What happens when we die? In this four part series we explore the biblical vision of heaven, judgement and the afterlife and discover it is both far removed from popular thinking and profoundly relevant for life.
I wonder what image of heaven you carry in your heart? Is it anything like the description of heaven found in Maria Shriver’s children’s book What’s Heaven:
Heaven is somewhere you believe in… It’s a beautiful place where you can sit on soft clouds and talk to other people who are there. At night you can sit next to the stars, which are the brightest of anywhere in the universe… If you’re good throughout your life, then you get to go to heaven… When your life is finished here on earth, God sends angels down to take you up to heaven to be with him…
Here in somewhat embellished form we have all the classic elements of heaven. It’s a peaceful place in the sky where our spirits go after we die. Our body may be in the grave but our spirit will be in heaven with God, free from all pain, suffering and trouble. The only difficulty most evangelicals would have with Maria Schriver’s description is her claim that you go to heaven if you’re good throughout your life. We want to insist that sinners who have placed their faith in Jesus go to heaven.
It’s a beautiful even if boring image (do we really want to sit around on soft clouds for eternity?), an image that dominates the Christian imagination, but is it the bible’s image of heaven? Most biblical scholars would say it is not. This is why in his book Surprised by Hope Anglican Bishop NT Wright says:
I have become convinced that most people, including most practising Christians, are muddled and misguided on this topic, and that this muddle produces quite serious mistakes in our thinking, our praying, our liturgies, our practice, and perhaps particularly our mission to the world.
Surprised By Hope, 2007, page 6
If we really want to understand biblical images of heaven we need to place them in the context of the Bible’s grand story. That story begins with the creation of the world, recounts the tragic fracturing of creation and community under the weight of human sin and then proceeds to describe God’s work to rescue his fallen and fractured world. And here is our first clue that there is something amiss with traditional views of heaven. The Bible’s focus is not on the abandoning of creation but on God putting the whole creation right. The flow of the biblical story is creation – fractured creation – healed creation, not creation – fractured creation – flee creation. Scripture leads us to expect that the future will be one where the world is put right: where bodies are healed, where hearts are mended, where communities have become just and good, where the environment works to sustain life. But this is not what traditional views of heaven give us. Traditional views of heaven have us fleeing the world, leaving it behind for a disembodied existence in an exclusively spiritual dimension.
So let me put it is plainly as I can – in the Bible ‘eternal life’ is human beings with resurrected bodies, renewed minds and rightly focussed wills, living in communities that are loving & just, on a planet healed of all that makes life difficult, and in vibrant, completely loving relationship with God.
Consider the image of the future painted by the prophet Isaiah.
See, I will create new heavens and a new earth.
The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create,
for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy.
I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people;
the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more.
Never again will there be in it infants who live but a few days,
or older people who do not live out their years;
those who die at a hundred will be thought mere youths;
those who fail to reach a hundred will be considered accursed.
They will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat.
For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people;
my chosen ones will long enjoy the work of their hands.
They will not labor in vain, nor will they bear children doomed to misfortune;
for they will be a people blessed by the LORD, they and their descendants with them.
Before they call I will answer; while they are still speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox,
but dust will be the serpent’s food.
They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain,”
says the LORD.
Isaiah doesn’t imagine spirits floating up to heaven when we die. No, he imagines a recreated earth. The future God will bring about is very material. It has a renewed planet where wolf and lamb feed together, where people work their own fields, unmolested by invading armies or corrupt officials, where life is long and God is known.
Isaiah’s themes are picked up in the closing chapters of the bible. Just as Scripture opens with the creation of the world, so it closes with the re-creation of the world:
I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The first heaven and the first earth had disappeared, and so had the sea. Then I saw New Jerusalem, that holy city, coming down from God in heaven. It was like a bride dressed in her wedding gown and ready to meet her husband.
I heard a loud voice shout from the throne: “God’s home is now with his people. He will live with them, and they will be his own. Yes, God will make his home among his people. He will wipe all tears from their eyes, and there will be no more death, suffering, crying, or pain. These things of the past are gone forever.”
Then the one sitting on the throne said: “I am making everything new.”
Notice here that we don’t go up to God; rather God comes down to earth and recreates it. Everything is made new – our hearts, minds and wills are made new; our communities are made new; and the environment itself is made new.
Paul says something similar in Romans 8:
I am sure that what we are suffering now cannot compare with the glory that will be shown to us. In fact, all creation is eagerly waiting for God to show who his children are. Meanwhile, creation is confused, but not because it wants to be confused. God made it this way in the hope that creation would be set free from decay and would share in the glorious freedom of his children.
He compares the suffering we experience in this life with the glory that will be revealed in the life to come. And he doesn’t see us sitting around on clouds speaking to other people who are also there in heaven. He sees us with bodies, hearts and minds made new living in a renewed creation, an environment set free from decay, released from its inability to adequately fulfil its function of providing a safe home for its creatures.
And of course all of this is made possible through the resurrection of Jesus.
But Christ has been raised to life! And he makes us certain that others will also be raised to life. Just as we will die because of Adam, we will be raised to life because of Christ. Adam brought death to all of us, and Christ will bring life to all of us. But we must each wait our turn. Christ was the first to be raised to life, and his people will be raised to life when he returns. Then after Christ has destroyed all powers and forces, the end will come, and he will give the kingdom to God the Father.
