A God who would send anyone to hell is a God one might fear, but not a God one could love.
Nevertheless, the Christian faith has traditionally been perceived, both by many outsiders as well as Christians themselves, as embracing the belief that God condemns people to hell if they don’t accept the only Way to heaven, Jesus. Many known fundamentalist theologians take that position. One of the most recent, Francis Chan, in his book Erasing Hell, insists that God is retributive, and he cites a number of Scripture references to “prove” it.
I have often heard believers speak of a family member who was a “heathen” until they found themselves at death’s door. Then, the believing relative joyfully relates the fact that this non-Christian loved one, only minutes before they took their last breath, confessed their faith in Jesus Christ and was saved at that moment. On hearing such a tale, I have often cynically assumed that the dying person was actually making a last-minute effort to avoid hell. Not that I do not believe in deathbed conversions, I just have questioned whether many such conversions were genuine. Yet as the years passed and I heard more and more stories of deathbed conversions of loved ones, my assumptions have changed. Perhaps the loved one was not really converted at all, nor was his or her motivation the escape of hell. Chances are, the dying unbeliever did not believe in hell or heaven at all, but the motivation was actually to leave the family with the peace of knowing their loved one was not to forever live in misery and torment! I really think that is an honorable reason for one to fake a Christian conversion.
It is common for “enlightened” Christians today to say they do not believe that a loving God would send a person to hell. That God is in the business of rescuing people from hell, and if a person goes to hell it is because they chose to reject God’s grace.
Ask yourself, what do you believe about heaven and hell? Do you think that the notions some Christians have about heaven and hell actually hinder the acceptance and living out of the Gospel? And how do you respond in conversations about the hereafter, particularly in discussions where one or more fundamentalists are very vocal in their beliefs about the afterlife? Here are a few thoughts that might guide your expression and perhaps clarify what you believe.
What are the different beliefs people hold about heaven?
Belief in a meaningful afterlife was not a part of Hebrew/Jewish religion until after the Babylonian exile. The first evidence of this belief in our Bible is in Daniel 12:2: Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Before this time, the Hebrews had believed only in a nondescript land of the dead called Sheol (Haides in Greek, in the New Testament). By the time of Jesus, the Pharisees Jewish sect were teaching that at the end of time, all the dead will be raised, while some Jews, the best known being the Saducees, insisted that there was no resurrection. Throughout the New Testament we find not only references to a resurrection of the dead but also a final judgment, and in the gospel of Matthew (chapter 25), Jesus describes Himself (Son of Man) as the judge, separating the “sheep” from the “goats,” inviting the sheep to an eternal life in fellowship with God.
The Apostle Paul, himself a Pharisee, viewed Jesus’ Resurrection as a foretaste of what was to come for all when He returns, which was part of his letter to the Corinthians that is recorded in 1 Corinthians chapter 15.
Without a doubt, the concept of bodily resurrection of the dead was the primary Jewish belief in life after death. It was most likely what Jesus Himself believed.
Many Christians today maintain that the resurrection at the end of the age will be coupled with a Rapture, where the faithful are caught up in the clouds together with (the dead in Christ who have risen) to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever (1 Thessalonians 4:17). While the term “Rapture” does not appear in Scripture, the belief that there will be a rapture comes from this passage in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, as well as Jesus’ own ascension following His Resurrection.
The common idea that many Christians hold today, that immediately after death one’s spirit or soul ascends to heaven, is not a Jewish idea. It was probably not a part of Jesus’ concept of eternity, and the roots of the idea are not Jewish but are in the philosophy of the Greeks and Persians, which became a major influence on the Jews after Cyrus the Persian allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem. This philosophy really became a major influence on early Christianity as the early church spread throughout the Mediterranean world. We do find evidence of this teaching in the New Testament, but we do not find much of it there. But because a few scripture passages allude to it, some modern Christian theologians mix the doctrines together, maintaining that there is a temporary heaven that we go to immediately, and a permanent future Kingdom of God where we reside after our resurrection.
The Persians told of a special place that souls go after death called Paradise. Their word for paradise was also their word for garden. This image appealed to many Jews who thought of the Garden of Eden which according to their Scripture was the place God gave Adam and Eve to live in perfect harmony with Him. Some Jews began to think of Sheol in a new way, no longer a watery and neutral place but divided between a place of punishment and a place of reward that they sometimes called the “Bosom of Abraham.” Some folklore emerged, including a tale of a rich man who died and went to the place of torment and a poor man who died and went to Abraham’s bosom. Of course we recognize this as the tale Jesus built upon to prove the point in Luke chapter 16, that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the poor and humble and not to the rich and greedy. Given the fact that He was building on a folk tale, it is doubtful that Jesus believed or was trying to communicate that the story was literally true.
But the most compelling references to heaven as immortality of the soul appear in Paul’s writing. He wrote to the Corinthians of how he and fellow followers of Jesus yearn to be with Him and away from the mortal body, at home with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:1-10). And he wrote to the Philippians my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better (than living in the flesh). (Philippians 1:23). Did Paul actually believe in the immortality of the soul, or did he simply use this imagery in order to communicate effectively with Greeks? I believe that Paul frequently borrowed some Greek concepts in order to relate to his audience, such as the Greek dualistic thinking that contrasted flesh and spirit, and the reference to the Athenian “unknown god,” which Paul used to introduce the Athenians to the one true God.
Resurrection or immortality of the soul? Or both? And there is yet another alternative way of believing. That one does not have conscious life after death at all.
What are the different beliefs people hold about hell?
