The Return of the Captives

“When He ascended on high He led a host of captives.” —Ephesians 4:8, Revised Standard Version

ON SUNDAY, April 22, the professed Christian world will commemorate the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Few will realize, however, that his resurrection was but the beginning of the restoration of the dead to life. Paul wrote, “Now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.” (I Cor. 15:20) In our text the dead world of mankind in general is referred to as a “host of captives,” and it is these that Jesus will eventually restore to life, having first of all raised his own faithful followers to immortality to live and reign with him a thousand years.—Rom. 2:7; Rev. 20:6

For some time now the people in a number of countries, especially the United States, have heard much about the return of prisoners—prisoners of war. The return of these prisoners for the most part brings joy not only to them but to their families, although after so long a separation there are complications which arise. We are glad that the political situation among the nations has brought about at least a temporary ending of official hostilities, and that those who were taken captive during the long war are being brought back home.

This serves as a reminder that nearly fifty thousand Americans, during the course of the war, became captives in death—a captivity from which the combined authority and power of all the nations involved is unable to free them. Besides these are other thousands who, while still breathing, because of their partially destroyed bodies, will be held prisoners in hospitals for the remainder of their lives. So while we are glad for the prisoners of war who are being brought back home, as well as for their families, we are comforted by the assurances of the Word of God that there is a bright prospect indeed for the “host” of others who died or were wounded in the worthless struggle; that God’s provision for the human race includes these, and that they will be remembered and rehabilitated in his due time. And not only these, for the dead of all ages and nations shall be released from the prison of death in God’s due time. Jesus said, “Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth.”—John 5:28

Following Jesus’ own resurrection by the power of his Heavenly Father, he communicated with the Apostle John on the Isle of Patmos and said, “I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.” (Rev. 1:18) The word “hell” used here is a translation of the Greek word hades, which is the condition or state of death. The use of the word “keys” suggests that hell, the grave, has gates. This, of course, is symbolic language. The great prison of death, which is the Bible hell, is a condition, not a place, and these symbolic keys will in due time be used by Jesus to release those who are imprisoned in this state of temporary nonexistence.

Gates Won’t Prevail

The “gates” of hell are mentioned by Jesus in a statement which he made to the Apostle Peter: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matt. 16:18) In reply to a question asked by Jesus, Peter had properly identified his Master as the Christ, or Messiah, the Son of God. (vs 16) And it was this great fact of his messiahship that Jesus referred to as the “rock” upon which the church would be built.

The word “church” signifies a “calling out,” or a called-out class of people—called out, that is, from the world, to be followers of Jesus. Those who hear this call and respond to it consecrate, or dedicate, themselves to do the Lord’s will. In Galatians 3:27 this is likened to a baptism, or burial, into Christ, and those who are thus baptized into Christ, the apostle says, have “put on Christ”; that is, they become real Christians. In verse 29 of this chapter Paul declares that these are “Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”

One of the original messianic promises is the one which God made to Abraham in which he said to him, “In thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.” (Gen. 12:3) Together with Jesus, the members of the true church are heirs to this promise; that is, together with Jesus they will participate in the future work of blessing all the families of the earth. The building of the church is not to continue forever. One day it will be completed, and then the promised blessing of all the families of the earth will commence.

But how can such a sweeping promise be fulfilled? The families of the earth which lived before and during Abraham’s day are all dead! The families of the earth who have lived since Abraham’s day—every generation of them except the present—are all dead, and the present generation is dying at the rate of one hundred and fifty thousand every twenty-four hours. The human race has died by sickness, by old age, by accident, by war, and in various other ways. Besides the fifty thousand Americans who died in the Vietnam War, hundreds of thousands of Asians also perished.

Those who are dead are incapable of receiving blessings—they are asleep in death; unconscious. How then can God’s promise to Abraham to bless all the families of the earth be fulfilled? Jesus answered that question when he said to Peter that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church. He did not signify that the church would storm the gates of hell to gain admittance, but rather that the gates of hell would be opened for the purpose of releasing its prisoners of death.

Jesus Will Use “Keys”

As we have noted, Jesus declared that he possessed the “keys” of hell. These keys are symbolic of Jesus’ authority and power to restore the dead to life. He has this authority because he gave his own life to redeem the dead world from death. An Old Testament prophecy concerning this states that he would “ransom them from the power of the grave” (Hebrew, sheol), the Bible hell.—Hosea 13:14

In this prophecy of Hosea the Lord says, “O death, I will be thy plagues.” This language reminds us of what occurred in the land of Egypt when the Lord’s time came to deliver the Hebrews who were being held as captive slaves by Pharaoh. He sent plagues upon Egypt until Pharaoh demanded that the Hebrews be set free and taken out of the country. So figuratively God will plague death until this great land of the enemy also releases its prisoners, Jesus previously having provided a ransom for them.

Yes, Jesus will use the keys of hell, and together with the glorified church will deliver its prisoners, restoring them to life on the earth. All who have died will eventually be delivered from the great prison of death. What a home-coming of the dead that will be! It is good that the Vietnam prisoners of war are being returned, but in God’s future time of deliverance those who died in Vietnam will also be restored, both the Americans and the Asians.

