First Mennonite Church
August 28, 2016
Eternity: “Not where, but with Whom”
In light of the chain of questions the psalmist asks God in chapter 88 of Psalms as to whether there is activity after death, last Sunday I said I was going to explore the issue about what the Bible says of the afterlife. So today, I want to go over various images and ideas that appear in the Bible regarding this topic.
There are lots of questions raised regarding the world of the afterlife. People ask whether they’d be able to recognize their loved ones. Or if in heaven there is this or that.
Perhaps you’ve heard the story of Bill and George who were both avid baseball players. One day they wondered if people played baseball in heaven. They agreed that whoever died first would find out the answer and try to come back to communicate with the survivor. Eventually Bill died. Several weeks later George was awakened with a vision of his friend Bill. He was delighted to see him and asked, “Do they play baseball in heaven?” Bill said, “I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is, they play baseball all the time in heaven. The bad news is, you’re scheduled to pitch next week.”
There are popular ideas as to what is there or what happens on the “other side.” One of those popular ideas is that Peter guards the entrance of heaven’s gate, deciding whether the arriving souls of the dead are allowed to enter in heaven or not. Another idea is that the dead become “guardian angels” of loved ones who stay behind. Closely related to this idea is that of the deceased becoming a “guiding star” for the loved ones as they go through life.
In the religious context there too are various views as to what happens when we die. Some speak of annihilation. Those who embrace this view say that when people die, they are gone forever. There is no soul; there is no account to render to any higher being. There is no reward or punishment. There is no heaven nor hell. There are no worries.
Others speak of reincarnation.
Others speak of “soul sleep.” Soul sleep is the belief that when a person dies the soul enters a state of unconsciousness. Besides quoting Old Testament passages like Psalms 30:9, 115:17 and Ps. 146:4, the prime example is the case of Lazarus in Luke 11. The lack of any account from Lazarus after he was raise from the tomb, those who believe in soul sleep take it to mean that the soul of Lazarus was unconscious for four days. The only thing Lazarus was aware of was that he was dead. He did not recall seeing, hearing or going anywhere; at least there is no record of him saying any of those things after he was raised. His soul entered a state of unconsciousness like what happens when we sleep, is the interpretation. Those who hold this belief claim that the soul will only come out of its slumbering state on the day of resurrection when body and soul will be once again united.
There are also various ideas about where the soul or spirit of the dead goes. Islam speaks of paradise.
Catholics speak of the purgatory as the temporary place where the souls not yet fit to enter heaven go.
The questions before us today are: What happens when we die? Does the Bible say something about where do we go after we die?
First of all, let us be reminded that the Bible does not address any of these questions in a direct manner. The New Testament writers did not bother to tell us their opinions on what happens after we die nor did they give a description about the place where we go when we die. What we have in the Bible about these issues arise in the process of addressing other issues. These indirect references in the Bible as to what happens when we die can help us get some ideas, although sometimes these ideas are hard to harmonize. One main reason for this lack of thorough discourse about what happens when we die or where do we go might be because the New Testament speaks of death as having been put under the power and resurrection of Jesus. It also presents Jesus as Lord, who promises life and life abundant. Therefore, it becomes unnecessary for the Bible to teach in detail what happens after death. I will try to emphasize this at the end.
For our own need to know what the Bible says in relation to this topic, it should serve us well to at least be familiar with the language the Bible uses when speaking about the place of the dead.
In the Old Testament the words Abyss and Sheol are used in relation to where the dead go. The Hebrew word “Tehom” is translated “deep” in Genesis 1, verse 2. Tehom, the deep primeval ocean, is understood to be part of the formless void and chaos that existed before the earth was formed. This word also appears in other passages such as Psalm 42:7, 71:20. This word is translated Abyss in the LXX (The Greek version of the Hebrew Bible—Septuagint). In Psalms the “deep” is used in reference to the place of the dead. In the New Testament, Abyss according to Luke 8, verse 31 is the place of the demons. In Revelations 9, verses 1, 2, describes the abyss as a terrifying place where the Beast will be cast into (Rev. 11:7, 17:8) and where Satan eventually will be thrown into (Rev. 20:1-3).
