Setting the Record Straight on Eternal Life

Basic instructions before leaving Earth” is a popular way to characterize the Bible among Christians.

It’s cute and clever, but it’s also ironic and misleading for several reasons.

The particular reason concerning us here is that, for a collection of works that supposedly provides instruction for how to get to the right place when we die, there is conspicuously little said about the afterlife. This idea of “dying and going to heaven” that is so essential to so many people’s conception of Christianity is actually nowhere to be found in all of Scripture.

(Note: If you just want to read this to see your particular objection(s) answered instead of reading the argument in its entirety, I don’t recommend that, but if you insist, scroll down farther and you’ll find the following Frequently Raised Objections answered:

-I Go To Prepare a Place for You

-Today, You Will Be With Me in Paradise

-The Rich Man and Lazarus

-Away From the Body, At Home with the Lord

The Souls of the Martyrs in Heaven )

In the first five books, collectively known as “the Torah” and regarded as the foundational narrative on which the rest of the Bible is based, there is no explicit mention to be found anywhere about the afterlife.

Tacitly, it teaches that humans were never supposed to die in the first place, but it wasn’t an intrinsic immortality, but was predicated upon access to the Tree of Life, and humans were made mortal by denial to it.

When the reality of death is first introduced, there is no hint of anything that might come after: man was formed from the dust of the earth and brought to life by the Spirit of God, and when he dies, he returns to his former state, “for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” So, being dead, according to this, is no different than the state of existence prior to conception and birth — you just don’t exist anymore. You return to what you were before you were alive: inanimate dust.

The only concept of immortality that shows up in the Torah is the prospect of living on through descendants. When God promised to Abram his “very great reward,” Abram responded, “Lord YHWH, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus? You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”

God’s answer was to assure him that his descendants would number like the stars of heaven, and that they would take possession of the land; nothing was said about anybody going to heaven, though. He made no promise to Abram of personal immortality, neither in the body, nor as a disembodied soul or spirit. He only promised an enduring lineage that would inherit a portion of this earth.

A provisional (not intrinsic) personal immortality was implied, according to Jesus, by God’s later declaration to Moses: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” He didn’t say, “I was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” but “I am … ”, indicating that the patriarchs still existed in some sense, so He was still their God.

But, to take that to mean that they still exist in heaven, as disembodied spirits, is to both ignore the context of Jesus’ remark and to impose a foreign meaning upon the text, because it nowhere mentions anyone dwelling with God in heaven as bodiless souls or spirits, and Jesus was speaking specifically to the question put to him by the Sadducees about bodily resurrection from the dead.

What Dies Is Dead

For the vast majority of the biblical narrative between the time of Abraham and the time of Jesus, the only explicit discussion of the nature of death indicated only that it was the end: the body dies and reverts back to dust, and the person’s experiences are over.

“And the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it,” reads Ecclesiastes 12:7.

Someone might object, “Ah-ha! It says right there that the spirit returns to God! That proves immortality in heaven!”

But, reading it in context – both in the context of that chapter of Ecclesiastes and in the context of the Bible as a whole – it cannot mean that.

The chapter opens with, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come …”, and continues by listing a series of diminishing pleasures in life, culminating in death. The point is: remember God while you have opportunity, because those opportunities are finite. If death itself is meant to be understood by the writer as an opportunity in itself to know God, the meaning of the chapter unravels and is rendered nonsensical.

In ancient Hebrew thinking, “spirit,” or “ruach,” just means “breath.” It was the animating principle of the body. It is anachronistic projection to suppose that breath, after it has left the body, retains any individual personality or goes on to have experiences.

That certainly was not the thinking of the biblical writers, because they wrote in several places that there is no knowledge of God in death.   

“For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten,” reads Ecclesiastes 9:5.

“Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from the grave?” wrote the Psalmist (Psalm 6:5).

“I call to you, Lord, every day; I spread out my hands to you. Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do their spirits rise up and praise you? Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction? Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?” (Psalm 88:9-12)

The Final Enemy

Of course, that wasn’t the final word on death. The Bible is a progressive revelation through which God gradually revealed more and more of His plan for humanity.

