The Origin of Orthodoxy

Where Did the Idea Originate that Believers Would Live Forever in Heaven?

The basic teaching of orthodox Christianity concerning what happens after death is that the “souls” or “spirits” of righteous people go either to “heaven” or to some other blissful place. This teaching is in error. [1] It is impossible to understand such false doctrines without understanding their spiritual causes. From as early as the Garden of Eden, the Devil and his demons have been promoting the idea that people do not really die. After God plainly told Adam that he would “surely die” if he partook of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the Devil lied and said to Eve, “You will not surely die” (Gen. 3:4). Ever since that time, the Devil has been actively promoting this same lie wherever and whenever possible. Unfortunately, the idea that people continue living on after they die has found a fertile breeding ground in most religions, including orthodox Christianity.

The vast majority of Christian denominations teach that there is no such thing as death (if “death” is properly defined as “the total absence of life”). Instead, according to their teaching, when the body dies, the “soul,” the “real you,” goes to heaven or hell and keeps right on living either in bliss or torment. Therefore, most Christians do not believe that people actually experience “death” when their body dies. [2] It is common to go to a Christian funeral and hear the minister say, “So and so is now in heaven,” even though his dead body is in the open casket in front of everyone.

Since a major part of the Devil’s agenda was, and still is, to convince people that “you will not surely die,” it is not surprising that most Christians believe that, in some way, “you” go on living even after you die. Whether that “you” is your spirit, your soul, or some other “essence,” the bottom line is always the same—“you” are fully conscious after death and not, in fact, “dead” (i.e., without life). This belief has no basis in Scripture. God designed humans as integrated beings with a body, soul, and spirit that together make a whole individual. Adam’s body was fully formed, but just “dust” until God breathed life into it (Gen. 2:7). Adam’s “life” (whether it be called “soul” or “spirit”) had no consciousness or life of its own apart from his body. The idea that the soul or spirit is like a ghost that can separate from the body and still have consciousness and movement without the body was introduced into Judaism after the Babylonian captivity and came from there and other religions into Christianity. [3] The idea of a disembodied living soul did not come from the text of Scripture. [For further study read Gnosticism – Gnostic ideas have had an influence on Christianity.]

The belief in being alive in some form after death is contrary to the revelation of the Bible. According to the Bible, a person who dies is dead until he or she is raised to life by the Lord Jesus and made to stand at one of the judgments. That is why the Bible speaks of a “day,” or time, of judgment, rather than an ongoing judgment occurring when people die. Revelation 20:4–6 speaks of some of the dead “coming to life” to reign with Christ, while others do not yet come to life. Revelation 20:13 states that the sea and the grave will give up the “dead” who are in them so they can be judged. If people are judged when they die and consigned either to heaven or hell, then there is no reason to get them up from the dead for “a day of judgment.” Why drag someone out of heaven or hell and judge him again if he had already been judged at the time of his death?

Once the religions of the world accepted the idea that the “soul” or “spirit” did not die when the body died, the next step was to determine its post-mortem address, in other words, where does the soul live after the body dies? The answers vary from religion to religion, but there are some similarities. A study of the various religions of the world shows that it was, and still is, very common to believe that “good” people go either to the abode of the gods (sometimes called “heaven”), or to some wonderful place on earth, while evil people go to a place of punishment or torment. These beliefs eventually found their way into both Judaism and Christianity. In The Early History of Heaven, J. Edward Wright addresses the biblical conception of what happens to the dead:

Two verses from the Book of Psalms summarize the biblical conceptions of the afterlife and of humans’ place in the heavenly realm: “Heaven is Yahweh’s heaven, but the earth he has given to humans. The dead do not praise Yahweh, nor all those who go down to silence” (Psalm 115:16–17). These verses pointedly indicate what the biblical tradents thought about humanity’s place in the heavenly realm—they have no place there! [4]

