Heaven full of sorrow

When it comes to pinning down Christians in America about what, exactly, can we expect after we die – the answers are all over the map, especially for those who aren’t going to make it to the “good” place.

Hell is a fun subject. The Southern Baptist Convention loves Hell, and takes great pains to describe its existence in their statement of faith:
X. Last Things
God, in His own time and in His own way, will bring the world to its appropriate end. According to His promise, Jesus Christ will return personally and visibly in glory to the earth; the dead will be raised; and Christ will judge all men in righteousness. The unrighteous will be consigned to Hell, the place of everlasting punishment. The righteous in their resurrected and glorified bodies will receive their reward and will dwell forever in Heaven with the Lord.

Isaiah 2:4; 11:9; Matthew 16:27; 18:8-9; 19:28; 24:27,30,36,44; 25:31-46; 26:64; Mark 8:38; 9:43-48; Luke 12:40,48; 16:19-26; 17:22-37; 21:27-28; John 14:1-3; Acts 1:11; 17:31; Romans 14:10; 1 Corinthians 4:5; 15:24-28,35-58; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Philippians 3:20-21; Colossians 1:5; 3:4; 1 Thessalonians 4:14-18; 5:1ff.; 2 Thessalonians 1:7ff.; 2; 1 Timothy 6:14; 2 Timothy 4:1,8; Titus 2:13; Hebrews 9:27-28; James 5:8; 2 Peter 3:7ff.; 1 John 2:28; 3:2; Jude 14; Revelation 1:18; 3:11; 20:1-22:13.
Other religious denominations are a bit fuzzier about what Hell really means. Methodists are harder to pin down on what Hell is, and liberal denominations of Christians will say that Hell is what sinners do to themselves after death – they will merely “separate” themselves from God.

The Catholics teach the doctrine of Hell and insist that other religions that teach that Hell isn’t so scary are teaching heresy:

The doctrine of hell is so frightening that numerous heretical sects end up denying the reality of an eternal hell. The Unitarian-Universalists, the Seventh-Day Adventists, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Christadelphians, the Christian Scientists, the Religious Scientists, the New Agers, and the Mormons—all have rejected or modified the doctrine of hell so radically that it is no longer a serious threat. In recent decades, this decay has even invaded mainstream Evangelicalism, and a number of major Evangelical figures have advocated the view that there is no eternal hell—the wicked will simply be annihilated.

But the eternal nature of hell is stressed in the New Testament. For example, in Mark 9:47–48 Jesus warns us, "[I]t is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where the worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched." And in Revelation 14:11, we read: "And the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever; and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name."

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, ‘eternal fire.’ The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs" (CCC 1035).
The History of Hell” by Alice K. Turner is a great book about how different religions have thought about Hell over the ages. The Zoroastrians had a Hell where the condemned were allowed a second chance at salvation, when at the final cosmic battle between good and evil, when the savior (born of a virgin impregnated by Zoroaster) would charge into Hell and forgive penitent sinners. (Hm. Do parts of that seem familiar?)

The Zoroastrians are somewhat unusual in that they taught that Hell wasn’t eternal for everyone. Most modern Christian religions, liberal or conservative, teach that Hell is forever. I have heard that some churches teach that complete annihilation comes to those who sin or do not believe - that the soul just "ceases to exist", but the churches that teach this are usually liberal, nondenominational, and decidedly in the minority.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle wrote a book called, “Inferno” which is a science-fiction / fantasy take on “Inferno”, the first book of the Divine Comedy written by Dante Alighieri. I read Niven and Pournelle’s version before I read the Dante’s. If you have a choice, I recommend doing so – it makes it somewhat easier to understand what is happening in Dante’s “Inferno”.

The biggest difference between the two texts is that Dante’s Hell is eternal, while Niven / Pournelle’s Hell has a way out. From Niven and Pournelle’s version:
“You don’t get it. Every torture in Hell was too much too late. Punishment? But it’s infinite punishment for things that are little in comparison. …”

“… There’s only one possible excuse for Hell, and I almost missed it in the ravings of a crazy psychiatrist. It has to be the final training ground. If nothing can get a soul into Heaven in its life, there’s still Hell, God’s last attempt to get his attention. … If Hell won’t make a man yell for [God’s] help, then it was still worth a try.
Infinite punishment. If you believe in an eternal Hell, with eternal punishment, then you must believe that God is a sadist. (Niven and Pournelle put it, ""We're in the hands of infinite power and infinite sadism") This leads to the biggest problem with Heaven.

