Eternity Now – According to Scripture #20

Faith Recovery Podcast
Faith Recovery Podcast
Eternity Now - According to Scripture #20

What happens after we die? Most Christians would say that believers go to heaven and lost people go to hell. That’s a simplistic vision not presented in the Bible.

Here’s what the Bible (and one other inspired book) says about the afterlife.

Before Jesus, nobody expected to go to heaven when they died.

Jacob the patriarch, though he was the holder of the promise, expected to end up in the grave along with the rest of his family.

Here’s how he reacted to evidence that Joseph had died:

Then Jacob tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and mourned for his son many days. All his sons and daughters came to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. “No,” he said, “I will continue to mourn until I join my son in the grave.” So his father wept for him.

Genesis 37:34-35 NIV

This continued to be his short-term expectation even after he came to realize that Joseph was still living.

When the time drew near for Israel to die, he called for his son Joseph and said to him, “If I have found favor in your eyes, put your hand under my thigh and promise that you will show me kindness and faithfulness. Do not bury me in Egypt, but when I rest with my fathers, carry me out of Egypt and bury me where they are buried.”

“I will do as you say,” he said.

“Swear to me,” he said. Then Joseph swore to him, and Israel worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.

Genesis 47:29-31 NIV

The fact that Jacob cared where his body would be buried and that he worshiped as he leaned on his staff suggest he had a hope for life after death, but it doesn’t seem to have been immediately after. He expected first to rest with his fathers.

Similarly, King David had a bleak expectation of his existence after death. It certainly wasn’t some great hope that he held onto. Rather, he desperately prayed to be spared:

The waves of death swirled about me;

the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me.

The cords of the grave coiled around me;

the snares of death confronted me.

“In my distress I called to the LORD;

I called out to my God.

From his temple he heard my voice;

my cry came to his ears.

2 Samuel 22:5-7 NIV

He seems to have conceived of the disembodied state as conscious but separated from God’s presence. In appealing to God to rescue him from death he reasoned:

Turn, LORD, and deliver me;

save me because of your unfailing love.

Among the dead no one proclaims your name.

Who praises you from the grave?

Psalm 6:4-5 NIV

So, the grave (Sheol in Hebrew) seems to have been a place of banishment from the presence of God. We might think of it as a step down from existence on earth. Since God is the author of life, nothing dead belongs in his presence. And nothing banished from his presence can be truly alive.

Really, the only three people went to heaven according to the Old Testament were people who went there alive. Two of these are depicted as going into heaven and the third is later revealed as having gone when he appears in the New Testament talking with Jesus. They are Enoch, Moses, and Elijah.

In Genesis 5 we’re told that Enoch “was no more” because the LORD had taken him. Deuteronomy 34 says that Moses died, and the LORD buried him but then makes a point to say that no one knew where his body was. This suggests perhaps that God raised Moses subsequently like he did with Jesus since the same language is used by Jesus of those who would search for him after his death. Finally, 2 Kings 2 tells about how Elijah was taken bodily into heaven. The synoptic Gospels depict Moses and Elijah alive and talking with Jesus on the Mountain of Transfiguration.

The Old Testament believers understood death as a temporary banishment from God.

Believers who lived before Jesus expected to die but after a while to live again. Even while despairing of life, Job expressed hope for resurrection:

“If only you would hide me in the grave and conceal me till your anger has passed! If only you would set me a time and then remember me!

If someone dies, will they live again? All the days of my hard service I will wait for my renewal to come. You will call and I will answer you; you will long for the creature your hands have made.

Job 14:13-15 NIV

Job seems to have reasoned that if God made him in the first place that he wouldn’t want to destroy him forever. Job gets even more explicit about his hope five chapters later:

“Oh, that my words were recorded, that they were written on a scroll, that they were inscribed with an iron tool on lead, or engraved in rock forever! I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!

Job 19:23-27 NIV

There was also this wise woman from Tekoa who David’s general, Joab, brought in to advise him. David’s son, Absalom had murdered his brother Amnon to avenge the honor of their sister, Tamar. Rather than execute Absalom, David banished him from his presence. This was a merciful response to Absalom’s crime, but it hurt David more than Absalom. He longed to bring Absalom home but didn’t feel he could do so because of his guilt. The woman from Tekoa pretended that she too had one son who killed the other and who was facing execution for his crime. She pled with David to spare her surviving son so she wouldn’t be completely destitute as a widow. David worked out a way to grant her the request. Then she responded:

When the king says this, does he not convict himself, for the king has not brought back his banished son? Like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be recovered, so we must die. But that is not what God desires; rather, he devises ways so that a banished person does not remain banished from him.

2 Kings 14:13b-14 NIV

David’s longing for Absalom was as picture of God’s longing to be reunited with his children after death. Unlike David, though, God doesn’t pine away. He has devised the solution in Christ.

Isaiah similarly depicted the grave as “rooms” where God’s people would hide from earthly trials until a time of judgment had passed. Then he would bring them forth again:

But your dead will live, LORD; their bodies will rise— let those who dwell in the dust wake up and shout for joy— your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead. Go, my people, enter your rooms and shut the doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until his wrath has passed by. See, the LORD is coming out of his dwelling to punish the people of the earth for their sins. The earth will disclose the blood shed on it; the earth will conceal its slain no longer.

