Heaven and Hell
A Biblical and Theological Overview
by Peter Toon
Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986
[Bible quotations are primarily from the New International Version, and others from
the New King James Version, the Revised Standard Version, and the New American Bible.]
PART ONE: Biblical Overview
1. Proclaiming (the Kingdom of) Heaven
The term heaven
The kingdom of heaven/God
2. Warnings Concerning Hell
Material Common to Matthew and Luke
3. Jesus, Exalted into Heaven
Heaven before the Ascension
The Ascension of Jesus into heaven
Theology of the Ascension/Exaltation
4. The Heavenly Commonwealth
Paul on heaven
1 and 2 Peter
John on heaven
5. The Lake of Fire
PART TWO: Historical and Theological Overview
6. Death, the Intermediate State, and Judgment
The intermediate state in Protestant teaching
Augustine on heaven
Viseo Dei – seeing God in heaven
Heaven – what is it like?
Universalism via hell
Universalism via annihilation
Universalism decreed by God
Universalism as an optimistic hope
Universalism as the election of all people to salvation
Universalism in the Bible
On preaching hell
The meaning of “last”
Appendix 1: Encounter with Satan
Identity of Satan
Jesus declares war on Satan’s kingdom
Appendix 2: He Descended into Hell
Part One: Biblical
Part Two: Historical and Theological
This book is a sequel to my The Ascension of our Lord (Thomas Nelson, 1984). It is not intended as a contribution to scholarly debate. Rather it is presented as a basic introductory text for students in colleges and seminaries and as a theological handbook for pastors, preachers, and teachers. In writing it I have been elated (in contemplating heaven) and deflated (in considering hell).
Working from a high view of the sacred Scriptures, I have sought to present the biblical information about heaven and hell as clearly as possible. This has been no easy task, for these realities are “outside” the space and time we know; they must be described in language which of necessity exists for communication within our space and time. Further I am not by training a biblical scholar!
Apart from the presentation of the biblical data, I have attempted to show how this was received, interpreted, and processed by Christians within the Church over the centuries since the apostolic age. Obviously I have had to be selective, and in being so I have tried to cover the major types of doctrine which have emerged as Christians have set down their understanding of heaven and hell.
The theological position of a confident belief in heaven and a reluctant belief in hell – from which I began my studies and reflections – has been strengthened by them. However, I believe that I am now far more aware than I was at the beginning of the difficulty of interpreting the imagery, symbolism, and metaphor of biblical texts. They do not easily lend themselves to being the basis for the creation of rational doctrines of what shall be after the Last Judgment.
Further, I am acutely aware that there is little teaching and preaching on heaven and hell in our churches today. I think I understand why, but I still regret the omission. I hope this book will encourage not only prayerful and careful study of these topics but also positive and informed preaching of them.
Finally, I wish to thank Paul Franklyn of Thomas Nelson for his kindness and help.
If you believe in God the Father through Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, then at some time or another you will have to come to terms with your own death and what you believe there is for you (and your loved ones) beyond death. And you really cannot explore personal destiny without also reflecting upon the destiny of the universe and of the earth on which we live. The threat of nuclear war may well help to increase the urgency of reflection on these matters. As you read the Bible and recite the creeds you cannot avoid thinking about the future of the cosmos, the goal and consummation of human history, the judgment of the world by Jesus, the Christ, in the name of God, Creator and Redeemer, the criteria of that judgment and the destinies of those judged, and the new forms of reality that will be created by God to follow the Final Judgment. These topics are normally given the general title of eschatology: the doctrine of the last things.1
In this book we shall be making reference to them, but our main concern will be with heaven (understood as that which is now “above” where Christ is and also that which shall be for the righteous after the Last Judgment) and with hell (understood as that which exists now for the devil and evil angels and that which shall be for the wicked after the Last Judgment).
Of necessity we come to this topic as people living in western society. This context certainly affects the way we think, especially how we think about death and life after death. The questions and problems raised in our minds by our own and other people’s initiatives reflect our culture and ethos. We are members not of a simple agrarian society but of a highly developed secularized and generally affluent society. Our cosmology is very different from that of earlier civilizations and so also is our sensitivity to the realm of the transcendent.
But as Christian believers we approach the topic with an authoritative guide as well as all kinds of helpful signposts and maps. In the sacred Scriptures we have the record of God’s self-revelation; here is a unique source of information concerning heaven and hell. Then, in the history of the Christian community we have creeds, confessions, liturgies, books of theology and devotion, all of which give us important insights into the way in which the Bible has been understood in days past by people of deep spiritual insight and intellectual ability. Thus our approach is that of Anselm of Canterbury, who wrote Credo ut intelligam (I believe in order to understand).
And as we proceed in this spirit we need to be aware of two tendencies which have characterized some Christian thinking and often taken extreme forms. First is the spirit of philistinism which, looking solely to the glory that shall be after death and in the age to come, is blind to beauty, goodness, and harmony here on earth now within God’s creation and human achievement. Second, that spirit of indifference to outward evils (even those that could be prevented) since the whole attention is given to the saving of the soul and gaining a place in heaven for it. Those who truly set their minds and hearts on the realm above where Christ is, ought like him, to be concerned about the world, its needs, and its salvation.
Let us, however, keep things in perspective. These two tendencies or dangers are minimal in importance when compared with the far greater tendency within the contemporary situation of becoming secularized in one’s thinking without truly recognizing it has happened. It is so easy today to lose a genuine spiritual and moral sensitivity to the transcendent and the supernatural, which means losing sensitivity to God and his heaven. Regrettably it is rare to find a healthy attitude in seminaries, colleges, and churches today towards life after death, heaven, or hell. Our thinking and affections are earthbound, even though we use the language of heaven and transcendence in hymns, prayers, and liturgy.
When we do seriously begin to read what the writers of the New Testament say about heaven and hell and then to explore what has been taught in the Church about these topics, we find that three important points emerge. First, the way in which the earliest Christians (as well as many after them) believed in God, Jesus Christ, and heaven is not of the same order as the way in which they have believed in Satan, devils, and hell. We place our faith in God, Jesus Christ, and heaven, but we accept the reality of Satan, the devils, and hell so as to keep far from them! It is a different logic of belief.
Second, we find that we cannot write or talk about heaven and hell from a biblical standpoint unless we accept the New Testament context for such belief. This context necessarily includes the resurrection, ascension, and session of our Lord, together with the hope of his parousia (arrival at the end of the age). Any authentic doctrine of heaven must be centered on Jesus who was raised from the dead and exalted to the right hand of the Father.
Third, much of the material in the New Testament that provides the basis for a doctrine of heaven and hell is written in apocalyptic language; e.g., the sayings of Jesus about the Parousia of the Son of Man and his judging of the peoples (e.g. Matt. 25:31ff.).2 Though such language has a certain oddity to our ears, it had a familiar ring in the Jewish context in which Jesus lived and taught; it was natural that he should have made use of it, along with his use of the more ancient Jewish forms of speech taken from the Torah and other parts of the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament). Of course everything he took over he transformed by his own genius and knowledge; this said, the outward form of some of his sayings is similar to those known as apocalyptic, within the Jewish literature of the period 200 BC to AD 100.3
Those books which are called apocalyptic usually have the following doctrinal characteristics: belief that history will not simply and evenly move from the evil age into the age of righteousness (i.e., pessimism about the progress of history); the world and the heavens as the sphere of a spiritual war between God and Satan (the chief fallen angel) for the loyalty and worship of humankind; a clear distinction between this evil age and the age of the kingdom of God which is yet to come; the imminence of the intervention of God within history to judge the wicked and reward the righteous; the expectation that the righteous dead will be raised from dead, given new bodies and made to enjoy the life of the new age after the last judgment; and the ultimate triumph of God over all his enemies, especially Satan.
Apocalyptic is best viewed as primarily but not only a development from the later prophetical books of the Old Testament canon at a time when there was a deep longing within Judaism for God to intervene on behalf of his people, to vindicate his cause, and to glorify his name (i.e., from 200 BC). Thus the authors of the apocalyptic visions, dreams and revelations use a variety of imagery, metaphor, and symbolism to communicate what they have “seen” in terms of God’s heaven, the angelic hosts, the future of the righteous and the doom of the wicked. As they pull back the curtain to show aspects of the heavenly realm (e.g., God’s intervention in history and the nature of his judgment of the nations), they are forced to use language to describe that with which it was never particularly designed to deal! To the modern reader much of the imagery may therefore seem bizarre and weird – just as do parts of the book of Revelation (itself called an Apocalypse) to some people today.
It is certainly true that the ethos and atmosphere of the New Testament is different from that of the Jewish apocalyptic literature. However, it is different not because Jesus and his disciples rejected apocalyptic but because they took it for granted. We must admit that had there not first developed within Judaism an apocalyptic expression of the immediate future, with the hope of an absolutely new age preceded by the resurrection of the dead, it is difficult to see how Jesus could have taught and acted in the way that he did. Jesus accepted the basic expectations of apocalyptic literature – especially the coming from heaven of the Son of Man and the resurrection of the dead, in the context of the two ages – modified or transformed them, and at the same time began to fulfill them (e.g., in his own resurrection). The apostles continued this process of development and fulfillment. Thus apocalyptic teaching forms a bridge from the Old Testament to the New Testament. It helps us to see how God began to act in Jesus in a decisive, eschatological way.
In this book there is no specific chapter on the teaching of the Old Testament books on life after death. Reference will be made to the Old Testament in most chapters, but it is excluded from the major presentation because it contains little clear and explicit teaching about heaven and hell in terms of human destiny. Certainly it has many insights into the nature of God’s holy habitation which we call heaven, and we shall notice these. But apart from texts such as Psalm 73:23, 24, where the psalmist reaches a particular height of inspiration and illumination, the general position of the Old Testament is to assert survival after death in the shadowy realm of Sheol.4 Certainly at the close of the Old Testament period the belief in personal, in contrast to national, resurrection is beginning to appear (Dan. 12:2), but this belief is expressed in greater detail and with more variety in the intertestamental, apocalyptic literature.5
Therefore our study begins with an investigation of the teaching of Jesus concerning heaven and hell. Then we note the pivotal importance of his resurrection and ascension for the developing Christian doctrine of heaven. This leads us to study the teaching of the rest of the New Testament on heaven and hell. Having completed our biblical survey, which is part one, we turn in part two to see how the Church over the centuries has interpreted the biblical texts in creating doctrines of heaven and hell and in facing related questions. This study does not intend to provide an exhaustive study of either the biblical data or the doctrines of the Church through history. Rather the aim is to provide a reliable and interesting introduction.
1Etymologically, eschatology should mean “the doctrine or science of the last things” and refer to the second advent, last judgment, heaven and hell. However, in both biblical studies and systematic theology the term has been recently given a width of meaning! See further, I. H. Marshall, “Slippery Words: 1. Eschatology;” Expository Times, Vol. 89, 1977–78, 264–69.
2The best book on apocalyptic is Christopher Rowland, The Open Heaven, London, 1982. See also D. S. Russell, The Method and Message of Jewish Apocalyptic, London, 1964, and Apocalyptic: Ancient and Modern, London, 1978. There is a helpful introduction from a conservative standpoint in S. H. Travis, Christian Hope and the Future of Man, Leicester, 1980.
3Apart from Daniel and Revelation, a list of apocalyptic writings would include the following:
1 or Ethiopic Enoch
2 or Slavonic Enoch
2 or Syriac Baruch
3 or Greek Baruch
4 Ezra or 2 Esdras
Apocalypse of Abraham
Testament of Abraham
Testaments of Levi and Naphtali (from the Testaments of the XII Patriarchs)
Ascension of Isaiah
Shepherd of Hermas
3 or Hebrew Enoch.
Most of these are in The Apocryphal Old Testament, ed. H. F. D. Sparks, Oxford University Press, 1985.
4For Sheol see “Dead, Abode of the” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 1, 787–89.
5See the article “Future Life in Intertestamental Literature” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Suppl. Vol., 348–51. For more detail see G. W. E. Nickelsburg Jr., Resurrection, Immortality and Eternal Life in Intertestamental Judaism, Cambridge, MA, 1972.
Part One: Biblical Overview
Chapter 1 – Proclaiming (the Kingdom of) Heaven
The primary and essential message of Jesus was that of the kingdom of heaven (God). He began his ministry by proclaiming good news about God and saying, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” Thus it can never be said that heaven and hell were given an equivalent emphasis and value in his preaching and teaching. We shall certainly argue and assume that Jesus spoke solemnly about hell as God’s provision for fallen and evil angels and that he urgently warned his hearers to repent and believe in order to avoid the possibility of going to hell. Hell is, however, a secondary feature of his teaching, not a primary one. We shall examine this teaching in the next chapter. Here we concentrate on heaven.
Since the word heaven has a width of meaning in the Scriptures, we shall first notice the meaning in (1) the Synoptic Gospels and (2) John’s Gospel, before looking at the three themes of the kingdom of heaven, eternal life, and salvation. We do not intend to cover every reference to heaven in the Gospels; our task is to highlight the prominent features.
The term heaven
In the Old Testament heaven (Heb. šamayim, a plural form) often means the sky (firmament of heaven, expanse of the sky) as in Genesis 1:6ff. Here are the stars and the clouds; from here comes the dew and rain. Secondly, heaven often refers to God’s unique habitation: as Solomon prayed, “Hear from heaven, your dwelling place” (1 Kings 8:30). In Hebrew cosmology this was believed to be “above” the skies, where God was served and surrounded by his heavenly host of spiritual, heavenly beings (e.g. 1 Kings 22:19ff.; Isa. 6:3ff.; Job 1:6ff.; Ps. 82:1; Dan. 7:9ff.). Even so, the Hebrews recognized that God was both above and within his creation: “The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built,’ exclaimed Solomon (1 Kings 8:27). It is from heaven, as his habitation, that God speaks to and blesses his people – as is made clear in Deuteronomy (4:36; 12:5, 11 etc.). Yet neither the visible nor the invisible worlds can enclose the Lord, for not only did he create them, but he is also superior to them and does not allow them to confine him in any way.1
In the period between the completion of the writing of the Old Testament and the apostolic age, certain developments took place which we need to note. The tendency to avoid the use of God’s name became stronger, and in its place substitutes became increasingly common, of which “heaven” was an important one. This explains, in part, the phrase “kingdom of heaven” meaning “the kingdom of God.” Then, in the context of the cosmological speculations within the apocalyptic, pseudepigraphic, and rabbincal writings concerning the nature of heaven as God’s holy habitation, there was a development in both the doctrine of angels and of demons.2 Aspects of this development are reflected, as we shall note, in both the Gospels and the Epistles. Further, the belief that these will be a resurrection of the dead at the end of the age was strengthened in this period, even though it was not universally accepted in Judaism and was not expressed in one form. By his own resurrection, Jesus gave a totally new dimension to this belief: namely, that in heaven the faithful will have new, glorious bodies.
1. Heaven in the Synoptic Gospels. Because the aim of the Gospels is connected with God’s salvation, the use of ouranos and ouranoi (which together with ouranios, heavenly, occur about 150 times in these three Gospels) to refer to the skies (and only the skies) is rare. For example, the birds that fly in the skies are “birds of heaven” (Matt. 6:26; 8:20). Other references which seem to mean only “sky” do, in fact, on closer examination, have an inbuilt suggestion of God’s presence or habitation – e.g. Jesus lifted up his eyes to heaven (Mark 6:41). This is also true of the expression “heaven and earth” (Matt. 11:25).
The use of heaven instead of the divine name is quite common, especially in Matthew, “the Jewish Gospel.” A straightforward example is provided by the question put to Jesus, “John’s baptism: Was it from heaven or from men?” Here “from heaven” means “from God.” Less straightforward but in the same class are the sayings about “treasure in heaven” (Matt. 6:20; Luke 12:33; Matt. 19:21; Mark 10:21; Luke 18:22), meaning treasure with God. They who do the will of God as faithful disciples of Jesus will find true riches in and with the living God, their Father in heaven. Also within this category we need to include both the “bound in heaven” and “loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:19), meaning “before God,” and “your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20), meaning “you are safe as held by God.” The “joy in heaven” (Luke 15:7) over the repenting sinner means not only “with God” but also “with God and all the company of heaven,” highlighting the community aspect of God’s presence.3
Heaven also occurs in passages of an apocalyptic or eschatological flavor. Significantly, at the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan by John, there is the opening of heaven (the rending of the heavens); see Mark 1:10; Matthew 3:16; Luke 3:21. Possibly the Markan text echoes the prayer of Isaiah 64:1: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down”; and there are similar ideas in Jewish literature of the hearing of a voice after the rending of the heavens (see Test. Levi. 2:6; 5:1; 18:6) and of the bestowal of the Spirit (Test. Levi. 18:61ff.; Test. Jud. 24:2ff.). The Apocalypse of Baruch has these words: “Behold the heavens opened, and I saw a vision, and strength was given me, and a voice was heard from on high” (xxii. 1). The rending of the heavens points to God as Creator and Redeemer who is able to tear down and come through what he has created in order to visit his people, or in the case of Jesus, to bestow the Spirit upon the Messiah, his Chosen One.