… That’s how it will be when our bodies are raised to life. These bodies will die, but the bodies that are raised will live forever. These ugly and weak bodies will become beautiful and strong. As surely as there are physical bodies, there are spiritual bodies. And our physical bodies will be changed into spiritual bodies.
1 Corinthians 15.
In this passage Paul reminds us that just as Jesus was raised from the dead to a new life so too we will be raised from the dead to a new life; just as Jesus was raised to life in a new body, free from decay, so we will be raised to life in a new body free from decay. Now don’t be fooled by his comparison of physical bodies with spiritual bodies. He is not suggesting that we will have a spirit rather than a body; rather he suggesting that our bodies will be completely fit vehicles for the Spirit of God – that in the bodies we inhabit in the future we will be our belief that kind of life God calls us to free from the constraints of sin and decay.
Putting all this together we get this picture:
Now when the Bible focuses upon life eternal its focus is not on what happens to us immediately after we die but what happens to us and the whole creation upon the return of Christ. And as we’ve seen what it envisages is the world as it was always meant to be, our lives as they were always meant to be, our communities as they were always meant to be; human beings with resurrected bodies, renewed minds and rightly focussed wills, living in communities that are loving & just, on a planet healed of all that makes life difficult, and in vibrant, completely loving relationship with God. That is the great Christian hope.
And here’s why it matters.
First, this vision of eternal life is one worth holding on to. I don’t know about you but the thought that my eternal destiny is to float around on a cloud playing harps and singing worship songs isn’t exactly a thrilling one. To be quite honest I can’t imagine that as anything but utterly purposeless and boring.The Bible’s vision however of renewed people living in renewed communities on a renewed planet I find thrilling. It’s healthy children with full bellies who know they’re loved perfectly safe as they build sandcastles on the beach. It’s bodies that once fell prey to Parkinsons liberated to full health. It’s minds that were deconstructed Alzheimer’s made vibrant and strong. It’s parents once dragged down into shame and despair when they couldn’t afford to feed their children laughing and bursting with godly pride as they serve up nutritious fare. It’s the oppressor fallen and victims raised as all alike share in communities of justice and peace. That’s the sort of world I long for; that’s the sort of world I hope for; that’s the sort of world worth dreaming about. What about you? Does this vision of heaven inspire you? Does it make heaven attractive?
Second, this vision of eternal life reminds me that the Bible has a very full concept of salvation. Salvation isn’t simply the salvation of our souls. In the biblical mindset salvation is the salvation of the entire created order – the salvation of our bodies, the salvation of our minds, the salvation of our wills, the salvation of our communities, the salvation of our environment. I remember being at a conference recently where we were singing songs about salvation and a friend of mine turned to me and said “when will we start singing about justice?” I didn’t say anything at the time but the thought struck me that we had been singing about justice the whole time we were singing about salvation, because in the Bible’s way of thinking salvation is not limited to getting our souls into eternity. Salvation is the restoration of the entire created order and that is precisely what the Bible means when it speaks the language of salvation. What about you? How broad is your idea of salvation? Does it need to widen out?
And finally this vision of eternity matters because it teaches us how to live in the present. If heaven is simply about our souls being released from our bodies to enter an eternal nonmaterial existence then it doesn’t make much sense to worry about things like social justice, or the physical health of people, or caring for our environment. If heaven is simply our souls being released from our bodies to enter an eternal nonmaterial existence these are just passing things of little importance. The only thing that would matter would be getting souls into heaven. But if eternal life is about the restoration of the entire human being, body, mind and heart; if eternal life includes the restoration of our relationship with God and of our communities and our planet then that is what we should be about here and now. The resurrection of Jesus declares that the time of salvation is at hand, that God has begun putting the entire creation back together again, a work that is carried on in us and through us and will be completed when Jesus returns. There is our mission as the people of God. So what about you? Are you embracing this as your mission? What is one way this week you could participate with God in this mission?
On the 8th of July 1741 a congregation in Enfield, Connecticut, heard theologian Jonathon Edwards preach one of history’s most famous sermons. “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God” held the congregation above the pit of hell as Edwards painted a terrifying picture of judgement.
“Consider this, you that are here present, that yet remain in an unregenerate state. That God will execute the fierceness of his anger, implies that he will inflict wrath without any pity: when God beholds the ineffable extremity of your case, and sees your torment to be so vastly disproportioned to your strength, and sees how your poor soul is crushed and sinks down, as it were into an infinite gloom, he will have no compassion upon you, he will not forbear the executions of his wrath, or in the least lighten his hand; there shall be no moderation or mercy, nor will God then at all stay his rough wind; he will have no regard to your welfare, nor be at all careful lest you should suffer too much, in any other sense than only that you shall not suffer beyond what strict justice requires: nothing shall be withheld, because it’s so hard for you to bear.
It would be dreadful to suffer this fierceness and wrath of almighty God one moment; but you must suffer it to all eternity: there will be no end to this exquisite horrible misery. When you look forward, you shall see a long forever, a boundless duration before you, which will swallow up your thoughts, and amaze your soul; and you will absolutely despair of ever having any deliverance, any end, any mitigation, any rest at all; you will know certainly that you must wear out long ages, millions of millions of ages, in wrestling and conflicting with this almighty merciless vengeance; and then when you have so done, when so many ages have actually been spent by you in this manner, you will know that all is but a point to what remains. So that your punishment will indeed be infinite.”
