Saturday, September 28, 2013

Are Heaven and Hell Real Places?

As we have seen, Rob Bell, in his controversial book Love Wins, rejects the notion of eternal punishment. In so doing he challenges the traditional notions of heaven and hell as final destinations. Heaven he describes as a kind of state of being, a place where God's will is done; and he notes, quite rightly, that the Bible points to a time in the future when that will take place here on earth. He takes this as a call to make the earth a better place in which to live. " . . . eternal life is less about a kind of time that starts when we die, and more about a quality and vitality of life lived now in connection to God" (Love Wins, p. 59).
    As for hell, Mr. Bell tells us that Jesus uses hyperbole and metaphor "that describe the very real experiences and consequences of rejecting our God-given goodness and humanity. Something we are all free to do, anytime, anywhere, with anyone" (p.73).
    That raises the question, then, are heaven and hell real places after all?
    A lot of what Mr. Bell says about heaven is undoubtedly true, and we do not wish to discount it. The Bible does, in fact, look forward to "the restoration of all things" (Acts 3:21; NKJV), a time when the earth will be reclaimed for righteousness. The "kingdom of heaven" will be established in "the age to come." We must beware of an unbiblical Platonism.
    We would want to add two important qualifications, however. First of all, when Christians die now they go to a place where Christ is already present, "at the right hand of God" (John 14:2,3; Rom. 8:34; II Cor. 4:18-5:2; Phil. 1:21-23). As we have noted, Mr. Bell leaves the question of what happens to us when we die unanswered. But the Bible is quite clear about this subject.
    Secondly, when the kingdom of heaven is finally established on earth, only certain people will be allowed to enter it. (I Cor. 6:9,10; Gal. 5:21; Eph. 5:5). Jesus said, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matt. 4:17). The coming of the kingdom calls for a definite response on our part.
    But what about hell? Is it a real place?
    The physical aspect of hell is a little unclear. Sometimes it is described as "outer darkness" (Matt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30) and sometimes as a "lake of fire" (Rev. 19:20; 20:10,14,15). But one thing is certain: it is a place of torment.
    Mr. Bell spends some time discussing the phrase "eternal punishment" in Matt. 25:46. He notes that the underlying Greek phrase kolasin aionion could be translated "a period of pruning" or "a time of trimming," or "an intense experience of correction" (p. 91). His basis for saying this is that the verb kolazo originally meant "to prune" or "to trim," and the noun aion (aeon) has the basic meaning of "a period of time." Thus he draws the conclusion that the kolasin aionion is a period of time in which we are pruned or corrected, ostensibly to make us better, not destroy us everlastingly.
    The context, however, would indicate otherwise. The scene is the Last Judgment. The nations are divided into two groups, "the sheep" and "the goats." The "sheep," those who showed kindness to others, are invited to "inherit the kingdom" (v. 34). But to the "goats," those who were indifferent to the suffering of others, the "Son of Man" (i.e., the Messiah) says, "Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (p. 41). It is hard to interpret this as meaning anything other than a conscious intent on the part of Christ to punish the wicked for their wrongdoing.
    Thus when we come to Jesus' summary statement in verse 46, He draws a contrast between the "everlasting punishment" of the wicked and the "eternal life" of the righteous. What is "everlasting life"? Jesus, after raising Lazarus from the dead, said, "And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die" (John 11:26). On the other hand we are told in the Book of Revelation that "the smoke of their torment ascends forever and forever; and they have no rest day or night, who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name (Rev. 14:11). It is a terrifying vision, and if leaves little room for escape.
    Mr. Bell says "Our eschatology shapes our ethics" (p. 46), and on this point he is certainly right. We live in an age that is supremely materialistic and secular. Most people in the western world today give little thought to what will happen to them when they die. They live for the present, and they devote their lives to the pursuit of their own individual ambitions and desires. But they ignore the stubborn fact that we must all eventually die. We are on this earth only for a fleeting moment of time, and what then? Mr. Bell offers us no answer to the biggest question of all, the one staring us all in the face.
    Jesus said, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."

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