Further, there are the references to heaven in the “little apocalypses” of Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21, and especially Matthew 24:29–31, Mark 13:24–7 and Luke 21:25–8.4 As part of the signs associated with the coming of the Son of Man to earth from heaven at the end of this present evil age, the following phenomena are described: the stars falling from heaven, the powers in the heaven being shaken, the angels sent from heaven to gather the elect together and the sign of the Son of Man appearing in heaven. Obviously here the word heaven refers both to the habitation of God and to the extremities of the skies, and it is not necessary to separate these two meanings. There are many parallels to this form of literature within the Jewish apocalypses, and there are roots of it in the Old Testament (e.g. Isa. 13:13; 34:4; 50:3; 51:6; Jer. 4:23–6). The language used is certainly not of the same kind as that used to describe the descent of a spacecraft after its voyage in space! What it points to within its symbolic structure is (a) the sovereign power and majesty of God who initiates everything from his holy habitation, (b) the centrality of Jesus, the heavenly Son of Man, in the display of God’s power, holiness and judgment of his world, and (c) the end of the present order in order to make possible a new order.
Then there are such passages as Luke 9:54; 10:18 and Mark 14:62 (// Matt. 26:64, cf Luke 22:69). In these the apocalyptic element is obvious. In Luke 9:54 James and John ask Jesus, “Lord do you want us to call down fire from heaven to destroy them (= Samaritans)?” For this suggestion they were rebuked. Jesus knew that his glory was to be achieved via the Cross, and though he was vividly aware of the heavenly divine powers, he was also most careful about how they were used. Fire as judgment was reserved for the end time. The second Lukan text records the words of Jesus after the joyful return of the seventy disciples. He said, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” The rabbis expected the defeat of Satan and his hosts by the Messiah in the last days: Here Jesus claims that it is actually occurring in his mission and ministry in advance of the end-time. That is, Satan as the “accuser” and an angel who has rebelled against God’s sovereign will has been removed from his position with the other angels in God’s holy habitation. The word “lightning,” which is also connected with the phenomena associated with the future coming of the Son of Man (Luke 17:24; Matt. 24:27), reflects the apocalyptic character of this saying. The final text is the reply of Jesus at his trial before the high priest to whom he said, “I am the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One, and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62). Jesus appears to be quoting a combination of Daniel 7:13 and Psalm 110:1 and pointing to his enthronement as the Messiah by God and possibly to his future return to earth as judge. Thus Jesus symbolically speaks of his vindication by the Father, who will declare him truly to be the Messiah.
Note how God, as Father, is said to be in heaven – as in the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9). The phrase “my Father in heaven” is found in Matthew 7:21; 10:32–33; 12:50; 16:17; 18:10, 19; “my heavenly Father” in Matthew 15:13; 18:35; “your Father in heaven” in Matthew 5:16, 45; 6:1; 7:11; 18:14; Mark 11:25 (cf. Luke 11:13); and “your heavenly Father” in Matthew 5:48; 6:14; 6:26; 6:32; 23:9. It is necessary to offer an explanation of the fact that in some cases the parallel verse in Mark does not have the words “Father in heaven,” e.g. Matthew 12:50 and Mark 3:35, which has “the will of God” instead of “will of my Father in heaven.” Instead of saying that Matthew is fond of the expression “Father in heaven” and its equivalent phrases, a better explanation is to claim that Matthew preserves the mode of speech used by Jesus and that Mark and Luke left out references to “Father in heaven” because they were conscious that Gentiles would not easily or readily understand such a description of God. To Gentiles it would imply an unworthy view of God since they would interpret the title “Father” by pagan notions of reproduction and the like.5
In using such a title for God as “Father in heaven;” Jesus was bringing together ideas of transcendence and near presence, of sovereign majesty and personal care, of high demand and practical help. The God of the gospel is not only exalted “above” the world (i.e. remote in holiness); he is also personally involved in and with his creation, exercising tender care and requiring his children to do his will (for their good). True discipleship is life lived for and in fellowship with this God. Further, it needs to be noted that Jesus defined his own relation to this God in a different way than that of his disciples’ relation to God. This difference is clear from the use of “my” and “your.” The unique relation of Jesus to God is made even clearer in the Gospel of John.
2. Heaven in John’s Gospel. Here the word occurs sixteen times (1:32; 1:51; 3:13; 3:27; 3:31; 6:31, 32, 33, 38, 41, 42, 50, 51, 58; 12:28; 17:1), and the adjective “heavenly” once (3:12). Heaven is used as a substitute for the divine name (3:27), and there is a close identification between the physical heavens and God’s holy habitation (1:32; 17:1). On most occasions heaven is used theologically of God in his holy habitation, separated from the earth; from this heaven the Son descends and to it he ascends. Let us examine several texts.
Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man:”
This saying recalls the vision of Jacob (Gen. 28:10ff.) where there are angels and a ladder but no open heaven. The vision of the divine promised by Jesus to Nathaniel and his fellow disciples has no ladder but an open heaven. Jesus, as Son of Man, takes the place of the ladder, for it is in and through him that there is a link between heaven as God’s holy habitation and earth as the place where men dwell. Jesus is the logos, the revelation of God, and the light of the world. It is important to note that the verb “open” is in the perfect tense, emphasizing that heaven is open and will remain open; fellowship with God has begun and will continue in and through the Son of Man.
In primitive apocalyptic thought the Son of Man was a heavenly being who would descend to earth from heaven on the last day to establish communion between heaven and earth. Jesus asserts that the Son of Man has already come and heaven is open; eternal life is now freely available as the gift of God (see below on eternal life).6
Jesus said, “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No-one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven – the Son of Man.”
The “earthly things” are probably events in the physical realm such as birth and wind (to which reference has been made earlier in John 3), which point parabolically to the gospel, Christ, and the work of the Spirit. Jesus has used parables to encourage true faith in Nicodemus, but these have not yet achieved their purpose. Thus it will be useless for Jesus to speak directly without illustrations of “heavenly things,” spiritual realities. It is not possible, Jesus continues, for men to mount up to heaven and attain direct knowledge of God by visiting him in his holy habitation. As the heavenly Son of Man he has come from God and by his incarnation has made himself (and thus heavenly things) accessible to earthly men. Thus Jesus is the key to true knowledge of God and participation in his life, the gift of eternal life. Heaven is from where Jesus comes and to where he goes.
John 6:38 and 51
Jesus said, “For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him (my Father) who sent me ... I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If a man eats of this bread he will live forever.”
Again heaven is from where Jesus comes to be incarnate among men. The purpose of his coming is to do the will of the Father (thus his “It is finished” on the cross (19:30)) and as part of this to provide eternal life (living bread) for those who receive him as Messiah. That he has come down from God in heaven is repeated seven times in this chapter – verses 33, 38, 41, 42, 50, 51, 58. Further it is also stated in this chapter that the will of God includes the resurrection of faithful believers “at the last day” (39–40).
What Jesus proclaimed and provided as the gift of God to repentant and believing sinners is described in the four gospels as entering the kingdom of heaven (God), receiving eternal life, and being saved. The account of the visit of the rich young man to Jesus (Mark 10:17–31; Matthew 19:16–30; Luke 18:18–30) reveals that these heavenly provisions are dynamically equivalent.7
The young man asked what he had to do to “inherit eternal life”; Jesus told him that apart from obeying the commandments he had to sell all that he possessed, give to the poor, and become a disciple. Seeing that this reply did not please the rich young man, Jesus commented that it is hard for those with riches to “enter the kingdom of God.” Somewhat surprised by this reply, the disciples then asked whether anyone could “be saved.” Jesus told them that with God all things are possible and that those who make genuine sacrifice for his (Jesus’) sake will receive “eternal life in the age to come.”
To inherit eternal life, to enter the kingdom of God, and to be saved are different ways of expressing the relationship to God of a person who is united to Jesus in faith and discipleship. Though their meanings are not strictly identical, they point to the one divine reality which God brings into being by his power through the Gospel.
It will now be our task to look at these three themes in the teaching of Jesus. As we proceed we shall bear in mind that the Parousia (the arrival in glory of Jesus as Son of Man) and the final judgment mark the division temporally between this evil age and the future age of the kingdom of heaven/God, when salvation will be completed and eternal life enjoyed. Further, we shall bear in mind that, in contrast with some Jewish apocalyptic sources, Jesus is reticent concerning conditions of life after his Parousia. However, what he does teach is sufficient for us to grasp the feelings of the apostle Paul who, recalling Isaiah 64:3, wrote “No eye has seen, no ear heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9).
The kingdom of heaven/God8
It is necessary to provide a few examples to show that the kingdom of God is synonymous with the kingdom of heaven. This can be done by placing side by side parallel texts from Matthew (who uses “kingdom of heaven”) and both Mark and Luke.
Mark 1:15. The time has come. The Kingdom of God is near. Repent ...
Matt. 4:17 Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.
Matt. 11:11 He who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he [John].
Luke 7:28 The one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.
Mark 4:11 The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you.
Matt.13:11 The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you.
(Others include Matt. 5:3 // Luke 6:20, Matt. 13:33 // Luke 13:20, and Matt. 19:14 // Mark 10:14 and Luke 18:16.)
By way of general observations, it is generally accepted by New Testament scholars that the teaching of Jesus concerning the kingdom refers to the gracious reign of God both in the present and in the future and that the kingdom includes both. But precisely how Jesus himself saw the relation of future and present is not easy to determine or state. Jesus never formally defined the expression “kingdom of God,” nor did he distinguish his usage from that of his contemporaries, be they rabbis or Essenes. Certainly, in line with the prophets of Israel he looked for the total implementation of God’s gracious reign in terms of a new creation in which people were united to their Lord in a new covenant. This new order would follow the “day of the Lord,” an event he described in apocalyptic terms and with reference to himself as the judge. But he also spoke and lived as one whose own ministry actually brought God’s gracious and liberating reign into human lives as he enabled people to become whole and to enjoy genuine fellowship and communion with God as Father.
Various analogies may help us understand how a kingdom that will certainly be is already truly present. The kingdom of the present is like the dawning of a new day; it is the real day but only the first intimation and experience of it. Or the kingdom of the present is like the tip of the iceberg; the real thing but only a small part of the total reality. Or the kingdom of the present is like the firstfruits of the harvest, the initial deposit before the final payment is made, and the honeymoon at the beginning of a marriage. So it is said that the kingdom is not yet in its fullness but is already here in its initial impact.
In teaching about the kingdom Jesus used many parables.9 These are forms of speech which create comparisons between commonplace objects, events, and persons (e.g., harvest, fish, weddings, children) and a less common reality (e.g., the reality of the kingdom of God). The parables of Jesus certainly effect a comparison between the earthly and the heavenly (transcendent). It is important to remember this when they relate to heaven and hell. Parabolic teaching is sometimes allegorical, even though some of it amounts to short stories. None of the parables which deal with life after the final judgment are allegorical.
Before we look at those parables which deal with the heavenly life of the age to come, we must quickly notice those sayings and parables of Jesus which indicate (1) that the kingdom is a present reality, the dawning of the age of salvation, and (2) the certainty of future judgment before the complete arrival of the kingdom.
1. Three sayings of Jesus point to his conviction that the kingdom had dawned or come near through his presence and ministry.
Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come visibly, nor will people say, ‘Here it is’, or ‘There it is’, because the kingdom of God is within (or, among) you.”
The question from the Pharisees presupposed the apocalyptic conviction that the arrival of the kingdom can be calculated in terms of specific external signs – wars, earthquakes, etc. Jesus tells them that in looking for a future kingdom they were overlooking the presence of the kingdom in his person and ministry. The Greek entos can be translated “within,” “among,” or “in the midst of.”
If I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you (NKJV) cf. Luke 11:20).
The exorcisms by Jesus and his binding of Satan point to the arrival of the kingdom of God and the overthrow of the kingdom of Satan.
From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. (cf. Luke 16:16).
This is not an easy statement to interpret, but it is clear that the ministry of John the Baptist was seen by Jesus as the ending of the old period of revelation which includes the prophets and the law. With Jesus and his ministry a new era, a new period, the time of the kingdom has come and has been advancing against the domain of Satan.
2. Since the theme of the day of the Lord’s judgment was emphasized by both the canonical prophets and apocalyptic writers it is not surprising that Jesus also had much to say about judgment. Among the parables are those of the Weeds (Matt. 13:24–30), the Unmerciful Servant (Matt. 18:23–34) the Ten Maidens (Matt. 25:1–12), the Doorkeeper (Mark 13:34) and the Thief (Matt. 24:43), and the eschatological discourse of Matthew 25:31–46.
For the righteous there will be fellowship with Jesus in the heavenly life of the age to come. This is conveyed through the image of the banquet. We must now examine how this image is used.
Matthew 8:11 (// Luke 13:29)
Jesus said, “I say to you that many will come from the east and the west and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.”
In the tradition of the rabbis Jesus spoke of the new quality and depth of life in the age to come through the picture of a banquet or marriage feast. We must bear in mind that such occasions and meals were much looked forward to and highly valued by people who worked hard, for long hours and possessed few luxuries. Not only the food but the communal celebration was enjoyed.
Isaiah had spoken of the future reign of God in this way: “On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine – the best of meats and the finest of wines” (25:6). Here God is presented as preparing a great banquet on Mount Zion to celebrate his enthronement as King. It is a sumptuous banquet with a universal invitation for all people, Jew and Gentile.
From this image the idea of the messianic banquet developed, to which reference is made in the apocryphal writings. For example, ‘Rise, stand up, and see the whole company of those who bear the Lord’s mark and sit at his table. They have moved out of the shadow of this world and have received shining robes from the Lord’ (2 Esdras 2:38–9; see also from Qumran 1QSa. 2:11–21). The messianic age and the age of the kingdom were pictured as beginning with banquets of food more delicious than the manna provided by God in the wilderness for Moses and Israel.
Thus Jesus taught that in the heavenly age to come Jews and Gentiles will live in joy and in fellowship with the Lord and each other.
Jesus said, “It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. I tell you the truth, he will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at table and will come and wait on them.”
This is part of a parable told by Jesus in order to emphasize the need for watchfulness by his disciples as they awaited his Parousia. In the parable the master, on his return, reverses roles; he dresses himself as a servant and prepares a banquet for his faithful servants. By this image Jesus again points to the superabundant blessings of God’s grace in the new age of the kingdom.
Jesus said, “I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourself, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”
Disciples are to use their money and possessions in the service of the kingdom to gain, as it were, the friendship of God and his good angels in order that they will then welcome them into God’s holy habitation, where the angels adore him. This recalls the teaching of Jesus in John 14:2. “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you.”
Luke 22:29–30 (cf. Matt. 19:28)
Jesus said, “I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
Here Jesus makes a promise to those disciples who have continued with him over the last three years in his trials. The verb “to confer” used here is normally used with reference to the making of a covenant by God: Thus the glorious future to which he looks forward is as sure as the covenant of God. In this they will share with their Lord the task of governing and ruling the new people of God (Israel). Probably Jesus has in mind their pivotal position in the creation of the Church and its early organization in which they will be engaged before enjoying the fullness of the banquet of the kingdom of the age to come.
Matthew 19:28 has the word palingenesia (renewal, regeneration of all things) pointing to the cosmic renewal involved in the theme of the kingdom.
The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son ...
This is the parable of the wedding banquet (cf. Luke 14:16–24). Jesus uses the image of the feast to convey the joyous fellowship and communion of the coming heavenly age of the kingdom as well as to warn the Jews of their exclusion if they do not repent and receive the Gospel. The coming kingdom will be God’s eschatological table of sharing involving Jew and Gentile.
The virgins who were ready went in with the bridegroom to the wedding banquet.
The parable of the ten virgins emphasized the need for watchfulness in terms of the Parousia, which will be followed by the great banquet to which all the faithful and watchful will be invited. They will attend and rejoice in the celebration of the union of God and his people.
Mark 14:25 (// Matt. 26:29; Luke 22:18)
Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in the kingdom of God.”
This statement was made at the Last Supper in the context of the Passover meal. “That day” points to the Parousia of Jesus as Son of Man, to be followed by the establishment of perfect and uninterrupted fellowship between God and his covenant people in the experience of the salvation brought by Jesus as Messiah. The cup that Jesus did not drink was probably the fourth cup used in the Passover ritual; it was associated with the promise that God will take his people to be with him forever (Exod. 6:6–7).10
In these texts the image of the banquet is clear, pointing to the final consummation of the kingdom, in which there will be celebration, joy, and communion/fellowship of a superabundant and amazing quality. Because it will be of this nature, the future heavenly kingdom will also be a sphere of enlarged opportunities for the righteous in their service of God. This is communicated in those parables of Jesus where servants are placed in charge of greater possessions/lands following faithful service (e.g., Luke 12:44; Matt. 24:47; Luke 19:17, 19).
