Today we’re looking at one of the most fascinating questions
of faith – What is heaven and what is hell? Probably the better way to phrase
that question (the question behind the question) is, “What happens to us when
From the beginning of history, this has been one of the
primary mysteries that humanity has pondered. Many belief systems have been
built around the concept including, some would say, the Christian faith. So
what I want to do today is a little more of a teaching sermon, looking at the
ways Christian faith has traditionally looked at heaven and hell, then looking
at the biblical view (I assert that these are different views), and then what
the implications are for us as we live in the present. And I have to do all
this in about 25 minutes, so we won’t cover all the issues – but perhaps this
will get you thinking “out here”.
Let’s begin with a little exercise as we define what we know
(or at least think we know) about heaven and hell. So I’m going to flip a coin
(pick some one to call it) – choose which side of the sanctuary will be heaven
and which will be hell. Now, I’m going to give you one minute to talk with
those around you about the characteristics of the place to which you have been
assigned (this is very Calvinistic – Calvin (a 16th century
theologian upon whom much of Reformed Christian theology is based, believed
that God predestined some people to eternal bliss and some to eternal damnation
– so there you go). Talk about
what it’s like “where you are”.
All of these are pretty standard views. Hell as a place of
fire and torment, heaven as a place of wings and harps and clouds.
Interestingly, a recent survey said that 60% of people believe in hell but only
4% think they could actually wind up there. Both heaven and hell are comforting
in a way – heaven because of the bliss, hell because at some level most people
are glad in their belief that the “wicked” will eventually get their just
There’s a clear dividing line. There are winners and losers,
which we Americans tend to like.
Of course some also believe in purgatory – kind of a cosmic
holding tank – where you could go either way. Life is just a matter of figuring
out which bin God will put you in.
But is this what the Bible really talks about?
Consider this. We live in the western world – a world that
in many ways has been formed by a variety of worldviews. Some would say we have
a Judeo-Christian worldview but that’s not the only one. One of the overarching
views of the world that we still hold to, subconsciously, is the Greek
philosophical worldview – particularly when it comes to talking about things
like eternal destiny.
The Greek philosopher Plato, thought about humanity as being
of a dual nature. Body and soul being separate parts. The body is evil,
corruptible and the spirit pure. For the Greeks, then, human life was a
transient state that worked like this: a pure and undefiled spirit gets dumped
into a corruptible body – a body that has desires and lusts and needs. Life was
then like a wrestling match – the good spirit trying to subdue the evil body.
The higher state was the spirit, so the goal was to get back to the spiritual
state – but where you wound up when you got there was a function of how well
you managed to subdue and control your body. If you did well then, at death,
your spirit would ascend to a state of bliss…if you didn’t and you indulged
your body, gave in to the evil, your spirit would descend to the depths of the
underworld. Disembodiment was the real goal of Greek philosophy.
You can see how this has affected Christian faith. Much of
it, particularly in the evangelical world, has focused on “getting people to
heaven” – getting them qualified for a good life beyond this one. In my
childhood, I learned that heaven was “up there” and hell “down there” and that
if I didn’t want to go down I needed to only pray the sinner’s prayer and
believe in the doctrines of the church so that I could go up. As I reflect back
on it, faith was more of a fire insurance policy than anything else. The Left
Behind series of books promotes this view as do many others. The desire follows
the Greek idea of being “out of the body” and back in the spirit. Even some of
our hymns reflect this – “I’ll fly away”, for example. It’s all very
individualistic – “my faith” or “my personal salvation”.
But I want to argue this morning, along with more and more
biblical scholars, that this view is not what the Bible really talks about. In
fact I would go so far as to say that much of our focus on a disembodied
afterlife has really pushed us away from the real mission we’ve been given as
the people of God. Here’s what I mean.
When we go back to Genesis 1, we learn that humans were
created “in the image of God”. Genesis 1:26 and 27 – Then God said, “Let us
make humanity in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of
the sea and the birds of the air, etc. So God created man in his own image, in
the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
Notice something about this passage? It’s the plural. God
says let “us” make humans – who’s us? Well, remember back to our lesson on
God’s nature – God’s nature is relational – a perichoresis, a “circle dance” of
the persons of the Trinity. And that nature finds it’s way out in relationship
to humans – God creates for relationship. Not only that, God’s creative act
invites these humans into a vocation – caring for the creation and each other.
