Heaven and Hell
Published Sept. 25, 2012 @ 9:08 a.m.
On the CNN website there is an article entitled “Is Hell for Real?” In that article there are a number of different viewpoints that are presented. A large part of how you view hell depends on what you want from it. My Old Testament scholars in seminary taught that in the Hebrew Old Testament there is no such thing as “heaven and hell” as we are taught in the New Testament. They point out that Sheol was seen more as a holding ground for the shadow of life that people experienced after death. It is true that the Old Testament does not spend a lot of time on what happens to a person after death. One of the great theological battles of the Sadducees and the Pharisees was over whether there was life after death. A simplistic account of the Sadducees was that since the Torah did not contain anything about life after death there must not be any. What good that came from God would come in this life only.
The Pharisees believed that there was life after death. There is some evidence in the Psalms and the writings that there was a possibility of life after death but to say that the Old Testament doesn’t dwell on it would largely be accurate. The few places we see the possibilities are in the episode of Enoch who walked with God and then was not because God had taken him. Then there is Elijah being taken up into the heavens in a chariot. Some might point to the valley of the dry bones in Ezekiel but that is definitely imagery used for the people of Israel and not any one individual. There is certainly not a mention in the Old Testament about hell except for one possible exception in Isaiah 66:24.
These same Biblical scholars point out that with the conquests of Alexander the Great Greek culture had been spread as well and that the ideas of heaven and hell we find in the New Testament have been greatly influenced by these Greek ideas and that this is where the idea of hell came from. That may be so but in the New Testament the idea of hell is firmly established enough that Jesus didn’t take the time to explain it to us.
For instance, in the parable of Lazarus found in Luke 16 Jesus takes it for granted that those who are listening to him know that there is a place of eternal torment. Likewise, in Matthew 5:22 Jesus uses imagery that everyone around him would understand. In this verse the word used for hell actually refers to a burning dump outside of the city of Jerusalem. The imagery of that fire always wafting up into in the sky was a particularly powerful reminder of ultimate destruction.
At one time I wondered out loud if heaven and hell could be the same place. For those who had spent their lives seeking their own glory I could not think of any place worse than having to live in God’s glory. That would burn in their souls forever.
However, for those whose lives were filled with God’s love the eternal presence of God’s glory is the definition of heaven. That is literally so. The great description of heaven found in Revelations is filled with symbolic imagery meant to make the glory of God’s presence with God’s people visible to those of us who have physical eyes more than spiritual eyes. Heaven, for a Christian, is to live in the presence of the Almighty God and to be filled with God’s love for eternity.
That vision of hell; however, doesn’t really fit with the scriptures. Rather, we find hell described not just as a burning fire but also as darkness. In the parable of the wedding feast found in Matthew 22 and Luke 14 the guest that shows up for the feast but not dressed for the wedding is cast into the outer darkness; “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Indeed, hell appears to be a place where we are kept away from God’s presence.
One of the more interesting descriptions of hell is found in Matthew 25. There hell is described as an eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. In this description hell is not meant for human beings at all. Hell is meant for the devil and his angels. The description of the lake of fire found in Revelations has the same description. It’s origin has to do with the devil and his angels, not human punishment. Those who are thrown into the eternal fire are cast in because they have joined the devil and his angels.
And I think that is where I would like to end this short and simplistic thought about hell. It really was never meant for you or me. If we go to hell it is because we have chosen to do so. There is another choice, a choice purchased for us by the blood of Jesus Christ. It is a choice to allow Jesus to be Lord of our lives. In that choice heaven is not something that happens after we die. The New Testament is pretty consistent in its view that eternal life begins now for those who have been crucified with Christ and been born from above by the work of the Holy Spirit. The new creation has already begun in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s completion is still to come but the new creation is already present in us when we give our lives over to the Lord.
That doesn’t mean we will never experience hell. In fact, we are called to be in battle against hell and its dominions. And that battle is not a battle where hell attacks us but where we attack hell. Jesus tells Peter that the gates of hell will not stand against Jesus’ Gathering. The last I checked gates have never been an offensive weapon. They’re very use is to prevent things from going in and out. The idea that the body of Christ is supposed to be in spiritual warfare actually taking people out of hell is a thought not many have proposed but it seems to be the actual view of the New Testament. Paul tells us that we have been given a ministry of redemption – not destruction, but redemption. We are supposed to be helping people get out of hell not putting them through hell.