not a better place

gift of lifegift of life #5

not a better place

I overheard two men talking the other day, and caught the last bit of a conversation they were having. I do not really know what they were talking about, but based on what I heard, I can hazard a guess. They concluded their talk with “she’s in a better place.” My guess is that they were talking about a loved one who is now dead. Perhaps they were consoling themselves with thoughts that their loved one was no longer suffering and in Jesus’ protection until his return. But I wonder if those men knew what they were talking about. Does the Bible describe death – even the death of a believer – as “a better place”?

When Jesus faced the death of his friend Lazarus, he wept. He knew that death was not a better place for Lazarus. He did not console Lazarus’ sister Martha with the notion that her brother was not really dead. Instead, he told her that “your brother will rise again.” He had told his disciples “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him”. If Lazarus had gone to a better place, it would have been cruelty to bring him back.

We really need eternal life because we are all going to die, and death is not a friend.  The Bible calls death three things for all human beings, no exception:

  1. An enemy: Paul says “The last enemy that will be destroyed is death.”  (1 Corinthians 15:26).
  2. A prison: Jesus says that death is locked, but that he has the keys (Revelation 1:18).
  3. A curse. Moses said that life is a blessing, but death is a curse (Deuteronomy 30:19).

Death is the absence of life and breath and consciousness.  It is not a good thing, and not a better place.

“The world needs honest Christians. It needs people who do not hide behind fairy tales, and deny the existence of death.  It needs people who will tell them that death is real, but that Jesus is real too.  The world needs hope that extends beyond the cemetery.  Believers can offer that hope, but we have to do so with integrity. It is wrong to say that death is a friend when the Bible calls it an enemy.  It is wrong to imply that the blessed hope is a better place at death.  Titus 2:13 says we are now “waiting for our blessed hope,” and that blessed hope is “ the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.”  It is the second coming, not death, which is the focal point of the New Testament promises. 

So, let’s be biblically honest and mature.  Let’s stop telling people that death is a release, or a homecoming, or a graduation, or any such thing.  Death is death, and it is not a better place.  We Christians are looking forward to being in a better place, but that place is coming down from the sky when our king returns.  The gospel only offers one blessed hope, and we owe it to the world to get that message right.

If you have any questions about this teaching, you can ask me at  Join me for this entire series as we search the scriptures to learn about the gift of life.


(listen to the audio file at Afterlife)

to die is gain


The apostle Paul told the Philippians that, to him, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”[1] It is quite clear to the reader that if Paul keeps on living, he will keep on serving Christ. Thus, “to live is Christ” must have been a reference to his intention to do just that. But what did Paul mean when he asserted “to die is gain”? Partly, that is answered by the previous verse, in which he expressed his intention that “Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.”[2] So, “Paul is picking up on the two possible resolutions of his imprisonment, freedom or execution…”[3] If he is set free, it will mean the opportunity to reach more souls with the gospel, to plant more churches, and to honor Christ by bringing more people into his kingdom.

But what else did he mean? How is death gain? Ascough asserts that “The use of the word in Phil 1:21 is clearly drawing on the imagery of the marketplace, where Paul states that it is more ‘profitable’ for him to die.”[4] In what sense? Before looking at the text to seek answers to that question, I will survey the answers usually given by those who hold traditionalists views of the intermediate state.


Some say that Paul had in mind the gain of a new location, immediately at death. The soul, unencumbered by its body, is set free to travel to heaven, and that is the gain that Paul anticipated.

“They are not lost, they are only moved. Moved, by the way, to a much better place.”[5]

“he was talking about his departure to somewhere better than earth.”[6]

“theologians and Bible expositors have been careful to distinguish between the present heaven where God now dwells and where believers go at the moment of death and the future heaven where believers will spend all eternity.”[7]

“Death would send Paul to the place of everything that was truly dear and precious to him. ”[8]

Has Paul made the case, in Philippians or anywhere else, that heaven is where he intends to go at death? Keep in mind that the word for heaven in Greek is simply the normal word for “sky.” [9] Anyway, here is what Paul asserts about the sky:

  • God’s wrath is being revealed from the sky now.[10]
  • No one can ascend to the sky.[11]
  • There are many false “gods” in the sky and on the land, but only one true God.[12]
  • Jesus came from the sky, and at our resurrection we will bear his image.[13]
  • Paul saw a man caught up in the third sky in a vision.[14]
  • Angels are in the sky.[15]
  • All things in the sky and the land will one day be united in Christ.[16]
  • The Father God is the source of the whole family in the sky and on the land.[17]
  • The Master of slaves and the Master of masters lives in the sky.[18]
  • Every knee will bow to Christ “in the sky and on the ground and under the ground.”[19]
  • Christians are registered citizens in the sky, “and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”[20]
  • The believer’s hope (Christ) is laid up for them in the sky.[21]
  • Christ created the sky and the land, and plans to reconcile the whole creation to himself.[22]
  • Christ will descend from the sky to raise the dead at his return.[23]
  • Christ will be revealed from the sky with his mighty angels at his return.[24]

Once the popular and somewhat misleading translation “heaven” is replaced with the common term “sky,” it is easy to see that most of these passages do not argue for a separate location for people to go when they die. However, because so many mistaken assumptions have been read into the texts, some of the passages do require a bit of explanation.

