Little girl drawing a picture of God.
When we try to describe the indescribable, or explain the unexplainable, or try to draw a picture of something we’ve never seen before, we always come up short. When there is no explanation, we try to imagine what we believe to be true. We do this when the Bible leaves out details we think we need to know. Usually, what we come up with is less than what’s real. And, typically, our beliefs form around what we want to be or don’t want to be true. We’ll even change our beliefs when a subject is too controversial, too confusing or painful or distasteful. In other words, we will adjust our beliefs to what we want to be true.
I knew a preacher who was once harsh against divorce and spoke of it as the unpardonable sin, then changed his message when his daughter got divorced. A teacher who opposed homosexuality and condemned anyone who practiced it to hell, changed her teaching when her son announced he was gay. And someone who believed in hell and then had a loved one die who had rejected the Lord throughout his life, suddenly is no longer sure there is a hell. They changed the truth of the Bible when it challenged them personally. Unfortunately, or fortunately, the Bible remains true whether we believe it or not.
In the earliest discovery of the realms of existence, there were the heavens and the earth. It’s how God introduced Himself to us, as creator of all that is. Then as we move along in Scripture, He reveals a greater interest in our lives than mere existence. That He has placed within us both spiritual and physical aspects and the sense of an eternal life, which makes the life of a human more significant than the life of an animal. That life on earth was not all that a person would experience. As Solomon said in Ecclesiastes: God placed eternity in their hearts. A longing for a meaningful life now and a purpose-filled afterlife to follow.
The thought of an afterlife drew the attention of men toward the heavens.
Phil 3:12-14 Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Paul put into words what God placed in the heart of man – the upward call. The heavenly call. Eternity in our hearts.
That made men look up. They saw the birds flying at day and the clouds moving across the sky. Then at night they saw the stars. And since they didn’t see God when they looked up, they realized His home must be even higher. So, they imagined different levels to the heavens.
The first level was the atmosphere where the birds fly and clouds form and rain falls. The second was the home of the stars and moon and sun – the outer heavens. And finally, the place from where God ruled and reigned was the third Heaven.
But one problem, they used one single word to describe all of this.
The collective Hebrew word for Heaven is Shamayim: the heavens. This didn’t distinguish which level of the heavens they were talking about so you needed context to understand.
Ps 8:1 O LORD, our Lord, How majestic is Your name in all the earth, Who have displayed Your splendor above the heavens! 3 When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, The moon and the stars, which You have ordained; 8 The birds of the heavens
Ps 57:11 Be exalted above the heavens, O God; Let Your glory be above all the earth.
Ps 103:19 The LORD has established His throne in the heavens, And His sovereignty rules over all.
It’s the same word for each level of the heavens, but you can see the difference.
Along with this expanded understanding of the heavens, there was also a growing curiosity about the earth. Erets was the word for the earth. This described what existed apart from the heavens: the heavens and the earth. And as the heavens had levels defining it, so must the earth. There was the place of the living and the place of the dead. Those who were on the earth and those under the earth.
Because little was understood about death, they used a single word at first to refer to the place of the dead: Sheol. When the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek in ancient Alexandria around 200 BC, the word Hades was substituted for Sheol. Hades was the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew Sheol. You’ll find Hades mentioned in Greek mythology as the god of the underworld. From that myth, the place of the dead took on the same name: Hades. So, both Hades and Sheol described the same thing: the collective place of the dead.
Now the big difference between Greek mythology and Biblical truth is, there is only One God who is Lord over all. For the Greeks, there were multiple gods with various assignments to manage the world. Biblical truth reveals that there is only one God who reigns over all the realms of both life and death and everything that exists in either realm serves God’s purposes.
Ps 139:7-8 Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.
But if there was only one place for all the dead to go and everyone went to the same place after death and experienced the same afterlife, man realized that wasn’t fair.
Ecc 8:10-12 So then, I have seen the wicked buried, those who used to go in and out from the holy place, and they are soon forgotten in the city where they did thus. This too is futility. Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly, therefore the hearts of the sons of men among them are given fully to do evil. Although a sinner does evil a hundred times and may lengthen his life, still I know that it will be well for those who fear God, who fear Him openly. But it will not be well for the evil man and he will not lengthen his days like a shadow, because he does not fear God.
So, in trying to understand justice, especially with regard to ungodly people who lived despicable lives on earth, men hoped there was some accountability for those people when they died. When they didn’t see justice served in life, they anticipated it being served in death.
