Bible Prophecy in Chronology series (post #25)
The Bible describes an afterlife abode that is called Sheol in the Old Testament Hebrew and Hades in the New Testament Greek. Beginning with the Old Testament era and running up to Christ’s resurrection and ascension, Sheol/Hades was the place where all souls went at death. The souls of the saved went to the paradise side of the place, while the souls of the lost went to the torment side of it.
By the way, you need to understand that every human being IS a soul. Each of us IS is a soul who dwells for a time inside a body, and that body possesses a spirit that serves as the spark of physical life (1 Thessalonians 5:23). At death, the body goes to the grave, the spirit returns to God (Luke 23:46, Ecclesiastes 12:6-7), and the soul goes into an afterlife abode. As I said, for approximately 4,000 years of mankind’s history the one and only option for an afterlife abode was Sheol/Hades.
As shocking as it might sound, the Bible teaches that Sheol/Hades is located somewhere deep within the heart of planet earth. The Old Testament consistently speaks of the site’s location as “down.” For example, in 1 Samuel 28:3-25, God allows the soul of Samuel to actually be brought up from Sheol/Hades to deliver a message of doom to King Saul. Samuel asks Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” Furthermore, Job 17:16 talks about going “down to the gates of Sheol.” As for the place having literal gates, Jesus said, “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).
The Bible’s best passage on Sheol/Hades is Luke 16:19-31, a passage in which Jesus tells the story of two men who died. One was a lost rich man whose soul ended up in the torment side of Hades (translated as “hell” in the King James translation). The other man was a saved beggar named Lazarus whose soul ended up in the paradise side of Hades, where he was comforted by the soul of the Old Testament patriarch Abraham. The passage teaches that the torment side of Sheol/Hades is a place of unending flame, torment, and regret. This is the “hell” the world associates with the word.
The fact is, though, that something profound happened to Sheol/Hades following Christ’s resurrection and ascension. What was it? All indications are that Jesus emptied the souls from the paradise side of the place and took them up into heaven with Him.
The passage on this monumental event is Ephesians 4:7-10, which uses an Old Testament verse – Psalm 68:18 – to say that Jesus’ ascension involved Him leading “captives.” The illustration is a military one that reminds us how warrior-rulers, upon returning from their victorious battles, displayed their captives of war via processional parades.
So, what does this illustration mean in relation to Jesus returning to heaven after His life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension? It means that He came home with “captives” in tow. And who else could those “captives” have been but the saved souls from the paradise side of Sheol/Hades? You see, those souls couldn’t officially enter into God’s heaven until after Jesus had shed His blood in time and history. The blood of all the Old-Testament-style animal sacrifices was enough to keep the wrath of God off those souls by temporarily atoning for (covering) their sins (Leviticus 4:35, 5:10), but only the blood of Jesus could eternally take away (cleanse) those sins (John 1:29, Hebrews 7:25-27, 10:4-17).
Summing up the situation, the paradise side of Sheol/Hades has been closed for business ever since Christ’s ascension, and it will never receive another soul. From Christ’s ascension going forward, whenever a saved person has died, that person’s soul has gone straight up to heaven to be with the Lord. As the apostle Paul said in his day, “We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). He also said that he had a desire to, “…depart and be with Christ, which is far better” (Philippians 1:23).
You say, “Alright, Russell, I think I understand what you’re saying, but what does it have to do with Bible prophecy?” I’m glad you asked. We have now come to a place in our series where we need to talk about The Great White Throne Judgment. What do you think happens at this judgment? I’ll tell you: The torment side of Sheol/Hades gets emptied of all its souls. Unfortunately for those souls, though, they won’t get promoted to heaven. Instead, they will get demoted to an even worse “hell” called “the lake of fire.”
