The path to hell (or heaven)?

“The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here and the twilight turns to blackness down there, the Blessed will say ‘We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,’ and the Lost, ‘We were always in Hell.’ And both will speak truly.” -C.S. Lewis (The Great Divorce)

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When we talk about Heaven and Hell, often times this is portrayed as a choice between one final destination and another. The image that precedes this post illustrates this perfectly; in life there are two paths. One that leads to life, one to death. We see this too in the typical interpretation favored among Evangelical Christianity; wide is the path to destruction, narrow is the path to life.[1] However, there are a few things to remember about this interpretation. The passage generally cited for this comes from the Sermon on the Mount, right after a claim from Jesus to “treat people the same way you want them to treat you” as a means to explain the spirit of the Law. Following this particular passage is the tree and fruit passage, where Jesus admonishes his listeners to not follow after “wolves in sheep’s clothing” and that a good tree bears good fruit and a bad tree bears bad fruit. When read within the surrounding text  the verse seems to be saying little about our afterlife. Rather, it seems to be talking a lot about our life here.

What is going on here, I believe is what is hinted at in the above quote from C.S. Lewis’ novel The Great Divorce.[2] The above passage, coming from an exchange the author has with the writer and theologian George McDonald in heaven, showcases how heaven and hell are lived in realities in our present condition. Much how Jesus is talking about how to live out our lives on this earth in the Sermon on the Mount, Lewis is hinting at the kind of life we live by our fruits. Perhaps the fruits that Jesus is talking about in the Sermon are not so much actions that showcase salvation or election, but in the sense that as we go about and live our lives according or not to the life Jesus preaches about and models, we will find ourselves in heaven and hell. We will find our selves experiencing the reality of the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of hell, right here and right now.[3] In this sense, Christianity and the Christian life begins to take on the quality that Peter Rollins has been advocating; that is that Christianity is not about life after death, but life before death.[4]

This means that heaven and hell are not diametrically opposed streets; one-way to destruction, the other way to life. Rather, heaven and hell are felt realities that will translate into the life after and many will recognize that they were always in this reality. It’s not that there will or will not be separation from God; that much should be apparent. The biblical text supports this and the felt reality of hell is very much a separation from God and God’s kingdom. There probably isn’t fire raging, with physical pain and suffering in hell. There is separation and that separation is not the sort of life, whether here or in the here-after, that one does not want to live. Dare I say, this is not life, but death.[5]


[1] Matthew 7:13-14

[2] This novel is about an unnamed authors’ bus ride between hell and heaven and among its dreamlike writing contains a lot of valuable insights into Lewis’ concept of morality.

[3] I can’t take total credit for this language, because it draws heavily from the work of N.T. Wright, who has made it a point to talk about the reality of God’s kingdom (the kingdom of heaven) breaking in here and now, instead of as an escape plan from this life.

[4] Peter Rollins latest book Insurrection explores this idea, along with a whole lot else, in a much more in depth fashion.

[5] While this might seem like a nod to annihilationism, I have another thought about what this looks like that will be ready for another blog post. Maybe.

 

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5 thoughts on “The path to hell (or heaven)?

  1. The problem I see in Scripture with this interpretation is that this seems to be built on the system that we are rewarded or condemned for our good or evil deeds (i.e. that people can earn heaven). But in light of what Jesus said in the Sermon On The Mount, we all are deserving of “hell” (which I’ll get to defining in a moment).

    Jesus doesn’t just lay out attainable moralistic goals, but impossible goals. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” [Matthew 5:3] but we are filled with pride and everyone thinks of themselves as most important (even the most depressed person is depressed because they are not able to live up to the standards for themselves they have set and because they are narcissitically obsessed with falling short). “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” [Matthew 5:6] but the Bible makes it abundantly clear that there is none who seeks after God [Romans 3:11].

    Later Jesus raises the bar even more. “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” [Matthew 5:21,22] “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. [Matthew 5:27,28] Jesus lays out two of the basest of sins — anger and lust — and clarifies that the standard of God is so high that everyone is guilty of violating God’s laws. This impossible standard is summarized at the end of the chapter “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” [Matthew 5:48]

    In context, Jesus is verbally talking to a group of both disciples (or future disciples) and those who would reject him, while specificially addressing those who would or are His disciples. This is why he calls His listeners “the salt of the earth” or the “light of the world”. He then is calling those who are His to a standard of morality that is impossible, causing those who are His to be driven to their knees in asking God to save them.

    Jesus also makes it clear that He is referring to Heaven and Hell as being places we go to after we die. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. [Matthew 6:19,20] The Gospel will result in good deeds, but if that is what the Gospel is about, honestly, what is the point, if everything we do will only last for a moment? And what of the justice of God? Whenever I hear about Heaven or Hell being explained as simply states of being, it is often because we do not think of a literal place called Hell as fair. And this fairness is defined around us. “I don’t think a God of love would send people to a real, eternal Hell, because if He did, I would go there.” Before I write a novel, thoughts?

