Several years ago, a brother in Christ opened his home a couple of times a month, and a few of us gathered for a home church meeting. This brother-in-Christ did the teaching/preaching and, on one Saturday night, attempted to cover the question – where do we go when we die?
He had a well-drawn graphic that showed what many call the upper level of hell and the lower level. So 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 that Jesus told. (I am convinced that these were real people.) As you may remember, Lazarus the beggar was now comforted in Abraham’s bosom, while the nameless rich man was now in torment, separated by a great gulf. As the evening progressed, all we saw in the graphic were 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 about what he was trying to accomplish, so I asked him if he wanted a response from the group. He replied, yes. While a few others raised their hands, I was, in those few seconds, the only one with my hand up and added because to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.
I said nothing more to clarify my statement, as almost every follower of Christ has heard this passage at some point.
“Now He who prepared us for this very purpose is God, who gave to us the Spirit as a pledge. Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord–for we walk by faith, not by sight–we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord. Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:5-9 NASB)
Apparently, our leader had not heard nor read this passage before; and though he said nothing as a challenge, his utterances indicated disbelief. Several minutes later, another brother-in-Christ interjected with 2 Corinthians 5:5-9, to which the leader replied, Oh, is that in the Bible?
Allow me a quick breakdown of the passage above.
Because He gave us the Spirit (think Holy Spirit), we can have solid confidence that once we are absent from this body, we are present with the Lord. Most followers of Christ feel this all the time.
What followed was a question/statement from the group leader that 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, (However, the question makes no distinction between a child of God and a non-believer, and that is a problem.) The group leader was clearly undone and would not acknowledge or look at me. I know it is not all about me, but some form of recognition that you heard what I said would be nice. (In all honesty, I was mad also. Don’t get me wrong, I like the guy, but I can’t stand false teaching, and I did not come back for several weeks. When I did come back, it was like a God thing, as a dear lady that had also spoken up at the previous meeting was there. When the leader opened the meeting this night, he abruptly said we should keep our opinions to ourselves. Whoa, you asked for input, and we, both, refuted with the Word of God. This was the last time I went to this home meeting. Not to worry about this brother, though, for Pastor gave him a group teaching slot at church; and no, I do not go to this church anymore either.)
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.”
Since I read this passage, I have understood that the dead lie in the ground, in some form of sleep, until they are awakened and brought before the great white for final judgment. (Note. If you are in the Lord and die, where are you? The answer lies in 2 Corinthians 5:8, where the believers are immediately present with the Lord.)
Something doesn’t make sense, for there are stories of people that have died and spent time in hell, and they describe it as pure torment. If the dead lie there quietly, then how do these people get taken into hell? This gives me grief as, in my understanding, NO ONE is in hell nor goes there until the final judgment at the great white throne at the end of the thousand years.
(Just a touch of clarification. When Jesus physically comes back to earth, one of the first things He does is to grab the antichrist and the false prophet and throw them alive into the lake of fire. These two are the only ones sent to eternal punishment until after the great white throne).
Let me show you what I might use to substantiate what I understand about the dead. Most people seem to struggle because they see these from the nations and assume they are alive. Remember that death is a relative term, as all of us have eternal spirits, and we never really die.
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.”
Alright, then, how do we understand this?
First, this is the same scenario that we see in Revelation 20.
“Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat upon it, from whose presence earth and heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. (12) And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds. (13) And the sea gave up the dead which was in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which was in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds.”
Revelation 20:11-13 NASB
For comparison, I give you Matthew’s account.
“When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory:” Matthew 25:31 KJV
Secondly, pay attention to the thrones.
In Matthew, it is His glorious throne, and in Revelation 20, it is a great white throne.
Why should we see any distinction between great and glorious?
Great is the Greek word mégas. It is an adjective describing size, such as: Great, large, particularly of physical magnitude.
Throne thrónos – A seat, usually high and having a footstool, a throne as the emblem of royal authority.
Glory/glorious is the Gk word dóxa. It is a noun and means to think (about) or recognize (His) Glory.
In both the throne of Revelation 20 and Matthew 25, the throne is to be seen as an emblem of royal authority. Matthew’s account also shows Jesus coming in a manner in which those witnessing His “entrance” recognize His glory.
