Tag Archives: life after death

Hell: Eternal Torture?

“For the wages of sin is death…” Paul, Romans 6:23

Why have I decided to tackle the highly controversial issue of eternal punishment? Well, I feel I have too many friends. Not really, I truly like the friends I have. Honestly, I must say it’s because that’s where I feel the Lord has led me in my pursuit of the centrality and supremacy of Christ.

As a student of the Scriptures and as a lover of Jesus, I must share what I have come to believe is closer to the biblical teaching concerning the end of the wicked. It’s a reflection of where I stand at this moment in my journey with the Lord.

So why broadcast it? I will let my recent acquaintance and new friend answer for me.

“Few people want to study the subject any more.  The liberals do not believe in such things, and the conservatives are satisfied that they already have the answers.” Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes p.20

I believe in eternal punishment, but I’m not satisfied with the traditional view of never-ending torture or with those that would soon do away with all verses that speak of a horrible destruction of the unregenerate sinner; those that say, “What’s all the fuss about worms, darkness, and death? God’s love would not allow for such a thing. It’ll be alright in the end.”

Let me begin by very directly stating my intent with this article. I desire to shake you up a bit. If you’re not ready for that… please stop reading now. If you’re up for the challenge and a respectful dialogue, I hope that this article will cause you to run into the arms of Christ and into the Holy Scriptures that testify to God’s truth.

I am but a man and I can err. And so can you. We must look to the counsel of Scripture in pursuit of the Living Word.

This post is for the purpose of stirring the pot a little. It originally began as a section in Part III of Heaven to Earth: The Christian Hope in the Resurrection. I felt it needed to be expanded into a single article because it was distracting readers from the primary purpose set forth in the Heaven to Earth series.

With that said, it would be best if you read that 3-part series before reading this article. If you’re looking for more than what is offered in this article, I strongly recommend that you check out some of the books mentioned along the way and those listed in the Suggested Reading below.

Now… stop and pray… grab a modern translation of the Bible and a concordance… sit down and strap in. As Short Round said in Indiana Jones: The Temple of Doom, “Hold on lady… we’re going for a ride.”

Might We Be Missing Something?

The more I am coming to know God in Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the less I am able to find the traditional idea of eternal torture in “hell” as being reflective of God’s character and consistent with the biblical teaching on eternal punishment.

“When we say something about heaven or hell we are also saying something specifically about God.” Randy Klassen, What Does the Bible Really Say About Hell? p. 28

Let’s quit fooling ourselves by pretending that what we believe about heaven and hell doesn’t communicate something about God and the way we relate to Him and the world around us. A person can’t simply say, “It doesn’t matter. Who can really know? It has no bearing on me for I am saved.” I submit to you that it does matter. Your salvation is bound up in the person of Christ who is God incarnate. Who is this God you serve?

In my personal study, I will at times come upon inconsistencies. I know that I’m not the only one that has known these moments of crisis. However, I do know that not everyone bothers with taking the time to address those concerns with patience and honest endurance. It usually becomes about defending a preconceived idea that we believe is biblical, deferring to our favorite Bible teacher, or ignoring the matter altogether.

“we protect ourselves either by saying that not all of us can be theologians or we take comfort in the fact that ‘this is the way we have been taught!’  We may respond by drawing our doctrinal coat about us even tighter… or we may examine the Scripture again…” Gerald Studer, After Death, What? p. 111

So, I am merely setting forth a challenge. If you believe that we have missed something, or that something is out of place and is inconsistent with your present beliefs, then come along with me in the spirit of the Bereans. And realize that you’re a theologian whether you like it or not. The question is… “Will you be a responsible one?”

Where the Tradition Began

The traditional view of hell was born in the second century AD and it later became a concrete idea in the Middle Ages after being perpetuated by Augustine (c. 354-430). It was Augustine’s views that largely shaped Western Christianity.

Tertullian (c. 160-230) believed that hell was a “secret fire under the earth” where torment was everlasting.  Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), taught that believers would be able to watch the eternal damnation of souls in hell from their lofty place of comfort in heaven. And of course it was Dante’s Inferno in his Divine Comedy that gave us a vivid close-up of the torments of this medieval hell.

And like the famous Jonathan Edwards sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, we revel on with the preposterous idea that God is moody and hell-bent on having his enemies over for a barbecue. Edwards’ notorious speech is more reflective of a vivid imagination than it is of sound biblical exposition.

These ideas, along with a whole host of pagan beliefs on hell, have penetrated the church and continues to permeate the culture today. Still today books are written by folks who have “been to hell and back” and have lived to scare the hell out of you too! It is a message of fear intended to produce converts.

It’s no wonder that many are presently emerging to see the pendulum swing in the opposite direction on the doctrine of hell.

Anyone carefully reading the book of Acts can’t help but notice the absence of “hell” in the preaching of the apostles. There isn’t even a promise of heaven to convince others to “walk the isle” and receive Christ.

The apostles did however speak about the resurrection of Jesus and the people saving themselves from “this corrupt generation” (Acts 2:40). They did proclaim a coming judgment foretold by Christ and the Old Testament prophets.

Before we look at those Scriptures, let’s take a minute to reflect on the words of the one who is largely responsible for a slew of misguided teaching and practice within our faith.

