Some define hell as everlasting and utter separation from God. This certainly is supported biblically. However, many believe that people can be endlessly and utterly separated from God — Life Himself — and still be alive, experiencing unending suffering. How can someone be alive if they’re endlessly and completely separated from the Creator and Sustainer of all?

When people are alive, they’re connected to the Life Source; they have the breath of God in them. Even people who are far from God now are connected to Him enough to be alive; they’re still tethered to the Creator. God maintains that connection to give them an opportunity to choose Him. That opportunity spans their lifetime. When they die, their choice is sealed.

At the last judgment, God will honor each person’s choice and accordingly grant them either everlasting life or the second death (the death from which there’s no resurrection). After that point, there will be no life connection — not even a tether — for those who, in their lifetime, chose to stay in rebellion against God.

What would be the purpose of such a tether between the unrepentant and the Life Source? What would be the point of God keeping them alive? I can think of only one purpose: cruelty on the part of the One who is Love. That’s one of the many reasons why the notion of everlasting suffering in hell isn’t just unbiblical; it’s unthinkable.

Sometimes we read the book of Job in the Bible and think that the message is that we can’t know or understand why there’s suffering; we just need to trust God and not try to figure it out. But, I think there’s a broader message that encourages us to strive forward in seeking rather than sit back in silence.

Near the end of the story, God humbled Job and his “comforters” — putting them in their place by letting them know that they know relatively nothing. God didn’t provide answers as they probably hoped He would. But, He did provide perspective, His sovereignty, and Himself. He offered Himself up to be trusted.

Perhaps Job and the others didn’t get all of the answers they were looking for, but they got all of what God offered up, and that’s no small thing. That’s not God being condescending; that’s God being God. There’s only so much our limited minds can grasp, and God is gracious in light of that.

But, wait — there’s more. God does provide one important answer in Job 42:7. And, it’s not just an answer; it’s an invitation for them to keep wrestling with the issue. “The Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite, ‘My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of Me what is right as My servant Job has.’” God didn’t participate in a Q&A session as they might have liked, but He did affirm what Job claimed to be true about God. That says a lot. Perhaps God’s response can be summed up this way: You have such an incredibly long way to go in knowledge and understanding, but Job has taken a step in the right direction. Keep going in that direction.

For all of the answers we think we have, we still know relatively nothing. Granted. But, that doesn’t mean that we don’t ask, seek, and knock. It’s important, though, whom we ask, what we seek, and which door we knock on.

Let’s remember what Jesus said in Matthew 7:7-11. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks, it will be opened. What man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a snake? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!”

When we ask God, when we seek Truth (who is God), and when we knock on His door, He will give us as much as we can take in at once. We’d be foolish to ask, seek, and knock only once.

God didn’t tell Job and the others to shut up because they know nothing and can’t possibly know anything. He told them that what Job knew was a drop in the bucket, and He graciously affirmed that little drop of knowledge.

We’re maturing children with a loving Father. We learn as we grow. If we’re growing in God, we know and understand more than we did a year ago. Five years from now — if we continue to ask, seek, and knock — we’ll know and understand more than we do now. We never “arrive” because God alone has unlimited knowledge and comprehension. But, throughout eternity, we’ll know and understand more and more. That will be one of the gifts of everlasting life.

“Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped” (Philippians 2:5-6).

But, Lucifer did. He said in his heart, “I will ascend into heaven. … I will be like the Most High” (Isaiah 14:13-14).

The first lie ever told is that God can’t be trusted because He’s withholding something that we deserve. Lucifer told himself this lie and believed it. Then, he told the second lie — wrapping it up in the first one — and got Adam and Eve to believe both of them:

“You surely will not die! For God knows that, on the day you eat of it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4-5).

Perhaps the most insightful definition of sin is missing out on what God has for us. As always, the devil flips that on its head and presents a counterfeit, aiming to convince us that we’re missing out if we choose to live God’s way.

