Okay, specific Scripture passages. Let’s start looking at some.
As we move forward, we will look both at passages that seem to suggest some people will experience eternal conscious torment, and others that suggest all people will be saved. Certainly both are important.
I want to hazard a guess, however, that many of you can think of some verses that fall into the first category but none that fall into the second. That seems curious. At least it speaks to the lens we’re using to interpret the Scriptures, or may help us to acknowledge that all of us are part of a system of belief that teaches us to look at things in a certain way. It’s neither here nor there; all of us have a system of belief. It’s just good to be aware that we do.
Here we go. The Old Testament (OT).
Simply put, the concept of going to heaven and going to hell is not part of the OT. The Jewish concept of the afterlife did not include those categories. What we do find in the OT is a place called “sheol,” which was the place of the dead to which everyone went when they died. Clearly sheol is not the same as our concept of going to heaven and going to hell, and it doesn’t seem to be associated with eternity, but to say too much more about it would be going beyond my depth of study, so I’ll just leave it there, except to reiterate that it is not the same as our idea of heaven and hell.
That being said, the two most common references in the OT that are used to defend the idea of heaven and hell as we understand them to be are Isaiah 66:6 and Daniel 12:2.
Isaiah 66:24 says this:
“And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.”
At first read, we see some language that’s familiar with our understanding of the nature of hell. There’s the fire that will not be quenched and the worms that will not die, both of which seem to line up with some of the pictures of judgment in the New Testament. However, we would be remiss not to notice the phrase “dead bodies,” which surely does not suggest “conscious” torment. These are not people; they are “corpses,” which is the word another translation uses. So, at the very least we can’t say definitively from this passage that some people will go to a place of fiery punishment where they will be consciously tormented for all eternity.
In Daniel 12:2 we find this:
2 Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.
This verse from the last chapter of Daniel seems to suggest the idea of everlasting something, whether life, or shame and contempt. At first read this does seem consistent with our understanding of heaven and hell. However, I want to make two observations.
First, the Hebrew word translated “everlasting” does not necessarily need to be. It could be translated differently, referring to life (or shame and contempt), “in the age to come,” a consideration I offer only as food for thought. I am not a Hebrew scholar, so I only put it out there briefly and will leave the rest of that discussion to people more educated than me.
My second observation is this:
Much of the book of Daniel falls into the genre of apocalyptic literature, which attempts to prophetically reveal that which is to come and is highly symbolic and metaphoric, and obviously hard to understand. (The book of Revelation falls into this category as well and certainly many have disagreed on its interpretation.) We are attempting to interpret Daniel 12:2 within this style of prophetic writing and that fact alone should give us pause before making definitive statements about the meaning of particular verses.
What I find even more remarkable is that Daniel 12:2 falls within Daniel’s vision of a “man dressed in linen.” This vision begins in chapter 10 and contains a speech from this man, which goes through nearly all of chapters 10, 11, and 12. At the beginning, the man tells Daniel to “consider carefully” what he is going to tell him, an admonition we can only assume Daniel did his best to obey, trembling though he was. Then, near the end of chapter 12 we get Daniel’s last response to the man’s speech – Daniel’s careful consideration to what the man in the vision had to say. These are the last words and thoughts of Daniel in the whole book, words that come 6 verses after this statement in Daniel 12:2. Daniel 12:8 says this:
I heard, but I did not understand. So I asked, “My lord, what will the outcome of all this be?”
Of course I added the bold, but it is noteworthy that Daniel’s careful consideration of the vision resulted in him saying, “I did not understand.” Whatever we say about Daniel 12:2, it should include an acknowledgement that we don’t really understand, or that we should be cautious about making a definitive interpretation of that which Daniel did not understand.
At the very least, I think we can say that neither Daniel 12:2, nor Isaiah 66:24, nor the Old Testament as a whole settles the issue of the nature of heaven, hell, or eternity.
Of course, we should take a look at what the OT suggests related to ultimate redemption.
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