Reader Questions: Was Jesus’ Promise in John 1:51 Ever Fulfilled?

Here on the site there is a feature where you can Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic.

This question recently came in:

In John 1:51, Jesus told Nathanael that he would see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. Was this ever fulfilled? If so, when?

That’s a good question, and there’s a great answer!

The passage you’re referring to is in the first chapter of John’s Gospel, where we read about Jesus calling his first disciples. Jesus called Philip, and then Philip went and told his friend Nathanael that “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael was skeptical that the Messiah could be from Nazareth, to which Philip invited Nathanael to come and meet Jesus to see for himself.

When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he greeted him in a way that implied that Jesus already knew him. When Nathanael asked how Jesus already knew him, Jesus replied: “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”

Some scholars say that it was traditional for Jewish people to sit under a fig tree to read the Scriptures, but whatever happened with Nathanael under the fig tree must have been something so personal, and so private that Nathaniel was sure no one could have possibly seen or heard him. The fact that Jesus knew about it was enough to convince Nathaniel right there on the spot that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, and he immediately responded by saying: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

This brings us to the text in question.

Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.”

And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

John 1:50-51

If you look for a story in the gospels in which this happened, you won’t find one. The closest events you will find to this are:

  • Jesus’ baptism, when the Spirit descended on Jesus as a dove and the Father spoke from Heaven declaring that Jesus was His beloved Son in whom He was well-pleased.
  • Jesus’ transfiguration, in which Peter, James, and John saw Jesus in his glorified state, and he appeared with Moses and Elijah, accompanied by a voice from Heaven which told Peter: “this is my beloved Son, listen to Him.”
  • Jesus’ ascension, when he was caught up to Heaven.

However, while these examples include the heavens being opened, none of them include angels, much less Nathanael or anyone else seeing the angels ascending and descending on Jesus.

So, does that mean that Jesus’ promise to Nathanael was not fulfilled?

No. Rather, to expect this to be the promise of a literal vision of angels is to misunderstand what Jesus is saying, which is actually more significant than promising a vision of angels.

Jacob’s Ladder

When Jesus tells Nathanael that he will see “the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man, Jesus is making reference to a story from the Old Testament.

In Genesis 28, Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, was on the run from his brother Esau, who wanted to kill him. One night while Jacob was sleeping in a field, with a rock for a pillow, God appeared to him in a vision as he slept.

In this vision, Jacob saw the heavens opened up and a ladder, or a bridge, spanning the gap between Heaven and Earth, and “the angels of God were ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12).

You might remember that the people of Babel, in Genesis 11, had tried to “build a tower with its top reaching to the heavens” in order to make a name for themselves and to protect themselves. They had sought to span the gap between Heaven and Earth through their own strength, endeavors, and intellect – and they failed.

What Jacob saw in his vision, was that God alone can span the gap between Heaven and Earth. Whereas we are incapable of reaching Heaven by our own works, God has come down to us from Heaven, in order to lift us up into relationship with Him and eternal life.

If Jacob was in fact reading the Scriptures under the fig tree, could it be that this is the exact passage that Nathanael had been reading, and Jesus was interpreting it for him?

Jacob’s Ladder is a Person

What Jesus was saying to Nathanael in John 1:51 is that HE is Jacob’s ladder! He is the bridge that spans the gap between Heaven and Earth that God pictured to Jacob in that vision! It is in Him that God has come from Heaven to Earth in order to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves: to lift us up into relationship with Him and give us eternal life.

Jesus is saying that He has come not just to point the way to Heaven, but to be the way to Heaven.

Now, you might be tempted to think: If it’s a ladder, that means I must need to climb as high as I can, and if I’m strong enough, and if I’ve got enough stamina to make it all the way, then I can reach God. But that’s not the idea behind this ladder. Listen to what Paul the Apostle has to say in Romans ch 10:

But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 

Romans 10:6-9

In other words: the message of the Gospel is not that you have to climb your way up to God, but that God has come down to you! This ladder is not the ladder by which we ascend to God – but rather the ladder by which God has come down to us, to lift us up to Himself.

