The Biblical Case for Everyone Going to Heaven: Chapter Six – Coloring Death with Hope

Chapter Six

Coloring Death with Hope

Everything we’ve seen so far of the Hebrew view of death has been in black and white.  We’ve seen the two-dimensional, three-tiered Hebrew worldview which was not unique in its broadest strokes.  What was clearly different in the Hebrew view from other cultures, even at the broadest level, however, was the coloring.  That is, the Hebrews had hope!

When the apostle Paul mentioned the idea of resurrection in the city of Athens, a center of Greek culture, some of its illustrious citizens began to sneer.  Obviously, they did not think that the idea of the dead rising again was worth serious consideration.  Even within the Hebrew culture, there was not unanimous assent to the hope of resurrection from the dead.  The Pharisees and the Sadducees were the two most prominent religious parties among First Century Jews, the former proclaiming the hope of resurrection while the latter eschewed the idea.  Both groups revered the Scriptures, but the hope that the prophets gave for resurrection was found in the way they spoke of death.  Those who did not embrace the spirit of the prophets would be slow to catch the drift.

The prophets did not come right out and say, “The dead will one day be permanently raised and here’s how it will happen.”  A person who looks to the Old Testament for explicit statements like this will be disappointed.  Rather, the prophets implied it, suggested it, hinted at it, and, yes, even hoped for it, in the way that they discussed death and Sheol/Hades.  When the Messiah came, the details would be revealed.  Until then, the promise was made in a mystery.

A Long Winter’s Nap

Sometimes in the Bible, a person’s death would be described simply as,

…and he died.  Genesis 5:5  NASB

Other times, however, it might say something like this:

So Ahaz slept with his fathers, and was buried with his fathers in the city of David; and his son Hezekiah reigned in his place.  2 Kings 16:20  NASB

It doesn’t explicitly say that Ahaz died, but we get the idea.  “Slept with his fathers” is a figure of speech that communicates death.  More to the point, it communicates death with hope.  For if someone has fallen asleep, we expect them to wake up.

The prophets would never have used sleep as an expression of death unless they had hope that there would someday be an alarm clock, wake-up call, rooster crowing, or something that would change the state of things.  This is but one of the ways that the prophets colored death with hope.

Here are some more examples of death described as sleep, and specifically as sleep in Sheol/Hades.  You may remember this quote from Job we read earlier:

“If I look for Sheol as my home,
I make my bed in the darkness;”
  Job 17:13  NASB

We now see the color of hope in the word picture he was painting:  Sheol/Hades is the “bed” for those who “sleep.”

You may recall that David, too, talked about this kind of “bed”:

…If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.  Psalm 139:8  NASB

He knew that God’s presence would not forsake him even if he had to “go to sleep.”  In another psalm he said,

Consider and answer me, O LORD my God;
Enlighten my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
  Psalm 13:3  NASB

Jesus of Nazareth followed in the footsteps of the prophets of Israel before him.  There was a time when He was desperately sought out by a man in order that he might heal the man’s sick daughter.  On the way to the family’s house it was learned that the little girl had died.  Jesus sought to calm the surrounding crowd by saying,

“Why make a commotion and weep? The child has not died, but is asleep.”  Mark 5:39  NASB

He was apparently too subtle for some of the folks because the narrative goes on to say that some of the people began to laugh at Him.  They didn’t understand that He was speaking the way the prophets spoke – with hope.  In this case it was not hope for an ultimate and lasting resurrection but for an immediate one.  And His hope was fulfilled when He promptly raised the child from the dead.  Let’s focus on this kind of resurrection.

Partial and Preliminary Resurrections

I have made references to people being raised from the dead in both Old Testament and New Testament times.  Elijah and Elisha did it in the Old.  Jesus, Peter, and Paul did it in the New.  In all cases, they brought back someone from the dead to live again on the earth.  None of these cases are portrayed as being permanent resurrections.  In fact, someone said they might be better described as resuscitations than resurrections.

