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The Afterlife according to the New Testament
Jesus and the Apostles were all Jews of course, as were nearly all the members of the first Christian Church. The first Christians saw themselves as inheritors of the covenant of Abraham, and the early Church of course had no New Testament, so they naturally understood the afterlife in the terms of the Old Testament. The Gospels and all of the epistles affirm this understanding as well, when read in the original Greek.
During the New Testament and Patristic times some of the Church Fathers clearly held that everyone went to the same place, to Hades. Within Hades they held there was a separating of the unjust, who were experiencing a foretaste of the sufferings of judgment, from the just who were in “Abraham’s bosom” or
In the Gospel story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, they both are able to see Abraham. The Rich Man and Lazarus can see and talk to one another though they are far off from each other and both see Abraham. “And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.” (Luke 16:23). The grammar implies both the rich man and Lazarus are in Hades. The bosom of Abraham represents God’s bosom. All of them are in God’s presence, but one is in torment, the other is in a state of comfort. The immediate application of the story concerns the state of the departed prior to the resurrection of Christ. This is why it is said “…neither will they (the Jewish People that have Moses and the prophets) be persuaded though one rises from the dead”.
Lazarus, who did not care for personal pleasure or possessions, spent his life pursuing God, and then in the afterlife basks in God’s glory when in His Presence. The Rich Man, on the other hand, pursued his own selfish desires during his life, and in doing so ended up in pain when in God’s Presence, because of the sin in his heart. Abraham says to the Rich man in Luke 16:25 “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things, but now he is comforted, and you are tormented”. See how he contrasts “but now” (in death), one is comforted, the other in torment. In the Greek, it does not say that God is punishing him, he is simply “in torment” while there. They were separated by a large gulf, which is primarily spiritual, not physical. The Rich Man does not have a physical tongue to cool with physical water from Lazarus’ physical finger. It is a gulf that exists in the heart, a spiritual gulf that causes us to experience God loves presence as
In The Complete WordStudy Dictionary Edited by Sprios Zodhiates Th.D and Dr. George Hadjiantoniou Ph.D., the authors describe Hades as:
“The region of departed spirits of the lost…It corresponds to Sheol in the OT…in the story of the rich man and Lazarus… [it has] been taken to put our Lord’s confirmation on the Jewish idea of two compartments in Hades, distinct from and yet near one another…Hades is associated with death. It expresses the general concept of the invisible world or abode into which the spirits of men are ushered immediately after death…In none of the passages in which the word itself occurs have we any disclosures or even hints of purgatorial fires, purifying processes, or extended operations of grace. The state of human beings in Hades is immediate and irreversible after death… Our Lord conclusively teaches in the story of the rich man and Lazarus that there is no possibility of repentance after death….Unfortunately, both the OT and NT words have been translate in the KJV as “hell” (Ps. 16:10) or the “grave” (Gen. 37:35) or the “pit” (Num. 16:30, 33). Hades never denotes the physical grave nor is it the permanent region of the lost. It is the intermediate state between death and the ultimate hell, Gehennah”
The same inconsistency in translation of the Old Testament can also be seen in the New Testament. Hades is translated as hell ten times in the New Testament, but it is also translated as “grave” in 1 Cor 15:55.
In Revelation Chapter 20, it states that Death and Hades gave up their dead, and Death and Hades are placed in the lake of fire when God reclaims the world. If the ones in Hades were judged and will be in torment for eternity “far from the Lord” as so many think, why would these same ones be released from Hades when God returns? It is because all who have died reside in “Death and Hades” until that moment, when Death and Hades can no longer exist because God, the author of Life, is present. The “lake of fire and brimstone” into which Death and Hades is placed, in the Greek would be grammatically correct to translate as the “lake of fire and divinity”, or even “the lake of divine fire”. When Death and Hades is placed in the fiery presence of God, in the “lake of divine fire”, it is destroyed. It is in the very presence of God, where death can not exist when God is present.
