"Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done." Revelation 22:12 NIV
Some will be concerned that freedom from death and Hades for Christians will undermine the Biblical doctrine of final judgment. In the Bible there is clearly a distinction at death between the righteous and the unrighteous. Jesus' story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19ff) and the thief who pleaded with Jesus on the cross (Luke 23:39ff) both demonstrate that fact. Did being in Paradise or Abraham’s bosom mean that one already had his reward? Does it conflict with the idea that reward is meted out on the judgment day, when Christ returns? Does the other side of these two stories, the unrepentant thief and the rich man who experienced torments suggest that we would be right to say "we are only rewarded or punished on judgment day?" Clearly, there is a distinction between those who die in faith and those who die in rebellion. God knows those who are his and those who are not (2 Timothy 2:19). The blood on the doorpost is clearly visible. We understand that there are many rewards in the Christian life. There are rewards in daily experiences, the peace of Christ, the righteousness, peace and joy of the kingdom in the Holy Spirit, the brotherhood of believers, answered prayer, and so on. Then too, there is a reward in Christ at death, as Paul stated with regard to being with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8, Phil. 1:21-23). Even in the concept of Abraham's bosom prior to the cross there is reward (comfort) for Lazarus (Luke 16:25), and punishment (torments) for the rich man, even though the end has not yet come. And then there is the reward at the end. This is what John calls "a full reward" (2 John 2:8). It is fair to say that Christians receive "a full reward" only when judgment comes, and many scriptures bear this out. The "full reward" is not the first reward in Christ, and not the only reward in Christ, but it is the final and most satisfying reward in Christ. It is, in an ultimate sense, the reward, the final and climactic reward. But still, Paul could already have a reward in his preaching (1 Cor. 9:18), and so can an elder who rules well (1 Tim. 5:17-18).
Before The Judgment
2 Cor. 5:10 says that we will "appear before the judgment seat of Christ;" but not where Christians have been before that appearance, whether alive or dead. Verse 8 of the same chapter however does say that Paul was willing "to be absent from the body and present with the Lord." Absent from the body means "dead" in a physical sense (James 2:26, for example), and we know where the Lord is (Acts 2:32, for example). Thus we know where Paul will be before he stands before the judgment seat of Christ. That we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ is brought out again and again in scripture (John 5:22, Acts 17:31, Matt. 25:31-32). Lives will be rehearsed and sentence will be pronounced. That fact in itself says nothing about where we'll be prior to the event, whether in a paradise called Abraham's bosom or the presence of the Lord, who is at the right hand of the Father... but again, Paul does say where he would be when absent from the body. And then too, the martyr Stephen cried out, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." as he was dying and experiencing a heavenly vision (Acts 7:59). It is beautiful that he had no doubt of his salvation at this time. He was in the midst of a reassuring vision of the Lord! He was standing firm with rocks beating his life out! In his assurance he specifically said to the Lord, whom he could see, "receive my spirit." He didn't say, "remember me when you come into your kingdom," or anything like that. The word "receive" here means "to take hold of, to take up, receive; with acc. of pers. to receive, grant access to [as when a host receives visitors]" (Thayer's Greek English Lexicon) and is also used in passages like Matt. 10:14, Matt. 10:40-41 (definitely about welcoming someone in as a guest) and also Matt. 18:5, Lu. 2:28 (he took him up in his arms), Luke 16:4 and Acts 3:21, as some examples. These uses do not suggest some vague or eventual acceptance, they are about being taken in as a guest, which is what Stephen said. Clearly, Stephen expected to be welcomed in by the Lord Jesus, just as Jesus has been welcomed into heaven; not to go somewhere for some time until Jesus got around to him. And clearly, no old covenant saint ever spoke this way, including Jesus himself. His dying statement about his own spirit was quite different. "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." Not "Father, receive my spirit," because he was not, in death, going to the Father, but going to Hades (Acts 2:31) where he would confront and defeat death. He submitted his spirit to his Father's hands for disposition, which was appropriate for one who faced Hades in death (Luke 16:22 for example, and we know that God sends the angels). Before the finished work of the cross, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." After the cross, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit."
