What do you believe is the eternal destiny of the human soul? Notice the special emphasis on eternal.
Most Christians will say, ‘Well, if you’re good you go to heaven, if you’re bad, you go to hell.’ End of story. But is this really the teaching of the Bible? No. The idea that our eternal destiny is in an immaterial or purely spiritual heaven or hell is not a teaching of the Bible. Nor is the similar idea that the righteous will become angels and play harps in the clouds of heaven.
So what does the Bible teach? The Bible says there’s going to be a resurrection of the dead—of both the righteous and the unrighteous! This will be a real, physical resurrection.
This is a central and key teaching of both Judaism and Christianity. This is one of the central doctrines that Christianity accepted directly from Judaism. “For if the dead are not raised, neither has Messiah been raised. But if Messiah has not been raised, your faith is vain, you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:16,17). Without the resurrection, there is no Christianity.
A purely spiritual heaven and hell are not our final destiny. Yes, those who die before the resurrection will experience a time of purely spiritual existence. But this is only temporary, until the resurrection takes place.
Do you remember the souls under the altar in the book of Revelation? What do they say? “How long, holy and true Master?” (Rev. 6:10). They are impatient with waiting for the resurrection, and plead with the Lord, asking how much longer they must wait until the resurrection takes place. To the Biblical and Jewish mindset, there is something incomplete and even wrong about being without a physical body.
Paul calls it being found “naked,” and says “we do not want to be unclothed” (2 Cor. 5:3,4). What’s wrong with being without a body? It means being less than we were created to be, being able to do less than we were created to do. And the souls of those that have died are looking forward to getting their bodies back again.
Why are they so concerned about this? What do they need a physical body for? Because the doctrine of the resurrection also implies a restoration to this earth: the “times of restoration of all things” as it’s called in the New Testament (Acts 3:21, 1:6; Matt. 17:11; Mark 9:12), or as Jesus called it, the palingenesia (the regeneration, Matt. 19:28). This means literally “Genesis again,” the regeneration of the world that will take place at the time of the Millennium, when Messiah will come to rule and reign from Jerusalem.
But even this is not yet our final destiny. Our final destiny according to the Bible is a New Heavens and a New Earth for the righteous, a lake of burning fire for the unrighteous. These will be real, physical places. Why would God give us beautiful new resurrection bodies—eternal, immortal bodies—if we’re not going to need them for anything, floating around in heaven somewhere?
The clearest picture of the resurrection is given to us by Jesus himself. The body that he rose from the dead in was a solid, physical body. He ate fish (Luke 24:42). They could touch him (John 20:27). But he could also appear and disappear at will, even in locked rooms. This resurrection body was like our physical bodies, but was also quite different in many ways.
This is what Paul also says about the resurrection. When we die, it’s like a seed being planted in the ground. But when we arise, it will be new and amazingly different than the seed that was planted (“and that which you sow, you do not sow the body which is to be, but a bare grain, perhaps of wheat or of something else,” 1 Cor. 15:37). But it will still be a real body, not a ghost or a spirit, though it will no longer be a body of flesh and blood (“Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable,” 1 Cor. 15:50).
The common view of a purely spiritual heaven and hell held by many Christians today does not take account of the resurrection! If you ask them, do you believe in the resurrection of the dead, of course they will say yes, because they know that’s what they’re supposed to say. But what do they say when somebody dies? ‘Oh Susy, don’t cry. You’ll see your Grandma in heaven some day.’ Or ‘Your Grandma’s with Jesus now in heaven. And some day you’ll go there, too, and see her again.’
Do we ever say, ‘Oh Susy, don’t cry. Death is not the end. Soon Jesus will come and raise all the dead back to life, including your grandmother!’ Or, ‘Yes, Susy, your Grandma has died. But one day soon Jesus will destroy death and she will be raised back to life again.’ These ideas are much less common. The resurrection is accepted as a doctrine of belief, but not as a living expectation by many, many Christians.
In fact, many think that the resurrection is when you die and your spirit goes to heaven! But if the resurrection is not a real, physical resurrection, in a real, physical place, what need is there for a resurrection at all? Why would God recall his saints from heaven for a resurrection, if afterwards they go right back to the same condition in heaven that they were in before?
