Friday, November 23, 2012

Heaven and Hell

What is Heaven like? What is Hell like? The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology defines Heaven first as the Physical Sky and subsequently as the “Divine Abode” as the “dwelling place of God and his attendant beings.” Hell, on the other hand, is the “abode of the dead,” where unbelievers and sinners will be punished for their misdeeds. But what really defines these two destinations?

                In Revelation chapter 21 and 22, Heaven is described with these words:

21:3 “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them”

21:10-11 “And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.”

21:22-23 “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.[1] The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.”

21:25 “On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there.[2]

22:1 “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life[3], as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb”

22:3-5 “No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.”

As I read these verses the one overwhelming characteristic of Heaven that jumps out at me is the presence of God. Remember that Biblically speaking, Heaven is, primarily, the abode of God. Also remember that God is the Absolute, He is existence, He is life; also remember that God is Trinity and His decision to exist as community weaves communion into the fabric of what it means to exist. So eternal life does not just mean living forever; it means direct and unmediated communion with the One who is life, with God.

So, the defining characteristic of Heaven is not wealth, mansions or gold; it isn’t even security, health or pleasure. The defining characteristic of Heaven is the presence of God. Wherever God is, that is Heaven. Being in God’s presence, then, is to be in the presence of all those things which characterize God: light, life, truth, beauty, joy, peace, love, contentment, etc; but all of these are dependent on God’s presence. Heaven is the world of God’s shalom because His presence defeats and drives out all evil.
            Hell, therefore, must be defined by God’s absence. As God is not there, neither are any of those things which emanate from God. Hell is, then, darkness, death, ugliness, depression, chaos, hatred, restlessness, etc. It is ridiculous to want to go to Hell to be with a loved one whom you are sure will be there because A) there’s a good chance that Hell is characterized by solitude (since God is communion) and B) if you do find that loved one, you will hate each other, for love is contingent upon God.  
Hell, properly understood, does not allow for this.[4]            
One question that I’ve received about my definitions of Heaven, Hell, and God, is about continued existence in Hell. If God is life and existence, then how do people continue to exist in the absence of God. Remember when I talked about God as absolute, I said that God gives us a measure of autonomous existence. This enables us to exist within God without being subsumed by God’s existence.[5] Our reality is grounded in God’s over-arching reality, but we are able to exist independently of God.

Next week, I’d like to go deeper into the nature of Heaven as a the Kingdom of God which is both already here and not yet consummated.

[1] Think of the old temples of Judaism, needed to mediate the presence of God to the people, and filled with that presence like a cloud. Now there is no more mediation needed for the people of God can commune with God directly and immediately.
[2] There is no shadow or night in Heaven, which means that light is all surrounding, all encompassing. Where does that light come from; well, no sun is needed because God is the source of light, which is to say that God is all surrounding.
[3] Biblically speaking, water is a symbol which may commonly represent the Spirit of God.
[4] The Far Side © Gary Larson
[5] Langdon Gilkey uses this logic to avoid either dualism on the one hand or monism on the other.

1 comment:

  1. I believe you also forgot numerous archeological references to Iowa in particular as the physical location of hell, much like the upper Tigris and Euphrates is the location of Eden. ;)