by David A. Reed COMPLETE BOOK ONLINE
Turned Off by Hellfire?
Many sincere people are unwilling to consider biblical prophecy seriously, because they are repulsed by what they understand the Bible to teach about life after death. They either laugh or shudder at the thought of believers going to heaven to sit on clouds and strum golden harps while others go to hell to stand knee-deep in flames, constantly prodded and poked by pitchforks in the hands of red devils. "Pie in the sky when you die," is the skeptic's favorite phrase mocking the believer's heavenly hope. Can intelligent people today really believe in immortality? And what about Dante's Inferno for the unbelievers? Is that really what the Bible teaches? Or are these merely popular misconceptions?
The ancient Hebrew psalmist expected to awaken, after death, in God's presence. (Psalm 17:15 ) During his compulsory service in the courts of Babylonian and Persian kings the prophet Daniel dutifully recorded angelic prophecies of future kingdoms stretching across millennia of time. The angel dictating to this inspired penman then told Daniel, "As for you, go your way till the end. You will rest, and then at the end of the days you will rise to receive your allotted inheritance." (Daniel 12:13 NIV) He would die, but he would rise again to receive his reward in a resurrection. But the Old Testament contains mere hints of this afterlife; the New Testament tells us that Jesus Christ "has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel." (2 Timothy 1:10 NIV)
Was this belief in the afterlife something credible only to primitive people in agrarian societies? Can such a belief stand up today, in the light of modern science and technology?
If anything, computer science has made it easier for us to grasp the concept of immortality. Young people today play numerous computer games in which they manipulate and control an animated character on screen who fights to survive and to advance to new levels of success, and in which it is possible for this character to receive the gift of eternal life or immortality. Once in possession of immortal life, mishaps lose their terror. The on-screen cartoon figure falls to his death, or is blown apart by an attacker, only to reappear completely restored and ready to resume his quest or adventure.
Or, turning from computer games to more serious software, if I should die and go to heaven, this would mean, in computer terms, that God ported my program to a new platform. Instead of the David Reed program running via genetic code on a platform of organic carbon-based molecular compounds, we now would find the David Reed program running on a spiritual platform, via whatever code the Creator uses in that new environment.
Paul expresses it this way:
So our inner person, our soul, can be ported from the corruptible platform of flesh and blood to the incorruptible platform of the spirit. What we can do with software on computers should help us illustratively to grasp what God can do with our souls to grant us eternal life.
However, our human illustrations can convey inaccuracies along with the truths that we might intend to impart through them. We need to turn to the Bible itself, to see what God actually says about heaven, hell and the afterlife.
Since the Old Testament contains mere hints, while Jesus Christ "has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel," it would be worth the effort to examine Jesus' words on this topic. (2 Timothy 1:10 NIV) We don't often hear people quoting Jesus' wordsall of Jesus' wordsabout life after death; just the portion of his words that we want to hear, and not his complete message.
Yes, some love to quote John 17:3 from Christ's prayer to the Father: "This means everlasting life, their taking in knowledge of you, the only true God, and of the one whom you sent forth, Jesus Christ." (Jehovah's Witnesses' New World Translation) Evangelical Christians love to quote John 3:16, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." (KJV) But, how often do we hear, "the rich man died and was buried. And in Hades he lifted up his eyes, he existing in torments..." (Luke 16:23-24 NWT)? Or, "woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born" (Matthew 26:24, NIV)?
We inscribe bronze plaques with, "Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live." (John 11:25 KJV) But we leave these other words of Jesus buried in the back pages of our Bible: "I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely, unless they repent of her ways. I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds." (Revelation 2:21-23 NIV)
The apostle Paul did not water down the Gospel, but faithfully preached the whole message of Christ, even if his audience found the hard part of that message distasteful: "Several days later Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was a Jewess. He sent for Paul and listened to him as he spoke about faith in Christ Jesus. As Paul discoursed on righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said, 'That's enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you.'"Acts 24:24-25, NIV
Unlike Felix, who did not want to hear this aspect of the Gospel message, we ought to read and digest the whole story, the complete message of Christ, the harsh words along with the gentle, the bitter along with the sweet. Jesus spoke often about death and dying. While words referring to life or living or being alive occur roughly 150 times in the Gospels, words that speak of the dead, death or dying appear more than 100 times. Christ's emphasis may have been on life, but a substantial portion of his message dealt with death.
Such a statistical analysis, however, is somewhat misleading. Why? Because of the very unusual context surrounding Jesus' references to life. A closer look reveals that most of those references speak of life after death: people coming to life, gaining life, receiving eternal life.
So, Christ's frequent mention of death did not impart a morbid, negative tone to his message. To the contrary, his message was a gospel message, meaning good newsthe good news of life triumphing over death.
