”If a man dies, shall he live again?” (Job 14:14)
Over 22 years ago I compiled information from the Christian Bible about heaven and hell, two topics that form an important part of Christian belief. My research on these topics, along with several other key ones (including the role of women in the church and the way that the Bible should be read) led to my departure from the Evangelical community within Christianity.
My conclusion back then was that the source documents, from a basic common sense reading of the text with some understanding of the key words in translation, show that heaven and hell are concepts that evolved over time in the Hebrew and Christian religions, and that there is not a consistent Biblical consensus on the topic. Late writers like Paul and John (Revelations) gave coherent narratives from the previous writings, but the Christian Church continued to shape the idea until today when the idea of Hell, in particular, has fallen out of favour.
I still think my conclusions from 2021 is the best understanding of what the Bible says on the subject and since then I have not found any compelling reason to change my opinion. I do, however, acknowledge that Theology continues as a living dialogue, and what is presented here is just my best guess on what the original texts were saying in the context in which they were written. This does not necessarily map to reality, and I remain skeptical and agnostic about an afterlife.
On the topic of the correct reading of the Bible, I currently think that Jordan Peterson’s method makes the most sense. His take on the Garden of Eden story is extremally helpful. For a very accessible taste of Peterson’s method, see this discussion of the early Biblical stories.
Table of Contents
Part 1 The Hebrew Bible | Who Lives in Heaven | Humans are Mortal | Death is Like Sleep | Foreshadows of Resurrection
Part 2 The Intertestamental Period | The Sadducees | The Essenes | The Pharisees
Part 3 The Christian Bible | Jesus Among His Contemporaries | Heaven as a Synonym for God | The Kingdom of Heaven isn’t in Heaven | Heaven in the Gospel of John | What is the Kingdom of Heaven? | So What About Hell? | Putting on Immortality | What About the Soul? | Eternal Life is a Gift
Part 4 Summary and Conclusion | Reflections on the Afterlife | Links | References
Part 1: The Hebrew Bible
The Hebrew word for Heaven, Shamayim, occurs 392 times in the Hebrew Bible. It is translated into the following words: astrologers* 1, compass 1, earth 1, heaven 191, heaven and the highest 2, heaven and the highest heavens 1, heaven of heavens 1, heavenly 3, heavens 151, heavens and the highest 1, highest heaven 1, highest heaven 1, highest heavens 4, horizons 1, other* 1, sky 50
Who lives in Heaven?
In the Hebrew Bible the word “heaven” (literally “sky”) most commonly refers to the dwelling-place of God.
Bradford A Mullen writes, “Heaven is where the glory of God is expressed in pristine clarity. The term ‘glory,’ therefore, has popularly been used as a synonym for heaven (Rom 8:18). Actually, God’s glory is above the heavens (Psalm 113:4; 148:13) because it is the sum total of his attributes that are expressed wherever he is present (Exod 13:21-22; Psalm 108:5; 2 Col 3:7-18). In heaven there is a continual acknowledgment of God’s glory (Psalm 29:9). Various figurative expressions identify God’s heavenly abode such as “the highest heaven” (1 Kings 8:27), “the heavens” (Amos 9:6), and “his lofty palace in the heavens” (Amos 9:6). ” – (Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology.)
If God dwells in or above the heavens in pristine clarity, how have we come to see it as the home of departed souls from here on earth? That question has a somewhat obvious but curiously complex answer.
Most passages of scripture from early in the history of Israel do not see heaven as the final resting place of the soul. In fact most scholars agree that the Hebrews before the Babylonian captivity had no belief in a soul going on to live in heaven with God. “… We are influenced always more or less by the Greek, Platonic idea that the body dies, yet the soul is immortal. Such an idea is utterly contrary to the Israelite consciousness and is nowhere found in the Old Testament” (The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1960, Vol. 2, p. 812, on the subject of death).
Humans are Mortal
The story of creation found in Genesis is constructed to show that God created life to be lived on earth. In the garden he placed two trees; eating one gave knowledge of good and evil, and eating the other gave eternal life. Neither moral knowledge nor eternal life were part of the physical beings created as Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve gained knowledge of good and evil by eating its fruit but God prevented Adam and Eve from gaining eternal life by baring humans from the garden altogether. Instead humans are destined to die. We are born mortal with a finite existence.
Gen 3:19 By the sweat of your face You will eat bread, till you return to the ground, Because from it you were taken; For you are dust, And to dust you shall return.
The writer of Ecclesiastes acknowledges this basic idea that the dead are no more:
For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten. (Ecclesiastes 9:5) NAS
Ecclesiastes 12 (which is a commentary on growing old and facing death) is equally fatalistic,
“…the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.”
The Genesis idea that God breaths spirit into our bodies when we are born and retrieves it when we die is not contradicted here. Brian Hebblethwaite in The Christian Hope point out that if God breathed spirit into a human and that spirit returns to God, it is God’s Spirit all the time. It is the “animating” life force, and not our individual person or soul.
