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Going Beyond Heaven & Hell

There are many scripture in the New Testament that provide the biblical basis for the judgment of people as good and bad, consequently sending them to places of eternal life or eternal punishment - heaven and hell.

In order for us to go beyond these concepts to a healthier way of living and dying, the first thing we must do is go beyond a literal, inerrant understanding of scripture. If you can’t get there, you can’t get beyond anything I’ve suggested in the last 6 weeks.

The Bible is more like a library than a book, compiled over the course of hundreds of years, documenting people’s experience and understanding of God from their cultural and religious context. It is full of contradictions and atrocities attributed to God. It contains stories passed down from generation to generation through oral tradition, as well as myth and metaphor. To take the Bible literally is to be willfully ignorant of these things. 

Did you know that in Old Testament times there was not a place called hell where people would go to be tormented for eternity? There was the heavens, where the Gods existed, and if a human went there it was only because the Gods raised them, as we see in the story of the prophet Elijah (2 Kings 2:11). And then there was Sheol, or Hades. This was not a fiery place of torment, it was simply the place everyone went when they died. It was the abode of the dead.

It was during the times in-between the Old Testament and New Testament that the concept of heaven and hell developed and gained footing. From about 167-160 BCE, the Maccabean Revolt pushed back against the Seleucid Empire who was trying to Hellenize the Jews; turning them into Greeks and eradicating every trace of Jewish culture. Jews were forbidden from performing circumcision or keeping the Sabbath, and their temple was defiled.  Thousands of Jewish people died and thousands were enslaved.

Struggling to figure out where God had gone in the midst of this very dark time, a new theology developed in a radical sectarian group called the Essenes.  They lived in desert caves overlooking the Dead Sea and observed a very rigid existence including strict celibacy, giving all of their money to the community, and admitting no women. 

In the Dead Sea scrolls we find that the Essenes essentially retold the entire history of Israel in terms of cosmic war. They called themselves the “sons of light” and indicted the majority as “sons of darkness.” They placed the cosmic battle between God and Satan at the center of their cosmology and politics, and they placed themselves at the very center of the battle between heaven and hell. Heaven was now reserved for those who remained true to God and the Jewish laws, and hell became the place of eternal torment for those who succumbed to Satan’s tempting.

The Gospels, written much later, but again in the midst of war and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, reflect this way of thinking. And we’ve been stuck with it ever since. The threat of hell has effectively been used for centuries to keep people in their place, believing the “right” thing and behaving the “right” way. It’s a great tool of manipulation to keep people in line, going to church, and giving.

It’s time for Christianity to give up heaven and hell for good. We know there is no place in the clouds with streets of gold, and we know that underground there is no place of fiery torment. Frankly, I think it's hard to give up these ideas because we like the ideas of heaven and hell a little too much. We want the “bad” people to pay. We don’t really want justice, which in my mind includes helping people to heal and turn their lives around. We want someone to pay, to be hurt as badly as they hurt others. It’s such a very human thing to want hell.

The concept of hell also gives us a reason to judge those different from us, those who look different, or worship differently, or believe differently. There is something in us that wants to be in the “in” group and that feels superior over the “out” group. Hell simply adds to the arsenal of things we can throw at people we don’t like.

Ann Lamott once said that if our God hates all the same people we do, you can be sure we’ve created God in our image.

Moving beyond this manipulative, fear-based, unhealthy theology would help us to let go of guilt (a major player in the game of manipulation), let go of the fear of death, let go of the fear of not being good enough for God (or anyone else for that matter). And perhaps we as humans could cut down on our need to judge one another as well.

So, if we let go of the concepts of heaven and hell, it leaves a void, a vacuum that must be filled. So, what do we fill it with? What do we go beyond them to? What happens when we die?

This is tricky to answer because none of us really knows what happens after death. Perhaps there is no afterlife. Perhaps there is reincarnation. Perhaps we all merge back into the Divine Energy of Oneness. Perhaps it is another dimension that looks like this one with a rainbow bridge for our pets. We don’t know for certain. And that is ok. Frankly, I’m not sure it matters. What matters is how we live our lives now. How we create heaven or hell on earth now (to use the metaphor). We have choices about how we behave, how we treat other people, and it seems to me that if we work on being the best people we can be, the most compassionate, caring, kind, generous, forgiving, grateful people we can be, we won't need to worry about what will come afterwards. And the light our lives gave off here will continue to shine in the hearts of those who knew us.

Let me close with a few words from John Shelby Spong, from  his book, Unbelievable:

“I cannot draw pictures, evaluate data or even share facts. I can only say that at the edges of life, on the boundaries of expanded self-consciousness, the concepts of transcendent reality, infinite love eternal life still make sense to me. I am not deluded. I believe that I have touched the eternal and that I share in what that means. Reward and punishment are dismissed. Expanded life, life beyond finitude, is embraced. I am convinced that it is real. I will live as if that is so and be prepared for the next adventure that self-consciousness brings my way. The only place I can hold this conviction and prepare for what comes next is in a community of seekers. That is what I ultimately believe the church must be.”

May we be this community of seekers.

Love & Light!