Romans 5:12 states, "Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men for that all have sinned." This is the Bibleís assessment of the condition of mankind. All sin, and as a result, all die.
But what is death? For centuries, people have tried to soften the finality of death by supposing that there is a continued conscious existence after death. About 400 years before the time of Christ, the Greek philosopher Plato formalized the teaching that man has an "immortal soul" which is released from the body at death; and so, in essence, man never really dies. Though this idea canít be found in the Bible, after the first century A.D. Christians gradually adopted it, too; and today, the "immortality of the soul" is considered a fundamental doctrine of most Christian denominations.
The Bible, on the other hand, is perfectly clear about the nature of death. Not once does the Bible use the term "immortal soul"; not once does it speak of anyone going to heaven at the moment of death. Rather, when speaking literally, the Bible consistently represents death as a return to the dust, a state of unconsciousness and a cessation of being.
Weíre introduced to the subject of death very early in the Bible. In the garden of Eden, Adam was told that if he disobeyed God he would surely die, and death was defined to him as follows:
"In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return" (Gen.3:19).
No mention was made to Adam of an "immortal soul", or of a continued existence in another state; death was simply a return to the dust of which he was made.
Some might object that it is only the body that returns to the dust, but that the soul continues in conscious existence even after death. But listen to these explicit statements from the 9th chapter of Ecclesiastes:
"For the living know that they shall die, but THE DEAD KNOW NOT ANYTHING..." (Eccl. 9:5)
"Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is NO WORK, NOR DEVICE, NOR KNOWLEDGE, NOR WISDOM, IN THE GRAVE, whither thou goest" (Eccl. 9:10).
What could be clearer? Yet today, in a typical funeral sermon, the preacher is likely to inform his audience that the dead person is now in Godís presence, praising him more perfectly than when he was restricted by his mortal body. But what says the Bible?
"The dead PRAISE NOT THE LORD, neither any that go down into silence" (Ps.115:17).
"For in death there is NO REMEMBRANCE of thee: in the grave, who shall give thee thanks?" (Ps.6:5)
When we die, all ability to work, praise, or even think, stops. We return to the dust of the earth and cease to exist:
"Behold, thou hast made my days a few handbreadths, and my life is as nothing in thy sight... Look away from me that I may know gladness, before I depart AND BE NO MORE" (Ps.39:5,13 RSV).
Since death is real, a state of non-being, unconsciousness and a return to the dust, it follows that the only hope for life after death lies in a resurrection from the dead. This explains why "the resurrection of the dead" is such an important teaching in the Bible: Itís an absolute necessity!
To most people, hell is the place to which wicked immortal souls are supposed to depart, to be tormented forever in flames. Yet, "God is love" (1 John 4:8). How could a loving God torture someone, however unrighteous, eternally? Many people have abandoned religion altogether rather than believe in such a sadistic deity.
The Bible, however, is not to blame for the belief. First of all, as weíve already seen, the Bible is silent about the doctrine of the "immortality of the soul". Itís not surprising, then, that popular ideas about hell are likewise unfounded.
In fact, there are three different words, primarily, translated "hell" in the Bible. In the Old Testament, "hell" is the Hebrew word sheol, which means, "the unseen state", a reference to the grave. It is even translated "grave" the same number of times that it is rendered "hell". Sheol, or the grave, is the place to which all people eventually go, the righteous and the wicked alike. "All go unto one place", says Ecclesiastes 3:20, "all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again". And in chapter 9, verse 10, "... for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave (sheol), whither thou goest".
The New Testament uses two words that translators have rendered "hell". One is the Greek word hades, and is the equivalent of sheol in the Old Testament. For example, Acts 2:27 is a quote from the 16th Psalm, and uses hades as the replacement for sheol. Hades, then, is simply the grave. The verse just mentioned, Acts 2:27, indicates that Jesus himself spent some time in hell --- a difficult thing to conceive if hell is a place where the wicked are tormented! But itís a fact that Jesus did spend three days in the grave.
The other New Testament word for hell, often associated with fire and burning, is the Greek word gehenna. A glance at a Bible dictionary or lexicon shows that gehenna is really a condensed form of the phrase, "the Valley of Hinnom". Now, on a map of the old city of Jerusalem, youíll find that the Valley of Hinnom is an actual valley on Jerusalemís southwest corner.
The Valley of Hinnom, or "hell", had an infamous history: It was used at one time for human sacrifice to idols, and was later defiled by King Josiah, as described in 2 Kings 23:10. By the time of Jesus, the character of Gehenna was so despicable that it was used only as a place to burn garbage and the occasional bodies of executed criminals. When Jesus spoke of the fires of Gehenna, his audience would immediately know the place he was talking about, and understand that they would fare no better eternally than the criminals whose bodies were thrown there if they were heedless of his message!
