A Question I Was Asked:

Can You Explain John 3:13?

Did Jesus REALLY Say That Nobody Goes to Heaven?

Is 'Soul Sleep' a Biblical Teaching?

The Actual Question in Full:

"I have this question. As we know, when the just die, they go to heaven to be with the Lord - purely as souls - until the full resurrection of body and soul. But why then does Jesus say the following in John 3:13?

John 3:13: 'And no one has ascended up to Heaven except He who came down from Heaven, the Son of Man who is in Heaven.'

Can you explain this for me please, Robin?"

UK Apologetics Reply:

As always, in answering Bible questions, it is, context - context - context which is so all-important! Jesus was explaining to Nicodemus about being 'born again' - that is the context. Let us consult all of the relevant verses:

John 3:3: Jesus answered and said to him, Truly, truly, I say to you, Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
John 3:4: Nicodemus said to Him, How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother's womb and be born?
John 3:5: Jesus answered, Truly, truly, I say to you, Unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.
John 3:6: That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
John 3:7: Do not marvel that I said to you, You must be born again.
John 3:8: The Spirit breathes where He desires, and you hear His voice, but you do not know from where He comes, and where He goes; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.
John 3:9: Nicodemus answered and said to Him, How can these things be?
John 3:10: Jesus answered and said to him, Are you the teacher of Israel and do not know these things? (MKJV).

Jesus expressed surprise that a major teacher among the Pharisees, which we know from several sources that Nicodemus was, could have so little understanding; the Phariseees, after all, did believe in the resurrection.

But the real key to understanding verse 13 are the two preceding verses:

John 3:11: Truly, truly, I say to you, We speak what we know and testify what we have seen. And you do not receive our witness.
John 3:12: If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how shall you believe if I tell you heavenly things?

Then we have the verse in question:

John 3:13: 'And no one has ascended up to Heaven except He who came down from Heaven, the Son of Man who is in Heaven.'

So the real sense of Jesus' comment is this: The perfect knowledge of God is not obtained by any man’s going up from earth to heaven to receive it - no man has ever ascended for any such purpose. Only Christ can teach us heavenly things, for no other being has ever ascended into Heaven, that is: in order to receive and to bring back deep, spiritual teachings. Christ alone was appointed to this.

The general sense of all this is well expressed here:

John 1:18: No one has seen God at any time; the Only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.

Adam Clarke adds this:

"...But our Lord probably [also] spoke to correct a false notion among the Jews, viz. that Moses had ascended to heaven, in order to get the law. It is not Moses who is to be heard now, but Jesus: Moses did not ascend to heaven; but the Son of man is come down from heaven to reveal the Divine will."

So the whole point here is that nobody else has ever been appointed to go into Heaven in order to receive the spiritual truth which can save - Jesus alone was appointed to this!

In his commentary, Gill said this:

"...No man had, or could go up to heaven, to bring from thence the knowledge of divine and heavenly things; in which sense the phrase is used in Deut. 30:12, and which may be illustrated by John 1:18; wherefore inasmuch as Nicodemus had acknowledged Christ to he a teacher come from God, our Lord, would have him know, that he was the only teacher of heavenly things, as being the only person that had been in heaven, and in the bosom of the Father; and therefore, if he, and the rest of the Jews, did not receive instructions from him, they must for ever remain ignorant; for there never had been, nor was, nor could be, any mere man that could go up to heaven, and learn the mysteries of God, and of the kingdom of heaven, and return and instruct men in them..."

So this just about sums up the answer to this question. Jesus is most assuredly not discussing any question concerning the souls of the just ascending to Heaven at their death. I am aware that those who teach 'soul sleep' between death and resurrection often use this verse but - truth is - they are pulling it totally out of context in order to employ it in such a manner, and they must know that.

When Jesus talks more specifically about what happens to the soul at death, he is quite clear, in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man:

Luke 16:19: There was a certain rich man who was customarily clothed in purple and fine linen and making merry in luxury every day.
Luke 16:20: And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, who was laid at his gate, full of sores
Luke 16:21: and desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table. But even the dogs came and licked his sores.
Luke 16:22: And it happened that the beggar died and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom. The rich one also died and was buried.
Luke 16:23: And in hell he lifted up his eyes, being in torments, and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.

It is very strange indeed that advocates of 'soul sleep' write this Scripture off with comments like, "But it's only a parable." But parables had a specific teaching function and role! Now it is true that the teaching function of this parable is that, in the life hereafter, injustices upon earth may well often be reversed, yet one cannot believe that Jesus would have used such an example if 'soul sleep,' until the resurrection, is what happens at death. For, on the cross, Jesus also said,

'And Jesus said to him, "Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise."' (Luke 23:43).

Back in the Old Testament, Elijah had also gone straight to heaven when his earthly life was complete (2 Kings 2:11-13). Of course, Elijah did not enter Heaven in order to receive, and bring back, spiritual knowledge, so this example does not break the words of Jesus to Nicodemus.

Paul also obviously expected to immediately enter heaven upon death in 2 Corinthians 5:1-8 and Philippians 1:20-24. Neither verse speaks of the resurrection because Paul speaks of his soul (in a disembodied state) in both accounts. He tells the Philippians that it is more needful for them that he, '...remain in the flesh...' - only in heaven are we ever 'absent from the flesh.' He also makes it clear to the Corinthians that he refers to a state in which he would be '....absent from the body and to be present with the Lord' (2 Cor. 5:8). Therefore Paul speaks of his entering Heaven at death in both Scriptures. John 3:13 is set in an entirely different context and refers to the fact that Jesus alone has been in Heaven, then come from there to earth in order to reveal the spiritual truth which leads to Eternal Life.
Robin A. Brace, June, 26th, 2009.