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Life After Death part 1.

Nothing seems to arouse controversy more than the doctrines relating to eschatology, where those who are certain they are right are often equally certain that everyone else is wrong, as are their confident opponents. We do not believe it is possible to be dogmatic, either about interpretations of details of Bible teaching on the after-life or on the details relating to the doctrine of the last things, as both are dealing with questions which are necessarily outside our experience and we cannot be sure (although we may think we can) how far the words are put in physical terms in order to enable us to understand spiritual truths, or how far they will actually happen as described. We must therefore grasp the message that they are seeking to convey, while recognising that certainty about the details must elude us. The teaching is given to stir our hearts, not for analytical examination.

Certainly Heaven is described in terms of thrones, and crowns, and harps, and beasts who are like ‘calves, and lions and eagles, having six wings and full of eyes within’ but we doubt whether we will find any of them there. These are ‘pictures’ intended to enable us to grasp ideas, ideas of sovereignty, and universality, and joy and awareness. The same quite possibly applies to teaching about ‘the last things’. What we have to say therefore is suggestive, rather than dogmatic. Every man must in the end decide for himself how he will view these ideas. We only plead that when they do so they will do it in humility, and love for those who see things otherwise.

The Old Testament

There is little in the Old Testament about life after death. It finds no mention in the first five books of the Bible. Phrases like ‘he was gathered to his people’ (Genesis 25.8; 35.29; 49.29) need suggest no more than that he joins them in the grave, while references to ‘making live’ (e.g. Deuteronomy 32.39) refer to God’s power of life and death, and not to the after life. It is true that Enoch ‘was not, for God took him’ (Genesis 5.24), but this could mean simply that he passed away in an unusual way, under God’s special protection. These hints gathered new meaning once people knew of the resurrection, but they did not mean the same to the people of the time. What lay beyond the grave was considered a mystery to which there was no solution.

In most of the Old Testament, where the thought of a ‘beyond’ arises at all it is in the ‘land of Sheol’ (sheol = the grave), the land of shadows, a land of no substance and no joy. It is a land of emptiness (see Isaiah 14.9; 38.18; Ezekiel 32.21; Psalm 6.5; 49.14; 88.5; Job 7.9; 17.13; Ecclesiastes 9.10). The eyes of the people were concentrated on their future in this life. They had no real understanding of any other future.

However among those who loved God hope began to grow. There are real hints of an after-life in Psalms such as Psalm 16.10-11 and 49.14-15, where the Psalmists express a joyful certainty that there is ‘something beyond’, where they will be received by God (compare also Psalm 17.14-15; 23.6; 73.24), but it is enjoyed and not expanded. It is just that they have confidence in their God that He has something better for them than Sheol (see also the inference in Hosea 13.14). Job 19.25-26 is a difficult passage, as the text is not clear, but again it would appear to carry the inference that he has a future hope. So believers looked forward to being with God, but it was not spelt out specifically.

The taking of Elijah suggests the possibility that he may have been ‘glorified’, but again it is a bald fact given without explanation (2 Kings 2.11-12). It contains the seed of future doctrine, but Paul makes clear that there could be no resurrection for anyone until Christ rose as ‘the firstfruits’. So where nothing is known it is wise not to speculate.

Isaiah is the first to speak clearly of an afterlife, but even here it occurs only once as he recognises that in some way God must vindicate His people. Isaiah 25.8 speaks of God ‘swallowing up death in victory’, but the phrase is enigmatic until we receive further revelation. The explanation is found in Isaiah 26.19 , “Thy dead shall live, their bodies will rise. Oh dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy. For thy dew is a dew of light and on the land of shades thou wilt let it fall”. Here there is the definite expression of hope for the righteous. (All references to date only have the righteous in mind). For them death is not the end, the land of shades is not their final destiny. They can look forward to a joyful resurrection. Just as, where the dew falls, life springs up and vegetation grows, so in this case the dew is the light of God which ‘falls’ on the land of shades and brings light there to those in darkness so that His own come forth with new life.

The clearest passage in the Old Testament is Daniel 12.2-3. “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever.” The heavenly imagery would suggest a heavenly destiny for believers.

Here we have clearly stated the resurrection of both righteous and unrighteous, some to everlasting life and glory, others to everlasting shame and contempt. But there is no suggestion that the shame is conscious shame, except at the moment of sentence. Isaiah 66.24 suggests otherwise. There the unrighteous are dead bodies, exposed to continual maggots and permanently burning fires, a picture of rubbish dumps, like the valley of Hinnom (ge hinnom) outside Jerusalem. The bodies of outcasts, criminals and such like were disposed of on rubbish dumps, they were a place of shame, and this was considered a punishment on them even though they were not conscious of it. In the same way the ‘unrighteous’ will be treated as criminals and their dead bodies shamed.

