It has been said that the only certainties in life are death and taxes. And sometimes even taxes are not that certain. But everyone dies. Maybe not today, maybe not for many years to come. But eventually, death comes for everyone. Including you and me.
So what happens when a person dies? That has been one of the questions that has probably occupied the minds of every human who has ever lived, except possibly those who died in infancy, before they developed an awareness of life and death. And this is not a question that anyone can answer from experience. Yes, there are the so-called “near-death experiences” that have been reported from time to time, when someone will apparently die, and then return with various stories of what they experienced during the time that they were “dead”. I am not saying that I believe these stories to be untrue—nor can I say that I believe them to be true. It is impossible to either prove or disprove them. And so we remain without any clear, definite, visible evidence for what happens after a person dies.
I am assuming that you arrived at this page by clicking on the link in one of the parent pages, and so you have hopefully already read what I have to say about the metaphysical in general. If you did not—if you arrived here by following a search engine link, for example, then I encourage you to stop and first visit the page on Life, the Universe and Everything. What you read here may make more sense if you do.
Today, many believe that when we die, we cease to exist. For those who do not believe that there is anything beyond what we can detect with our senses or scientific instruments, this position is understandable. After all, when a person dies his or her body remains here on Earth, devoid of any of the normal functions that denote life. If there is anything in a person that survives death, it cannot be a part of our perceived physical existence.
On the other hand, among those who believe that there is an unseen part of each human being that survives death, the number of different beliefs is staggering. Some, such as the Hindus, believe in reincarnation, in which the soul is reborn into another person. Some believe that the soul just “hangs around” never really going anywhere. And there are many varieties of belief where the soul of a dead person goes to some type of eternal paradise—or eternal punishment. See What the Future Holds for a discussion of some of these belief systems.
Modern fiction has added many more speculative ideas, such as the Soul Hunters of Babylon 5, or the Overmind from Arthur Clarke's Childhood's End, or the Final Mind from Greg Bear's Eon and Eternity novels. These are just a few samples of what you will encounter if you are a fan of science fiction. Sometimes you will find more than one idea expressed in the same work, such as in Ransom's and Weston's discussion in C. S. Lewis' Perelandra.
And for all I know, you who are reading these words might have yet another concept that I have not even touched on.
As I made clear in About Billiard, my search for answers to the Big Questions in life led me to the conclusion that Jesus Christ really is God the Son, and I present legal-historical arguments to support the idea that the Bible really is God's Word in Evidence. Therefore, I will dedicate the rest of this page to explaining the Biblical perspective on the afterlife; what it is and how our choices in this life affect it. I readily admit that there are still aspects of the issue that I have not found the answers to. Either God has not chosen to reveal them, or else I am failing to recognize something that He has already revealed. If the former, then it probably is not something for us to know in this life. If the latter… Well, I am human and life is a learning process. I know things today that I did not know 20 years ago, and expect that in another 20 years I will know still more.
Anyone who bothers reading the Bible knows that it clearly teaches the existence of Heaven. There are many popular ideas about Heaven, based on different readings of the Scripture text. There are also positions that I call “second-hand” views, where people come up with ideas based on what others have said about Scripture, but do not actually read the text themselves to verify. I will talk about what is Biblically known about Heaven later on this page. Right now, suffice it to say that the Bible teaches the existence of a time/place/state where certain people live forever in God's presence, in eternal joy and happiness.
The existence of another place/state where other people live forever separated from God and in eternal torment and agony is more controversial, but if one takes the words of Scripture for what they clearly say—especially the words of Jesus himself—the inescapable conclusion is that Hell is also real, and that many people will end up there. Again, I will go into more detail later on this page.
The Bible is pretty clear on the existence of these two destinies—and that there is no “third option”. Over the centuries since Jesus walked on Earth, some have claimed that there is a third option, called “Purgatory”, where a person who does not “make it” into Heaven spends a certain amount of time in Hell—sort of like a prison sentence—and afterward is released to go to Heaven. Again, reading the Scriptures for what they clearly say, one finds no support for such a concept, and plenty of support for just the opposite. One either goes to Heaven or else to Hell—and once there, stays there for eternity.