Understanding the facts about hell reveals a perfect consistency with the clear Bible teaching about death; namely, that all human beings are subject to the grave, but our hope rests in a resurrection from the dead.
The Devil, the Great Accuser
Regarding Christ, the book of Hebrews declares:
"Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil..." (Heb. 2:14)
Since the death of Christ was for the purpose of destroying the devil, if we are to have a right understanding of the work of Jesus Christ, we must have a right understanding of the devil he came to destroy.
The common view is that the devil, or Satan, is a rebellious angel who was cast from heaven ages ago, and now with his legions of demons is at work trying to subvert human beings by tempting them to sin. Such a view, however, defies common sense and the plain teaching of the Bible. If God "so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son" for us, how could he permit the existence of a wicked supernatural creature whose express intention is to destroy us?
But really, the Bible nowhere says there is such a creature. It uses the words "devil" and "Satan", but nowhere does the Bible explicitly tell us that the devil is a fallen angel, or give us clear information about his supposed origin. What, then, is the devil of the Bible?
Hebrews 2:14, quoted at the beginning of this chapter, offers an important key. It says that, through death, Jesus was to "destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil". The devil, then, is Biblically defined as "him that had the power of death". Now, if any person could truly be said to have the power of death, it would be God himself, because death was instituted by him, and he alone has the power to inflict it. But what is it that moves God to inflict death upon people? There is only one answer: Sin. Sin is that which has the power of death, because it is sin, and only sin, that results in death to human beings. Consider the following verses:
"Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world and DEATH BY SIN; and so DEATH passed upon all men for that all have SINNED" (Rom.5:12).
"... SIN, when it is finished, bringeth forth DEATH" (Jas.1:15).
"The sting of DEATH is SIN" (1 Cor.15:56).
"... the soul that SINS shall DIE" (Ezek.18:4 RSV).
"... the wages of SIN is DEATH" (Rom.6:23).
An objection might be raised, "True, sin is the cause of death, but who tempts us to sin? Isnít this the work of a supernatural devil?" No question could be more directly met with a Bible answer:
"But every man is TEMPTED, when he is drawn away of HIS OWN LUST, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death" (James 1:14-15).
You see, the word "devil" in the New Testament comes from the Greek word diabolos, which means simply slanderer or accuser. Likewise, the Hebrew word satan means adversary. Both these words may be applied to human adversaries or accusers, as when Jesus said to Peter, "Get thee behind me, Satan". But in the larger sense, the Bible uses these words as a personification of the greatest Adversary of the human race, that which accuses us before God --- our own sinfulness.
The word gospel means good news. If we were to ask Christians just what the gospel was all about, the answer weíd get most often would probably be that itís the "good news" that Jesus Christ died for our sins. That certainly is good news! But as an answer to our question, it would only be partially right. Why? Because what the Bible says about the gospel might come as a surprise to some, and show that most peopleís conception of the gospel is lacking an essential ingredient.
The ninth chapter of Luke begins with the account of Jesus sending out the twelve apostles to preach. In verse 6, it states that "they departed, and went through the towns preaching the gospel, and healing everywhere." Just what was the gospel they preached? Before answering that, a glance ahead in the same chapter will let us know what it wasnít. In verse 44, Jesus said to them:
"Let these sayings sink down into your ears: for the Son of man shall be delivered into the hands of men" (Luke 9:44).
He was, of course, talking about his coming crucifixion. But the next verse goes on to say that "they understood not this saying, and it was hid from them, that they perceived it not." It should be obvious, then, that the gospel they had been preaching had nothing to do with Jesusí dying for peopleís sins, since they didnít understand that he had to die at all! Then what did their gospel consist of? Verse 2 of Luke 9 gives the answer:
"And he sent them to preach THE KINGDOM OF GOD, and to heal the sick" (Luke 9:2).
The gospel preached by the twelve apostles was the good news about the kingdom of God. This is the element thatís lacking in most peopleís definition of the gospel -- the kingdom of God.
After Jesusí resurrection, the teaching that his death was for the remission of sins became a very important part of the apostlesí doctrine; but the good news about the kingdom of God was still just as important. For example, in the 8th chapter of Acts, it says:
"But when they believed Philip as he preached the good news about the KINGDOM OF GOD, AND the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women" (Acts 8:12 RSV).
Most people today know something about "the name of Jesus Christ", but there are few indeed who have a clear conception of what the kingdom of God really is. The kingdom of God is one of the most important themes in all the Bible, yet it has been replaced in many minds with vague ideas about immortal souls departing to heaven at the moment of death. In the next several chapters, weíll examine more closely the Bibleís teaching about the kingdom of God.