Thinking Right About the Afterlife: 3 Points to Consider

Oct 04, 2016 by Josh de Keijzer

We’ve talked about people who staunchly believe in hell as a real place of eternal torment and those who with equal vehemence repudiate the idea of such a place in the name of the God of love. So, what should be our attitude toward hell and how should we integrate this notion into our theology and witness as Bible believing Christians? Here are three important considerations to guide our thinking in this regard.

1. Biblical Thinking Needs to Be Done Creatively
If it is true that the Bible does not necessarily support a literal eternal torment of the damned because of all the reasons given in the previous article on this, there is a certain creativity that Christians can and must employ in dealing with the Biblical talk of divine judgment. Not to ascertain what exactly that judgment is like, but to make sense of the world-God relationship and to do justice to a God who reveals Godself as love in Jesus Christ.

Believers have come up with alternative theories about what happens to the deceased. I’m not talking about reincarnation as Hindus do, or the striving for Nirvana in Buddhism. No, the options discussed below are thoroughly part of Christianity. Whether they are strongly or not so strongly supported by Scripture, it is clear that these attempts try to do justice to the problem of sin, grace, and a God of love and justice.

Purgatory. In the early middle ages the Roman Catholic Church came up with the concept of purgatory. In purgatory people are held for a certain time until they have made penance for their sins after which they are allowed to go to heaven. The problem with this is not so much purgatory. (Who knows, maybe the mercy of the God of second chances extends beyond death.) The problem is with penance. While the Catholic Church did not deny that we are saved by grace alone through justification by faith, it still held various notions of making amends and contributing a certain effort to one’s salvation. The idea of penance entails that a Christian has to make amends for his or her sins. The Bible, however, presents us with a God who forgives without anything in return. Once forgiveness is asked there is no penance required.

Annihilation. Another more recent idea comes from evangelicals like John Stott. The doctrine of annihilation attempts to bridge the gap between the eternal nature of hell and a loving God. Of course, it cannot be that a loving God would have unbelievers (we actually saw earlier that hell is for believers, hypocritical ones, that is) suffer conscious torment in all eternity. Perhaps one way of understanding eternal judgment and eternal lostness is to say that those who are lost are annihilated. Annihilation means being brought to non-existence. Perhaps this is what the Bible means with the pool of fire: the complete annihilation of all that once stood unrepentantly against God.

Universalism. Lastly, one important strain of thought in Christian theology has been that of universalism. It teaches that in the end, even if there is a hell, it will be empty. Or, if there are some in it, there won't be many there, because God will in the end ave most people from their sin. God's victory of love will in the end be supreme.

In this way, Christians throughout history have tried to grapple with the Biblical notions of sin, divine judgment, and justice, and in doing so they have tried to be faithful to Scripture but also attempted to be creative with regard to the freedom we have as Christians to think for ourselves before God.

2. We Need to Emphasize that God is a God of Love
All this thinking, however, should be guided by the biblical vision of God’s love for the world and God’s intentions for humanity in the realization that God is not just a lovey-dovey condoner of sin and that God has a passion for justice and righteousness. Christians should thus warn each other and non-Christians of divine judgment but it is important to see that talk of judgment is always framed by the love of God. The Word became flesh in order to dwell among us and reveal to us grace and truth from the Father.

That the light of truth shines on us and exposes our filth and sin is a corollary of the divine love. It is secondary while the love is primary. The Gospel is not the announcement of God’s judgment on humanity (although it is certainly entailed by it and although we certainly long for God’s justice in this evil world) but the announcement of the resurrection of God’s Son and with it the forgiveness of sins and the promise of resurrection for all who believe in Christ.

3. We Need to Learn How Not to Play God
One big problem with belief in a literal hell is that it takes other people’s imagination and elevates it to absolute truth. This way we make God’s justice subservient to human ideas of justice and revenge. Then we are playing God. The Bible certainly does not give us enough to support an eternal conscious torment of the damned. Yes, there is judgment, but we better let this judgment be God’s and not ours. The Bible should lead us into the divine mystery rather than that we use the Bible to lead a mysterious God in the so-called clarity of human categories, labels, and definitions. Let God be God! “Do not judge others,” Jesus warns. Likewise I’d like to say: Do not prepare a punishment the preparation of which is beholden to a just, righteous, and loving God.

Ultimately, what should inspire our hope and our message as Christians, is that we have a God of love, who doesn’t want anyone to perish, and a God of hope, who yearns to give second chances and is willing to take any failure as the beginning point of a new future. When we talk about hell, let us, like Jesus, talk about it among ourselves as the thing we should be fearful of as we easily succumb to religious hypocrisy and judgmentalism. But when we talk to non-believers and to our culture in general, we better, again like Jesus, share a message that encourages faith in the impossible, love for the unlikely, and hope for God’s unthinkable.

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