Heaven and Hell:
What Does the Bible Really Teach?
Bob & Suzanne Hamrick
Traditional beliefs about heaven and hell are based on an underlying teaching – that everyone has an immortal soul that must go somewhere when physical life ends.
This belief isn’t unique to traditional Christianity. “All religions affirm that there is an aspect of the human person that lives on after the physical life has ended.” (World Scripture: A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts, Andrew Wilson, editor, 1995, p. 225)
In other words, in general, almost all religions believe in some kind of immortal essence, a spirit that lives on separately after the physical body dies. Most professing Christians call this the immortal soul.
Failure to understand this subject correctly is a fundamental reason for the prevalent beliefs regarding heaven and hell. If an immortal quality exists in a human being, it must depart from the body when the body dies.
The typical views of heaven and hell have as their foundation the belief in an immortal soul that leaves the body at death.
But what does the Bible actually say about the existence of an immortal soul? Does this belief have any foundation in Scripture?
Not from the Bible but from Greek philosophy
Many are surprised to learn that the words “immortal” and “soul” appear together nowhere in the Bible. “Theologians frankly admit that the expression ‘immortal soul’ is not in the Bible but confidently state that Scripture assumes the immortality of every soul” (Edward Fudge, The Fire That Consumes, 1994, p. 22, emphasis added throughout). Considering how confidently theologians hold to this doctrine, it’s quite surprising that such an important assumption is not spelled out in the Bible.
If it isn’t found in the Bible, where did the idea originate?
The New Bible Dictionary offers this background on the nonbiblical nature of the immortal-soul doctrine: “The Greeks thought of the body as a hindrance to true life and they looked for the time when the soul would be free from its shackles. They conceived of life after death in terms of the immortality of the soul” (1996, p. 1010, “Resurrection”). According to this idea, the body goes to the grave at death and the soul continues to exist as a separate, conscious entity.
Belief in a separate soul and body was popular in ancient Greece and was taught by one of its most famous philosophers: “The immortality of the soul was a principal doctrine of the Greek philosopher, Plato . . . In Plato’s thinking, the soul . . . was self-moving and indivisible . . . It existed before the body which it inhabited, and which it would survive” (Fudge, p. 32).
When and how did the concept of the immortality of the soul enter the world of Christianity? The Hebrew Tanakh (“Old Testament”) does not teach it. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia explains: “We are influenced always more or less by the Greek, Platonic idea that the body dies, yet the soul is immortal. Such an idea is utterly contrary to the Israelite consciousness and is nowhere found in the Tanakh.” (1960, Vol. 2, p. 812, “Death”)
The first-century Church did not hold to this belief either: “The doctrine is increasingly regarded as a post-apostolic innovation, not only unnecessary but positively harmful to proper biblical interpretation and understanding.” (Fudge, p. 24)
If such an idea was not taught in the Church during the time of the apostles, how did it come to assume such an important place in Christian doctrine? Several authorities recognize that the teachings of Plato and other Greek philosophers have profoundly influenced Christianity. History and religious studies professor Jeffrey Russell states, “The unbiblical idea of immortality did not die but even flourished, because theologians . . . admired Greek philosophy [and] found support there for the notion of the immortal soul.” (A History of Heaven, 1997, p. 79)
The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, in its article on death, states that “the ‘departure’ of the nephesh [soul] must be viewed as a figure of speech, for it does not continue to exist independently of the body, but dies with it . . . No biblical text authorizes the statement that the ‘soul’ is separated from the body at the moment of death.” (1962, Vol. 1, p. 802, “Death”)
Why then should we accept a teaching that is not found in the Bible? Many people take it for granted that their most deeply held beliefs are based on the life and teachings of Yeshua Messiah (“Jesus Christ”) and God’s Word. Yet Yeshua said in a prayer to his Father, “Your word is truth.” (John 17:17) Does God give men the liberty to draw from the world’s philosophers and incorporate their beliefs into biblical teaching as though they were fact?
God inspired the apostle Kefa (“Peter”) to write, “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Kefa 1:20-21) We must look to the words of Messiah, the prophets and the apostles in the Holy Scriptures if we are to understand the truth about the doctrine of the immortality of the soul or any other religious teaching.
Let’s dig further to see exactly what the Bible tells us about the soul.
Soul in the Hebrew Scriptures
The Hebrew word most often translated into English as “soul” in the Bible is nephesh. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible succinctly defines this word as meaning “a breathing creature.” When used in the Bible, nephesh surely does not mean a spirit entity or the spirit within a person. Rather, it usually means an entire physical, living, breathing creature. Occasionally it conveys a related meaning such as breath, life or person.
Surprising to many, this term nephesh does not refer only to human beings, but also to animals. For example, notice the account of the creation of sea life: “And God created great whales, and every living creature that moves, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.” (Genesis 1:21) The Hebrew word translated “creature” in this verse is nephesh. In the biblical account, these particular “souls,” creatures of the sea, were made before the first human beings were formed and given life.
The term is also applied to birds (verse 30) and land animals, including cattle and “creeping” creatures such as reptiles and insects (verse 24). It follows, then, if we make an argument for man possessing an immortal soul, animals must also have an immortal soul, since the same Hebrew word is used of man and animal alike. Yet no biblical scholars would seriously make such claims for animals. The truth is, the term soul refers to any living creature, whether man or beast – not to some separate, living essence temporarily inhabiting the body.
In the Tanakh, man is referred to as a “soul” (Hebrew nephesh) more than 130 times. The first place we find nephesh in reference to mankind is in the second chapter of Genesis: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” (verse 7, KJV)
The word translated “soul” in this verse is again the Hebrew word nephesh. Other translations of the Bible state that man became a living “being” or “person.” This verse does not say that Adam had an immortal soul; rather it says that God breathed into Adam the “breath of life,” and Adam became a living soul. At the end of his days, when the breath of life left Adam, he died and returned to dust.
The Tanakh plainly teaches that the soul dies. God told Adam and Eve, two “living souls,” that they would “surely die” if they disobeyed him. (Genesis 2:17) God also told Adam that He had taken him from the dust of the earth and he would return to dust. (Genesis 3:19)
Among the plainer statements in the Bible about what happens to the soul at death are Ezekiel 18:4 and 18:20. Both passages clearly state that “the soul who sins shall die.” Again, the word for “soul” here is nephesh. In fact, this same word was even used of corpses – dead bodies. (see Leviticus 22:4; Numbers 5:2; 6:11; 9:6-10)
Not only do all these scriptures show that the soul indeed can and does die, but the soul is identified as a physical being – not a separate spirit entity with existence independent of its physical host.
The Scriptures tell us that the dead have no consciousness: “For the living know that they will die; but the dead know not any thing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5). They are not conscious in some other state or place (see “Yeshua Messiah and Biblical Writers Compare Death to Sleep”).
The Renewed Covenant Scriptures (“New Testament”) teaching
The Renewed Covenant Scriptures contain several statements confirming that the wicked who refuse to repent will die – permanently. In Matthew 7:13-14, in exhorting his disciples to choose the way that leads to life, Yeshua states that the end of those who do not choose life is destruction. He contrasts that path with the way of righteousness, telling us, “Narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
Yeshua, moreover, made it quite clear that utter destruction includes both “soul and body” (Matthew 10:28), the Greek word for “soul” (psyche or psuche) referring to physical, conscious existence (see “Do Some Bible Verses Teach We Have an Immortal Soul?” begining on page 8).
The apostle Sha’ul (“Paul”) also stated that the wicked will die. In Romans 6:20- 21 he talks about those who were slaves of sin and says that for them “the end of those things is death.” So those who are slaves of sin, who habitually commit sin, will perish completely. Yet many attempt to redefine death here and in other scriptural passages to mean merely separation from God.
