“Eternal Destiny: We believe in the resurrection of the saved and the lost, and that both will stand before the judgment seat of Christ; the saved will enter into everlasting life in God’s presence, and the lost will be sent into everlasting death, devoid of the presence of God. (Matthew 25:31-46; Mark 9:43-48; 1 Corinthians 4:5; Revelation 19:20; Revelation 20:11-15; Revelation 21:8).”
Today we are going to talk about where we go when we die. There is a lot that could be said, but I want to focus on three key biblical claims.
- After physical death, our conscious existence continues.
- We will wait for the final day of God’s judgment (Matthew 12:36) in a state of blessedness or despair (Luke 23).
- After the final day of God’s judgment, all people will be consigned to eternal death in Hell absent the presence of God, or raised in a glorified body (1 Corinthians 15; Philippians 3:21; 1 Corinthians 15:49) to eternal life, fully in the presence of God (Matthew 25) in a New Heaven and New Earth (Revelation 21).
AFTER DEATH, OUR CONSCIOUS EXISTENCE CONTINUES
In the Old Testament, there’s only one word which indicated an afterlife, and that is sheol. It was probably a Hebrew version of the commonly held belief in the Ancient Near East (ANE) of the underworld, “the House of Dust and Darkness.” It was the realm of departed spirits. In ANE thought, this was an unpleasant place for all people. The Jews also believed in a three-tiered heaven: the atmosphere (Genesis 1:7-8), outer space or the firmament, (Genesis 22:17), and a place where God lives (Job 22:12; 2 Corinthians 12:2-4). However, this was not part of the language of an afterlife as much as an identification of the realms of the universe.
Sheol was apparently sufficient for God’s purposes at this point in talking about the world to come. The writers of the Old Testament used this word 65 times to mean hell, grave or the pit (depending on the translation).
- The rebellious sons of Korah “went down alive into the realm of the dead” after the ground opened up under their feet (Numbers 16)
- Jacob and Abraham planned to meet family there (Genesis 37:35; Genesis 15:15)
- God will deliver Israel from Sheol (Hosea 13:14)
- God will redeem His people from Sheol (Psalm 49). Perhaps a decent analogy is that just like the Jews looked forward to living in the Promised Land in Caanan, they hoped for an equivalent land in the life to come.
- When Daniel received a messenger from God, he was told, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2)
This perspective from Daniel introduces what we see more clearly in the New Testament through the teaching of Jesus and the writings in Scripture.
AFTER WE DIE, OUR EXISTENCE CONTINUES AS WE WAIT FOR THE FINAL DAY OF GOD’S JUDGMENT (MATTHEW 12:36) IN A STATE OF BLESSEDNESS OR DESPAIR (LUKE 23).
In the New Testament, the state of despair is called Hades; the state of blessedness is called Paradise. (Some theologians say Paradise is the ‘blessed’ part of Hades. I am separating them because I think it does better justice to the passages of Scripture that describe them.) Hades was the Greek term for the realm of the dead, an “eternal retirement” where the dead are less substantial (and less happy) versions of themselves. In Greek literature hades meant a variety of things:
- a grave or tomb
- the domain of the dead
- place where dead spirits go
Once again, biblical writers borrowed a well-known word to describe what happens after death. The New Testament writers use hades eleven times (Matthew 11:23, 16:18; Luke 10:15; 16:23; Acts 2:27; 1 Corinthians 15:55; Revelation 1:18; 6:8; 20:13, 14) as a state of existence where those who are not saved wait until Jesus returns and the world is judged.
- "I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not prevail. (Matthew 16:18)
- This is where Jesus went after his death - “[David] foresaw and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption.” (Acts 2:31) When we say in the Apostles Creed that Jesus ‘descended into hell,’ it’s a reference to Hades (Matthew 12:40; Ephesians 4:9)
- Death and Hades are linked together (Revelation 1:18; 6:8; 20:13-14), and are both judged and thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:13-14) at the end of human history.
Paradise (paradeisos – a garden or park) is a parallel place to Hades, a place in which those who have committed their lives to God dwell more fully in the presence of God as they wait for the end of human history. According to Strong’s Concordance, the Jews though it was neither in earth nor in heaven, but the souls of the righteous went there at death. We see this captured in the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16: 19-31.
