Did you know that, before anyone was called a “Christian,” they were simply called those of “the way”? The way, of course, was supposed to be the way of Jesus. It was also supposed the be the way of truth. Above almost anything else, Christians are supposed to be truth-seekers. We are asked to follow the truth wherever it leads, even if that sometimes puts us in uncomfortable territory.
It was that recent realization that brings us to the topic of this blog. One of the biggest reasons why I believe that many of us are wrong about the afterlife is that the we often contradict ourselves on this issue.
Notice I said we, and not the Bible.
The fact is, everyone who thinks that we possess (or are) a soul that will go live by itself after death has to deal with a major problem—the Bible offers several different ways this might happen: several different places, and several different types of existence.
The first is thought to be a place for the blessed deceased. The Bible talks about heaven, “paradise,” and “Abraham’s bosom” as being locations for fallen believers. Wait, that’s three different descriptions! Which is it?
Many people have made the case that these are just synonyms for one another: that these are all the same location. In The Death Myth, I discuss all three in great detail, and explain why that is not the case. However, I don’t need to do that in this blog. The fact that there are three possibilities is all I need to say for now.
What about the unsaved, the non-believers, or what have you? Well, the Bible speaks of two different realities for these people as well: Hades/Sheol and hell. If you are wondering, the answer is no. Hades/Sheol and hell are not the same thing: not by a longshot. Sheol is the Old Testament description of “the grave,” and is simply the abode of the dead. It was not thought to be some realm for conscious souls.
Hades is a Greek concept (and a Greek god), and it is essentially the New Testament version of Sheol. Hades is the abode of the dead and, outside of Greek thought, it was not believed to be a place for conscious souls, either.
When talking about hell—the place of destruction and separation from God—the New Testament writers spoke of “Gehenna.”
The term Gehenna was derived from a valley to the south of Jerusalem, where idolatrous Jews had sacrificed their own children to the false god, Molech. After that time, it was thought to be cursed, and became a continuously-burning garbage dump. Nice place!
Jesus spoke of Gehenna often, and it was definitively the place where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” In the truest sense, Gehenna is what we think of as “hell.”
OK, so what is the point? My point is very simple: if we are to believe that deceased people go on and live as disembodied spirits, we must also accept that the Bible would be sending us mixed messages. Maybe you go to heaven. Maybe you go to hell. Maybe you go to Sheol/Hades. Maybe you go to Abraham’s bosom or paradise.
See the problem?
The deceased cannot go to all of these places at once, because they are different places! This reminds me of the scarecrow on The Wizard of Oz. When Dorothy is trying to figure out which road to travel, he points out several paths that she might take. Finally, he simply crosses his arms and points in opposite directions. This is what the Bible would be doing, if we believe in disembodied existence after death.
We would have an incoherent view on our hands. Many people unknowingly do already.
So, what is the alternative? The other path we can take is to understand that none of these destinations are intended to be locations where we will go after we die. The Bible is not telling us about a literal labyrinth for dead spirits (as many Greek viewed Hades to be), or that we will go to either heaven or hell immediately after death.
It is true that the Bible often uses imagery and parabolic language to teach moral lessons about the afterlife, perhaps most notably in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. However, parabolic language is not meant to be taken at face value. It does not show us what literally happens at death.
In closing, the Bible is also clear that there really will be an afterlife for both the saved and the unsaved. The unsaved will end up in Gehenna, that dreadful place previously discussed, with Satan and the demons. The repentant will end up in God’s newly created world, the new heavens and new earth. But both of these things will happen after Christ returns, and both will be places where we live in bodily form.
In the meantime, we “sleep.” We are unconscious until the resurrection. Daniel 12:2, John 11:11, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, and many other biblical passages, make this clear. After we take our last breaths on this earth, we will take our first breaths on the new one. But there will be no time spent in some interim world.
If we are willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads, we will keep from twisting the biblical message into knots. At the same time, we will also have a much clearer view of reality.
Thank you for reading! If you found this blog interesting, please see all the other posts on this site. You can purchase The Death Myth by clicking here.