The Anglican bishop and theologian N.T. Wright was once interviewed on the Evangelical Protestant show “100 Huntley Street”, speaking about heaven and hell. As might be expected from someone of Wright’s stature, he was articulate, fascinating, and Biblical. He prefaced his brief remarks by saying that one day he was sitting in the Sistine Chapel facing an immense image of the Last Judgment, in which souls were departing after the Judgment and either ascending to heaven or descending to hell. Bishop Wright was sitting next to a Greek Orthodox archimandrite, who commented to him that he could not understand that image, because although that was how the Christian West understood mankind’s ultimate fate, it was not how the Christian East understood it. We therefore may ask the question, how are we to understand heaven and hell? What happens after the Last Judgement?
The first thing is to disentangle the two questions and realize that they deal with two different things. After we die, the souls of all are taken from this world. Those who have served Christ in His Church with faith, zeal, and devotion, are taken by the angels to be with Him. This is the meaning of Christ’s prayer to the Father that those whom the Father has given Him (namely us devout Christians) may be with Him where He is to behold His glory (John 17:24). Since Christ now sits in heaven at the right hand of God, that means that after Christians die they also are taken to heaven be with Christ, for that is where He is. That is why St. Paul says that his greatest desire was to “depart and be with Christ” (Phil. 1:23), and that to be “absent from the body” (i.e. to be dead) was to be “at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). Heaven is not so much a reward for our goodness, a kind of celestial Disneyland, as simply the place where Christ reigns in glory. Christians ascend to heaven at death not as their reward, but because Christ wants us to be with Him and heaven is where He is. Heaven is thus not about bliss or sitting on clouds or playing harps or even reunion with loved ones. It is about Jesus.
What about those who were not devout Christians when they died? There is no evidence in the Scriptures that everyone who was not a confessing Christian in life will be lost, or packed off immediately to hell for final damnation. All who were not devout Christians in life wait for the final judgment, and the nether-world where all wait for this final judgment is called “Sheol” in the Hebrew, and (a little misleadingly for us English speakers) “Hades” in Greek. (Even more misleadingly, it was called “Hel” in Old English, from the earlier Anglo-saxon.) Many ancient cultures acknowledged that the human spirit somehow survived death, though it was reduced to a shadowy quasi-existence. These cultures conceived of this existence as an underworld, the place of where all the dead dwelt (Isaiah 14:9-11, Ezek. 32:17-32), a land of gloom and darkness (Job 10:21-22), a shadowy existence far from the light of the life where living men experienced God’s rescue and praised Him for His deliverance (Pss. 6:5, 118:17, 86:13, 27:13). Both the righteous and the unrighteous dwelt there. In a later and more developed understanding of the underworld, the righteous found Sheol to be a place of rest, whereas the unrighteous found it a place of distress. For example, in The Book of Enoch (chapter 22) we read that “the souls of the dead assemble therein”, and in this Sheol the “spirits of the righteous” find rest by “the bright spring of water”, whereas “sinners” are “set apart in great pain”. This understanding of Sheol is presupposed in the Lord’s parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16:19f. But no one in Sheol has yet undergone the final judgment. That comes later, when all stand before Christ’s throne and the books are opened and they are judged according to their deeds.
The teaching of New Testament is that everyone will be judged on the basis of their deeds, their hearts, and the quality of their lives. Thus Christ teaches that those who did good deeds in life arise to a resurrection of life, while those who did evil deeds arise to a resurrection of judgment (John 5:29). St. Paul echoes this, saying that all will stand before the judgement seat of Christ to be recompensed for their deeds, whether good or bad (2 Cor. 5:10). He also says that everyone, even the pagans who never knew the Law but who still sought for glory, honour, and immortality by their perseverance in doing good, will be rewarded with eternal life, because although they did not have the Law, they showed by their fidelity to conscience that the work of the Law was written in their hearts (Romans 2:6-15). In the Book of Revelation, we read that everyone will stand before the divine throne at the last judgment and books will be opened, including the Book of Life, containing the names of those who served God through their deeds. All will be judged according to their deeds. Those whose names were written in the Book of Life will be spared final condemnation, and will inherit eternal life (Rev. 20:12-15), but there is no suggestion that only the names of Christians were inscribed in the Book of Life. If that were so, what would be the point of the other books which detailed the deeds of all?
And what happens then, after the final judgment? What is the ultimate fate of mankind? Modern secularism, when it answers this question at all, assumes that all will be saved, and all dogs go to heaven. (Although, as Homer Simpson opined in an episode of The Simpsons, maybe Hitler’s dog didn’t make it. Poor Blondi.) In this rosy vision, pretty much everyone finally makes it, and in the rock and roll heaven proclaimed in song by the Righteous Brothers, not only is Bobby Darin there along with Jim Croce and Otis Redding, but even Janis Joplin, despite her heavy drinking, drug use, and early death by heroin overdose. Like I said: all dogs go to heaven, regardless of their deeds. But this is not the vision of the New Testament, nor of Orthodoxy.
In our vision, after the last judgment, heaven and earth are joined as one, and the new Jerusalem descends to earth, adorned like a bride adorned for her husband, as God at last comes to dwell among men (Rev. 21:1-3). In this new heaven and new earth, righteousness finally finds a home (2 Peter 3:13). The whole cosmos will be lit up with God’s presence, and all on earth will be filled with joy. All whose names were written in the Book of Life will inherit this joy, and the nations at long last will walk by the light (Rev. 21:24). Led by Christ, all that live will bow the knee with joy before God, and He will be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28).
But not all will delight to bow the knee. Sadly, some will resist to the very end, and perversely choose the misery that comes from insisting on their own way over surrender to God’s love. In Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, Satan preferred to reign in hell than to serve heaven, and some will prefer damnation to surrender. It is absurd, and it is unreasonable, and it staggers belief, but it will be so. Some will refuse to repent, even at the cost of entry into the city of joy. By their own insistence, they will remain outside the city, wrapped in their pride, clinging to their sins (Rev. 22:15). Their lot is Gehenna, the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death (Rev. 21:8).
The whole universe is hurtling to Christ and to the light which fills all with joy. In that Kingdom of light, as Julian of Norwich once said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” Every single corner of the cosmos will be filled with God’s presence. But what of those who refuse the light and with triumphant obstinacy refuse to surrender to it? Since the whole world will be filled with light, they will be pushed outside of it, to the borders, to the dark fringes where existence shades off into near non-existence. Their own swollen will, victorious to the end, will bind them hand and foot, and they will remain in the outer darkness, outside the cosmos of light, away from the presence of the Lord and the glory of His power (Mt. 8:12, 2 Thess. 1:9). The lake of fire, the flame which burns but gives no light, and which was never meant for men but only for the devil and his angels (Mt. 25:41), was not built by God as a holding cell to punish men. But it is the only realm left for men who refuse to dwell in joyful penitence in the world God made. What other fate is left for them? If the whole universe is filled with God and they refuse to live with Him, where else can they go? All that is left for them is to remain in their self-chosen misery, at the intersection of God’s wrath against sin and their own refusal of His love. In that place there is only weeping, and the gnashing of teeth.
Since Christ first entered the world through His incarnation, the universe has been in the process of separating and splitting apart. Since the Cross and Resurrection, it has been coming apart at the seams, as light separates from darkness, righteousness from sin, penitence from pride. At the last judgment, that separation will be complete, and all men will forever abide in what their deeds and hearts have chosen. Either we will inherit the earth along with the meek, or we will be forced out of the world. The choice is entirely ours, and we make it every day of our lives.