Another Biblical concept is that the age we are living in will not last forever. Basically, Scripture teaches that just as Jesus left the Earth several weeks after the resurrection and is now somewhere in the heavens (for more on the idea of “Heaven” vs. “the heavens”, see the relevant section in The World Around Us), he will someday return to Earth. The Bible makes it clear that this will be a time of tribulation and chaos, bringing this age to an end. Eventually, there will be a great judgment, and afterward everyone will be either assigned to Heaven or to Hell to spend eternity. (For more on these future events—and past or current events associated with them—see the topical page on What the Future Holds.)
From these accounts, if taken for what they clearly say, Heaven and Hell are both real places. In a sense—that is, of being the places of eternal reward and punishment respectively—they are still in the future. But they are not “states of mind” or anything similar. They are solid and real, and the people who inhabit them will have bodies, even if they are not the same kind of bodies that we have in this life.
If the line of reasoning on the page on Evidence—or anything else—has caused you to consider that the words of the Bible are relevant and ought to be taken seriously, then the concept of eternal Heaven or Hell should in turn motivate you to take a closer look at the rest of what Scripture has to say about how a person ends up in one or the other.
People have argued since the beginning of the human race as to whether mankind is basically good or basically evil. Pride wants to tell us that we are basically good. Nevertheless, I would challenge anyone who has ever had the privilege of raising children (I haven't, but I have plenty of friends who have) to be honest about what they think. Basically, which do they have to teach their children: how to be good, or how to be bad?
My own experience can testify to this. I was 17 years old and a senior in high school when I came to the point of realizing that there was something seriously wrong with me on a fundamental level. At the time, I was still on parental probation—ordered by juvenile court—for a prank I had played a couple of years earlier. There was a part of me that wanted to do right, simply because I saw that misbehaving would only get me into more and more trouble. I wanted to go to college and make something of my life. I did my homework and got good grades—when I wanted to. Yet I just kept doing the wrong things.
It was like there was a part of me that stood aside, watching in dismay while another part of me did its best to turn my life into a train wreck. I had an absolute horror of reform school and/or prison, yet a part of me feared that I would eventually end up on one or the other. It frightened me… yet I was unable to do anything about it. And the scariest thing was that I didn't understand why I was like that.
It was at that time that a friend of mine sat down and explained things to me from a Biblical point of view (read the section on Finding God in About Billiard). Now I had not gone through any of the reasoning that I describe in Evidence, or any of the life experiences that later on confirmed to me that I had made the right decision. But in the weeks that followed—after I had “taken the plunge” and decided to try what I thought at the time was a totally new-fangled thing—things that I had puzzled about began to make sense.
Scripture makes it clear that no one is good. In both the Old Testament and the New, we are described as being corrupt and prone to do evil (Psalm 14:2-3, 53:3; Isaiah 59:2; Romans 3:23 and many more). In spite of my dismay at my own propensity for misbehavior, up to this time I had just blown this off whenever anyone brought it up. Sure, I wasn't perfect; of that I had no doubt. Moreover, by human standards I probably was not all that bad. I kept getting into trouble, but I did not get into fights and hurt or kill people. I did not rob banks or take drugs. It was only when I began to realize that God's standards are much, much higher that these pieces in the puzzle of life began to fall into place. In a word, God's standards are perfection (Deuteronomy 18:13; Matthew 5:48). Therefore, being imperfect but “not that bad” just did not cut it in God's eyes.
Furthermore, I came to understand that it was not merely the things that I had done that made me fall short of God's standards. It was the simple fact of having the propensity to do wrong. Paul—the author of nearly half of the books in the New Testament—wrote in his letter to the Romans that he wanted to do good, but kept doing wrong instead. That sounded sooooo familiar… You can read it for yourself in Romans chapter 7, with the heart of the message being in verses 15 through 23. And Paul made it plain that it wasn't merely he and I who had this problem; it was the whole human race.
God has a name for this aspect of human nature and behavior. It may not be politically correct in today's “tolerant” society, but He never changes and so it is still there, like it or not. The name is sin.
This has also been a much-discussed subject over the centuries. Does God take sin seriously? If so, how seriously? What does He do about it? And more importantly, what does God's attitude about sin imply about the choices I need to make with my life? I will start with the simple and straightforward aspect.
