In light of these biblical truths, where does that leave us? As we have seen, the beliefs of people about the nature of heaven and hell have ranged over a broad—and confusing—spectrum. But there is one thing on which we all should agree: "The living know that they will die" (Ecclesiastes 9:5).
The prospect of death has hung over the heads of mankind as long as human beings have existed. When people do not understand God's truth, they are gripped by the fear of death and enslaved in a cruel and unforgiving bondage.
The Expositor's Bible Commentary summarizes how the truth of the resurrection, exemplified in the resurrection of Christ, transformed the outlook of many: "In the first century this [fear of death] was very real. The philosophers urged people to be calm in the face of death, and some of them managed to do so. But to most people this brought no relief. Fear was widespread, as the hopeless tone of the inscriptions on tombs clearly illustrates. But one of the many wonderful things about the Christian gospel is that it delivers men and women from this fear...They are saved with a sure hope of life eternal, a life whose best lies beyond the grave" (Leon Morris, 1981, Vol. 12, p. 29, note on Hebrews 2:14-15).
The Bible reveals that the best that man can experience lies beyond the grave. It shows us that converted Christians will inherit eternal life at the first resurrection and that death will never again lay a claim on them: "So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: 'Death is swallowed up in victory'" (1 Corinthians 15:54).
The life to come will be vastly superior to this present, temporary existence. It will be a life abounding in both purpose and pleasure: "In your presence is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore," wrote David (Psalm 16:11).
Let us now catch a glimpse of what awaits those who receive eternal life in the first resurrection.
What will we be like?
We can know in general terms what we will be like in this resurrection because the Bible tells us we will be like the resurrected Jesus. "The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven...And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man" (1 Corinthians 15:47-49).
We learn that in the resurrection we will take on the same image, or likeness, that Christ has. This includes becoming a spirit being with a spirit body rather than flesh and blood (see 1 Corinthians 15:45-50).
Moreover, Paul tells us that true Christians will "share the likeness of his Son," who is "the eldest among a large family of brothers" (Romans 8:29, Revised English Bible). Did you catch that? We will be Jesus' brothers and share His likeness. Though Christ has eternally existed and we have not, we will be elevated to a plane so high that we are called children of God and brothers of Jesus Christ.
The apostle John confirms these same two truths—that we'll be children of God and that we'll have the same glorified form as Jesus Christ. "Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us," he writes, "that we should be called children of God" (1 John 3:1). And in the next verse he tells us, "We know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is."
Raised in unimaginable splendor, we will share the divine glory and dominion of Christ (Romans 8:16-18; 2 Corinthians 3:18; 2 Thessalonians 2:14; Hebrews 1:1-3; Hebrews 2:5-9; Revelation 21:7)—though we will never equal Him. He is the one Son of God who has always existed, superior to all but the Father.
The glory of Christ
What is the glory of Christ like? During His physical ministry on earth, He gave three of His disciples a preview of His appearance in this glorified spiritual state. "He was transfigured...His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light" (Matthew 17:2).
Years later, at the writing of the book of Revelation, John saw a vision of the resurrected, glorified Christ. Notice how John describes His awesome appearance: "His hair was as white as snow-white wool, and his eyes flamed like fire; his feet were like burnished bronze refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of a mighty torrent...His face shone like the sun in full strength" (Revelation 1:14-16, REB).
This language describes Jesus Christ, the glorified Son of God, as a being of awe-inspiring brilliance. We, too, will share that dazzling appearance!
After His resurrection Jesus had the ability to take on the appearance He had when He existed in the flesh. Early on the morning after He rose from the garden tomb, Mary Magdalene visited His grave. When she saw the tomb was empty, she began to weep (John 20:11).
Then "Jesus said to her, 'Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?' She, supposing Him to be the gardener, said to Him, 'Sir, if You have carried Him away, tell me where You have laid Him, and I will take Him away'" (John 20:15). So Jesus appeared to Mary as a normal human being rather than in His radiant state. She at first mistook Him for the gardener.
On another occasion Jesus appeared from nowhere inside a closed room where His disciples were meeting: "And after eight days His disciples were again inside...Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, 'Peace to you!'" (John 20:26). After His resurrection Jesus was able to pass through solid barriers—such as the walls of a building or the stone enclosure of His tomb.
Like Jesus, when we are changed to spirit we will not be limited by the laws that govern physical things. With the ability to simply materialize as Jesus did, we will not be subject to restrictions on physical objects. As part of this change we will no longer need to eat to survive, but apparently will have the option of eating for pleasure and fellowship if we choose. In two of Jesus' post-resurrection appearances He shared a meal with His disciples (Luke 24:28-30; John 21:9-15).
Those to whom God gives eternal life in the resurrection will forever possess these supernatural characteristics. Notice the description of the resurrection in the book of Daniel: "Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever" (Daniel 12:2-3, NIV).
To better understand just what all this means, be sure to read our free Bible study aid booklet Why Were You Born?
What will we do as spirit beings?
