When it comes to heaven and hell, what they look like and who’s going where…at some point, you really just have to take a step back and admit something…
NOBODY REALLY KNOWS!
Sure, there have been little kids that died, came back telling stories about what they saw and someone was smart enough to cash in and write the books and make the movies.
There have been countless others who have had out of body experiences or spiritual journeys into the afterlife and come back describing things. I was there the night that Bill Weise recorded his account of a journey into the bowels of hell at Metro Christian Fellowship in Kansas City, MO. (Of course, they had to have it on Halloween night for that extra scare factor. The altars were packed that night!)
Let’s get the particulars out of the way so you can decide whether I’m a heretic or not as soon as possible. (Disclaimer: I probably am and I like that! HA!)
IS HEAVEN REAL?
I don’t know. I think yes, but not in a way that we can imagine and it’s definitely not a place for people who did everything right nor is it only a place that you go when you die.
IS HELL REAL?
I don’t know. I think yes because there has to be a place for grumpy people to pout. I’m pretty sure it isn’t on fire and I’m also fairly certain that there aren’t a bunch of torturing demons running around doing the devil’s bidding and wrecking havoc amongst a burning sea of gays, foreigners and democrats.
WHO GOES WHERE?
Again, I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure you get to pick if there are options.
IS THERE AN AFTERLIFE AT ALL?
Guess!? Bingo! Again, I DON’T KNOW! But I will say this, my official opinion on all things eternal:
Life is gift, but it’s not all there is.
I’m not a scholar and I do not want this to be bullet points of evidence for why I believe this way laid out in a persuasive manner to win you over. This is simply my opinion based on several years of reading, listening, watching and thinking about all of it. If you want evidence, research, bullet points or really good writing, there are so many amazing, dynamic and genius writers that have covered this issue of the afterlife quite thoroughly. I’d again recommend the writing of CS Lewis (The Great Divorce), Robert Capon (Between Noon & Three), Rob Bell (Love Wins) and other spiritual & religious writings (non-Christian) that have beautiful descriptions of eternal ideas and the afterlife. Truth be told, it would also be GREAT to dive into some of the more academic writings on the topic. That’s just my disclaimer, do with it what you will.
The Jewish (they’re the ones who wrote the Bible remember) understanding of Heaven was NOT a “place that you go when you die.” It was the state of “all is as it should be.” Furthermore, the idea of hell as a place that you go when you die if you’re bad was also not really a part of their repertoire either.
I personally believe that the whole heaven/hell thing as we know it today, came to prominence for a few reasons:
It gave suffering people something to look forward to (Heaven).
It gave religious people something to threaten and motivate people with (Hell).
The sad thing is that because of this fixation on the afterlife, it has completely robbed people of enjoying the present, the moment and the now. My dad used to use a phrase “Pay now, play later. Play now, pay later.” While this may be helpful in getting your homework done “on Friday night so you have the whole rest of the weekend to just party,” (Party on Wayne! Party on Garth!), it is NOT a great way to look at your life.
I believe that the concepts of Heaven and Hell are both real and happening right now, all around us. We have all experienced moments of “all is as it should be” and you don’t have to look far to see people experiencing anguish that no one should ever have to suffer.
Despite what most religious folks would have you believe, I think that, instead of the world getting worse and worse, cannonballing towards some apocalyptic event that will destroy mankind as we know it, the world is actually getting better and better. People are becoming more loving, violence is decreasing and the advances of technology and science are adding value and length to our earthly experience. Some people would really disagree with me on this. My only rebuttal to those that would say, “JONATHAN! PLEASE! Look around! THE END IS NEAR!” is this; things only seem to be getting worse because we have an entire industry (news media) that is driven by fear mongering, bickering and sensationalism. Stop watching the news, go outside and engage with people. Get involved in peace making and choose to love and invest in those around you that are different than you.
Yes, bad things happen all the time on every part of the planet. However, never before has there been such positive forces for love, hope and peace in the world. There are crazed people in Africa chopping off the arms of children & enlisting those children as violent soldiers. But there are also scientists and philanthropists that are helping to rescue these kids and are using 3D printers to print new limbs for them and teaching them to use the technology for themselves. Darkness is no match for light. Peace is coming.
Not to go down a rabbit-trail here, but imagine what the billions and billions of dollars that are given to religious institutions each year could be used for if they weren’t tied up in enormous buildings that sit mostly empty 6 days a week and funding the entertaining and elaborate programming that happens on the 7th day. Just a thought.
Jesus said, the “kingdom of heaven is at hand”, it’s here. Right now. It’s not a future destination; it’s available as a present reality and mindset. I want to embrace that idea, to do all that I can each day for myself and others to experience “all is well and all will be well.”
The Bible says, “They will know us by our love for one another” but religious people have become so fixated on this idea of eternal reward and punishment that we are mostly just known for the battles we fight.
I dare you, dig into the Bible, you won’t find much about hell there. There are only a handful of scriptures that are used to prove it’s existence and with a little bit of objective study and research you will find that those scriptures don’t really say what we’ve been told that they say and that the traditionally accepted idea of hell has more in common with the writings of Dante than anything you’ll find in the Bible.
When you remove the threat of eternal punishment and the dangling carrot of eternal reward, you can throw out the eternal guest list and fire the bouncer that determines who gets in and who’s left out. There’s no longer “saved” and “unsaved.” There’s no more responsibility to “get people saved.” You can relax and enjoy the right here and right now. You can get down to the real joy of loving and living intentionally amongst your brothers and sisters.
If I had to describe the afterlife in any way at all, I would derive it from the parable that Jesus tells that is recorded in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 15.
After a short season of highs and lows, trying to find fulfillment and making mistakes, we return to where we came from feeling a bit beaten down and unworthy only to be greeted with a celebration of life that is extravagant beyond what we could have ever hoped. A party in our honor that never ends. There will be some that refuse to party and that’s totally up to them but the lights never go out and the gates are always open if they decide to cheer up and join in.
Life is a gift, but it isn’t all there is.