Life, Hope & Truth

From the September/October 2018 issue of Discern Magazine

4 Keys to Understanding the Afterlife

To understand what the Bible says about death—and everything that happens after—requires us to first uncover four important facets of the afterlife.

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A few months ago I lost my grandmother.

It was hard, the way death is always hard. I had to come to terms with a lot of things—like the fact that our last good-bye was a lot more final than I had realized at the time. And the fact that I won’t get to introduce her to my daughter, her first great-grandchild. And the fact that, as the last of my grandparents, her death marks the end of an entire generation of my ancestors.

But there was one way in which my grandmother’s death wasn’t hard:

I didn’t have to wonder.

I didn’t have to wonder where she is now.

I didn’t have to wonder whether she was at peace or not.

I didn’t have to wonder what was going to happen next.

I didn’t have to wonder any of this, because the Bible lays out God’s plan for us—both in this life and the next. The Christian scene is filled with conflicting ideas about what happens to us after we die, with varying opinions on everything from the reward of the righteous and the punishment of the wicked to the descriptions of heaven and hell and the standards that determine who goes where.

But opinions don’t count for much, especially when we’re talking about the rest of eternity. What counts is what the Bible really says. If we’re willing to dig through God’s Word, what we’ll find are four invaluable keys that will unlock a deeper understanding about the afterlife.

Key #1: Where the dead go

One of the most fundamental beliefs of most Christian religions is that after death the righteous are rewarded in heaven while sinners are punished in hell. There’s a lot of disagreement over, say, whether that punishment involves literal flames or mental anguish, or whether heaven is just like life on earth, only nicer—but at the end of the day, an afterlife spent in heaven or hell is a pillar in much of Christian theology.

The problem is that the Bible doesn’t say anything of the sort.

The Bible talks about heaven as the domain of God and the angels, with Jesus emphasizing, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:13, English Standard Version).

Years later, Peter and Paul both affirmed that King David—a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22)—“did not ascend into the heavens” (Acts 2:34), but was in fact “both dead and buried” (verse 29). Paul added that David died and “saw corruption” (Acts 13:36)—that is, his body decayed and returned to dust, just as God promised it would: “For dust you are, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).

David, along with everyone who has ever died, is in a place the Old Testament calls Sheol. It’s a Hebrew word often translated as either “the grave” or—interestingly enough—“hell.” Over and over, the Bible emphasizes that the grave is where everyone goes after death:

In Ecclesiastes, the reader is warned, “There is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave [Sheol] where you are going” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Even as far back as the book of Genesis, Jacob understood that he would “go down into the grave [Sheol]” (Genesis 37:35). Job, during the most difficult trial of his life, begged that God would “hide me in the grave, that You would conceal me until Your wrath is past” (Job 14:13).

The dead, we read, go to the grave. To Sheol. To hell.

But with this key, we’re left with another question. If Job was looking to escape the pain and suffering of a trial, why did he ask God to hide him in hell?

To find the answer, we have to unearth the second key to understanding the afterlife:

Key #2: What the dead know

We’ve already read that “there is no … knowledge or wisdom in the grave,” but that passage has more to tell us—specifically, “the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5).

When Lazarus died in the New Testament, Jesus told His disciples, “Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up” (John 11:11). Paul explained that King David “fell asleep, was buried with his fathers, and saw corruption” (Acts 13:36). He also told the Corinthians about 500 believers who had seen the resurrected Jesus Christ—“of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:6).

Over and over biblical authors compare death to a deep sleep. The dead know nothing. They are not aware of anything; they do not feel pleasure or pain. That’s why Job begged God to hide him in Sheol—because there, in the grave, Job would be free of pain and suffering.

This hell—from Sheol in the Old Testament Hebrew and Hades in the New Testament Greek—isn’t the fiery pit of torment many Christians imagine it to be. Those in this hell are simply in a state of unconsciousness, like a deep sleep. But the dead won’t stay asleep forever.

Key #3: When the dead wake up

Job asked God to hide him in the grave for a time—but also asked Him to “appoint me a set time, and remember me” (Job 14:13). Job wasn’t expecting to stay in the grave forever, because he knew that God had a bigger plan for the human race.