  2. I see where this interpretation can lead to a system of “rewards” for our good or bad deeds. However, that’s not what I was trying to get at (which when trying to explore complex topics in a limited space is almost a given). Rather, what I was trying to get at was that heaven and hell are not primarily disembodied places we only go to when we die, but that there are real resonances within our lives here and now. That said, one could still live a “heavenly life” so to speak in this existence and still find themselves removed from God’s presence in the “life after.” Or in more evangelical terms, one can seem to live a “Christian life” but still find themselves in “hell” when they die. The key (which I didn’t do a good job of laying out here) is allegiance with Christ (or in evangelical terms “being saved). When one is with Christ, then and only then can one truly enter into the presence of God fully (which equates to having your sins forgiven because of God’s holiness, etc.).

    I do however disagree that heaven or hell are “places” in the way we think of them physically. Nothing that happens after this material existence will be “physical” in the way we describe it. Rather, it will be something different. Since no one (save for Christ ) have ever come back from this after-life state, we can’t really know what it will be like. However, it seems clear to me that it is built on whether or not we are aligned with God (and Christ) or not as to how this after-life existence will play out and so I get the sense that it is built around our closeness or not to God. So when I say heaven and hell are not places, it’s not that they don’t exist. Rather, it’s that the experience of their existence will be so different from our present one that the best we can hope for is metaphoric language (lake of fire, etc.). And confusing metaphoric language with literalistic language in this sense is not the right way to go about discussing these things.

    Obviously, this “theorizing” can become problematic in a traditional Evangelical framework. Hence, the emphasis on the here and now (where self-centered human beings live and often can’t get their attentions away from themselves). However, I say all this with a lot of humbleness. This is the way I see it presently, but ultimately I don’t know. I do know that when one is fully aligned with Christ (and the beginning point of this is recognizing the need for a Savior), trusting in Him, then there is a hope and life there that is beyond anything else in this world. That’s what I really want to get across.

  3. I agree that the next life will not be the same as this life, but I see repeatedly in the Bible where there is a physical resurrection, and physical new bodies and a physical new Heaven and new Earth.

    Jesus rose bodily. Thomas touched the holes in His hands and side.[John 20:24-31] The disciples on the road to Emmaus realized Who He was only after He broke bread with them [Luke 24:13-32]. Jesus appeared to the disciples after His resurrection and ate with them [John 21:1-14]. There is a doctrine called the hypostatic nature of Christ, which refers to the duel nature of Jesus, since He is fully God and fully man. As God, Christ is everywhere through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. As man, He is physically in one place, in Heaven, waiting until He is told by the Father to return to Earth. If Heaven is not a physical, real place, then where did His body go? If Jesus did not rise physically, then there is no power in the resurrection, and we are still in our sins, and so if He DID rise physically, then His body must occupy some physical place.

    1. I still believe that Jesus rose physically from the dead, that he walked physically on the earth after his resurrection and that he ascended into heaven. Does that mean that his physical body must also be there? That I don’t know. In my view, God is bigger than the boundary of physical as we perceive it. To me, it’s of little consequence whether Jesus is sitting in heaven in a physical as we know it or not. The reality is that God can create and destroy physical matter and that doesn’t imply a physicality to the heavenly realm. Besides, Christ is fully God and Fully human; there is the possibility that he has to ability to reside physically in a place where we necessarily can’t (or won’t).

      But you are right. Without the physical resurrection, there is no power in the Resurrection. I fully agree. I’m not advancing a Marcus Borg-style argument where the Resurrection doesn’t make sense and so we should throw it away. It might not “make sense” but that’s what is beautiful about it. And yes, I do agree that there will be physical new bodies in the resurrection and physical new Earth and a physical new Heaven. But for those who died 1,700 years ago in funeral pyres or weren’t properly embalmed, they don’t have “physical bodies” anymore. Will those martyrs not participate in the resurrection of the dead without their physical bodies? Where are they if there needs to be a physical body for one to occupy the space of heaven (if we are taking Jesus’ ascension as a prescriptive example)?

      1. I would counter by saying that this is why all who live now or have lived or will live will receive new bodies. Both the saved and the lost. A body that cannot die. The saved will receive perfected bodies to enjoy eternity with God forever. The lost will receive eternal bodies to endure eternal conscious torment in Hell with no possibility of escaping through death.

        The question I would also pose is on what basis is a physical, eternal Hell right or wrong? What justification is lacking for God to sentence sinners to a physical Hell?

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