John’s prophetic account of The Great White Throne Judgment is found in Revelation 20:11-15. He begins by saying, “Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it…” (Revelation 20:11). There is no doubt that the Judge sitting upon this white throne is Jesus. He Himself once said, “For the Father judges no one, but has committed all judgment to the Son…For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself, and has given Him authority to execute judgment also, because He is the Son of Man” (John 5:22,26-27).
But if the Judge sitting upon this white throne is Jesus, why does John paint such a terrifying picture of Him by saying, “…from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. And there was found no place for them” (Revelation 20:11)? First, he does it to show that the Jesus who sits upon this white throne isn’t the compassionate, merciful, forgiving Jesus that typically gets depicted. This is Judge Jesus, not Savior Jesus. Second, he does it as a way of leading into what is going to happen immediately following the conclusion of the judgment session (Revelation 21:1). (We’ll cover that in the next post.)
John then says of the Great White Throne Judgment, “And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works” (Revelation 20:12-13).
Wow!!! I hope you understand that what you just read is one of the most monumental texts in all the Bible. What we have here is nothing less than the billions of souls from the entire span of human history – from Cain to the last lost unbeliever from Christ’s millennial reign – being called forth from the torment side of Sheol/Hades to stand resurrected body and soul before Jesus Christ for an eternal judgment and sentencing. John says, “Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them” (Revelation 20:13). By that, he means that Death delivered up the body and Hades delivered up the soul. The stakes simply don’t get any higher than that!
John tells us that books will be opened at The Great White Throne Judgment. What will these books contain? They will contain all the works and deeds of all the people who will stand before Jesus at this judgment. Perhaps each individual will have his or her own individualized book. You say, “Hey, that’s a nice thought.” No, it is anything but nice. These books will be nothing less than eternally damning sentences of condemnation for these people. Remember that passages such as Ephesians 2:8-9 teach that no one can earn salvation by way of works, even works that are supposedly “good.” Needless to say, then, it can’t be a favorable thing for anyone to be judged “according to their works, by the things written in the books.”
Another book that will be at The Great White Throne Judgment is “the Book of Life” (Revelation 20:12,15). This book literally contains the names of each saved individual from the entirety of human history. It is spoken of in other passages: Daniel 12:1, Philippians 4:3, Revelation 3:5, Revelation 13:8, Revelation 17:8, and Revelation 21:27. In two of these instances (Revelation 13:8 and 21:27) it is called “the Lamb’s Book of Life.” What makes this book all the more amazing is the fact God wrote all the names in it “from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 17:8). It was God’s foreknowledge that made this possible as He was able to look down through the eons of human history and see beforehand each individual who would voluntarily exhibit saving belief (Psalm 139:4, Isaiah 46:10, Romans 8:29, Ephesians 1:4, and 1 Peter 1:2).
As I try to imagine just exactly how The Great White Throne Judgment will play out, I envision the lost unbeliever standing before Jesus and being confronted with the record of his/her life. This record will prove conclusively that the individual is a sinner who is worthy of eternal condemnation. At that point, the only hope for the person to be reprieved will be for his/her name to be written in the Book of Life. That book will then be consulted to show that the person’s name is not in there. The eternal sentencing will then be carried out as John says, “And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15).
The unique thing about The Great White Throne Judgment is that it will encompass not only each lost soul from history but also the earthly body the soul once inhabited. Just as the souls will be called forth from the torment side of Sheol/Hades, the bodily remains will be called forth from wherever they rest upon the earth. In order for God to get the bodies to The Great White Throne Judgment, He will have to resurrect each of them. This resurrection will not include glorification, but it will be enough to reunite the body with the soul that once inhabited it.
You’ll note that John makes special mention of the sea giving up the dead bodies that are in it. Certainly that includes the bodies of all the lost people who have gone down with ships at sea, been washed away by tsunamis, or been drowned in the ocean in some other way. It also includes the bodies of the millions of lost people who were wiped out by the flood of Noah. Thinking about all the bodies that lie at the bottom of oceans around the world makes you want to avoid the seas altogether!
