My Sunday school class has transitioned from its study of the Book of Revelation to an broader exploration of the topics raised by the book and in particular its ending. And so we ended up talking about the afterlife in general, and hell in particular, last Sunday.
I offered a survey of the development of the doctrine of the afterlife within the Bible. The truth is, there isn't much of a development throughout the Hebrew Bible. There are authors who assume that death is the end of life, that any sort of shadowy existence in sheol is not worthy of being called “life.” Some indicate this through their silence, as for instance Amos and the other prophets who warn of judgments coming upon Judah and Israel within history, but never warn of judgment in an afterlife. Others actually verbalize their assumptions about this, as in the Book of Job, when Job is depicted as saying (7:7-10):
Remember that my life is but breath;My eye will not again see good.The eye of him who sees me will behold me no longer;Your eyes will be on me, but I will not be.When a cloud vanishes, it is gone,So he who goes down to Sheol does not come up.He will not return again to his house,Nor will his place know him anymore.
The character of Job doesn't merely ignore an afterlife, but directly denies one, and rules out anything like a resurrection in particular.
The presentation of judgment in an afterlife involving resurrection enters the Jewish Bible in what is probably the last of its contents to be composed, namely the Book of Daniel. That is in response to the persecution of those who obeyed the Jewish Torah during the rule of Antiochus Epiphanes. It was no longer merely the problem that bad things sometimes happen to good people. Now it was the case that those who obey what they considered the Law of God were the ones singled out for harm and execution, while those who forsook the Torah flourished. In response, some Jews developed the belief that even death could not prevent God from doing justice.
All that is before we get to the time when Christianity emerged. Judaism in that time reflected the range of views expressed in the Hebrew Bible, and more. Christianity sided pretty much unanimously with Daniel and the Pharisees in affirming that there would be a resurrection and judgment.
On the details, however, there are still some signs of diversity. Would God eventually reconcile all things to himself? Would the punishment in the afterlife be everlasting? Would it involve annihilation or eternal torment? Many make assumptions about the nature of New Testament views on these topics which are not always justified by the actual texts and what they explicitly say.
In the case of the Book of Revelation, rather than people “going to heaven,” after the final resurrection, the righteous inhabit a new Jerusalem on a new Earth, and notwithstanding the casting of people into a lake of fire, at the end of the book, there are apparently people still living outside the city and persisting in unrighteousness. And as far as the book says explicitly, it is not clear that the opportunity for them to change their ways and enter is past.
Of course, what the new Jerusalem represents would need further discussion. It descends from heaven dressed like a bride, and there is reference to the bride of the Lamb. Elsewhere in the New Testament it is the church that is the bride of Christ. And so is this heavenly city a symbol of the church?
There are lots of reasons for rejecting the notion of hell, and in particular hell as eternal punishment, on Christian grounds. If the idea of God as Father is to be a meaningful metaphor, however limited we say human language is when it comes to talking about God, then the fact that
none few of us would ever respond to the shortcomings and rebelliousness of our children by torturing them forever is a relevant consideration. The New Testament's teaching on not seeking rewards is also relevant, since for many Christians, it is in fact all about the rewards, just heavenly rather than earthly ones. Most parents hope that our children will outgrow the “because I said so” stage and do what is right not because of threatened consequences if they do not, but just because it is right.
And of course, with the late arrival of notions of afterlife in the Biblical tradition, and the depictions in the New Testament of Jesus going back behind later developments to original intentions, it might be appropriate to say something like “Daniel gave you the doctrine of the afterlife because of the hardness of your hearts. But it was not so in the beginning…”
More could be said on this topic, but this post has grown long enough. I will leave you with one additional thought. If we include the first part of John 8 in the New Testament, despite its not having been an original part of the Gospel of John, then might we not have a basis for viewing the following as a fundamentally Christian view of a “last judgment”? If not, then why not?
At the final judgment, Jesus appeared and all the saints gathered around him, and he sat them down on thrones to judge the unbelievers. Those sinners were brought in and made to stand before the group. The saints said to Jesus, “Lord, these people were caught in the act of committing adultery, murder, theft, and other such sins. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such people. Now what do you say?”But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.At this, the saints who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the rest of humankind still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked them, “Where are they? Has no one condemned you?”“No one, sir,” they said.“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”