  • The “third sky” of Paul’s vision (2 Corinthians 12:2) is the third creation of the sky. Paul saw into the future – a future after the present sky and land has been destroyed and replaced with the future, eternal sky and land. It is the third sky and land because the first had been destroyed during Noah’s flood. The second sky was that which Paul could see normally by looking up. To see into the future sky required a vision. To live in that future would require a resurrection. For the purposes of this study, it is sufficient to comment that this passage in no way implies continued existence after death.
  • Ephesians 1:10 speaks of the future as well. when all things in the sky and the land are united in Christ. At present, all the holy angels in the sky are united in Christ, but some of the angels are fallen, and will suffer the same fate as Satan, whom they are following to their destruction in Gehenna. Likewise, not all the things on earth are – at present – united in Christ. But in the fullness of time, all those things not yet in Christ will either be reconciled with him, or destroyed by him. Again, there is nothing intrinsic in this verse that demands a conscious intermediate state.
  • Many modern versions translate the phrase pasa patria in Ephesians 3:15 as “every family,”[25] which suggests that there are families already residing “in heaven.” But the NIV version follows another traditional translation option, rendering the phrase “the whole family.”[26] This translation makes the most sense in context, because Paul had just pointed out the fact that Christ is the only one (of the family) who has ascended to the sky, and because of that he can now give gifts to the others (in the family) who are still on the land.[27] So, the “whole family” consists of Christ who is in the sky, and his followers who are not. So, there is no evidence of believers going to heaven when we die in this text either.
  • The post-resurrection future is also in view when Paul speaks of every knee bowing at the name of Jesus (Philippians 2:10). To suggest that Paul also meant that there are presently knees in heaven bowing to Christ, and that those knees belong to saints who have ascended – goes way beyond the boundaries of Paul’s message. It was to these Philippians that Paul revealed that his objective was attaining to the resurrection from the dead.[28] He – that is, Paul — did not imagine bowing his knees to Christ during the intermediate state. Knees are part of the body which is alive. Bowing knees requires that we have knees. The resurrection at Jesus’ return will give those under the ground (whose bodies have decayed) knees again to bow before our Savior.
  • Neither does being registered citizens in the sky kingdom require that believers go anywhere at death. Paul told the Philippians (3:18-21) that there are two kinds of people: there are enemies of the cross of Christ, and us. The god of the enemies is their own belly, and their glory is their shame. They set their minds on the things of the present world. Their end is destruction. But our God is our Savior, and our glory is his return. Our citizenship/ loyalty is directed to the sky where he is. Our end will be the transformation of our lowly bodies to be like his – when he returns. So, once again, Paul is looking ahead to the return of Christ. He is not speaking at all about the intermediate state.
  • Paul spoke of the Colossians as having a hope laid up for them in the sky (1:5). Was this hope different than that he had been proclaiming in his other epistles? No, not at all. It was the hope of glory.[29] But when will those Colossians (and the rest of us) be glorified? “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”[30] The hope the Colossians had was Christ, who is coming down for them from the sky. Their hope was not going to the sky (or anywhere else) after death.

So, after looking at every verse in the New Testament where Paul discusses the word ouranos, we find that not one of them support the concept that it is a destination that Christians go when they die.


But some insist that Paul taught that believers gain their reward for faithful service to Christ at death:

“Death is a homecoming for the Christian. Paul sees it as gain because he sees is as the reward for offering himself as a living sacrifice on this side of the veil.”[31]

  • In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul spoke of two homes: our present home (our present body) and our future home (our future glorified body). But that passage has been ripped from its context and applied to the intermediate state! Traditionalists insist that Paul had another home in mind: a home in heaven between death and the resurrection. But a careful reading of 2 Corinthians 5 shows that Paul stated twice that he was not thinking about the intermediate state. The intermediate state was just that – an intermediate state or condition between life in this home, and life in the next. Paul called that state being naked. He longed for the glorified resurrection body because “by putting it on we may not be found naked.”[32] And then – just in case his readers were not paying attention – he said that believers are presently groaning “because we do not want to be unclothed, but clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.”[33] Paul never spoke of death as going home.

“For the Christian, death brings a better inheritance, a better fellowship, and a better body.”[34]

  • No, for the Christian, Christ brings all these things. But he will do so at the proper time, and in the proper order. The resurrection order is “Christ was raised as the first of the harvest; then all who belong to Christ will be raised when he comes back.”[35]
  • The Greek mystery cults glorified death, but Christianity did not. For the Christian, death remains a part of the curse upon humanity. The LORD warned Adam that the consequence of sin would be death.[36] Death would not be a gateway to another life or location. It would be punishment for sin. The LORD spoke of death as a prison, with “gates of deep darkness.”[37] Those gates will not be opened until our Savior returns with the keys. That is why John’s vision of Christ in Revelation depicted him with keys in his hand.[38]

“For the believer, when he departs from this life he goes to be immediately in the presence of Jesus Christ and as the believer stands before Jesus he receives his reward.”[39]

  • Not quite. The prophet Isaiah said “Say ye to the daughter of Zion, Behold, thy salvation cometh; behold, his reward is with him.”[40] Jesus applied that text to himself and his return when he said “behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be.”[41] So, according to the Rewarder, our reward is not coming at death, but at his second coming. Who should we believe? I choose to believe the rewarder as to the timing of the reception of his reward.

“while we are on this earth, our life belongs to Christ; after this life, because our life belonged to Him here, we gain the reward of eternal life with Him there.”[42]

  • Yes, our reward will be eternal life. But not only will our reward be when Christ comes, it will also be where Christ goes. He is not coming back to take us to heaven. He is coming back to take his rightful place as the rightful “ruler of kings on earth.”[43] His capital will be the new Jerusalem, which John sees coming down out of the sky from God “like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.”[44] To place the bride in heaven when her groom is reigning on earth would be a cruel thing. It would also make it impossible for us to do what the New Testament affirms that we will do. We will reign with him.[45]

“He (Paul) had served the Lord faithfully and now looked forward to receiving ‘a crown of righteousness’ (II Timothy 4:6-8).”[46]

  • Pardon, your slip is showing. Paul was referring to the day of Christ’s return. He specifically stated that the crown of righteousness would be rewarded not only to him that day, “but also to all who have loved his appearing.”[47] We will all receive the reward of eternal righteousness at the same time – not at various times as we each die. The specific day is clear: it is the day of Christ’s appearing (epiphania).

“For every believer there will be one final promotion – Death. That is why we are told not to fear it.”[48]

  • Nowhere ever in Scripture is death called a promotion. It is a curse, a prison, and an enemy.[49] It is never a friend. Paul could not have contradicted himself as an author of Scripture, inspired by the Holy Spirit to produce God’s infallible word. His assertion that his death would be gain cannot be explained by interpreting it in such a way as to make him recant something that he has already said about death. That would be bad theology. Positing that Paul meant that death would be gain in a way that denies its enemy status is bad hermeneutics.


Some simply deny the reality of death altogether. They assert that when the believer appears to die, he or she will simply live on in an eternal life somewhere unseen, and free from all the troubles of this life.

“The deceased will never know another moment of sickness or pain and will live eternally to worship our Lord.”[50]

“What we call death is a transition from a dying body in a dying world to a world of light and life.”[51]

“to die should be seen as a gain … because it would mean that we would be freed from this trouble-filled life on earth to rejoice in Christ’s presence in Heaven.”[52]

  • It may sound comforting to believe that death is a transition to a better world, but that comfort comes with a price. It is a denial that the better world of which the gospel speaks comes not at death but at our Savior’s return. It denies the reality of death, by making it only the appearance of death. To suggest theologically that death is not real leads to a very interesting conundrum: our eternal life is based on the atoning death of Christ on the cross. If death is not real, then what of his death? With the assertion that death is a mere transition to another life elsewhere, the very basis of our salvation stands challenged.

