Why do millions believe they will go to heaven or hell when they die? Where did this idea come from? What does the Bible say about the afterlife?
An ancient Babylonian legend tells of a young man, Etana, who was challenged by an eagle to soar to the heavenly abodes convinced that the eagle had a good idea, Etana, with the eagle, rose higher and higher into the sky until the whole earth looked like a mountain, people like dust specks, and the ocean like a gardener’s small irrigation ditch.
As Etana flew higher, he finally reached the dwelling of Anu. The offended god, upset by the presence of a mere mortal in his heavenly abode, hurled Etana and the eagle down to Hades. So far as human legend is concerned, Etana’s flight was certainly one of man’s earliest recorded attempts to go to heavenly abodes.
The belief in a heaven or a paradise beyond the grave is a recognized tenet of the creeds of virtually all nations and races from the beginning of recorded human history. The heaven of the Hindu is absorption into Brahma. Moslems await paradise where they shall enjoy perpetual light and pleasure, including physical pleasures, although the height of happiness will be seeing Allah, face to face.
The ideas of various nations and peoples about heaven vary widely. The paradise of some primitive tribes in Australia is call gum tree country. There, everything is better than in this world. The path to sky-land, they assert, is by way of the rays of the setting sun or the Milky Way.
Among pre-Christians, Polynesians paradise was sometimes thought of as being in a subterranean world, or inside the moon, or the west, or on an island or even underwater. In Raratonga, warriors who died were thought to be living with the god Tiki in an underground region of fragrant shrubs and flowers, with limitless eating, drinking, dancing, and sleeping.
In North America, among the Delaware, Blackfeet, and Ojibwa Indians, those who broke tribal laws were banished to a gloomy region after death; others entered a happy life of bliss. To the North American Plains Indians, a future life was very real, but their understanding of it was vague and hazy. They believed one who died lived on in the afterlife just as he was in this world, with the same passions, feelings, wishes, needs, and enmities.
From earliest times, men have wondered about an afterlife. In the caves of earliest man, the presence of objects to accompany the dead reveals a belief in life after death. In Neolithic cultures, evidence from specially constructed tombs provides even more proof of men’s continual fascination with death and the hereafter.
Ancient Egyptian religious texts, called the Pyramid Texts, are mainly concerned with the desire of the dead to avoid leading a gloomy existence in the underworld. The august dead, supposedly, could dwell in the sky like the gods, voyaging with the sun god in his ship, or dwell in the Field of Iaru, the “fields of the blessed.”
The Egyptians believed that the souls of the dead had to traverse a vast wilderness region called the Tuat, which was inhabited by gods, demons, fiends, evil spirits, wicked souls, snakes, monsters, etc. After successfully traversing this nether region, they would reach the presence of Osiris.
The dead were ushered into a Hall of Judgment presided over by Osiris. Those receiving a favorable verdict were, after several purifying ordeals, transported to the fields of Alu to enjoy perennial life under the shadow of the tree of life, the sycamore of Nut. However, the condemned were dismembered undergoing a “second death,” tortured by burning coals, plunged into deep waters, and cut into pieces by sharp swords, Declares Kohler” “We have here the very origin of the Inferno and Paradiso” (Kaufmann Kohler, Heaven and Hell in Comparative Religion, p. 23).
But if the earliest evidence shows the concept of a heaven and hell after death originating in ancient paganism, where did today’s professing Christian world obtain its doctrines of heaven and hell? Are these doctrines pagan myths carried over by theological orthodoxy into modern times? Does the biblical record affirm these ancient beliefs?
Shocking as it may seem, the Bible says something altogether different from what millions have supposed!
If the Bible teaches that the righteous go to heaven when they die, then certainly such biblical heroes as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, David, and Daniel must be in heaven right now. Yet, hundreds of years after all those great men died and when Jesus began his public ministry, he remarked to his disciples, “No man hath ascended up to heaven” (John 3:13).
After the death and resurrection of Jesus, the apostle Peter told a large crowd of people in Jerusalem, on Pentecost, 31 A.D., that David “is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day.” He added, so that he would not be misunderstood, “For David is not ascended into the heavens” (Acts 2:29, 34).
These two scriptures disprove the fond illusions and cherished beliefs of millions of people who assume that the Bible teaches that the righteous go to heaven when they die!
David was a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22). Yet the Bible plainly states that he did not go to heaven. Then were did he go? What really happened to David and the biblical patriarchs?
To begin to answer these questions, the apostle Paul made an important statement in the book of Galatians, He asserted: “And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:29). Christians, then, are Abraham’s spiritual children or seed. They are to inherit something that was promised. To learn what Christians are to inherit, then we must see what was promised to Abraham.
The biography of Abraham is recorded in the book of Genesis. Abraham left the city of Ur of the Chaldees to journey to the land of Canaan toward the west. He determined to obey God and do the things he commanded. God, in return for Abraham’s obedience and submission to his way, made a specific promise to Abraham and his descendants. “And the Lord said unto Abram. Lift up now thine eyes, and look from the place where thou art northward, and southward, and eastward, and westward: For all the land which thou seest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed for ever” (Gen. 13:14-15).