In a vision, God showed the prophet Ezekiel a valley full of bones—old bones, bones that figuratively cried out, “Our bones are dry, our hope is lost, and we ourselves are cut off!” (Ezekiel 37:11). The owners of these bones died without hope for their future—but their hope was far from lost.

“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13, English Standard Version).God asked Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?” (verse 3). He then proceeded to give Ezekiel a glimpse into the future of those dry bones: “Surely I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live. I will put sinews on you and bring flesh upon you, cover you with skin and put breath in you; and you shall live. Then you shall know that I am the LORD” (verses 5-6).

That hasn’t happened yet. The owners of those bones are still dead, still sleeping, still unaware of the passage of time. But that time is coming. It will happen. And not just for one valley of bones, but for the bones of every man, woman and child who has ever lived. God’s plan for the afterlife is a plan of hope.

“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep,” wrote Paul, “that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13, ESV). He explained in another letter, “For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order” (1 Corinthians 15:21-23).

A closer look at the Bible reveals not one but three resurrections of the dead. One is for those who have accepted and obeyed God’s calling in this life. The second is for the billions and billions who have lived and died without having their minds opened to that calling. And the last is for the incorrigibly wicked who fully understand God’s calling but reject everything it stands for.

(You can learn more about each of these resurrections in our article “Resurrections: What Are They?”)

All three of those resurrections will take place only after Jesus Christ returns to this earth, and not before. People will be resurrected “each one in his own order.” And the order and timing of these three resurrections makes perfect sense when we consider the fourth (and most important) key to understanding the afterlife:

Key #4: The reason we exist

In the beginning, God created the human race, and He did so with a purpose. He “created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27).

But that wasn’t the end of the story. Far from it. When God shaped the first man from the dust of the ground, He was just getting started. God didn’t design the human race to just look like Him—He designed each of us with the potential to become like Him.

That’s why we’re here. That’s why we exist—because God wants to make us part of His family.

The apostle John told faithful Christians, “Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God! … It has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (1 John 3:1-2, emphasis added).

Paul went a little further into the details and explained, “The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven. … And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man. … For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:47, 49, 53).

John and Paul understood that in our natural state we are mortal and corruptible. We will die, and our bodies will decay. But they also understood that we were created to become the immortal, incorruptible children of God—a precious understanding that one day all the world will share.

Unlocking the truth

Putting all four of those keys together, we start to unlock a clearer picture of the afterlife. We find that the dead, sinners and righteous alike, are all in Sheol—in the grave. In this state, they are like someone in a deep sleep—completely unconscious and unaware of anything.

But eventually, God will bring the dead back to life. At the return of Jesus Christ, the resurrections will begin. God’s faithful servants in this life will be raised as the incorruptible and immortal children of God. In time, the billions and billions who died “without hope” will be given new life and discover that they, too, can have a place in the family of God.

The relatively few who reject that offer and refuse to live by God’s way of love will not suffer forever in some fiery underworld. They will die, permanently. God will incinerate them in an instant in the lake of fire, which the Bible calls “the second death” (Revelation 20:14).

By removing those who insist on living a life that causes pain to themselves and to others, God will usher in a world where “there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

Days to come

It was hard to lose my grandmother. It’s hard to deal with death any time it rears its ugly head in our lives. No amount of knowledge can ever fully take away the sting of losing someone we love—but that knowledge can give us peace.

Right now, my grandmother is resting in her grave. She’s asleep now, but when the time is right, God will wake her up. He’ll open her eyes to truths she never fully understood. I’ll be able to introduce her to the great-granddaughter she never met in this lifetime. I’ll sit down with not just her, but entire branches of my family tree that I’ve yet to meet, many of them discovering for the very first time that they were created to be God’s children.

And all around me, tens of billions around the world will be having a similar experience—opening their eyes for the first time in a long time, finding themselves in a world molded by the unwavering love of God Himself, discovering that their future is filled with the very thing so many of them died without:

Hope.

Want to dig deeper into the afterlife? Find out what else the Bible has to say on the subject in our free booklet The Last Enemy: What Really Happens After Death?

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