N one of us likes thinking about death, but there are times when we have little choice. The virus spre, hospitals fill, and systems become overwhelmed. Our greatest concerns, personal and national, are for survival. But for many people — even the otherwise healthy — the crisis has unexpectedly raised the specter of death itself, our constant companion even if, most of the time, we do our best to ignore it. Or, in more normal times, try to laugh it off.
The hero of the Epic of Gilgamesh writhes in agony at the prospect of spending eternity groveling in dust being eaten by worms. Plenty, however, tremble before the possibility of eternal misery. Possibly this is a good time to help people realize that it simply will not be that way. There are over two billion Christians in the world, the vast majority of whom believe in heaven and hell. You die and your soul goes either to everlasting bliss or torment or purgatory en route.
The vast majority of these people naturally assume this is what Jesus himself taught. But that is not true. Neither Jesus, nor the Hebrew Bible he interpreted, endorsed the view that departed souls go to paradise or everlasting pain. Unlike most Greeks, ancient Jews traditionally did not believe the soul could exist at all apart from the body. Adam remained alive until he stopped breathing. Then it was dust to dust, ashes to ashes.
The truth about hell fire and the true sabbath day!
Ancient Jews thought that was true of us all. It just stops. The Hebrew Bible itself assumes that the dead are simply dead—that their body lies in the grave, and there is no consciousness, ever again. And so, traditional Israelites did not believe in life after death, only death after death.
That is what made death so mournful: nothing could make an afterlife existence sweet, since there was no life at all, and thus no family, friends, conversations, food, drink — no communion even with God. God would forget the person and the person could not even worship.
The most one could hope for was a good and particularly long life here and now. But Jews began to change their view over time, although it too never involved imagining a heaven or hell.
Who goes to hell?
About two hundred years before Jesus, Jewish thinkers began to believe that there had to be something beyond death—a kind of justice to come. Jews had long believed that God was lord of the entire world and all people, both the living and the dead.
If God loves his people and is sovereign over all the world why do his people experience so much tragedy? This new idea maintained that there are evil forces in the world aligned against God and determined to afflict his people.
Even though God is the ultimate ruler over all, he has temporarily relinquished control of this world for some mysterious reason. But the forces of evil have little time left. God is soon to intervene in earthly affairs to destroy everything and everyone that opposes him and to bring in a new realm for his true followers, a Kingdom of God, a paradise on earth. Most important, this new earthly kingdom will come not only to those alive at the time, but also to those who have died.
Indeed, God will breathe life back into the dead, restoring them to an earthly existence. And God will bring all the dead back to life, not just the righteous. The multitude who had been opposed to God will also be raised, but for a different reason: to see the errors of their ways and be judged. Once they are shocked and filled with regret — but too late — they will permanently be wiped out of existence.
This view of the coming resurrection dominated the view of Jewish thought in the days of Jesus. It was also the view he himself embraced and proclaimed.
The end of time is coming soon. God will soon destroy everything and everyone opposed to him and establish a new order on earth. Those who enter this kingdom will enjoy a utopian existence for all time. All others will be annihilated. But Jesus put his own twist on the idea. Put most simply, that involves loving God above all things despite personal hardship, and working diligently for the welfare of others, even when it is exceedingly difficult.
This may be simple, but it is not easy. Since your neighbor is anyone you know, see, or hear about, as in the parable of the Good Samaritan, true love means helping everyone in need, not just those in your preferred social circles. Jesus was concerned principally for the poor, the outcasts, the foreigners, the marginalized, and even the most hated enemies. Few people are. Especially those with good lives and abundant resources. Most people today would be surprised to learn that Jesus believed in a bodily eternal life here on earth, instead of eternal bliss for souls, but even more that he did not believe in hell as a place of eternal torment.
It was where, according to the Old Testament, ancient Israelites practiced child sacrifice to foreign gods.
The God of Israel had condemned and forsaken the place. In the ancient world whether Greek, Roman, or Jewishthe worst punishment a person could experience after death was to be denied a decent burial. Jesus developed this view into a repugnant scenario: corpses of those excluded from the kingdom would be unceremoniously tossed into the most desecrated dumping ground on the planet. Jesus did not say souls would be tortured there. They simply would no longer exist. At one point he says there are two gates that people pass through Matthew The other is broad and easy, and therefore commonly taken.
God exists and is all loving
The wrong path does not lead to torture. So too Jesus says the future kingdom is like a fisherman who hauls in a large net Matthew After sorting through the fish, he keeps the good ones and throws the others out. They just die. Or the kingdom is like a person who gathers up the plants that have grown in his field Matthew He keeps the good grain, but tosses the weeds into a fiery furnace. They are consumed by fire and then are no more. Still other passages may seem to suggest that Jesus believe in hell. Most notably Jesus speaks of all nations coming for the last judgment Matthew Some are said to be sheep, and the others goats.
The good sheep are those who have helped those in need — the hungry, the sick, the poor, the foreigner. So the punishment is annihilation.
Because the fire never goes out. The flames, not the torments, go on forever. Because it will never end.
These people will be annihilated forever. And so, Jesus stood in a very long line of serious thinkers who have refused to believe that a good God would torture his creatures for eternity. But the torments of hell were not preached by either Jesus or his original Jewish followers; they emerged among later gentile converts who did not hold to the Jewish notion of a future resurrection of the dead.
These later Christians came out of Greek culture and its belief that souls were immortal and would survive death. From at least the time of Socrates, many Greek thinkers had subscribed to the idea of the immortality of the soul. Even though the human body dies, the human soul both will not and cannot. Later Christians who came out of gentile circles adopted this view for themselves, and reasoned that if souls are built to last forever, their ultimate fates will do so as well.
It will be either eternal bliss or eternal torment. It was a strange hybrid, a view held neither by the original Christians nor by ancient Greek intelligentsia before them. Socrates himself expressed the idea most memorably when on trial before an Athenian jury on capital charges. Socrates openly declares that he sees no reason to fear the death sentence. On the contrary, he is rather energized by the idea of passing on from this life. For Socrates, death will be one of two things. On one hand, it may entail the longest, most untroubled, deep sleep that could be imagined.
Most of us are going there
On the other hand, it may involve a conscious existence. That too would be good, even better.
It would mean carrying on with life and all its pleasures but none of its pain. And so the afterlife presents no bad choices, only good ones. Death was not a source of terror or even dread.
Twenty-four centuries later, with all our advances in understanding our world and human life within it, surely we can think that that both Jesus and Socrates had a lot of things right. Jesus taught that in this short life we have, we should devote ourselves to the welfare of others, the poor, the needy, the sick, the oppressed, the outcast, the alien. We should listen to him. But Socrates was almost certainly right as well. None of us, of course, knows what will happen when we pass from this world of transience.
But his two options are still the most viable. On one hand, we may lose our consciousness with no longer a worry in this world. Jesus saw this as permanent annihilation; Socrates as a pleasant deep sleep.