These resurrections are partial.  That is, they brought back the person to life, but only to die again later.  Jesus once crossed paths with a funeral procession for an only son of a widowed woman.  In His compassion, Jesus raised the young man and gave him back to the mother.  How long either of them lived after that is not told to us, and this is typical for these “temporary solutions to death.”

They were not only partial, though, they were preliminary.  That is, they preceded and foreshadowed the great and ultimate resurrection that would come through Jesus Christ.  When we get to the subject of this resurrection in the next chapter, this will be more clear to you.  For now, we want to see how these miracles, too, hint at an ultimate resurrection.  For if God has proven through experience that He is able to raise the dead, then we can have all the more hope that He will eventually do the same for all the dead…and in a more permanent fashion.

We should not need these experiences to prove that God can raise the dead.  If He created us in the first place, what would be so difficult about re-creating us?  But being the gracious Person that He is, God puts these “foretastes” of resurrection in the history of the Bible so we can be even more sure about the subject.  Once again, He’s giving us reason to have hope where death is concerned.

Have You Eaten Too Much?

The prophets sometimes portrayed Sheol/Hades as a monster with an insatiable appetite.  When you stop and think about all those whom death has consumed, it seems entirely appropriate.  Moses was one of the first to express death and Sheol/Hades in this particular way:

“But if the LORD brings about an entirely new thing and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that is theirs, and they descend alive into Sheol, then you will understand that these men have spurned the LORD.”  Numbers 16:30  NASB

Picture the “mouth” of Sheol/Hades opening and then watch it “swallow them up.”  That’s just what happened.  In this case, there was a physical as well as a spiritual swallowing.

The book of Proverbs quotes some evil people as saying,

Let us swallow them alive like Sheol,
Even whole, as those who go down to the pit;
  Proverbs 1:12  NASB

Once again, Sheol/Hades is portrayed as “eating” or “swallowing.”

And do you remember this verse from our last chapter?

Therefore Sheol has enlarged its throat and opened its mouth without measure;
And Jerusalem’s splendor, her multitude, her din of revelry and the jubilant within her, descend into it.
  Isaiah 5:14  NASB

Of course, Isaiah was familiar with the writings of Moses and the proverbs of Solomon so it is not surprising that he extends their imagery.

I almost hate to show you this next one.  It’s a little gory, but then death is just not a pleasant subject.

 …Our bones have been scattered at the mouth of Sheol.  Psalm 141:7  NASB

The monster is consuming…please don’t make me spell it out.

If someone’s appetite is like that of Sheol/Hades’ appetite, it’s said to be insatiable.  As the prophet Habakkuk wrote:

…He enlarges his appetite like Sheol,
And he is like death, never satisfied…
  Habakkuk 2:5  NASB

Normal hunger is satisfied by normal eating, but when has death ever been satisfied?  It’s a monster to humanity!

A Judgment Against Gluttony and Greed

You know what can happen if you eat too much and don’t stop?  That’s right – vomit.  I’ve already presented one gruesome picture so there’s no sense tip-toeing over this one.  The Bible talks about a greedy man this way:

“He swallows riches,
But will vomit them up;
God will expel them from his belly.
  Job 20:15  NASB

If a rich man might be required to cough up his riches, might not death one day be required to cough up all it had greedily accumulated?  God condemns and will judge greed, of which gluttony is simply a form.

You’ll recall that the prophets would on occasion personify death and Sheol/Hades.  Such personification was not entirely for purposes of more picturesque speech.  There was an element of personality behind all this, as this New Testament passage makes explicit:

Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.  Hebrews 2:14  NASB

The devil was the one who held the power of death.  He was the angel in charge of creation.  It was under his dominion that sin and death took place.  He was the source of temptation in the garden of Eden and is called the tempter because he didn’t quit there.  Satan (which means “adversary”) indeed had the power of death, but God would ultimately judge him as greedy for he consumed far too much.  However, the evil one’s belly was showing no signs of being limited.  Therefore, God decided to induce a case of indigestion (so as to “…expel them from his belly“).

A Case of Spiritual Indigestion

The story of Jonah and the whale provides history, but also a parable for us regarding the resurrection from the dead.  Jesus thought so, too, and made reference to it this way:

“An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.  Matthew 12:39-40  NASB

Jesus is likening His coming experience with death to that of Jonah with the sea monster.