Really? Is it really true that God will “inflict wrath without any pity…he will have no compassion upon you…he will have no regard to your welfare… It would be dreadful to suffer this fierceness and wrath of almighty God one moment; but you must suffer it to all eternity: there will be no end to this exquisite horrible misery… you will absolutely despair of ever having any deliverance”? Is this hard biblical truth or terrible blasphemy?
Is this really what awaits the billions who die without faith in Christ?
Last week we saw that popular ideas about heaven are a far cry from what the bible teaches, and today I want to ask whether the same is true of hell. Certainly there are many evangelical bible scholars who are wondering that. John Wenham was a leading evangelical bible scholar who died in 1996. He wrote the New Testament Greek textbook I studied at theological college. He also wrestled for a lifetime with the notion of hell, and toward the end of his career he decided he could be silent no longer.
“Unending torment speaks to me of sadism, not justice. It is a doctrine I do not know how to preach without neglecting the loveliness and glory of God…I believe that endless torment is a hideous and unscriptural doctrine which has been a terrible burden on the mind of the church for many centuries and a terrible blot on her presentation of the gospel.”
Universalism & the Doctrine of Hell (1992) p187, 190
Wenham is not questioning the reality of judgement. He and Edwards agree that at the end of time there will be a great judgement; they agree that as a result of this judgement some will be welcomed into eternal life and others sent to eternal death. Where they disagree is on the nature of eternal death. Edwards sees it as the soul living forever in a state of terrible torment. Wenham sees it as the soul passing into non-existence, a non-existence that will never be reversed. And Edwards is not alone. The view that hell is not a place of eternal torment but the extinguishing of life can be found among many leading bible scholars, including John Stott, perhaps the most influential evangelical leader of the last century.
So what should we make of hell? Do we go with Jonathon Edwards or John Wenham?
Before we answer that let’s put these two views on the table.
First, the traditional understanding of hell, which runs something like this:
All human beings have a soul that will never die. We will all live for eternity, either joyfully with God in heaven or suffering unspeakably in hell. Those who die without trusting in Christ will experience punishment for their sin that is extreme, intense and never ending. It may not necessarily be physical torment but may be the loneliness and anguish of isolation from God and all that is good.
And now the annihilationalist understanding of hell.
God alone is immortal. Eternal life is a gift from God. We will not all live for eternity. Those who choose Christ will be welcomed into God’s new world, given the gift of eternal life in a redeemed universe. Those who reject Christ will be excluded from this new world. They may experience a period of punishment (there are different views on this) before passing into non existence.
The Questions We Should Ask
So how do we decide which of these views to adopt? Do we go with the eternal torment view because that is all we have ever known? Do we embrace the eternal death view because it is far more palatable? I think we can only make an informed decision as we ask three questions of the traditional view.
1. Which view is true to what we know of God’s character?
Scripture reveals a God who is holy, just, loving, compassionate, gracious and good. Whatever we say about hell must proclaim this God, must speak of a God who is holy, just, loving, compassionate, gracious and good. And this is where I struggle with Jonathon Edwards claim that God will have no compassion, will cease to seek the welfare of those in hell. I can’t help but hear this as the claim that God will cease to be God. Much better the argument of CS Lewis that the door to hell is locked from the inside, that God would forgive and restore even those in hell but that they simply grow ever more resistant to God’s love.
But even on CS Lewis’ approach I still struggle to reconcile eternal torment with the character of God. We proclaim God is just, yet it is difficult to see how the punishment of eternal torment fits the crime. Can a failure to acknowledge Christ really merit an eternity of unspeakable suffering? Isn’t eternal suffering out of all proportion to the offence committed?
We proclaim God is love, yet does not the traditional doctrine of hell suggest that God is selfish, that to preserve his own glory God is prepared to inflict unending torment on his creatures? To put it in crude terms, doesn’t the traditional doctrine of hell have God say, “I love you, but because you choose not to love me back I will torture you forever”?
We proclaim God is filled with compassion for his creatures, understanding of our frailties and weakness, yet he is willing to heap blow upon blow those very creatures not for a moment to bring them to repentance, but for eternity with no hope of change?
The same questions can and should be put to annihilation. There are those who argue any universe where God doesn’t persevere until everyone has been brought into heaven is not a universe with a God who is loving and patient. We’ll talk more about this in week 4. But for now it seems to me annihilation is far more compatible with God’s character than torment. Annihilation is just in that it is less punishment for wrongs done than the only possible outcome of resisting God – you can’t be part of God’s new world without being reconciled to God and the values of the new world. And while it is tragic, annihilation lacks the brutality of God tormenting people for eternity.
2. Which view is true to what we know of redemption?
One of my favourite books is George Orwell’s 1984. I read it in high school and it has stayed with me ever since. 1984 pictures a world where oppressive government has triumphed. Everyone must think the way the State tell them; behave the way the State tells them; feel the way the State tells them. And everyone is constantly watched to make sure they conform. The hero of the book is Winston, a man who dares to resist Big Brother. But when his treachery is uncovered Winston is sent to be terrorised into changing his mind. At one point his interrogator utters the most chilling lines in the book: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever”.
