When life is good, we enjoy experiencing it, but life is sometimes filled with problems. When it becomes painful or debilitating, we long for a balm to soothe our open wounds. We thirst for what lies beyond our short lives here on planet earth. Is brokenness and incompleteness all there is to life, or will we eventually find more? Is there assurance of life after death, of heaven, of paradise, of an afterlife?
We long for more. We desire a fully enjoyable life with freedom to fulfill what it means to be truly human. We long for beauty, deeper meaning, and a life of finer quality than the ordinary grain, one that moves beyond the horizon of brokenness, suffering, and death. In the joys and desires of this life, we catch wonderful glimpses of what life is meant to be and what is to come. In our relationships with others, we forget ourselves as we fall into the joy of companionship. We yearn, however, for a fellowship that never ends, to ever expand our ability to love and to be loved. We also long to be part of something much bigger than ourselves. Life invites us to explore the world beyond and witness hints of heaven in the awe-filled moments of every vivid sunset, expansive ocean, peaceful forest glade, roaring waterfall, and grand mountain—to contemplate the wonder of existence itself. The very notion of death arouses anxiety and disappointment. We cry out for ever-increasing joy and seek hope for a better future. A longing for a life of plentitude pulses within us. In every moment, we can find signs that point the way to a better world.
Have you ever wondered what meets us on the other side? When we die, do we lose all consciousness and cease to be, or do we enter a partial existence in which we retain some elements of ourselves? Will we fly up to an ethereal heaven where souls enjoy the pleasures of paradise, or will we perhaps descend into the eternal torments of hell? Must we worry about living with a wrathful and exacting God who inflicts eternal pain upon those who do not believe, or can we question the dogma handed down through traditions and religious institutions? Maybe God is not as we have made Him out to be. What if we have mistaken views about God and the afterlife?
Many Christians treat the afterlife more like a penalty, imagining it occurring in a spiritual realm characterized as immaterial and boring yet robust in its descriptions of material hellfire and suffering as the saints watch from afar. This perspective may encourage ones denial of an afterlife. Atheist Isaac Asimov once boasted, “I don’t believe in an afterlife, so I don’t have to spend my whole life fearing hell or fearing heaven even more. For whatever the tortures of hell, I think the boredom of heaven would be even worse.”
Disembodied souls floating around on white clouds is an uninspiring vision to be sure, as is the suffering of hell, another notion that has greatly damaged people’s faith. We may try to disconnect the suffering of the dammed from our images of the afterlife, but the idea that these horrible torments forever increase the saints’ happiness has been the dominant tradition. The Judeo-Christian perspective, however, does offer some fascinating alternatives. An afterlife without a resurrected body fit for an unfailing life would not be enjoyable. While descriptions of souls going to heaven or hell isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Bible, it presents a completely different and new reality of bodily happiness and fulfillment that awaits us in the life to come. God will remake both heaven and earth and join them together forever. In this embrace, God affirms the material in a new heaven-and-earth experience, where life is bursting with plentitude. This embodied heaven includes the best we experience here and so much more, returning our lives to a forever-flourishing existence.
Yet, if the life beyond this one is so good, why is there a hell? The wonderfulness of eternal life is only as good as the rationale our theology provides for the existence of hell. Until we explain hell’s purpose, we miss the point of heaven. Who wants to live in the shadow of an angry God who eternally tortures His enemies in the fires of hell? If I reject God’s gift of what is truly human and flourishing, what is left for me? Will I be sent to eternal torment in the fiercest fires ever kindled? I don’t believe it!
In Revelation’s close, we are given a picture of life pulsing toward its full potential, where “death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (Revelation 21:4, NRSV). Suffering and pain will not persist for all eternity. It will be finished! This passage presents a theological affirmation: God will swallow up death and suffering forever (Isaiah 25:8). Might it also rule out eternal suffering and pain in hell? Perhaps Christians have unfairly portrayed God as an unrelenting tormentor. Might there be an alternative? Jesus tells of two gates, one that leads to life and one that leads to destruction (Matthew 7:13–14). We have a choice, and if our choice leads to annihilation, it is only because God values human dignity and freedom, for it is impossible to separate a flourishing life from a life of freedom. God will always leave us freedom to choose, whatever the alternatives.
What are your thoughts?
What do you think will happen if you say “no” to the Giver of abundant life forever?
Craig Ashton Jr.