Thursday, March 29, 2012

Hell Doesn't Exist (Neither Does Heaven)

Alright, pop quiz: if you were to die tomorrow, where would you go? No, this isn't the beginning of an evangelistic spiel (though if you want to have that talk, I'm available). Well, if you've been influenced by popular Christian thought, your answer would probably be one of two options: heaven or hell.

Now I admit, my title was a little sensational. But what I am suggesting is this: the common conceptions that Christians hold of heaven and hell are not necessarily in operation right now. The popular  picture of both heaven and hell is actually a blending of a few different "stages" of the afterlife that we've just balled into two simple concepts (in fact, biblical writers sometimes do this as well, only adding to the confusion). However, a careful reading of the Bible reveals that the afterlife for both the righteous and unrighteous is "in process". So if I were going to be completely honest and less "click-bait-y" with my title, it should have read "The hell you imagine doesn't exist as of now, neither does heaven". While this sounds complicated, the stages are simple and clear-cut: the stages of heaven and hell advance with the greater revelation of Jesus Christ and the gospel.

Stage 1: B.C. (Before Christ)

In the Old Testament, Sheol (sometimes translated "the grave" or "hell" in our Bibles) represented the place where all the deceased go. It is used in reference to the destination of both the righteous (Gen. 37:35, Job 14:13) and the wicked (Prov. 9:18, Ps. 55:15, Is. 5:14). While the Old Testament doesn't develop the idea much, Jesus' parable of the rich man and Lazarus actually gives us a vivid illustration. Luke 16 tells us that Hades (the Greek version of Sheol) was split into two subdivisions, a place of comfort (sometimes referred to as "paradise" or "Abraham's bosom") and a place of torment, with a chasm between.

Stage 2: A.D. (Anno Domini "In the Year of our Lord") 

At Jesus' crucifixion, he tells the repentant thief "Today you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43). Yet when the resurrected Jesus meets Mary outside his tomb, he says "Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father" (Jn. 20:17). Where has he been for the last 48 hours if he hasn't been "up"? I would suggest that he had been down into Sheol (the dwelling place of the dead), but not to Hades in torment. But more on that in a moment.

However, after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it seems the dwelling place of the saints is moved above (2 Cor. 12:2,3)—at least inasmuch as you can give directions like up and down to the spiritual realms. Regardless of where the current "location" of Paradise is, we can be certain that it is in the presence of the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8) which is not a complicated thing for God no matter where Paradise is currently located.

Stage 3: The final revelation of Jesus Christ

Upon the return of Christ, we see the popular conceptions of heaven and hell finally implemented. The new Jerusalem, streets of gold, the river of life, the tree of life, the city of God—a new heaven and new Earthall coming down (Rev. 21,22). This seems to fit perfectly Jesus' message to his disciples: "And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also." (John 14:3) Notice the timing: when he comes again they will be taken to the place Jesus prepares. This makes logical sense when you consider that we don't get our resurrected bodies until the return of Christ, thus the current "heaven" only has to be compatible to souls/spirits while the new heaven and new Earth have to be compatible to remade physical bodies. And concerning "hell", the transition is even clearer: "Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire." (Rev. 20:14)

So what?

Before you panic, let me clarify. This is not limbo. This is not purgatory. Nobody's working off sin, waiting for merit, or getting extra chances to respond to the gospel. All three stages of heaven are a realm of blessing and comfort in the presence of the Lord. All three stages of hell are outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth. Nobody's changing sides after death.

What does change is the level of revelation regarding Jesus Christ and the gospel. This is actually, in my opinion, an elegant solution to some historically problematic verses that are highlighted by a phrase from the Apostle's Creed: "He descended into hell". (Side note: this controversial phrase doesn't even appear in the earliest extant versions of the Apostles Creed, but was a later addition). These verses (Eph. 4:8, 9, 1 Pet. 3:18,19) say that he "descended into the lower regions", "he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison", and "when he ascended on high he led a host of captives".

I am proposing that at his death Jesus descended to Sheol and proclaimed the mystery of the gospel. Now this was not an evangelistic proclamation; rather he was saying "All you rebels, this is what your self-righteousness was rejecting" and "All you saints, this is what your faith was looking forward to, built upon, hoping for, and trusting in". And thenupon his victorious proclamation of the gospelJesus led a mass exodus of saints out of Abraham's bosom (the paradise part of Sheol) and Paradise was carried away from Hades and "up" to the presence of the Lord.

Bonus Material:

This is much more speculative than the rest of the post, but it's possible that this view would also give a reasonable answer to one of the most bizarre and confusing passages in the Bible: "The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many." (Matthew 27:52-53)

If Jesus is proclaiming the gospel to the saints "below" and there's a transition of Paradise so that it is "above", it's not at all beyond the realm of possibility that these saints appeared briefly and proclaimed the same gospel message as they passed by. This would also fit the timing as Jesus ascended to the Father (John 20:17) and the bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised "after his resurrection". This, of course, is largely speculation, but it would at least make sense of this confusing passage.