Romans 6:23 is one of the best-known verses of the Bible. It plainly states, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Messiah Yeshua our Lord.” Again, people will argue that “death” here really means an eternal life of separation from God. Note, however, that death here is directly contrasted with eternal life. How, then, can death involve eternal existence through an immortal soul?
This verse plainly tells us two crucial truths. First, the punishment of the wicked is death, utter cessation of life, not a life of eternal suffering in another place (see also Philippians 3:18-19; 2 Thessalonians 1:9). Second, no human being has eternal life because of a supposedly immortal soul. Eternal life is something God must give us through our Savior, Yeshua the Messiah.
In 1 Timothy 6:16 Sha’ul also tells us that God alone has immortality. Sha’ul makes a similar statement in Galatians 6:8: “The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life” (NIV). This tells us what happens to unrepentant sinners. Eventually they will reap destruction, referring to wasting away and perishing, but those who repent and obey God will ultimately receive eternal life.
No conscious afterlife without a resurrection
So is man an immortal soul? No. Does he have an immortal soul? No. The Bible declares plainly that man is temporary, of the dust of the earth. There is no immortal quality about man at all – unless and until he receives it from God through a resurrection, which means being brought back to life in a body, raised from the dead as Yeshua was. The Bible clearly states that man puts on immortality at the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:50-54), not at the end of his physical life. Until that time man has no more permanence than animals.
Nor does man have some spiritual soul with conscious awareness independent of the physical body. This has been proven time and time again when individuals have gone into comas for weeks, months and sometimes years at a time, only to emerge from that comatose state with no memory or recollection of the passage of time.
If one had a soul that existed independently of the human body, wouldn’t that soul have some memory of remaining aware during the months or years the body was unconscious? That would be powerful and logical proof of the existence of an independent soul within the human body – yet no one has ever reported any such thing, in spite of thousands of such occurrences.
This fact likewise supports what the Bible teaches – that consciousness ceases at death. Only through a resurrection to life will consciousness return.
Will a Loving God Punish
People Forever in Hell?
Take this simple test. Or perhaps it’s better if you just imagined it, since the actual test would prove quite painful.
Light a match, then hold your finger in its tiny flame for five seconds. What happens? You’ll likely scream involuntarily and suffer misery for several days from a painful burn.
Perhaps you’ve seen a burn victim who was disfigured in some horrible accident, his flesh gnarled and misshapen. Imagine being trapped in flames that would char and burn away your skin in the same way. What would that kind of agony feel like if it went on for a minute? For a year? For a lifetime? For ever and ever?
Most people would find the idea horrifying almost beyond imagination. They would understandably be aghast and sickened that anyone would willingly torture another person in that way.
Why, then, are so many willing to accept the idea that the God they worship and hold in highest esteem would willingly inflict such punishment not on just a few, but on a great multitude of people who die every single day?
How can such a belief possibly square with the Bible’s description of a God who is infinitely loving and merciful?
Just what is the truth about hell?
Hell through the centuries
The traditional view of hell as a fiery cauldron of punishment has been taught for centuries. Perhaps one of the earliest to expound this view among Christians was the Catholic theologian Tertullian, who lived around A.D. 160-225. In the third century, Cyprian of Carthage also wrote: “The damned will burn for ever in hell. Devouring flames will be their eternal portion. Their torments will never have diminution or end.” (quoted by Peter Toon, Heaven and Hell: A Biblical and Theological Overview, 1986, p. 163).
This belief has been officially reiterated over the centuries. An edict from the Council of Constantinople (modern Istanbul) in 543 states: “Whoever says or thinks that the punishment of demons and the wicked will not be eternal . . . let him be anathema” (D.P. Walker, The Decline of Hell: Seventeenth-Century Discussions of Eternal Torment, 1964, p. 21).
The Lateran church council in 1215 reaffirmed its belief in eternal torture of the wicked in these words: “The damned will go into everlasting punishment with the devil” (Toon, p. 164). The Augsburg Confession of 1530 reads: “Messiah will return . . . to give eternal life and everlasting joy to believers and the elect, but to condemn ungodly men and the devils to hell and eternal punishment” (Toon, p. 131).
Teachings on the subject of hell have by no means been consistent through the centuries. Beliefs about hell have varied widely, depending on which theologian’s or church historian’s ideas one reads. Generally speaking, the most common belief has been that hell is a place in which wicked people are tortured forever, but never consumed, by ever-burning flames.
Hell’s location has been a subject of much discussion. Some have believed it to be in the sun. For centuries the common view was that hell is inside the earth in a vast subterranean chamber.
The most comprehensive description of hell as a place, as man commonly views it, is found not in the Bible but rather in the 14th-century work The Divine Comedy, written by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri. In the first part of this work, called “The Inferno,” Dante described an imaginary journey through hell replete with its fiery sufferings. A more modern interpretation rejects the idea of physical torment and asserts that the torture of hell is mental anguish caused by separation from God. A recent survey of modern attitudes revealed that 53 percent of Americans embrace this perspective (U.S. News and World Report, Jan. 31, 2000, p. 47).
Pope John Paul II “declared that hell is ‘not a punishment imposed externally by God’ but is the natural consequence of the unrepentant sinner’s choice to live apart from God” (ibid., p. 48). Still others have rejected the doctrine of hell outright and believe everyone will be saved.
Why do we see so much diversity in beliefs about hell? Like belief in the immortality of the soul, common misconceptions of hell are rife with the ideas of men rather than the teachings of the Bible. The popular concept of hell is a mixture of small bits of Bible truth combined with pagan ideas and human imagination. As we will see, this has produced a grossly inaccurate portrayal of what happens to the wicked after death.
An angry God
One of the most graphic descriptions of the torments of hell as conceived by men was given by the Puritan minister Jonathan Edwards in a 1741 sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” He said: “The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrows made ready . . . [by] an angry God . . . It is nothing but his mere pleasure that keeps you from being this moment swallowed up in everlasting destruction! The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; He looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire . . .
“You are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him . . . and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment . . . “O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of God . . . You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder.”
This human concept of hell was so terrible that the prospect of such a fate caused great anguish, fear and anxiety for many Puritans. “The heavy emphasis on hell and damnation combined with an excessive self-scrutiny led many into clinical depression: suicide seems to have been prevalent” (Karen Armstrong, A History of God, 1993, p. 284).
The Puritans were not the only ones tormented by fear of hell. Many people have been terrorized by the thought of hell ever since this nonbiblical concept crept into religious teaching. Other ministers and teachers have, like Jonathan Edwards, used a similar approach to frighten people into belief and obedience.
One of the reasons this concept of hell survived is because theologians believed the teaching deterred people from evil. “It was thought that, if the fear of eternal punishment were removed, most people would behave without any moral restraint whatever and that society would collapse into an anarchical orgy” (Walker, p. 4).
Could a compassionate God torture people forever?
Is it possible to reconcile this view of a God who terrorizes people through the fear of eternal torment in hell with the compassionate and merciful God we meet in the Bible?
God is a God of love who does not want any to perish (2 Peter 3:9). He tells us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44). “He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (verse 45). Yet the traditional view of hell would have us believe that God vengefully torments evil people for all eternity – not a few decades or even centuries, but for an infinite length of time.
The idea that God sentences people to eternal punishment is so repulsive that it has turned some away from belief in God and Christianity.
One such example is Charles Darwin. In his private autobiography he wrote: “Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete . . . I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so, the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe . . . will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.” (quoted by Paul Martin, The Healing Mind: The Vital Links Between Brain and Behavior, Immunity and Disease, 1997, p. 327).
