…According to Me. From my personal experience. Really it was just a clickbaity title. Sorry. I’m ashamed (though apparently not enough to change it).
Heaven and hell, two places that you probably had a good idea about even before you became a Christian and, of course, the pop-cultural representation of them is dramatically off. Despite that, in my experience, they don’t get preached on much, in fact I will go out on a limb and say that one of the reasons maybe that we have let pop-culture do it for us. They’re so ubiquitous we don’t need to explain it, right? Except for the aforementioned being dramatically wrong thing.
When it comes to Hell there is the added reason that it’s rather off-putting. How’re we going to get people to become Christians/join our church with such nasty threats. Indeed in this culture of subjectivism the idea of some kind of deserved punishment is considered unfair, I mean why does God get to decide what’s right or wrong? That’s my job! This leads to a point I wasn’t going to cover and that is a tendency to think we convert people rather than Jesus; we try and cater our message to be more appealing, forgetting that Jesus will work in people’s hearts whether we mention the whole burning in Hell thing or not, so probably best to be honest. Jesus didn’t shy away from the fact.
But I digress.
The first time I considered that all was not as it seemed was a consideration of Heaven and Hell. In the case of Hell it was the whole outer darkness and burning fires. How do you have the two together? In fact, so ensconced in pop culture, I’d never noted that the Bible also described Hell as being a place of darkness (and an abyss). The only description that Hell seems to have in all its versions is the gnashing of teeth (which I find so disturbingly descriptive of true anguish). Does it even exist yet? It’s described as a place for Satan (who is currently on Earth) post-Armageddon. Could it be then that the idea of Hell as we generally hold it is wrong? And I don’t mean in the pop cultural place where Satan lives, but in how we as Christians think of it (though those two may be interchangeable).
Well, what about Heaven then? The first time I questioned that was because of a verse I had heard many, many times and (as I think we do with a lot of our religion) accepted without question. That verse was Revelation 21 verse 1, where John sees a new heaven and a new Earth. Wait, what? Why a new Earth? Aren’t we all going to live in Heaven? That’s what I was taught. In fact we still talk about it in church, that Heaven awaits us and when people die we talk about them going to Heaven, but apparently we’re not going to Heaven, but a new, perfect Earth.
Allow me to digress once again:
Some other things about Heaven that I realise must be true: it’s big. I always think of it as kinda small, like one massive auditorium where God sits on His throne, but in research for a novel I found there were millions of angels (Revelation 5 v11 talks of ten thousand times ten thousand), plus there is war in Heaven so it must be big enough to fit all those angels plus space for battlefields. Perhaps It’s more like Earth then, and if so does it have different geography as Earth does (I also imagine it all in white)? It must do, right? Plains and mountains and such.
Secondly, Heaven can’t be perfect. If it was then Satan could not have sinned and there would not be war. The fact that pride grew in Satan’s ‘heart’ and that at another time angels lusted after human women shows that the free will to sin exists in Heaven.
So where is all of this going? Well, if these two basic understandings (to me) of Heaven and Hell were not really true, what else wasn’t? What else did we preach and learn in church wasn’t strictly true? And if we weren’t teaching the true picture (and let’s face it, when you are preaching to such a mixed bag as a church congregation, you need to keep it simple) then maybe we weren’t getting the complete and true picture of who God is and what it means to follow Him.
Think Psalms, the OG songbook. We often quote it in church as a form of praise, but actually stick your finger on a random verse and you’re just as likely to find a verse about destroying David’s enemies. That’s the real theme for a lot of what David wrote. How about Daniel? Ever heard a sermon from beyond chapter 6 (the den of lions)? I don’t think I have and yet half of the book is about Armageddon.
I have to wonder if the reason Christianity is growing outside of the West is because they don’t have the traditions, all Chinese Christians have is the Bible and they base their faith and their understanding of God and Heaven and Hell and everything on that, whereas in the West we have let church traditions and the definitions of our denominations dictate which parts of the Bible we use; we’ve let popular culture and tradition sculpt our understandings.
In the words of Walter Donovan, “It’s time to ask yourself what you believe.”
(All thoughts are my own and don’t represent BT or Beanyman)