With The Lord
The statements of Paul in 2 Cor. 5:8 and Phil. 1:23 are simple and direct. As a saved person he expected to die and "be with the Lord." Not to die, and rest, and be judged, and if found acceptable to be with the Lord. He says that he would be better off when he died explicitly because he would be with the Lord. This is faith, this is confidence in the promises and power of God. Not to be with the Lord "in some sense", because in some sense the Lord is always with his people, but just "with Christ." Paul was not anticipating a sojourn in Hades, Abraham’s bosom. There are no New Testament passages at all that say saints in Christ will be separated from him in death to await the judgment in Hades. The Old Testament has dozens of statements showing that the expectation of those who died in faith was Sheol, the Hebrew word that is replaced by the Greek word Hades in New Testament writings (see the previous articles). But not one saint after the cross expressed this expectation for themselves or any Christian. Paul didn't say he would go to "a better place," he said he would be with the Lord. Jesus has made Paul's statement possible by dying and conquering death. He's changed the ground rules by becoming the new Adam and bringing life. God's attitude toward Sheol, and that of the saints, was not a strong affirmation, but a resignation to make the best of the situation (Ps. 18:5, Isa. 38:18) mixed with dread. In Acts 2:27 and 31, Jesus’ "soul was not left in Hades," and the word "left" here has the meaning "abandoned." Hades was not an ideal solution, God has always wanted man in His presence. In Christ that has become possible by removing the barriers of sin and law and death. But it is only possible in Christ. Apart from Christ all the barriers remain if place. As one more place to quickly demonstrate God's attitude toward Hades, recall its final destiny, to be cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14). God doesn't want his people in Hades. He doesn't want Hades. Its destiny is that of an enemy. The place exists because of sin and is shown to be offensive to him, because that which goes into the lake of fire is that which offends. Jesus claims that through his death and resurrection he has the keys of death and Hades (Rev. 1:18). He would not abandon souls that he has already redeemed to a place that is offensive to God.
John testifies to the same thing, in Revelation repeatedly, that the souls of the saints abide in the heavenly presence of God. In Rev. 4:1 John was bodily on Patmos. He was there shown things by the angels of the Lord (1:1-2), including heaven. In Revelation 4:1-2 his angel-given vision took him to heaven, God’s presence. He saw a door open in heaven, he was commanded to come up, and in the spirit he was then in heaven. He saw things supernaturally. What he saw, by his own words, was heaven, and there is no break or change of scene in this vision through chapter 11. He is caught up in the spirit, to heaven. He sees the throne of God in heaven, the risen lamb in heaven, the mighty beings around the heavenly throne. He sees the altar, in heaven (6:9-11, John hasn't gone anywhere, he's in the spirit viewing heaven, the altar is still in heaven in 8:1-5, before the throne, on which God sat and the Lamb stood, and see also Rev. 14:17-18). The altar is not Hades, nor is it in Hades (remember too what Hezekiah said about Hades, Isa. 38:18). Hades has already been seen in this vision in Rev. 6:7-8. Hades is revealed in the fourth seal. The altar is seen in the fifth seal. Hades has power over "the earth", in verse 8, and the saints throughout Revelation are not part of "the earth" but are redeemed out of it, sealed and set apart from it. John was not looking into Hades, but into Heaven (that's what he himself said), and so the souls under the altar (which is in heaven) must be in heaven. As is pointed out elsewhere, these are souls, not yet clothed with the resurrection body (1 Cor. 15:44), not yet having their "full reward." John's terminology on this is consistent and explicit. Their attitude before God is consistent with many scriptures that cry out for justice, and it is the plea of saints no matter where we choose to believe they are. Paul tells us to entrust vengeance to God (Rom. 12:19) which these saints have done, and Peter promises judgment for those who trouble the saints (2 Pet. 2:9).
Sorrow in Heaven
We sing the song, "No Tears in Heaven," with the line, "no tears in heaven, no sorrows given." If we understand that to mean that there is nothing in heaven to produce sorrow, then the concept works. However, in heaven we may initially have some sorrow that needs to be soothed. Rev. 21:4 says, "And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away." (the "no more" refers to each thing in the list that follows it). Those conditions are clearly post-resurrection, post-judgment, in the full reward, and not a reference to the situation of the souls in heaven awaiting those things. But even in the full reward the idea is that God "shall wipe away" all tears. He comforts and heals (as also in Rev. 22:2) and that is what is described as happening for the souls under the altar in Rev. 6:11, and for those shepherded by the Lamb (in heaven!), Rev. 7:9-17. (Those in Rev. 7:9-17 are apparently in heaven, they have their white robes, and are having their tears wiped away, and yet the New Heavens and New Earth cannot have come yet for there is a sun (16) and a temple (15), neither of which will exist when the full reward has come (21:22-23). They cannot be in Hades where there is no praise or thanksgiving, Ps. 6:5, Isa. 38:18.) So while it will be true in the New Heavens and New Earth that there is no (more) sorrow in Heaven, it only becomes true because God does what is described in these verses of Rev. 6 and 7, he comforts and heals. No new sorrows will be formed there, and old ones will heal. The cry of the martyrs and its answer in no way contradicts the Biblical picture of God's dwelling place.
