Faith Is Not About Heaven Vs. Hell - Kyle Hanawalt
One of the things we love about this church is the diversity in religious backgrounds and experiences of people here -- people who didn’t grow up going to church, people who did grow up going to church -- and for those who did, all different kinds of churches --
So we talk a lot about culture and religion. That’s where I want to start us today...
I am someone who grew up going to church and held many traditionally American Evangelical worldviews -
And I have talked here in the past about a season in my life where I came to question most if not all of what I had believed
And at of heart of what caused this crisis of faith was that I felt as if many of the most core teachings and beliefs that appeared to be essential to being a Christian actually felt at odds with God actually being good.
And why would I (or anyone) want to be a person of faith if God is not good? If God can’t necessarily be trusted, or if God is sometimes good but sometimes a monster, then honestly, what are we doing here?
Well, chief among those seemingly essential teachings that deeply unsettled me was what I was taught about Heaven vs hell SLIDE In the teachings, the culture of my church - where we go when we die - Heaven or Hell, felt like the core belief that all other beliefs were built on. Actually my theology of heaven vs hell was my first really well formed belief, like I could have articulated it before I could articulated about anything else I believed. And that belief was pretty simple, Everyone who knowingly and earnestly followed Jesus in their life, when they died, would go to heaven to experience eternal bliss, and everyone else would go to hell to experience eternal suffering And I stress the word earnest - because evaluating whether other Christians were real or fake Christians seemed to be be a pretty large concern for me and the leaders around me. Now as I got older and older, and developed more relationships with people who didn’t grow up going to my church, and began learning more about the world, particularly about places that were not culturally christian. This heaven v hell felt more and more challenging. It felt like whether someone was trying to follow Jesus seemed really tied to where they grew up in the world and the religion of the family they were born into. And furthermore - as I thought about my peers who seemed to have little to no interest in coming to church with me - I like couldn’t really blame them. If I had not grown up going to church and been indoctrinated into the culture - I don’t think I would have found it too appealing from the outside. I would have found it to be judgy, anit gay, repressive of sexuality, close-minded. Which, by the way, is exactly what are the most commonly associated things with Christianity according to a massive study that happened a few years back I then had people really close to me who had grown up going to church with me reject their faith - not really because of Jesus, almost never do I find that people reject Jesus, it’s that they reject all of the baggage that church and christian culture have tied to Jesus. So, it felt hard to square up how these people who don’t follow Jesus, largely because of how poorly Christians seem to reflect Jesus, would be facing eternal suffering in hell upon their death. Now, to be clear It wasn’t divine judgment that made me uncomfortable. In a world with this much injustice - believing in some sort of ultimate justice that extends even beyond this life - actually felt almost essential for God to be reliably good.
No, it was that all those who are not earnestly following Jesus (like I as an evangelicals was), so... you know… the majority of the rest of humanity, are condemned to eternal suffering This and all the ugly things that seem to come out of this - Left me feeling like faith might be untenable. This is why I often said that I was still pretty high on Jesus but just felt like Church - or maybe it would be better to say being a Christian in that American Christian culture felt like something I was out on SLIDE Now, I wonder if you resonate with anything I may have said. I wonder if you have felt like this weight of heaven vs hell is like a burden that is always just sitting there when we start to talk or think about faith. Perhaps it’s a reason you keep faith at arms length, or maybe it’s the thing that constantly pricks your anxiety that God might not actually be as good as Vince and I keep saying. Or perhaps - it feels like something you just try to ignore, you know it’s there but it feels so deeply uncomfortable that you try not to look at it for too long. If you resonate with this at all and in any way heaven vs hell has led you to struggle to maintain enthusiasm or desire for that faith… that’s not your fault; you are not a bad person… it’s just that heaven vs hell is a crappy cornerstone for a faith… And that is what I want to press into - I think the issue that I most take with this Heaven vs Hell, in vs out mentality, is that in our current religious context, it appears to be the cornerstone of faith. The starting point on which we build faith from. Today I want to call out the unexamined assumption underneath this: SLIDE that the message of Jesus’ teaching and of the Bible of course comes down to how to go to heaven, not hell… the only question is whether we believe that or not I have experienced a massive lifting of weight off my shoulders by learning to see something different than that assumed “of course” message when I come to Jesus’ teachings and the Bible And I want to take you into that by doing a closer look with you all at what is actually in the Bible concerning all of this.