Two further characteristics of the future heavenly kingdom deserve notice. First, it is characterized by being absolutely new, and secondly, its members are truly blessed. The new wine cannot be put into old wineskins, for the God who says, “I am doing a new thing.” (Isa. 43:19), is creating a new order in and through the Messiah. At his Parousia, said Jesus, there would be the “renewal of all things” (Matt. 19:28). This dimension of newness is expressed in what Jesus told the Sadducees about the Resurrection: “When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Mark 12:25; Matt. 22:30; Luke 20:34–36). Contrary to the common Jewish idea that earthly relationships in a purer and deeper form would be resumed after the resurrection, Jesus teaches that it will be a new creation, not merely the reinstatement of the original one. It is probably because it will be absolutely new that Jesus never tried to represent it graphically. Whatever precisely it will be like, its center will be harmony and communion with God through the Son.11
After the judgment the Son of Man will say to the sheep on his right hand: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world” (Matt. 25:34). Here Jesus is saying that God, the Father, has pronounced blessing (eulogomēnos = barak in the Old Testament and indicates the blessedness which belongs to God as God) upon the righteous so that they truly are “the blessed of the Blest.” In the Beatitudes of Matthew 5 and Luke 6 the word translated “blessed” is makarios and means “Oh the happiness of,” indicating fullness of joy from the human recipient’s point of view. It is in the second half of the Beatitudes that the nature of true blessedness is delineated and what it means to be “the blessed of the Blest” is explored. It is eulogemēnos which in its fullness belongs to the future kingdom even though it is actually experienced now in part by those who trust in God, receive the Messiah, and do the divine will. As a ray of light passes through a prism to be broken up into the colors of the rainbow, so the reality of the kingdom for the faithful is expressed in the colorful promises of the Beatitudes. The righteous and faithful who already know the rule of God in their hearts will experience the perfection of that rule; they who now know the comfort of God will experience the elimination of all pain and suffering with genuine peace and tranquility; they who now long for a right relationship with God and their fellow men will experience such an in-depth relationship with God in Christ and in the communion of saints; they who now experience divine mercy and are merciful will know the experience of the full reception and appropriation of the divine mercy; and they who now seek to have singleness of mind and purity of heart will be granted the visio dei, the sight of God in the face of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. So we see that the blessedness is eschatological but not expressed in apocalyptic terminology; experienced now, it will be known constantly and fully in the new divine order of the kingdom of heaven.
The rich young man asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17). His attitude reflected current Jewish piety, a piety of achievement (cf. Pss. Solomon 14:6; 3:16; 14:10; 1 Enoch 38:4; 40:9; 48:3; 2 Macc. 7:9). Jesus spoke of receiving, as a gift, eternal life. Although the expression “eternal life” is not common in the Synoptic Gospels, occurring only seven times, the word “life” is sometimes used in such a way as to have the same meaning as “eternal life.” For example, “It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into hell” (Mark 9:43; cf. Matt. 7:14; Acts 3:15; 5:20; 11:18).
The function of “eternal” (aionios), which literally means “pertaining to an age,” is to give a quantitative definition to the qualitative life, received as God’s gift. It is the life of the age that begins after the Last judgment and which has no end. And that which is properly a future blessing becomes a present fact in virtue of the realization of the future in Jesus, the Messiah. The possession of the gift of eternal life through belief in the Messiah in this age as an anticipation of its full possession in the age to come is a theme much emphasized in John’s Gospel. In this “spiritual” gospel eternal life is always presented as the gift of God to the believer: Neither the Father nor the Son are said to have it since the Father “has life in himself’ (5:26) and he has granted this same life to the Son (5:26).
In his Prologue, John told his readers that “in the Word was life and that life was the light of men.” Life (zoē) and light (phōs) go together; he who has life is the Revealer of deity. The Word made flesh, the Son and the Messiah, is the life (11:25; 14:6), the bread of life (6:35, 48), the light of life (8:12), who gives the water of life (4:10f; 7:38) and bread of life (6:50ff.). His words are spirit and life (6:63) and actual words of eternal life (6:68). And this life (zoē) cannot be put to death, for when Jesus dies upon the Cross it is his mortal life (psychē) which he gives up in death.12
To receive the incarnate Son and to believe in him results in the bestowal of revelation and of eternal life (3:16). It is noteworthy that eternal life is first mentioned in the gospel immediately after the sole reference to the kingdom of God (3:3, 5). Thus the Johannine emphasis upon eternal life as a gift present that anticipates a greater fullness in the age to come, resembles the synoptic emphasis upon God’s saving rule coming into human lives now. In fact a study of the seventeen references to eternal life show that while reference to the age to come is retained, it is not prominent (3:15, 16, 36; 4:14, 36; 5:24, 39; 6:27, 40, 47, 54, 68; 10:28; 12:25, 50; 17:2, 3). Eternal life is presented as a quality and depth of life given by God to believers in this age that they might truly know him in this age and the age to come.
The truth that eternal life is received in the present is clear from such a statement of Jesus’ as this: “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life” (5:24). However, the future gaining of life is made clear in this promise made to the woman at the well: “Whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (4:14; see also 4:36; 5:28; 6:27; 12:25).
If the primary characteristic of the possession of eternal life now is genuine knowledge of God and communion with him in the life of faith/faithfulness, then to what do the believing faithful look forward? In his priestly prayer recorded in John 17, Jesus prayed: “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world” (v. 24). To be present with Christ and to have fellowship with him in the sphere of his glorified Being constitute a much deeper and more profound experience of grace than the highest moments of spiritual fellowship on earth in this age. The glory of the exalted Jesus is the radiance of the eternal deity that he shares with the Father in the unity of the Holy Trinity. The final wish of Jesus was that his disciples be with him, in his true home, the Father’s presence; there they will “see his glory,” not with human physical eyes but with the eyes of the heart and understanding and be lost in wonder, love, and praise (cf. 2 Cor. 3:18 and 1 John 3:2). In the Old Testament glory refers not to God in his essential nature but to God in self-unveiling and self-revelation, especially in his mighty acts of salvation (Exod. 14:17ff.; Ps. 96:3). Because Jesus is the incarnate Son of God, he radiates God’s glory but does so in such a way that his followers (with whom he shares human nature) are enabled by grace to enjoy the power and blessing of the self-unveiling of God in and through him.
Eternal life, a present possession, will be a future reality also and will include being with Jesus for ever and seeing the glory of God in him.
After the rich young man had gone away sorrowful, Jesus told the disciples: “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” This statement amazed the disciples who asked, “Who then can be saved?” (Mark 10:24, 26). Jesus explained that with God the impossible is possible and that men can and will be saved.
To appreciate this reference to salvation from God we need to recall that salvation is an important theme in the later prophetic teaching of the Old Testament, where it is presented as a new creation: that is, the old creation renewed by God’s redemption. The hope of a new Israel in a new environment is implicit in the concept of God’s salvation which has three strands. The oldest strand is the renewal of the natural order, a restoration of the original, paradisal condition (Isa. 9:2–7; 11:1–9). Then there is the provision of the new political order, wherein all nations bring their gifts to Jerusalem and Israel is truly a light to the nations (49:5–13). Finally, there is the vision of the new cosmic order of new heavens and earth (65:17; 66:22).
For the full development of the concepts of the resurrection of the body and of rewards and punishments after death, we have to leave the Old Testament and go into the intertestamental literature. Jesus made use of this development as he also revived the idea of salvation as a new creation wrought by divine grace. In fact the name, Jesus, means “The Lord is salvation.” And Simeon, after seeing Jesus as a babe, exclaimed, “My eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:30). In this child, born in Bethlehem, Simeon perceived the beginning and also the center of God’s new creation since this child is both “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (2:32).
As he began his ministry Jesus proclaimed that salvation came to an individual and a household when one embraced and received the gospel of the kingdom. After Zaccheus, the tax-collector, expressed his intention to live by the gospel, Jesus declared: “Today salvation has come to this house because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and save what was lost” (Luke 19:9–10). To receive salvation a person had to repent and believe in the God who is revealed in the gospel of the kingdom. Jesus told the woman “who was a sinner” that her faith had saved her; in her life a new creation had occurred as her sins had been forgiven (see Luke 7:36–50).
For Jesus salvation meant the forgiveness of sins, the healing of the body/mind/spirit, the making whole of the person, and the participation in the new creation through the gift of eternal life and membership of the kingdom of God/heaven. Therefore, salvation is both a present and a future reality: In fact it is a present reality because as a future reality it has been brought into the present in the life and ministry of Jesus, the Messiah. And though salvation is a gift from God, it does make demands upon its recipients. Thus on one occasion Jesus said: “He who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13; Matt. 10:22; 24:13). Salvation means being placed by God in the new creation coming into being in and around the Messiah, a creation that anticipates the fullness and joy of the complete salvation yet to come.
What the apostles preached is well summarized in Acts 4:12: “Salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” And the apostle Paul spoke of this salvation in terms of new creation (Gal. 6:15), while Peter said that “we are looking forward to a new heaven and new earth, the home of righteousness” (2 Pet. 3:13).
Heaven is the place and sphere where God is wholly and specially known and experienced by his adoring creatures as they serve him. Heaven will be “enlarged” after the resurrection of the incarnate Son, for creatures will see the glory of God in and through this Son. Further, the kingdom of heaven of the age to come after the final judgment of the nations will be a new creation with God in Christ at its center, surrounded by a community who have eternal life, whose sins have been forgiven and who, being pure in heart, see God. This new creation will know no misery or pain but will be filled with joy, peace, and righteousness as its members, in their resurrection bodies, grow deeper into the experience of the mercy of God.
Most of the teaching of Jesus concerning life after death had reference to the kingdom of heaven after his own Parousia and judgment of the nations. But, it may be asked, did he say anything about disciples going to heaven at their death, in the period between his Ascension and Parousia? It is quite possible that he expected that his Parousia would occur very soon after his Exaltation into heaven. We shall never know the answer to this problem because the language of apocalyptic is the language of imminence and urgency. Since Jesus used this language to speak of his Parousia, it was inevitable that some of his sayings gave the impression of an imminent return in glory.14 However, people die every day, and even if he had returned quickly, some would have died between the Exaltation and Parousia. So this is a legitimate question to ask. Two texts merit attention.
First of all there are the familiar words of John 14:1–3: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” “My Father’s house” is a way of describing heaven as God’s holy habitation, where there are sufficient rooms for all the righteous (as the apocalyptic writers had explained: 1 Enoch 39:4; 41:2; 45:3; 2 Esdras 7:80, 101). Jesus, as the Messiah, is to go ahead of his people to prepare their heavenly and eternal habitations (cf. Luke 16:9). And he will return to them in the presence and power of the Paraclete (Holy Spirit) and also in his Parousia. Thus the taking back to heaven may refer to both the taking in and through death and in triumph at his Parousia. However, the primary emphasis appears to be on the latter rather than the former.15
In the second place there are the words of Jesus from the Cross: “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). These words were addressed to the penitent thief. Was Jesus saying that at his death he would enter into heaven? Paradise is a Persian word meaning a walled park or garden. It was taken over into both Hebrew and Greek. In the Septuagint it was used of the Garden of Eden and then, because of the Jewish belief that God would bring the restoration of the primeval bliss of Eden, paradise became the word to describe the future abode of the righteous in the age to come and, to a lesser extent, the intermediate state of bliss between death and the birth of the age of the kingdom. Thus it is possible Jesus was telling the penitent thief that as a disembodied spirit he would enter paradise to await for the complete paradise of the kingdom of heaven.
But there is another way of interpreting the promise of Jesus.
“Today” may be taken as referring to the great saving event begun on Good Friday and ending in the Resurrection, Ascension, and exaltation of Jesus into heaven. “Today” is the “time of messianic salvation.” If this is so, the thief is being told that by believing in Jesus he is united to him and that he will be exalted with him as a member of his body into heaven. Therefore his salvation is sure for the age to come.16
It would seem that there is no absolutely clear teaching of Jesus concerning the “intermediate state.” Even the parable of the rich man and Lazarus does not easily lend itself to providing clarity on this point. The focus of that parable is the self-pandering unbelief of the five brothers (Luke 16:27–31). The paradisal state of reclining on Abraham’s bosom may point only to the kingdom of heaven of the age to come. For Jesus the hope of the disciple was to focus on the Parousia and the kingdom to come.
1For the Old Testament presentation of heaven see Ulrich Simon, Heaven in the Christian Tradition, London, 1958, chapters 1–4.
2See further W. G. E. Nickelsburg, Jr. Resurrection, Immortality and Eternal Life in Intertestamental Judaism.
3See further William Strawson, Jesus and the Future Life, London, 1959, 36–37.
4See the comments of William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, Grand Rapids, 1974, 444ff. and the authorities and studies cited there.
5This is the suggestion of G. Dalman, The Words of Jesus (E. T. D. M. Kay), Edinburgh, 1902, 190–92.
6See further C. Rowland, The Open Heaven, 178ff., and C. K. Barrett, The Gospel according to St. John, London, 1967, 156.
7Cf. the exposition by William L. Lane, Mark, 362ff.
8There are many studies of the theme of the kingdom of God. See e.g., Joachim Jeremias, New Testament Theology, Vol. 1, London 1971, 76ff. and Leonhard Goppelt, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 1, London, 1981, 43ff. A comprehensive treatment is John Gray, The Biblical Doctrine of the Reign of God, Edinburgh, 1979, and a simpler introduction is A. M. Hunter, Christ and the Kingdom, Edinburgh, 1980.
9See further Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, New York, 1963.
10For more detail see Lane, Mark, 508.
11Cf. L. Goppelt, Theology, 73; J. Jeremias, Theology, 248.
12I have found the commentaries of C. K. Barrett (19782), R. E. Brown (1966, 1970, 2 vols.) and L. Morris (1970) very helpful for their explanation of the theme of life and light.
13For the theme of salvation in the Bible, see under “Redemption” in the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 3, Grand Rapids, MI, 177–221.
14S. H. Travis comments that “the imminence language of Jesus asserts that the age of the decisive fulfillment has really dawned, the kingdom of God is being manifested here and now, and the present manifestations guarantee God’s ultimate triumph through Christ,” Christian Hope, 90.
15R. H. Gundry argues that monai (rooms) are spiritual positions in Christ; see his “In my Father’s House are many Monai” Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft, Vol. 58, 1967, 68ff.
16E. E. Ellis, The Gospel of Luke, London, 19742, 268–69.
Chapter 2 – Warnings Concerning Hell
We have already claimed that heaven and hell did not have an equivalent weight or logical position in the teaching of Jesus. Bearing this in mind we shall examine the recorded words of Jesus that directly or indirectly refer to hell as they are found in (a) Mark, (b) the material common to Matthew and Luke, (c) Matthew alone, (d) Luke alone, and (e) John alone. Further, we shall briefly note the recorded statement of John the Baptist on this topic.
In this, the first of the Gospels, we read of the possibility of committing an eternal sin, of being lost, of the Son of Man being ashamed of certain people at his Parousia, and of Gehenna (hell) itself.
3:28–9 (// Matt. 12:31–2; Luke 12:10)
I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin.
An “eternal sin” is an odd expression and probably means a sin so serious as to have eternal consequences. Jesus did not say that the scribes had already committed this sin; but he was warning that they were in danger of committing it by their persistent refusal to recognize the work of God in his ministry as the Messiah of Israel. Not ever to be forgiven by God, the Creator and judge, is a frightening state.
8:34–8 (// Matt. 16:24–8; Luke 9:23–7)
If anyone will come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.
Jesus called for radical discipleship in new life. Its opposite is life dominated by the sinful self, its motivations and aspirations, whose end is perdition. Life without Christ is life that is for this age only. It is to be lost.1
Further, to be ashamed of Jesus, the Messiah, in this world will ensure that when he returns to earth as Son of Man and judge, he will likewise be ashamed of (judge adversely) those who have rejected him on earth. Both the loss of eternal life and the adverse judgment of the Son of Man point to exclusion from God’s holy presence in the age to come.
9:42–8 (// Matt. 18:6–9; Luke 17:1–2; Matt. 5:29–30)
And if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck. If your hand causes you to sin, put it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, Where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.
Here are some very serious warnings uttered by Jesus as he made use of the familiar picture of Gehenna (rendered “hell” here and elsewhere).2 The general point of them is that it is worth making costly sacrifices for the sake of not losing the gift of eternal life. Gehenna was the valley west of Jerusalem where at one time children were sacrificed to the god, Moloch (see 2 Kings 23:10; Jer. 7:31;19:5ff). It was desecrated by king Josiah and then used as the garbage dump for the city of Jerusalem; this fact explains the use of the imagery of worm and maggots, cited from Isaiah 66:24. The picture is of worms and maggots crawling and living off offal, together with fires perpetually smoldering and burning as more refuse is tipped on the site.