The consequence of sin is the second death — the death from which there’s no resurrection. The devil tells us that, instead, sin is the ticket to real living. Only the repentant will inherit eternal life and experience the fullness of life that we can only imagine now. In a sense, the second death (hell) is the ultimate missing out. That’s the tragic irony of the two lies.

I met a “new” neighbor on my walk this morning. Charlotte’s a lovely lady in her 90s. She gave me a tour of her property, and we chatted about family (she and her husband have 13 children between them), music (she plays the baritone ukulele), art (she paints beautifully), politics (we’re appalled and inspired by the same things), and snowshoeing (we both can’t get enough of it).

I told her that “Charlotte” is my favorite name and that it’s the name of the lead character in the book I’m writing. She asked me what it’s about. I didn’t want to go into the whole “death and hell” thing for a couple of reasons. First of all, while it’s a significant portion of the book, that’s not really what the book is about. Second, I thought that the main point of the book was far more likely to be common ground between us.

I told Charlotte that the title is The Beginning and the End of Suffering. So many people wonder why there’s suffering in the world, especially when there’s supposedly an all-powerful and loving God. My book seeks to explain why there’s suffering and to share the hope that, one day, suffering will end; the universe will be restored to the suffering-free zone that it was to begin with.

Here’s where I got a surprise: Charlotte’s on a different page. She told me that she believes in evolution and that suffering is a necessary part of existence. She doesn’t appear to believe what I do about God creating a perfect world that became cursed by sin when Adam rebelled.

The experience taught me a couple of things. First, I shouldn’t presume to know what someone believes; they might surprise me. Second, here’s the safest common ground to appeal to: Suffering needs to end. Even if I’m wrong that there will be an end to suffering one day, I don’t think I’ll ever meet anyone who doesn’t agree with me that suffering has to go. Suffering is our common enemy. It needs to stop.

I’m sure I’ll see Charlotte again, and I want to know more. When we have more time, I want to listen to her story. I want to hear what she believes and why she believes it. I’d like to know about her fears and her hopes.

I didn’t get much exercise on my walk today, but I got so much more.

I’m listening to some lectures about the Bible. Here’s something that was said about digital information and, ultimately, about human beings:

“Messages do not require embodiment. They can exist in their own right. Software has no mass. Now, what does that mean? If time is a physical property and software has no mass, it has no time dimension. What that really means is, the real ‘you’ is eternal, whether you are saved or not. The issue is, where are you going to spend it?”

If I may, I’ll make the analogy abundantly clear:

Human beings do not require embodiment. We can exist in our own right. We have no mass. Thus, we have no time dimension. The real ‘us’ is eternal, whether or not we’re saved. The issue is where we’re going to spend eternity.

Is this biblical? Let’s take a look.

Spirit and Soul

Genesis 2:7 says this about human life:

“The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath (nᵊšāmâ) of life, and man became a living being (nep̄eš).”

I included the Hebrew words to show how the Bible makes an important distinction that I think is missing in the analogy. The word nᵊšāmâ is sometimes translated as “spirit.” The word nep̄eš is sometimes translated as “soul.” So, the text basically says this: When you add the spirit of life to a body, you get a soul. BODY + SPIRIT = SOUL.

According to the Bible, a soul is simply a living person who is a blend of body and spirit. Indeed, a soul depends on both body and spirit to exist. Without that combination, you have just a lifeless body and some breath. There’s no evidence that God created human beings to be independent of a body at any point.

I believe that it’s that breath (spirit) that’s a better fit for what was said in the lecture. Let’s take the analogy again. It connected digital information with human beings (which the Bible sometimes calls “souls”). This time, let’s connect the analogy with the spirit (breath) instead of the soul:

Spirit does not require embodiment. It exists in its own right. It has no mass. Thus, it has no time dimension. The real spirit is eternal, whether or not we’re saved. The issue is whether or not our bodies are made alive by the spirit.

Now, that’s biblical (and more sensical). The Bible describes the spirit as everlasting, in the sense of “without beginning or end.” But, here’s the thing. God is spirit. He alone has immortality. God is the breath of life. Living human beings are not the breath of life, the spirit. We aren’t spirit; we have spirit. Anyone is alive only because God’s spirit has been breathed into a body. That’s what Genesis 2:7 and other passages say.