Wright goes on to point out that both Judaism and Christianity adopted ideas of the afterlife from the culture surrounding them:

In the fifth century BCE, belief in a heavenly afterlife developed and spread across the Mediterranean world and the ancient Near East [Emphasis added]. Segments in Judaism and Christianity eventually adopted the belief that humans could have a place in the heavenly realm…The emerging Jewish conceptions of the universe and the ideas about what happens to a person after death were not the natural outgrowth of biblical religiosity but were the product of the fruitful interaction of the ancient biblical traditions with new trends in religion and science during the Greco-Roman period. Early Christianity…inherited aspects of both the biblical traditions and the newer Hellenistic expressions of Judaism. [5]

It is noteworthy that belief in a “heavenly” afterlife, as opposed to an “earthly” or “nether-worldly” afterlife, spread after the death of Malachi, the last of the writing prophets. After his death, there were few people left who could oppose the incursion of false doctrine into Judaism. Josephus, a writer and historian who lived in the first century, wrote about the Essenes. They were one of the Jewish sects of his time and the authors of many of the Dead Sea Scrolls. From Josephus’ writing it is clear that they believed, as did the Greeks, that the physical body was not a blessing at all but rather more like a prison and that the soul rejoiced when it was freed by the death of the body. Furthermore, after being freed, the soul went up to heaven.

For their doctrine is this: that bodies are corruptible and that the matter they are made of is not permanent; but that the souls are immortal and continue forever; and that they come out of the most subtle air, and are united to their bodies as in prisons, into which they are drawn by a certain natural enticement; but that when they are set free from the bonds of flesh, they then, as released from a long bondage, rejoice and mount upward. [6]

Historical texts reveal that this type of misinformation about the Hope and everlasting life circulating in the culture of biblical times influenced both the Jews and the early Christians. Historical texts reveal that both the Jews and the early Christians had various ideas about the eternal future. Unfortunately, the biblical texts were often misunderstood and also often ignored as the source of ultimate authority, just as they are today.

The impact of Greek religion and the Greek language on the doctrine of life after death among the Jews cannot be overstated. Alexander the Great conquered Israel in 332 BC. As a result, by about 250 BC there were so many Jews speaking Greek (many of whom could not read Hebrew) that it became necessary to develop a Greek translation of the Old Testament. This translation is called the Septuagint. It is significant that the translators chose the Greek word “Hades” to translate the Hebrew word “Sheol” in the Hebrew text. This choice had a very powerful impact because the souls in Sheol, according to Scripture, are all dead, but the souls in Hades, according to Homer and other Greek and Roman writers, are all alive. Thus, by the stroke of a translator’s pen, everyone throughout the Old Testament who had died was granted life in the grave. The linguist and scholar E. W. Bullinger writes about Sheol, which is a place for the dead, not the living. After listing every single occurrence of Sheol in the Bible, he concludes:

(a) That as to direction it is down.
(b) That as to place it is in the earth.
(c) That as to nature it is put for the state of the dead. Not the act of dying, for which we have no English word, but the state or duration of death. Sheol therefore means the state of death; or the state of the dead, of which the grave is tangible evidence. It has to do only with the dead. It may be represented by a coined word, Grave-dom, as meaning the dominion or power of the grave.
(d) As to relation it stands in contrast to the state of the living, see Deut. 30:15,19, and 1 Sam. 2:6–8. It is never once connected with the living except by contrast.
(e) As to association it is used in connection with: mourning (Gen. 37:34,35); sorrow (Gen. 42:38; 2 Sam. 22:6; Ps. 18:5; 116:3); fright and terror (Num. 16:27,34); weeping (Isa. 38:3, 10,15,20); silence (Ps.31:17; 6:5; Eccles. 9:10); no knowledge (Eccles. 9:5,6,10); punishment (Num. 16:27,34; 1 Kings 2:6,9; Job 24:19; Ps 9:17, Revised Version, RE-turned, as before their resurrection).
(f) And, finally, as to duration, the dominion of Sheol or the grave will continue until, and end only with, resurrection, which is the only exit from it. [7]

