Where are the Dead –
According to the Bible?
The word groups “death” and “dead” occur 84 times in the Gospels, generally in relation to two subjects: a) the Messiah’s own death; and, b) a resurrection from the dead. No where does the Nazarene teach an after-life immediately upon death, not even his own.
There are two texts often used to prove the opposite: the soul survives the death of the body to live in Paradise. The first is Matthew 10:28: “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul.” However, the following phrase is generally omitted: “But rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” Though men cannot “kill the soul” in the absolute sense, it is God who can “destroy the soul.” The good doctor Luke also includes a similar statement by the Nazarene: “Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do.” (Luke 12:4) It is more likely Jesus has in mind it is the future existence as a soul which men cannot “kill” for that rests with God. (Compare Luke 21:19; Colossians 3:3)
Another text is Luke 23.43: “Verily I say unto thee (the thief beside him), Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (KJV) Taken this way it would seem Jesus and the thief would be in “paradise” upon their deaths that crucifixion day. Many take it to mean such. However, Jesus himself stated he would remain in the tomb or grave for three days. He would not go to paradise that day. Indeed, Jesus would not ascend to heaven for more than a month later. How can this contradiction be solved?
The problem lies with the punctuation of the comma. There were no commas in the Greek language. A literal reading of the Greek would be: “AMEN TO YOU I AM SAYING TODAY WITH ME YOU WILL BE IN THE PARADISE.” So, it depends on where the comma is placed in English. If it comes after the word “today” it would indicate Jesus is only saying, “I tell you this day … “ This is the understanding the Lamsa translation from the Aramaic has it: “Jesus said to him, Truly I say to you today, You will be with me in Paradise.” (Compare Rotherham’s) [Syriac (fifth cent. C.E.) renders this text: "Amen, I say to thee to-day that with me thou shalt be in the Garden of Eden." [F. C. Burkitt, The Curetonian Version of the Four Gospels, Vol. I, Cambridge, 1904.]
Jesus only uses the word “paradise” one more time at Revelation 2:7 where it is clearly heaven. Paul does the same at 2 Corinthians 12:2, 3 where paradise is heaven. So, Jesus would be assuring the thief – who repents there and confesses his faith in Jesus – he would one day join him in celestial paradise. According to Paul this would be at the Return of Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:23)
Many have been led to believe that Jesus Christ taught a burning hell-fire for the damned. It is true the King James Version and other translation use the words hell, hell-fire, and torment in the Gospel renderings. However, do these prove that is what the Nazarene taught? It is not difficult to arrive at a firm conclusion because the key words involved are seldom in the mouth of the Lord.
For example, the Greek word sometimes translated Hell by older Protestant versions, Hades, occurs only ten times in the Christian Bible. Not at all in the writings of Paul, or any other inspired disciple, and only three times from the mouth of the Nazarene. Consider these occurrences: Matthew 11:23; 16:18; Luke 10:15; Acts 2:27, 31). These verses show that Hades is down and that Jesus himself went there.
We have omitted one critical verse in the above list: Luke 16:23. This is part of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Regarding this illustration the New Jerusalem Bible has a footnote: “parable in story form without reference to any historical personage.”
If one reads the context which begins at Luke 15:1 which states that tax collectors, sinners, and Pharisees were in the audience. There are several parables directed at the Pharisees regarding their self-righteous attitude toward the poor and sinners. These parables deal with rich men, obviously directed at the Pharisees who are described as “money-lovers” in Luke 16:14 leading up to the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.
The entire parable reads: "But a certain man was rich [directed at the Pharisees], and he used to deck himself with purple and linen, enjoying himself from day to day with magnificence. 20 But a certain beggar named Laz'a·rus [directed to the poor and sinners] used to be put at his gate, full of ulcers 21 and desiring to be filled with the things dropping from the table of the rich man. Yes, too, the dogs would come and lick his ulcers. 22 Now in course of time the beggar died and he was carried off by the angels to the bosom [position] of Abraham.