Ps 73:1-17 God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart! But as for me, my feet came close to stumbling, my steps had almost slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant as I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For there are no pains in their death, and their body is fat. They are not in trouble as other men, nor are they plagued like mankind. Therefore pride is their necklace; The garment of violence covers them. Their eye bulges from fatness; the imaginations of their heart run riot. They mock and wickedly speak of oppression; they speak from on high. They have set their mouth against the heavens, and their tongue parades through the earth. Therefore his people return to this place, and waters of abundance are drunk by them. They say, "How does God know? And is there knowledge with the Most High?" Behold, these are the wicked; and always at ease, they have increased in wealth. Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and washed my hands in innocence; for I have been stricken all day long and chastened every morning. If I had said, "I will speak thus," behold, I would have betrayed the generation of Your children. When I pondered to understand this, it was troublesome in my sight until I came into the sanctuary of God; then I perceived their end.
David saw more in death than simply a place to disappear to. He understood that somehow God would implement judgment for how people lived on earth and what they deserved in eternity. That judgment would need to be carried out in a different place than where God might extend blessing. David saw a division within the category of death, one place for reward, another for retribution.
In Hebrew thought, both the godly and ungodly go to Sheol in this broad sense of the term, but then, God’s judgment required separation, a place for condemnation and a place of peace. Not everyone would rest in peace. Some deserved consequences for the evil they demonstrated while alive.
Sheol, then, was divided into two categories. There was Gehenna as the place of torment for evil where God's anger burned against unbelievers, represented by an ever-present fire, and Gan Eden, the paradise of God.
In OT terms, we would consider Gan Eden a type of Heaven for those who have lived according to God's law, reminiscent of a return to the Garden of Eden before Adam and Eve sinned, while Gehenna developed as the place of punishment, or Hell, as we understand it, for those who had lived immoral and ungodly lives apart from God.
The word for Hell in the NT is Gehenna, which literally referred to a valley called The Valley of Ben-Hinnom, shortened to Gehenna. It was at the southeast corner of the city of Jerusalem. That valley had an evil history, as a place where Israelites who worshipped the idol of Molech, sacrificed their children to this heathen god.
Jer 32:35 They built the high places of Baal that are in the valley of Ben-hinnom to cause their sons and their daughters to pass through the fire to Molech, which I had not commanded them nor had it entered My mind that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin.
Later, when King Josiah was destroying all the pagan worship sites in and around Jerusalem, he also destroyed the shrine in the valley of Ben-Hinnom, so that it could no longer be used for sacrificing children.
2Kings 23:10 He also defiled Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, that no man might make his son or his daughter pass through the fire for Molech.
Later, that same valley became the city dump, a refuse pile where garbage was continually burned. Now, it took on the image of a consuming environment of fire and smoke picturing never-ending suffering and kept the name Gehenna.
Jesus referred to it: Mark 9:43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than, having your two hands, to go into gehenna, into the unquenchable fire, where THEIR WORM DOES NOT DIE, AND THE FIRE IS NOT QUENCHED.
It’s seen in the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Jesus uses the word Hades instead of Sheol and describes the two compartments there.
Luke 16:19-24 Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man's table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham's bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.'
This is the one and only picture Jesus drew of the two places within death. It was compatible with the Hebrew understanding of Gan Eden and Gehenna. But notice, the transition from death to final destination was immediate. Not going to a place called Sheol as a collection point for all dead and later it would be decided which of the two awaiting places one might go. In the Bible, there has never been another place to go to wait out judgment, or a temporary place to pay for your sins so you can transfer to the other. It was one or the other.
But notice Jesus didn’t say Heaven. He said Abraham’s bosom. Abraham’s bosom was code for Paradise or Gan Eden. The bosom is considered the place of the body from where we receive comfort and rest. It’s why a hug is so soothing. So that, from the place where Abraham was, he would welcome in the family of God and give them comfort and rest.
This was the same idea Jesus used with the thief crucified alongside Him.
Luke 23:42-43 And he was saying, "Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!" And He said to him, "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise."
This story creates a couple of strains for us. We’d think Jesus and the thief would not end up in the same place. But that’s the power of salvation. To think Jeffery Dahmer accepted the Lord in prison before he died and is in heaven today is unthinkable, but that’s the power of grace – God giving us what we don’t deserve. How do we know this thief made it to where Jesus was going? Something in what he said to Jesus indicated belief. So, Jesus said he would join Him there.
Was this Heaven? Not exactly. Remember, we’re still in the OT times, under Hebrew terms of understanding the things of God. Jesus is still using the concept of Sheol with its two destinations, both located in the depths of the earth. The idea of Heaven as Jesus revealed in John 14 wasn’t ready yet.
John 14:2-3 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. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also.
Jesus, needing to prepare a place for them, indicated He was in the process of doing something new, something unlike the OT destination of Gan Eden or Paradise. Thus, we have the interesting question: When did Jesus prepare Heaven for His people?
The answer will present the other strain we have to deal with.
David prophesized: Ps 68:18 You have ascended on high, You have led captive Your captives; You have received gifts among men, even among the rebellious also, that the LORD God may dwell there.