God later confirmed the promises to Abraham (Gen. 21:1-3; 22:15-18) and made the same promise to Isaac, Abraham’s son (Gen. 26:2-5). Notice that this promise primarily included an inheritance of land forever. In order to inherit this land forever, eternal life also must have been part of the promise!
The promise made to Abraham, then, was the land of Canaan, which he and his “seed” would inherit for all eternity. Later, however, God expanded this promise to include the whole world. The apostle Paul in Romans 4:13 called Abraham “the heir of the world,” not just of the land of Canaan. This, then, is the promise which all Christians, as the seed of Abraham, are to inherit!
This same promise is reaffirmed in the New Testament. Jesus plainly told his disciples: “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5).
In the book of Revelation, we read the crystal clear statement: “thou (Christ) wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth” (Rev. 5:9-10).
The Psalms of David also make this truth clear. David wrote: “For evildoers shall be cut off: but those that wait upon the Lord, they shall inherit the earth” (Ps. 37:9). This entire psalm is full of similar references. Verse 29 adds: “The righteous shall inherit the land, and dwell therein for ever.”
However, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and all the rest of the patriarchs are still waiting to receive what was promised to them. To this very day, they have not yet inherited the earth.
In the book of Hebrews we read: “By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise” (Heb. 11:8-9).
Notice further that these all “died in faith, not having received the promises” (v. 13). Also: “And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise” (v. 39).
So when will the patriarchs, along with true Christians those who truly follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, repent of their sins, and accept him as Savior, receive the promise?
Jesus gave us the answer (but people just believe on Christ, they don’t believe what He said): “Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs 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 judgment” (John 5:28-29).
The promise will be inherited at the time of the resurrection of the righteous. The apostle Paul declared: “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord” (I Thess. 4:16-17).
When Jesus Christ returns to this earth, the patriarchs and truly converted Christians will be raised from their graves. At that time, Jesus will reward the righteous, and they will then assist him in ruling over the entire earth for 1,000 years (Rev. 20:4, Dan. 2:44 and 7:27).
Clearly, then, the idea of the righteous going to heaven when they die is not biblical. But what about the belief that evildoers are cast into an ever-burning hell?
Christ alluded to them and their ultimate fate when he told his disciples: “And I say unto you my friends, be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yes, I say unto you, Fear him” (Luke 12:4-5).
In this case, Christ mentioned “hell.” The original Greek word used is Gehenna, derived from the Hebrew word for the “valley of Hinnom” to the south of Jerusalem where, during ancient times, garbage was dumped and fires burned continually to consume the debris and trash. This was a place of early apostasy, where the god Molech was worshipped. It was converted by King Josiah into a place of abomination where corpses were thrown and burnt up (II Kings 23:10, 13-14). It became symbolical of the final fate of the wicked.
The word “hell” has been confused and misunderstood by millions. The Bible uses three other words that are sometimes translated “hell.” Two of them, the Hebrew sheol and the Greek hades, are synonymous and simply mean “the place of the dead” or “grave.” Sheol is translated “grave” 31 times in the Old Testament. Hades in the New Testament, also refers to the “grave” (I Cor. 15:55), although it is often rendered “hell” in the King James Version.
The 3rd word translated “hell” is the Greek tartaroo and only occurs once in the Bible (II Peter 2:4). It simply means to incarcerate or imprison, and refers to the restrained condition of fallen angels, now known as demons.
The only biblical word rendered “hell” which clearly and provably refers to the final fate of the wicked, the ultimate destruction of the incorrigible is the word gehenna. This is the only word translated “hell” which has the connotation of “fire” or “fiery destruction.
The apostle John in the book of Revelation described this final “hell fire” or Gehenna fire as a seething, flaming lake. John wrote: “But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone” which is the 2nd death” (Rev. 21:8).
The fire will utterly destroy the wicked. This destruction is called the “Second Death” because it is not the same as the death which occurs at the end of one’s natural life. Only those who deliberately rebel against God and refuse to obey him, despite understanding his will, must die a second death. This second death will be forever, there will never be a resurrection from it.
The Bible states that the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23) – not eternal life in a different geographical location. The book of Malachi makes this clear. The prophet recorded: “For, behold, the day comes, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that comes shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch. And ye shall tread down the wicked; for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet saith the Lord of hosts” (Mal. 4:1-3).
The biblical hell fire will be much hotter than the mythological hell of pagan legend. It will totally consume the bodies of the wicked until nothing is left but ashes.
David described the ultimate fate of the wicked this way: “But the wicked shall perish, and the enemies of the Lord shall be as the fat of lambs: they shall consume; into smoke shall they consume away” (Ps. 37:20).If you have seen fat sizzling and burning up in a hot skillet, then you have an idea of what the final fate of the incorrigibly wicked will be like.
Is this a cruel fate? No. The wicked will experience eternal death because death is the most merciful fate a loving God could impose on those who insist on breaking his law and reaping the resulting unhappiness. They will be put out of their misery and not make others miserable, either. God’s way is much better than the horrible concept of sinners being doomed to sizzle and fry forever. It’s much more merciful and final!
Whatever your background, the straightforward statement in the Bible probably comes as a shock to you, for very few understand what the Bible really says about heaven, hell and the hereafter.