In the earlier stages of revelation, while death was defined as the end of the person, there were glimmers of hope that it wasn’t final.

First, the idea of God’s judgment is found throughout the Bible, and it is a judgment that goes beyond the narrow confines of mortal life:

“And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being. ‘Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.’” (Genesis 9:5-6)

In the immediate sense, this is understood to be a general prohibition against murder and the requirement that humans form governments and courts to impose capital punishment for the crime. But, it reads that God Himself will hold each and every individual person – and animal – to account for the lives of humans, which goes beyond mere legal consequences from human authorities. This implies an existence that transcends what is visible to us within the span of our mortal lives, since we see plenty of people escape or denied justice in this life.

As time went on and the biblical narrative progressed, death was still seen as an evil to be shunned and avoided, but there was nonetheless a general expectation of hope with regard to the death of the righteous – not that death was in any way good, but it was an enemy from which God would deliver them, in some undefined way: “You will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your faithful one see decay. You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand,” wrote David (Psalm 16:10-11).

As the revelation progressed still further, God’s promises for the future state of human existence grew more and more clearly defined. The eventual renewal of the Earth was hinted more and more, until the prophets foretold that God’s hiddenness would come to an end, there would be peace between all nations under the leadership of Israel and her King, all evil will be judged and destroyed, and nature itself would be transformed to remove all suffering and violence.

Included in these prophecies was the promise of the final defeat of death itself – eternal life through physical, bodily resurrection from the dead: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” (Daniel 12:3-4)

The Gospel Jesus Taught

When Jesus arrived on the scene, this was the common understanding of what God had in store for Israel when the Messiah arrived.

Modern readers typically think that, when Jesus said, “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”, he was talking about how people could get into heaven when they died.

That wasn’t at all what he taught. When they heard, “the kingdom of God has come near,” they understood it to mean – and Jesus fully intended it to mean – all that the prophets foretold about God’s plans for Israel in this world, on this earth. He was talking about the rule of God on earth; he was talking about heaven coming here.

Many Christians acknowledge that this was the understanding they had at the time, but think that Jesus came to correct that notion – that the prophecies were only figurative and that it really is all about dying and going to heaven after all.

But, the apostles were still laboring under the former notion when they asked Jesus, just before his ascension, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

And, he didn’t correct them on the ultimate objective, only the timing: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” he answered them.

As in, God’s rule over the earth – Jesus’ rule as the Messiah – would extend into the world through them.

Indeed, the content of their testimony to the nations was that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead constitutes the validation of God’s promise to renew the earth. His resurrection means our resurrection, explained Paul (1 Corinthians 15:12-24). The renewal and perfection of his destroyed body is the initial step toward the renewal and perfection of the entire death-infected world, the apostles taught.

This idea we teach about how, if you “accept Jesus into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior,” you’ll “be with Jesus in heaven when you die” couldn’t be further from what they taught.

Note how Paul comforted the Thessalonian believers about their members who had died. He did not say, “They’re in a better place now.” He did not say, “They’re with Jesus now.”

No, he reminded them of Jesus’ resurrection, and that the dead in Christ will also be resurrected at his return to Earth, followed by the transformation and glorification of all believers who hadn’t died.

Also – and not a little ironically – one of the verses so often wrenched out of context to prop up this “dying and going to heaven”-paradigm of salvation is 1 Corinthians 15:19: “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

And, this seems like a slam-dunk, if we start out already “knowing” that Paul is talking about an afterlife in heaven as a disembodied spirit. What else could he be talking about by contrasting our hope in Christ with “this life”?

Well, the whole point of the broader passage is an emphatic rebuke to those who claim there is no resurrection from the dead:

“If it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 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. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 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.” (v. 13-17)

According to Paul, the entire Christian faith is utterly useless, futile and a tragic waste of life and effort, if Christ was not raised from the dead. If Christ wasn’t raised, none of them would be, either. “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die,’” he said.