Ecclesiastes 12:7 explains death, which is the reverse process:

“The dust returns to the earth where it was,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”

The spirit — God’s breath — returns to Him when we die. The spirit — God’s breath — cannot die. It’s the life force itself.

When the concepts of spirit and soul are conflated, the issue is confused. When you put “soul” where “spirit” belongs, it makes human beings immortal — a quality that belongs to God alone. It also upends the concept of death.

Heaven and Hell?

That brings me to the final point I quoted above: “The issue is, where are you going to spend [eternity]?”

In an “immortal soul” paradigm, location is all-important. Everything is about heaven or hell. It’s a common refrain. But, this paradigm isn’t biblical. I’ve already covered one point about that — God alone has immortality. Here’s another one: The Bible uses a “location paradigm” only a handful of times, and it’s always to express extremes (the highest place versus the lowest place) in order to express totality. Here’s one example, Job 11:8, which is representative of every instance that the Bible uses the words heaven and hell together:

“God’s wisdom is higher than heaven.
What can you do?
It is deeper than the depths of hell.
What can you know?”

The Bible’s “heaven and hell” paradigm is not related to being saved or lost. When it comes to being saved or lost, the Bible has a different paradigm: life and death. Forget the paradigm of “heaven and hell.” Embrace the paradigm of “life and death.” Everything will come into focus. You’ll see the thread through every page of the Bible.

The devil conspires to confuse the issue. He seeks to scare us into false belief or turn us off to God. He hopes to hijack what belongs only to God. In the devil’s paradigm, the issue is where we’re going to spend eternity: hell or heaven. In God’s paradigm, the issue is how we’re going to spend eternity: dead or alive.

I just finished reading the book 10 Mistakes People Make About Heaven, Hell, and the Afterlife by Mike Fabarez. Fabarez holds the popular view that hell is eternal conscious torment. He referenced Revelation 20:14 (“Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire”), saying that the last term the Bible uses for hell is “the lake of fire.” I was sorry that he didn’t continue to the rest of the verse, which truly contains the last term the Bible uses for hell: “This is the second death.”

Fabarez went on to say that “the lost will be consigned permanently, physically, and consciously to experience a kind of living that is described as death.” I had to read it again: “A kind of living that is described as death.” That is mighty strange.

This is why it’s important to understand what the Bible teaches about death if we are to understand what it teaches about hell. Hell is “the second death.” In fact, the Hebrew and Greek words that are sometimes translated as “hell” are sometimes translated as “grave.” According to the Bible, hell is the grave.

Just as the first death is nonexistence, the second death is nonexistence. It’s not “a kind of living.” That’s what the devil wants us to believe. As he told Eve, “You surely will not die! … Your eyes will be opened.” Only in that deceitful paradigm is death “a kind of living.”

Two Vastly Different Paradigms

It’s critical to understand the differences between the two worldviews. Let’s look at the distinctions in two important areas that relate to death and hell.

Spirit vs. Soul

  • Pagan paradigm: “You have a soul that is immortal.”
  • Biblical paradigm: “You are a soul that depends on the immortal spirit (breath) of God because God alone has immortality.” (See Genesis 2:7, and notice the Hebrew words.)

Eternal Status

  • Pagan paradigm: “What matters is where you spend eternity — hell or heaven.”
  • Biblical paradigm: “What matters is how you spend eternity — dead or alive.” (See John 3:16.)

Wrapping Up

All of that being said, I appreciate Fabarez’s sincere effort to understand and share what the Bible teaches. A love of truth is paramount, and I think he has that. None of us gets it all right. But, if we love truth more than we love our current beliefs, we’ll be fine.

You might want to read 10 Mistakes People Make About Heaven, Hell, and the Afterlife and decide for yourself. I’d like to hear your observations.

Most of us have wondered what hell is like. One of the best clues we have about the nature of hell is what happened with Jesus on the cross and in the grave.

