Theology Matters: What Do We Believe About Heaven and Hell by the Rev. Samira Izadi Page

The question of death and afterlife has preoccupied humanity since the dawn of civilization. Different religions offer different views on the topic. Muslims, for example, believe in purgatory as a pre-judgment place that souls will start their punishments until the resurrection of the dead and judgment day. As Christians, we hear different views and even comforting words at the funerals, “she is at a better place now.” We even hear about “doggy heaven!” Do you ever wonder about any of these?

One view on death and afterlife is that if you believe in Jesus, you will go to heaven and heaven is the final destination. In this view, a person’s destination is a spiritual state of life in heaven. This is a very inaccurate view that skips the significance of creation, our life on earth, human body and the redemption of all things in Christ. What do Christians believe about death and afterlife? One of the most significant teachings of the Scripture is that afterlife is always connected to this life, heaven is tied to earth, and physical and spiritual are two dimensions of one single reality. “Your kingdom come, you will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10) Afterlife, in other words, is not a different life. It is rather the continuation and fulfillment of this life in Christ, “having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.” (Colossians 2:12) In this view, a person’s destination is the resurrected life on redeemed earth after the return of Christ.

In our prayers every day and on Sundays, we affirm our faith by the words of the Apostles’ or the Nicene Creed saying, “We look for the resurrection of the body- and the life of the world to come.” The term “body” affirms that both our souls and our bodies will live forever. In the words of N. T. Wright throughout his writings, we will not merely be souls hovering around heaven. That view is against the witness of the Scripture and the teachings of the Creeds. The resurrection of our bodies are tied to the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 8:11) Additionally, Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” (John 11:25) Here again, Jesus connects here and now to the afterlife. This has very real implications for evangelism. When we share the Gospel with those who do not know and trust Jesus Christ, we offer them resurrection and eternal life in here and now, not something to wait for until the next world.

What about death then? Death is the consequence and wage of sin of humanity. (Geneses 2:17, Romans 5:12) It is unnatural to the order of creation as God intended it. St. Paul talks about death as “the enemy” but it is the enemy that has been defeated in the resurrection of Christ and therefore, will be defeated in the resurrection of the body as well. (1 Corinthians 15:26) That is why St. Paul tells us that we do not grieve as those who have no hope. (1 Thessalonians 4:13).

In the midst of the physical world, our souls find a resurrected life through dying in baptism with our Lord Jesus Christ. In the same way, our bodies find immortality by the power of the Holy Spirit through resurrection after we die the physical death. Death, therefore, finds a positive expression and our flesh becomes an essential element of the fulfillment of our salvation as the “flesh is the hinge of salvation.” (Tertullian, De res. 8, 2: PL 2, 852).

What happens between the time we die until the resurrection day? The Catholic Church believes in purgatory as an essential part of this period of waiting for resurrection. This is a doctrine that was developed very late in the history of the Church. Its roots go back to St. Augustine who distinguished between purifying fire that saves and the fire of eternal damnation. Scripture itself offers us different images of the state of our being after death. On the cross, for example, Jesus tells the thief who is crucified next to him, “Truly I tell you, today you shall be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43) While St. Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:14 refers to the dead as those who have “fallen asleep” in Christ. In Luke 16, we see the image of tormenting fire. Our liturgical prayers acknowledge the presence of the saints in worship of God. Here is the mystery. It seems like Scripture is not much interested in giving us details of how exactly this period between death and the resurrection day looks like. Neither is it interested in describing heaven. It rather speaks in terms of eternal life, life everlasting, life in Christ, new heaven and new earth, etc. Images of fire and language of hell or Gehenna, eternal fire, tormenting fire are used throughout the Scripture. Some believe that hell is a state of separation from God or eternal death by rejection of God while others believe in a physical hell. Whatever view that we adopt, as Protestants, we believe in assurance of our salvation through trusting Jesus Christ knowing that “nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life…” Romans 8:38 Ultimately, God has “reconciled all things to himself” and he will create a new heaven and new earth where “death shall be no more.” (Rev. 21:4).

Theology Matters: What do Episcopalians Believe About Confession?

“Confess your sins to one another” (James 5:16). Episcopalians, like all good Christians, confess our sins. That is to say, in private devotion and in public worship, we regularly acknowledge before Almighty God “our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed.” Nearly all our liturgies make provision for a general confession of sin. Sometimes we confess our sins privately to our brothers and sisters in Christ. And sometimes we avail ourselves of the gift of sacramental confession by confessing our sins to God in the presence of a priest.

Sacramental confession—also known as “auricular confession” (from the Latin for “to the ear,” i.e., of a priest)— is part of the great tradition of the Church catholic upheld and propagated by the Book of Common Prayer (1979). The Prayer Book calls it “the Reconciliation of a Penitent, or Penance.” The Catechism lists Penance as one of the five “sacramental rites” understood as means of grace but not “as generally necessary for salvation” (in the somewhat unfortunate phrase from the old catechism), a distinction which is reserved for Baptism and the Supper of the Lord, the two Sacraments par excellence. The Catechism defines Penance as “the rite in which those who repent of their sins may confess them to God in the presence of a priest, and receive the assurance of pardon and the grace of absolution” (BCP, p. 861). Our Prayer Book gives two forms for confession, with brief and clear instructions beginning on page 446.

Sacramental confession is made in the presence of a priest. Any Christian may hear your confession, but only a priest or bishop may pronounce the priestly absolution; a deacon or lay person may use the “declaration of forgiveness” provided in the Prayer Book. The reason for the restriction of absolution to those in priestly ministry is the Church’s teaching that it is part of the authority (sometimes called “the power of the keys”) the Lord Jesus gave to his apostles and their successors. In John’s Gospel, we read how the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples and said to them, “‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’” (20:21–23). Episcopalians believe that the Lord Jesus has given the Church, through the ministry of priests and bishops, the authority to absolve penitents of their sins. By God’s gift, the priest can say truly to the penitent, “The Lord has put away all your sins.”

Episcopalians like to say about confession, “All may; some should; none must.” The idea here is that sacramental confession is a gift. Like any gift, you may choose not to receive it. But sacramental confession may be a gift you desperately need to receive.

The prayer book tradition suggests that you should receive the gift of confession at times when your conscience is especially troubled. For instance, in the first edition (1549) of the Book of Common Prayer (which does not contain a standalone rite for confession) there is provision in the Order for the Visitation of the Sick for a sick person to make a special confession (and the priest to pronounce absolution), “yf he fele his conscience troubled with any weightie matter.” Making your confession is the remedy to an acutely troubled conscience. The Prayer Book makes this explicit in the Exhortation before Holy Communion (see BCP pp. 316–317). There the priest reminds the congregation of the nature of the Sacrament, urges them “to consider how Saint Paul exhorts all persons to prepare themselves carefully” before receiving Communion (see 1 Corinthians 11:27–32; cf. Matthew 5:23–24), and instructs them to “examine [their] lives and conduct by the rule of God’s commandments” and to confess and make restitution for those sins which come to light. In this context, the priest recommends sacramental confession:

“And if, in your preparation, you need help and counsel, then go and open your grief to a discreet and understanding priest, and confess your sins, that you may receive the benefit of absolution, and spiritual counsel and advice; to the removal of scruple and doubt, the assurance of pardon, and the strengthening of your faith.”

The 1549 version goes on to recognize that, while some Christians will find they need sacramental confession, others will find “their humble confession to GOD, and the generall confession to the churche” sufficient to satisfy their conscience; neither group is to judge the other, so that charity might be preeminent in all things.

Sacramental confession is a good gift of God to the Church. It is a formidable weapon in the fight against sin, and the pursuit of holiness. It cultivates humility; it discourages self-deception; it renews the joy of baptism. I commend it to you. After all, why not? As the wise Fr. Martin Thornton once wrote, “Is it not just a little silly, and flagrantly inefficient, to cut the lawn with nail scissors when God has taken the trouble to supply a very workmanlike motor mower?”

The Rev. Chris Yoder is the Curate for Traditional Worship Service & Young Adult Formation at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas

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Priests from throughout the diocese explore religious topics with depth and nuance.