Before we get to life after death we should have a clear understanding of life here and now. Jesus spoke the words from Matthew 6 to a gathering of people on the side of a hill. They were people who wanted more out of life. He reminded them that life was more than the everyday grind of life. We are prone to lower our eyes and look at life as only going from one day to the next. But life is more than providing for day to day necessities
Genesis 1:30 – life is the very breath of God inside of us. We are animated by the breath of the very same God to spoke creation into existence. Our lives are more than just mundane day to day existence. We have within us life that comes from God. Even that is not the full meaning of life
Jesus speaks a lot about life and eternal life. John 6:35 – the bread of life that brings eternal life. What many people often confuse is what eternal life means. This is also part of the confusion with heaven.
Eternal life is not about some existence after life in this body on this plane of reality ends. Eternal life is right now. It happens in this time and this place. John 10:10 – life abundant is not reserved for after this life has ended. John 5:24 – eternal life is passing out of death into life. That kind of eternal life is part of who we are right now. John 17:3-4 – eternal life is knowing God through Christ Jesus. 1 John 5:11-12 – as we accept Christ into our lives we have that life. What is this kind of eternal life? It is life abundant. It is the life that Jesus offered to disciples. It is living out what we know about Jesus Christ.
If you think about great “saints” of the church, you come up with people like: Augustine, John Wesley, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr. These are typically who most people consider saints. They weren’t created special or different. They were like everyone else. They accepted the life abundant through Christ. They lived eternal life in this life. We are to live eternal life here and now. Eternal life begins in this life through Jesus Christ. When we come into Christ through faith, we receive eternal, abundant life. So our life here is more than just existing.
But through Christ, something else happens in this life. When we believe in the life of Christ, the Resurrection of Christ is always close at mind. You cannot consider who Jesus Christ is without thinking about what became of him. The Resurrection has implications for the life, and death, of every believer. Hebrews 2:14-16 – Jesus renders the power of death powerless - it also brings freedom to those who have been subject to death. Romans 5:12 – all of humanity has been subject to death since Adam - sin is tied to death – where sin has power, death is the natural consequence.
Death is part of life due to the fallen nature of the creation. The consequence of Adam’s choice to rebel against God is that all of the natural world, including the human physical body, is in the process of death and decay. That means that death comes to the physical body. Romans 8:1-5 – those who live by the Spirit are not bound to only the physical life.
We have been given grace to not be bound by physical limitations or requirements. 1 Corinthians 15:56 - Paul says that the power of sin is the law. That does not mean that the law is partnered to sin, but that because there is a law of God, sin is known. The law is limited in its ability to transform and bring that abundant, eternal life
Through Christ, the requirement of the law has been fulfilled. Under the law, right life with God was possible but extremely limited. In Christ, abundant, eternal life with God is possible. Since the law is now fulfilled, sin cannot claim our lives. Since sin cannot claim us, death is now made powerless in our lives. We will all most likely stop being physically. Physical life is only a fraction of our living being. Due to Christ’s death our entire personhood lives on eternally. We have no reason to fear death because it cannot undo who we are. Paul has it right to say that those who are dead in Christ are asleep. The physical body has lost the consciousness or the true life. Who we are lives on through Jesus Christ.
1 Cor 15:54-57
DEATH IS SWALLOWED UP in victory. 55 " O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR VICTORY? O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR STING?" 56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; 57 but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
6 The LORD of hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples on this mountain;
A banquet of aged wine, choice pieces with marrow,
And refined, aged wine.
7 And on this mountain He will swallow up the covering which is over all peoples,
Even the veil which is stretched over all nations.
8 He will swallow up death for all time,
And the Lord GOD will wipe tears away from all faces,
And He will remove the reproach of His people from all the earth;
For the LORD has spoken.
8:1Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3 For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
14 Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol?
Shall I redeem them from death?
O Death, where are your thorns?
O Sheol, where is your sting?
Compassion will be hidden from My sight.
14 Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.
4 and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away."
12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin , and so death spread to all men, because all sinned
But what about people who do not accept Jesus Christ as their Lord? Is victory and eternal life only for the redeemed of Christ? Or do all people have an immortal soul that continues on after death? Many Christians claim special status of having eternal life yet we also claim that the unrighteous have life after death also. Whether we consider it a lesser kind of life or a life in the place of outer darkness is questioned.
Let’s begin with how the ancient people of the Bible believed in life after death. The Hebrews believed in a place called Sheol or the grave. This was the place that the “person” resided after death. Even an idea of a pit in OT writings is the idea of going to the grave. It was not a place of judgment or punishment but was simply the place of the dead. Other cultures around Israel viewed the grave as a place of despair and deprivation, but they also did not associate it with punishment.
The Greeks understood death in a slightly different way. Hades was the same as Sheol – the place of the dead. They also believed in tartaroo, a place where the worst of humanity ended up. During the time of the Greeks, Jews developed the idea of gehenna. The name came from the phrase ge hinnom or the valley of Hinnom. It was a place where child sacrifices were believed to have taken place (Jer. 7:31). It became the valley of the burning garbage dump outside the Jerusalem walls. Gehenna then became known as the place like tartaroo – place of punishment. As we understand the people of the biblical times - they considered there to be a place of the dead where all people went but parts of that after-life were reserved for the very evil.
