Most "religious" people believe in some form of heaven and hell as reward or punishment for human beings. Does this mean that everyone reared in the "wrong religion" will spend eternity in hell? The Bible gives a surprising—and reassuring—answer to this question.
Do you know what happens after death? Throughout time, different cultures and religions have come up with their own answers. Even the traditional burial customs in different cultures have reflected the differing ideas about what happens after death.
Buddhists have traditionally cremated their dead. They expect not an afterlife but a series of rebirths until nirvana—a cessation of individual consciousness and absorption back into the "world soul"—is achieved. Cremation illustrates their belief that the soul transfers through countless bodies, each unimportant to the soul.
Ancient Egyptians, on the other hand, saw the afterlife as a continuation of their earthly existence. They took great care to preserve bodies and bury them with items deemed useful in the next world. Their funeral customs—including their pyramids, perhaps the greatest monuments to the dead ever built—showed their belief that personal existence continued after death.
Hebrew customs demonstrated a far different outlook on life after death. Taking literally God's statement to Adam that: "In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out if it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19), the Hebrews traditionally buried their dead simply and quickly, letting the dead body decompose. According to the Bible, the hope of the dead does not lie in freeing an entrapped soul or preserving a dead body. Job asked a rhetorical question: "If a man die shall he live again?" (Job 14:14). Job knew that God would eventually call him forth from the grave (v. 15). Clearly, the Bible shows that the resurrection is the only hope of all who die.
Most professing Christians believe that Heaven is the reward of the righteous, and that there is a corresponding Hell for the unrighteous. Yet many have been repulsed at the common Protestant concept of Hell, as it assumes billions will writhe in agony forever simply because they never heard of Jesus Christ. If Christ is "the only way to Heaven" as Evangelicals teach, then most people who have ever lived and died cannot be there. Roman Catholics have taken a different approach, by adding additional destinations for souls after death; their tradition includes a remedial Purgatory and a torment-free Limbo for unbaptized infants and "good" pagans.
The problem with all of these ideas is that they come from human imaginations and not from Scripture. They all start with the premise that mankind inherently has immortality, and that an immortal soul must, therefore, go somewhere at death. But the Bible nowhere teaches the immortality of the soul! In fact, the phrase immortal soul is not even in the Bible.
In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word nephesh is commonly translated "soul." It is used in Genesis 2:7, where we learn that God breathed into Adam the breath of life and he became a living being ("soul," KJV). But nephesh is also used, in Genesis 1, to describe the life possessed by fish (v. 20) and other animals (v. 24). In Scripture, there is nothing immortal about a nephesh—a soul. Rather, we are told in Ezekiel 18:4 that the soul that sins shall die.
In the New Testament, the Greek word psuche is commonly translated "soul." Again, there is nothing immortal about a psuche. Revelation 8:9 uses this word when explaining that one-third of the creatures that "were in the sea, and had life [Gr., psuche] died." Similarly, Revelation 16:3 states that every living creature died in the sea." This word "creature" is translated "soul" in the King James Version; soul means life, and can refer to any living creature, either human or animal.
This Greek word psuche is the origin of our English word psyche, which refers to the mind. It is sometimes used to describe those mental qualities that distinguish one individual from another. In Matthew 10:28, Jesus said: "And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul [psuche]. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell." Notice that the hell Jesus described would destroy both body and soul! The soul is not immortal; it can be destroyed. In this context, psuche refers to a person's mind or individuality. While another person might end your physical life, God can still resurrect you. He retains a record of your individuality, including your memory and your character. While man cannot take away your chance to be restored and live again in the future, God clearly can—and, in certain cases, will.
