These days we hear of people talking about going to heaven or hell after they die, and this happens both among Jews and Christians. Where does this idea come from? Is it scriptural or from elsewhere? What really happens when we die? I believe that in order for us to find out the answer to these questions we must find out what human life is, and thus we can find out what human death is, and also what Yahweh's plan for us is.
This is the beginning of human life according to the scriptures:
Gen 1:26,27 And Deity said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the sky, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." Deity created man in his own image. In the image of Deity he created him; male and female he created them.
Gen 2:7 YHWH, Deity, formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
This is human life. Yahweh forms some dust and breathes the breath of life. After this is done, man becomes a living soul. The word "soul" in the Hebrew is the word "nefesh" which means "a breathing one", coming from a verb meaning "to breathe, or take breath". Human life is the combination of dust from the ground and Yahweh's breath.
A garden was made for the newly formed man in which all manner of food-bearing trees was made to grow. In this garden, the garden of Eden, two distinct trees grew: the tree of life, which gives everlasting life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Yahweh, the Creator, gave man a command. He could eat of any tree apart from one: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. There was a consequence if he broke this command and did eat from this tree.
Gen 2:16,17 YHWH, Deity, commanded the man, saying, "Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat: but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it: for in the day that you eat of it you will surely die."
Now the Hebrew words for "you shall surely die" are literally translated "dying you shall die". It brings across the connotation of the certainty of death. Also the words "in the day" are used in Genesis 2:4 where it says "these are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created, IN THE DAY that YHWH, Deity, made earth and heaven". We know that Yahweh didn't create everything in only one literal day, so "in the day" doesn't necessarily mean "in the exact literal day" but is just another way of saying "when" or "at the time". So there is some openness as to whether YHWH meant that when man eats of the tree, he'll die immediately.
So all this basically means that the verses are NOT necessarily saying man will die instantly or on the same literal day that he eats from the tree. It just means that when man eats from the tree it is certain that he will die. The only one to enforce that threat is YHWH and as we continue we will see how he does this.
Man breaks this command so he faces the punishment. Here is part of it.
Gen 3:19 By the sweat of your face will you eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken. For you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
This is Yahweh speaking. He says that a man is dust. So in essence, a human is dust with the breath of Yahweh in him. For him to return to dust, Yahweh would take away that which he has given: the breath. So death is the taking away of life, the taking away of the life-force, the taking away of breath.
This is our foundation when we encounter the rest of scripture. In this scripture, Yahweh implies no future life for man, no otherworldly life. Death is all there is.
So Yahweh does something to make sure that man doesn't live forever, and that it is certain that he will die.
Gen 3:22-24 YHWH, Deity said, "Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil. Now, lest he put forth his hand, and also take of the tree of life, and eat, and live forever..." Therefore YHWH, Deity, sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. So he drove out the man; and he placed cherubs at the east of the garden of Eden, and the flame of a sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.
So when man ate from the tree, YHWH made it certain that man would die by cutting him off from the means of everlasting life, thus leaving him in the process of age and thus death. And thus it was fulfilled that which says, "In the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die".
What do we know so far? Heaven isn't the issue in the life of man thus far. Neither is hell. With the breath of Yahweh gone from man, he returns to the dust from which he came. But does this change some place down the road of the Tanakh (so-called "old testament")? Is all of sudden the windows of heaven open to let man in?
The plain reading of the Torah, the five books of Moses, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, says nothing about any change. There is talk of righteous men, but they die. There is talk of evil men and they die all the same. "Sheol" or the grave invites all to itself and is never full (poetically speaking). The emphasis of the Torah is how we live in this world (as though there is any other) and thus any concept of after-life is irrelevant.
Lets look at a couple of scriptures and concepts that help us understand life and death.
Job 34:14,15 If he (YHWH) set his heart on himself, If he gathered to himself his spirit and his breath, All flesh would perish together, And man would turn again to dust.
Now speaking of the verses in general, it is basically stating what it says in Genesis 2 and 3 where YHWH takes the breath of life away and man dies. In fact both animals and man have "spirit" in a way. Let me explain why and thus clarify why there is the use of the two words, spirit and breath.
In the beginning where dust is given the breath of life, the word in Hebrew is "neshamah" which just means "breath" coming from a root verb meaning, "to pant, or blow away". But there is another Hebrew that is used in a similar fashion. It is "ruach" which means, "wind" or "breath", coming from the root verb meaning, "to blow, breath, or smell". Now it should be noticeable that these words are synonymous, having similar meanings. "ruach" is used in the following verses.
Gen 6:17 I (YHWH), even, I do bring the flood of waters on this earth, to destroy all flesh having the breath [ruach] of life from under the sky. Everything that is in the earth will die.
Gen 7:15 They went to Noah into the ark, by pairs of all flesh with the breath [ruach] of life in them.
Gen 7:22 All in whose nostrils was the breath [ruach] of the spirit [neshamah] of life, of all that was on the dry land, died.
