Heaven/Hell

The word, heaven, is found relatively often in Scripture, but it is not, with few (if any) exceptions, a place where one might reside in the afterlife. Usually it refers to the world above the earth, the cosmos, the realm of stars, planets, galaxies, et al.  Heaven also is used to talk about the dwelling place of God, angels and others members of the heavenly host, but not so much as a place for people.

The Bible is considerably more silent about hell.  There are two Greek  and one Hebrew word in the Bible translated as hell, but none is a place of torment for the disembodied soul.  The Greek Hades (or the Hebrew Sheol) is simply a place where all of the dead reside; a place of neither reward or punishment.  Gehenna (Hebrew) is the name of the garbage dump outside Jerusalem where the bodies of sinners were burnt.  And Tartaroo (Greek) is the place of punishment for fallen angels, not people. 

How did the current popular belief arise about heaven and hell as destinations for the souls of the departed? If I was to be cynical, I might suggest the early church dreamed it up as a means of exercising control over people, especially as there was money to be had by selling forgiveness.  It might indeed be too cynical, but it could have some truth.

There is no doubt we have a need to believe in such things. Not content with the notion of non-being, humans seek a hope of non-extinction, and as they are similarly discontented with not knowing, someone was bound to dream up a story about what happens after one dies. 

Of course, running at the same time is a need for justice.  In this life, too often the wicked prosper and go unpunished, while the good seem to suffer unfairly at their hands; so some solace is found in the notion that, in the end, the seeming injustices of this world will be redressed in the next.

Old Testament Judaism knows nothing about any of this. The dead – all of them – simply go to the world of the dead (Sheol).  It wasn’t until Israel fell under the rule of the Greeks that the notion of a soul began to permeate Jewish thought.  This pagan belief mixed with the idea, filtering in from Persia, of the resurrection of the dead, so in the few generations before Jesus, the notion of an afterlife began to creep into Judaism.  Heaven, as a home for the righteous dead, began to emerge is an idea.

This idea didn’t really catch on in Judaism, though. According to Tracey R. Rich of the website “Judaism 101”, Judaism, unlike other world-religions, is not focused on the quest of getting into heaven but on life and how to live it.  

Traditionally, Christianity has taught that heaven is the location of the throne of God as well as the holy angels, although this is, in varying degrees, considered metaphorical. In traditional Christianity, heaven is considered a state or condition of existence (rather than a particular place) of the supreme fulfilment of being one with God.  Hell, then, is the lack of this condition. It is notable that  each of these conditions may exist in life, so there is no need to postulate a life after death.

At the bottom line, though, is that whatever you believe about heaven and hell, it probably didn’t come from the Bible,  it is a pretty good bet Jesus had no interest in them, and they really are not included among the legitimate tenets of Christianity. Do either exist?  The safe answer is that no one can possibly know.

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