Jesus is telling Nathanael, and us, in John 1:51 that Jacob’s ladder is a person, and that person is Him! What good news!

If you have any questions or topics you’d like me to address, fill out the form on this page: Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic.

Reader Questions: Book Recommendation on Marital Intimacy & Responding to Christian Perfectionism

There is a feature here on the site where you can Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic.

Here are some recent questions that came in:

Book Recommendation on Marital Intimacy

Is there a book or message series you can recommend to help rebuild sexual intimacy in marriage?

I’m sure there are other resources out there, but the one I am familiar with and can recommend is Sheet Music: Uncovering the Secrets of Sexual Intimacy in Marriage

Responding to Christian Perfectionism

I have a Christian forum at my place of employment. One employee regularly posts statements in line with a ‘sinless perfection’ doctrine and encourages others to listen to Jesse Peterson (which I know nothing about.)  

Essentially, this employee constantly insists that if we are still sinning we are hypocrites and is adamant we shouldn’t listen to others or read the Bible but should just ‘know’ God, we should ‘just be’ (insert confused emoji here), and sin is hate, the only way to receive eternal life is to forgive. I dismiss his theology – he makes no sense – and despite support from the Word of God, he continues his posts – because he doesn’t value the word of God.  

Do you have any thoughts on how I can redirect his skewed theology, while helping the other members of this group also dismiss this line of thinking?

One way to respond might be to point out how this kind of theology has been dismissed and rejected by Christians throughout history. John Wesley, for example, who taught a form of Christian perfectionism at one point (unsurprisingly, when he was younger), later changed his position on the topic.

My guess is that other people on the site probably see the wackiness of what he’s writing and aren’t swayed by it. A smart, simple response will be gladly received by most people in the group therefore, but don’t let the group get focused on responding to everything he says. Don’t let the squeaky wheel get all the grease, in other words. You’ve got bigger fish to fry. Sorry for piling on the idioms!

The most compelling Biblical arguments against Christian perfectionism I can think of are:

  • Romans 7
  • 1 John
  • 1 Timothy 1:15

Martin Luther famously stated that the Christian is Justus et pecator (both righteous and a sinner). We have been declared righteous in Jesus; his righteousness has been accounted to us by grace through faith – and yet, we still sin.

When the Bible talks about salvation, it is important to note that it speaks of it in comprehensive terms: it says that we have been saved (past tense), we are being saved (present continuous tense), and we will be saved (future tense).

We have been saved (think: “It is finished”) from the penalty of sin by what Jesus did for us in the past. We are being saved (sanctification) from the power of sin as we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling,” and yet “it is God who works in you to will and to do His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). And we will be saved, in the future, from the very presence of sin, when Jesus comes and saves us from the very presence of sin.

Romans 7

In Romans 7 Paul speaks about his experience of struggling with sin. Some in the Christian perfectionist circles will claim that Paul is writing about his life before his conversion, but that argument doesn’t hold much water because Paul speaks about his sin in the present tense.

1 John

In 1 John, John says things like, If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. (1 John 1:8). 1 John is a favorite book, by the way, of Christian perfectionism advocates, because of its black-and-white language about righteousness, obedience, and sin. However, it is important to note that John is talking about a pattern of life, not about individual sins.

It’s about what you practice. Think about things you practice, and why you practice them: you practice the guitar, you practice your golf swing. Why? So you can do them better. A person who practices sin habitually and willfully truly needs to ask the question of if they are actually in the faith at all.

In Christ, we have become “new creations” (2 Corinthians 5:17). A sheep and a pig are two different creations. They both might fall in the mud on occasion, but the pig lives for the mud. The mud is what the pig dreams about, and the goal of its life is to get in that mud! A sheep, on the other hand, might fall in the mud, but that’s not where it wants to be. This is the essence of John’s point about sin and righteous living in 1 John.

