Satan and the Afterlife

He is often shown in comedic form: a being with horns and a pitchfork and possibly a sense of humor ruling over Hell. But Satan is no joke. He can also be understood as a serious character ruling over the underworld. But there is nothing Biblical to connect Satan, or any demon for that matter, with Sheol; and Hell is described as a future placed prepared for the “Devil and his angels” not so that they can rule, but so they can experience being forsaken by God like all the damned.

I expect that most people dismiss Satan as pure fiction–a personification of evil. The Bible doesn’t waste too much space speaking of Satan, but he is definitely in there from the oldest book (Job) to the latest (Revelation). People tend to not believe in what they don’t want to be true. Anyway, Satan is a factor in any discussion of the afterlife, because without him there would be no such thing. There would only be life. The evil found in Satan becomes the source of all evil and the reason for death and segregation of those who belong to God from those who don’t.

So what is he? He is not the evil equivalent of God. Take a look at Ezekiel 28. It starts as a rebuke of the ruler of Tyre who thinks he is a god. Such megalomania was not unusual amongst ancient rulers, but around verse 12 it gets weird. Ezekiel is to “take up a lament” concerning the King of Tyre, and this lament no longer makes sense for a human:

You were the model of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone adorned you…on the day you were created they were prepared. You were anointed as a guardian cherub, for so I ordained you. You were on the holy mount of God; you walked among the fiery stones. You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created till wickedness was found in you.


Ezekiel 28:12-15

This reads like a backstory for Satan. It may be associated with the ruler of Tyre because of either the influence or because of a direct possession of the ruler Tyre. If this is Satan it tells us several things. He was created, beautiful, blameless at one time. He is a “living one” or cherubim, which are described earlier in Ezekiel, Isaiah 6 and Revelation 4. Their descriptions may not be about what they look like, as all of these accounts are visions and not observations. Their descriptions may be of their capabilities. In this case the ability to shift in form and to see into multiple situations at once. We can also infer a truly free will, uncontrolled by God. This free will becomes the source of pride, rebellion and wickedness.

Satan’s rebellion becomes the cause for his expulsion from the “mount of God” but not immediately. Ezekiel speaks prophetically and not historically at this point. Satan is seen in the presence of the God and vigorously accusing humans if not angels all the way to the time of Christ.

Revelation 12 takes up the next part of Satan’s story.

Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in Heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called 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. 10 And I heard a loud voice in Heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. 11 And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. 12 Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”

Revelation 12:7-12

Do we have any proof of this, outside of it being in the Bible? This could easily be just an ancient, irrelevant myth. I would offer a couple things. First, Satan appears to have had access to Earth before Christ and negative influence. So I wouldn’t expect human life to be necessarily worse at this point. But I do notice that as Christianity moved across the planet, initially it seemed to improve conditions; but within a generation or so there would be a negative snap back and corruption within the church itself. You can explain this from a sociological point of view, but I wonder if this has deeper roots. Also, while there was always anti-Semitism, it did not stand out as any worse than the fate of any other people group. Since then the Jews seem to lead to the way in the most hated department. The rest of Revelation 12 says this:

13 And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. 14 But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle so that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. 15 The serpent poured water like a river out of his mouth after the woman, to sweep her away with a flood. 16 But the earth came to the help of the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. 17 Then the dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.

Revelation 12:13-17

The woman mentioned here is clearly the Jewish nation. Verses 15-16 sound eerily like WWII.

There is more to be said about Satan and the afterlife. I will take that up in my next blog entry.

Is Hell God’s Wrathful Presence or His Absence?

One of my favorite church announcement gaffs is:  Our weekly Bible Study is “What is Hell?” ,followed by “Come early and hear our choir practice.”  We can joke about what would make Hell tormenting, but there is really nothing funny about it.  Hell is eternal suffering.

Hell, the place of final judgment, is described this way in Revelation 20:10, 14:

“and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever…Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.  And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”

The picture of fire and brimstone is a classic one.  Satan and his minions are there, but not to add to the torment.  Rather they are tormented themselves.  A lake of fire that would normally consume someone fails to do so because the resurrected body of a human is indestructible.  The fire only adds to their physical suffering.

The question I am asking today is about the presence of God in Hell.  Some characterize Hell as God continually and intentionally venting an unending wrath against these beings.  While God can be a God of judgment and the biblical warnings about Hell should be taken seriously, is this the type of being that He is?  Does God have a wrath that is never satisfied?

I believe the answer about God’s presence in judgment comes from the story of Jesus on the cross.  Being whipped and nailed to a cross was indeed painful, but the worst of it seems to be something unseen.  Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Jesus knew the plan.  He knew that He would experience the full judgment on sin which included being forsaken by God.  When that finally happens the experience overwhelms him.  Even Jesus can’t stand being forsaken.

