HEAVEN: FREE FOR ALL? If there’s a good God, then does everyone go to Heaven?

(A little background – this is a talk I gave at our parish study group. I’d been asked to lead a discussion on the question: ‘If there’s a good God, then does everyone go to Heaven – or just Christians?’
I began by laying out pictures of a wide variety of people including members of all the major faith groups, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope, Ian Paisley, Gerry Adams, Fred and Rose West, Myra Hindley, Hitler, Richard Dawkins, a baby in an incubator, an elderly lady a group of ‘hoodies’ on a street corner.
I then put out a picture of God and the three words ‘Saved’, ‘Damned’, and ‘Pending’. I asked the group to sort the pictures out according to traditional Christian beliefs about what happens after death. This produced interesting discussion about who went into which category. The pictures were left in place as the talk continued.)

I want to begin by looking at how what I’ve called the traditional viewpoint on how all this came about. There’s ‘Heaven’ – a place of eternal bliss. There’s Hell – a place of eternal punishment. And for some Christians – especially the Roman Catholics – there’s a halfway house – purgatory – what I’ve called ‘pending’.

This from Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, chapter 1:
‘Our Lord Jesus will punish anyone who doesn’t know God and won’t obey his message. Their punishment will be eternal destruction, and they will be kept far from the presence of our Lord and his glorious strength.’

Then – of course – there’s the well-known passage from chapter 25 of the Matthew gospel about the last judgement – and I’d like to read that in full:
‘Jesus said: When the Son of Man comes in his glory with all his angels, he will sit on his royal throne. The people of all nations will be brought before him, and he will separate them, as shepherds separate their sheep from their goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, “My father has blessed you! Come and receive the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world was created. When I was hungry, you gave me something to eat, and when I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink. When I was a stranger, you welcomed me, and when I was naked, you gave me clothes to wear. When I was sick, you took care of me, and when I was in jail, you visited me.”
Then the ones who pleased the Lord will ask, “When did we give you something to eat or drink? When did we welcome you as a stranger or give you clothes to wear or visit you while you were sick or in jail?”
The king will answer, “Whenever you did it for any of my people, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you did it for me.”
Then the king will say to those on his left, “Get away from me! You are under God’s curse. Go into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels! I was hungry, but you did not give me anything to eat, and I was thirsty, but you did not give me anything to drink. I was a stranger, but you did not welcome me, and I was naked, but you did not give me any clothes to wear. I was sick and in jail, but you did not take care of me.”
Then the people will ask, “Lord, when did we fail to help you when you were hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in jail?”
The king will say to them, “Whenever you failed to help any of my people, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you failed to do it for me.”
Then Jesus said, “Those people will be punished for ever. But the ones who pleased God will have eternal life.”

Artists over the centuries have tried to picture the Last Judgement. In our own church here at Highnam there’s a Victorian painting by Thomas Gambier Parry on the chancel arch which is a vision of heaven – and the words on one side are ‘Come ye blessed of the Father’ – and on the other: ‘Depart ye cursed’. The angels on the right hand side as we look at it are ushering the damned off the scene. Notice that there’s no actual depiction of Hell – maybe that was too much for refined Victorian tastes!

But Fra Angelico – painting about 400 years earlier in 1431 – wasn’t afraid to show us his vision of Hell – and pretty gruesome it is too. There’s all sorts of nasty things going on – people being chopped up, eaten, and boiled in a cauldron and – of course – devils with pitchforks.

So where have these pictures of what Heaven and Hell are like come from?

Well – quite a lot of the imagery of Heaven comes from the Book of Revelation. There’s the vision of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21. We have mental pictures of angels with harps, the crystal sea, the city of gold – and so on.

And Hell? Well – we’ve already had that verse from Matthew 25: ‘Go into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels!’ And a bit earlier in Matthew – chapter 18: ‘If your eye causes you to sin, poke it out and get rid of it. You would be better off to go into life with only one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fires of hell.’ And there are other similar verses.