First we should notice that "ruach" is used for everything with breath in it, including man, according to Genesis 6:17. In Gen 7:15 [see context] it is used just for animals. The fact that ruach applies to both man and beast would appear to be true for Gen 7:22 as well. It uses a strange turn of phrase "ruach-neshamah" or "wind of breath". To me, it still makes sense, but lets clarify anyway. It would most likely just simply be an emphatic poetic term for "all breathing", or "all who had any sign of breath/life". In 2 Samuel 22:16 it is used the other way round ("neshamat-ruach", "blowing of wind") to refer to the blast of Yahweh's breath. What should also be noted is that "neshamah" is used everywhere else for human beings (both righteous and unrighteous) and YHWH, and it is something that animals don't have, so Gen 7:22 could be saying that everything that human life, human breath, died. The criticism of that idea (human breath) would be that humans in those days lived on dry land and none lived underwater. This would make the phrase "of all that was on dry land" kinda pointless. Thus, for me, the phrase just means, "all that breathed", in an emphatic poetic way.
So returning to Job 34:14, and knowing the similarity between ruach and neshamah, it is simply saying that ALL the life force is removed from man. It is similar to someone (a poet - the book of Job is mostly in the form of poetry) saying, "The Almighty removed all of his vitality and his life from the earth". Vitality and life is basically the same thing, but it is said for emphasis. This is still in agreement to the foundational knowledge of what life is.
What else can we know about death?
Psa 6:4,5 Return, Yahweh. Deliver my soul, And save me for your loving kindness' sake. For in death there is no memory of you. In Sheol, who shall give you thanks?
Psa 30:9 "What profit is there in my destruction, if I go down to the pit? Shall the dust praise you? Shall it declare your truth?
Psa 88:10-12 Do you show wonders to the dead? Do the dead rise up and praise you? Selah. Is your loving kindness declared in the grave? Or your faithfulness in Destruction? Are your wonders made known in the dark? Or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?
For those who don't know, the answer is NO!
Psa 146:3,4 Don't put your trust in princes, in a son of man in whom there is no help. His breath [ruach] departs, and he returns to the earth. In that very day, his thoughts perish.
Psa 115:15-18 Blessed are you by Yahweh, Who made heaven and earth. The heavens are the heavens of Yahweh; But the earth has he given to the children of men. The dead don't praise Yah, Neither any who go down into silence; But we will bless Yah, From this time forth and forevermore. Praise Yah!
Ecc 9:7-10 Go your way -- eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for the Deity has already accepted your works. Let your garments be always white, and don't let your head lack oil. Live joyfully with the wife whom you love all the days of your life of vanity, which he has given you under the sun, all your days of vanity: for that is your portion in life, and in your labor in which you labor under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in Sheol, where you are going.
Isa 38:16-19 Lord, by these things men live; Wholly therein is the life of my spirit: You restore me, and cause me to live. Behold, it was for my peace that I had great bitterness: But you have in love to my soul delivered it from the pit of corruption; For you have cast all my sins behind your back. For Sheol can't praise you, death can't celebrate you: Those who go down into the pit can't hope for your truth. The living, the living, he shall praise you, as I do this day: The father to the children shall make known your truth.
These scriptures speak for themselves. Lets summarize what we see.
When a person dies, they return to the dust. Their memories, wisdom (or foolishness), and thoughts perish. The dead cannot praise the Almighty, and thus you should do it while you are alive. When you die, your consciousness doesn't go to heaven. It all goes back to the dirt, the dust.
Once again, this is death!
Two important passages in the holy scripture are in Ecclesiastes 3 and 12.
Ecc 3:19-22 For that which happens to the sons of men happens to animals. Even one thing happens to them. As the one dies, so the other dies. Yes, they have all one breath [ruach]; and man has no advantage over the animals: for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows the spirit [ruach] of man, whether it goes upward, and the spirit [ruach] of the animal, whether it goes downward to the earth?" Therefore I saw that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his works; for that is his portion: for who can bring him to see what will be after him?
Ecc 12:7 And the dust returns to the earth as it was, And the spirit [ruach] returns to the Deity who gave it.
Now why is this all so important? Because according to this writer (the wise king Solomon), animals and humans have the same breath. Both come from and go to dust when they die. No one knows which direction the breath goes. The translator seems quite inconsistent, translating one instance of "ruach" as "breath" and another time as "spirit". Or maybe not necessarily when one knows that spirit can mean "the vital principle or animating force within living things", or in other words (more biblical words), the breath.
In Ecclesiastes 12:7 the writer just re-iterates what is says in Gen 2 and 3 but uses a synonym of neshamah (puff, breath), that being ruach (wind, breath). YHWH gave the breath in the first place, and he takes it back and man returns to dust from whence it came.
For those who believe that this verse is somehow talking about people going to heaven, they have to deal with the fact that this verse talks about man in general, having no implication of whether the man is good or evil. So that means that both wicked and righteous men go to heaven. I doubt it.
But is that it? Is death all there is? Is that all that Yahweh has in store for us?
