The following is my Sermon Transcript from October 18, 2009, on the topic of Heaven, Hell and the After-life.
Today we begin a new series on the topic of Heaven, Hell and Life after Death. As we close out our brief and random look at the book of Isaiah, we must address a prominent emerging idea in Isaiah that is remarkably absent prior to his writings. Isaiah stands as sort of a bridge between Old and New Testaments (as all of the prophets really do) and in Isaiah we begin to see a new stream in revelation, that of the global extent of the kingdom of God. But before we get to actual texts from the book of Isaiah and other places instructive to our study we need to spend some time laying some groundwork.
Heaven, hell and life after death may be the most myth-filled area of the modern Christians mind. I hear more “weird” stuff when I listen to Christians talk about these issues. Funerals may be the place where these ideas run rampant and unchallenged. Here are some of the ideas I want to challenge, tweak and adjust as we progress through this arena:
- People who have died have a “freedom” to go wherever they want and can see and keep tabs on events that occur on earth. “Uncle John is looking down on us”, or “Mom is here with us right now” or “Dad will watch over us and take care of us”.
- “Heaven” is a geographical location within our present universe
- Eternity consists of disembodied spirits existing in some ethereal place (often characterized or with the caricature of chubby cherubs flitting about on clouds with harps).
- We become angels in the afterlife
- The earth/creation/body is evil and needs to be destroyed (Many believers are essentially gnostics)
Much of the Christian mind has been influenced in this area by comics and jokes, Funeral “myth”-ology, cultural mythology, and tradition. In this study we want to discover solid Biblical teaching on the issues of heaven hell and the after-life. So today we will begin with some substructure. Our task includes identifying and attacking underlying myths and distortions we have about these issues, then reconstructing a solid Biblical theology of heaven, hell and life after death.
Technically area of theology is known as “Personal Eschatology”. Eschatology (study of the things concerning the end) is traditionally divided into two areas: Personal and General Eschatology. Eschatology comes at the end of the study of theology as well as being about the ends of all things. It is placed there logically as well as chronologically. What we mean by that is Eschatology rests upon other prior and foundational theological issues. Eschatology builds upon the theological ideas of redemption, resurrection, the nature of man, Ecclesiology and any Eschatology that contradicts or ignores these other foundational issues typically distorts the Bible’s teaching of Eschatology.
So this morning we will begin with some important guidelines which impact our quest to understand these issues:
- Where will we get our information and what is our source and authority? – Sola Scriptura
- What is the ancient context in which these ideas must be understood? – Cosmology and Language
Since none of us has ever been to heaven or hell, nor have we experienced death yet, our experience and the experience of other people is not a valid source of information about these issues. Science cannot help us as it is based upon empirical (sense perception and observation of repeatable events) observation. If we are going to get information about these things we are left with revelation, God’s words to us with regard to heaven, hell and the afterlife. As Protestants we appeal to the Scriptures as our final authority in any dispute over issues of faith. We define sola Scriptura in this way: all things necessary for salvation and concerning faith and life are taught in the Bible clearly enough for the ordinary believer to find it there and understand (I failed to note my source, will find and supply it for you…soon).
The following is an excerpt from an article by Dr. Robert Godfrey called “What do we mean by Sola Scriptura?”
Let me begin with certain clarifications so as not to be misunderstood. I am not arguing that all truth is to be found in the Bible, or that the Bible is the only form in which the truth of God has come to His people. I am not arguing that every verse in the Bible is equally clear to every reader. Nor am I arguing that the church — both the people of God and the ministerial office — is not of great value and help in understanding the Scripture. As William Whitaker stated in his noble work: “For we also say that the church is the interpreter of Scripture, and that the gift of interpretation resides only in the church: but we deny that it pertains to particular persons, or is tied to any particular see or succession of men.”1
The Protestant position, and my position, is that all things necessary for salvation and concerning faith and life are taught in the Bible clearly enough for the ordinary believer to find it there and understand.