Of course, all this throws the door wide open for some perplexing questions. What if a shark or some other sea creature ate the bodily remains? And what if that creature itself was then eaten by another one? And what if that second creature was eaten by a third creature? Etc., etc. etc.
If you think about it, these types of questions can be asked concerning any bodily resurrection, whether it be the resurrections of the bodies of Christians at the Rapture or the resurrections of the bodies of Old Testament believers and tribulation-period martyrs at Christ’s Second Coming. Depending upon how outlandish the questioner wants to get, the questions can easily make their way into the realm of the bizarre. For example, someone might ask, “What if a person loses a finger in a boating accident, an appendix on the operating table, a tooth at the dentist, and is an organ donor in death? How could God possibly bring such a body back together for any type of resurrection?”
Well, the fact is that even science admits by way of The Law of Conservation of Matter that matter, once created, cannot be destroyed in an isolated system. This means that the matter of a human body can never be annihilated out of existence. That matter will always be somewhere within the confines of creation. Obviously, the matter can change forms, such as becoming tiny particles of dust or whatever. But what it can’t ever do is waste away or fade away into true nothingness.
This means that God, when He is ready, will be perfectly able to gather up all the matter from any human body and resurrect that body (either unto glorification or not). And that’s exactly what will happen at the Rapture, Christ’s Second Coming, and The Great White Throne Judgment. Trust me, by the time God is finished resurrecting bodies, there won’t be even one body left to be accounted for and resurrected. Even Jezebel, Israel’s most wicked queen, who had the entirety of her body eaten by dogs except for her skull, feet, and palms (2 Kings 9:30-32) will have her body resurrected to stand before Jesus at The Great White Throne Judgment.
In John 5:28-29, Jesus says, “Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth – those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.” The prophet Daniel teaches this same thing when he says of Christ’s Second Coming, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2). These passages clearly show that there are two categories of resurrection: a resurrection unto life and a resurrection unto condemnation.
The confusion sets in when we try to envision one general “resurrection day.” What we must understand is that God completes His resurrecting by way of a seven-fold plan. The first six stages of the plan come under the heading “the resurrection of life,” and the final stage comes under the heading “the resurrection of condemnation.” The plan plays out as follows:
- The resurrection of Jesus made Jesus “the firstfruits” of those who have died (1 Corinthians 15:20).
- There was a token resurrection of some of the bodies of believers in the area of Jerusalem immediately following Christ’s resurrection. This strange event is described in Matthew 27:50-53, and God did it as further evidence that Jesus really was God in the flesh, the Savior/Messiah. These believers arose in bodily form, went into Jerusalem, and appeared to many. The majority opinion among commentators is that these believers arose in glorified bodies just like Jesus’ body and ascended to glory soon afterward, never again having to return to the grave the way Lazarus and the other temporary resurrections of the New Testament did.
- At the Rapture, the bodies of all deceased Christians will be resurrected and glorified (1 Corinthians 15:50-58, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
- The “Two Witnesses” who will be killed by the Antichrist in the tribulation period will have their bodies resurrected and presumably glorified after lying dead in the streets of Jerusalem for three-and-a-half days (Revelation 11:1-12).
- At Christ’s Second Coming, the bodies of the Old Testament believers and the tribulation-period believers/martyrs will be resurrected and glorified (Daniel 12:1-3, Job 19:25-27, Revelation 20:4).
- Over the years of Christ’s millennial reign, the tribulation-period survivors/believers who will go into the kingdom age in their earthly bodies will systematically die off one by one. Even though there is no specific passage that comes right out and says it, the only logical conclusion is that these believers will have their bodies resurrected and glorified at the moment of death in the kingdom age. This will also hold true for all the believers among their offspring.
- At The Great White Throne Judgment, the bodies of all of history’s lost people will be resurrected. The difference in this resurrection and the previous six will be that this resurrection will not include glorification (Revelation 20:11-15).
