Developing a Biblical Worldview – Part Five: after death
This morning we continue our series on Developing a Biblical Worldview by examining what happens to a person after death.
Now before we jump right in, I want to share with you the traditional view. In short, man is immortal and his eternal destiny will be determined by whether he believes in Jesus or not. Believers will enjoy eternity in heaven while non believers will go to a fiery place called hell.
According to Wayne Grudem in Bible Doctrine Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith, on p 459 “We may define hell as follows: Hell is a place of eternal conscious punishment for the wicked.”
This is a pretty good representation of what most Christians believe.
In an online article by Jack Wellman on August 27, 2013, entitled Top 10 C.S. Lewis Quotes with Commentary, he writes:
“Whether we realize it or not, we are all going to live forever. The moment we were born was the time that we would never cease to exist. Everyone born and alive today has an eternal soul. The soul is going to live forever. There are only two places that your soul can go…heaven or hell. There are only saints and “ain’ts” and there is no sitting on the fence. If you’re on the fence, your destiny is hell for there is no neutral ground in the Kingdom. Jesus said you are either for Me or against Me (Matt 12:30). My plea to you is to jump off the fence and believe today, while it is still called today (2 Cor 6:2).”
As we saw last week, this idea that man is immortal or has an eternal soul by nature is not a Biblical idea, so you can see the problem with this view right off the bat.
TRADITIONAL VIEW MUST BE INFERRED
Now, the Bible doesn’t teach this doctrine explicitly. It is a doctrine that has to be inferred by taking several different verses and putting them all together. But rarely does the Bible just come right out and teach a doctrine explicitly, so there is no reason to reject this traditional understanding for that reason. We must systematize our theology with most doctrines, as you saw with the doctrine of the end.
SOME ISSUES I HAD WITH THE TRADITIONAL VIEW
Nonetheless, there was always something a little off about this view for me. It was never, how could a loving God send people to a fiery place of eternal conscious torment just for not believing in Jesus? OR My view on justice is different from God’s (lifetime of sins = eternity in hell???) I reasoned through that very quickly that God’s ways are above our ways and his thoughts are above ours, he is God and has the prerogative to do as he pleases. That may sound cold or harsh, but I think it’s reasonable to say that if that’s how God wants to handle things he can; he has every right.
Rather, my issue with this paradigm had more to do with questions like these:
If this is the case, why did God never mention to Adam and Eve that the result of their eating the fruit that they would burn in hell forever? (just death – exile)
Why did God flood the earth of Noah’s day in which the wicked perished with no apparent warning that their afterlife would be spent in hell?
Why did God never mention in the LOM that the result for disobedience would be an afterlife in hell? (just curses including exile)
What happens to babies that die?
What happens to people who live on an island where they never heard the gospel?
Finally, as we saw last week, man is NOT immortal; man is mortal and immortality comes only through Christ for eternal life is the gift of God
HOW HERMENEUTICS CHANGED MY VIEW
Even though I had all of these questions I still held to the traditional view because that’s what Christians believe and after all, it says right here “Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith.”
Besides, no one had presented a better alternative view. However, about 7 or 8 years ago I embarked on an intensive study of hermeneutics and learned a series of principles of interpretation, which rocked my worldview and caused me to re-examine several doctrines in light of proper principles of interpretation. I began to unravel some of these puzzling teachings that weren’t cohesive, coherent or consistent. One of those was the end times, which we looked at a few weeks ago. Another is the afterlife.
One thing that really hit me about six or seven years ago is that I had been failing to consider and interpret the gospel narratives and teachings of Jesus in light of the fact that Jesus’ contemporary audience was the nation of Israel who had been living under the LOM for the past 1500 years.
So whatever Jesus said he was saying to them and was to be understood in light of
their social structure
Not mine. And nowhere in the entire Old Testament is it taught that the righteous will go to heaven when they die but the wicked will go to a fiery place called hell where they will suffer eternal conscious torment.
So that needs to be considered whenever we read whatever Jesus may have said to his audience about hell.
It also follows that the better one knows the OT, the better he will understand the teachings of the NT.
I also realized the importance of word studies. I realized the significance of the fact that the Bible was not originally written in Elizibethan English, but the OT in Hebrew and the NT in Greek. And while I am thankful for our English translations, it is almost impossible to translate in a completely objective way without letting one’s doctrinal biases dictate how certain texts are translated. Although, if such an unbiased translation exists it would be the YLT by Robert Young.
