Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Heaven and Hell Reconsidered

Heaven and hell are central aspects of my belief system, but I understand them quite differently than most Western Christians do. [E1] Unfortunately, over the course two thousand years, the Christian teaching about heaven and hell has gotten deeply entangled with the mythologies of the cultures it has engaged. [E2] This entanglement has produced a horrific blend of belief systems, in which the Christian God is committed to retributive justice and therefore tortures anyone who does not submit to Jesus Christ. [E3] The story of how we got to this troubling perspective is long and complicated. For now, I just want to look at one piece of it: what we have absorbed from Germanic mythology.

In the ancient mythologies of the Germanic world, the universe was divided into three basic parts. The upper part is where the gods live. It is a place of great luxury in the sky.  The middle part is the earth, where humans live.  It is distinct and separate from the two other parts. The lower part is underground. It is the shadowy place of the dead. The name for this place is Hel, which is the word Christian missionaries used to translate their concept of the afterlife into German, and subsequently, English. In fact, the King James Bible translated a number of different biblical words, including Sheol, Gehenna, Hades, and Tartarus, into a single word: hell.

Unfortunately, in borrowing this language, Christians ended up absorbing the three-tiered vision of the universe associated with it. We consider earth to be the place of the living, and then after you die, we imagine that God sends you either "up" to heaven or "down" to hell. But that is not what Jesus and his disciples taught. Remember, Christians believe in the general resurrection, a doctrine that teaches that every human being will be resurrected in the same place, i.e. the earth. [E4] This includes those who have done good and those who have done evil. [E5] Consequently, heaven and hell do not ultimately name the places where we will reside. Instead, they describe the kinds of experiences we will have when we are resurrected. For some people, resurrected life on earth will be so wonderful that the best language to describe it will be heaven. For others, it will be extremely unpleasant. It won’t be an exaggeration for them to call it hell.

But why will it be unpleasant for some people and not for others? Why can’t God make it wonderful for everyone? Although God wants to do this [E6], the Bible teaches that our afterlife experience will largely depend on us. Whether it is joyful or miserable will be based on the kind of people we have become. Let me explain with an example. Picture that glorious moment when everyone is mysteriously brought back to life on this planet. When everyone wakes up and looks around them, they will see the masses of people with whom they will share eternity. For racists, this won’t be a pleasant moment. When they look around, they will see people “from every tongue and tribe and nation” around them, [E7] and they will immediately feel resentful, bitter, and hateful about having to live in this situation. Thus for them, eternity will be hell.

God does not punish us for our sins by sending us to a torture chamber; the punishment naturally flows from the sin itself. The Bible talks about this over and over again. Consider, for example, Proverbs 19:19, which says, “A violent-tempered person will bear the penalty; if you effect a rescue, you will only have to do it again.” The point of this verse is that people who can’t control their anger will be miserable wherever they go. You can try to “effect a rescue” by bailing them out of jail or moving away from those whom they dislike. You could even put them in a place where they live in a mansion and walk on streets of gold. But even then, they would “bear the penalty” of their sin, because something would undoubtedly tick them off. Violent-tempered people, like people with every other type of vice, want to blame it on the circumstances, but the problem is actually rooted in them.

Numerous other passages make the same point. Galatians 6:7 argues that a person will reap what they sow. Titus 3:10-11 explains that a divisive person is “self-condemned.” Even those passages which seem to depict God as angry and vengeful, when you take a closer look, are really only claiming that God lets people experience the consequences of their own actions. Look at one of the most “vengeful” passages in the New Testament, Romans 1. This is the one that says, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all godlessness and wickedness of people who suppress the truth by their wickedness.” So, in this quintessential verse of divine judgment and anger, what does God do in this rage? Three things: “God
gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity,” “God gave them over to shameful lusts…” and “God gave them over to a depraved mind.” The only action that God takes in this chapter is to hand sinners over to the consequences caused by their own sins. However, this is a great punishment indeed.

This isn’t always clear because the Bible usually talks about it in metaphorical terms. We usually associate hell with one particular metaphor, “the lake of fire.” [E8] Although it’s not incorrect to think about hell like this, what people don’t usually realize is that heaven is described in terms of fire too. In 1 Corinthians, Paul says that the life of a Christian “will be shown for what it is, for… it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work.” Just as fire has a different effect on different materials – melting some and hardening others – so the “fire of God” will create a different experience for different people. It will be heaven for some and hell for others.
But if is ultimately our character that determines what the afterlife will be like, wouldn’t that mean that we should just try to be good people? Why would our beliefs matter in this understanding of heaven and hell? What does Jesus have to do with our salvation? I’ll consider these points in the next post.