Many linguists and scholars have noticed that Sheol is a place where people are dead. Alice Turner writes:

The Jews, judged solely by the evidence of the Old Testament, were either the least morbid or the least imaginative of the Mediterranean peoples. Unlike their neighbors, they had no relationship with the dead; they did not worship them, sacrifice to them, visit them, hope to reunite with them in the afterlife, nor anticipate any kind of interaction with Yahweh after death—quite the contrary. [8]

The Old Testament was not written by “the least imaginative” Jews. It was inspired by God and penned by men who knew that the dead were actually dead. Lifeless. Not “alive” in any form. And the reason that they knew they would not “reunite” after their death with others who had died before them was that God had revealed that no one is alive in the grave. There will be a reunion, but only after the resurrection.

In stark contrast to the Hebrew Sheol, where everyone is dead, in the Greek Hades, everyone is alive. The myths and legends about Hades in Greek literature and poetry vary greatly, but everyone agreed that the dead are definitely alive. People’s beliefs about the dead differed in their details, such as whether or not they remembered their first life or were tortured by various imps and demons, but in each and every case they were alive. [9] Because the Greeks believed that people stayed alive in some form after they died, they scoffed at the idea of a resurrection and mocked Paul when he spoke of it (Acts 17:32).

The translation of Sheol as Hades in the Septuagint, which brought all the dead back to life, so to speak, occurred more than two hundred years before Christ. Therefore, there was plenty of time for the Jewish world to become confused about the state of the dead by the time Christ died and the Christian Church started. For many Jews, the Septuagint was the only Scripture available to them because they could not read the Hebrew text. Reading it in the context of the Greco-Roman world around them contributed to the establishment and continuance of the erroneous belief that the dead were alive. This confusion made its way into Christianity as people with differing beliefs about the state of the dead became Christians.

The confusion about the state of the dead also came directly into the New Testament because the word Hades is used in the Greek texts of the New Testament for the place of the dead. Even though Christ would have spoken Hebrew and Aramaic, and thus used Sheol and its Aramaic equivalent, his words are written in the Greek text as if he used the word Hades. Acts 2:31 refers to the resurrection of Christ by saying, “his soul was not left in hell [Hades]” (KJV). [10] The use of Hades in the Greek New Testament, especially in light of the Greco-Roman culture in which it was circulating, contributed to the misbelief that people continued to live after the body died.

The Church Reinforces the Doctrine about Heaven

Although the early Christian belief in the soul going immediately to heaven or hell was the result of the influence of other religions and mistranslations, in time the idea was reinforced within the Church. Asceticism made its way into the Christian Church and promulgated the idea that earthly pleasures had no value and were even harmful. The Church Fathers Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–215) and Origen (c. 185–254) seem to be the first who studied the theoretical roots of asceticism, a concept borrowed from the Greek Stoics as a way to purify the soul from its passions. [11]

Christian ascetics renounced earthly things and endeavors and attempted to cleanse their souls by strict discipline and denial of worldly pleasures. By the third century, Christian asceticism was catching on, and out of that movement grew both the age of the Desert Fathers and Monasticism, including all the strict disciplines that the monks endured. Christian ascetics renounced worldly wealth and took vows of poverty, renounced the taste of fine foods and had plain diets with much fasting, renounced the companionship of women and took vows of chastity, renounced the comfort of fine clothing and wore rough robes, renounced regular sleep and performed long vigils, and so forth. During this time it was common for Christians to believe that anything associated with the earth, especially if it was pleasurable, was evil and even demonic. At this time in history, the idea that the everlasting home of the believer was “heaven,” a spiritual place devoid of earthly influences, became firmly entrenched. To an ascetic, the idea that eternity would be spent on a recreated earth complete with fine food, wine, and music would have been preposterous.