There is no clear reference to hell in the Old Testament. The word Sheol and its New Testament equivalent Haedes mean the realm of the dead, a nondescript place of neither reward nor punishment. As I pointed out earlier, the Persian influence caused some of the Jews by New Testament times to think of Haedes as divided between two separate realms, one being a place of suffering and the other a place of reward. But in the New Testament, the word Gehenna is translated into English as “hell,” and it definitely refers to a bad place.
Gehenna literally refers to the Hinnon Valley near Jerusalem, which at one time was a place where bodies of wicked persons were cast. Later, the valley was a smoldering garbage dump. Gehenna and indirect references to hell such as “outer darkness” and “lake of fire” when used in the New Testament undoubtedly refer to a place of suffering and punishment for the wicked.
But what is hell, really? What do people believe about hell? Is it really a place of unending suffering, of punishment, of no hope? Or does it exist at all? Surveys nearly always show that more people believe in heaven than believe in hell. Understandably, the idea that there is a place of extreme suffering and no hope of connecting with God is problematic. And some people believe that hell is only a condition that may exist for some people in this life.
Not long ago, two very different Christian writers published books that led to many interesting dialogs on the subject of hell. In his book Love Wins, Rob Bell maintains that hell is not a place of everlasting punishment, and that God pursues us until He wins us, even past the gates of hell. Francis Chan wrote an answer to Bell’s book, titled Erasing Hell. Chan writes that hell is a permanent place of punishment for the “unsaved” after death.
It seems that a key word that is used to describe the purpose of hell is “punishment.” Shall we explore the different meanings of punishment to see if any fit in with our concept of God and His dealings with us? I believe there are three. One is retribution. You hurt me, so I’ll hurt you. I believe that when a loving parent “punishes” their child, it is not for retribution. However, Chan argues that retribution is indeed an attribute of God’s judgment and indeed, God has a right to punish us in retribution. Another meaning is discipline. You made a mistake, so you need to learn something so that you will not make the mistake again. I can see a loving parent “punish” their child for this purpose. By the way, I put the word in quotation marks because I really do not think that “punish” is the correct word to refer to the actions of a loving parent toward their child. Punish always implies retribution. Finally, a third meaning is to allow the person to experience the natural consequences of their actions, including their mistakes. For instance, if a person drives a vehicle under the influence of alcohol they could have an accident and be hurt and killed. The parent allows the child to grow, lets go, and encourages him or her to make independent choices. And some of these choices are “punishing.” This meaning also holds open hope that the person will learn from mistakes.
I am convinced that discipline and natural consequences are the only forms of “punishment” that could come from a loving parent God. And of course, if hell is a place of discipline and learning, then it is not forever. There is a way out.
On the other hand, going to hell may have nothing to do with an act of God. It may simply be a state of being completely apart from God, and a state that people choose because of their rejection of God’s grace. If this is the case, hell could be a place or state of permanent separation from God.
If we assume that God loves us completely, though, we must assume that an everlasting, permanent hell would be a realm that God is unable to enter. Not unwilling but simply unable. Because a God who loves us completely would pursue us as far and as long as possible. No good parent, and we might assume God is the perfect parent, would allow their child to suffer forever if it was in their power to rescue the child.
So, who is saved?
There are three categories of Christian belief about who is saved. Actually, four.
The first is the exclusivist view. According to this view, no one is saved unless they profess belief that Jesus is the only begotten Son of God and trust His death on the Cross for their salvation. Everyone else goes to an eternal hell after death.
The second is the inclusivist view. According to this view, while Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross is the only thing that brings salvation, God in his omnipotence has ways to apply Jesus’ sacrifice to save others who might have never heard the Gospel of Jesus’ sacrifice presented to them. Or who know about the Gospel but for an understandable reason do not embrace it.
The inclusivist view might take several forms. Inclusivists might be labeled as “liberals” or “heretics,” but in truth, few Christians are pure exclusivists. For one thing, an exclusivist cannot believe that infants go to heaven, because infants cannot hold a belief in Jesus’ death on the Cross for salvation. So many Christians who claim to be “fundamentalists” say that there is an “Age of Accountability,” before which God will admit one to heaven even though they are too young to have formed a belief about Jesus. Okay, that makes logical sense, but there is no “Age of Accountability” cited in the Bible. Furthermore, a fundamentalist, a believer in biblical inerrancy, cannot be a pure exclusivist because Hebrews chapter 11 tells of a number of Old Testament characters, including Abraham, Enoch, and Noah, and declares that because of their faith, God has “prepared a city for them.”
A third view is the universalist view. This means that everyone eventually ends up in heaven. The appeal of this view is the logical assumption that because God is all loving and all powerful, He always gets what He wants, and what He wants is for everyone to live eternally with Him.
There is one other view, and it is that there is no conscious life after death at all. I believe that a Christian might have this view. That is because the Christian might believe that this is not something God owes us, anyway. And there are interpretations of the biblical concept “Eternal Life” that might lead one to an understanding that it means something other than “forever life.” Indeed, a more literal translation of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus that whosoever believes in him will have eternal life is that it means “a life of the ages,” which might be understood as a life not bound by an age of time, or not bound by time at all. After all, if God is outside of time (see my blog post God and Time), then it makes sense to think of our eternal life with God as outside of time. It might be difficult to wrap our brains around that, but certainly, it is nothing similar to life in the earthly realm.
What all this should mean to you is that there are different ways to understand heaven and hell. If you know a Christian whose view is different from yours, perhaps you can understand that view in the light of some of the information presented in this post. Listen to that person. Respect that person’s views and try to understand where he or she might be coming from. Realize how difficult it might be for a Christian exposed to the idea that there is just one view, to respect you and understand where you are coming from.