The Gospels

The Gospels do not say a great deal about the resurrection as such, but much of the material assumes it. Unlike the Greeks, the Jews had no concept of an after life without the body. The Greek Platonists believed in the immortality of the soul. The Bible teaches the resurrection of the body.

The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke)

Many of the teachings in the synoptic Gospels take the after life for granted, without defining how or when in greater measure. One problem we must always look out for is the need to distinguish the difference between what will happen at the end of the present ‘age’ to those alive at the time, and what will happen to the dead at the resurrection, although elsewhere it is made clear that, at least for Christians, the two events will happen at the same time (1 Thessalonians 4.13-18). Jesus certainly encouraged His followers to expect the end of the age as a possibility in their lifetimes. He stated clearly that while on earth He did not know when it would be, and that therefore they should be ready. Only the Father knew, He said (Mark 13.32). Thus many of His statements, which might at first sight appear to refer to the resurrection, in fact apply to the end of the age. This must be constantly kept in mind as we seek to understand what He says.

The first suggestion of an afterlife is found in Matthew 5.11-12. There those who are persecuted for Jesus’ sake are told they can rejoice over it, ‘for great is their reward in Heaven’. In contrast, those who refuse to obey his commands will be ‘cast into Gehenna’ (ge hinnom - see later) (v.29, 30). As some of the persecuted will have died this assumes a joyous after-life of some kind. Those who follow Him can be sure of blessing beyond the grave.

Again in Matthew 6.19-20 we are told that we should not lay up treasures for ourselves on earth, but should lay them up in Heaven. Once more the idea is of a disregard for the things of this life, for Jesus’ sake, resulting in future blessing in Heaven. Indeed, He tells us, we need to fix our eyes there constantly, for the gate that leads to life is an afflicted one, while the broad and easy way leads to destruction (7.13-14). The test of our acceptance will be whether we have done the Father’s will, for not everyone who says to Jesus, ‘Lord, Lord’ will ‘in that day’ enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, only those who do the will of the Father who is in Heaven (Matthew 7.21-23).

The phrase ‘in that day’ confirms that this is speaking of a future experience of climactic importance. There is no suggestion that death would rob men of the benefits so these promises and exhortations have in mind both the end of the age and an after-life. The term ‘destruction’ is ‘apoleian’ which Plato (the Greek philosopher) constantly uses, in his work on Immortality, along with its related verb, to mean ‘soul destruction’, and therefore cessation of existence, (which he says he does not believe in). This is seen by him as specifically in contrast with having ‘unconditional immortality’. So Jesus is teaching conditional immortality. The doctrine of unconditional immortality is Platonic not Biblical. The Bible says that only God has immortality unconditionally (1 Timothy 6.16). For Christians it is a blessing they receive from God (Romans 2.7; 1 Corinthians 15.53-54; 2 Timothy 1.10).

In Matthew 8.11-12, in commending the faith of a Roman centurion, Jesus says, “Many will come from the East and West, and will sit down with Abraham, and Isaac and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven. But the children of the Kingdom will be cast into outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”. This again refers, taken naturally, to a future life, for the Patriarchs are there and it is in contrast to outer darkness and punishment. It is inconclusive as to what the result of the punishment is. They weep and gnash their teeth because of the sentence to outer darkness. What happens then we are not told.

The mention of the presence of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob counts against it referring to simply the future on earth. If it does it is clear that they must have been resurrected, which is what most Jews believed they would be. (The phrase ‘children of the Kingdom’ must mean ‘those for whom it was originally intended’, those who should have inherited it). Thus resurrection is unquestionably in mind, whether to new life on earth, or life in Heaven.

In Matthew 10.15 we are told concerning the cities who reject the testimony of the Apostles that “it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment than for that city” (compare 11. 20-24 and Luke 10.13-15). This clearly suggests that both Sodom and Gomorrha and these rejecting cities will be raised to face the judgment of God and its consequences.

