Heaven and Hell
The title raises a question that lives in the minds of many, especially in our times. Heaven and hell — is that still possible? Is this not some outmoded view of a past era, something to which believers nowadays are no longer bound?
Statistical data from 1986 show that 12% of people who are otherwise active in their church life, no longer believe in life after death. When we look at the data for the general population of the Netherlands, 48% does not believe in it. In our present time we meet a strongly anti-metaphysical tendency. This means that people do not want to know about another reality than the visible and tangible reality. Anything that cannot be proven scientifically, or that cannot be seen or measured with our senses or instruments, is relegated to the realm of fables. People no longer believe in life after death, not in angels or devils, nor in the existence of God.
The Traditions Are Slipping
Churches are also not immune to the freezing cold of this worldview. For a long time the question as to whether there was life after death, was not even a point of discussion in the Christian churches. The church fathers’ frank and clear expressions about this topic were generally accepted and had everyone’s approval. Tertullian, who lived around the year 200, wrote a book about the resurrection of the body and started with these words, “The resurrection of the dead is the confidence of the Christian; on account of that faith we are what we are.” Two hundred years later Augustine claimed that without faith in the resurrection of the dead you could not be a Christian (in his great volume The City of God, Vol. XX, 20). The Confession of Athanasius, from the 5th century, includes these words at the end, “And those who have done good will go to eternal life, those who have done evil to eternal fire. This is the catholic faith. Unless a man believes it faithfully and steadfastly, he cannot be saved” (Art. 41, 42). The Church of the centuries has always clung to the twofold destination of the history of man: either to eternal well or to eternal woe.
In our days books are published in which Christian theologians discuss together whether it does not end in death. Most theologians who participate in such discussions reject the idea that “dead is dead”. But is it not telling that the article of faith about eternal life is even under discussion among Christians? In our time many people in our churches assume that they can be Christians without faith in life after death. I quote, “Faith in a life after this life is under discussion in many ways. A significant group of Christians no longer believes this; it all ends with death, they say; it is quite possible to believe in God without expecting anything after this life. Others believe in reincarnation. There are differences of insight — both inside and outside of the churches—about the question: does it end with death? People have their questions about this matter.”
Has the questioning, searching and doubting “faith” come in the place of the firm confession of the things that among us are fully true and certain?
Hell Is Losing Ground
I provided some statistical data earlier. It is remarkable that there are always more people who believe that there is a heaven than those who think that hell exists. Hell scores rather poorly in opinion polls. Less than 20% of people polled in 1986 believed that there is a hell, over against the 36% who believed there is a heaven. The question, “In the hereafter, will there be a judgment about good and evil people?” resulted in a 23% “yes”, but no less than 60% responded with “no”. There is obviously a significant aversion to the idea of a judgment and of retribution after this life. Humanly speaking this can be well understood, even though we may ask ourselves if it is not the case that people attempt to silence the voice of conscience.
Among modern theologians there is a tendency to join the public opinion in these trends. In various writings of the last few years the question is raised whether the church should possibly give up its representation of hell, or at least to reinterpret it in a radical way. This plea is connected not only to the modern anti-metaphysical tendency, but just as much to new developments in the thinking of modern man. To a certain extent you could call it a turning point.
Perhaps we can state that these days we do experience a turnaround as far as that anti-metaphysical tendency is concerned. More voices are being raised that speak of a life after this life, for example based on the so-called near-death experiences. From many angles we hear testimonies about appearances of bright figures, angels, and about receiving messages from another dimension. The books of, e.g., Raymond A. Moody Jr. have quite a following. The man in the street is convinced that there is more about heaven and earth than what can be observed by our senses. The interest in the occult and the mysterious is on the increase, and the media gladly feed into it. All of this however, does not mean in the least that people return to a Christian view on the eternal destination of man.
It is remarkable that in the last years several Christian theologians are starting to defend the idea of reincarnation. We can think for example of a remonstrant theologian, Dr. Joanne Klink. In her book, “Het onbekende venster” [The unknown window] she refers to all sorts of testimonies of little children, which she claims go back to memories of former ways of existence. Also the radio pastor of the IKON, Rev. Hans Stolp, explains in an interview that he has arrived to a new (liberating, according to him) insight that each person returns several times to earth, such that through these successive lives he is being prepared for eternity.
Hell As a Temporary Phase
Dr. R. Kranenborg, who authored some books about reincarnation, shows how the increase of faith in reincarnation is connected to and flows from the significant objections within the traditional views in Christianity. Can this brief life between cradle and grave really be determinant of a never-ending eternity? The contrast between heaven and hell is so definite, so absolute. Is it not unmerciful to base such a definite difference on just the one short life that man leads here on earth? You can never repeat it; you can never fix it again. It is deemed to be unjust, even sadistic and cruel, when people would be lost for all eternity based on this one life.
Kranenborg, who personally does not share faith in reincarnation, finds in this criticism on the Christian representation of hell, a reason to yet look for other opinions and interpretations of hell. He points to the idea of a blessed universalism, in which in the end it all turns out right, for all and everyone, even if prior to this there may have been a kind of purgatory or a time of cleansing.