End Notes (You don’t have to read these)

[E1] I say “Western Christianity” because for the most part, the Orthodox Church has preserved the understanding of heaven and hell that I am presenting here. Fortunately, it is slowly making its way into the West through C.S. Lewis’s book, The Great Divorce, which was the book that influenced me in this direction.

[E2] The relationship between Christian teaching and mythological teaching on the afterlife is very complex, especially since the New Testament occasionally uses Greek terms like Hades and Tartarus to describe hell. However, it is especially clear in texts like Dante’s
Inferno that Greek mythology has intruded into Christian thought in non-biblical ways.

[E3] Christians would rarely describe God as a “torturer,” although this implication if God both designed hell and sends people there. In some traditions, God does this reluctantly because of the demands of justice while in others, God does it quite willfully, and we sinful mortals are simply not capable of comprehending the justice of this action. The Mennonite critique, articulated especially well by figures like J. Denny Weaver, is that this account of retributive justice that is articulated by both sides of this continuum is precisely the model of justice that Jesus subverts in his parables.

[E4] This is not to deny that there may be physical separation between people on earth. The Bible certainly talks about a separation of the wheat and the chaff, the sheep and the goats, etc.

[E5] Cf. John 5:28-29.

[E6] Cf. 2 Peter 3:9, which says that God does not want anyone to perish but all to come to salvation.

[E7] Cf. Revelation 7:9, and really the whole chapter.

[E8] This metaphor is drawn from Revelation (cf. Rev. 20:10) and is similar enough to Jesus’ description of Gehenna (cf. Matt 5:22) that the two are often assumed to be identical.


Steven Jones said...

And so it has come to be that we agree. I think your summary of the three-tiered view of reality from the Germanic tribes is an oversimplification; the reason why this model was so compatible for us is because it was not dissonant with "high heaven" and "death underground" present in the ANE and in scriptures. Still, though, good work. I agree and endorse. [The Apocalypse presents this model of the afterlife very vividly, I think.]

Brian Bither said...

You're right, Steve. I tried to allude to this by saying, "The story of how we got to this troubling perspective is long and complicated." I recognize that there is not a clear distinction between "biblical teaching" and "cultural mythology," that Germanic mythology was not likely the most influential one, and that a number of other theological developments (especially those relating to the satisfaction-atonement theory) contributed to the current vision. Nevertheless, I hoped that there was enough truth in this oversimplification to convey the idea that our three-tiered conception of the universe is not congruent with the Christian narrative that climaxes at the apocalypse.

In other words, I'm glad you agree, and I accept your critique.

Ryan said...

I'm not sure I was able to gather from your post whether you believe in a difference between Hades, Sheol, death, lake of fire, etc. I noticed you acknowledged the KJV and other English versions translating them as one and the same due to influences of Germanic culture, but I was interested to learn how you see these words. I caught a glimpse of your thoughts on the lake of fire but what of death and Hades?

You've raised some interesting thoughts and I look forward to contemplating them. Keep up the good work!

Brian Bither said...

Ryan, that’s a fair but very complicated question. How one answers it will depend largely on the assumptions that one has about Scripture in the first place.

Personally, I believe that the revelation about the afterlife came gradually. In the earliest books of the OT, the writers didn't anticipate any life after death (cf. Job 7:1-10, Eccl. 3:12-22). As time went on, the prophets began to explore the concept of resurrection, especially in texts like Isaiah 26 and Ezekiel 37, but it's not clear that they were actually claiming that there would be life after the grave. The first undeniable affirmation in the resurrection comes in Daniel 12, and it is then affirmed pretty consistently in the NT, as Jesus' resurrection confirmed and revealed this understanding of the life to come.

