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Heaven and Hell


The New Testament of the Christian Bible promises the faithful eternal life. The blessed inherit "the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (Matt. 25:34) or "the marriage supper of the Lamb" (Rev. 19:9), a kingdom of light, host to "armies … upon white horses, clothed in fine linen" (Rev. 19:14). It is also a court that renders judgment on the physically resurrected dead, where the elect are witnesses (Rev. 20, passim). Paul proclaims a collective view: a God who in the end will be "all in all" or everything to everyone (1 Cor. 15:28). "The Kingdom of God," by far the most frequent name for heaven in the Bible, Luke declares, is entos humōn, "within you" or "among you," depending on the translation. "Heaven," therefore, covers a physical place where the divine King holds court, a communal bond, and an internal condition. For the wicked, the Christian Scriptures threaten those who neglect the helpless with "everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matt. 25:41) and "the lake of fire and brimstone, where … [the wicked] shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever" (Rev. 20:10). Unbelievers are "condemned already" (John 3:18).

Christians debated whether hell is eternal. Origen of Alexandria (185?–254?) opposed eternal punishment: divine action must be curative. Souls expiate their sins through repeated reincarnations. Restoration (apokatastasis) makes the end like the beginning, evoking Paul's phrase "all in all." Though condemned twice by Justinian, this tradition remains influential in Eastern Christianity. Rejecting Origen's cycles of reincarnation, Augustine (354–430) defended a hell that, because it afflicts the body physically, causes the spirit "fruitless repentance." Despite his opinion that hell wracks flesh, Augustine considered the reprobates' severest torment to be exile from God. Conversely, heaven is eternal life in God's presence, the communion of the elect, true peace, and endless bliss.

A late-fourth-century apocryphal vision, the Apocalypse of Saint Paul, relates Paul's visit "up to the third heaven" (2 Cor. 12:2–3). There he tours the Land of Promise. He sees the four rivers of paradise running with milk, honey, wine, and oil. He meets major figures from the Hebrew Bible: the patriarchs, Moses, Lot, Job, Noah, David, the prophets, and finally the Virgin Mary. Twelve walls surround Christ's golden city. In hell he sees rivers of fire, demons slashing victims' entrails, stonings, worm infestations, hangings, dismemberments, carcasses roasted on spits, and inmates gnawing their own bodies. In the center of this chaos is a covered well within which the punishments are seven times harsher. Seeing these, Paul sighs; Jesus hears. Christ visits this pit, chastises the inmates, then grants them amnesty every Sunday. For all its gore, this text aspires to mitigate hell.

Building on the idea of exile and its associated alienation, allegorical and psychological interpretations multiplied. Though he describes many gruesome physical torments in the Inferno, Dante identifies hell's essence while describing souls encased in flames: "Each one swathes himself in that which makes him burn" (26.48). The reformer Martin Luther put the afterlife in a psychological context, too, when he declared in 1517, "Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven appear to differ as despair, almost despair, and peace of mind differ." Of his own spiritual rebirth he said, "I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates."

If faith is the way to heaven, hell begins even before death, when the faithless soul endures isolation and disorientation. As Luther put it, "Everyone carries his own hell with him wherever he is." Though earlier theology anticipates the statement, Calvin appears the first (1534) to say "Hell is not a place but a condition." In 1999, Pope John Paul II declared heaven "complete intimacy with the Father," partnership "in his heavenly glorification," the "blessed community of all who are perfectly incorporated into Christ." Hell he called "the ultimate consequence of sin itself, which turns against the person who committed it." This definition of hell emphasizes the alienating, self-reflexive character of freely chosen exclusion, whereas heaven embraces a longed-for community wholly dedicated to the divine. Invoking the scriptural letter, Evangelicals resist allegorical interpretations.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Habit memory: to HeterodontHeaven and Hell - Egypt, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Ancient Greek Religion, Etruscans And Romans, Judaism