Rethinking “Heaven” & “Hell”
Rethinking “Heaven” & “Hell”

Rethinking "Heaven"

This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’ — Matthew 6.9-13 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor. So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. — I Corinthians 15.35-44
When it comes to my faith “deconstruction/reconstruction,” I can very rarely point to an exact moment when the coin dropped in the slot for me and my views drastically shifted. But when it comes to “heaven,” or more generally, my beliefs about the afterlife, there was a moment that was a seismic shift for me. When we lived in New Orleans and I’d recently graduated from Bible college, I used to get together weekly with a group of ministers over coffee just to philosophize and theologize. It was a way for me to get to my fix of intellectual stimulus, while I was serving on the staff of a faith-based community center in an under-resourced neighborhood. A couple of the friends I’d get together with were campus ministers at Tulane and Loyola. One was the director of the Pentecostal campus ministries (called Chi Alpha) and another was the director of InterVarsity campus ministries. Other ministry folks we knew would cycle in and out of our little theology club, but the three of us were the core members. At one of these gatherings, somehow the subject of the afterlife came up and I heard myself waxing theological about how when we are in heaven, we will shed these cumbersome bodies and our disembodied spirits will inhabit a realm beyond space and time. I even threw in a Bible proof-text from I Corinthians 15 for good measure: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” But then, Myron, my friend the InterVarsity director, said something that hit me like a bolt of lightning. He said, “T. C., we’re going to have bodies in heaven.” And in the next few seconds, my entire framework for the afterlife began to crumble before my metaphorical eyes. As Myron went on, I started to realize that I’d had it completely wrong. “Heaven” wasn’t about escaping this bodily, material existence; “Heaven” was about restoration, renewal of this bodily, material existence that has been corrupted. Suddenly, so many other parts of Scripture made so much more sense. Why would Jesus teach us to pray for God’s Kingdom rule to come here to earth, if we were all going someplace else? Why would John of Patmos see a vision of the New Jerusalem coming down out of the sky to earth, if our ultimate destiny was to be whisked away to the sky? I suddenly realized that I had some “traditional” beliefs that I’d absorbed from my church experience that weren’t rooted in what the Bible actually taught. And that’s has been a realization a lot of people have made, which has rocked their faith. Not all traditional beliefs are rooted in what the Bible actually teaches. That’s why it’s important that we investigate, interrogate our beliefs. Where did the idea of a cloudy place with chubby babies with harps come from? Where’s that at in the Bible? Where did the idea of the “rapture” come from? Did it come from the Bible? If so, why did no one teach it until a little over a 100 years ago? Back in 2013, I wrote a blog post on the subject of the rapture because that summer there were at least two Hollywood movies with big budgets on the Apocalypse claiming to be based on the Bible. One of them was called “Rapture Palooza” (I kid you not!) and in an interview with the cast, one of the actors said, “To go back to the source material, the Bible describes the Antichrist as a very charismatic, handsome, leader. Right? …From a very wealthy family that everybody loves.” Unfortunately, mixing up material from the Left Behind books and the Bible isn’t just a mistake Hollywood actors make; I’ve known way too many Christians who’ve made the exact same mistake. World-renowned New Testament scholar and historian, N. T. Wright, recently wrote an article for Time magazine entitled, “The New Testament Doesn’t Say What Most People Think It Does About Heaven.” In it, he writes,