And, besides vigorously preaching this message, Jesus actually demonstrated what he was talking about. He added credibility to the otherwise unbelievable by raising up the twelve-year-old daughter of Jairus who had just died (Mark 5:22-43, Luke 8:41-56), by stopping the pallbearers at a young man's funeral and commanding the corpse to live again (Luke 7:11-15), and then by summoning Lazarus from the tomb after he had been dead and buried four days. (John 11:1-45)
As if that were not enough, Jesus allowed himself to be publicly executed, certified dead by the Roman authorities, and buried in a sealed tomb guarded by soldiersonly to rise from the grave on the third day and show himself alive in private and public appearances to hundreds of people, finally ascending heavenward before the eyes of assembled witnesses.
What a cause for joy!especially since he had recently promised those same witnesses, "I am going there to prepare a place for you," and, "I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am." (John 14:2-3 NIV) Not just those eye-witnesses, but also all "those putting faith in me through their word" would end up "where I am...with me, in order to behold my glory." (John 17:20-24 NWT)
Who would not want to embrace that wonderful hope? Yet, strange as it may seem, some have reacted with hostility to Christ's words and deeds.
Many of the mourners who saw Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead responded by putting faith in Christ. "But some of them went their ways to the Pharisees, and told them what things Jesus had done." (John 11:46 KJV) Unbelievably, those religious leaders saw the whole incident as a threat to their position of power and influence. They sought to squelch the message Christ preached, ultimately by killing him. Moreover, to destroy the evidence "the chief priests consulted that they might put Lazarus also to death." (John 11:47-12:10 KJV).
The Scriptures mention Lazarus no more, but Jesus was indeed put to death by these enemies of his powerful message. When he then thwarted their efforts by means of a resurrection even more spectacular than that of Lazarus, they again sought to cover up the facts: "...some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, 'You are to say, "His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep." If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.' So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day." (Matthew 28:11-15 NIV)
How sad that any would want to cover up the facts!to hide from people the events in connection with Jesus that confirm his wonderful promises of everlasting life! Could some, for selfish reasons, go so far as to deprive others of that wonderful hope? Yes, Jesus had already said of such men, "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to." (Matthew 23:13 NIV)
Similarly today, some would destroy the hope Jesus offered by blurring or distorting his message. But Jesus clearly spoke, not of some nebulous ghostly existence, but of a bodily resurrection. He said concerning "his body" that "I will raise it again in three days" (John 2:19-21 NIV), and the risen Christ offered proof, saying, "See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself..." (Luke 24:39 NWT)
This resurrection hope is especially important as we move into fulfillment of the end times prophecies. The world of the Last Days is a world hostile to believers. Revelation 6:9-11 speaks of "the souls of those slaughtered" and says that they "cried with a loud voice" and received an answer to their appeal: "And when he opened the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those slaughtered because of the word of God and because of the witness work that they used to have. And they cried with a loud voice, saying: 'Until when, Sovereign Lord holy and true, are you refraining from judging and avenging our blood upon those who dwell on the earth?' And a white robe was given to each of them; and they were told to rest a little while longer, until the number was filled also of their fellow slaves and their brothers who were about to be killed as they also had been." (Revelation 6:9-11 New World Translation)
They had been killed, but their souls were alive in heaven. This should not come as a surprise, since Jesus said, "do not become fearful of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul." (Matthew 10:28 NWT) So, Jesus says the soul can survive the death of the body.