Hades in The New Testament
The Old Testament saints were well acquainted with the concept of Hades, and Jesus' story in Luke 16 builds on that Jewish familiarity. They understood the concept quite well, not only from statements about Sheol itself, but from other scriptures that dealt with death and the dead (recall Jesus' argument against the Sadducees which he based on scripture, and in which he accused this aristocratic minority group of "not knowing the scriptures", Matt. 22:29-32). The Old Testament frequently speaks of those who died being "gathered to their fathers" (ie, Abraham's bosom for his true children). And Sheol is pictured as a prison, even though a place of rest from physical labors and suffering (when Jesus spoke of the "gates of Hades" he was using the words of Hezekiah, Isa. 38:10; Paul quoted Hosea 13:14; "rest" is seen in 1 Sam. 28:15). Someone had to come and redeem the dead from Sheol (Ps. 49:15) so that man could live and not see death (Ps. 89:48, which is what Jesus claimed he would do for his followers, John 11:25-26). Jesus is the one who delivers from the grave, Sheol, so that a man lives, and shall not see death. Jesus' statement should not be undersold. It is not, "there shall be a resurrection" as Martha was thinking, but "I am the resurrection, and the life." This is a grand claim that those who believe in him will have a totally different experience beyond physical life (not just at the last day as Martha thought and Jesus corrected).
Certainly, there is no change of status after death. Either we live and die in Christ, or we face condemnation. And it is also true that Hades will be in existence until the end, when it is cast into the Lake of Fire. But neither of these truths says anything about Christians entering Hades. Those who do not die to the flesh and live in Christ have the Adamic death experience, because they have not chosen the gift of life in Christ, the 2nd Adam who brings life to those who will receive it. There are multitudes in Hades, who've not chosen life, who elected to be imprisoned as enemies of the cross. People every day have the rich man's experience. The status of the unsaved has not been changed, they find themselves in torments (Luke 16:23, the Greek word refers to a torture chamber where confessions are extracted prior to passing of sentence). The souls of the wicked do not "go straight to Hell." Jesus did not enter Torments in Hades, but rather Paradise (by his own word on the cross, Luke 23:43, because he entrusted himself to God, the righteous judge, 1 Pet. 2:23). He did not release the condemned (John 3:16-19), but the faithful captives (Eph. 4:8-10). The ticket to the Lake of Fire issued at judgment to all of those who are under torture in Hades will be a one way ticket with no release for any cause forever. Even Satan has never been to Hell (gehenna), nor have any of his angels, but it is prepared and reserved for them and those who have not been saved (Matt. 25:41). Notice though that humanity's end in Hell is secondary, a sort of aberration. It was not prepared for man but for the devil and his angels, and man elected to go that way. Hades, on the other hand, is directly tied to human death, while Tartarus is the unique word applied to the place rebellious angels are held (2 Pet. 2:4) until judgment (Tartarus is probably the same place called the Abyss or Bottomless Pit in Revelation). All those held in Hades or Tartarus, human or angel, will have their day in court when the evidence is presented and the sentence pronounced. Satan apparently will not (Rev. 20:10-15). His damnation is already affirmed, and his fall into the Lake of Fire is pictured as preceding judgment at the great white throne.
Those Coming with The Lord
Jude 14-15 says, "Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about these men: ‘See, the Lord is coming with thousands upon thousands of his holy ones to judge everyone, and to convict all the ungodly of all the ungodly acts they have done in the ungodly way, and of all the harsh words ungodly sinners have spoken against him.’" NIV
Who is coming with the Lord, angels or saints? The word for "holy ones" (GK hagion) is the exact same word Jude used in verse 3 (the faith "delivered unto the saints"). Jude seems to be saying that a vast number of saints will be coming with the Lord at his return, and other scriptures indicate they will at that time experience resurrection and glorification. Now certainly angels are to accompany Christ at his coming (Matt. 25:31, 13:41), and the word "holy" that is used here is also applied to them, as in Mark 8:38, but the word "holy" is used there as an adjective modifying the noun "angels." Jude didn't use this clear form to say "holy angels" if that was what he meant. Rather, the word hagion alone, when used as a noun, by Jude or other New Testament writers, seems to be always a reference in fact to "saints." There are no clear examples elsewhere of this word standing alone meaning "angels." There is no question that 1 Thess. 4:14 refers to saints who have physically died. Those "which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him." Are there angels who sleep in Jesus? No, there are saints, who have died, whose bodies are inactive, who thus "sleep," and who will come with Jesus (because they are with Jesus) when the end comes. Then they will experience resurrection, the new heavenly dwelling (spiritual body), along with the transformation of those who live and remain until that time. The angels truly come, as harvesters (Matt. 13:39-43, for example), and the dead in Christ come as participants in the resurrection when that which is sown (a physical body) becomes that which is raised (a spiritual body, 1 Cor. 15:42-44) and the soul is clothed with the heavenly dwelling.