Similarly, I'm not convinced that the biblical authors all envisioned death and the afterlife in the same way, and their different language reflects some of these differences. The Psalms use the language of "the pit," "the grave," and "Sheol," and there are two ways to interpret these references: either they refer to a shadowy afterlife (like the Greeks understood Hades) or these were euphemisms used to say that a person ceased to exist. The Jews who translated the OT into Greek used the word "Hades" to translate "Sheol," and in the NT, Hades often personifies death (as in Matthew 16:18 and Rev. 20:14). Also, the NT occasionally uses sleep as a metaphor for death, which suggests that a person ceases to exist until the resurrection (cf. John 11:11-15, 1 Cor. 15:51-52, Mark 5:35-43). On the other hand, there are some texts which suggest what biblical scholars call "an intermediate state," in which "souls" have some kind of continued existence between death and the resurrection (cf. 1 Peter 3:18-20).

The other terms, including "Gehenna," in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, (along with "outer darkness" and "weeping and gnashing of teeth"), "the lake of fire" in Revelation, and most puzzlingly, "perishing" in John, all talk about the unpleasant experience of sinners in the life to come in slightly different ways. Unfortunately, I can't explore each of these now, but I hope that gives a little bit of a picture of the complexity - which nevertheless exhibits some unity - in the Bible on this subject.

Ryan McGiffen said...

I knew that it was a a complex topic; I had just wondered if you had worked it all out in your theology. Definitely some good thoughts, observations, and ideas here.

Permit me to come back to your thoughts on the resurrection and the new earth. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it is your understanding that all will be resurrected to the new earth, judged, and then possibly separated according to the judgement and the Book of Life, but still in the same earth for which those who are in the Book of Life it will be pleasant but unpleasant for those not in the Book of Life.

Can I ascertain that this is because those who are in the Book of Life have been refined by fire so that the crippling sin, still present among those not in the Book, is not a temptation? (I'll be interested to hear your thoughts on baptism in the future (water, Holy Spirit, and fire all distinct/necessary?) Those not in the Book "tormented" (one might say) by the same sin that plagued them in the former life cannot repent or is it will not repent at this point?

And what of the good that was sometimes present in the former life of these individuals? Have they too been refined by fire but rather to keep only the bad, or are they simply living the same sort of life they were before the resurrection, no better off but also no worse?

One more question: if those not in the Book of Life are in the second earth to live there forever, then why would Revelation 20:14 use the language of a "second death" (I do not know the Greek so this could just be a misinterpretation or poor translation).

In your response, do not worry about stepping on my toes; I have come here to learn. As Aristotle is translated, "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." I say this because in your last reply you mention "the assumptions one has about Scripture." Since this is your theology we are discussing, we can use your assumptions. My faith has come full circle to just that: faith (inerrant scriptures or not.)

Thank you for your time and conveying the knowledge you have acquired. I look forward to your response.

God bless!

Brian Bither said...

Yes, that's a pretty accurate description of what I believe, with the "refining by fire" metaphor working both ways, as you noted. As far as the "second death" in Revelation goes, I'm not entirely sure what to make of that. I'm doing a group study on Revelation this year, so I hope that I may have a better answer for you several months from now. (Those last chapters in Revelation, as beautiful as they are, remain somewhat of a mystery to me.) Anyway, thanks for your comments.

John Miller said...

The more I read about differing theological approaches to all these historical topics, the more I enjoy the conversation that makes up theology. I shake my head a lot at the church for going to war with the war and each other over matters that are not dogmatic, and many times not even doctrinal.

When it first came out I read Rob Bell's Love Wins [E1] and found, as one IWU's theology professors agreed, that it wasn't heretical and did not preach universalism, but simply added to the conversation (really, just brought up old voices in the conversation). Ironically, I read Lewis' Great Divorce [E2] after Love Wins and felt that Lewis provided a narrative and Bell simply provided a framework to support it. Have you read Love Wins? What are your thoughts?

And also, what do you make of the often quoted passages about God separating the sheep from the goats? [E3] This is often used as a way of supporting an eternal separating of "Christ's flock" from the others (Satan's goats? idk...)

[E1] Here's the amazon page to the book, you can see all the controversy in the ratings and reviews! http://www.amazon.com/Love-Wins-About-Heaven-Person/dp/006204964X

[E2] C.S. Lewis' book is Brian's "E1" in original post

[E3] Matthew 25:31-46

Brian Bither said...

Hey John,

My response was so long that I had to break it into two parts. I should probably take that as a sign that I talk too much, but instead, I'm posting it all and letting you decide what to read and what to ignore.