The New Bible Commentary points out that this chapter, “views the dissolution of body and spirit from the standpoint of ‘under the sun’,” noting that each returns to the place from which it came. Our existence is a temporary one made up of soil and God’s breath.
Death Is Like Sleep
At some point in the development of Hebrew thought there emerged an idea that perhaps the soil that contained the dust of all those dead and departed ancestors still retained some of their essence.
In Psalm 115 the Psalmist contrasts The God of the Hebrews with the God’s of the neighboring peoples. The Hebrew God lives in the heavens (verse 3), where as the non-Hebrew people have gods of silver and gold that are dumb and lifeless objects here on earth.
The Hebrew God is extolled as a protector of Israel. He is “mindful”, fair, and creator of Heaven and Earth. Note the message about heaven and earth in these verses:
115:16 The heavens are the heavens of the LORD, But the earth He has given to the sons of men.
115:17 The dead do not praise the LORD, Nor do any who go down into silence;
115:18 But as for us (the nation of Israel), we will bless the LORD From this time forth and forever *. Praise the LORD! (nation of Israel clarification added)
These verses clearly paint a picture of God in Heaven watching over the nation of Israel on earth. The dead, we are told, do not praise the Lord. The living, however, do, and will continue for as long as they can foresee (the literal translation of “forever”).
The assumption in these verses is that dead go down into the earth to a place the Hebrews called Sheol, a shadowy existence in this case depicted as without sound. A place of no sound, can not contain any praising.
Other verses that refer to Sheol include: Genesis 37:35; 42:38; 44:29,31; 1 Samuel 2:6; 1 Kings 2:6; 9; Job 7:9; 14:13; 17:13; 21:13; 24:19; Psalms 6:5; 30:3; 31:17; 49:14,15; 88:3; 89:48; 141:7; Proverbs 1:12; 30:16; Ecclesiastes 9:10; Solomon 8:6; Hosea 13:14.
According to Hebrew authorities Sheol is a somewhat mysterious realm where the dead reside. See https://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/13563-sheol for more information.
Foreshadows of Resurrection
Later in the Babylonian or post Babylonian period we have these verses from Ezekiel:
Ezekiel 37: 12-14
…“Behold, I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves, My people; and I will bring you into the land of Israel.
“Then you will know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves and caused you to come up out of your graves, My people.
I will put My Spirit within you and you will come to life, and I will place you on your own land. Then you will know that I, the LORD, have spoken and done it,” declares the LORD.'” NAS
Notice that we have the familiar idea of God’s breath entering dead matter but this time it is not just earth but the bones of the ancestors that are given life. Here we have the beginning of a new idea. The prophet is revealing that there may be hope for the inhabitants of Sheol.
The Author of the book of Daniel seems to affirm this and expand it when he writes:
“Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake , these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.
And not only do we have the theme or Resurrection in this verse from Daniel, but also the theme of Judgment.
Part 2: The Intertestamental Period
At the time of Jesus each of the the three main Hebrew sects had different views on the afterlife.
The Sadducees held that the Torah was the final authority on questions such as our eternal destiny and while they may have debated and entertained ideas about the afterlife their official position was that there was no proof for the resurrection of the dead in the Pentateuch. It is clear that the writers of the gospels assumed that the Sadducees didn’t believe in a resurrection of any kind. Josephus reported that they didn’t believe in reward or punishment after death but instead believed that the soul perished with the body. Sadducees might be said to have upheld the holistic view of humanity consistent with a materialistic philosophy of existence. Materialism as a developed philosophy existed since the time of Democritus (450 BCE) who famously said, “Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion.”
The beliefs of the Essenes are not well documented, due in part to their exclusionist tendencies (they lived off in communities by themselves), and their practice of only sharing certain beliefs with students after lengthy initiation periods. Their almost worship-like respect for angels and the sun and their belief in the existence of a soul imprisoned in their body suggest influence from Persian, Egyptian or Greek contact. Death was welcomed because Essenes thought: “that their bodies were corruptible, and the matter composing them is not lasting, but souls are immortal and live forever, and proceeding from the most subtle ether having been drawn into bodies as into prisons by some natural longing. But when they are set free from the bonds of flesh, then they rejoice as being freed from a long servitude and mount upwards. And agreeing with the opinion of the Greeks they declare that the good dwell beyond the ocean in a place which is never oppressed by snow or rainstorms or intense heat, but is always calm and refreshed by a cool breeze breathing from the ocean. To bad souls they allot a gloomy, tempestuous cave full of never-ending torments” (E.P. GRAHAM, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume V)
Essenes where apocalyptic and looked to a final end of earthly captivity. Apocalyptic literature arose about the same time that the prophetic period was coming to an end, that is – before the intertestamental period, and survived into the 2nd century CE. There is some similarity in that Apocalyptic means “uncovering” or “revelation” but this literature tended to deal exclusively with graphic visual portrayals of future events surrounding judgment and the end of time. Apocalyptic literature introduced a heightened eschatology into the faith of Israel and can be used to mark the acceptance of certain ideas about death and the afterlife; primarily: resurrection of the dead and a final Judgment. Apocalyptic literature is a literature of a people oppressed by a powerful foreign government, in this case the rule of Antiochus Epiphanes, the Seleucid monarch who attempted to impose Hellenistic religion and culture on the Hebrew people.
