Where are the Dead? / What happens if or when you die?

A Grave Question

Orthodox Christian teaching is that at death the soul departs to one of two literal places, “heaven” or “hell.” But this doctrine does not account for those believers who died prior to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We believe Charles F. Baker’s work entitled Dispensational Theology is representative of its confusion. In a chapter entitled “The Intermediate State: The Place of the Dead,” in the section “Sheol-Hades,” Baker writes:

It would appear that as far as the unsaved are concerned there has been no change in their state since the death of the first one. There seems to have been a change brought about by the resurrection of Christ which affects the state of the saved dead, but whether this is a change of actual location or a matter of more complete revelation is not clear. Of one thing we may be sure: the saved dead are now with the Lord awaiting resurrection. [1]

Can we really be “sure” when things are “not clear”? Such confusion is due to men making literal that which is figurative in the Bible.

What happens to the “soul” at the death of the body? In Scripture, the soul figuratively “departs.” Genesis 35:18a shows this figurative usage. “And it came to pass, as her soul [nephesh=life] was departing, (for she died)….” To where does the soul “depart”? It “departs” to sheol, which is often translated “hell,” but which biblically means the grave, or “gravedom.” [For a thorough examination of the meaning of the Old Testament Hebrew word sheol and the corresponding New Testament Greek word hades, the we refer you to the word “hell” in E.W. Bullinger’s A Critical Lexicon and Concordance to the English and Greek New Testament (Zondervan Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan) and our article Making the Dead Alive: Translating Sheol as Hades Brings the Dead to Life.]

The following verses show two things: first, that at death the soul departs to sheol, and second, that the believer’s hope of deliverance from the grave by resurrection is secure.

Psalm 16:10
For Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell [sheol—gravedom]; Neither wilt Thou suffer Thine Holy One to see corruption

Psalm 49:15
But God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave [sheol— gravedom]: for He shall receive me. Selah.

It is significant that in Psalm 49:15 the Hebrew word for “receive” is laqach, which means “to take away.” God, through Christ, will “take away” the dead from the grave.

In Greek mythology, Hades was the god of the underworld, and his name came to represent this fictitious place. The Septuagint was a second-century B.C. Greek translation of the Old Testament, and in it the word hades was chosen as the counterpart to the Hebrew sheol. As they do with sheol, many English versions of the Bible erroneously translate the Greek word hades as “hell” rather than “grave.”

In his lexicon, Dr. E.W. Bullinger makes a thorough case for the translation of both sheol and hades as “gravedom,” a word he apparently coined to describe “the state of being of the dead” in the most biblically accurate manner. This state—the grave—is different than qeber—a grave, because sheol exists only as a concept, not an actual place. Bodies buried in a qeber, a literal grave, will eventually disappear. Sheol is the figurative state, or “dwelling place,” of the dead.

Though some who champion the traditional doctrine of immediate life after death have argued that sheol was a literal place of eternal torment, Scripture plainly says otherwise. The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible states: “Nowhere in the Old Testament is the abode of the dead regarded as a place of punishment or torment. The concept of an infernal “hell” developed in Israel only during the Hellenistic period…” [2] Edward Fudge quotes Baker’s Dictionary of Theology: “Sheol is uniformly depicted in the Old Testament as the eternal amoral abode of both righteous and unrighteous alike.” [3]

A figure of speech is a legitimate grammatical construction designed to emphasize a particular point. A figure of speech arrests our attention by its departure from literal fact or normal grammatical usage. Thus to recognize a figure of speech, we must first identify the literal truth regarding the subject.

Because sheol means “gravedom,” where there is no consciousness, Scripture references referring to those in sheol walking, talking, etc., must be figurative. For example:

Isaiah 14:8-10
(8) Yea, the fir trees rejoice at thee, and the cedars of Lebanon, saying, Since thou art laid down, no feller [woodcutter] is come up against us.
(9) Hell from beneath is moved for thee to meet thee at thy coming: it stirreth up the dead for thee, even all the chief ones of the earth; it hath raised up from their thrones all the kings of the nations.
(10) All they shall speak and say unto thee, Art thou also become weak as we? art thou become like unto us?