Three different Greek words are translated as "hell" in the English-language New Testament, and each describes something different. Tartaroo is only used once, in 2 Peter 2:4, and refers to a place of restraint for demon spirits. Hades, which means "the grave," is frequently used to describe the abode of the dead until the resurrection. Hades is never used to describe a place of future punishment. Another Greek word, however, commonly rendered "hell," does refer to a place where the wicked are punished by death. This is Gehenna, and takes its name from the Valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem, where the bodies of criminals were commonly burned along with refuse and dead animals. Christ used this location, familiar to all of His listeners, to describe the burning up of the incorrigibly wicked.
The Bible nowhere indicates that immortality is mankind's natural state; it teaches that we are inherently mortal and doomed to death. In 1 Timothy 6:16, the Apostle Paul emphasized that only God has immortality. He told the Church at Corinth that the righteous will put on immortality at the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:53-54).
If man is not an immortal soul, what happens at death? The Bible compares death to sleep. The dead are unconscious, and know nothing until the moment of their resurrection (Ecclesiastes 9:5). The Apostle Paul described dead Christians as being asleep in Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 4:14-15). To His disciples, Jesus described their dead friend Lazarus as being asleep (John 11:11-14). The prophet Daniel foretold a future day when "those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt" (Daniel 12:2).
While man is mortal and has no eternal life naturally inherent, the ancient patriarch Job declared that God would have a desire to the work of His hands. Ultimately, He would call—and Job knew that he would answer (Job 14:15). When will this occur? If the traditional Heaven and Hell teaching of mainstream Christianity is incorrect, then how and when will the Creator deal with mankind?
The Bible teaches that there will be more than one resurrection from the dead. These resurrections occur at different points in time, and encompass different groups of people. The book of Revelation makes clear the time frame of each resurrection.
Notice what John records in Revelation 20:6: "Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years." The first resurrection is a resurrection to immortality, and occurs before the Millennium—the 1,000-year reign of Christ and the saints on Earth. The Apostle Paul described this event to the Corinthian church, telling them that it would occur "in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality" (1 Corinthians 15:52-53).
What is the last trumpet? The book of Revelation describes a series of seven supernatural trumpets to be sounded at the end time. These trumpet blasts signal the intervention of Almighty God and herald His judgments on a rebellious world. Revelation 8 records the blowing of the first four of these angelic trumpets and the incredible natural disasters that follow each blast. Revelation 9 tells of the blowing of the fifth and sixth trumpets and of the warfare and destruction that follow those blasts. In Revelation 11:15 we read: "Then the seventh angel sounded: And there were loud voices in heaven saying, 'The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!'" The seventh and final trumpet heralds the return of Jesus Christ, and the resurrection of the righteous dead. Paul emphasized this in 1 Thessalonians 4:16: "For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first." In the following verses, he explained that Christians still living at the time of this awesome event would also be changed to immortality, and would rise up to meet Christ with the resurrected saints.
This first resurrection is one to glory and immortality, and consists only of those who are Christ's at the time of His Second Coming (1 Corinthians 15:23). Hebrews 11:35 calls this the "better resurrection." When Christ rose from the dead after three days and three nights in the tomb, He became the firstfruits of those that sleep (1 Corinthians 15:20). Those who genuinely accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior have an incredible promise—that because He lives, we might live also (John 14:19)!
Only a tiny minority of human beings has ever come to truly know Christ and the Father, and trust in them. What happens to everyone else?
Revelation 20:5 makes plain that the rest of the dead—those who were not in the first resurrection—do not live again until the conclusion of the millennial reign of Christ and the saints. John went on to describe a vast array of people who would at that time be restored to life and stand before God (verse 12). We are told that the Book of Life is reopened. Why is this necessary, when Scripture explains that those whose names were previously recorded in the Book of Life (Revelation 3:5) were raised to immortality at Christ's return 1,000 years earlier? God will not need to reopen the Book to see if He has inadvertently made an error and left someone out. Rather, this reopening represents a chance for others at that time to be recorded in the book.