There is, therefore, a simple understanding that life after death is available to all. Genesis 2:7 – God breathes life into a human and man becomes a living being. Matthew 5:43-45 – God brings necessary things for life to righteous and unrighteous. But there is also an idea that the righteous and unrighteous will not share in that life. Luke 16:19-31 – the separation of Lazarus and the rich man. We have to keep the end of time and God’s plan in sight, though. Revelation 20:11-15 – all people will come before God for judgment.
If we believe that all people will be judged and will be raised to face it then the dead must be somewhere between death and the resurrection. The separation of the faithful and unrighteous is not beyond belief.
43 " You have heard that it was said, 'YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.' 44 "But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
19 "Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. 20 "And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, 21 and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man's table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. 22 "Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham's bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. 23 "In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. 24 "And he cried out and said, ' Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.' 25 "But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. 26'And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.' 27 "And he said, 'Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father's house — 28 for I have five brothers — in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.' 29 "But Abraham said, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.' 30 "But he said, 'No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!' 31 "But he said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.'"
17 In the twelfth year, on the fifteenth of the month, the word of the LORD came to me saying, 18 "Son of man, wail for the hordes of Egypt and bring it down, her and the daughters of the powerful nations, to the nether world, with those who go down to the pit;
19'Whom do you surpass in beauty? Go down and make your bed with the uncircumcised.'
20 "They shall fall in the midst of those who are slain by the sword. She is given over to the sword; they have drawn her and all her hordes away. 21 "The strong among the mighty ones shall speak of him and his helpers from the midst of Sheol , 'They have gone down, they lie still, the uncircumcised, slain by the sword.'
22 " Assyria is there and all her company; her graves are round about her. All of them are slain, fallen by the sword, 23 whose graves are set in the remotest parts of the pit and her company is round about her grave. All of them are slain, fallen by the sword, who spread terror in the land of the living.
24 " Elam is there and all her hordes around her grave; all of them slain, fallen by the sword, who went down uncircumcised to the lower parts of the earth, who instilled their terror in the land of the living and bore their disgrace with those who went down to the pit. 25 "They have made a bed for her among the slain with all her hordes. Her graves are around it, they are all uncircumcised, slain by the sword (although their terror was instilled in the land of the living), and they bore their disgrace with those who go down to the pit; they were put in the midst of the slain.
26 " Meshech, Tubal and all their hordes are there; their graves surround them. All of them were slain by the sword uncircumcised, though they instilled their terror in the land of the living. 27 " Nor do they lie beside the fallen heroes of the uncircumcised, who went down to Sheol with their weapons of war and whose swords were laid under their heads; but the punishment for their iniquity rested on their bones, though the terror of these heroes was once in the land of the living. 28 "But in the midst of the uncircumcised you will be broken and lie with those slain by the sword.
29 "There also is Edom, its kings and all its princes, who for all their might are laid with those slain by the sword; they will lie with the uncircumcised and with those who go down to the pit.
30 "There also are the chiefs of the north, all of them, and all the Sidonians, who in spite of the terror resulting from their might, in shame went down with the slain. So they lay down uncircumcised with those slain by the sword and bore their disgrace with those who go down to the pit.
11 Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. 13 And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
Where then do we go if there is an in between place?
The King James Version of John 14:2 reads that “In my Father’s house are many mansions”. Based on that verse, Ira Stanphill wrote the song Mansion Over the Hilltop. Since then that song has become a favorite of southern gospel fans all over the country. It has also been recorded by a number of artists. I’ve got a mansion over the hilltop... is a much loved hymn.
The story of the song is that one day a businessman was giving a testimony in church. His business was failing and went for a drive one. He arrived out in the boonies at a shack at the end of a dirt road. Outside the house was a little girl playing with a broken doll with a big smile on her face. The businessman wanted to know why she was so happy. “Because my daddy is building us a mansion over that hill out there and I can’t wait to get there.
But the word that was translated as mansions has been translated differently since the KJV of the Bible was translated. Most modern translations use the word dwelling, dwelling places, or rooms. The Greek use of this word has more to do with a stopping place or a barracks. It is far from a mansion and more importantly, it implies moving on to somewhere else.
The real root of the word is to abide. This is what Jesus eventually gets around to. He begins with saying that he is the way, truth, and life. He shares with the disciples that they know God because God abides in Christ. The Spirit also abides within the disciples. Finally Jesus comes around to saying that God and Christ will make an abode with us. The next chapter has Jesus telling us that disciple abide in him as branches to a vine. The basic idea is that Christ comes to us and abides with us.
If there is a place between life and our final destination (as the Hebrews called it Sheol or the grave; the Greeks Hades), this adds a layer into that picture. The picture is not a mansion over the hilltop that gives us hope. The picture is that Christ will abide with us in whatever that next place is. He doesn’t abandon us in death or stand away from us. Christ remains close to us and brings his presence to us in life and even death. If Jesus comes to dwell in us in life, and has brought victory for us over death then it is very likely that he will also be present with us when the physical life ends. We have a savior and Lord who stays with us even in death, wherever that may be.
