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What Does the Bible Say About Eternal Life and the Resurrection of the Body?

Frequently Asked Questions

Contents

Introduction

Intermediate State

Resurrection of the Dead

Questions

What is Heaven?

What is Hell?

What are Paradise and the "Third Heaven?"

What are Heaven and Hell Like?

Will We Know Our Relatives and Friends in Heaven? Will We Still Be Married?

Conclusion

Introduction

Everyone wonders what eternal life will be like, but the Bible does not give many details. At death we will enter an intermediate state until the second coming of Jesus. Then, all who have ever lived will be resurrected for a final judgment. Those who are saved will receive new glorified bodies and take their place with God, but the wicked will be cast into hell.

Intermediate State

The intermediate state is the time between a person's death and the second coming of Christ. The Bible does not make many direct statements about the intermediate state, so several different beliefs have arisen:

Continued Life of the Soul

A majority view among Protestants is that a person's soul (or spirit) survives physical death and remains conscious during the intermediate state. At the time of death, a person's soul is freed from his or her body (Matthew 10:28, Acts 2:27, Revelation 20:4). In this intermediate state, those who are saved will dwell in peace with God (1 Thessalonians 4:13-15, John 11:25-26, 14:23, Luke 16:22-24, Luke 23:43, Philippians 1:23-24), but the souls of the wicked will be in torment (Luke 16:23).

Jesus told His disciples not to fear for their lives; eternal life is infinitely more valuable than one's earthly life:

Don't be afraid of those who want to kill you. They can only kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (NLT, Matthew 10:28-29)

In his Letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul looked forward to the time he could leave this earthly life behind and be with Christ:

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. (NIV, Philippians 1:21-24)

Purgatory

The Roman Catholic Church's teaching is similar to the majority Protestant view above, except those who are saved are said to undergo a process of purification after death to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the perfection of heaven. This purification process, called purgatory, is inferred from the testing by fire of 1 Corinthians 3:15 and 1 Peter 1:7, and the atonement for the dead mentioned in 2 Maccabees 12:45.

Soul Sleeping

The Bible sometimes speaks of the dead as having fallen asleep:

After he had said this, he went on to tell them, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up." His disciples replied, "Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better." Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. (NIV, John 11:11-13)

For when David had served God's purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his fathers and his body decayed. (NIV, Acts 13:36)

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. (NAS, 1 Thessalonians 4:13)

From this, some people reason, the souls of the dead are asleep and unconscious during the intermediate state and will remain that way until Christ comes again. The majority view, however, is that these references to sleep are just a figure of speech for death, perhaps used to indicate that death will not be the final end for those who are saved.

Nonexistence

Jehovah's Witnesses teach that people do not have a soul that survives death. At death, a person totally ceases to exist until he or she is brought back to life at the resurrection of the dead. Several Old Testament passages are cited in favor of this belief (Genesis 3:19, Ecclesiastes 9:5, 9:10, Psalms 146:3-4). Most Christians, however, believe the revelations of Jesus and the apostles give a more accurate view than these Old Testament passages.

Resurrection of the Dead

When Christ comes again, there will be a resurrection of all the dead. Both those who are saved and the wicked will be resurrected at some point in time. Those who are saved will receive new glorified bodies and take their place with God in heaven, but the wicked will be cast into hell (Matthew 5:29-30, 10:28, 18:8-9, 25:31-46, Mark 9:43-47, John 5:28-29, Acts 24:15, Revelation 20:12-15). Jesus said,

Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his [Christ's] voice and come out - those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned. (NIV, John 5:28-29)

Our new glorified bodies will be different from our old earthly bodies, but will in some ways be similar (1 Corinthians 15:50-55, 2 Corinthians 5:1-5, Philippians 3:21-22).

Questions

What is Heaven?

Christians frequently use the word heaven to refer to the final dwelling place of people who are saved. It is conceived as a place of perfection where people who have lived righteous lives will live eternally in God's presence.

Heaven (or heavens) has several meanings in the Bible. The physical heaven refers to all of the universe beyond earth (Genesis 1:1, Matthew 24:29, Revelation 12:3-4).

Heaven is also the dwelling place of God (Deuteronomy 26:15, 1 Kings 8:28-30, Matthew 5:44-45).

When Christ returns, heaven and earth will be re-created or brought to perfection in accordance with God's will (Isaiah 65:17, 66:22, 2 Peter 3:10-13, Revelation 21:1). This new perfect world will be the final dwelling place for those who are saved (John 14:2-3, 1 Peter 1:3-4).

What is Hell?

Christians use the word hell to refer to the final dwelling place of people who are not saved. It is usually conceived as a place of eternal punishment for people who have lived wicked lives.