So the Apostles are not to fear those who can kill the body. Rather they are to fear the One Who can destroy (apolesai) both body and soul in Gehenna (10.28). Then they will have nothing to fear, for ‘the hairs of their head are all numbered’, a vivid way of saying that, whatever earthly experience they have to go through, God will see that they lose nothing. Indeed He watches over the sparrows, and they can be certain that they are ‘of more value than many sparrows’ (v.30-31). They can have confidence in the fact that Jesus will be there to testify on their behalf before his Father in Heaven (v.33).

However, those who reject the testimony of the Spirit will not be forgiven, neither in this age nor in the age to come (12.32). (Jesus knows nothing of universal salvation). In the day of judgment men will have to give account of every idle word they speak. All this points to the resurrection of just and unjust for judgment.

In Matthew 13.40-43 Jesus speaks of ‘the end of this age (aionos)’. Then “the Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and those who do iniquity, and will cast them into a furnace of fire; there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the Kingdom of their Father”. This latter would appear to be an indirect reference to Daniel 12. However, the whole passage is not necessarily a reference to resurrection as it could be speaking of the living. But the ‘shining forth as the sun’ significantly suggests a destiny with Heavenly connections rather than earthly glory, and earlier references would point to the afterlife.

Again in Matthew 13.49-50 “so will it be at the end of the age. The angels will come forth and sever the wicked from among the just, and will cast them into the furnace of fire: there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth”. As they receive their punishment the wicked will curse themselves for their folly in leaving everything too late, but we are not told how long the wailing and gnashing of teeth lasts.

In Matthew 18.8-9 those who ‘offend’ (treat badly) little children will be cast into everlasting fire (v.8), - the Gehenna of fire (v.9). Mark speaks of it as “the fire that shall never be quenched, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (although many important ancient texts omit the second part, which comes from Isaiah 66.24). This stresses the certainty of the punishment. It looks back to Isaiah 66.24 but makes the fire and the maggots unceasing. The punishment is certain because the instruments of it are indestructible. It is, of course, a vivid picture taken from the rubbish dumps of Jerusalem and as such is not to be taken literally. (To make the ‘undying worm’ the worm of the soul is to fail to do justice to the text or to Isaiah 66.24, which is its source. Maggots are clearly in mind and were considered to be as horrific as the fires).

In Matthew 19.27-30, at Peter’s claim that they have left all and followed Jesus, Jesus replies, “Truly I tell you, you who have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit on the throne of his glory, (the phrase links it with the judgment scene in Matthew 25) you also shall sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And every one who has forsaken houses, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life” (compare also Mark 10.29-30).

While it is true that the disciples could in some sense look forward to this without necessarily applying it to the after-life,for they knew that the end of the age could come at any time, with later knowledge it must have in mind the resurrection. Only in that way could it truly fulfilled. Besides the phrase ‘the regeneration’ suggests the resurrection and the generation of new life. (The word is taken by some to refer to the regeneration of the earth for a new period of blessing. They then use the idea of ‘judging’ as referring to a similar activity to that of the judges in the Old Testament book of Judges, i.e. acting as overseers. But elsewhere it is made clear that ‘the saints (God’s people) will judge the world’ (1 Corinthians 6.2) where it specifically means acting in a judicial sense. This would suggest that this is also in mind here. The picture is surely one of the last judgment, which is what the giving out of rewards, and eternal life, suggests).

It is clear from this passage that the Apostles will in some way act in the judgment that is to come (compare Romans 6.2). They are promised a position of honour. This is further spoken of in 2 Thessalonians 1.10, “when He will come to be glorified in his set-apart ones and to be admired in all those who believe”.

The Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection, and in Matthew 22.23-32 they come to test Jesus out with a question. Jesus replies, “in the resurrection people neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in Heaven. But concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob?’ God is not the God of the dead but of the living.” The significance of the latter phrase is that it suggests that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were already alive, and not awaiting the resurrection at the last day. However it could be argued that ‘soul sleep’, a condition of blissful restfulness awaiting the resurrection, is being alive. Notice in Luke’s version (Luke 20.27-38), “they who are accounted worthy to obtain that world (or age) and the resurrection from the dead”. This clearly differentiates either ‘another world’for the resurrected, or participation in the new age by the resurrected. As the latter on earth is excluded elsewhere (1 Thessalonians 4), this confirms that ‘the new age’ is a Heavenly one.

Speaking of the end of the age in Matthew 24.30-31 Jesus says, “And then shall appear the sign of the Son of Man in Heaven:and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of Man coming in the clouds of Heaven with power and great glory. And He shall send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of Heaven to the other --- then shall two be in the field, the one shall be taken and the other left, two women will be grinding at the mill: the one shall be taken and the other left (vv.40-41)” (see also Mark 13.27; Luke 17 26-37).

