Saturday, March 14, 2015

Heaven and Hell in the Scriptures

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.


  1. Father, thank you for your reply. I apologise that I posted on the wrong article so have moved the discussion over to here to avoid confusing your readers!

    Your post (and reply) has soaked in deeper and deeper over the past day or so and the idea I keep coming back to is that it's how we finish the 'race' which is key. The thief on the cross made a good confession in the nick of time, the 11th hour worker managed to get his derriere into the field and start working before the end of the day. The wise virgins kept their lamps trimmed and lit whereas the foolish virgins came with good intentions and got half way there but failed to 'perfect' their intention. The man building a tower needed to ensure he would finish the job, the plougher needs to commit to the task, the good seed is that which produces fruit, the talents given require multiplication, the barn expander failed to prepare himself for death etc... etc...

    Hebrews speaks of completing the race and not hardening our hearts 'today'. The nation of Israel are held up as a prime example of those who started the wanderings but failed to make the grade.

    The key enemy to perseverance, I think, is false assurance which leads to presumption which, in turn, leads to neglect and then to failure. If I'm convinced that my beliefs or religious activities mean I'm 'safe' then what precautions would I bother to take to avoid falling (because such a thing isn't possible as long as I continue to cognitively conceive something).

    I know that the Catholics speak of dying in a state of 'grace' and wonder if we Orthodox have any similar concept?

    Any of us could die at any time and what state we find ourselves appears to have eternal significance.

  2. Thank you again for your thoughtful comments.
    Though not my own preferred terminology, I would understand dying "in a state of grace" as dying with a living faith in Christ, striving to please Him through our repentance. The evangelical/ Calvinist idea of "once saved, always saved" is not our theology, but neither is the idea of dying not knowing whether one is saved or not. It is hard today not to think of Fr. Thomas Hopko in this regard: he served Christ with devotion and finished the race still serving Him, and no one doubts that he will be saved. Assurance is a lived paradox: if we are worried about our salvation, then we don't have to worry. The goal and the place of safety is not to ask "am I saved?", but rather, "Lord, what would You have me do next?" Our focus is not on our own salvation. For that we must simply trust God. Our focus is on the Lord and serving Him today, and if this is our focus, then we are safe. In this regard I find the words of the pre-communion prayer helpful: "It is good for me to cleave to God and to place in the Lord the hope of my salvation".

  3. Yes, Father Tom is precisely a case in point. Someone who lived a life devoted to Christ and manifested His Grace marvellously. His repose was peaceful, Christian, without shame, surrounded by his loved ones and in full communion with the Church. Would that my repose be like that!

    Fr Tom would be amongst the first to warn us not to make a presumption of Grace but instead to live in the holy fear of giving a good answer. I heard today that this fear, if righteous, is that of suffering loss and being separated from the Love and healing we want so badly to participate in. As you said, if we are fearing that we might suffer loss then we are already beginning repentance which is the way through.

    I like your phrase, 'Lord what would you have me do next' which is a better version of the 'What would Jesus do?' since what Jesus did was to seek the Will of His Father for what to do 'next'! It ties in with finishing the race well but that can only ever be experienced in the now-moment.

    I guess the crux of my thinking is that, just as we can know that Father Tom is with our Lord, so we can also tell who are the vessels for condemnation (the famous evil people of times past - Nero and Diocletian are definitely not on the banquet list). So far so good. But I guess my curiosity wants to know about the fate of those who lived a good life but died out of conscious faith or who knew not Christ or who were angry with God for perceived suffering etc...? Since judgement seems also to be based on the whole life lived then there must be some accounting at the time of repose as I can't imagine individuals who will ultimately be vindicated at the Last Judgement would be held in a state of darkness or uncertainty until then. I guess this then relates to the concept of 'particular judgement' but again isn't that a Catholic teaching?

    1. We can know so little about what happens after we die that I am loathe to do more than offer tentative guesses. That being said, I don't know of anything that would grant assurance to those who died outside of the Church, even if they will be ultimately saved. In my reading the Fathers focus on the Christian dead and on the impenitent sinners, but less on the "righteous pagan" we are discussing. This makes me even less happy to dogmatize.

    2. Yes, we're treading on mysterious ground here and - as far as I know - the only dogmatic position we can assert is that, 'He will come again to judge the quick and the dead'.

      But, as you say, the Tradition of the Church and the writings of the Fathers and Saints do hint towards certain realities. For example we don't pray for the salvation of the soul of the Theotokos and neither does anyone pray for the salvation of the soul of Nero or Stalin. So there is that whole swathe in the middle where we just don't know but Love compels us to hope and pray and seek God's mercy and healing not just on us but on them.

      I think that trying to dogmatise beyond what the councils have already stated and the Fathers and Saints have hinted at just leads us into the trap around limbo/purgatory and Dante's Inferno etc.. we want a system so we can pigeon hole and categorise.

    3. There is indeed a large swathe in the middle. In my own prayers, I try to err on the side of generosity, and pray for pretty much anyone. Prayer is simply our request of God, who can always answer No if He pleases. I don't believe that praying for someone liturgically (such as for non-Orthodox) sets any kind of seal of canonical approval on them. We are simply children asking for things from our Father.

    4. I've learned that to pray for others is to love, so we can't help but pray for those we love (whether living or reposed and in whatever canonical state with the Church). It also explains how those who have purified their hearts and minds and abide strongly in the Grace of God can't help but pray for the whole cosmos, since to love everything and everyone is a Divine Energy. We may participate in this Energy partially during this life but the Saints abide in it fully. This, combined with their lack of need for sleep or food, makes them a mighty power house of loving prayer for the world (and maybe even for Diocletian and Hitler for all we know).

      As I type this I'm realising that they, of course, know much more about the fate of our loved ones after bodily death and so are in the best position to know how to pray, hence the wisdom of seeking the powerful intercessions of the Saints for all of us.


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