Jesus laid down His life to atone for sin. He died to atone for sin. He went to the grave to atone for sin. With His death, He fully paid the wages of sin for those who trust Him with their salvation.

Those who do not trust Jesus with their salvation will pay the wages themselves. They will atone for their own sins. How? The same way Jesus did—by dying the second death. This is the death from which there’s no resurrection (unless you’re God—unless you are the life force yourself).

Jesus is not suffering eternal torment to atone for sin. Those who trust themselves for their own salvation will not suffer eternal torment to atone for their sin. They will go to the grave, as Jesus did. It’s no surprise, then, that the word usually translated as “hell” in English Bible translations means “grave.”

Hell Is the Grave

So, when we ask what hell is like, we ask what the grave is like—basically, what it’s like to be dead. After Jesus’ resurrection, He had no experience to report. After Lazarus’s resurrection, He had no experience to report. In the Bible, people whom God raised from the dead had nothing to report. God resurrected them from nothingness: “The dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5).

Just as God brought Adam into existence from nonexistence (Genesis 2:7), we return to nonexistence when we die (Ecclesiastes 12:7). That’s why the word usually translated as “hell” in English Bible translations means “grave.” That’s why the Bible refers to the destruction of the lost as “the second death” (Revelation 2:11, 20:6, 20:14, 21:8).

When we seek to understand what hell is like, we can take clues from Dante’s Inferno (still good for literary value), Far Side cartoons (still good for a laugh), or the Bible. (If you’re thinking that the story of the rich man and Lazarus is the model, please read this).

“It Is Finished”

It comes down to this: Why would the lost receive a different consequence for sin than Jesus did? Why would Jesus pay a different price for sin than the lost will? The old covenant atonement system required the death—not the eternal suffering—of an innocent lamb. The wages of sin is death.

Regarding Jesus’ atonement act, “it is finished” and complete. Regarding the atonement for the lost, it will be finished and complete. There will be an end to suffering. “’There shall be no more death.’ Neither shall there be any more sorrow nor crying nor pain” (Revelation 21:4).

The debate about what happens when we die essentially comes down to two opposing views: non-existence vs. a new form and/or place of existence. Either death is the cessation of life (and therefore existence), or death involves a journey to “the other side” or “a better place” where life goes on. Which is it? How can we know?

How Do We Know What’s True?

We can consult three sources as we seek to understand what happens when we die: scripture, experience, and observation. Let’s take a look at each.

The best source of information about what happens when we die is the Bible. That’s because it’s the Creator’s word that has been well-validated over the millennia. No other scripture passes the tests that the Bible passes when it comes to trustworthiness.

Experience and observation are helpful sources of information about what happens when we die only in this sense: They provide nothing substantive. Althought it records a few resurrections from the dead, the Bible records zero accounts of experiences people had while they were dead. Lazarus had no stories to tell (John 11-12). Jesus said only that He had not yet ascended to the Father (John 20:17).

(By the way, you might wonder about the Lazarus who features in the story Jesus told in Luke 16. Rather than a literal account, it’s a parable that Jesus told to teach the concept that your economic status doesn’t determine your salvation. Learn more about that story.)

To follow is a bit more on what the Bible says about the two schools of thought about what happens when we die.

What Happens When We Die: View #1

View #1 is non-existence—that death is the cessation of life. Here are just a couple of representative Bible texts that support this position:

  • “The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5).
  • “The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any who go down into silence” (Psalm 115:17).

According to the Bible, death is non-existence. Just as a body infused with God’s spirit (breath) comes into existence (Genesis 2:7), a person ceases to exist when God’s spirit (breath) leaves the body (Ecclesiastes 12:7).

The Bible uses the term “soul” to denote a living person (Genesis 2:7, 1 Peter 3:20, etc.). The concept of “soul” is completely distinct from “spirit,” which is the immortal breath of God or the life force (Genesis 2:7, Job 33:4, etc.). A person does not have a soul; a person is a soul. A soul is a combination of body and spirit; it depends on both to exist.