I wrote something recently related to 1 John and the topic of Christian perfectionism. Check it out here.

1 Timothy 1:15

In 1 Timothy 1:15, Paul says: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”

If you read through Paul’s descriptions of himself as he progressed in life and in relationship with Jesus, you’ll notice this:

  1. In Philippians 3, he wrote that according to the law, he was blameless.
  2. Later on, in 1 Corinthians 15:9, he describes himself as “the least of all the Apostles”
  3. Even later on in life, in 1 Timothy 1:15, he describes himself as the chief of all sinners.

As Paul progressed through life, he did not become more and more enamored with himself, but he actually saw himself as more and more of a sinner – yet one who was loved by God and a recipient of His grace.

The reason for this is because, the closer you get to God, the more you become aware of your shortcomings, much like how: the more light there is in the bathroom, the more clearly you see your blemishes in the mirror – and like how, the older you get and the more you learn, the more you realize how much you don’t know.

The point is not that Christian maturity means thinking less and less of yourself, but that as you become more aware of your flaws, you are more thrilled by the grace and love of God as you realize more and more how much you need it!

The Danger of Christian Perfectionism

The great danger of Christian perfectionism theology is that it places an unbearable burden on a person, and it leads to either pride or despair.

If you tell someone that if they are really in the faith that they won’t sin anymore, then when they are doing well, and not falling into temptation, they will be puffed up with pride and look down on those whom they observe sinning. Conversely, when they (inevitably) do commit some sin, they will immediately be forced to question their own salvation, and if they are even saved at all.

The good news of the gospel is that our salvation is the work of God! It is based on what He did for you, not on the things that you do or don’t do. Even if you slip, the good news of the gospel is that He is holding onto your hand, and He won’t let you go!

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What Happened on Holy Saturday?

Holy Saturday is the name given to the day in between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday.

As I explain in this post: Was Jesus in the Grave Three Days and Three Nights? Here’s How It Adds Up, in reality Good Friday was a Thursday, and Jesus was in the grave on Friday and Saturday. But what happened during that time?

He Descended to the Dead

The Apostles’ Creed, one of the oldest Christian creeds – in continual existence since at least the 4th Century A.D. – contains a line which many people have found intriguing: it declares that Jesus “descended to the dead.”

Older translations of the original text into English sometimes translate this phrase as saying that Jesus “descended into Hell.”

Looking at the creed in ancient languages is interesting as the Greek text says: κατελθόντα εἰς τὰ κατώτατα, which means: “descended to the bottom” – and the Latin text says: descendit ad inferos, the word inferos being translated as “Hell.”

More recent translations into English have chosen to say “descended to the dead” rather than “descended into Hell” as “the dead” would be more accurate biblically and theologically than “Hell.” The reason for this is based on a particular understanding of “Sheol” in the Old Testament and the Jewish mind, which was the dwelling place of all souls, being divided (according to Luke 16:19-31) into two parts: Abraham’s Bosom and Hades, AKA: Hell.

Abraham’s Bosom, we are told in Luke 16, was a place of comfort for those who died in faith, i.e. the “Old Testament saints,” such as those described in Hebrews 11, who died prior to the redemptive actions of Jesus, but died in faith that they would be “raised up to a better life” (Hebrews 11:35)

He Proclaimed What He Had Done, and Led Captives in His Train

In 1 Peter 3:19 and 4:6, Peter tells us that Jesus’ spirit went to Sheol after his death on the cross but prior to his resurrection, and declared to the souls of the deceased there what he had accomplished in his life and death. This message would have been:

  1. A message of redemption and release from Sheol for those who were kept in Abraham’s Bosom awaiting the redemptive work of the Messiah (“He led captives in his train” – Ephesians 4:8)
  2. A message of condemnation for those held in the Hades/Hell portion of Sheol.

