Heaven & Hell

The Bible provides information about life after death, but of course it provides considerably more information about mortal life. This is undoubtedly because the purpose of the Bible is to provide instruction to mortals about finding the Truth in this life. Nonetheless for those us who are curious about what happens beyond the veil of physical death, much can be learned from study of the Bible.

Death

Before moving into the study of life after death, it is important to first examine what the Bible tells us about death itself. The word "death" is applied to three fundamentally different circumstances: physical death, spiritual death, and the second death. Physical death is the death that is most often talked about. It is the death that results in a funeral service and a burial of a body in a grave. Physical death is the separation of the body and the spirit:

As the body without the spirit is dead... (James 2:26)

It is not final for anyone because Jesus overcame physical death through his resurrection, and the Bible informs us that everyone, both the faithful and unfaithful will be resurrected. (See Salvation by Grace.)

Spiritual death, is the separation between people and God, caused by sin:

But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. (Luke 15:32)

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world. (Eph 2:1-2)

Spiritual death is not final for anyone who chooses to accept the gift of grace that has been made possible by the atonement of Jesus on the cross:

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins. (Col 2:13)

The last form of death is the second death, which is the final spiritual death for those who throughout their lives reject the testimony of the Holy Spirit and the Lord’s offer of grace. It is final - there is no redemption from the second death:

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death. (Rev 2:11)

Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. (Rev 20:14)

"You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?
(Matt 23:33)

The following diagram illustrates the Bible’s description of the process of moving towards final destiny. In the remainder of this essay I will summarize the information on this topic from the Bible.

 

   

The Spirit World

After death people enter the spirit world, that is the world of disembodied spirits, until their resurrection. The Old Testament Hebrew word for the spirit world is sheol, which means "the world of the dead". Unfortunately, it is translated into "the grave" or "hell" in many English translations of the Bible, thus causing many Bible readers to miss this doctrine of the spirit world. In each of the following verses, I have chosen to quote the New American Standard Bible (NASB) because it is the most precise word-for-word literal translation into the English language. Since the meaning of sheol is distinctly different from hell and the grave, the information about its existence is preserved in the NASB by retaining the Hebrew word from the original language Bible transcripts:

But he does not know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of Sheol. (Prov. 9:18 NASB)

For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol; nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay. (Ps 16:10 NASB)

The word sheol is used 78 times in the Old Testament. It does not distinguish between the different parts of the spirit world, and in verses other than those quoted above, it indicates that unfaithful as well as faithful people enter sheol. On the other hand, the New Testament does offer the additional information that the spirit world contains separate domains for the faithful and the unfaithful. The domain of the faithful is given the Greek name, parádeisos, which means paradise:

Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43-44)

The domain of the unfaithful in the spirit world is given the Greek name, hádes, which means "the unseen world". As in the case of the Hebrew word sheol, most English translations of the Bible use the words "hell" and "grave" where the New Testament writers used the word hades. Again, I have chosen the NASB for the following quotes because it preserves the original term, thus retaining the information about the spirit world:

In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. (Luke 16:23 NASB)

Because You will not abandon my soul to Hades, nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay. (Acts 2:27 NASB - Peter quoting David from Ps. 16:10)

After judgment day, that is the final judgment when people who have rejected the grace of God are judged according to their own works, all of the inhabitants of hades will be thrown into hell:

Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. (Rev 20:14 NASB)

Heaven

Words used in Biblical times typically had broader ranges of meanings than today’s words. This is the case for the word heaven, the Hebrew word shamayim in the Old Testament and the Greek word ouranós in the New Testament. People in Biblical times used it for three fundamentally different meanings. The first heaven referred to the earth’s atmosphere, containing the birds and the clouds. It was the visible daytime sky. The second heaven referred to the visible universe, containing the stars of the night sky. The third heaven referred to the realm of heavenly spirits, not normally visible to mortals. In the broadest sense the third heaven includes both the Modern English word heaven (the realm of God) as well as paradise (the realm of disembodied spirits). In each of the following verses, the Hebrew word shamayim or the Greek word ouranós is used. In other words, the original writers actually used their word for heaven in each of these statements:

1st Heaven

The way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a maiden. (Prov 30:19)

Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches. (Matt 13:32)

Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don't know how to interpret this present time? (Luke 12:56)