So, there is a lot of conversation of Heaven in the Bible, it is a picture of what perfect connection and communion with God and each other look like, it is things as things should be - However, perhaps surprisingly most of the references in the Bible to heaven are actually in the present tense, talking about how we, in this moment, get to tap into heaven, see or experience things as they really ought to be here and now, and the future references to heaven seem to be pointing to living in communion and connection with God. That seems great to me - but I don’t really think heaven is where most of us get hung up.
Now Hell - that is a different story.
There are actually relatively few references to hell and honestly those references are kind of fraught.
Let me tell you what I mean Bear with me for a moment - I am going to take us a through a brief history of translation lesson. But, I promise you, I think you’ll find it really helpful So, the original writings of the Bible are in two languages - Hebrew for the OT and Greek for the NT. And in those original languages there are actually 4 different words that English Bibles might translate to our word “Hell” (4 different words! But just 1 English word to grab al!) SLIDE Sheol (in the hebrew OT) Hades (greek NT) Tartarus (greek NT) Gehenna (greek NT) What happened over the course of centuries was, through three major works to translate the Bible, all 4 of those different words all ended up being translated in the first English Bibles as the word “hell” First, there was the Septuagint (Where the hebrew OT to was translated to Greek - so that the whole Bible could be read by greek speakers) SLIDE This one turned all the uses of “sheol” into “hades” -- so now there were just three words Then several hundred years later, there was the Vulgate, which went from Greek to Latin SLIDE This one turned all of the references into one Latin word: inferno -- so now there was just one word And you may recognize that word inferno. It is perhaps most well known from Dante’s inferno The first third of the renaissance poem Divine Comedy. Now Dante’s inferno describes the 9 circles of inferno. Places of eternal suffering - each circle worse than the last. The first circle being reserved for those who were generally good people, but refused or never had the opportunity to be baptized in Christ.
Hmm sounds familiar to me. And I point this out because pretty much every modern scholar points to Dante’s inferno as the source of what most people today picture in their minds when they think of hell Finally, hundreds of years after the vulgate, SLIDE we get the first English translation the King James, which translated “inferno” to our word: “Hell”. So in the first english translation of the Bible we had 56 references to Hell But there were actually 4 different and distinct original words and concepts behind those 56 references to hell -- all mixed up together In the last thirty years, actually, translators of the Bible have recognized this error, and so the most recent English translations of the Bible, only use the English word “Hell” at most 14 times and in many cases they have just left the original hebrew and greek word in - to try and help with the confusion However, with hundreds of years of confusion behind us, that correction doesn’t really fix the problem. We all still seem to have a very “Dante’s Inferno” picture of what Jesus teaches and what the Bible supposedly says about hell...
So, what were these four original words trying to communicate?
The first word was the Hebrew word Sheol To the Hebrew mind Sheol was the unknown place all people go after death -- whether they were good or bad. In Ecclesiastes 9 - it says that it will be the common destiny of us all - the righteous, and the wicked, the good and the bad. It was also used to talk of a literal grave or pit where one would bury the dead. And when used figuratively it had a similar meaning to how we talk about death today. David in psalm 88 is so overwhelmed he says it feels like he is in Sheol - like might say we feel like death. But, Sheol is never spoken of in the Bible as a place of punishment after death. In fact there is no OT reference to eternal punishment at all. Can you believe that? None. There are LOTS of references to “a future time” or “an end time” when wrongs will be righted, and the arrogant and cruel will be brought to justice for their evil deeds, but NO references to the sort of “eternal punishment after you die” concept popular today.
The second word that got translated to Hell was the Greek word Hades If you are familiar with Greek mythology you probably already have a picture of this. Much like Sheol, it is the place that, the dead, good or bad, go. In one place Jesus says that the wicked inhabitants of Capernaum would be sent to Hades. But, also it was said that Jesus Soul was in Hades for the three days he spent in the tomb before his resurrection. And when the Gospel writer Luke wrote of the same thing he describes Jesus’ soul being in paradise for those three days. So again, not a destination for bad people or good people. Just a way to talk about what happens after death.