During the Maccabean wars, and the uncertain period that followed, Jewish faith was upheld and sustained by books such as Daniel which portrayed worldly history as being “wholly in God’s Hands and about to culminate in God’s decisive intervention to judge the world and give the kingdom to ‘the saints of the Most High’.” (Hebblethwaite)
It should be noted that resurrection of the dead and a final Judgment, as noted above, were starting to appear in Israel not long after the Babylonian captivity but the persistence of the Sadducees view of the absence of an afterlife or final judgment shows that not everyone was convinced.
If the promise of a future “fair judgment” is a salve for people living under a oppressive government and an countermeasure for the frustrating reality that evil people prosper, then apocalyptic literature may have provided such a mechanism.
Consumption by fire seems to be the fate most often envisioned for evil doers in such literature. “‘For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, and all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble. And the day which is coming shall burn them up,’ says the LORD of hosts, ‘That will leave them neither root nor branch'” (Malachi 4:1).
But within the obvious zeal for retribution is evidence of a different sort of hope. Not only is there a wish for God to bring righteous judgment on perpetrators of evil but also a wish for peace.
Isaiah 2:2-4 “He shall judge between the nations, and rebuke many people; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore”
The Essenes attempted to live this sort of reality. They followed strict codes of non-violence and lived primarily on a vegetable based diet. They were charitable to the poor and longed for a new world after death.
The Essenes where not the only ones influenced by ideas from other cultures. The Pharisees believed in life beyond the grave and a resurrection of the body. In fact Pharisees are often seen as the most progressive and well educated of the Jewish thinkers at the time of Jesus despite their insistence on meticulous obedience to the law. “During the persecutions of Antiochus the Pharisees became the most rigid defenders of the Jewish religion and traditions. In this cause many suffered martyrdom (I Mach., i, 41 sq.), and so devoted were they to the prescriptions of the Law that on one occasion when attacked by the Syrians on the Sabbath they refused to defend themselves (I Mach., ii, 42; ibid., v, 3 sq.). They considered it an abomination to even eat at the same board with the heathens or have any social relations with them whatsoever. Owing to their heroic devotedness their influence over the people became great and far-reaching, and in the course of time they, instead of the priests, became the sources of authority” and “It was the Pharisees who made idealized nationalism, based upon the monotheism of the prophets, the very essence of Judaism. To them we are indebted for the great apocalypses, Daniel and Enoch, and it was they who made common the belief in the resurrection and future reward. In a word, their pedagogical influence was an important factor in training the national will and purpose for the introduction of Christianity. This great work, however, was marred by many defects and limitations. Though standing for the spiritualizing tendency, Pharisaism developed a proud and arrogant orthodoxy and an exaggerated formalism, which insisted on ceremonial details at the expense of the more important precepts of the Law.” – James F. Driscoll The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume XI
The Talmud, written between 170 BCE and 70 CE was largely composed by Pharisees and in its texts are found the beginning of modern Jewish thought on the afterlife. While there is much diversity amongst Jews today on the question of life after death generally they believe that “God takes the soul at death for a period of time (not more than twelve months) for purification. The soul is then returned by God to the heavenly ‘treasury” where it awaits the coming of the Messiah to earth. Some time later the graves open and bodies, made perfect, rise. Their souls are returned to the body and the resurrection of the dead is complete.” (What Happens When I Die? Brian Stiller)
Part 3 The Christian Bible
Christians believe that Jesus is the Messiah of the Hebrew Prophecies and that his first arrival did not signal the end of history but a radical change in it, or perhaps a change in how it was perceived. According to the Christian Bible (what Christians call the New Testament) Jesus was resurrected, and so were some other people during his life on earth, but not everyone who died during his life or the life of the early church were resurrected, so Christians continue to look forward to a final all encompassing resurrection and judgment at the end of time.