This will be true of all who have died from the beginning of human experience down to God’s due time for the gates of hell to be swung open. It includes those who are dying now, and those who will die in the future, for this is God’s provision for a sin-sick and dying world—a resurrection of the dead, both the just and the unjust.—Acts 24:15

Hell Gives Up Its Dead

Traditionally, hell is a place from which no one is ever released. For most of those who have died, the Catholics have supplied a place which they call purgatory, but for those who are utterly unworthy of life, and never can be worthy, hell is their eternal destiny, and there they will supposedly be tortured forever. But the Bible does not agree with this viewpoint. In the passage in which the word hell appears in the Bible for the next to the last time, we are informed that it gives up its dead. We quote: “And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.”—Rev. 20:13

Earlier in this chapter we read, “And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.” (vs. 12) The “dead, small and great” here mentioned comprise that “host,” which the Apostle Paul declares are led forth by Jesus as a result of his death and resurrection.

They are awakened to life to be judged in keeping with the standards of God’s righteous laws as written in the “books” which will then be opened for all to see and understand. As their “works” are brought into line with God’s will as revealed by the opened books, their names will be placed in “the book of life” and they will be in line for everlasting life.

It is in order that this might become possible that hell gives up its dead. It is merely narrow human reasoning that attempts to make hell a place of torment which will be eternal. We are glad that the gates of hell will be swung wide open, and that its captives will escape and have an opportunity of proving themselves worthy of everlasting life!

Hell Prison to Be Destroyed

After assuring us that hell will, in God’s due time, give up its dead, the Apostle John adds, “And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.” It has long been supposed by many that “the lake of fire” here mentioned is the Bible hell, and the fact that fire is mentioned has contributed to the erroneous thought that hell is a place of fire and brimstone. But this is not the case.

It should be noted from the text just quoted that hell is cast into the lake of fire. Surely hell could not be cast into itself! God had foretold what the final disposition of hell would be, and has told us about it through one of his holy prophets. We read: “I will ransom them from the power of the grave [Hebrew, sheol, “hell”]; I will redeem them from death: O death, I will be thy plagues; O grave [Hebrew, hell] I will be thy destruction.”—Hosea 13:14

Here the Hebrew word sheol is translated grave, but it is the only word in the Old Testament which is translated hell, being thus translated thirty-one times. It has exactly the same meaning as the Greek word hades, which is translated hell in the New Testament. It is this word that is translated hell in the statement that hell is cast into the lake of fire. Thus we see that God had foretold the destruction of hell, and it is this destruction that is illustrated, or symbolized, by the lake of fire.

Fire is not a preservative, but rather one of the most destructive forces known to man. A lake of fire would therefore naturally symbolize a place or condition of destruction. The fact that death and hell are cast into this symbolic lake of fire is a very dramatic way of saying that they are finally destroyed. Hell is not a place of torment which will inflict excruciating pain upon its prisoners throughout eternity. It is, as we have seen, a condition of unconsciousness, and when its prisoners are released by being awakened to life it will no longer exist, for it will be destroyed in the lake of fire.

Death itself will be destroyed. That is why in Revelation 21:4 we read, “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” What a change this will mean in human experience! A good way to have this change impressed upon our minds is to look through a dictionary and note all the words which are directly or indirectly associated with sickness, pain, and death, and realize that eventually these words will become obsolete, for that to which they now apply will no longer exist, being destroyed in the symbolic lake of fire.

Revelation 20:15 reads, “Whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.” In verse 12 of this chapter we are told of “books” which are opened, which, as we have noted, are a symbol of God’s standards of righteousness being revealed to the people during the world’s judgment day. And then another “book” is opened, called “the book of life.” Those whose works are then made to conform to the will of God will have their names placed in the book of life. Those whose names are not ultimately found in the book of life will be those who have failed when a full opportunity has been given to them to turn from their willful ways of sin, and these will be destroyed.

And again, this destruction is symbolized by a lake of fire. That willful sinners will be destroyed at that time is shown by the Apostle Peter, who said in a sermon on the subject of the resurrection, or “restitution,” “It shall come to pass, that every soul, which will not hear that prophet, shall be destroyed from among the people.” (Acts 3:23) How glad we are that eternal torture is not in the plan of God for any of his creatures; that instead, for those who will refuse to obey when full opportunity is given to them, a blotting out of existence, a destruction from among the people, will be their lot.

As always, there is concern by friends and relatives in every war as to whether or not their loved ones who are held as prisoners are being humanely treated, and this has been especially true of those held prisoners in Vietnam. But we need not be concerned about the prisoners of death; for we know that these are suffering neither the tortures of an alleged hell nor the pains of a traditional purgatory, for neither of these places exists. They are sleeping in death, and will be restored to life and to their loved ones in God’s due time. This is the great hope held out to us in the Word of God. This is the return of the prisoners of death.

Dawn Bible Students Association
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