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
There is disagreement about whether this is a parable or a real story, but there is agreement about an important truth here: after this life ends, Hades is not the only option – there is also a Paradise (here called “Abraham’s side”) that offers blessing and goodness. We see this mentioned more times in the New Testament:
- When Jesus was talking to one of the thieves on the crosses, he referred to paradise (“Today you will be with me in paradise.” Luke 23:42-43)
- He told Mary Magdelene, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the My Father.” (John 20:17) If heaven is where God dwells, this implies that he had gone to Paradise without going to the heavenly abode “where God dwells.”
- Paul was taken up into this paradise when he talks about a vision of the ‘third heaven” in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4.
So when we die, our existence continues either in the torment of Hades or the blessedness of Paradise as we all wait for the final day of judgment when God wraps up human history with the final judgment. After the judgment, we go to one of two final, eternal destinations - what we typically mean when we talk about Heaven or Hell.
AFTER THE FINAL DAY OF GOD’S JUDGMENT, ALL PEOPLE WILL BE CONSIGNED TO ETERNAL DEATH IN HELL ABSENT THE PRESENCE OF GOD, OR RAISED IN A GLORIFIED BODY (1 CORINTHIANS 15; PHILIPPIANS 3:21; 1 CORINTHIANS 15:49) TO ETERNAL LIFE, FULLY IN THE PRESENCE OF GOD (MATTHEW 25) IN A NEW HEAVEN AND NEW EARTH (REVELATION 21).
Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica:
“God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9)
Gehenna is the word most commonly used in the New Testament as “hell.” Gehenna is found in 12 verses: Matthew 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28, 18:9, 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5; and James 3:6.* It’s from the Hebrew ge-hinnom, or "valley of Hinnom." In this valley, idolatrous Jews burned their children in sacrifice to Molech during the Old Testament times. This valley eventually became the place where people threw all kinds of refuse, including the dead bodies of animals and of criminals. A fire burned continuously there.
- Gehenna is used to describe the final, everlasting judgment of the wicked (Matthew 25:41;46).
- This future, punishing world is also referred to as a place of fire (Matthew 13:42) and destruction (apollymi -Matthew 7:13-14; 10:28; Romans 9:22; 2 Peter 3:6, and olethron, in 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9).
- It is a place of utter darkness and weeping/gnashing of teeth (Matthew 8:12; Luke 13:28). Different theologians have described Hell as characterized by guilt, regret, despair and destruction (of the self or of others), personal existence lacking goodness, full of ruin, waste, mental anguish, the loss of all that is beautiful and meaningful, and completely devoid of the presence of Christ. All common grace, all traces of the good and perfect gifts that comes from God will be gone.
- It is a ‘second death’ (Revelation 2:11; Matthew 10:28). Hell was made for the Devil and his angels; they are spiritual beings, so this would seem to be a punishment intended for the spiritual side of our human nature Matthew 25:41). So it will be or those who are sent to hell. This punishment is a type of second death in which the soul suffers (Matthew 10:28). **
I like how C.S. Lewis summarizes:
“In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question: ‘What are you asking God to do?’ To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone [shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might]? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does… “ (C. S. Lewis)
CHRISTIANS WILL BE RAISED IN A GLORIFIED BODY (1 Corinthians 15; Philippians 3:21; 1 Corinthians 15:49) TO ETERNAL LIFE FULLY IN THE PRESENCE OF GOD (Matthew 25) IN A NEW HEAVEN AND A NEW EARTH (Isaiah 65:17; 66:22; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1).
Paul said (Romans 8:23) that Christians eagerly await the redemption of our bodies. To the skeptics in Corinth who just weren’t convinced God could pull off a physical resurrection because of what they all knew happened to buried bodies, Paul supplied three analogies for the reality of bodily resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.
- A seed and a full-grown plant (1 Corinthians 15:36) The physical, mortal body will be raised as a new and better kind of physical, immortal body.
- Different kinds of flesh (1 Corinthians 15:39). Just as there are different kinds of flesh in this life, why not believe God can raise us into another kind of flesh in the next?
- Different kinds of bodies (1 Corinthians 15:40-41) Just like celestial bodies differ in glory, the new body we receive will be a different kind of glory altogether.