Jesus among his contemporaries
Surprisingly, according to the Christian Bible, Jesus often agreed and at the same time disagreed with the Sadducees about the state of humans after death. He is quoted in John 3:13 as saying that, “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven – the Son of Man.” This seems to support the Sadducees’ position that when we die we do not enter heaven. But when the Sadducees attempted to show the contradictory nature of a belief in an afterlife by posing a question about who’s wife a woman would be in the afterworld, Jesus cleverly responds that the afterlife existence is more similar to the angelic that the terrestrial. (Mark 12:25)
Some have suggested that Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross, (And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” Lk 23:43) suggest an immediate departure into heaven. But this interpretation of the word ‘paradise’ is overly confident. The word itself, Paradeisos, can mean several things, none of which is heaven. It usually means a hunting park (from the Persian) or a garden, or the concept described above as the part of the underworld which was thought by the Pharisees to be the place the souls wait until the resurrection. It is rather unclear which definition Jesus had in mind when he used this word but it is clear that he was not talking about the dwelling place of God. Church Dogma insists that Jesus descended into hell and was raised again on the third day. Did the thief go with him the whole way?
It is plausible, probable, and logical that Jesus was referring to the part of the underworld where souls wait, the realm ruled by Hades in Greek Mythology, and which later Jews saw as the abode of the souls of pious who waited for the resurrection.
Heaven as a synonym for God
Much of what Jesus said about Heaven has been interpreted in our culture through the lenses of Platonic ideas about the dualism of our being. These ideas came into Christianity after it spread through the Roman Empire.
Jesus often used the word heaven as a synonym for God.
During the intertestamental period there arose a taboo against speaking the name of God (Based on Exodus 20:7) so other words were substituted. ‘Lord’ and ‘Heaven’ were often the words of choice. For instance when Jesus asked, “John’s baptism: was it from Heaven or from men?” (Mt 21:25) he was using the common form of speech in which Heaven and God are so closely associated they can almost mean the same thing. This explains his uses of the phrase, “Kingdom of Heaven,” which is used mostly in Matthew (the Gospel to the Hebrews) while Luke and Mark tend to use the more straight forward, “Kingdom of God.”
There is an interesting verse (Mat 16:19) in which Jesus gives Peter the keys to the Kingdom with all the accompanying authority that a steward in that position would have. The message of Jesus is that, the “Word”, unlocks doors both on earth and in heaven at the same time. While this can be interpreted to mean that there is another realm above in which “stuff happens” in parallel to what happens down here (Platonic interpretation), another reading is that the Kingdom that Jesus spends most of his time talking about is a reality that spans from the dwelling place of God to the dwelling place of humans (A more Hebraic idea). It is a reality that links the two. It brings heaven close to us.
The Kingdom of Heaven isn’t in Heaven
We also have the picture of rejoicing going on in heaven when a sinner is saved. It would seem that for rejoicing to happen in heaven requires people to be there. But an examination of the actual verse shows that the rejoicing may only refer to God.
Lk 15:7 “I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine, * righteous persons who need no repentance.”
One other reference often used to suggest Heaven as a resting place for humans is John 14:2 and 3 where Jesus talks about going to prepare a place for his disciples. Doesn’t this means he is going to heaven to get a place ready for his disciples?
The answer is no.
The word Jesus uses when referring to the place of rest is ‘abode’ (Mone in the Greek). Read in context, this chapter is talking about the mysterious and difficult to understand unity between Jesus, the Father, the Spirit and the disciples. Verse 23 of this chapter reads, “Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him.”
The word abode here is the same as the writer used a few versed earlier. Jesus first says that he will go away and make an abode for the disciples and that he will come back and take them to be with him. But then a few verses later he says that the abode will be brought to those who love Him and keep His word. At no time is heaven mentioned.
The disciples are to be brought to an abode that will also be brought to all who love Jesus and keep his word.
More than a message about Jesus taking people out of the world to heaven it is a message about spiritual growth, about coming into further awareness of the reality that the abode is not a place, but a unity.
This abode, or home, is a Unity that can be prepared, brought, and entered.
Jesus is the way to the Father but the Father is Jesus. (Verse 11) The journey the disciples are to take is further into the unity, not out of the world. This same unity that Jesus describes between himself and the Father will be experienced, he promises, by the disciples because of the Holy spirit. (verses 16 – 20) The overarching message seems to be that there is room in the unity for many people. The unity Jesus describes is a result of the kingdom which is here and now and among us. (Lk 17:21)
What is the Kingdom?
Jesus talks extensively about the Kingdom of Heaven. Many of his parables attempt to get at the nature of this kingdom by way of a post narrative device. Post-narrative is a term used by John Vervaeke to describe Koan-like elements designed to get you into a narrative and then break narrative apart. I believe that this is the best way to view the parables of Jesus, and explain why he spoke in parables. Essentially what he had to say could not be understood from existing narratives. For a profound unpacking of this see Robert Farrar Capon’s The Parables of the Kingdom, published by Eerdmans or Zondervan.