“death is the retirement of this earthly tent with all its weaknesses and temptations and the unification of the Lover to His beloved.”[53]

  • This statement reflects a misreading of 2 Corinthians 5. Paul did compare our earthly bodies with tents, and envisioned a greater, more permanent “eternal dwelling in the heavens.”[54] He spoke of groaning in this body “desiring to put on our dwelling from heaven.”[55] But the crowd who believes that they will retire to mansions in heaven when they die fail to see that Paul was speaking not of the intermediate state, but of the resurrection. Paul longed not to be unclothed, but to be clothed upon with his immortal body. That did not happen when Paul died. It will happen when Paul is raised from the dead.


“living this life with Christ was good, but dying and being in His presence was better.”[56]

“Death is therefore a personal gain for Paul because it means departing the body and being with Christ, and that is better by far.”[57]

“Gaining Christ was Paul’s great passion and goal in all his did. … Paul wanted what would bring the deepest and most lasting satisfaction to his life, namely, being with Christ in glory.”[58]

“Oh to have such an affection for Christ that my life is utterly Christ-centered and my death is a welcome transition to the embrace of my Savior!”[59]

“Christians should view their own forthcoming death as an appointment in Jesus’ calendar, which he will faithfully keep.”[60]

“even in death we gain victory over the grave because when we die and leave this earthly body we still get to be with Him in Heaven if we live for Him on earth.”[61]

“death was to be welcomed as something that brought him closer to the Christ he loved.”[62]

“When our time on earth is over and we die, we will gain eternity with our Lord and Savior.”[63]

“He is either doing the Lord’s work or he is with Christ in Heaven.”[64]

  • Every Christian longs to be in the presence of Christ. But the Bible tells us that we will be with him – not when we die – but when he returns for us. Paul taught that “the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.”[65] Note that this is the only event in which Paul claims that any believer (including himself) would be “with the LORD.
  • To make death our expectation point – the point in which we expect to be reunited with our Savior – glorifies death. It also steals from the glorious event of the second coming, an event which Christians are told to long for.

What did Paul mean by saying that his death would be gain? Perhaps he was not referring to his personal gain at all. Maybe he was speaking of those who would dare to trust Christ after hearing of his martyrdom. He had already noted that his imprisonment had been instrumental in spreading the gospel:

“I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.”[66]

So, it could be that Paul, realizing that his imprisonment was advancing the gospel, might suppose that his death as a believer might lead to even more who would be willing to count everything a loss for the sake of Christ. We do not really know his reason for stating that his death would be gain.

Many feel that he was explaining himself when he said that he had a desire “to depart and be with Christ – which is far better.”[67] They see this as Paul explaining that when he died, his soul would depart this earth and he would be with Christ. But that text actually refers to the second coming. The verb analuō is only found in one other place in the New Testament, it describes a master returning from a wedding feast.[68] So, it is just as linguistically appropriate to translate Paul’s words “having a desire for the return, and to be with Christ – which is far better.” That fits with what Paul had taught elsewhere about his hope to be with Christ at his second coming.

Paul divided all Christendom into two categories. Those who are still alive, and those who have fallen asleep.[69] For those of us still alive, we live with the joyful expectation that some day our Savior will burst the clouds and descend upon this world he rightfully owns. But for those in the second category, those saints which sleep, their next conscious moment will be welcoming the returning Christ. From the standpoint of eternity, nothing is lost by those who have died in Christ. Their gravestones and tombs serve to mark lives which had been invested in Christ, and that investment will result in gain for them and their Lord.

[1] Philippians 1:21.

[2] Philippians 1:20 ESV.

[3] Gordon D. Fee, Listening to the Spirit in the Text. (Grand Rapids, Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000), 11.

[4] Richard S. Ascough, Paul’s Macedonian Associations. (Tūbingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 2003), 119.

[5] Jason Roberts, Moments of Victory. (Xulon Press, 2006), 96.

[6] Christian Nwobu, The Seed of Your Words. (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2010), 25.

[7] Ron Rhodes, The Wonder of Heaven. (Eugene Or: Harvest House Publishers, 2009), 132.

[8] Lester Hutson, Philippians: God’s Love Letter. (Lester Hutson, 2007).

[9] Louw-Nida Greek Lexicon: “space above the earth, including the vault arching high over the earth from one horizon to another, as well as the sun, moon, and stars – ‘sky.’ ”

[10] Romans 1:18.

[11] Romans 10:6.

[12] 1 Corinthians 8:5-6.

[13] 1 Corinthians 15:47-49.

[14] 2 Corinthians 12:2.

[15] Galatians 1:8.

[16] Ephesians 1:10.

[17] Ephesians 3:15.

[18] Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 4:1.

[19] Philippians 2:10.

[20] Philippians 3:20.

[21] Colossians 1:5.

[22] Colossians 1:16, 20, 23.

[23] 1 Thessalonians 4:16.

[24] 2 Thessalonians 1:7.


[26] see also KJV; YLT, and NLT “everything.”

[27] Ephesians 4:8f.

[28] Philippians 3:10-11.

[29] Colossians 1:27.

[30] Colossians 3:4 ESV.

[31] Matt Chandler, Jared C. Wilson, To Live Is Christ to Die Is Gain. (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2013), 38.

[32] 2 Corinthians 5:3 ESV.

[33] 2 Corinthians 5:4 NET.

[34] Mark Hitchcock, 55 Answers to Questions about Life After Death. (Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2005), 76.

[35] 1 Corinthians 15:23 NLT.

[36] Genesis 2:17.

[37] Job 38:17 ESV, NET, NRSV.

[38] Revelation 1:18.

[39] Oliver E. Summers. What Is God Up To? – Why Earth? – Why Eternity? (Xulon Press, 2008), 355.

[40] Isaiah 62:11 KJV.

[41] Revelation 22:12.

[42] Darlene Jones, One Day @ A Time. (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2010), 165.

[43] Revelation 1:5 ESV.

[44] Revelation 21:2. NLT

[45] 2 Timothy 2:12; Revelation 20:6.

[46] Vern E. Spencer, Playing by the Rules. (Xulon Press, 2003), 134.

[47] 2 Timothy 4:8 ESV.

[48] Danny L. Callahan, Triumphant Warriors in a Turbulent World. (Xulon Press, 2008), 101.

[49] 1 Corinthians 15:26.

[50] Denise Hamilton, Trials to Treasure. (Xulon Press, 2008), 144.

[51] Randy Alcorn, In Light of Eternity: Perspectives on Heaven. (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, 1999), 151.

[52] Gregg Joseph Kretschmer and Jason Christian Ravizza, The Waging War Within – A Devotional for Winning the Daily War. (Bloomington, IN: Westbow Press, 2011), 21.

[53] Bill Rudy, Secrets of the Heart. (Jacksonville, FL: Logos Publishing, 2004), 105.

[54] 2 Corinthians 5:1 HCSB.

[55] 2 Corinthians 5:2 HCSB.