2nd Heaven

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (Gen 1:1)

The stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken. (Mark 13:25)

And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore. (Heb 11:12)

3rd Heaven

O LORD, God of our fathers, are you not the God who is in heaven? (2 Chron 20:6)

This, then, is how you should pray: "Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name… " (Matt 6:9)

In the following case Paul specifies that he is using the third meaning of the word heaven in his text. Note that in this case he is even more specifically referring to paradise, or the spirit world, in this statement:

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know - God knows. And I know that this man - whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows - was caught up to paradise. (2 Cor 12:2-4)

In the ultimate sense of the word, heaven is the abode of God. To be in heaven is to be with God continually and eternally. (1 Thes. 4:17; 5:10) Any other situation is not heaven.

Hell

Hell (Greek géenna) is the final permanent destiny of those who stand before the Great White Throne on Judgment Day to be judged according to their works. (Rev. 20:11-14)  Inhabiting hell is the result of persistence in rejecting God.

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matt 10:28)

You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? (Matt 23:33)

If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. (Mark 9:43)

Hell is the opposite of heaven. To be in hell is to be outside of heaven forever. Thus, any permanent irrevocable situation outside of heaven is hell. The apostle John saw a frightening vision of hell in the book of Revelation:

If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Rev 20:15)

Using the term "lake of fire" to describe hell provides an image of a terrible place of unending agony. People are not actually burned physically in hell, but John was painting a word picture of a place in which the pain and torment are perhaps beyond mortal comprehension. In his book, Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis indicates that hell is awful simply because it is outside of the presence of God. It is an environment of realization that coexistence with other demons is the only future that its occupants will ever have. Lewis suggests that everyone is always changing, some towards good, others towards evil. Some of the people who reject God may not seem evil today, but without the transforming influence of God and left to their own selfish devices, they slowly and inevitably descend towards demonism. Most of the people who inhabit hell will not have been drunkards and prostitutes in mortal life, but respectable people (including religious people like the Pharisees that Jesus was addressing in chapter 23 of Matthew quoted above) who refused to open their hearts to the Truth. So God did not create the horrible agony of hell. To the contrary it will be created by misuse of free will in the absence of God. (See Evil and Suffering.)

First Resurrection

Those who have accepted the grace of God through faith will await their resurrection from paradise. (See Salvation by Grace.) They will be resurrected before the millennium, before those who have rejected God. Theirs will be the first resurrection:

For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. (1 Thess 4:16)

They came to life and reigned with Christ 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 Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years. (Rev 20:4-6)

Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. (Luke 14:14)

Second Resurrection

Those who reject the grace of God will await their resurrection from hades. (See Salvation by Works.) They will be resurrected after the millennium on Judgment day, and they will stand to be judged for their deeds without the justification that God has freely offered through his righteousness. Theirs will be the second resurrection:

And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. (Rev 20:12-14)

The word "standing" in the above verses implies that these individuals have physical bodies, and thus they have been resurrected. Their resurrection from hades is indicated in the statement that "death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them". In Paul’s testimony before Felix, he confirmed that the wicked would be resurrected, as well as the righteous:

I have the same hope in God as these men, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. (Acts 24:15)

The Degrees of Glory

The entire 15th chapter of the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church is dedicated to the subject of bodily resurrection from paradise to the earth just before the millennium. As I indicated in the essay on Interpreting the Bible, it is critical to understand context before attempting to extract doctrine from the Bible. Nonetheless, even though this chapter does not address heaven or hell or the eternal destiny of individuals at all, people sometimes misinterpret verses 40 & 41 to indicate that Paul is teaching about different degrees of eternal glory:

There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory. (1 Cor 15:40-41 KJV)

In addition to ignoring context, attempts at applying this scripture to eternal destiny are caused in part by misunderstanding the archaic words in the 400-year-old KJV translation. When the reader pays attention to both context and word meaning, it is quite clear that Paul is simply explaining that resurrected physical bodies have a higher degree of glory than mortal bodies. Here is the same Bible quotation in the more widely used NIV translation with the preceding and succeeding verses added for contextual clarity:

All flesh is not the same: Men have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor. So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable. (1 Cor 15:38-42)