In Jewish thought, particularly apocalyptic thought, Gehenna had come to convey the concept of a place of torment for the wicked, following God’s holy judgment of them. For example in 1 Enoch we read: “Then Raphael, one of the holy angels ... said to me, ‘This accursed valley is for those who are cursed for ever; here will be gathered together all who speak with their mouths against the Lord ... and here will be their place of judgement.,” (1 Enoch 27:2. Cf. 90:26ff. and 4 Ezra 7:36; 2 Baruch 59:10, 85:13).
Recalling that the Lord has “a fire in Zion and a furnace in Jerusalem” (Isa. 31:9) and that there is a place of cursing near to Jerusalem where the inhabitants of the city go “to look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against” the Lord and where “their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched” (Isa. 66:24), it is easy to understand how this valley came to be the image of the place of eternal punishment in apocalyptic thought.
Material Common to Matthew and Luke
In these texts we have references to God’s wrath, fire, Hades, Gehenna, prison, destruction, and rejection.
Matthew 3:7 // Luke 3:7
John said to the Pharisees and Sadducees: You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.
John’s baptism was a single, unrepeatable act, with no ritual significance, and it is not to be confused with the Qumran rites. David Hill writes:
The scrolls of the Qumran sect add to our knowledge of the wider background of John’s movement, but there is no evidence that John himself belonged to such a group; he emerged from such a milieu, and that is the most that can be claimed. In its unique character, its availability (as moral purification) to all, and its preparing for an imminent eschatological baptism in spirit and fire, the Johannine rite demonstrates a profound originality which may be due to reflection on the prophetic demand for purity and righteousness of life before the judgment of God (Isa.1:16).3
Thus the wrath from which to flee is that of the final judgment, the great “day of the LORD,” when the wicked and unrepentant will incur the divine displeasure and punishment.
Matthew 3:12 // Luke 3:17
John said: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering wheat into his barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
Here John predicts that the coming of the Messiah will involve judgment involving destruction and punishment. The winnowing fork is used to throw corn and chaff into the air where the wind separates them; thus the threshing floor is cleansed of the chaff. The Messiah will separate the repentant from the unrepentant, gathering the former into his kingdom and condemning the latter to punishment. The unquenchable fire is an image used in the prophetic literature (see Isa. 34:10; 66:24; Jer. 7:20) to point to adverse judgment and punishment from the Lord, and it was used in apocalyptic literature and by the rabbis.4
Matthew 5:25–6 // Luke 12:57–9
Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.
Apart from the direct application of this teaching to the practical situations in which disciples find themselves, there is an allegorical interpretation which points to the necessity of being reconciled to God while there is still time in this life before the accuser (Satan? the Law?) arraigns you before God as judge. In both Isaiah 24:21–2 and 2 Enoch 13:24 the place to which the wicked pass at death is called a prison or dungeon; the last penny is quadrans, an exceedingly small sum. Thus this sombre warning from Jesus concerns the consequences of failing to be in the right with God.
Matthew 7:13–4; Luke 13:23–4
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
The idea of the two ways is found in the Old Testament (see Deut. 30:19 and Jer. 21:8) and in Jewish writings (4 Ezra 7:7ff.; Test. Asher. 1:3, 5; P. Aboth ii. 12–3). “Destruction” refers to the reception of adverse judgment by the Lord at the end of the age; it is the opposite of being given the gift of eternal life. In the Apocalypse of Esdras there is a description of a visit to Tartarus/Gehenna which includes these words: “And they led me down to the bottom of the pit of destruction, and I saw there the twelve plagues of the abyss” (iv, 21–2).
Matthew 8:11–2; Luke 13:27–8
I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The “subjects of the kingdom” are the Jewish people who, because of unbelief, will be cast from the Messianic Banquet of the age to come. Darkness is another word for Gehenna: “The inheritance of sinners is destruction and darkness” (Ps. Sol. 15:10). The experience of the pain of divine punishment is conveyed by the picture of weeping and gnashing of teeth (cf. Matt. 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30). Weeping and wailing point to the expression of grief, while gnashing of teeth points to rage. (One rabbinic source holds that the tears of regret in Gehenna will be so copious that the flames of torment will be slightly cooled.)5
Matthew 10:28; Luke 12:5
Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
The disciples of Jesus must not fear those who can kill only their physical bodies; rather they must fear (reverence) God who, if he so please, can destroy both soul (the real self) and body in Gehenna. The verb apollumai, translated “destroy,” means “to ruin” through destruction rather than to annihilate; thus Jesus is giving a warning of the consequence of not obeying God.
Matthew 11:23; Luke 10:15
And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No you will go down to the depths (= Hades).... But I tell you it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.
Here Jesus echoes the prophecy of Isaiah upon Babylon (14:13ff.), for Capernaum’s impenitence comes from pride, its seeking to make itself like God himself. The town had refused to accept the miracles of Jesus as signs of God’s reign, and so it will be humiliated in judgment. The future tense, “it will be more tolerable,” points to the resurrection of both good and bad at the judgment. The people of Capernaum will be judged and condemned (going down to the depths, Hades). Heaven and Hades are used here to denote the height of glory and the depth of degredation.
Matthew 24:45–51; Luke 12:42–6
Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. I tell you the truth, he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But suppose the servant is wicked and says to himself, “My master is staying away a long time,” and then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at a hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The opening question calls upon the disciples to choose between two possible types of living – to watch and be ready or to waste time and be punished. The severity of the punishment for the unfaithful servant is the same as that for the wicked – separation from the company of the faithful and confinement to Gehenna. (Compare the similar description of excommunication from the faithful in the Manual of Discipline of the Qumran community: “May he be cut off from the midst of the sons of light because he swerved from following God.... May he place his lot in the midst of the eternally cursed” [ii. 16–7].) Thus Jesus again warns his disciples that the only service God will reward is that which is faithful.
There are more references to Gehenna in this gospel than in any other. One reason for this may be that, being written within a Jewish milieu for Jewish Christians, it records more fully Jesus’ teaching on rewards and punishments after death and at the last judgment.
I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, “Raca;” is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, “You fool,” will be in danger of the fire of hell.
Here Jesus lists three graded judgments – local court, national court, and God’s court – to warn that evil attitudes expressed in action or kept in the heart will truly be judged. “You fool” (Gk. mōros) means “You senseless imbecile and apostate.” Jesus warns that hatred of another person can lead to punishment by God in the fire of Gehenna (recalling both the original fire-worship of Moloch and the fires of garbage).
As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
At the Parousia of the Son of Man, Jesus, there will be a radical cleansing of the Church and a separation of the righteous from the evil – just as there is a separation of wheat from weeds at harvest time. The evil will be condemned to Gehenna, here pictured as a fiery furnace (compare Dan. 3:6). 1 Enoch 10:13 speaks of evil persons being led “to the abyss of fire; in torment and in prison they will be shut up for all eternity.” Similar themes occur in other apocalyptic literature.
This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous, and throw them into the fiery furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The angels, accompanying and assisting the Son of Man as judge, gather and separate the good from the bad in preparation for reward or punishment.
I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.
Hades is the realm of the dead and is the Greek word used in the Septuagint to render Sheol, the Hebrew word for the place of the dead. Jesus is here saying that the gates of Hades will not close to imprison in death those who confess that Jesus is Messiah and thus belong to the messianic society. He is promising that life for disciples of the kingdom continues in and through death into the glorious life of the age to come. This being so, then those who are not confessing Jesus as Messiah will be imprisoned by the gates of Hades/Sheol with no hope of life in the kingdom of God.
Your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.
This statement occurs at the end of the parable of the lost sheep. God does not desire that anyone should permanently lapse from the community of the faithful and thereby perish by exclusion from his presence.
18:23–39. The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant
(vv. 32–5) Then the master called the servant in. “You wicked servant,” he said, “I cancelled all the debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant as I had on you?” In anger his master turned him over to the jailers until he should pay back all he owed.
This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.
The unforgiving, says Jesus, will themselves be excluded from God’s mercy. As we noted above, the picture of the prison and paying back the last penny point to Gehenna (Matt. 5:25–6). Again Jesus utters a solemn warning.
22:1–14. The Parable of the Wedding Banquet
(vv. 11–13) When the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. “Friend,” he asked, “how did you get in here without wedding clothes?” The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, “Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
The wedding garment is probably to be understood as the robe of faithfulness which the righteous wear because they have responded to the gospel and its claims upon them. Without this robe there is no right to be present at the great banquet of the kingdom of God: The alternative to attendance there is the darkness of Gehenna.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much as son of hell as you are.
In Matthew 23 the word “woe” is used seven times: It is a word that is common in the apocalyptic literature and points to the deserving of the wrath of God, in the judgment at the end of the age. Gehenna is introduced to describe the punishment deserved by both the converters and the converted.
You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers.
After uttering the woes against the teachers of the law and the party of the Pharisees, Jesus now calls them a brood of vipers, a description which had been used by John the Baptist (3:7) and Jesus himself (12:34). Their teaching has had a deadly effect upon their disciples. Because of this doctrine and their attitudes, Jesus warns them that they will face condemnation to Gehenna on the day of judgment unless they repent and receive the message of the kingdom of God in the proclamation of prophets and the teaching of wise men.
Throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
This is the last verse of the Parable of the Talents (cf. Luke 19:12–27) and describes the punishment of the worthless servant who hid his master’s money in the ground, making no use whatsoever of it. His punishment is being cast into Gehenna (see 8:12; 13:50; 22:13; 24:51 for similar condemnation).
25:31–46. The Sheep and the Goats
(vv. 41–46) Then he (Son of Man, King) will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels ... Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.
These words occur at the end of the description of the judgment at the end of the age, executed by Jesus, the Son of Man. As the Shepherd, he divides the people into the sheep (the righteous and faithful) and the goats (the evil and unfaithful). As the right outcome of their genuine faith, the “sheep” served their neighbor what he or she needed; in contrast the “goats” were unaware of the need and so failed to meet it. The condemnation at the judgment is to depart from the King, to be cursed, to enter into eternal fire, there to join the devil, and to endure eternal punishment. Here the language is apocalyptic.
The devil (Satan, Beelzebub) is the chief of a company of rebellious angels, who consistently oppose God and his will for humankind. Gehenna is particularly created for them, where they will be joined by those who think and act like them.6
Four times in the New Testament the final state of the wicked is referred to as punishment: here and 2 Thess. 1:9; 2 Pet. 2:9; Heb.10:29. “Eternal punishment” can mean (1) a process of punishment which lasts for ever or (2) punishment which has eternal results.
In the material peculiar to this gospel we meet the themes of woe, perishing, and being crushed, together with the separation of the just and unjust in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.
Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how they treated the false prophets.
The four woes are the four blessings of verses 20–2 stated conversely. The context leaves little doubt but that they refer to the day of judgment (v. 23 “in that day”), when exclusion from the kingdom of the age to come will be the verdict upon those who do not receive the kingdom now. Thus “how miserable” will be the lot of the unrighteous when faced with divine judgment.
But unless you repent, you too will all perish.
The presence of sin in all people is for Jesus a self-evident fact and in responding to a message about the massacre of Galileans, he calls for repentance in order to avoid the inevitable results of that sin, which are more than physical death. They include the experience of perishing – receiving the results of the adverse judgment of God.
16:19–31. The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Poor Man
(v. 26) Between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over these to us.
These are the words of Abraham as he addressed the rich man (Dives) in the parable. It is possible that in creating this parable Jesus has adapted a folk tale of a rich man and a pious poor man whose fortunes are reversed in the afterlife. He was addressing rich Jews, Sadducees in particular, who failed to use their God-given opportunities provided both by their wealth and their possession of the sacred Torah.
The rich man is a priest who lives luxuriously while professing allegiance to the God and religion of the Torah, which required that he actually care for the poor. He is selfish and indulgent, and he fails to relieve the great need of the beggar whom he sees at the gate of his home. Further, when he contemplates death, he thinks of it as entrance into the shadowy, dark gloom of Sheol/Hades, without any possibility of divine judgment there or bodily resurrection from there.
In the afterlife, to the surprise of the rich man, the position of the two men is reversed. Lazarus is seated next to Abraham at the banquet, with his head on the bosom of the patriarch (v. 22). This is a picture of bliss. In contrast, the rich man, as he had expected, found himself in Hades, the place and sphere of the departed, but it was not the Hades of his previous theology. It was Hades (as some Jewish apocalyptic had taught) divided into Gehenna and Paradise (or places approximating to these), and there was a great chasm between the two halves of Hades.
This parable is merely a story, told for purposes other than establishing a doctrine of the afterlife. This said, it is difficult to avoid concluding that Jesus did himself believe that life after death, both before and after the final judgment, will involve either enjoyment or deprivation of the presence of God and his faithful people.
Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken in pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.
This ending of the parable of the Tenants in the Vineyard is not found in the Matthean version (21:33ff). The stone recalls that of Daniel 2:44–45 and here points to the Messiah, who is the pivotal capstone of the new building that is being built in the kingdom of God. To reject him or to be judged by him at the end of the age means to be broken or crushed, as by a large stone. Thus Jesus warns again of the great danger of rejecting the gospel of the kingdom.
In this Gospel we do not encounter either the word “Hades” or “Gehenna,” but we do meet words and phrases which point to the existence and reality of hell.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
The verb “to perish” (apollumai) used here in the intransitive means “to be lost” or “to suffer destruction” (cf. 6:27; 10:28; 11:50). This gospel declares that life is found only in God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that without this Deity a person has no life and is thus lost, perishing and facing destruction. The incarnation and atonement of Christ are the basis for the free gift of life to those who believe; to reject the Son is to reject God’s unique gift and to be without the life of the kingdom of God of the age to come.
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.
For the wrath of God to rest and remain upon a person means that he/she is subject to divine punishment and exclusion from the kingdom of God. To reject the Son as the Messiah and the One sent from the Father is to incur the holy wrath of God at the day of judgment.
Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent me has everlasting life, and will not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life .... for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth – those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of condemnation (NKJV).
Those who believe in Jesus as the One sent from the Father will not be condemned in the judgment, for already they have been given the life of the kingdom of God of the age to come. Just before the Final judgment there will be a resurrection of the dead, but only those who have done evil will be judged, and it will be a judgement of condemnation to an existence without the life of God already given to the faithful.
In some apocalyptic literature there is the doctrine that only the righteous will be raised from Sheol/Hades, but here and there the doctrine of a general resurrection is found. For example:
In those days the earth will return that which has been entrusted to it, and Sheol will return that which has been entrusted to it, that which it has received, and destruction (Gehenna) will return what it owes. And he will choose the righteous and holy from among them, for the day has come near that they must be saved (1 Enoch 51:1; cf. 4 Ezra 7:32–8).
And there is also the teaching of Daniel 12:2: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to everlasting contempt.” Thus Jesus espouses the doctrine of a general resurrection followed by the final judgment.
If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.
This is taken from the image of the vine and branches used by Jesus to teach that true life and communion with God is in and through himself as the true vine. In referring to fire and burning, Jesus is encouraging his hearers to think of Gehenna as the appropriate place for those who reject life in and through himself.
None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled.
This is part of the priestly prayer of Jesus to the Father and refers to Judas Iscariot. Apōleia commonly means eschatological damnation. The same Semitic expression occurs in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 in an apocalypse where it is stated that the Parousia of Christ will not take place until the man of sin and son of perdition be first revealed. It is therefore possible that Jesus saw in Judas such an eschatological character who must appear before the manifestation of the glory of Christ in his death-resurrection-exaltation. In fact the fate of Judas was predicted in Psalm 41:9, and that fate is apōleia, casting forth from the presence of God at the last judgment.
Anyone who goes through the textual evidence cited above cannot but be soberly impressed by the teaching of Jesus. Through such imagery as fire and darkness, prison and abyss, hell is presented both as a state and a place. It is a state in which a person has lost all the blessings that are being heaped upon the righteous; and it is a state wherein a person is cursed, condemned, perishing, under God’s wrath, being punished and being destroyed. At the same time it is a place which is distinct from the place of the kingdom of God where the righteous receive their rewards; and it is a place like a prison and an abyss where there is everlasting and unquenchable fire and where the inhabitants weep and gnash their teeth.
Virtually everything that John the Baptist and Jesus said about Gehenna can be paralleled in Jewish literature of the period. However, in that literature there is much greater detail and variety than in the teaching of Jesus. What is distinctive about the words of Jesus is the central and pivotal position he assigned to himself in the future judgment and determination of those whom God will consign to Gehenna. As Messiah and Son he alone says, “Depart from me..:” (Matt. 25:41). As the Master, it is he who punishes the unfaithful servant and casts him into “prison” (Luke 12:46). As the Bridegroom, it is he who, when the door is shut, tells the bridesmaids, “I know you not” (Matt. 25:10–12). Therefore we see how Jesus, who came not to destroy the Law and the Prophets but to fill up and fill out their meaning, developed their teaching concerning the End by taking insights and teaching from Jewish apocalyptic literature concerning the destiny of the unfaithful, evil, and wicked.
