Sunday, June 20, 2010

this could be heaven or this could be hell

hotel california is one of my favorite songs to cover. i think it's because it's so angsty. one of my favorite lines is the title that i've given this post. it's appropriate to this post because i want to talk about heaven and hell in a way that is very different from the way that i ever thought about them before the age of 21. many of you may shut down now, or may have not even read this far because the idea of a heaven and a hell is just so silly. well, maybe you'll think this is less silly. seriously, i'd like your thoughts, if you would be so kind.

in college, i wrote a paper about heaven and hell after reading some sermons by N.T. Wright, a brilliant new testament theologian. i've posted it below. i know that it's long, and that i should probably re-write it in a less academic, and more succinct way, but i probably wont, and i think the ideas are worth talking about, so here it is:


Kaitlyn DeConto

Dr. Kenneson

3 December, 2006

Introduction to Christian Theology

It has become clear to me, as of late, that my own beliefs regarding heaven, hell and related topics have been heavily shaped and influenced by extra-biblical ideas. The church of modernity, myself included, and even those outside of the church, have allowed imagination to supersede scripture. The most dangerous part is that we seem to be generally unaware that this replacement is occurring. As a consequence of coming to this realization, I have become responsible for exploring what, exactly, the Bible does, and almost more importantly, does not say about these issues. Truth in this area is essential because, besides the fact that to be more enlightened about my own faith is to be a more effective and useful member of the kingdom, what I find should influence the way I live my life.

In his three sermons, N.T. Wright presents a great deal of insight dealing with heaven, hell and the new life of believers after death. Some of these ideas he presents as those he has adopted himself, others he presents as noteworthy, but not necessarily found by him to be imperative. Though I do not agree with everything Wright has to say in these sermons, they have been very helpful in moving my mind away from the ever-debilitating “Sunday School box.” What I mean is that, by presenting me with ideas that differ greatly from my own, he has challenged me to either defend or abandon the assumptions that I have sustained since childhood.

Wright firsts engages the idea of hell. Of all his points, the one I found most helpful was that, contrary to what I had thought, a clear concept of hell is not delineated within scripture. He writes that “most of the passages in the New Testament which have been thought by the Church to refer to people going into eternal punishment after they die don’t in fact refer to any such thing” (92 Wright). After reading this, I decided to consult my NOAB. In the index, under “hell” I found only two entries: Mark 9:43 and Luke 12:18. Upon reading both of these passages, I soon learned, through footnotes, that in both cases, the word “hell” was actually referring to a place called Gehenna, which is a deep ravine just south of Jerusalem. This place had been the site of many human sacrifices and had come to represent eternal punishment by fire. Though this discovery was not altogether shocking, it was interesting to find that, when the word “hell” was used in the Bible, it was not in reference to the specific place of eternal damnation of which I had always heard. Rather, it was being used as a culturally significant metaphor.

It is true that there are other instances in scripture where, though the word “hell” is not used, the subject matter seems to be pointing to a certain judgment inflicted upon those who refuse repentance. Wright explains that, similarly, many of these do not refer to eternal damnation of souls after death, but rather, an earthly punishment for those nations that act in defiance of the sovereignty of God; a sort of “marriage” of hell and earth. In Wright’s words, “Horrific judgment – this-worldly judgment, the devastation of cities and the tearing apart of nations – will follow the decision to go on worshipping other gods” (94 Wright). This idea provokes a much different perspective. Not only is hell not necessarily a physical, fiery place “below” us, but it can also be tasted here on earth.

One idea Wright presents, and then rejects, is that, by continually disregarding the will of God, humans can, in effect, de-humanize themselves. Those who are “unsaved” are then, at the time of death, no longer human and therefore lose the immortality of the soul. This idea, as explained by Wright, is called the “‘conditional immortality’, that is, the granting of immortality only to those who are saved, and the annihilation of those who are not saved” (95 Wright). Even though Wright states that he does not believe this, it is still an interesting thought and, I believe, a noble attempt to harmonize the justice and grace and God.

While trying to determine how these ideas compare with the doctrines concerning hell that I have been familiar with, I realized that, perhaps because of the limited information that is available, this topic had often been glossed over and the only ideas that I had to begin with are as follows: eternal, painful separation from God. The physicality of the place was blurred, leaving me with a vague notion full of holes that have been, subconsciously, filled by Dante. Therefore, the greatest help provided for me by Wright through this sermon was not necessarily a description of what hell is, but what hell is not necessarily.