[56] Anthony Weber, Learning to Jump Again. (Bloomington, IN: Westbow Press, 2011), 148.

[57] James P. Ware, Paul and the Mission of the Church. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books,2011).

[58] John Piper, Desiring God, Revised Edition: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist. (Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2011), 281.

[59] Will Owens, Unshakable Joy in Uneasy Times. (Bloomington, IN: Crossbooks, 2010), 28.

[60] J. I. Packer, Concise Theology. (Wheaton, IL: Foundation for Reformation, 1993), 248.

[61] Sally Ray Cohran, A Lily of Love. (Xulon Press, 2010), 80.

[62] Alister McGrath, Knowing Christ. (New York: Doubleday, 2002), 2.

[63] Samuel Keith Curran, I-Witness Devotions. (Xulon Press, 2007), 267.

[64] Don Piper, Cecil Murphey, Heaven Is Real. (New York: Penguin Group, 2007).

[65] 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 ESV.

[66] Philippians 1:12-14 ESV.

[67] Philippians 1:23 HCSB.

[68] Luke 12:36.

[69] 1 Corinthians 15:6, 18, 20; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-15; 5:10.


IMG_0789“…gather for the great supper of God…” (Rev. 19:17).

  • Tomorrow will be a day of complete devastation for the unsaved.
  • The fury of God’s wrath will destroy and consume all his enemies.
  • Fire will be the means of that destruction.

God’s word gives us so much insight into our future. But there is a temptation that accompanies the task of reflecting on what God says on the issue of tomorrow. God has a lot of good news to share with us, but he also has a lot of bad news. The topic of the future – after Christ returns – contains the good news of restoration and glorification, but it also contains the bad news of judgment and destruction of the lost. Modern day evangelicals have an aversion to that bad news, so some try to avoid the issue altogether.

Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle confessed to having been in that camp, at first. They wanted to erase hell, but eventually concluded that the concept of hell is biblical, so they had to write about it. They could not “erase God’s revealed plan of punishment because it doesn’t sit well with” them.[1] My chief complaint against their work is they spent more time defending one of the traditional views of hell than they did exegeting the actual texts that describe hell in the Bible.[2] If they had paid more attention to those texts, they would have found that God himself intends to erase hell – after it has done what he plans for it to do.

a great supper of God

Revelation 19:17 mentions a great supper, in which God consumes all his enemies. This is, perhaps, one of the passages predicting punishment that is quoted and referred to the least by theologians and pastors. We are generally uncomfortable with the imagery – I can give you that. But I think there is more to it. The imagery of complete consumption of the lost hints that the lost can be utterly destroyed. They are not immortal, invincible , inconsumable souls. Taking passages like this seriously might mean rethinking hell.

a consuming fire

The Scriptures teach that God is a consuming fire.[3] This attribute of God usually refers to his ability to destroy his enemies utterly. Nadab and Abihu discovered that God was not limited to just making them uncomfortable forever. He could – and did – consume them with fire.[4] The prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel also saw a visual demonstration, when Elijah’s sacrifice was totally consumed by fire from the sky. The Scriptures say “the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The LORD, he is God; the LORD, he is God.””[5] Isaiah also described God’s judgment on the Assyrians as “a flame of devouring fire” kindled by “the breath of the LORD.”[6] These passages show us that there is background evidence in Scripture which lends credence to the concept of utter destruction as the right and proper punishment for sin and sinners.

Final judgment is described as a lake of fire.[7] This would lead to the inference that the lake of fire is where and when God will finally, utterly consume all his enemies. But proponents of other views of hell suggest that God cannot and will not consume, or utterly destroy anyone. Origen suggested that “the God of fire consumes human sins.”[8] He taught a doctrine of the fire of God slowly purging sin from the universe. This view (usually espoused by Catholics) claims that hell will burn until it has destroyed all sin, but sinners themselves will emerge from it.

On the other side of the spectrum, the popular evangelical teaching is that hell consists of “a fire that does not consume.”[9] They insist that the fires of hell must be a perpetual process. So, in effect, they also reinterpret the phrase “consuming fire.” For them, the fire is like the appearance of God before Moses as a burning bush, which did not consume the bush. The lost are protected from the destructive nature of the flames (like the three Hebrew young men in the fiery furnace) but not its pain and torment. For them, “Hell is a place where the unsaved are tortured forever.”[10]

consumption and fire in Revelation

But we must ask not what fire can mean, and what a consuming fire can mean. We must ask what the metaphor of God as a consuming fire does mean in the context of the passages in which it is found. Of particular interest in this study are the two concepts of consumption and fire in the book of Revelation. Let us search the text, and discover the meaning in the text. Let us not use the excuse that the book of Revelation is symbolic. Symbols are a legitimate means of revealing truth. There is always enough data in the text of any biblical book so that we can discern the facts behind the figures of speech it employs.


  • John writes of conquerors who will eat of the tree of life in the paradise of God.[11] Adam & Eve, and all of us who have been born from them have been prohibited from this consumption. But after sinners and all evil have been eradicated, this meal will once again be possible.
  • John reflects Jesus’ condemnation of false teachers at Pergamum, who, like Balaam in the Old Testament , corrupted God’s people by teaching them that certain detestable practices are permitted. The practices he mentions specifically are sexual immorality and eating foods which had been sacrificed to idols.[12]
  • John reflects Jesus invitation to believers in the church at Laodicea to open the door to him, because he is standing at the door, knocking. He promises to come in through the door that they open, and enjoy a meal with them.[13]
  • John has a vision in which he is given a little scroll, and told to eat it. It tasted sweet to his mouth, but turned bitter in his stomach.[14]
  • In the predicted “great supper of God” an angel calls out to “birds that fly directly overhead” – suggesting birds that clean up the dead after battle. They are told “to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all men, both free and slave, both small and great.”[15] The image is of a battle where the only thing left of the enemy is the dead bodies of the fallen. The birds are the clean-up crew.

Again, no one is arguing that every statement in these texts is literal. There is symbolism involved. But even the symbols used in these texts suggest that something has really been consumed. There is no indication that the eating is some kind of ever-enduring process.