“Do not follow my writings as Holy Scripture. When you find in Holy Scripture anything you did not believe before, believe it without doubt; but in my writings, you should hold nothing for certain.” St. Augustine, Preface to the Treatise on the Trinity

Let’s heed the words of Augustine and go to the Scriptures themselves.

Let Scripture Interpret Scripture

The Hebrew Scriptures were the Bible in Jesus’ day. What does the Old Testament say about death and eternal punishment?  Let’s take a brief look. Whatever is being said by Jesus in the New Testament must be born out of the language and the context of the Old Testament Scriptures.

In the Old Testament there are sixty-five references to Sheol. The KJV inappropriately translates Sheol as “hell” numerous times. A balanced reading of the Scripture will prove Sheol to only be a reference to death and the grave. “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there” (Ps. 139:8). Those who trust in the LORD have reason to hope in His unfailing love (Ps. 34: 8-22).

The poet clearly wasn’t envisioning Sheol as a place of eternal (never-ending) torment. We do see that all men go to Sheol. But only those God raises up on the last day will live on in the Lord. Job expressed this hope when he said, “If a man dies, will he live again? I will wait for my renewal to come. You will call and I will answer You. You will long for the creature Your hands have made” (Job 14:14,15).

David writes, “The Lord watches over all who love Him, but all the wicked He will destroy” (Ps. 145:20). The poet writes, “On the wicked He will rain fiery coals and burning sulfur; a scorching wind will be their lot” (Ps. 11:6).

This harkens us back to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Gen. 19. God destroyed the wicked and Abraham could see nothing else but “smoke rising from the land” (v. 28).  The smoke signifies that everything was destroyed and the wicked were no more.

In the Old Testament, those who have not trusted in the LORD will “wither like the grass” and will be “cut off” to “perish” and “be destroyed” (Ps. 37:1-40). The poets remind us in powerful language that there will come a day when the wicked will meet a horrible end.

We must carry over the meaning of the Old Testament images into Christ’s words and the whole of New Testament teaching on eternal punishment.

Immortality of the Soul?

In Genesis 1-2, God creates man in His image. In chapter 3 man sins and is put out from the Tree of Life. Man begins a descent from God’s image and the LORD sets in motion His eternal purpose; God wants man to live in community and bear His image!  God makes a way that leads back to the Tree of Life. His way is Christ.

I don’t see Jesus as plan B (1 Pet. 1:20). The Lord must have anticipated the Fall as it set up a greater revelation. It’s all part of His grand story. God wants to bring His realm “heaven” to our realm “earth.”

We see this very thing in the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus’ resurrected body is the consummation of heaven and earth. And the Lord said He would return to establish a new heaven and earth right here where we live—where God’s reign in His creation is made complete.

We must understand that the biblical composite of man is spirit, soul, and body (1 Thess. 5:23). It’s always been God’s intent to redeem the whole man. There is no life apart from the body and God’s resurrection. It’s the heart of Paul’s message to the Athenian philosophers (Acts 17: 16-34).

Justin Martyr (c. 100-165), the second-century Christian apologist, understood this and he opposed the pagan doctrine of the immortality of the soul. He viewed the Platonic idea as a direct challenge to the resurrection.

“For a Christian one simple sentence of revelation must in the end outweigh the weightiest conclusions of man-made philosophy.” John Wenham, The Goodness of God, p. 29

Greek wisdom taught that the soul is immortal. (I addressed this in the Heaven to Earth series. Reading that series is strongly suggested. Did I mention that already?) This is the one leg that the traditional view has stood on for 1500 years. As Greek-thinkers came to be Christian theologians and apologists, the popular idea of the soul’s immortality crept into Christian teaching.

“our traditional thinking about the ‘never-dying soul,’ which owes so much to our Graeco-Roman heritage, makes it difficult for us to appreciate Paul’s point of view.” F.F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, p. 311

Christian teaching is quite clear that only God has life immortal (1 Tim. 6:13-16). Any human being that is not receiving the life of God, taking from the Tree of Life (i.e. Jesus), is most certainly headed toward death and destruction.

God placed Adam in the Garden and laid before him two paths: life and death. Life is given only to those who enter into the Kingdom now and take from the Tree of Life (Matt. 7:13-14; Jn. 3:16; Rev. 2:7).

Even the Didache, a mid second century text for training Christian converts, presents the entire Christian life in this manner: “There are two ways: one of life and one of death!” This early text of recitation very simply describes the way of life and the way of death.

This is in keeping with Paul’s own language in his theological work to the Romans (5-6). Paul writes, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).

Let’s be clear about this. The immortality of the soul is not found in the Bible. And without the immortality of the soul, the literal interpretation of the metaphors used to describe “hell” falls apart before our very eyes.

Rethinking the Words and Metaphors

The Pharisees believed in a literal hell where folks would be tormented day and night without a real death. However, Jesus painted a picture of a judgment for the unbeliever, like the poets of the Old Testament, that should in no way be interpreted literally. Let’s take a closer look at the words and metaphors that are often used to support eternal torture.