Another picture to consider is scene of Jesus and the thieves on the cross. One thief or rebel chooses to join the crowds in mocking Jesus. The other thief appears sympathetic to Christ’s cause. He requests to remembered in the Messiah’s kingdom. Jesus responds that, “Today you will be with me in paradise”. That phrase has been used to speak of a whisking away to heaven to remain forever. But the imagery from that passage is not as simple as that.
First, the thief wasn’t asking to go to heaven. This thief, brigand, and rebel wanted to be remembered in the kingdom that the Messiah was to establish. If this thief was being executed for treason or rebellion, what greater reward would he have than to be remembered as being one of freedom fighters who threw the Romans out of Israel. His desire wasn’t eternal life, it was eternal remembrance
Second, Jesus wasn’t offering him a view of heaven in saying it was paradise. Paradise is a Persian word picked up by the Greeks. The word represents an enclosed garden that is well watered and tended so that it will be filled with plants and sometimes wild animals. Jesus says that they would share that experience together.
Third is the issue of where Jesus believed he would go when he died. Some believe that Jesus went straight to heaven the moment he breathed his last breath. But that is not what could have happened. Jesus experienced death like every other person. There have been people, the Bible tells us, that have escaped death through God’s special providence (Genesis 5:24 – Enoch; 2 Kings 2:11 – Elijah). If there is an experience of a place after death, Christ would have gone through that. Christ shared in the experience of death like all people in order to claim a victory over death. Even Jesus himself did not claim to have gone back to heaven. John 20:17 – Jesus says he has not yet ascended to the Father. When Jesus ascends in Acts 1, it is his return to heaven.
If the thief wasn’t asking to go to heaven, and Jesus didn’t mean heaven when he said paradise, and Jesus didn’t believe he was going to heaven, then what does he mean? Jesus meant something of greater comfort than going to heaven. Jesus uses the word “paradise” with intention. He used a word that would recall for anyone even basically familiar with the stories of Moses the picture of a garden that was closed off from the rest of the world and that was filled with life, vegetation and animal life. He used a word that would draw anyone listening back to the Garden of Eden.
The specialness of the garden wasn’t location, or content, or even its seclusion. The uniqueness of the garden was that God was there (Genesis 3:8). Jesus was saying that today, the thief and Jesus would be in a place of comfort, provision, blessedness, together.
When we hear those words Jesus says, we should be comforted. In death, which Jesus has won the victory over, we go to a place that is within God’s presence. But we do not go alone, the presence of Christ is there also. We do not face death alone. We face death with Christ having already been then and his presence remains with us
Now we come to the hardest part of this. The biblical witness is that we do not go to heaven when we die.
There are 2 reasons for that. First, Heaven is God’s domain. Throughout the Old Testament God is pictured as above or beyond heaven and earth yet interacts throughout both. Heaven is referred to 396 times in the Old Testament. Of those 99% refer to mingling of heaven as space, sky, and something more. 2 Chronicles 30:27 – God’s dwelling place is called heaven. Isaiah 66:1 – God calls heaven his throne and earth his footstool. The Psalms refer to God’s temple in heaven, God looking down from heaven, and his sovereignty over all is established in heaven. The Psalmist in 73 says it succinctly – who do we have in heaven but God.
In the New Testament, heaven is more of a spiritual location than space or sky. In the New Testament heaven is referred to 275 times. Jesus refers to his Father in heaven in Matthew’s gospel a number of times. (Matthew 5:16,45,48;6:1,9,14,26,32;7:21; 10:32,33;12:50;15:13;16:17;18:10,14,19,35;23:9). Matthew 18:10 - Jesus refers to the angels who continually see God’s face. John 3:13 – Jesus says no one has ascended to the Father. Ephesians 2:6; Philippians 3:20 – we are already located in heaven because of Christ. Hebrews 7-9 – heaven is marked by a Temple of God where Christ ministers on our behalf. Revelation 4-5,6 – heaven is God’s throne room and temple where no people are present until chapter 7, after the tribulation.
The biblical witness is that heaven is God’s domain. Humanity’s access to heaven is through Jesus Christ. We have a hope for life after death that is marked by the accompaniment of the presence of Christ. We are not abandoned by God. We will encounter the glory of God without restraint, though. We will know rest from labor and struggle, pain and heartache as God ministers to us. All of that sounds like heaven except for one thing: that biblical picture of heaven is really earth.
The image that many of us have of heaven, golden streets, river of life, endless days, and no more tears, is really not heaven. Revelation 20-21 shows us that heaven and earth pass away. God eliminates the substance of heaven and earth. Then God re-creates heaven and earth. In chapter 21 God puts down a new Eden – the New Jerusalem where there are streets of gold, the River of Life, and the Tree of Life. God is there, also, to fellowship with. Christ is there in fellowship. What we typically think of as heaven is a future new creation.
God takes those of his faithful who live out life in commitment and obedience. God wipes away the elements of this creation. God creates everything new again. Then God puts people in the middle of a brand new world to live as he always desired us to live: with God in open relationship and communion.