In the Old Testament, Hell was the underworld – the place of the dead. The word used was ‘Sheol’. In the New Testament it’s the Latin word ‘Hades’ – a translation of Sheol – and simply means ‘the unseen world’ or ‘the grave’. So when – in the creed we say – ‘He descended into Hell’ – it just means – quite simply – the grave. There’s absolutely no suggestion of misery and torment. And some scholars through the ages have seen hell in this sense as an intermediate place between death and resurrection – new life in heaven – the ‘pending’ file if you like. An idea which the Roman Catholic Church developed in it’s teaching about Purgatory – the place where you are purged of your sin before being allowed into Heaven. A sort of holding pen.

The other word which is sometimes translated as Hell is ‘Gehenna’ – and that’s the word which is linked with punishment. If you go to the Church of St Peter in Gallicantu in Jerusalem, the traditional site of the High Priest’s house, and look out from the viewpoint on the roof, you’re looking down into Gehenna – the Valley of Hinnon. This was the city’s rubbish tip and there were fires burning all the time. It became the symbol of a place of punishment. And it’s from there that many of the traditional images have developed. But – of course – much added-to by the medieval church, which wanted to frighten people into believing by threatening them with eternal punishment by devils with pitchforks and all the other horrendous things in that painting by Fra Angelica.

And what we see in that painting are not just the imaginings of a twisted artistic mind. They are things that were actually going on in the real world of Medieval times. The Rector and I were at a lecture just this morning about the religious persecution during the reign of Mary Tudor in the middle of the 16th century. As a Catholic, Mary wanted to get rid of the Protestants and, in a period of about five years, over three hundred men, women and children were put to death. Some were burned at the stake. Others were castrated and disembowelled before being chopped into pieces. I don’t think any were boiled in oil, but you can see that such things were quite normal in medieval times and found their way into the imagery of Hell.

So what are we to make of all this today? Is there somewhere called ‘Heaven’ and somewhere called ‘Hell’? Are we called to account after death and sent to one or the other depending on what we’ve done during our earthly lives? Is it only Christians who are bound for Heaven whilst everyone else is headed for Hell?

Let’s go back to the question which I posed at the start:
‘Heaven: Free for all? If there’s a good God, then does everyone go to Heaven – or just Christians?”

I want to try to unpack that a bit to show you where I stand at the moment. I say ‘at the moment’ because I have changed my thinking since I was a young curate 40 years ago, and I reserve the right to change it again before I die. Mind you – that applies to a lot of what the Church teaches. The Church has changed it’s mind on lots of things over the centuries – because – whatever anyone may say – there are no hard and fast rules. You can prove anything you like by picking odd texts out of the Bible. And many of the Church’s problems and divisions over the last 2000 years have been caused by differing interpretations of the same words in the Bible. The different bits of the Bible were formed in a particular cultural setting. We interpret it from a 21st century cultural setting, just as medieval Christians interpreted it from their cultural setting.

So – on this big question – I think I come down on the side of the ‘Universalists’. That’s a big word, but I think it means that I believe that everyone – every single human being – is a child of God – is – as we sometimes say – created in God’s image. That means that God loves all his children – male and female; rich and poor; black and white; Christian, Muslim, Hindu and atheist; saint and sinner. And – because he created us and loves us – as we are – he would not condemn anyone to eternal punishment. We are made to be with him.

OK – you may say – but what about the words of Jesus as recorded in the John gospel? ‘I am the way, I am the truth, and I am life. No-one comes to the father except by me.’ Well we could discuss that one all night, but there are some Bible scholars who think that that is one of many sayings put into the mouth of Jesus by the early church at a time when they wanted to demonstrate the uniqueness of the Christian way of doing things.

In a world surrounded by many faiths, they wanted to say: ‘This is the only one. This is the real one. The rest have got it wrong. Look – we must be right because Jesus says so.’ And I think that the reason we’ve got ourselves into a tangle about heaven and hell is partly to do with this as well. Saying: ‘If you’re not one of us – then you’ve had it. You’re damned.’

Add to this what I referred to earlier about frightening people into believing and you have a mix which is confusing and doing the modern-day church no favours at all. And more than that – I would dare to say that it is not in accord with the teaching of Jesus. It is sub-Christian.

I don’t think I can believe in Hell. I don’t think I can believe in the Devil as some sort of being in opposition to God. I don’t think I can believe in a God who writes anybody off.