The souls at Revelation 6:9 receive a reward after death, but is punishment possible? Jesus said, "Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell [ gehenna]" (Luke 12:5 KJV)
Yes, besides the Christian hope of the resurrection, there is also life after death for unbelievers. God commanded Isaiah to proclaim this taunt against the king of Babylon, telling him not only that he is about to die, but also that he will be conscious after death to receive this greeting in the abode of the dead: "The grave below is all astir to meet you at your coming; it rouses the spirits of the departed to greet you…they will say to you, 'You also have become weak, as we are; you have become like us.'" (Isaiah 14:9-10 NIV)
The Bible makes it clear that the dead live on, invisible to us. Before Christ accomplished his work on the cross, it appears that the departed spirits of all who died went to a place called "hell"not the popular mythological kingdom ruled over by a red Devil with pitchfork and tail, but an underworld called sheol in Hebrew or hades in Greek. Without Christ's redemption, even the 'good' could not go to heaven. During his earthly ministry Jesus explained, "No-one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaventhe Son of Man." (John 3:13 NIV) The patriarch Jacob expected to go to sheol at death. (Genesis 37:35 Pocket Interlinear Old Testament) Jesus himself, during the interval between his death and the resurrection of his body, apparently also went to hades. He was not "abandoned in hades" (Acts 2:31 Zondervan's Interlinear Greek-English New Testament) but while there he preached "to the spirits in prison." (1 Peter 3:19)
Very little was said about sheol or hades in Scripture, until Jesus gave his parable of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus:
The parable shows the departed spirits of both the rich man and Lazarus ending up in hadesbut on the opposite sides of a "great gulf" separating hades into two realms. The rich man is "tormented" in what he refers to as "this place of torment." In the other realm of hades the beggar finds himself in the company of the deceased patriarch Abraham, and he is "comforted" there. This, apparently, is the "paradise" Jesus promised to the repentant evildoer nailed up next to him at the crucifixion: "Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43 KJV)
Jesus pointed forward to the time when "many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 8:11 KJV) By the time the letter to the Hebrews was written, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had apparently been taken to heaven, to the "city" God had prepared for them: "they were longing for a better countrya heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them." (Hebrews 11:16 NIV) What city? "heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God," home of "the spirits of righteous men made perfect." (Hebrews 12:22-23 NIV)
How did they get from sheol or hades to heavenly Jerusalem? Many interpret these verses as indicating that Christ did not leave hades alone but took with him Abraham and others: "'When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.' (What does 'he ascended' mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)" (Ephesians 4:8-10 NIV)
However, that passage is rather obscure and difficult to interpret dogmatically. In any case, by the time Paul wrote his second letter to the Corinthians, paradise and its inhabitants were no longer found in hades but rather in "the third heaven." (2 Cor. 12:2-4)
Believers in Christ today can be confident that "the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in his presence." Our bodies may be "wasting away" and may even be "destroyed," but we will end up "in heaven...clothed with our heavenly dwelling" where we will be "away from the body and at home with the Lord." (2 Cor. 4:14-5:8 NIV)
Christians alive on earth when Christ returns will find their bodies "changedin a flash, in the twinkling of an eye," their "perishable" bodies being clothed "with the imperishable." (1 Cor. 15:51-53 NIV) At the same time those who had been at home with the Lord as departed spirits will experience a bodily resurrection:
We can humbly admit that "what we will be has not yet been made known." (1 John 3:2 NIV) But the Bible assures us that when Christ appears "we shall be like him." (1 John 3:2) The Apostle Paul expected at death "to depart and be with Christ." (Philippians 1:23 NIV) This appears to be different from the resurrection which does not take place until "the coming of the Lord" when "the dead in Christ will rise first." (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 NIV)
Jesus Christ shed new light from God. This was, "That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world." (Matthew 13:35 KJV) Much of the information Jesus revealed touches on the afterlifethe heavenly reward awaiting his disciples and the punishment in store for the wicked.
He revealed that all who hear the Gospel and put faith in Christ will end up in heaven with him to behold his glory. (John 17:20, 24; Hebrews 12:23) "Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also." (John 14:1-3 KJV)
Jesus also had more to say about punishment after death than anyone else in the Bible. "And I say unto you my friends, Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him." (Luke 12:4-5)
Proclamation of the Gospel was "Good News," but it also made mankind more responsible in God's sight. "In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead." (Acts 17:30-31 NIV)
This was indeed something new, both for the Gentiles who had been left largely without knowledge of the true God prior to this, and for the Jews who were being called from a distant organizational relationship with God the Father to come individually into a closer, more personal relationship through the Son. "Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me." (John 14:6 KJV)
Jesus was the kindest, most loving man ever to walk the earth. "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28 KJV) His love drew people to him, wherever he wenteven hardened prostitutes and macho soldiers. How, though, can we reconcile this with the unbelievably serious consequences of rejecting that love?
"Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?"
The punishment for rejecting Christ is more severe than simply dying without mercy. Does the context soften this?
This is, without doubt, a warning not to be ignored. Yet it should not leave any of us with an unhealthy fear of Goda fear that God might be cruel, unfair, unloving.
Would God the Father or Jesus Christ take someone you love and inflict pain unmercifully on that person, tormenting them without letup, ignoring their desperate pleas, hurting them repeatedly and continually, for ever and ever? Even those who know God personally, who feel his love, and who know that "God is love" (1 John 4:8), and who know that he is the one who teaches us to loveeven we may fear for others. But to assure our hearts in this, he had recorded in his Word the fears that Abraham entertained when he heard of the punishment about to be inflicted on the city of Sodom. God patiently put up with a lengthy cross-examination by Abraham, finally assuring him that the Judge of all the earth will indeed do what is right, what is fair, and what is good. (Compare Genesis 18:23-33)
If the thought of some receiving punishment after death troubles us, the solution does not lie in denying the Bible's inspiration, nor in explaining-away Jesus' words by distorting their meaning. Rather, the solution lies in trusting God. After all, that is what faith really means: not getting God to answer all of our questions, but putting our trust in God even in matters we find difficult to understand.