SPEAKING OF TRANSLATION BIAS
Consider the following:
KJV uses the word hell 54 times
NIV uses the word hell 14 times
YLT uses the word hell ZERO times
I wonder why the Youngs Literal Translation never uses the word hell. Because it is literally never there.
So…where did it come from?
FOUR ORIGINAL WORDS TRANSLATED AS HELL
It is not as if there was a teaching of a fiery place of eternal conscious torment that had a proper name and the name when translated to English is “hell.” Rather, in most translations when the word hell is used, it is used in the place of four different words:
I’d like to spend some time looking at each of these.
The first word is Sheol. The word sheol literally means “unseen.” The word Sheol is used about 65 times in the OT original Hebrew. KJV translates Sheol as
hell 31 times
the grave 31 times
the pit 3 times
My 2002 NIV never once translated Sheol as Hell. NO HELL IN OT!
(although the translators reconvened about four years ago and if you search the NIV on Bible gateway you will find it there now one time in Psalm 139:8. Every other time, it is translated as the grave, the realm of death, death, and the depths. (Great comparison chart at http://www.bibletopics.com/biblestudy/149.htm)
According to Strong’s Concordance, Sheol is the underworld, the place to which people descend at death.
According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, It connotes the place where those that had died were believed to be congregated. Sheol is underneath the earth and it marks the point at the greatest possible distance from heaven. Here the dead meet without distinction of rank or condition—the rich and the poor, the pious and the wicked, the old and the young, the master and the slave
Now, if Sheol is simply the place of the dead, the grave, a place without moral distinction, a place where both the righteous and the wicked would reside, why in the world would King Jimmy translate Sheol as hell?
The next word that has been translated as hell is the Greek word Hades. I’ll keep this short and sweet. Perhaps this is an oversimplification, but Biblically speaking, Hades is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Sheol.
Septuagent & quotes. Again, Sheol is used 65 times in the OT. For in every case but one in the LXX translation of the Hebrew OT Sheol is translated Hades. The one exception is in II Samuel 22:6 where the LXX translates thanatos instead. Also in those cases where a NT reference is made to an OT quotation (Cf. I Cor. 15:55, Ps. 16:10), Hades is the regular translation of Sheol. Thus we are safe in saying as most dictionaries also make clear, that Hades and Sheol are equivalent terms.
So Hades is Sheol is the grave, the place of the dead.
Anchor Bible Dictionary: “The Greek word Hades is sometimes, but misleadingly, translated “hell” in English versions of the New Testament. It refers to the place of the dead but not necessarily to a place of torment of the wicked dead.”
Why in the world would Hades be translated as hell?
The third word translated as hell is a word that we find in the NT Greek Gehenna. This is where it gets fun. We will spend a little bit more time on this one because this is the word that Jesus actually used. Now, Gehenna is a transliteration of the name of a Valley in Israel – the Valley of Ben Hinnom.
We first encounter this Valley after Joshua leads the Israelites into the promised land and allots the tribes their inheritance. Judah’s inheritance included the Valley of Ben Hinnom as part of its northern boundary. Joshua 15:8 Then it ran up the Valley of Ben Hinnom along the southern slope of the Jebusite city (that is, Jerusalem). From there it climbed to the top of the hill west of the Hinnom Valley at the northern end of the Valley of Rephaim.
Benjamin’s southern boundary runs down to the foot of the hill facing the valley of Ben Hinnom Josh 18:16.
Then, in Circa 735 – 716 BC during the days of Ahaz king of Judah we find in 2 Chron 28:3 He burned sacrifices in the Valley of Ben Hinnom and sacrificed his sons in the fire, following the detestable ways of the nations the LORD had driven out before the Israelites.
Then in circa 697 – 643 BC in the days of king Manasseh, we find in 2 Chron 33:6 He sacrificed his sons in the fire in the Valley of Ben Hinnom, practiced sorcery, divination and witchcraft, and consulted mediums and spiritists.
Jeremiah served as the LORD’s prophet and his days were about 650-582 BC, right around the tail end of Manasseh’s reign. Listen to what Jeremiah has to say about this practice in the Valley of Ben Hinnom or Gehenna.
