It’s quite sad, actually: it seems to me that most Christians do not know how to relate to Jesus outside of the concepts of Heaven and Hell. For too many, God simply does not make sense unless the bulk of humanity can be consigned to eternal torment while a select lucky few, with the right accidents of birth, who happen to decode the mystery in the absurdly short time allocated to them, are spared so that they can grovel at God’s feet for the rest of time. So it makes sense, then, that a common response to my assertion that Heaven and Hell are not real places is: “So why did Jesus have to die then? If Heaven and Hell are not real, what is the point of Jesus?” Like a backstage pass to Paradise was the whole point of Jesus’s existence. Or worse: “So you mean Hitler and me both end up in the same place? Where is the justice in that?” This from the very people who would have no questions around the justice of the outcome if Hitler had said the sinner’s prayer seconds before dying. It would be funny if it were not so tragic.
From the very outset, most Christians see God as angry and violent, and this informs how they live and how they relate. The default position from which most Evangelicals and Protestants begin doing theology is this: God is angry and it is all our fault. And when God gets angry, bad things happen. All Protestant and Evangelical Christianity begins to make sense of God from that basic presupposition. From the get-go, the basic picture of God is of a cosmic child-abuser.
And so, while it ought to be obvious that the concept of Hell is completely incompatible with the concept of a loving God, as is typical with the victims in an abusive relationship, Christians find ways to justify the violence: “Sure, God is loving, but He is also holy and just”. As if they are completely separate things. As if there is no way of understanding holiness and justice in nonviolent ways. As if these are contradictory parts of the character of God that need to be reconciled, rather than love being the trait through which justice and holiness can be expressed. In the minds of most Christians, the only legitimate expression of justice is through violent retribution, and holiness is only achievable via the violent expulsion of everything “unclean”. If God says He* loves us, how do we explain the violence? The way any victim of abuse does: we deserved it. Christians solve the conundrum by inventing the penal substitution theory of atonement, in which Jesus becomes a convenient way for God to demonstrate love by absorbing His* own violence, which would otherwise have fallen on us. Yes, God is pissed off and violent, but at least He loves us enough to let Jesus stand in the firing line. It is beyond twisted.
And it takes a lot of undoing, because this perverted atonement theory has now become the lens through which we read the gospel accounts. We make staggering assumptions about the texts based on our retrospective readings of this theory into the gospel narratives. But, quite simply, the gospels say nothing that supports a penal substitution understanding of Jesus’ death. And outside of penal substitution, Heaven and Hell are concepts that make absolutely no sense. Yet Jesus, it is claimed, talked about Heaven and Hell all the time.
Only he did not. We think he did because the lens of penal substitution atonement theory that undergirds contemporary Protestant and Evangelical theology encourages us to read that way, but let me invite you for a moment to consider what those writings say without that lens. In no particular order, I offer the following observations:
At no point does Jesus ever refer to “Hell” in a way that can be justifiably interpreted as “a place of eternal punishment”. The three words that are used in the Bible, and which are commonly translated into English as “Hell”, are Sheol , Hades, and Gehenna. Sheol is simply the place of the dead. In the Hebrew writings, Sheol does not discriminate between the righteous and the wicked; it is simply the place where the dead go. Later, under the influence of the Greeks, the word is replaced by Hades, but the essential character of the place remains essentially the same. Neither Sheol nor Hades carry any suggestion of torment for the unrighteous. The third term, Gehenna¸ is slightly more complex. It is the name of a real valley outside the walls of Jerusalem. It has a history of association with child sacrifice, and the phrase “passed through fire” is often a reference to the ritual child sacrifices to Molech performed there (see 2 Kings 23:10), a practice which Jeremiah protested was not sanctioned by God at all (Jeremiah 7:31). Thereafter, Gehenna is often used as an iconic representation of the wickedness into which society can descend and a warning of the grim repercussions of allowing this sort of degeneration. Being condemned to Gehenna, then, in Jewish thought, is a symbolic concept (not a literal destination) that does indeed imply action against the wicked, but it is purgative more than punitive, and is certainly not a permanent sentence. In short, there is no reference to “Hell” in Jesus’ teachings that even remotely compares to a place of eternal torment.
Don’t take everything literally. Christians today have this bizarre habit of reading everything literally. We forget that the Biblical writings were not written by Western post-Enlightenment rationalists, but by Eastern mystics. To read them literally is to misread them, often. When Jesus refers to places like the “outer darkness” and “the weeping and gnashing of teeth”, he is not referring to eternal separation from God. “Weeping and gnashing of teeth” is a common expression that signifies deep regret, and the “outer darkness” is a symbolic concept denoting removal from the vibrant hub of the Kingdom community, but there is nothing to suggest that this is permanent or torturous (indeed, in Matthew 8:12, those in the outer darkness are still described as belonging to the Kingdom). They are metaphors that are, in each instance, used by Jesus in parables to describe the state of being arising as a natural consequence of not relating to one another in love. Likewise, references to places of torment in Jesus’ parables ought not to be read literally. One does not infer from reading the Lord of the Rings that Middle Earth exists. Stories convey non-literal truths. One does not infer from the parable of the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to find the one that only 100 people will be saved. That is not the point. Why then do we insist on taking the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16) as evidence of a literal Hell?! (In which case, could it really be considered Heaven if we can see the people suffering on the other side, which the parable also implies?)
Jesus never mentions Heaven. Not in the Evangelical sense of the word, anyway. He refers a lot to the “Kingdom of Heaven” and “the Kingdom of God”, but as I have argued elsewhere, these terms refer to ways of living in community here on earth. They have never been used by Jewish thinkers to refer to some otherworldly Utopia. Rather, they speak to a transformed earth, after the Messiah has restored Creation.