In other words, we can see the image of God as not just being an idea, but a
vocation – humans participating with God in the care of God’s creation. God’s
presence is represented in the creation through these humans, created in his
To be truly human, then, is to be in full relationship with
God and in full relationship with others, relationships that mirror God’s
relational care. To be truly human is not to be, as Plato said, a dualistic
body and soul, but to be whole person…an embodied person living out the image
of God in God’s good creation. The unique capacity of humanity that separates
us from the animals is not, as is traditionally thought, the presence of a
soul—but rather to be in the image of God and to able to relate to God.
The Bible tells us that, by chapter 3 of Genesis, humans began
to distort that image and turn inward, missing the mark, veering off target.
That’s “sin” – refusing to take on the vocation and the relationship with God
and others. But God does not give up on these humans – God maintains the
relationship – even coming into the world in the person of Jesus, one who was
fully in relationship with God and others – one who was the “true” human – the
perfect and prototypical image of God. Jesus represents what Paul called “the
new humanity” and Jesus invited everyone to participate in that reality, to
take on the image we were created for in the first place.
Jesus talked about the future – what we call the eschaton in
theological language – but only in terms of the future breaking in on the
present. When he announced the Kingdom of Heaven (or kingdom of God, the terms
are interchangeable), he wasn’t talking about some distant place that we go to
when we die. He was talking about the Kingdom always “coming”. His first sermon
in Matthew 4:17 is one sentence – “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand”.
The word “is” here in the Greek is tense ambiguous – meaning “already” and “not
yet”. God’s Kingdom, God’s reality, God’s reign was breaking into the present
from the future and Jesus’s call was for all people to once again take on the
image of God and the vocation of God to make the world more and more like what
it was intended to be.
Even Revelation gives us this language. Revelation isn’t
about the “end of the world”, it’s about a renewal – Note the language in
Revelation 21 – it’s all about God moving toward us in the consummation of
creation, the new Jerusalem comes “down” – creation is renewed – “Now the
dwelling of God is with people, and he will live with them. The will be his
people and God himself with be with them and be their God.” This is the hope –
God is going to break in fully one day but, as Jesus said, it’s already
beginning to happen. Our job as his people is to begin acting out that reality
by taking on the vocation of being God’s image, God’s presence in the world.
That’s the work of salvation.
The Christian hope isn’t a disembodied existence somewhere
far away – it’s resurrection – renewal, re-embodiment in a renewed world.
Creation matters. God will not abandon it (or us) and we will be raised to a
new life in God’s new reality – a new humanity living in community. Heaven is
but a breath away and it’s a reality we can begin to realize now. What a
But who is this vision for? Just for Christians? Are we the
only ones who receive this Kingdom and to hell with everybody else? After all,
aren’t we the believers?
Well, here’s a thought. We have to consider what the word
“believe” really means. In our western mind, we equate belief with the
acquiescence to a particular set of statements or propositions. When we
“believe” something it means that we’ve studied the propositions and find them
useful…but the propositions are always different. Consider the wide and varied
propositions that Christians claim to “believe” – we can’t seem to agree on
which propositions are important. If someone doesn’t adhere to our particular
set of propositions then they are misguided at best and doomed to hell at
But here’s the thing. Jesus doesn’t come to us offering a
set of propositions. He comes offering a proposal – For God so loved the world
that he gave his only Son that whoever believes
in him will have eternal life
(John 3:16). Now read this carefully – God did not give a set of statements or
propositions, he gave himself in the person of Jesus – who delivered God’s
proposal of love. Believe, here, in the original sense of the word, means to
“be live” to be alive, to live into, to be in relationship with God. What’s the
goal? Full relationship with God and full relationship with others – THE IMAGE
OF GOD! Jesus gives us the prototype and invites us into that reality.
Look at our Gospel lesson today – Jesus makes it clear –
many who say “Lord, Lord” – those who simply believe in the propositions but
don’t live out the relationship – will not enter the Kingdom. It’s much less
about what you understand and much more about who you know!
