Heaven, Hell, or Neither?

Hell has taken a bit of a beating in my previous two posts; so in the interests of balance, I feel as though I ought to hammer heaven a bit as well: I don’t really believe in a literal heaven either! Actually, that’s not strictly true - I do believe in heaven, but I don’t believe we get the opportunity to go there.

It’s hard for me to back up that view with scripture because, actually, ‘going to heaven' isn’t really mentioned in scripture much at all… Unsurprisingly because originally it wasn’t a part of either the Jewish or Christian understanding of our ‘future’.

Judaism was, and remains, a religion concerned almost entirely with living in the now rather than in the future; Christianity too, in its early days, was largely about living in the present, with just a nod to a future ‘second coming’ and a renewal of all things stemming from that. The notion that (if we’re Christians) we ‘go to heaven when we die’ is derived almost entirely from pagan philosophy. You won’t find it in the bible, but you will find it in Plato’s ‘Republic’ - and, somehow, it has become the dominant belief about ‘what happens after we die’; people believe it, preachers mention it whilst speaking, and no-one seems to bat an eyelid about its lack of support in scripture! But the idea that, after we die, our disembodied souls ‘float away’, leaving behind this (supposedly) awful place for ‘somewhere better’ is, quite simply, incorrect.

And it’s a heresy which does immense harm in all sorts of ways, disconnecting us from the ‘here and now’, and causing us to spend our whole lives ‘marking time’ whilst waiting to ‘go to heaven’ - instead of living as heralds of the coming kingdom. The harm is not least to our planet - the argument goes that if we’re ‘going somewhere else’ then why bother looking after our home here on this planet?

In fact, in truly orthodox Christian thought, when we die we go to the grave (Sheol, Hades), to ‘sleep’ until the day of ‘judgment’, when all will be raised - in the manner Christ was raised as the first fruits of resurrection. At that point, we don’t go to heaven, but heaven comes to earth; earth is made new; and we all dwell in it, blissfully, with God.

Probably the best explanation of how we have ‘got it wrong’ (and what we need to change to put it right again) is found in Tom Wright’s 2017 book “The Day the Revolution Began: Rethinking the Meaning of Jesus' Crucifixion” in which he describes (amongst other things) how we have first of all:

“Platonised our eschatology”- Plato taught that all matter is evil and only spiritual things are good. Following this line of reasoning, we have substituted ‘disembodied souls going to heaven’ for both the resurrection and reconciled new life in the promised new creation.

Secondly, we have:

“moralised our anthropology”- we have substituted a qualifying examination or moral performance, diminishing our understanding of what it means to be human, for embracing the biblical notion of living our human vocation as a kingdom of priests, ministering to the world around us.

Thirdly we have also:

“paganised our soteriology” - we frequently portray God as being angry (as if he was Zeus, the king of the gods in Greek mythology), substituting the idea of ‘God killing Jesus to satisfy his wrath’ for the genuinely biblical notions of the revolutionary Kingdom of God, in which the cross takes its proper place as a sign of God’s love and justice.

Wright’s book is (perhaps unsurprisingly) not a particularly easy read - despite being at the ‘popular’ end of the theological book spectrum (it lacks the copious footnotes it might well have had if it had been a ‘serious’ academic book). Happily, if you really can’t cope with Wright’s dense writing style, there is a more accessible ‘readers’ guide’ - “N.T. Wright and the Revolutionary Cross: A Reader's Guide to The Day the Revolution Began” by Derek Vreeland. Nevertheless, I still recommend Wright’s book as perhaps the best way to ‘get to grips’ with what’s gone wrong with our view of Jesus’ incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and the Kingdom of God.

So, to sum up, rather than believing that Christians ‘go to heaven’ when they die, I believe that they go to the grave, and remain there ‘asleep’ (and, as when we’re alive and asleep, unaware of the passage of time) until the second coming of Christ, when heaven comes to earth, earth is renewed, and all the dead are raised to meet Him.

We don't go to heaven: heaven comes to us!

Copyright Phil Hendry, 2022