Jesus spoke of a resurrection to judgment, at which the people of ancient gentile cities would stand alongside many of the Jews of His day (Matthew 12:41-42). He also said that many of those ancient peoples would have repented if they had seen His works and heard His message (Matthew 11:21-23). Are people lost forever because they never had that chance? Remember, God is no respecter of persons (2 Chronicles 19:7) and desires that no person should perish, but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).
Why could so many to whom the Apostles preached fail to see and understand? They were spiritually blinded (Romans 11:25). Remember, Christ clearly stated that no man could come to Him unless the Father drew him (John 6:44). Yet Paul anticipated the future time when all of Israel would be saved (Romans 11:26). The prophet Ezekiel described in a vision that future time of salvation for Israel. He saw a valley full of dry bones, and was told that it represented the whole house of Israel. He saw those bones miraculously come together and form skeletons, then saw flesh cover them. Finally, breath entered into this vast army of reconstituted bodies, and they were alive once more. God's message was: "Behold, O My people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up from your graves and bring you into the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O My people, and brought you up from your graves" (Ezekiel 37:12-13). At this future event, which will occur 1,000 years after Christ's return, human beings will be restored to physical life and be able to truly know God. This is not a second chance; rather, it is a first opportunity for billions who were previously never made aware of God's plan and purpose in this age.
This will be a future period of judgment for the vast majority of mankind. Isaiah 65:20 indicates that this restoration to physical life will continue for 100 years. During this time, spiritual blindness will be removed, the Book of Life will be opened, and the resurrected dead will be judged out of the books of the Bible, based on what they do with the opportunity that they then have.
What happens at the end of this future period of judgment, when most of humanity will have been restored to physical life and given the opportunity to learn the truth for the first time? We have discussed those who trusted Christ and were raised to immortality in the first resurrection at His return, and we have seen what will happen to those who were spiritually blinded in this present age, then restored to mortal life 1,000 years later for their first opportunity to have their names inscribed in the Book of Life. But what happens to those who have knowingly rejected God's salvation?
Some in this age have had an opportunity for God's salvation, but have willfully turned aside and rejected it. Peter spoke of them in 2 Peter 2:21: "For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them." The Apostle Paul explained: "For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries" (Hebrews 10:26-27).
This judgment of God differs greatly from traditionally imagined hellfire, which many professing Christians expect will torture sinners for eternity. Notice the description given in Malachi 4:1: "'For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, and all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble. And the day which is coming shall burn them up,' says the Lord of hosts, 'that will leave them neither root nor branch.'" The hellfire described in Scripture is designed to destroy the wicked, not to torture them forever. Revelation 20:15 describes the timing of this future destruction of the incorrigibly wicked. At the conclusion of the judgment period, when the previously blinded have been able to have their names written in the Book of Life, those whose names are not found in the Book will be cast into a lake of fire designed to burn them up. Then, those who in our current age had rejected their chance for salvation will be raised back to life to experience the second death. In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus described one who will awaken in the grave (hades), not to glory or to an opportunity for salvation, but rather to face God's fiery wrath advancing toward him (Luke 16:23). Such a person will be confronted with the torment of his exclusion from the Kingdom of God, and his impending destruction, and will perish along with all those who ultimately reject their opportunity for salvation. At that point, all human beings whose names have not been written in the Book of Life will perish.
Peter described that at this coming time of God's final judgment on sin, "the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up" (2 Peter 3:10). This will be followed by a "new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells" (v. 13).
John also described this event in Revelation 21, picturing the creation of new heavens and a new Earth, and the descent from Heaven of the New Jerusalem. At this glorious time, Christ will deliver the Kingdom to the Father (1 Corinthians 15:24). The Father and Christ will dwell in the New Jerusalem, with the immortalized saints, in a time of no more sorrow, pain or tears. This will be possible because—finally—sin and everything contaminated with it will either have been cleansed or destroyed (v. 26). The Bible concludes with this picture, which marks the end of the beginning and the threshold of eternity!