Scott said...

Jared, you might want to consider reading some more info - like Shedd's, The Doctrine of Endless Punishment OR especially Calvin's Institutes and Commentary. I held to a view like yours for many years until one morning I was reasoning with a friend on how Jesus Christ is the Surety of his people, and what it means for him to be that Surety and how he was this from all eternity in the eternal arrangement of God. As I reasoned with my friend explaining even though for OT believers that debt had not actually been paid yet it was as good as paid having been assumed by the Surety Jesus Christ. Thus scriptures even say that "He was the lamb slain from before the foundation of the World." Of also how this grace is given to us in Christ Jesus before the World began. Thus reasoning with my friend I realized my own inconsistent understanding of 1Pet 3:19ff. It was a Wow moment for me. OT believers had no need to go into a holding place for the debt had already been placed upon their surety and transferred from them. It was no longer laying upon them and they were born again, forgiven and justified on the basis of their Surety and the sureness that he would make good their debt. Were OT saints declared Just? Was Abraham declared Just by Faith? Was the gospel preached to Abraham in OT times? This is the testimony of scripture. Better to understand as Calvin explains when the Apostles creed says that Christ descended into hell it should be understood that he took upon himself the wrath of God making full satisfaction in his cross. So that Christ could say "It is Finished when dying upon the cross." When the scriptures speak of Christ by the same Spirit preaching to the Spirits in Prison, "1Pet 3:19 By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; 20Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water" This is speaking not of our Lord preaching to saints or reprobate in some holding place until he died upon the cross but rather of the Spirit of Christ which through Noah preached in the days while Noah himself was building the ark. Those Noah by the Spirit of God preached to are now in prison.

When Jesus said he had not yet ascended up unto his Father "Don't touch me." This might mean that bodily he had not yet ascended up to his Father. He had already told the thief on the cross "today you will be with me in Paradise." But bodily he had not yet ascended - spiritually while the body lay in the tomb but not bodily until the day of ascension.

My thoughts. Hope it at least can be understood what I mean. For me it was an "AHhhh" moment when I realized the inconsistency I held to in my theology - recognizing the Christ the Surety and Representative of his people even from eternity and yet holding to the necessity of him preaching the gospel to "saints in prison" after the crucifixion. I saw that by Faith they were counted righteous and thus nothing hindered them who believed the gospel in the OT - only they wait for the resurrection of the body same as us now NT saints.

Jared Totten said...


Thanks for your well-thought out and detailed response. While I concretely and joyfully share your view of Christ as the eternal Surety, I don't see that as in conflict with the view I've offered. I'm not suggesting a holding place, an unpaid debt, or "saints in prison". I am merely suggesting a relocation of Paradise upon the death and resurrection of Christ. I understand that some have historically joined these ideas into a package deal, but I don't think they are necessarily linked.

Paradise being located "down" in Sheol doesn't necessarily conflict with anything else you said. It need not be any more a "holding place" than if Paradise were located "up". There seems to be no conflict or additional constraints against the OT saints being in the presence of God, as He is spirit, whether Paradise is located "up" or "down". Nor does the location detract from the justification or faith of the OT saints or the gift of grace through Christ being applied to them.

I believe in the eternal plan and payment of Christ on behalf of all God's chosen for all time. However, though the OT saints most certainly receive the application of gospel, it's not clear whether they immediately received the full revelation and plan of the gospel. I am suggesting that Paul's characterization of the gospel as a mystery extended even into the spiritual realm and that the OT saints weren't immediately privy to the full plan of God (Rom. 16:25, Eph. 3:9, Col. 1:26). As you know, this wouldn't be the first time that the full plan of God has been kept a mystery, even to the inhabitants of heaven (Matt. 24:36)

Simply put, I see no conflict in the OT saints receiving the gospel fully applied to them even before it is fully revealed to them. The revelation of that gospel seems to me to be the launching point for the next stage of Paradise.

Unknown said...


You might be interested in this 5 part series I did two years ago on my own blog about whether or not Christ descended into hell. I did some pretty detail exegesis of the passages. I think 1 Peter 3 is primarily about the ascension in resurrection glory not about a descent into hell, and I defend my view in that series.

Here is also my view on paradise. I argue that it does not progress upwards but downwards. I think Paradise is always in heaven until the new creation where it descends.

In that link, see also my discussion of Hebrews 11:13-16. I think it is probably best to view this as Abraham expecting a heavenly home and country immediate upon his death--and prepared and ready for him upon death (not after an intermediate period in Sheol).