He concludes with, “So also is the resurrection of the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:42). Several paragraphs later he concludes:
“Now listen to this: brothers and sisters, this present body is not able to inherit the kingdom of God any more than decay can inherit that which lasts forever. Stay close because I am going to tell you a mystery—something you may have trouble understanding: we will not all fall asleep in death, but we will all be transformed. It will all happen so fast, in a blink, a mere flutter of the eye. The last trumpet will call, and the dead will be raised from their graves with a body that does not, cannot decay. All of us will be changed! We’ll step out of our mortal clothes and slide into immortal bodies, replacing everything that is subject to death with eternal life. And, when we are all redressed with bodies that do not, cannot decay, when we put immortality over our mortal frames, then it will be as Scripture says: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is you victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:50-55)
So, where will Christians go after Paradise? When the New Testament speaks of heaven or the heavens, several words or phrases are used:***
- Doxa – infinite worth, renown, or glory. “Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later.” (Romans 8:18)
- Ouranos - the sky, or the dwelling place of God (“Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed by your name…” Matthew 6:9; 7:21; Ephesians 6:9; Ephesians 4:10; Revelation 21)
- Hupselos - on high, lofty, highly esteemed (“ When [Jesus] had cleansed us from our sins, he sat down in the place of honor at the right hand of the majestic God in heaven.” Hebrews 1:3)
- Epouranios – in the heavenly realm, the sphere of spiritual activity (“All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ.” Ephesians 1:3 as well as 1:20 ; 2:6 ; 3:10 ; 6:12)
- Eternal Kingdom (“Then God will give you a grand entrance into the eternal Kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” 2 Peter 1:11)
They all refer to the realm of God, but the important thing is that they describe the presence of God, not the location of God. In Heaven we will see Jesus face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12; 1 John 3:2), and we will become as much like him as is possible for us (John 3:2). We will see his glory, power, and beauty in its fullness. As one hymn put it, it will be “joy unspeakable, and full of glory.” That just tells us about the experience of finally, fully being in the presence of Christ. If that was all we knew, it would be sufficient.
But the Bible tells us more.
Considering how all of creation has been groaning as it awaits God’s redemption (Romans 8:22), it makes sense that the earth itself will be made new. We will not fly away to some distant place. God will come to us (Revelation 21:3). This new Heaven and Earth will be the eternal home of God’s people. The Bible uses all kinds of imagery to try to capture this redeemed reality.
- It’s a peaceable kingdom where predators and prey will get along, and children will play with the deadliest of animals (Isaiah 11).
- It’s a banquet, a symbol suggesting fullness and fellowship and celebration (Revelation 19:9).
- It’s a place where pavement is like transparent gold (Revelation 21:21), a symbol showing that the glory of heaven is immeasurably greater than what we can imagine.
- It’s a place where we receive crowns (2 Timothy 4:8) symbols of reigning in the light of God’s splendor, power and glory.
- It’s a place where we will get a new wardrobe that symbolizes the fact that we will be cleansed of all sin (Revelation 3:5)
- It’s a Kingdom, where we, the children of the King, are finally home.
The classic passage on this is from John’s vision in Revelation:
I looked again and could hardly believe my eyes. Everything above me was new. Everything below me was new. Everything around me was new because the heaven and earth that had been passed away, and the sea was gone, completely. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride on her wedding day, adorned for her husband and for His eyes only.
And I heard a great voice, coming from the throne. “See, the home of God is with His people. He will live among them; They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them. The prophecies are fulfilled: He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; Mourning no more, crying no more, pain no more, For the first things have gone away.” And the One who sat on the throne announced to His creation, “See, I am making all things new…”
No one or nothing will labor under any curse any longer. And the throne of God and of the Lamb will sit prominently in the city. God’s servants will continually serve and worship Him. They will be able to look upon His face, and His name will be written on their foreheads. Darkness will never again fall on this city. They will not require the light of a lamp or of the sun because the Lord God will be their illumination. By His light, they will reign throughout the ages.” (Revelation 21: 1-5; 22:3-5)
If theologians are correct, we will serve and reign on this new earth in a very practical, physical sense. Part of our ongoing, continuous worship of God will be that we will steward and enjoy the earth like God intended. I believe the language of the Bible suggests we will explore, create, paint, write, build, sing, laugh, emote, think, - we will become fully alive in a wholly good heaven and earth in the presence of the unfiltered goodness, truth and light of God.
