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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The Last Supper? Actually, No.

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This week is Holy Week, the week during which we remember the final week of Jesus’ life on Earth leading up to his crucifixion and resurrection.

Maundy Thursday is the day in the church calendar when we remember what we call “the Last Supper”, the Passover meal that Jesus shared with his disciples before he was crucified. For more on the “lesser known” days of Holy Week, read: “The Less Famous Days of Holy Week

However, there are several aspects to these traditions that might be misleading.

First of all, Jesus’ Passover Dinner with his disciples would have been on Wednesday evening. According to Jewish thinking, this would have been Thursday, since in Jewish thinking the new day begins at sundown. Thus, what we consider to be Wednesday night would actually be considered Thursday by the Hebrews.

For more on the timing of Holy Week, read: “Was Jesus in the Grave Three Days and Three Nights? Here’s How It Adds Up

But most importantly, what is misleading is the name “the last supper”. Consider what James K.A. Smith has to say on this topic:

when Jesus celebrates the Last Supper, he actually intimates that it’s not really the last supper, but the penultimate (second to last) supper.1

Smith is right. Think about what Jesus said during that supper:

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:26-29 ESV)

Paul the Apostle then says this about the practice of the Lord’s Supper by Christians:

For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:26 ESV – emphasis mine)

In other words, the meal commonly referred to as “the last supper” was not ever meant to be thought of as the last supper that Jesus would have with his disciples, but as the preview of the great supper that they would one day share with Jesus in His Kingdom.

In other words, Communion, AKA the Lord’s Supper, AKA the Eucharist is an eschatological supper, through which we remind ourselves week in and week out of what is to come: the wedding feast of the lamb, in the New Jerusalem (Heaven).

Consider these words further thoughts from James K.A. Smith:

there’s a certain sense in which the celebration of the Lord’s Supper should be experienced as a kind of sanctified letdown. For every week that we celebrate the Eucharist is another week that the kingdom and its feast have not yet fully arrived.2

As you remember and reflect during Holy Week on Jesus’ penultimate supper, and every time you take communion, keep in mind that we do so both as an act of looking back and as an act of looking forward! Both are essential aspects of the hope that we have in Jesus!

 

James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdomp.199
2 Ibid., p.200

One Day

 

What all of us long for is nothing less than redemption.

This young Israeli couple have been posting videos of their music for a while. This video, according to their Facebook page, was recorded a cappella in their car because the original recording had audio problems, but there is something very lovely and beautiful about both the way they sing and what they are singing about.

What makes it so beautiful, is that they are singing about a day in the future when there will be no more wars and strife, when things will be the way we all innately feel that they should be and the way that all people deep down hope it will be.

What all of us long for is nothing less than redemption. 

And that’s because we were made for perfection, but we’re fallen… and yet we have a sort of ancestral memory of it; we know that even though death and strife and sickness are the realities of the world we live it, even though that may be how it is, we still believe that it’s not the way it should be, and so we long for and we sing and dream and write about a world where these things are no more and everything is finally as it is supposed to be:

No more death. No more violence. No more pain. No more parting from those we love. No more infirmity. Love that lasts forever. True peace. Overcoming the limitations we experience now with frustration.

That is why this song is so moving. That is why all of the movies which make you cry have the same common themes: heroic self-sacrifice, good overcoming evil, immortality and overcoming death itself.

The message of the Gospel is that God loves you so much that He made a way for you to be redeemed through Jesus, so that one day that hope could become reality, so that everything your heart longs for deep down could not only be a wish, but a reality.

One day…

 

If you’re interested in more from these guys, here’s a link to their YouTube channel, and here is another song of theirs, this one in Hebrew (English translation can be found in the comments section on YouTube) – it’s a song of praise and worship to God:

 

Playing Harps in Heaven? Don’t be Ridiculous

I have been reading CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity along with the men’s group at White Fields Church. I first read the book 18 years ago, and reading it again has been like reading it for the first time.

I came across this quote in the book, which I thought was excellent, in regard to the Christian belief in Heaven:

There is no need to be worried by facetious people who try to make the Christian hope of ‘Heaven’ ridiculous by saying they do not want ‘to spend eternity playing harps’.

The answer to such people is that if they cannot understand books written for grown-ups, they should not talk about them.

All the scriptural imagery (harps, crowns, gold, etc.) is, of course, a merely symbolical attempt to express the inexpressible. Musical instruments are mentioned because for many people (not all) music is the thing known in the present life which most strongly suggests ecstasy and infinity. Crowns are mentioned to suggest the fact that those who are united with God in eternity share His splendour and power and joy. Gold is mentioned to suggest the timelessness of Heaven (gold does not rust) and the preciousness of it. People who take these symbols literally might as well think that when Christ told us to be like doves, He meant that we were to lay eggs.

Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity (p. 137).

I love his line about if you can’t understand a book written for grown-ups, then you shouldn’t be talking about it!

He says in another place in the book:

Very often a silly procedure is adopted by people who [oppose] Christianity. Such people put up a version of Christianity suitable for a child of six and make that the object of their attack.

When you try to explain the Christian doctrine as it is really held by an instructed adult, they then complain that you are making their heads turn round and that it is all too complicated.

It is no good asking for a simple religion. After all, real thing are not simple.

Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity (p. 41).

