This is the seventh part in a series called “Simple Faith”, examining the simple concepts of the Christian faith. You can read the previous posts by following these links: Simple Faith, God, The Bible, Sin and Death, and Jesus, and Livin’ la vida… Christian.
Note: The picture above is me with our third son when he was born (more than a decade ago).
The final section in our simple faith series relates to what happens to us after we die. This is an incredibly complex topic, in no small part because we have no way to actually study the afterlife or to have any sort of objective certainty about what is coming next. Our ideas are based entirely on what is revealed in the Bible and the interpretations people put on that information. It is also the most difficult topic because of our emotional reaction against hell. In fact, these things have made this post incredibly difficult to write – this is probably my fifth or sixth version.
The simple concept that I want to explain is the following: We have hope of eternal life instead of death. This might seem like an odd way to address this topic. After all, I don’t mention heaven or hell or the concepts of sin and punishment or rewards. I do that for a simple reason – as much as we might speculate about heaven and hell, I think the Bible primarily offers a stark contrast between life and death, with heaven and hell sort of being the symbols of each (I say symbols without necessarily meaning that they don’t really exist). So what can we say about what happens after we die?
At one level, it’s very simple. In its simplest form, we could just say that the wicked will be punished and the good will be rewarded. The wicked will face eternal death and/or destruction while the righteous will receive life. It’s really just that simple. And yet, it’s hard to just leave it there – I feel the need to walk through how we got to that point. So here we go.
- God is the Giver of life. He created us and gave us life, and He is the one who sustains it in every moment. This theme runs through all of Scripture.
- Sin is basically the destruction of good and life that God created. So as we sin, we bring destruction and death into the world and our own life. Left to our own devices, even if we struggle to overcome sin, it will still eventually destroy us.
- Jesus came into the world to do multiple things: First, he accepted the punishment that sin deserves; second, he destroyed death through his perfect life and his resurrection; third, he made it possible for us to be connected to God through the Holy Spirit. This allows us to be connected to the giver of life, and will eventually be what allows us to be changed after our death. By accepting Jesus, we are basically saying that we hate the sin and evil in this world and in ourselves, and we want to be saved and changed. After our death, this change will be completed – whatever that looks like!
- Even in the New Testament and even in Paul’s works (Paul, who stridently declares salvation through faith), we are constantly told that God looks at our heart and that we will be judged for our works. This does not, I believe, negate Jesus at all. If anything, it is just a simple way of expressing the situation that takes into account the fact that many people will never hear about Jesus, or may be taught incorrect things about him, etc. We will be judged based on what we know (God’s power seen through nature, our understanding of morality, etc.) and whether we have responded to that in faith (believing and living according to what we have understood) or denying that and living our own way. But it’s still only Jesus who paid for our sins and Jesus who restores our relationship with God and saves us. And we still only are saved by faith – even if that faith is very incomplete.
Note: I need to emphasize that although it seems likely to me that some will be saved even without knowing Jesus, it also seems incredibly dangerous to know about Jesus and not accept him. If he is God’s chosen path for salvation and we reject him, we are essentially saying that we do not need his help to obtain eternal life, or that we are good enough to save our selves. It is a way of rejecting God and saying that we would rather follow our own way. It is a highly inadvisable path to follow.
- In the end, God is the one who judges us. This is not a cruel tyrant making random decisions. It is a Father and King who is revealing what is really in our hearts responding in grace and love to those who desire and seek what is right, and anger and wrath to those who reject Him and His ways, choosing to seek only their own power, control, benefit, and desires. I hope it’s pretty obvious why people like that wouldn’t be welcome in heave. They would quickly turn heaven back into a world just as bad as the one we presently have. It is also important to note that many who seek only their own way can appear to be pretty good people, but what lies underneath is not so nice. In the same way, some can appear pretty ugly, perhaps for their upbringing, poor teaching, or bad life circumstances, but they honestly desire what is good. This is why we leave those judgments up to God.
- Heaven is spoken of as the place of life: all good, no sin, the presence of God, and the tree of life, among many other images. It is what we were created for. For those willing to acknowledge God as both their King and Father, it will be glorious. But many will never be willing to make that confession. Again, heaven would be hell for them, and they would make it awful for everyone else.
- Hell is consistently described in terms of darkness, gnashing of teeth, weeping, and destruction. It is hard to know how much of that is to be taken literally (as has been most common throughout church history) and how much is to be taken figuratively. Some Bible verses emphasize the concept of eternal punishment (Matthew 25:41, Revelation 19:20, 20:10-15), while others emphasize the concept of permanent destruction (Matthew 10:28, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). Perhaps it’s even a combination of both – punishment that eventually leads to destruction as sin slowly destroy our soul. There’s a lot of debate about the exact nature of hell. The main point, though, is that those who are “in hell” are not the poor innocent people begging for mercy, but those who have already set their hearts against God. They will not be begging to get into heaven – or if they are, it would only be so that they could do whatever they want and turn it into their own kingdom, not so that they could actually work with God in making something beautiful.
I think that about sums it up. At then end of all of that, we still come back to the simple concept – that the good will be rewarded and the evil will be punished. Those who seek God and life will find it. Those who seek their own way and follow the ways of death will also find that. And while God seems willing to judge people on what they know, He earnestly desires that all would know about Jesus – the one who conquered death so that we may have life, the one who took the punishment for our sins, the one who offers us a relationship with God. He is our Saviour, and the one who makes eternal life possible. Through him we have hope for eternal life instead of death.