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Surveys show many people are confident, or hope life doesn't end at the grave. Most Christians believe when you die you go to heaven to be with God. Yet John 3:13 states: "No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven"— and that one Being is Jesus Christ, who has returned to heaven!
If you look in the New International Version, it renders the statement as, "No one has ever gone into heaven." The Message says, "No one has ever gone up into the presence of God." God's Word Translation says, "No one has gone to heaven." The only exception is Jesus Christ.
The Apostle Peter echoed this sentiment in Acts 2:29 and 34: "...let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day… For David did not ascend into the heavens…"
Jesus' disciples did not teach that life beyond the grave meant going to heaven forever. Hebrews 11, speaking of great men and women of faith of past ages, tells us they are still awaiting their future reward in God's Kingdom: "And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise…that they should not be made perfect apart from us" (Hebrews 11:39-40). So why haven't they yet received the promise of eternal life? And if they aren't in heaven, where are they?
Jesus compares death to sleep. When Jesus' friend Lazarus died, Jesus said, "'Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up.' Then His disciples said, 'Lord, if he sleeps he will get well.' However, Jesus spoke of his death, but they thought that He was speaking about taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus said to them plainly, 'Lazarus is dead'" (John 11:11-14).
When someone is in a deep sleep, they have no awareness of the passing of time or any knowledge of events that are occurring. It's like they're unconscious. Throughout the Bible the dead are described as in a state of sleep. They are unaware, waiting in the grave.
King Solomon confirmed death is like a deep, unconscious sleep: "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going" (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Just before that he wrote, "For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing.…" (Ecclesiastes 9:5).
The Bible consistently teaches good people don't go to heaven or anything like heaven at death—instead, they sleep in the grave. All of the dead—the good and the not-so-good alike—wait in the grave for God's promise of the resurrection of the dead, to a life of meaning and purpose with Jesus Christ here on earth (Revelation 20:4). This all begins with the return of Christ, at which point His faithful followers are resurrected (1 Thessalonians 4:16).
The Old Testament patriarch Job understood that one day he would be resurrected and a change would occur: "If a man die, shall he live again? All the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change come" (Job 14:14). This change is described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 as a change from physical, mortal flesh to immortal, glorified spirit.
Understanding how we can have a part in that resurrection is very important and helps us comprehend the purpose of our life today and the hope we should have for our future. Our understanding of and belief in God's plan should make a difference in how we live our lives. Jesus clearly showed us what our priorities in life should be: "Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness…." (Matthew 6:33).
When you look to the truth of the Bible instead of erroneous human tradition, we can have hope. Death is not permanent, it’s like a sleep, and there will be an awakening and a change to a life with Jesus Christ as our King.
(See also issue 234 the article Does God Condemn Non Christians? for more information about what the Bible says about the resurrection of those who have never known God: https://www.ucg.org/beyond-today/beyond-today-television-program/hard-questions-does-god-condemn-non-christians)
The Good News Magazine (May-June 2014)