The idea of death as the consequence for sin goes all the way back to the beginning of the human race. When God made our first parents (Adam and Eve were two real people, not merely symbols; for more on how this fits in with modern beliefs, see the section on The World Around Us), He told them that if they disobeyed one specific command—in this case, not to eat from a particular tree—then they would die. It was not that the fruit of this particular tree was poisonous or anything. Rather, it was the simple act of disobeying a clear command from God. Something happened right away; the account says that “their eyes were opened”. Actual physical death came centuries later, but it came nonetheless.
Millennia later, when God led the people of Israel out of Egypt and gave them the Law, the (civil) penalty for many offenses in that Law was death. In case you are thinking that the fact that death was not the penalty for all offenses means that some sins do not merit death, I must point out that Jesus made it clear that God had “softened” the Law to a degree because of the hardness of the human heart (see Matthew 19:8 for an example of this). In Ezekiel 18, verse 4, God is speaking through the prophet and He says that “the soul that sins shall die”. That was God's true standard. And the New Testament states it plainly in Romans chapter 6, verse 23, where it says that “the wages of sin is death”.
You probably already know where this is going. A few sections above, I pointed out the Biblical perspective on life after death, which says that a person either spends eternity in Heaven with God, or eternity in Hell, suffering eternal punishment. If this is the case, then how does God decide who goes where?
In the twentieth chapter of Revelation, the writer talks about the “second death”, which basically amounts to being thrown into a place called the Lake of Fire. In case you may be thinking that this is some kind of destruction, that those thrown into the Lake of Fire are destroyed and thus end their torment, I must point out that there are many Scripture verses that make it clear that this torment will last forever. In Matthew 25, verse 41, Jesus tells the wicked to depart from him into everlasting fire. In many other places in the Gospels, Jesus makes it clear that Hell is a real place, and that real people will be sent there forever.
The penalty for sin is death. The Lake of Fire—what we generally refer to as “eternal Hell”—is also called the “second death”. As was pointed out in the previous section, everyone has sinned. In logic, we learn that if A=B and B=C, then it follows that A=C. Applying the rules of logic to the previous statements in this paragraph, who deserves to go to Hell forever?
The answer: Everyone.
I have heard that many people ask how a loving God could possibly send anyone to Hell. If we take the Scriptures seriously, then the real question becomes just the opposite: How can a just God possibly allow anyone into Heaven?
When God gave Moses the Old Testament Law, it not only included penalties for various infractions, but along with the penalties God imposed a system of sacrifices. The idea of the sacrifices was as a type of payment for the sin itself. The penalties represented the civil aspect of the Law, much as federal, state and local laws and associated penalties function in our society today. The sacrifice, on the other hand, represented the aspect of dealing with the fact of sin before God Himself. Since the penalty for sin is death, the sacrifices always involved the death of an animal. (There were other sacrifices that did not involve the death of an animal, but these sacrifices were not specifically for sin.) Thus, God made clear the concept that sin can only be paid for by death.
An interesting aspect of the sacrifice system, however, was that one person's sin could be theoretically paid for by the death of someone or something other than the sinner himself. Thus we have the idea of substitutionary death. Nevertheless, the substitutionary death sacrifices of the Old Testament were limited in what they could accomplish. For one, a person had to offer a new sacrifice every time he or she sinned. (I imagine that many of what we call “petty sins” were overlooked, otherwise a person would be dragging sacrifices to the altar dozens of times per day, at minimum.) The other limitation was that nothing happened to empower the person to live a right life. It was purely symbolic.
Nevertheless, God allowed the system to continue for over a thousand years. During that time, the people of Israel rode a moral roller coaster. Unfortunately, just as gravity eventually brings a roller coaster down to Earth, man's basic evil nature ensured that the dips in Israel's moral roller coaster grew deeper and deeper, and the highs fewer and farther between. Eventually, they were exiled to Babylon.
Even after 70 years in Babylon and its successor, when the Israelites eventually returned to their land, they still had not learned the primary, crucial lesson built into the system of the Mosaic Law. Yes, they were sincerely repentant over their earlier misdeeds. And they gathered together and swore before God that they would do better. Four hundred years later they were still “doing better”; to avoid sliding down the slippery slope into the kind of moral degeneracy that had led to the Babylonian Captivity, they lived under a strict system of laws that enforced a code of behavior that was quite admirable on the surface. The problem was that “under the hood”, they were still human, with the same human tendency toward evil.