I did read Love Wins, and as a whole, I really liked it. I agree with Bell's descriptions of heaven and hell, and beyond that, I appreciate some of the points he made along the way. For example, I really appreciate his comment, "Grace and generosity aren't fair; that's their very essence" (168), a point he also makes in one of his NOOMA videos. The idea that God is bound by some principle of "justice" or "fairness" gets the heart of the theological problem of Western Christianity, in my opinion. Don't worry - I will talk about that in more detail later. But let me mention one other comment of his that I liked: Bell suggests that the "failure" of Christianity in America lies in its content, not its form, and I really agree with this. Thus, while churches focus so much energy on being more "relevant" or "welcoming," they are missing the real problem: a distorted gospel (175). Again, this comment is prophetic, and it is especially powerful coming from a pastor who seems to be so good at being "relevant" and "welcoming."

Nevertheless, I do have three interrelated criticisms of Love Wins. All of them surround the way that Bell discusses (or fails to discuss) the atonement. But before I share that, let me tell you how I myself wrestled with this issue.

While I was serving at First Church, I spent a lot of time reading and discussing The Great Divorce. Greg and I both shared a passion for that text, and I even led a small group discussion at my house over that book. It was food for my soul. However, as it began to shape my "imagination" (i.e. the way I think through life, theology, and everything), I began to realize that it was inconsistent with the way I understood the atonement. I wondered, "Why did Jesus have to die on the cross in order to transform us into better people?" It didn't seem like this was necessary, and all of the arguments to the contrary (including the appeal to mystery) ultimately pulled me into a vision of God and the created order that contradicted the vision in The Great Divorce. I found that I was uncomfortable preaching on this topic, which was so central to the Christian message, and I decided I needed to address it in seminary. So I did. In fact, I wrote my thesis on the atonement.

Brian Bither said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian Bither said...

(Part 2 in Response to John)

My problems with Love Wins all have to do with the fact that I don't think Bell has worked out this inconsistency. Instead, he has played the mystery card to get out of it. Contrary to his great insight on 175, he argues on p.128-129 that the reason the sacrificial atonement models aren't working is because they are "irrelevant" to our culture. I don't think that is the problem with the sacrificial model of the atonement - I think that we have misinterpreted it and actually turned it into something that opposes the gospel. Thus, I am not a big fan of his "kaleidoscopic" approach of suggesting that all of the atonement theories are equally and partially true (criticism 1), but I think some are more faithful to the gospel than others. I also agree that he slants the biblical and historical evidence a little to favor universalistm (criticism 2), but he's careful about this, so it doesn't bother me as much it as bothers John Piper.

The biggest critique, which I will explore in my next post, is that ecclesiology is lacking from his soteriology [E1]. At the end of the day, he still looks at it in individualistic terms - albeit with a concern for "social issues" - but what matters is what Jesus does in my heart and my life (criticism 3). His universalism is dangerous, not because he believes that "there are rocks everywhere" (I agree with that), but because he doesn't see God's plan of salvation to be the calling of a people, because he doesn't describe individual salvation as incorporation into that body, and because this leaves us with our own sense of what makes a good person to guide us.

Sorry, that was probably more than you bargained for, but I hope it answers the question. Again, let me say that I do like Rob Bell - I am very close to him theologically. However, there are some things that we wouldn't just leave "in tension." Sometimes, tension calls our attention to doctrines that we ought to abandon, to yeast of the Pharisees that has gotten mixed in with the bread of life, and in those cases, it's important to take a stand.

[E1] "Ecclesiology" is the theological term for our beliefs about the church. "Soteriology" is the theological term for our beliefs about salvation.

Brian Bither said...

Here's perhaps the best text yet that confirms my understanding of the afterlife.

“Tell the innocent how fortunate they are, for they shall eat the fruit of their labors. Woe to the guilty! How unfortunate they are, for what their hands have done shall be done to them.” Isaiah 3:10-11

Zack Crist said...

Hello again Brian. I really do enjoy reading your thoughts. They are very helpful for me! To be honest, I think the following discussion is where all the thoughts start to come out and make more sense too. I feel that I should contribute too if I want to benefit from the blessing offered!

You stated some questions at the end. I'd like to share my thoughts on them. I slightly disagree with the idea that it is our character that determines what our hereafter will be. I believe it is based entirely on our belief. I don't just mean the simple belief=identity in that if I call myself a Jew/Christian/Muslim or whatever that my afterlife will be such and such. I am of the opinion that it really depends on our confirmed belief.