The problem is not that the Bible teaches this “damnable doctrine,” but that men have misunderstood what the Bible says. Other aspects of the traditional teaching of hell simply offend the senses. One such belief is that righteous people, who are saved, will be able to witness the torments of the wicked. As one author explains the view some hold, “part of the happiness of the blessed consists in contemplating the torments of the damned. This sight gives them joy because it is a manifestation of God’s justice and hatred of sin, but chiefly because it provides a contrast which heightens their awareness of their own bliss.” (Walker, p. 29).
This scenario is especially revolting for several reasons. According to such twisted reasoning, parents would inevitably witness the suffering of their own children and vice versa, relishing it. Husbands and wives would feel joy in seeing unbelieving spouses tortured forever. Worst of all, the doctrine paints God as sadistic, cruel and merciless. Those who insist that the Bible teaches eternal torment by fire should ask whether such a belief is consistent with what the Bible teaches us about God. For example, how could God justly deal with those who have lived and died without having ever received an opportunity to be saved?
This would include the millions who died and will die as babies as well as the billions of unbelievers or idolaters who lived and died never knowing God or his Son. Regrettably, the vast majority of all those who have ever lived fall into this category.
Some theologians reason around this difficulty by assuming that those who never had the opportunity to know God or hear the name of Yeshua Messiah will be given a sort of free pass. The rationale is that since their state of ignorance is due to circumstances beyond their control, God will admit them into heaven regardless of their lack of repentance. If true, this raises a troubling possibility – that missionary efforts to such areas could be the cause of people who do not accept their teachings being lost!
Quandaries such as this have painted many theologians and other Christians into a corner. Accordingly, some have challenged the traditional concept of a hell of eternal torment through the centuries. “In every generation people keep questioning the orthodox belief in everlasting conscious torment” (Four Views on Hell, William Crockett, editor, 1996, p. 140).
Nevertheless, as we have seen, church councils through the ages have upheld the doctrine. Firmly rooted in traditional Christian belief, it’s an idea that will not go away. A U.S. News and World Report poll from not too long ago shows that more Americans believe in hell today than in the 1950s or even the 1980s and early 1990s (Jan. 31, 2000, p. 46).
The prospect of hell will continue to haunt people. As U.S. News and World Report concluded, “Hell’s powerful images will no doubt continue to loom over humanity, as they have for more than 2,000 years, as a grim and ominous reminder of the reality of evil and its consequences.”
More than one “hell” in the Bible
So what is the truth about hell? What does the Bible really teach?
Many are surprised to learn that the Bible speaks of three hells – but not in the sense that is widely believed. Let us discover why there is so much confusion about hell.
From the original languages in which the Bible was written, one Hebrew word and three Greek words are translated “hell” in our English-language Bibles. The four words convey three different meanings The Hebrew word sheol, used in the Tanakh, has the same meaning as hades, one of the three Greek words translated “hell” in the Renewed Covenant Scriptures.
The Anchor Bible Dictionary explains the meaning of both words: “The Greek word Hades . . . is sometimes, but misleadingly, translated ‘hell’ in English versions of the N[ew] T[estament]. It refers to the place of the dead . . . The old Hebrew concept of the place of the dead, most often called Sheol . . . is usually translated as Hades, and the Greek term was naturally and commonly used by Jews writing in Greek” (1992, Vol. 3, p. 14, “Hades, Hell”).
Both sheol and hades refer simply to the grave. A comparison of a Tanakh and a Renewed Covenant Scripture confirms this. Psalm 16:10 says, “For You will not leave my soul in Sheol, nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption.” In Acts 2:27, the apostle Kefa quotes this verse and shows that it is a reference to Yeshua Messiah. Here the Greek word hades is substituted for the Hebrew sheol.
Where did Messiah go when he died? His spirit returned to God (Luke 23:46; see “The Spirit in Man” on page 14). his body was placed in a tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea. The two passages, in Psalms and Acts, tell us Yeshua’s flesh did not decay in the grave because God resurrected him.
Many scriptures that use the term hell in the King James Version are simply talking about the grave, the place where everyone, whether good or evil, goes at death. The Hebrew word sheol is used in the Tanakh 65 times. In the King James Version it is translated “grave” 31 times, “hell” 31 times and “pit” – a hole in the ground – three times.
The Greek word hades is used 11 times in the Renewed Covenant Scriptures. In the King James translation, in all instances but one the term hades is translated “hell.” The one exception is 1 Corinthians 15:55, where it is translated “grave.” In the New King James Version, the translators avoided misconceptions by simply using the original Greek word hades in all 11 instances.
One word is for demon imprisonment
A second Greek word, tartaroo, is also translated “hell” in the Renewed Covenant Scriptures. This word is used only once in the Bible (2 Peter 2:4), where it refers to the current restraint or imprisonment of the demons. Demons are distinct from fallen angels, most of which are surely not imprisoned anywhere yet, but are free to do their dirty work in our midst. Apparfently, the only angels which are now confined in Tartarus/Tartaroo are those fallen angels which were responsible for the corruption of mankind by having sexual relations with human females, and producing the hybrid race of monsters called the Nephilim (Hebrew for fallen ones). (Jude 1:6) The demons are believed to be the disembodied spirits of Satan’s pre-Adamic kingdom, the first “Babylon”, which YHVH Elohim destroyed for the sin of Satan and his subjects. [Ezekiel 28:12-19 (“King of Tyre”); Isaiah 14:4-23 (“Lucifer” KJV); Jude 6; ]
The Expository Dictionary of Bible Words explains that tartaroo means “to confine in Tartaros” and that “Tartaros was the Greek name for the mythological abyss where rebellious gods were confined” (Lawrence Richards, 1985, “Heaven and Hell,” p. 337).
Kefa uses this reference to contemporary mythology to show that the sinning angels were “delivered . . . into chains of darkness, to be reserved for judgment.” Only these particular fallen angels – the ones responsible for impregnating human females – are now restrained while awaiting their ultimate judgment for their rebellion against God and their destructive influence on humanity.
The rest (majority) of the fallen angels are surely not in some dark or fiery underworld such as the Greek Hades, supposedly ruled by Pluto, “god of the underworld”. Rather, they are on the earth, where they wield influence over the nations and over individuals. The Gospels record that Yeshua Messiah and his apostles had very real encounters with Satan and his demons (Matthew 4:1-11; 8:16, 28-33; 9:32-33; John 13:26-27). Yeshua even referred to Satan as the ruler of this world (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11), as did the apostle Sha’ul (2 Corinthians 4:4).
The term tartaroo applies only to demons. Nowhere does it refer to a fiery hell in which human beings are punished after death.
Another word for burning – burning up, that is
Only with the remaining word translated “hell,” the Greek word gehenna, do we see some elements people commonly associate with the traditional view of hell – but not in the manner portrayed in the hell of men’s imagination.
Gehenna refers to a valley just outside Jerusalem. The word is derived from the Hebrew Gai-Hinnom, the Valley of Hinnom (Joshua 18:16). “Religiously it was a place of idolatrous and human sacrifices . . . In order to put an end to these abominations, [Judah’s King] Josiah polluted it with human bones and other corruptions (2 Kgs. 23:10, 13, 14)” (Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary New Testament, 1992, p. 360).
At the time of Yeshua this valley was what we might call the city dump – the place where trash was thrown and consumed in the fires that constantly burned there. The carcasses of dead animals – and the bodies of despised criminals – were also cast into Gehenna to be burned.
Yeshua thus uses this particular location and what took place there to help his listeners clearly understand the fate the unrepentant will suffer in the future. They would have easily grasped what He meant.
Immortal worms in hell?