So, not only is this verse not about dying and going to heaven as a disembodied spirit, but it precludes any consideration of that. As in, not only is Paul talking about bodily resurrection rather than spiritual relocation to heaven, he’s talking about resurrection to the exclusion of that spiritual relocation to heaven.

Paul’s remarks here don’t leave any room for any idea of an “intermediary state” in which dead believers enjoy a period of bliss in the presence of God while we await the resurrection. Our “hope in Christ” is not “going to heaven and then resurrection,” according to this.

Paul does not write, “If we’re not raised from the dead, at least we have an afterlife in heaven to look forward to.”

No, physical, bodily resurrection is our only hope. There is no hope apart from that. If there were, and we were meant to fix any hope in that, Paul hardly would written what he did. It is resurrection, or nothing.

What Difference Does It Make?

“Does it matter what we believe about the afterlife? Won’t God just do what God is going to do, regardless? What harm is there in believing we go to heaven as spirits, as long as we believe in Jesus now?”

A comprehensive answer to this question is beyond the scope of my purposes of the moment, but I’m glad you asked.

The short answer is – It most certainly does matter. We can hardly claim that we “believe in Jesus” if we reject the entire narrative within which he taught and replace it with a totally different one. That’s the reason Christians, by and large, rightly reject Mormonism and regard it as a heretical cult: they “believe in Jesus,” but they redefine his identity and mission by inserting him into an entirely different worldview and scheme of salvation than what we find in the Bible.

Which, sadly, is exactly what mainstream Christians also do. Our phony, unbiblical narrative isn’t any better than their phony, unbiblical narrative, just because it’s older and more widely mistaken as the “correct” phony narrative.

There are also practical ramifications to what we believe. What we believe about the Church, the world and our role within it – these are profoundly affected by what we believe the end result and ultimate purposes are.

But, those are ramifications we can explore another time.

My purposes of the moment are just to establish that there is, in fact, a tremendous error in mainstream, collective Christian thought.

As I mentioned in my previous installment, despite the narrative of the Bible quite explicitly teaching something different than the traditional “dying and going to heaven” paradigm of market-standard Christianity, there is still no shortage of passages that would seem, at first glance, to support that paradigm, if we’ve already made up our minds that it’s there, and I’d like to address some of the major examples.

I Go To Prepare a Place for You

Whenever I have this conversation in person, John 14 is almost always the first passage cited as an objection, which reads:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many dwelling places. If it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

It’s understandable – inevitable, really – to read this as being about “going to heaven,” if you’ve already got that idea in mind that that’s what the Bible is about.

But, what precedent is there in the Bible that should make us think this is what it’s about? Given that there is none, what is the likelihood that Jesus would introduce it for the first time here, on the eve of his execution, at the end of his ministry?

If we read John 14 without that presupposition and place this passage in its proper context within that particular dialogue, within John’s Gospel as a whole, and within the entire Bible, it becomes increasingly clear that Jesus is talking about something entirely different than this idea of going to heaven as disembodied spirits when we die. He’s talking about the Trinity, and the indwelling of the Spirit of God, not a literal place to which they would go in the afterlife.

First off – and again (because this cannot be overstated) – this would be the first mention of people going to heaven, if that’s what this passage is about.

But, it wouldn’t be his first mention of his “Father’s house.”

His “Father’s house” – that being God’s house – is how Jesus described the temple on more than one occasion. Indeed, in a Jewish context, “God’s house” would never be a reference to heaven or to some spiritual afterlife, but to the temple on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem, because throughout the Bible, without exception, whenever mention is made of “God’s house,” that is the only meaning that phrase ever has. See Psalm 84, 2 Samuel 7, Ecclesiastes 5, Isaiah 2 and an endless slew of other passages besides these: “God’s house” only ever refers to the temple. (Genesis 28:10-22 would be an exception, but only in the strictest, technical sense, because it actually strengthens my overall point, because the place Jacob called “Bethel” was a place on earth that functioned as a temple.)

Also, within the temple, the innermost chamber, known as the “Holy of Holies” or “the Most Holy Place,” where the Ark of the Covenant was kept, was the place where the very Presence of God was understood to dwell.