Rev. 20:4-6 does speak of righteous souls in heaven. The reference to souls is direct and explicit. These have physically died, but still live and reign with Christ (remember Rev. 2:26-27, 3:21, Matt. 19:28). John said he "saw the souls," and he describes their loyal lives and deaths. He clearly defines them by the role they lived and the death they died. And he clearly says where he sees them. He says they live and reign with Jesus during the thousand years. Whatever anyone makes of the thousand years, these are defined as having died for Christ, in Christ, and are described as being with Jesus, in heaven after his ascension. There are other dead who do not yet live, so the resurrection at the last day has not come. And since they are souls, even these who live have not yet been clothed with the glorious heavenly dwelling promised elsewhere. This passage says at least that there will be some souls who live and reign with Jesus for some period of time before the resurrection, and some others who are not his and do not. These souls are probably synonymous with the ones in 6:9 and in 7:9ff and in 14:1ff and 14:13, etc., they are the overcomers from the churches. There are some, who are followers of Jesus, whose souls are with him, living and reigning, at least during the thousand years, and we cannot bring Christ down from heaven or undo the accomplishments of his death (Rom. 10:5-8), so we must allow that as John describes they're in heaven. Remember that Stephen and Paul seemed to think they would be with him in heaven when they died, and while their deaths were not necessarily by beheading they meet the criteria of Rev. 20:4 in every other way, and I expect all those who live Godly lives in Christ Jesus at any cost meet these criteria as well (see those promises to the overcomers after each of the seven letters to the seven churches, Rev. 2-3).
Those without Christ
We’ve already seen that at this time, Hell is untenanted. The wicked in death go to Hades, not Hell (gehena, the lake of fire). The redemptive work of Christ has changed things by bringing freedom for the saved, not by worsening matters for the unsaved. Bringing freedom to those who would have waited in "Abraham's bosom" has no effect on the status of those across the gulf who have no part in Christ. Apart from the grace of God in Jesus Christ, "as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law; and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law," (Rom. 2:12). Jesus sets free from the curse of the law and the consequences of sin (death, real death, not just the death of the body), but apart from him men are still under the curse and slaves to death. And again, judgment is not the time when salvation or damnation is determined. That is determined in our lives, by the time we die, and certainly known to God. Judgment is the time when the evidence is presented and the sentence is executed. It is the time when the ungodly will see the truth about who Jesus is and who his servants are, and be compelled to acknowledge both him and them before their removal to the Lake of Fire. Every one will have their day in court, their chance to say, "but why?" But the day in court will not change the facts that are known to God, it will instead validate the sentence pronounced from the throne beyond any possible objection.
The Resurrection Body
The spirit of man should be joined to a body eternally (not natural, not physical, but spiritual) because man is made to be complete in his own trinity, in the image of God who is a threefold being. That is, we are not complete unless we are body, soul, and spirit (as in 1 Thess. 5:23). Without a body we are "unclothed" (2 Cor. 5:1-4, and hence the need for white robes for those under the altar to be comforted until the end, Rev. 6:11). Paul definitely teaches a bodily resurrection, some transformation from a physical "seed" to a spiritual (nonphysical) "fruit" whose nature is not apprehendable by us at this time (as also in 1 John 3:2). This is the "full reward" that is anticipated, even by the soul in heaven with Jesus. When we die our soul, which is made to be clothed in a body, is unclothed. If it then is in the presence of Jesus that is better than being clothed in flesh, but the ultimate desire is to both be with Jesus and be clothed in the heavenly dwelling, the "body" that is not of flesh and bone and is not physical (2 Cor. 5:1-10, 1 Cor. 15:20 etc.). The desire for the finality of the resurrection "clothing" does not go away until it is fulfilled in the resurrection when we become complete in every sense, "body" and soul and spirit. Remember, Jesus body was raised and then he was glorified when he ascended up on high. He had a bodily resurrection and we are told many times he is the pattern (or firstfruits) and we shall follow after. There will be a resurrection when the saints return with Christ at the end and they (along with the living saints who rise to meet him in the air at that time) will "put on" the imperishable.