He is using two different analogies in verses 40-41 to make his point that resurrected bodies have a higher glory than mortal bodies. In the first analogy, he compares bodies that exist above the earth to bodies that merely inhabit the earth. In the second analogy, he compares the brightness of the sun in the daytime sky to the brightness of the moon and the stars in the nighttime sky. The word "celestial" in the first analogy simply means "heavenly" with regard to the 2nd heaven, the cosmos, in this context. It does not correspond to the "sun" in the second analogy, since the sun, moon and stars are all "heavenly" or "celestial" bodies. Likewise the word "terrestrial" in the first analogy does not correspond to the "moon" in the second analogy. "Terrestrial" means "on the earth", and the moon is certainly not on the earth. Paul precedes both of these analogies with an analogy that compares the glory of human flesh to the flesh of lower animals.

Although levels (or degrees) of heavenly afterlife are not found in the Bible, the concept is found in classical fictional literature.  In Dante's Divine Comedy, heaven is highest of three levels of afterlife, which are termed "Inferno", "Purgatorio", and "Paradiso" respectively.  The number three has important symbolism in the Bible, and Dante incorporated the number extensively in his classic epic poem written early in the 14th Century.  The highest and lowest of these levels of afterlife each contain nine levels (or degrees of glory).  Note that 9=3x3=32.

Baptism for the Dead

In the same chapter, which is on the topic of bodily resurrection, not at all on ordinances, readers are sometimes confused by the 29th verse, which refers to baptism for the dead:

Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead? (1 Cor 15:29 KJV, emphasis added)

Applying a rational discipline to Biblical interpretation (See Interpreting the Bible.) the following issues become clear:

  1. Regarding context, in his letter to the Christians in the Corinthian church Paul is writing on the topic of resurrection, not baptism nor any ordinance for that matter.
  2. Also regarding context, he is likely referring to an religious cult at the time, known as the Marconites, who are known to have practiced baptism for the dead. (Article on 1 Cor 15:29 in Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999, page 1487). Paul is expressing concern that some of the Corinthian Christians are having difficulty believing in resurrection even though the Marconites evidently believe in resurrection since they are baptizing on behalf of dead people.
  3. Paul is not endorsing any ordinance in this sentence. He is not saying that this should be done. He is asking: why is it being done? He is not using the first or second person (I, we, or you) in the subject of this sentence. He is using the third person (they), meaning people other than the Christians who are being addressed in this letter.  One might argue that although "they" is used in nearly all of the English translations of this verse, there is no third person pronoun in ancient Greek writing, the original language of the New Testament.  However, it is clear that Paul is using the third person from the case of the verb that he used in the sentence.

So Paul is explaining that resurrection is real and that even the pagans believe in resurrection, otherwise why would they baptize for the dead?

It is true that this verse is difficult to interpret, and alternatively Paul may also be referencing his description of baptism in Romans 6:4, "We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life." (emphasis added) Since his context is an argument for the reality of resurrection, if there is no resurrection, and Christ was not resurrected and is now still dead, why would anyone be baptized with him or any other dead mortal into death?  However, this explanation appears to be less likely because if Paul were referring to baptism into death with Christ, it seems that he would have used the second person: Why are we then baptized... ?

In any event this verse cannot be used to suggest that proxy baptism on behalf of dead people is an authorized Christian ordinance. The Apostle Paul provides no endorsement here for the ritual.  He is neither saying here that Christians are doing it, nor is he saying that they should do it.  And there is no other reference anywhere in the Bible to the expression "baptized for the dead."

Salvation for the Dead

The Bible clarifies that there is no possibility of salvation after physical death. When people die, they are judged according to whether or not they have placed their faith in God. This determines where they will reside in the spirit world:

Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment. (Heb 9:27)

This is the first judgment - the judgment from God's mercy.  It is as one would expect because the Lord must decide at the time of  a person's physical death whether that person will reside in paradise and or in hades. (Rom. 14:10) But once in the spirit world, there is an impassable chasm between hades and paradise, which no one can cross. So once a person’s spirit is assigned to one or the other, he will remain in that location until his resurrection. Jesus taught the parable of the rich man and Lazarus as part of his gospel to make it clear that a person's eternal decision must be made in this life.  He wouldn't have taught this principle only to change it at the end of his earthly mission.  Notice what Abraham in paradise tells the rich man in hades:

And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us. (Luke 16:26)

In the end, all of the residents of hades will face the second judgment, Judgment Day, the judgment required by justice. There people will be judged according to their works and their personal worthiness, but no one will be found righteous by observing the law. (Rom. 3:20)  So all of the residents of hades are thrown into hell:

Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. (Rev 20:14)

However, only the residents of hades will be judged on Judgment Day because the faithful have been justified by God's righteousness:

The Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment. (2 Peter 2:9)

He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (John 3:18 NASB)

Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life. (John 5:24 NASB)

In John 3:18 the word “judged” is translated from the Greek word krino (kree'-no), which means to distinguish, decide, or judge. In John 5:24 the word “judgment” is from the Greek word krisis (kree'-sis), which means decision or justice (especially relative to divine law). Some translations use the words “condemned” and “condemnation” respectively in these verses, which is less accurate than the NASB.

Therefore this life is the only time to become a child of God, and there is no opportunity for salvation after death. (See Jesus Christ.)

While on the subject of salvation of the dead, the following verses need to be considered:

For for this cause was the gospel preached also to them that are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit. (1 Peter 4:6 KJV)

Even though at first glance this verse may appear to be about preaching the gospel to the disembodied spirits of people who have died, it is not. (See Interpreting the Bible where this specific verse is used as an example in careful Biblical interpretation.)

By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison... (1 Peter 3:19 KJV)

It is clear that this verse is not about any aspect of salvation of the dead.  There is no mention of what subject matter was preached to the spirits.  It makes no mention of the gospel.  But, more significantly, the word "preached" as used in this verse does not refer to teaching, instructing, coaching, directing as would be true if salvation work for the dead were being performed. It is the Greek word kerússo, which means to proclaim, to announce truth with its attendant privileges and obligations. This verb could be used to describe proclaiming judgment. This is different from the word euaggelízo, which means bringing good news, evangelizing, preaching the gospel. By comparison euaggelízo is used in the following verse: "But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike." (Acts 8:12 NASB, italics added)  Note the NASB translation of the verse in question: "He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison..." (1 Peter 3:19 NASB, italics added)

Furthermore, the verse doesn’t state that the people to whom the Lord preached were in prison at the time that He made the proclamation. It states that they are “spirits now in prison” (NASB), but that He preached to them at some time in the past. It also states that He made the proclamation through the Holy Spirit (verse 18). And that the proclamation was not to all of the people now in prison, but only to those “who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.” (verse 20) The Lord proclaimed to those people in their mortal days that "My Spirit will not contend with man forever." Gen 6:3

I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. (John 5:25)

In order to understand this statement, it must first be idiomatically translated into today’s way of speaking. Jesus is stating here that from now on (from this point in time forward) the dead will hear his voice and those who hear will live. It is important to realize that He is not just referring to some future point in time after he leaves his mortal mission. He is stating that the time “has now come” (“now is” in the KJV). He is stating that at the very time that He is making this statement, the “dead” are hearing his voice. And since He is not in the spirit world as He is making this statement, but on the earth speaking to people who are physically alive at the time, He cannot possibly be referring to physical death. By the process of elimination, He must be talking about spiritual death. (See the topic “Death” at the beginning of this chapter.) This is confirmed by his preceding sentence, “whoever hears my word and believes … has crossed over from death to life.” (verse 24)

God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. (Heb 11:40)

This last verse in chapter 11 of Hebrews links that chapter, which is dedicated to examples of faith in the Old Testament saints, with chapter 12, which is a call to New Testament saints to have perseverance in faith. The preceding verse stated that these Old Testament saints didn’t live to see the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies that were delivered by the prophets in their time. But this verse states that since we in New Testament times have seen that fulfillment, we will be sanctified, and they will also be sanctified along with us.  It states that they can only be sanctified with us, but it doesn’t state that they can only be sanctified by us, or as the result of anything that we do.

See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse. (Mal 4:5-6)

This is the last prophecy that appears the Old Testament and it is the last prophecy of the old covenant chronologically. And it is the first Old Testament prophecy to be fulfilled in the New Testament. In fact, its fulfillment is the very first event to occur chronologically in the opening of the era of the new covenant. This occurred when the angel Gabriel told Zacharias in the temple that he would have a son that would prepare the way before the Lord: “And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous - to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:17)  (Note: the KJV uses the name Elias, which is the Greek form of Hebrew name, Elijah.)