So, when Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many dwelling places,” they wouldn’t have initially understood that to mean dwelling places for them, but dwelling places for God, and they would have been puzzled at the notion of there being many dwelling places for God, and even more puzzled when Jesus followed that up with, “I go there to prepare a place for you.”

It is only because of our presuppositions that we read that as so “obviously” being about Jesus going to prepare a place for them in heaven. His meaning was not at all initially apparent to them, because the immediate connotation would have been about there being many places for God to dwell in the temple, and God’s dwelling place within the temple was not a place where humans were permitted to occupy. The high priest was allowed into the Most Holy Place only once during the entire year, on the Day of Atonement, and that only after extensive ritual cleansing and blood sacrifice, first for his own sins and then for the sins of the nation, and if any part of the ritual was incomplete or the sacrifice unacceptable for any reason, he would be struck dead by God upon approach.

Jesus continued with, “You know the way to the place where I am going” in verse 4.

Thomas, still thinking that he was talking about the literal place of the temple and knowing that the temple, as they knew it, did not fit Jesus’ description, responded, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

To which Jesus answered, “I am the way … no one comes to the Father except through me.”

So, the “place” that he’s talking about is the Father Himself, and he himself is the way to that “place.”

After that, he then went on to explain how he is “in” the Father and the Father is “in” himself, which led to his explanation that both he and the Father would be “in” them through the Holy Spirit: “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (verse 23)

The word “home” in that verse is from the Greek moné, which literally just means “dwelling place.” Its appearance here in v. 23 is one of only two uses of the word in the entire New Testament, the other being in v. 2, from which “rooms” or “mansions” or “dwelling places” is translated.

So, yes – Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many ‘mansions’ … I go there to prepare a place for you,” but he also, in that very same passage, spoke of the Father and himself making their home with the disciples. Each will dwell in the other: they will dwell within God and God will dwell within them, through Christ and the Holy Spirit.

This accords with the themes that we find throughout John’s Gospel.

This idea of “residence” and “remaining” in said residence begins in the prologue.

In 1:14, it reads, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”

The Greek word for “made his dwelling” is skénoó, which literally means “to tabernacle” or “to pitch one’s tent.”

Of course, we know it’s not saying that Jesus literally pitched a tent and dwelled among them as a nomadic wanderer. It evokes the time when God dwelled among the Israelites within the tabernacle that housed the Ark of the Covenant, which was the prototype for the temple planned by David and built by Solomon. He’s likening Jesus’ incarnation to God dwelling among them in the wilderness: the Word is comparable to the Glory Cloud of God’s Presence and Jesus’ human form is likened to the tabernacle in which the Presence of God takes residence. The implication is that Jesus is himself the “new tabernacle,” the “new Ark of the Covenant” by which God’s presence dwells in the midst of His people: in the national history of Israel, God first dwelled on earth through the tabernacle, then through the temple, and now through the person of Jesus.

This idea is reiterated in chapter 2, when Jesus cleansed the temple. When the religious leaders confronted him, he said, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days,” not meaning, of course, the literal temple building, but his own body – he was the temple, the place where God dwelled on earth.

This theme of “Jesus as the temple” is taken up again in chapter 4, when Jesus meets with the Samaritan woman at the well.

“Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem,” she said (verse 20).

At the time, and for centuries going back to when Israel and Judah split nearly a thousand years earlier, there was a rival place of worship at Mt. Gerizim in Samaria. According to the Law of Moses, there could be only one true place of worship, where the Presence of God dwelled on earth, and so only one legitimate temple. The Jews claimed Mt. Zion in Jerusalem as that place, while the Samaritans claimed it to be Mt. Gerizim.

There was, of course, a correct side to the controversy raised by the Samaritan woman, and she was on the wrong side of it, but that was soon to be moot, according to Jesus.

“Woman, believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth,” Jesus answered her (vs. 21-24).

At that moment, “my Father’s house” referred to a literal house in a literal place, and genuine, acceptable worship was tied to that place and to that building. But, that was all soon to change. Worship would no longer be tied to any one location, because Jesus himself was the new temple, and his presence – God’s Presence in Jesus – would soon no longer be bound to one location, nor even one person.