In Mark 9:47-48, for example, Yeshua specifically refers to Gehenna and what took place there. But without a proper historical background, many people draw erroneous conclusions as to what he said. Notice his words: “It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell [gehenna] fire – where ‘their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’” Any inhabitant of Jerusalem would have immediately understood what Yeshua meant, since Gehenna – the Valley of Hinnom – was just outside the city walls to the south.
Without this understanding, people commonly end up with several misconceptions about this verse. Some believe the “worm” is a reference to pangs of conscience that condemned people suffer in hell: “‘The worm that dieth not’ was nearly always nterpreted figuratively, as meaning the stings of envy and regret” (Walker, p. 61). Many believe that the phrase “the fire is not quenched” is a reference to ever-burning fires that torture the damned.
This scripture has been notoriously interpreted out of context. Notice that the phrase “their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” appears in quotation marks. Yeshua is quoting from Isaiah 66:24. A proper understanding of his statement begins there.
The context in Isaiah 66 refers to a time when, God says, “all flesh shall come to worship before Me” (verse 23). It is a time when the wicked will be no more. What will have happened to them? In verse 24 we read that people “will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”
Notice that in this verse Yeshua notes that the bodies affected by the worms are dead. These are not living people writhing in fire. When Yeshua returns, he will fight those who resist him. (Revelation 19:11-15) Those who are slain in the battle will not be buried; their bodies will be left on the ground, where scavenging birds and maggots will consume their flesh.
According to the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (1980), the original Hebrew word translated “worm” in Isaiah 66:24 and Mark 9:47-48 means “worm, maggot, [or] larvae.” Neither Isaiah nor Messiah is talking about immortal worms. The vermin of which they speak, maggots, would not die while maggots because, sustained with flesh to eat, they would live to turn into flies. The flies would then lay eggs that hatch into more maggots (the larvae of flies), perpetuating the cycle until there is nothing left for them to consume.
This background information helps us better understand Yeshua Messiah’s words. In his day, when the bodies of dead animals or executed criminals were cast into the burning trash heap of Gehenna, those bodies would be destroyed by maggots, by the fires that were constantly burning there or by a combination of both. Under Hebraic law (Torah), a body that was not buried, but was subjected to burning, was viewed as accursed and unclean.
What does Yeshua mean in Mark 9:48 when he quotes Isaiah in saying, “the fire is not quenched”? With the preceding background we can understand. He means simply that the fire will burn until the bodies of the wicked are consumed. This expression, used several times in Scripture, refers to fire that consumes entirely (Ezekiel 20:47). An unquenched fire is one that has not been extinguished. Rather, it burns itself out when it consumes everything and has no more combustible material to keep it going.
When are the wicked to be punished?
But, we might ask, when does this punishment take place?
As we saw earlier, Yeshua quotes from the prophet Isaiah, who wrote of a time after the Messiah establishes his reign on earth. Only then would all humanity “come and bow down” before him. (Isaiah 66:23) Only then would this prophecy be fulfilled.
Yeshua uses a common site of trash disposal in his day – the burning garbage dump in the Valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem’s walls – to illustrate the ultimate fate of the wicked in what the Scriptures call a lake of fire. Just as the refuse of the city was consumed by maggots and fire, so will the wicked be burned up – consumed – by a future Gehenna-like fire more than 1,000 years after Messiah returns. (Revelation 20:7-9, 12-15)
Kefa explains that at this time “the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up” (2 Kefa 3:10). The implication is that the surface of the earth will become a molten mass, obliterating any evidence of human wickedness.
What will happen after that? The apostle John writes: “Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.” (Revelation 21:1) The entire earth will be transformed into a suitable abode for the righteous who, by that time, will have inherited eternal life.
The destruction of soul and body in hell
Another place where Yeshua speaks of gehenna fire is Matthew 10:28: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell [gehenna].”
We should notice that Yeshua does not speak of people suffering everlasting torment. He says that God can destroy – annihilate – both the body and soul in Gehenna fire.
Yeshua here explains that, when one man kills another, the resulting death is only temporary because God can raise the victim to life again. But when God destroys one in hell (gehenna), the resulting death is eternal. There is no resurrection from this fate, which the Bible calls “the second death.” The Bible explains that unrepentant sinners are cast into the lake of fire, or gehenna, at the end of the age. “But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” (Revelation 21:8).
This verse and others like it show that the doctrine of universal salvation is false. Not everyone will be saved. Some will, in the end, refuse to repent – and they will suffer punishment. But that punishment is not to burn in fire without ending. Rather, it is to die a death from which there is no resurrection.
As we discussed earlier, the wicked will be destroyed. They will not live for eternity in another place or state of everlasting anguish. They will reap their destruction in the lake of fire at the end of the age. They will be consumed virtually instantaneously by the heat of the fire and will never live again.
The wicked burned to ashes
Another passage that graphically illustrates the utter destruction of the wicked is found in Malachi 4:1: “‘For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, and all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble. And the day which is coming shall burn them up,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘that will leave them neither root nor branch.’”
The time setting is the end, when God will bring retribution on the wicked for their rebellious, reprehensible ways. To those who surrender to God and live in obedience to Him, God says: “‘You shall trample the wicked, for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day that I do this,’ says YHVH of hosts” (verse 3).
God, speaking through the prophet Malachi, makes clear the ultimate fate of the wicked. They are to be uprooted like a nonproductive tree, leaving not so much as a root or twig. They will be consumed by the flames of the lake of fire, leaving only ashes. The Bible does teach that the wicked will be punished by fire – but not the mythical hell of men’s imagination. God is a God of mercy and love. Those who willfully choose to reject his way of life, characterized by obedience to his law of love (Romans 13:10), will die, not suffer forever. They will be consumed by fire and forgotten. They will not be tortured for all eternity.
Remember that eternal life is something that God must grant, and He will grant it only to those who repent and obey all of His commandments (Numbers 15:38-41; Numbers 32:10-12; Leviticus 26:14-15; Psalm 119; Malachi 3:6; John 14:15, 24; John 10:30; Luke 6:46; 1 John 2:3-7; 1 John 3:22-24; 1 John 5:2-3; Revelation 12:17; 2 Thessalonians 2:10-12), and surely not to those who persist in rebellion against Him.
Realize that the final death of the incorrigibly wicked in a lake of fire is an act not only of justice, but of mercy on God’s part. To allow them to continue to live on in unrepentant, eternal rebellion would cause themselves and others only great sorrow and anguish. God will not put them through that, much less torture them for all eternity in excruciating torment without end.
The encouraging truth of the Bible is that God is indeed a God of great mercy, wisdom and righteous judgment. As Psalm 19:9 assures us, “The judgments of YHVH are true and righteous altogether.”
Is Heaven Really God’s Reward
for the Righteous?
Is the reward of the righteous an eternity in heaven? It seems almost four out of five Americans believe it is (National Review, Nov. 9, 1998).
Through the centuries this has been the hope taught by traditional Christianity.
What would going to heaven be like? What would we do there for all eternity? More fundamentally, does the Bible actually present heaven as the reward of those who are saved?
Human imaginings about heaven
Beliefs about heaven as the reward of the saved have varied considerably through the centuries. Traditional pictures of heaven sometimes show an entrance with a rainbow arching over it, perhaps marked by a bridge of gold or glass. St. Peter is usually represented as the doorkeeper. The inhabitants are shown accompanied by angels, or they may appear as angels themselves, having apparently sprouted a pair of wings.
Another common view in the popular consciousness has the inhabitants sitting about on clouds plucking harps. Rev. Billy Graham opined for spending eternity “polishing rainbows”. The decor of heaven often features jewels, stars, candles and trumpets. Theologians and philosophers have adapted their concepts of heaven through the centuries, influenced by the society around them. “Monks and friars, depending on whether they felt more at home in the countryside or in the city, preached a heaven defined primarily in terms of environment” (Colleen McDannell and Bernhard Lang, Heaven: A History, 1988, p. 108).