The word Gehenna is translated as “hell” in the Gospels. Gehenna was the name of the Valley of Hinnom, the garbage dump outside the southwest walls of Jerusalem. It was also once the site of child sacrifice to Moloch in the days of Ahaz and Manasseh.

This dump was continually burning. Everything from trash to dead bodies were disposed of there. The trash was consumed but the fire continued to burn as the smoke rose forever without end.

Jesus references Gehenna on numerous occasions to speak symbolically of the judgment of God (Matt. 5:22,29,30; 10:28; 18:9, 23:15,33; Mk. 9:43, 45, 47; Lk. 12:5; 16: 23). Jesus’ metaphors would have undoubtedly spoken of a horrible judgment for those who did not accept God’s salvation.

But it would indeed be foolish to hear Jesus describing a literal hell where there are worms, fire, and darkness all at the same time (Mk. 9:48). Worms and fire speak of a complete and total destruction. Darkness is the absence of God.

It’s worth noting that Jesus uses “Gehenna” when speaking to the Pharisees, but he uses “Hades” when speaking to Gentiles. The Gentiles would have been familiar with this term. Hades was known as the Greek god of the underworld; the place of the dead. Jesus says to those that reject him, “you will be brought down to Hades” (i.e. grave, land of the dead). He even uses Hades in his parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk. 16:19-31).

Notice that the point of the parable is to show the finality of the matter, not describe for the listeners a literal description of hell (v. 26, 31). In listening to a joke, it is important that you get the punch-line of that joke and not be distracted by the details. It is the same in this parable told by Jesus. He is telling us that a person can reach a point that is beyond the life sustaining power of God.

In this sense, we find that a proper understanding of the adjective aionios (i.e. “eternal”).  Eternal judgment does not speak of duration, but of consequence or result (Heb. 5:9). The judgment is final—it is done.  The Scripture also declares an “eternal redemption” and an “eternal salvation” that we would never take to mean that God will forever be saving and redeeming us.  In the same way, “eternal” describes the far-reaching consequence of this judgment.

The “eternal” nature of the matter is not that these things will be happening forever (never-ending), but that the results will never end. The results are “eternal” because they proceed and are final in the Age to Come. So when the Scripture speaks of eternal punishment, judgment, and destruction, it means to say that there is no end to the result. It can’t be reversed, as its results are final.

If we take Jesus’ parable in Luke 16:19-31 literally, should we then assume that we too shall see our loved ones roasting eternally and crying out for mercy? “Sorry, Charlie! Uh, I guess I should have witnessed to you more?”

This even causes a problem for those who are our enemies. For our love for them will be perfected upon resurrection. There is plenty of reason that we should steer clear of this Inferno of imaginative lies.

After all, if God is “all in all” in the newly remade world, how is it that there will exist a place of never-ending damnation (1 Cor. 15:28)? Will God be known for His mercy or His wrath? We shouldn’t interpret descriptions of hell in a staunch flat-footed literalism anymore than those words of John concerning the New Jerusalem coming out of heaven to earth (Rev. 21).

Well, then what did John mean when he said that “outside” the city walls of the New Jerusalem are “the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (Rev. 22: 15)? In keeping with the literary style of the book, we understand this powerful image to speak of something much worse.

Like the valley of Gehenna outside the walls of earthly Jerusalem, John saw the eternal destruction of the wicked in the Age to Come. They shall never enter through her gates because they are destroyed. But “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the Tree of Life and may go through the gates into the city” (Rev. 22:14).

The Final Judgment

Without the life-sustaining power of God in Christ, having not accepted Jesus as the sacrifice for sins, a person faces the judgment alone with no resurrected life to carry them through to the new heavens and earth. A person is resurrected in the old body only then to be judged according to his deeds (Jn. 5:28-29; Acts 24:15; Dan. 12:2).

The wicked then experience the “second death” (Rev. 20:12-15).

James D.G. Dunn calls this “the final destruction of the corruptible” (The Theology of Paul the Apostle, p. 125.) It is in the fire that the chaff is consumed and is no more (Matt. 3:12). The fire is “unquenchable” because it can’t be put out!  The fire consumes what is thrown in it. Then there is a real “second” death.

But don’t suppose I am proposing a simple annihilation. I believe there is a real punishment according to one’s deeds.

What is it to be judged according to a person’s deeds (Matt. 16:27; Rev. 20:12.13; 22:12)? What exactly causes a person to suffer in punishment? Is God tormenting them? Is the Lord causing nightmarish pain by afflicting them with hellish horrors?  Here is where I believe Tom Wright offers great insight into this discussion.

In his book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, Wright proposes that the wicked are punished through a “dehumanizing” process. What does it mean to be human? It means we bear the divine image of God. Christ is the image of God and the image by which God seeks to conform all of humanity.

Therefore, hell is what happens when people say “No!” to the creator God in whose image they have been made.  Those who reject God’s image enter into His judgment. They experience God as wrath. The righteous have been judged in Christ as He has incurred the wrath of God upon the cross (Eph. 2:14-16).

“But judgment is necessary—unless we were to conclude, absurdly, that nothing much is wrong or, blasphemously, that God doesn’t mind very much.” N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, p. 179.

