SHORT CHRISTIAN READINGS SELECTED FOR FORMER JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES
What Jesus Revealed about Life after Death
By David A. Reed
Although there are theologians and religious authorities who write or speak at great length about life after death, the Bible actually has comparatively little to say on the subject. And what it does say is rather sketchy and incomplete. This is not because God forgot to include more detail when he inspired the Bible writers. Rather, it is intentional on God's part. He gives us what we need to know, so that we can do what is right, but does not satisfy our curiosity with unnecessary details. As Moses told the Israelites, "The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law." -- Deuteronomy 29:29 NIV.
God gave the writers of the Old Testament only the barest of hints about life after death. Job knew that he would be redeemed and resurrected: "But as for me, I know that my Redeemer lives. In the end, he will stand upon the earth. After my skin is destroyed, then in my flesh shall I see God." -- Job 19:25-26.
Daniel, too, knew that he would be resurrected, because the angel who showed him visions concluded by telling him, "Go your way, Daniel, for the words are shut up and sealed until the time of the end. ... But go your way till the end; and you shall rest, and shall stand in your allotted place at the end of the days." -- Daniel 12:9-13 RSV.
The prophet Isaiah wrote about the time when God will resurrect the dead and put an end to death itself:
"He has swallowed up death forever! The Lord Yahweh will wipe away tears from off all faces. ... Your dead shall live. My dead bodies shall arise. Awake and sing, you who dwell in the dust; for your dew is like the dew of herbs, and the earth will cast forth the dead." -- Isaiah 25:8; 26:19.
But very little is revealed in the Old Testament about the condition of the dead in the meantime, prior to the resurrection. God left this information to be revealed through his Son. The Gospel message Jesus proclaimed revealed things that had previously been kept secret about death and about the way to eternal life:
"That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, 'I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world.'" -- Matthew 13:35 KJV.
Much of the new information Jesus revealed touches on the afterlife -- the heavenly reward awaiting his disciples and the punishment in store for the wicked. His calling sinners to repent, follow him, and gain immortality, "has now been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Jesus Christ, who has abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel." -- 2 Timothy 1:10 NKJV.
Among Jesus' final words to his followers before he was arrested and taken from them, he spoke this assurance: "Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also." -- John 14:1-3 KJV.
Besides comforting those who had followed him during his earthly ministry, Jesus went on to reveal that all future believers who would hear the Gospel and put faith in Christ will end up in heaven with him to behold his glory. After praying for his initial disciples, Jesus added these words:
"My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message ... Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory." -- John 17:20-24 NIV.
So, if we put faith in Jesus and follow him, we have the blessed assurance of everlasting life with him in heaven. Although there were hints of this hope in the Old Testament, Jesus revealed details of this hope that had been kept secret prior to his preaching. He revealed himself as the way to eternal life:
"Jesus saith unto him, 'I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.'" -- John 14:6 KJV.
Jesus was the kindest, most loving man ever to walk the earth. He invited all of us to come to him, to receive perfect peace and rest: "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." -- Matthew 11:28 KJV.
Jesus' love drew people to him, wherever he went, even hardened prostitutes and macho soldiers. And he called everyone to repent and receive life. But, besides revealing himself as the way to immortality, Jesus also said more about punishment after death than anyone else in the Bible.
"And I say unto you my friends, 'Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him.'" -- Luke 12:4-5 KJV.
Proclamation of the Gospel was "Good News", but it also made mankind more responsible in God's sight. "In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead." -- Acts 17:30-31 NIV.
This was indeed something new, both for the Gentiles who had been left largely without knowledge of the true God prior to this, and for the Jews who were being called from a distant organizational relationship with God the Father to come individually into a closer, more personal relationship through the Son.
Along with the call to repent from sin and follow Jesus, the Gospel message also revealed the consequences of rejecting this invitation -- very serious consequences: "If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God."
Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. "How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?" -- Hebrews 10:26-29 NIV.
So, the punishment for rejecting Christ is more severe than simply dying without mercy. This is, without doubt, a warning not to be ignored. Yet it should not leave any of us with an unhealthy fear of God -- a fear that God might be cruel, unfair, unloving. Even those who know God personally, who feel his love, and who know that "God is love" (1 John 4:8), and who know that he is the one who teaches us to love ... even we may fear for others. But to assure our hearts in this, he had recorded in his Word the fears that Abraham entertained when he heard of the punishment about to be inflicted on the city of Sodom. God patiently put up with a lengthy cross-examination by Abraham, finally assuring him that the Judge of all the earth will indeed do what is right, what is fair, and what is good. (Compare Genesis 18:23-33).
If the thought of some receiving punishment after death troubles us, the solution does not lie in denying the Bible's inspiration, nor in explaining-away Jesus' words by distorting their meaning. Rather, the solution lies in trusting God. After all, that is what faith really means: not having God answer all of our questions, but putting our trust in God even in matters we find difficult to understand.
Jesus taught that childlike trust is required of us: "I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." -- Luke 18:17 NIV.