Jesus taught that childlike trust is required of us: "I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." (Luke 18:17 NIV) Instead of approaching the matter like scholars trying to understand God, we need to get down on our knees and take hold of His hand the way a little toddler trustingly holds onto his or her father's hand, securely confident that Dad has everything under control.
Moreover, as we read Jesus' words on the subject of what happens after death, we need to attach significance, not only to what he says but also to what he leaves unsaid. Much of the controversy that has upset and divided sincere believers on these issues stems from attempts to fill in the gapsattempts to 'clarify' or 'clear up' the aspects that Jesus leaves 'unclear.' These human efforts range from highly intellectual efforts at theological essays, sprinkled with Greek words and other words that might as well be Greek to most readersto works of fiction (Christian novels) that some today rely on for their theologyto works of art picturing horned red devils sticking pitchforks into tormented victims.
But, did it ever occur to such theological deep thinkers that Christ left certain matters unclearfull of annoying information gapsbecause he wanted to? Although a parent sometimes tells a child, "If you leave the yard again, I'll send you to your room for the rest of the day," there are other times when a parent intentionally leaves the penalty for disobedience much less specific. "If you leave the yard again, you'll have to face your father when he comes home!" "If you leave the yard again, you'll wish you didn't!" So, can't we allow our heavenly Father to take the same approach?
Of course he could have made it very clear what would happen to the deadthe good and the bad. If modern writers can spell it out clearly in black and white, as many indeed have done in books reflecting various persuasions, certainly the Author of the New Testament could have found the right words, too. He could have removed all ambiguities and spelled it all out. At the very least, he could have selected a chapter from one of the many books on the market today and canonized that chapter as part of inspired Scripture. Then none of us would be left wondering exactly what happens to the dead.
Another important consideration is the fact that Jesus spoke to us in three different ways in Scripture:
If Jesus says that wicked men are put outside in the dark to weep and gnash their teeth, should we turn this into a picture of children undergoing fiendish torture? If our sensibilities are offended by our concept of hell and who goes there, then perhaps our concept is wrong.
Just as some deny what the Bible says about punishment after death, there are other religious people who go overboard in the opposite direction, allowing their imagination to run wild with sadistic glee as they picture devils with pitchforks having a grand time inflicting every brutal torture imaginable on helpless men, women, and children. This approach is every bit as unscriptural as the other. Revelation 20:10 makes it plain that the devil himself is among those undergoing punishmentnot ruling over an evil empire in hell.
One final point that needs to be made is that Jesus spoke to usto common peoplenot to professors, clergymen, doctors of theology, or any special class of Bible interpreters. If he intentionally bypassed the priests at Jerusalem's temple and the teachers in the synagogues, choosing instead to speak directly to fishermen, tax collectors, and prostituteshow could we possibly think he meant for our generation to receive his words as interpreted and explained by some spiritual elite?
When today's dock worker, truck driver, or tax accountant picks up the Gospels and reads them, the impression they receive from Christ's words is the impression he meant for them to receive. If they end up with a different impression after discussing and studying Scripture with so-called learned men, that is the wrong impression.
Jesus himself said, "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children." (Matthew 11:25 NIV) Any human author can write with rarely-used words and complex sentence structure, so that only the well-educated reader will understand, but God did something much more difficult: He had his message presented in such a way that the well-educated reader would have no advantage; rather, the simple-minded reader with childlike trust would be the one more likely to grasp the message.
The chief obstacle in grasping what Jesus said about life after death is neither an inherent obscurity in his message, nor a deficiency in our own mental powers; rather, the greatest obstacle is the mass of twisted interpretations superimposed on his words by others. Encountering their interpretations before we encounter Jesus' words, we find ourselves approaching his words with numerous preconceived notionsseeing his words through tinted glasses, so to speak.
But there is also the matter of our own fear, suspicion and unbelief. Fallen man has a tendency to reject God's message, rather than meditate on it prayerfully with the aim of understanding and believing it. That is how many reacted, even among those who saw Jesus in person and heard him speak: "...many of his disciples said, 'This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?' Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, 'Does this offend you? What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.'" (John 6:60-64 NIV)
If you are troubled by unbelief, don't give up. Continue to read the Bible, asking God for wisdom, for answers to your questions, and for more faith. He answers such humble prayers. Meanwhile, the believer's responsibility is not to comprehend everything intellectually, but to comprehend that God comprehends everything intellectually, and that he is therefore deserving of our trust and obedience.