It is, of course, possible to find ways of setting aside the “harsh” and “terrifying” statements of Jesus concerning hell. One way which is quite common today is to see them merely as a part of a general understanding of eschatology which Jesus shared with many of his contemporaries. This did not constitute divine revelation but was merely a Jewish response to the particular historical situations the people encountered during the Greek and Roman rule. Therefore what Jesus had to say about hell can be discounted and set aside.
The position being advocated in this book is that Jesus did make statements about hell, usually in the form of warnings to avoid it. These statements are as much divine revelation as his teaching on other topics. However, this said, it is recognized that the interpretation of the imagery used by Jesus is not an easy task. Here we offer some further thoughts on Gehenna and fire.7
1. Gehenna. Examining the sayings of Jesus concerning Gehenna we find that they fall into two categories. First of all, warnings addressed to his disciples concerning hindrances, stumbling-blocks, and conditions governing personal destiny (Matt. 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5). Secondly, condemnation of Jewish religious leaders (Matt. 23:15, 33).
In these sayings the word “if” frequently occurs. Jesus did not say, “You are going to Gehenna”; rather, he said, “If you do this or fail to do that you will go to Gehenna.” Then, also, in these sayings are references to the whole body and to parts of it (eyes, hand, and feet); this may suggest that Jesus actually had the real valley of Hinnom in mind when he spoke of Gehenna. Thus we recognize that we are dealing with figurative language and that Jesus is using Gehenna in much the same way as did other Jewish teachers of his day.
With reference to the condemnation of the Pharisees and their converts, we may observe that though the judgment appears harsh, it is realistic. First, as guides of the people they were leading them astray, and in Old Testament terms it is “Woe unto the pastors” who do not feed or wrongly feed the flock. The catalog of sins in 23:3–32 contains the most serious of offences against God. Secondly, the condemnation uttered by Jesus is hardly as severe as some of the condemnations of the faithless and apostate in Jewish apocalyptic sources.
2. Fire. We have noted the use of fire by Jesus (e.g., Matt. 5:22; 18:8–9; 25:41; Mark 9:43), but only brief comment has been made on the origin and significance of this image. Four observations may be made concerning the background to the use of this word in apocalypticism and by Jesus in particular. First, as we have noted there is the fact of the ever-burning fires of the garbage in the valley of Hinnom and the background there of fire-worship. Second, there is the lake of torment and the oven of Gehenna to which reference is made in 2 Esdras 7:36. Since the fire of a volcano was known to come from within the bowels of the earth, then it was easy to think of Gehenna in terms of an oven of fire and also in terms of molten lava (a lake of torment). Third, ordeal by fire was a common punishment in the ancient world, and the Jewish apocalypses give examples of the persecution of faithful Jews in this manner. So the fire of punishment was a natural image of the afterlife (see e.g. 4 Maccabees 12:11–12). Fourthly, and of most importance, is the connexion between God and fire. He appeared to Moses in a flame of fire (Exodus 3:2), and he caused brimstone and fire to fall upon Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:24). His ministers are a flame of fire (Psalm 104:4), and he consumes his enemies with his fiery flame (Sirach 45:19).
In conclusion we may say that while Gehenna, fire, darkness, and perdition are images, they point to a spiritual reality more terrible than the means used to symbolize and highlight it. Thus the Church has seen in the words of Jesus the seeds of the doctrine of the everlasting punishment of those who reject the gospel of God declared by Jesus. We shall examine the doctrine of hell as it has been set forth by the Church over the centuries in Part 2. In the next chapters we shall examine what the apostles taught concerning heaven and hell.
1In the Septuagint apollumi usually means destruction in the sense of earthly death and extinction. However, it is also linked with Sheol/Hades in Prov. 15:11; 27:20; cf. Job 26:6; 28:22. This same balance of meaning is reflected in the Synoptic Gospels. Often it means to kill (Matt. 2:13; 12:14; 21:41; Mark 9:22; Luke 17:27, etc.) or to destroy (Matt. 5:29; Mark 1:24, etc). Sometimes it points to more than physical death and suggests the idea of punishment after death, as in Matt. 10:39; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24, and Luke 19:10, 13:3, 5, and Matt. 18:14. This theological meaning is more prominent in John’s Gospel and the Letters of Paul. See further The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, ed. Colin Brown, Grand Rapids, MI, 1975, vol. 1, 462ff.
2See further R. A. Stewart, Rabbinic Theology, Edinburgh, 1961, 157. Gehenna is the grecised form of the Hebrew Ge-Hinnom. The valley of Ge-Hinnom lies fairly close to the Old City of Jerusalem and is visible from the summit of the Mount of Olives. It was reputed to have three entrances, one in the wilderness, one in the sea, and one in Jerusalem.
3David Hill, The Gospel of Matthew, Grand Rapids, MI, 1981, 92.
4See further Stewart, Theology, 157ff.
5The Midrash Rabbah on the Book of Exodus, vii. 4. Cited by Stewart, 159.
6See further Appendix 1, “Encounter with Satan.”
7See further William Strawson, Jesus and the Future Life, London, 1959, chap. 7.
Chapter 3 – Jesus, Exalted into Heaven
The Gospels were written after the exaltation of Jesus and the sending of the Spirit in his name by the Father to the disciples. These four documents reflect the conviction that Jesus has been raised from the dead and declared to be the Messiah and Lord at his exaltation to the Father’s right hand in heaven. However, this conviction and interpretative principle does not prevent the writers from presenting accurately the ministry, teaching, and passion of Jesus as the center of their proclamation of the Good News of the arrival of God’s kingdom. Therefore we have used the Gospels to discover what Jesus actually taught about heaven and hell.
Before we proceed in later chapters to review the teaching of the rest of the New Testament on these topics, it is necessary to assess the importance of the ascension of Jesus into heaven, for, as we shall see, it is assumed by the apostolic writers that the entry of Jesus into heaven caused an objective change in the system of conditions and relationships within heaven. In fact, in terms of a Christian understanding of heaven we may say that heaven was created by the exaltation there of the Son of Man. To appreciate this claim we shall look briefly at the way heaven is portrayed in Scripture prior to the arrival there of the resurrected Jesus. We shall also notice how the Ascension is described and interpreted in the New Testament.
Heaven before the Ascension1
In both the Old Testament and New Testament šamayim and ouranos, the words for heaven(s), are used in one of two ways. They may describe what we would call the skies or the firmament as well as what we would call God’s unique “place” and “abode.” In Genesis 1 we read that God created the heavens or skies, while in Deuteronomy 26:15 God is asked to “look down from thy holy habitation, from heaven, and bless thy people” (RSV). There was of course a connection between the two in Israelite thinking, for God’s holy habitation was usually thought of as above and beyond the physical universe. In the intertestamental literature there is the assumption of a series of heavens, only the first of which is visible to the human eye, and above which is God’s own holy habitation.
Heaven is the place where God is specially present, in that he works there more richly and revealingly, bestowing his presence by a more obvious and visible providence than on earth, by a more abundant grace, causing those present to be transparent to his glory and love. Such a way of explaining heaven leaves open the important assertion that God is also present in and through his creation. Heaven, as God’s place, is also the place of his hosts, the company of created beings we normally call angels. To think of them as winged is false: such a belief is based on a confusion of them with seraphim and a wrong interpretation of Daniel 9:21 (basing too much on “swift flight”). The form of an angel is beautiful and impressive, evoking a sense of the divine as the patriarchs knew (Gen. 18; 32:22ff.) or a sense of dread as the woman of Judges 13:6 knew. In their reflection of the divine glory the angels differ from the demons, and in that they are not made of flesh and blood and exist without sex or mortality, they differ from human beings. While the angels do enter space and time as the messengers of God, their permanent abode is in heaven where God is surrounded by them as they form his heavenly council. Not only Isaiah in his great vision (Isaiah 6) but also Micaiah “saw the Lord, sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him at his right hand and on his left” (1 Kings 22:19). Because of the particular way in which they were created by God, the worshipping and obedient angels do not need a mediator between themselves and God; their task is to be the servants and messengers of the Lord.
Medieval theological students discussed almost endlessly where the righteous dead of the old covenant went. Had they gone directly to heaven to join the angels in the worship of God, or had they gone to a place specially created by God as the place of waiting (but waiting in peace and joy) until the Messiah actually opened the kingdom of heaven to faithful believers? There is little information in the Old Testament to provide an answer to these questions. Certainly the hope of the resurrection of the dead appears in the apocalyptic passages of Isaiah (26:19) and Daniel (12:2). But such a hope is of a historical future in God’s presence. However, here and there we encounter passages in the Psalms (e.g., 23; 48) which may express a confidence that at death the righteous believer enters God’s holy habitation. Psalm 16:11 seems to express this confidence explicitly: “In your presence there is fullness of joy, at your right hand are pleasures for evermore” (NKJV).
In the intertestamental literature there is the assumption that the psychē of a good man is in the hands of God, in contrast to that of the bad man which is either in Hades or Gehenna. Then from the appearance of Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration, as well as from the Parable of Dives and Lazarus as told in the New Testament, there is further confirmation that the righteous of the old covenant are safe with God. But all this information does not answer the question whether the righteous dead have joined the heavenly host and are actually in heaven or whether they are in a place God has specially created for them until the Messiah’s work is done? The idea of limbus patrum (the limbo of the fathers) arose in medieval theology because it was held that heaven was closed to human beings from the time of Adam’s fall into sin until the Messiah became the way into heaven for faithful believers. This limbo was a place of happiness and was distinct from purgatory which was a place of purging enroute for limbo/heaven; after the ascension of Jesus, limbo disappeared for, it was held, he led the saints of the old covenant into heaven as their Savior and Mediator. Thus we must be careful of dogmatism with respect to the whereabouts of the righteous of the old covenant; we can certainly say that they were safe in the hands of God but we cannot be sure that they entered heaven until the One for whom they looked, the Messiah of Israel, led them in his name and by his merits into that place where the angels for ever worship the Lord.
The Ascension of Jesus into Heaven2
Two accounts are provided by Luke of the final departure of Jesus, the Ascension. First, is the short account in Luke 24:50–2:
When Jesus had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.
It will be recalled that Luke begins with a reference to the righteous priest, Zechariah, who is unable to give God’s blessing to the congregation of (old) Israel (1:21–2). But it closes with a portrait of Jesus, the resurrected high priest of the new and true Israel, blessing his people. Zechariah went into the Temple in Jerusalem with a prayer for the redemption of Israel; the disciples of Jesus went into the same temple about thirty-three years later in joy and thanksgiving for the actual redemption of Israel achieved by Jesus. All we learn of the departure of Jesus is that he was taken up by the power of God into heaven, God’s holy habitation.
Second, is the longer account in Acts 1:3–11, from which we learn that Jesus had been appearing intermittently to the disciples over a period of forty days. At this last appearance Jesus told them:
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 end of the earth.
After he had said this
he was taken up before their very eyes and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going when suddenly two men dressed in white stood before them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus who has been taken from you into heaven will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
It is this account, and this only, that refers to the period of “forty days” during which Jesus made himself present and visible to his disciples. Also it is this account which describes the ascent of Jesus not merely into the sky but into the cloud. The latter is not any cloud but the special cloud called the Shekinah, which descended upon the Tabernacle in the wilderness (Exod. 13:21; 40:34; 1 Kings 8:10–11). With it came the presence and glory of the Lord; and so to enter it was to enter the holy of holies, the immediate presence of God himself.
Jesus had to be taken up into heaven before the Father could send the Holy Spirit to indwell, empower, and guide the disciples, for the Spirit is the Paraclete of Jesus. The account of how the Spirit actually came and what an impact his coming had is found in Acts 2. Further, we learn from Acts 1 that Jesus will return to earth in power and glory in the Shekinah, just as he had left. So this passage asserts the relationship between the Ascension and heaven, between the Ascension and the sending of the Spirit, and between the Ascension and the Parousia.
What Luke describes as occurring on the fortieth day is not to be understood as the first and actual ascension of Jesus into heaven. Rather what he presents is a visible and symbolic portrayal of what already had happened on Easter morning when God raised Jesus from the dead and exalted him to heaven. No one witnessed the resurrection/ascension/exaltation on Easter morning except the angels. What the disciples saw was the empty tomb and the risen Lord Jesus, who came to them from heaven, accommodating himself to their sight and understanding. Jesus continued to come to them as the exalted, heavenly Lord for a period of forty days and then on that last day, what had truly happened to him was symbolically presented through his departure into the Shekinah. His going up into the cloud portrayed that he was now permanently in heaven as the Messiah.
Theology of the Ascension/Exaltation
1. In his ascension Jesus conquered hostile powers; he overcame the host of Satan in his triumphal procession from Hades (real death) to heaven (God’s holy habitation).3 This interpretation is based on three texts: 1 Peter 3:18–20, Colossians 2:15, and Ephesians 4:8. The first speaking of Christ states that, “being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah” (RSV). This has been understood in various ways – e.g., of Jesus preaching in the realm of the dead (Hades) in order to convert souls, or his proclaiming to the saints in limbo that he is the Christ in the period between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. It is better to interpret this text as describing the activity of the risen and ascending Jesus on Easter morning. Transformed by the Spirit, Jesus proclaims to the fallen, evil angels in the lower regions of the air their condemnation by God, and his exaltation to the Father in heaven as the victorious Messiah.
Colossians 2:15 speaks of Christ who “disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them” (RSV). Here Christ is presented as stripping off himself the evil spiritual forces which had attacked him and clung to him in his passion and death and then leading them in a triumphal procession as the defeated enemy. Ephesians 4:8 cites Psalm 68:18 to declare both the victory of Christ over the host of evil angels and his sending, as the exalted Christ, spiritual gifts to his people on earth.
2. Jesus has been exalted to sit at the right hand of the Father and is to be given the name of Lord.4 In the first Christian sermon, the apostle Peter declared that God has raised Jesus to life and exalted him to his right hand (Acts 2:33–4). Then he proceeded to quote from Psalm 110:1. “The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet’.” The picture of the Messiah, a descendent of king David according to his human nature and sitting at God’s right hand, had been used by Jesus himself in discussions with the Pharisees (Mark 12:36). The “right hand” was the position of the greatest honor, the place of perfect happiness and the exercise of authority and power; it was also the place of rest after the enemies had been overcome.
Thus Jesus sitting at the Father’s right hand is a way of saying that he shares the glory, authority, and holiness of the Father. Another way of expressing a similar thought is to say that “Jesus is Lord.” In the moving poem of Philippians 2:5–11, Paul depicts Jesus as being exalted to heaven and given the name of “Lord,” which is God’s own name. While the picture of sitting at God’s right hand evokes the idea of resting after overcoming enemies, that of standing there (as Stephen saw in his vision of Jesus, Acts 7:55–6) evokes the further ideas of Jesus vindicating his faithful witness (martyrs) and of his preparing to return to earth as King and Judge.
3. While exalted as Lord, Jesus intercedes for the people of the new covenant. In Romans 8:34 Paul describes Jesus both at the right hand of the Father and “also interceding for us.” The One to whom all authority has been given is himself interceding. He is speaking to the Father, not on behalf of himself but on behalf of others. This is not a picture of the incarnate Son on bended knees beseeching a reluctant heavenly Father to grant favors to those whom he does not wish to bless. It is rather a picture of the crowned Prince, who enjoys the total favor of the King, requesting that his friends will always be the recipients of the King’s favor and grace.
Because of the claims of the New Testament that Jesus, the Word made flesh, shares the authority, power, and rule of the Father and acts as Lord of the Church and Mediator of the new covenant, we have to say that heaven was dramatically changed by the arrival and coronation of Jesus as Messiah and Lord. His presence and exalted position brought a transformation of the system of conditions in which the society and company of heaven enjoy the presence of the Lord and worship and serve him. For now there is in heaven, in the very life of God himself, a glorified humanity belonging to the eternal Son and a humanity of the same essence as shared by the whole human race. Now created human beings can be drawn nearer to God than can the holy angels, for the former possess the same human nature as the Son possesses, and so in and through him they can draw near to God. This communion with God could not occur before the exaltation of Jesus as the incarnate Son; thus theologians have spoken of heaven being either created or transformed by the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the Christ.
1See further Ulrich Simon, Heaven in the Christian Tradition, London, 1958, chaps. 1–4.
2See P. Toon, The Ascension of Our Lord, Nashville, 1984, for greater detail.
3For greater detail see W. J. Dalton, Christ’s Proclamation to the Spirits: A Study of 1 Peter 3:18–4:6, Rome, 1965.
4For the use of Psalm 110 see D. M. Hay, Glory at the Right Hand: Psalm 110 in Early Christianity, New York, 1973.
