The question of heaven and hell provides Christian teachers with some of our most troublesome moments. After all, it is difficult to promote and defend the idea that at some point, God will reward all the good little boys and girls by giving them clouds in the air, angels’ wings and harps, while sending the ‘sinners’ into a big pit, where demons with pitchforks gleefully await, ready to deal out eternal torments.
Caricatured as I have made it, my sketch reflects to large extent the popular notion of how Christians view the last judgement and the afterlife. Indeed, I often deal with Christians who, though not consciously touting literal wings and harps or devils with red-hot pitchforks, are nevertheless labouring under a number of misconceptions of a genuine scriptural Christian understanding of the meaning of heaven and hell. I would therefore like to offer some responses to three common misconceptions concerning the afterlife.
1. Heaven and hell are physical places. Since its inception in the 14th century, Dante’s Divine Comedy has dominated our western imaginative view of heaven and hell. Reasonable Christians, however, know that hell is not really a vast conical pit descending to the centre of the earth; nor is purgatory a mountain, nor heaven a series of spheres expanding into the heavens. No matter how compelling Dante’s imaginative poetic vision may have been, he never intended it to constitute a theology or doctrine.
Neither hell nor heaven are places that can be reached by any physical means. Rather, they are the spiritual conditions of either rejecting the Presence of God or embracing it. The rejection of God’s Presence is the defining quality of hell. As Milton says of that archetypal rebel Satan, “... for within him Hell / He brings, and round about him, nor from Hell / One step no more than from himself can fly / By change of place...” Neither hell nor heaven are geographic locales; they are attitudes. Hell is the eternal refusal of the invitation to be with God, and heaven is the eternal delight in His Presence.
2. Heaven is nearness to God, while hell is separation from Him. In fact, through His death, Christ “descended into the lower parts of the earth” (Eph. 4:9) so that He might fill all things with Himself. (Eph. 1:23) As the Psalmist says, “Whither shall I go from Your Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, You are there!” (Ps. 139:7-8)
In the age to come, therefore, God will come to be everywhere and fill all things: “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them.” (Rev. 21:2-3)
In the Eastern Orthodox understanding, the new world will be not be a “second creation,” since God resolved never to destroy His creation after the Flood (Gen. 8:21-22). Rather, the new world will be this world—purified and cleansed by the fire of suffering (see 2 Peter 3:10), until it is finally transformed and transfigured into the paradise for which it was originally created, where God can return to dwell with His people.
In this view, hell will simply be the way in which those who reject and hate God will experience a new world where He cannot be evaded, while heaven will be the same experience from the point of view of those who love Him. As Saint Isaac of Syria says, “Those who find themselves in Gehenna [that is, hell] will be chastised with the scourge of love. How cruel and bitter this torment of love will be! For those who understand that they have sinned against love undergo greater sufferings than those produced of the most fearful tortures. The sorrow which takes hold of the heart which has sinned against love is more piercing than any other pain. It is not right to say that sinners in hell are deprived of the love of God. ... But love acts in two different ways, as suffering in the reproved, and as joy in the blessed.”
3. The torments of hell are external. This perceived teaching is perhaps the greatest difficulty that many have with the notion of hell. How could a loving God actively torture people by some perverse means? How could a loving God takes delight in the punishment and pain of His people? The answer is, God neither torments us, nor takes delight in our punishment. If hell is the experience of God’s loving Presence by those who reject Him, then the torment and punishment is entirely self-inflicted. God does not send anyone to hell; we make hell when we turn away from Him. As Milton’s Satan say, “Me miserable! Which way shall I fly / Infinite wrath, and infinite despair? / Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell...”
To put it simply: God loves us and has come to be with us in Christ. For now, the full impact of His coming is still unfolding, but in time it will stand fully revealed and manifest to all humanity. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.” (1 Cor. 13:12) In the end, everything will come down to the same love of God, a love we can know either as good news indeed and joy forever, or the inescapable realization of our worst nightmare. How we know that love—as heaven or as hell—is entirely up to us.