“One of the central stories of the Bible, many people believe, is that there is a heaven and an earth and that human souls have been exiled from heaven and are serving out time here on earth until they can return. Indeed, for most modern Christians, the idea of ‘going to heaven when you die’ is not simply one belief among others, but the one that seems to give a point to it all.”
But Wright points out that this wasn’t what Christians believed, this was what Greek philosophers called Platonists believed. To discover what early Christians believed you have to interpret the New Testament in light of their Jewish worldview. Wright continues,
“The followers of the Jesus-movement that grew up in that complex environment saw ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’ — God’s space and ours, if you like — as the twin halves of God’s good creation. Rather than rescuing people from the latter in order to reach the former, the creator God would finally bring heaven and earth together in a great act of new creation, completing the original creative purpose by healing the entire cosmos of its ancient ills. They believed that God would then raise his people from the dead, to share in — and, indeed, to share his stewardship over — this rescued and renewed creation. And they believed all this because of Jesus.”
When it dawned on me all those years ago, that I’d had it almost exactly backwards—that our ultimate destiny wasn’t to evacuate this planet, but instead for the Creator God to restore this planet and the Shalom God had always intended for it—this had profound implications for what I believed about the mission of the church. Suddenly, my attitude about things like how human beings treat the environment shifted drastically. No longer could I be indifferent about pollution, about deforestation, about turning the oceans into landfills. It also changed my attitude about politics. If God is restoring the whole Creation—Making All Things New!—then God is restoring human relationships in society. This has profound implications for how I conceptualize my “politics.” (I’m not talking about donkeys and elephants. I’m talking about how my efforts to improve society align with God’s shalom). In other words, this shift in my thinking about “heaven” also shifted what I believe about God’s Mission. God hasn’t given up on this world, letting it go to hell in a hand basket. No! God’s mission is to make the whole Creation whole again. And as we are caught up in the life of God, we too are invited into that mission! Wright says it this way:
“If the only point is to save souls from the wreck of the world, so they can leave and go to heaven, why bother to make this world a better place? But if God is going to do for the whole creation what he did for Jesus in his resurrection — to bring them back, here on earth — then those who have been rescued by the gospel are called to play a part, right now, in the advance renewal of the world. God will put the whole world right, this worldview says, […]he puts people right, by the gospel, to be part of his putting-right project for the world. Christian mission includes bringing real advance signs of new creation into the present world: in healing, in justice, in beauty, in celebrating the new creation and lamenting the continuing pain of the old. The scriptures always promised that when the life of heaven came to earth through the work of Israel’s Messiah, the weak and the vulnerable would receive special care and protection, and the desert would blossom like the rose. Care for the poor and the planet then becomes central, not peripheral, for those who intend to live in faith and hope, by the Spirit, between the resurrection of Jesus and the coming renewal of all things.”
Can you see how our beliefs about Heaven have ethical implications, even political implications? What we believe about “heaven” might seem peripheral, but it affects what we believe we’re called to do and who we’re called to be Right Now! A fantastic resource that I highly recommend on rethinking heaven is N. T. Wright’s book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church.