  • In the first trumpet of the seven trumpets vision, one third of all the land, the trees and the grass are burned up because of a plague of hail and fire, mixed with blood. They are all said to have been burned up.[16]
  • The Great prostitute is said to be made desolate and naked. Her flesh is devoured and she is burned up with fire.[17]
  • Babylon the Great is also said to be “burned up with fire,” and the people who had “committed sexual immorality and lived in luxury with her” will see the smoke – the evidence of her destruction – and “weep and wail.”[18]
  • Satan, the beast, and the false prophet, and all “the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars” will be throne into the lake of fire.[19] Each will suffer torment for as long as is necessary. But the torment is not the purpose of this lake of fire. No, this is “the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”[20] A lake of fire consumes what is thrown into it. This is the natural reading of the text. It also fits the picture of God as a consuming fire that is evident in the previous Scriptures we have surveyed.

destruction in the rest of the New Testament

The teachings of the rest of the New Testament serve as a corresponding affirmation that the final state of the lost will be complete destruction:

“fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”[21]

“And in the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, “Ha! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are- the Holy One of God.””[22]

“Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.[23]

“Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot- they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all– so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed.”[24]

“Moses said, ‘The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you. And it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people.’”[25]

“If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”[26]

“We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.”[27]

“Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”[28]

“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.[29]

“For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised. For, ‘Yet a little while, and the coming one will come and will not delay; but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him.’ But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and preserve their souls.”[30]

“those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority. … like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction.[31]

Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”[32]

consumption by fire in the rest of the New Testament

The rest of the New Testament also utilizes the metaphor of consumption in fire as a description of God’s judgment on sinners.

“His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clean out his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the storehouse, but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire.””[33]

“Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age.”[34]

“And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?””[35]

“For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.”[36]

“This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken- that is, things that have been made- in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”[37]

“waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!”[38]

In the face of all this evidence from Scripture that the LORD plans to consume his enemies by destroying them with fire at the final judgment, it makes sense to believe this truth, and teach it in our churches. Let us have an end to redefining biblical words and misapplying Scriptural texts. Let us take God at his word regarding the fate of the lost, because he is a consuming fire. The world needs to know that!

[1] Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle, Erasing Hell (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2011), 135.

[2] See my review of the book here:

[3] Deut. 4:24; 9:3; Isa. 33:14; Lam. 2:3; Heb. 12:29.

[4] Leviticus 10:1-2.

[5] 1 Kings 18:38-39.

[6] Isaiah 30:30,33.

[7] Rev. 19:20; 20:10, 14f.

[8] Origen, Homilies on Leviticus. Quoted in Joseph T. Lienhard, ed. Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. (Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 278.

[9] R.T. Kendall, The Parables of Jesus. (Grand Rapids, MI: Chosen Books, 2006), 355. Kendall argued that hell is a place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, and that cannot happen if one is burned up or annihilated. But, anyone can imagine that just before an execution, the condemned would respond to their immanent demise with either grief or anger, or both. Their weeping and gnashing of teeth would be a very natural reaction to their fate, but would by no means prohibit them from subsequently being executed.


[11] Revelation 2:7.

[12] Revelation 2:14, 20.

[13] Revelation 3:20.

[14] Revelation 10:9-10.

[15] Revelation 19:17-18.

[16] Revelation 8:7.

[17] Revelation 17:16.

[18] Revelation 18:1-18.

[19] Revelation 19:20; 21:8.

[20] Revelation 21:8.

[21] Matthew 10:28 ESV. (This and all subsequent references will include underlining for emphasis. The emphases are mine).

[22] Luke 4:33-34 ESV.

[23] Luke 17:26-27 ESV.

[24] Luke 17:28-30 ESV.

[25] Acts 3:22-23 ESV.

[26] 1 Corinthians 3:17 ESV.

[27] 1 Corinthians 10:9-11 ESV.

[28] 1 Corinthians 15:24-26 ESV.

[29] Hebrews 2:14 ESV.

[30] Hebrews 10:36-39 ESV.

[31] 2 Peter 2:10, 12 ESV.

[32] 1 John 3:8 ESV.

[33] Matthew 3:12 NET.

[34] Matthew 13:40 ESV.

[35] Luke 9:54 ESV.

[36] Hebrews 10:26-27 ESV.

[37] Hebrews 12:27-29 ESV.

[38] 2 Peter 3:12 ESV.


IMG_0789“…they will reign with him for a thousand years…” (Rev. 20:6).




  • Tomorrow will be a day of discovery.
  • We will discover what we are really made for.
  • Our future work and identity as priests and kings will clarify our present experiences.

An ancient Philosopher wrote that “God has made everything fit beautifully in its appropriate time, but he has also placed ignorance in the human heart so that people cannot discover what God has ordained, from the beginning to the end of their lives.”[1] He paints the universe as a gigantic puzzle which fits together perfectly, but there are so many pieces that no one but God can see the big picture. As a result, we all go through our lives not understanding our potential, because we cannot see enough of what is. When our Lord returns, that will change. It will be the universe’s ah-ha moment. The redeemed will finally understand what we are made for.

the image of God

We do get glimpses of our purpose and destiny in God’s revealed word: the Bible. One of those glimpses can be found by examining humanity’s distinctive creation.

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, after our likeness,so they may rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move on the earth.” God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.[2]

A great many theologians have unpacked that phrase “image of God” to explain what it means. But often their explanations go far afield of the meaning given to the phrase in the actual verse where it is first found. I have underlined the words “so they may rule” because that is the first description in the Bible for the reason that God chose to create human beings in his image. Our creation in his image had to do with his ultimate purpose for us.

Another clue to the meaning of image (Hebrew: tselem) in this context is how the word was used in Moses’ time and culture. The word image “has a particularly important background in Ancient Near Eastern politics. It is in that context that we learn of ‘powerful kings in the ancient world’ who ‘placed their tselem (statues of themselves) to represent their sovereignty in territories where they were not present.’” [3] In a sense, then, the images of the rulers ruled in their place as their representatives while they were away. When the rulers had sons, those sons were also in their image and likeness and would stand in for the father, commanding as his representatives, and taking tribute and taxes for their father’s kingdom. This way, a man could extend his rule beyond the territory that he might reasonably be expected to control by himself.

It is not too difficult to see how the cults of idol worship and the phenomena of polytheism might have evolved from this practice. It is also interesting to compare this Old Testament text with other sacred texts that came from polytheistic cultures. For example, the Enuma Elish (Babylonian creation epic (tablet 6) contains this statement about humanity’s creation:

“When Marduk hears the words of the gods,His heart prompts (him) to fashion artful works.Opening his mouth, he addresses Ea To impart the plan he had conceived in his heart: ‘Blood I will mass and cause bones to be. I will establish a savage, ‘man’ shall be his name. Verily savage-man I will create. He shall be charged with the service of the gods That they might be at ease!’”[4]

The similarities between this text and Genesis 1:26-27 are striking. In both sacred texts there is a discussion among the deities, although that is not as accurate description of the Hebrew text as it is for the Babylonian one. In both texts, human beings were created for a purpose. These similarities lead anthropologists to surmise that both of these texts stem from an even more ancient tradition. That is partially true. Moses did not invent the story of creation, and neither did these ancient Babylonians. It is our faith in the God of the Bible that leads us to assume that Moses’ description of creation is more accurate and faithful to what really happened. We believe that the Bible is accurate by virtue of our relationship with Christ.