Is this not what the traditional doctrine of hell proclaims, a boot stamping on a human face forever, only the boot is God’s? The Scriptures I read have a definite movement – from creation to the fracturing of creation under the weight of human sin to the restoring of creation through the grace, power and leadership of God. The end point is not a world where billions are terrorised by the very Creator who claims to love them, a world where God’s boot stamps on the faces of billions of human faces in hell – forever. Can God really be said to have triumphed if eternity includes more than billions of seething rebellious creatures kept in chains? Doesn’t that mean sin and evil win the day, that the scars on the world remain forever?
Similar criticisms can be leveled at annihilation. While annihilation doesn’t leave us with a universe where billions suffer endlessly, it does leave us with a renewed world which holds the memory of many people that have ceased to exist. Has not sin won the day here too, even if in less violent a form? Nonetheless, faced with a choice between the two annihilation seems far less problematic to me.
3. Is eternal torment true to what the bible teaches about the nature of judgement?
When you look at the biblical descriptions of eternal punishment they tend to fall into four categories: images of death; images of destruction; images of distress; and images of exclusion.
So what do these images suggest? Take the bible’s assertion that “the wages of sin is death”. When something dies it loses its life. It ceases to be. Does this not fit strongly with the view that because of sin just as our bodies die so will our consciousness, our soul? Isn’t this the very point Jesus makes when he tells his disciple not to fear those who can kill the body, but God who can kill both body and soul in hell. To me this reads much more naturally than the idea that we have immortal souls and that eternal death is not literal death of the whole person but a metaphor for spiritual death.
Or take one of the common images of destruction – being cast into fire. In the popular imagination this is not a picture of destruction but of torment – being in hell will be like being burned and the pain will last forever. But that misses the way the image is usually constructed. In the teaching of Jesus the image is an agricultural one. The fate of the wicked, Jesus tells us, will be just like the chaff and weeds that a farmer throws into the furnace. Now let me ask you, when the farmer throws weeds into a fire what does he expect will happen? His point is not that the weeds will stay in there forever feeling the pain of being burned but that they’d burn up and be gone. Isn’t that why you throw weeds into a fire, to get rid of them? If that’s the case is Jesus not saying that just as weeds thrown into a fire pass out of existence, so those who are judged by God will pass out of existence?
Now move to one of the images of distress – that for the wicked there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. The traditional doctrine of hell sees this as a sign of distress that will last forever. But the image says nothing about the duration of the distress. It could last forever or could be a short period of distress that precedes people’s passing into non-existence – perhaps the distress of seeing the impact the way they lived had; perhaps the distress of knowing they have missed the opportunity to participate in God’s new world.
And I think that you’ll find this with all the biblical descriptions of eternal punishment – either they can fit with both the eternal torment and the eternal death views, or they fit better with the eternal death view. There are very few passages that, in my view, fit better with an eternal torment interpretation.
Is eternal torment true to what we know of God’s character? Some scholars I respect say yes, but in my opinion the answer is no.
Is eternal torment true to what we know of redemption? Some scholars I respect say yes, but in my opinion the answer is no.
Is eternal torment true to what the bible teaches about judgement? Some scholars I respect say yes, but in my opinion the answer is no.
If it’s so problematic, where did we get the traditional doctrine of hell?
If the traditional doctrine of hell is so problematic; if it calls into question the character of God; if it calls into question the triumph of God and the redemption of the universe; if it calls into question a natural reading of the bible’s descriptions of judgement; where did the doctrine come from?
Scholars who hold the traditional view argue that the doctrine comes straight from the bible; that the bible does teach eternal torment and that the questions I have raised all have answers. Those who question the traditional doctrine tell a different story. They blame the doctrine on a thoroughly unbiblical idea that snuck into Christian thinking early in the church’s history and that thoroughly unbiblical idea was the notion that our souls are immortal. A very influential stream of ancient philosophy taught that our bodies are mortal but they contain an immortal soul. And this stream of thinking was embraced by theologians. Now if the pagan philosophers were right that the soul never dies, we have no option but to read biblical punishment texts in terms of eternal torment. If the soul is immortal then everyone will live forever, it’s just a matter of whether that will be in heaven or hell. And so the biblical texts get read this way.
But what if the idea that our souls are immortal is not biblical? What if immortality is a gift of God not an innate feature of the soul? There are strong grounds for thinking this. The bible nowhere says our souls are immortal. You can search its pages from cover to cover and you’ll find that taught nowhere. To the contrary Jesus speaks of God as killing both body and soul in hell and 1 Timothy says that God alone dwells in immortality. Go back to the story of Adam and Eve and you’ll find that after they are thrown out of the garden the way back is blocked to prevent them eating from the tree of life and so living forever. The idea seems to be that living forever is the gift of God and that our sinfulness sees us forfeit this gift, leading to the death of our entire selves, body and soul.
It seems then that the traditional doctrine of hell represents the fusion of ancient pagan philosophy and biblical teaching. Strip away that ancient pagan philosophy and we are left with biblical texts that suggest eternal punishment is not unending torture, but a passing into non-existence; that the tragedy of eternal punishment is not the inflicting of pain, but missing out on the glorious new world God will create, missing out on the opportunity to live in a redeemed body in redeemed communities in a redeemed universe.
What Does It Mean For Us?
It seems to me this all has profound implications for us.