God Often Does His Greatest Work in the Dark

For the disciples, that first “Holy Saturday” would have seemed much less than holy. It would have felt like defeat and been perhaps the lowest point in their lives. Many of them, having left everything to follow Jesus, would have been wondering, “Now what am I going to do with my life?” – not to mention the fact that they were afraid that they would be next: that the Romans and Jewish leaders would likely come be coming to arrest and execute them as well.

And yet, in the awful silence of that day, God was doing a great work of redemption!

Remember: with God, silence is not absence. Sometimes when God seems most distant to us, is when He is accomplishing his most profound work.

That is the reminder of Holy Saturday: we can’t always see what God is doing.

May God bless you and give you rest in your soul this Holy Saturday!

See also:

Are the Anakim the Same as the Nephilim?

This past Sunday I taught a message from Numbers 14 and Joshua 14, about how Joshua and Caleb understood something about obeying God by faith: that just as we need food to sustain our bodies and keep us healthy physically, we need challenges and steps of faith in our walk with God in order to stay healthy spiritually.

Here’s a link to that message if you’d like to watch it or listen to it.

One issue that comes up in the text, which I didn’t address in the sermon is the question of whether the Anakim (the sons of Anak), mentioned in Numbers and Joshua as the giants in Canaan, are the descendants of the Nephilim mentioned in Genesis 6. In Numbers 13:32-33, the 10 faithless spies claim that there are giants in the land of Canaan who are “from the Nephilim.” What does that mean?

Who are the Nephilim?

When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.

Genesis 6:1-4

There are two main theories on who these Nephilim were:

Theory #1: The offspring of demons and human women

This theory, while perhaps seeming quite foreign to modern Westerners, has the support of extra-biblical Jewish literature. It interprets the above passage along these lines: the “sons of God” is a phrase used in the Bible to refer to angels, therefore the “sons of God” who had relations with the “daughters of men” which resulted in children being born means that these were fallen angels who manifested in physical form and had sexual relations with human women resulting in a race of half-human, half-demons – and that this is what, at least in part, precipitated the flood of God’s judgment in the time of Noah.

The challenges to this view are the question of whether it is possible for demons to have sexual relations with humans, resulting in offspring.

In Matthew 22:30, Jesus states that, “At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.” However, this merely tells us that angels do not marry, it does not tell us whether or not they are capable of sexual relations with human beings, resulting in offspring.

This view is also interesting in that it seems to correspond with some other ancient stories of the “Titans” – a race of half-human, half-“gods” – who lived on Earth.

Some people see a possible connection with this in 2 Peter 2, where Peter says:

For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly

2 Peter 2:4-5

What’s interesting about this passage is that the word Peter uses for “hell” is the word “Tartarus” which was considered the deepest part of hell, reserved for fallen angels – or in Greek mythology, that reserved for the Titans. It is also possible that Peter is only referring to the judgment of fallen angels (demons) and not to any kind of unique race of mixed demon-human offspring, but it is interesting that it is tied to a discussion about the flood in Noah’s time.

Theory #2: The intermarrying of the godly line of Seth with ungodly peoples

This theory also has historical precedent, and states that the “sons of God” is a term which refers to the godly and messianic (AKA “kingly”) family line of Seth, because Genesis 4 ends with the words:

And Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and called his name Seth, for she said, “God has appointed for me another offspring instead of Abel, for Cain killed him.” To Seth also a son was born, and he called his name Enosh. At that time people began to call upon the name of the Lord.

It is from the line of Seth that the Messiah will come, and some people interpret this to mean that there was an intermarrying of the godly family line of Seth with the ungodly family lines of others like Cain’s descendents, who turned away from the Lord, not only as individuals but as clans and societies. Intermarriage between people who follow God and those who don’t is forbidden, and thus – according to this interpretation – this was a further sign of the depth of depravity at that time: that even the godly people were becoming unfaithful to the Lord, hence the fact that Noah was the only godly person to be found.

