This Sunday we will be continuing with the sermon series "Difficult Scripture". When I was soliciting ideas someone wrote about "Afterlife"; what happens after we die and will we know our loved ones and friends? How does Heaven and Hell figure into all of this? Some people's ideas about heaven and hell come from the vivid imagery of Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. The three volumes of this work are: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. Our thoughts about heaven and hell are also influenced by the Greek and Roman mythologies of Hades. Many deep thinkers-theologians, such as N.T. Wright, believe that the everyday Christian's thought about heaven and hell are simply wrong. So, what does the Bible says? A lot, judging from all the scriptural references I found on the [all-knowing] internet. Here are the scriptures I have chosen for this Sunday:
Ecclesiastes 9:1-6 - Ecclesiastes (Teacher) is one of the most pessimistic books of the Bible. In this section, the Teacher says that whatever one does - good, bad, or indifferent - there is only one outcome, death. "As are the good, so are the sinners; those who swear are like those who shun the oath. This is the evil in all that happens under the sun, that the same fate comes to everyone." And, "The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing." And finally, "[The dead] never again will they have any share in all that happens under the sun." In other words, when we die, we die, and that's it. This is the primary thought of the Old Testament about death. Only one verse in Isaiah, and a couple of verses in Daniel, begin to point to resurrection. Sorry to start off with a downer, but read on.
1 Corinthians 15:12-25, 35-38, 42-44, 50-57 - Paul writes about the promise of the resurrection of the dead. It all hinges on whether Christ has been raised from the dead or not. If Christ has been raised then all will be raised. If not, then there is no resurrection for anyone. But, in fact, Christ has been raised and is the "first fruit" of all resurrection. (12-15) How are the dead raised and what will our bodies be like? I don't think that Paul really knows the answer but he uses a metaphor of a seed that buried and then becomes a plant. God gives the body God chooses. (35-38) What is sown dies (the seed) and is raised with a new body that is imperishable, glorious, and spiritual. (42-44) Finally, the earthly body cannot inherit the kingdom so all will be changed and death will be defeated. The victory of this promise has already been given in Jesus Christ. (50-57) Please note here that Paul never talks about a heaven or hell where people go immediately upon death. He is talking about a resurrection some time in God's future. So far, not many answers about "afterlife". Maybe Jesus has some ideas, so read on.
John 3:16-17, 5:24-29, 12:44-50 - You know John 3:16 from heart, but do you also know verse 17: God sent the Son so the world (Cosmos - all humanity? animals? creation?) might be saved.
Now to chapter 5. Anyone who hears and believes Jesus' words has eternal life and does not come under judgment. (Well, that's good new!) Then Jesus makes the assertion that the dead will hear his voice and live. (What?) The Father has given Jesus the authority to execute judgment. The dead will exit their graves and those who have done good will have a resurrection to life and those who have done evil to a resurrection of condemnation. (Is this a "works theology"? What happened to "hear and believe"?) Note that the dead are dead until they hear the voice of Jesus.
And now to chapter 12. This may be the most difficult of the readings. Whoever believes in Jesus believes in God. Jesus comes as a light so that believers won't stay in the darkness. [Here's the kicker:] Jesus doesn't judge anyone who hears and doesn't keep his words because Jesus came to save the world, not judge it. On the last day, the word of Jesus will serve as judge. That word was given to Jesus by the Father as a commandment and that commandment is eternal life! (What? Is Jesus saying that everyone is saved to eternal life?) Once again, no words about afterlife, heaven and hell. Just eternal life.
So, what about Luke 16:19-31, the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus? Jesus talks about the rich man dying and going to Hades where he is tormented. You know the story! Well, it was a PARABLE about helping the least among us while we are here on earth. It was not a literal description of heaven and hell.
What about Revelation and the eternal pit of fire? (Revelation 20:11-15) Revelation was written in coded language to give hope to the Christians who were being persecuted, tortured, and killed by the Roman Empire (The Whore of Babylon). Read Revelation as a book of hope and not a map of our future or a literal description of New Earth (Heaven come down to earth) and hell (death and Hades are cast into the fire.)