Several different words in the original Bible languages represent the abode of the dead or state of the dead. Many older Bible versions translated all these words as "hell," but that obscures their distinct meanings. Some newer versions leave these words untranslated to preserve the distinctions and original meanings:

Old Testament

The Hebrew word Sheol was viewed as the dwelling place of all the dead, both righteous and unrighteous. It was conceived as a place under the earth where the souls of the dead existed in gloom, darkness, silence and oblivion (Job 10:21, Psalms 94:17, Psalms 88:12).
Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going. (NRSV, Ecclesiastes 9:10)

New Testament

Hades is a Greek word that is equivalent to the Hebrew Sheol. In the Greek version of the Old Testament, "Sheol" was translated as "Hades."

In later Jewish writings, Sheol/Hades was conceived as having separate regions of comfort for the righteous and punishment of the wicked, and that idea is also seen in Jesus' Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus:

"The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, 'Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.' "But Abraham replied, 'Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. (TNIV, Luke 16:22-26)
Gehenna (Hebrew ge-hinnom, meaning "valley of Hinnom") was a valley outside of Jerusalem. At the time of Jesus it was used as a garbage dump where fires burned continuously. In former times, it was used it as a place of idolatrous practices, including human sacrifices (2 Chronicles 28:3, Jeremiah 32:35)

Jesus used this evil place where fires burned continuously as a metaphor for the fate that awaits the wicked after death:

But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna. (NAB, Matthew 5:22)
If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life crippled than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna. (NAB, Mark 9:43-45)

The Christian conception of hell as a place of punishment for the wicked is most closely associated with the word Gehenna as used by Jesus.

The word Tartarus appears once in the Bible. It comes from Greek mythology and is apparently used to represent a place of punishment:
For if God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but condemned them to the chains of Tartarus and handed them over to be kept for judgment; (NAB, 2 Peter 2:4)

What are Paradise and the "Third Heaven?"

Paradise

Paradise is a Persian word that originally meant a walled garden. At the time of Jesus, many Jews believed life after death would be in a Paradise similar to the Garden of Eden. The souls of the patriarchs of Israel and righteous people would be taken to this Paradise. Jesus made reference to that belief in His Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:22-23).

Jesus also told the thief on the cross, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43). That suggests that Paradise is the same as the intermediate state where souls are taken immediately after death. Paradise is also mentioned in Revelation 2:7.

Third Heaven

In Jewish tradition there were three heavens, and the apostle Paul mentioned the highest heaven, the "third heaven," in connection with Paradise in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4. There is no further explanation, so Paul may have intended third heaven to be a synonym for Paradise.

What are Heaven and Hell Like?

The Bible does not give many details about either heaven or hell. The sayings in the Bible are often phrased in symbolic or metaphorical language. However, the Bible does make it clear that there will be a future glorious eternal life for the righteous and punishment for the wicked (Matthew 7:13-14, 13:40-42, 19:28-29, Luke 10:25-28, 13:24-28, John 5:28-29, 6:40, Romans 6:22-23, 8:18, Revelation 21:8).

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; ... Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; ... And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (NRSV, Matthew 25:31-34, 41, 46)

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Look! God's dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 'He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death' or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." (TNIV, Revelation 21:3-4)

Many of our ideas about heaven and hell actually come from sources other than the Bible. In particular, The Divine Comedy, an epic poem written by Dante Alighieri in the 1300s, vividly describes hell, purgatory and heaven as imagined by Dante. Many of those ideas have endured to the present time.

Will We Know Our Relatives and Friends in Heaven? Will We Still Be Married?

Nearly everyone wonders if we will know our relatives and friends in heaven. Unfortunately, the Bible does not give an answer. Most Christians assume we will someday meet up with our relatives and friends in heaven.

Jesus did say that we will not be married in heaven:

Jesus said to them, "Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. (NRSV, Luke 20:34-37)

Conclusion

When Jesus comes again, all who have lived will be resurrected from the dead for a final judgment that determines their eternal fate. There is less certainty about what will happen in the intermediate state between the time of death and Jesus' second coming.

The apostle Paul makes the analogy that our earthly bodies are like seeds that die and fall to the ground, then sprout into new, glorious forms of life (1 Corinthians 15:35-44). It is only an analogy, however. The Bible uses vague and poetic language to describe heaven, hell and eternal life. Perhaps the reason we know so few details about eternal life is that, as with other spiritual matters, the reality of it is simply beyond our human ability to comprehend. As Paul wrote,

Now we see things imperfectly as in a poor mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God knows me now. (NLT, 1 Corinthians 13:12)

Related articles:
What Does the Bible Say about Salvation?
What Does the Bible Say about the Second Coming of Jesus?

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