Those who argue with this position would say that it makes no sense that intermarriage would so upset God that it would precipitate the judgment of the flood, and that it does not explain the existence of the Nephilim, who must have been very tall people.

In response, those who hold this position would say that what precipitated the flood was that “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” (Genesis 6:5) God then states in Genesis 6:7 that He will blot out man from the earth, with the exception of Noah. In other words: the judgment of the flood was intended to blot out human beings, not to destroy a race of half-human, half-demons. Furthermore, they would argue that the statement about the Nephilim is simply an aside; it is merely stated that the Nephilim were on the Earth at this time during which the godly family line of Seth was mixing with the ungodly line of Cain – and this is not necessarily an “origin story” of the Nephilim.

Does Nephilim simply mean “giants”?

Another important factor in this discussion is the etymology of the word “Nephilim”. Genesis 6:4 never actually calls the Nephilim “giants”, but the Nephilim are understood to be giants because in Numbers 13:32-33, the giants in the land of Canaan are described as coming from the Nephilim.

Also, the Septuagint (Ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible {AKA: Old Testament}) translates both the Hebrew נְּפִלִ֞ים (Nephilim) and גִּבֹּרִ֛ים (gibborim, “mighty men” or “men of renown”) in Genesis 6:4 as γίγαντες (gigantes, “giants”).[1] (It may be that the Septuagint translated Nephilim as “giants” because of the account in Numbers 13, though some think Nephilim comes from the Aramaic word naphiyla for giant.[2]) (Source: [3])

If the word Nephilim simply means giants, then the statement in Numbers 13:32-33 that the Anakim are related to the Nephilim is easily understood, as simply meaning that they are giants.

The Nephilim and the Flood

One of the problems with the idea that the Anakim in Canaan are descended from the Nephilim in Genesis 6, is that in between Genesis 6 and Numbers 13 there was a giant flood that wiped out the entire population except for Noah and his immediate family.

This means that either:

  1. The flood in the time of Noah was local rather than universal, and therefore some Nephilim survived the flood
  2. What happened in the time of Noah with fallen angels having sexual relations with humans, producing half-human, half-demon offspring happened again after the flood
  3. The word nephilim is simply a general term for giants

The problem with the first option is that even if the flood was local rather than universal (which I don’t believe it was, and I the text seems makes it clear that it was not merely local), the point of the text seems to be that the Nephilim on the Earth at that time were destroyed in the flood either way. There is one other view on this, which states that perhaps a demon-child was able to survive the flood in the womb of one of Noah’s daughters, but this seems a bit far-fetched and has the same problem as the second option:

The second option brings up the obvious question of: if it could happen again after the flood, who’s to say it couldn’t happen now as well? Yet we have no evidence of any half-demon, half-human giants in the world today.

On the third option, if the word nephilim simply refers to giants in general, then it explains why Genesis 6:4 says that the Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward.

What is the connection between the Anakim the Nephilim?

Again, there are a few possibly explanations here, but since I don’t consider the view that some Nephilim survived the flood, these are the three remaining possibilities:

  1. The spies in Numbers 13 were exaggerating, and saying that the giants they saw in Canaan (the sons of Anak, AKA: Anakim) were the Nephilim of Genesis 6 in order to scare the people of Israel into agreeing with them that they should not enter into the land and fight the battles.
  2. These were indeed half-demon, half-human offspring who resulted from sexual relations between demons and humans after the flood.
  3. The spies were simply using a word which refers to giants in general. This is the way the (Jewish, pre-Christian) translators of the Septuagint interpreted it, and this is reflected in the Textus Receptus which is the basis of the King James and New King James translations in English, which don’t use the word Nephilim in Numbers 13, but rather the word “giants,”

I lean towards explanations 1 and 3, seeing in explanation 2 the same problems listed above in the previous section.