Bob Smith (yes, that’s his real name) runs a web site called NormalBobSmith.com. Bob is an Atheist who has made a living off of Jesus, and he’s had a lot of fun doing it. Because of this he gets a lot of hate email – thousands of emails! (Warning to the religious – do NOT click on the last two links if you can’t stand to see your religion mocked.)

One question that Bob has been asking, over and over, deals with one of the problems with Heaven. None of his correspondents have been able to deal with this question in any way that he, or I, find satisfactory.

Let’s see how I can word this….
As a parent you die and end up in Heaven. Your beloved child (or children) dies (eventually) and ends up in Hell. Your child wasn’t evil, just a non-believer. She or he was a loving, good person – but due to a lack of faith or belief, or just not making the grade, she or he is doomed to Hell for the rest of eternity.

The question is: How can you enjoy your eternity in Heaven knowing that your beloved child or children are being punished for the rest of eternity? Won’t it haunt you to know that they are in a “lake of fire” or in whatever punishment you believe they are being subjected?
How can it be Heaven if you feel sorrow, pain, regret, panic and despair over the punishment of your child?

Those without children can’t get out of this so easily – replace “Child” with “Parent” or “Loved one”.

Or spouse.

Even if you have no one, even if you've managed to gain no friends, and never knew your family before you died and ascended to Heaven, won’t the inherent good in you result in your eternal mourning over those lost souls?

Pardon my hyperbole, but how can anyone enjoy teatime in Heaven knowing that their tea is boiled over burning sinners in a lake of fire?

Maybe you are one of the lucky Christians who believe that Hell isn’t eternal, or perhaps you believe in Niven and Pournelle’s Hell, a Hell that has an "escape hatch". Perhaps you believe that eventually the eternal torture will stop. Or perhaps you believe in “Hell Lite” where the sinners merely condemn themselves to eternal separation from God. Maybe that makes the thought of your loved ones not being with you in Heaven easier to bear.

Maybe that’s more acceptable than eternal sadism.


Anonymous said...

All of your questions and concerns I believe are answered in scripture. These are legitimate questions - and deserve thoughtful answers. As a follower I wonder the same things about family, friends and loved ones. Maybe this is naive or seems silly to an atheist - but the kind of love that I have for my friends is precisely why I am passionate about telling them about Jesus.

Just because the question is tough or doesn't make sense to us doesn't make it false however. A lot of things don't make sense to me - but they are true none the less.

Love your blog!

Anonymous said...

I'm really only asking one question here Dave. Will you be able to enjoy your Heavenly reward knowing one of your loved ones is suffering eternally in Hell?

I haven't found the answer in scripture. If you have, I'd love to know about it.

asgromo said...

I'd assume that in heaven you just stop caring! Certainly you can imagine a place so profoundly perfect it will conquer your deepest worries or fears, win you over despite your ethical concerns... It may not be long before we have drugs that do that. Why wouldn't god figure it out?

I mean, I wouldn't want to believe any of this crap for a second, of course.

Anonymous said...

I was told by one of my old preachers that in Heaven family is meaningless. You are no longer a wife or husband, son or daughter - and no longer have the same concerns about them.

This led to other questions - who is God to tell me who I don't consider to be my brother or sister? I have a sister by blood, and two step-brothers. What about two friends who consider themselves to be brothers?

If families are so easily dissolved by God then friendships would be too. Love between spouses and love between friends would cease to have meaning.

If God is capable of destroying love, then what else is he capable of?

asgromo said...

I was pretty sure the average monotheistic God is capable of anything at all, by definition.

I mean, I don't think any religious person has a valid argument for how the Godlike behavior they believe in makes any coherent sense, on human terms.

And I find it basically depressing that people would enjoy believing in something that, on human terms, doesn't make any sense.

Let alone, you know, that we can't draw any conclusions about it because we can't see any of it taking place, anyway.

I mean, I only want to imply how blatantly dead-ended this line of questioning is.

