Another topic of discussion lately has been hell. For conservative evangelicals at least if not for most Protestants, the only view even ever presented is that there is a “heaven” and a “hell” and that after death every person ends up in one of those for all eternity. It doesn’t take even a very careful reading of the Bible to realize this view doesn’t fit too well with scripture. As I understand it, our view of “heaven” and “hell” come more from medieval times and Dante’s “Inferno” than from the Bible. So I want to do a quick overview to clarify matters (or at least start you in the right direction).
Heaven and Hell in the Bible
In the bible, it seems that there are four to five places or states which we confusingly include under “heaven” and “hell”. First, there is heaven which is the term for the air, sky, and heavens—basically everything above the ground. Heaven is the place where God is. However heaven is apparently not the final residence of the saints. In Revelation, John describes a new Jerusalem which comes down from heaven to a newly restored earth. It seems that the biblical vision is one of a physical existence in a physical world.
Throughout the old testament, the general idea seems to be that most people go to Sheol / Hades upon death. This land of the dead is a drab place, but not necessarily one of torture (nor is it purgatory). A few holy people apparently go to heaven upon death instead (though again not as a final residence). In contrast in the new testament, Jesus talks about Gehenna (typically translated “hell”), which is a desecrated place in which garbage is burned outside of Jerusalem. I believe it is obvious that Jesus isn’t meaning that people will literally go here, rather he is using it as a metaphor and example to describe what will happen to those who don’t repent. In addition to this, Revelation speaks of a “lake of fire” that the condemned are throw into.
To summarize, the Bible seems to suggest that at death, people go first either to a land of the dead (Sheol/Hades) or possibly to heaven. Then, on the last day, everyone is brought to the final judgement. At this point, people are sent either to the new Jerusalem on a renewed earth, or are sent into the lake of fire.
As mentioned, the only thing I’ve really ever heard taught about “hell” is that people are tortured there eternally. I recently learned about another viewpoint called conditionalism. The idea is pretty simple: only God is immortal; people are by nature mortal; only the saints—those who are in Christ—live forever through partaking in the life of God. By contrast, those who are not in Christ do not live forever in any state. Their death or destruction is eternal in the sense that it is permanent and final, not that they are eternally in a state of dying or torment (otherwise known as “eternal conscious torment”).
I have quickly adopted this viewpoint of conditionalism, not because I will believe anything I hear, but because I immediately saw how naturally this fits with scripture.
There is at least one more important viewpoint on this subject, known as universalism (though perhaps should be referred to as Christian universalism). This viewpoint holds everything that the other viewpoints do about the death and resurrection of Jesus, heaven and hell, etc., except that they believe that God will eventually reconcile everyone to himself after punishing those who were unrepentant. I believe that this viewpoint is more likely than the traditional view of eternal conscious torment, however I think it fits scripture significantly less well than conditionalism.
The Rich Man & Lazarus
Now there are a couple of other things I’d like to mention. First, there are questions about the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Let me begin to address this by saying that I don’t believe all of the parables which Jesus told necessarily had to be true. Perhaps they were, but I understand that the point of the parables was to make a point, not accurately recount a real event. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is included in this. Now about this parable specifically, I understand that Jesus is drawing on stories, themes, and images well known to that culture. In other words, he seems to be using a popular storyline, modifying it to make a point. And his point, in the context, isn’t about the nature of heaven and hell. If it is true as I’ve long assumed, I believe it referrers to Hades/heaven before the final judgement rather than what will happen afterward.
Another question asked on Rachel Held Evans blog that concerned me which I also did not feel was well answered had to do with evangelism. Essentially, a person brought up the issue of evangelizing to friends and family out of fear that they will go to hell and how people may do so even in disrespectful and embarrassing way. First I want to say, if you are evangelizing out of fear, you are doing it wrong (I certainly believe). Unfortunately, we have such a weak view of “heaven” and God’s life that merely escaping hell seems like the best motivation both for our own salvation and for our evangelism of others. How sad! I believe that I’ve received a small glimpse yet enough to know that God’s “kingdom of heaven” is so wonderful that the real tragedy and loss is to not be a part of his family. I’m convinced that evangelism will be weak and ineffective overall unless we are captured by a vision of the glory of Christ. If we have this, we’ll share with the people in our lives out of a desire for them to share in the goodness of Christ, not merely to escape punishment.
Second, you must understand that God loves your family and friends more than you do. Some people can feel like it’s their own responsibility to save their loved ones, as if their fate rests on their shoulders alone. It’s at this point that people do embarrassing and disrespectful things in order to try and force them to convert. They think it would be better to drag them into heaven kicking and screaming than let them go to hell. But the problem is we can’t save anyone. Only God can save our loved ones. That’s not an excuse to do nothing, but it does inform how we interact with them. It’s our job to demonstrate God’s abundant love (who causes it to rain even on the ungodly Matt. 5:45) and trust in God for the results.
I highly recommend watching this video of my friend Ken Bussell, who does an excellent job of a comprehensive overview of hell in the bible and explaining how conditionalism fits the bible well.