The General Synod of the United Protestant Church in the Netherlands recently studied the question whether hell does indeed exist. According to the Heidelberger Catechism—one of the documents on which the theology of this church is based—things are quite clear: hell is an eternally burning fire in which the godless will be punished for ever, while the believers will enjoy all kinds of pleasurable things in heaven. A church member from Haarlem submitted a gravamen. That is a Latin word for an official doctrinal objection. (For a moment I was a bit jealous. I sometimes get nasty complaints by e-mail, but never a gravamen.) The 79-year old mr. Bokhout insisted that you cannot prove from the Bible that the traditional picture of hell as an eternally burning place of torture is correct. For how does this fit with all we know about a God of love?
The General Synod admitted that it was faced with a difficult question, but it did not want to go against the Heidelberger Catechism, and the official response remained rather vague as to how the contemporary believer was to define the meaning of hell.
Through the ages, there has been a constant flow of new ideas about the final destiny of mankind. Those who know something of the history of art realize that artists have used all kinds of images to picture both the terror of hell and the delights of heaven. Christians and other believers have theorized about hell. For some heaven will be a very concrete pleasure park where men will be able to enjoy the ample presence of very willing virgins. Others speak of heaven in very abstract terms. And there are endless varieties of opinion in between these two approaches. This also applies to hell.
Today many theologians and many Christians in a wide range of denominations doubt the eternal nature of the punishment of the godless. Some tend to think that all people will ultimately be saved. They feel that God’s love is the guarantee for a happy ending for every human being. Others do not want to go that far. Yet, the traditional Adventist point of view is increasingly shared by others: Heaven is the place where the faithful will live forever in a state of perfection. Hell is the name for the second, final death, the total annihilation of evil and the absolute end of all who have chosen to lead a life opposed to the will of God. For them it is over! Finito! Finished! For ever. The punishment is eternal in its consequences.
I have often wondered how to imagine heaven and hell. I certainly want to go to heaven, but much of what I read about it, and hear about it in church, does not seem very attractive. It seems quite far removed from the things that now fill my life and make it enjoyable. Of course, I like the fact that there will be no more sickness and that people will no longer die and will no longer fight with each other. But for ever playing on a harp and joining a choir at the ‘sea of glass’ –has little appeal for me.
And hell? I have often wondered why for goodness sake a resurrection of the godless is needed, if they will be destroyed soon after they have come back to life. Sure, I know the answers that are usually given to that type of questions. But I continue to find them rather unsatisfactory.
How could we describe the essence of heaven and hell? I tend to think that the most important aspect we find in the Bible is the fact that heaven is the place where God is present with the people. And hell is the place where God is totally absent. And does this not lead to the conclusion that we can experience heaven already on earth, and that life in the here and now can also become a hell? Not primarily because of external factors that bring either happiness or misery, but as a result of the space that we give to God in our lives. Heaven is first of all a way of life, a way of being, in which God is abundantly present. Hell is the completely opposite.
Of course, the eschatological dimension—to use proper theological terminology—is important. This eternal dimension places our temporal life in the right perspective. But as I start this day, the first question is not whether I will ultimately make it to heaven, but whether heaven is a reality in my present life. Was this not what Christ meant when He said that his coming kingdom must already be present with us?
Getting back to the topic of hell: Fear of eternal misery has never been a good motive to stay on the safe side and become religious—since one never knows! Just suppose that hell would exist!
Hell is not a topic that primarily relates to the future. It is a present reality. For hell is: living in the absence of God. It is the choice to exclude God. A choice for nothingness and emptiness. Heaven is: welcoming God in our life and giving Him the space He wants. Today. We can safely leave the rest until later.