The position I am defending certainly is what is taught in the Bible itself. For example, Deuteronomy 31:9 states: “Moses wrote down this law. . . .” Moses instructed the people by writing down the law and then ordering that it be read to them “so they can listen and learn to fear the Lord your God and follow carefully all the words of this law,” Deuteronomy 31:9, 12.
Moses declared to all Israel: “Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day, so that you may command your children to obey carefully all the words of this law. They are not just idle words for you, they are your life,” Deuteronomy 32:46, 47.
Notice the clear elements in these passages:
- The Word of which Moses spoke was written.
- The people can and must listen to it and learn it.
- In this Word they can find life.
The people do not need any additional institution to interpret the Word. The priests, prophets, and scribes of Israel certainly function to help the people ministerially. But the Word alone was sufficient for salvation. The prophets, who were indeed inspired, came very much in the spirit of Micah who said, “He has shown you, O man, what is good,” Micah 6:8. The function of the prophets and priests was not to add to or even clarify the law; rather, they applied it to the people who were sinfully indifferent.
If this principle of the sufficiency and clarity of the Word is true in the Old Testament, we can assume that it is all the more true in the New. The New Testament gloriously fulfills what the Old Testament promises. But we do not have to assume it; rather, the New Testament makes clear that the character of Scripture is to be sufficient and clear. One example of that is found in 2 Timothy 3, 4. Here Paul writes to his younger brother in the faith, Timothy. He writes that Timothy — who was instructed in the faith by his mother and grandmother — has also learned all about Paul’s teaching (3:10). Timothy has been mightily helped by all sorts of oral teaching, some of it apostolic. Yet Paul writes these words to Timothy:
And indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. But evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them; and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2 Timothy 3:12; 4:5)
You see, Paul reminds Timothy that the Scriptures are able to make him wise unto salvation in Christ Jesus (3:15). He teaches that the Scriptures are useful for teaching, reproof (rebuking), correcting, and training in righteousness (3:16). Because the Scriptures have this character, they thoroughly equip the man of God for every good work (3:17). So Paul tells Timothy that he must preach this Word, even though the time is coming when people will not want to hear it, but rather will want teachers to suit their fancy, who will instruct them in myths rather than the truth of the Word (4:1-4).
The force and clarity of the Apostle’s teaching here are striking. In spite of the rich oral teaching Timothy had, he is to preach the Scriptures because those Scriptures give him clearly all that he needs for wisdom and preparation to instruct the people of God in faith and all good works. The Scripture makes him wise for salvation, and equips him with everything he needs for doing every good work required of the preacher of God. The sufficiency and clarity of the Word are taught in this one section of Scripture over and over again. John Chrysostom paraphrased the meaning of Paul’s words to Timothy this way: “You have Scripture for a master instead of me; from there you can learn whatever you would know.”2
From Godfrey “What Do We Mean by Sola Scriptura”
Closely related to our belief about the Scriptures being our sole authority is our idea of inerrancy. The doctrine of innerancy is simply that we believe that the Scriptures do not affirm anything that is contrary to fact (Grudem, Systematic Theology). Inerrancy does not mean that the Bible is a scientific source or document. Ancient man believed things that we now know are not true from a scientific standpoint. Even though we know that the earth rotates around the sun we still use archaic phrases such as the sun rises and sets. Ancient man may have believed that but the Bible does not correct that error, in fact seems to affirm that error but in fact it does not. God does not correct every error in man’s thinking in communicating eternal truth to him. This does not threaten inerrancy. We interpret the Bible in its appropriate context. This is important in our study, especially as we try to understand ancient understandings of the universe, that is, cosmology.
Cosmology is the study of the nature and origins of the universe. Ancient man did not have the same luxuries that we have with regard to gaining knowledge about the universe. No telescopes, space shuttles, Mars probes and satellites, etc. Before the Enlightenment era (1500’s or so) man knew only what he could observe with the naked eye and his view of the universe was limited and erroneous. Our present cosmology is still subject to correction and amending, we don’t conclude that we can’t know things because we don’t know all things.