I have found this to be true – not only in regard to discussions about Christianity, but in many debates about many things. People put up a caricature of the other person’s views and then proceed to destroy them. This is sometimes called a “straw man argument”.

It is important that we should not allow people to do that with Christian beliefs, and also that we should not do the same with other people’s beliefs. This is sometimes called “Presuppositional Apologetics” – the idea that you should try to frame the views of your “opponent” in such a way, that they would say, “I couldn’t have put it better myself.”

As Timothy Keller put it recently:

 

 

Was Paul Suicidal?

Recently at White Fields I have been teaching through Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in a study titled, The Pursuit of Happiness.

This past Sunday I taught on Paul’s famous saying: “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” – and I explained how the gospel gives new meaning to our lives and it redefines what death means for us. Audio of that message can be found here.

In that sermon, I didn’t get to what Paul says after that famous phrase. Here’s the rest:

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again. (Philippians 1:21-26)

A reader of this blog sent me a message this week about this passage:

I have always wondered if Paul was experiencing a period of depression when he wrote this epistle. What he says in verse 1:22, “yet what I shall choose I cannot tell” even makes me consider that he was in some ways considering “suicide”. I know that sounds preposterous, and I’m not suggesting that he actually thought of killing himself but rather maybe purposely doing something that would result in his death. In todays world it might be called “suicide-by-cop”. It seems as he continues through the remainder of the chapter that he convinces himself that it is better to remain for the benefit of others. It could be that he was just experiencing a time when his death seemed imminent and he was preparing the readers for that eventuality, but I think that he was experiencing a great amount of stress during this time. As always, he was able, through the Spirit, to overcome his stress and turn it into a beautiful, encouraging letter. I believe it probable that all men of great faith experience times of doubt or fear brought on by the enemy.

That’s an interesting thought. Certainly Paul was facing dire circumstances, and I fully agree with the final sentence, but I wouldn’t go so far as to agree that Paul might have been having suicidal thoughts – even to the degree of doing something that might provoke someone else to kill him.

To me, the tone of the letter is one of triumph in the face of harsh circumstances, even death.

I believe that what’s going through Paul’s mind as he writes those words is that he wants to explain something important to the Philippians: That although as Christians, the ultimate hope of the Gospel is the hope of eternal life in paradise with God, that should never minimize the purpose that God has for our lives here on Earth.

This seems to have been a problem amongst some of the early Christians. 2 Thessalonians was written, in part, to let the Christians know that Jesus had not yet returned, that the Parausia, the Second Coming, was still to come – but that as we await Jesus’ imminent return, we should not be inactive;  we should still work hard. That’s why he says:

If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (2 Thessalonians 3:10-12)

The context of that, is that the Thessalonians were eagerly expecting the return of Jesus any day – as all early Christians did, and as it seems that Jesus intended all Christians to do, which is the reason for his vagueness about when his return will take place.

The point is this: We should not have a Christianity in which we encourage people to just believe in Jesus and then hang on and wait for death! I think Paul wanted to Philippians to understand that: that Christianity isn’t only about going to heaven when you die, it’s about living this life for Christ – as much as, and as long as possible.

It’s not only that because of the Gospel, DEATH IS GAIN – but also: because of the Gospel, TO LIVE IS CHRIST!

Another reason why I think Paul was not discouraged when he wrote to the Philippians is because he closes the letter by saying:

Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household. (Philippians 4:21-22)

What this means is that members of Caesar’s household, including the Praetorian Guard (members of which were chained to Paul 24 hrs a day in 6 hr shifts), were becoming Christians through his being there in jail. I think Paul was feeling particularly encouraged after facing years of discouragement prior to this. Finally he was starting to see some fruit and the purpose for which God must have allowed this series of terrible difficulties and injustices happen to him. Many of us may never get to see that in our difficulties, but when we do it helps to encourage us that God is indeed in control and using all of the frayed strands to create a beautiful tapestry.

 

Farewell to Elisabeth Elliot

One of the first books I read as a missionary was the diary of Jim Elliot – missionary to Ecuador who was martyred by the people he went to tell about Jesus.

The diary of Jim Elliot details his thoughts and dreams, his hopes and prayers, as he went to Wheaton college,  went as a missionary to Ecuador, met and married his wife, Elisabeth, and then embarked on a journey to share the Gospel with the unreached Auca indians – an endeavor which ended in both tragedy and glory: tragedy because Jim and his missionary companions were murdered, but glory because after their deaths, the wives of the slain men continued to reach out to the Auca’s, forgave them for what they had done, and ultimately did lead them to Christ.

The reason Jim Elliot’s diary was available for me to read was because of the work of his wife: Elisabeth Elliot, who made it available to the world. Additionally, Elisabeth Elliot wrote two books about their missionary work in Ecuador – one titled Through Gates of Splendorwhich has been called one of the most influential books of the Twentieth Century.

Elisabeth Elliot went on to write many other books and became a prominent advocate for world missions.

Yesterday she entered through those Gates of Splendor herself at the age of 88 and was reunited with Jim in the presence of the God she loved and served her whole life.

Here’s more about Elisabeth Elliot from Christianity Today. Oh that God would give us more people like her! Oh that God would give us the kind of hearts for Him that she and Jim had.

Jim Elliot’s famous quote – brought to the world through the work and advocacy of Elisabeth Elliot:

He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.

Here’s a photo of that quote in Jim Elliot’s own handwriting:

Jim Elliot’s diary