It is interesting to examine the Greek word for “divine”, it is from the Greek “theion”, which could also mean “divine being”, but also means “sulfur’, or in Old English “brimstone” [lit. ‘burning stone’]. As strange as that sounds to us, it is because of the ancient understanding of the cosmic order of the nature of all things. All people in all cultures from the
Yet the word ‘theion’ is translated as “brimstone” or “sulfur” in Luke 17:29, Rev. 9:17, 14:10, 20:10, 21:8, which is where ‘fire and brimstone’ comes out of heaven, but it is equally interchange with the words “divine fire”. Since this did not fit the translators’ preconceived ideas, it is rendered always as brimstone in this context.
Elsewhere in Revelation it states that the “heat comes out of heaven” and burns the enemies of God, yet does not harm the ones with God’s seal on their foreheads. So the same heat, the heat that is the very life and light that comes from God, burns the sinners, and does not harm the ones that love God.
Again, in many places God’s presence and appearance is described as fire in the New Testament as well as in the Old. Examine for example, Matt. 3:10-12, 25:41, Mark 9:49, Luke 12:49, Acts 7:30, 1Cor. 3:15, Heb. 1:7, 12:29, Rev. 3:18 and in numerous other places.
Typical is the verse where John the Baptist says
“I baptize you with water, but the One that comes after me will baptize you with fire”.
The author of Hebrews writes that God is a consuming fire. Jesus Himself states the he brings “fire” to the earth. That is, “divine fire.”
Everywhere in the New Testament when humans come face to face with the Transfigured Jesus they cannot look at Him: Peter, James and John on Mt. Tabor, Paul on the road to Damascus– humans hid their face and fell down in fear and trembling when confronted with the revelation of Jesus as Almighty God. Old Testament figures did the same, but now, in the New Testament, it is revealed that this “holy” fire is present when Jesus reveals his nature. This is because Jesus is the incarnate God of the Old Testament.
A couple of these descriptions of the fire of God’s presence are worth examining closely. Paul writes in 1 Cor. 3:13
“Every man’s work shall be made manifest…because it shall be revealed by fire, and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is.”
In Mark 9:49 Jesus says
“For everyone will be salted with fire”
(interestingly, in Greek this sentence has the grammatical structure of an obvious statement of fact, similar to “for [everyone knows that] everyone will be salted with fire”).
Peter repeats this idea in 2 Peter 3:7
“but now, by the same Word [that is Jesus], heaven and earth are saved and kept for fire on the day of judgment, and the destruction of impious men.”
So clearly everyone experiences this fire caused by the presence of God. The Bible tells us there is no place apart from God, that he is everywhere and fills all things, so how can He create a place apart from Him? Moreover, why would He create a place just to punish the ones He says He loves unconditionally? That is not the nature of a loving God.
Since God is everywhere and fills all things, in the spirit world there is nowhere to escape from God even if you wanted to (Ps 139:7-8).
Translating 2 Thess. 1:7-8 from the Greek literally,
“get relief at the revelation of the Lord Jesus coming out from heaven with His powerful angels in flames of fire”. [notice He comes with “flames of fire”].
Yet this same presence of Jesus causes the ones persecuting them to
“…be punished with everlasting destruction BECAUSE OF [Gr. “apo”] the presence of the Lord, and BECAUSE OF his mighty glory” (2 Thess. 1:9).
Further on Paul writes in 2Thess 2:8 that
“the lawless one, whom the Lord Jesus will destroy by the breath [or “spirit”] of his mouth and make ineffective by the fantastic appearance of his presence”.
So the mere presence of Jesus makes the “lawless one” ineffective, yet gives relief and comfort to the Thessalonians.
Unfortunately many English translations insert a word that is not there in the Greek in verse 1:9, adding the idea that the wicked will be “separated” or “cut off” from the Lord’s presence. This is a totally different meaning, and if Paul had wanted to say this he would have used the word “schizo,” which is where we get the word for “scissors” and “schizophrenia” [lit. divided-mind]. The Greek word “apo” that Paul uses here is a preposition that indicates cause or direction: “because of,” “out of,” “caused by,” “from,” etc. The word “apo” appears 442 times in the New Testament, and it is NEVER used to indicate separation, location or position. For example “Apostles” in Greek “apo-stolon” literally means “those sent out from the fleet.” The word “Apocalypse” literally means “out from cover,” i.e. to reveal, hence the Book of Revelation. Also interesting is the word “apostate” which in Greek literally means “out from standing”. If you where once in a condition to stand in God’s presence, then “fell” away, you would not be able to stand any longer; you would be “out from standing,” cowering and trying to hide from His presence.
