A couple of times a month, a brother in Christ opens his home, and a few of us gather for a home church meeting. This brother-in-Christ does the teaching/preaching and recently attempted to cover the question – where do we go when we die?
He had a well-drawn graphic which showed what many call the upper level and the lower level of hell. While he had some additional terminology essentially what we saw, according to our teacher that night, is representative of hell.
In theory, all this conjecture about multiple layers of hell is based on the “story” about the rich man and the poor beggar Lazarus. As you may remember, Lazarus was now comforted in Abraham’s bosom, while the rich man was now in torment, separated by a great gulf. As the evening progressed, all of what we saw in the graphic was interpreted as spiritual places. I had to question that concept because the rich man was in torment, and his condition sounded very physical to me.
He opened by asking the group this question, do you believe you would be in the Lord’s presence when you die?
I was unclear what he was trying to accomplish, and so I asked him if he wanted an answer from the group. He replied, yes. While a few others raised their hands, I was, in those few seconds, the only one that added because to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. I said nothing more to clarify my statement as most every follower of Christ has heard this passage at some point.
2 Corinthians 5:8 NLT Yes, we are fully confident, and we would rather be away from these earthly bodies, for then we will be at home with the Lord.
Apparently, our leader had not heard anything like this, and though he said nothing as a challenge, his utterances indicated disbelief. Several minutes later, another brother-in-Christ interjected with the passage, to which the leader replied, oh, that is in the Bible.
The next question/statement went like this: then is it true that the dead know nothing and merely lay in the ground until some day of judgment? Again I replied, yes, both statements are true. The man leading the group would not acknowledge or look at me. No, it is not all about me, but some form of recognition that you heard what I said would be nice.
Ecclesiastes 9:5 NLT The living at least know they will die, but the dead know nothing. They have no further reward, nor are they remembered.
Ever since I read this passage years ago, I have understood nothing less than the dead, lying in the ground, in some form of sleep, until they are awakened and brought before the great white for final judgment. Now, I could be wrong. For one, there are those stories of people that have died and spent time in hell, and they describe it as pure torment. Something doesn’t make sense. I suppose this is one of the primary reasons I stay away from this topic.
Let me show you what I might use to substantiate what I understand about the dead.
Matthew 25:31-34 NASB “But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. (32) “All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; (33) and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left. (34) “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
The struggle most people seem to have with this is that they see these, from the nations, as alive. Alright, how do we understand this then?
First, this is the same scenario that we see in Revelation 20. Make note of the thrones:
- In the Revelation account, we only comprehend those before the throne to be dead while Matthew’s rendition presents them as alive. Keep in mind that death is a relative term as we never really die. Jesus, on the cross, cried out, my God, my God, why have you forsaken me. We understand from that He experienced a total and complete separation, and that friends is dead.
- In the Revelation account, we see the book of life; however, all we see is the result of those not being found in the book of life. In contrast, Matthew’s account shows us no books in the event, and yet many receive mercy.
The assumption most make is that there is no one found worthy of salvation and all are thrown into the lake of fire, henceforth hell. But an honest inquiry into this verse will show you that Revelation 20:12 speaks of books; the implication is that God is desperately looking for those to which He can show mercy. To see this any other way, is nothing less than a cruel and morbid joke on God’s part, for He knew whether He would find their names in those books, and is therefore merely having fun at the expense of those standing there. Anyone who understands God’s nature knows that this scenario would never happen.
Consider this. God so loved this world so much, that even while they spit in His face, He gave His only Son, Jesus, so that through the horrors of death He could redeem the world and then they could love Him freely if they chose.
- In contrast to the Revelation account, Matthew tells us that He already knows the answer to what His eyes were searching for in those books, and therefore, separates the crowd into sheep and goats. He gives those He deems sheep entrance into the kingdom of peace.
Puzzled, knowing that they did not measure up by religious standards, they ask, what did we do to deserve entrance into the kingdom of Heaven?
What did they do that gained their entrance into the kingdom? They acted in the nature and character of God.
So back to the problems with the graphics before us and the multilayered hell.
While it is clear that there was something like this during Jesus time on earth, we have nothing beyond the resurrection, primarily Paul’s writings, that would enforce a multi-layered hell.
If Paul did not preach it, then why should I, and know this, I would not.
Paul, wrote about the dead in Christ, in an attempt to address such misconceptions.
1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 NASB (16) For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. (17) Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.