I believe that there are evil people in this world – and some of them are very hard cases indeed. But if we had to earn God’s love and favour, then none of us would match up to the high standards set by Jesus.

Where I stand is that we are all of us special, because we are all God’s children. We all have the potential within us for good and evil. What the Christian faith is about is developing the potential for good. Jesus was the one human being who developed that potential to the ultimate degree. And the good news – the Gospel – is that, though we may never measure up in this life, we are on the pilgrimage which leads to being more like Christ.

I’m not sure whether there is a place, a state of being, which equates to ‘pending’. I can’t go along with the ‘purgatory’ idea. But I really do believe that God never lets go, never abandons us. That’s not in his nature. His nature is love. We are loved by God and, therefore, we are loveable.

And I think the main word in the teaching of Jesus was love – not fear. God loves us; we love him in return; and we are to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. Don’t forget that last bit. It’s alright – it’s part of the deal – to love ourselves.

So we can put aside all this – Fra Angelico’s vision of Hell. I have my doubts, too, about Gambier Parry’s vision of Heaven in our Parish church. I was told by a Methodist Minister when I was young that you should always beware of the preacher who could tell you the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell.

It may fit our small human minds to think that we are the ones who’ve got it right and everyone else is wrong. It may suit us to think that those who do wrong must be punished – or else it’s not fair. That the awful things that happen to people in this life are punishments from God. But that’s thinking as human beings think – not as God thinks. We forget that we are made in God’s image, and then try to make him fit our image. And there’s a huge difference.

(If you have found this helpful or thought-provoking,  please have a look at some of my other blogs – see archive links at top right of page – and pass on the link for this blog to others who you think might be interested.)

6 Responses to “HEAVEN: FREE FOR ALL? If there’s a good God, then does everyone go to Heaven?”

  1. 1 Mary May 8, 2010 at 2:18 pm

    Thank you for this – a subject I’ve been thinking about for some time. Like you, I’m coming down on the Universalist side of things, which challenges a lot of what I’ve accepted for the past 30 years of being a Christian. As Brian McLaren says in ‘A New Kind of Christian’ – “The only thing I’m confident about is that I don’t have all the answers any more.”

  2. 2 geoffcrago May 8, 2010 at 2:28 pm

    Mary. Thank you for your comments and encouragement. You might like to have a look at some of the other blogs I have posted as I’m trying hard to get more and more people to ask the hard questions. I like the Brian McClaren quote. It reminds me of the old (1972)Johnny Nash song ‘There are more questions than answers’ with it’s great line ‘The more I find out the less I know’. Keep asking the questions and pass on the blog to any others you think may be interested.

  3. 3 Mary May 8, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    Hi, Geoff. Thank you for your reply. I should have said that I’ve been reading your blog for a while and kept meaning to comment – just hadn’t managed to until today! I’ve passed the link to your piece about a hung parliament to my husband, Terry.

    I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading round this subject of everlasting “heaven” and “hell” and as well as the translations of the words “Sheol” and “Gehenna” a lot also seems to hinge on the translations of the Greek “eon” and Hebrew “olam.” I’m no Greek or Hebrew scholar and there’s so much out there to read I get a bit bewildered by it all! Like you, I have an “at the moment” position. I can’t believe in hell as a place of everlasting torment, nor that a God of love would allow anyone to go there. Nor do I buy into the idea of him allowing us the choice to go there because we have free will. If I see a toddler heading for a busy road, I scoop that child up out of harm’s way – I don’t hold back because he has the right to choose which way he goes! I do, however, believe that when Jesus said that no one comes to the Father except by him that he meant what he said; but we are all on a journey and we all find that Way in the end. This, of course, means that we don’t “lose our chance” when we die; this is a fairly radical adjustment of belief for me!

  4. 4 Francesca May 9, 2010 at 10:53 am

    I have always been interested in the concept that heaven is an exclusive club that only the ‘good’ can join. My thoughts are these

    1. If I have friends waiting or am waiting for I would want to be with them. So enetering heaven will for me, be with those I love.

