What Does the Bible Teach?
THE BIBLE is a reasonable book. There is nothing contradictory about it: everything fits together in a manner that makes its message both dynamic and easy to understand. Its teachings make sense and it is this simple logic that presents such a challenge that no-one of good will can deny its impact.
This booklet has been written to show that – in contrast to the plain and reasonable teaching of Scripture – popular ideas about heaven and hell are unreasonable. What are these ideas? For centuries it has been commonly believed by most professing Christians that heaven is the abode of the righteous dead where they experience everlasting joy and happiness, and that hell is the eternal abiding place of the wicked who are subject to never-ending torment in its unquenchable fires.
In more recent times many have abandoned the idea of hell-and with it any real desire to investigate whether this is, in fact, a true reflection of what the Bible teaches. This abhorrence of eternal suffering (surely a right instinct) has caused men to cherish instead a vague hope of universal salvation-that all will enjoy eternal happiness irrespective of the works done during their mortal life. Yet that has now left people with a sense of unease, because they sense an injustice in assuming that there can be a reward for both good and bad alike.
Christadelphians do not share either the modern idea of ‘heaven for everyone’, or the more traditional ideas of ‘blessings in heaven’ and ‘punishment in hell’. They have read the Bible themselves (as we hope the readers of this booklet will do) and concluded that, although ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ are mentioned many times, they are not the eternal abiding places where people hope (or fear) to go to at death.
A grievous error has been made in interpreting the Bible. But the error is not first of all concerned with heaven or hell; the error really grew out of another theory, that all men are born with what is called an ‘immortal soul’. This is variously described as a ‘never dying entity’, a ‘divine spark’; and to it are attributed all the characteristics of what is termed ‘the real man’ – personality, conscience, reason and understanding, emotions and all the moral qualities of which man is capable. The body is said to be mortal and corruptible, turning to dust and ashes after death, whereas the soul is immortal and incorruptible and lives on in endless bliss or misery.
And, of course, once one has accepted such a view of human nature, then a belief in some other place or places as the abiding and continuing home(s) of the soul after death becomes a logical necessity. But, if this view of human nature is incorrect, then the popular conceptions of heaven and hell may also be quite false.
We propose therefore briefly to examine the Bible teaching concerning the soul and human nature and then, on this foundation, to establish the reasonable and logical teaching of the Bible concerning the ultimate destiny of the righteous and the wicked.
“And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7).
It is the man himself, the body formed from the dust, energised by the breath of life, which is described as “a living soul”. The original Hebrew word nephesh means simply ‘a breathing creature’ and it is used not only of man but also of animals. For example:
It is true that nephesh is adopted for a variety of purposes in later Scriptures. In the Authorised Version the original word has been translated “soul” 530 times, “life” or “living” 190 times, “persons” 34 times, “beasts”, etc. 28 times. Among its other renderings are “self”, “heart”, “mind”, “appetite”, “body” etc. But always its use is associated with the activity of a living, breathing creature and never does it imply anything about the duration of life. Indeed, far from ascribing immortality to the soul the Bible emphatically declares that it is both capable of dying and by its very nature liable to die:
“He spareth not their soul from death” (Psalm 78:50);
We could have no more emphatic testimony that the soul is capable of death.
The Death State
“Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Genesis 2:16,17).
Disobedience to God’s commandment would bring death. What death involved is made clear when God judged Adam for his sin:
“In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:19).
There was, in effect, to be a reversal of the process of creation. Then God formed man from the dust and breathed into his lifeless body the breath of life, so that he became a living, breathing creature. So, in death, God withdraws that life-giving energy of which He alone is the source (see Job 34:14,15; Psalm 36:9); and the body corrupts and disperses into dust (Ecclesiastes 12:7).
“Dust to dust”
The Psalmist writes:
“Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am. Behold thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee: verily every man at his best is altogether vanity O spare me, that I may recover strength, before I go hence, and be no more” (Psalm 39:4,5,13).
So there is no conscious existence in death: no part of man lives on, either in heaven or hell. There is no extension of being-not even for the righteous. King Hezekiah, a faithful servant of God, wrote:
“For the grave cannot praise thee, death cannot celebrate thee . . . the living, he shall praise thee, as I do this day” (Isaiah 38:18,19).
And the wise man summarises the position:
“For the living know that they shall die; but the dead know not anything . . . Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished . . . Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest” (Ecclesiastes 9:5,6,10).
In the face of such clear teaching about death, so easy to understand, what need is there for further explanation? There can be no continuing existence after death either in heaven or hell. The Bible speaks to us simply and logically and leads us inevitably to this conclusion.
This does not mean of course that there is no reward for the righteous or indeed no punishment reserved for the wicked. But whatever these might be, because of the harmony that exists throughout the Bible, such reward or punishment must be consistent with the facts that we have already established. A consideration of what the Scriptures say concerning heaven leads us smoothly onwards in our developing understanding of what the Bible teaches about these vital questions of life and death.