The idea of an eternal existence in an immaterial heaven somewhere is in fact a denial, or at least a serious misunderstanding of the resurrection. It’s a replacement of Biblical teaching with pagan Greek ideas. You see, Greek philosophy taught that heaven—including the visible heavens and what today we call outer space—are spiritual and pure: that they are the opposite of what they considered this evil, physical world. For them, spiritual was good, physical was bad. And they wanted to get away from this terrible physical existence as quickly as they could. Unfortunately, many Christians accepted this view.
This is what created the controversy over Galileo in the 17th century. Do you remember the story of Galileo? Galileo took a couple of pieces of curved glass, put them on either end of a long tube, and pointed it at the sky. And what he saw shook the foundations of civilization in Europe. Why? What did he see?
He saw (!) blemishes on the moon: we call them craters today. He saw (!) spots on the sun. Why were these discoveries so astounding? Because they demonstrated that the lights in the heavens are not perfectly smooth and round. They have imperfections. They are physical! This contradicted the Christian world view of the time, which on the basis of Greek philosophy taught that the heavens were spiritual, that they were pure and perfect.
Galileo’s writings were censored. He was tried by the church for heresy, forced to renounce his views, and sentenced to life in prison. Why? Because the church had come to believe in Greek philosophy more than in the Bible. And as part of this belief, the Church had accepted the lie that physical existence was bad, when God in the Bible said that he had created it good (Gen. 1:31)!
So what does the Bible teach about the eternal destiny of the human soul? One of the difficulties in understanding the Bible’s teaching is the meaning of the word “hell.” Some English translations, as in many other languages (including Chinese), use one word, “hell,” to translate the names of two completely different places: Hades and Gehenna. These two couldn’t be more different from one another: one is spiritual, the other is physical; one is temporary, the other eternal. They are never confused in the original language of the Bible. But because of this translation problem, today most Christians can’t tell them apart.
Hades (in Greek) or Sheol (in Hebrew) is the place where the souls of the dead go to wait for the resurrection. It’s a purely spiritual place, and a temporary place, because the book of Revelation says it will be emptied and destroyed at the time of the final resurrection and final judgment (“And death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire,” Rev. 20:14).
You may never have heard of Gehenna before, but Jesus used it frequently in his teaching. It’s the same place called the Lake of Fire in the book of Revelation. This is where the damned go after their resurrection and final judgment. It’s a physical place of torment that will remain for eternity. And yes, it’s hot there.
For example, in Matt. 5:22 Jesus said: “the one who says, ‘You fool’ (to his brother) is deserving of the Gehenna of fire.” In other words, he deserves eternal punishment. A few verses later Jesus says, in Matt. 5:29: “But if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away from you; for it is better for you that one of your parts be destroyed than your whole body be thrown into Gehenna.” And there are many more like these.
Although the name Gehenna first appears in the Bible in the New Testament, the idea of an eternal place of punishment is much older. For example, Isaiah mentions it in the last verse of his book, Isa. 66:24: “And they will go out and look at the corpses of the people that have sinned against me, for their worm will not die and their fire will not be put out, and they will be an abhorrence to all flesh.”
Isaiah puts this at the time of the New Heavens and the New Earth, as he says just two verses earlier in Isa. 66:22: “For as the new heavens and the new earth that I am making will endure before me, says the LORD, so will your seed and your name endure.” This is just what the New Testament teaches (2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 20:10,21:1).
But in the time between the Old and New Testaments, this place of eternal punishment started to be called Gehenna. Where did this name come from? It’s the Greek version of the name of a valley near Jerusalem: the Gehinnom Valley, which comes from gey (“valley of”) Hinnom (a man’s name, Josh. 18:16, Neh. 11:30). It’s also called the valley of the son of Hinnom (Ben-Hinnom, Josh. 15:8, 2 Kings 23:10, Jer. 7:31,32).
Why was this valley associated with eternal punishment? It was located just to the south and west of the city. This was the “back door” of Jerusalem: the main gates were to the north, northeast, and northwest. So naturally, this was a place to dump garbage in ancient times. And as with many other ancient cities, it became a burning refuse heap, a good picture of an eternal, fiery judgment.
In Jeremiah’s time, there was also a place of pagan worship located here called Topheth. This is where they passed babies through the fire to the pagan god Molech. This was not just a harmless fire ritual: they actually burned the children to death here (The sons of Judah “have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire,” Jer. 7:31). No wonder the prophet was so upset about this. In that same chapter, Jeremiah prophesied that this valley would one day be filled with the people’s corpses because of this sin (Jer. 7:32-33). So here was another good reason to connect this valley with eternal punishment.