Previously it has been the wicked who are said to be separated from among the righteous (see Matthew 13.40-43, 49-50), but the two actions are synonymous, only the emphasis is different. We learn from Paul (1 Thessalonians 4.13-17), how the separating is done. It is by lifting out the righteous, so that the unrighteous are left behind, huddled together, as it were, awaiting their fate. The picture is vivid. Not only are the righteous taken out, but the unrighteous are ‘cut out’ like goats being separated from sheep. There is action in both directions, and the dealing with the unrighteous is as positive as the taking of the righteous (see for this Revelation 14.14-20).

It will be an unfortunate time for the unfaithful servant, “the Lord of that servant will come in a day that he looks not for him, and in an hour that he is not aware of, and will cut him asunder and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites (those who put on an act): there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 24.50-51). Again of an unfaithful servant his lord will say, “Cast the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (v.30). This is said by the lord in the parable, but it is clearly intended to represent the sentence of the Son of Man.

Finally in Matthew we have the description of the great Judgment (Matthew 25.31-46). “When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit on the throne of his glory, and before him will be gathered all nations, and he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And he will set the sheep on his right hand but the goats on the left. Then will the king say to those on his right hand, ‘come you who are blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world, for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was in rags and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me --- inasmuch as you have done it to one of the least of these my brothers, you have done it to me.’ Then will he say to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the Devil and his angels, for I was hungry and you gave me no food, ---- inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these you did not do it to me’. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into life eternal”.

This is outwardly a picture of the judgment of living nations, it does not therefore necessarily impinge on the resurrection. It is clear, however, that both parties go into the eternal state, one to life the other to punishment. It is also clear that the sheep are ‘the righteous’. To refer it to a judgment before a period of earthly blessing is therefore to ignore the plain meaning meaning of these words which is established elsewhere.

The fact that the punishment is eternal does not necessarily mean that it involves eternal conscious punishment, only that its consequence is unending. We can compare with this how ‘eternal judgment’ does not mean ‘eternal judging’, but a judgment with eternal consequences, or from an eternal source (Hebrews 6.2). We can also compare eternal salvation (Hebrews 5.9) and eternal redemption (Hebrews 9.12), both of which convey the same idea. We must therefore look elsewhere if we are to find the idea of continual conscious punishment beyond the grave.

Elsewhere the punishment has been depicted as ‘outer darkness” and “the Gehenna of fire” and being eaten by maggots, the one stressing banishment from the light of God, the others the shame heaped upon them. The whole picture is of loss and despair. The fire and maggots have in mind the continually burning fires of the rubbish heaps outside Jerusalem in the valley of Hinnom (ge-hinnom - Gehenna). These were also reflected in Isaiah 66.24 where the wicked were said to be ‘dead bodies’. To express horror at their sinfulness the worst criminals were flung onto the rubbish heaps after being executed, as a constant shame on them. In the same way, Jesus tells us, the wicked dead will be objects of everlasting shame. But this need not mean conscious shame.

It is not treating words rightly to suggest that in this passage “life eternal” is different from its meaning elsewhere and here simply means that they go into the ‘kingdom age’. It is true that it does mean strictly ‘the life of the age to come’ (as the punishment is the ‘punishment of the age to come’) but it means the same elsewhere, where ‘eternal life, the life of the age to come’ follows the resurrection (John 5.29 with 5.24), (although in one sense being received on believing). To make it just ‘life in the kingdom age’ for the sake of a theory is to denigrate it. To separate the last phrase from the rest of the passage as referring to a third group, is not exegesis but eisegesis (reading in what is not there).

It is doubtful if the images should be taken literally. The glorious Son of Man will not need to sit on a throne to make His sovereignty known, and the gathering of four billion or so people in one place on earth for such a scene boggles the imagination. It is surely simply another vivid way of saying that Jesus will come revealing His sovereignty and will carry out His work of judgment by separating the righteous from the unrighteous, making clear what unrighteousness is seen to consist of. This ties in with Matthew 24. 30-31 which puts the same thing in a different way equally vividly. In some way not elaborated the Apostles will have their part to play in these happenings (Matthew 19.27-30).

Continued in The After-life in the Gospels part 2.

After Life Part 2

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If so please EMail us with your question and we will do our best to give you a satisfactory answer.EMailus. (But preferably not from, for some reason they do not deliver our messages).

FREE Scholarly verse by verse commentaries on the Bible.