What Happens When We Die: View #2

View #2 about what happens when we die is a new form and/or place of existence—that death involves a journey to “the other side” or “a better place” where life goes on. Here’s what the Bible has to say on the matter:

“The serpent said to the woman, ‘You surely will not die! For God knows that, on the day you eat of it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God’“ (Genesis 3:4-5).

God had told Adam and Eve that they would die if they ate from the tree of knowledge (Genesis 2:17). In direct opposition to God’s word, the devil told Eve that she wouldn’t die. Instead, she would be elevated to a higher plane of existence.

View #2 is a lie perpetrated by the devil. In the third and fourth centuries, the lie entered mainstream Christian theology by way of Greek philosophers who adopted the idea from Egyptian pagans. Here’s what a few historians have to say on the matter:

  • “The notion of the soul going to heaven when you die and the body being left behind on earth: That’s a notion that is widespread in the Christian tradition nowadays. It comes from Plato, and I worry that there’s a spirituality attached to that, which is specifically Platonic and not Christian” (Phillip Cary, Philosophy and Religion in the West).
  • “Many early Christians had a deep respect for Pythagoras. … Jerome (c. 347 – 420) praises Pythagoras … and credits Pythagoras for his belief in the immortality of the soul, which he suggests Christians inherited from him. … Pythagoras studied with the Egyptian priests at Thebes” (”Pythagoras,” Wikipedia).
  • Some ancient writers claimed that Pythagoras learned the doctrine of metempsychosis (the transmigration of souls) from the Egyptians (see Pythagoras: His Life, Teachings, and Influence by Christoph Riedweg and Life of Pythagoras by Porphyry).

Historians know that the concept of an immortal soul (life after life) isn’t biblical; many theologians do not. Most Christians aren’t aware of the concept’s origin and geneology.

Good News for the Redeemed

On the surface, without its origin revealed, it might seem that View #2 about what happens when we die is preferable. Life on a higher plane or in a better place certainly sounds better than non-existence. But, as always, God knows what He’s doing. Just as He created human beings to begin with, He can revive people who died.

The Bible tells about a few of these instances and promises mass resurrections in the future. The dead will live again. When the redeemed are resurrected, they will be raised to eternal life. Eternal life for the saved will begin, not one at a time, but all together (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Hebrews 11:39-40, etc.).

We don’t have to worry about our deceased loved ones building new lives in eternity without us. Those who have lost a child will get to pick up right where they left off and raise that child themselves. Eternity will begin when we all can experience it together. We can content ourselves about our loved ones who rest in peace—those who are asleep in Jesus (Daniel 12:2, 1 Corinthians 15:51, etc.). The next thing they know, they will join the Lord in the air with all of the redeemed (1 Thessalonians 4:17). We will put on God’s immortality (1 Corinthians 15:53), and we all will gather together for the marriage supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9).

Good News for the Lost (and the Universe)

After God resurrects the lost and reveals His judgments, the lost will experience the second death (Revelation 20:11-15, etc.). The second death is like the first death in this way: it is non-existence. The second death is unlike the first death in this way: it’s not followed by a resurrection. The lost, along with the devil, will cease to exist forever (Ezekiel 28:19, Malachi 4:1,3, etc.).

After the second death, “‘There shall be no more death.’ Neither shall there be any more sorrow nor crying nor pain, for the former things have passed away ” (Revelation 21:4). This promise isn’t just for the redeemed; it’s for the universe. The lost will not suffer forever; they will cease to exist forever. The loving God will mercifully put them out of their misery. The redeemed will not be enjoying eternity while the lost suffer in torment in some corner of the world. The lost will be ashes under our feet (Malachi 4:3).

Non-existence is preferable to eternal suffering. This concept is biblical, reasonable, and fair. And, it’s consistent with a loving God.

Wrapping Up

What I’ve shared here is what the Bible has to say in a teeny-tiny nutshell. It says much, much more about what happens when we die. Be sure to subscribe to the blog and YouTube channel to learn more. Also, check out my course on Death & Hell: What Does the Bible Say? If you have questions or comments, please drop me a line or use the comments below.