First, it throws the focus of the future on redemption rather than suffering. God’s work is to redeem the world, to make us everything we were created to be, make our communities everything they were created to be, make our planet everything it was created to be. This frames everything the bible has to say about judgement. Judgement is not about some unimaginable punishment for deeds done in this life, but God saying a renewed world needs renewed people so those who refuse to be renewed cannot be part of it.
Second, we are freed from proclaiming a God who appears to be a monster. I agree with John Wenham when he says that
“Unending torment speaks to me of sadism, not justice. It is a doctrine I do not know how to preach without neglecting the loveliness and glory of God…I believe that endless torment is a hideous and unscriptural doctrine which has been a terrible burden on the mind of the church for many centuries and a terrible blot on her presentation of the gospel.”
The future will not be a torture chamber to which the bulk of humankind are consigned by their Creator. No, we proclaim a God who invites people to a glorious future without having to threaten them with an eternity of unspeakable suffering. And on this basis judgement can actually make sense to people – a renewed world means people who are reconciled to God and to each other. If you are willing to embrace this you will be welcomed into the new world; if not you forfeit the opportunity to participate.
Finally, we should take judgement seriously. Saying judgement does not consist of a house of horrors does not make it a bed of roses. It will be a terrible thing to discover the evil we have committed, to be excluded from God’s redeemed earth, to face the annihilation of our existence. Scripture uses strong language, the language of death, destruction, distress and exclusion. These are awful realities. Judgement is not to be taken lightly. So let us not forfeit the opportunity to be reconciled to God and each other, to love our neighbour and to steward the earth, for here are our faltering steps in the way of the kingdom that will one day come in fullness upon the earth.
In July 1978 Dr Michael Sabom had just begun his assignment as staff cardiologist at a medical centre in Atalanta. The last patient to walk through the door was a 36-year-old man who just a year earlier had suffered a massive heart attack. The man described an extraordinary experience he had while he was unconscious:
“my life just flashed in front of my face. My whole life… Things that have happened to me in my lifetime, like when we got married, just flashed in front of my eyes, flashed and it was gone. When we… had our first child flashed in front of my eyes. The biggest thing, I guess, and the longest thing that state flashing in front of my eyes, was when I accepted Jesus Christ, and that was a few years ago. That’s when I went into a tunnel. I just felt like I was in a rolling tunnel, black tunnel. Just darkness. At the end of the tunnel was a glowing liked. It looked like an orange-uh-you see the sunset in the afternoon? From the light it makes up an orange glow with a yellow tint in a circle. That’s what it looked like at the end of the tunnel… I was just in a peaceful state of mind. It was the most experienced thing I ever had and I just didn’t care whether I woke up or not. It was relaxed. The whole thing was just relaxed after that… I remember hearing voices… I think it was Jesus Christ who was talking to me… I seen the -uh – golden gates of heaven, I guess. I seen the steps. I remember seeing those.…I was walking up some steps that I shouldn’t have been walking up and I don’t know how I got there but I was there… Some words were spoken to me by somebody and I was right back to sleep again”
Dr Sabom went on to become a professor of medicine at Emory University. He heard so many stories like these over the years that he conducted a full-blown investigation and wrote up his results in the book Recollections of Death (Harper and Row, 1982)
Stories like these fascinate us because we all want to know what happens after we die. Is that the end or is there life beyond life? Christians affirm that there is life beyond this life, and it’s this that we will explore today.
Popular vs Biblical thinking on life after death
A very common view among Christians is that once we die our spirit leaves our body and we stand before God to be judged. That judgement then results in us either being welcomed into eternal life with God in heaven or being sent to eternal suffering in hell. But as we saw in the first study in this series, this doesn’t reflect the way the Bible teaches about life after death. When the Bible speaks of judgement it looks not to
an individual judgement after we die, but to a final judgement of all humanity at the return of Jesus Christ. So for example we read in Matthew 25 the parable of the sheep and goats:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no
thing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” He will reply, ‘Truly I te
ll you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
Here we have an end of time judgement in which people go away either to eternal life or to eternal punishment. You might recall that in our last study we looked at the biblical concept of eternal life and we saw that it doesn’t involve spirits floating around on clouds playing harps but the world becoming as it was always meant to be, our lives as they were always meant to be, our communities as they were always meant to be; human beings with resurrected bodies, renewed minds and rightly focussed wills, living in communities that are loving & just, on a planet healed of all that makes life difficult, and in vibrant, completely loving relationship with God. That is the great Christian hope.
In our next study we’ll take a look at the whole question of eternal punishment. But today we want to explore a simple question, if the final judgement is not until the return of Christ, if eternal life and eternal punishment take place after the return of Christ, what happens to us in the meantime? When we die what happens in the period between our death and the return of Christ? what happens to us in the inbetween time?
What happens between our deaths and the return of Christ?
The answer is we’re not quite sure. When the Bible writers think about life after death their focus is firmly upon what happens upon the return of Christ and the remaking of the world, our bodies and our communities. And because that’s where they focus they don’t write a lot about what happens before then.
Take for example, Paul’s comments in 2 Corinthians 5
For we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down (that is, when we die and leave this earthly body), we will have a house in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands. We grow weary in our present bodies, and we long to put on our heavenly bodies like new clothing. (2 Corinthians 5, NLT)
Paul compares the body we have at present to a tent and suggests that it will be replaced by a body like a house, something far more permanent and superior, when Christ returns.