Hell fire sounds bad and I’m sure it is, but the judgment on sin isn’t God battering you for an eternity.  It is God forsaking you.  God being “all-knowing” and “present everywhere” doesn’t mean that God must know everything and be everywhere.  He can intentionally forget and intentionally leave.  The worst part about being damned is that He does.  For this reason, the ultimate judgment for sin can be experience is a space, which we call “Hell” or on a cross.

We don’t realize how “present” God is with us all the time, even for those who deny His existence.  But you would certainly know it when He is no longer present.  It is agony.  That is why it is so good that God wants to be with us.  Jesus’ forsakenness was the main event on the cross.  It is questionable whether the scourging and the torturous form of execution is even God’s idea.  I think it is Satan’s idea to get Jesus to bail out on us.  Forsakeness is the scary part, and since Jesus experienced it for us, we never have to experience it ourselves.  Hell can be spoke of from afar.

Grieving with Hope

On Sunday night I watched a “60 Minutes” piece on a couple who had lost their daughter in one of the senseless mass shootings that has plagued our world.  Years later they still feel the pain, but they have channeled their grief into an effort to assist other families of mass shootings.  I admired their dedication and compassion.  There task is a difficult one.  No one is unphased when loss, especially unforeseen, untimely death enters our lives; but many people are less prepared than others.

As a pastor I have been privileged to be with many people at the lowest and highest parts of their lives.  I have often asked myself, “How would I handle this?” What understanding of life can prepare you and how should we think about such a tragedy?   I think it is a good thing to ask such questions before having to face your own tragedy.

Let’s start by talking about loss that is a shock and trauma–like a mass shooting.  This kind of grief often is accompanied with ongoing uncontrolled symptoms that we now call PTSD (Post-Traumatic Shock Disorder).  PTSD is a maladaptive attempt by your brain to protect you.  It doesn’t of course.  I gives you an additional problem.  But the neural pathway that develops is supposed to prepare you for a similar tragedy, which most likely won’t happen.  Can we be inoculated at all against PTSD?  I think so.

We need to have a very grounded and complete understanding of how the world is.  There is profound evil in our world. We should not be kept naïve about evil, how bad it can be, and what is possible.  On the flip side, we don’t want or need to live fearfully or be indifferent to pain.  In short, we need a theology about evil and death.  Kids need a theology about evil and death.  If we understand evil and death, they should not surprise us. The shock of the reality of evil in this world causes the involuntary reactions like PTSD.

Death is to be understood as a part of everybody’s life eventually.  The Bible attributes most evil to a corruption that is part of every human being.  It’s called sinful nature.  Ultimately, evil can be traced back to a source, Satan.  It is real and sometimes very ugly.

We also need hope.  In this context, I don’t mean wishfulness.  I mean confidence that God is greater than Satan and good is more powerful than evil.  Hope stands on a promise of eternal life through Jesus, and God is faithful.  When you have this hope, you can know that the evil and ugliness of this world is temporary; and you can have confidence that those who lose their lives but have Jesus are moving on to Heaven.  This kind of hope is key to getting past any type of mourning.

The final part is renewed purpose.  Death changes our lives.  We lose a part of us when we lose a role, whether that was as a parent, child, friend, co-worker or whatever.  Jesus said,

But everyone who hears these words of mine but does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.  The rain came down, and the streams rose, and the wind blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a mighty crash.  (Matthew 7:26-27)

As much as we love people, our lives cannot depend on our relationship with them for purpose, happiness and meaning.  That is the “sand” in the passage above.  Those things must be founded on our relationship with God.  We will lose relationships, sometimes to death, but we will continue to have a God-given purpose that transcends those relationships.

We recently had some suicide deaths among the survivors of mass shootings in our country.  Survivor’s guilt and an unrelenting sense of loss can drive a person to try to escape the pain by any means.  We should grieve.  Love will eventually necessitate grief.  But if we understand our world, still have hope and have a purpose that is resting on the Word of God; we can grieve, honor the dead and rediscover how to be happy.

The Citizens of Heaven

We have a sketchy picture of what Heaven is like.  We have an even more cryptic description of who or what will be there.

As you read through the Old Testament it is never revealed that humans had any hope of being citizens of Heaven.  There are a few visions of Heaven, but nothing more.  Old Testament believers understood that they were heading first to Sheol (preferably a good part of it) and that their ultimate hope was their resurrection from the dead and a New Earth.