But although the place of eternal punishment was named after this valley, these were two different places. That’s why Jesus calls the place of eternal punishment “the Gehenna of fire” (Matt. 5:22), to distinguish it from the valley beside Jerusalem.
So as you can see, Hades and Gehenna were two very different places. So where then did the word “hell” come from that caused all this confusion? It’s the name of the goddess of the dead and of the underworld in Norse mythology, and also of the underworld itself. She was the daughter of Loki. This is another reminder of the Scandinavian origins of the English language, just like the days of the week: Wednesday, for example, means Woden’s day, Thursday means Thor’s day. So hell in Old English was the equivalent of Hades, a spiritual place for the souls of the dead, and was not the same as Gehenna, though these two later became confused with each other.
Another point of confusion in understanding the Bible’s teaching is the two different places called Paradise and Heaven in the Bible. Today, most Christians use these words interchangeably. But originally they referred to two different places: Heaven referred to the sky and everything above it, including the upper heavens where God dwells, while Paradise was the place of the souls of the righteous after death, which was a different place than the immediate presence of the Father God.
To think of these as two different places is a completely new idea to most Christians today. But the difference can easily be shown from the Bible. Do you remember that Jesus said to the thief on the cross, in Luke 23:43: “Amen I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise”? But three days later, after he arose from the dead, he said to Mary Magdalene, “I am not yet ascended to the Father” (John 20:17). And he didn’t ascend until 40 days later (Acts 1:9). This clearly shows that Paradise is a different place than the presence of the Father in heaven.
One reason that many people are confused about heaven is the many references to the Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew. This makes many people think of heaven as our eternal destiny. But in fact, this expression, ‘Kingdom of Heaven,’ is just a Jewish way to avoid saying the name of God (so as not to use it in vain), like those who write God as “G-d” today. The Kingdom of Heaven means simply the Kingdom of God, which is how Luke and Mark usually put it to avoid confusion, since they were writing primarily for Gentiles. “Kingdom of Heaven” doesn’t tell us anything about the location of this kingdom. It only tells us who rules this kingdom: God who is in heaven. There are also many other verses connecting believers with heaven, but these only speak of our connection to God or to Jesus, and never speak of heaven as our eternal destiny.
Even in Rev. 6 that we looked at a couple of minutes ago, the souls of the righteous, though they are in heaven, are separated from the presence of the Father God, since they are “beneath the altar” (Rev. 6:9). What would this be understood to mean in Jesus’ day?
The actual altar in the Temple in Jerusalem was a huge object, the size of a small building, made of cut stone. When sacrifices were offered up to God, the blood of the sacrifice was either sprinkled or poured out at the base of the altar. Here there was a drain that took the blood into an underground chamber, and from there out a tunnel to the fields in the Kidron valley below. Every once in a while, priests had to go down into this drainage system and clean it out. So when Revelation talks about the souls “beneath the altar,” the picture they would get is of this underground chamber below the altar. This indicates that Paradise is a hidden place (an idea similar to the Jewish treasury of souls), and not the direct presence of God the Father. Only later, after the Millennium and the final judgment, will believers see the Father face to face.
So how can we get all of these different names and places straightened out in our minds when we read the Bible? That’s what today’s teaching is all about, to get you straightened out in your thinking about our destiny. I’ve also posted a list online so you can see all the places these different words appear in the original languages of the Bible (“Hell, Hades, and Gehenna: A List of Verses”). So let’s go back now and review from the beginning to see if we can get this all straightened out.
The most basic and most common teaching of the Bible about what happens after death is that our souls or spirits are separated from our bodies, and we go to the underworld of the dead, called Sheol in Hebrew and Hades in Greek. This was a purely spiritual, and not a physical place. It was seen as a very dark and dreary place, where not much happened. “Will you do wonders for the dead? Will the spirits of the dead rise up, will they praise you? Selah. Will your lovingkindness be told in the tomb, your faithfulness in Abaddon (the “place of destruction”—another name for Sheol)? Will your wonders be made known in the darkness, and your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?” (Psa. 88:10). This understanding of what happened at death was shared by many different cultures in the ancient world.
