I was working at a summer music camp when one of the students came up to me to talk about the afterlife.
“I believe you’re going to heaven,” she said. “But I’m going to stop existing.”
This was back in the early 2000’s, before postmodern thinking had become mainstream. I asked her why she thought that two people could have such a different afterlife.
“Because you believe in heaven. I don’t.”
“Do you want to go to heaven?”
She shrugged. “Sure, who wouldn’t? But I don’t believe in it.”
“If it doesn’t exist, how can I go there?”
“Because you believe in it.”
This sounds like nonsense, right? We all know that belief can’t create reality. But it can certainly affect the way we think, feel and act in this life. The prospect of 72 virgins in an eternal Paradise can prompt terrorists to strap bombs to their chests or fly planes into skyscrapers. Christians are motivated by the prospect of a world with no tears and no night, a place where lions sleep with lambs and streets are made of gold. Others expect to be recycled, born into a new body, hopefully something upright with opposable thumbs, or even better.
To die, to sleep – To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub. For in this sleep of death what dreams may come… ― William Shakespeare, Hamlet
As a Christian, I thought that my worldview was unquestionable, any alternative was ridiculous and evasive, a conscious effort to dodge the clear witness of Scripture and each person’s responsibility before God.
The truth was simple: This life is about making a decision for Christ. If you choose to accept him, you get to live with him in heaven, enjoying an eternal afterlife of bliss. If not, you get to burn in a Lake of Fire forever. See? Simple.
Heaven is up. The Bible proves it. Elijah’s fiery chariot took him up into the sky. When Jesus left the earth, he lifted right up to the clouds. When God spoke, his voice came from the sky. That’s where Stephen and Paul saw Jesus at the right hand of God.
Hell is down. When the sons of Korah rebelled, the ground opened up and they went “alive to the realm of the dead” [Num. 16:30]. When Jonah rebelled, he was cast into the sea where he sunk to the “roots of the mountains,” to the very “depth of Sheol” [Jonah 2].
Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there. If I make my bed in the depths, you are there. Psalm 139:7-8
That perception held pretty strong in my mind until I came across this picture in seminary:
I knew right away that I didn’t believe in a three-tiered universe. I never wondered if NASA had found evidence of golden streets in the clouds, or storehouses of hail in the outer atmosphere, or evidence of a cube-shaped city floating out in space. I would say that heaven was up, but I wasn’t rushing to a telescope to prove it. In the same way, I wasn’t asking miners or spelunkers if they found a bottomless pit that could double for a lake of fire filled with billions of suffering sinners. I started to realize that there was a disconnect between my faith and my sense of reality.
When asked to make a presentation for an archeology class, I chose the burial practices of ancient Israel, but my grade was dropped because I spent more time on Israel’s worldview and not enough on the graves themselves. When required to write a paper on the Psalms, I chose to explore their theology of the afterlife, finding a whole lot of disturbing conjecture and conflicting ideas.
Do the righteous join the unrighteous in a general underworld for the dead, as Heman the Ezrahite claims in Psalm 88? Or will God not abandon his holy ones to Sheol, showing them the path of life, allowing them to experience eternal pleasure in his presence, as David claims in Psalm 16?
If pressed, I would have to admit that I didn’t think of heaven and hell as part of this material universe. I couldn’t dig my way to hell or float my way to heaven. At the same time, I didn’t believe that it was purely spiritual. How could we enjoy the Marriage Supper of the Lamb without tastebuds? How could sinners suffer without nerve endings? Bottom line: I saw death as the gateway to another physical dimension, like the wardrobe of Narnia.
This would be a good moment for Atheists to pounce. All Ancient Near Eastern civilizations had their gods in the heavens and their dead in the underworld. That’s why they had pyramids and ziggurats. That’s why they left food, weapons and lamps in the graves. This was their way to explain reality, giving them answers to the mysteries of this life, and hope for something beyond.
Is Israel’s Sheol any different from the underworlds of Babylon or Assyria? Can we throw the Biblical Lake of Fire right alongside Ammit, the hippo-lion-crocodile demon that would eat unworthy souls in the Egyptian Book of the Dead?
Thankfully we have a historically-viable visitor from heaven who gave us some pretty convincing proofs. His wardrobe between the worlds was the womb of a virgin, and his way back was through the cross and the Resurrection.
How did Jesus talk about heaven and hell?
First, he made it clear that he had come from his Father and was going back, which legitimizes the existence of something beyond this life. He also claimed that when God said, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were still alive and with God, though their bones were buried on the earth. He actually met with Moses and Elijah at the transfiguration. He told the criminal on the adjoining cross that they would reunite that very day in Paradise.
Jesus affirmed that God was a spirit, not something that could be seen [John 1:18] despite the claims of men like Moses, Isaiah and Ezekiel. He said that his Father, as a spirit, was eager for the sacrificial system to be translated into a worship of spirit and truth in the coming Church age [John 4:23-24]. Contrary to the Biblical presentation, God cannot be male or female. He cannot have a son, not in the biological sense. He has no need of a throne or a temple. Without a mouth or lungs or vocal chords, he can’t speak down from the clouds like we imagine.
To think of God in a physical sense is to be wrong about him. But how else could God communicate to people that are hard-wired to a physical existence, bound to just four dimensions?
When Jesus went back to heaven he lifted up into the sky while people were watching. Doesn’t that fit neatly into their worldview? Wouldn’t that affirm to them that he went back to heaven? But what happened after he hit the clouds? Was there a city behind it? Did he shoot into outer space? Where did he go?
When Jesus told the parable of the rich man and the servant who experiences a role reversal in the afterlife, he described a scene in the underworld. Unlike Psalm 88, there is a huge gap between the righteous and the wicked. The righteous are in a place of rest, but the wicked are thirsty and uncomfortable. Does this prove that Jesus believes in an underworld? Or is he explaining something spiritual to physically-minded people, using their own worldview to make an important point about living this life in view of the next?
I’ve heard pastors try to encourage their congregants by opening to Revelation 21 and explaining that heaven is 1,500 miles square, like a giant cube in outer space, like a Borg ship from Star Trek.
The problem is, these descriptions of heaven, which have become standard for our understanding, are presented to John in a vision. How legitimate are these twelve foundation stones named after the apostles, or the twelve gates made of pearls named after the tribes of Israel? How legitimate are these images of lions sleeping with lambs? What about the light that constantly streams from God himself, erasing all darkness?
I think these descriptions are just as legitimate as the bizarre, multiple-horned rams and goats in the visions of Daniel 8, which were ultimately explained to be the rise and fall of the kings of Persia and Greece. Alexander the Great was not a shaggy unigoat. And heaven is not a Borg ship. But they are both real.
I think that God, a spiritual being, often communicates with his physical creation through symbols and types, even using their own worldview to help express spiritual realities. In other words, I absolutely believe in some kind of heaven and hell, accepting the witness of one who had been there. But I don’t expect to see a sleeping lion on the other side.