Chapter 4 – The Heavenly Commonwealth
Having already looked at the teaching of Jesus on heaven, we proceed now to look at the teachings of Paul, the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, Peter, and John as we find them in the New Testament. We approach these teachings knowing that these writers assumed that God had raised Jesus from the dead and exalted him into heaven. For them heaven is truly heaven because their Lord is there, from where he sends to them his Spirit.
Paul on heaven
The continuity between the teaching of Jesus and his apostle to the Gentiles, St. Paul, is not perhaps immediately obvious; however, it becomes so after careful reading of the Pauline Letters and reflection upon their contents. Jesus taught in expectation of his vindication and exaltation, while Paul taught in the light of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus; but there is a golden thread which unites their message.
In the first place there is a correspondence or identity between “the arrival of the time” (Mark 1:15) and “the time fully come” (Gal. 4:4; cf. Eph.1:10). In and with Christ, the time of this evil world has come to an end, and the time of the kingdom of God, the new creation, the great salvation, and the new age has dawned. Then, in the second place, the saying of Jesus to his disciples in Matthew 13:11, 16, 17 finds a real echo in Paul’s teaching about the revelation of the mystery in Romans 16:25, 26 (cf. Col. 1:26; Eph. 1:9, 10; 3:4, 5; 1 Cor. 2:7; 2 Tim. 1:9, 10). To the inner circle of disciples, Jesus said, “Blessed are your eyes because they see and your ears because they hear the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.” To the community of believers Paul declared that the hidden counsel of God concerning his redeeming and saving activity was now revealed in word and in deed in Christ and by his Spirit. Therefore, though Paul hardly uses the expression “kingdom of God” and though his vocabulary is often rather different from that of Jesus, there is an underlying unity in what they proclaim, teach, and confess.
Paul told the church in Corinth that “now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2). He referred not merely to any day as the day of opportunity but to the decisive and long expected coming of God to bring redemption and salvation which had arrived with the ministry of the Messiah. Thus he had earlier stated that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Cor. 5:17) He meant that to become a Christian by being united with Christ, a person entered into a new order, a new creation. This is obvious from the neuter plural – the “old things” referring to the unredeemed world and evil age with its sin and sadness and the “new things” pointing to the re-creation of all things in and through Christ.
The apostle taught that as a part of this new order the believing community enjoyed the gift and presence of the Holy Spirit, by whom it was united to its Lord, who was exalted in heaven, the same Lord whom they expected to return so that this evil age would end and the fulness of salvation would come.1
We have a limited task in this chapter. Since Paul’s theology is so rich we cannot look at all its hints and intimations of heaven and heavenly life. We shall therefore examine those important texts in which the apostle actually specifically speaks of heaven. We shall find as we look at these texts that Paul did not write about heaven as God’s place in a general way but in a specific way: For him heaven was truly heaven because Jesus, the Lord, the Last Adam, and the Head of the Church was there sharing the glory of the Father and sending the Holy Spirit to the faithful on earth.
Thus as we look at specific texts from the Epistles we must keep in mind this Christological approach to heaven. Paul knew well the teaching of the Hebrew Bible on heaven as God’s holy habitation, there worshipped and adored by the angels. He also was aware of the developments in the intertestamental literature and in rabbinical teaching. It was, however, through the revelation from Christ which he received as an apostle that he created a specifically Christocentric doctrine of heaven.2
The Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.
Paul wrote the letter to the churches of Galatia in order to combat certain heresies. One of these emphasized the city of Jerusalem as the center of Judaism as a corollary to the emphasis upon the need for Christians to keep the basic rules of Judaism. Thus Paul was opposing Judaizers and proclaiming salvation and freedom in Christ when he wrote his letter. He presented an allegory of two mothers, Hagar and Sarah, in order to contrast two covenants and two cities. The earthly Jerusalem, which Paul knew well, was the “mother” of legalism and the symbol of the covenant God made with Moses at Sinai (Exodus 19); the heavenly Jerusalem (the heavenly realm where Christ is the exalted Lord) is the mother of the believing faithful (the true children of Sarah), who are members of the new covenant, inaugurated by Christ’s sacrificial blood, shed at Calvary.
The picture of Jerusalem, or Zion, as mother is found in the Old Testament. Psalm 87:5 states that “of Zion it will be said, ‘This one and that one were born in her and the Most High will establish her’” (Cf. also Isa. 50:1; Jer. 50:12; Hos. 4:5). As the quotation of Isaiah 54:1 in Galatians 4:27 shows, Paul quite deliberately took what had been said of the earthly Jerusalem and claimed it for the heavenly one. That is he freely interpreted the prophecies of Isaiah 40–66 which spoke of Jerusalem in God’s purposes in the light of the death and exaltation of Jesus, the Christ.
The concept of a rebuilt and transformed Jerusalem was common in rabbinic teaching, while the concept of a new Jerusalem descending from heaven to earth to replace the old city was common in apocalyptic texts.3 Paul differed because he taught that there was no further place for the old Jerusalem in God’s salvific purpose and that the heavenly Jerusalem actually really now exists as the center of God’s forward moving history of salvation. It exists because Christ is really and truly in heaven as the One who by his death and resurrection has set his people free from the bondage of the covenant of Sinai and of legalism. Thus Christian believers are not enslaved to the law and not under obligations to Jerusalem in Judea; they are truly free, for “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (5:1). Jesus Christ is the genuinely free man, and thus the heavenly realm, the mother of the faithful, is the center of true freedom, the freedom that characterizes the new age.
1 Corinthians 15:47–9
The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.
Here Paul compares Adam, the man created from the dust of the earth and the representative of the earthly order (Genesis 2–3) with Jesus, the Man raised from the dead and exalted to the Father’s right hand and Representative of the heavenly order. Paul writes that the first man is of the earth and earthly while the second man is of (rather than “from”) heaven and thus heavenly. Paul is not saying that Jesus was pre-existent and came from heaven (as translations may suggest) but that, as the resurrected Christ, the life-giving Spirit, he is now in heaven and that his existence in his transformed but real humanity is heavenly. (This interpretation works on the assumption that ex ouranou and not anthropos ex ouranou is the predicate in v. 47b.)
Believers are said to be heavenly not because they have come from heaven or are going to heaven but because they are “in Christ,” the Man of heaven, and share his resurrection life. This heavenliness will be fully expressed in the resurrection body in the life of the age to come. In this present age believers bear the image of Christ and are being transformed according to that image as they live within the confines of their mortal bodies in hope. The participation in heavenliness is, therefore, not the restoration of what has been lost through the Fall, but the receiving of a new quality of existence. In fact, that which is given in Jesus to those who believe is that which God always has planned for his people; heavenly existence is the goal of humanity and in Jesus it is both reached and freely given.
2 Corinthians 5:1–4
Now 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 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 with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.
Before writing these words Paul had been defending his apostleship by showing how his tribulation, trials, and physical weakness have become evidences of his calling as an apostle. Of himself and close colleagues he wrote: “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (4:16–18). That which is not seen and is of everlasting permanence is the fact of the resurrection of Jesus and his existence and rule in the heavenly realm.
The picture of the earthly tent-dwelling (= mortal body and “earthen vessel”) highlights the temporary nature of life on earth in this evil age; in comparison the heavenly tent-dwelling (= the resurrection body) is permanent and indestructible since it comes directly from God himself. At death the earthly tent-dwelling disintegrates, but if the believer is alive at the Parousia then it will be transformed by the power of God into the heavenly tent-dwelling. This raises the question as to whether the believer who dies before the Parousia (1) becomes a naked spirit waiting until the Parousia to be clothed with his heavenly tent-dwelling or (2) receives immediately after death his heavenly tent-dwelling. The present tense of v. 1 “we have” (echomen) points to a certainty, but does it necessarily point to an immediate succession between the earthly and heavenly forms? It could be a futuristic present used by Paul because he was so confident of the future possession of the resurrection body at the Parousia. To support this it can be maintained that the general drift of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 15 is to link the gaining of resurrection bodies with the Parousia of Christ. Opinion is divided between those who believe that Paul taught in the “intermediate state” believers exist as “naked spirits” or as clothed in their heavenly tent-dwelling.4
2 Corinthians 12:2–4
I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know-God knows. And I know that this man – whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows – was caught up to Paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.
What Paul describes in vv. 1–10 was not a unique vision but an outstanding example of his visionary experiences, which came to him after the first “heavenly vision” (Acts 26:19; cf. 9:1–22; 22:3–16; 26:9–18) which made him into both a Christian and an apostle, as he saw the heavenly Lord Jesus.
Fourteen years before writing to Corinth (i.e., between AD 41–44) Paul was caught up to the third heaven (v. 2), a variant designation of Paradise (v. 4). Already we have noted that Paradise refers to the abode of the righteous who have passed through death; here Paul describes how he felt the experience so intensely that he was not sure what was the mode of the rapture. The idea of a sealed revelation occurs in the Old Testament (see Isa. 8:16; Dan. 12:4) and more commonly in apocalyptic literature, and thus Paul’s sealed lips represent a hallowed tradition within Judaism.5
Paul’s vision is to be understood as an experience of deeper fellowship and intimacy with the resurrected and exalted Lord Jesus, who is at the center of Paradise. Even so, he was not removed from or relieved of sharing in the suffering of Christ. His thorn in the flesh – be it physical pain or the continuing opposition of his enemies – was not removed so that he could experience heavenly power in earthly weakness.
I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.
As Paul faces the possibility that he will not survive his imprisonment, he expressed his dilemma. As a believer who is “in Christ” and who already has had a revelation of the heavenly realm, Paul longs to be with Christ in that sphere. He believes that death is the door into the presence of Christ; yet as an apostle who cares deeply for the Gospel and the churches, he feels that he ought to continue to pursue his apostolic labors on earth.
But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself. (RSV)
The RSV has been used because of its translation of politeuma as “commonwealth.” This is much to be preferred to the “citizenship” of NEB, NKJV, and NIV or “homeland” of JB. The meaning Paul intended to convey was that our state and constitutive government is in heaven, for that is where Christ reigns as Lord.6 Thus faithful believers living on earth in mortal bodies are truly citizens of the heavenly realm where Christ is King. And they are assured that at the Parousia this heavenly politeuma will become the central and guiding reality of the kingdom of God of the age to come, in which they will live in their new, immortal, and glorious bodies.
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears then you also will appear with him in glory.
The resurrection of Jesus took him from the realm of the dead to the heavenly realm where he is supreme. Paul made use of Psalm 110:1 (cf. 1 Cor. 15:25 and Rom. 8:35) to convey the idea of Jesus, as the victorious Messiah, sitting at the right hand of the Father at rest and in glory. Believers in Christ have been raised (aorist tense) with Christ. Because, therefore, they truly belong to the heavenly realm, they are to set their hearts on Christ who is above, while they are yet on earth. In fact their baptism symbolized that in Christ they have died to sin and have been raised to the heavenly realm above all evil and sin. So their day-to-day life is to reflect what their baptism signified. Then, at the Parousia, when Christ is revealed in all his glory, the reality of the genuinely heavenly life of believers will also be manifested.
This letter, which we assume is Pauline, is permeated with belief in the reality of the heavenly realm, where Christ sits at the Father’s right hand. The “Berakah” or Blessing of 1:3–14 celebrates what God has accomplished in exalting Jesus and creating the Church. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (v. 3). Here we encounter the formula en tois epouraniois which is also found at 1:20; 2:6; 3:10; 6:12. It appears not to mean simply “heaven” as “God’s Place,” since at 3:10 and 6:12 the presence of fallen angels is presumed to be there. Thus, against the background of Old Testament and Jewish apocalyptic literature teaching that the upper limits of the firmament/heavens were intimately linked to heaven as the invisible, created reality of God’s holy habitation, it is best to take this expression as having a double thrust. It refers both to that place where Christ is enthroned, surrounded by the adoring angels and to that sphere between God’s “place” and the firmament where the fallen angels gather to seek to thwart the purposes of God for the redemption of the world. Believers united to Christ rejoice that their Lord and Savior is in the “upper” heavenly realm, “above” the fallen angels.
In 1:15–23 Paul prays that his readers will appreciate the true nature of God’s raising of Jesus to his right hand as the place of victory, power, rest, and honor, and appreciate his becoming the Head “over everything for the Church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (v. 23). The raising of Jesus has placed him permanently above all the cosmic hierarchy of angels and archangels. Paul cites Psalm 8:6 (which recalls Gen. 1:26–8) to show that, as the Last Adam, Christ has been given universal dominion over heaven and earth, angels and humans, and that he directs them to their appointed goal in God’s will. God has given this supremacy to the heavenly Man, Jesus, to be used on behalf of the Church, which itself has a special role in God’s plan for the universe. In fact, the Church is the body of Christ in that he fills this ekklēsia of God with his Spirit, grace, power, and gifts.
What God has done for Christ he has also done for those who are “in Christ Jesus.” We saw in Colossians 3:1 how Christians are to seek the things above in heaven, because of their union with Christ who is above. In Ephesians 2:4–6 Paul strengthens this call by writing that “God, because of his great love for us ... made us alive with Christ and raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.” This heavenly reality is of course hidden to human eyes and will become obvious only at the Parousia. Nevertheless, it is created by grace alone and provides a great incentive to holy and single-minded living for God in this evil age.
Paul insists that the incorporation into Christ is not for individualistic purposes, for as he wrote:
You are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people [lit. “holy ones” = angels] and members of God’s household, built up on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone [or top stone]. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit (2:19–22).
The Gentiles have become part of God’s Temple, the Church, the new sphere in which God makes himself known and his presence felt. In short, the Church is the heavenly temple with its “foundation stones” being the apostles and prophets and its crowning or top stone in the heavenly realm being Christ himself. So the whole temple is dominated by Christ, whose Spirit indwells the whole.
This Church is to incorporate and reflect the breakdown of the barriers between Jew and Gentile; the resulting unity in and through Christ by the Holy Spirit becomes a pledge of the certain overcoming of all cosmological dualism and Satanic opposition by the achievement of perfect harmony in the age to come. “God’s intent was that now, through the Church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord” (3:9–10). In this present period of time wherein there is an overlap of the ages, the evil angels still have power to oppose God’s will and thwart his purpose, but the unity and harmony achieved by the work of Christ will ultimately apply to the whole cosmos and all evil will finally be defeated.
As the ascended and exalted Lord, Jesus has given and continues to give spiritual gifts to his Church on earth as it seeks to maintain the unity of the Spirit (4:3).
To each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.” (What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended ... ? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens in order to fill the whole universe) (4:7–10).
In citing Psalm 68:18 Paul modified the Septuagint text, involving a change of person from the second to the third person. In its original setting the quotation celebrated the Lord’s deliverance of his people as he is pictured ascending Mount Zion, driving before him the captives of battle from whom he receives tribute. For Paul the ascent of Zion becomes Christ’s ascent “through the heavens” into the true heaven of God; it involves triumphing over evil angels (Eph.1:21; Col. 2:15) en route, in order to become the cosmic Lord with an universal rule and in order that he would constantly fill all things with his authority and power. He also ascended to give spiritual grace and send gifts to his Church. But what is the descent? It has been explained in terms of a descent into Hades between Good Friday and Easter Day, or the descent of the pre-existent Christ from heaven in his incarnation, or of the descent of the exalted Christ in the Spirit as his Paraclete at Pentecost. The latter seems the best interpretation in this context where Paul emphasizes that Christ gives spiritual gifts to his Church.
As recipients of gifts, faithful believers, members of the one Church, are involved in a battle against Satan and all his hosts. However, they fight as those who, in Christ, have won the decisive battle even though the war has not ended. They are in Christ in the heavenly realm and so fight from this position and perspective.
Finally be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (6:10–12).
This struggle continues until the Parousia when all evil and demonic powers will be finally vanquished. Meanwhile, human relationships are given new significance and purpose when they are seen in the light of the believer’s union with Christ in the heavenly realm (5:21ff. and 6:9).
In summary we may say that for Paul heaven is not only where Christ, the true image of God, now is, but it is also where he will be after his Parousia. United to the Father, in Christ and by the Spirit, the believing community belongs to that sphere where Christ, its Savior, Lord, and Mediator is. And he is at the right hand of the Father in the glory of heaven, where the angels for ever worship and serve him. For Christians the true commonwealth is then the heavenly realm which by reason of its nature and the One in it is to believers as the mother of the faithful. Not only is hope laid up for the faithful in heaven (Col. 1:5), but as those who are led by the indwelling Spirit and who are, in Christ, already exalted to heaven, they are to set their hearts and minds upon this heavenly realm and live their lives in the light of this special relationship.
While “looking up” they are also to “look forward,” waiting for the appearance from heaven of the Lord Jesus, knowing that in him they are rescued from the coming wrath (1 Thess.1:10). They long for the Parousia, since the return of the Lord Jesus will mean the end of this evil age, the establishment of the kingdom of God in its fullness, and the enjoyment of eternal life, which is the “end” of sanctification (Rom. 6:22). For this new age, new creation, and fullness of salvation, they will receive immortal, resurrection bodies of glory. In anticipation they “are being transformed (now) into his likeness, with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18).