Certainly this is a tangential issue and not one related to the core of biblical faith, but I hope this helps bring some clarity and help for those who have wondered about it.

What is the “Sin Unto Death,” and Why Should We Not Pray for It?

1 John 5:16-17 is a passage that many people have a difficult time understanding, and recently someone reached out asking if I could help them understand this passage.

If you ever have a question or a topic you’d like me to cover on this blog, fill out this form: Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic

Here’s the passage:

If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death.

1 John 5:16-17

The question this person asked was: “If there is a sin leading to death, why are we told not to pray for it?”

Physical Death or Spiritual Death?

Different interpretations of this passage center on the issue of whether the “death” John speaks about is physical or spiritual in nature.

Interpretation #1: Physical Death

If John is speaking about physical death, then the interpretation goes like this: Not all sins lead to physical death. If you see someone doing something that will hurt them physically, then pray for them. But if someone sins, and as a result of their sin they die, then there is no need to continue praying for them after they are physically deceased.

However, I find this interpretation lacking, because it does not take into account the broader context of what John has been talking about throughout his letter.

Interpretation #2: Spiritual Death

This is the interpretation that I find most convincing, because it is a conclusion based on what John has been saying throughout this epistle.

In this way, the sin that does not lead to death (that is, eternal death or damnation) is any sin that we commit that we are, by grace, capable of truly confessing and repenting from.

John Piper, in his article: What Is the Sin Not Leading to Death? says that in Vs 16 there is no indefinite article in the original Greek text – in other wards, it is talking about “sin” in general, not “a” particular sin specifically.

He goes on to explain:

We need to make sure that we see these two verses as part of the larger balancing act that John is doing in this letter. On the one hand, there’s a strong emphasis in 1 John that those who are truly born of God don’t go on sinning. On the other hand, John warns against misunderstanding that in a perfectionistic way as though Christians don’t sin anymore.

On the one side, you don’t keep on sinning if you’re born again. On the other side, you don’t ever stop sinning in this world. In other words, John is trying to strike a balance between the absolute necessity of the new birth, which necessarily gives a significant measure of victory over sin. That’s the one side. On the other hand, there’s the reality that we do in fact as Christians commit sins and can find forgiveness as we confess them.

John is striking the note firmly that we should not take anything he has said in a perfectionistic way that implies Christians don’t sin or that all sin leads to damnation. It doesn’t.

Christians do sin, and not all sin leads to damnation. But right there in the middle, verse 16, near the end of the verse, he puts in a disclaimer. He says, “When I tell you to pray for sinners I recognize that Jesus taught about unforgivable sin, and I recognize that Hebrews taught about Esau, and I do acknowledge that there is sin that does lead to death and damnation. It puts you beyond repentance. And I’m not talking about that.” That’s the point of that verse. “I’m not talking about that when I tell you to pray for those who have sinned.” He doesn’t tell us not to pray for such sin, he simply says, “That’s not what I’m talking about when I tell you to pray for sinners that God will give them life.”

I hope this explanation helps! It’s the one that makes the most sense given the context of what John writes about throughout the letter.

Thanks for reading and suggesting topics!

Did People Go to Heaven Before Jesus’ Death & Resurrection?

mountains with crepuscular ray

A reader recently sent in this question:

In John 3:13, Jesus says“No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven-the Son of Man,”

  • Is this saying that people didn’t go to Heaven before Jesus’ death and resurrection?
  • Where had everyone who died gone before Jesus died and rose?
  • Did this change after his death and resurrection?
  • What verses can you share with me about this?

Let me answer each of those questions in order:

Is this saying that people didn’t go to Heaven before Jesus’ death and resurrection?

Yes, I believe so.

Where had everyone who died gone before Jesus died and rose?

The Old Testament talks a lot about “Sheol” which is the dwelling place of the dead. Psalm 139:7-8, for example, says: “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!”