Based in part on their own experiences and preferences, some religious teachers have foreseen a rural setting while others have imagined an urban paradise. For the latter, “heaven became a city . . . or the visionary experience of celestial castles. Accounts of the other world resonate with descriptions of golden streets, jewelled buildings, and richly dressed residents” (ibid.).
Some in the Renaissance era envisioned a spicier paradise: “In its boldest form, the new theology envisioned heaven as a place of erotic human love in the bucolic setting of a comfortable natural landscape” (ibid., p. 112).
An eternity in heaven doing what?
The relationship the heavenly inhabitants might have with God has been debated. A modern author describes the way many people have imagined interaction with God in heaven: “There the saints shall eternally, without interruption, feast their eyes upon Him, and be ever viewing his glorious perfections” (John MacArthur, The Glory of Heaven, 1996, p. 221).
Others believe that, if this is all they are to do forever, heaven may prove to be a pretty boring place. As the same writer just quoted from puts it, the prayer of many could be: “Please God, don’t take me to heaven yet . . . I haven’t even been to Hawaii!” (p. 49)
The modern Christian concepts of heaven present a diverse landscape. Another writer says: “I have a theory that heaven will offer faithful Christians whatever they sacrificed on earth for Yeshua’s sake. My mountain-climbing friend who intentionally lives in a slum area of Chicago will have Yosemite Valleys all to himself. A missionary doctor in the parched land of Sudan will have her own private rain forest to explore” (Philip Yancey, “What’s a Heaven For?” Christianity Today, Oct. 26, 1998).
For many people the most important aspect of heaven is the opportunity to see their loved ones again: “By far the most persuasive element of the modern heaven for many contemporary Christians is the hope of meeting the family again. Countless ‘In Memoriam’ sections of newspapers throughout Europe and America reflect the belief that families parted by death will be reunited.” (McDannell and Lang, p. 309)
God does have a plan, as we will see. But the popular ideas of heaven fall far short of capturing the majesty and purpose of God’s plan.
Do people go to heaven at death?
The popular belief is that a “good” person goes to heaven immediately when he or she dies. But for the traditional Christian, things aren’t quite that simple. According to this view, the body goes to the grave, but the soul ascends to heaven.
The Westminster Confession of Faith, written in the 17th century, states: “The bodies of men after death return to dust, and see corruption; but their souls, (which never die nor sleep,) having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them. The souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies.”
But does this concept agree with the Bible? Do the Scriptures indeed state that righteous people go to heaven when they die?
David, the king of Israel and author of many of the Psalms, whom God called “a man after My own heart” (Acts 13:22), did not go to heaven at his death. The apostle Kefa, speaking under God’s inspiration, states, “Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day” (Acts 2:29). He then adds that “David did not ascend into the heavens.” (verse 34)
David is included in Hebrews 11:32 among those who died in faith, making him one of those of whom verse 39 says, “And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise.”
The Gospel of John, written about 1,000 years after David’s death, states, “No one has ascended to heaven but he who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man [i.e., Yeshua Messiah]” (John 3:13). This means that Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets and all other righteous men and women who lived before Messiah’s first coming did not go to heaven.
They were buried in the grave as David was.
The view that a person’s soul goes to heaven at death – though held by many in good faith – cannot be found in the Bible. It results from a misunderstanding of the Scriptures and confusion over what the Bible teaches about the resurrection.
Why a resurrection?
Theologians widely acknowledge that the Bible speaks of a resurrection, even if they’re not agreed as to what it means or when it takes place. The most common view is that at the resurrection the body rises to be reunited with the soul in heaven. But, as we pointed out earlier, the concept of the immortality of the soul – the soul as existing as something apart from the body – is not Biblical. It takes its origins from pagan philosophy and tradition rather than the writers of the Bible.
We might pose this question: If it were true that at the resurrection the body is to rise to be united with the soul in heaven, why would God do things this way? What purpose would the resurrection serve? Why keep the body in the grave?
If the righteous immediately go to heaven at death, why wouldn’t God send the complete being – soul and body – to heaven simultaneously, instead of keeping soul and body apart through the ages? For that matter, why even have a resurrection? If the soul goes immediately to heaven, why bother with bringing bodies back to life? The inescapable fact is that if popular teaching about heaven is true, there would be no logical reason for the resurrection.
Why do we see so much confusion about how the resurrection fits with the traditional view of heaven? Perhaps it’s because support for the idea of going to heaven at death is not found in the Bible!
What is the Kingdom of Heaven?
Many people believe they will go to heaven because Yeshua spoke repeatedly of the Kingdom of Heaven. In Matthew 5:3, for example, he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Three other verses in Matthew 5 refer to the faithful entering “the kingdom of heaven,” and the phrase appears throughout the book of Matthew a total of 32 times.
However, note that while Matthew is the only biblical writer who uses the term Kingdom of Heaven, other Bible writers use the term Kingdom of God – which appears 69 times in the Renewed Covenant Scriptures. A comparison between events described in Matthew’s Gospel and the other Gospel writers shows that the terms are used interchangeably.
For example, Matthew 5:3 records Yeshua’s words as: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Luke, in describing the same blessing, records Yeshua’s words as: “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20)
Similarly, where Matthew 19:14 records Yeshua as saying, “Let the little children come to me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven,” both Luke 18:16 and Mark 10:14 use the term “kingdom of God” rather than “kingdom of heaven.” You can see other examples by comparing Matthew 4:17 and Mark 1:14-15, Matthew 13:31 and Mark 4:30-31, and Matthew 19:23 and Luke 18:24.
So why do we see two different terms – “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God” – used to describe the same thing?
To understand, we must consider an important Jewish rabbinical practice of Messiah’s day. Supposedly in obedience to the Third Commandment, which forbade “taking God’s name in vain” (KJV – Exodus 20:7), the rabbis required that NO ONE but the High Priest could utter the Name of God, and only he could do it inside the Holy of Holies, in the Temple in Jerusalem, on Yom Kippur! In addition, it was forbidden to even use the Hebrew word for “God”, Elohim. Instead people would substitute another word that others would understand as referring to God. Most Jews and many “Messianic Jews” continue this practice today, using such substitutions as “Adonai”, “G-d”, “L-rd”, “HaShem” (The Name), et al.
Often this seems to have been Yeshua Messiah’s practice too. For example, shortly before his crucifixion when he is challenged under oath to state whether he was truly the Son of God, he responds: “It is as you said. Nevertheless, I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Matthew 26:64) Here he clearly used “the Power” as a synonym for God – and this was obviously understood by the priests and religious authorities, who wanted to execute him for blasphemy.
As recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, on about half the occasions when Yeshua refers to God the Father, he substitutes another word. When speaking of the Kingdom of God, which was the core of his message (Mark 1:14-15), he nearly always uses the term “kingdom of heaven” instead. He isn’t talking about a kingdom that existed in heaven to which believers would go, but rather using a term that was synonymous with “kingdom of God,” as is clear from the other Renewed Covenant Scriptures writers.
The other writers, who focused more on non-Jewish audiences in their books, use “kingdom of God” to make plain what Yeshua meant. Thus, Messiah’s use of the phrase “kingdom of heaven” does not mean the Kingdom is in heaven, but that it is of God, who is Himself in heaven. At the same time, however, the term is also accurate in the sense that this Kingdom will be established from heaven – as Yeshua will bring it to earth from there, as we will see.