When approached by John’s apostles, Jesus testified that John the Baptist is the Elijah who was to come in fulfilling Malachi’s prophesy (Matt. 11:14). In addition, after his transfiguration, Jesus explained the John the Baptist had fulfilled Malachi’s prophesy (Matt. 17:10-13).

John the Baptist taught with the spirit of Elijah in his fervent scolding of people in their need for repentance. Even in dress and appearance, the two men were similar. Elijah “was a man with a garment of hair and with a leather belt around his waist” (2 Kings 1:8). “John's clothes were made of camel's hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist.” (Matt. 3:4).

So, why are the hearts of the fathers turned to the children and the hearts of the children turned the fathers by virtue of preparing the way for the Lord? To understand this, we must first understand who Malachi meant by the fathers and the children respectively. The Bible frequently uses the term “fathers” to refer to the patriarchs and prophets of the old covenant. In the Greek New Testament, the word “patriarch” is derived from the word for “father” (pater). See Acts 7:8-15 for an example of interchanging the terms in the New Testament. 2 Peter, chapter 3, refers to “the holy prophets” of “before” (the Old Testament) in verse 2, and then refers back to them in verse 4 as “the fathers.” So, Malachi was referring to the patriarchs and prophets of the old covenant. Regarding “children”, Jesus said “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 18:3) Jesus referred to those who fully live his gospel as “the children of the Highest”. (Luke 6:35). (See also Matt. 5:9; Luke 20:36; John 11:52; Rom. 8:16-17; 9:26; 2 Cor. 6:18; Gal. 3:26; Eph. 5:8) It is clear that Malachi was referring to the new covenant in his prophecy, so he was referring to the children of the new covenant, or in other words, those who live the Gospel of Christ.

So, turning “the hearts of the fathers to their children” refers to the fulfillment of the promises of the patriarchs and prophets of the old covenant regarding the Messiah who would save mankind. Turning “the hearts of the children to their fathers” refers to the children of the new covenant, the disciples of Christ, who heed the admonitions of the fathers of the old covenant in following the Messiah. Thus, the final prophesy of Malachi is the linchpin connecting the two great covenants, and refers to the earthly mission of Jesus Christ as fulfilling the promises of the old covenant by ushering in the new covenant.

In contrast to the Biblical doctrine of finality of eternal decisions made in mortal life, some religions believe that living adherents may perform ordinances to achieve salvation on behalf of their dead ancestors. According to the sacred Hindu scripture of Garuda Purana, “Said the God Brahma [the chief God of Hindu]: ‘The city of Gaya is a sacred sanctuary … A man, by simply making a pilgrimage to Gaya, stands absolved from all debts due by him to his forefathers…’” Also according to the same scripture, the pilgrim at the sacred sanctuary recites among other statements on behalf of his dead ancestors, “May the gods and Brahma and Isana, in particular, hear testimony to the fact that I have come to Gaya, and effected the liberation of my fathers from the confines of the nether world.” (The World's Great Religions, Henry R. Luce Editor-in-chief, Time Incorporated, 1957, page37) This is in contrast to the Bible that teaches that the time to receive salvation is now in this life:

I tell you, now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation. (2 Cor 6:2)

Furthermore, Jesus taught that mortals should focus their concern on the salvation of the lost sheep who are still in this mortal life rather than those who have already passed on to the spirit world, "Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead." (Matt 8:22)

A Family Together Forever

When we come to faith in Christ, we become part of God's family. We are adopted as sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father (John 1:12; Eph. 1:5; Gal. 3:26; 1 John 3:1), we become brothers and sisters of Jesus (Rom. 8:29; Heb. 2:11), and we become heirs to the kingdom of God (1 Peter 1:4; Eph. 1:18), where we will live as a family together forever(1 Thes. 4:17, 5:10; Eph. 3:15). Of course our eternal family will include spouses from mortal life and biological family members provided they are faithful disciples of Christ.