Or think of Paul’s comments in Philippians chapter 3
But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. (Philippians 3, TNIV)
Here we reminded that we wait for Jesus who upon his return will transform our bodies so that their like his glorious body.
Do you get the message? The Bible writers have an awful lot to say about life after death, but when they think life after death they think about what happens to to us collectively when Christ returns. That’s what they encourage us to have our eyes on; that’s what they ask us to set our hearts upon. And they don’t have a lot to say about what happens between the period of our death and that return of Christ. But they do say something, they do give us some hints, and those hints are very important.
Let’s take just two examples. The first comes from the apostle Paul as he writes to the Philippian church
If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour 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, TNIV)
He feels torn between his sense that he still has something important to offer in ministry to the Christian church and his longing to be with Christ. Some people interpret this to mean nothing different to what we have already seen from other passages. They argue that when Paul says he desires to depart and even Christ he is thinking of that end time when all believers are raised from the dead and welcomed into eternal life. if that’s the case this passage adds very little to our understanding of what happens between the time of our death and the time of Jesus’ return. But I suspect this is not what Paul is speaking about it. It seems he is contrasting being in the body here on Earth with being out of the body with Christ. Is he hinting that between the time we die and the time Christ returns believers are in some sense present with Christ?
If he is that would certainly fit was Jesus words to the thief on the cross. You might remember that Jesus was crucified between two bandits. As the three of them hung there dying one of the thieves turns to Jesus and says “Lord remember me when you come into your kingdom”, to which Jesus replies
“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 24, TNIV)
Here it seems that Jesus promises the thief that that very day they will enter Paradise together. Now of course a lot depends upon where you place the comma. Does Jesus mean, “Truly I tell you today, you will be with me paradise” or “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me paradise”. The second reading probably fits better with the way Jesus speaks throughout the Gospels, which again would hint that after we die believers are immediately in the presence of Jesus.
Now there are other hints in the New Testament, but we need to be very careful about how we interpret them. In Luke 16 for example Jesus tells the story of a rich man and a poor man who die on the same day and find themselves in the afterlife. The poor man finds himself at the side of Abraham, while the rich man finds himself in Hades, a place of suffering. The rich man pleads for relief, and when it’s not forthcoming pleads for someone to be sent from the dead to warn his family to avoid this place of torment. When I grew up this was a favourite passage for teaching about heaven and hell, but we need to be very careful. Many Bible scholars agree that the point of Jesus parable is not to teachers about the architecture of the afterlife but to teach that there will be a great reversal, that those who are neglected and mistreated in this life will not be neglected and is treated by God, while those who are rich and ignore the needs of the poor will be judged for this. To make his point Jesus tells a story that builds upon popular understanding of life after death. It would be much the same as jokes we tell about two people who die and rock up to the Pearly Gates where they meet St Peter. Inevitably the person who thinks they going to get into heaven is sent to hell by St Peter, while the person who we think shouldn’t get into heaven does get in. In that shape the point is not to say that when we die will actually travel to Pearly Gates and be met by St Peter but to draw a contrast between the two characters who feature in the joke. Much the same may be true of Jesus parable of the rich man and the poor man, which means it would be unwise to use this passage to determine what life is like after death.
The fact that the Bible says so little about what happens to us between the time we die and the time Christ returns has led to two main views about the fate of believers after death. Some argue that our consciousness survives our body and we go to be in the presence of Christ. It may be an incomplete existence in that we are out of our bodies and the new heaven and earth have not yet been created, but it is a glorious existence nonetheless for we will be fully and completely present with Christ. Others suggest that our consciousness passes out of existence just as our body does, and that both will be resurrected at the return of Christ. In effect what that means is that after we die out next conscious moment will be to be in the presence of Christ. It will be like waking up after having been asleep.
If the Bible has only a few hints about the fate of believers after death, it has even fewer about the fate of unbelievers between their death and the time of Christ’s return. 1 Peter speaks of Jesus proclaiming the good news to the “spirits” who disobeyed at the time of Noah (3:19-20) and the gospel being preached to the dead (4:6). These verses are very difficult to understand but do they hint at the idea that unbelievers do have some kind of conscious existence after death and that there is some possibility of them turning to Christ? Or do unbelievers exist in some kind of conscious state where their hearts grow progressively harder to the grace of God? Or does their consciousness pass out of existence along with their body until both are resurrected at the return of Christ? We simply don’t know.
What does it mean for us?
So what does all this mean for us? If there is so much uncertainty can it mean anything? I think it can, for in the midst of the uncertainties we should not lose sight of two things that are quite certain. First, after we die the next conscious moment a believer has is to be in the presence of God in a glorious new way. This is a key part of the Christian hope. This life is not the whole of life, but just the beginning. As a follower of Jesus you have a wonderful future; you will be wrapped up in the grace, goodness and love of God, experiencing them in ways you cannot even begin to imagine. And even that is just the end of the beginning, for there is a redeemed body and a redeemed earth and redeemed communities yet to come! Let that hope motivate you when life is difficult; let it comfort you when loved ones pass; let it inspire you to live every day for Jesus.