Wright’s discussion of the reality of heaven was equally enlightening. Perhaps one of thd most important things that this particular sermon accomplished was to name the popular idea of heaven oppressive and incorrect. The author writes that “[the traditional] idea of ‘heaven’ has been used to back up exploitation on the one hand and dry-as-dust moralism on the other: because this strange distant place exists, and because you might want to go there yourself some day, you’d better behave nicely here – which often means, you’d better sit down, shut up, and don’t be a nuisance” (99 Wright). Though I have often felt uneasy about the “reward for being good” attitude toward heaven that seems to be ubiquitous in western culture, I would never have had the (what I would have considered to be) audacity to deem it oppressive, for fear of being heretical. Fortunately, Wright helped to free me from this train of thought so that I might explore what, exactly, the Bible does have to say about heaven.

What does the Bible have to say about heaven? To answer this question, I, again, consulted my NOAB. Surprisingly, I found not one instance in which the word ‘heaven’ was used alone. In almost every case, the phrase that is used is the ‘kingdom of heaven’ or the ‘kingdom of God.’ In Matthew 13, Jesus uses several parables to help his disciples understand the kingdom. Not one of these parables paint a picture that looks anything like the heaven I have thought to be true. Rather, each of the stories explain an idea that sounds more that the ideas presented by Wright. These ideas depict heaven, not as an other-worldly place, far, far away, but rather, another dimension of this world. Wright explains that “[heaven] is all around us, glimpsed in a mystery in every Eucharist and every act of generous human love” (100 Wright).

There are, at least, two reasons that my idea of heaven is vital to the way that I live my life. First, if heaven is somewhere distant, then that would force the conclusion that Jesus is somewhere distant. Secondly, if heaven is, indeed, a place that is all around us, begging to be sought, then my duty is no longer to keep my ‘admit one’ ticket to heaven, but rather it is to work everyday to see it realized here on earth. Consequently, my responsibility shifts from being only to myself, to incorporating my community here on earth. It is a call to live counter-culturally in a world that is driven by a quest for power, as Christ did, so that the kingdom might be spurred, as it was through the life and death of Jesus. Wright writes that “over against the love of power, the ascension of Jesus sets the power of love” (103 Wright).

This new definition of heaven raises a new question: if heaven is something that can be seen on earth during life, then what happens to believers when they die? My previous thoughts on this subject did not exceed closing my eyes on earth and opening them in heaven, where I would live forever praising God with my new and perfect, though not tangible body. I had heard something about the dead raising from their graves, but I did not know enough, nor did I apparently care enough, to fit these ideas into my pleasingly simple chronology of the afterlife. In retrospect, the biggest problem I see with this view is that it completely disregards creation and everything physical. I often forget that God did make all of creation physical and tangible. Not only did He make it this way, but said that it is good. Considering this, it becomes more difficult to believe that nothing physical would be involved in the afterlife.

In light of this, I am increasingly led to believe that the fulfillment of heaven, much like the glimpses of heaven we now experience, will be a physical experience. Wright writes that “if what you hope for is the renewal of this world, rather than the abandonment on this world, then resurrection follows naturally” (109 Wright). Paul wrote to the Corinthians with this same message. I Corinthians 15:52a-54: “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on the imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” Therefore, just like heaven is something to be experience during and after life, human physicality is something to be experienced, and even fulfilled after death. Wright explains that “our humanness is precious; God takes it so seriously that he has promised to bring it out, as it were, in a new edition” (114 Wright).

I have found many of Wright’s insights very helpful in my own theological journey. Though my research was by no means exhaustive, I have also found those of his ideas I chose to discuss to resonate with scripture very well, which is imperative to any theological thought, new or old. As in many other areas of theology, the discussion of the end times is not an easy one. There are no clear answers that can define for us what exactly happens when an individual life ends, the world ends, or even when humans engage the supernatural here on earth. Even though our scriptural sources of information are limited, it seems that the greatest danger when in an eschatological dialogue is not that we might not possess truth, thought it is important to be educated, but rather that we might assume that we do possess truth, therefore closing the dialogue and preventing our own education. Considering this, I am grateful that, through this assignment, my mind has been opened to future discussions that may aid my own pursuit of truth.


I liked reading this again after so long. I liked thinking of myself as more of an academic, learned, smarty-pants-type person than I am right now. It also makes me miss school and learning things. In keeping with my personality, however, I also like being out of school as a young professional, with a bit more freedom. The grass is always greener, I suppose.

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