Yeshua’s followers will join him on earth
Yeshua did not tell his disciples they should expect to dwell in heaven. He spoke instead of a kingdom belonging to God in heaven that is to be established on the earth at Messiah’s second coming. Notice Yeshua’s explanation that he would come to join his followers on earth at his return rather than have them come to live with him in heaven where he currently resides.
After Yeshua’s crucifixion and resurrection, he spent 40 days teaching his disciples, instructing them about the Kingdom of God. (Acts 1:3) After this he joined his Father in heaven. Notice the instruction his disciples received after he rose into the sky: “Now when he had spoken these things, while they watched, he was taken up, and a cloud received him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Yeshua, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw him go into heaven.’” (Acts 1:9-11)
Yeshua speaks repeatedly of his return to establish the Kingdom of God on earth (Matthew 25:31-34; Luke 21:27-31). He will return to earth and establish his Kingdom here – not in heaven. In what is commonly called the Lord’s Prayer, he instructs his followers to pray to their heavenly Father, “Your kingdom come” (Matthew 6:10; Luke 11:2). That kingdom is the true goal of every Christian (Matthew 6:33); we are to pray for its arrival.
In Luke 19:12 Yeshua speaks of himself in a parable, comparing himself to “a certain nobleman [who] went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and to return.” The “far country” is his Father’s dwelling place, which is in heaven. Yeshua will bring the Kingdom of God to earth at his return.
Our eternal abode is to be here
Recall again that in Matthew 5:3 Yeshua said the poor in spirit, the humble, would inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. Then consider that just two verses later, in verse 5, Yeshua states, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” How do we reconcile these statements? By understanding that the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God, will be established on the earth. This verse and many others describe the saints ruling on earth in God’s Kingdom. For example, Revelation 5:10, speaking of the resurrected saints, says: “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth” (NIV).
Even beyond that, Revelation 21 and 22 state that ultimately YHVH Elohim (the Father) and the heavenly city of God, the New Jerusalem, will descend to the earth, then renewed. The earth, then, will be the place of God’s throne. And the repentant of mankind, then glorified, will dwell with Him forever.
The reward of the saints is eternal life in the Kingdom of God. This will be given when Messiah returns, but, as we have seen, Yeshua will reign with his faithful followers on the earth rather than in heaven. And in the end, even God the Father will dwell with the saved here. The glorious future God has planned for us is far beyond any human dreams of life in heaven!
God’s Promise of Life After Death
“If a man dies, shall he live again?” (Job 14:14). This question has intrigued the minds of men from ancient times to our day. In the Bible God inspired the patriarch Job not only to pose this important question but to give us the answer. Responding to God, Job says: “All the days of [or from] my hard service I will wait, till my change comes. You shall call, and I will answer You; You shall desire the work of Your hands” (Job 14:14-15). Job affirmed that the dead will live again through a resurrection.
Other passages in the Tanakh also affirm the resurrection. Daniel 12:2, for example, prophesies of a time yet future when “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake . . .”
But the way to eternal life was not fully understood in those days. It remained for Messiah to come and fully reveal the truth. Yeshua states: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he may die, he shall live” (John 11:25). It is only through Messiah that we can experience our own resurrection from the dead. “For as in Adam all die, even so in Messiah all shall be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:22)
Let’s delve further into this matter of the resurrection. What is the impact of this teaching? And what lies ahead in terms of who will be resurrected and when?
More than a glimmer of hope
The teaching of the good news of the resurrection – that man can escape the power of the grave – set Christianity apart from other first-century religions and philosophies. Among Jewish sects the concept of a resurrection was a subject of considerable controversy. Some dogmatically denied the dead would rise, and others said they would. (Acts 23:8)
The world in which Yeshua lived, besides being Jewish, was heavily influenced by the culture of the two empires – Greek and Roman – that had successively dominated the region for several centuries. The Greek and Roman religions held little hope for the dead.
“The old Greek belief, and its Roman counterpart, held that once the body was dead the disembodied soul lived in a miserable twilight existence . . . Sadness, silence and hopelessness seemed to brood over the life after death . . . Death was to men of those days the ultimate disaster.” (J.B. Phillips, Ring of Truth: A Translator’s Testimony, 1967, pp. 40-41)
The New Bible Dictionary affirms the dreary outlook of the day and tells us that the resurrection of Messiah gave men more than a glimmer of hope. “The most startling characteristic of the first Christian preaching is its emphasis on the resurrection. The first preachers were sure that Messiah had risen, and sure, in consequence, that believers would in due course rise also. This set them off from all the other teachers of the ancient world . . . Nothing is more characteristic of even the best thought of the day than its hopelessness in the face of death. Clearly the resurrection is of the very first importance for the Christian faith.” (1996, p. 1010, “Resurrection”)
A truth that launched the Church
The riveting truth of the resurrection of Yeshua the Messiah launched the Renewed Covenant Church. Preaching on the day of the Church’s founding, as recorded in Acts 2, the apostle Kefa thundered the good news: “Men of Israel, hear these words: Yeshua of Nazareth, a man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves also know – him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that he should be held by it.” (Acts 2:22-24)
The news of the resurrection of Yeshua of Nazareth spread like a shock wave through the land. Yeshua’s disciples were galvanized into action and began to preach with zeal. What had been regarded as a band of renegade Jews soon grew into the thriving Church. In its early days the Church grew by thousands (Acts 2:41; 4:4). The young Church spread hope – hope of eternal life through the resurrection.
The disciples taught under God’s inspiration that all who accept Yeshua as their personal Savior, repent, are baptized, receive the Holy Spirit and seek to keep all of God’s commandments thereafter will be resurrected. (compare Acts 2:38; Romans 8:11)
The resurrection the disciples expected was not some sort of substandard half-life, such as the Greeks and Romans believed lay beyond the grave. The disciples were called to “take hold of the life that is truly life.” (1 Timothy 6:19)
Yeshua had told them before he was crucified, “Because I live, you will live also.” (John 14:19) Yeshua had also shared with his disciples his intention for all of mankind: “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10) Though we may enter into the abundant life of which Messiah spoke in this life, it only reaches its full realization in the resurrection from the dead.
The resurrection gives meaning to life
The first-century world held many conflicting ideas about life after death. Pagan philosophies had clouded the understanding of most people. Our situation is similar. In the Western world a significant number of people believe nothing lies beyond the grave. Atheism and agnosticism have left their marks. The world surely does need to hear and understand the original resurrection message of Messiah and the apostles. But the problem is that this teaching has effectively replaced the Gospel which Yeshua and all of his talmidim/disciples taught – the coming Kingdom of God/heaven on earth – as though it were that Gospel, which it is not.
Many people, like those of the ancient world, are anxious about the matter of death. The truth of the resurrection proclaimed by God’s Word can counter the anxiety and hopelessness inherent in any approach that excludes God. But it is not the Gospel of the coming Kingdom of God. Preachers have been using mankind’s fear of death to motivate them to make emotional “decisions for Christ”, while minimizing or eliminating altogether the need for repentance and obedience to all of the commandments (Matthew 4:4; Luke 4:4) as essential prerequisites for salvation.
Speaking of the return of Messiah and the accompanying resurrection of the faithful, Sha’ul encourages believers to “comfort one another with these words.” (1 Thessalonians 4:18) The truth of the resurrection provides comfort for our natural anxiety about death.
