What About




One of the most controversial issues confronting religious movements is the afterlife. The theological responses range from resurrection, reincarnation, eternal marriages, and state-of-mind existence, to a denial of any afterlife

The majority of world religions allow for a reward or heavenlike state for the believer, but denigrate into fierce debate over where the wicked and unbeliever find their destiny. The Protestant Reformation and succeeding reform movements did not clarify the issue; on the contrary, in abandoning Roman Catholic doctrines such as purgatory and limbo, they sometimes muddied the theological waters with even more unusual doctrines and philosophies.

One of the most popular theories to evolve since the Reformation is that the wicked dead are in an unconscious state, awaiting the final judgment. At that time they will be annihilated, and their souls will cease to exist. This doctrine, because of its appeal to rational philosophy and emotion, has found a home in numerous religious schools. The basic theory is that the soul of man is not immortal,and can only become so through redemption. Thus the only creatures to inhabit eternity in the future are the redeemed. Unbelievers simply cease to exist. Acceptance of this doctrine requires a denial that human souls live on forever and a belief that the teaching by Christ and the apostles concerning hell is figurative as it applies to an eternal time period.

Although the doctrine of annihilation may have existed in varying forms for centuries, its introduction to the modern world came largely through new schools of religious thought that developed in the middle of the nineteenth century. The Quakers relegated most beliefs concerning the afterlife to personal conviction. Baptists, commonly preaching eternal punishment, had no official creed in which to require this theology of their followers.

Both Universalists and the influential Unitarians repudicated the classic doctrines of heaven and hell. Roman Catholics, who believed in literal, eternal punishment of the wicked, were largely disregarded by American Protestants because of their other positions on the afterlife.
Out of this religious climate evolved the Adventist movement of William Miller. Miller himself, later left the movement, which largely disbanded, but a smaller group emerged that was to become the Seventh-day Adventist church. They declared the state of the wicked dead to be mortal, with no everlasting retribution. This position has taken on varied nuances as differing religious bodies have attempted to mold it to their particular belief systems.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are prominent teachers of annihilation. Their book entitled Truth That Leads to Eternal Life states, “Is hell a hot place? Do sheol and hades refer to some place where the wicked suffer after death? It is plain that they do not, for we have already seen that the dead are not conscious and therefore cannot suffer” (p. 41). The book states that sheol and hades Hebrew and Greek words translated as “hell”) mean only the grave, and so they cannot have any reference to an eternal place of retribution. Gehenna, another Greek word translated as “hell,” the book explains as figurative- Since this term apparently comes from the valley of Hinnom, where refuse and corpses were burned outside of Jerusalem, the book says it refers to a state of being eternally dead, not in conscious torment. In explaining the story of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:22-31, which uses hades in the context of torment, it says that the language is figurative: “The rich man stood for the class of religious leaders who rejected and later killed Jesus. Lazarus pictured the common people who accepted God’s Son. The Bible shows that death can be used as a symbol, representing a great change in one’s life or course of action’ (p. 43).

In comparing these positions to Bible truth, let us consider several points. To begin with, although figurative elements may be present in the story of Lazarus and the rich man, the essence of the story is literal. The interpretation given by the Jehovah’s Witnesses is inconsistent with Bible teaching. Many common people did share in the rejection and killing of Jesus. Some of the rich class did share in accepting him, such as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. Furthermore, Jesus never referred to this incident as a parable but indicated that it was a true story. In any case, a parable is always a true-to-life story. The rich man was in his afterlife, not his present life, and so was Lazarus. The rich man was not unconscious, but totally aware of what was happening. He communicated with Abraham, who had been dead nearly two thousand years by this time, and so clearly he was not in an earthly state but in an afterlife

If hell means a one-time annihilation of the unbeliever, it is peculiar that Scripture would go to such great lengths in using descriptive terms such as the following: “everlasting punishment (Matthew 25.46), “where their worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched!’ (Mark 9;48), “everlasting destruction’ (II Thessalonians 1:9), “the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night” (Revelation 14:11), “everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2), and “unquenchable fire’ (Matthew 3:12). God apparently wanted to accentuate the eternal existence of our future estate, be it good or evil.

The afterlife continues for an indefinite period of time for both the believer and the wicked: “Many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2). The righteous shall enter into “life eternal ” but the unrighteous shall enter into “everlasting fire?” (Matthew 25:41,46).If these references to resurrection and eternal of the just are literal,then they are likewise literal for the unjust.

There is no question that sheol and hades generally make reference to the grave or the place of the departed. In this sense, Jesus went there Luke 23:53, Acts 2:31). This fact, however, does not negate that for the wicked punishment will be both immediate in hades (Luke 16:23) and eventual in the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14; 21:8).

It is not necessary to understand every theological aspect of the hereafter in order to be saved. Many prophetic points are open to interpretation. However, it is important to realize that (1) every soul will spend eternity somewhere, (2) for the believer there is a heaven to gain, and (3) for the unbeliever there will be everlasting retribution from a just God. Philosophical reasoning may blunt the fears of many, but the truth does not change.

The above article was published in Forward April-June, 1991, pp. 10-11

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