"Also, the rich man died and was buried. 23 And in Ha'des he lifted up his eyes, he existing in torments, and he saw Abraham afar off [Can those in hell see those in heaven?] and Laz'a·rus in the bosom [position] with him. 24 So he called and said, 'Father Abraham, [Why would he ask Abraham and not God?] have mercy on me and send Laz'a·rus [Is it possible for one to leave heaven and go to hell?] to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue [Would this help?], because I am in anguish in this blazing fire.' 25 But Abraham said, 'Child [Why does Abraham address a sinner so tenderly?], remember that you received in full your good things in your lifetime, but Laz'a·rus correspondingly the injurious things. Now, however, he is having comfort here but you are in anguish. [The moral of the story] 26 And besides all these things, a great chasm has been fixed between us and YOU people, so that those wanting to go over from here to YOU people cannot [Who in heaven would want to go to hell?], neither may people cross over from there to us.' 27 Then he said, 'In that event I ask you, father, to send him to the house of my father, 28 for I have five brothers, in order that he may give them a thorough witness, that they also should not get into this place of torment.' 29 But Abraham said, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to these.' 30 Then he said, 'No, indeed, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them they will repent.' 31 But he said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.'" (Luke 16:19-31 NWT)
If the parable were literally true it would contradict what has been studied before on the subjects of death, soul, and the resurrection, indeed, the whole bulk of Holy Scripture. To many, if not most, the idea of eternal torment in blazing fire also seems to contradict the God of love. (1 John 4:8; Jeremiah 7:37) A fair reading would lead many to view the story as a parable directed at the Pharisees to indicate that though they have enjoyed favored status in the past, this is changing and God’s comfort is manifest to the poor and sinners in the presence of Jesus Christ.
Additionally a literal reading contradicts what the Beloved John has to record on the subject of Hades: a) all go to Hades, including Christ; b) all come out of Hades (including Abraham); c) all are judged after they come out of Hades; and, finally, d) Hades is destroyed (thus it is not eternal) in the Second Death. (Revelation 20:13-15)
Some scholars agree the story is a parable. For example, the Weymouth translation has a footnote on the subject: “The story is to warn the rich and comfort the poor. Its main moral is the future reversal of earthly circumstances, a comment on the sayings of Christ. The Jewish imagery is of course not to be taken literally, as if it was a revelation by Jesus of the actual conditions of the ‘after-life’.”
Given the fact the Nazarene only uses the word Hades (HELL) three times, Paul, Peter, James, and Jude not all, and John in the context above, there is weak evidence of Hades being a place of eternal fiery torment. However, there is another word that should get our attention.
The words “hell fire” in the King James Version come from the Greek word Gehenna. This word occurs ten times in the Gospels and once in the epistle of James. Paul, Peter, and John never use it.
Various scholars declare the background to this word. For example, the Jewish commentator David Kimhi (1160?-1235?), in his comment on Psalm 27:13, gives the following historical information concerning "Gehinnom": "And it is a place in the land adjoining Jerusalem, and it is a loathsome place, and they throw there unclean things and carcasses. Also there was a continual fire there to burn the unclean things and the bones of the carcasses. Hence, the judgment of the wicked ones is called parabolically Gehinnom." (See NWT appendix)
"Much confusion and misunderstanding has been caused through the early translators of the Bible persistently rendering the Hebrew Sheol and the Greek Hades and Gehenna by the word hell. The simple transliteration of these words by the translators of the revised editions of the Bible has not sufficed to appreciably clear up this confusion and misconception." (The Encyclopedia Americana (1942), Vol. XIV, p. 81.)
Encyclopędia Britannica (1970): "From the 5th century B.C. onward, the Jews were in close contact with the Persians and the Greeks, both of whom had well-developed ideas of the hereafter. . . . By the time of Christ, the Jews had acquired a belief that wicked souls would be punished after death in Gehenna…
Encyclopędia Judaica: "No suggestion of this later notion of Gehenna is to be found in Scripture."
The Dictionary of New Testament Theology: “The word gehenna does not occur in the LXX or Greek literature. … It was the place of eschatological punishment after the last judgment, punishment of eternal duration. (Matthew 25:41, 46; Matthew 23:15, 33) Body and soul are judged in it. (Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Matthew 10:28) It was to be distinguished from Hades which houses the souls of the dead before the last judgment… In contrast with later Christian writings and ideas, the torments of hell are not described in the NT. … Neither does the NY contain the idea that Satan is the prince of gehenna, to whom sinners are handed over for punishment.” (Vol 2, pp 208-9)
The parabolic imagery of the Nazarene’s words Mark chapter 9: "And if ever your hand makes you stumble, cut it off; it is finer for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go off into Ge·hen'na, into the fire that cannot be put out. 44 – 45 And if your foot makes you stumble, cut it off; it is finer for you to enter into life lame than with two feet to be pitched into Ge·hen'na. 46 – 47 And if your eye makes you stumble, throw it away; it is finer for you to enter one-eyed into the kingdom of God than with two eyes to be pitched into Ge·hen'na, 48 where their maggot does not die and the fire is not put out.” (Mark 9:43-48 NWT)
