Episode 023: Imagine There’s No Heaven

Heaven and Hell podcast Theology / Biblical Studies

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Is Christian hope all about going to heaven, rather than you-know-where?

Here it is, the first podcast episode for 2009, complete with my summer hay fever voice! Kicking things off for the year is a discussion of what lies beyond the grave. The resurrection of the dead is the hope of the New Testament for our eternal life, yet popular Christian theology has come to place a lot of weight on the hope of going to heaven when you die. Short story: It has to stop and we need to adjust our focus.

Glenn Peoples

 

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{ 18 comments… add one }
  • Joey January 7, 2009, 10:30 pm

    Great episode. Had a lot of important stuff. Admittedly it was a little lost on me because I already knew it, but given how profound it all is, it should force a lot people to think, in a good way that is.

    Now however, I am very curious as to what you do think of the intermediate state. I mean, it’s rarely talked about in any seriousness. My appetite has been whetted 😀 I for one hope that a podcast will, in the near future, address this issue.

  • Desmond Lee January 9, 2009, 12:50 pm

    Hey, but what about Lazarus and the Rich Man?

    “The rich man also died and was buried. In Hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.”

  • Glenn January 9, 2009, 2:18 pm

    Hey Desmond. That kinda came out of left field. When you say “but what about,” which part of the episode are you disagreeing with?

  • Desmond Lee January 10, 2009, 12:15 pm

    Well, in the episode, i think you said something about how the bible never mentions that we go to heaven when we die, and here we see that when Lazarus died, he was with Abraham.

    I didn’t really completely understand that podcast, I needed to do some research on heaven to answer some arguments against Christianity regarding the afterlife and this just made me even more confused. =P

  • Glenn January 10, 2009, 8:01 pm

    Desmond – in the episode I specifically asked people to find references to the Bible saying that we go to heaven when we die. I stressed that I was talking about examples that use the word heaven. The story about Lazarus a) does not use that word, and b) does not state that we go ANYWHERE when we die. It’s a story.

  • Jeff Hay-Roe January 13, 2009, 10:00 am

    Hi, Glenn.

    Does Sheol/Hades fit anywhere into your understanding of Heaven and Hell? And is the story of the rich man and Lazarus an utter fabrication with no correspondence with what actually happens (or “happened”) after death?

  • Glenn January 13, 2009, 10:00 pm

    Hey Jeff. In Scripture Sheol (or Hades) is sometimes translated “hell,” but never heaven. And no, I don’t think it refers to a heavenly place where we go after death – or to “hell” in the sense of a place of torment.

    I also think it’s unusual to refer to a story as a “fabrication” unless we’re insinuating some wrongdoing on the part of the story teller. For example, I think other stories, like Jesus’ parables of the kingdom for example, are not true stories. But I wouldn’t call those fabrications either. The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. in any case, does not represent what Christians actually believe about life after death. It does raise some interesting issues in other ways (related to the historical origins of this folk tale in Jewish tradition that was later incorporated into the Jerusalem Talmud) and I’m working on a piece for publication on that subject, as it turns out.

  • Jeff Hay-Roe January 14, 2009, 10:16 am

    Thanks for the reply, Glen. I guess the comments section on a blog are not the best place to try to sort out these issues, but I’m left with questions still. Okay, parables are stories, but the things that happen in them do correspond to reality. There may not have been someone attacked on the road, passed by by priests, and then helped by a good Samaritan, but it’s the kind of thing that could have happened. You don’t expect to hear a parable of an undersea vineyard, with carrots growing on the vines, being harvested by fish, an octopus treading through the winepress, and then the product of all this labour is vats of granola. There are things like vineyards, owners, tenants, parties, guests, people eating, people dying. In the one where two people die, it seems weird that Jesus would talk about things that don’t really happen. But maybe I just don’t understand what you do think about the parable.

    I think you’re mistaken to say that the story doesn’t represent what Christians actually believe about life after death. I would guess that it represents what the majority believe. And then there’s subset who believe that the situation has changed in the new heavens and new earth that we live in now.

    I’ve been enjoying the shows, and am looking forward to your Intermediate State show.

  • Glenn January 14, 2009, 10:35 am

    Hey Jeff – if you exclude Presbyterians, Lutherans, Anglicans, and of course all Catholics and Orthodox, as well as any Baptists who hold to, for example the 1689 confession, and pretty much every movement of the Reformation, and focosu only on … well, I’m not sure who actually, then maybe the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus corresponds to what Christians expect after death. But the majority of Protestants historically have believed that when you die you do not go to Abraham’s Bosom but rather to heaven, and they have believed that the lost go to hell, not hades. And as for Catholics, purgatory is where most of the righteous go. So I don’t know what majority you’re thinking of.

    Moreover, you may well expect to hear of undersea vineyards if that would have been a fictional scenario with which Jesus’ audience was already well acquainted. But the details of this parable and its historical background as a widely known tale would take some time to unpack in a blog comment. Hopefully the piece will be written sometime in the not too distant future.