I don’t believe that this means that Heaven wasn’t in the plans for humans or that the idea of going to Heaven was a “development of theology” or borrowed from other cultures at a later time.  Our place in Heaven had to be secured before it was promised.  Satan held some leverage over us.  Our species were rebellious sinners just like he was and like a significant minority of angels.  As long as humans were “under the Law”, we were stuck.

Jesus’ fulfillment of God’s Law as a human and His sacrifice of Himself to reconcile creation to God caused some major reorganization.  Satan and his minions lost their legal leverage and being inferior in power to God were cast out (Revelation 12:7-10). Humans were lead in a victorious procession in.  (Ephesians 4:7)  So for now, Heaven is the destiny of redeemed humanity until Judgment Day and a New Earth.

Who else will we find in Heaven?  Angels are one form of resident.  It is said of angels that they are “spirits”.  What does that mean exactly?  I think it means that they are properly citizens of Heaven’s dimensional space and not properly a part of this universe.  They can take on a form here or not, but it is not necessarily their form.  So what does an angel in Heaven look like?  We don’t know.  How many are there?  Beyond saying that there are many, we don’t know.  What are their abilities?  We can say that they are intelligent beings and that in some ways have higher capabilities than we presently have.  The name by which we know them, “angels”, speaks more to their function as “messengers” than as a proper name of their species.  I would expect them to be human-like in many ways.

Angels should be distinguished from Cherubim/Seraphim.  Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1 and Revelation 4 described these beings as “living ones”(cherubim) or “burning ones” (seraphim).  They are described as intelligent and powerful beings who surround the throne of God.  Their physical description may be more symbolic than actual.  The description includes multiple faces, four to six wings, and covered with eyes–a rather frightening appearance.  Satan is described as being a disowned, guardian cherub (Ezekiel 28), beautiful, part of the council of God, and blameless until wickedness was found in him.

The only other citizens of Heaven that are described in the Bible (that doesn’t mean that their aren’t others) are a mysterious group of 24 elders. Who are these beings?  What are they?  They could be humans.  They do not appear in the only other descent description of God’s throne room in Daniel 7.  They are described in Revelation 4.  Since Revelation is full of symbolism, this could be a group symbolic of a greater portion of humanity.  Or not.  It is intriguing to think about how the picture given in Revelation 4 (a New Testament if not future picture) relates to references to a divine council found throughout the Old Testament.  More about this in my next blog.

Thy Kingdom Come (Freedom)

Freedom is a tough word to define.  Sometimes we view it as the absence of constraints, but as creatures who have a sinful nature we often do poorly when unconstrained.  Many people, exercising “freedom”, become helplessly enslaved to addictions.  It would seem that our natural, sinful self is almost set up for an addiction of some kind.  If it isn’t drugs and alcohol, then it is sex, gambling or even video games.  Anything that is too rewarding becomes addicting.

Everyone who sins is a slave to sin.

These famous words of Jesus prove to be too true in life.    Everyone does sin, so everyone is a slave to sin.  We are not free.  Not yet.

So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:36)

Jesus sets us free from the condemnation by the Law of our sin, and the mandatory sentencing that would damn us forever.  That is the most important way Jesus sets us free.  But there are others.  Jesus’ victory on the cross also was a death blow to the control Satan exercises over God’s people.  In Heaven and the New Earth, Satan will be completely absent.  He will exercise no influence over us at all.  That too is a huge new freedom.  The miracles of Jesus’ during His earthly ministry foreshadow such a freedom as Jesus cast out demons.

There will also be freedom from our sinful nature.  A freedom from a biology that just can’t seem to handle pleasure without eventual problems.  I believe the sinful nature that the Bible describes is actually genetic mutations that inflicted our common parents (Adam and Eve) and have been passed on to us all (Psalm 51:5, Romans 7:14-25, Genesis 3:6-7).  These mutations do not represent how God created us nor are they what God wants for us.  Sinful nature produces a brain structure that is prone to addiction and resistant to God.  Even if we don’t have an “addictive personality”, we can become addicted with the right exposures.

Imagine life where this is no longer possible.  Imagine a new biology where we can experience every good thing and still be free.  Imagine joy, exhilaration, ecstasy, love, happiness, satisfaction without a crash, without an uncontrollable urge for more.  Freedom combined with all good things.

Far from the boredom that some people attribute to eternity with God, Heaven and the New Earth will be characterized glorious freedom.