The eternal family described in the Bible is the entire family of God, and we are promised that all believers will be together forever in this family of perfect unity. (John 17:21-24) Consider as an alternative that each earthly biological family becomes a separate eternal family. In this case the eternal family would contain a married couple (assuming both are faithful) and all of their faithful children. And assuming some of those children are married, their faithful spouses would be included also. In addition, the faithful children of the children would be included as well, along with their faithful spouses. These linkages would theoretically continue generation after generation until all of the faithful descendants of the original couple are included. In addition, all of the faithful siblings and  ancestors of the spouses would be included as well along with their descendants. Continuing this process to its logical fulfillment results in the entire family of God, which takes us back to the original Biblical definition of the eternal family. In other words, if faithful people are together eternally with their faithful spouses, parents, and children, then they are together with the entire family of God. Therefore it is structurally impossible for each earthly family unit to be a separate eternal family.

The apostle Paul taught that all those who have died physically with faith in Christ will be together with each other and with Christ forever.  The dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. (1Thes 4:16-17)

It is important to note that Jesus is the only begotten (or natural) Son of God (John 3:16).  All other sons and daughters are adopted.  People are not naturally children of God as a result of being created by God in his image.  People become adopted as children of God as a result of being justified by God's grace through their faith (John 1:12).  Those who reject God's offer of grace are evidently not among the children of God.  Jesus said, "If God were your Father, you would love me..." (John 8:42) to the children of Israel.  But if you examine the context of that statement, you can see that the people to whom Jesus was speaking did not love him.  Thus, even some of those who were among the children of Israel were not children of God.  Instead, through their lack of faith, they had made themselves the children of the devil (John 8:44-45). Only those who are led by the Holy Spirit are children of God, and they are so by adoption. For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, "Abba! Father!" (Rom 8:14-15 NASB)

Sometimes people use the verse, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (Eph 4:6) to support an idea that all people are unconditionally children of God. This verse states that God is the "Father of all" and thus they conclude that God is the Father of all people. But this is an example of casual, or perhaps even careless, interpretation of the Bible because it simply doesn't state that God is the Father of all people.  When reading the word "all" the reader needs to know all of what? There is no justification for assuming that the verse means all persons everywhere, especially since the answer is easily retrievable from the context of the verse, and blind guesswork is not necessary here.  Because of the strength of the latter words used by the apostle Paul in this verse "over all and through all and in all", one might conclude that God is the Father of everything.  But that would be clearly ridiculous.  A tree is not a child of God.  A stone is not a child of God. The context of chapter 4 of Ephesians is that Paul is teaching the members of the local church at Ephesus the importance of unity in the whole church.  Paul uses the term "the body" or "the body of Christ" to refer to the church (verses 4, 12, 16, 25). He is teaching "unity in the faith" (verse 13) throughout the whole church because God is the Father of all of the members of the church. So in context, Paul uses the "all" to refer to all of the members of the church, not to all persons everywhere.  The idea that all persons everywhere are unconditionally the children of God would lead to ridiculous conclusions.  For example, since Jesus is the Son of God, all persons who are children of God are brothers and sisters of Jesus.  If all persons were unconditionally children of God, then the Devil would be a child of God.  This would lead to the absurd conclusion that Jesus and the Devil are brothers, which would be the antithesis of the gospel.

Conclusion

To me C. S. Lewis was one of the most perceptive writers of the 20th Century, and I greatly appreciate his creativity as demonstrated in his books, such as The Screwtape Letters. In perhaps a poorly implemented parody on my part, I would like to make an addition to the Screwtape letters here because I think Lewis’ format is so effective in demonstrating how people can easily fall into the influence of the adversary:

My dear Wormwood,

It is satisfying to hear that you have convinced your patient that existing forever outside of the continuing presence of the Enemy is a kingdom of glory. So now he has come around to our way of thinking because every kingdom outside of the Enemy’s kingdom is one of our kingdoms!

It is important that you also convince him that he still has a chance to change his mind about his eternal decision even after he has died and joined our other patients awaiting their resurrection in hades. Make sure he thinks that there is the possibility of "salvation" for the dead. This will lower his defenses and give him the sense of security that allows him think that decisions in his current mortal life aren’t final and thus not extremely important to him. Since mortal life is so short, he’ll be through it before he takes the time to seriously reconsider the issue. And then of he will be one of ours permanently!

Your affectionate uncle,
Screwtape

© 2013 William C. Hamer