The coming of the Messiah—or Christ, in Greek—had been prophesied in the Old Testament for over a thousand years. Like most prophecies, much of it was couched in language and expressions that were not meant to be understood in advance. (I have wondered at times if there is some corollary to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle involved in prophecy; the clearer the meaning, the less freedom of will we have when it comes to events related to its fulfillment, and vice versa… See the section on Interpreting Prophetic Events on the page about What the Future Holds.) In addition, looking back at the prophecies about the Messiah, it has become clear afterward that there are two separate comings described, with very different purposes.
At the time of the first coming, Israel had been under the yoke of Rome for some time. This was something that ate at the very soul of the Jewish nation; after all, they reasoned, they were the chosen people of God, so He should send a deliverer to free them from the hated Romans. And when Jesus appeared on the scene, fulfilling prophecies about the coming of the Messiah, many Jews looked to him to be their military/political savior and to lead Israel back to the glory they had during the time of King Solomon.
The problem was that Jesus did not come the first time to be a king, a political and military leader to destroy Israel's human enemies. He came the first time to deal with the problem of sin and death.
As was mentioned above, the Mosaic system of animal sacrifices for sin was inadequate to deal with the real issues. To truly pay the penalty for human sin, once and for all, required the sacrifice of not merely an animal, but a human being. And the human being had to be perfect. If he were any less than perfect—that is, if he had any sin of his own—then his death would merely pay for his own sin and nothing more.
Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. But he also referred to himself as the “Son of Man”. He had been born of a human woman, though through a miracle rather than human sex. I don't claim to understand how it worked, but Jesus was both God and man. The Scriptures are clear about this. As God, he was perfect and did not sin. As man, he was mortal and could die.
It is ironic that the Jewish misunderstanding of Jesus' first coming actually led to its fulfillment. He did not mince words; he called a spade a spade. Many of the common people found this refreshing and he gained a huge following. He pointed out that the Law was not only inadequate, but that the true standards were far higher than what was written. “Because of the hardness of your hearts, Moses said…” typified his teaching about righteousness. And he was compassionate and backed up his words and claims with demonstrations of power, healing the sick and feeding large numbers of people.
It was the Jewish leaders who saw him as a threat. But they were unable to do anything about it until one of Jesus' own followers—a man named Judas Iscariot, who had become disillusioned when it became clear that Jesus was not about to rise up in power and throw off the Roman yoke—was willing to betray him. After an illegal trial, where they found no evidence against him except his own claim to be the Son of God, they handed him over to the occupying Romans, claiming that he was a political threat to them, and they put him to death by crucifiction, which was one of their common methods of execution at the time.
Many people have wondered why Jesus let the Romans put him to death, if he truly was the Son of God and therefore had divine authority and power. Surely he could have snapped his fingers and stopped them in their tracks. The reason was that being put to death was the main purpose for which he came—the first time.
As was mentioned above, animal sacrifices were inadequate to truly deal with the problem of human sin. At best, they were a reminder that there was a problem that needed to be dealt with. To truly pay for human sin, a perfect human had to die. Because Jesus was God in the flesh, he was perfect. And because he was also human, he was able to die and be that sacrifice.
God has a much longer vision than we do. He exists independently of time and space and sees the end from the beginning. Although the Jewish people were important to Him—His chosen people, in fact—He was looking at the bigger picture of dealing with the root problem that we all face. Sin needed to be paid for; if it were not, then the only alternative, as described above, would be to send each and every human being that ever lived to eternal Hell. That is not what He wanted. Incredible as it may seem, God Almighty—who has all power and needs nothing that we or anyone or anything else could possibly provide—loves us.
How do we know this? Because Jesus said so. And as has already been explained, he validated his words by his resurrection from the dead.
The resurrection of Christ was the most important event in human history. Not only did it validate Jesus' own words, but it validated his death as payment for man's sin. The account was marked “Paid in Full”. No more sacrifices—animal or human—were required. The barrier that stood between God and man was eliminated.
It is very tempting to stop right there and say, “Hey, Jesus paid for my sin. I'm going to Heaven. Yippee!” But that is an incomplete picture. As I stated in the previous paragraph, the barrier was eliminated. The door was opened. But it is still necessary to cross the line, to step through that door.
