Thoughts on heaven and hell

Mar 9, 2016 by

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This past week I was invited to lead a book discussion on The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. In this book Lewis explores the afterlife and the possibility of heaven and hell. The book is a fable about a bus ride from hell to heaven. On this trip, characters must decide whether to go deeper into heaven or return to where they came from.

As I prepared for this discussion, I spent a lot of time reading about hell. As you might expect, there is a whole lot of stuff out there. It covers the entire spectrum of opinion, thought and theology. If you want to find an opinion on the afterlife that fits your suppositions, it’s out there.

I grew up in a time when the idea of hell was used as motivation to get me into heaven. The logic went something like this: I could die at any time. If I died, did I know where I was going? This worked.

What struck me as I prepared for this discussion is how little the Bible actually says about what happens after we die. However, the Bible does say a whole bunch about how we should live right here, right now. The themes are pretty consistent — loving our neighbors and enemies, and praying for those who wish to do us harm. This God who we serve loves us enough to let us make our own decisions — this is Lewis’ thesis.

I find it interesting that Jesus didn’t seem to be all that concerned about hell or the afterlife.

So why do some people of faith focus so much on hell? Based on my experience as a child, all I can come up with is that the concept of hell is a great motivator. In some cases I might even go so far as to say there are people of faith who have used their imagined concepts of hell to manipulate and control their congregations. Others secretly want a God who gets even in the end. The idea that all the really bad people will suffer forever has a strange attraction.

If my study of hell has made anything clear, it is this: What happens after death is mostly a mystery. If you read the Bible through the perspective of a judgmental God, it is a frightening mystery. If you read the Bible through the lens of John 3:16, a loving God, then the mystery is kind of exciting.

Glenn Balzer lives in Denver and attends His Love Fellowship. He blogs at glennbalzer.com where this post first appeared.


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  • Berry Friesen

    So I’m curious, Glenn: what did you do with Lewis’ book?

    To start answering your question: (a) the Bible throughout describes YHWH as passionately committed to justice/righteousness; (b) it often associates fire with YHWH’s pursuit of justice/righteousness; (c) several vivid texts in the Bible bring all these elements together in a moment of final judgment; (d) we are reluctant to bring a literary lens to Scripture, thus cutting ourselves off from non-literal readings.

    It’s significant how the Apostle Paul speaks of these matters. For him, death is the end for those “who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth” (Rom. 2:8); he used the word “perish” to describe such a fate.

  • Elaine Fehr

    Jesus didn’t seem to be all that concerned about hell or the afterlife? Would you please read just three statements spoken by Jesus Christ and then let us know if you still believe that He didn’t seem to be all that concerned about hell?

    “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better
    for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell,
    into the fire that shall never be quenched—“
    Mark 9:43

    “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the
    soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” Matthew 10:28

    “But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him! !” Luke 12:5

    • Bruce Leichty

      I think Glenn didn’t articulate this correctly. Jesus to be sure used Hell imagery in these admonitions but I would propose that proportionately speaking he was more focused on teaching his audiences about the reign of God and its implications for living than he was on fear-based warnings. It doesn’t have to be an either-or dichotomy, but Glenn’s point about the overuse of fear-based religion is a valid one. By the same token there is in today’s church perhaps an equal theological peril in the overemphasis on a kind of sloppy vacuous love which knows not the correcting judgment that is born out of love.

      • Berry Friesen

        Preachers preach about things we need to be convinced of but aren’t. Am I right about that?

        So who are all these people who are not convinced God loves us? Apparently, this is a very large group because there is much preaching to that effect.

  • Phil Schroeder

    I find the teaching of hell to be very motivating. While the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 is a story on how the rich man lived his life, it also vividly portrays the consequences of living a life with something taking the place of God such as money in this passage. Further motivation should be found in Revelation chapter 20. What happens to those who’s names are not written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. My question is, what is ones motivation to preach the ‘don’t worry be happy’ theology that seems to be coming out of this article. Christ’s message and gift are a positive message and gift for those who embrace it.

    • Elaine Fehr

      I can think of only two motivators that would produce an article like this – Biblical illiteracy and/or rebellious unbelief. Either way, it promotes the dark side – Satan’s domain.

  • Debra B. Stewart

    Sorry. Can’t help it. Johnny Cash just keeps rumbling around in my head . . .

    “No Earthly Good”

    Come hear me good brothers, come here one and all
    Don’t brag about standing or you’ll surely fall
    You’re shinin’ your light and shine it you should
    But you’re so heavenly minded you’re no earthly good
    No earthly good you are no earthly good
    You’re so heavenly minded you’re no earthly good
    You’re shinin’ your light yes and shine it you should
    You’re so heavenly minded and you’re no earthly good

    Come hear me good sisters you’re salt of the earth
    If your salt isn’t salted then what is it worth
    You could give someone a cool drink if you would
    You’re so heavenly minded and you’re no earthly good
    No earthly good you are no earthly good
    You’re so heavenly minded you’re no earthly good
    You could give someone a cool drink if you would
    You’re so heavenly minded and you’re no earthly good

    If you’re holdin’ heaven then spread it around
    There are hungry hands reaching up here from the ground
    Move over and share the high ground where you stood
    So heavenly minded you’re no earthly good
    No earthly good you are no earthly good
    You’re so heavenly minded you’re no earthly good
    Move over and share the high ground where you stood
    So heavenly minded and you’re no earthly good
    No earthly good…