After looking at existing definitions of Kingdom of God, I tend to favor this older Universalist one: “The Kingdom of Heaven, of God, of Christ, is never the perfect state after death; it is the reign of Christian principles, the prevalence of Christianity in the human heart and in the world. This will be seen when its description in the New Testament is recalled. It is a net that gathers good and bad fish (Matt. xiii. 47); it is composed of foolish as well and wise virgins (Matt. xxv. 1); it is ground that yields tares as well as good plants (Matt. xiii. 25); it is to end by being surrendered to God by its ruler, Christ (1 Cor. xv. 24). Heaven contains nothing impure or imperfect, and it will never end; but “the kingdom of heaven,” “the kingdom of God,” is imperfect and of temporal duration. It is therefore in this world. [Weaver’s “Heaven.”]” – A Pocket Cyclopaedia: Brief Explanations of Religious Terms as Understood by Universalists by John Wesley Handson, Universalist Publishing House, 1892
So What about Hell?
In Matthew 7:13-14 Jesus extols His disciples to choose the way that leads to life, and warns that the end of those who do not choose life is destruction. He contrasts that path with the way of righteousness, telling us “narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Life and destruction here are consistent with Hebrew ideas outlined in part 1. But Jesus goes on to identify himself personally and his spoken message with the choice for life.
Eternal Life or Eternal Death
Eternal life in the gospels is solidly linked with Jesus, His words and teachings (John 5:24), belief in God, and participation in the kingdom of God.
His words and teachings focus on doing good to the poor and disenfranchised and generally practicing practical acts of love. His most famous teaching on the final judgment, Matthew 25:31-46, clearly indicates that selection for eternal life will be based on behaviour, not belief. When a young man came to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life ?” (Mat 19:16) Jesus’ first response was that if anyone wants to enter life they should follow the commandments. When the young man said that he had kept all the commandments Jesus said, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” (Mat 19:21) The reward for leaving possessions and following Jesus is eternal life. Jesus in the following verses (28,29) promises that Peter and the disciples will be repaid with judicial powers at the final judgment and that all who leave property to follow Him will be repaid in excess in the new life after the resurrection.
Logic dictates that those who do not inherit eternal life will not live forever or will inherit only “eternal death”.
John 12:48 makes it clear that the words of Jesus lead to eternal life but rejection of Jesus and his message will result in a condemnation on the “final day.” Other New Testament verses explain that the ultimate fate for evil people is that they will not “see life” (John 3:36) but instead will remain under God’s wrath and experience “eternal fire” (Matt 18:8 – Cut off your hand if it causes you to sin; 25:41 – Sheep and the Goats; Jude 7 – Sodom and Gomorrah), “eternal punishment” (Matt 25:46 – Sheep and Goats), and “eternal [NIV: “everlasting”; the Greek word is aion or destruction 2 Th 1:9.” Other descriptions include a door being shut (Matthew 25:10 – 12) and a great chasm being fixed (Luke 16:26) and being cast into the outer darkness (Mat 8:12; 22:13; 25:30).
What kind of place is it that is dark but contains fire? And what kind of place is it where a person is destroyed but never the less is punished for eternity? Well, it seems that it is not one place but more likely two or even three.
The Christian Bible (New Testament) uses three words to describe the afterlife: the Abyss, Hades, and Gehenna.
The Abyss is used to describe a prison for demons (Lk 8:31; Rev 9:1) and Satan (Rev 20:1, 3) and it is the place from which the beast and other weird creatures arise (Rev 9:3, 11:7, 17:8). Romans 10 uses the word abyss to describe the realm of the dead.
Hades occurs more than 100 times in the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, where it is used in place of Sheol, but in the New Testament it is only used 10 times. According to the Greeks Hades lies within the earth. According to the New Testament it is Hades that holds the dead and will give them up at the Resurrection (Rev 20:13). Like The Abyss, Hades is pictured as a prison with gates (Mat 16:18) and it is to the residents of Hades that Jesus is said to have preached (1Pet 3:19, 4:6). Since Hades has no power over the church (Mat 16:18; 1Pet 3:19, 4:6; Rev 1:18) some have speculated that Christians who have died do not reside in Hades, but somewhere else. Many Christians suggest heaven as the alternative to Hades for believers but no scripture verses exist to support this.
Gehenna refers to a valley that lies to the south of Jerusalem in which child sacrifices were once offered (Kings 16:3, 21:6). The site later became a smoldering, worm-infested garbage dump. Jewish apocalyptic literature suggested that this site would become a hell of fire after the final judgment. New Testament writers envisioned it in grander terms representing a place of punishment for all creature (human, angel, demon, Satan, the Beast) after Hades had given them up to resurrection and judgment. Some feel that the phrase, “outer darkness” that Jesus used referred to Gehenna since it usually was used to indicate the “final” destination for those he is talking about.
