To be honest, I normally do not waste my time writing on my ideas about the afterlife (since it almost always leads to abstract thinking away from the concrete problems in the world) but Rob’s and Joel’s recent posts have gotten me thinking about the topic of hell. Also, recently someone at a Bible study was almost laughing at the possible fact that a person of a different religious background was burning in hell. This was not the first time I had heard of Christians getting all giddy because there are persons condemned to Gehenna (one of the greek terms translated as hell); I do recall there was a five-point Calvinist one time who sent me a facebook message who told me to also rejoice because there were persons in hell because of Christ’s limited atonement. Just the other day, I heard of a pastor who preached in a sermon that hell is when a person refuses to be part of a community. It goes to show the reason why Christians steer away from discussing the topic of hell because it is sounds like sadomasochistic and cruel, with the saints in heaven rejoicing (since there will be no more tears in the new creation according to Revelation) as they observe sinners burn in the lake of fire below them.
Eternal torment is currently the least popular doctrine in traditional Christianity. In fact, a recent survey suggests that 59 percents of Americans believe in hell as opposed to 74% who believe in heaven. Pope John Paul II, stating the Roman Catholic teaching on the topic in 1999, said that hell was the state of being separated from God. Many evangelicals got into an uproar because they opposed the idea that eternal damnation is only a “state of mind.” What they do not realize is that the official Catholic teaching is just not about a “state of mind,” it is a state of the soul after a person dies (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1035). While I agree that hell can be a state after the soul dies, I disagree with the Apostles Creed and the traditional teaching that says that Jesus descended into hell; Jesus did not descend into hell according to the New Testament witness—he descended into Sheoul, which is a totally different concept than the idea of hell/eternal punishment (1st Peter 4:6). According to Peter, the Gospel was preached to the dead, the righteous and the unrighteous, even going back as far as Noah’s generation (1st Peter 3:18-22). This makes Jesus the Messiah’s victory over sin, death, and the Enemy transcendent; Jesus the Messiah’s sacrifice surpasses any concept of time that humans know because his death was not only made relevant for his generation and subsequent generations, but also for all people who lived in the past. The biblical text suggests that the Good News can be preached to persons even after they leave this world.
I do not believe that Scripture teaches us that we live in a three-tiered world, where there is this place called heaven up there above us and hell right below us. Three-tiered universes are reserved for people who adhere to dualism, and I am definitely not a fan of dualism because it makes the Enemy out to be an all-powerful, all-knowing rival of God.
Instead, the doctrine of eternal punishment should be examined through the lens of the New Testament author’s testimony and the doctrine of the Resurrection. The apostle Paul even preached that he had “hope in God—a hope that they [the prophets of the First Testament] themselves also accept—that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous.” The righteous, according to Paul will receive new imperishable, immortal bodies at the Second Coming (1st Corinthians 15), but he does not say anything of the bodies of the wicked. All we know is that the unrighteous rise up in their bodies to be judged by the Son of Man.
The lake of fire is not a place, but a metaphor for what John of Patmos calls “the second death”; those who experience the second death are still on Earth, but they experience the presence of God, who will be “all in all,” as death just as the righteous experience God in their bodies as eternal life. There are some Christians such as Open Theists Clark Pinnock and John Sanders as well as Anglican theologian John Stott who teach the heresy of annihilationism, which is the idea that rather than eternal torment, the wicked will be completely destroyed: spirit, mind, and body. This god of the annihilation is not the God of the bodily resurrection. Annihilationism contradicts God’s ultimate aim for the reconciliation for all of creation as well as God’s own ordinance that the human body is good as we see in the Incarnation of God’s very word. Annihilationists dismiss the hope of the resurrection as well as the hope that the Triune God’s forgiveness and mercy brings. The wicked still have their subjectivity and body in Hell as they experience God at the new creation; they even have their hands, feet, teeth, and tearducts from their eyes for weeping as Jesus graphically tells us (Matthew 22:13). Jesus bore all the sins of the universe in his body; he was raised from the dead in his body by the Father and Holy Spirit so that he may judge our ancestors, contemporaries, and our descendants. The same God who tells us that the body is the Holies of Holies of the Living God would not be the god who destroys the bodies his enemies completely.
Finally, what do my thoughts on eternal judgment mean for the here-and-now? It means that hell can possibly also be experienced here in this world. Hell is Darfur. Hell is Iraq. Hell is an abortion clinic. Hell is death row. Hell is Guantanamo Bay. This understanding also means that like Christ, the Church is given the authority to invade the gates of Hades and death (Matthew 16:18) to proclaim life to dead bodies. The politics of the cross permits Christians to resist death-dealing forces nonviolently as they preach the Word of the LORD. It means that the power of the resurrection is possible in any instance or place because God’s Almightiness revealed in the raising of the Messiah supersedes all human notions of time and space; it is God’s eternal power that goes back in time to save even sinners who once had not hope in the past. Even in hell, there is hope.
And for the record: I am neither a Calvinist (obviously) or a Universalist. I do not think that God has predetermined that anyone should go to hell prior to creation nor do I believe that God forces anyone to love God as universalists believe. People freely choose with their own libertarian free will to either love God or to reject God’s love. That choice is limited but it is still the choice of the individual person.
Truth and Peace,