On sheol. It is a difficult word to understand in its variegated uses in the OT. It has a range of meanings. At times it is clearly a place:
(1) At times I think it is nothing more than synonymous with 'the grave' (or perhaps 'the pit').
(2) At times it is narrowly to hell or a separation from God where his faithfulness does not dwell.

Other times it refers I think more to the general state of death. So yes the body goes comes under the power of Sheol.

So I would argue that at times it is clear OT unbelievers are in Sheol as a place (e.g. hell). But also OT believers have their bodies go to the grave. They succumb to Sheol as a power--yet they dwell with God while awaiting the resurrection.

One of the other problems with your interpretation, as I see it, we are not told that being at 'Abraham's side' is in sheol. Rather there seems to be a distinction between being at Abraham's side (16:22) vs. being in Hades/Sheol (16:23).

We have to read into the passage a theology of Sheol being divided into to places. I think the more natural reading is a distinction between Sheol/Hades vs. being at Abraham's side.

I agree with Scott here about John's Gospel's "Don't touch me." It is a reference to the bodily ascension. I think Jesus at his death had his body go in the grave and his soul went into God's presence. But that is not the final hope, nor is that the ascension. That is only an intermediate state for him.

I take very literally the statement of Jesus "into your hands I commit my spirit." I think we should see the Father embracing that soul/spirit into heaven just as he did other OT saints. Yet the ultimate hope is the resurrection and a person standing body & soul before God.


Scott said...

Thanks Jared, and I understand now that my own previous inconsistency in understanding is not found in your explanation. When the apostle's creed says "descended into hell" I had understood both Calvin and Shedd to teach that Christ finished the atonement by his sufferings he endured even in hell. Then I incorporated that idea with something like what you describe. But Once I saw this was inconsistent with the clearer doctrine of the Suretyship of Christ I went back and reread both Calvin and Shedd and found that I had misread them. Instead what Calvin and Shedd set forth is that we should understand the sufferings of Christ upon the cross enduring the wrath of God there in our place as what is meant in the Apostle's creed when it says "descended into Hell."

I don't think the references you cite necessarily must be understood as explained by a preaching of Christ to the OT Saints and a subsequent moving of the location of heaven (Eph. 4:8, 9, 1 Pet. 3:18,19) - but they are difficult. (for example see my first comment for one possible alternative understanding of 1Pet 3:18-19ff) (see calvin or Gill on Eph 4:8-9)

However, on how your explanation might impact the verses saying "The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many." (Matthew 27:52-53) I did have a problem for you to consider.

I believe you are suggesting as the OT saints moved from one location to another they appeared proclaiming "the same gospel message as they passed by." This would sound as though you are suggesting these saints experienced the bodily resurrection which we are yet waiting for at the return of Jesus. Because the verse says "Tombs were opened. many bodies of the saints were raised." It is a difficult verse, I understood this to mean not that they now appeared in their glorified bodies but in their bodies raised like Lazurus, the widow's son, and Jairus' daughter. This could be wrong but to understand as you do would indicate that the resurrection has happened for at least these who heard Jesus preach in that interim between his crucifixion and resurrection. (If I understand Calvin and Gill they are both indicating that these were gloriously resurrected as a foretaste of the future resurrection for the rest and then also ascended up into heaven - difficult passage and this seems problematic but my own understanding is problematic also.)

Scott said...

(continued from previous)

It's difficult to draw the line between the gospel grasped and believed by OT saints and "gospel fully revealed to them." The NT surely shines the gospel more gloriously bright as compared to the revelation in the OT. And as Rom 16:25 states it was a mystery kept secret and now plainly made known.

Yet the scriptures also say:
Abraham saw my day (Christ's) and rejoiced.

Moses esteemed the reproaches of Christ.

The scriptures preached before...the gospel to Abraham.

Paul was separated unto the gospel which was promised before by his prophets in the holy scriptures concerning his son Jesus Christ our Lord.

Perhaps it would be better to understand that the OT saints who having died in faith lacked nothing (as you really affirm) and were in the presence of the Lord (as you affirm) and like us await the resurrection of the Body. Rejoicing now in promises fulfilled as they also in OT times held on to by God given faith. Rather than the possibility of leaving the door open to the idea that they were saved in some way different and upon different terms than NT saints. I can see you are not thinking that but am concerned that your explanation leaves that door open. For under your explanation they didn't have the gospel fully revealed to them until that interim between the crucifixion and the resurrection.
( I do expect in heaven that much more will be made known of the glorious gospel than that which I grasp now. "now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known" but that just also negates a special preaching and a moving of heaven since there will be more for all of us in heaven)

Just thinking through this hopefully with you.

Jared, also, I see we are nearly neighbors - I'm just up the road from you in NE Nebraska. Thanks again.