But even if we were to simply compare the two creation accounts at this point, amazing differences emerge.

  • First, compare the descriptions of the nature of these human beings created. In the Hebrew text, these beings are made in God’s image. There is a definite reference to their dignity as creatures, in comparison to all other creatures. The Babylonian text refers to them as savages.
  • Secondly, the Hebrew text extends this dignity to both genders, making a point that both of the sexes possess his image, and both are to be involved in accomplishing his divine purpose. The Babylonian text merely refers to one being, a man.
  • Thirdly, the purpose for human creation is drastically different in the two texts. In the Hebrew text, human beings were created to join God in ruling over the rest of creation. In the Babylonian text, they were created to serve the gods, so that the gods can “be at ease.”

A survey of the remaining texts in the OT where tselem is found is enlightening as well.

  • After the death of Abel and the banishment of Cain, Moses gives the genealogy of Adam through Seth, who is said to be after Adam’s image.[5] This suggests that Seth’s will be the line through whom God’s promised deliverer will come, who will restore humanity to God’s intended dignity, and realign humanity with his intended dignity.
  • God’s covenant with Noah condemned murder because it was destroying a creature who possessed God’s image.[6] Killing people is an insult to God and thwarts his purpose for us.
  • But God’s people were commanded to destroy all the idols, which were images, and demolish all the sacred places they were displayed.[7] Idolatry is condemned because it is a demonic mockery of God’s purposes. God wanted human beings to be his image, not bow down to artificial images made by them.
  • The Philistines, after capturing the ark of the covenant, were so plagued with mice and body tumors that their diviners told them to fashion five golden tumors and five golden mice to accompany the ark as they returned it.[8] These golden objects contained the images of and represented the curse they understood was upon them.
  • The Psalmists speak of the futility of life by describing people as chasing shadows,[9] and God as overcoming Israel’s enemies like waking up from dreams.[10] The image as a lesser representation of the true reality is seen in these uses of tselem.
  • Ezekiel condemned the idolatry Israel was immersed in by describing their images as the jewelry of a prostitute.[11]
  • Amos warned that on the day of the LORD Israel would not be vindicated, but would fall back to the images of the foreign gods they had secretly worshipped.[12]

The New Testament Greek word corresponding to tselem in Hebrew is eikōn, the word from which we get our modern-day term, icon. Notice how the term is used by the New Testament authors:

  • Jesus used it to refer to Caesar’s portrait on a roman coin.[13]
  • Paul used it to refer to idols made to resemble and represent humans and animals.[14]
  • Paul also used it to refer to human destiny. The redeemed are predestined to conform to the image of Christ.[15]
  • Paul also instructed the men of Corinth not to cover their heads in worship, since they represent the glory of God, and are his image.[16]
  • Paul taught that presently Christ is the holder of the unmarred image of God.[17]
  • The author of Hebrews taught that the law was an image because it represented the good things to come, but was not the reality that the gospel is.[18]
  • The Revelation predicted that the great demonic beast would be represented by an image which would be worshipped and would rule over men.[19]

Given this data, which consists of every use of the term tselem in the OT and eikōn in the NT, what are we to conclude that the basic, primary meaning of the words are? We can immediately conclude that in absolutely none of these references is there an implication that the image necessitates immortality. In fact, three terms encompass the meaning of these words in all these various contexts: dignity, representation and rule.

Revelation 20:6

Those three concepts come together so well in the back of the book, where the redeemed are promised an eternity of priesthood and kingship. John says “Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. For them the second death holds no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him a thousand years.”[20] Later the promise is repeated, and it is made clear that the redeemed will actually share that status not just for a 1000 year millennium, but for eternity.[21] But consider the significance of what is promised when our Lord returns. He promises us a priesthood. Priests are representatives of God before man, and vice versa. They intercede before God on behalf of the community, and they represent God in his holiness before the community. Here is a combination of the two ideas of dignity and representation. The kingship combines all three tselem ideas, because a king has the highest status among the people, he represents them before God, and he rules them.

why no prophets?

No doubt many readers by now are seeing a correlation between these descriptions of human destiny and the threefold messianic expectations. The Messiah was expected to be both prophet, priest and king. Eusebius was the first to delineate this theological classification. He said “And we have been told also that certain of the prophets themselves became, by the act of anointing, Christs in type, so that all these have reference to the true Christ, the divinely inspired and heavenly Word, who is the only high priest of all, and the only King of every creature, and the Father’s only supreme prophet of prophets.”[22] Theologians since his time have also pointed out this significant three-fold office that Christ holds.

But why are there to be no prophets among humanity in all eternity? The simplest answer is that when our Lord returns he will completely and utterly fulfill the function of a prophet by conveying all we will ever need to know about God to his own that he has redeemed. As the apostle Paul puts it, “Now we see things imperfectly as in a cloudy mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.”[23]

But since that is so, isn’t it also true that the roles of priesthood and kingship will also be superfluous throughout eternity? There will be no sins to sacrifice for, and no rebellion to quell. So, why does the Bible describe our eternal fate using these terms?

eternal priesthood

There is more to the priesthood that just interceding for the sinful. The priests in the Old Testament were there to represent the holiness of the God who chose to tabernacle among them. When serving in the tabernacle (and, later, the temple), the priests wore special garments that set them apart from the rest of the community. When they walked among their people, they were to maintain strict standards of separation and had to avoid all kinds of common things that would defile them, making them unfit for service.

The picture of an eternal priesthood tells believers today that their destiny is to represent God in his holiness forever. This goes way beyond the purposes of the Aaronic priesthood, but that priesthood and temple served as a “sketch and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary.”[24] God will be manifesting his holiness throughout eternity, and redeemed humanity will be there as part of that manifestation.

eternal kingship

The dominion God wanted for mankind on planet earth will be accomplished throughout the universe by an eternal kingship. But – once again, we might ask – why kings when there is no rebellion to quell? Well, there was no rebellion in the original creation either. But God still gave a great commission to humanity to have dominion over his creation. The king of Kings wishes to share his authority and glory with those whom he has rescued from death. Perhaps the answer is no more complicated than that. He does not want us to be saved so that we sit on a shelf as his eternal trophies. He redeemed us so that we can accomplish his original purpose, albeit on a much grander scale.

what we are made for

Perhaps knowing what we are ultimately made for will encourage us in these dark days of our pre-existence. We are not yet what we are supposed to be, so if we do not feel as holy as a priest, or as powerful as a king, at least we can trust in his promises for our future destiny. But we can also take these future realities as symbols of his present will for us. God takes no eternal pleasure in our sinfulness and sickness and failure to represent his glory. He wants more for us. He made us for more. When we encounter obstacles to that perfect will, we can pray in confidence, knowing that he does not want us blind and crippled and broken. He has a destiny for us that is more than that.

the here and now

Our present experiences are always going to be much less that that ideal. We are going to fail, and we are going to experience times of slavery and shame. But perhaps just knowing about that glorious destiny that awaits us when our Savior breaks through the clouds will help us endure and eventually overcome those times of failure with a faith that can look beyond them. Our faith is not in us, and our present abilities or capabilities. Our faith is in our coming King who now serves as our great High Priest.

