In Ecclesiastes the phrases “under the sun” (29x), “under heaven” (3x), and “on earth” (5x) describe the human perspective apart from God, i.e., human wisdom vs. divine wisdom. From a human (earthly) point of view, all is vanity or futile (37x). From this vantage point, “the dead know nothing … no more reward” (9:5) “in the grave” (9:10). This passage does not provide theological insight into the afterlife but the limited human perception apart from God and apart from divine revelation.
The word “sleep” is a common metaphor (or euphemism) in scripture for death. Deceased persons are often depicted in the OT as “sleeping” or “resting” with their forefathers (Deut. 31:16; 2 Sam. 7:12; 1 Kgs. 1:21; 2:10; et al.). Jesus, in anticipation of “awakening” the dead, frequently used this reassuring expression (Matt. 9:24; Mark 5:39; Luke 8:52; John 11:11-14), which continued to be employed by writers of the NT (Matt. 27:52; Acts 7:60; 13:36; 1 Cor. 7:39; 15:6, 18, 20, 51; 2 Pet. 3:4). While the description has nothing to do with whether or not there is consciousness beyond the grave (cf. Luke 16:19-31; Rev. 6:9-11), it does serve as a comforting allusion to death’s transitory nature for Christians in view of the future resurrection. The “sleep” metaphor softens the harsh reality of earthly life’s cessation, and some would suggest it also implies the temporary nature of physical death in view of the future awakening (cf. John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15).
The typical word for “hell” in the Greek NT is gehenna (Matt. 5:22, 29, 30; etc.). Another term, hades, is sometimes translated “hell” (KJV) or “grave” (NIV) but seems to refer to another place. When Jesus died his soul went to hades (Acts 2:27, 31), which before his death he called “paradise” (Luke 23:43). After his death and resurrection he said he had not yet been to heaven (John 20:17), therefore “paradise” must be a different place.
In Luke 16:19-31 the deceased rich man was in hades (not gehenna), in torment, while Lazarus was comforted in Abraham’s bosom, and a great chasm or gulf separated the two. If there is to be a future day of judgment to pronounce the everlasting fate of the righteous and the unrighteous (Acts 17:31), there must be a waiting place for departed spirits in the meantime. That place is hades (a.k.a. the Hadean realm) divided into two sections: paradise (comfort) and torment.
When it is time for the day of judgment, the dead in Christ will rise first, followed by those alive in Christ (1 Thess. 4:15-17), then everyone else, including the other souls in hades (Rev. 20:11-15); all will stand before the Lord in judgment to receive an everlasting reward or punishment (Matt. 25:31-46; John 5:28-29; 2 Cor. 5:10).
--Kevin L. Moore
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