The mind vs. brain debate fascinates me. It raises quite a few intriguing questions. Are the mind and the brain the same thing? If not, what’s the difference? Can the mind and brain exist independently of each other? Can we experience consciousness without a brain? Are out-of-body experiences possible?

3 Mind vs. Brain Theories

I’m aware of three different theories in the mind vs. brain debate. Here’s a synopsis of each.

Theory #1

Matter is all there is. We have a material brain but not an immaterial mind. Things such as thoughts, memories, hopes, and personality are simply brain chemicals and electrical signals.

Theory #2

We have a material brain and an immaterial mind. The mind accounts for things such as thoughts, memories, hopes, and personality. The mind and the brain are independent of each other.

Theory #3

We have a material brain and an immaterial mind. The mind accounts for things such as thoughts, memories, hopes, and personality. The mind is dependent on the brain to function.

Comparing Theories #2 & #3

The mind vs. brain question is an intriguing one. But, I find the difference between Theories #2 and #3 most interesting. While each one states that we have both a material brain and an immaterial mind, they diverge at a critical point.

Theory 2 states that the mind and the brain are independent of each other. So, if this theory were true, we could have consciousness without a brain or a body. This would make out-of-body experiences and disembodied souls possible. When the body dies, the mind (consciousness) could go on living without it.

Theory 3 states that the mind is dependent on the brain to function. So, if this theory were true, we couldn’t have consciousness without a body. When the body dies, the mind (consciousness) dies with it.

Which Theory Is Likely to Be True?

How do we figure out which mind vs. brain theory is true? Some people claim to have experienced consciousness without a body (out-of-body experiences and many “near death” experiences), suggesting that Theory #2 is valid. But, at least so far, science doesn’t seem to back this up. Reason tells us that there’s reasonable doubt; several other possible explanations exist. Sometimes people make the stories up. Sometimes they’ve simply experienced natural phenomena such as dreams, memories, vivid brain activity, or misperceptions of sensory input.

That leaves us with the possibilities of Theory 1 and Theory 3. Science has yet to provide a definitive answer. It’s worth considering what the Bible has to say. It says quite a bit, and good evidence points to its validity as a source. So, let’s look at a few passages that provide insight into the mind vs. brain debate.

  • “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life [Hebrew nᵊšāmâ = spirit], and man became a living being [Hebrew nep̄eš = soul].” (Genesis 2:7)
  • “The dust returns to the earth where it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 12:7)
  • “He, who is the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, will reveal at the proper time. He alone has immortality.” (1 Timothy 6:15-16)
  • “The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing.” (Ecclesiastes 9:5)

These passages are quick representations of what the Bible, as a whole, teaches about life and death, our material and immaterial components, and how those components relate to each other. (If you’d like to see more passages to be sure these are representative, hang around my blog, my Facebook page, my Twitter profile, and my YouTube channel, because I talk about this stuff a lot. I also encourage you to study for yourself with the help of Bible Gateway and Blue Letter Bible or whatever tools you find helpful.)

Let’s bring together what these four passages tell us. A living person (a soul) is a combination of a material body made from dust and an immaterial spirit that is the breath of life from God. In other words, Body + Spirit = Soul. At death, the material separates from the immaterial (the dust and the spirit/breath return). It is indeed the spirit (God’s breath) and not the soul (a living person) that returns to God and continues to exist because God alone has immortality. (People will not “put on immortality” until the resurrection that happens when Jesus returns. See 1 Corinthians 15:53-54.) When a person dies, their consciousness also ceases (“the dead know nothing”).

God loves to create interdependent systems. A human being is a remarkable system of matter and spirit dependent on each other in order for the human being to exist, to be alive. Beautifully, earth and heaven come together to form a soul, a living person. God wouldn’t have it any other way.

Mind vs. brain Theory #3 is the only one of these three theories that’s consistent with what the Bible teaches. The notions of out-of-body experiences and disembodied souls aren’t biblical. Any such experiences that people believe they have are better explained otherwise.

There’s much more to say on these matters, so stick around. This simply serves as an introduction to stimulate our minds—those marvelous combinations of matter and spirit.

