New Heaven and Earth”  with resurrected physical bodies.  The post-Judgment Day destination of the unforgiven is described as:  a lake of fire, Gehenna (which evokes a picture of a burning garbage dump), and a condition of being forsaken by God.  God won’t hang around to torment you.  Rather, God will permanently forget you.  That place and condition is what I prefer to call “Hell”

So where is Heaven in all of this?  It is the current dwelling place of God and the angels.  It will persist until Judgment Day when Heaven itself will be modified.  It is the immediate destination of those who die (I don’t buy the “soul sleep” paradigm and address that in a later blog), but there are some things incomplete about Heaven and our experience of it.

Don’t get me wrong, the experience of Heaven will leave our experience of life so far in dust.  We will see God, be without sinful nature, have no exposure to Satan, possess a heavenly body and no longer experience the discomforts of the curse.  It is hard to even imagine how good all that will feel compared to current life, so it is even harder to imagine what will be lacking.  While we consciously experience Heaven, our earthly bodies will still be in some state of decay or ash, and our earthly bodies are a part of what makes us.  The final release from the consequences of sin will happen at the resurrection.

For that matter, it would seem that the same is true for Heaven, the place.  Heaven has not been perfect.  Heaven hosted Satan’s rebellion and the corruption of a large minority of angels.  Heaven has experienced war.  God isn’t just going to make a New Earth.  He is going to make a New Heaven.

If you search the internet on the topic of Heaven, you will get a wide variety of interpretations, including mine.  You will encounter quite a few who suggest that we never will see Heaven, rather we are destined only for the resurrection and the New Earth.  They are right in saying that this was the Jewish, Old Testament expectation.  They might also state that the idea of our souls inhabiting Heaven forever is a Greek idea.  I agree in part.  The folk Christian idea is heavily influenced by the Greeks.  The Bible shares God’s revelation, which is the only reliable source on this topic.  It does speak of Heaven, even a Heaven we can inhabit, but it is a temporary dwelling with something even better to follow.

The Throne Room of God

I would like start this section with a passage about Heaven that is frequently overlooked. It is John 3:13:

No one has ascended into Heaven except he who descended from Heaven, the Son of Man.

This is a “wow” statement when you think about it. Jesus is unequivocally saying that nobody has been to Heaven to that point. That means that the two Old Testament visions of Heaven that seem like the person travels to Heaven (Isa. 6, Dan. 7) were just that—visions. They were not field trips. Even though the Bible says that a fiery chariot took Elijah into Heaven. It does not mean that Elijah went to the throne room of God, it just means that the chariot took him up. The word “heavens” can be used to refer to outer space, so it is important to watch your context. This verse also means all those Old Testament people who have been considered “righteous” still had not yet received their righteousness from Christ and gone to Heaven. The punishment for their sins had only been suspended for the time being (see Romans 3:25b). They awaited Christ’s victory in a pleasant portion of Sheol.

Why hadn’t anybody ascended to Heaven up to the time Jesus made that statement? We are sinners and do not deserve to be there. Perhaps we could not even survive being there in our condition. Only atonement for sin can change that situation and when this was spoken Jesus had still not atoned for the sins of the world.

This raises an interesting question about Isaiah’s experience. In Isaiah 6, Isaiah experiences a vision of Heaven and he also experiences his unworthiness. He says, “Woe to me! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of people with unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of (hosts.)” I’m sure Isaiah doesn’t know what exactly has happened to him. He doesn’t know if he is actually in Heaven or still in the temple and seeing Heaven. We would call it an out-of-body experience, but it would appear from Jesus’ statement above that he wasn’t as “out-of-body” as he perhaps felt.

Isaiah saw the throne room of God, but only as a vision. Even though only a vision, Isaiah was struck by his unworthiness to be there. “Woe to me” he said, “For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among people of unclean lips.” Heaven isn’t heavenly for those who are unworthy to be there. The holiness of God is stressful for Isaiah in a vision, and possibly lethal for him in person. Still, God gave Isaiah this vision for a purpose. God had a mission to give him and the means to carry it out.

In his vision, Isaiah sees several bizarre creatures in the throne room of God. He calls them, “burning ones”, or Seraphim. The seraphim respond to Isaiah’s unworthiness in this way:

Then one of seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with the tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

I have always found this fascinating. Why didn’t Isaiah get burned? Why do coals on the altar atone for him? There is no answer given, so we can’t conclusively say. Perhaps the reason is that Isaiah wasn’t really there, so no burn. The altar that this refers to is the one copied in the Jerusalem temple where sacrifices were made. The Bible is clear that animal sacrifices do not really atone for sin at all. However, they were prophetic, as Isaiah’s experience was prophetic, of a sacrifice that will really atone; and that sacrifice was Jesus.

With the sacrifice of Christ completed, can mankind enter into Heaven and into the presence of God? It would appear so. The first invitation happens on the cross. Jesus says to the repentant thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Some have interpreted Jesus’ words as saying that the thief will join Jesus in the good neighborhood of Sheol. The reasoning is simple, that is where Jesus is going next and we are not aware of a trip to Heaven until His ascension. But Jesus didn’t exactly leave us His travel itinerary. I would add to the evidence for Jesus going to Heaven on that day, Ephesians 4:8:

When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.