Meanwhile they know, as Paul did, that if they die before the Parousia, they will be with the Lord Jesus – whether as naked spirits or with resurrection bodies is not clear. The important point is that they are to be convinced that “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future ... will be able to separate them from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus their Lord” (Rom. 8:38–9). Further, as the great hymn of love puts it: “Now we see but a poor reflection; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12).
In this fascinating letter, there is a contrast between Christianity and Judaism: Christianity is acclaimed as superior in every way because of the very excellence of the incarnate Son and High Priest, Jesus the Messiah. Thus heaven through, with, and by this Jesus as Priest-King is central to the new order which Christianity proclaims. We shall examine the teaching on heaven under five themes.
1. The Sabbath-Rest
There remains a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from his own work, just as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no-one will fall by following their example of disobedience (4:8–10).
When believers have completed their service and work on this earth and in this age they will enter into the Sabbath-Rest, that is, participation in God’s own rest. In six days, states Genesis 1, God created the universe and on the seventh day he rested. That is, he contemplated what he had made and rejoiced in it (like a painter enjoying his painting after finishing it). Also the Lord Jesus, after offering himself as a sacrifice for sin on Good Friday, rested in the tomb on Holy Saturday, the Great Sabbath, and looking upon the travail of his soul, he was satisfied with the new creation.
The rest of God is not that kind of rest which is inertia, boredom, and stagnation; rather it is perfect and unruffled life. God, who is changeless, is active and actual infinite fullness to which nothing can be added or subtracted. As Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – One God – he is perfectly active and rested in the unity and interchange of love. In Christ the people of God enter in God’s rest now, but the fullness of the rest is to come. Heaven means participation in God’s rest.
2. The Throne
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (12:2).
Earlier Jesus had been described as our high priest “who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty on heaven” (8:1). Thus here is the image of the throne of God and of Christ, based on Psalm 110 and often used in the apostolic teaching.
To this joint-throne Christians are to go: “Let us approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need” (4:16). Thus heaven is where God the Father shares his throne with his incarnate Son, the Priest-King. The heavenly throne is a mercy seat, the antitype of the earthly mercy seat of the Temple (see 9:5 and cf. Leviticus 16 and Exodus 25). This image forcibly proclaims that propitiation for sin has been made and that there is now forgiveness and mercy with God through Jesus. At the heart of heaven where the Father and Son reign (1:8, “Your throne is for ever”) there is mercy, for Jesus the High Priest, who has been tempted in every way as we are, is there!
3. The Sanctuary (Tabernacle, Holy Place)
For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence (9:24).
Jesus, the High Priest, enthroned with God, discharges his ministry not in an earthly sanctuary but in the true and real sanctuary, the heavenly dwelling-place of God. There he “serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by man” (8:2).
The idea of a sanctuary not made with human hands is found both in the teaching of Jesus (Mark 14:58; John 2:19ff) and of Stephen and Paul (Acts 7:48; 17:24). This new sanctuary obviously includes the temple of the Holy Spirit – the people of God understood as the “house of God” (note 3:6, “we are his house” and see also Isa. 66:1ff., quoted by Stephen). Therefore, the sanctuary is that spiritual realm that originates where Christ is with the Father and that comes to us in and through the person and work of the Holy Spirit. It is the heavenly realm which, though not a part of this world and age, may be encountered and entered in the Holy Spirit from within this world and age. Yet at all times it is wholly dependent on the ministry of the exalted Lord Jesus as Priest-King with the Father. In the new age of the fullness of the kingdom of God which is to come, the sanctuary will be wholly expressed in the perfection of the communion of the saints one with another and all with God in Christ. Thus this new sanctuary, invisible but very real, is the true sanctuary of which the Jewish Tabernacle and Temple were but material copies.
4. The City of God
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God for he has prepared a city for them (11:13–16).
The patriarchs lived their lives convinced that God would fulfill the promises he had made to them. And in death they continued to look forward for their realization – “By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future” (v. 20). Neither Mesopotamia nor Canaan was their true home, for they desired and looked for another place where God would be more real to them. They longed for the “city of God.”
Why is the image of the city so important both here and (as we shall see) in Revelation 21:10–11, 23–26? We need to remember that the ancient city was understood as a holy place, at the center of which was a holy shrine, where it was believed heaven and earth met. The city walls enclosed an area of safety and order and offered protection from all foes, human and spiritual. Inside, the people were to live in peace, harmony, and brotherhood under the just rule of the king, who was seen as anointed and as set in power by the deity. Thus his palace adjoined the central shrine. For us today the city is perhaps the symbol of decay, decadence, and deprivation. But for people in the ancient near East it was a powerful symbol of fellowship with and care by the living God. Jerusalem became such a symbol for the Israelites. Here God dwelt in the Temple, and the king, anointed by God, lived in his palace next to the Temple, ruling his people in righteousness. At least this was the ideal (Psalms 46, 48), and when it was not realized, the image became the source of promise and hope (Isaiah 60, 66; cf. Revelation 21).
Heaven is like the ideal of the ancient city – a place of harmony, brotherhood, peace, and joy, where there is perfect fellowship with the Lord God.
But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the first-born, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (12:22–4).
Thus heaven includes angels, the faithful of the Old Covenant (spirits of righteous men), all Christian believers (church of the firstborn) and at its center, Jesus himself, whose sacrificial blood brings cleansing, forgiveness, and peace (not a cry for vindication as with Abel).
5. The kingdom
He has promised, “Once more I will shake not only earth but also the heavens.” The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken – that is, created things – so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire (12:26–9).
At the end of the present age there will be a cosmic convulsion. But the heavenly realm wherein Christ is the Priest-King cannot be and will not be shaken by the final judging and purging activity of God. It is a kingdom that is everlasting and to this kingdom belong all those who are faithful believers in Christ Jesus. What this kingdom really and truly means will be wholly apparent only after the cosmic convulsions and the birth of the new age.
Heaven in this letter is not only that which is “above” where Christ is and “in the future” when the kingdom of God comes in fullness, but also the heavenly realm into which, by the Spirit, the faithful are admitted while still in this world and age.
1 and 2 Peter8
For Peter heaven is where Jesus Christ now is: Following his resurrection Christ “has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand – with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him” (1 Pet. 3:22). From there the Holy Spirit descends to earth (1 Pet. 1:12) to continue the work of Christ in and among the faithful. These, because they have an imperishable inheritance reserved in heaven (1 Pet. 1:4) and are called to eternal glory (1 Pet. 5:10), know that they are aliens and strangers in this world and age (1 Pet. 2:11). In fact they belong to God as his chosen people, royal priesthood, and holy nation (1 Pet. 2:9) so that they can begin now their everlasting service of declaring his praises.
As pilgrims in this world, the believing faithful know that this world must come to an end in order that the new universe can be created as its replacement: “In keeping with his promise, we are looking forward to a new heaven and new earth, the home of righteousness” (2 Pet. 3:13). John also expressed this hope (Revelation 21), which we shall note below.
John on heaven9
In the Introduction we briefly discussed apocalyptic literature, noting that its most productive period was from 200 BC to AD 100. The last book of the Bible, the Apocalypse of John, not only belongs to this literary genre but is also the source of the name “apocalyptic.” Though sharing common features with the Jewish books (for example, an open heaven and visions) the book we call Revelation is decidedly Christian in both content and orientation. We do not know the identity of the author who had these visions either around AD 68 or 95. All we can say is that his name was John, that he was imprisoned for his faith, and that he had good knowledge of the situation of the seven churches of Asia which he addressed (chaps. 2–3).
Unlike his contemporary Jewish apocalypticists, John did not put his message in the name of a person of the past. Rather he described himself as “your brother and companion in suffering” and one who had prophetic words to share. Therefore his authority is that of one who has been moved by the Holy Spirit and who has received a message from the risen and exalted Lord Jesus. Thus he could end the book with these words:
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book (22:18–9).
The three opening chapters and concluding section (22:8–21) stand apart from the apocalypse proper and form a framework in which it has been set. So 4:1 begins, “After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, ‘Come up here and I will show you what must take place after this’.” Up to this point John had reported the words of the risen Christ who had appeared to him (1:9ff.), but from this point onward he speaks of what he has seen in the opened heaven. The vision of God’s holy habitation and throne in 4:1–11 is an Old Testament picture of heaven, recalling Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1. It is heaven before the exaltation of Jesus, so that the vision of heaven with Jesus (5:1–14) is contrasted.
In the vision of chapter 4, John saw the Lord seated upon his throne as the sovereign reigning King, who is Creator of the universe. The twenty-four elders (probably related to the twenty-four priestly and levitical orders), symbolize the adoration and worship of heaven addressed to God, Creator and King; the four cherubim, as sentinels by the throne, also unceasingly offer worship: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come” (4:8). On earth, where John lived, few acknowledged that the Lord is the Creator and King, but John is privileged to listen to the choirs of heaven celebrating the sovereignty of God. The reference to what looked like a sea of glass, clear as crystal, in front of and behind the throne, serves to emphasize that there is always a distinction between God and creatures, even those who are in his immediate vicinity (cf. Ezek. 1:22).
In the vision of chapter 5 the attention is turned from God as Creator to God as Redeemer, and the Lord Jesus Christ as the Lamb of God is introduced. John sees in the right hand of God, the Creator, a scroll with seven seals: It records the divine will for the inauguration of events which lead up to the new age and creation. Only when the seals of this scroll are broken can the process begin. But who can break these seals? John weeps because no one is sufficiently worthy to accomplish this task. “Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals”’ (5:5). Jesus, described as the Lion of Judah (Gen. 49:9) and Root of David (Isa.11:1, 10), is alone worthy, for he is the Lamb, “looking as if it had been slain” (i.e., with a slit throat), who was offered on Mount Calvary; further, he possesses royal power (seven horns) and is omniscient (seven eyes).
Then John saw what may be called a coronation ceremony, where the ascended Jesus is crowned King of kings and Lord of lords, as he is given all authority in heaven and on earth. “The Lamb came and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb” (vv. 7–8). While the coronation and the acclamation of the hosts of heaven (elders, cherubim, and myriads of angels, vv. 8–11) lies in the past, since Jesus is crowned, the acclamation of “every creature on heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea” must wait till the end of the age. Then all shall sing, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, forever and ever!”
It has been said that chapters 4–5 are the fulcrum of the whole book. In relation to what has gone before they provide an understanding of the Person who wrote to the churches, and in relation to what shall be, they serve the purpose of initiating the series of judgments which end with the descent of the city of God from heaven to earth. We must pass over these frightening judgments in order to learn of heaven from the last part of the Apocalypse.
Before he was granted the vision of a new heaven and a new earth, John saw the vision of the overthrow of the enemies of Christ (19:11–12), the creation of the millennial kingdom (20:1–8), the doom of Satan (20:7–10) and the final judgment before the great white throne. Though theologians have never been able to agree on the interpretation of the Millennium, in the context of both Old Testament prophecies (Isa. 11:1–11; Dan. 12:2–3, etc.) and apocalyptic vision (4 Ezra 7:27ff.; Syriac Baruch 29ff.), John’s vision of a two-fold expectation of the arrival of the kingdom of God makes sense, but it has few, if any, parallels in contemporary Jewish literature. In the first stage, the Millennium, God’s purpose within history is openly vindicated within that history and during the present age. The martyrs especially are vindicated (11:11) as truly worthy to be priests and kings (5:10). In fact the vision of the Millennium reflects the conviction that the present creation is a sphere to reflect the will of God, for when Satan is restrained it is not so corrupt as to be beyond hope.
The climax of the Apocalypse comes in 21:1–7.
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 away 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!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the water of life. He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son.”
Within Jewish apocalyptic and rabbinic teaching there is also the hope of the new cosmos, either in terms of a totally cleansed earth, impregnated with the glory of God, or of a totally new universe. John’s vision is of the latter since there is the absence of any sea. The important feature of the new cosmos is the holy city, which is the only part of the new heavens and new earth that John is allowed to see. This new and heavenly Jerusalem is not the earthly, rebuilt city in the Holy Land, but a direct creation of God, designed to fulfill abundantly for redeemed and sanctified humanity the role which the prophets saw for the earthly Jerusalem in relation to Israel and the Gentile nations (Isa. 2:1–5; 49:14ff.; 54:1ff.).
As John saw the holy city descending he heard God declare that he would permanently dwell with his new creation so that there would be perfect fellowship and union between himself and themselves. Redeemed humankind will actually see God and live! And everything that made the old order and age imperfect and unsatisfying will be absent from the new order and age (Isa. 25:8; 35:10; 51:11). In verses 5–8 God himself speaks to insist that all things will certainly be new, for he himself will make them new. The ancient promise of Isa. 55:1, “Come all you who are thirsty, come to the waters,” will be abundantly fulfilled as will also the promise made to king David, “I will be his father and he shall be my son” (2 Sam 7:14). The new creation will be fellowship par excellence and perfect harmony between God and man.
It is reasonable to assume that the section 21:9–22:5 is an extended comment or exposition of the words in 21:1–4 concerning the descent of the holy city. We shall look at two parts of this section. First, 21:22–27:
I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
The earthly temple had been the symbol of the presence of God in an imperfect world and a reminder of two distinctions essential to Israelite and Jewish faith – that between the holy and the common and that between the clean and unclean. In the new Jerusalem no such symbol is needed, for the sphere of the holy and the clean have expanded to cover everything in the new creation. The Lamb of God, the exalted Messiah, retains his office as Mediator in the new order and age; in and through him there is both constant access and total communion with God. And the glorious splendor and brilliance of God and the Lamb is such that the luminaries of the old creation are redundant. The Lamb is the true light of the new world. Further, the nations and peoples who have been deceived by Satan and his servants in the old order will come into the city to bring their worship, service, and tribute to the Lord God and to the Lamb. Yet they will come as the redeemed people of God, the elect, whose names are written in the book of life.
The second part is 22:1–5:
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city and his servants will serve him. They will see his face and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.
The river of the water of life significantly begins at the throne of God and the Lamb (recalling the words of Jesus in John 7:37–39) and flows through the city between avenues of trees which line the banks (cf. Gen. 2:9 and Ezek. 47:7ff.). The fruit of these trees symbolizes fullness of life in God’s presence. This fullness is necessarily linked to the fact that redeemed humanity sees the face of God, the highest of all human possibilities and privileges. This attaining wholly by grace of the visio dei is the climax of salvation and becomes the constant and continuing experience of the elect of the new creation, as will also be participation in the sovereignty of God and the Lamb.
The imagery of Revelation 21–22 is heavily dependent upon the Old Testament portrayals of the Garden of Eden and the City of God. However, its main themes, which complement those we have seen in the teaching of Jesus and the apostle Paul, are clear. In the new order, which already exists in God’s holy habitation, Christ is central for he is the Mediator between God and mankind. There will be intimate fellowship between God and redeemed humanity with the absence of all that gives pain and sorrow and with the abundant presence of all that gives joy and life. Members of the new creation will actually see God and thus will be truly blessed.
1Of all the books on Pauline theology, I have found Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, Grand Rapids, MI, 1975, the most helpful.
For Paul in the context of Judaism, W. D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, Philadelphia, 19804, is still very helpful even if E. E Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, Philadelphia, 1977, has made us see that the situation is very complex.
I have used a variety of commentaries on Paul’s Letters: e.g., C. E. B. Cranfield on Romans, C. K. Barrett on 1 Corinthians, H. D. Betz on Galatians, Markus Barth on Ephesians, F. W. Beare on Philippians, Eduard Schweizer on Colossians.
2I am deeply indebted to Andrew T. Lincoln’s book, Paradise Now and Not Yet: Studies in the Role of the Heavenly Dimension in Paul’s Thought, with Special Attention to Eschatology, for the choice of texts and many illuminating ideas (Cambridge University Press, Monograph Series for the Society of New Testament Studies, No. 43, 1981).
3See, e.g., Jub. 4:26; Ps. Sol. 11:8; Test. Levi 10:5; 1 Enoch 90:28f. See also the Qumran literature – 1QM 12, 13ff.; 4Qp Isa.a 1,7,11.
4See further Murray J. Harris, Raised Immortal, Grand Rapids, MI, 1984, chap. 4.
5For texts and discussion see Lincoln, Paradise, 82. Rowland, The Open Heaven, 380ff has a good discussion of Paul’s vision.
6This is Lincoln’s suggestion. See his discussion of politeuma, 97ff.
7I have found the commentaries of F. F. Bruce (Grand Rapids, MI, 1964) and Hugh Montefiore (New York, 1964) very helpful.
8I have found the commentary of J. N. D. Kelly on I & II Peter (New York, 1964) helpful and Richard Bauckham on 2 Peter (in Jude & Peter, Waco, Texas, 1983) most illuminating.
9I have particularly used George R. Beasley-Murray’s commentary (Grand Rapids, MI, 1981); Robert H. Mounce’s study (Grand Rapids, 1977) was also helpful.