Judgment is necessary in the sight of our Holy God. And judgment “according to deeds” may just be the factor that determines the degree and duration of eternal punishment.

The Dark Side of God’s Love

Stanley Grenz calls God’s wrath the “dark side” of God’s love. We must refuse to believe that God has a “wrath switch” that He flips on when He momentarily decides not to be love. For we know that “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:16).  It’s not a guise that He puts on to woo us to Himself. Love is His very nature. We must accept that God’s wrath is found in God’s holy love. His wrath is known and experienced as a result of rebellion and in rejection to His image.

It’s the “dark side” of God’s love.

Therefore, it is consistent in seeing that eternal punishment comes in accordance to a person’s deeds as the Lord withdraws His life from the unregenerate. God’s nature is love and in that love is wrath. A parent doesn’t cease to love a child in punishment, the child simply experiences this love as wrath. It is a real thing, but not something outside of love. This punishment is indeed loving because it has a goal.

What then is the goal of eternal punishment?

Jan Bonda says, “Nowhere in Scripture do we find a statement that tells us that God wants those who are punished to suffer without end—this is not the purpose for which God created humans” (The One Purpose of God, p. 212). What sort of God endlessly tortures unbelievers for the sake of punishment alone? Even in this punishment we must reconcile our view to the God we have come to know in Jesus Christ.

At this point, many universalists are likely sitting on the edge of their seat anticipating the next few words. This is at the point they wish to say, “Yes, God’s goal is to restore them to Himself.” And I would agree. His goal is the same as it is for us believers who are purged by fire and being fitted for the new heavens and earth (Lk. 8:17). Yet, that intended goal has been eternally thwarted by the choice of the wicked on earth.

The righteous enters death in hope of the resurrection because they have been indwelled with the resurrected Christ (Jn. 11:25; Eph. 1:13). The Lord burns away all that isn’t reflective of Him. He sifts us down to Christ.

The wicked enter the grave without having experienced this spiritual resurrection in Christ. They rejected God’s image on earth. Their purging can only end in death. Like Adam, their eyes are fully opened. They see that man has no life within himself; only guilt and shame in the face of God.

How then can the wicked experience the future resurrection of the body that suits us for God’s resurrected world? Can a person turn from their wickedness in eternal punishment and be reconciled to God? Not if we accept “eternal” as the consequences and results of a person’s present decisions reaching over into the next age.

The Scripture simply does not allow for any teaching that gives man a choice after this life. Christ comes to those who await His coming (Heb. 9:27,28). Any teaching that promotes the idea that “everyone will make it in the end” can only come from isolating certain Scriptures and from building on obscure words and passages. This is always a recipe for error. Many denominations and cults have made a living at it.

This life really does matter and something happens upon death that seals that decision for eternity. God gave us choice in the beginning and He never removes it from us. What is “choice” if we have but only one real option to forcefully accept God’s image?

Why is it that the wicked are described as “gnashing their teeth” in punishment? They do not “gnash” out of pain, but out of hatred and anger! These are not repentant people. They are people who have rejected God’s image and God has given them over to their decision not to bear His image.

All the while God is pouring out His love, proving Himself to be good, the wicked gnash their teeth in human rebellion against God. Because of their own wicked hearts, they experience God as wrath.

It was not the Lord’s desire that anyone ever perish (Ez. 33:11). It’s also not His desire to choose life for us. He has placed us before two paths: the way of life and of death. And through the incarnation He has broke into human history to show us His great love and make a way for abundant life (Jn. 10:10). All are invited to the great banquet, but not all RSVP (Matt. 22:8,9).

Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”  (John 11:25)

Concluding Remarks

Is it not more consistent with the Lord’s character that those who reject the divine image would cease to bear it after having experienced God’s justice once and for all? What could be more dreadful than to experience a gradual shrinking of human life, life created in God’s image, until that soul can no longer be supported by God’s life any longer?

If we accept the “eternal life” Christ promised in John 3:16 to those who believe, should we not also accept His words that the wicked will “perish” (i.e. be destroyed in death) upon disbelief (Lk. 13:3-5)? God’s mercy is evident in allowing the person that rejects the divine image to fade from existence into death, not in sustaining their life for never-ending torturous suffering.

As we have seen, there is nothing biblical about it; certainly nothing that is in keeping with the Gospel message. After death and the wicked are destroyed, then God may be “all in all” as all things are restored and reconciled to Him (Col. 1:20). It is the only way in which I see that we can take serious the urgent call to presently follow the Lord in all things and heed His words to “repent or perish” (Lk. 13:3,5).

In this way, His justice is served, his mercy extended, and his love triumphs over evil.

The Word is true: “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8)! And that love has the final say; the cross overcomes; evil is no more; the final victory won!

“For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” Psalm 30:5

If we were to stop and rethink all that we have been told about the traditional hell, I believe we would find that God’s character does not allow for such a place (1 Ch. 21:13; 2 Ch. 20:21; Neh. 9:31; Ps. 30:5; 103:9; 145:8; Is. 54:8; Ez. 33:11; Hos. 6:6; Mic. 7:18; Matt. 5:38-48; Jn. 3:16-21; 13:34-35; 1 Cor. 13; Gal. 5:22-23; Eph. 1:4-5; 1 Pet. 3:8; 1 John).