In the Revelation account, we only perceive those before the throne to be dead, while Matthew’s rendition presents them as alive.
Death, it would seem, is a relative term since our spirits are eternal, and we never die. Therefore, all these people may be spirits. (Since we are reattached to improved versions of our bodies, then maybe God will do the same with these “dead” so that they can fully understand the agonizing discomfort of hell if that is where they will go.)
On the cross, Jesus cried out, my God, why have you forsaken me. We understand that He experienced a total and complete separation from the Father, and that is the ultimate death.
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. In contrast, Matthew’s account shows us no books in the event, yet many receive mercy.
Revelation 20:15 NASB “And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”
The assumption most make as they read about the great white throne is that no one is 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 through those books 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 will never happen.
“just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love.” (Ephesians 1:4 NASB)
King David, a man who sinned frequently, said,
“Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; And in Your book were all written The days that were ordained for me, When as yet there was not one of them.”
(Psalms 139:16 NASB)
He already knows what is written in those books.
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.
The people in the sheep category seem puzzled, knowing that they did not measure up by religious standards, and ask, what did we do to deserve entrance into the kingdom of Heaven?
“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. (35) ‘For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; (36) naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.‘ (37) “Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? (38) ‘And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? (39) ‘When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ (40) “The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.” Matthew 25:34-40 NASB
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 I started with and the multi-layered hell.
While it is clear that this was understood by the Jews 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, why should I?
Paul wrote about the dead in Christ in an attempt to address such misconceptions.
“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.”
1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 NASB
Paul used the word nekrós, which means a corpse, when he spoke of the dead in 1 Thessalonians. So the dead then is merely corpses’ catching up with the spirit, which is already with Jesus, if you are a believer. 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. (As a side note. The sinful nature is attached to the living body. If you think about how taking a bite out of a piece of fruit can permanently change you, then you have to be talking about genetics. We have, in the last two years, seen for ourselves, if we were paying attention, that an injection can affect our DNA. Once the DNA code is changed in one, then everything produced by that one impacts all future progeny. But it wasn’t just one, and therefore, one human escaped the damage.
Well, how do you get rid of the damage?
It has to be killed, and suddenly this change (in a twinkling of an eye) that we all must go through begins to look like the death of the body. Remember,
“And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment:”
(Hebrews 9:27 KJV)
And we have two known humans that, as far as we know, did not die as yet, Enoch and Elijah, but those two, standing in the streets of Jerusalem, will someday die and fulfill the requirement. This death/judgment is something only God can do, so don’t try to take matters into your own hands, as that is stupid and exactly what Satan wants you to do – as it removes you from usefulness here on earth.
Now, imagine if Peter and John had returned to the tomb and found His body lying there; the entirety of the resurrection would have been undone in this scenario. And, when Jesus showed himself to the 120 in the upper room, He showed them that same physical body. It was proof of His resurrection, and it validated His previous statements.
I suspect 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 group 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.
The Catholic Church seems to have 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 has not happened here on earth.
The last and most damaging story is about 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 t going to put the entire thing in here. But, 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.
“… 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. …” Luke 16:19-31 NASB
“Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom.”
What is the difference between the event that Jesus described and how we should perceive this today?
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 anything, 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 that 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.
Paradise is but an Anglicized form of the Greek word παράδεισος. It does not occur in the Old Testament, in the English version, but is used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew gân, גָּן, a garden (Gen_2:8 sq.), and thence found its way into the New Testament, where it is applied figuratively to the celestial dwelling of the righteous, in allusion to the Garden of Eden (2Co_12:4; Rev_2:7). It has thus come into familiar use to denote both that garden and the heaven of the just. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature
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 were 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. The 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 you do not have an accurate understanding about unless you are willing to humble yourself and tell the people that you really don’t know, that this is your opinion and that they should search the scriptures to gain a clearer picture.
We were also told by this brother-in-Christ, that led the home group, that he did not have a complete confidence in his relationship with Jesus Christ 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 and wanted, and since we have accepted Jesus Christ as our sacrifice, then we can know that we, NO MATTER WHAT, have a home with Him in glory.