The Sleep of Death
The scriptures of both Testaments affirm awareness after death. There is no further involvement with the physical world, whether from Hades or from heaven, but there is awareness and consolation for the children of faith, and awareness with torment and regret for the sons of Belial. Jesus was obviously a conscious being when out of his body, as was Abraham (our story of the rich man), and Samuel (see above, 1 Sam. 28), and the kings of the earth (Isa. 14:9-10). Jesus in no way promoted the idea of soul-sleep, rather he strongly suggested in his response to the Sadducees mentioned above continued consciousness before God, and explicitly stated this awareness in the story of the rich man and Lazarus. God is not a God of the dead (nonexistent, or unconscious) but of the living (existing and aware and in some sense active). He's not a God of nothings. Indeed, the spirit never dies, just the body - except in the sense of the second death, final separation from God, the author of life, into the everlasting flames.
What Jesus Did
Look through the New Testament and notice the claims that are made for what Jesus would accomplish (gospels) and did accomplish (Acts and epistles). The New Testament message is that he reordered everything that had gone awry through sin. He didn't just symbolically do things and say things so that some day our problems (with sin and death) would be fixed. He faced the problems squarely and dealt with them. His claims are not window dressing to be talked around, they are what he set out to do, and did. Christians are those who've been freed. What have they been freed from? Jesus’ victory didn’t result in merely symbolic words so that Christians are really still in bondage and under the dominion of death with a hope to perhaps be free. Jesus victory resulted in real freedom. Hades is definitely part of the yoke of bondage, a product of sin and death. Remember, death does not come from God. Either we're free, or we're not. The Lord says we’re free (Gal. 5:1). When Jesus ascended up on high he "led captives in his train," (Eph. 4:7, NIV). Jesus proclaimed "the year of the Lord's favor" (Luke 4:18-19), the jubilee, when those previously held in bondage were released (Lev. 25:8ff), except for those who elected to remain slaves and be branded as such (Ex. 21:6). Jesus fixed the problem that came into being through Adam. Unlike Hezekiah or the Psalmists, we can look forward to being with God in death, rejoicing like Paul, instead of waiting, waiting, waiting.
What Shall I Say?
If the New Testament never says that the souls of those redeemed by Christ are in Hades, then should I say it? (The Old Testament affirmed many times that the faithful then were in Hades, but the New Testament never does.) And if the New Testament does say that to die in Christ is to be with the Lord, then shouldn't I say it? And if the New Testament says that saints will come with the Lord, shouldn't we say that too? Shouldn’t we accept Jesus' assertions that the gates of Hades would not prevail against his kingdom - the kingdom Christians are already in. Not just that Hades couldn't lock him in, which it didn't, but that it couldn't prevail against his church. Attach no disclaimers to his claims that he didn’t attach himself! Let us not dispute the words used by Paul about his own expectations, or the language of Stephen, or that of Jude, nor deny John's claim of seeing things in heaven, including an altar with souls under it and souls living with Christ. There is an overwhelming weight of evidence that Jesus truly defeated death and set free those who all their lives had been held in slavery by their fear of it (Heb. 2:14-15, 1 John 3:8). His victory was not symbolic, it was real. He's in charge, which is the primary message of Revelation.
Which Way to Paradise?
A final comment about the traditional idea of Hades. At the cross, we have Jesus referring to his own destination in Hades as "Paradise" (Luke 23:43) and he was later "raised up" from that place (Acts 2:27, 30-32). Consistent with the Old Testament references to Sheol, "the pit," the exit from that "Paradise" was upward. We have this word paradise twice more in the New Testament, after the redemptive work of Jesus was completed. It's in 2 Cor. 12:4, which speaks of a heavenly vision (verse 2) and is almost universally accepted as a reference to the place where God dwells, not Hades where Jesus went. Indeed, the nomenclature here is "caught up into paradise." The word occurs again in Rev. 2:7, the "Paradise of God" which is where the tree of life is (which is Heaven in Rev. 22:2). While Jesus, before his death, spoke of Paradise as a place in Hades, the realm of death, "downward," the only Paradise known to scripture afterward is Heaven. If Paradise is understood as the place where the saved go in death, then it was in one place (downward) before the cross, which Jesus rose from, and another place (upward) now, and now it is the "Paradise of God" in the third heaven, where God dwells and the tree of life is. Of course "upward" is not a physical direction from this globe of matter where we now live, but the only comprehensible way of referring to a reality greater than our current imagination can begin to comprehend.