Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The progression of heaven and hell

Alright, pop quiz: if you were to die tomorrow, where would you go? No, this isn't the beginning of an evangelistic spiel (though if you want to have that talk, I'm available). Well, if you've been influenced by popular Christian thought, your answer would probably be one of two options: heaven or hell.

However, I'm going to suggest something that might shock you: the popular conceptions that Christians hold of heaven and hell are not necessarily in operation right now. The common picture of both heaven and hell is actually a blending of a few different "stages" of the afterlife that we've just balled into two simple concepts (in fact, biblical writers sometimes do this as well, only adding to the confusion). However, a careful reading of the Bible reveals that the afterlife for both the righteous and unrighteous is in process. While this sounds complicated, the stages are simple and clear-cut: they advance with the greater revelation of Jesus Christ and the gospel.

Stage 1: B.C. (Before Christ)

In the Old Testament, Sheol (sometimes translated "the grave" or "hell" in our Bibles) represented the place where all the deceased go. It is used in reference to the destination of both the righteous (Gen. 37:35, Job 14:13) and the wicked (Prov. 9:18, Ps. 55:15, Is. 5:14). While the Old Testament doesn't develop the idea much, Jesus' parable of the rich man and Lazarus actually gives us a vivid illustration. Luke 16 tells us that Hades (the Greek version of Sheol) was split into two subdivisions, a place of comfort and a place of torment, with a chasm between.

Stage 2: A.D. (Anno Domini "In the Year of our Lord") 

At Jesus' crucifixion, he tells the repentant thief "Today you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43). Yet when the resurrected Jesus meets Mary outside his tomb, he says "Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father" (Jn. 20:17). Where has he been for the last 48 hours if he hasn't been "up"?

However, after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it seems the dwelling place of the saints is moved above (2 Cor. 12:2,3)—at least inasmuch as you can give directions like up and down to the spiritual realms. Regardless of where the current "location" of Paradise is, we can be certain that it is in the presence of the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8) which is not a complicated thing for God no matter where Paradise is currently located.

Stage 3: The final revelation of Jesus Christ

Upon the return of Christ, we finally see the popular conceptions of heaven and hell finally implemented. The new Jerusalem, streets of gold, the river of life, the tree of life, the city of God all coming down from "a new heaven" (Rev. 21,22). This seems to fit perfectly Jesus' message to his disciples: "And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also." (John 14:3) Notice the timing: when he comes again they will be taken to the place Jesus prepares. This makes logical sense when you consider that we don't get our resurrected bodies until the return of Christ, thus the current "heaven" only has to be compatible to souls/spirits while the new heaven and new Earth have to be compatible to remade bodies. And concerning "hell", the transition is even clearer: "Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire." (Rev. 20:14)

So what?

Before you panic, let me clarify. This is not limbo. This is not purgatory. Nobody's working off sin, waiting for merit, or getting extra chances to respond to the gospel. All three stages of heaven are a realm of blessing and comfort in the presence of the Lord. All three stages of hell are outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth. Nobody's changing sides after death. What does change (as I mentioned before) is the level of revelation regarding Jesus Christ and the gospel.

This is actually (in my opinion) an elegant solution to some historically problematic verses that are highlighted by a phrase from the Apostle's Creed: "He descended into hell". These verses (Eph. 4:8, 9, 1 Pet. 3:18,19) say that he "descended into the lower regions", "he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison", and "when he ascended on high he led a host of captives".

I am proposing that at his death Jesus descended to Sheol and proclaimed the mystery of the gospel. Now this is not an evangelistic proclamation. Rather he is saying "All you rebels, this is what your self-righteousness was rejecting" and "All you saints, this is what your faith was looking forward to, built upon, hoping for, and trusting in". Then upon his victorious proclamation of the gospel, Jesus led a mass exodus of saints out of Abraham's bosom (part of Sheol) and Paradise was carried away from Hades and "up" to await the final revelation of Jesus Christ.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing this well-written, enlightening article. I'm in agreement with you on this. I'd like to add a reference to Matthew 12:40: Jesus said "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth."

    Putting this verse with the Luke 23:43 verse, I summise that, since Jesus said that he was on his way to Paradise on the day that he died, and Jesus also said that he would spend three nights in the heart of the earth, that a "Paradise" must have been "in the heart of the earth" at the time of Jesus' death.

    It makes sense that those who lived in the O.T. times, who lived according to their faith in God and looking forward to Christ's appearing, would not go directly into God's presence when they died, because Jesus' sacrifice had not yet made the way for them to be able to do that. In the meantime, God provided another place of comfort for them - a Paradise where their conscious spirits resided until Jesus' redeeming work on the cross was completed.

    Hebrews 10:4 says that it was impossible for the old regulations (the blood of bulls and goats) to take away sins, but Hebrews 10:19 says that now we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place (God's presence in Heaven) by the blood of Jesus, by a new way opened for us through Jesus' body.

    Hebrews 9:15 says that "through the new covenant, those who are/were called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant."

    I agree that, if at the time of Jesus' resurrection, he told Mary he had not yet ascended to the Father (in Heaven), but he told the thief that, on the day that he died, he would see him in Paradise, that the Paradise Jesus was referring to was not Heaven, otherwise Jesus wouldn't have said that he had "not yet ascended to the Father".

    It seems clear that after Jesus' death, he spent 3 days in a Paradise in the heart of the earth, and not in Hell. After all he didn't say to the thief, "Today, I'll see you in Hell!" - that wouldn't have been very reassuring! :)

    Here is a good description of the difference between Hell and Hades and Paradise and Heaven "Did Jesus go to Hell?":

    The only point made that I believe is in error, in the article from the link that I shared, is the common misunderstanding that God separated himself from Jesus while he was on the cross. Rather, this declaration made by Jesus was an announcement that he was the Messiah - it was the name of a well-known Psalm, entitled "My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?" (Psalm 22). This Psalm gives a detailed description of Jesus' crucifixion. Jesus was pointing out that he was fulfilling this prophecy. And in verse 24 of Psalm 22, it is revealed that God did never forsake him - "For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help." Isn't that awesome!