Heaven-God’s Dwelling Place
“Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me. Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day” (Psalm 139:7-12).
When Solomon built his temple – a house for God to dwell in – he too recognised this truth:
“Behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have builded” (1 Kings 8:27).
But though God’s spirit fills all space, this truth is compatible with the fact that the Scriptures speak of a “dwelling place”. On that same occasion, Solomon besought God for Israel:
“When they shall pray towards this place . . . then hear thou in heaven thy dwelling place: and when thou hearest forgive” (1 Kings 8:30,39,43).
“Our father which art in heaven”
“God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few” (Ecclesiastes 5:2);
and Jesus taught his disciples to pray:
“Our father which art in heaven” (Matthew 6:9).
This concept of God’s heavenly habitation is summed up in the following passages:
“. . . who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see” (1 Timothy 6:16);
Man has no access into God’s presence in heaven; but the Lord Jesus, God’s only begotten Son, after his resurrection “was received up into heaven and sat on the right hand of God” (Mark 16:19).
This again is the logical conclusion to which the Scriptures have led us:
“No man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man” (John 3:13).
The Earth is Man’s Inheritance
“The meek shall inherit the earth and shall delight themselves in the abundance of peace . . . For such as be blessed of him shall inherit the earth . . . The righteous shall inherit the land and dwell therein for ever” (Psalm 37:11,22,29).
The Lord Jesus was referring to this Psalm when he said, “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). He taught his disciples to pray, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven” (6:10) And John had a vision of the redeemed (those delivered from sin and death), who sing:
“Thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood . . . and hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:9,10).
The earth, then, is man’s habitation and also his promised eternal abiding place. We shall leave for a moment the question of how this inheritance on earth is granted, because first of all we must clear up some common misunderstandings about “hell”.
Hell is the Grave
“Like sheep they are laid in the grave (sheol); death shall feed on them . and their beauty shall consume in the grave (sheol)” (Psalm 49:14).
There are no exceptions: death and the grave give to men an equality they can never find in life, for:
“There the wicked cease from troubling; and there the weary be at rest. There the prisoners rest together; they hear not the voice of the oppressor. The small and the great are there; and the servant is free from his master” (Job 3:17-19).
In the New Testament the word hades is the equivalent of the Hebrew sheol. In the Septuagint – a translation of the Old Testament into Greek, compiled approximately two hundred and fifty years before the birth of Jesus – this word is used almost without exception to represent sheol. In Peter’s speech on the Day of Pentecost he quotes from Psalm 16 to prove the resurrection of Jesus and the Greek text of Acts uses the word hades:
“Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither suffer thine Holy One to see corruption” (Acts 2:27).
For the purpose of our enquiry we shall take just one passage: the explanation given in this instance applies equally to all the others. We have selected the words from Mark 9 (parallel to Matthew 18:8,9) because this is undoubtedly the most explicit and comprehensive example of the Lord’s teaching about Gehenna:
“And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched” (verses 43,44, see also 45-49).
From a superficial reading one might feel a certain repugnance about eternal fires and never-dying worms. Happily neither of these ideas is involved in a true understanding of the passage.
The word Gehenna comes from the Hebrew Ge-Hinnom, which was in fact a geographical location. It means the Valley of Hinnom, sometimes referred to as Tophet. It was a valley on the edge of the (then) city of Jerusalem and from the earliest times it was a place of ill repute – associated with idolatrous worship and abhorred by the Jews because of horrific practices associated with false worship: see, for example, Jeremiah 7:31-33. In the days of Josiah the valley was cleansed and its evil practices forbidden (2 Kings 23:10). Its infamy, however, lived on and it became a place for Jews to burn the refuse of the city; later they used it to dispose of the carcases of animals and unburied criminals after execution. For this purpose and to avoid the stench of putrefaction, fires were kept burning there continually and it became synonymous with death and condemnation.
The reference to fires that are never quenched now begins to be seen more clearly: they are used to express the nature of divine judgement. The judgements of God are certain and inexorable. This indeed is what is suggested by, “Their worm dieth not” – nothing can prevent or interfere with the declared judgement of God upon those who turn their backs on Him.
“God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell (tartarus)” (2 Peter 2:4).
In Greek mythology the word referred to a subterranean cavern, a nether-world into which the wicked were cast.
The use of this word can in no way confuse the clear teaching of Scripture as already stated. Its use arises out of the peculiar circumstances connected with the event to which Peter refers. There is some uncertainty as to the precise reference to “the angels that sinned”: some have seen in these words a references to Korah, Dathan and Abiram, who, when they spoke against Moses and rebelled against God, suffered a unique punishment when ‘the ground clave asunder . . . the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up . . . They went down alive into the pit, and the earth closed upon them: and they perished” (Numbers 16:31-33),
This event would certainly provide an adequate explanation for the use of the word tartarus by Peter on this one occasion.