AmberKatt said...

I've heard passages like Revelation 21:4 used as inferences that God will take away the pain of losing loved ones to Hell. Don't know if this meant you wouldn't remember them anymore, or if you wouldn't care about them anymore... or perhaps that you'd fully understand "God's Point Of View" and agree with him that they deserved to be there.

But I read something somewhere else, back in the latter part of my "believing days," that said God had to love you at least as much as the person who loved you most. And that that meant that God was much more merciful than we finite humans gave him credit for, even in the Bible. This same person made the very valid point that we become like the god we worship... and if we are hateful, judgemental, cruel, exclusionary, etc, then we have a very wrong picture in our minds of God... or we are not worshipping the "True God."

Nowadays, that's the bit that makes the most sense to me, even though I don't hold those religious beliefs any more.

AmberKatt said...

By the way, what circle of Hell is that represented in that painting? (It's been quite a while since I last read Inferno, but I don't recognize the punishment depicted... except for it's very obvious sadomasochisticly homoerotic overtones! I have friends who would think that painting looks like a fun time. *g* )

Anonymous said...

The Painting is from Frans Fracken II, a Baroque painter from Germany. He and his brother, Hieronymus II, were painters with similar styles and a fascination of the human nude.

This isn't a painting of Dante's Inferno, it is titled, "The Damned Cast into Hell".

Artists who lived during a prudish era, or at a prudish location, seemed to frequently paint "religious" themes that contained nudes. I think it probably kept them out of jail, or worse, for offending the sensibilities of those in power. Who can object to a beautiful, but nude, Eve in the Garden of Eden?

Of course I could be completely mistaken, but I'll bet I'm not too far off.

AmberKatt said...

No, I meant the second painting you have there, "Dante et Virgile aux Enfers"... the one with the redheaded guy sucking on the dark-haired guy's neck.

Anonymous said...

Oh! That work is by Bouguereau - one of my top 3 favorite artists.

You might translate the title as "Dante and Virgil in Hell" - which doesn't say much about which circle of the Inferno they are in.

However, they are violent, so we can assume they are in the 7th circle. There is no river of boiling blood, so we can assume they are not in the outer ring. There are no trees, so we know they are not suicides. It also seems fairly obvious that they are not blasphemers or sodomites, and they are not sitting down, so they are not of the inner ring of the 7th circle.

My guess? They are of the outer ring of the 7th circle, and Bouguereau just didn't show the boiling blood, or they are sodomites, from the inner ring, and that's a "love bite".

AmberKatt said...

Hmm... I thought it might be the latter, but after some browsing in Wikipedia, I think perhaps it depicts the wrathful souls in the Fifth Circle, instead. Wikipedia and other sites describe the wrathful as being condemned to violently attack each other on the surface of the River Styx.

John said...

Methodists are harder to pin down on what Hell is

UMC doctrine is very sketchy on eschatology, but Wesley was an amillenialist (although that term only emerged a century later). He thought that people, upon death, went to "the abode of the dead" -- I can't remember the actual Greek term, but that's how it translates into English. It's kind of a holding cell for humanity, divided into pleasant and unpleasant halves. Wesley said that the end time would occur suddenly and without warning. Christ would appear and a physical resurrection of the dead would take place out of the abode of the dead, and then a final judgment. Hell, as Wesley defined it, is something that will only be realized upon the last judgment, as a final place for the damned.

Eschatology wasn't a subject that Wesley dealt with much, and this tendency is strongly carried out in modern Methodism. That's why Methodists are hard to pin down on the subject of Hell. It's just not something that was ever a central focus of the movement.

AmberKatt said...

Well, regardless of which Circle of Hell Bouguereau was depicting (what do you think about it portraying the wrathful souls in teh Fifth Circle, btw?), this post has piqued my interest in reading Dante again. And coincidentally, I'd also only just started reading the book The Dante Club, about a serial killer who murders his victims in ways depicting the various punishments in Dante's Inferno. So now I ~have~ to read The Divine Comedy itself, again.

Funny I'd never heard of Bouguereau before, though... I must be slipping up in my art appreciation. *g* I do enjoy your "Friday at the Atelier" series!

(Ah, but I knew I'd seen that one painting before this, though! heheheh....)