That’s why the curtain in the temple was torn in two at the moment of Jesus’ death: the Holy of Holies was no longer the exclusive place where God’s Presence resided, because the sin that kept man alienated from God had been atoned for.

With the barrier of sin done away with, God’s Presence could now dwell in us, in the followers of Jesus Christ. Now we are the temple of God where His Spirit dwells. Just as God dwelled on earth through the tabernacle, and then the temple, and then through Jesus, now He dwells on earth through the Church.

We are the “house of God,” but not in the sense of being a building, but in the sense that we are God’s household, His family.

This is all building toward that state of existence we find described at the end of the book of Revelation:

“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ And the One who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’” (21:3-5)

This is the reversal of the curse of Genesis 3, prior to which God dwelled with man on earth in the Garden of Eden.

Paul alluded to the same idea when he wrote, “And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:6-7)

Notice how Paul wrote that in the past tense. In Paul’s view, this is something that has already happened. We are already dwelling in those “many rooms” in the Father’s house that Jesus went to prepare.

He, as well as Jesus in John 14:1-3, was referring, not to us “going to heaven” when we die, but to Jesus’ ascension back to the Father after his resurrection. With Jesus at the right hand of the Father, humanity dwells representatively within the Godhead. And, with the descent of the Holy Spirit to dwell within the Church on the Day of Pentecost, the fullness of the Godhead now dwells within us. We are in God and God is in us.

As in, the Church is the beginning of that renewal of creation pictured in Revelation 21, which will be consummated when Jesus returns and we are resurrected from the dead as he was.

Today, You Will Be With Me in Paradise

Another frequent objection is from the conversation Jesus had with the condemned criminal on the cross next to him in Luke 23.

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” the man said, to which Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

This is typically understood to mean that the man would be with Jesus in heaven that very day after they both died.

And, if that’s what that means, it would certainly present a problem for my position.

But, it would also create problems for a lot of existing Christian tradition, including the biblical accounts themselves, while my position would actually resolve all of those problems.

There is a tradition, “the Harrowing of Hell,” which interprets 1 Peter 3:18-22 to mean that, between his death and resurrection, Jesus descended into hell in spirit to preach the gospel to imprisoned spirits.

I don’t think it means that at all. I think it’s saying that Jesus, through the Holy Spirit in Noah, preached to spirits now in prison (i.e., death), while they were alive on earth during the time of Noah. The idea that he did so in spirit during the time between his death and resurrection just doesn’t make sense, since the point of the passage is that Christ died in the flesh, but was made alive – i.e., resurrected – by the Spirit, and so it defies the essential premise of the passage to take it as describing something he did as a disembodied human spirit before the Spirit resurrected him. Rather, the point of the passage is that the Spirit of God who spoke through prophets and holy men like Noah through the ages is the very Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead.

But, there is nonetheless an enduring tradition that understands this passage to mean that Jesus descended into hell, in spirit, before he rose from the dead, which cannot be the case if he was also with the crucified man in heaven during that time.

However, besides all that, Jesus himself said he wasn’t in heaven that day after his death.

When he appeared to Mary Magdalene outside his tomb after his resurrection, he said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

If he hadn’t yet ascended to heaven, then he wasn’t in heaven that day after he died.

So, what does Luke 23:43 mean? What did, “Today, you will be with me in paradise” mean, if Jesus himself wasn’t in paradise that day?

Well, let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that Jesus was talking about the man going to heaven in spirit or soul-form while his body was dead on the cross or buried.

What is a “spirit” or a “soul”?

Well, “spirit,” in Hebrew, is “ruach,” and in Greek is “pneuma.” They both literally just mean “breath” or “wind.” As I mentioned before, they speak of the animating principle of the body.

“Soul” is “nephesh” in Hebrew and “psyche” in Greek, both meaning “life” or “self” or “mind.”