The resurrection: Historical fact
Why should we believe in a resurrection from the dead? We should take heart because the resurrection of Messiah, in whose steps we follow, is a biblically and historically confirmed fact. After being executed and entombed, Yeshua’s body disappeared, and even his enemies who wanted to refute his resurrection could not explain away the empty tomb. Yeshua’s resurrection was confirmed by many witnesses – including on one occasion 500 people. (1 Corinthians 15:6) Kefa, speaking on behalf of all the apostles, triumphantly proclaimed, “We are his witnesses to these things” – to the fact that “the God of our fathers raised up Yeshua.” (Acts 5:30-32)
Years later Sha’ul similarly said of Yeshua that “God raised him from the dead [and] he was seen for many days by those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are his witnesses to the people.” (Acts 13:30-31)
The apostles and other members of the early Church gave their lives as willing martyrs as testimony to this truth – for they knew for certain that it was indeed the truth.
Every person in his own order
The fact that Yeshua was resurrected as a forerunner of the future resurrection of his followers is understood by many Bible readers. What is not so clear to many is that the Bible describes more than one future resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15, Sha’ul writes: “But now, Messiah is risen from the dead, the first-fruit of those who have fallen asleep . . . For just as in Adam all die, so also in Messiah all will be made alive. But each in his own order; Messiah the first-fruits, then those who belong to Messiah at his appearing (the resurrection/rapture). And then the end, when he shall hand over his kingdom to God his Father”, the Second Resurrection, of the UNrighteous, at the end of Yeshua’s Millennial Reign from Jerusalem.
The reference to firstfruits indicates that other fruits are to follow – Yeshua here followed by those who are his at his return. Sha’ul specifies that God has set an order in His plan by which He will bring up everyone – “all,” as it says – in a resurrection. And in this order, not everyone will be resurrected at the same time.
Notice that Yeshua is here called the firstfruits. Yet his followers are also elsewhere called firstfruits themselves – and firstborn (James 1:18; Revelation 14:4; Hebrews 12:23). Thus Messiah is the first of the firstfruits. The implication is that yet others will follow as later fruits – at “the end,” as we saw in 1 Corinthians 15:24. And other scriptures confirm that, as we will see.
Those who believe that people go to heaven or hell at death have been troubled at the indications they see in Scripture that comparatively few will be saved. They frequently base this assumption on such passages as Matthew 7:13-14: “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
In these verses Yeshua explains what happens in “this present evil age” (Galatians 1:4), in which God is not calling everyone to be converted now. We read in Revelation 12:9 that Satan “deceives the whole world.” John writes, “We know that we are of God, and the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one” (1 John 5:19).
Mankind as a whole is deceived – for the time being. Yeshua states, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:44) Yeshua plainly indicates here that only certain ones will be in the resurrection to which he refers – those who are specifically called by God. The Bible teaches that in this particular age – the age preceding the return of Messiah – God is calling only a small portion of mankind to enter and partake of His Kingdom.
“This is the first resurrection”
The coming resurrection of those who are called now in this age is further described in the 20th chapter of Revelation. Let’s notice how John describes that resurrection: “I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Yeshua and because of the word of God. They had not worshipped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands.
They came to life and reigned with Messiah a thousand years. (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection.
“Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Messiah and will reign with him for a thousand years.” (Revelation 20:4- 6, NIV) Notice that some are resurrected at the beginning of the 1,000-year reign of Messiah – at “the first resurrection.” Those in this resurrection of the faithful will be raised immortal and incorruptible to reign with Him, never to die from then on.
But notice that the use of the term first resurrection shows that at least one more must follow!
Another resurrection follows
Indeed, as we can see, the same passage explains in a parenthetical note, “The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.” Clearly there is another resurrection 1,000 years after the first.
This time of judgment is further described in verse 12: “And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books.”
This is the wicked who refused to accept God and his way of life, who will be resurrected just before final destruction in the lake of fire. Yeshua explained that some would deliberately and knowingly despise God’s truth and spiritual understanding. These individuals, He said, will not be forgiven “either in this age or in the age to come” (Matthew 12:31-32).
Yet “all who are in the graves will hear [Messiah’s] voice and come forth” (John 5:28-29). Even those who will not be forgiven are to be resurrected from the dead.
This group will consist of those who have deliberately rejected God’s way of life even after they have been “once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit.” (Hebrews 6:4-6)
These few are people who were once forgiven and converted but later chose to reject the Holy Spirit and priceless knowledge God gave to them.
Because they “trampled the Son of God under foot, . . . treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and . . . insulted the Spirit of grace,” for them “no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” (Hebrews 10:26-29, NIV)
As we saw earlier, God has revealed that the ultimate fate of the incorrigibly wicked is to be burned up: “‘For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, and all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble. And the day which is coming shall burn them up,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘That will leave them neither root nor branch.’” (Malachi 4:1) This will be the end for those few who stubbornly have or will have refused to repent of their own self-willed rebellion in spite of all the opportunities made available to them by God. They will be destroyed in the lake of fire, dying in “the second death,” from which there will be no resurrection (Revelation 20:13-14; 21:8).
We are even told that death itself and Sheol/Hades (the place of the dead) will be destroyed in this fire. (Revelation 20:14) That is because the judgment of God will then be complete. Those who are saved will never again have to fear death. Sha’ul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:26 will have then come to pass: “The last enemy that will be destroyed is death.”
Your Awesome Future
In light of these biblical truths, where does that leave us? As we have seen, the beliefs of people about the nature of heaven and hell have ranged over a broad – and confusing – spectrum. But there is one thing on which we all should agree: “The living know that they will die.” (Ecclesiastes 9:5)
The prospect of death has hung over the heads of mankind as long as human beings have existed. When people do not understand God’s truth, they are gripped by the fear of death and enslaved in a cruel and unforgiving bondage.
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary summarizes how the truth of the resurrection, exemplified in the resurrection of Messiah, transformed the outlook of many: “In the first century this [fear of death] was very real. The philosophers urged people to be calm in the face of death, and some of them managed to do so. But to most people this brought no relief. Fear was widespread, as the hopeless tone of the inscriptions on tombs clearly illustrates. But one of the many wonderful things about the Christian gospel is that it delivers men and women from this fear . . . They are saved with a sure hope of life eternal, a life whose best lies beyond the grave.” (Leon Morris, 1981, Vol. 12, p. 29, note on Hebrews 2:14-15)
The Bible reveals that the best that man can experience lies beyond the grave. It shows us that Torah-obedient, commandment-keeping Christians and Jews will inherit eternal life at the first resurrection and that death will never again lay a claim on them: “So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’” (1 Corinthians 15:54)
The life to come will be vastly superior to this present, temporary existence. It will be a life abounding in both purpose and pleasure: “In your presence is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore,” wrote David (Psalm 16:11).
Let us now catch a glimpse of what awaits those who receive eternal life in the first resurrection.
What will we be like?
We can know in general terms what we will be like in this resurrection because the Bible tells us we will be like the resurrected Yeshua. “The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second man is the Lord from heaven . . . And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly man.” (1 Corinthians 15:47, 49)
We learn that in the resurrection we will take on the same image, or likeness, that Messiah has. This includes becoming a spirit being with a spirit body rather than flesh and blood (see verses 45, 50). Moreover, Sha’ul tells us that true Christians will “share the likeness of His Son,” who is “the eldest among a large family of brothers.” (Romans 8:29, Revised English Bible) Did you catch that? We will be Yeshua’s brothers and share his likeness. We will be elevated to a plane so high that we are called children of God and brothers of Yeshua Messiah.
The apostle John confirms these same two truths – that we’ll be children of God and that we’ll have the same glorified form as Yeshua Messiah. “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us,” he writes, “that we should be called children of God” (1 John 3:1). And in the next verse he tells us, “We know that when he is revealed, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”
Raised in unimaginable splendor, we will share the divine glory and dominion of Messiah (Romans 8:16-18; 2 Corinthians 3:18; 2 Thessalonians 2:14; Hebrews 1:1-3; 2:5-9; Revelation 21:7) – though we will never equal him. He is the one Son of God, superior to all but the Father.