Is this saying that God is present in Hell? No. It’s saying He is present in Sheol. 

It would seem (I’ll give Scriptural justification for this below) that Sheol was divided into two sections: Abraham’s Bosom and Hades.

Abraham’s Bosom was a place of comfort for those who died in faith. Since they had not yet been redeemed through the death and resurrection of Jesus, they could not go to Heaven, so this was a sort of holding place, or waiting room for the souls of the Old Testament believers who died in faith, trusting not in their own works or performance to garner them favor before God, but casting themselves on God’s mercy and grace to save them through the Messiah who was to come.

Hades, on the other hand, was a place of torment for those who died apart from awareness of their shortcomings and apart from faith and trust in God’s mercy and grace. Hades, like Abraham’s Bosom, was/is a holding place or waiting room for the souls of those who have died apart from faith, and though those in Hades suffer torment presently, one day Hades will be emptied into the Lake of Fire, meaning that Hades is not the final destination for those who have died apart from faith.

Did this change after Jesus’ death and resurrection?

It seems that in the time between Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jesus descended into Sheol and released those from Abraham’s Bosom and led them to Heaven. Those who die now in faith in Jesus go to Heaven, i.e. the presence of God.

Hades, on the other hand, remains in tact, and those who die apart from faith still go there.

What verses can you share with me about this?

Luke 16:19-31: The Rich Man and Lazarus

Luke 16:19-31 gives us insight to this through the story of the rich man and Lazarus: Lazarus, a poor man who died in faith, is taken to Abraham’s bosom, whereas the rich man who died apart from faith is taken to Hades. Between the two parts of Sheol, the story tells us, is an uncrossable chasm, and there is no escape.

The rich man desperately wants someone to go and speak to his family members, and plead with them lest they end up in Hades as well, but the man is told that his family members have been given Moses and the Prophets (i.e. the Scriptures), and they should listen to them.

Ephesians 4:8-10: He Led Captives in His Train

In Ephesians 4:8-10 we read this: Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives (in his train), and he gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)

The Apostles Creed, one of the oldest Christian creeds, includes this phrase:

He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.

Going back to Jesus’ apostles, who spoke with him after his resurrection, there seems to have been an understanding that Jesus descended into Sheol, and did two things:

  1. Released those “captives” from Abraham’s Bosom and led them to the immediate presence of God (Heaven). (Ephesians 4:8)
  2. Preached to the spirits in prison (1 Peter 3:19-20)

The latter of these was not evangelism, but a pronouncement of judgment upon those spirits in Hades. We know this because of the qualifying text in 1 Peter 3:20.

“Today you will be with me in Paradise”

2 Corinthians 5:8Luke 23:43  & Philippians 1:23 tell us that when a believer dies today, they are taken to the direct presence of God, AKA “paradise”.

Hades will be cast into the Lake of Fire

Revelation 20:11-15 describes how, after the judgement of the living and the dead at the end of all things, Hades will be cast into the Lake of Fire.

And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.  (Revelation 20:13-15)

A New Heavens and a New Earth

Heaven, as it is now experienced, is different than what will be after the final judgment, where Revelation 21 tells us that there will be a new heavens and a new Earth, for the first heaven and the first Earth will have passed away, and will be no more. (Revelation 21:1)

Jesus said in Matthew 24:35 that Heaven and Earth will pass away, but his words never will.

2 Peter 3:7 says, But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. 

And 2 Peter 3:10 says, But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.

Thus, after the final judgment, there will be a new heavens and a new Earth, which will be not only the restoration of Eden, but the fulfillment of what Eden would have been had sin not entered in.

In the New Jerusalem, once again, we see humankind together with God, with no sin nor shame, nor any of the destructive effects of sin (i.e. sickness, pain), and that the Tree of Life is there. Whereas Eden was a garden, the New Jerusalem will be a garden city.

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