Second, the bible is clear that whatever happens immediately after death at the end of time we will all appear before the judgement seat of Christ. This won’t be a test to see how perfect you are; it won’t see Jesus weighing up your good deeds and bad deeds to see which outweighs the other. It will rather be an opportunity to see how the lives we have lived, imperfect though they may be, evidence a faith that was genuine. It is important to prepare ourselves for that day, to live with a sense that we are accountable to God for how we respond to him, how we treat one another, how we steward his creation. This is a call to take life seriously, to remember that we answer to God.
And finally, I suspect there is some hope for us in the uncertainty surrounding the fate of unbelievers after death. Does death seal their fate or will death open up a new state in which they might come to know Christ in a new way and come to a saving faith? I don’t think we can say, but it does leave some room for hope, and I suspect that for many even a glimmer of hope is a source of comfort.
When I was a boy some of the words I most loved and feared were “Just wait until your father gets home”. More often than not these were words I loved to hear. They signalled something special would happen when Dad got home from work – a birthday dinner, Dad bringing home something special for us all to share, the chance to tell Dad some exciting news from my day. On these occasions I couldn’t wait for Dad to come home. But on other occasions “Just wait until your father gets home” was a message of impending doom. On those occasions I had usually misbehaved and I knew Dad was going to deliver judgement! On those occasions I hoped Dad would be as late as possible.
The bible says something similar about the future and Jesus. Jesus is coming back and it will be good news for some and bad news for others. For some of us “just wait til Jesus comes” is the promise of a remade world, of the world we saw in our first study in this series – human beings with resurrected bodies, renewed minds and rightly focussed wills, living in communities that are loving & just, on a planet healed of all that makes life difficult, and in vibrant, completely loving relationship with God.
But for others “just wait til Jesus comes” is a message of impending doom, of an end of time judgement which will see some welcomed into eternal life but others punished with eternal death. It’s almost too difficult to imagine. Billions of our fellow human beings, every one of them loved by God, every one of them someone’s daughter, someone’s son, yet with their lives extinguished and eternity aching for their presence.
Is that right? Will billions of people really end up in hell? Is that really what Scripture teaches?
I’d like to take you to a group of biblical texts that are typically neglected when it comes to the judgement, texts that suggest that the door of salvation is open wider and longer than we might think, that dare us to hope that the billions of humans who have inhabited this planet night all be saved.
Two Sets of Texts
When we think of judgement we tend to think of texts like Jesus’ parable of the weeds and the wheat. Jesus tells a story of a farmer who finds an enemy has snuck in to his field and planted weeds among the wheat. When the wheat and weeds appear the farmer knows he must wait til harvest before he can pull up the weeds. So when harvest time comes around he instructs his workers to pull up both weeds and wheat, to burn the weeds and bring the wheat into the barn. Jesus then interprets the parable:
“As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42 They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. (Matthew 13)
Humankind is divided into two groups, with one group, the weeds, suffering eternal destruction and the other group, the wheat, being welcomed into God’s kingdom. And there are many passages just like this. Jesus tells stories of sheep and goats, wise and foolish virgins, those who build their lives upon his word and those who do not. And every time the point is simple: one group will inherit salvation, the other will not.
Now if these texts were all we had our understanding of judgement and salvation would be clear. But these passages are not all we have. Sitting alongside these passages which divide humanity into two groups are a series of one group texts, passages that don’t see humanity divided into two groups, but see humanity as one group in which everyone is saved.
“That is why we labour and strive, because we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Saviour of all people, and especially of those who believe.” (1 Timothy 4.10)
“He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2.2)
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)
“For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossian 1.19-20)
“For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ! Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all.” (Romans 5.17-18)
Read these texts and you’d think that in the end everyone will be reconciled to God, that every human being who has ever lived will be part of God’s new world and that hell will be empty. I Timothy 4:10 declares that Jesus is the Saviour not only of Christians but of everyone. And the writer is not saying that Jesus is their potential Saviour, if only they would trust in him, but that he is the Saviour of all.
1 John 2:2 declares Jesus is an atoning sacrifice for all. An atoning sacrifice is one that makes peace between God and the sinner. Taken at face value this suggests Christ will put the whole world right with God.
In Philippians 2 Paul declares that one day every knee shall bow to Christ and every person confess him as Lord. Now growing up I saw this as people grudgingly confessing Christ as Lord, forced into submission. But the text doesn’t say that does it? It simply says every knee will bow and every tongue will confess him as as Lord. In Romans 10 Paul says that it is confession of Christ as Lord that saves us, and here in Philippians we have every person who has ever lived doing just that. Does this not at least open up the possibility of universal salvation?
Come to the bold declaration of Colossians that Christ has reconciled all things to himself. And when he says all things he means everything – “all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven”. Now the powerful thing about this text is that everywhere else in the New Testament reconciliation equates to being put into right relationship with God. I have read interpretations that suggest Christ doesn’t really reconcile all things to himself in the sense of bringing forgiveness and a new relationship, that what Paul must mean is that Christ pacifies everyone, that Christ will force them into submission whether they like it or not. But that’s not what the text says. It says Christ has reconciled all, that he has made peace through his death.
Or take the contrast between Christ and Adam in Romans 5. Just as Adam’s sin led to death for all, so Christ’s act of obedience led to life for all. What Adam unleashed, Christ put back on the leash. Where Adam’s sin abounded, Christ’s obedience superabounded.The contrast only makes sense on the basis that Christ’s action reversed the impact of Adam’s action. In other words that just as Adam’s sin brought death to all humankind, Christ’s death and resurrection will bring life to all humankind. For years I read this as saying just as Adam’s sin led to death for all, so Christ’s act of obedience led to life for all Christians. But that is not what the text says, is it?