For example. I have witnessed that everything created is an act of mercy by God. Now this means, when I drink water, I realize that it is not water which I am consuming, I am actually witnessing God's Mercy and I praise God when I witness it. I will then want "God's Mercy" both here and in the hereafter.

However, If I haven't witnessed this, then I will say that it is water that is sustaining me and I will praise the water. This will mean that I will always want water which (1) neither quenches my thirst, nor (2) does it answer my need for mercy.

In the hereafter, our needs will still exist; and according to what we have witnessed and come to believe in this world, we will ask for either water or God's Mercy. However, in the hereafter the "veil of water" over God's mercy will be lifted and those who ask for water will be burned by it because water has no creative power to quench thirst or give mercy at all anyway. Those who have witnessed God's Mercy, however, will ask for that and will drink God's Mercy in whatever form God decides to give it in and will quench their thirst eternally.

I don't think I'm going to respond to the other questions right now, otherwise what I write will just be way to long! Sorry for the length!

This is what I understand from the verse you quoted in one of your later comments (Isaiah 3:10-11).

Brian Bither said...

I like your argument, but I think it serves to confirm my general perspective. I agree with you that our beliefs will determine our hereafter, but only insofar as beliefs inform and shape our character. Your examples seem make this point quite well. The person who craves water does so because he/she believes that the water is what they want. Over time, as they condition themselves to seek water more and more, they develop a gluttonous character, which will affect them in the life to come. Although the belief contributed to their decisions in the first place, it is ultimately their gluttonous character that makes them suffer.

This is different from saying that God punishes them because they held the wrong belief. I don't believe that God is personally offended at our sins, nor do I believe that God is obliged by a trans-divine mandate to maintain justice.

So, my question for you is this: If "the veil of water" is lifted and those who asked for water now wanted to worship God, why wouldn't the All-Merciful God accept their repentance and give them a blessed eternal life? Or even the sinners still did not want to worship God, why wouldn't the All-Good God forcibly change their attitudes so that they would worship God and experience a blessed eternal life?

As I see it, the only way out of this dilemma is "free will" (a crude term, for sure, but the best I have for now), by which I mean God's decision to empower creatures with agency over their destiny. Of course, in saying this, I am not representing the entire Christian tradition. Dominicans (Catholic), Calvinists, and most Lutherans would agree with you over against me on this one.

Zack Crist said...

Your question is a good one. I'll have to start with revelation in shaping my understanding.

After death, even believers may find themselves in hell. God will give permission of those in heaven to go and take a group of people out of hell if they have a certain level of belief. Then later, He will allow the people of paradise to go take more people out of hell who have an even lower level of belief. Finally, God will choose a group of people who He saves from hell who He saves from eternal hell [E1].

So essentially I partially agree with you about one's "character" being what puts them in hell. However, I think this character is only valid for one who is already a believer. Just like one who is a believer but still worships water will ask for water in the hereafter, once he/she realizes that is burns when drunk, he will be able to turn to God since he does believe God is the actual creator of everything.

So yes, we will be in hell for our rebelion (sin) against God. However, if anyone has even the slightest of belief, he/she will eventually be brought into heaven. This is what the Prophet Muhammed stated in that he prayed for every believer, even the greatest of sinner to enter heaven, and this prayer was accepted and is granted. [E2] However, the key is BELIEF!

The last thing I will also add is that I do not believe that someone who has never come into contact with the message of God (or even someone who has come in contact with a distorted message of the truth) deserves hell. They may be judged by their conscience in this world experiencing a partial heaven and hell. However, it would go against God's Mercy and Justice to punish someone He never warned. (Warning is in God's hand).

By the way, this stems for my belief that sin is not an action, but an attitude and perspective. This conversation will start to get into "free will." I would say "freedom of partial choice (in one's perspective)" is a slightly better term. However, this would require a lot of discussion. So let me cut it short and I'll ask for your opinion on the above topic for the time being.

[E1] http://www.hudainfo.com/Bukhari/093.asp (Sahih Bukhari Volume 9, Book 93, Number 532s)

[E2] http://www.hudainfo.com/Bukhari/076.asp (Sahih Bukhari Volume 8, Book 76, Number 570)