Paul used the word nekrós, which means corpse when he spoke of the dead in 1 Thessalonians. I have thought about the whys of needing our corpses, and I suspect God could merely make another body for us if we needed it, but then, Jesus did not just leave His lying around, did He. Imagine if Peter and John had come running back to the tomb and found His body lying there; nothing about the resurrection works in this scenario. And, when Jesus did show himself to the 120 in the upper room, where He showed them that same physical body, along with its wounds. It was a proof of His rising from the dead, as He said; and, it validated His previous statements.
I suspect that we have more than a couple of significant players in our misconceptions about hell.
- Dante Alighieri and his book The Inferno. The book is known to have been a method to confront what he perceived as religious: persecution, error, disagreement, and graft. Dante placed real people in various levels of his creation, each level having its own nasty punishment. Dante showed some mercy by implying that his victims could earn their way out, although none ever made it out.
- It would seem that the Catholic church adopted the concepts within Dante’s book. One of those concepts is purgatory. From what I understand if you comply with some monetary demand, you can buy your way out. It did not happen to any of Dante’s characters, and it has not happened here on earth.
- The last and scripturally the most damaging is the story of the poor beggar Lazarus and the wealthy Jewish man. So let’s pursue this for a moment.
The passage in Luke is detailed and lengthy, so I am not going to put the entire thing in here. Suffice it to say; the rich man is still attempting to order Lazarus around; and, the rich man is in torment, while Lazarus is not.
Luke 16:19-31 NASB … “Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. (23) “In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and *saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. (24) “And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me,… (25) “But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. (26) ‘And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’ …
- “Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom.”
There are no mystery words in this sentence. Bosom means just that, and if Jesus told us that the angels carried this dearly departed Jewish man to Abraham, then that is believably what happened. What is the difference between the event that Jesus described and how we should perceive this today? The resurrection. Here, in Luke’s gospel, Jesus is talking to Jews who have little to no comprehension of grace, nor of the catching away of the Church. The Jews do, however, understand that the soul seems to lie in a state of waiting, in Ecclesiastes, we learn that.
Ecclesiastes 9:5 KJV For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.
Another source of Jewish understanding comes from King David.
Psalms 31:17 KJV Let me not be ashamed, O LORD; for I have called upon thee: let the wicked be ashamed, and let them be silent in the grave.
Again, the general idea is that the dead lie in silence, until called
In looking at the word paradise, which comes up in the conversation between Jesus and the thief on the cross, we see Jesus saying,
“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Luke 23:43b NIV
In the Jewish understanding, the word paradisos is an oriental word which the Greeks borrowed from the Persians, among whom it meant a garden, park, or enclosure full of all the vegetable products of the earth. …The original Eastern word pardes occurs in Neh_2:8; Ecc_2:5; Son_4:13. In Sanskrit, paradésha and paradisha meant a land elevated and cultivated. In Armenian, pardes means a garden around the house planted with grass, herbs, and trees for food and ornament. The Sept. uses it to refer to the Garden of Eden (Gen_2:8). In later Jewish usage and in the NT, parádeisos is used for the abode of the blessed after death. Paradise, before Christ’s resurrection, has been thought to be the region of the blessed in Hades although it was not specifically called by that name (Luk_16:23). [From the Word Study Dictionary]
And finally, the early church deemed paradise to be an upper level of heaven where the dead would wait.
It does not matter how eloquently you deliver the evidence that backs your thesis, or arguments against some false or skewed teaching, someone will have a comeback. The mere fact that the rich man was in torment, and there is the possibility that he could see the beggar Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom, only fuels their fire. This is again, one of those places where looking up the simplest of words, such as “saw,” where you can gain some additional understanding.
- “and the rich man also died and was buried. (23) “In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment,”
Torment is the Greek word basanos and also means torture. The NASB tells us that he saw Lazarus. This word saw is the Greek word horaō and means to stare at, (by implication) to discern clearly (physically or mentally.)
So, none of us can prove that the man could even see Lazarus, and therefore it would be just as easy to assume that the rich man was allowed to discern mentally that Abraham now held Lazarus peacefully and securely.
If there is a point to this, it is this; refrain from preaching and teaching things about which you do not have an accurate understanding, unless you are willing to humble yourself and tell the people that you really don’t know, and that this is your opinion, and that your audience should search the scriptures to gain a clearer picture.
We were also told by this brother-in-Christ that he did not have full confidence in his relationship, and would not, until that day when we are called home. This is not what Paul and others taught. Jesus and this word give us every confidence to know that we are loved, wanted; and, since we have accepted Jesus Christ as our sacrifice, then we can understand that we, NO MATTER WHAT, have a home with Him in glory.