Instead of approaching the matter like scholars trying to understand God, we need to get down on our knees and take hold of his hand the way a little toddler trustingly holds onto his or her father's hand, securely confident that Dad has everything under control -- that he will do the right thing and the loving thing.
Moreover, as we read Jesus' words on the subject of what happens after death, we need to attach significance, not only to what he says but also to what he leaves unsaid. Much of the controversy that has upset and divided sincere believers on these issues stems from human attempts to fill in the gaps ... attempts to "clarify" or "clear up" the aspects that Jesus leaves "unclear". These human efforts range from highly intellectual theological essays, sprinkled with Greek words and other words that might as well be Greek to most readers, to works of fiction (Christian novels) that some today rely on for their theology, to works of art picturing horned red devils sticking pitchforks into tormented victims -- all deviating from the impression one would receive by prayerfully reading the Bible itself.
Did it ever occur to such theological deep thinkers that Christ left certain matters unclear -- full of annoying information gaps -- because he wanted to, because he intended to? Although a parent sometimes tells a child, "If you leave the yard again, I'll send you to your room for the rest of the day," there are other times when a parent intentionally leaves the penalty for disobedience much less specific. "If you leave the yard again, you'll have to face your father when he comes home!" "If you leave the yard again, you'll wish you didn't!" So, can't we allow our heavenly Father to take the same approach?
Of course Jesus could have made it very clear what would happen to the dead -- the good and the bad. If modern writers can spell it out clearly in black and white, as many indeed have done in books reflecting various opinions and interpretations, certainly the Author of the New Testament could have found the right words, too. He could have removed all ambiguities and spelled it all out. At the very least, he could have selected a chapter from one of the many books on the market today and canonized that chapter as part of inspired Scripture. Then none of us would be left wondering exactly what happens to the dead. But, instead, God chose to leave certain questions unanswered or unclear -- not so that our theologians can fill in the gaps for us, but rather so that we can trust in him, without knowing all the answers.
Another important consideration, often overlooked, is the fact that Jesus spoke to us in three different ways in Scripture:
(1) Literally, using what we could call "straight talk". He generally spoke this way to his disciples in private.
(2) In parables, or figurative stories with moral lessons. This is the way he often spoke to crowds of onlookers.
(3) Symbolically, in signs. This sort of presentation characterized the Apocalypse or book of Revelation.
Confusing Jesus' three forms of speech is a serious mistake, but one often made. If Jesus says that certain wicked men are put outside in the dark to weep and gnash their teeth, should we extrapolate this into a picture of children undergoing fiendish torture? If our sensibilities are offended by our concept of hell and who goes there, then perhaps our concept is wrong -- even though we may have learned it from an authority figure with impressive credentials.
Just as some deny what the Bible says about punishment after death, there are other religious people who go overboard in the opposite direction, allowing their sadistic imagination to run wild as they picture devils with pitchforks having a grand time inflicting every brutal torture imaginable on helpless men, women, and children. This approach is every bit as unscriptural as other people's attempts to deny any punishment after death. Revelation 20:10 makes it plain that the devil himself is punished in the lake of fire -- not placed in charge of an evil empire where he torments dead humans.
Where do the various twisted interpretations come from? Usually from religious authorities who claim the right to interpret the Bible for ignorant ordinary people. But, if you read the Gospels, you will note that Jesus spoke to us -- to common people -- not to professors, clergymen, doctors of theology, or any special class of Bible interpreters. If he intentionally bypassed the priests at Jerusalem's temple and the teachers in the synagogues, choosing instead to speak directly to fishermen, tax collectors, and prostitutes -- how could we possibly think he meant for future generations to receive his words as interpreted and explained by some spiritual elite?
When today's dock worker, truck driver, housewife, or tax accountant picks up the Gospels and reads them, the impression they receive from Christ's words is the impression he meant for them to receive. If they subsequently change their minds and end up with a different impression after discussing and studying Scripture with so-called learned men, then that is more likely to be the wrong impression.
Jesus himself said, "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children." -- Matthew 11:25 NIV.
Any human author can write with rarely-used words and complex sentence structure, so that only the well-educated reader will understand, but God did something much more difficult: He had his message presented in such a way that the well-educated reader would have no advantage; rather, the simple-minded reader with childlike trust would be the one more likely to grasp the message.
The chief obstacle to grasping what Jesus said about life after death is neither an inherent obscurity in his message, nor a deficiency in our own mental powers; rather, the greatest obstacle is the mass of twisted interpretations superimposed on his words by others. Encountering their interpretations before we encounter Jesus' words, we find ourselves approaching his words with numerous preconceived notions -- seeing his words through tinted glasses, so to speak. The preceding discussion in this chapter is aimed principally at removing the colored glasses by untwisting some of those twisted interpretations. Still, as we read Jesus' words, we need to focus consciously on what he says, rather than on interpretations others have handed us.
With that in mind, the best way to learn what Jesus said about life after death is to prayerfully read the Gospels, and then go on to read the rest of the New Testament to see how Jesus' early disciples were inspired to explain and elaborate on his words. Rather than take my word for it, or accept some other author or speaker's interpretation of what Jesus taught, read it for yourself in the Bible.