We will be fully at peace with God, fully at peace with each other, fully at peace with God’s created, new world, that we will tend and work and explore and enjoy, and fully at peace within - our hopes fulfilled; our hearts no longer restless because they have found rest forever in Christ.
The Bible :)
C.S. Lewis – assorted texts; also, I recommend The Great Divorce
Timothy Keller - sermons
N.T. Wright – assorted essays
Randy Alcorn – Heaven: Biblical Answers to Common Questions
Erwin Lutzer – One Minute After You Die
Ken Boa – Sense and Nonsense About Heaven and Hell
Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry (carm.org)
* The langue of Hell in the Bible allows for but does not require physical torment. John Calvin, among many other theologians, thought the flames and darkness are the best human metaphors for the agony of an existence without Christ. The Bible also allows for but does not require the annihilation of those who are not saved – that is, the belief that souls are destroyed in hell (the eternal or everlasting nature of the punishment simply means the second, spiritual death is necessary and irrevocable).
** Tartarus was where the Greeks believed the really wicked people eventually landed. It was far below Hades, and was just a flat-out bad place to go (the Titans, rebels against the gods, were imprisoned there).. We see tartarus used only once in the New Testament, and it’s not a future intended for people: “For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment” (2 Peter 2:4).
*** The modern view of heaven began in the 1700’s with Emanuel Swedenborg. He said angels are perfected people, claimed there are three heavens, and thought we could learn a lot for people claiming to make personal visits to heaven. He claimed to have talked with angels about heaven and hell for thirteen years. This trend has escalated recently with all the NDE stories. Biblically speaking, NDE’s are not stories of resurrections from heaven or hell; at best, they are returning from hades/paradise - a claim I think merits criticism. They are full of elements that are extra-biblical at best and anti-biblical at worst.
BONUS, LENGTHY QUOTE FROM N.T. WRIGHT
In our vision, after the last judgment, heaven and earth are joined as one, and the new Jerusalem descends to earth, adorned like a bride adorned for her husband, as God at last comes to dwell among human beings (Rev. 21:1-3). In this new heaven and new earth, righteousness finally finds a home (2 Peter 3:13). The whole cosmos will be lit up with God’s presence, and all on earth will be filled with joy. All whose names were written in the Book of Life will inherit this joy, and the nations at long last will walk by the light (Rev. 21:24). Led by Christ, all that live will bow the knee with joy before God, and He will be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28)…
Sadly, some will resist to the very end, and perversely choose the misery that comes from insisting on their own way over surrender to God’s love... It is absurd, and it is unreasonable, and it staggers belief, but it will be so. Some will refuse to repent, even at the cost of entry into the city of joy. By their own insistence, they will remain outside the city, wrapped in their pride, clinging to their sins (Rev. 22:15). Their lot is Gehenna, the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death (Rev. 21:8).
The whole universe is hurtling to Christ and to the light which fills all with joy… But what of those who refuse the light and with triumphant obstinacy refuse to surrender to it? Since the whole world will be filled with light, they will be pushed outside of it, to the borders, to the dark fringes where existence shades off into near non-existence. Their own swollen will, victorious to the end, will bind them hand and foot, and they will remain in the outer darkness, outside the cosmos of light, away from the presence of the Lord and the glory of His power (Mt. 8:12, 2 Thess. 1:9). The lake of fire, the flame which burns but gives no light, and which was never meant for humanity but only for the devil and his angels (Mt. 25:41), was not built by God as a holding cell to punish people. But it is the only realm left for people who refuse to dwell in joyful penitence in the world God made. What other fate is left for them? If the whole universe is filled with God and they refuse to live with Him, where else can they go? All that is left for them is to remain in their self-chosen misery, at the intersection of God’s wrath against sin and their own refusal of His love. In that place, there is only weeping, and the gnashing of teeth.
Since Christ first entered the world through His incarnation, the universe has been in the process of separating and splitting apart. Since the Cross and Resurrection, it has been coming apart at the seams, as light separates from darkness, righteousness from sin, penitence from pride. At the last judgment, that separation will be complete, and all people will forever abide in what their deeds and hearts have chosen.
– N. T Wright, quoted in “Heaven and Hell in the Scriptures”