As I have been saying for seven years, God’s goal is not to
simply make more Christians but to invite all people to live into the image of
God we were created to be – to “be live” in connecting with God and others in a
life-giving relationship. God’s Kingdom is for everyone.
But what about judgment? The Bible talks about that, too.
While we believe that God’s Kingdom is coming and indeed is already at work, we
also look around us and see that in many ways there are those who will actively
seek to throw off the image of God, to disengage from relationship with God and
with others – people who, in their sin, work harder and harder at becoming less
We even use the concept in our language. It is possible for
people to become “monsters” – less than human. Crack open your newspaper and
you’ll see it every day. Genocide, war, corporate scandals…it’s all there.
If heaven is a reality where God dwells with us and we dwell
with each other in love, then hell is also a reality where humans, in their
free will, choose to live in the pain of isolation. God doesn’t have to assign
us there – we can do a pretty good job on our own. Most of the time in the
Bible where you see God’s wrath threatened it has nothing to do with lightning
bolts from heaven. Rather, God’s wrath is seen, painfully for God, as allowing
his beloved humanity to experience the consequences of its own inwardness.
What about Satan? Satan is less than human – the tempter,
who reminds us that we have a choice. Look at the temptation of Jesus in
Matthew 4 and you’ll see how it works. The devil doesn’t “make us do it” as in
the theology of Flip Wilson. Rather, all Satan does is remind us that we can do
it by ourselves – that we are the center of the universe. As Donald Miller puts
it: “The most difficult lie I have ever contended with is this: Life is a story
And when people begin to believe and live out this
self-centered reality, they are in a real sense, in “hell”. I’m not talking
about the fiery, Dante-esque hell that we often picture. When Jesus talks about
hell he uses the word “gehenna” – which was the garbage dump outside Jerusalem
–a place where spontaneous combustion kept the garbage perpetually smoldering.
He used the word to refer what would happen to Israel if they kept up their
revolutionary ambitions and, in AD 70, the Romans did in fact burn it to the
No, the reality of hell is a deeper and even more tragic
sense of loss. It is a sense of utter isolation and aloneness. God grieves over
those who would choose to keep running away, like the Father in the prodigal
story who pines after his son. God’s desire is that all might be saved –
brought into relationship with God and the rest of the human family. But the
reality is that some will still choose for themselves. We know what that looks
like in our world. What that looks like in the end, I don’t know but it can’t
Eventually, we know that hell will be defeated…that every
tongue will confess Christ as Lord. So our task as the people of God is not to
focus on the eternal destiny but on the present through the lens of this future
reality. Our task is to focus on the Kingdom of God, on our relationship to God
and to others, which pushes hell back further and further – to live as if we’re
in heaven now so that when it comes fully upon us, says Leonard Sweet, it won’t
be such a culture shock!
Christian faith is less about what happens when we die and
more about how we live. That, said one of my seminary profs, is why the Bible
is so thick with all that stuff about loving God, your neighbor, and yourself.
We’re called to proclaim and live out God’s love in the present as if the
Kingdom has already come.
God wants us all to live out our humanness in a love
relationship with him and with those around us. What would happen to our world
if we Christians, instead of focusing on who’s in and who’s out, who wins and
who loses, instead saw every encounter we have with someone as an opportunity
to give that person an opportunity to experience the Christ that is alive in
us? What if we saw every encounter we have as an opportunity for someone to
have five minutes alone with the Jesus that we represent?
In his book “Blue Like Jazz,” Donald Miller relates a story
about a group of Navy Seals who were sent to free a group of hostages in some
dark corner of the world. The hostages had been held for months. When the Seals
broke down the doors of the compound, they called for the hostages to follow
them to safety. But none of them moved. They had been abandoned and mistreated
for so long that they couldn’t trust anyone. No amount of coaxing could get
them to move. Then, one of the Seals realized what needed to happen. He took
off his helmet and put down his weapon and sat close among the hostages,
putting his arms around them…just sitting with them. After awhile they began,
one by one, to stand up and follow the Seals to safety – all because that tough
Navy Seal got down and entered into their world, moved into their pain and made
What a story!
What if we didn’t threaten hell and pine for heaven and
instead get down to the business of simply loving those people around us,
especially those who are trapped in the darkness of isolation and sin?
What would happen? I imagine that more and more people would
cross the aisle!