Heaven and Hell: Are They Literal Places or Figments of the Imagination?
The Great Equalizers
“Then I saw a New Heaven and a New Earth, for the first Heaven and the first earth had passed away,and there was no longer any sea. And I saw the Holy City, New Jerusalem coming down out of Heaven from God…….(Revelation 21:1)[NIV]
Except in biblical or other written religious accounts, no scientific evidence has ever been documented to prove the existence of either a physical Heaven or a physical Hell. In the absence of this crucial evidence why then do millions of people believe so strongly in a Heaven and a Hell – and how could such beliefs in the unproven have survived scientific scrutiny for so long?
For those raised in Judea-Christian doctrine Heaven and Hell does, in fact exist and one of these places is waiting for the soul of the deceased in the afterlife. What Heaven or Hell may look like is subject to wide speculation. In the Judea-Christian tradition the image of Heaven is the original Garden of Eden where the soul returns in the afterlife, having lived a Christian life in the flesh. The perception of Heaven is that the soul is there with God and the angels, perhaps with loved ones. For believers it’s a wonderful tapestry of never ending peace which just keeps reaching outward to no apparent end. Modern day Christians believe that Heaven is a peaceful place somewhere above the clouds and Hell is that dark place of eternal torture somewhere deep beneath the core of the earth. In reality however, one can dig from the surface of the planet for the next 5,000 years and most likely never reach a literal Hell. By the same measure one can take a spaceship deep into the galaxy nebulae and never find a literal Heaven. Contrary to the literal perception neither Heaven nor Hell appears to be physical places – or are they?
So what really happens after we die? This question have both interested and troubled man for centuries. More than five thousand years ago the Egyptians built more monuments to the dead than to the living. They believed that once the deceased arrived in the afterlife their heart will be weighed on a scale against truth. If they were in balanced the soul went on to eternal peace. If the heart weighed heavier it was because the person was evil and the organ would then be eaten by a monster, over and over again. These cultural beliefs were recorded in a book titled “The Book of The Dead.” The Book of the Dead was a description of the ancient Egyptian conception of the afterlife. The book included a collection of hymns, spells, and instructions to allow the deceased to pass through obstacles in the afterlife. This book remained on the top ten list of books to read until 500 years later when the Holy Bible came on the scene which for Jews and Christians offered a more complex explanation for what happens in the afterlife. For an example, the book of Genesis 3:19 suggests that man was taken from the dust of the earth and to the dust shall man return. It suggests that after man disobeyed God he would die and return to dust. Is this what the God of the Jews really intended after banishing Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden – that they were nothing but dust returning to dust after death and nothing more? This would certainly suggest that man has no afterlife - no Heaven and no Hell. After death man would simply return to dust and that would be the end.
Perhaps this is the case, considering the fact that neither Heaven nor Hell can be found anywhere in the Hebrew Bible. It is however mentioned in earlier translations of the King James Version although the translation is not exactly correct in its description. The original word found in the Hebrew Bible was “Sheol” which meant ‘the unseen world’ of the dead. This world does not consist of either fire or torture. Souls are simply pictured as sleeping, or resting. In fact, the first five books of Moses (known as the Pentateuch) depict the Israelites as entering an era of peace and prosperity after leaving the bondage of Egypt. In this depiction God has come down to join the people and life on earth would become one peaceful scene of serenity where an afterlife was never a consideration.
Unfortunately, the message of eternal, earthly serenity of these first five books began to change and was no longer the case by the time the book of Job arrived on the biblical scene. The book of Job ushered in a new era with an emphasis on justice, both in this life and the next. The biblical writers describe Job as being a man of faith and commitment to God who suddenly loses all his possessions including his wealth, children, and health for no apparent conceivable reason. The biblical writers tell us that this event was provoked by Satan but allowed by God.
