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THE RATIONAL GOD
Does God Make Sense?
by John Clayton
CHAPTER 7: DO HEAVEN AND HELL MAKE SENSE?
Nothing stretches the human mind more than the question of what our existence is like after we die. Atheists maintain that there is nothing after we die, that we are just like all other living things in the cosmos and that when we die we simply return to the elements in the crust of the earth from which we were born. For many of us that explanation is as unbelievable as the wildest fundamentalist preacher's guess. A country song by Ronnie Dunn said it well, “I just can't believe this all ends in a long, slow ride in a long, black hearse.” If you are an atheist, then you will not consider any other possibility. I have had atheists put this as a common challenge to faith: “Is it reasonable that a person who didn't ask to be created would have to spend eternity in a torture chamber called ‘Hell’ because they didn't obey the rules established by a God they don't believe in who is willing to condemn and torture for eternity an ignorant peasant in Africa who never heard of Jesus Christ in the same manner in which he condemns Adolf Hitler?”
If, in fact, the Bible taught what these folks are saying, I would agree that any explanation of heaven and hell would be difficult to accept. Frankly even a gold city is not of great interest to me for more than a quick look. Any notion of heaven that involves playing a harp or endless singing of songs has its limits of credibility. The question we are addressing in this discussion is whether the notions of heaven and hell can in any way make sense. In chapter 2 we discussed the question of whether there is a purpose in our existence, and the conclusion suggested by that chapter is that we are primary agents in the battle between good and evil. How you visualize that battle will vary from person to person, but if the Bible is true, then there is no question that this battle is taking place. The Bible goes on to point out that each of us is designed by God to take a certain role in that battle. In some cases the Bible comes out and says this directly. In Acts 9:15 when Ananias complains about being sent to minister to Paul, a known persecutor of Christians, God responds by saying “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” Towards the end of his life, Paul reflects back on his purpose in existing in 2 Timothy 4:6 – 8 “… the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith …” God has created each of us for a purpose, but we have been given the choice as to whether we will accept the role he has given us or reject it. Paul indicates that he had the choice and had to work constantly at staying faithful to his calling (see 1 Corinthians 9:27 and 2 Corinthians 12:7 – 10).
Fulfilling the role God has planned for us sometimes goes against our selfish wants and desires, and when Jesus talked about “broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it” (Matthew 7:13), I believe he had that in mind. Straying from the purpose that God has for us never precludes the possibility of returning to it, although it may be mitigated. Peter had been told he would be a “fisher of men” (Matthew 4:19), but there were several times in Peter's life when he rejected that role. Not only did he deny being associated with Jesus during the horror of the crucifixion (John 18:15 – 27), but there were other times when Peter allowed Satan to influence him in a way that drove him away from the purpose God had for him. In Mark 8:33 we see Jesus rebuking Peter saying, “Get behind me, Satan! … You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” Paul tells us in Galatians 2:11 that “When [Peter]came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.”
What we have now is an issue of accountability. For many people in our culture the notion of accountability is repulsive. The fact is that in my lifetime I have seen teaching change from a system that did not hold teachers responsible in any way for what their students learned, to a system that is now working on basing teacher pay on what their students demonstrate that they have learned. Any good business manager or owner has to be concerned with how well those under their control do their job. If God has given us life and all it takes to sustain life, and if God has called each of us to a role in our lives, is it not reasonable for us to be accountable to God who gave us life, for what we do with that life? What God has done is to tell us that if we obey him and do what we were created to do there will be an eternal reward. If we choose not to do what God created us to do, then we will be separated from God and from all the good things that come with a closeness to God. In 2 Timothy 4:6 – 8 mentioned earlier, Paul concludes his discussion about fulfilling his role by saying, “Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day — and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” Paul even talks about being ready to leave his work and go to be with the Lord. In Philippians 1:21 – 26 Paul says: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.”
Over the years I have had atheists who wanted to make a dramatic point by suggesting that they would be happy to kill me and give me my desire to be with God. My response is that, if I can have more time, I will be able to do more of what God put me here to do. I want to make my life as fruitful as I can, and the longer I can work at the small area of work that God has given me, the more productive I will be.
An atheist will be likely to say that this is all well and good for someone who wants to be religious, but it does not answer the question of how unfair God is to create someone, give them a job to do, and then torment them eternally because they refused to do it. The problem here is a poor understanding of what hell is about. It appears that many people have been influenced by stories like Dante's famous book Inferno and cartoons like “Far Side” in our newspapers. These stories and cartoons have physical tortures of human bodies as the basis of hell. This has led to pictures of demons in red suits with tails and pitchforks and creative ways to bring pain to the victims of their actions. The Bible makes it very clear that our physical bodies are made of the elements of the earth, and that they will return to the earth when we die (see Genesis 2:7; 3:19; etc.). So, it is clearly not our physical bodies that will be in heaven or in hell.
Religious people may buy into some of this because of the account given of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19 – 31. It is important to look carefully at what this account is and to decide if it is a literal description of heaven and hell or if it is a parable. The following points strongly suggest that it is a parable:
- It is part of a series of parables that Jesus taught — not part of a historical narrative.
