Do heaven and hell exist? Want God’s truth? No one knows. As Tennyson said, “Nothing worth proving can be proved, nor yet disproven.” Brother Jack was an exception to the Tennyson doctrine. He was one of the preachers in a series of Baptist churches we attended when I was a kid.
Brother Jack could bring it. Over six feet tall, he weighed every bit of 220 pounds. With a booming voice he preached certitudes. Folks still like certitudes. One thing was certain. There is a hell. Brother Jack described it in gory detail. Looking down his long nose, he quoted from the book of Revelation, “If any one's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”
He looked at us kids and told us what it was like to burn for eternity in that lake of fire. We’d squirm thinking about our skin set afire, blistering and roiling. We’d all had something akin to first-degree sunburns but the thought of burning for eternity, whatever that was, scared hell out of us.
I am betting that was Brother Jack’s intention. It was like that line from the movie “Monsters, Inc.” “We scare because we care.”
If by “hell” you mean an eternal afterlife punishment for choices made about how we lived on earth, I’m confident in my guess that it doesn’t exist. That’s a creation of the church and a contradiction of everything we’ve been taught about God’s grace. That’s no small thing. As Paul said in the book of Romans, “If by grace, then [is it] no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace.”
Liberals reject a theology of eternal punishment in favor of belief in God’s grace. Threats of eternal punishment are how Brother Jack scared children. It’s not what Jesus did. Liberal preachers aren’t in the business of scaring listeners into avoiding hell. We’re more into a theology of grace based on the love of God, a love we didn’t earn, a love God will not withdraw. God doesn’t eternally discard those created in God’s image by tossing them into a lake of fire.
The possibility of God dispatching us to hell is designed to scare people into believing what some churches want them to believe. Conservatives say “salvation,” which allows you to avoid hell is a “free gift.” It’s bait and switch. To receive that “free” gift, you’re expected to see it their way.
And heaven? If by heaven you mean a place with streets of gold and mansions in the sky where angels play harps while we’re being reunited with those who went before, count me a doubter.
Theologian Ian Lawton tells this story. A rabbi dreamed he went to heaven. He was taken to a room filled with long tables. A group of sages sat at tables, their heads buried in books. The disappointed rabbi cried, “How could this be heaven? It’s just a bunch of old men studying.” A voice answered. “The sages aren’t in heaven, heaven is in the sages.”
In other words, while we can’t know what’s one the other side of this life, if we take care of God’s business here, whatever follows will take care of itself. Jesus was more concerned about life in this world than about frightening people with a focus on punishments or rewards that might follow our earthly death.
Jesus wasn’t looking for guilt-ridden, hell-fearing followers. Jesus taught us to pray that “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
One of the most thoughtful theologians of our time, Marcus Borg, imagined what Christianity could be if it weren’t about “what’s-in-it-for-me” in the afterlife but about living this life centered on the teachings of Jesus.
In his book “The Underground Church” Robin Meyers says it best. “We should trust there is a reason for our lives without claiming to know what we do not know, (that is) what happens to us after we die.”