Rethinking "Hell"

The same thing is true about our view of “hell.” Just like with our view of “heaven,” there is also a tradition view of hell that many of us have learned but which isn’t supported by the biblical data. I’m talking about the view called “Eternal Conscious Torment.” For a lot of Christians in the United States, it is self-evident that the Bible teaches that God tortures people for eternity. Take a second and just let that sink in. I’m talking about millions of people, who take for granted that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ tortures people for all of eternity in a fiery furnace. How could this belief not influence a person’s ethics? For example, back in 2009, a debate was raging about “enhanced interrogation techniques” that the United States government was using on suspected terrorists. Remember when the term “water boarding” was in the news all the time? Many people felt that “enhanced interrogation techniques" like water boarding was just another name for torture—particularly since water boarding had been deemed an illegal form of torture under the law of war at the 1929 Geneva Convention. Well, the Pew Research Center polled Americans back then asking them: “Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can often be justified, sometimes be justified, rarely be justified, or never be justified?” The group with the highest rate of support for torturing suspected terrorists were Evangelical Protestants, with 62% believing torture was either sometimes or often justified treatment of suspected terrorists. Evangelical Protestants are also the group with the highest rate of belief in hell, tied with the historical Black church, when polled (82%). I’m well aware that correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation in statistics. And my main point here is not to prove to you beyond the shadow of a doubt that belief in the traditional view of hell produces support for torture. But I do want you to stop and think about the ethical implications of our beliefs. If we think of God as the highest ideal for humanity. God is perfect and God is love and God tortures human beings in hell for all eternity, then doesn’t that then mean that perfect love and torture are compatible? No matter how you answer that question, there is an increasing number of people in the United States—particularly younger adults—who do think that belief in the traditional view of hell makes belief in God ethically untenable. For example, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers made headlines recently, but not for his pass completion percentage. Instead, it was because he made this statement, “I don't know how you can believe in a God who wants to condemn most of the planet to a fiery hell.” Now, obviously, Rodgers is a NFL quarterback, not a theologian. And I should add that outlets like Relevant Magazine have been quick to come to Rodgers defense and point out that Rodgers hasn’t publicly said that he considers himself an atheist, and in fact has talked glowingly about the influence Rob Bell has had on his spirituality. So, it’s not entirely clear that the traditional view of hell made Rodgers an atheist—I don’t think that’s the take-away here. The take-away for me is that Rodgers is simply vocalizing what millions of people are thinking today. “What kind of person wants to love and worship a God who tortures people for eternity?” And I’m not ashamed to admit that rethinking the traditional view of hell as a place of eternal conscious torment has definitely been part of my “deconstruction” journey. When I was a new Christian and I learned this view of hell, it bothered me. I went searching the Scriptures for where this view is explicitly taught, and there are some passages that would seem to teach it. But, what I discovered is that the vast majority of passages which would seem to support the traditional view are found in literary contexts which demand that they be interpreted non-literally. For example, someone might site Jesus’s teaching in Luke 16, what is commonly called the "Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus." In this teaching, Jesus says the rich man ignored Lazarus who begged at his gate and was carried away to Hades when he died. (We’ll return to the word "Hades" in a little while). But the story says the rich man was “in torment.” So, someone looking for the traditional view of hell in the text might say, “See! Jesus said the rich man was in torment in Hades!” But the story also says that he could see Abraham a far distance away and called to him. And what he asks for is a drop of water from Lazarus’s finger to cool his tongue. Now, let’s get serious for just a moment. Are we really expecting people to interpret Jesus’s parable as a literal description of hell, when someone suffering there wants their tongue cooled by a drop of water? In reality, the entire story has all the markings of a classic parable of Jesus—a story that has a very specific “punch line” message at the end. The details of the story are not the point of the story. The point of this parable of Jesus is that, if the people he’s preaching to can’t recognize him as the Messiah based on Jesus’s fulfillment of the Hebrew Scriptures, they won’t even recognize him as the Messiah if he’s raised from the dead. Is Jesus also making a point about the way God’s people should care for the poor? Of course! But that also isn’t the main point. So, it’s completely unfounded to take a teaching like this as evidence for the literal nature of hell. Another place someone might point to for support of the traditional view is the book of Revelation. “What about the Lake of Fire?” someone might ask! To which I might reply with what Martin Luther said about the book of Revelation: “they are supposed to be blessed who keep what is written in this book; and yet no one knows what that is, to say nothing of keeping it.” Revelation is the only book in the New Testament that is written in a genre called Apocalyptic, which was a way of talking about very real political conflict in vivid, mythic, and dramatic symbolism. In Revelation, the city of Rome is symbolized as a prostitute and the Roman empire is symbolized as a beast rising up out of the sea. So, of all the books from which to derive a doctrine about the literal nature of hell, Revelation wouldn’t be a wise choice. Unlike the epiphany I had about “heaven” when Myron reminded me that the Bible says we will have bodies in the Age to Come, I can’t point to a lightning bolt moment I’ve had about rethinking hell. But I can point you to two things I’ve learned that have helped me tremendously in my “deconstruction/reconstruction” journey.

1. "Hell" vs. "Hades" and "Gehenna"

First, the word “hell” that we find in our English Bibles is a translation choice by a committee of Bible translators. But it is often a translation of either “Hades,” or “Gehenna.” When we look more closely at what “Hades” and “Gehenna” would have meant to the original audience of Jesus’s parables, we don’t find the eternal conscious torment view that we now consider “traditional.” Hades is the Greek concept of a shadowy underworld where the dead dwell. It was the Greek equivalent of what the Old Testament called “Sheol.” But there’s a problem with the traditional view of eternal conscious torment being applied to either Sheol or Hades. Namely, Sheol and Hades didn’t divide the good from the bad or the wicked from the righteous. According to Sharon L. Baker, author of Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You've Been Taught about God's Wrath and Judgment, “No judgment of character or deeds takes place [in the concepts of Hades or Sheol] at all.”