Ancient man believed in what has been characterized as the “Three tiered Universe”. The earth was seen as flat, having four corners supported on pillars much like a table top. The sky had a canopy (expanse or firmament to use Bible terms), a sort of barrier between the water that surrounded the canopy (waters above and below). This canopy had windows in it that were opened when it rained and the waters above then were able to fall upon the earth. The sun moon and stars moved about in this “firmament”. Cosmology developed to include many different levels of heaven, hence Paul refers to a “third heaven” and we retain an idea of the highest heaven would be characterized as the “seventh heaven”.
We now know that this ancient cosmology is incorrect. God doesn’t correct ancient man’s erroneous cosmology and reveals spiritual truths using this uncorrected cosmology. To understand the Scriptures we must take this into account. This doesn’t threaten inerrancy, but ignoring this can distort your understanding of the Bible. God communicates to man in man’s context. He communicates using man’s present understanding, choosing not to say “Wait, before I tell you this lets talk about the heliocentric cosmololgy instead of your backward geocentric views.” God lets ancient man be ancient man and it is anachronism to demand otherwise.
Ancient man believed that the place of the dead was “underneath” the tablet of the earth. We no longer believe that sheol is an actual place underneath the earth’s crust. In the same way, we reject the idea that there is a place above the firmament that houses an actual throne room where an old guy with a beard sits with fat angels with halos.
Anthropomorphism is an important word you should be familiar with as you read the Bible and as we try to understand God and the things of God. As with ancient cosmology, God accomodates our humanity in revelation. He has to, we are limited and He must speak to us in understandable terms. When we talk to our children we speak to them with vocabulary they are familiar with and we paint pictures to help them understand abstract ideas, and we keep some information from them until they are able to understand, or until they have the maturity to grapple with the idea (eg. we don’t give sexual details to five year olds, we talk about babies coming from God, storks etc.). Anthropomorphism is a term that simply means “human form”. In the Bible context we use anthropomorphism to describe God because we are familiar with humanity but God is a little beyond our understanding. We can’t see Him and He is Spirit. He is “other” than us. He talks to us about himself using our language because it is language we understand but we need to be careful to understand that when the Bible says God has eyes, hands, feet, is seated on a throne, has wings, etc., it is not being literal, it is using anthropomorphism so that we can relate. This will be helpful as well as we explore the Bible’s revealing of “heaven” to us. Symbol, metaphor, anthropomorphism fills the language of the Bible. It is important to be familiar with how that works.
The following is an excerpt from the Jewish Virtual Library on the term Anthropomorphism:
An obviously anthropomorphic expression is found in Genesis: ẓelem Elohim (“the image of God”), and there are references to actually “seeing” God (Ex. 24:10–12; Num. 12:8). The limbs of the human body frequently serve as allegorical descriptions of the acts of God as perceived by man. Thus divine providence is referred to as “the eyes of the Lord” and “the ears of the Lord” (very common in Prophets and Psalms); “the mouth of the Lord” speaks to the prophets (both in Torah and Prophets); the heavens are the work of His fingers (Ps. 8:4), and the tablets of the covenant are written by the finger of God (Ex. 31:18). Striking figurative expressions are af (“nose”; i.e., “the wrath of the Lord”), “His countenance” (which He causes to shine or, alternatively, hides), yad, (“hand,” “His right hand,” “His arm,” “His sword”). At times the personification is startlingly extreme: God (or His voice) “walks about in the garden” (Gen. 3:8); He “goes down” in order to see what is being done on the earth (Gen. 11:5; 18:21) or in order to reveal Himself there (Ex. 19:18; 34:5), and He “goes up again” (Gen. 17:22; 35:13); He goes through the land of Egypt and passes over the houses of the Israelites (Ex. 12:12–13); He sits on a throne (Isa. 6:1), causes His voice to be heard among the cherubim who are over the ark of the tabernacle (Num. 7:89), dwells in Zion and in Jerusalem (Ps. 132:13; 135:21); the hair of His head is as wool (Dan. 7:9); Moses sees “His back” (Ex. 33:23). Anthropomorphic expressions abound in the song at the Red Sea (Ex. 15) and in the song of David (II Sam. 22; Ps. 18).
