Sunday, October 25, 2015

A Work in Progress

My clumsy attempt to visually represent the relationships between the various biblical spiritual domains that impact on the afterlife:

It seems to me that almost everyone attempting to deal with this subject online gets something obviously wrong. I don’t mean that as a slam: it’s just that almost immediately a verse or two will come to mind that doesn’t fit any particular writer’s definitions or assumptions.

You will likely have the same experience with my attempt here, but try comparing this model to the verses you know about heaven and hell, and see if you think it’s headed in the right direction. Consider it a thought-provoker rather than a definitive statement on the subject.

“Third Heaven” or “Heaven”

Only Paul mentions the “third heaven”:
“I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise — whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows — and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.”
As I read it, the “third heaven” is not so much a proper name as it is Paul’s way of distinguishing the unearthly dwelling place of God from: (1) the atmosphere of planet earth, and (2) outer space, both of which are also referred to with the same Greek and Hebrew words. If we work outward from what is first visible to man when he looks up, then to what may be intuited from lights in the sky, and finally beyond, to the spiritual realm, the dwelling place of God naturally comes third in our investigations. If we look at the various senses of the word “heaven” in scripture, the dwelling place of God is the third different sense of the word mentioned in Genesis. Neither fact would have escaped the rabbis under whom Paul studied.

There is no suggestion in scripture that there are multiple heavens, whether they be three or seven, so I doubt there is any greater significance to the adjective “third”. “Third heaven” seems equivalent to “heaven” or “the Father’s house”.


From Paul’s phrasing in the above passage (the repeated “whether in the body ...” clause), it seems to me that “Paradise” is not completely synonymous with “third heaven”, but rather a subset of it. If the two are precisely identical, the repetition seems redundant rather than emphatic. I think Paul is saying he was caught up to the third heaven generally, and to paradise specifically. This makes sense of the few references we have to Paradise in the New Testament, which do not mention God’s throne, angels or other things the book of Revelation would lead us to expect to find in heaven itself.

There’s more on the subject of Paradise in this post.

Hades / Sheol

Hades is the place in scripture where the dead await judgment. In the story of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man is said to be “in Hades, being in torment”, yet he is able to see Lazarus at the side of Abraham “afar off”. Paradise and Hades are connected, but divided by “a great chasm ... none may cross”.

Now to be fair, Lazarus is not specifically said to be in Paradise, but the Lord’s words to a dying thief (“Today ...”) compel us to believe his own spirit and the spirit of that thief were together in Paradise the very day Jesus died. That being the case, it is difficult to imagine where else the righteous dead might be taken.

Therefore Paradise is represented as connected to Hades as well as to heaven.

Yet I cannot bring myself to represent Hades as being contained within the heavenly realm, whereas Paradise clearly is (herein lies the difficulty of attempting to represent spiritual realities in two dimensions). While the Greek word hades appears often in the New Testament, we should not conflate the Hades of Greek mythology with the Hades of the Lord Jesus and his apostles. In the New Testament, hades is merely a translation of the Hebrew sheol, rather than an attempt to import Greek concepts into first century Judaism. This is evident when we compare Peter’s use of “Hades” in Acts 2 to the original passage he quotes there from the Psalms.

So there is no River Styx in the Bible’s Hades or any of the mythological Greek trappings we might be familiar with. Rather, there is a “chasm” fixed between Hades and Paradise.

“Abraham’s Bosom”

Jewish papyri from the period five centuries before Christ refer to the “bosom of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”. This is the first reference to anything similar to the expression that the Lord uses in the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke’s gospel. The idea is of a place of comfort and honor.

My current line of thinking is that “Abraham’s bosom” is not the proper name of a specific location at all. The fact that it is rendered two different ways in the Greek in two successive verses (literally, “bosom of Abraham”, then “Lazarus in the bosom of him”) suggests something other than a formal designation is being used. Consequently, I have shown “Abraham’s bosom” as a dot within Paradise. If it is not a proper name, then wherever Abraham happens to be in Paradise at any given time is literally “Abraham’s bosom”.

But there would be little value in following the patriarchs around with a GPS even if it were possible. It is the condition of paradisal bliss that the expression denotes, more than any specific location.

Gehenna / Hell / Lake of Fire

In Greek, hades is the place where the spirits of dead men await final judgment. It is torment for some, bliss for others. But the word geenna signifies something worse.

Unfortunately, in English, both Greek words have been translated “hell” at one time or another, leading to confusion. For instance, the English translation of the Apostles’ Creed says of the Lord Jesus, “he descended into hell”. While we may debate whether or not the Lord descended into hades, most Christians rightly repudiate the notion that he spent any time in geenna.

Geenna (or Gehenna) comes from the Hebrew Gehinnom, a valley outside Jerusalem where apostate Israelites and followers of the Baals and Moloch sacrificed children in the fire. It was subsequently cursed by God. As a result, the word is used in the Greek New Testament to describe not just the destination of all dead, but the final destination of the wicked dead, also called the “lake of fire”.

John tells us in Revelation that both Death and Hades will be “thrown into the lake of fire”, making it clear hades and geenna are not the same place.

The Lake of Fire is called the “second death” and Gehenna the “unquenchable fire”.

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Clearer? Fuzzier? Totally confusing? Your comments are most welcome ...

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