I don’t think the ascension referenced here is the one the disciples observed for two reasons. First, Jesus is leading the Old Testament redeemed, here referred to as “captives”, somewhere, presumably Heaven. Next, the gifts referred to is the forgiveness of sins, which would have begun immediately after Jesus had finished His task of atonement. As such, Jesus could have gone to Heaven the very day He was crucified.

Next time:  More from the throne room of God

Heaven Is My Home, or Is It?

Another common misconception about eternal life is that Heaven is our final destination. Most people believe the Bible says that if you are saved you go to Heaven forever, and if you are damned you go to Hell forever, but the Bible is very clear on this subject, a New Earth is our ultimate goal. Heaven is an intermediary destination.

Here are some relevant passages on the topic:

2 Peter 3:13

But according to His promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

Revelation 21:1-4

21 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

The idea of being in Heaven forever didn’t come from the Bible. It first seeped into Christian thinking from Greek pagan religion. The Greeks believed that this world and our bodies were evil and the goal was to be released from our bodies. Similar ideas can be found in Hinduism and Buddhism. You can understand from where such thinking came. Our bodies and this world are not as God had created them. We get sick and die. We have all sorts of natural inclinations toward evil. This is because we have been altered by sin and live under the curse of God. It is not because the material universe is inherently corrupt or undesirable, but it can sure seem like it at times. In fact, God’s goal is to restore it original glory rather than abandon His creation.

In more recent times, Enlightenment era theologians had a tendency to conflate scripture that referred to Heaven with those that spoke of the New Earth. As a result, there are many beloved hymns from that era that speak of Heaven as our permanent home. Finding the words “the new Earth” in a hymn is rather unusual. Why this is so probably has something to do with the idea of the resurrection of the dead. Reanimating long-decayed remains seems like a physical impossibility. True people of science would never believe this to be literal. A heavenly goal is not challengeable by the laws of nature, so it seems more believable; but the laws of nature don’t restrict God.

Seminary and Sunday School also can shoulder some of the blame for our not hearing about the New Earth. In systematic theology classes that are jammed packed with topic matter, our eternal destiny tends to be left to the end of the line and was probably not always covered. If pastors were not thorough in their studies of scripture, they could easily overlook or dismiss the temporary nature of both Heaven and Sheol. As noted earlier, Sheol is usually mistranslated in most Bibles, therefore many pastors may not understand it at all. Then there is the training most lay people have had. I’ll admit the true plan of God for eternity is a little complicated. Try explaining it to Sunday School kids or, for that matter, Sunday School teachers. How much easier is it to present the “Heaven forever” model.

The Heaven Forever model does create some dissonance with the “resurrection of the body” that is proclaimed, often weekly, in the Creeds. That is one reason we have the ancient creeds. It is so we don’t lose important parts of the truth to false oversimplifications. If we are in Heaven, why would we need our earthly bodies resurrected? Of course, the answer is because we’re not in Heaven forever, still people readily ignore this contradiction.

Heaven is the destination of the redeemed between death and Judgment Day.  What we will experience in Heaven is not well explained in Scripture, but there are several descriptions of God’s throne room which are quite detailed.  They will be the topic matter for the next few publications.

Is Sheol My Destiny?

We have talked about the fact that the Old Testament people did not speak about going to Heaven or Hell exactly, they spoke about going to Sheol.  Sheol was a place for the righteous (like Jacob) and the unrighteous (like Korah).  Scripture that we will cover later reveals that Sheol is a place with two parts separated by a chasm or void.  The one part was relatively pleasant, the other a hellish place of torment.  Before completing what the Bible has to say about Sheol/Hades, I want to address a common question I have heard since teaching about this topic.

Do we go to Sheol?  It is important to note that Jesus’ victory on the cross made a tremendous difference in mankind’s after death destiny.  Jesus stated in John 3:13 that no one had gone to Heaven up to that point.  That would change with Jesus’ victory on the cross.

Ultimately, after Judgment Day, the Bible says that humans will be part of a New Earth or what I would call “Hell” (the Bible uses the terms “lake of fire” or “Gehenna”).  Until Judgment Day, when we die we are either sent to Heaven or the bad neighborhood of Sheol.  This is what theologians call the “Intermediate Period” (The time after our death but before Judgment Day).  Both destinations change with Judgment Day.  The idea that we “sleep” until Judgment Day or that we defy time and immediately move to Judgment Day does not work with Revelation 6:9-10.

I found the picture above on the internet.  It does a decent job of illustrating what I am talking about. (I have a few issues with it.  What it calls Hell present is what the Bible calls Sheol or Hades.   The chasm it shows is not between Heaven and Sheol but rather is a part of Sheol)  So, back to the original question.  If you are connected to Jesus through faith and baptism, then you will not go to Sheol.  But it is good to realize that Sheol is something different than what we normally think of when we say Hell.

Next time:  What Job says about Sheol