We have seen death consuming humanity like a monster.  We have seen the place of the dead likened to the depths of the sea.  And we have seen Sheol/Hades like a “belly” holding in the heart of the earth all those who had once walked on the earth.  In the story of Jonah, we see him thrown overboard at sea.  The waters engulf him and like any man he is doomed to sink and drown.  But God appoints a creature to swallow him, thus sparing his life.  You wouldn’t normally associate being swallowed by a sea monster as being rescued.  Neither do most people associate death with any sort of rescue.  Yet, viewed in the full and proper context, both are forms of deliverance.

Notice in Jonah’s story that in the midst of the sea (the place of death) there is appointed a means of saving victims (in the belly of a sea monster) in order to eventually vomit them up to safety.  Of course, the fish was eventually ordered to vomit up Jonah onto dry ground.

…I cried for help from the depth of Sheol…  Jonah 2:2  NASB

We have learned what “the depth of Sheol/Hades” means, and its analogy to the sea around him is unmistakable.  In addition to this, the literal rendering of the word “depth” in this particular case is “belly.”  The connections and ironies are getting too numerous to count.  That the story is meant to signify and foreshadow something even more dramatic than the poor fellow’s own traumatic experience is becoming more and more apparent to us.  This was just the meaning Jesus was suggesting to His listeners  when He invoked Jonah’s name.

God didn’t order that creature to swallow Jonah because He was concerned about its going hungry.  The order was given to effect the ultimate salvation of Jonah, who had been running from the Lord and avoiding a purpose that God had for him.  When Jonah came to the end of the line, God was there waiting for him with a plan of rescue – though it may have looked at first glance more like disaster than deliverance.

Even so, death, though it was a judgment for sin, was also God’s plan for the ultimate deliverance from sin.  That is, death looked like a punishment, but – seen in the longer view – was actually protection.  Death is often a relief from suffering.  When disease ravages a person, death is the only thing that permanently stops the pain.  We do not fully understand all the mysteries of death, or even of life for that matter.  But this much we should know: in all things God has our best interest at heart.  He cares more about how things are going for you and me than He cares about how they’re going for Him.  Even in death, He is looking out for us.

Thus, the case of Jonah depicts death as a holding tank for humanity until God could issue the order for all its contents to be released.  When Death swallowed Jesus, he finally bit off more than he could chew.  He swallowed something he could not digest.  For the first time since creation dawned, an adult died who had not sinned.  Death’s claim upon Him therefore was illegal and could not stand.  A completely innocent man has entered the bowels of the earth and we now have the conditions necessary to begin effecting a change which would benefit all those who had ever descended to Sheol/Hades.  For as we read above,

Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.  Hebrews 2:14  NASB

That is, the innocent One did not take on flesh and submit Himself to death for His own sake.  Rather, He did it for the sake of all those whom Sheol/Hades was holding.  He Himself would mark the beginning of the resurrection of the dead, and we are almost ready to begin describing it.  For now, we simply acknowledge yet another example of the Bible implying a resurrection that would come, a solution from God to the problem of death.  For whenever an appetite cannot be satisfied – whether on earth or elsewhere – something is wrong, and God will require the greedy one to cough up what he has hoarded.

How Does Your Garden Grow?

The final picture we want to see – this one from both the prophets and from creation itself – is perhaps the most basic of all.  Like the others, it strongly suggests a resurrection, though it also stopped short of describing that actual event.  Its broad strokes use the image of the earth itself.  Here’s part of a verse we read earlier which quoted Moses:

…and the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly.  Numbers 16:33  NASB

Note that the earth closed over these people and they were seen no more.  When we bury someone, we sometimes scoop a handful of dirt and then let it fall across the top of the casket.  This symbolizes the act that will discreetly take place after the loved ones have departed the scene.  We bury or cremate the dead, not just for health reasons, but so that we do not see the decay that will happen to their body.  If a person is dying of disease we do not desert them no matter how badly they look because they are still in that body.  However, once death has occurred, the spirit has departed.  There is no need for us to give any more medical treatment to the body or face its full and final corruption.  Thus it returns to the earth below, even as the spirit descended to Sheol/Hades below the earth.