Orthodox Christianity has never recaptured the great truth in Scripture that God’s people will live on a recreated earth and not in heaven. Erroneously explaining many verses in light of an everlasting home in heaven bolstered the increasingly entrenched tradition. Also, many verses that clearly speak about the earth were “spiritualized” to fit the idea either of an everlasting home in heaven or applied to the earth now. In fairness to the average Christian, it is no real surprise that the erroneous belief that the saved will live forever in heaven continues unabated. Few Christians have ever been taught the clear verses about the saved inheriting a recreated earth, but rather they have been inundated with other verses mishandled and taught as if they were the final word on the subject. [For further study read Verses sometimes used to support the idea that our everlasting future is in Heaven.]

Endnotes

[1] It should go without saying that an exhaustive treatment of the origin of heaven as the final resting place of the souls of the righteous would fill volumes. This short chapter will only touch on some highlights of the origin of the orthodox belief.
[2] This very important point is given much more attention in Graeser, Lynn, and Schoenheit, op. cit., Is There Death After Life?, pp. 3–15. Other works that discuss the subject include: Anthony Buzzard, What Happens When We Die? (Atlanta Bible College, Morrow, GA, 1986); Oscar Cullmann, Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? (The Epworth Press, London, 1958); LeRoy E. Froom, The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers (Review and Herald Publishing Assn., Washington DC, 1966); Sidney Hatch, Daring to Differ: Adventures in Conditional Immortality (Brief Bible Studies, Sherwood, OR, 1991); Percy E. White, The Doctrine of the Immortality of the Soul (Christadelphian Scripture Study Service, Torrens Park, South Africa); Victor Paul Wierwille, Are the Dead Alive Now? (American Christian Press, New Knoxville, OH, 1973).
[3] It is interesting to note that while the Old Testament has the concept of a kind of human soul, the soul is never pre-existent or immortal but, instead, the result of the creative activity of God (Gen. 2:7). Only under Persian and Greek influence was the Platonic notion of the divine pre-existence of the soul, its imprisonment in the human body, and its immortality taken up in Judaism. This occurred at a late stage and on the periphery of Judaism. Karl-Josef Kuschel, Born Before All Time? The Dispute over Christ’s Origin (Crossroads, New York, 1992), p. 184.
[4] J. Edward Wright, The Early History of Heaven (Oxford University Press, New York, 2000), p. 85. “Tradent” is a very rare word, not found in most dictionaries. A tradent is a person who delivers property of any kind, physical or intellectual, from one person to another.
[5] Ibid., pp. 117–18. “BCE” means “Before the Common Era” and is a secularized way of expressing “BC,” which means “Before Christ.”
[6] William Whiston, The Works of Josephus (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, 1974), Vol. 1, p. 149.
[7] Bullinger, op. cit. Lexicon, p. 369.
[8] Alice K. Turner, The History of Hell (Harcourt and Brace, New York, 1993), p. 40.
[9] Ibid., pp. 20–29.
[10] The confusion about the proper translation and understanding of Hades is still ongoing. For example, in Acts 2:31 quoted above, the KJV uses “hell,” while the NIV uses “grave.”
[11] Cross and Livingstone, op. cit., Dictionary of the Christian Church, p. 95.

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3 comments

  1. When using the term, “Orthodox Christianity”, what is meant? Is it Orthodoxy, as the religion, or orthodox as in, ‘conforming to what is established and approved’?

    1. Orthodoxy means “right believing” and Orthopraxy means “right practice.”

  2. Today’s Christians preach, dying and going to Heaven, whereas the apostles of Jesus never preached that. They preached the future reign of God; they taught that we should wait in anticipation of the resurrection at the return of Christ. They preached the Kingdom of God throughout the book of Acts to the very last chapter and to the very last verse. They did not once preach Heaven. Google, Kingdom Gospel Imperative.

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