[1] Ecclesiastes 3:11.

[2] Genesis 1:26-27 NET (emphasis mine).

[3] James M. Childs, Greed: Economics and Ethics in Conflict (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 25.

[4] James Bennett Pritchard, ed. The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures. (Princeton University Press: Princeton NJ, 2011), 33.

[5] Genesis 5:3.

[6] Genesis 9:6.

[7] Numbers 33:52; 2 Kings 11:18; 2 Chronicles 23:17.

[8] 1 Samuel 6:5, 11.

[9] Psalm 39:7.

[10] Psalm 73:20.

[11] Ezekiel 7:20; 16:17; 23:14.

[12] Amos 5:26.

[13] Matthew 22:20; Mark 12:16; Luke 20:24.

[14] Romans 1:23.

[15] Romans 8:29; 1 Corinthians 15:49; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Colossians 3:10.

[16] 1 Corinthians 11:7.

[17] 2 Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15.

[18] Hebrews 10:1.

[19] Revelation 13:14,15; 14:9, 11; 15:2; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4.

[20] Revelation 20:6 NLT.

[21] Revelation 22:5.

[22] Hist. eccl. 1.3.8, in Philip Schaff, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series (New York, 1890), 1:86.

[23] 1 Corinthians 13:12 NLT.

[24] Hebrews 8:5 NET.


IMG_0789“…the dwelling place of God is with man…” (Rev. 21:3).

·         Tomorrow will be a day of homecoming for God.

·         The Christian hope is not about going somewhere to be with God.

·         It is about God’s plan to invade humanity with his glory forever.


If you ask many Christians what their purpose in life is, they might say something like “to get to heaven.”  This is the kind of mindset made popular by evangelistic preachers of the last few  centuries.  But they have created that mindset by consistently misquoting and misrepresenting the promises of Scripture. 

Billy Graham’s heaven

I have deep respect for Dr. Billy Graham and his life of service to the Lord, but his sermons and writings actually serve as an example of this problem.  He quotes John 14:3, which has Jesus saying “Where I am, there you may be also.”  So he uses that verse to prove that heaven is the goal of the Christian, and that one can get there when he or she dies.[1]  But Jesus’ promise in John 14:3 is not about death at all.  He says “I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”[2]  The hope that Jesus promised was not the hope of going to God at death, but the hope of Christ coming back to take us – not to heaven – but to himself.  This distinction is all the more important when we realize that Jesus’ purpose when he returns is to reign on this earth!  The last thing a true Christian should want is to be away in some place called heaven when the Savior is reigning on earth.

Graham spoke of heaven like a journey to a place that you had to decide to go, and purchase a ticket for in this life.  He spoke of Jesus’ blood as the price that paid that ticket, and quoted John 14:6 as a proof text.[3]  True, Jesus did say “No one comes to the Father except through me.”  But he was not speaking at all about a place one gets to go to because of the atonement.  The way to the Father was reconciliation of a relationship, not the fare for a new location.

Graham sees this location described in the book of Revelation.  He says that John had “caught a glimpse of heaven” and described it there. So he concludes that “when we get to heaven, all the elements that made for unhappiness on earth will be gone. Think of a place where there is no sin, no sorrow, no insecurities, no quarrels, no selfishness, no racism, no misunderstandings, no hurt feelings, no worries, no pain, no sickness, no suffering, no death.” [4] 

The believer’s hope in Revelation

But can we allow the Bible to determine what the Christian’s hope is?  If we actually look at the book of Revelation, it describes the hope of the believer in this way: 

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.  4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”  5 And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”[5]

John does not see a people coming up to heaven from earth.  He sees a city coming down out of the sky from God.  He sees God himself invading earth.  In fact, John describes both advents as invasions from outer space.  He said “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”[6]  That was the first advent, when Jesus Christ came and lived among us.  At the second advent, when Jesus returns, all of God’s holiness will come down to earth with him. 

the temple from Genesis to Revelation

G.K. Beale’s phenomenal book   The Temple and the Church’s Mission[7]  argued that all of the Bible’s descriptions of the presence of God among men — from Eden to the eschaton — were pictures of God’s ultimate purpose.  His purpose in the Old Testament and the New will culminate in his coming down to us, and residing among us.  The tabernacle, and later, each successive temple was a physical and prophetic manifestation of that plan.  Jesus’ first advent was an even more specific physical manifestation of God’s glory among us.  Like all the temples before him, the temple of Jesus’ body was destined for destruction.  But his resurrection signaled that death will not be the end of the Holy Spirit indwelling the church.  In fact, even the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is merely a guarantee of a future, permanent indwelling.[8]


Notice, for example, these instances of the Hebrew word Shachanti  (I will dwell)  in the Old Testament).

·         “And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst.”[9]

·         I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God.”[10]

·         “And I will dwell among the children of Israel and will not forsake my people Israel.”[11]

·         “Now let them put away their whoring and the dead bodies of their kings far from me, and I will dwell in their midst forever.”[12]

·         “Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold, I come and I will dwell in your midst, declares the LORD.”[13]

·         “And many nations shall join themselves to the LORD in that day, and shall be my people. And I will dwell in your midst, and you shall know that the LORD of hosts has sent me to you.”[14]

·         “Thus says the LORD: I have returned to Zion and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem, and Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the LORD of hosts, the holy mountain.”[15]

The holiness of God’s people was directly related to his presence among them.[16]   The temple was to be a manifestation of that dwelling and that holiness.  But even Solomon recognized that the temple served only as a symbolic reflection of the presence.[17]  God intends to dwell in the midst of humanity in a deeper, more real sense.  He intends to invade the planet, bringing his holiness and sinlessness to the whole universe.   Once the universe is purged of every evil thing, and everyone not found in the Lamb’s book of life has died the second death, God will come down to reside among us forever.  His presence will ensure that the new earth remains pure and sinless forever. That is what the Bible story is all about. 

Christ’s role in the plan

Jesus serves as the crucial figure in the process of making that divine plan happen.   He came and pitched his tent (Greek: skénoō) among us,[18]  and because of what he did, the dwelling place (Greek: skénoō) will be “with man.  He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.”[19]  John sees that ultimate event as a tremendous uncountable crowd of people redeemed from every nation on earth.  These “are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter (Greek: skénōsei) them with his presence.”