  • Jeff Hay-Roe January 18, 2009, 8:41 am

    Okay, it’s time for me to cite a reference to support my claim. 🙂

    The New Geneva Study Bible (aka the Reformation Study Bible) has a short article in it on Hell. It cites Luke’s telling of the Rich man and Lazarus as a proof text for Hell being a place of torment.

    Don’t get me wrong — I think the authors of this piece are quite mistaken in their use of this as a proof text. I’d say that a problem in the reformed/presbyterian world (and likely far beyond too), is that Hell and Hades are not adequately distinguished. For example, we happily say “He descended into Hell” week after week, when IMHO we should be saying “He descended into Hades”.

  • Glenn January 18, 2009, 9:44 pm

    Jeff – I don’t think that’s an effective piece of evidence, and I say that just because the author of that study note bungled – he didn’t note that the text refers to hades. The Reformed tradition, as you note, is opposed to this note because it recites the Apostles’ creed. That creed uses the word infernus in the latin in which it was written, which is the latin word for Hades. The Westminster catechism (I forget if it’s the shorter or longer, you can check 😉 quotes the creed and says that it means that Jesus “truly died,” that is, he really did enter Hades, the state of the dead.

    I am not aware of any statement of the Reformed Churches that affirms that the saints go to Abraham’s Bosom either. So even if you’ve found a writer who does teach that hades just is the torment of hell, I hope you can now appreciate why it wasn’t quite right to say that the majority of Christians think that the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus depicts what they expect to happen after death. Many instead believe that they will go to heaven, others believe in purgatory, while still others believe that the lost go to the eternal fires of hell/Gehenna.

  • MandM January 26, 2009, 9:45 pm

    “Okay, parables are stories, but the things that happen in them do correspond to reality. There may not have been someone attacked on the road, passed by by priests, and then helped by a good Samaritan, but it’s the kind of thing that could have happened. You don’t expect to hear a parable of an undersea vineyard, with carrots growing on the vines, being harvested by fish, an octopus treading through the winepress, and then the product of all this labour is vats of granola. There are things like vineyards, owners, tenants, parties, guests, people eating, people dying.”

    Really?? So you believe in seven headed dragons, beasts that look like lions, bears and eagles. After all these things are in the book of revelation and the prophets, and figurative language only mentions things that can actually exist.

    Matt

  • Jeff Hay-Roe January 27, 2009, 3:56 pm

    MandM: I was talking about parables, and I don’t consider the book of Revelation to be a parable.

  • Bill McCracken February 20, 2009, 1:22 am

    Great podcast! I’m really looking forward to your intermediate state one also!

  • Joe Johnson April 21, 2009, 1:57 pm

    Glenn,

    Somehow I managed to miss this episode, and am listening to it for the first time (I had to stop and write, since the 10 minutes I’ve listened to thus far got my mind going already). Your exercise here — asking us listeners to pause and consider the passages that refer to going to Heaven — struck me. I’ve done stuff like that before and always appreciate when people do it to me. I like having my casually accepted ideas challenged. It seems like a healthy exercise.

    This last week, I mentioned to someone that I wasn’t sure that “The Great Commission” should be applied as the defining quality of every Christian and every local church. I’m not sure that it isn’t, but I just asked how the “Commission” became a universal imperative applied to every individual Christian, when it — in the Matthew, Mark, and Acts texts — is specifically given to the apostles. I was basically asking whether the specific context should affect what has been commonly accepted. Does this “Commission” apply to every Christian, or does the context — that it was given to only the apostles — suggest that this commission was for a particular group or office? Just a text question, right?
    This was not received well.
    But should it matter that there is a specific context — a very exclusive original audience? I don’t know the answer, but I suspect that’s the sort of question we should be able to ask.

    I belong to a relatively biblically conservative congregation. The “Great Commission” is not up for debate. Neither is the question of whether the death of death might mean death dies. I get in trouble when I say that the eschatological hope of the Christian is resurrection, not Heaven. When I ask, “Where does the use language like ‘personal Lord and Savior’ or ‘accept Jesus into your heart’?” I’m often met with a look of disbelief and scorn.

    But are these fair questions? It seems strange to me to be part of a denomination that believes in the “sufficiency and inerrancy of Scripture,” but that freaks out whenever someone asks about the origin and merit of these commonly accepted catch phrases.

    Back to my point. When you do something like question whether humanity was unconditionally immortal at the point of creation, does it cause you to feel alienated from the church? Do you get used to people questioning your faithfulness? I find it ironic that so many of the “Bible-based” evangelicals I’m near are so easily offended when asked, “yeah, but where does that doctrine come from? What does the Bible say about that?”

    Are we just being deconstructionists? Is this an application of a “worldly” form of scholarship and criticism to a text and institution of faith? Or, is the Christian supposed to test himself or herself against Scripture, willing to toss out concepts if they don’t match up? Is it worth it when these questions can lead to controversial — though, perhaps biblical — understandings?