The New Testament paints a picture of the afterlife in which the dead reside in Hades (or the Abyss) from where they will be resurrected for judgment and sentencing at the end of time. Christians might be spared permanent residence in Hades but their final destination is not heaven but a new earth. (2Pet 3:13; Rev 14:3; Rev 21:1)
The role of Gehenna seems to be the final furnace that consumes the unworthy. If it is seen as a garbage-dump-for-bodies’ — writ large, this suggests that without divine intervention the end of the body is the end of the person. Matthew 10:28 and Luke 12:5 record Jesus’ warning to fear God who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. Peter Toon points out that the verb apollumai, translated as ‘destroy’ in these verses, means “to ruin” through destruction rather than to completely annihilate, while others insist that it logically means the extinction of being. Why would God “ruin” us, when we are already dead?
John Stott writes: “The vocabulary of ‘destruction’ if often used in relation to the final state of perdition. The commonest Greek words are the verb apollumi (to destroy) and the noun apoleia (destruction). When the verb is active and transitive, ‘destroy’ means ‘kill’ as when Herod wanted to murder the baby Jesus and the Jewish leaders later plotted to have him executed (Matthew 2:13; 12:14, 27:4). Then Jesus himself told us not to be afraid of those who kill the body and cannot kill the soul. ‘Rather’ he continued, ‘be afraid of the one [God] who can destroy both soul and body in hell’ If to kill is to deprive the body of life, hell would seem to be the deprivation of both physical and spiritual life, that is, an extinction of being.” (John Stott Evangelical Essentials, pg 315)
Matthew 13:40-42 concludes the story of the burning of the evil weeds by saying that in the same manner at the end of the age The Son of Man will send his angels to gather those who commit lawlessness and throw them into a furnace of fire.
As well John records Jesus saying that, “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned.” (John 15:6)
Other words and phrases that describe the fate of the lawless include:
1. Being crushed by a stone (Luke 20:18).
2. Eternal Punishment (2Thess 1:9; 2 Pet 2:9; Heb 10:29) which could mean a process of punishment that goes on forever or a punishment that has eternal results.
3. Perish (Luke 13:5,5; John 3:16;)
4. Destruction (John 17:12) Also: 2 Thessalonians 1:9 Here Paul declares that the wicked will come to a complete end: “These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord …” and, Galatians 6:8: “The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life” (NIV).In Philippians 3:18 Paul speaks of those who are “enemies of the cross of Christ.” Verse 19 says that their end is destruction.
5. Affliction (2 Thes 1:6) “For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire.”
Putting on Immortality
In First Corinthians we have a long chapter (15) in which Paul explains what happens after we die. Paul clearly accepts the idea that the dead reside in a state similar to sleep:
17-20: “and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep.”
The image of Sleep used to describe those who have died suggests the concept of Hades, although Paul did not use that word. What was important to the Apostle was that the Corinthians understand that because of the resurrection of Jesus they had hard evidence that resurrection was real. This former Pharisee was happy to put to rest the idea of the Sadducees that death is an end to a person’s existence. In fact Paul started the chapter off by saying,
“Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” That long standing idea that death is the final end seems to have been in circulation among the Corinthians. Paul goes on to explain that the resurrected bodies will be raised like plants from the seed of the dead body. Verse 44 explains, “it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.” In this way immortality is a gift from God at the resurrection. Up until that time, Paul seems to say, humans are not immortal. Verse 42 clearly indicates this, “So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body;”
Notice that it is the resurrection that imparts imperishability, not birth or death. Verse 54 finishes the idea, “But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “DEATH IS SWALLOWED UP in victory.” Elsewhere (Co 5:1) Paul used the analogy of the mortal body as a tent (or Tabernacle) to describe the transformation from the mortal to the immortal: “For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” and “For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because * we do not want to be unclothed but to be clothed, so that what is mortal will be swallowed up by life” (verse 5)
What about the idea of a soul?
“The soul in the OT means not a part of man, but the whole man as a living being. Similarly in the NT, it signifies human life: the life of an individual conscious object” (Matthew 2:20-6:25; Luke 12:22,23; 14:26; John 10:11,15,17; John 13:37; Acts 27:10,22; Phil. 2:30; 1Thess. 2:8)” The New Catholic Encyclopedia
“The New Testament does not actually refer to “the resurrection of the body” or “the resurrection of the flesh” but only to “the resurrection of the dead” or “resurrection from the dead”. The subjects of resurrection are whole persons, who are transformed outwardly and inwardly in what may be called an acceleration of the process of Christification.” (Colin Brown, Dictionary of New Testament Theology Vol. 3 Pg 303)
Eternal life is a Gift
The gift-nature of eternal life is plainly explained in Romans 6:23 “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
In 1 Timothy 6:15-16 Paul tells us that God alone has immortality. Other verses support this: John 5:25-26; Rom 1:23; 1Thes 1:9.