Without knowing about the Heavenly agreement between God and Satan Job's challenges caused him to question aloud how a just God could be so cruel. Perhaps it was at this point that the concept of Heaven and Hell becomes a reality among believers. Still, Hell is not mentioned in the Old Testament however, it was later characterized and given a physical location by the Prophet Jeremiah who described it as being a small valley named Gahanna. Gahanna was a place where both Jews and non Jews alike conducted the most violent, inhumane practices known during the time. The place became synonymous with constant, persistent evil. It was a valley located on the south side of the city of Jerusalem, considered to be a despicable place once used for child sacrifice. Gahanna is mentioned many times in the Hebrew Bible. During the time of Jesus it was considered a garbage dump where the fire was constantly burning with maggots consuming human and animal flesh – and it had an unbearable stench. Jesus Himself describes Hell as like Gahanna.
The book of Daniel, which is considered to be the last book of the Hebrew Bible, is the first to directly mention a Heaven and a Hell. Chapter 12:2 explicitly indicates that a Heaven or a Hell awaits man in the next life. However, it was written during the bloodiest days of Israel’s darkest hours during the desecration of the temple around the second century before the arrival of Christ. The city was devastated by Syrian invaders who threatened genocide. Their efforts were thwarted by the rise of a Jewish leader named Judas Maccabeus who led the Israelites to victory. However, after many years of invasions some Israelites began to question the promises of a peaceful exit mentioned in the earlier books. Among these new questioners was a visionary prophet named Enoch who once claimed to have been a witness to mans’ destiny afterlife. Since the introduction of a literal Heaven and Hell most cultures and peoples around the world, particularly in western societies vehemently believe in a pleasant place where the deceased souls of doers of good go after death as well as a not-so- pleasant place where the deceased souls of evil doers go after death. In fact, the most terrifying aspect for most Christians is the probability that Hell may be real.
The prophets of the New Testament were much more dedicated to events of the afterlife than those of the Hebrew Bible – beginning with the death of Christ and His resurrection. Their interpretations are taken literal to mean a place of eternal damnation and torture although there is no mention of the word ‘torture anywhere in the Hebrew Bible. The word used is ‘torment’, and it’s not everlasting. The notion of a Heaven and Hell is much more defined in the New Testament as supported by the book of Revelation. Revelation 20:10 tells us that at the end of time the devil will be thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur with the beast and false prophets. Here they will be tormented both day and night. Among the Christian community, the Book of Revelation is an authoritarian source in verifying the notion of a Hell. It is a book which suggests that Hell is in fact, a place of pain, torture, and vengeance.
Jesus Himself talks about an apocalyptic judgment awaiting mankind in the end. He made it very clear on numerous occasions that there is an afterlife awaiting the souls of the deceased. After the physical death of Jesus, it was written that He Himself descended into Hell. In the book of Acts 2, Peter was speaking in verse 31 seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ “ that his soul was not left in Hell.” Paul was suggesting that Hell is a literal place. The book of Ephesians 4:9 says of Jesus: “now that He ascended, what it is but that He also descended first into the lower parts of the earth” suggesting that Hell is in the earth. As a result of these comments,writings began to surface suggesting that Jesus Himself ascended to the underworld where he met the great patriots, from Abraham to John the Baptist and prepared a way for them to enter into the literal Heaven with him. So did Jesus really visit a literal Hell or is this simply an effort by the apostles to perpetuate a myth to maintain the status quo of faith and to instill the moral values of right and wrong among believers? When Jesus described Gahanna as Hell was He simply offering a visual analysis of what would happen to people who did not believe in Him and the Father – or was He actually acknowledging a physical location?
Both Jews and Christians believe in the afterlife and a resurrection but are their beliefs the same regarding Heaven and Hell? In Judaism there is no physical punishment, or physical rewards – after the physical death the body simply separates from the soul and the soul returns to God. The flesh, where all the physical pleasures, pains, excitement, emotions, and memories reside is buried in the grave and all that was associated with it is no more and this becomes the end. The book of Ecclesiastes 9:5 appear to support the Jewish notion as it states “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten.” This text clearly identifies death as the end of both the flesh and the soul. But the Christian claims of an afterlife in Heaven is found in the book of Matthew chapter 5:12 as Jesus Himself states "Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven..." He also speakes of a Hell in Matthew 5:22. Is Ecclesiastes 9:5 and Matthew 5:12,22 contradictory statements of the gospels? If Matthew 5:12,22 is correct does this make Judaism beliefs incorrect - and if Ecclesiastes 9:5 is correct then why do millions of Christians still support the notion of a Heaven or a Hell - a punishment or a reward after death?