But somewhere in the time between the Old Testament and the New Testament, people in Israel came to understand that there were two different parts of Sheol : one for the righteous and one for the unrighteous. The righteous part of Sheol had different names. One of these names was the Bosom of Abraham, a name that also appears in the New Testament (Luke 16:23). But the most common name in Hebrew was Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden.
This was not, of course, the Garden of Eden that Adam and Eve lived in. It was instead a spiritual Eden, a place of spiritual blessing, just as the physical Eden was a place of physical blessing. But though it was a spiritual place, it was thought of as a garden-like environment. This is where Abraham and all the righteous patriarchs and kings and prophets were, waiting for the resurrection.
In Greek, this good side of Sheol is called Paradise. This is because paradise is the Greek word for garden. So in the Greek Old Testament, the garden of Adam and Eve is called the Paradise of Eden. So naturally this same name was used for the spiritual Garden of Eden, too. This means that when we see the word “Paradise” in the New Testament, it’s talking about this spiritual Garden of Eden. This understanding of Paradise as a garden-like environment is a belief that the early Christians shared with the Jewish people and also later with the Muslims.
The unrighteous part of Sheol or Hades just continued to be called Hades (or Sheol). This was thought to be a much less pleasant place, even a place of punishment. The clearest picture in the Bible of Sheol or Hades is in Jesus’ parable about Lazarus and the rich man. The soul of the rich man, suffering in the bad part of Hades, calls out to Lazarus, who is in the bosom of Abraham (in Paradise, Luke 16:23,24). Though the rich man and Lazarus are close enough to talk to each other, they are separated by a great chasm that makes it impossible to cross from one side to the other. As it says in Luke 16:26: “a great chasm has been set between us and you, so that those wishing to cross over from here to you are not able, nor can they go across from there to us.”
The bad side of Sheol was itself also divided into parts. The lowest part of Hades was called Tartarus. In Hebrew, this was the “depths of Sheol” or “the lowest part of Sheol” (Deut. 32:22, Psa. 86:13, Pro. 9:18). This is where the angels that sinned with human women in Gen. 6:2,4 were kept for the day of judgment (“For if God did not spare angels who had sinned, but having thrown them into Tartarus delivered them to chains of darkness, to be kept for judgment…” 2 Pet. 2:4).
Just before the time of Jesus, the recognition that Sheol was a spiritual and not a physical place led to some uncertainty about where exactly it was located. Originally it was thought of as being under the earth, since that's where the dead were buried. But now, some began to put it at the extremities of the earth instead. Others felt it was more appropriate, as a spiritual place, to locate it in one of the lower heavens.
This last view was the understanding of the apostle Paul, when he had his vision of Paradise, which he calls the third heaven (“I know a man in Messiah more than fourteen years ago, whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows, such a one was snatched up to the third heaven… He was snatched up into Paradise and he heard inexpressible words which it is not permitted for a man to speak,” 2 Cor. 12:2,4). But it’s important to note that in this experience he does not claim to have been in the presence of the Father. He only claims to have heard “inexpressible words.” This matches with the experience of Jesus that we talked about before, and with Christian teaching in general in the early years, that Paradise was different than the direct presence of God the Father. Another name for this heavenly Paradise is “the Jerusalem above” in Galatians 4:26 or “the heavenly Jerusalem” in Hebrews 12:22.
To reconcile these different ideas about the location of Paradise, the Western Church developed a teaching called the Harrowing of Hades. The idea of this teaching is that when Jesus was in Hades (when, as the Apostles' Creed puts it, “he descended into Hades”), he preached the gospel to the righteous dead in Paradise. These then went with him up to heaven when he ascended. So in other words, according to this teaching, Jesus moved Paradise from earth to heaven. The Church even found some verses to try to support this teaching, though they don’t fit very well (see our teaching, “Can the Gospel be Preached to the Dead?”).
For me personally, the location of Paradise is not a very important issue. Paradise and Hades are spiritual places. They’re not physical. If you dig down into the earth, you’re not going to find Hades there. It exists in a different kind of reality than we live in, a spiritual reality. So if we talk about it being here or there in the physical world, what does that really mean? It’s just a way to help us think about it. The only important thing we need to know is that Paradise is a beautiful place where we will be with the Lord, although not yet face to face with the Father. For that, we must wait for the resurrection.