Ezekiel’s temple

The prophet Ezekiel described a future temple that would be constructed as part of the new holy city.[20]  Some interpreters believe he is describing a physical temple that will be built during the millennial reign of Christ, but the New Testament use of the word temple to describe Christ[21]   or Christian believers[22]  would make a new physical temple superfluous.  It would be reverting to the type after the arrival of its fulfillment.  It makes more sense to see Ezekiel’s temple as an allegorical reflection on God’s will for redeeming Israel by restoring his glorious presence in eternity.  As such, it is essentially the same message that John gives in Revelation, albeit John is speaking of the eternal sanctification of all who are in Christ, while Ezekiel concentrated on a sanctified Israel.

the kingdom from the sky

The key to this ultimate sanctified community is the presence of God coming down to earth and establishing his kingdom.  This kingdom can be sought now, and by trusting in Christ a person can enter this kingdom of God by faith. But it can also be inherited, because its final fulfillment has not yet come.  It is called “the kingdom of God”[23]  because it is the same thing as the eternal relationship with God that John pictures in Revelation.  It is also called “the kingdom from the sky”[24]  because it will descend from the sky as John  describes in Revelation. 

The unanimous mistranslation of hé basileía tōn ouranōn as “the kingdom of heaven” is unfortunate, because it has added to the misconception that the goal of Christianity is to get people to a new location after they die.  That notion fit well with the pagan understandings of the first few centuries that the goal of a good life was release into the heavenly realms, but it has never fit with what the Bible proclaims as God’s ultimate purpose.  His purpose (as revealed in Revelation 20:3) is for his presence to come down and reside eternally with us.  This is why John the Baptist, proclaiming this coming kingdom, urged his people to “make his paths straight.”[25]  The picture is not one of our making ourselves ready for a trip up to him, but of making ourselves ready for his trip down to us.

Both the Hebrew word shamayim and the Greek word ouranos can sometimes refer to the place where God dwells with his angels.  But both words are also the normal, everyday words used for the sky, as opposite the Hebrew erets and the Greek .  Both of those words are somewhat consistently translated into English as “earth.”  But the words almost invariably simply mean “land” as opposite “sky.”  The consistent mistranslation of these words in combination: “heaven and earth” has bolstered an unbiblical cosmology, as if the universe can be divided into two distinct places.  Man lives on a place called earth but God resides in another place called heaven.

Purely as a result of a verbal accident, sometimes shamayim va’arets/ ho ouranos kai hé gé does appear to refer to the known universe.  God is called the possessor of both.[26]  He calls both to witness those who covenant to follow the law.[27]  He made both.[28]  He is Lord of both.[29]  But there are an uncomfortable bunch of texts which seem to ruin that carefully crafted cosmology, by introducing a third element (the seas) into the expression.[30]  There are also  texts which state that both the ouranos and gé  are going to pass away.[31]  Given these realities, it makes more sense to translate all of the expressions as referring to “the sky and the land” – thus eliminating the phrase as a cosmological summary.  But this author doubts that the major Bible translations would ever concede this point, since to do so would be to drastically reduce the number of proof-texts for the cherished “going to heaven when we die” doctrine.[32]

The real biblical cosmology is reference not to two places, but to one event.  God is invading this planet with his presence.  He did so temporarily at the first coming of Christ.  He did so for the church at Pentecost by sending the Holy Spirit.  But the final and ultimate invasion is yet to come.  The lost today are being challenged to join this coming kingdom – this kingdom coming down from the sky.  Its coming – his coming – is sure and certain.  There is no way to avoid this event.   The question for everyone today is not where we are going when we die, but are we ready for his coming.  Jesus is preparing a place – not for us to go to when we die, but to bring with him when he comes.   John saw that place coming down from the sky.  So will we.

[1] Billy Graham, The Heaven Answer Book.  (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2012), 109.

[2] John 14:3  ESV.

[3] Billy Graham,  Unto the Hills: A Daily Devotional.  (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 2.

[4] Billy Graham,  Hope for the Troubled Heart: Finding God in the Midst of Pain.  (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2000),

[5] Revelation 21:1-5   ESV.

[6] John 1:14  ESV.

[7] G.K. Beale,  The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God.  (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press,2004).

[8] 2 Corinthians 1:22; 5:5; Ephesians 1:14.

[9] Exodus 25:8 ESV.

[10] Exodus 29:45 ESV.

[11] 1 Kings 6:13 ESV.

[12] Ezekiel 43:9 ESV.

[13] Zechariah 2:10 ESV.

[14] Zechariah 2:11 ESV.

[15] Zechariah 8:3 ESV.

[16] Numbers 35:34.

[17] 1 Kings 8:27.

[18] John 1:14.

[19] Revelation 21:3.

[20] Ezekiel 40-48.

[21] Mark 14:58; John 2:19.

[22] 2 Corinthians 6:16.

[23] Matt. 6:33; 12:28; 19:24; 21:31, 43; Mark 1:15; 4:11, 26, 30; 9:1, 47; 10:14f, 23ff; 12:34; 14:25; 15:43; Luke 4:43; 6:20; 7:28; 8:1, 10; 9:2, 11, 27, 60, 62; 10:9, 11; 11:20; 13:18, 20, 28f; 14:15; 16:16; 17:20f; 18:16f, 24f, 29; 19:11; 21:31; 22:16, 18; 23:51; John 3:3, 5; Acts 1:3; 8:12; 14:22; 19:8; 28:23, 31; Rom. 14:17; 1 Cor. 4:20; 6:9f; 15:50; Gal. 5:21; Col. 4:11; 2 Thess. 1:5.

[24] Matt. 3:2; 4:17; 5:3, 10, 19f; 7:21; 8:11; 10:7; 11:11f; 13:11, 24, 31, 33, 44f, 47, 52; 16:19; 18:1, 3f, 23; 19:12, 14, 23; 20:1; 22:2; 23:13; 25:1.

[25] Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4.

[26] Genesis 14:19, 22.

[27] Deuteronomy 4:26; 30:19; 31:28.

[28] Genesis 1:1; Exodus 31:17;  2 Chronicles 2:12; Psalm 115:15; 121:2; 134:3.

[29] Matthew 11:25; Luke 10:21;  Acts 17:24.

[30] Exodus 20:11; Psalm 69:34; 146:6; Revelation 14:7.

[31] Matthew 5:18;24:35; Mark 13:31; Luke 21:33.

[32] For more evidence that the destiny of believers is resurrection at Christ’s return, not heaven at death, see my Kindle e-book  An Advent Christian Systematic Theology,  chapters 19, 21, 24, 61, 66, and appendices C and D.