Summary: Heaven and Hell in the Afterlife according to the Bible.
Heaven and Hell
Sermon for Sun. Nov. 1, 2009 Gospel Reading: Luke 16:19-31
Heaven and Hell according to the Bible
Today’s Gospel is the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus and each receiving a foretaste of their life to come at the Resurrection.
The Rich Man is still ordering others around “Send Lazarus…” “Let Lazarus go…” even arguing with Abraham about it, the very one he wanted help from! He hasn’t changed.
Today’s Gospel gives us a little glimpse into a subject which Jesus speaks of more than any other figure in the Bible: Heaven and Hell. I’m going to talk about Hell today. There are many excellent contemporary articles on this topic, the best of which are the writings of Fr. John Romanides, Bishop Hierotheos Vlachos, and one by a layman, Peter Chopelas of Arlington, WA. I’m hoping to publish his article on our website, once I receive written permission from him.
The idea that God is an angry figure who sends those He condemns to a place called Hell, where they spend eternity in torment separated from His presence, is missing from the Bible and unknown in the early church. While Heaven and Hell are decidedly real, they are experiences rather than physical places, and both exist in the presence of God. In fact, nothing exists outside the presence of God. If anything can exist outside the presence of God, we are talking about a finite God, not the Biblical God.
This is not the way traditional Western Christianity, Roman Catholic or Protestant, has envisioned the afterlife. In Western thought Hell is a location, a place where God punishes the wicked, where they are cut off from God and the Kingdom of Heaven. Yet this concept occurs nowhere in the Bible, and does not exist in the original languages of the Bible.
While there is no question that according to the scriptures there is torment and "gnashing of teeth" for the wicked, and glorification for the righteous, and that this judgment comes from God, these destinies are not separate destinations. The Bible indicates that everyone comes before God in the next life, and it is because of being in God’s presence that they either suffer eternally, or experience eternal joy. In other words, both the joy of heaven, and the torment of judgment, is caused by being eternally in the presence of the Almighty, the perfect and unchanging God.
This is not a new interpretation or a secret truth. It has been there all along, held by the Church from the beginning, revealed in the languages of the Scriptures, which were spoken by the Christians of the early church era. This understanding was held by nearly all Christians everywhere for the first 1000 years of the Church’s existence, and, except where influenced by western theologies, continued to be held by Christians beyond Western Europe and America even up to this day (including the roughly 350 million Orthodox Christians worldwide).
The history of the English word "hell" is also revealing. The Old English word from which hell is derived is "helan", which means to hide or cover, and is a verb. So at one time the English church understood that to be judged a sinner meant one would cower and want to hide in fear when in God’s presence. Unfortunately, because of the political expedience of controlling an often rebellious population, corrupt rules in the West, in collusion with corrupt clergy, and adopting ideas from non-Biblical yet popular fantasy novels such as Dante’s Inferno, corrupted the use of this word during the Middle ages. Eventually turning a verb into a noun by popular usage, even if theologically insupportable from the Bible.