The context of these verses is the fall of the king of Babylon (v. 4). His fall would have made the fir trees and cedars in Lebanon “rejoice,” because they were prized for lumber and often carried off to Babylon (v. 8). Via the figure of speech personification, the trees are vividly portrayed as rejoicing because no one has come to cut them down. Verse nine continues this figurative language, as the dead welcome their new companion.

When the Bible says that Jesus descended into “the lower parts of the earth” (Eph. 4:9), it means that he died and was buried in hades, or “gravedom.” In Hebrews 2:9, God’s Word says about Jesus “that He by the grace of God should taste death for every man.” For three days and three nights, Jesus was as dead as anyone else who ever tasted death. As Isaiah plainly stated regarding the death of the Messiah: “He was cut off from the land of the living” (53:8); “He was appointed a grave with the wicked in his death” (53:9).

It is too bad that sheol and hades have been translated into the English word “hell,” which has today taken on the mythological Greek meanings associated with the pagan idea of an “underworld” where the dead continue to live on in torment. E.W. Bullinger’s comments on the word hades in Appendix 131 of The Companion Bible are extremely enlightening:

The meaning which the Greeks put upon it does not concern us; nor have we anything to do with the imaginations of the heathen, or the traditions of Jews or Romanists, or the teachings of demons or evil spirits, or of any who still cling to them.

The Holy Spirit has used it as one of the “words pertaining to the earth,” and in so doing has “purified” it, “as silver tried in a furnace” (Ps. 12:6). From this we learn that His own words “are pure” but words belonging to this earth have to be “purified.”

The Old Testament is the fountain-head of the Hebrew language. It has no literature behind it. But the case is entirely different with the Greek language. The Hebrew Sheol is a word Divine in its origin and usage. The Greek Hades is human in its origin and comes down to us laden with centuries of development, in which it has acquired new senses, meanings, and usages.

Seeing that the Holy Spirit has used it in Acts 2:27, 31 as His own equivalent of Sheol in Psalm 16:10, He has settled, once for all, the sense in which we are to understand it. The meaning He has given to Sheol in Psalm 16:10 is the one meaning we are to give it wherever it occurs in the New Testament, whether we transliterate it or translate it. We have no liberty to do otherwise, and must discard everything outside the Word of God.

A Matter of Life or Death

Another corollary doctrine of pagan origin is promulgated along with the idea that the “dead” are “alive.” If man is “deathless,” there must be an everlasting dwelling place for the evil as well as the good. Thus arose the concept of “hell” as a place of eternal torture for all sinners, who supposedly go there immediately upon death.

“Hell” was a grossly erroneous word to choose for the meaning of hades. Despite the fact that today people are constantly being told to go there, there is no such place!

As we have seen, however, sheol/hades (gravedom) is a figurative “place.” The dead “exist” only in the mind of God, who remembers every person who has died. He will send His Son, “the firstborn from the dead” (Col. 1:18; Rev. 1:5), to raise the rest of the dead from this “place” (John 5:28 and 29).

There is a place of “everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thess. 1:9) mentioned in the Bible. This is gehenna, which refers to the fire of judgment in which the wicked will one day be consumed.

Gehenna is the Greek word for the Hebrew “valley of Hinnom,” which was the city dump outside of Jerusalem. It was common knowledge to the people Christ was addressing that garbage was thrown into “gehenna” to be burned up. No one listening to Christ teach believed that the garbage continued to exist in the fire without being consumed. The point of Jesus using the word “gehenna” was to clearly show that those who were not saved were like the garbage, to be burned up and destroyed.