I’m famous (not at all) for pointing out that the Bible teaches that people don’t have immortal souls. That, when we die, our souls don’t just live on and go to heaven. It helps if we first understand the simple formulas for life and death that the Bible provides:

life = body + spirit

death = body – spirit

The formula for life first appears in Genesis 2:7, which says that “the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.” The breath of life is spirit. A living being is a soul. You can see this in the original language and the ways those words are used elsewhere. Body + Spirit = Soul (a living being).

The formula for death is easy to see in Ecclesiastes 12:7, which says that “the dust returns to the earth where it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” Body – Spirit = Nothing. The death process is the reverse of the life process.

According to the Bible, “spirit” does not equal “soul”; Genesis 2:7 makes a clear distinction between them. The soul does not return to God upon death; the spirit does (because it’s God’s breath, the life force). The soul (living being) ceases to exist until the resurrection—when the spirit (life force) reenters a body.

I posted something about this on my Facebook page recently. Someone asked a really good question in response: “What do we do with the imagery in Revelation 6 that depicts a bowl of souls, which are crying out for God’s justice?”

The referenced passage is Revelation 6:9-10. “When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony they had held. They cried out with a loud voice … .”

Here’s my answer.

3 Possible Interpretations

When the meaning of a passage isn’t immediately and obviously understood, we must first identify the possible interpretations. I can think of three for this passage:

  1. This is literal language referring to disembodied souls of dead martyrs.
  2. This is literal language referring to martyrs who died and were resurrected.
  3. This is symbolic language.

Next, we must consider each possibile interpretation.

Possibility #1

Possibility #1 is that this is literal language referring to disembodied souls of dead martyrs.

This isn’t consistent with what the Bible teaches about life (a soul is a living person that is a combination of body and spirit) or death (death is like sleep, the dead know nothing, and the dead are silent).

This possibility doesn’t make sense considering that the souls were given robes (verse 11). What would a disembodied soul do with a robe?

Similarly, it doesn’t make sense that disembodied souls would be in a certain location. There’s no matter to occupy space. Even if they were embodied, being under an altar—literally rather than symbolically—is mighty strange. But, then, the rest of the passage is mighty strange if it’s literal.

That leads to the last point for Possibility #1. The rest of the passage is replete with elements that make more sense as symbols than they do as literal things (e.g., animals of symbolic colors, a pair of scales, and a rider named Death who is followed by Hades). Why would this one part be literal when it’s surrounded by symbols?

Possibility #2

Possibility #2 is that this is literal language referring to martyrs who died and were resurrected.

The Bible certainly teaches that the dead will be resurrected, so we’re okay there; it’s more a question of timing. After martyrs died in Bible times, they “did not receive the promise. For God provided something better for us, so that with us they would be made perfect” (see Hebrews 11:35,37,39-40). It’s fair to say that this references the resurrection of the dead in Christ at the second coming. It certainly indicates that, at the time of the writing of Hebrews, they had not been resurrected. Were they resurrected between the writing of Hebrews and the writing of Revelation? It’s highly unlikely, and there’s nothing to indicate that.

That being said, it’s possible that this is a representative selection of martyrs who were resurrected and ascended to heaven. But, I’m not aware of any mention in the Bible of a special ascension other than Moses, Elijah, and Enoch. Plus, this would leave us with that mighty strange notion of people literally being under an altar.

Possibility #3

Possibility #3 is that this is symbolic language.

As I’ve mentioned, a literal interpretation doesn’t make sense in a few ways. The entire passage makes more sense if it’s taken as symbolism.

What’s happening in the Revelation 6 passage is strongly reminiscent of what the Bible says about Abel, the first martyr (who happened to be murdered in relation to a sacrifice on an altar). After his murder, God said to Cain, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying out to Me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10). Hebrews 11:4 says that Abel “still speaks through his faith, though he is dead.” Hebrews 12:24 references “the sprinkled blood that speaks better than that of Abel.”

