Afterlife Questions: What about Heaven and Hell?
This sermon based on Romans 14:7-9 tackles afterlife questions about heaven and hell. What do we make of these concepts in the modern age? Surprisingly the Bible has very little to say about what either of these places is like. The main emphasis of scripture is that we are cared for by God in life and death, so we need not fear.
The Concept of an Afterlife Develops through the Bible
In the Old Testament, the earliest writings never talked about anything like an afterlife. Eventually, in the Psalms, there are mentions of Sheol–a nebulous, ethereal, and neutral realm, (neither good nor bad) where all the dead reside. It’s not described in detail as the psalmists seemed to assume that everyone knew what they were talking about.
There is a unique passage where King Saul contracts with a witch to talk to the dead in Sheol, but this act is frowned upon and this concept is never mentioned again.
Because the Old Testament says very little about an afterlife, most Jewish traditions (except Orthodox Judaism which does believe in an afterlife) place the emphasis on this life, and one lives on through memory, through the influence you make on others. Something of you remains with those impacted by your legacy and as they pass it on you continue forever. I love the thought of our spirit carrying on through the lives of those we influence in this world. Our good deeds live beyond us.
The prophet Elisha had a vision of his mentor, the prophet Elijah, not actually dying but being taken by God in a chariot of fire. The prophet Micah, in the last book in the Old Testament, talks about how Elijah would return and Jesus said Elijah had returned in the person of John the Baptist. Some take this literally and base a Christian concept of reincarnation on this passage. But it is not clear if Jesus was speaking metaphorically and there is nothing else in the Bible that even comes close to a notion of reincarnation.
Belief in the Resurrection
A few centuries before Jesus, a concept of something beyond Sheol emerges. We find in gospel stories that there was a considerable debate that there was anything beyond Sheol. A group of the Sadducees who did not believe in it asked Jesus questions about the resurrection. Jesus doesn’t really answer their question but cautions them to put their focus on doing the will of God in this life.
When Jesus was on the cross he promised the thief on the cross next to him that he would join Jesus in paradise–indicating a redemption beyond this life. After he died, and before the resurrection, scripture talks about Jesus releasing souls from Sheol.
In the rest of the New Testament, the concept of resurrection is mentioned a few times. In these passages, they did not envision a “soul” separate from the body. They believed that at the end there would be a bodily resurrection to live in this world, not up there in heaven, somewhere. A couple of centuries after the Bible had been written, Greek influences of belief in a soul separate from the body influenced Christian thought and have remained part of our thinking to this day. But it’s not really described that way in the Bible itself.
A belief in the literal, physical resurrection has led some to be very skittish about cremation. But most believe that God who created humans from the dust of the earth can’t be stopped by this, especially if we are talking about a spiritual resurrection.
Paul in our scripture for today tries to reassure people by saying not to worry. What lies beyond is a mystery and we should just trust in God. Whether we live or whether we die we God will take care of us and not even death can separate us from God’s love in Christ. So relax. Trust that God’s got you.
What’s the Deal with Hell?
Surprisingly, there is very little about hell in the Bible. Most of our concepts of hell derive from the middle ages, starting with the poet Dante’s, Inferno. The word that gets translated as hell in scripture is Gehenna which was the name of the smoldering garbage pits outside of Jerusalem. Perhaps if you’ve been to slums of some developing nation like Haiti where there are piles of smoldering burning garbage. Jesus spoke about Gehenna as a metaphor– as a teaching tool to help people be motivated to live a full life rather than throw it on the heap by living outside of God’s purposes.
There are only a handful of verses about hell in the whole Bible. Beyond the garbage dump metaphor, it isn’t given any more description. It was never used as a threat as in, “Believe and do right or you are going to spend eternity in hell.” In fact, near the end of Revelation there is a vision of death and hell being swallowed up and obliterated (Rev. 20:14).
In Philippians 2:1-11, Paul talks about how in the end every knee in heaven and earth and under the earth will bend to God’s will. It seems to imply that God’s will is for everyone to be saved and the thing about the universe is that God gets his way. God’s love and mercy trump our wickedness.
The point about hell was never fire and torment. By definition, it is about being separated from God. The degree to which we turn our backs on the things of God, like love and sacrifice and generosity and compassion is how we create our own hell. It’s more of a this life kind of thing that we do to ourselves rather than a pit we are thrown into for our faithlessness.
Is Heaven Real?
Just as there is very little in the Bible describing hell, there is also very little describing heaven. Again, most of the imagery of what heaven is like is derived from sources other than the Bible. Usually when heaven is mentioned, the main point of the passage isn’t what heaven is like. It’s addressing something else, often using metaphors like a throne, to express the idea of the glory and majesty of God. The Bible isn’t like Wikipedia where you look at the heaven page to see a full description. There just isn’t one. It doesn’t work like that.
What we can catch from a few verses in scripture are generalities. It’s the realm of God’s majesty. It is a place of comfort and peace where mourning and weeping will be no more. The thing that makes heaven, heaven isn’t streets of gold or harp music, but getting caught up in the presence of God.
Jesus said that he goes to prepare a place for us where there are many rooms, “So that where I am, you may be also.” Some folks take this literally and others say it refers to a spiritual condition of comfort.
I like reading Christian authors who say that everything in our universe is energy and since physics teaches that energy cannot be destroyed what happens is the energy that makes us who we are gets absorbed into the energy of the whole cosmos, of God. We become one with all that is.
There is a notion of being reunited with people who have gone on before us. The Bible talks about how even in this life we are surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses.” When we die, we join this crowd.
I remember telling my mom that if heaven is clouds and continual loops of harp riffs, for all eternity, I don’t want to go. She told me that heaven is probably whatever heaven is for me. For some reason, images of mounds of hot buttery corn on the cob and cherry pie. “I’m good with that, mom,” I said.
Some take the verses about heaven literally. There was a bestselling book and movie that described heaven from a boy’s near-death experience, Heaven is Real. But it turned out to be a hoax, written by the preacher’s dad. I don’t think he helped the cause.
Others have had experiences or reassuring “signs” they believe are connections with people who have died. There are so many experiences, that we cannot explain. If it brings you comfort, why not?
The afterlife is a mystery. No one knows what it’s like–exactly. But scripture reassures us that no matter what, the God of love who watches over us in this life has got us in whatever comes next.