Gehenna is also called “the lake of fire” in the book of Revelation. It is the place where fire will bring to pass the ultimate annihilation of the Devil and his hosts. Ezekiel 28:18 foretold this destruction by fire that would bring Satan “to ashes.” Apparently, as a fitting recompense for his monstrous evil, this will take quite a while. According to Revelation 20:10, “forever and ever” is better translated “unto the ages of the ages.” [4]

All people who have “done evil” will also one day be destroyed in this lake of fire. Why? Because the wages of sin is death—not eternal torment. Thus Jesus Christ died in place of sinners to pay the legal penalty for the sin of all men. In The Fire That Consumes, Edward Fudge quotes James D.G. Dunn in his essay, “Paul’s Understanding of the Death of Jesus:”

Had there been a way for fallen man to overcome his fallenness … Christ would not have died … But Christ, Man, died because there is no other way for man—any man. His death is an acknowledgement that there is no way out for fallen men except through death—no answer to sinful flesh except its destruction in death. [5]

In the same context, Fudge quotes Oscar Cullmann’s Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? The Witness of the New Testament, that Jesus:

…can conquer death only by actually dying, by betaking Himself to the sphere of death, the destroyer of life, to the sphere of ‘nothingness,’ of abandonment by God … Whoever wants to conquer death must die; he must really cease to live—not simply live on as an immortal soul, but die in body and soul, lose life itself, the most precious good which God has given us … Furthermore, if life is to issue out of so genuine a death as this, a new divine act of creation is necessary. And this act of creation calls back to life not just a part of the man, but the whole man—all that God had created and death had annihilated. [6]

For those who believe in Jesus Christ, he has paid the price for their sin and given them the gift of life in the age to come. Those who do not believe in him will pay the penalty for sin themselves. How? By dying twice, once in this life and once and for all in the lake of fire, which is referred to as the “second death” (Rev. 20:6,14). Everlasting life is just that—life without end—and everlasting death is destruction without hope of recall—permanent extermination. This is God’s perfect justice, and it is definitely “a matter of life or death.”

John 5:28 and 29
(28) Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear His voice,
(29) And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation [judgment].

Revelation 20:15
And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.

Scripture gives no hint that, when the unjust are raised from the dead for final judgment, they will be raised with new, immortal bodies as will the just. When human bodies are put into a crematorium, which is usually about 1700 degrees, they burn up. It is only a guess, but it seems likely that the “lake of fire” will be somewhat hotter than any man-made fire. Considering that one day “… the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up” (2 Peter 3:10), it seems logical that human bodies will follow suit.

In the Bible, the purpose of fire is to purge the bad from the good by burning it up.

Matthew 3:12
Whose fan is in His hand, and He will throughly purge His floor, and gather His wheat into the garner; but He will burn up [katakaio—to consume] the chaff with unquenchable fire.

This word katakaio is used in Hebrews 13:11 regarding the sacrificial beasts that were burned outside the camp. Neither chaff nor beasts burn forever. They burn up and are gone. Many verses make this clear, such as the one that follows:

Malachi 4:1
For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble; and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch.

Nowhere does the Word of God say that He will torment forever those who have refused to believe in Him. Among other things, this would be irreconcilable with Revelation 21:4, which states that from then on throughout eternity there will be no more sorrow, crying or pain.

Sidney Hatch well expresses how farfetched is the idea of a just God forever tormenting by fire those who refused to believe in Him.

A civilized society looks with horror upon the abuse and torture of children or adults. Even where capital punishment is practiced, the aim is to implement it as mercifully as possible. Are we to believe then that a holy God—our heavenly Father—is less just than the courts of men? Of course not. [7]

And with regard to this same subject, the late Swedish Lutheran Bishop John Persone wrote:

For me it is inexplainable how a person, who holds the orthodox view [of final punishment], can at any time have a glad moment in this life. He is constantly mingling with people whose final destiny will be to be tormented eternally without end. . . To me it is even more inexplainable that such an ‘orthodox’ person can expect even a happy moment in eternity, when he knows that contemporaneously with his blessed estate, continue the endless torment and agony of innumerable millions of the accursed. Can he, if he loves his neighbors as himself, yes, even if he has just a little bit of human love and is not solely a selfish wretch, have even a single happy moment? [8]

Another word, tartaros, is used once and translated “hell” in 2 Peter 2:4. It refers to the place of imprisoned evil spirits, rather than a place of torment for sinners.