It is not the Scriptures or Christ that has given us the traditional view of hell. Instead, if we look to Christ, we see a God that is reconciling the world to Himself and remaking the world in love. He has chosen to do this work through His church. And the gates of Hades (death) shall not overcome it (Matt. 16:18).

After the great war of the Lamb and the wicked are no more, John writes:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Rev. 21:1-5


D.D. Flowers, 2010.

Suggested Reading:

“The Bible and the Future” by Anthony Hoekema; “Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation” by Bruce  Metzger; “Created for Community: Connecting Christian Belief with Christian  Living” by Stanley Grenz; “The Eclipse of Christ in Eschatology” by Adrio Koenig; “An Evening in Ephesus: A Dramatic Commentary on Revelation” by  Bob Emery; “What Does the Bible Really Say About Hell?” by Randy Klassen; “Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God” by George Ladd; “Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead?” by Oscar Cullmann; “Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the  Mission of the Church” by N.T. Wright; “The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the  Doctrine of Final Punishment” by Edward Fudge; “Two Views of Hell: A Biblical & Theological Dialogue” by Edward  Fudge & Robert Peterson; “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived” by Rob Bell


Heaven to Earth: The Christian Hope in the Resurrection, Part II of III

“For if the dead are not raised then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.” Paul, 1 Cor. 15:16-18

It is quite clear that the resurrection of Christ is the one event upon which our entire faith rises or falls. Paul, quoting from an early creedal statement, says, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3). “According to the Scriptures,” would of course be referring to the Old Testament Prophets.

The Pharisees often debated with the Sadducees whether or not resurrection could be a reality. Many Jews confidently believed that God would renew his creation and restore what was lost. But not even the Pharisees expected the resurrection to happen until the final Day of the Lord.

The resurrection of Christ even took his closest disciples by surprise. Jesus goes before us all by being the “firstborn among the dead” (Col. 1:18). The apostle Paul believed in this resurrection, not only in the possibility of it, but in the reality that he had indeed seen the crucified and resurrected Messiah Jesus (Acts. 9).

“It’s one thing to believe it. It’s another thing to see it.”  ~Benjamin Linus, LOST, “Dead is Dead” season 5, episode 12 (Ben’s response to seeing John Locke alive again.)

For a person to believe in the resurrection of Christ is to accept that they too will pass from death to a new bodily existence at the second parousia (i.e. “coming”) of Christ. Jesus himself passes from an earthly body to a real “spiritual body” and promises that those who follow him shall do the same (Jn. 11:25).

Jesus not only spoke of this new existence, but he allowed his closest followers to witness the glorious transfiguration, and later his visible presence in his resurrected body (Matt. 17; Lk. 24:36-49).

According to Paul, Jesus appeared to “more than five hundred” people in this new body. And at the time of Paul’s writing, these folks were “still living” and you could go talk to them yourself (1 Cor. 15:6).

Life After Death

Contemporary visions of the “afterlife” stand in stark contrast to the uniquely Christian hope in the resurrection of the dead. Let’s take a moment to briefly examine what others believe about the divine destiny of man.

We have already seen the Platonic or Gnostic vision of the immortality of the soul. This view seeks to emphasize the individual. In this vision, our lives culminate at death when the soul is released from the body and we are freed from the imperfections of the material world.

According to this view, discarding the body is necessary to reach the world of eternal ideas and touch the divine.

Another prominent view teaches that we all are destined for a blended union with the divine. Proponents of this idea, often known as monism, believe that God is impersonal and lacks personal distinctions. To become “one” with the divine is actually to lose all of your own personality and be absorbed in with the “great spirit” in the sky.

This view undermines the personhood and character of God as well as the personal nature of human beings.

Reincarnation goes a step further in this idea of union with the divine. According to this view, we do not blend with the divine immediately, but after a series of “rebirths” that continue until the soul has reached perfection. Since this cycle of rebirths is actually never-ending, life is ultimately meaningless. It believes the real person to be only the soul that moves from body to body.

Reincarnation denies the perfect God-created union of spirit, soul, and body.

Finally, we can’t leave out those who believe that a person simply ceases to exist upon death. This belief may just be the saddest of all things a person chooses to embrace. Believing that everything ceases at death rejects the created order left by God to lead us to knowledge of himself (Rom. 1:20). And it denies that internal longing for life beyond the grave.

This person should stop to observe the seasons. Winter can be dreadful, but Spring is forthcoming.

Pop-Culture Christianity

“Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” Paul, 1 Cor. 15:51-52

Somehow believers have failed to recognize that Scripture teaches that the culmination of our earthly life is found in the future resurrection of the dead when the Lord will break through from heaven and establish his Kingdom upon the earth. They have missed John’s revelation of the Holy City “coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev. 21:2).

Instead, many have embraced an eschatological view that propagates some of the tenants of the pagan ideas already discussed. We see this most clearly in Christian funerals and popular teachings on the eschaton (i.e. “last things”) from the pulpit and the pen of preachers everywhere.