These references to Abel indicate that, metaphorically, he communicates. The symbolism is a good match for Revelation 6:9-10. The same thing is being communicated: martyrs must be avenged. The next seal (the sixth, beginning in verse 12) introduces that vengeance (God’s justice).

The passage also connects to something Jesus says in Luke 18:6—“‘Shall not God avenge His own elect and be patient with them, who cry day and night to Him?’”


Possibility #3—that this is symbolic language—makes the most sense of the three possibilities, and it’s the only one that’s consistent with the rest of scripture. As always, the Bible provides a coherent message.

For several weeks, many people thought the investigation into the University of Idaho murders was nowhere. Some thought that the investigators were inept or not working hard enough. It appeared that they didn’t even have any suspects.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, we hear they’ve arrested someone for the murders. Now, we’re starting to see what was going on behind the scenes, and it appears that the investigators have been doing a fine job all along.

Michael Caine once said, “Be a duck. Remain calm on the surface, and paddle like hell underneath.” That’s great advice, and it reminds us that we rarely see the whole picture. Not only should we be ducks, but we should remember that we’re looking at ducks. There’s more than meets the eye.

Hold Out for the Whole Picture

If you think that God isn’t there, please think again. If you think that God is indifferent, think again. If you think that God is weak, think again. If you don’t see God doing anything in this world or in your life, please don’t assume that you see and know and understand everything there is to see and know and understand.

Behind the scenes, God is doing wondrous things. The Bible lets us in on some of them; others we’ll learn as time unfolds. God will reveal all of His activities. He will unveil all of His interventions. He will share all of His reasons. Some of them will make us gasp in wonder. Others will make us breathe a sigh of relief. All of them will make us bow down.

The knowledge of good and evil is maturing, day by day. One of these days, our knowledge will come to full maturity. All of the evidence about good and evil will be in, and the case can be closed. In the meantime, we can trust that God is not absent. He is not silent. He’s even more interested, invested, and involved than we hope He is.

Hold out for the whole picture. Everything will be revealed. God will be vindicated. All will be well.

Mainstream Christian theology teaches that hell is eternal conscious torment. I contend that the Bible doesn’t teach that. A few passages in the Bible do seem to refer to eternal conscious torment. One of them is the story about the rich man and Lazarus.

Jesus told this story, and it’s recorded in Luke 16:19-31. A beggar named Lazarus and a rich man died. The beggar “was carried by the angels to Abraham’s presence.” The rich man was in torment in Hades. He saw Abraham and Lazarus from afar, and he begged for Abraham to “send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool [his] tongue.” Abraham told the rich man that he got all of his good stuff during his lifetime. Besides, people can’t go from paradise to Hades.

As was the case with other parables, this is a story that Jesus told to make a point. It’s important to understand, from the context, what point He was making. The context is not the afterlife and eternal destiny; it’s how we treat people and live our lives. Also, because it’s presented as a parable and not typical biblical narrative, it’s likely a metaphor rather than a literal happening. Still, let’s put each point to the test:

  • Do the saved go to be with Abraham? The Bible says this nowhere. It says something else.
  • Are people conscious after they die? The Bible says this nowhere, unless it’s in the context of resurrected people.
  • Can people in hell see people in heaven? The Bible says this nowhere.
  • Can people in hell talk with people in heaven? The Bible says this nowhere.
  • If you were suffering in hell and had the chance to ask something of heaven, what would you ask for? Common sense tells us that we would ask to be rescued — certainly more than a drop of water.
  • Would God send a dead person to talk to the living? The Bible says this nowhere, nor does it make sense. (Some might think this happened with Samuel and Saul after Samuel’s death, but that interpretation isn’t consistent within the story or with the Bible as a whole.)
  • Is hell a place where people are hanging out? The Bible says this nowhere.

The afterlife elements of this story are so inconsistent with the rest of the Bible, it seems pretty clear that it was simply a fable Jesus used to make a point about how we should treat people and live our lives. It certainly doesn’t seem that He was explaining heaven and hell, because it’s a complete disconnect from the rest of the Bible’s teaching on death and the final destiny of the lost.