Isaiah 26:19-21 NIV

These “rooms” are described vividly in the previously lost Book of Enoch:

Then Raphael answered, one of the holy angels who was with me, and said unto me: “These hollow places have been created for this very purpose, that the spirits of the souls of the dead should assemble therein, yea that all the souls of the children of men should assemble here. And these places have been made to receive them until the day of their judgement and until their appointed period [till the period appointed], until the great judgement (comes) upon them.”

Then I asked regarding it, and regarding all the hollow places: “Why is one separated from the other?” And he answered me and said unto me: “These three have been made that the spirits of the dead might be separated. And such a division has been made (for) the spirits of the righteous, in which there is the bright spring of water. And such has been made for sinners when they die and are buried in the earth and judgement has not been executed on them in their lifetime. Here their spirits will be set apart in this great pain until the great day of judgement and punishment and torment of those who curse forever and retribution for their spirits.

There He will bind them forever. And such a division has been made for the spirits of those who make their suit, who make disclosures concerning their destruction, when they were slain in the days of the sinners. Such has been made for the spirits of men who were not righteous but sinners, who were complete in transgression, and of the transgressors they will be companions: but their spirits will not be slain in the day of judgement nor will they be raised from there.”

1 Enoch 22:3-4; 8-13

According to this book that Jesus and the apostles referenced, there is a great soul prison divided into paradise, torment, and another chamber for those “slain in the days of the sinners.” Jesus clearly built upon Enoch’s vision with his story about Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16. At his own crucifixion, Jesus didn’t say that he would be in heaven but that he and the thief to his right would be together in paradise – the portion of Sheol that Enoch described as set aside for the righteous.

It seems that each of these chambers was built to hold their respective dead with no way for them to escape. They had to wait for judgment day or from rescue from outside.

People housed in the two of the three compartments were awaiting judgment. People in the third compartment had already been judged and were sentenced to eternity in this neutral place. It seems these are the ones Peter meant when he wrote:

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.

1 Peter 3:18-20a NIV

What does it mean to be “made alive in the Spirit”? I think it speaks of being released from the soul prison. Jesus died and entered the paradise chamber of Sheol (Hades in Greek). By God’s power he was sprung from it and left the door open for all the righteous housed there. He also went to preach to the ones condemned to eternal incarceration in that third chamber. I tend to believe that they believed and were redeemed as well.

Through his redemptive death for our sakes, Jesus conquered the grave/Sheol/Hades for his people. So, he told Peter:

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it/prevail against it.

Matthew 16:18 NIV (edit mine NAW)

Jesus raided the grave and led the ones exiled there to heaven. No longer would the righteous be banished from God’s presence in their gilded prison.

Jesus promised that his people would never die.

Other religions teach about the afterlife, but Christianity offers eternal life starting now. Consider this startling claim from Jesus:

“Very truly I tell you, whoever obeys my word will never see death.”

John 8:51 NIV

It stretches credulity now and caused outright hostility then. Look at how the believing Jews responded to him:

At this they exclaimed, “Now we know that you are demon-possessed! Abraham died and so did the prophets, yet you say that whoever obeys your word will never taste death. Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?”

John 8:52-53 NIV

The Jews knew that their great patriarch was dead. They certainly didn’t expect anything better when their time came. But now Jesus was offering unending life. That seems too audacious to believe. And it would have been if Jesus had been anyone else. But his promise stood on his identity. He is God the Son, the Good Shepherd of the Sheep. Here’s how he said it:

“My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”

John 10:27-30 NIV

Not only would God’s people not be banished from him, they would be securely held in his hand. Jesus had the power to claim them for the Father and keep them close. Eternal life begins now as we live in fellowship with the Father and the Son. It continues unbroken even if our bodies stop functioning.

This was Paul’s great longing as he wrote to the Philippian church:

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. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 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! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.

Philippians 1:20-24 NIV

In the ancient affirmation of faith, the Apostles Creed, we find this wording:

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
      creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
      who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
      and born of the virgin Mary.
      He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
      was crucified, died, and was buried;
      he descended to Hades.
      The third day he rose again from the dead.

Traditional (“hell” changed to “Hades” to closer reflect the New Testament doctrine)

In his rising, Jesus did away with death as the world understood it for millennia. Through him we experience a spiritual resurrection that qualifies us to enter God’s presence when we leave these bodies. This is the first resurrection. About it, John wrote:

Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years.

Revelation 20:6 NIV

Along with all his martyrs and those who’ve gone on, we reign with Christ. His kingdom has begun, and the Enemy is bound. We who inhabit these bodies have experienced the first resurrection and will never die. We reign with Christ through prayer. We conquer through his blood and the word of our testimony. Nothing now can separate us from his love and his presence, so nothing can take our lives. Though these bodies die yet we will endure in his holy presence. We, because of what he has done, have passed on from death to life.