Firstly, there are still some things throughout these verses that have been used that should be pointed out. This life, although short, is a gift. A person should use it to the full. Enjoy what you can, make the most of it. Im not saying, do what you like! The best means of enjoyment is to live righteously and wisely for that is the whole purpose of man (Ecclesiastes 12:13). Read the book of Proverbs, you'll see how much real enjoyment you can get, just by doing what Yahweh says and learning the principles of his commandments.
Secondly, and most important when it comes to talking about heaven, just because these scriptures say nothing about an afterlife, that doesn't mean that there isn't one. As can be seen in the scripture, there is a hope of something more to look forward to than just this life.
We know that Yahweh created the earth to be inhabited (Isaiah 45:18; Psalm 115:16) so we live and die on this earth. We know that Psalms 37:11 speak of the meek inheriting the earth and that wherever the holy scriptures (the Hebrew Bible) speaks of an afterlife, it talks of people living on the earth. Even in Isaiah 66, which talks of a new heaven and earth, it is implied that the righteous will be living on the new earth. Nowhere is there any sign of the righteous going to heaven. This is foundational knowledge when going elsewhere in the search of an afterlife.
What should also be noticed is that the afterlife is where those who died will live again. Knowing what life is from our foundational source of Gen 1-3, that would simply mean a reforming of the dust and breath being breathed into it. Yahweh would form it with the old memories or identity in it. That may seem like speculation, but with him all is possible, apart from what the Word says is not. Anyway, what would be the point of an afterlife if we don't know what happened before because our identities have been erased forever when we died? Please, lets use some common sense here.
Please note that although Genesis and the Torah doesn't have any explicit signs of an afterlife, later scriptures do give a hint of it, like the following scriptures.
Psa 17:13-15 Arise, Yahweh, Confront him, cast him down. Deliver my soul from the wicked by your sword; From men by your hand, Yahweh, From men of the world, whose portion is in this life. You fill the belly of your cherished ones. Your sons have plenty, And they store up wealth for their children. As for me, I shall see your face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with your likeness.
Psa 133:3 Like the dew of Hermon, That comes down on the hills of Zion: For there Yahweh gives the blessing, Even life forevermore.
Isa 26:19 Your dead shall live; my dead bodies shall arise. Awake and sing, you who dwell in the dust; for your dew is as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast forth the dead.
Dan 12:2 Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.
The Hebrew word used here for "contempt" is only used one other place in the Hebrew scriptures. That is Isaiah 66, the revelation of a new heaven and the new earth. It is used to describe the finishing off of the wicked in verse 24. Their reward is death (compare with Malachi 4:1).
Now if a person is a Christian, this should be the backbone of knowledge before approaching the new testament. I believe this to be a scriptural framework, which would help a person to understand the Christian scriptures. Also a bit of inter-testamental history would be useful. By that, I mean the time period between the writings of the last prophet, Malachi, and the birth of Yeshua (otherwise known as Jesus).
During this time, the name of Yahweh began to be used more rarely because of an unscriptural tradition of not using the name out of "reverence" (or at least so-called reverence). If one reads the first and second book of Maccabees, you will notice the use of the word "Heaven". This began to be used in substitution for the actual name of YHWH. You would hear phrases in that time and in rabbinical writings (the writings of ancient Jewish knowledgeable men) like "the sake of Heaven". A lot of the time they were not talking about the location "heaven", but the Almighty himself. So that simply means "for the sake of YHWH".
When we get to the new testament, Matthew repeatedly uses the phrase "the kingdom of heaven" or "the rule/dominion/reign of heaven". Sadly, some Christians have construed that to mean "the kingdom that is in heaven". They may not have this historical knowledge, or also may not have noticed that at times where Matthew says "kingdom of heaven", Luke is saying "kingdom of God" in his parallel passages. In fact, Luke, Mark, and John uses "kingdom of God" and never use the phrase "kingdom of heaven". This points to the fact that the term "kingdom of heaven" is another way of saying "kingdom of YHWH".
Also there is a place in 1 Thessalonians that says the following:
May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (5:23)
have gotten the idea that therefore a man is made up of three parts, spirit,
soul, and body. Quoting from a
is clearly on the whole person, not on a person composed of three parts". I would
refer any Christian to that website for more information on the misconceptions
prevalent in the church.
Of course, the word "spirit" has other meanings and can be used in different ways, just like "ruach", "neshamah", and "nefesh". They can be used in poetic ways to talk about a person's feelings or sensations or their disposition. A person who accepts the new testament would read of spirits being under the altar of heaven in Revelations. But a person would also have to accept that Revelations uses highly allegorical language. That usage that I used as an example is just a way of saying "the lives of all those who died in persecution are calling for justice" in a poetic, non-literal sense. It's a bit like Abel's blood crying from the ground after Cain killed him. That doesn't mean that blood can literally cry, but it is a turn of phrase, a figurative way of saying something. But before we can get to any metaphorical, or allegorical language, it is best to learn the fundamentals. Then those metaphorical texts can have more meaning.
I believe I have addressed the foundational problem and that from there, a person can understand the rest of the Hebrew scriptures. If the new testament is based on the Hebrew scriptures then it is based on that worldview.
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