- Proper names are not used in the account. The word “Lazarus” means “without help,” and while it can be a person's name that does not seem to be the case here.
- Abraham is not God, has no judging ability, and does not speak for God.
- You cannot see heaven from hell in anyone's interpretation.
- The message of the parable is plain and does not involve explaining heaven and hell.
The real question about hell is whether it is eternal punishing or eternal punishment. An analogy might be the question of capital punishment. If someone is sentenced to death because of a crime they have committed, is it punishment? I do not think anyone questions that capital punishment is punishment, and there is pain and tears and gritting of teeth in such punishment. Is it eternal punishing or torturing? The answer is clearly “no.” The real question then is whether the soul can die or not.
In 1982 Edward William Fudge wrote a very scholarly book titled The Fire That Consumes printed by Providential Press, and that was followed in 2000 by Two Views of Hell by Fudge and Robert A. Peterson that contrasted understandings of hell and was printed by InterVarsity Press. In 2013 Douglas Jacoby released a book titled What's the Truth About Heaven and Hell? (Harvest House Publishers). If the reader wants a detailed scholarly discussion of whether the soul can die or not, I would encourage the reading of these books.
I would like to suggest that from an apologetics standpoint it makes sense that the soul can die. Jesus said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). It seems to me that there is no option but to realize that the soul can die. There are very few people who really do wish they had never been born, and even when we say we do, it is the crisis of the moment that precipitates that comment. Every human on the planet has been given the opportunity to be alive, and I would suggest that every human has certain gifts, talents, situations, and circumstances that God will use in positive ways if given the opportunity. If for whatever reason we fail or refuse to do what we were created to do, we miss eternal life. The opportunity to be united with God as his child is lost and we are put back into the nonexistence from which we came. It is eternal punishment, but it is not eternal punishing.
The usual response to this discussion is to say, Yes, but what about … ?” There is no way to answer that question, because none of us knows if the situation we are posing actually ever really happens or not. I have heard stories about a person born into a circumstance that made response to God impossible. Many years ago a group of people called the Tasaday were claimed to have been found that were true cave people who had never heard about God or had any opportunity to know about the outside world. Books were written about them by religionists, atheists, sociologists, anthropologists, and archeologists, but it eventually became obvious that they had not been as isolated as claimed and the whole scenario presented to the academic community was false. We can propose hypothetical situations of all sorts, but the fact is that if a person is taken from nonexistence back to nonexistence, with the opportunity for eternal existence, there is no travesty of justice involved. Certainly the whole proposal of “what if” has no real relevance to those of us living in western civilizations. We have all had the opportunity to know about Jesus.
Hell is separation from God. It is eternal punishment but it is not a divine torture chamber. Not only are those who reject God separated from the God they rejected, but they are also separated from his blessings. All the good things God brings are gone forever and the term “second death,” occasionally used in the Bible, is aptly applied (Revelation 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8).
Just as hell is misunderstood, in looking at the reasonableness of there being heaven and hell, so too heaven is misrepresented by the world in which we live. How many times have you seen pictures or movies or theatrical productions in which people with wings or halos are walking around on clouds, polishing stars as in the play/movie Carousel, playing harps, or singing endlessly in four-part harmony the same songs we sing on Sunday morning? I had a child tell me that they did not want to go to heaven, to the horror of her mother who overheard the conversation. When I asked her why, she said she got bored in church and did not want to be bored in heaven.
First Corinthians 15:35 – 54 addresses this issue with amazing clarity: “But someone may ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?’ ” Paul responds to this question with dismay, saying “How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.” He then goes on to point out that “the body that is sown is perishable,” and “it is sown a natural body, and it is raised a spiritual body” (verses 42 – 44). Because of the complexity and nature of this issue we are not given all of the characteristics of a spiritual body. There are huge numbers of properties ascribed to the spiritual body, but the main idea is that all of the negative things time brings to us in the physical existence we have on this earth are gone. Revelation 21:1 – 7 gives a beautiful description of what it is like. The emphasis is on everything being new, that the old order of things have all passed away. If time ceases to exist then all of the negatives time brings also cease to exist, so “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain … ” (verse 4). The child mentioned earlier cannot be bored, because boredom depends upon the passage of time, and if time does not exist, it is impossible to be bored!
When a person dies they cease to exist in time. The next thing that they experience is the Judgment. First Thessalonians 4:13 – 18 gives us a good picture of this. The passage tells us to “encourage one another with these words” (verse 18) and not to be ignorant like the rest of mankind. We are told that “God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” (verse 14) and that we will be united with him. It is not within our mental ability to grasp what it is like to exist outside of time. Being united with God is portrayed throughout scripture as an experience that reduces anything we have known on earth to insignificance.
Man began his existence with God in the Garden. Satan was allowed in a part of that picture and man's weakness caused him to embrace the evil that Satan brought to the world. Jesus died so that man could be restored to God, and that final restoration takes place when we leave our physical bodies. If we choose not to be a part of God's kingdom, we are free to do so. Heaven and hell are not medieval fairy tales, but logical presentations of the meaning of life and of life after death.
Return to the Chapter 6: IS BIBLICAL MORALITY RELEVANT?