Some things to remember: If God created man, then He did not do it just as some sort of cosmic experiment. If that were the case, then why care enough to become one of us and die to pay for our disobedience? If we were merely laboratory rats on a grand scale, then He would have wiped us out and started over when we didn't measure up. Instead, He went to great lengths to reconcile us to Himself.
All of this to say that He made us for a purpose. For Himself.
He did not make us just to “follow the rules”. Animals, plants and everything else do exactly that. Robots follow the rules unthinkingly, obeying their programming. Humans have a free will. Humans have relationships with other humans, and God wanted us to have a relationship with Him—of our own free will. In the Gospel of John, chapter 17, third verse, Jesus defined eternal life as “know[ing]… the One True God, and Jesus Christ, whom [He] sent”.
If we don't want God, He won't force Himself on us.
But if we do want God—if we do want to know the One who made us and loves us and allowed His Son to be put to an excruciating death to pay for our sin—then the door is open. All we have to do is enter.
We enter by 1) repenting of our sin and 2) following Jesus.
“Repent” means to turn away from, to do a 180° about-face from the way of life associated with disobedience. It does not mean being sorry about it and then continuing on as before. It requires a positive effort. We may not always succeed, but it is the attitude that counts. Do we really want to stop disobeying God? Or are we just playing games? If it is the latter, then we have not truly repented.
When Jesus was on Earth, “following” him was easy. You went where he went, ate and drank with him, sat at his feet and listened to his teachings, and so on. Since he left Earth and returned to the heavens, it is a bit more difficult to go where he goes and eat and drink with him. But we can still follow his teachings. We can still obey him. We can still give up anything he asks us to that gets in the way of knowing him. And he has promised that someday he will return (see the topical page on What the Future Holds). When he does, he will be king and ruler of the entire Earth.
Basically, what it means is that each of us has a choice. We can continue the way we always have, perhaps not believing a word of it, or perhaps believing it, but considering it irrelevant. Jesus says, “Follow me!”, and we can say “No.” Other things are more important, things that satisfy our self desires. Or we can recognize that there really is a problem that we need to deal with, but choose to do it on our own terms. Pray a little formulaic prayer that sounds good on the surface, but inwardly we remain unchanged. We do not come to know Jesus. And for these people, Jesus will have but one thing to say to them someday: “I never knew you. Depart from me, into everlasting fire…”
The alternative is to truly take it seriously. Recognize that we do have a problem with a tendency toward disobedience (sin), and truly choose to turn away from it. Again, it's the attitude that counts. We will not always succeed. But that is why Jesus died, to pay for our disobedience and failures. He wants us to want him. He wants us to want him enough to put him ahead of everything else in this life. He wants us to look past this world and all of its temptations, to a better future where we will be with him forever. These are the ones whom he will welcome into Heaven.
That is what it all boils down to. Will you or will you not take Jesus at his word and follow him?
I have no way of knowing what you are thinking after reading all this. All I can say is that, if the line of reasoning about the existence of God (Life, the Universe and Everything) and the validity of Jesus' words (Evidence) make sense, then what you just read on this page points to the most important decision you will ever face in your life. It will literally mean the difference between Heaven and Hell—forever. Since I am convinced that the Word of God is valid and relevant, I sincerely hope and pray that you will make the right decision. Yes, I said right. I cannot take God at His Word and sit back and believe that you simply need to do what is “right for you”. If God is real, then His standards are absolute. And if He is really God, then He has the right to set whatever standards He chooses, and we have no right to insist otherwise.
There is also something else to take into consideration. In this page I have talked about God and man, as if they were the only two intelligences that matter. The Bible makes it clear that there are other types of beings—including one who opposes everything God stands for. We know him as Satan, or the devil. (I encourage you to read the topical page on The Enemy for more discussion of these beings.) He would absolutely love it if you decide that everything on this page is balderdash and completely irrelevant. He literally wants you to go to Hell.
So please, please think about it. Don't just blow it off. Feel free to pray something like, “God, if You're really there, please show me the truth!” Consider what is at stake. Remember that it is a big Universe, and a staggeringly vast and immense Reality out there, and we only know about the tiniest fraction, far too little to presume that a Supreme Being does not exist or is irrelevant.
I have said everything I can say. Now it's up to you.
Copyright © 2005-2020 William R. Penning. All rights reserved.