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For many, death is one of life’s greatest mysteries. Some believe we cease to exist, while others speculate about an afterlife. Do we really die, or do we have a soul that lives on apart from the body?
Many Christians now question the traditional belief that our immortal souls go to heaven or to torment in hell after death. Even the Catholic Church has altered its teaching about a literal hell. In 1999 Pope John Paul II stated that hell is symbolic of "the complete frustration and emptiness of life without God." He added, "Rather than a physical place, hell is … "a condition resulting from attitudes and actions which people adopt in this life."
Along with the modern day rejection of traditional heaven and hell doctrines, a disbelief in the idea of a final judgment—that God will pass judgment on both righteous and unrighteous lives —is becoming widely accepted. The Bible clearly teaches all humans will be judged, but many are confused about when that judgment takes place and what it really means.
Death is like sleep. There is no conscious thought. Psalm 146:4 tells us "His spirit"—speaking of man—"departs, he returns to his earth; In that very day his plans perish," and Ecclesiastes 9:10 instructs, "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work [nor] device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going."
Jesus made a statement which is often misunderstood as proof we go to heaven after we die. He told a convicted criminal crucified with Him, "Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43). Many think Jesus was assuring the man he would go to heaven with Him that very day. But notice the specific wording of the man's request: "Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom" (Luke 23:42). The thief did not express an expectation of immediately going to heaven with Jesus at the moment they died.
Jesus' response to the man, telling him, "...you will be with Me in Paradise." requires understanding of the biblical use of the term paradise. The Greek word translated as ‘paradise’ here means an enclosed garden or a park. This same word was used in references to the Garden of Eden, and when it is used in the New Testament it refers to the place of God's presence. Jesus never said or implied to the dying man would be in paradise or heaven on that very day. Christ was encouraging him by assuring him a time would come, in God's future Kingdom on earth, when the man would be resurrected and see Jesus again.
Jesus Himself had previously related an entire parable in Luke 19 "...because they thought that the kingdom of God would immediately appear" (verse 11). He also taught His disciples to pray, "Your kingdom come" (Luke 11:2). This Kingdom is the Kingdom Jesus will establish on earth at His return, not a location in heaven we go to when we die.
Christ taught the next conscious moment after death will be a resurrection. This is what the earliest Christians believed. When Jesus came preaching the gospel of the Kingdom of God, He was talking to Jews who believed the Old Testament scriptures. They believed the dead would be brought back to life or resurrected in visible bodies.That is what Martha understood Christ to be saying at the tomb of her dead brother Lazarus. She said: "...I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day." (John 11:24)
The biblical teaching is of a bodily resurrection at a future time when a restoration of all things occurs. The apostles saw the resurrected Christ and their belief in the resurrection is what fueled the early Church with determination to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth. They knew death, the greatest of enemies, had been defeated.
When Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God, He was not speaking of a place to which one escapes when this life ends. He was speaking of God's rule coming to this earth, not humans going to heaven.1 Corinthians 15 talks about a bodily resurrection with a physical body and a healed life.
The hope of the dead is the resurrection, which leaves us with a choice as to how we live today: "Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord" (I Cor 15:58).
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