The thing that sets the Bible apart from all other religions is that the spiritual existence in Hades is only temporary. One day there will be a resurrection from the dead for all people, and we will be restored to actual physical bodies on earth. This resurrection will take place in two stages: first for the righteous, then for the unrighteous. The first stage is called the “resurrection of the righteous” by Jesus (Luke 14:14). This is the resurrection that will take place at Jesus’ return, when the dead in Messiah will rise first (“For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of a chief messenger and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Messiah will rise first,” 1 Thess. 4:16). This is when we will be given new, resurrection bodies that cannot die or get sick any more.
This is when the righteous will rule and reign with Messiah from Jerusalem for 1,000 years. But the wicked will all be destroyed (“they were eating, they were drinking, they were marrying, they were being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered into the ark and the Flood came and destroyed them all... It will be just the same way on the day the Son of Man is revealed,” Luke 17:27,30). During this one thousand years, the wicked will be in Hades, awaiting judgment (“And they will surely be gathered together as prisoners in a pit, and they will be shut up in prison; and after many days they will be punished,” Isa. 24:22). This means that only the righteous, “those considered worthy to attain the resurrection” (Luke 20:35), will be on the earth during the thousand years. This will be a time of blessing and rest. The earth will be restored to its original condition: a palingenesia, a regeneration of the earth.
The Millennium is not just a teaching of the book of Revelation, but of many places in the Bible that talk about the coming rule of the Messiah on this earth. What’s different about Revelation is that it’s the only place to mention a specific length of time for this period, 1,000 years. Since this length of time only appears in Revelation, it’s not certain whether this is a literal length of time or symbolic. But whatever the exact length will be, it’s going to be a significant and amazing experience with the Lord.
Then, after the 1,000 years, the unrighteous dead will rise, to begin the horrible battle of Gog and Magog (“and he (Satan) will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them to the battle, of whom the number will be as the sand of the sea,” Rev. 20:8). They will be defeated and judged in the Final Judgment.
This is when the Father God will finally be revealed to all humanity, and the present heavens and earth will be destroyed (“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the elements, being consumed by great heat, will be destroyed; both the earth and the things in it will be burned up,” 2 Pet. 3:10). The wicked will be sent to eternal punishment in Gehenna (the Lake of Fire). This is the eternal destiny of the wicked. As it says in Rev. 20:15: “And if anyone was not found written in the scroll of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”
For the righteous, there will be a New Heavens and a New Earth (Isa. 65:17). This is the eternal destiny of the righteous. As Peter put it, “But we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth according to his promise, in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13). Many Christians have been taught that the New Heavens and the New Earth are a symbolic description of heaven rather than a real place. But this denies the reality and the eternity of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:42,54). It’s also rejected by the clear statement of Scripture that both the present heavens and earth will pass away, and that there will be a new heavens and earth (Rev. 21:1).
How different this new heaven and earth will be than the present one, we have no way of knowing. As the apostle Paul put it, quoting Isaiah, “things that eye has not seen and ear has not heard and that have not come up in the heart of man, things that God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9).
The most detailed description in the Bible of the New Heavens and the New Earth is of the New Jerusalem, a city built by God himself, that will come down out of the heavens to be on the New Earth (“And I saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband,” Rev. 21:2). This will be a huge structure, larger than most countries, with gardens and rivers in it (Rev. 22:2). This will be Paradise coming down to earth.
It will be made out of precious materials: even its walls covered with precious stone, its gates made from pearls (Rev. 21:18-21). And there will be no Temple, because the veil that has kept us separated from the Father will be removed (Rev. 21:22). We will dwell with him and see him face to face forever.
So what have we learned today? At death, we either go to Paradise or to the bad part of Hades. But then when Jesus returns, Paradise will be emptied and all the righteous from all time will be resurrected to live in a restored earth, where they will rule and reign with Jesus for a thousand years. All the wicked will be destroyed at Jesus’ return and will be in Hades for the thousand years. After the thousand years, the wicked will rise to be defeated in the Battle of Gog and Magog and will be judged in the Final Judgment. The present heavens and earth will pass away, and the righteous will dwell in the New Earth with God forever. The wicked will be in Gehenna forever.
You may notice that this view of the endtimes is different at some points than some of the popular teachings going around today: especially the “Left Behind” series (Dispensationalism). But what I have shared with you today more accurately represents the Bible’s own teaching about endtimes, and was the accepted teaching of the earliest Christian Church. For a much more detailed description of the these final events as described in the Bible, see our book, "The Revelation of Jesus Christ to John."