The glory of Messiah
What is the glory of Messiah like? During his physical ministry on earth, he gave three of his disciples a preview of his appearance in this glorified spiritual state. “He was transfigured . . . his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.” (Matthew 17:2)
Years later, at the writing of the book of Revelation, John saw a vision of the resurrected, glorified Messiah. Notice how John describes his awesome appearance: “his hair was as white as snow-white wool, and his eyes flamed like fire; his feet were like burnished bronze refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of a mighty torrent . . . his face shone like the sun in full strength.” (Revelation 1:14-16)
This language describes Yeshua Messiah, the glorified Son of God, as a being of awe-inspiring brilliance. After his resurrection Yeshua had the ability to take on the appearance he had when he existed in the flesh. Early on the morning after he rose from the garden tomb, Mary Magdalene visited his grave. When she saw the tomb was empty, she began to weep. (John 20:11)
Then “Yeshua said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?’ She, supposing him to be the gardener, said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’” (verse 15)
So Yeshua appeared to Mary as a normal human being rather than in his radiant state. She at first mistook him for the gardener.
On another occasion Yeshua appeared from nowhere inside a closed room where his disciples were meeting: “And after eight days his disciples were again inside . . . Yeshua came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, ‘Peace to you!’” (John 20:26). After his resurrection Yeshua was able to pass through solid barriers – such as the walls of a building or the stone enclosure of his tomb.
Like Yeshua, when we are changed to spirit we will not be limited by the laws that govern physical things. With the ability to simply materialize as Yeshua did, we will not be subject to restrictions on physical objects. As part of this change we will no longer need to eat to survive, but apparently will have the option of eating for pleasure and fellowship if we choose. In two of Yeshua’s post-resurrection appearances he shared a meal with his disciples. (Luke 24:28-30; John 21:9-15)
Those to whom God gives eternal life in the resurrection will forever possess these supernatural characteristics. Notice the description of the resurrection in the book of Daniel: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” (Daniel 12:2-3, NIV).
What will we do as spirit beings?
As spirit beings, we will live and work at the highest possible level and environment. Yeshua said, “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Yeshua Messiah whom You have sent.” (John 17:3) We will spend eternity with God in His environment – the world of spirit and unimaginable power. We will not sit idle in our new life. We will be positively occupied. Yeshua said, “My Father has been working until now, and I have been working.” (John 5:17).
When Messiah returns to establish the Kingdom of God on earth, those in the first resurrection will serve as judges (Revelation 20:4) and priests (verse 6) and will “reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:10) We will not go to heaven to live passively and idly. Yeshua will return to a world that has largely destroyed itself by living in opposition to the commands of its Creator. He will teach people to obey God’s laws. He will begin a massive re-education process to help people unlearn their old ways of doing things and to learn to do things God’s way.
Notice Isaiah’s prophecy of this future rule of Yeshua as Messiah and King over the earth, wherein “mountains” and “hills” are symbolic of larger and smaller kingdoms or political states respectively: “Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow to it. Many people shall come and say, ‘Come and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us his ways, and we shall walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
“He shall judge between the nations, and rebuke many people; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:2-4)
At that time Messiah will teach all people who have not known God’s way. He will be assisted in this by all who are changed into glorified children of God in the resurrection at his return (see Luke 20:36).
A change for the better
Describing the event that will change our mortal bodies, Sha’ul writes: “The sun has a splendor of its own, the moon another splendor, and the stars yet another; and one star differs from another in brightness. So it is with the resurrection of the dead: what is sown as a perishable thing is raised imperishable. Sown in humiliation, it is raised in glory; sown in weakness, it is raised in power; sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.” (1 Corinthians 15:41-44,)
God will give us bodies that will never tire nor grow ill – and minds having the kind of supernatural abilities He has. Reigning with Messiah (Revelation 2:26; 3:21), we will help bring about worldwide peace. We will assist in spreading the knowledge of God to the most distant lands in his globe-spanning program of re-education. “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain,” He tells us, “for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of YHVH as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:9)
Those changed at Messiah’s return will include all his faithful followers at his return as well as the dead who were called, had repented and who lived in faithful obedience to God. It will include all of the faithful listed in Hebrews 11, who “died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (verse 13).
Those who died in faith include Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (verses 17-21). The promise they have not yet received is the promise of the Kingdom of God. As Yeshua says, “I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 8:11) Remember that the Kingdom of Heaven is synonymous with the Kingdom of God, which Messiah will establish on earth at his return.
Responding to God’s invitation
You can be among those who arise from all parts of the world in the resurrection to be with Messiah in his Kingdom – if you respond to God’s invitation. God is issuing that call through the preaching of the gospel. This very article you are reading is part of that effort.
The calling of God is not offered to everyone. Yeshua told his disciples that the understanding of God’s truth is not yet available to many: “It has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given” (Matthew 13:11). The Bible speaks in several places about God’s “elect” or chosen people.
Most of the people of Israel, God’s nation spoken of extensively in the Tanakh, were not called to understand the Kingdom of God during their lifetimes. Their hearts were hardened, their minds blinded. While we may not understand it, God’s calling is carried out according to his timetable. When all is said and done, His eternal plan/logos is perfectly just and entirely fair to everyone. Key to our acceptance by God is having a love of the truth, without which no one will be saved.
Kefa explains that those who now become a part of His Church are chosen in this age to receive salvation in the first resurrection. Kefa says of them, “You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, his own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9)
It may be that God eventually will offer eternal life to everyone who sincerely repents, as some teach. But that conclusion is dependent on interpreting certain key verses in a way which supports that hope, and on ignoring others which explicitly contradict it. For example, we are told that there is NO forgiveness for anyone who blasphemes against the holy Spirit of YHVH, whether they later repent or not. (Matthew 12:31; Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10) Since this principle is stated three times in the Renewed Covenant Scriptures, it would seem to be established. One thing is certain: He does desire that as many as possible enter His Kingdom.
In a final, breathtaking view of what God has in store for those who serve Him, the apostle John was inspired to write this glimpse of the future in Revelation, the last book of the Bible: “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away . . . He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God and he shall be My son.” (Revelation 21:4, 7)
The future which the God of the Bible has planned for us is fantastic beyond belief! It is far superior to the fanciful heaven of men’s imaginations. God will share the real future with all who sincerely repent and turn from their sins. As for those who refuse to repent, they will not suffer forever in “hell”. They will simply cease to be. But this need not happen to you. You may share in the eternal Kingdom of God if you heed the words Yeshua spoke when he began his ministry: “The time has come . . . The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15, NIV). Since the dead “sleep” in the grave and “know not any thing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5), the very next thing one will know after death is being resurrected! How “near” is that?
Yeshua, quoting his Father:
“For He says (Isaiah 49:8), ‘AT THE ACCEPTABLE TIME I LISTENED TO YOU, AND ON THE DAY OF SALVATION I HELPED YOU.’ Behold, now is ‘THE ACCEPTABLE TIME,’ behold, now is ‘THE DAY OF SALVATION’.– (2 Corinthians 6:2)
Also please note that the Hebrew word here for “salvation” is y’shuah (Strong’s H3444), which sounds almost identical to the Savior’s name, Y’shua/Yeshua, which means “he will save” (Strong’s H3442), according to the angel Gabriel’s explicit instructions to Miryam and Yosef in Matthew 1:21.
Take comfort in the truths of God and of His Messiah. There is no need to fear death if you turn your life toward Him. After all, He wants you to live with Him in abundant joy forever and ever. And He will make that happen – if you let Him!
Shalom Aleichem! (Peace be unto you!)
Bob & Suzanne Hamrick
http://torahkingdomliving.com [ NOT a 501(c)3 ]