She also talks about “Gehenna,” which is the word ascribed to Jesus the most when our English Bible say “Hell.” Baker writes,
“When Jesus spoke of ‘hell,’ he used the word ‘Gehenna.’ We translate it ‘hell’ in our English versions of the Bible. But ‘hell’ might not accurately describe the ‘Gehenna’ Jesus talked about. The word gehenna, used twelve times in the New Testament, comes from the Aramaic/Hebrew word ge-hinnom. It means ‘valley of [the son of] Hinom’ (Josh. 15:8), an actual valley located southwest of the city of Jerusalem…”
Gehenna was a place with a very sorted history. It had been the site of child sacrifices to Molech and Baal. It had been a site of mass graves for soldiers after wars were fought in that region. And long before Jesus came on the scene, it had become Jerusalem’s garbage dump. It was where all types of trash were dumped and burned. (I’m sparing you the gory details that you can read about yourself!) But it was literally a place where the flames never ceased and worm never died, because it was continually renewed with trash and burned. Jesus wasn’t talking about people literally going to this exact valley when they died. Jesus was clearly using this place metaphorically. Whatever judgment, whatever separation between God and humans is being taught here by Jesus, it is not being taught with literal but metaphorical imagery. So, the million dollar question is, "What is the reality to which Jesus was pointing?"

2. Whatever “Hell” is, it Has to Comport with the Character of God Revealed in Christ Crucified

This leads me to the second really important shift I’ve had in my “deconstruction/reconstruction” journey around hell. I’ve come to realize this: Whatever reality of judgment and separation from God “hell” points to, it has to comport with the character of God revealed in Christ Crucified. What I mean by this is: I don’t find the biblical data about hell entirely clear. The vast majority of it shows up in contexts that are metaphorical or symbolic. So, when something isn’t clear in the Bible, I use what is clear to interpret it. What is clear to me from the New Testament is that Jesus came to reveal who God is to the world. Jesus did this all through his life, through his ministry among the poor, through his miracles and healings, through this teachings too. But the supreme revelation of God’s character is found in Jesus’s self-giving love demonstrated on the Cross. The Cross is the pinnacle of God’s self-revelation of love through Jesus’s life. This much the New Testament is consistent, emphatic about! For me, the eternal conscious torment view of hell doesn’t comport. I can’t imagine the same Jesus who calls out to God from the Cross, asking for the Father to forgive his murderers, is the same Jesus who tortures human beings made in the Creator’s image forever in hell. Thankfully, the traditional view of hell is not an article of orthodox Christian faith. It doesn’t show up in either the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed. Christians have conceptualized hell in a number of different ways throughout church history. And there are alternative conceptions of hell, which hold as much or more weight from Scripture. Increasingly, biblical scholars and theologians are advocating for what is called the “Conditional View” also called “Annihilationism.” This is the view that ultimate judgment is that a person ceases to exist. This view does not affirm the immortality of the soul. And, in fact, there are some passages that seem to straightforwardly affirm this view. Like when Jesus says, in Matthew 10 (and not in the context of a parable): “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” In fact, in the Bible, “destruction” seems to be the most common description of the final judgment of the condemned, not everlasting torture. I also think C.S. Lewis’s description of hell as “the outer rim where being fades away into nonentity” makes a lot of sense. If God is the ground of all being, then separation from God would seem to also entail nonbeing, or nonexistence. But there’s another option from these two also, and it’s what I'll call “Purgation.” There’s a lot of biblical support for the idea that final judgment is a refining fire, a purging of all that is wicked in us by the the God who is consuming, holy fire. This seems to be what Paul is talking about when he refers to the Day of Judgment in First Corinthians:
For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames. — I Corinthians 3.11-15
Both the Conditional view and the Purgation view take more seriously the biblical imagery of God as a consuming, purifying fire. Either the fire of God’s holiness utterly destroys the condemned in a final judgment, or the fire of God’s holiness destroys all that is wicked in humanity through purifying, through purging and leaves only that which retains the image of God. If I’m 100% honest, which I always try to be, I’m not sure which of these two alternative views I fully endorse at this point in my faith journey. But to me either of these two views is superior ethically and biblically to the traditional view of eternal conscious torment.