In this text the Bible will be analyzed: what it says about the afterlife, and why this is often interpreted different. In order to do this correctly, I will be using the Greek and Hebrew translations and English Bibles. Please keep in mind that this is just an interpretation and I do not wish to offend anyone. I will be using the King James version, unless otherwise stated. First the soul will be discussed, after that heaven and finally hell.
The soul in western culture is often thought of as an immortal, ethereal ghost inside the body, having its own thoughts and is also responsible for animating the body. It is a common doctrine taught in Christianity: upon death, the soul escapes the body and rises up to heaven — or perhaps hell, for the unfortunate.
To find out what the Bible says about the soul we must go back to the Hebrew and Greek texts. The first Hebrew texts use the word ‘Nephesh’, which is translated into English using the word soul. It is however not only translated to soul, but also into lust, hunger, life and many more. In fact, the word Nephesh is used over 160 times in the Old Testament, and is translated into more than 40 different words in English. This shows that the early Christians did in fact not believe in the same soul we believe in today, the immortal ghost, but they defined it as something else: life. Soul in the bible means life: everything that lives has a soul. This is also shown in Acts 20:10b “And Paul went down and fell on him and, embracing him, said, “Trouble not yourselves, for his life is in him.” Here, life is translated from the word Nephesh.
For early Christians the soul was mortal, simply because life ends. Every time a hair was pulled out, the life in the hair would be gone and the soul would go with it. Other evidence for Christians believing that the soul is mortal comes out of the mouth of Christ himself. In Matthew 27:46 he says, when he is crucified: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” This surely does not sound like a man convinced of his own immortality.
So why do we Christians now believe that the soul is an ethereal, immortal ghost? This idea was introduced to Christianity by the Greeks. The Greeks believed in the immortality of the soul, as portrayed in Plato’s Phaedo. When Christianity became evermore popular and even became the official religion of the Roman Empire, it had to incorporate this view of the soul for the simple reason that the Greeks and (by this time) the Romans believed in this and otherwise could never convince the masses to follow the Christian believes. And so it was that the doctrine of the eternal soul became part of Christianity. This is how ‘Nephesh’ became the Greek word ‘Psykhe’, meaning ‘the soul, the invisible animating entity which occupies and directs the physical body’.
The immortality of the soul meant that it had to go somewhere after death — a problem Christians never had to face before. This became Heaven and Hell. But if the soul dies, according to the Bible, what does scripture say about Heaven and Hell?
The word ‘heaven’ is often translated wrong in English Bibles, causing misunderstanding. In the Hebrew texts it is always used plural, meaning the Old Testament in Hebrew always uses “the heavens” and never “heaven”. The Rotherham Bible, a very literal version written by Rotherham who was a Hebrew scholar, does translate this correctly: 2 Samuel 21:10 “…until water poured out upon them from the heavens…”, Isaiah 55:10 “For, as the rain and the snow descend from the heavens…”. It even uses “the heavens” in verses about God: 2 Chronicles 20:6 “and said, O Yahweh, God of our fathers, art not, thou, God in the heavens?” This and many more examples show that the meaning of ‘Heaven’ is just the sky, everything above the earth. The Heaven that Christians believe in, actually differs from a heaven in the sky — for it is a more spiritual realm.
There is only one problem: as I’ve discussed, the Bible says the soul is mortal, so what happens to people after they die? 1 Thessalonians 4:16 “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first” 1 Thessalonians 4:17 “Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.” Important to note here is that the latter quote states that “and so shall we ever be with the Lord”, or in other words: that we will be with the Lord forever. However, it does not say that we will remain in the sky forever. Insert Matthew 5:5 and you will read “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”, which very clearly states that the meek will inherit the earth, not the sky/the heavens or even Heaven. Many more verses point to the fact that Christ will come down on his white horse, down to earth. Also Ezekiel 37:12 “Thus saith the Lord God: Behold, O My people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel.” show that the meek will inherit the earth. They all state that the afterlife will be a life on this earth, not in heaven. God will resurrect everyone, and the meek will live eternally, on earth.
This is what the Bible says about the concept ‘Heaven’, the paradise of the afterlife. In contrast to Christian doctrines, it is not a paradise in the the heavens, but instead a paradise on Earth. We now know where the meek go, but what happens with sinners after death?
Hell is associated with eternal suffering, because the soul is now thought to be immortal. The Bible tells us something different, so what is hell according to the Bible? John 3:16 says “For God so Loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” This shows us that we have a choice: eternal life (heaven on earth) or to perish. Perish means to be gone instantaneously, not to suffer forever. Romans 6:23 “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord”, Revelation 20:14 “And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death” also show that there is no eternal punishment, but only non-existence that is death. Another showcase that there is no eternal punishment, are the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, which God destroyed in the Old Testament: 2 Peter 2:6 “and, turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah into ashes, condemned them to be overthrown, making them an example unto those who thereafter should live ungodly”. They are an example for what will happen to the ungodly, and they are destroyed — not eternally burning. Many will point toMatthew 25;46 which says: “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into life eternal.” The verse says everlasting punishment, which many believe serves as evidence for the eternal suffering in Hell. Punishment is however not punishing, it is done once and thereafter you are forever punished — when you die a second death you are forever punished.
Hell is translated terribly. It is translated from the Hebrew ‘Gehinnom’, which comes from Gai Ben-Hinnom, ‘Valley of Ben-Hinnom’. It was outside of Jerusalem and was the city garbage dump. Jesus used it in his speeches to appeal to the masses, it was a figure of speech. The masses of Jerusalem knew the garbage dump, and of course they didn’t know death. Matthew 5:29 “…but rather fear Him that is able to destroy both soul and body in hell [Gehinnom].” Matthew 5;29 “And if thy right eye cause thee to fall, pluck it out and cast it from thee; for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell” Hell is in all these cases is translated from ‘Gehinnom’.
According to the Bible, there is no eternal punishment, only a second death.
So, now I have given the interpretation of myself — and others — of the Bible. The Bible says the soul is mortal — Greeks taught Christians the opposite. This is the reason Heaven and Hell are different in scripture than taught in Church; the believe in the immortality of the soul is the cause.