What The Bible REALLY Says

By Marilyn Burge

I started reading a book titled "What the Bible REALLY Says." It is a collection of chapters written by different theologians, each on a different topic. The chapter titled "The Future" was written by James D. Tabor. I'm not familiar with him, but his work on the topic seems to be very thorough.

The reason I'm writing this is because there is scriptural justification for the belief that we go to the hereafter immediately after death, and also justification for the belief that we wait until "Judgment Day." In addition, there is justification for the belief that when you die, you die. Period.

Let's start with the first references to the hereafter in the Bible and work forward. The early Hebrew Bible says "when you die, you die." The Early Jews saw the universe as divided into three basic realms: the Firmament (Sky) or Heavens, the dwelling place of God and his divine angelic court, as well as the place of the sun, moon, planets, and stars. Here no mortal belonged. Then there was the realm of earth below, what the first chapter of Genesis calls "the dry land." It is the proper human place, shared with all the other forms of life -- a thoroughly mortal realm. The earth was seen as a flat disk; at the edges were the threatening waters of chaos, held back by the command of God. Finally, below the earth was the dark realm of the dead, which was called Sheol by the Hebrews and Hades by the Greeks.

The ancient Hebrews saw a particular order arise from this cosmological configuration. They saw the "proper place" of gods (Elohim) and angels as being in the heavens (inhabiting the upper heavenly realm and not subject to death). Such heavenly bodies were able to come down to earth in human form to visit (Gen 11:5-7; 18:20-21; Exod 3:1-6). But clearly the immortal beings, or "gods," belong in heaven -- it is their proper sphere, while they only visit the earth below. Conversely, humans are mere mortals, placed on the earth, with no idea whatsoever of any future in heaven. Their only permanent movement is down, to the lower world of the dead.

Basically, the ancient Jews, death was a one-way trip. There is no return. Job says:

But man dies, and is laid low; man breathes his las, and where is he? As water fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, so man lies down and rises not again; till the heavens are no more HE WILL NOT AWAKE, or be aroused out of his sleep. (Job 14:10-12)
All dead go down to Sheol, and there they lie in sleep together -- good or evil, rich or poor, slave or free (Job 3:11-19). It is described in Psalms as the "land of forgetfulness," "the Pit," a region "dark and deep," cut off from God and human life above. It is clearly, in the mind of Job, a nothingness.

Deuteronomy, I Kings, and II Samual bear this same view of death. It is the "great equalizer." One could accurately say that the ancient Jews had no view of the future for the individual human person,

Eccliastes tells us the same thing:

For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust, again.
Scattered here and there in the Hebrew Prophets, a dramatically different vision of the future begins to emerge in later texts. This view is built around the vision of a restored Israel, but it also sets forth the hope of a transformed cosmos, extending from the heights of heaven to the depths of Sheol, and including all normal cycles of nature and human history. In this view, all that led the author of Ecclesiastes to cry out, "vanity of vanities, all is vanity." will be reversed. Isaiah describes a time when even the violence of nature, "red in tooth and claw," will end:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leapard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
This transformation is like a second creation. Isaiah terms it "a new heaven and a new earth." Total peace reigns. The desert blooms. Death itself is swallowed up forever, suggesting a resurrection. But it is interesting to note that in this idealized version of a hereafter, all are still here on the same earth, albeit a transformed earth. This suggests a compressed cosmos where the three realms are all melded into one. The immortal heavenly realm above "comes down" to earth, and the world of death below is eliminated or "moved up" through resurrection. In this view, salvation is eschatological (connected to the afterlife, and not of this life). It comes at the end of history, through divine intervention in the affairs of this world, as the new transformed age is inaugurated.

During Greek and Roman times (the fourth century BCE to the first century CE), the view of the future was pictured as taking place "away from the earth," without any required end of history, with the soul leaving the body and the earthly realm at death and obtaining immortal life in heaven above.

The Book of Daniel paints a totally different view of the future. Following a succession of world kingdoms (Babylon, Persian, Greek, and Roman, as they were subsequently interpreted), an evil ruler would come, march into Palestine, defile the Temple at Jerusalem, persecute God's people for a very limited time (about three and a half years), then be completely crushed by the sudden intervention of God. The resurrection of the death and final judgment would follow. This scenario became the backbone of all the Apocalyptic accounts laid out in the NT.

Solomon saw no hereafter for the wicked:

Short and sorrowful. is our life,
and there is no remedy when a man comes to his end,
and no one has been known to return from Hades.
Because we wre born by mere chance,
and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been;
because the breath in our nostrils is smoke,
and reason is a spark
kindled by the beating of our hearts.
When it is extinguished, the body will turn to ashed,
and the spirit will dissolve like empty air.
Our name will be forgotten in time,
and no one will remember our works. (2:1-4)
But later, in 21-24, Solomon strongly supports a view that is the very opposite of Ecclesiastes:

But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment will ever touch them.
In the eyes of the foolish they SEEMED to have died
and their departure was thought to be an affliction,
and their gong from us to be their destruction;
but they are at peace.

For though in the sight of men they were punished,
their hope is full or immortality. (3:1-4

He goes on to say that at the time of their visitation they will "come forth" (be resurrected) and will end up governing and ruling nations in the Kingdom of God (3:7-8)

The NT goes a step further. The Sadducees held the position that when you are dead, you're dead, but Jesus refuted that position, arguing for some kid of continued existence after death as well as a FUTURE resurrection (Mark 12:18- 27) In Acts 23:6-10, Paul also makes a point of distinguishing his faith in resurrection of the dead from the view of the Sadducees.

What the early Christians meant by "resurrection," however, is not altogether clear. While the accounts of Jesus' resurrection suggest that he was literally resuscitated, walked among them, ate, drank, and presumably exercised all bodily functions, John 20-19 tells of this body coming through locked doors, and Paul defends the idea of some sort of "spiritual" body that is definitely NOT flesh and blood. REsurrecton, throughout the NT, is at the end when Jesus returns with the clouds of heaven to gather his elect people together (Luke 20_34-36, Matt 11-20-24; John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15; I Thess. 4:15-17; I Cor, 15:51-52, II Tim 4:1; Rev 11:18). The only exceptions appear to be when Jesus Himself rose from the dead, and the few times when He personally raised some people from the dead.

Paul prefers the image of the dead being "asleep" intil the Judgment Day, but he also believed that the "spirit" of a departed Christian went to "be with Christ" (Phil 1:19-26; II Cor. 5:6-10; I Thess. 4:14).

Several places in the NT we clearly find the notion that the dead are conscious,k dwelling somewhere in the heavenly realms beyond, and awaiting, either in torment or comfort, the final judgment (Luke 16:19-31, 23:43; I Pet. 3:18-20; 4:6; Rev. 6:9-11; 7:9-12).

As you can see, ALL views of the hereafter are biblical, depending on which culture you choose to think "got it right." Those who say that when you die, you die, are merely echoing the views of the ancient Jews and, later, the Sadducees. If somebody who believes differently says that the humanists and atheists who hold that view are adopting a philosophy of despair, they are being critical of their own theological roots.