Two verses in Proverbs are pertinent to this issue and help to make clear the truth that those who refuse to believe God’s Word have no hope of everlasting life under any conditions.

Proverbs 24:19 and 20 (NIV)
(19) Do not fret because of evil men or be envious of the wicked,
(20) for the evil man has no future hope, and the lamp of the wicked will be snuffed out.

For a superb biblical exposition of the subject of everlasting death versus everlasting torment, the reader is referred to The Fire That Consumes, by Edward Fudge. Writing in the Fall 1990 issue of Resurrection Magazine, Fudge summarized some of the main points of his book as follows:

1. The Old Testament utilizes some 50 Hebrew verbs and 75 figures of speech to describe the ultimate end of the wicked—and every one sounds exactly like total extinction.

2. The notion of unending conscious torment arose for the first time in anything resembling biblical literature in the noncanonical book of Judith—in a clear “twisting” of words taken straight from Isaiah.

3. By Jesus’ day, there were at least three “Jewish” ideas about the end of the wicked: (a) annihilation at the grave; (b) resurrection for everlasting torture; and (c) resurrection for judgment followed by total and irreversible extinction in hell.

4. When our Lord taught on this subject, he generally used Old Testament language which most naturally describes complete disintegration of the entire person in the fire of the Age to Come.

5. New Testament writers choose the word “hell” (gehenna) to describe the fate of the lost only in the Gospels, only speaking to Jews, and only when addressing people familiar with the geography of Jerusalem.

6. Most often, New Testament authors use the words die, death, destroy, destruction, perish and corruption to describe the end of the wicked—in contexts which suggest the normal, straightforward meaning of these ordinary terms.

7. All New Testament expressions thought to teach eternal torment come from earlier biblical literature—where they regularly describe destruction that is irresistible, total, and which cannot be reversed.

8. No passage of Scripture teaches the inherent or natural immortality of the “soul” or of any other aspect of the human creature.

9. Although Scripture clearly affirms a resurrection of both just and unjust, the Bible nowhere says the lost will be raised immortal, as the saved will be.

10. The notion of everlasting torment appears explicitly in Christian literature for the first time in the writings of the Apologists, who expressly base it on the Platonic assumption that the soul is “immortal” and cannot be destroyed. [9]

In Robert H. Mounce’s work, “The Book of Revelation,” in The New International Commentary on the New Testament, his quote of Alford’s statement about “the second death” is appropriate to close this article.

Alford writes, “As there is a second and higher life, so there is also a second and deeper death. And as after that life there is no more death (Rev. 21:4), so after that death there is no more life.” [10]

Endnotes

[1] Baker, Dispensational Theology, page 579 (Emphasis ours).
[2] Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible Vol. 1(Abington Press, New York and Nashville, 1962), p. 788.
[3] Fudge, The Fire That Consumes, pages 81,82.
[4] E.W. Bullinger, A Critical Lexicon and Concordance to the English and Greek New Testament (Tenth Edition) (Samuel Bagster and Sons Limited, London, England, 1971), page 259.
[5] Fudge, The Fire That Consumes, page 229.
[6] Ibid., page 230.
[7] Sidney A. Hatch, “The Terrible Doctrine of Eternal Torment,” Brief Bible Studies (July-December 1990), page 17.
[8] “Pastoral Letter,” 1910, 21,24-25, cited in Froom, The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers, Vol 2 (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1965), p. 769.
[9] Edward Fudge, “A Loving Challenge to The Evangelical Church,” Resurrection Magazine (Fall 1990), page 4.
[10] Robert H. Mounce, “The Book of Revelation,” The New International Commentary on the New Testament (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., F.F. Bruce, General Editor), page 367.

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