Lou Michel, co-author of the book American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City Bombing, made the following statement on April 4: “McVeigh is agnostic. He doesn’t believe in God, but he won’t rule out the possibility. I asked him, ‘What if there is a heaven and hell?’ He said that once he crosses over the line from life to death, if there is something on the other side, he will—and this is using his military jargon—‘adapt, improvise and overcome.’”
Moments before being executed by the U.S. government for killing 168 people in the bombing of a federal building, McVeigh was given his “last rites” by a Catholic chaplain. Some would say that this “deathbed repentance” gained him a place in heaven.
Could a few short minutes of “repentance” really have erased the penalty for all of the death and destruction McVeigh caused?
On the other hand, forever is a long time. One bombing survivor said, “Anyone who tries to take my life deserves to burn in hell.” Is that belief truly Christian? Do McVeigh’s evil actions, over a few years of life, warrant eternal torment in a burning hell fire, as most professing Christians believe?
What about the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing? They had no chance to have their last rites read to them. Would they be denied admission to heaven simply because their lives were cut short? Or would God grant all 168 of them admission to heaven simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time?
What is actually on “the other side”? Where is Timothy McVeigh today?
Origins of Heaven and Hell
The modern conceptions of both heaven and hell have their origins in ancient Egyptian culture. The Egyptians believed that they would stand before, and be judged by, the god Osiris upon their death: “When the verdict is favorable and he has been cleared of any impurity, his heart is restored, and after several other ordeals, he is ushered into the bright Elysian Fields (the fields of Alu) beyond the water. … Henceforth, he enjoys the perennial life of the blessed under the shadow of the tree of life, or the sycamore of Nut, the goddess of the sky, a true Osiris” (Kaufmann Kohler, Heaven and Hell in Comparative Religion, pp. 22-23).
When the verdict was negative, the sinner experienced the “second death.” He was then dismembered and subjected to the fiercest tortures, including burning by hot coals, plunging into deep waters, or cutting the body into pieces by sharp swords. “We have here the very origin of [Dante’s poems] the Inferno and Paradiso” (ibid., p. 23).
These pagan beliefs became a part of modern theology through the literature of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), best known for the Divine Comedy in three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. Dante’s personal ideas about hell came largely from the writings of the Greek philosophers Plato and Virgil. His Inferno included a tour through the various levels of hell, where sinners suffered by an eternally punishing fire. This story is the basis for beliefs on hell among millions of professing Christians.
But what does the Bible really say about heaven and hell?
“Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them” (Gen. 2:1). This word heavens refers to two different heavens. The first heaven consists of the Earth’s atmosphere. The second heaven is the vast reaches of space beyond the atmosphere.
There is also a third heaven: the home of God. The Apostle Paul saw this “third heaven,” where God’s throne is, in a vision (ii Cor. 12:1-2). This vision was so intensely realistic that Paul was unable to tell if he was physically there, or if he was seeing it in his mind.
In Hebrews 4:14, the phrase “into the heavens,” should be translated “through the heavens.” We see that Jesus Christ passed through the first two heavens—Earth’s atmosphere and outer space—as He ascended to the third heaven. John 3:13 reveals that no man has ascended to heaven except for Jesus Christ. Certainly many have ascended to the first and second heavens by aircraft, spacecraft and other means, so this verse can only refer to the third heaven, where the Almighty God resides.
Some have said that Elijah ascended to heaven, which he did—but not to the third heaven. He was taken by chariots of fire up into the first heaven (ii Kings 2:11). The Hebrew word used for heaven here is the same as in Genesis 2:1. Elijah did not die during this experience. In fact, Elijah wrote a letter to King Jehoram years after this event (ii Chron. 21:12). Elijah had been miraculously transported to another location on Earth.
Heaven is not, as some believe, the future home of any man, righteous or not. Revelation 5:10 shows that God’s saints will reign not in heaven but “on the earth.” Revelation 21 and 22 describe the coming time when God the Father and heavenly Jerusalem will come down to Earth after it has been purified. In other words, man is not going to heaven—God is coming here!
Few would suggest that Timothy McVeigh now resides in heaven. Many millions of professing Christians, however, believe he is currently in hell. That is absolutely true—but not the hell most would think of.
The word hell is used in the New Testament as a translation for three different Greek words: hades, tartaroo and gehenna. Hades refers to a grave or pit, and has no connection to fire. When a person dies, he or she goes to this hell, better known as the grave. Jesus Christ Himself went there. In Acts 2:31 we read, “his soul was not left in hell [but it did go there], neither his flesh did see corruption.” We can see here that this word hell refers to the grave.
