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There's no question that Christianity believes in heaven. We have a tag here filled with questions about it.

Having said this, there are many places in the Old Testament that speak of the futility of life and show that death is merely nothingness (Sheol).

Here's on place in particular:

Ecclesiastes 9:3-6 (NIV)Emphasis added
3 This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all. The hearts of people, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead. 4 Anyone who is among the living has hope—even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!

5 For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing;
they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten.
6 Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished;
never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun.

Here's another verse that shows that there won't be a reward or punishment after death:

Ecclesiastes 9:2 (NIV)
All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not.

As it is with the good,
so with the sinful;
as it is with those who take oaths,
so with those who are afraid to take them.

With all this in mind, how do we reconcile the passages in the Old Testament with this understanding of heaven?

I'm seeking a Protestant viewpoint on this and am interested in any Protestant exegesis or doctrine or any historical facts regarding this issue. Please support your answers.

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2 Answers 2

We reconcile the two by keeping in mind that the "vanity" of Ecclesiastes is being told from the perspective of the world ("under the sun"), and not as a declaration of theological truth. Ecclesiastes reaches its conclusion in the last two chapters, where we see that, in contrast to all the pursuits of the world which in the end don't amount to anything, lasting value can be found in righteous living, culminating in:

Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

13 Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.

14 For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.

This ending makes it clear that the author does believe in the final judgment, which would be kind of pointless if death was the end of everything.

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I strongly disagree with this conclusion. I've edited the question to emphasize this. Ecclesiastes 9:2 was added and 9:5 made bold. –  Richard Oct 7 '11 at 20:36
    
@Richard: That's immediately before the other verses you quoted, and ought to be read together with them as being representative of the way the world "under the sun" sees things. (And indeed, if you look at the people of the world, those who do not understand that they have a hope in Christ, you see a whole lot of the concepts being expressed by The Preacher accepted as truth.) –  Mason Wheeler Oct 7 '11 at 20:38
    
@Richard, why not add 9:1 as well: "the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God's hands, but no one knows whether love or hate awaits them"? It seems to me that the passage is saying that we don't know what happens to each of us after death, but we do know that we will all die, and though we may be forgotten on earth (9:5-6), we are remembered in heaven (12:14). See 12:7 too - our bodies return to the ground, our spirits return to God. –  James T Oct 7 '11 at 20:48
    
I have to agree with Mason here, the way this reads to me is that the dead no longer have a reward "under the sun" or here on earth. –  Andrew Oct 7 '11 at 20:49
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@MasonWheeler (1) I didn't have an answer for it when I asked the question (2) I thought that it was pretty obvious from the text that Sheol was a nihilistic type place (3) answering your own questions are encouraged Unfortunately, this answer made me realize that if I wanted the answer I was looking for, I would have to research it and write it up myself. –  Richard Oct 7 '11 at 21:33
up vote 2 down vote accepted

In the beginning, God made it clear that we are from dust and to dust we will return. This concept remained the dominant theology prior to the revelations of the prophets. With the revelations from the prophets (Daniel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, etc.), Judaism moved into the realization of eternal life. With Jesus came a much fuller understanding of what happens to us after death.

Sheol

The idea that persisted throughout early Judaism is that when people died, they went to a place called Sheol. Modern translations sometimes translate this original Hebrew word as "pit" or "grave". However, it's clear from Ecclesiastes that this falls far short of the true answer. It's very clear that it exists as a place of nothingness.

In Sheol, there is no

  • activity
  • planning
  • knowledge
  • wisdom

    The above four are supported by this verse

    Ecclesiastes 9:10 (NASB)
    Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going.

  • reward

  • punishment
  • love
  • hate
  • zeal

    These are supported by

    Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 (NASB)
    5 For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten. 6 Indeed their love, their hate and their zeal have already perished, and they will no longer have a share in all that is done under the sun.

It's clear from these verses that Sheol is a place of nothingness.

This is further supported by the following passages:

Genesis 3:19 (NASB)
By the sweat of your face You will eat bread,
Till you return to the ground, Because from it you were taken; For you are dust, And to dust you shall return.”

It's further supported that this place is a place where all people go, regardless of their deeds (in support of the Ecclesiastes 9:2 from the question):

Job 3:11, 17-19 (NASB)
11 “Why did I not die [a]at birth, Come forth from the womb and expire?

17 “There the wicked cease from raging, And there the weary are at rest.
18 “The prisoners are at ease together; They do not hear the voice of the taskmaster.
19 “The small and the great are there, And the slave is free from his master.

Furthermore,

Psalms 6:5 (NASB)
For there is no mention of You in death; In Sheol who will give You thanks?

We also see this in Psalms 88:3-12 (although too long to quote here).

In Essence
The idea that existed back then (when Ecclesiastes was written) is that Sheol is essentially a place of nothingness, a shade of an existence where there is no memory and no reward.

Rise of the Prophets

It wasn't until God gave us revelations through prophets like Daniel, Isaiah, and Ezekiel that the idea of true life after death came to be understood.

For example, revelations to Daniel showed that there will be a place of eternal reward established:

Daniel 2:44 (NASB)
In the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and that kingdom will not be left for another people; it will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, but it will itself endure forever.

However, it wasn't until these revelations by God that we understood that there was more to life after death than simply Sheol.

See also: Wikipedia: Jewish eschatology

Christianity and Heaven

As Judaism slowly moved from these ideas of Sheol (nothingness after death) into an understanding of life after death, Jesus came on the scene and established his kingdom.

I won't bother rehashing all the details there. However, Jesus fulfilled many of the prophecies of Isiah. Now he's off, preparing a place for us. Since that time, God revealed even more about heaven and hell in the Book of Revelations.

Summary

Prior to the prophets, the idea of eternal existence beyond life simply boiled down to nothingness. It wasn't until God revealed the truth to us through his prophets that we understood the realities of heaven and hell. At the time of Jesus, these ideas of eternal life were somewhat present, but still vague. Jesus, who had come from heaven, told us many things about heaven and hell. Even more was revealed to us through the Holy Spirit and through the Revelation of John.

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I really do hate having to answer my own questions. But when I see bad doctrine being posted, I have to post a correct answer. :\ –  Richard Oct 7 '11 at 21:19
    
The linked article says a lot more about its author than about the doctrines of the Bible. It's clear from beginning to end that the author believes that the various writings of the Bible were not revealed or divinely inspired, but written by ordinary men, and that many of the key passages regarding the Resurrection were made up in response to various political scenarios. IMO this viewpoint is wholly incompatible with Christianity, and really has no place being used to support an argument like this. –  Mason Wheeler Oct 7 '11 at 22:55
    
I disagree, but I've removed the disputable link. –  Richard Oct 7 '11 at 23:12
    
All right. Even so, I find the idea that God waited so long to reveal such fundamental principles to the world highly unpalatable, especially in light of various evidences that the basic principles of the Gospel were known since the beginning. The whole concept has always felt to me like a way to try to shoehorn evolution into religion, declaring that religious understanding itself evolves over time in response to changing conditions, and was not really revealed in its purity by God. –  Mason Wheeler Oct 7 '11 at 23:43
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@MasonWheeler So, you believe that understanding of the trinity existed from the time of Moses? You think that the understanding that the Messiah must sacrifice himself and be resurrected existed before Isaiah even prophesied about him? Even now we don't have a complete picture. Even now, there are fundamental concepts (such as what life will be heaven, where was Jesus after he died) that we don't know for sure. The idea that they didn't know of an afterlife isn't much of a stretch, considering that we weren't made to die. –  Richard Oct 8 '11 at 0:28

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