There is nothing about any of these terms and their usage in Scripture to indicate that they are intended to convey the survival of consciousness apart from the body. The Bible simply does not teach any concept of the immortality of the soul or spirit. Maybe an argument could be made that the Bible leaves room for that (I don’t think it does), but it certainly doesn’t explicitly teach this.

The word “nephesh” is used in Genesis 2:7, which reads, Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being (Hebrew: a chay nephesh).”

So, we don’t have “souls.” We are “souls.”

It’s the same word used in Genesis 1:21 for “every living thing that moves” (which should come to mind every time someone says something like, “Animals don’t have souls”).

What’s more, there are verses in which a corpse is referred to as a dead “nephesh.”

Since a “nephesh” can mean an animal, a person, even a dead body, it should be clear by now that the Bible simply does not teach this common idea that there is such a thing as a “soul” that goes on living after the death of the body.

But, just for the sake of argument, let’s say that it does.

Again – what is a “soul” or a “spirit,” even by our common, popular view of them/it (since the terms are used interchangeably)?

Of those who claim that they are immortal and can survive the death of the body, I’ve never met anyone who could tell me what they actually are. Those terms are just placeholders for “consciousness existing independently of the body.”

We do know what they are not, however.

They are not physical, by definition. They are not made up of matter/material. The body is physical. The soul and spirit are not (according to the popular view, that is).  

Not being physical, they have no form, no mass, no weight. These are physical properties, which souls or spirits, by definition, do not have.

These are also the properties needed to exist in space: in order to have location, something must exist within space, and so must have mass, form and weight, which souls/spirits do not have.

Modern physics understands space and time to be the same fundamental physical property of the universe, referred to as “space-time.”

That means that if something doesn’t exist within space, it doesn’t exist within time, either.

Also, again, we do not have souls. If “soul” means “consciousness that survives the death of the body” (or “consciousness” on any terms), we do not have souls, we are souls.

As souls, we experience the passage of time only through sensory input delivered to our brains by our sense organs. That’s why, when we’re in a deep sleep, we have no idea how much time passes outside of our own minds. Between the time we fall asleep and wake up, it seems to us as if no time passes at all.

All of this adds up to mean that, regardless of whether there is any such thing as a “soul” or “spirit” that can survive the death of the body, questions like, “Where was Jesus’ spirit between his death and resurrection?” are meaningless. His spirit wasn’t anywhere, because it has no form, mass or weight, and so it has no location in space.

The same goes for the thief on the cross, and for everybody else.

When we die, we don’t experience anything, because our eyes, ears and other sense organs are dead, as is the brain that would receive that information. So, it’s just like it was before we were born or conceived – nothing.

We don’t know that it’s nothing, though. It’s just like when we sleep. We don’t experience any passage of time. We close our eyes in death, and then less than a moment later, we open our eyes at our resurrection to meet Jesus at his return.

So when Jesus told the crucified criminal, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” he was, of course, telling the truth. But it wasn’t “today” for Jesus. Jesus has returned to the Father, but he has not yet entered the paradise he promised to the man on the cross, because that hasn’t happened yet. That “paradise” will be here, on earth, when Jesus returns to renew creation and raise humanity from the dead. But, for that crucified criminal beside him, his “today” has yet to finish. When we awake at the resurrection, we’ll have been conscious of the past 2,000 years since Jesus’ crucifixion. For that man on the cross next to him, though, his crucifixion will have been only moments before.

The Rich Man and Lazarus

Jesus’ parable in Luke 16:19-31 is another frequent objection, in which he tells of a beggar named Lazarus dying and being taken by the angels to a place called “Abraham’s bosom,” from where he could see a self-indulgent rich man in agony in the fires of Hades, begging for relief, to no avail.

First off, it’s worth pointing out that this was a parable. You can no more take this as Jesus’ description of a literal afterlife than you can take the Prodigal Son as a real historical person, or the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares to be about a real field. His purpose was not to teach about inheritance rights or economics or agriculture. This was just imagery brought into service to make a larger point.

I’ll acknowledge that it does appear that, at face-value, Jesus does indeed appear to be affirming the reality of the afterlife he’s describing. But, once again – that’s only because we’re reading it with that expectation. If we read it without presupposing that view of the afterlife, but in its proper historical and cultural context, it seems more likely to be a repudiation of this view of the afterlife than an affirmation of it. 