The Destiny of the Wicked
“The wicked shall perish . . . they shall consume away” (Psalm 37:20).
The final punishment of the wicked is therefore annihilation, perpetual death, cut off from the land of the living for ever. This is fitting and appropriate in the light of our understanding of Bible teaching concerning life and death, “for the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).
The Reward of the Righteous
“Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust: for thy dew is as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead” (v. 19).
How is this to be achieved? The salvation that God offers necessitated Jesus’ resurrection from the dead; and this has made it possible for all faithful men to be raised from the dead as he was. So Jesus could say, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live” (John 11:25); and on another occasion, “For the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his (the Son of man’s, i.e. Jesus’) voice, 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” (John 5:28,29).
In his first Letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul deals at length with the resurrection of the dead, showing that it is at the very heart of the Christian hope. His challenge to some who doubted this doctrine was:
“Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: and if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain . . . Ye are yet in your sins . . . they also which are fallen asleep in Christ have perished” (15:12-18).
“In fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (verses 20-23, R.S.V.).
How could the apostle be more specific? Only through resurrection will life after death be achieved, and the Lord Jesus Christ is but the first of a great multitude, the first fruits of a great harvest of dead believers who will live again when Jesus returns to the earth.
There we have the key to the whole situation. While the world continues as it is now, dominated by evil men pursuing their ambition for power, it is difficult for us to envisage how the meek will ever inherit the earth, but central to the purpose of God is the second coming of Jesus to overthrow the kingdom of men; to destroy all that oppose Him and to establish the kingdom of God, a divine society founded on principles of righteousness and equity over which he will reign for ever (see Matthew 6:10; Revelation 11:1 5; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10; Daniel 2:44; Micah 4:1-5).
Scripture teaching is not complicated and difficult to comprehend, but rational and logical.
For the second category – those who through their knowledge and understanding of God have become responsible to Him yet have not been faithful in their lives – there is an inevitable judgement at the great tribunal when God, through Jesus, shall judge “every man according as his work shall be” (Revelation 22:12). And then there is the third category: for the faithful it will be the fulfilment of all their hopes-a resurrection to eternal life, lived in a glorious incorruptible body, reigning as kings and priests upon the earth with the Lord Jesus Christ.
Some Objections Considered
“The Kingdom of Heaven”
Matthew 13 contains a number of parables that Jesus used to illustrate his message. Most are prefaced with the words “the kingdom of heaven is like unto” yet some of the things that Jesus said are extremely difficult to reconcile with the thought of the soul transported to heaven at death. For instance, in the parable of the tares, “The field is the world . . . the harvest is the end of the world . . . As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire; so shall it be in the end of this world. The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend . . . Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (verses 24-30,36-43). Can there really be “things that offend” in a kingdom in heaven?
After a meeting with a rich young man, who could not bring himself to sell his possessions and follow him, Jesus said, “that a rich man can hardly (i.e. with difficulty) enter into the kingdom of heaven . . . It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:23-24). ‘Kingdom of heaven’ and ‘kingdom of God’ are parallel phrases.
Why then does Matthew employ the phrase ‘kingdom of heaven’? Some verses from the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament illustrate its meaning: “In the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed” (2:44). In another chapter, Daniel writes: “The heavens do rule” (4:26). Even the great Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, was forced to acknowledge that “God doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth” and was led to “praise and extol and honour the King of heaven” (4:35-37). The kingdom of heaven is therefore descriptive of the rule of heaven and the phrase could reasonably be applied to any area where God’s sovereignty is acknowledged. Thus Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16)
Notice how the detail of the parable is completely irreconcilable with commonly held views of immortal souls in heaven and hell. The rich man and Lazarus were able to observe one another and speak to one another from their respective abodes. They were not immaterial spirits, but they possessed bodies with fingers, tongues etc. (verse 24).
The parable was, then, a terrible warning to wealthy and powerful Jews, who believed that merely being born a Jew would guarantee them God’s blessing.
The Thief on the Cross (Luke 23:39-43)
In any case, to read the words as an assurance that they should both that very day be united in heaven is inconsistent with other Bible teaching. We have already referred to Psalm 16 (quoted in Acts 2), which tells us clearly that the soul of Jesus was not in heaven but in hell, from where he was raised on the third day: “Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.”
There are more Scriptures that we could examine in this way. The instances we have considered, however, should help us to appreciate that apparently contradictory passages have adequate explanations consistent with Bible teaching as a whole.
“The grave cannot praise thee, death cannot celebrate thee: they that go down into the pit cannot hope for thy truth. The living, the living, he shall praise thee, as I do this day” (Isaiah 38:18,19).
The issue is one of life and death. Upon our decision depends our eternal future: the oblivion of perpetual death or the glorious awakening to life everlasting at the return of Jesus! How urgent it is therefore that we embrace the hope of the Gospel while time remains, lest we die “having no hope, and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12).