Sermon: Heaven and Hell?

This sermon was given on “Throwback Sunday,” an annual Sunday where we take a look at problematic theological ideas with which many of us may have grown up.

I’m giving this sermon from Walnut Creek, Ohio, where I am visiting my family. This is where I grew up. This was the place that taught me about Jesus and the Bible and community and living simply… and this is also the place that taught me about heaven and hell. 

I was taught that heaven and hell were real places that you go to after you die. And the main point of Christianity was to believe and live in such way that you went to heaven and not hell. In heaven, you would never know pain or suffering ever again. You would be reunited with your God-fearing loved ones who had died and, together, you would be in paradise, walking streets paved in gold, singing hymns of praise to the Almighty through all eternity. That last part sounded like it would get a bit old after a few decades, even though I loved to sing, but otherwise heaven didn’t sound too bad. 

It sure sounded a lot better than hell. Hell was a place of eternal, unrelenting torture. In hell, you would be swimming  in a lake of fire, gnashing your teeth in torment, for all eternity. No wonder I answered multiple altar calls when I was young. I had to make extra sure I was saved, because I did not want to end up in a lake of fire for all eternity. Singing endless hymns of praise didn’t sound so bad by comparison.

There’s a part of me that can laugh about this now, but it was rather emotionally and spiritually damaging for me to grow up with these beliefs. And it remains emotionally and spiritually damaging to many today. (Some of you may disagree wtih me.) My mother not only had to suffer through Lewy Body Dementia for the last five years of her life, she had to endure the emotional suffering of believing that her beloved son would not be spending eternity with her in heaven because he hadn’t made a commitment to Christ. Multiply that by the millions of parents or spouses or friends who experience the same emotional torment about their loved ones. (Fun fact:  — six out of 10 people in this country believe in hell.) What’s more, with their goal fixated on the afterlife, many Christians have lessened concern for what happens here on earth.  Climate change? Species extinction? Nuclear waste? As a Christian rock song from my youth said, “I’m only visiting this planet.”

So, where did these concepts of heaven and hell come from? Does the Bible really teach them? Did Jesus? And is there anything in these concepts that is worth reclaiming?  As I was studying for this sermon, I came across a book that talks about much of this. It’s Bart Ehrman’s Heaven and Hell:  A History of the Afterlife. For those of you who want to do a deep dive into this subject, I recommend it. Much of what I’ll be saying comes from him. 

The oldest reference to the afterlife in the Western tradition comes from Homer’s Odyssey, which was written in the 8th century BCE. Homer writes about the Joyless Kingdom of the Dead or Hades. People who die go to Hades and become shades; they’re like ghosts, without “substance, strength, power or memory.” Much of the Hebrew Bible has a similar idea of the afterlife to this, but instead of calling it “Hades,” it is called “Sheol,” and it is mentioned dozens of times in the Hebrew Scriptures. Here’s a typical passage (post in chat and get someone to read)

Psalm 30: 1,3

I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up,

    and did not let my foes rejoice over me.

O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol,

    restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.

Sheol is not what most Christians think of as hell — a place of  eternal punishment. Rather, Sheol is the place where the dead — righteous and wicked together — endure a shadowy existence in an inhospitable place often described as a miry pit. (From the Jewish Annotated New Testament)

However, by about the 3rd century BCE, both Greeks and Jews began to imagine an afterlife that that does make distinctions between the righteous and the wicked. And it’s easy to imagine why:  You mean, whether I’m evil or whether I’m virtuous in life, it doesn’t really matter, because we’re all just going to be thrown together into the same miry pit? Where’s the justice in it? Why should I sacrifice to be a good person when there’s no reward for it? Why should the guy who is oppressing me and my family or not keeping the commandments  go to the same place as me?

In the Greek version of the just afterlife, the souls — not the bodies, the souls — of righteous people went to a place of eternal rewards (often called Elysium) and the souls of unrighteous people death went to the place of eternal punishment. This is what Plato taught.  Note, that this idea of the afterlife is based on a body-soul dichotomy. People are essentially made up of two things in Greek thought — a body and a soul and, of them, only the soul is eternal. And if you are righteous in this life, your soul will go to Elysium.

Unlike the Greeks, Jewish thought from this same period did not have a body-soul dichotomy. In this worldview, a person isn’t two different things, a person is one thing — a living or “enspirited” body.  God breathes the breath of life — the ruah, or Spirit — into Adam, who is made from the dirt (fun fact: the name Adam means “son of the earth”) and this dirt person comes to life. When the breath leaves the body, the person is dead. Period.

