Hell and Heaven

Nov 3, 2020 by

Hell and Heaven

Eternal matters

Heaven and hell are still quoted in traditional Christianity as the eternal destinations for humanity – you either make it, or you don’t! But how did this stark division arise? Does this fit with the understanding that God loves his creation? Would God consign some to eternal torture? What is hell? Specifically, what is ‘The hell of fire?’ that Jesus often spoke of (Matthew 5:22, 18:9) The word Gehenna, rendered as hell of fire or fires of hell, is the Greek version of the Hebrew Ge-Hinnom, or Valley of Hinnom. This was a deep, narrow glen to the south of Jerusalem. It was there that the idolatrous Jews sacrificed their children to Molech. (2Kings 23:10). After this, it became the common rubbish dump of the city, into which the bodies of criminals, carcasses of animals, and all sorts of filth were cast. It smouldered ceaselessly. Because of its depth and narrowness, and the fire and smoke, it became symbol of the future punishment of the wicked.

As fire was the characteristic of the place, it was called the Gehenna of fire. It should be carefully distinguished from Hades, which was never used for the place of punishment, but for the place of departed spirits, without reference to their moral condition. Hades was the Greek word used for Sheol, the place of the dead in the early Hebrew Scriptures – a shadowy silent pit to which all the dead go, both the righteous and the unrighteous, regardless of the moral choices made in life, a place of stillness and darkness cut off from life and from the Hebrew God.

In early Christianity, this distinction was lost. Hell and the ultimate fate of those consigned to it was described in different ways. Some theologians, such as Origen and Eusebius, taught that eventually all evil human beings and even Satan himself would be restored to unity with God or universal salvation. Other teachers believed that hell was a temporary state of being where some souls would be purified and others annihilated. Unfortunately, the image that prevailed was that hell was where the souls of the damned suffered torturous and unending punishment. This was reinforced in the middle ages by Dante’s gruesome imagery in his “Divine Comedy.”

However, coming more up to date, in 1995 the Church of England Doctrine Commission wrote in their report “The Mystery of Salvation” that hell is more likely a place of total non-being outside of God and that heaven is open to people of other faiths. The rationale is that if a person totally denies the existence of the Divine, the God in whom we live and move and have our being, then stepping outside that sustaining force means we cease to exist. If a person believes in some further divine power, then they are held in being. Some progress then. Although stated as the official position of the Doctrine Commission, it had little impact on Church-going Christian belief!

Heaven is seen in many ways, but there is no definitive version, other than it being a place we go after death to be in God’s presence. But the kingdom of heaven is spoken of as being here, now, amongst and within us. Jesus spoke about the kingdom of heaven or of God more than anything else. It was central to his teaching, linked with repentance. The first words of Jesus in Mark’s gospel are ‘The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news.’ (Mk 1:15). The act of penitence is at the heart of the Anglican and Roman Catholic liturgies, confession followed by absolution. However, the meaning of the word contains a surprise. The Greek word is metanoia. But it doesn’t mean feeling sorrowful for doing or thinking bad things. It doesn’t just mean ‘to turn around’. It isn’t just about starting out again with God. The word can be broken down into two parts, meta and noia. Meta can mean either ‘beyond’ or ‘large’, and noia is ‘mind’, so it is really saying ‘go beyond the mind’ or ‘go into the large mind’. The repentance that Jesus is talking about is to go beyond ourselves, to enter into the mind, the consciousness of God, to come to a new level of awareness, or, as St Paul put it “to be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). It is a deep inner change in the way we act and think.

In today’s terms, Paul was really talking about us ascending to a new vibratory level of awareness, going beyond our ego-centred mind, getting out of our self-centredness and entering a new way of being, entering the large mind, the consciousness of God. This is transformation. The kingdom of God was Jesus’ shorthand for the whole message. The kingdom of God is near, is within you. When you repent, when you come close to God, when you enter the consciousness of God, when you love your neighbour, when you feel compassion for the world, when you can forgive those who hurt you, then you are entering God’s kingdom, you are being changed, transformed, refined, you are moving up onto God’s resonant frequency, you are beginning to fulfil the God-given potential that you have as a human being, you are aligning yourself with Christ, you are becoming God’s child, you recognise Christ within you. However we want to express it. We can get lost in doctrinal arguments about these things but the main message of Jesus was not to talk about it, but to live it out. Not to be moral upstanding people living a ‘good’ life, but to be compassionate people, full of life and light, giving energy and life to others.

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