In Ecclesiastes 9:5, we learn that the dead know absolutely nothing: “For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.” It is as though the dead person is asleep in the grave, totally unaware of everything. Ecclesiastes 3:19 shows that man dies just as the animals do. The word hades is roughly equivalent to the word sheol in the Old Testament. Sheol is the only word translated hell in the Old Testament.
The second word in the New Testament that is translated as hell is tartaroo. This word is mentioned only once in Scripture: “For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment” (ii Peter 2:4). Tartaroo is used only in reference to rebellious angels as a place of restraint. Nowhere does the Bible mention human beings being placed in this hell. This tartaroo, like hades, also makes no mention of fire; rather, it talks about chains of darkness.
At present, all of the dead—righteous men and sinners alike—are asleep in their graves (sheol or hades) awaiting resurrection. The Bible shows that all who die—even Timothy McVeigh—will eventually be resurrected. The question is not if a person will be resurrected, but when. So says the Bible: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order” (i Cor. 15:22-23).
Jesus Christ was the first to be resurrected. He is the “firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29) and has made possible the resurrection of everyone who has ever lived. A careful study of God’s Word reveals that there are actually three resurrections yet to come.
The First Resurrection
The first resurrection is reserved specially for the dead in Christ and those who are Christ’s at His coming. “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: 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” (i Thes. 4:16-17).
These are those who have repented and received the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:9). These people will live forever and reign with Christ throughout the Millennium, as shown in Revelation 20:5-6.
The Second Resurrection
Revelation 20:5 shows when the next resurrection will take place: “But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished.” At the end of the thousand years, everyone else who has ever died will be resurrected as physical human beings.
Most of humanity will be brought back to life in this resurrection, as described in Ezekiel 37:1-14. They will then finally have God’s truth revealed to them and be given their chance to become a part of God’s Kingdom. The many billions of people who did not learn God’s way during their lifetime will be given the chance to do so. In His mercy, God will resurrect your loved ones who did not learn the truth. The victims of the Oklahoma City bombing will live again.
God will also resurrect serial killers, sex offenders and other criminals. Adolf Hitler, Attila the Hun and even Timothy McVeigh will be given a chance to learn God’s way—for the first time. This is not a “second chance.” These men simply did not understand God’s truth in their lifetimes. In the second resurrection, their eyes too will be opened to God’s truth. They will then be expected to respond and repent of their evil ways—to convert to a new way of life. This period of time is called the Great White Throne Judgment.
The Third Resurrection
The third resurrection is a resurrection to a second death. The prophet Daniel spoke of this resurrection: “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2). Jesus Christ calls it the resurrection of condemnation (John 5:29).
It is in this resurrection that we read of a hell fire—gehenna. A Dictionary of the Bible, edited by James Hastings, says this: “Gehenna: the word occurs 12 times in the New Testament. This term gehenna represents ‘the Valley of Hinnom’ (Neh. 11:30; ii Kings 23:10, etc.). The place was … a deep, narrow gorge in the vicinity of Jerusalem, understood to be on the south side. It is repeatedly mentioned in the Old Testament (Jer. 19:6, etc.). It became an object of horror to the Jews, and is said to have been made the receptacle for bones, the bodies of beasts and criminals, refuse and all unclean things. … The fires said to have been kept burning in it in order to consume the foul and corrupt objects that were thrown into it, made it a natural and unmistakable symbol of dire evil … absolute ruin. So it came to designate the place of future punishment.”
This gehenna, anciently, was a place of absolute destruction. Anything thrown into this pit was utterly destroyed, leaving nothing but ashes. The punishment for sinners will be death by an all-consuming fire.
Does this mean that the wicked are writhing in agony for all eternity, as Dante claimed? Absolutely not! The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23), not eternal life in torture.
Everyone will be given the opportunity to repent and become a part of God’s family, but not everyone will accept it. Those who are not found in the book of life will be cast into a lake of fire, ending their existence forever (Rev. 20:14-15). The incorrigibly wicked will have died the second death, from which there will never be a resurrection. This is a merciful act on the part of their Creator. These people would be miserable eternally if they had immortal life, so God mercifully ends their lives, leaving only the “smoke of their torment” to ascend forever (Rev. 14:11).
Timothy McVeigh is in “hell” now—that is, his grave. He will be completely unconscious until the resurrection of the dead. Our Father in heaven will give him a chance at real life, to learn God’s way and enter into His divine family. God has not given up on him. All of the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing will live again as well. In His boundless mercy, God does not want to give up on any of His children. Everyone who ever lived will be given a chance in the coming Kingdom of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. What a glorious vision of the future!