As spirit beings in God's family, we will live and work at the highest possible level and environment. Jesus said, "And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent" (John 17:3). We will spend eternity with God in His environment—the world of spirit and unimaginable power. We will not sit idle in our new life. We will be positively occupied. Jesus said, "My Father has been working until now, and I have been working" (John 5:17).
When Christ returns to establish the Kingdom of God on earth, those in the first resurrection will serve as judges (Revelation 20:4) and priests (Revelation 20:6) and will "reign on the earth" (Revelation 5:10). We will not go to heaven to live passively and idly.
Jesus will return to a world that has largely destroyed itself by living in opposition to the commands of its Creator. He will teach people to obey God's laws. He will begin a massive reeducation process to help people unlearn their old ways of doing things and for the first time learn to do things God's way.
Notice Isaiah's prophecy of this future rule of Jesus as Messiah and King over the earth, wherein "mountains" and "hills" are symbolic of larger and smaller kingdoms or political states respectively:
"Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the LORD's house shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow to it. Many people shall come and say, 'Come and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths.' For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
"He shall judge between the nations, and rebuke many people; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore" (Isaiah 2:2-4).
At that time Christ will teach all people who have not known God's way. He will be assisted in this by all who are changed into glorified children of God in the resurrection at His return (see Luke 20:36).
If we enter that new life we will be endowed with great power and unlimited energy. As immortal members of God's family we will be like "the everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth, [who] neither faints nor is weary" (Isaiah 40:28).
A change for the better
Describing the event that will change our mortal bodies, Paul writes: "The sun has a splendour of its own, the moon another splendour, and the stars yet another; and one star differs from another in brightness. So it is with the resurrection of the dead: what is sown as a perishable thing is raised imperishable. Sown in humiliation, it is raised in glory; sown in weakness, it is raised in power; sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body" (1 Corinthians 15:41-44, REB).
God will give us bodies that will never tire nor grow ill—and minds having the kind of supernatural abilities He has. Reigning with Christ (Revelation 2:26; Revelation 3:21), we will help bring about worldwide peace. We will assist in spreading the knowledge of God to the most distant lands in His globe-spanning program of reeducation. "They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain," He tells us, "for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea" (Isaiah 11:9).
Those changed at Christ's return will include all His faithful followers at His return as well as the dead who were called, had repented and who lived in faithful obedience to God. It will include all of the faithful listed in Hebrews 11, who "died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth" (Hebrews 11:13).
Those who died in faith include Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Hebrews 11:17-21). The promise they have not yet received is the promise of the Kingdom of God. As Jesus says, "I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 8:11). Remember that the Kingdom of Heaven is synonymous with the Kingdom of God, which Christ will establish on earth at His return.
Responding to God's invitation
You can be among those who arise from all parts of the world in the resurrection to be with Christ in His Kingdom—if you respond to God's invitation. God is issuing that call through the preaching of the gospel. This very booklet you are reading is part of that effort.
The calling of God is not offered to everyone in this age. Jesus told His disciples that the understanding of God's truth is not yet available to many: "It has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given" (Matthew 13:11).
The Bible speaks in several places about God's "elect" or chosen people. They are called to understand these things now, in this present age, but the rest—the vast majority—will not be called until later.
Most of the people of Israel, God's nation spoken of extensively in the Old Testament, were not called to understand the Kingdom of God during their lifetimes. Their hearts were hardened, their minds blinded. But the opportunity for most of them will come in the second resurrection. "Israel has not obtained what it seeks; but the elect have obtained it, and the rest were blinded" (Romans 11:7).
Yet as Paul explains in this same chapter, the time is coming when "all Israel will be saved, as it is written: 'The Deliverer will come out of Zion, and He will turn away ungodliness from Jacob [i.e., Israel]'" (Romans 11:26). God's calling is carried out according to His timetable. When all is said and done, His plan is entirely fair to everyone.
Peter explains that those who now become a part of His Church are chosen in this age to receive salvation in the first resurrection. Peter says of them, "You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9).
The good news is that God eventually will offer eternal life to everyone who repents. He desires that everyone enter His Kingdom. He wants to share this opportunity for eternal life with all (2 Peter 3:9).
In a final, breathtaking view of what God has in store for those who serve Him, the apostle John was inspired to write this glimpse of the future in Revelation, the last book of the Bible: "And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away...He who overcomes shall inherit all things, and I will be his God and he shall be My son" (Revelation 21:4-7).
The future God has planned for us is fantastic beyond belief! It is far superior to the fanciful heaven of men's imagination. God will share the real future with all who repent and turn from their sins. As for those who willfully refuse to repent, they will not suffer forever in hell. They will simply cease to be. But this need not happen to you.
You may share in the eternal Kingdom of God if you heed the words Jesus spoke when He began His ministry: "The time has come...The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" (Mark 1:15, NIV).
Take comfort in the truth of God. There is no need to fear death if you turn your life toward Him. After all, He wants you to live with Him in abundant joy forever and ever. And He'll make that happen—if you let Him!