The history of the English word “hell” is also revealing. The Old English word from which hell is derived is “helan”, which means to hide or cover, and is a verb. The noun form means “hidden place”, not unlike the literal meaning of Hades “unseen place”. So at one time the English church understood that to be judged a sinner meant one would cower and want to hide in fear when in God’s presence. Unfortunately, because of the political expedience of controlling an often rebellious population, corrupt rules in the West, in collusion with corrupt clergy, and adopting ideas from non-Biblical yet popular fantasy novels such as Dante’s Inferno, corrupted the use of this word during the middle ages. Eventually turning a verb into a noun by popular usage, even if theologically insupportable from the Bible.
It is tragic that modern translators would insert the word “far from” or “cut off from” into 2 Thess. 1:9, apparently because they had a preconception about what Paul was trying to say so they altered the text to fit. They added this little “clarifying” word that is not in the Greek text at all, changing the meaning and inserting their own ideas. If your preconceived idea is that Hell is a “place” that an angry God sends people away from his presence, in order to punish and hurt them, you would expect and look for ways that Scripture would support your idea.
Clearly, when you read the Bible in the original languages you learn that there is no place apart from God, and there is no place that God put you to punish you. What scripture reveals is that all eventually will be in the fiery presence of the Lord, and this presence will be either “eternal torment” or “comfort and glory”. Judgment and paradise both come from being in God’s presence.
Another word translated incorrectly as Hell appears in 2 Peter 2:4. Saint Peter is warning about the swift destruction of false prophets and false teachers. In the Greek grammar he uses an obvious statement of fact by stating
“For if God did not spare the sinning angles, but rather places them down in Tartarus, reserved for [a future] judgment…..the Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of trials, and to reserve the unjust until the day of judgment.” (2 Peter 2:9).
The word Tartarus is also a proper noun, that is a name of a place, and accordingly should not be changed into a different word, and certainly not the same word that used for Hades and Gehennah.
Tartarus originally came from Greek mythology and popular folk tales. It is the name of a prison in Hades that Zeus, after triumphing over the Titans, placed them, bound in chains to hold them for future punishment for crimes against humans. It was metaphorically seen as the place where justice was metered out in the spirit world, and this metaphor often found it’s way into Jewish apocryphal writings about the end times. Saint Peter borrows this term and uses it in exactly the same way as it was used in popular contemporary writings by both Greeks and Jews; it is a place where “sinning angels” are bound and imprisoned, awaiting a future punishment. They are bound by God to prevent them from doing further harm, and they are judged for crimes against humanity. This image is seen in the ancient icon of the Resurrection, metaphorically depicted are “dark” angels, or demons, being bound in chains under the feet of the resurrected Christ, who broke the bonds of death and rendered powerless the “sinning angles”. Remember from 2 Thessalonians, where Saint Paul writes that the power of the presence of Christ made the “lawless One” powerless, and gave comfort to the Christians, which is exactly the same idea that Saint Peter is writing about in 2 Peter 2:4 through 9.
Again the translators made an improper interpretation of this passage because of preconceived ideas about the afterlife, changing the meaning and only adding to the confusion for English speaking Christians.
Also totally absent from the scriptures is any hint that demons are tormenting sinners. This again comes from Dante’s Inferno and other pagan concepts, not from the Bible. Because any “sinning angels” in the presence of God, are also in torment, and their power is made ineffective.
The Afterlife According to the Church Fathers
After the Gospels and Epistles were composed, in the centuries before Christians decided exactly which books would be in the New Testament, many gifted believers wrote books of commentary, sermons, apologetics, and stories of martyrdom. These eloquent early Christian writers confirm the Biblical view of the afterlife and add some clarifying details.
St. Cyril of
St. Isaac the Syrian in the sixth century writes
Paradiseis the love of God” and he also writes “…those who are punished in Gehenna, are scourged by the scourge of love”. So the “fire” is the love of God, and we experience His love as either divine love, or as painful “scourge”.
St. Basil the Great (fourth century) points out that the Three Children thrown into the fiery furnace were unharmed by the fire, yet the same fire burned and killed the servants at the entrance to the furnace.
