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).