Pop-culture Christianity teaches a distorted view of death and the last days. And I believe it is partially born from a resistance to suffering in the New Testament fashion. We say we have the Kingdom in mind through “winning the culture” by legislating sin, when in reality we don’t wish to rely on the foolishness of the cross and suffer as Christ in patient love. We, like the world, are fighting against death instead of embracing it with hope in the resurrection.

American Christianity has made it possible for us to look past Paul’s words, “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12) and “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him” (Phil. 1:29). We have built for us a faith that wants nothing but comfort in this world, only to turn and grieve in sorrow as the world grieves.

We have failed to know the true hope that comes by first confronting the ugliness and reality of death. To cope with the “sting” of death we resort to absurd beliefs that are more reflective of pagan teachings than they are of our distinctly Christian hope in the resurrection.

How can we know the victory until we have felt the defeat? Death has “lost its sting” because of the finished work of Christ (Rom. 6:5; 1 Cor. 15:55). Why would we ever use language that takes away from that work?

Evangelical Christianity has largely adopted pagan ideas of the “afterlife” that allows us to continue propagating the “no suffering for me” theology.

The Left Behind Series has done much to further the idea that what we all need is to escape or be “raptured” from this evil world and our lowly, decrepit bodies for a future “spiritual” existence on the other side of the cosmos.

Meanwhile, we are learning to care less and less about the soul of a terrorist, genocide, and the many ways we are destroying the planet.

What does it matter when the Christian life can be summed up in “going to heaven when you die”… which translates: this world isn’t so important after all. We can hardly see the urgency and the importance of it because the Gospel has been mixed with worldly political agendas.

You have heard it many times at funerals before and probably have said it yourself at some point: “they are in a better place… they have gone home.” Our hymns even reflect this Platonic idea of the soul’s escape from the body. “I’ll fly away O glory… when I die hallelujah by and by… I’ll fly way!”

Really? Are we flying away or are we awaiting the resurrection of the dead for a new existence when heaven comes to earth? If we are flying away, where are we going? Cause I’m not too sure I want to go there anymore.

Does this sound like a teaching that reflects our hope in the resurrection of the dead? Is it a development or a deviation from the Gospel that testifies that someday soon heaven will break through to this groaning earth and God’s reign will be known among the nations? According to the New Testament, it’s a clear deviation from the Gospel of “peace on earth.”

Why do we insist on furthering a dim view of the Christian hope?

We should stop and reconsider our anticipation in the resurrection of the dead when a believer is struck by the awfulness of death. In a better place, I’m sure, but “home,” I should think not. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, sure.  (Lk. 23:42-43; Rom. 8:38-39; Phil. 1:23). But who can be home when they are separated from their body?

It is in the climatic event of resurrection that we shall enter our rest.

“The doctrine of the resurrection affirms that we do not enter into the fullness of eternity apart from the body, but only in the body.”  Stanley Grenz, Theology for the Community of God, pg. 588

When we reduce the Gospel to a few clichés and water it down with pagan ideas of life after death, all that is left is to convince our neighbors that hell is hot and that they better hop aboard the J-train before it shoves off headed past a few stars to the right and on till morning. Are we followers of Christ or members of the Heaven’s Gate cult?

If we believe there is life after death without the body, then we have greatly misunderstood our hope in the resurrection of the dead. All the saints past and present await the coming judgment and resurrection of the dead. It is as if all of creation is on the edge of its seat crying out for that passing from death to life (Rom. 8:22; Rev. 6:9-11).

Heaven and earth cry out, “Come, Lord Jesus! Come!”

“Now, at the climax of God’s salvation in the bodily resurrection of believers, the final enemy is defeated, the final victory won.” Michael S. Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord, pg. 281

Until heaven comes to earth and God remakes the world for our new resurrected existence, we live in that hope. We live to testify of the coming Kingdom of God that is already, but not yet. Winter is here and the times are dreadful, but Spring is coming!

Heaven to Earth: The Christian Hope in the Resurrection, Part III


Heaven to Earth: The Christian Hope in the Resurrection, Part I of III

“If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” Paul, 1 Cor. 15:13-14

In Acts 17:16-34, the apostle Paul, while in Athens, was brought to the Areopagus because he was preaching “the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.” Athens was the center of Greek philosophy. The popular view of resurrection among the Greeks was… well, there wasn’t one. That is of course if you have in mind a physical resurrection from the dead. If a person actually believes that the dead can rise, then no, according to the Greeks, there can be no such thing as “resurrection.”

Greek Philosophy

The Platonic view taught that heavenly bliss was an escape from our physical bodies for a purely spiritual existence where the “shadows” become reality, but only in a disembodied state. No wonder their response to Paul was, “You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean” (Acts 17:20).

The Greeks, the wisest of the wise, did not accept a literal and physical rising of the dead. Resurrection, or anastasis (lit. to stand again), can only mean a spiritual rebirth or gnosis of the eternal things, not an actual dead body coming to life again. For the Greeks, it goes beyond the belief that a dead person could live again. Rejection of the resurrection was founded in the philosophical idea that the physical world was evil and only a shadow of that pure spiritual realm.

Greek philosophy largely embraced the idea that the soul needed to be freed from the material world of imperfections into the eternal realm of ideas. Some believed this meant there was, therefore, no moral code because material things were of no consequence.

