“Jesus was clear that when he is raised up, he will draw all people to himself. Ever since we got booted out of the garden, it has been God’s relentless pursuit to bring his people to God. I don’t think God’s going to give up on us.”
— Elizabeth Eaton, ELCA presiding bishop
We’ve all heard it, and perhaps even said it: “Go jump in the lake!” Yet few realize that originally, according to some etymologists, the phrase was really “Go jump in the lake of fire,” a euphemism for “Go to hell” that comes from the book of Revelation’s descriptions for the final judgment of Satan and his followers (19:20).
Similarly, we’ve all heard about meeting Peter at the pearly gates, which combines the notion that Jesus gave him the keys to “the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:19) with the “gates of pearl” (Revelation 21:21).
These two examples—and there are countless others—warn us from the outset that any talk about heaven and hell (eternal blessing and judgment) must be based not on images that Christians later constructed (especially from sources like Dante’s Inferno or John Milton’s Paradise Lost) but rather on careful reading of Scripture and reflection on traditional words and pictures.
Christians today talk about heaven far more than does the Bible, which focuses its comments not on dying and going to heaven but on the resurrection of the dead. Martin Luther noticed this and rarely speculated about life after death, often comparing the individual’s experience of death and resurrection to falling asleep and waking up at the sound of the trumpet on the last day (1 Corinthians 15:52).
While the Old Testament says little about an afterlife, there are two well-known texts in the New Testament that address what is best to know about the subject. In Luke 23, Jesus says to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (43). “Paradise” here is a Greek word that refers to the enclosed parks of Persian kings, so the paradise pictured is more of a walk in a beautiful park than as a place “up there.” But most important is Jesus’ promise: “with me.”
Similarly, in Philippians 1, Paul speaks of a desire “to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (23). Again, instead of speculating about life after death, Paul puts the emphasis on being “with Christ.” Thus, Jesus’ promise to the thief and Paul’s yearning remind us of the single most important thing about life after death and about the resurrection of the dead: We will be with Christ.
“Since God is not a place, and the absence of God is also not a place, we can help people focus on their relationship with the triune God and their lives now, rather than focus on fears and the question ‘Where will I go when I die?’ ”
— Roger Willer, ELCA director for theological ethics and
ELCA churchwide liaison for faith and science
The New Testament also uses the concept of a banquet to describe heaven and final judgment. This picture, too, is worth a thousand words because the point is not to wonder how there will be food in heaven or how resurrected bodies will eat (1 Corinthians 15:35-49), but rather to make it clear that being in Christ’s presence is sheer joy. For the poor and often hungry people of the first century (and today), no picture expresses joy better than a banquet.
Every week, Christians gather around the Lord’s table and participate in a “foretaste of the feast to come” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship [ELW], 181). The picture of a banquet rejects individualistic views of Christianity and heaven; there is always a communal aspect to heaven.
John W. Doberstein, a professor at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia in the 1950s, wrote a prayer in his popular Minister’s Prayer Book describing resurrection as the day “when heart shall find heart, and those sundered on earth shall foregather in heaven,” particularly comforting for those of us who mourn the death of loved ones.
“Neither death nor life will separate us”
What about hell? Here we run into several linguistic problems with the biblical text. In the Greek text of the New Testament, there are two words that we often associate with “hell.” On the one hand, Hades, like the Hebrew Sheol, is simply the term for the shadowy, gloomy place of the dead. The Bible doesn’t speculate about the condition of such souls in this place. The Apostles’ Creed uses the Latin equivalent (ad inferos; the netherworld), so the recent, more accurate translation of the creed reads: “He descended to the dead.”
On the other hand, Jesus also uses the word Gehenna (a smoking, stinking garbage pit outside Jerusalem) to describe a place of suffering and torment for those whose selfish unbelief separates them from God. These two images come together in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), which uses the word Hades.
“I don’t hear people being concerned about getting to heaven or going to hell—someday. I hear people concerned about how their faith is making a difference in their daily lives and the lives of their neighbors.”
—Tracie Bartholomew, bishop of the New Jersey Synod
Lazarus, the poor man, has no one to bury him, so instead, the angels miraculously carry him directly to “Abraham’s bosom”—that is, he reclines with Abraham at the final banquet. The rich man, as was normal in Jesus’ day, gets buried. But for him, death is not a place of waiting or sleeping, but a place of torment because instead of loving his poor neighbors in this life he feasted in his gated house.
It seems here that Jesus combines the punishment of Gehenna and the shadowy place of the dead, so the rich man’s tormenting thirst (nothing could be worse in a desert climate than lack of water) is the direct consequence of not caring for a neighbor in need—a clear warning in our day too.
Even the resurrection of Lazarus has no effect on such uncompromising self-centeredness: the love of money is such an opiate that the rich man’s brothers will not believe “even if someone rises from the dead” (31).
This story and others like it in the New Testament teach that God, in Christ, is in charge of the blessing of heaven and the judgment of hell—we are not. Moreover, the judgment of hell results from stubborn unbelief—not “fearing, loving, and trusting God above all else” (Luther’s Small Catechism, first commandment)—so that in the Gospel of John, punishment for this complete lack of trust occurs already in this life: “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light …” (3:18-19).
