What awaits the penitent and impenitent soul upon arrival in eternity?
Being in the presence of their Lord, Jesus Christ, and being reunited with loved ones who have gone on before them would seem reward enough for Christians. But what is in store for those who die without confessing Christ?
Scripture says there are only two eternal destinations for humanity. A few books about the Christian’s eternal home line bookstore shelves, providing insight on the joy to come. And, conversely, for almost 700 years “The Inferno,” a picturesque epic poem by Alighieri Dante, has stirred revulsion and fear in the hearts of those who ponder the fate of the damned.
Philosophers and theologians through the ages have tried to draw from Scripture and extra-biblical texts a clear understanding of the rewards of Heaven and the punishments of Hell. What are the treasures in Heaven? To what degree of punishment are the lost tormented? Are the experiences proportionate to the lives lived?
Contemporary evangelical theologians warn against reading into Scripture what is not there with regard to the experiences one will have in either destiny. Ken Keathley, professor of theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, said, “The Bible gives us sufficient revelation, not exhaustive revelation.”
Keathley and John Laing, assistant professor of theology and philosophy at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Havard School in Houston, agree that the human soul begins its eternal trek at the death of the earthly body. Throughout the Old Testament and carried on into the New Testament are accounts of the departed existing in Sheol (OT) and in Hades (NT). The account of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16 illustrate the fate of the departed.
“The New Testament unambiguously teaches that the saints who have died in this present age are in Heaven with the Lord,” Keathley said, citing Revelation 6:9-10. “As for the unsaved, Jesus states four
times that the rich man experienced ‘torment.’ “
It is the imagery of the torment of Hell and the solace of Heaven that has stirred many a debate.
Discussions of Heaven, within a biblical context, provide little cause for rancor. But the interpretation of Hell?even questioning its existence?has been a source of contention even among Christians. Both professors stated that much of the debate regarding Hell is rooted in people’s revulsion at the concept of eternal torment created by God. But, fundamentally, they said, it is rooted in a lack of comprehension regarding the righteousness of God and the serious nature of sin.
The Baptist Faith and Message, in the article on Last Things, states: “God, in His own time and in His own way, will bring the world to its appropriate end. According to His promise, Jesus Christ will return personally and visibly in glory to the earth; the dead will be raised; and Christ will judge all men in righteousness. The unrighteous will be consigned to Hell, the place of everlasting punishment. The righteous in their resurrected and glorified bodies will receive their reward and will dwell forever in Heaven with the Lord.”
Even this text leaves the interpretation of Heaven and Hell open for discussion, but, Laing added, “It is important to note, while the Baptist Faith and Message is not a creed and Southern Baptists can disagree with its contents, it is still reflective of what the majority of Southern Baptists?and I would argue, Baptists around the world?believe.”
So what are we to believe about the degrees of rewards and punishments? Keathley noted that the existence of a judgment implies an accounting for how lives were lived. With regard to Heaven, both men said the Christian should never be satisfied with “just getting in.”
Keathley said, “Salvation is not merely exemption from punishment, but the restoration of a right relationship with God. What person who has experienced salvation in the fullest sense of the word would care only about ‘just getting in?'”
Laing added, “There are many reasons to do good during this life beyond the rewards [and] punishments of eternity.”
But he said Christians should be mindful not to place too much emphasis on “storing up treasures in Heaven” as outlined in Matthew 6. He has been critical of sermons or lessons that “place an inordinate amount of emphasis on what the individual gets out of being a Christian.”
He said, “This, in my thinking, can try to motivate persons to deny themselves and take up their crosses daily by appealing to their selfish motives and inclinations, which is self-defeating.”
But, Laing added, God does use rewards as a motivator. It is finding the balance between doing good deeds for God or for God’s rewards that is significant.
Keathley added, “Working for the glory of God and for his commendation are not mutually exclusive motivations.”
Citing 1 Corinthians 3:12-15, Keathley said the value of a Christian’s work will be tested by fire.
“[Paul] likens this judging process to a fire, and only that which is of eternal value will survive. This life is a springboard to eternity, and our faithfulness, or lack thereof, will have everlasting repercussions.”
Neither Keathley nor Laing could state what the specific rewards of Heaven will be for the believers because the Bible is not clear on the matter. They said Scripture seems to indicate rewards will not be of a material nature but, instead, a distribution of responsibilities. Noting Matthew 25:20-23, Keathley said, “Certain passages indicate that a Christians’ role in the coming kingdom is determined in no small part by his or her faithful obedience in this life.”
Laing said because the Christians’ eternal existence will be a terrestrial one in the New Jerusalem on the New Earth, “it seems that at least some Christians will have leadership roles in the eternal state.” He said he saw no reason to interpret Luke 19:11-27 as metaphorical.
Does Heaven hold special rewards for those who have experienced exceptional pain and suffering on Earth? Laing said the Bible does hint at special rewards for those who are martyred for their faith. Keathley said there doesn’t seem to a one-to-one correspondence to rewards and suffering (for example, a reward for a child who dies from a painful, debilitating illness). But, he added, Paul reminded the Romans that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”
It is the doctrine of Hell that spawns the most heated debate amongst theologians. Biblical interpretations?from both literal and metaphorical points of view?have created doctrines that at best are questionable or at worst heretical.
There are basically four views, from the biblical perspective, of Hell. What has been the traditional, or sometimes referred to as the “literal,” view since the time of Christ is that Hell is a place of conscious, physical, eternal torment. This is the view held by most Southern Baptists.
The metaphorical view holds that Hell is an eternal place of conscious torment but the language the New Testament describing the nature of the punishment is symbolic of a different, albeit equally agonizing, experience. In “Four Views of Hell” (a book in “The Counterpoint” series, published by Zondervan), William Crockett contends, “The Bible does not support a literal view of a burning abyss. Hellfire and brimstone are not literal depictions of Hell’s furnishings, but figurative expressions warning the wicked of impending doom.”
Crockett goes on to note a number of theologians who questioned the literal view of Hell, including C.S. Lewis, John Calvin, Martin Luther and Billy Graham.
The fire and burning which is described in Hell, in the metaphorical sense, is the burning associated wit