The prophet Ezekiel once spoke of a nation that had perished.  It was called Elam and he used these words:

“Elam is there and all her hordes around her grave; all of them slain, fallen by the sword, who went down uncircumcised to the lower parts of the earth…”  Ezekiel 32:24  NASB

The “lower parts of the earth” aptly describes the process.  The earth itself is a grave for mankind.

Against the king of Babylon, Isaiah speaks of the “pit” of death:

“Nevertheless you will be thrust down to Sheol,
To the recesses of the pit.”
  Isaiah 14:15  NASB

Hezekiah also used the word “pit” to describe the place of the dead:

“For Sheol cannot thank You,
Death cannot praise You;
Those who go down to the pit cannot hope for Your faithfulness.”
  Isaiah 38:18  NASB

The earth had become a “pit” for all its slain.

In similar vein, our (by now) good friend Job says,

“Will it go down with me to Sheol?
Shall we together go down into the dust?”
  Job 17:16  NASB

Job’s use of the word “dust” not only speaks of the earth, the ground, and the pit, but it also reminds us of what God had said to Adam:

“…you return to the ground,
Because from it you were taken;
For you are dust,
And to dust you shall return.”
  Genesis 3:19  NASB

The “going to dust” is therefore a “return to dust,” a return from whence we came.  God had made Adam and Eve from His breath and the dust of the ground.  At death, human beings come full circle.

The dust, the ground, the lower parts of the earth, the pit – all these figures of speech portray the earth as one big graveyard for us.  But wait a minute!  Isn’t the ground where we plant things that we want to grow?  Isn’t the ground what springs forth with newness every year?  Aren’t the lower parts of the earth the place where seeds and roots do their work?  Yes, yes, yes.  Maybe instead of a graveyard, the earth is eventually going to a garden!  Once again, God has colored His pictures of death with shades of hope.  The silver linings in the clouds are His!  And besides all that, since God first created us from the dust of the ground, how does our returning to dust leave Him any less to work with than what He had when He started?

Getting the Picture(s)

We have seen that through multiple metaphors and a common worldview, God has spoken through His prophets that we should put our hope in Him where death is concerned.  The Bible verses I have shown you in this chapter are but a representative sample of what can be found there.  Like any important truth, multiple analogies are often needed to fully bring it to light.  Any single metaphor could be misunderstood, but repeated, varied, and multiple depictions turn implications and hints into substantiated hope.  An object perceived from various angles is more clearly perceived than one viewed from a single point of view.

Even so, some of the prophets go beyond the hints and implications.  For example, Isaiah boldly says,

Your dead will live;
Their corpses will rise.
You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy,
For your dew is as the dew of the dawn,
And the earth will give birth to the departed spirits.
  Isaiah 26:19  NASB

And there are many more passages and concepts from the Bible that I could put before you, all of which would only reinforce the hope of resurrection from Sheol/Hades that God was providing.  Therefore, the Pharisees – not the Sadducees – represented the majority of Jews in declaring a firm and fervent hope in a coming resurrection of the dead in the era into which Jesus of Nazareth was born.  Thus, what I have described to you in the first six chapters of this book comprises the worldview inherited by Jesus and His apostles.  They believed in God and in His two-dimensional, three-tiered universe just as the prophets had presented it.  Everything spoken by the Lord and written by the apostles in the New Testament uses this framework.  To read the New Testament without this Old Testament context is to invite misunderstanding.  However, having listened to and embraced the view espoused by Moses and the Prophets, you are ready to better understand just what the Lord and His apostles have declared to us about resurrection.

We have described the problem of death and the hope for its solution quite long enough.  It is time to describe the solution.  Your patience is about to be extravagantly rewarded.  (Be sure that the extravagance is God’s, not mine.)

 End of Chapter Six

Chapter Seven – The First Resurrection

Return to Table of Contents

2 Replies to “The Biblical Case for Everyone Going to Heaven: Chapter Six – Coloring Death with Hope”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.