The Corinthian church saw these ideas threatening its community. Immorality was being accepted among the saints, and they were gathering around one or two individuals like unto the way of Greek philosophical practice. This is still popular today.

“Where is the philosopher of the age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world… But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise… We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we speak of God’s secret wisdom…” Paul, 1 Cor. 1:20, 27; 2:6-7

Whether it was of the Stoic or Epicurean flavor, there was no room for Paul’s message of resurrection. According to the Greeks, dead men can’t rise, nor should we want them to. Therefore, many of the leaders rejected the idea, but others would hear Paul again and become followers of Christ (Acts 17:32-34).

Gnosticism

Plato’s teaching on life after death was the prevailing view among the Greeks. As the good news of Christ was being preached in the first century, these philosophical ideas slowly merged with Christian doctrine and sort of a Christian Gnosticism was born.

Paul was constantly combating these foreign ideas and the threat of “another” good news. It was a century later that we have the Gnostic “apocryphal” books written to promote this merging of Greek ideas with Christian teaching (e.g. Gospel of Thomas, Mary, Judas, etc.).

You can see the continued popularity of these teachings in movies today (e.g. The Matrix, V for Vendetta, The Truman Show, etc.). Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is the latest to promote the Gnostic view of Christ.

The goal is to strip Christ of his divinity and his sinless human nature. The same teachings that promote this disembodied spiritual future also accept the idea that the Creator (Yahweh) is evil and the serpent of the Garden of Eden is the agent of good come to cut man lose from his puppet strings.

According to Gnosticism, the serpent, the devil, brings knowledge of what is really going on. What man needs is to be freed or “awakened” by the “secret” knowledge or gnosis. Man needs to throw off rules and regulations of the flesh in order to embrace “spiritual” living. He needs to recognize his own divinity apart from God. Taking from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil would do just that.

If man will only take the “red pill” and choose enlightenment, he shall indeed see “how far the rabbit hole goes.” We should find a sobering reminder from the movie, The Matrix.

“Zion” in Gnosticism leads us on a ship, named after the God-defying Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, to a dark city below the earth (i.e. hell). It will not be an orgy or a party portrayed in The Matrix, but an eternity separated from Christ where man ceases to bear the divine image. Hardly a future any of us would hope for.

If you can prove Jesus of Nazareth was like the ordinary man on the street, having that corruptible nature called “flesh,” and that there was no physical resurrection of the dead, that Jesus was merely revived after his crucifixion, and that he spent the rest of his days in Spain having kids with Mary Magdalene, then you can undermine the entire Christian hope. It is a distortion of the first century synoptic Gospel’s account that is satanic propaganda disguised as “knowledge.”

Gnosticism is an absurd attempt to falsify the Gospel message and its presentation of Jesus as the promised Messiah who was both God and man. I am confident that, at least for now, the idea is only embraced by a few who live with their heads in the clouds. However, these ideas have indeed wiggled their way into Christian eschatology and our teachings on heaven and the resurrection.  (I’ll address this in Part II.)

This fabricated “secret” message may be able to make money at the Box Office, but the Gnostic Jesus holds no weight when it comes to reliable testimony and the historicity of the New Testament. We have plenty of evidence that suggests that the account of Christ we have in the New Testament Gospels is the real deal.

“Jesus is either the flesh-and-blood individual who walked and talked, and lived and died, in first-century Palastine, or he is merely a creature of our own imagination, able to be manipulated this way and that.”
N.T. Wright, Who Was Jesus? p.18

We, therefore, must decide what we do with Jesus and his recorded resurrection from the dead. Everything hinges on the resurrection—everything. We will choose to align ourselves with orthodox Christian belief or be swept away with the rising tide of heretical doctrines of demons.

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.” Paul, 1 Cor. 15:3-5

Heaven to Earth: The Christian Hope in the Resurrection, Part II of III


Surprised by Hope (Book Review)

Getting It Wright!

A Book Review of “Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church” by N.T. Wright Reviewed by David D. Flowers

Tom Wright undoubtedly stands at the summit of New Testament scholarship. I sincerely believe he is the most important of Christian thinkers alive today. His writings are a refreshing challenge and a beacon of hope in a world where much of Christianity has lost its way. Wright’s work is unsurpassed as it reminds us all that our faith is not founded on shady history and loose myths about Jesus.

In his book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, Wright challenges this notion of “going to heaven when you die” and spending an eternity in some bodiless future. For if this was the case, Wright’s concern is “then what’s the fuss about putting things right in the present world?”

Is our present language of our future existence reflective of sound New Testament orthodoxy? Do we have a consistent biblical message on “life after death?” Wright doesn’t believe so, and he claims we have instead embraced a Gnostic idea of the future that fouls up our presentation of the Gospel in the present.

Our future home is not “heaven”–for this is where God is presently; another dimension altogether. Our hope is in this spiritual heaven coming down to earth. The climax of all human history is the consummation of God’s spiritual realm (heaven) breaking through to our earthly existence. Therefore, in Wright’s view, it is “life after life after death” that ought to be on our minds.

Only this sort of thinking will lead us to a proper practice of the church. If our beliefs about heaven and the resurrection are wrong, then we are not about the Lord’s business in ushering in the Kingdom of God in ways keeping with the example of Christ.