    I just wonder if you experience this, and, if so, how you deal with it? Is that what this blog and podcast is about — finding out that you aren’t alone and offering your ideas up for correction and instruction?

    Thanks.

  • Tuckster April 21, 2009, 2:47 pm

    Joe, you remind me of a point that I was thinking about as I listened to the episode. I’m going to put it out there to see whether you, or Glenn, agree with me. You say:

    I get in trouble when I say that the eschatological hope of the Christian is resurrection, not Heaven.

    I guess my question would be: what do people think you mean when you say this? Perhaps they think you are saying something other than what you mean to say? Perhaps they think you are denying that there is any sort of afterlife? I mean, are you saying that the people you talk to actually don’t have any conception that the bible teaches our bodily resurrection? That the idea of our future bodily resurrection is genuinely controversial to them?

    As I listened to the podcast, here’s what I thought: I don’t think that all modern Christians really deny the idea of resurrection when they use the word ‘Heaven’. I think a good portion of them know about the resurrection, and ‘Heaven’ is simply the term that they euphemistically use to refer to the ‘New Earth’. It may not be proper terminology, strictly speaking, but I think that talking about a place called ‘Heaven’ that we go to after we die doesn’t necessarily mean that one is denying the future resurrection. It just means one is using poor terminology.

    (For example, I would use the word ‘Heaven’ to describe our eternal destination, but that’s just me being sloppy: I certainly hold the same view as you and Glenn about physical resurrection/restoration. As another example, have a look at this link:

    But Randy Alcorn says Christians’ final destination is the “New Earth,” which he describes as “a resurrected life in a resurrected body, with the resurrected Christ on a resurrected Earth.”

    Randy Alcorn says this, and yet he is the author of a best-selling – and biblically sound – book entitled “Heaven”! Surely when he uses the word “Heaven” he isn’t denying the physical resurrection.)

    P.S. If you look at that link, try not to read the part that refutes what I said – “A 2005 Newsweek poll found that 80 percent of Americans believe they’re headed to heaven but only half of them think of resurrection as a physical event, one that will include a new body for every believer.” 😉

  • Joe Johnson April 21, 2009, 11:57 pm

    Tuckster. Good point.

    I can only speak for myself on this, but I do think that very few people say “Heaven” as a shorthand for a resurrection life. When I say something like, “The Christian hope is resurrection, not Heaven,” it always seems to confuse people. They tend to have a Heaven category, but “resurrection” is a Jesus-word (like incarnation). Generally, they don’t see the application of Jesus’ resurrection to ours. To me, this is at the core of the Good News of the Gospel and I don’t know why we would prefer “Heaven” to resurrection.

    This seems most played out in the questions and doubts people have about the “afterlife.” Usually, this falls into debates about whether we eat or spend eternity around some mystical throne praising God. Most people that I’ve brought this up with tend to think in terms of disembodiment. If they know anything about the “afterlife,” it’s that passage from Matthew 22:30 (At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.) This seems to confuse the issue. There’s a reason that “harps” and “clouds” are more likely associated with a Christian doctrine of eternity than eating and playing. Very few think of the resurrection in terms of Jesus’ own resurrection: eating a fish, talking with friends, and walking on the seashore. (Praise God for John’s Gospel on this.)

    Christianity Today recently published an article by N.T. Wright on the need to think in terms of resurrection. It’s called “Heaven is Not Our Home.” I’m not sure why we don’t talk in those terms, but I suspect it’s because we haven’t really come to grips with what God offers in eternal life. Even the strongest fundamentalist that scorns liberals who describe Jesus’ resurrection as a “spiritual resurrection,” often fall into the trap of describing ours as spiritual. Maybe we look at Jesus and say his resurrection was the intermediate state and Heaven is his eternal residency.

  • Glenn April 22, 2009, 12:39 am

    Hey Joe and Tuck

    Joe, I know exactly what you mean about other Christians reacting when you say something that involves a little, well – reflection!

    I think it plays out like this: They know exactly what the Bible teaches (naturally, who could ever doubt this?), and so to doubt what they know is to doubt what the Bible teaches. It’s like evangelicalism has been defined in terms of certain highly doctrinaire stances, instead of a conservative attitude to Scripture within historically orthodox Protestantism (I’m sure I just made a Catholic kitten die somewhere).

    Tuckster (and Joe too), I would never say that Christians actually disbelieve in the resurrection. My problem is that it gets overshadowed by heaven. I have to say that in my (face to face and in books) experience, almost no Christians use the word “heaven” to refer to the resurrection life. Heaven is where their loved ones are right now, and where they expect to be.

    Telling believers like this that they should not be thinking in terms of heaven but in terms of the resurrection is like emotional theft. The thought of being “up there” (even if not literally), or of lost loved ones being in heaven is SO dear to them and compensates for SO much sorrow that to cast even the slightest shadow on this way of thinking by suggesting that it’s not the real Christian hope is just not decent, so it seems.

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