Paul speaks of the Abyss as the place of the dead (Romans 10:7). In this case the word abyss is used originally as part of the chaos and formless void that existed before God created the world. It was later used as the place of the dead and the dwelling place of the demons.
The other word used in the Old Testament is the word “Sheol.” The LXX translates this word as “Hades.” There are various references of Sheol in the book of Psalms. Most times it is used to describe an extremely difficult situation or in reference to the place where the dead go. In Job 26, verse 6 speaks of Sheol with similar idea of the Abyss. Job says that although it is so deep and dark yet, it is naked and visible before God. Jonah also speaks of the deep ocean as Sheol from where God rescues him (Jonah 2:2-6).
Another word with similar meaning to Sheol is Abaddon (Job 26:6). The Hebrew word abad from which Abaddon comes simply means destruction or perish.
When the Hebrew Bible was translated to Greek, the LXX, the word Sheol was translated “Hades.” “Hades” is the name of the god of the dead and underworld according to Greek mythology. Here is one of those instances in which concepts used in other cultures and religion are used in the New Testament and given a new meaning. One perfect example of this is found in the parable of today’s New Testament reading. Before I go to our passage for some hints, let us see another word used in the Bible that refers to the place of the dead.
There are various references to “hell” in the New Testament. This word is the translation of the Greek word “Gehenna” which is the Hellenization of the Hebrew “Gehinnom.” Gehinnom literally translates to “the valley of the son of Hinnom (Joshua 15:8). In this valley children were sacrificed to Moelch (2Kings 16:3, esp. Jeremiah 32:35). King Josiah defile the place so no one would continue child sacrifice there (2Kings 23:10). The place became a symbol of wickedness but more so of God’s judgment. It became a dumping ground and was always burning. In the latter Jewish apocalyptic literature the place became the symbol of God’s wrath and judgment. Wherever this word appears in the New Testament, it is translated “hell.” Jesus referred to it as the place where body and soul will be punished (Matthew 10:28; Mark 9:43) Jesus says the punishment goes on through eternity (Matthew 25: 31-46). Gehenna is the fiery lake where the devil and the wicked are said to be punished after the judgment day.
In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus portrays a scene in which the rich and poor can see each other. Lazarus is with Abraham, but the rich is in Hades. Some suggest that Hades is the place where all the dead go, but that there is a barrier (chasm) that separates the saved from the unsaved. While the saved enjoy the company of saint of all ages, the unsaved begin to suffer torment.
Another view is that when the believers die they go directly in heaven/paradise with the Lord. For example when Jesus promised the dying thief, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Or when Paul says, “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” (Philippians 1:22, 23). Again, Paul says, “For we live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2Corinthians 5: 7, 8). These references seem to imply that upon the believer’s death they go to be with Christ Jesus and the saints who have gone before them.
As for the unbeliever what does the Bible say? Many unbelievers have a fear of death and try to avoid thinking of it as much as they can. Some try to downplay the seriousness of what is next after death. Job describes death as the “king of terror” (18:14). Hebrews 2, verse 15 reminds us that the devil holds people in bondage through the fear of death. And Paul says that death is the last enemy (1Corinthians 15:26).
In closing, let me say that throughout the Bible God is portrayed as the giver and sustainer of life. And although death considered part of the natural process of every living organism including humans, the Bible portrays death as the result of human sin. The power of sin over humans is death, but death has been conquered by Jesus through his resurrection. Easter Sunday is the reminder that God has now conquered the power of death and that by believing in his Son we come to share in his victory. Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26).
The Bible teaches that humans are composite creatures, that is, we have body and spirit. Paul in Thessalonians speak of spirit, soul and body (1Thess. 5:23). The Bible tells us God formed the human body out of clay—the material and perishable part. But it also tells us God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, which is the spirit (Genesis 2:6). And man became a living being. When we die, our body goes to the ground. “The dust returns to the dust” is how Genesis describes human death (3:19). It is until the final day when the trumpet sounds that we will be raised in glorified and immortal bodies. Jesus says “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned” (John 5: 28, 29) .
Therefore, the main concern we should have is not where we will go when we die, but with whom do we want to spend eternity. What should concern us today is not to figure out everything related to the afterlife but to do what is pleasing to God. What should comfort us today is that even if we die before the coming of the Lord, we know that he will call our name and awaken us to the glorious dawn of eternity. Amen!