Humans are mortals, who hope for immortality. Paul writes that such longing is like longing to be adopted. And there is an adoption, the adoption as sons of God, that leads to the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:23). Christians are God’s sons by Grace (Jesus is God’s son by nature.) As such the Christian’s inheritance is resurrection and eternal life. That eternal life is something that Paul expects to start at the resurrection and to be lived out in the presence of Jesus. (1 Thes 4)
Part 4 Summary and Conclusion
According to the Christian Bible, as detailed above, this is the sequence of events after death:
- A person dies.
- The person exists after death by God’s protection in a state similar to sleep and awaits the return of Christ to earth.
- When Christ returns “the righteous and unrighteous” are resurrected whole and the living are changed to the same resurrected form.
- The judgment of all those resurrected is given by Jesus (and the Apostles).
- The righteous go on to eternal life.
- The unrighteous are punished with destruction (eternal death).
- Death is destroyed and the new heaven and earth are established.
Reflections on the afterlife
The Greek word for Heaven, ouranos, is most likely related to the Indo-European root word meaning “water”. Rain and snow come from heaven so heaven, according to ancient Eastern logic, is at its essence water.
We who live in post Copernican cultures know that water does not flood out of the windows of heaven (Gen 7:11; 2Ki 7:2) when it rains. We know there is no Heavenly Ocean (Gen 1:8; Ps 148:4-6) above the sky and we know that heaven is not held up by pillars (Job 26:11) nor does it have foundations (2 Sam. 22:8). We know it is not a canvas stretched tight like a tent (Isa 40:22; 44:24 Ps 104:3) and we know that it is not a series of storehouses for snow, hail and water. (Job 38:22; Jer 49:36; Ps 135:7) It is possible that these descriptions of heaven from the Bible are literary and were never intended to be literal, but eminent scholars such as Colin Brown acknowledge that the early Hebrews probably did view the heavens as “a vault like an upturned bowl or a hollow sphere.” (Dictionary of New Testament Theology Vol. 2, pg 188)
This pre-scientific understanding of the cosmos is reflected in the fact that the Hebrews had no word for the Universe. The phrase “Heaven and Earth” served to describe everything that there was. Heaven was permanent and earth was changeable (Deut 11:21; Ps 89:29). God dwells in heaven and humans dwell on the earth. It was one of the most important early dualities.
By sorting things into separate categories humans have formed internal mental patterns that help map reality. One of the earliest and most permanent maps was the vertical one. God in heaven, humans on earth, the dead under the earth.
Humans, in Hebrew thought, were made of the dust of the earth and the breath of heaven. Thus as occupants of the middle reality we exist between two unknowns. The differentiation of earth and heaven marks humanities first attempt to know the reality that stretches out around us.
To the ancient Hebrews God was literally up above the sky in what we would call outer space. When Galileo and his contemporaries turned their telescopes toward the cosmos full of planets, sun, and stars they pushed out the area in which it was known that God did not physically reside. No one spied God through a telescope. At some point God stopped existing as a physical reality in our minds all together and became a mystery beyond the Universe. This conception, called transcendence, marked yet another differentiation in understanding. Very few Christians in the world today (unless Mormons are included in the “Christian” fold) think that God lives somewhere in outer space. Most would say that God is everywhere, all around us, God transcends physical reality. Yet there is no real evidence to support this position, it is simply a convenient and necessary conceptual map to explain the lack of hard evidence for God. As Kierkegaard outlined in several of his writings, the religious experience is internal, and not subject to objective measurement. This identification of sacred and profane knowledge continues to this day.
We have in our collective consciousness a picture of heaven as a holy place, perhaps like a garden, in which the dead find peace, fulfillment and happiness through communion with God. There is very little support for this view within the Bible itself, two verses at best. What we see instead is the gradual development of the idea of an afterlife first as a shadowy existence in Sheol or Hades with the later imagining of a resurrection and judgment. Finally we have, in Paul and the Revelation, the suggestion of something beyond that. For Paul it seems to be union with Christ. In his letter to the Philippians he writes, “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake.”
The Neo-Platonic “heaven concept” which has imbedded itself in western consciousness is one that requires a separation of body and soul at death. This is a dualistic idea that helped in the process of understanding the human psyche as the investigation played out through the enlightenment and the modern development of psychology and psychiatry. Descartes idea of thinking being the evidence of existence marks a turning point in western understanding. Cartesian dualism, named after Descartes famous separation of the mind from the body, has influenced Christianity far more than the Biblical texts on the subject. Descartes method (rationally examining all presuppositions) is admirable, but his conclusion about the nature of the human being has been largely rejected in recent years.
Academic thought now seek an integrated model that will explain our emotional, cognitive, and spiritual behaviour without reference to an actual duality of person. We can talk now of mind and body without asserting that they are different parts, just different views of the same person.
The general population, nervous at the thought of an indivisible soul/body, have held on to the “heaven concept.”
If we are “just our bodies” then the extinction of the body equals the extinction of “us.” This idea is unacceptable to most people. The Biblical model, arrived at over thousands of years, has a strangely contemporary solution to the problem but one that may not sit well with our multicultural sensibilities.