If the parable were to be taken literally, where are all the one-eyed, single-handed preachers? Some have stated that the only immortal here are the worms. Rather, the imagery is drawn from Isaiah 66.23, 24: "And it will certainly occur that from new moon to new moon and from sabbath to sabbath all flesh will come in to bow down before me," Jehovah has said. "And they will actually go forth and look upon the carcasses of the men that were transgressing against me; for the very worms upon them will not die and their fire itself will not be extinguished, and they must become something repulsive to all flesh." (NWT) This seems to indicate that people living on the new earth will look upon these rotting carcasses as they are consumed. The everlasting fire image echoes Isaiah earlier when the land of Edom (Petra) is assigned to fires. (Isaiah 34:9, 10)
The Bible evidence seems to show that Gehenna is like a great garbage dump which will consume the bodies and souls of those who have sinned against God. (Matthew 10:28; 25:31-46) All the billions of dead mankind sleep in unconscious sleep in Hades waiting the resurrection to judgment and then to everlasting fates: everlasting life on earth and the cosmos that surrounds it; or, everlasting destruction and annihilation by the Second Death. (Revelation 20:12-15)
The Nazarene believed in the resurrection, not only his own but the general resurrection of mankind. He said plainly, “No man has ascended to heaven.” (John 3:13) The issue of the resurrection was one brought up by the Sadducees and Jesus was firm in expressing the fact that Moses taught it. He uses the obscure rabbinical argument based on a phrase from the burning bush account because the Sadducees only accepted the Books of Moses. Otherwise, the Nazarene could have easily used Job 14:13-15; Isaiah 26:19 (as he does at John 5:28); or, Daniel 12:2 (as he does in John 5:29).
The Nazarene infers a resurrection of people like the people of Sodom, the Queen of the South, and those of Nineveh. (Matthew chapters 11, 12) And this he does in the context of Judgment Day. (Matthew 12:31, 32, 35-37)
However, it is the Gospel of John which deals with the subject of the resurrection the most. This occurs primarily in chapters 5, 6, and 11: “For just as the Father raises the dead up and makes them alive, so the Son also makes those alive whom he wants to. 28 Do not marvel at this, because the hour is coming in which all those in the memorial tombs [a phrase from the LXX at Isaiah 26:19] will hear his voice 29 and come out, those who did good things to a resurrection of life, those who practiced vile things to a resurrection of judgment. [a paraphrase from Dn 12.2] 6. 39 This is the will of him that sent me, that I should lose nothing out of all that he has given me but that I should resurrect it at the last day.[a phrase perhaps based on Daniel 12:13] 40 For this is the will of my Father, that everyone that beholds the Son and exercises faith in him should have everlasting life, and I will resurrect him at the last day." 44 No man can come to me unless the Father, who sent me, draws him; and I will resurrect him in the last day. 54 He that feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has everlasting life, and I shall resurrect him at the last day; 11.20 Therefore Martha, when she heard that Jesus was coming, met him; but Mary kept sitting at home. 21 Martha therefore said to Jesus: "Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died. 22 And yet at present I know that as many things as you ask God for, God will give you." 23 Jesus said to her: "Your brother will rise." 24 Martha said to him: "I know he will rise in the resurrection on the last day." 25 Jesus said to her: "I am the resurrection and the life. He that exercises faith in me, even though he dies, will come to life; 26 and everyone that is living and exercises faith in me will never die at all. [This sounds like a paraphrase of Daniel 12:1, 2] Do you believe this?" 27 She said to him: "Yes, Lord; I have believed that you are the Christ the Son of God, the One coming into the world."
Clearly the Nazarene believed deeply in a resurrection of the dead. In his words to Martha he also indicates a moment will come in history when the believing dead will rise to life and the living believers will not die. This idea is very much out of Daniel 12:1, 2, 17 where there are also three particularly groups: a) living believers who are rescued from a Great Oppression; b) faithful dead who awaken to everlasting life; and, c) the vile who rise to condemnatory judgment. We will discuss Paul’s teachings later, but the idea of the Nazarene here is something echoed by Paul at 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 and 1 Corinthians 15:50-53.
The Nazarene also in this same context teaches about a spiritual regeneration. John 5:24, 25 records this: “I tell you this truth: the person that hears and obeys my word – and has faith in the One who sent me – already possess ageless life. Such a person will not be condemned, but rather has passed from death unto Life. I tell you this truth: the time is coming – and is already present – when the ‘dead’ will the Son of God’s voice and those who obey will live.” This evidently refers to a spiritual resurrection to those who are “born again.” (John 1:12, 13; 3:3-5)
The Beloved Apostle writes about this also in his first epistle: “We realize we have stepped over the gulf between death and life because we continue to love our fellowship.” (1 John 3:14 NCMM Paraphrase ©MM) This regenerating New Life must also include love for others. The one who hates has not seen life.
Nazarene Commentary 2000©
Mark Heber Miller
©2000 All Rights Reserved