When it comes to pinning down Christians in America about what, exactly, can we expect after we die – the answers are all over the map, especially for those who aren’t going to make it to the “good” place.
Hell is a fun subject. The Southern Baptist Convention loves Hell, and takes great pains to describe its existence in their statement of faith:
X. Last Things
God, in His own time and in His own way, will bring the world to its appropriate end. According to His promise, Jesus Christ will return personally and visibly in glory to the earth; the dead will be raised; and Christ will judge all men in righteousness. The unrighteous will be consigned to Hell, the place of everlasting punishment. The righteous in their resurrected and glorified bodies will receive their reward and will dwell forever in Heaven with the Lord.
Isaiah 2:4; 11:9; Matthew 16:27; 18:8-9; 19:28; 24:27,30,36,44; 25:31-46; 26:64; Mark 8:38; 9:43-48; Luke 12:40,48; 16:19-26; 17:22-37; 21:27-28; John 14:1-3; Acts 1:11; 17:31; Romans 14:10; 1 Corinthians 4:5; 15:24-28,35-58; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Philippians 3:20-21; Colossians 1:5; 3:4; 1 Thessalonians 4:14-18; 5:1ff.; 2 Thessalonians 1:7ff.; 2; 1 Timothy 6:14; 2 Timothy 4:1,8; Titus 2:13; Hebrews 9:27-28; James 5:8; 2 Peter 3:7ff.; 1 John 2:28; 3:2; Jude 14; Revelation 1:18; 3:11; 20:1-22:13.
Other religious denominations are a bit fuzzier about what Hell really means. Methodists are harder to pin down on what Hell is, and liberal denominations of Christians will say that Hell is what sinners do to themselves after death – they will merely “separate” themselves from God.
The Catholics teach the doctrine of Hell and insist that other religions that teach that Hell isn’t so scary are teaching heresy:
The doctrine of hell is so frightening that numerous heretical sects end up denying the reality of an eternal hell. The Unitarian-Universalists, the Seventh-Day Adventists, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Christadelphians, the Christian Scientists, the Religious Scientists, the New Agers, and the Mormons—all have rejected or modified the doctrine of hell so radically that it is no longer a serious threat. In recent decades, this decay has even invaded mainstream Evangelicalism, and a number of major Evangelical figures have advocated the view that there is no eternal hell—the wicked will simply be annihilated.
But the eternal nature of hell is stressed in the New Testament. For example, in Mark 9:47–48 Jesus warns us, “[I]t is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” And in Revelation 14:11, we read: “And the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever; and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, ‘eternal fire.’ The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs” (CCC 1035).
“The History of Hell” by Alice K. Turner is a great book about how different religions have thought about Hell over the ages. The Zoroastrians had a Hell where the condemned were allowed a second chance at salvation, when at the final cosmic battle between good and evil, when the savior (born of a virgin impregnated by Zoroaster) would charge into Hell and forgive penitent sinners. (Hm. Do parts of that seem familiar?)
The Zoroastrians are somewhat unusual in that they taught that Hell wasn’t eternal for everyone. Most modern Christian religions, liberal or conservative, teach that Hell is forever. I have heard that some churches teach that complete annihilation comes to those who sin or do not believe – that the soul just “ceases to exist”, but the churches that teach this are usually liberal, nondenominational, and decidedly in the minority.
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle wrote a book called, “Inferno” which is a science-fiction / fantasy take on “Inferno”, the first book of the Divine Comedy written by Dante Alighieri. I read Niven and Pournelle’s version before I read the Dante’s. If you have a choice, I recommend doing so – it makes it somewhat easier to understand what is happening in Dante’s “Inferno”.
The biggest difference between the two texts is that Dante’s Hell is eternal, while Niven / Pournelle’s Hell has a way out. From Niven and Pournelle’s version:
“You don’t get it. Every torture in Hell was too much too late. Punishment? But it’s infinite punishment for things that are little in comparison. …”
“… There’s only one possible excuse for Hell, and I almost missed it in the ravings of a crazy psychiatrist. It has to be the final training ground. If nothing can get a soul into Heaven in its life, there’s still Hell, God’s last attempt to get his attention. … If Hell won’t make a man yell for [God’s] help, then it was still worth a try.
Infinite punishment. If you believe in an eternal Hell, with eternal punishment, then you must believe that God is a sadist. (Niven and Pournelle put it, “”We’re in the hands of infinite power and infinite sadism”) This leads to the biggest problem with Heaven.
Bob Smith (yes, that’s his real name) runs a web site called NormalBobSmith.com. Bob is an Atheist who has made a living off of Jesus, and he’s had a lot of fun doing it. Because of this he gets a lot of hate email – thousands of emails! (Warning to the religious – do NOT click on the last two links if you can’t stand to see your religion mocked.)
One question that Bob has been asking, over and over, deals with one of the problems with Heaven. None of his correspondents have been able to deal with this question in any way that he, or I, find satisfactory.
As a parent you die and end up in Heaven. Your beloved child (or children) dies (eventually) and ends up in Hell. Your child wasn’t evil, just a non-believer. She or he was a loving, good person – but due to a lack of faith or belief, or just not making the grade, she or he is doomed to Hell for the rest of eternity.
The question is: How can you enjoy your eternity in Heaven knowing that your beloved child or children are being punished for the rest of eternity? Won’t it haunt you to know that they are in a “lake of fire” or in whatever punishment you believe they are being subjected?
How can it be Heaven if you feel sorrow, pain, regret, panic and despair over the punishment of your child?
Those without children can’t get out of this so easily – replace “Child” with “Parent” or “Loved one”.
Even if you have no one, even if you’ve managed to gain no friends, and never knew your family before you died and ascended to Heaven, won’t the inherent good in you result in your eternal mourning over those lost souls?
Pardon my hyperbole, but how can anyone enjoy teatime in Heaven knowing that their tea is boiled over burning sinners in a lake of fire?
Maybe you are one of the lucky Christians who believe that Hell isn’t eternal, or perhaps you believe in Niven and Pournelle’s Hell, a Hell that has an “escape hatch”. Perhaps you believe that eventually the eternal torture will stop. Or perhaps you believe in “Hell Lite” where the sinners merely condemn themselves to eternal separation from God. Maybe that makes the thought of your loved ones not being with you in Heaven easier to bear.
Maybe that’s more acceptable than eternal sadism.