According to St Gregory the Theologian, God Himself is
“light for those whose mind is purified… in proportion to their degree of purity” and darkness “to those who have blinded their ruling organ [meaning the “eyes of the heart”]…in proportion to their blindness…”
St. Gregory of Nyssa says,
“Hades…is not intended to signify a place… it is some invisible and incorporeal condition of life, in which the soul lives.” (On the Soul and the Resurrection, SVS p.73).
St. Cyril of
“the sign of the Cross [at His returning] will be terror to His foes, but joy to His friends who have believed in Him”.
Lactantius (AD 260-330) wrote that on His return
“there comes before Him an unquenchable fire”.
St. John Chrysostom (AD 344-407) wrote [in homily LXXVI]
“let us clothe ourselves with spiritual fire, let us gird ourselves with its flame. No man who bears flame fears those who meet him; be it wild beast, be it man, be it snares innumerable, so long as he is armed with fire, all things stand out of his way, all things retire. The flame is intolerable, the fire can not be endured, it consumes all. With this fire let us clothe ourselves, offering up glory to our Lord Jesus Christ, with whom the Father, together with the Holy Spirit, be glory, might, honor, now and ever and world without end. Amen.”
A prayer of St. Simeon the Translator goes:
“…Thou who art a fire consuming the unworthy, consume me not, O my Creator, but rather pass through all my body parts, into all my joints, my reins, my heart. Burn Thou the thorns of all my transgressions, Cleanse my soul and hallow Thou my thoughts [etc.] …that from me, every evil deed and every passion may flee as from fire…”
The Holy Orthodox Church, in keeping with Scripture and the most ancient Christian doctrine, teaches that all people come into the presence of God in the afterlife. Some will bask in joy because of that infinite love, glory, light, power, and truth that is Almighty God. Others will cower in fear and be in torment DUE TO THAT SAME PRESENCE. All the same, there will be some kind of separation or “great gulf”.
“Life” in the Orthodox Church as defined by the Fathers, is experiencing the perfect, pure and infinite love of God in ultimate harmony and intimacy for eternity, and “death” is experiencing God’s energies in torment, darkness and disharmony for eternity. It is only through Christ that we come to that place of perfect harmony, in this life, in this world. The goal of the Christian is not to get to “heaven” in the after life, but rather to come to a state of constant communion with the Holy Spirit, beginning in this life. We may bask in the presence of God’s glory here and now, and in the afterlife for eternity.
Accordingly, from ancient times icons have shown the Saints dwelling in a place filled with the golden, uncreated divine light of God. With the icon we symbolically peer through this “window” into the spirit realm infused with God’s energies. In the icon of the
It is not God’s intention that his love will torment us, but that will be the inevitable result of pursuing our own selfish desires instead of seeking God. When we are in harmony with God, we will bask in that presence. Yet, if we desire our own will and are in disharmony with God, we suffer in His presence. Satan is evil not just because he harms others, but because he is an angel of light who stands in the presence of God yet chooses to pursue his own selfish desires, which causes him to tremble in fear. Satan and his fallen angels, the demons, were thrown to the earth and he became the ‘god of this world’. It can be speculated that Satan and his demons are on the earth because it is the only place they can escape God’s presence, if only temporarily. This is why they will suffer for eternity after God reclaims the world at the end of this age, filling It with his presence. Then there will be nowhere to escape God, for both demons and evildoers.
So “hell” is not a “place” but rather a condition we allow ourselves to be in, not because of God’s “justice” but because of our own selfish and sinful disobedience. In other words, we put ourselves in “hell” when we do anything other than seeking God’s will. It is not that God wants to harm us; He loves us unconditionally, but torment is the result of coming into His pure presence when we are in an impure condition.
It is like spending your whole life in a cave or basement in darkness, never seeing the sun, then suddenly being thrust into bright sunshine. Your skin will burn, your eyes will burn, you will want to bury yourself under the rocks to try and escape this terrible thing pouring down on you, but there is no escape, just as described in Revelation. However, if you expose yourself to the sun regularly and often, eventually you will want nothing but to bask it the warmth and light of the sunshine. The same sunshine that torments one person brings warmth and pleasure to another. Similarly, if you get too close to the sun, you will be burned, not because the sun wants to burn you, because it is the sun’s nature.