Jer 7:30-34 30 “‘The people of Judah have done evil in my eyes, declares the Lord. They have set up their detestable idolsin the house that bears my Name and have defiled it. 31 They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire—something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind. 32 So beware, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when people will no longer call it Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter, for they will bury the dead in Topheth until there is no more room. 33 Then the carcasses of this people will become food for the birds and the wild animals, and there will be no one to frighten them away. 34 I will bring an end to the sounds of joy and gladness and to the voices of bride and bridegroom in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem, for the land will become desolate.
So this Valley of Ben Hinnom had become a place where the King of Judah was worshiping other gods and sacrificing not animals but their own children to foreign gods. It was a detestable place where smoke was constantly rising. God spoke through Jeremiah to tell them that it wouldn’t be called Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom but the Valley of Slaughter because their carcasses would fill that valley and become food for the birds of the air. And sure enough, in 586 BC that came true when God brought the Babylonians against the Jews, burned their city and temple, slaughtered the people and filled the valley of Ben Hinnom or Gehenna with their dead bodies.
But after 70 years of captivity in Babylon the Jews learned their lesson when it comes to idolatry. They may have committed a multitude of sins, but idolatry was not one of them. They resolved never to use the Valley of Hinnom for idolatry again. Instead, they burned their trash there, and it became a burning valley of waste where outcasts, thieves and infected people were thrown when they died.
That is the Biblical history behind Gehenna. It was this Valley that in Jesus’ day was a place of filth, rotting, maggots, and perpetual burning, with smoke constantly rising.
And in every place where our Bibles have Jesus saying the word “hell” it is actually Gehenna, and we have absolutely no reason to translate this as hell and no reason to think that Jesus was referring to anything other than the literal Valley of Ben Hinnom.
The only other time Gehenna is used in the Scriptures is one place by James and his usage very much resembles Jesus’ teaching.
The fourth word that is translated as hell is Tartarus. This word is used only one time in the entire Bible. 2 Pet 2:4 For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to Tartarus, putting them into gloomy dungeons into chains of darkness to be held for judgment
I won’t delve too deep into this because our verse says nothing about humans in Tartarus, only angels. Since this is the only place it is used in the bible it is necessary to study sources outside the scriptures to get a grasp on its meaning.
In Greek mythology, it is thought to be as far below Hades as the earth is below the heavens. So, like Sheol and Hades, it seems to be some type of underworld. And it is certainly not a verse upon which to build a doctrine of a place of fiery eternal conscious torment for rejecting Jesus.
Where did we even get the word hell and why would it be used as a translation of Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, or Tartarus outside of a preconceived idea? Again, I believe Robert Young’s Literal Translation had the right idea – leave the words alone, untranslated.
The word hell actually comes from an anglo-saxon word that means to cover or conceal. Our word HELmet comes from this word (a helmet covers or conceals). It makes sense that Sheol (literally unseen), would be translated into a word that means covered or concealed (unseen).
Subsequently, the word was used to transfer a pagan concept to Christian theology and its vocabulary (The Barnhart Concise Dictionary of Etymology).
Just as we saw last week with the nature of man, the Bible teaches that man is mortal, but Greek philosophy crept into the church and the incorrect doctrine of the immortality of the soul was perpetuated. The acceptance of this doctrine of the immortal soul it was only logical to adopt the concept of eternal conscious torment for the lost.
OTHER HELLISH CONCEPTS
As I mentioned, hell is not taught systematically in Scripture and the doctrine (as Grudem makes clear) is derived not only from passages in which the word hell is translated, but also from ideas presented in other passages.
OUTER DARKNESS, WEEPING & GNASHING OF TEETH
THE LAKE OF FIRE (AND BRIMSTONE WITH PERPETUAL SMOKE)
Each of these is connected and have eschatological significance. Remember that John and Jesus were predicting in their day a coming judgment at the hands of the Romans which would occur in their generation. The language they employed was the same type of fiery language used by Ezekiel and Jeremiah to speak of the 586 BC destruction by Babylon.
Matt 3:7-10 7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
The outer darkness language and weeping/gnashing of teeth. I would direct you to HITW part 3 & 4. Simply put God is light, in him there is no darkness. Outer darkness is the exile of covenantal separation from God. Gnashing of teeth is simply the response of the wicked to the judgment pronounced upon them – the national Jews who rejected Jesus and were being destroyed by the Romans.