Chapter 5 – The Lake of Fire
In this chapter it is our task to survey what is presented in the New Testament, apart from the Gospels, concerning hell. Apart from noticing the use of the specific word, “hell;’ we shall also look at texts which speak of death, destruction, perdition, punishment, and fire.
Because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God “will give to each person according to what he has done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil ...
Paul is addressing a Jew who is a Jew only in name, not in faith and faithfulness. For our purposes they key words are “storing up wrath,” “the day of God’s wrath,” his “righteous judgment will be revealed,” “wrath and anger,” and “trouble and distress.”1 The day of wrath is the day when God will judge men’s hearts and secrets through Jesus Christ (2:16). On that day God’s righteous judgment will be fully exhibited and executed. “Wrath and anger/indignation” will be the rewards of disobedience for the ungodly; these terms describe the retribution of the ungodly in terms of God’s displeasure: “Trouble and distress” describe their punishment in terms of their experience.
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The figure here is probably a military one, referring to the soldier’s daily provision money; this is contrasted with the free gift, or bounty, which was distributed to the army on the accession to the throne of a new emperor. Sin pays her soldiers with death; God’s bounty provides them with eternal life in Jesus Christ. Death is contrasted with eternal life and obviously means more than mere physical death (cf. 6:16), fearful even as that is. As a minimum, “death” means to be deprived of participation in the life of the kingdom of God of the age to come2 (cf. further references to death in 7:5, 10, 13; 8:6, 13.)
1 Corinthians 1:18
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
Paul preached a Savior who had been crucified and had risen from the dead. This message made nonsense to those who are perishing (apollumenois). This verb in the present participle implies that they will not merely perish in the future but they are definitely on the way to perdition now (cf. 2 Cor. 4:3). Perdition refers not only to the extinction of physical existence but also to the deprivation of the favor of God in the afterlife. It is of interest to note that in the Qumram texts the ungodly are called “men of perdition” (IQS) and “sons of perdition” (CD; cf. 2 Thess. 2:10).
Do you know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolators ... will inherit the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God is thought of here as future, coming into full reality after the Parousia of Christ. The theme of inheritance3 is present in both Old Testament and New Testament pointing to the fulfillment of God’s promises and the hopes of the righteous. From this future glory the wicked and unrighteous will be excluded.
2 Corinthians 2:14–16
Thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life.
Paul pictures the apostles as joyful participants in the triumphal procession of Christ, their commander. Perhaps also he sees perfumes sprinkled along the triumphal way as signs of celebration. Certainly he used a rabbinical description of the Torah (“a fragrance of knowledge”) in order to describe Christ as the embodiment of knowledge and truth. And the apostles as proclaimers of the gospel concerning this Christ share the fragrance and become the aroma of Christ.
However, the perfumes which increased the joys of the triumphant also brought misery to those being led to execution. So the fragrance of the knowledge of God in the gospel on the one hand tells of life and leads to life and on the other is deadly in nature and effect. To reject the Christ of the gospel is to join those who are on their way to perdition (cf. 1 Cor. 1:18 and 2 Cor. 4:3–4.)
Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.
While genuine sorrow before God, who is gracious, leads to a right relationship with him and into his salvation, a false or worldly sorrow, which is directed towards self-pity, leads to a wrong relationship with him and entails death. As we noted above with reference to Romans 6:23, death is more than the end of physical life: It is the opposite of salvation.
Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!
This shows how seriously Paul viewed the truth of the gospel entrusted to him. “Let him be” is a solemn affirmation of what certainly shall be: “eternally condemned” translates “anathema,” a cognate of anathēma, meaning something yielded up to the wrath of God and thus surrendered to the curse of God’
The acts of the sinful nature are obvious ... I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
This is much the same as 1 Cor. 6:9. Living in sin in the present prevents entry into the kingdom of God now and thus an inheritance in the kingdom of God of the age to come. The future tense “will not inherit” conveys the idea of certainty of this lot (see also Col. 3:6 and Eph. 5:5–6 for similar teaching).
Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from the nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.
The whole of life is a period of sowing, and the harvesting is God’s judgment at the end of the age. Destruction or corruption (phthera) is not the cessation of human existence in or after death: it is the positive existence of grief and woe both in this life and the life to come after death.5 Such is the harvest of the seed of self-interest. The seed of “faith working through love” has the harvest of eternal life in the kingdom of God of the age to come.
Whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved – and that by God.
The enmity against the church and the endurance of the believing community under great difficulties are a sign of two facts: the perdition of the opponents and the salvation of the believers. “Will be destroyed” is contrasted with “will be saved” and is obviously a reference to the results of the judgment of God at the end of the age. The Greek word is apōleia, and it is again used in 3:18–19.
1 Thessalonians 5:1–3
Now, brothers, about times and dates, we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.
Already in 1:10 Paul has connected the Parousia of Christ with the revelation and execution of the wrath of God. Here he writes again of the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus as judge. For those who are unprepared to receive him it will be a time of calamity, for destruction will be their lot as the judgment. “Destruction” translates olethros, which points to a state of utter and hopeless ruin (cf. 2 Thess. 1:9).6 This point is underlined by the comment that “they will not escape.”
2 Thessalonians 1:6–10
God is just: he will pay back trouble to those who trouble you, and give relief to you who are troubled and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power on the day when he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marvelled at among all those who have believed.
The advent from heaven of the Lord Jesus with flaming fire as his robe and accompanied by mighty angels recalls not only the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 25:31 but a theme within Jewish apocalyptic. Because he comes as Judge his activity will include giving vengeance (cf. Deut. 32:35), that is, imposing the just penalty upon those who do not know (= are not in spiritual communion with) God the Father and who do not believe and obey his Gospel. These people will be punished by being given what they deserve and merit as those who have rejected God’s self-revelation in Jesus. They will face everlasting destruction (olethros), complete ruin in the age to come (“Everlasting destruction” is found also in the same form in the Greek in 4 Maccabees 10:15, where it is the lot of the wicked tyrant and is contrasted with the blessed death of the Jewish martyr.). Everlasting destruction is further explained in terms of being shut out from and excluded from the presence (literally “face”) of God and from his great glory.
Summary of Paul’s teaching. Paul does not use the word “Gehenna” in these epistles. However, he does speak of God’s wrath and anger being displayed in the judgment against the wicked; further, he refers to the results of that judgment in terms of death (in contrast to eternal life and salvation), of destruction (in contrast to salvation), of perdition (in contrast to salvation), of punishment (in contrast to reward), and of thereby not inheriting the kingdom of God and not seeing the face of God in the age to come. And he insists that the lot of the wicked is decided by Jesus Christ as the judge, acting in behalf of the Father. It is possible to find in the intertestamenta1 literature all the ideas that Paul employs concerning the fate of the wicked. What is unique to Paul is his insistence that Jesus of Nazareth in his Parousia decides what this fate shall be.
Nowhere in his epistles does Paul specifically teach that there will be a resurrection of the ungodly. He is more than clear that there will be a resurrection of the believers, but concerning the resurrection of the rest of humankind he has nothing to say. Yet we may presume that he did teach a general resurrection since, according to Luke, he told Felix that “there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked” (Acts 24:16).
For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?
The message mediated by angels was the Law of Moses in which every commandment has an appropriate penalty prescribed for its infringement. The Gospel of salvation was brought to earth by the eternal Son of God: To ignore or to reject him is to be exposed to sanctions far greater than those prescribed in the Torah. Implied in the question, “how shall we escape ...,” is the answer, “there is no escape” from punishment at the “eternal judgment” (part of the “elementary teaching” mentioned in 6:1–2; cf. 9:27).
If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Anyone who rejected the law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
The deliberate and persistent sinning here described is the Christian equivalent of the Old Testament description of sinning “with a high hand” and “defiantly” (Numb. 15:30), for which no pardon was provided in the law of atonement. The author must be referring to definite and calculated apostasy and renunciation of Christ and Christianity. And the penalty for it is severe. The expectation of raging fire at the divine judgment is a recalling of Isaiah 26:11: “Let the fire reserved for your enemies consume them.”
To reject the Law of Moses means incurring the penalties of the law. To reject or spurn the Son of God and what he has achieved and stands for must and will incur greater penalty than that of the Mosaic Law. The Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 32) contained warnings from the Lord (35–36) that he is judge and will execute judgment and impose punishment on those who defiantly forsake his covenant and grace – and these warnings are cited here. Let it not be forgotten that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the living God, and for those who reject his Beloved Son it is and will be a fearful thing to fall into his hands at the judgment. “Our God is a consuming fire” (12:29, citing Deut. 4:24).
There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy.
James writes of the last judgment when all must face the Author of the Torah who is the judge of the world. He alone can save and he alone can send to destruction (apollumi).
Whoever turns a sinner away from his error will save him from death and cover a multitude of sins.
Death is more than physical dying: It is also the penalty of sin and final exclusion from the society of the kingdom of God of the age to come. Thus anyone who causes a person who is on the way to such a fate to turn around and seek God enables that person to receive forgiveness and have his sins blotted out.
For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others; if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomoпah by burning them to ashes, and made an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men ... If this is so then the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment.
Peter provides three examples of the impartial judgment of God: upon the pride and rebellion of fallen angels, the apathy and disobedience of the men of Noah’s day, and the excessive sensuality of the men of Sodom (cf. Jude 5–7). Later, he shows that God’s just judgment upon the present world will certainly also occur (3:8–10). It is possible that Peter’s account of the fallen angels (Gen. 6:1–4; cf. Rev. 12:7) is influenced by knowledge of 1 Enoch, where there is teaching concerning the punishment of evil angels (e.g., 10:4–6; 18:11–21:10). “Sent them to hell” is a single word in the Greek and means “consigned them to Tartarus” the place in Greek mythology of the punishment of the departed spirits of the very wicked. In this Gehenna within Hades they wait for the final judgment at the Parousia of Christ.7
Peter believed that the God who has delivered, delivers, and will deliver the righteous is also the God who has judged, judges, and will judge the unrighteous. Thus the fate of the wicked will be similar to if not identical with that of the fallen angels; and this will be worse than the latter’s present fate. The last part of verse 9 can be understood in two different ways: (1) as referring to the present torment and future judgment of deceased sinners who are in Tartarus; and (2) as indicating that they are being kept now (but not in Tartarus) for a judgment to be made in the future (as the marginal reading of the NIV allows). Each interpretation includes final judgment, but only one definitely indicates that there is punishment before the final judgment.
By the same word (of God) the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.
Judgment by fire is one of the great Old Testament pictures of the Day of the Lord (Isa. 13:9ff; 29:6; 30:30; 64:1, 2; 66:15–16; Dan. 7:9–11) and is also common in the intertestamental literature (1 Enoch 10:3; Sib. Orac. 3:71ff.). It is apocalyptic imagery, and so it is difficult to determine whether the transformation of the whole universe through fire or the fiery judgment of sinful men at the judgment is intended. God, as a consuming fire (Deut. 4:24; Mal. 4:1) will on the last day consume what is wicked and refine what is good. This will occur (see 3:8–13) before the arrival of “a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.”
Though you already know all this, I want to remind you that the Lord delivered his people out of Egypt, but later destroyed those who did not believe. And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their own home – these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day. In a similar way Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.
Jude provides three examples of God’s righteous judgment. First the case of some members of Israel (Numb. 14:2ff; 32:10–13); secondly the rebellious, fallen angels, and thirdly the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
As we have already noted, the sin and fate of the angels is a common theme in Jewish apocalyptic. In fact the expression “for judgment on the great Day” is found in 1 Enoch 10:6; 16:1; 22:4, 10, 11; 97:5; 103:8. Further, the fate of Azazel, a chief angel, is described in terms of his being thrown into darkness and being covered with darkness (1 Enoch 10:4–5), and other fallen angels are described as being bound until the end of all generations (10:15).
The expression “punishment of eternal fire” refers to that eternal fire awaiting the devil and fallen angels (1 Enoch 67:4ff.; Rev. 19:20; 20:10) of which the fiery destruction of the cities of the plain is a symbolic picture.
A third angel ... said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and of the lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever.
The beast is the Roman Empire with all its satanic power including caesar-worship. Here is a fierce warning to those who fail in the time of trial and submit to the worship of the emperor. The doom of the apostate and their punishment from God is presented in words which recall the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah – “Abraham saw dense smoke rising from the land, like smoke from a furnace” (Gen. 19:28), and which also echo Isaiah 34:8–10:
“For the LORD has a day of vengeance ... Edom’s streams will be turned into pitch, her dust into burning sulphur; her land will become a blazing pitch! It will not be quenched night and day; its smoke will rise for ever.”
Further, their punishment is seen by the Lord Jesus and the holy angels. This thought is similar to that expressed in 1 Enoch: “In the last days there will be the spectacle of the righteous judgment upon them (the cursed) before the righteous for ever, for evermore” (27:3). And, “they will burn before the righteous and sink before the holy” (48:9).
The beast and the false prophet were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulphur.
The Roman emperor, empire, and their organization and priesthood for caesar-worship are doomed, for the judgment of God upon them is sure, and it is a judgment like that meted out to Sodom and Gomorrah.
The devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of burning sulphur, where the beast and false prophet had been thrown.
This describes the final doom of Satan, after the hostile forces under his leadership have been consumed with fire from heaven (v. 9).
Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
The voracious monsters who have themselves devoured so many are in the end themselves destroyed; death and Hades will be no more after the last judgment, for the “second death” (= Gehenna, the lake of fire) will have replaced them as far as the wicked are concerned. “Second death” is that spiritual death (= loss of the gracious presence of God) experienced by the wicked after the final judgment. It is also mentioned in 2:11 and 21:8.9
Obviously in the book of Revelation we encounter evocative imagery which has roots in both the Old Testament and intertestamental literature. While it points to hell as both a place (a lake) and a state (death), it does not provide literal descriptions. Rather it gives terrible warnings of the doom awaiting the wicked in the context of providing powerful promises of the joy and reward awaiting the faithful and righteous. And much the same may be said of what we read in 2 Peter and Jude. There is certainty of judgment and of punishment for the devil and his angels. Those who behave as did the fallen angels deserve the fate prepared by God for those angels. Yet the nature of the doom is presented in imagery (eternal fire, destruction) which evokes a sense of dread and fear but provides no precise description of its nature and duration.
1For the concept of wrath (orgē and thumos) see The New International Dict. of New Testament Theology, Vol. 1., 105–13.
2For death (thanatos) see NIDNTT, Vol. 1., 430–41.
3For inheritance (klēronomia) see NIDNTT, Vol. 2., 295–303.
4For anathema (anathēma) see NIDNTT Vol. 1., 413–18.
5For phthora (= ruin, destruction, perdition, corruption) see NIDNTT, Vol. 1., 467–470.
6For olethros (= destruction, ruin, death) see NIDNTT, Vol. 1., 465–66.
7See further R. Bauckham’s comments on this passage in Jude,. 2 Peter, Waco, Texas, 1983.
8See further Bauckham’s excellent commentary on Jude.
9G. B. Caird, The Revelation of St. John the divine (New York, 1966) explains that being thrown into the lake of fire, which is the second death, meant extinction, total oblivion, and annihilation, (186–87, 258–60). However, George Beasley-Murray, The Book of Revelation, Grand Rapids, 1981, claims that the lake of fire does not signify extinction in opposition to existence but rather torturous existence in the society of evil in opposition to life in the society of God (304).
God exists; therefore, heaven as his creation exists. God is the God of grace and mercy; therefore, the new order of the kingdom of heaven of the age to come will surely exist. Jesus and his apostles and evangelists did not doubt the existence of heaven now (i.e. “above”) and its future existence as the dominating reality of the new, perfect and sinless cosmos, where fellowship with God will be enjoyed by all. They urged people to turn from their selfish and evil ways, to avoid divine wrath and to be drawn towards God and heaven. However, in describing heaven either as “above” or “yet to come,” they necessarily used symbol, image, simile, and metaphor. While these point to heaven as both a place and a state, they do not provide any precise, scientific or literal description of it.
God is a just judge whose holiness is like a consuming fire; therefore, hell will surely exist for those whom his holy nature excludes from his presence and with whom he cannot have true fellowship and communion. Jesus and his apostles and evangelists did not doubt the existence of hell as a dreadful and horrendous state and place where there was a complete absence of any gracious relationship with God. They warned people to avoid the destiny of the devil and evil angels by repenting and believing the Gospel. The imagery they used was taken from fearful realities in this world, and while it does not provide an accurate account of the cosmology or geography of hell, it does highlight its terrible and desperate nature.
It is important, especially for literally-minded and scientifically-oriented westerners, to grasp that the biblical teaching on heaven and hell is via pictures, images, symbols, similes, and metaphors. It is God’s truth in a particular literary form, and this form must always surely be remembered when this truth is put to use either in sermons or in doctrinal statements. In Part 2 we shall notice some of the efforts within the Church over the centuries to interpret this language and use it for doctrinal purposes.
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