Because of this difference, the Jewish idea of a just afterlife is different than the Greek version. We can see this changing idea of the afterlife in the book of Daniel, which came into existence about 200 years before Jesus.  It exemplifies what is called Jewish apocalypticism, which is very very important to the formation of Christianity.  You can’t understand Jesus or early Christianity without understanding Jewish apocalypticism. Jewish apocalypticism believes that there are forces of evil in the world that are opposed to God and God’s people. These forces have been unleashed upon the world, which is why the peope of God suffer. But God is ultimately in charge of this world, and God will eventually intervene in history, on Judgment Day, destroying the forces of evil and bringing in the kingdom of God. And this day of Judgment is coming soon — it’s right around the corner.

That destruction will be visited both upon those who are alive at the time of the Judgment and upon those who have already died. Everyone who has died will be brought back to life in their bodies — remember, Jews don’t believe in a body-soul split, so if folks come back to life it has to be in their body. Those who were opposed to God before they died — as well as currently living people — will be destroyed, cast into the fire. The just who died — and are currently alive — will be brought into paradise, into the Kingdom of God, which is an earthly kingdom here on this earth, not in heaven. Jews did believe in heaven, but as the place where God lived, not as the place where human lived, either in this life or in the next.

This may sound familiar, because Jesus is an apocalypticist. (Try saying that five times, fast.) He teaches the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God. (Mark 1:15).  For him, the Kingdom of God is not about where your soul goes after you die, The Kingdom of God will come here on earth. And if you have sided with God and God’s ways, if love your neighbor as yourself with all that entails, you will enter into the Kingdom. If you don’t, you will be tossed into the fire and destroyed. Look at this rather bracing passage from Matthew 13. This is Jesus speaking:

Matthew 13: 40-42

Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 

That fire is not the eternal fire of hell, but the one that will destroy the wicked on the Day of Judgment. 

Now, there are a few places in the Gospels — especially in Luke — where Jesus does seem to embrace what came to be Christian ideas of heaven and hell. But Ehrman says that many Biblical scholars do not believe these teachings in Luke to be an authentic teaching of Jesus. Rather, they believe these references were put into Jesus’ lips by later storytellers, who came from communities in which these ideas of heaven and hell had become dominant. 

So, if Jesus didn’t teach about an afterlife where your soul will live eternally in either heaven or hell, where did these ideas come from? 

Remember, Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God was going to come soon. Could someone read this passage from Mark?

Mark 9:1 

And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.

But these things didn’t happen! Jesus died, was resurrected and then ascended into heaven, and the kingdom of God still did not come. And the first disciples died and, still, the kingdom of God did not come. So, the early followers of Jesus needed to reinterpret his teachings. And they migrate from what Ehrman calls a horizontal dualism to a vertical dualism. Clip from 56:10-57:19

The reason this flip from a horizontal dualism to a vertical dualism occurred is that most of the people who were converted to Christianity were not Jewish, and these non-Jews had been much more influenced by Greek thought. So, over time, early Christianity began to form what Ehrman calls an uncomfortable mash-up of the teachings of Jesus and the teachings of Plato. Like Jesus, they believed that justice would be done in an afterlife that would take place on this earth. But like Plato, they believed that the soul was immortal and that it would go to some “heavenly” realm other than earth. You put them all together and you get the idea of heaven and hell that many of us grew up with.

Okay, that was a lot. Let’s take a deep breath!

So is there anything to reclaim in these concepts of heaven and hell? I do not think that heaven and hell, as I was taught about them, are helpful, healthy or faithful to the teachings of Jesus. I think they detract from and distort the real teachings of Jesus: That God would establish an earthly kingdom that would be based in justice and righteousness — or, right relationship with God, each other, creation, ourselves. And that he began to enact that kingdom during his time on earth and asked his disciples to similarly announce and enact this kingdom. He taught that when we do that, the kingdom of God is already present in part, even as we continue to wait for God to inaugurate it in its fullness at the end of time. 

On a good day, I can build my faith around those teachings. But I struggle with the shadow side of Jewish apocalypticism — the idea that God will throw all the wicked, those who once lived and those who are alive now, into the fire of destruction, even if they get destroyed immediately rather than have to burn in torment for all eternity.  I understand very much why people — and especially an oppressed people — would find this to be hopeful and empowering and right. But I truly can’t believe in a God that does this. 

And as for heaven… I just told my dying Dad that he would be with Mom soon, and I believed what I said to him.

If we were having an Education Hour after worship, I would love to hear what you believe.  Let’s keep the conversation going, as we continue to struggle together for what is really central to our faith — justice and right relationship in this life on this earth. Amen.

Sources for this sermon also include this video and this interview with Ehrman.