The Lake of Fire with its smoke rising forever, I believe is the same type of apocalyptic language used in Isaiah 34 to refer to the destruction of Edom which occurred in 582 BC. In Revelation it is about Jerusalem in AD 70. Gehenna, the trash heap for dumping bodies would extend beyond the valley and the entire City would become a pile of dead bodies with perpetually rising smoke. It would once again be the Valley of Slaughter and Jerusalem would become a Lake of Fire.
SO WHAT HAPPENS TO A PERSON AFTER DEATH?
PRE AD70? To Sheol/Hades to await the resurrection. The unrighteous would be judged in some sense, perhaps a judgment pronounced and then perhaps annihilated. The righteous would then be raised to be with God in the Kingdom/Heaven.
POST AD70? No Hades. Unrighteous annihilated. The righteous to be with God in the Kingdom/Heaven.
WHAT IS HEAVEN LIKE?
Don’t know, the Bible doesn’t have much if anything to say about that. But it isn’t pearly gates and streets of gold. That is figurative language to describe the New Jerusalem which is where we are. It’s not literal and it isn’t about heaven.
What we do know is that there IS something beyond the grave for those in Christ.
John 3:16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish [go to hell?] but have eternal life.
John 11:25-26 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.
Furthermore, we do know that whatever is beyond the grave for believers is so good that Paul would say the following:
Phil 1:20-24 20 I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.
God can do what he wants because he is God.
If God wants to choose Jacob instead of Esau he can. He did.
If God wants to choose Israel instead of all the other nations, he can and he did.
If God wants to send those who reject him to a place called hell and torture them there forever, he can.
If he wants to send aborted babies there, he can.
If he wants to send every member of an indigenous tribe to hell because they never had the privilege of hearing the preaching of the gospel, he can.
It is his prerogative and he can do that. On the other hand, if he wants to save everyone, he can. Let’s just set that straight right now.
I’m not advocating universalism, although that was the dominant view of the early church. What I AM saying (hear this) – I am saying that the traditional view is suspect. I have only scratched the surface this morning, but as you can see, if ECT in a fiery place called hell is the reality, then so be it, but that is not what we find in the Bible.
And when we decide what to believe about life after death, we cannot do so based on emotions. We cannot decide what to believe based on what we WISH the reality to be. We may have loved ones who have died without accepting Jesus and we just could not bear the thought of them being in hell. We cannot reject that idea based on emotion. We have to approach the Scriptures objectively, with emotions set aside and seek to rightly divide the word of truth using sound hermeneutical principles of interpretation and honest exegesis of the text. We want to arrive at the most cohesive, coherent, and consistent view on life after death as the bible presents it.
If there is a fiery place called hell where the souls of those outside of Christ will face eternal conscious torment, then the only way for one to avoid that fate is faith in Jesus. Now remember, what we believe affects how we behave. If we really believe this, then shame on us for not being more zealous, more fervent in warning our unbelieving friends and family members. If this is our worldview that eternal conscious torment in hellfire awaits unbelievers, then we should be some seriously evangelistic fools!
If the soul is mortal and at death ceases to exist unless he or she has believed in Jesus and received the gift of eternal life, then he or she will continue to enjoy life in God’s presence upon death. Those outside of the Kingdom, will simply perish.
Now, if the traditional worldview is incorrect and an afterlife of eternal conscious torment in a fiery place called hell is not the destination of those who reject Christ, then some may wonder why even share the gospel?
What I want to know is if you hold to the traditional worldview on the afterlife, then what is your motivation for embracing and teaching the gospel? Is it simply fire insurance. You believe the gospel so that you will avoid the fire of hell? You share the gospel with others so that they too can escape hell?
If you know the Jesus I know and you dwell in the Kingdom in which I dwell, then you know like I know that this Jesus is worth knowing and this kingdom is worth entering. This is where there is life that is truly life. This is where there is
true meaning and purpose
where there is true peace
And if you love other people, why not share this with them? Coming to know Jesus is the greatest experience of my life and those who shared the gospel with me gave me the greatest gift possible, not because now I get to avoid hell but because I get Jesus. And, if my understanding of the Scriptures is accurate, then not only do I get Jesus here and now, but I get to have Jesus for eternity.
So whether you believe in ECT or annihilation let’s go share the gospel with people so that not only can they enjoy life with Jesus in the here and now, but also in the afterlife.