Jesus never suggests that his mission is to win us a free pass through the Pearly Gates. On the contrary, his entire ministry is about teaching people how to relate in the here and now. From Jesus’s teachings it is clear that the Kingdom is not a prize to be won, but a way of being in community to strive for, a way of being and being-with that affirms life. The Kingdom of God is simply life as God intended it to be.
Heaven and Hell are not the primary thrust of Jesus’ teaching, nor of the gospel writers’ narratives. Life is. Restored relationship are. The crime and punishment motif of penal substitution theories is entirely absent, and can only ever be inferred. Take for example, some of these commonly quoted statements:
“But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. “ (John 20:31)
“Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God”. (John 1 :12)
Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6)
Look carefully. Take off the heaven and Hell lens and you will notice something: not one of them explicitly endorses a penal substitution theory of the atonement. Not one of them makes the explicit claim that by not believing, one is condemned to eternal torment. Not one of them directly equates “life” with “Heaven”. Yes, all of them suggest that receiving Jesus is the only way to life, the only way to know God. But that is something different entirely.
And to make sense of the claims these verses are actually making, as opposed to the ones we have assumed they were making, we need to have a sense of context. I have spent several posts unpacking what Jesus meant by “the Kingdom of God”, and I have discussed that what the Jews of Jesus’s time would have understood by “resurrection” and what we think of as Heaven are different concepts, so I won’t rehash that material here, but you need to accept that the cultural filters through which you are reading the texts are inadequate. You are incapable of reading the gospel narratives as their writers intended them to be read because you are too far removed from those texts in terms of culture and time. Once you accept that what you think you are reading is probably not what was being said, and that context matters, you are on the path to understanding.
Heaven and Hell are not mentioned in the sermons of the early church as recorded in the book of Acts. Nor do any of the gospel writers tie them to the Passion narrative. If you regard Heaven and Hell as being at the heart of the gospel message, that startling omission really ought to strike you as odd. Peter does not mention either Heaven or Hell, or Jesus being punished in our place, at the great Pentecost sermon (Acts 2). Steven, when he justifies his faith in Jesus at his trial (Acts 7) makes no mention of these things either, and instead makes a protracted case against violent religion, stating outright that Jesus was murdered by humans but raised by God. Neither the gospel writers nor the early church preachers ever implicate God in the death of Jesus – there is no mention that God’s wrath was somehow being satisfied in the slaughter of Jesus. They preach Jesus, his death at human hands and his resurrection by God’s, but there is not even a mention of Heaven and Hell. And the obvious inference is that these things are not part of the gospel message.
The creeds of the early church do not mention Hell or Heaven, or penal substitution. The council of Nicaea in 325A.D., in constructing a statement of Christian faith, has only this to say about the death of Jesus: “He suffered, and the third day he rose again, and ascended into heaven”. No mention of punishment for sins, no mention of penal substitution, no mention of Hell, and the only mention of heaven does not translate as “paradise”. At the council of Constantinople in 381, when the creed is refined, even then God is not implicated in the death of Jesus – responsibility for the suffering of Jesus is laid squarely at the feet of Pontius Pilate. Again, no mention of Hell and certainly no suggestion of God punishing Jesus for our sins. These are much later additions to Christian theology, that were completely foreign to the early church. The only way to continue to justify adherence to penal substitution atonement theories and the consequent obsession with Heaven and Hell is to either be completely ignorant of church history or to deliberately ignore it.
For the first several thousand years of Jewish history, God doesn’t mention Heaven or Hell to Hens chosen people. Doesn’t that strike you as not only strange, but as downright irresponsible? If there is an imminent danger of eternal conscious torment, wouldn’t the most loving thing to do be to warn those you claim to love of the danger? Yet there is a deafening silence from God throughout the Scriptures – both Old and New Testaments – on this point. The Old Testament priests don’t think to mention it. The prophets completely overlook it. Jesus seems more concerned with life here on earth, and the early church simply ignores it. If Heaven and Hell are a reality, then God’s approach to the whole thing seems to be: “If they don’t please me, they will burn for all eternity. There is no possible way for them to know that; let’s see if they work it out…”
That, by the way, is how I know most of you don’t believe it either. If you did – if you actually believed that your loved ones would suffer indescribably for all eternity if they didn’t “receive Jesus”, it would cripple you. You would spend every waking moment trying to find ways to convince them and you would be utterly devastated if they would not believe you. I could not stomach the thought of being responsible for the eternal suffering of complete strangers, let alone those closest to me. But despite this, Christians are content to submit to a comfortable routine of singing pretty songs at church, having pot-luck dinners and doing weekly Bible-Studies. Life seems to go on. Just saying.
Don’t feel bad – I am not trying to make you feel guilty. I am simply observing that we intrinsically recognise how ludicrous the notion of eternal conscious torment is, and that is okay. Hopefully one day you will find the courage to stand with me and say: I don’t believe in Heaven or Hell. They are singularly unhelpful notions, designed to either bribe or terrify people into compliance with a set of social norms. It is not acceptable to centre a ministry around either: if you focus on Hell, then you manipulate through terror, and if you focus on Heaven, you manipulate through desire. Manipulation is not a loving way to relate to others. The gospel message is not about Heaven or Hell. It is about Jesus. And Jesus is more than an atonement theory; he is a model of what it means to live in the Kingdom, the one who unveils the ugliness and violence behind our religious and political and social systems, he is the promise of ways of being-with that value individuals. He is the way and the truth and the life.
*New readers, please note that I only ever use the masculine pronoun for God when referring to problematic God constructions, which seem invariably to reinforce patriarchy. I prefer the gender-neutral Hen, which I think is a more accurate representation of God’s completeness.