The idea of hell as the penultimate reality, as a place of temporary terror and conviction of one’s conscience, is being advanced through questioning or challenging by theologians such as Karl Barth, H. Berkhof, and in a more popularized way by A.J.R. Brussaard, J. Bonda and H.G. Fonteyn. After a stay in hell the blessedness of the new heaven and the new earth would still follow.
The World as Hell
Others go a step further. In their view, hell does not exist in something hereafter, but exclusively as something in this world, where people can turn things into hell for each other. Therefore, when the church preaches hell and damnation, this must be understood in terms of radical criticism of our culture, and as a very concrete appeal to repentance here and now. It concerns the repentance of the crimes, organized by the mafia or the state, of gambling and sex clubs, of the armaments industry, poison gas, genocide and religious pride that lead to repression and discrimination. Those are seen as much more serious problems than a potential hell and damnation in the hereafter.
A Dissenting Voice
These types of tendencies in the direction of a general atonement are floating in the air, and find little resistance on a theological level. If someone were to do so, he can count on the vitriol of anger being poured on him or her. How dare you, as a Christian theologian, still write and speak of eternal damnation? Dr. B. Wentsel is one of the contemporary theologians who gives expression to a dissenting voice. He answers the question, “Will the blessedness of the chosen not be violated by the knowledge that a great part of humanity finds itself in a state of eternal misery?” by stating simply, “The believers will be entirely on God’s side.” Wentsel writes correctly: “We need to keep in mind that many (i.e., the majority) will travel the broad way unto their ruin... The true church (few) will always be the minority, belonging to the trodden and downcast... Repent, all ye supporters of general atonement, of the error of your dreams!”
Andreas Symank writes poignantly what will happen when the biblical high voltage line is being eliminated by the doctrine of general and universal atonement: “When love is stretched to such an extent that it has to inevitably reach everyone, it stops being love; the indicator of the balance of love shoots way up because it loses all weight.”
It hardly needs to be said that we can only speak of hell with great hesitation and reluctance. Also when we speak of heaven it is well to realize that the Bible uses imagery that speaks of a reality that exceeds our comprehension. However, this applies even more when it pertains to hell. In the course of the centuries the required reluctance has not always been observed. Especially common preachers of the Middle Ages, but not exclusively they, are infamous for their lively depictions of hellish terrors and torments. Painters such as Jeroen Bosch gave expression on their linen canvas of what was living among the church people, of nightmarish representations of the last judgment and of hell. Over against this we meet the somber yet sober biblical witness of the terrifying reality of an eternal forsakenness.
Beside carefulness we also need a good measure of compassion. Some people maintain doggedly the confession of the two ways, but nothing is noticeable in their life of a holy affection. Paul knew the terror of the Lord, and also because of this he was driven to a fiery proclamation of the gospel and a loaded ministration of the atonement (see 2 Cor. 5:11-22).
The well-known author C.S. Lewis said, “There is no doctrine that I would rather scrap from Christianity, if I had the ability, than this one.” It is understandable that even a believer may think at times, “if only there were no hell”. But Lewis knew that he could not remove this doctrine of the state of being eternally lost. It is too clearly taught and revealed in Scripture. In the Gospels alone there are no less than 75 expressions about hell and eternal fire, coming from the mouth of Jesus himself. We need to add something to this. Scripture speaks with such seriousness about sin as a brutal rebellion against the good and righteous God, that it becomes clear to our faith that the instruction of the Holy Spirit will be confirmed when we as sinners are deserving of temporary and eternal punishment. The bloody severity of sin and of the stiff-necked unbelief, is such that in this manner an eternal damnation of the sinner is invoked. God’s hurt and despised love can also express itself in anger. Hell is correctly termed as the consequence of God’s rejected love. In this way you can even go so far as to say that God reveals himself even in hell as love, but this is an aggrieved love. And that is his wrath. Once again we give the floor to Lewis who says, “In the end, there are only two kinds of people: those who say to God, ‘Your will be done’, and those to whom God will ultimately say, ‘your will be done’. All who end up in hell have chosen that destination for themselves.”
The Call Of the Believer
We are dealing with a harrowing reality. When I was still a young student and received instruction from Prof. Dr. H. Berkhof, I was touched by what he said about the doctrine of the eternal state of being lost. “If Christians truly believe this,” said Berkhof, “then I do not understand why Jehovah’s Witnesses are going door to door to warn people of this terrible future.” This expression made an impression on me, and it has never left me. Not because I would admire the method of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but because the finger is pointed correctly to the lack of compassion and affection that many believers show regarding their unrepented fellow travellers on the road to eternity.
Heaven and hell — is that still possible? Do we still believe this today? If that is the case, we will work our salvation with fear and trembling, and in sincere compassion for our neighbour we will witness of the only Name given under heaven unto our salvation. It is the Name of Jesus, who saves us by his blood from eternal condemnation, and who leads us by his Spirit to the eternal blessedness. By faith in his name the threat of hell disappears, and our perspective of heaven is calling us, yes, to the completion of the kingdom of God: a new heaven and earth in which righteousness will dwell.