The next term that was translated as Hell is Tartarus Again, Like Hades, this comes from Greek mythology - it was a specific place deep within Hades that was used as a dungeon of torment and suffering for the wicked and as the prison for the Titans (from Greek Mythology). And this is only used once (!!!) in the Bible, in 2 peter 2 - in talking about where how angels who sinned were "cast down to Tartarus" I think it is interesting to note that the concept behind this word might be the closest picture to our picture of Hell, but the only time it is used is to talk about Angels, not humans.
The final word that has been translated as hell is Gehenna This is actually the word that Jesus used most frequently, as in “better to lose one eye or hand, than to keep both but have your body thrown into “Gehenna” I find this to be the most interesting reference. Because, something I did not know before studying this was that Gehenna was a literal place, It was a valley on the south side of Jerusalem that all who heard Jesus speak would have immediately been familiar with. It was a place that in the times of Old Testament where people burned their children alive as sacrifices to the ancient Mesopotamian God’s Molech and Baal. And in Jesus’s times it had been turned into a massive dump where garbage and anything considered unclean was burned. This included the bodies of executed criminals and dead animals. And because of all the crap in it there were fires continually burning there consuming the garbage. The worst sentence a Jewish court could give a criminal included discarding his unburied corpse amid the fires this valley. Being thrown into the trash of Gehenna, instead of having a proper burial, would have been a most abhorrent thing for a Jew of that day. It would mean that his life and his works were completely worthless, fit only for the dump. And thus unsurprisingly telling people that they would reside in Gehenna became a prefered metaphor for saying that they were living an unfulfilled or wicked life.
So when I look at all of these references, I just really struggle to develop a clear theology of Hell - to me it seems like the writers are borrowing on whatever cultural frameworks are already present to them. And I also really struggle to see how we get to this assumption of our time that Jesus’ teachings and the Bible are about how to go to heaven, not hell -- Again, that seems more influenced by Renaissance Literature like Dante’s Inferno than by concepts from the Bible
SLIDE So, again, the reason I care about this is because, at least for me - Heaven vs Hell was the cornerstone of my religious teaching growing up. The stakes of where will I go when I die, where will my classmates go when they die, That was the most important question. And that was heavy...
And it pisses me off, because this emphasis on this really hurt me, it made me really miserable, it made me quit on faith for years, and I think I can point to this as a major reason why so many people I care about have no interest in faith. Maybe it isn’t this question of Heaven or Hell in particular, but it is certainly the judgement, the us vs them, the narrow mindedness, the anxious faith that I think a faith built on heaven vs hell creates. And it pisses me off because I think the faith I have today is awesome, and I feel angry that it get’s obscured by this BS. You know what is not a good foundation of faith, fear and pressure and the “carrot & stick” game that is Heaven vs hell
(PAUSE) You know what is a good foundation of faith… JESUS! His life and teaching are a message to humanity that at the center of all things is a reliably good god who is alive and good and here to give us the help we can’t give ourselves, to give us the grace, give us the hope, give us the healing, the guidance, forgiveness, love, and care we need.
That message of Jesus is what we go to every week here at Brown Line Vineyard, not a question of “will you go to heaven or hell when you die?”
So, again, let me say, if that question has at all felt like a burden to your faith, or a gatekeeper keeping you out. It doesn’t have to be.
In fact - for hundreds of years - This focus on a Heaven vs Hell - was just not a chief priority for followers of Jesus Hell was simply not in any of the early creeds of faith It wasn’t until Christianity became the state religion of the roman empire that this rose to prominence. Which just feel a little to convenient that the stakes of staying in good standing with the state church were now either a promise of eternal reward or threat of eternal punishment.
I legitimately believe that your understandings or beliefs or certainty of the afterlife, is not in the top 50 things that God cares about.
Particularly if this challenges your ability to trust and believe, and engage God as good. I really think where we go when we die is, at best, a secondary issue.
But faith built on relating to a good god, who revealed himself in Jesus, and wants to give me the help I can’t give myself -- that to me is a pressing issue every day… that is the difference to me, daily, between feeling connection or isolation, Living with hope or not, Growing, or feeling stagnant feeling resourced or feeling exhausted, feeling alive and a part of a bigger story or feeling drowned by a self-centered existence. Now that is miles deep, because it’s a relationship, not a carrot and a stick And it’s a relationship I ACTUALLY WANT to come to come back to day after day
And that is the kind of thing I want for everyone in this room. That you would find your faith to be built on something good, reliable, resilient - something that will make you healthier, kinder, less self centered, more full of love.