(And, really, the view of the afterlife in this parable only dimly resembles the common Christian view anyway, since we don’t typically think of heaven and hell being in such close proximity to each other that the righteous dead can look on from paradise to see the damned writhing in agony in the fires of hell.)

The point of Jesus’ parable about Lazarus and the Rich Man was not to teach us about the afterlife, but to drive home, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

And, if there was anything literal intended by this, it wasn’t about any characters from the parable rising from the dead. It was a double entendre teasing his own resurrection.

That isn’t to say that there weren’t people who held that idea as a literal belief about the afterlife. But why would they hold that view?

Did they get it from the Bible? If so, where else does the idea of “Abraham’s bosom” appear in the Bible?

Since it doesn’t appear anywhere in the Bible, they must have come up with the idea from some other source.

We know it’s not in the Bible, but we do know that it bears conspicuous similarities to the beliefs of the Greeks and Romans, and that the Jews were strongly culturally influenced by them in the time between the last prophet of the Old Testament and births of John and Jesus.

The text reads that the rich man was in “Hades,” which is a pagan, Greco-Roman concept merely adopted by Hellenized Jews. The idea of “Hades” was no more native to Jewish culture than the gods of Olympus were. The Hebrew Scriptures had the concept of Sheol, which was translated into Greek as “Hades,” but “Sheol” only came to be seen as the equivalent of Hades after their long exposure to Greco-Roman ideas.

But, even if we did take Second Temple-period ideas about Sheol as the positive teaching of the Bible – again, this is such vast departure from the traditional Christian idea of the afterlife that it hardly works as a rebuttal to my position. It creates problems for my position, for sure, but not nearly as many problems as it creates for the traditional idea of “heaven.” “Sheol” – whatever it is, is most certainly not a paradise enjoyed in the presence of God. It might not be so bad as the Hell of our traditional conception, but it’s still a place of separation from God.

And, the fact that Lazarus is in a place described as “Abraham’s bosom” suggests a sort of agnosticism about it by the Jews who held this view. Notice that they didn’t call it “God’s bosom” or “the angels’ bosom,” and it certainly wasn’t called “heaven.” It’s called “Abraham’s side,” and that’s not even a formal name – it’s just a description that means, essentially, “wherever Abraham is.”

The Jews, in encountering Greco-Roman ideas about “Hades” and the idea about the spirits of the dead having this otherworldly place to inhabit – this planted the idea in their head, so they wondered, “What happens to the spirits of our dead who aren’t punished in Hades?”, and the answer they came up with was, “Well, they’re with Abraham, wherever he is.”

Notice that there is nothing about any of that to suggest that they believed they were with God in heaven. The Scriptures spoke of God and heaven, but they said nothing about dead humans going there as ghosts, so in coming up with their own answer to the Greco-Roman idea of “Elysium” or “Hades,” that’s what they came up with: “Wherever Abraham is.”

And that’s the best they could do, since the Old Testament doesn’t say one word about any of this, so they were left to their own imaginations.

And, an argument could be made that Jesus’ parable, in making use of these concepts, was hardly an endorsement of that idea of the afterlife, but a rebuke.

Again, you can scour the Old Testament, and you won’t find a single word about “Abraham’s bosom.” So, when Jesus tells a parable that makes use of these concepts, what is the point of the parable?

“If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

This could be understood as a rebuke to those who drew their ideas about God and the afterlife from outside of the Scriptures: “Listen to Moses and the Prophets, not Gentile myths.”

And, while I realize this won’t be a popular argument among mainstream Christians, I am hardly the first or only person to make it.

‘Away from the Body, At Home with the Lord’

Originally, I had no intention of addressing this objection, since the only refutation it really needs is, “Just go back and read it again in context, and you’ll see that it reinforces rather than refutes my point.”

But, it comes up so often that I finally broke down and decided to address it.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “As long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord … I would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”

And, taken in isolation and with the usual confirmation bias about “dying and going to heaven,” it appears to be a problem for my position.  