So, as a result of The Great White Throne Judgment, Death (the lost person’s deceased body) and Hades (the lost person’s soul) will both be cast into “the lake of fire.” This will put Death and Hades out of business (Revelation 20:14). Not only will the torment side of Sheol/Hades be emptied out, there will be no more physical death, either. The only “death” will be what John calls “the second death,” which will amount to being cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14).
In my previous post (post #24), I explained that “the lake of fire” equates to that place the Greek language calls Gehenna. Gehenna is actually the Greek representative of the Hebrew’s Ge-Hinnom, which means “valley of Hinnom.” This was a deep, narrow valley that was located just south of Jerusalem. In the Old Testament, there were times when the Jews sacrificed their children to the false god Molech at this site. Later on, the site became what we might think of as Jerusalem’s city dump. The bodies of criminals, the carcasses of animals, and all sorts of trash and filth ended up in this valley for burning. The constant burning and smoldering of the refuse caused a continual smoke to rise up from the valley. Jesus, ever the master illustrator, chose the site as a symbolic representation of the eternal judgment the lost person will experience.
Jesus described Gehenna as a place where “their worm dies not and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:43-48, in each instance the word “hell” translates Gehenna). The phrase “where their worm dies not” refers back to the illustration of the valley of Hinnom as Jerusalem’s city dump. Anyone who took their trash out to that site could see worms feasting on the waste, especially the corpses and carcasses. These worms lived at the site without being incinerated by the flames and heat. The teaching is that history’s lost will endure eternal heat, suffering, and torment in Gehenna without ever ceasing to exist.
The Greek word for “lake” that is used in the term “the lake of fire” is the common Greek word for a lake. It is the same word that is used in reference to the lake of Gennesaret (the Sea of Galilee). There is some debate on this, but I tend to believe that Gehenna is a literal lake of fire somewhere rather than just a symbolic word-picture used to describe eternal judgment. Needless to say, if my interpretation is correct, it must be a colossally sized lake.
But is Gehenna, like Sheol/Hades, somehow a part of planet earth? I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not sure about that answer, but I tend to think that Gehenna is not in any way associated with the earth. Even though the original Greek doesn’t use the actual word Gehenna in Matthew 25:41, Jesus is surely talking about the place when He speaks of “the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” In my way of thinking, any place that was especially prepared to be the eternal abode of the devil and the other fallen angels wouldn’t necessarily be a part of the earth.
We learned in a previous post (post #21) that the first occupants of Gehenna will be the Antichrist and the False Prophet (Revelation 19:20). 1,000 years later Satan and the other fallen angels will join them there (Revelation 20:7-10). Shortly afterward all of history’s lost people will be transferred from the hell that exists now (the torment side of Sheol/Hades) to the everlasting fire of Gehenna to spend eternity there.
It’s no wonder that Jesus strongly warned His listeners about Gehenna. He said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell (Gehanna). And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable for you that one of your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell (Gehenna)” (Matthew 5:29-30). He also said, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him (God) who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell (Gehenna)” Matthew 10:28. In each of these references we learn again that, unlike Sheol/Hades, Gehenna takes in the soul AND the body.
And so it is this eternal lake of fire – this Gehenna – that will serve as the eternal abode for Satan, the other fallen angels, the Antichrist, the False Prophet, and every lost person from every era of human history. Speaking frankly, there are no words that can even begin to do justice to the horrors of this place. The information the Bible does give us about it is so troubling and disconcerting that many readers are repulsed by it and seek to explain it away. You’ll have to admit that I haven’t done that with this post. Speaking as a preacher, if I can use the Bible’s description of Gehenna to scare the living daylights out of you and help you to believe in Jesus Christ as your personal Savior, that is a blog post well worth writing. Here’s hoping that I’ve done that for any reader out there who doesn’t yet know Christ as Savior.