The view that emerges at the end of the Biblical narrative (Christian) asserts that Eternal Life is a gift from God that requires not just belief but focused moral attention. It would be interesting to see this idea expressed in a way that would rekindle interest in it, and broaden awareness of it, while at the same time respecting Jesus’ warning that few will find it.
Questions (still relevant in 2023):
- Can eternal life really be called a gift if we are given it based on our behaviour?
- What do we make of the “development” of understanding about the afterlife in the Bible?
- How do we resolve the apparent contradiction between ideas of conscious existence in Hades found in the gospels and the “sleep” that Paul talks about?
- How do we process the idea of “eternal death” and the destruction of those who are judged to be unrighteous? Would a truly loving God do this?
- Originally written by me, Richard R. Powell, in 2000 and 20001 and published on May 15, 2001.
- Some links updated May 10, 2006
- Minor edits and Link checking (many links found dead and deleted) – November 13, 2011
- Reviewed prior to re-publishing in 2023. I fixed and deleted some links, added some clarifications and checked to make sure I still believe this to be a fair and accurate reading of the source materials.
2023 Editorial Notes
This research was an important process for me in trying to make sense of life and death from my own religions tradition. The most important take away for me re-reading this is that the contemporary belief in heaven has very little biblical support and is rather the result of another 2 thousand years of speculation and consolidation of ideas from various cultures.
I also think that a preoccupation with these topics, while understandable, draws attention away from two more important topics that Jesus talked about: kindness/care for others, and understanding the role of what he called the kingdom.
The phrase “The Kingdom of God” is unappealing to me, but I do appreciate what Jesus was trying to get across in his parables about it. He was talking about a unity with the Devine that transforms people and lifts them out of dual ways of thinking. This is very much needed today. Our world continues to be very tribal, separating people into left and right, capitalist and socialist, and so on.
I will be writing more about this in coming posts, and hope to figure out a way to glean out of my tradition the best and most essential elements that have given rise to all that is good in the West, and then integrate that with other traditions in as much as a mere mortal can do.
Links for Further Reading:
An Excellent outline of both Liberal and Conservative perspectives on the Biblical View of the afterlife can be found at: What the Bible Says about Heaven, Hell, Annihilation, etc which is at: http://www.religioustolerance.org/aft_bibl.htm
The most exhaustive studies of the afterlife from a non-dualistic perspective can be found at: http://www.ucg.org/booklets/AD/ and http://www.ucg.org/booklets/HL/index.htm
All Biblical References are from the New American Standard Version as made available on Crosswalk.com unless otherwise noted.
Bradford A. Mullen, Ph.D., 1990, Boston University; faculty, Columbia Biblical Seminary &
School of Missions, 1986-2002; associate executive director Bellingham Retirement Community.
Bromiley, Geoffrey W. ed. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1960.
Brown, Colin, ed. Dictionary of New Testament Theology Vol. 3 Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing, 1967.
Brown, Warren S.; Murphy, Nancy; Malony, H. Newton. Whatever Happened to the Soul. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1998.
Edwards, David L. and Stott, John. Evangelical Essentials: A Liberal – Evangelical Dialogue. Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988.
Elwell, Walter A., ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984.
Guthrie, D; Motyer, J.A.; Stibbs, A.M.; Wisman, D.J. eds. The New Bible Commentary Revised, London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967.
Graham, E. P. ed. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 1-7 Robert Appleton Company, 1910. Online edition Knight, Kevin. 1999.
Hebblethwaite, Brian. The Christian Hope. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1984.
Keller, Werner. The Bible as History, Toronto: Bantam, 1965.
Stiller, Brian C. What Happens when I die? Toronto: HarperCollins, 2001
Toon, Peter. Heaven and Hell: A Biblical and Theological Overview. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986.
True Grace Ministries at http://tgulcm.tripod.com/intro.html
United Church of God, an International Association “Heaven and Hell, What does the Bible Teach” http://www.ucg.org/booklets/HL/index.htm(2000)
United Church of God, an International Association “What Happens After Death?” http://www.ucg.org/booklets/AD/ (2000)
2 thoughts on “What the Bible Says about Heaven and Hell”
Hi Richard, hope you’re doing ok. Sorry, but I’m no more interested in Christian theology now than I was at Brechin , so you can unsubscribe me from any “Still in the Stream” offerings on that topic.
Life in Victoria continues to move along well. It’s a bit noisier and busier here than Nanaimo, and Nature’s harder to access on your own, but family, including a beautiful, innocent and overwhelmingly lovely new granddaughter, has made the move here worthwhile.
Keep in touch, please, and the offers still on to visit if you’re in Victoria with any spare time.
All the best,
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Hi Jeff, no worries, I’ve unsubscribed you! Many blessings to and much enjoyment with that granddaughter.
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