Paul expanded that same idea: Eph 4:7-10 But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gift. Therefore it says, "WHEN HE ASCENDED ON HIGH, HE LED CAPTIVE A HOST OF CAPTIVES, AND HE GAVE GIFTS TO MEN." (Now this expression, "He ascended," what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, so that He might fill all things.)
Peter didn’t fully understand this but said: 1Pet 3:18-19 For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison,
During the three days in the tomb, Jesus was in the place of the dead – Sheol (specifically Gan Eden or Paradise) – and while there proclaimed Himself the Messiah to the Jews who had died in faith, prior to His coming. When He left Sheol and rose again, He gave that same evidence to His followers on the earth. Then, during the 40 days before the ascension, He went back and forth between Heaven and earth to prepare the place for all His people to be with Him in the Father’s House – Heaven. On His ascension, He took with Him the spirits of those who had been in the Paradise of God awaiting their resurrection, emptying and then closing Gan Eden for good. Gehenna remained but Gan Eden was no more.
Rev 1:18 I am the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades. I have power over all realms of life and death, to unlock the doors and set the prisoners free.
It was part of the prophesies concerning the Messiah.
Isa 42:7 To open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners from the dungeon and those who dwell in darkness from the prison.
Isa 61:1 The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners;
The moment Jesus ascended, Heaven as we know it currently was fully prepared. So, Paul can say later: 2Cor 5:8 to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.
John gave us his revelation of what Heaven is like:
Rev 4:2-6 Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne was standing in heaven, and One sitting on the throne. And He who was sitting was like a jasper stone and a sardius in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, like an emerald in appearance. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones; and upon the thrones I saw twenty-four elders sitting, clothed in white garments, and golden crowns on their heads. Out from the throne come flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder. And there were seven lamps of fire burning before the throne, which are the seven Spirits of God; and before the throne there was something like a sea of glass, like crystal; and in the center and around the throne, four living creatures full of eyes in front and behind.
Rev 5:13-14 And every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them, I heard saying, "To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever." And the four living creatures kept saying, "Amen." And the elders fell down and worshiped.
Rev 19:1 After these things I heard something like a loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, saying, "Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God;
Heaven is the home Jesus prepared for us. Interesting that Gehenna is the place prepared for Satan and his demons.
Jesus taught in a parable: Matt 25:41 Then He will also say to those on His left, 'Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels;
Hell wasn’t made for people, yet it is the destination for those who reject God’s offer of salvation. He doesn’t send them to hell, they send themselves there by rejecting Jesus.
So, the concept of Heaven has changed. The OT presented a paradise of rest, not the place prepared for us to dwell in the presence of the Lord. What are the customary words after a Jewish person mentions someone who has died? May they rest in peace.
But if resting is the reward of the righteous, we have a dismal concept for the afterlife. It takes away the hope of the joy of living in the presence of God.
David saw that day when more was to come. Ps 49:15 But God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol, for He will receive me.
Act 2:27 BECAUSE YOU WILL NOT ABANDON MY SOUL TO HADES, NOR ALLOW YOUR HOLY ONE TO UNDERGO DECAY.
David spoke of himself and of the Messiah to come. He knew God would not abandon him in death and leave him there, as strongly as he knew the Holy One would not remain dead after the crucifixion. He was convinced that since the power of God extended into Sheol, death cannot claim victory over God’s children. They will live again in the very presence of the Lord.
Samuel saw more beyond dying. 1Sam 2:6 The LORD kills and makes alive; He brings down to Sheol and raises up.
It was the Hebrew understanding of resurrection. Remember the conversation Jesus had with Martha after Lazarus died? John 11:23-25 Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." Martha said to Him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day." Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies,
Jesus told her He was in charge of the resurrection. Through Him the dead will rise and be lifted into Heaven. The last days were the end of the Old Covenant and beginning of the New Covenant.
Those with an Old Covenant concept of Paradise, only have a place of rest open to all and not a place where God’s family enjoys the presence of the Lord. Most non-believers believe Heaven has an open-door policy that anyone who is good enough will be allowed in. That entrance isn’t based on beliefs. Any good person will get in.
Others believe Heaven is here on earth, not a place yet to be experienced. One Reformed Rabbi said, “The ultimate goal is that we will recreate paradise. We’re not in the business of getting to heaven. We’re in the business of bringing heaven down to earth. the Garden of Eden here in this world, that will be heaven on earth.”
Paul disagreed: 1Cor 15:19 If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. There’s more awaiting us after this life is over.
Lady that kept her fork. Dessert is coming. The best is always at the end.
For Believers, the best is yet to come.
- God’s plan takes into account every aspect of life, from conception to death to life beyond death.
- Each aspect has meaning and purpose.
- For all of it to accomplish His purpose, God must reign over all.
- Because He reigns, He can fulfill all that He intends in the realm of the living and the realm of the dead.