More important from a theological perspective are the anthropopathisms, or psychical personifications of the Deity. Scripture attributes to God love and hate, joy and delight, regret and sadness, pity and compassion, disgust, anger, revenge, and other feelings. Even if one explains these terms as being nothing but picturesque expressions, intended to awaken within man a sense of the real presence of God and His works, nonetheless they remain personifications. The basis for such terms is the conception of God as a Being who wills in a personal (though not exactly in a human) way. This personalized conception of the Deity, in conjunction with the axiomatic belief in His absolute transcendence, leads to unusual boldness in the use of anthropomorphic imagery.
Ultimately, every religious expression is caught in the dilemma between, on the one hand, the theological desire to emphasize the absolute and transcendental nature of the Divine, thereby relinquishing its vitality and immediate reality and relevance, and on the other hand, the religious need to conceive of the Deity and man’s contact with Him in some vital and meaningful way. Jewish tradition has usually shown preference for the second tendency, and there is a marked readiness to speak of God in a very concrete and vital manner and not to recoil from the dangers involved in the use of apparent anthropomorphisms.
However, this anthropomorphic style is frequently accompanied by mitigating expressions indicating reservations. The basic opposition to all such personifications is decisively formulated in the Decalogue. In addition, it finds expression in many verses which maintain that nothing can be compared to God, who has no form or shape, cannot be seen, is eternal and without end (very frequent in the Pentateuch, Former and Latter Prophets, Psalms, Job, and Chronicles). Yet, many of these verses appear to contradict others which describe God in corporeal terms (for example, Ex. 20:4; Deut. 4:15, as against Gen. 1:26; Num. 23:19 and I Sam. 15:29 as against Gen. 6:6; I Kings 8:27 as against Ex. 25:8, and other such examples). These verses emphasize the transcendent nature of the Divine, not in philosophical abstractions but in vivid descriptive expressions. In other places one finds attempts to avoid such personifications and to substitute less daring imagery; if it is said, on the one hand, that the Lord dwells in His sanctuary (Ex. 35:8), and also appears in the cloud over the cover of the ark (Lev. 16:2), on the other hand there are verses which speak instead of God’s kavod (“glory”) or Shemo (“His name”; Ex. 24:16–17; Lev. 9:23; Num. 14:10; Deut. 12:5, 11; 16:2, 6; I Kings 8:11). Some scholars (S.D. Luzzatto and Geiger) argued that the present vocalization of Exodus 34:24 “to appear before the Lord” was emended by the masoretes from original לִרְאוֹת (lirot; “to see”) to לֵרָאוֹת (lera’ot; “to be seen”), to avoid an objectionable anthropomorphism.
There is no evidence of any physical representation of God in Jewish history (in contradistinction to the worship of Canaanite and other foreign gods by Israelites). Even the golden calves of Jeroboam represented, according to the view of most scholars, only a footstool for the invisible God. In archaeological excavations no images of the God of Israel have been unearthed. Biblical Hebrew is the only fully developed language which has no specific term for the notion “goddess.”
Jewish Virtual Library
Next week we will be covering the term Intermediate State. Much of our mistaken ideas about “heaven” come from attributing features of the intermediate state to the final state.
Re-commitment to God’s Word
I ended the message with an exhortation to get back to the Scriptures. If it is our authority and source of knowledge about God and the things of God, we should be much more familiar with it.
Here we are in the fall…preparation for New Year.
Read the Bible from cover to cover.
Study a particular book
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Buy a bible study resource