Because the Bible says so little about this, our human curiosity kicks into high gear, and we want to know more than we can (or should). Indeed, as soon as we begin prying into God’s business and take judgment into our own hands, we miss the point. The point of heaven and the resurrection is this: Nothing can stand between believers and God’s gracious love or Christ’s comforting presence.
With Paul in Romans 8:38-39, we can say, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life … will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” That is what we need to know as we mourn or grieve or face our own mortality.
“The biblical writers seem far less interested in what might happen to us after death and far more interested confessing God’s presence in our lives right now, an abiding presence that will accompany us throughout all of this life and into the one to come.”
— David Lose, a pastor of Mount Olivet Lutheran Church, Minneapolis
As Luther put it when he explained the phrase “deliver us from evil” in the Small Catechism, we pray that our heavenly Father at the last, “would take us by grace from this valley of tears to himself in heaven.” That’s enough. The God who judges and condemns evil lifts all condemnation through Christ’s death and resurrection, applied to us in baptism and consummated in the life to come.
The promise of paradise
Two examples from Luther’s career show how we may deal with complicated arguments about these matters. The first regards Jesus’ descent into hell. Theologians offered different theories about what this meant. One (supported by theologian and reformer John Calvin) contended that this descent was metaphorical and took place in Jesus’ suffering on the cross. Others insisted on a literal descent to hell (1 Peter 3:18-20), where Christ preached to the dead (1 Peter 4:6).
Luther found this debate far too speculative and urged his followers not to concern themselves with such things. Nevertheless, he supported the view of the ancient and medieval church that Christ proclaimed his victory over sin, evil and death even in hell. Luther even preached a sermon about this in 1532, translated in Robert Kolb and James Nestingen’s Sources and Contexts of the Book of Concord (Fortress, 2001).
When others reopened this debate after Luther’s death, some referred back to his sermon and under-scored that this teaching was beyond human knowledge and reason. In one of our Lutheran confessions of faith, The Formula of Concord—per Epitome IX.4 in the new translation of The Book of Concord (Fortress, 2000), for which I served as co-editor with Robert Kolb—these theologians put it this way:
“For it is enough that we know that Christ descended into hell and destroyed hell for all believers and that he redeemed them from the power of death, the devil, and the eternal damnation of hellish retribution. How that happened we should save for the next world, where not only this matter but many others, which here we have simply believed and cannot comprehend with our blind reason, will be revealed.”
In the eyes of the world, Jesus’ death, burial and descent to the dead were a complete defeat. But faith confesses that God’s weakness and foolishness bring victory over sin, death, evil, the devil and anything that threatens God’s creation. (Perhaps when we recite this article of the creed, Lutherans could stamp their feet and add a victory cheer.)
“Say neither too much nor too little, so eminent Lutheran theologian Bishop Krister Stendahl challenged us concerning what lies beyond death. Not too much, because we speak of what we cannot know. But not too little, for while we cannot comprehend who we will be, we know something trustworthy of who God is.”
— Kathryn Johnson, ELCA director for ecumenical and interreligious relations
In 1525, Luther responded to an attack by the influential scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam by writing On the Bondage of the Will. He chided Erasmus for trusting in human abilities rather than in God’s grace and for attempting to solve the problem of evil by defending unfettered “free choice,” when in fact human beings are (to use the words of ELW’s confession of sin) “captive to sin and cannot free themselves.”
Indeed, we are like addicts who claim they’re free to stop using any time they want. In this case, Luther argued, human beings are addicted to claims of having control over their relation to God.
Near the end of his tract, Luther insists that the fact that only God can save us does not imply any unfairness in God toward those who reject God, and he makes the following analogy: By the light of nature, it looks as if this world is completely random because evil often seems to triumph over good. However, by the light of grace, we discover God’s mercy in Christ toward the poor, the sinner and the dying. In the end, God will put an end to evil.
But then a second question arises—namely, why some people reject God and only trust in themselves. The light of grace seems to reveal a deep unfairness in God. Why Jacob and not Esau? Why Peter and not Judas? And, as Paul writes in Romans 9, why me and not my Jewish relatives?
Human reason, Luther argues, cannot solve this conundrum. For this we must wait until the last judgment and the light of glory, when God’s mercy will be vindicated, all evil will be defeated and God will be all in all.
When Karl Barth, one of the 20th century’s most influential theologians, was asked by a student whether there was a hell, the story goes that he answered unequivocally, “Yes,” adding, “but it’s empty.” He wanted to emphasize God’s sovereign grace, but perhaps he went a bit too far.
For Christians, the response to the question of what we believe about heaven and hell must be centered in Jesus Christ, who, in love, gave his life for the world.”
— Winston Persaud, professor of systematic theology,
Wartburg Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa
We might better say about heaven and hell that, yes, they exist, but that whether they are full or empty is up to God, not us, which is why we both confess in the creed that Jesus (not human beings) will “come to judge the living and the dead,” and sing with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “Goodness is stronger than evil” (ELW, 721).
Meanwhile, leaving the judging where it belongs, in God’s hands, we wait. And yet, at the same time, these remarkable pictures of life after death in the Bible provide exactly the comfort for us that Jesus intended: “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” On the basis of that promise, we, too, can desire to depart and be with Christ, while at the same time praying with the early church, “Maranatha—Come, Lord Jesus!”