The Destiny of Satan

It is a classic picture, found in sources as diverse as Renaissance art and The Far Side, to see the damned trapped in Hell with Satan and demons.  Some of that art seems to suggest that Satan and demons somewhat enjoy it.  They are captives not masters.  Don’t depend on artists or cartoonists to be biblically correct.  The Pre-Judgment Day destination of the damned (Sheol, Hades) has no mention of the presence of Satan or any fallen angel.  The Post-Judgment Day destination of the damned (Hell) does.  We have already seen one quick reference in Matthew 25:41.  The other two are in Revelation.

But the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who had performed the miraculous signs on his behalf.  With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshiped his image.  The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur.    Revelation 19:20

Though the word “Gehenna” is not used in this paragraph, the “lake of fire” would seem to be an obvious reference to the same place.  Where is this place?  No information is given.  With possibly this one exception, it doesn’t seem to be a destination for any human prior to Judgment Day.  The fact the beast (possibly a powerful demon not Satan) and his false prophet go there Pre-Judgement Day, may suggest that Hell exists already somewhere.  The classic ideas of Hell as being at the core the Earth are both the product of confusing it with Sheol and the ancients not having any information about it.  If I were to guess, I would guess Hell is in some dimensional space completely segregated from either Heaven or Earth.  Hell’s distinction is not the endless fire, but rather it is its absence from the presence of God.  It is forsaken.

The other reference to the “lake of fire” happens in Revelation 20:7-10:

When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth- Gog and Magog- to gather them for battle.  In the number they are like the sand of the seashore.  They marched across the the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of  God’s people, the city he loves.  But fire came down from heaven and devoured them.  And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and false prophet had been thrown.  They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

For some reason not shared with us, Satan is allowed a short time of being at full power, and he uses his time to drag a large segment of humanity down with him.  God thwarts his effort to attack those who remain true to God and then Satan is pitched into the lake of fire, also Pre-Judgement Day, but just barely.  His confinement and torment are then permanent.

Judgment Day then commences in Revelation 20 with this conclusion:

Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.  The lake of fire is the second death.  If anyone’s name is not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

Hades is a place not a person.  What is death?  Death is a sentence.  It is a sentence pronounced by God’s Law that the unforgiven human must be separated from God forever.  The movement of death to Hell is a victory for the forgiven human but it is the consummation of the Law for the sinner.  Everyone whose name is not found in the Book of Life, which would be everyone not connected to Jesus, is thrown into the lake of fire with a resurrected and indestructible body and soul.  The torment is both physical, by fire, and spiritual by being forsaken by God.

As Jesus said, you really don’t want to end up here.  Jesus gave himself so you don’t have to.

 

Is It Perfect?

Many people resort to describing Heaven with one word, perfect.  Is it?  What does that word even mean?  Without a doubt the things that can make life here miserable will not be a part of Heaven by the time we get there.  But there is at least one section of the Bible that indicates that Heaven was at one time far less than perfect.

Revelation 12:7-10:

Now war arose in Heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in Heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called 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. And I heard a loud voice in Heaven saying, “Now the salvation and power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down.

This is a very different idea of Heaven then what most people think about. Heaven can’t have war, can it? But it seems that Heaven had rebellion problems just as the earth does. Satan, the source of all rebellion against God, is seen prowling around Heaven up until the time of Christ. Jesus speaks of seeing Satan fall from Heaven like lightening.   Jesus’ victory seems to be soon after a military type assault carried out by Gods’ angels against Satan and his cohort.

We can see Satan’s Old Testament access to God’s throne room in the picture of Heaven found in Job. The account gives no physical details of the place but speaks of the relationships between the “sons of God”, which includes Satan, and God himself. Satan is a tolerated and yet rebellious figure in this story, but his expulsion seems to be prevented at the time. The reasons for Satan’s continued presence in Heaven throughout the Old Testament are uncertain, but the reason probably rests in rules whose existence we can infer through biblical phrases like “it is written” and “this must happen”.

In a similar fashion we can see Satan’s antagonistic presence in Heaven in Zechariah 3. Here Satan is accusing the high priest, Joshua, of some wrongdoing. Satan is strongly rebuked by God and Joshua’s sins are forgiven.

Another Heavenly squabble is told of in Jude. This time it is the archangel Michael disputing with Satan over Moses body. No details of this dispute are found in Scripture, but a story about this event is found in the apocryphal book, the Assumption of Moses. Jesus’ words in John 3:13 would preclude anyone being “assumed into Heaven”, but apparently there is some truth in this reported dispute.

What do the stories in Job, Zechariah, Jude, and Revelation teach us about Heaven? For one, it was not as peaceful and perfect as we assume. That may no longer true, but the rebellion against God didn’t get its start on earth—it started in Heaven. Perhaps this may explain why God is intent on a new heaven and earth, as opposed to forever in Heaven.