Wright’s greatest emphasis is on “resurrection” and “new creation” that has already begun in this world. It is time to realize the great significance with that which is at the heart of our faith in Christ (1 Cor. 15:12-28). He writes, “it is (resurrection), principally, the defining event of the new creation, the world that is being born with Jesus.”

It is in the resurrection of Christ that happened in this old creation that gives us hope for a new creation taking place right now in the twenty-first century. “Hope is what you get when you suddenly realize that a different worldview is possible…” (pg.75).

This “new creation” should not be confused with baptizing the culture into Christianity and attempting to enact a utopian dream, as so many in evangelicalism have embraced. This misplaced trust in the myth of progress does not work because it does not account for evil, Wright says.

This myth may sometimes run parallel to our Christian hope, but it “veers off toward a very different destination” that ignores the need for the cross of Christ upon the natural fallen creation. It doesn’t see the need for change within, only uniform capitulation to a set order of ideas.

Wright declares, “What matters is eschatological duality (the present age and the age to come), not ontological dualism (an evil “earth” and a good “heaven”)” (pg. 95). We all have seen how this belief in a Platonic escapism has pervaded our theology and demanded that we adopt a popular dispensationalist view of the future; a future where we “fly away” to “Beulah Land” and spend eternity in a glorified retirement home in the sky.

It is time we abandon this empty belief for one that appreciates the hope given to us in the New Testament; a hope where God restores his good creation and finishes the work he began in the universe. Wright states, “What creation needs is neither abandonment nor evolution but rather redemption and renewal; and this is both promised and guaranteed by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead” (pg. 107).

Wright draws our attention to Christ’s ascension as well as his resurrection. Because of the ascension of Christ, we not only have a savior who is indwelling us and present with his people, but a Lord who is at the same time “gone on ahead of us” by being the first to enter in to our promised resurrected existence. In other words, the work of Christ is finished and yet to be realized. It is reflective of the “already, but not yet” tension of the Kingdom of God.

We await a savior to complete the work he began in us. This completion shall come by way of the parousia or his “coming.”  Wright very simply writes, “he will in fact be “appearing” right where he presently is—not a long way away within our own space-time world but in his own world, God’s world, the world we call heaven” (pg. 135).

Wright challenges our traditional picture of our journey being completed upon death. He argues that there is indeed a temporary “paradise” for believers awaiting the resurrection of the dead and the completion of all things.

Likewise, there would appear to be the same for those who have rejected Christ in this life. When Jesus spoke of “many dwelling places” in his Father’s house, he is speaking of a temporary stop on the journey.  To ignore the finished work of Christ through the final resurrection of the dead is to miss the entire Christian hope.

God’s judgment is a good thing, something that believers ought to celebrate—for evil will be dealt with once and for all and heaven will make its home on earth. On the other hand, the non-believer has much to worry about. Wright calls into question our modern interpretations of hell that reflects a theology from the church of the Dark Ages. Yet, he doesn’t go as far as some “emerging” leaders who, I have reason to believe, may never emerge.

Wright finds it impossible not to believe in some sort of “ultimate condemnation” and loss to human beings that have rejected God’s good grace. He simply says that these folks cease to bear the divine image and by their own choice become “beings that once were human but now are not.”  Whatever “hell” is in reality, none of us would ever desire such a place. The important thing Wright wants to note is that heaven and hell ought not be the focal point of the Christian message.

In the last part of the book, Wright does a wonderful job with making this challenge practical for us all. The resurrection and ascension is not designed to take us away from this earth but instead to make us agents of transformation, anticipating the day when, “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”

Wright looks at the themes of justice, beauty, and evangelism. What do these things look like in light of this radical message of hope?  What does this look like in retrospect to the resurrection of Christ and the promise that we will inherit the same? Wright believes it is “to live consciously between the resurrection of Jesus in the past and the making of God’s new world in the future” (pg. 213).

My only point of disagreement with this book is in the last chapter. Although I do believe there are nuggets of truth founded in Wright’s attempt to manifest our hope in church practices, his commitment to not only his Anglican heritage but to high church in general is reason enough to move beyond his conclusions and on to a narrative ecclesiology that mirrors the earliest disciples.

It seems to me that this is his only break from a legitimate concern for a Pauline hermeneutic. His hope in a revival within the church practices that came years after Paul, as evident in church history, is wishful thinking indeed. It is here that we begin to replace hope with doom and despair.

“Surprised by Hope” is an excellent book that breathes out an overdue challenge to believers in every corner of the earth. I do hope and pray that its message will start a move of the church to return to the Gospel that looks like Jesus and offers the world more than an escape from a devil’s hell.

N.T. Wright is presently one voice among many that is being heard and has earned the right to be heard in a post-Christian world of conflicting voices. How will we respond? Shall we cling to those chains presently dubbed as “tradition” or will we allow the resurrection of Christ to give us wisdom and understanding into that beautiful hope known as the age to come?

I am pleasantly surprised by the hope we have in Christ… for whose sake I am able to reimagine a world without evil.

 

*Please take the time to vote on this review at Amazon.


%d bloggers like this: