What is Hell? From the Series “Questions People Are Asking”

What is hell? A topic many Christians avoid and one that even my igadget does not like as it usually tries to autocorrect to ‘he’ll’. But people often ask about it so it is next in our series “Questions People Are Asking.”

Before we get into it, meaning the topic of hell, not hell itself of course, we should remember that the Bible presents various teachings that are like anchors, they are solid, easy to discern, and hard to pull out of Christian theology without ripping pages out the Bible. But sometimes a boat can spin around an anchor giving a person different views as it does so. We have in the Bible certain teachings that are not as plain to see and about which there may be disagreement without breaking unity. As Christians we have an obligation to set the anchors of the Bible deep within our hearts and minds, but as Baptists we have the liberty to think through the different views that are possible. Indeed this is one of the reasons why I have remained a Baptist. So let us look first at those teachings of the Bible that we might consider anchors:

Hell is real. You really need to do some theological gymnastics to get the Bible to teach otherwise. We find it in the Old Testament, we find it in the New Testament. Some people think Jesus was too nice to mention hell, but according to our gospel writers he did. Some will claim that yes, hell is real, but it is something we experience in the hear and now, however this requires more gymnastics!

Hell is described in vivid terms. Fire, a fiery lake of sulphur, a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth, darkness, the second death, and Gehenna which was basically the garbage dump for Jerusalem. All these are vivid descriptions that leave no doubt the Biblical teaching is that heaven is the better option.

Hell is a just consequence. The Bible in affirming that God is just by implication teaches that hell also is a just reward for those who end there. 2nd Thessalonians 1:6-9 is worthy of consideration on this point also.

Hell is forever. We ought not say that anyone will be in hell for eternity, for eternity has already started! But the idea is that once one is in hell, that’s it for all time to come, in other words this is something that cannot be undone.

Hell is defined for us. The most succinct definition of hell given in the Bible is ’separation from God’ which we find clearly stated in 2nd Thessalonians 1:9 (NRSV) “These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” What is separation from God like? Here is where we move from anchors to viewpoints. Let us consider three:

To be separated from God is to experience conscious torment literally as described. So yes, one will experience fire, darkness, the whole shebang. This view has going for it the ease of taking things literally.

To be separated from God is to experience conscious torment, but the descriptions given in the Bible are metaphor. The person who takes this view understands that when speaking about hell, and about heaven for that matter, the Bible uses images we can understand to help us grasp things which we could not possibly understand. The Bible does not always speak plainly, but uses art and poetry to get theology across.

To be separated from God is to cease to exist. Before you stop reading, if in fact you are still reading, consider the Biblical support fans of this view will provide. The original promise made to Adam for disobedience was not hell, but death (Genesis 2:17). The “wages of sin” is not hell, but death as stated in Romans 6:23 (NRSV):”For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” John 3:16 does not say “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not go to hell but will go to heaven” but rather “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (NRSV). There is also the already mentioned succinct definition of hell “These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” (NRSV). Though the preceding verse mentions hell, it quickly turns to the idea of ’destruction.’ Finally, in a vivid bit from Revelation, we hear of hell with all it’s fires and sulphur being termed ’the second death’: “Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.” Revelation 20:14 (NRSV). Note that death and hell itself end up in hell! It is hard to get anywhere in understanding Revelation 20 without an appreciation of the poetic. Furthermore,those who prefer this view will hold up the philosophical argument that it makes good sense, that to reject the Giver of life will have the consequence of rejecting life itself.

If it seems like I am giving this third view preferential treatment, I am not, there has just been more to say. I do have a caution though for those who prefer this third view and it is to watch the temptation to relax. Some might think it won’t really matter what happens to loved ones who die apart from Christ, “It won’t be that bad” they might say. Jesus never relaxed but went to the cross. The early Christians of New Testament did not relax but went to the mission field. This is where we belong also no matter which view of hell we adopt. Let me reiterate the freedom you have to think though these views, but the obligation you have as a Christian to set the anchors. Let me also mention that my viewpoint on what hell is like has changed often and likely will change again. That God loves me and has done what is necessary to keep me from experiencing hell is something I hold with conviction in accordance with God’s Word. My viewpoint on what hell is like, however, is something I hold with humility.

Speaking of anchors here is one more; not one person hearing this sermon or reading this blog needs to live one minute more in fear of hell. Jesus Christ has gone to the cross as an expression of love and grace, dying that death we deserve. When we turn from our sin and turn to Him, no matter how far we have run from Him, or how quickly we have run, when we turn around we find that He is right there ready to embrace us and lead the way back. There is not one person reading this who at this point is beyond His love. If you have turned your back on God you should fear hell, or better yet, just turn around.

What Happens When We Die? From the Series “Questions People are Asking”

Where do we go when we die? What is the Christian teaching on life after death? I think many of people would respond with something like the lyrics of a song from one of my favourite bands, The Who:

On top of the sky is a place where you go if you’ve done nothing wrong
If you’ve done nothing wrong
And down in the ground is a place where you go if you’ve been a bad boy
If you’ve been a bad boy
Why can’t we have eternal life And never die, Never die?

In the place up above you grow feather wings and you fly round and round
With a harp singing hymns
And down in the ground you grow horns and a tail and you carry a fork
And burn away
Why can’t we have eternal life, And never die, Never die?

The idea is commonly held that Christians believe that a soul goes straight to heaven or to hell upon death, but is that accurate? Furthermore, you will often hear people speaking of their loved ones watching over them from heaven and while I can see how that thought might be comforting, I can also see how it can be quite creepy too! In fact the idea of a soul being released from our bodies to go somewhere after death owes more to a pagan Greek way of thinking than Biblical Jewish and Christian ones. We should note well that the early Christians were not going around saying things like “good news, we have discovered that our souls are immortal,” but rather “good news, Jesus is risen from the dead, and he is the first, we will be raised from the dead also.”

So what happens to the Christian upon death? Where do we wait for the resurrection and what will we be doing during that time? There are certain Biblical teachings that are like anchors for our theology, they are very clear, easy to get, hard to get wrong, and they are doctrines that will typically show up across denominations. However, if you have ever been in a boat at anchor you will know that it is possible to do a 360 degree circle about the anchor, and if you were to sit looking straight ahead you will end up with a different view depending on where you are pointing. Some teachings are like that there being different ways of looking at things, and indeed some churches are born out of making too much of them. The important thing for the Christian is to set the anchors deep within our hearts and minds while being open to taking a swing around to see things from different viewpoints.

For the future of the Christian upon death, the resurrection is the anchor. Jesus rose from the dead, so shall we. This is not the same as teaching that the soul is immortal, as the Greeks did, but is the belief that one must be ‘clothed’ with immortality and life (see 1 Corinthians 15:53; 2nd Corinthians 5:1-3).

With that anchor in mind, here are some viewpoints that have been put forward:

  • Some put forward the concept of purgatory, a place, or better a state of “getting better” for want of a more technical description. Most people who take this view are looking through pretty thick lenses of tradition, and there really is not much in the Bible itself to commend it.
  • Some put forward the idea of “soul sleep,” that is we will exist though we may not be conscious of anything. So upon death you will not know or experience anything until the resurrection. Some will point to the Biblical passages that speak of death as “falling asleep” such as in 1st Thessalonians 4:13-15. But this may just be a euphemism.
  • Some put forward the idea of “soul death,” that is when you die, you really just are dead until the resurrection. Commending this view are passages such as we find in Psalm 6: “Turn, O LORD, save my life; deliver me for the sake of your steadfast love. For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise?” (Psalm 6:4-5 NRSV) Here the Psalmist clearly believes that dead people are dead. So in this view also you will not experience anything between death and resurrection.
  • Some might suggest that in death we take a “step out of time” so that while right now we can only think of the resurrection as happening at some point in the future, as disembodied souls with no experience of time we will experience the resurrection as immediate. Some will point to how God Himself is the creator of time and not subject to it as is alluded to in verses like 2 Peter 3:8: “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day” (NRSV).
  • The last view, and perhaps the most popular that we might look at is that at death we step into the full presence of God. We can point to verses like 2 Corinthians 5:6-8: “even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord . . . and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (NRSV). Or we can think of the words of Jesus to the thief on the cross: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” Luke 23:43 (NRSV).

Perhaps you will begin to wonder if I have the answer to this week’s question about what we will experience at death. To be honest I don’t!  But I have two anchors to which I can hold onto, the first being the hope of resurrection, the second is this: The Lord is my shepherd. Whatever our experience between death and resurrection may turn out to be I know that the good shepherd will be with those who follow Him and will guide them each step of the way, “for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Revelation 7:17 (NRSV)

Burial and Cremation: What Is a Christian to Do?

“The conclusion is simple. Cremation is devil worship and rejection of Jesus Christ and His gospel . . . the true followers of Jesus Christ will have nothing to do with it. His ministers and churches will not allow it, and they will speak boldly against it.” So concludes an article I had reason to come across recently and so begins a series on “Questions People Are Asking.” People have asked me whether it is ok for them to be cremated to which my normal response is “yes, so long as you no longer have a pulse.” So why do I not speak against cremation as the writer of the article would urge that I do? What is the Christian to think and plan to do in this matter?

The first thing we should note is that nothing can trump the power of God.

What happens to the matter we are made of now, really will not matter to God. Some people have a fear, namely “what if there is nothing left of me to be raised at the resurrection?” And what if one’s family has ignored the desire for burial and gone ahead with cremation then lost the urn, or what if the circumstances of one’s death has ensured that there is no body to bury? Grim, but it happens. Let us note however, that we are not to be equated with the matter that makes us up. Most of our cells will be replaced over our lifetime, but even more importantly, the very atoms that make us up are continually being swapped out, so much so that it is suggested that the majority of atoms are replaced yearly. If our bodies are independent of the of the particular matter that makes us up, then what actually are they? They are the result of the information that guides the matter into place. We can think of creation when God spoke everything into existence. It is interesting that the language of speaking and communicating is used, for creation is not just about the creation of matter, but about the vast amounts of information that guides that matter into place. This was no cosmic tweet! And so if each atom of your body is scattered to the air, don’t worry, for as one of the youth from my last church profoundly put it, “God’s got your DNA.” He knows who you are and who you are to be, so as a matter of fact it does not matter what happens to the matter that matters so much to you right now.

Furthermore, the Bible teaches us that we “will be changed.” In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul uses the analogy of a seed to teach about the resurrection body. As with all analogies, we ought not to press the analogy too far, for example expecting that only if our corpse is “planted” will we expect to be raised. That is not what Paul is saying, but rather he is pointing out the continuity and change that we can expect. There will be a continuity that points to individuality, so if you die, you yourself can expect to be raised again as an individual. But you will be different, in fact whether alive or dead when Christ returns “we will all be changed.” (1 Corinthians 15:52 NRSV) For “this perishable body must put on imperishability and this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:53 NRSV) which does not mean to say that these particular atoms are used, but that you, who once had a body on a journey towards death, will now have a body full of life.

Finally, the Bible teaches us that God’s purposes stand. Job says “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2 NRSV). We have not learned this truth if we are worried about the future of our remains. As a Christian your resurrection is not dependant on the circumstances of your remains but on the purposes and power of God.

So it is not a matter of God’s power and ability, but is it a matter of obedience?

It is not a matter of law. Curiously, there is no law in the Old Testament stating what you must do with a corpse, though there are plenty of laws for what you must do if you come into contact with one. And there is no law given in the New Testament either. In fact it is instructive that when Jews and Gentiles join together in Christianity with all the ethical sorting out that goes on when two peoples bring their baggage along to a merger, we have no mention of burial versus cremation. Jews tended to bury their dead and Gentiles would sometimes cremate theirs, yet when they come together into Christianity this is not an issue. It is interesting that the issue doesn’t get a mention at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 which would have been an ideal time to lay such to rest.

Though it is not a matter of law, burial was the custom. As already stated it was the norm for God’s people in the Old Testament to bury their dead, and while we hear of burials happening in the New Testament, we never hear of cremation. Throughout the history of the Church, burial has been the more common custom. But does the fact that burial has been more customary make cremation a matter of disobedience? We should note that our burial customs today are not the same customs practiced in Biblical times. Embalming was not a customary practice, and in fact we know that in New Testament times the custom was often to bury twice. First the body would be laid in a tomb (and not in a casket) where it would decompose, then after a year the bones would be collected together and placed in small box (just long enough for one’s femur bone) called an ossuary leaving the former space vacant for someone else. Now consider that when a funeral home hands you an urn, it is not filled with ash, but rather the pulverized remains that do not burn away into the atmosphere, namely bone. You could therefore almost make the case that cremation is closer to the Biblical model of keeping a box of bone than our current custom of embalming.

But if we opt for cremation are we not taking on a pagan custom? We might consider the one time we do hear of embalming happening in the Old Testament, with Joseph in Genesis: “And Joseph died, being one hundred ten years old; he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt” (Genesis 50:26). Embalming and use of a coffin was an Egyptian custom, and was related to the Egyptian theology of resurrection. That Joseph took on the pagan burial practice of the land he had made his home does not appear to have threatened his status as a godly hero of the faith. Further I have heard it said that Christians should not cremate their dead for Hindus cremate theirs. But Hindus also sing, and laugh, and breathe, and do all manner of things that we also do. Rather than ask what cultures and religions carry out the custom, we might better ask in what spirit we carry out ours. Chocolate itself is not an evil thing, but if I were to eat it in a spirit of gluttony, then I might be doing something bad. Right now I cannot think of any other spirit to eat chocolate in so perhaps that is a bad example, but if I could eat it in a spirit of celebration of God’s goodness in providing sweetness, then I would be doing something good. If I were asking for cremation in a spirit of willful rebellion towards and rejection of God, then yes, cremation would be a very bad thing to do, but if I ask for it in a spirit of trust and rejoicing in the power and grace of God, then it is not.

But if we opt for cremation are we not doing violence to a gift from God? Some will want to say “you cannot just do to a body whatever you want, it is a gift from God that is to be cherished in how it is handled.” Yes we certainly do want to cherish the gift of our body while alive, but does that carry over into death? The words of Paul are instructive here: “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (2 Corinthians 5:1). Here our current bodies are contrasted with those to come, they are mere tents in comparison to proper buildings, and though gifts indeed, they are not ones Paul seems too keen on cherishing as he looks forward to a better gift to come. They are tents which are prone to destruction, in fact there is no dignified process ahead for one’s corpse whether pumped up with embalming, naturally decomposing, or cremated – it is all rather undignified and a violence to the body. For many of us the concept of dignity will be a personal matter, and speaking for myself, I would find it a most undignified end for my body to be done up with make-up and dressed up with a suit and tie.

If we began noting that nothing can trump the power of God, let us finish by noting that nothing can trump the grace of God.

While the writer quoted at first would imply that one would lose their salvation by choosing cremation, a “rejection of Jesus Christ and His gospel,” we must ask if our salvation is in jeopardy. From my study of the issue of burial versus cremation for the Christian, I have not found the case convincing that to be cremated is to reject Jesus and His gospel. If in fact I turn out to be wrong (yes it happens, ask my wife!) and cremation does sadden our Lord, at worst it is a misunderstanding on my part, not a willful rejection of a clearly stated will. Is God’s grace not sufficient to cover such misunderstandings? Is the love of God so weak so as to be so easily ended through my one decision?

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38,39 NRSV)

Dear reader, let us not belittle the grace, love, and power of God by taking salvation back into our own hands. Will you be buried? Will you be cremated? God’s grace, love, and power in Christ will shine through either way.