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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

a hell of a subject - 3. life and death

This is the third of a series of posts exploring what the New Testament says about hell. See my introduction for a brief overview of my plans for this series.
Note: I am not a scholar. The following represents my current understanding, based on my own studies which are not comprehensive. I welcome further insights and corrections.

In the previous two posts in this series, I discussed the New Testament's use of the words gehenna and Hades. Between the two, these words appear in thirteen passages in the Synoptic Gospels and Revelation, plus one each in Acts and James.

What does the rest of the New Testament say about the afterlife?

The Gospel of John handles several things differently from the other gospels, and one thing is the afterlife. For John, it's not a question of heaven or hell, it is instead a matter of life and death.

This can be seen in what is perhaps the most famous Bible verse of all:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

- John 3:16

The life vs. death theme is spelled out more clearly in a few other passages:

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.

- John 3:36

Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgement, but has passed from death to life.

- John 5:24

After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, "Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent."

- John 17:1-3

In that last passage, eternal life is defined as a gift that entails an intimate knowledge of God. This is closer to the Jewish idea of general resurrection than to the Greek idea that everyone has an eternal soul.

The same theme can be found in 1 John:

We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them.

- 1 John 3:14-15

And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.

- 1 John 5:11-12

And John isn't the only one with this idea. Paul also contrasts life and death in his letters, though he doesn't always use those exact words.

All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.

- Romans 2:12

So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

- Romans 6:21-23

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

- 1 Corinthians 1:18

If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished.

- 1 Corinthians 15:17-18

For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.

- 2 Corinthians 2:15-16

Perhaps the most striking thing about John's and Paul's words about the afterlife is that they never get any more explicit about it. Also notable is that, especially for John, it is belief that determines life or death, not behavior as in the synoptics and Revelation.

So the picture becomes even more muddled. The New Testament writers are not in agreement about who spends eternity with God, or what is the punishment for those who don't. The one thing that does seem to be clear is that there is not a single "biblical" view about hell.

To bring this discussion full circle, in my next post I'm going to examine what the New Testament writers had to say about fire.

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At 5/25/2006 9:40 AM, Blogger Tony said...

Good job!

At 6/15/2006 7:43 AM, Blogger Mike said...


The thing that facisnates me is that Jewish people did not focus too much on the afterlife. Jesus agrees with your definition of eternal life, that it is an intimate, active relationship with God, following in the way of Jesus (John 17:3).

You mention there is no biblical view of hell then (or meaning that our current views are misinformed?) I am curious why so many churches use this is doctrine to beat people over the head.



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