I almost hate to even take the time to answer this, because doing so unavoidably exposes the lack of attention of the person who makes this argument, and they too easily take it as a personal attack, because the text itself clearly doesn’t teach what they claim, and it requires no great wisdom or scholarly insight to discern this – just basic reading comprehension and a commitment to objective exegesis rather than agenda-driven eisegesis:

“For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

“Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. For we live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”

Clearly, Paul isn’t talking about going from this body to no body, and being “at home with the Lord” as disembodied spirits in heaven. He’s talking about going from the flimsy, temporary “tent” of this mortal body to the permanent and secure “building” of the immortal resurrection body. He’s not talking about an existence that is less than physical and embodied, but an existence that is more than physical – embodied as something that is more substantial than flesh and blood, not mere flesh and blood. Just as it was with Jesus, in which the body that was buried was the very body that was also raised, but as the seed of what he became, rather than a mere shell that he abandoned.

When Paul refers to the resurrection body as our “heavenly dwelling,” he does not mean – as is commonly but erroneously supposed – that this means we go to heaven to dwell there, but that Jesus brings it with him to earth when he returns from heaven.

The Souls of the Martyrs in Heaven

Another frequent objection comes from Revelation 6:9-11:

“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’ Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brethren, were killed just as they had been.”

The objection is that, because the souls of dead Christians are pictured in heaven in this passage, this proves the commonly held idea of the afterlife.

This is the fifth of seven seals on a scroll opened by the Messiah to carry out God’s judgments on the world as precursors to its eventual renewal and restoration.

The first four seals were horsemen on white, red, black and pale horses signifying, respectively, conquest, war, famine and death on the earth.

The fifth seal evokes the imagery of sacrifice offered in the temple: an animal would be slain and its blood poured out at the base or splashed against the side of the altar. The martyred saints are pictured here as sacrifices whose blood has been poured out at the altar.  

The point is that God has accepted and honors their lives as sacrifices.

Also, it evokes the same idiom found in Genesis 4, when God confronted Cain over the murder of Abel: “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” (v. 10) Likewise, the blood of the martyrs is crying out to God from under the altar of sacrifice.

Unless we’re supposed to believe that martyred saints are literally trapped under a literal altar in heaven, this is clearly not intended to be taken literally, any more than the four previous seals are meant to be understood as literal horsemen. No, they are symbolic, and the text itself tells us exactly what the symbols mean.

But if we do take it literally, this doesn’t present a very hopeful picture of heaven. It certainly doesn’t correspond with the commonly held idea of “heaven” as a blissful afterlife. The slain saints are not happy to be there. They’re not resting in peace in an otherworldly paradise in the presence of God. They are not looking down on earth placidly, glad to have been killed and sent to enjoy their eternal reward among the angels. No, they are clearly in distress, and crying out for vengeance, and are unsettled until justice is done for them. Having been killed – robbed of their lives through violence – is a tragedy over which they are aggrieved and looking to God to set right.

And, the more we consider the implications of what this would mean if it’s supposed to be taken literally, the more problems arise. If the martyred saints are literal sacrifices under a literal altar, from whom does God accept them as sacrifices? Sacrifices don’t offer themselves. Does this mean God honors their persecutors and murderers? That’s what accepting their sacrifices would mean, if we’re meant to take this literally.

No, clearly this is only intended as figurative language to convey that God honors and accepts the lives of martyrs as sacrifices – from the martyrs themselves – and will ultimately avenge them. There’s no actual, literal altar to which martyrs are confined until the Second Coming. If we take anything else from this – like viewing this as a literal description of what existence is like for departed Christians in heaven – it creates at least many problems for the popular view of “dying and going to heaven” as it would for my position.

And, the only possible reason to take it literally would be to fit it into a preconceived notion of the afterlife that isn’t justified by any other passage in the Bible.  

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2 Responses to Setting the Record Straight on Eternal Life

  1. Pingback: No, That’s Not Christianity | The Third Helix

  2. Johan says:

    Like to follow

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