Putting The Texts Together
So here we have a group of texts that speak of everyone being saved! How do we make sense of that? How can we have one group of texts saying everyone gets saved while another set of texts sees humanity divided into the saved and the unsaved?
How do we make sense of these texts? I think the answer is found in recognising two things. First, the two group texts are announcements of judgement. We should not treat them like the prophecies of Nostradamus. They do not predict a future that will come to pass regardless. In the bible texts announcing a future judgement are not predictions of what will happen but of what will happen if people don’t change. Think of Jonah walking through the streets of Ninevah. The book of Jonah begins with God declaring he has finally caught up with the Ninevites
The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”
Ninevah was a proud and cruel city that unleashed violence on others, oppressed the weak and poor, and worshipped false gods. And now God is going to destroy their city. There are no ifs or buts, no conditional statements; nowhere does Jonah say “God will destroy you unless you repent”. No it’s straight up message of doom – God is coming to inflict punishment.
“Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”
But then something amazing happens – the Ninevites turn to God, seeking forgiveness.
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. Then he issued a proclamation in Nineveh:
“By the decree of the king and his nobles:
Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”
And how does God respond? Sorry, but it’s too late, your time is up? No.
“When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.”
Do you see what’s happened here? God sent Jonah to Ninevah with the declaration that judgement was coming in the very hope that the judgement could be averted. It was always God’s hope that the prophecy would remain unfulfilled. Now if the Ninevites hadn’t turned to God they would have gone the way of Sodom and Gomorrah, their wickedness wiped from the face of the earth. But the Ninevites did repent and were saved from God’s wrath.
It’s a bit like those No Trespassing signs you sometimes see: “Trespassers will be prosecuted”. The very reason you put the sign there is to warn people off, to avoid ever having to prosecute anyone.
Now come back to Jesus and those two group texts. When Jesus says he will separate the weeds and the wheat, the sheep and the goats, he is not predicting a future that is set in stone. He is making clear what the future will be if people continue on their current course. But Jesus makes these claims with the very purpose that they not be fulfilled. And should people not change course, everything Jesus says will come to pass. That is how announcements of judgement work.
That’s clue number 1 to putting the one group and two group passages together. Clue number 2 is to challenge the idea that this life is a cut off point for repentance. Most Christians and bible teachers suggest that once we die our fate is sealed. But I’m not convinced. I can’t find anywhere that the bible teaches this. There are passages that suggest we need to be ready for Christ when he comes, but none I can find that say God will reach a point where he is deaf to the repentant, that he will become unforgiving to the person who seeks forgiveness.
So could people still repent after they have died? If people are conscious during the period between their death and the return of Christ is it possible that Christ might be revealed to them in fresh ways and that they might turn to him? Or think of the time of judgement itself. What if instead of defending their failure the goats say “You are right Lord. We were not ready for the kingdom, but we want to be. We throw ourselves on your mercy!” Would we not expect Christ to forgive, to enact the very principle taught in Jeremiah 18:
If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it.
Now there are a lot of uncertainties here. We cannot be sure whether there is consciousness between our death and the resurrection of the dead. We cannot be sure whether when confronted with Christ in all his glory people will acknowledge the error of their ways. But I think we can remain tentatively hopeful that the great reconciliation pictured by the one group texts will come to fruition. That whether in this life, in the intermediate state or at the great judgement all humanity will turn to Christ. But such hope can only be tentative, for it is always possible that people can become so hardened to the grace of God that they may remain defiant until the end, that no matter how great the presence, goodness and love of God they will not surrender to Christ, in which case theirs will be the fate of the weeds and the goats.
And maybe that’s why we have one group and two group texts. The one group texts represent the logic of salvation, that God works tirelessly and will work tirelessly to win every human being to himself, and that if God is working toward this we can expect him to be successful. But at the same time the two group texts remind us that universal salvation is not a foregone conclusion, that people must decide for Christ and the way of God’s kingdom, and that in the end, even after a lifetime of God’s love, even after thousands of years in the intermediate state, even at the time of judgement, some may remain defiant to the end.
What does it mean for us?
First, be hopeful about your future. God’s new world is coming and it’s going to blow our minds. It will be infinitely more than we can imagine. You have the opportunity to live in a redeemed body in a world free from decay and aging, injustice and violence, hopelessness and despair, free of everything that mars this life.
Second, be hopeful about the future of those around you. Salvation is a very real hope for everyone who has set foot upon this planet, living or dead.
Third, take seriously the reality of your judgement. We will all appear before Christ to account for our actions and our lives. You will be examined by God to see if the reality of your life suggests you have received the forgiveness, grace, love and justice of Christ and seeks to bring those same values into your world. Take this as a wakeup call and get your life in order.
Finally, take seriously the reality of the judgement of those around you. Your family, your workmates, your friends will also be held accountable for the way they have lived and while the hope of their salvation is wider than you may have thought, the truth is that only occurs as they turn to Christ. There is much we cannot be certain about. Will there be further opportunities to turn to Christ after death or at the final judgement? I certainly hope so, but noone can be sure. What we are sure of is that there is opportunity now. So pray for those around you and look for opportunities to help them know Christ.