    2. If God is the parent who loves us so much would he condemn anyone. For me, a parent, I would excuse anything my child did. That is not to say I wouldn’t be angry, upset, but it would not prevent me still wanting to advocate them and give them good things. That has led me to the view that given my views of the most evil person, there are reasons for their views, confaluted logic or even mental illness. This means all are welcomed. The only reason that anyone is in hell is that they don’t respond to God’s love and so create their own.

  5. 5 Ray Pearson May 20, 2010 at 12:45 pm

    Geoff – How refreshing. My arguement with many Christians is that they take the bible too literally as the word of God. It is not. It is made up of various reports of the word of God written by man – sometimes many years after the even when memories fade and cannot always be relied on. As proof, and as an an ex journalist, I ask people to read the account of the same conference from two different newspapers. They will differ. The bible is no more than reported speech. How did anyone know what the devil said to Jesus in the wilderness? We have no evidence that Jesus sat the disciples down and told them. This therefore brings me to the main point of my comment. I am a Freemason and am told by many Christians that Freemasoinry conflicts with Jesus’s teaching that if you don’t believe in Jesus you will not go to heaven.
    Which, as you say, was no doubt ‘inserted’ as a reason to influence people to believe. Freemasonry is non religous but multi faith. One has to believe in a ‘god of your faith’ to be a Freemason. Because of this it is not exclusively one religion and therefore the Church is against it. A group over whom they have ‘christian renegades’ over whom they have ‘lost’ control. Never the less we can confuse the picture more. When freemasons also join one of the Masonic ‘side orders’ Rosecrutian or Knights Templar which are Christian based, does this make them more likely to go to heaven than other Freemasons who are not members of that side orders? Having said that I know plenty of men of the cloth who are Freemasons – I call them the open thinkers.
    Chritianity is 32 percent of the worlds faith population. If God made us all does that mean he is not bothered about the other 68 percent of other faiths?
    Is he not bothered with the other 4,300 faith groups?
    Is he not bothered about the 20 percent who have no fsith belief?

    But if the church realy believes that only Christian go to heaven why is the church involved in/recognises the other faiths in the ‘faith council’? If Christianity has the answer; why bother! To Convert them – never. The dicotomy is that the chuch ‘works’ with multi faith groups but is against Freemasonry because it recognises multifaith groups!!

    If the church slavishly believes in what the bible says and the comment is true that Freemasons are ‘an excluded group’ then the Archbishop of Canterbury will never meet his father, who was a Freemason, in heaven.

    Another poiunt which questions how ‘factual’ is the old and new testament. The churh glosses over the belief that human form may a connection with aliens.

    Example – Ezekial and his ‘space craft’- I read somewhere that some of the ‘technology’ mentioned in the bible was the basis for the first lunar landing craft; Jesus was taken above the earth and shown all dominions by the devil and Jesus even ascended into heavin on a cloud. We are expected to believe inthe words but not to ask questions.

    While I question some of the ‘slavish teaching’ I am a Christian and a Freemasoin and beleive in the bible and the principles which it imparts. Principles by which I try to live my life.But my beleif is made more difficult when the church, and I have written to Lambeth Palace for explanation of some of these subjects, cannot/does not enter into discussion but just repeats passages from the bible or directives taken in Church Council.

  6. 6 rosy August 7, 2010 at 9:16 am

    Hi Geoff, great subject – and one I have often dedicated some thoughts to.

    I guess that this is one of the most important issues of theology in fact.

    One of the main topics re God is, his being Almighty.
    I guess that God’s almightiness auotomatically INCLUDES – instead of “excluding” from Heaven those who – for geographical, cultural, etc reasons do not believe in the God of Christianity (whatever name one wants to label it); otherwise, it would be like having to admit that there is a part of Mankind (=a part of Creation) that does not “belong” to this God. Which would question his Almightiness.

    I tend to believe that – if God exists – it is not a God labelled as “islamic”, or “judaic”, or “roman Catholic” or “orthodox”, and so on; I guess that (again, admitting that God exists) there is JUST one God, that different people in different places and different eras call with different names and honour according to different cults and traditions.

    The Universe is just one, and it is undoubtably (IMO, of course) ruled by just one Law, one Power – and, if He exists – by just one God.

    my two cents… from southern Italy!
    love, all the best

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