Perhaps this notion came three centuries after the Crucifixion of Christ when the Pagan Rome Empire was converted to Christianity. It was during this remarkable fifth century event that the writings on Heaven and Hell, as described by St. Augustine were adopted and canonized by the church. St. Augustine was a notorious heathen before converting to Catholicism. His philosophy of moral damnation has made a significant impact on how Christians view their destiny in the afterlife. In fact, St. Augustine’s writings formalized the concept of Heaven and Hell which has survived through the ages. New Aged religion however, seems to have a more open minded approach on the subject in that it questions certain aspects of longed believed traditions while holding on to others. Nevertheless, both Heaven and Hell are motivators for millions of believers which guide their moral actions now in the flesh.
However, for a number of reasons it is Hell, not Heaven that has dominated the minds, thoughts, actions and energy of the church - and the imagination of its artists. Artistic paintings most often depict images of torture where beasts devour the flesh of the souls and/or the flesh of the soul is pictured in despicable, dehumanizing environments. It is the fear of Hell which motivates individual to do good deeds - and it is the main theme of religious sermons in churches, Synagogues, and Mosques across the globe. The most prominent assumptions about Hell is that it is real and it’s the final stage, and once the soul enters into its dark, menacing domain of eternal suffering there are no further opportunities to avoid it.
In 15th Century Italy, the Church and the State was competing for sovereign power and it was at this time a book was published which put both the church and the state beneath a magnifying glass for generations to come. The book was called “The Divine Commedia”, written by Dante Alighieri. It was later described as “Dante’s Inferno” which was the first major writings on religious matters in vernacular Italian - instead of Latin. Vernacular Italian allowed it to reach a much larger audience. The book would become the most influential literary work of all time in poetic form. The writings, in conjunction to the images, were very compelling and intense. The writings later became a series of three books depicting the state of souls after death. In his visions Dante concluded that there were nine stages the souls would descend before reaching the devil himself – further instilling the notion of a Hell in the minds of the masses. Were the visions of Dante nothing more than a reaction to the emphasis put on Hell by the church of his era – or is Hell simply a more compelling subject which fascinates, and rejuvenate the mind? Like a good horror film, its repulsive, nightmarish images may strike more collective cords than the more peaceful scenes of Heaven.
A change in philosophy towards Heaven and Hell began to emerge around the turn of the century during the middle Ages when the increasing powers of monarchies were forced to compete for followers. The church began to modify its position on Heaven and Hell, making Hell less of a threat and Heaven more readily attainable. The solution – the adoption of a third place for the departed souls called “Purgatory” where one could be pardoned, and passed directly to God - even after committing the worst atrocities against humanity, simply by confessing their sins and donating money to the church. This concept would later be challenged in the latter part of the 15th century by the Augustinian Monk named Martin Luther who thought the Monasteries was watering down the truth by selling seats to members and by collecting money for the pardon of their sins in the form of tithe and offerings. Martin Luther also felt that every man, woman, and child should be free to read and interpret the Bible for themselves and free their minds from the dangerous, untrustworthy philosophy of Catholicism.
Martin Luther’s efforts generated a new crop of believers known today as “Protestants” – or protesters of Catholicism. After several generations of believers of both Catholicism and Protestants it would appear that perhaps the notion of a Heaven or a Hell is nothing more than an attempt for man to justify his actions here on earth – and to offer an opportunity for everyone to be accountable for his or her earthly deeds. It would certainly seem unfair and unjust for a bad person who have committed heinous acts on another individual, who never get caught to just simply die and never have to be judged and punished for such actions. He commits his crime against humanity, he never gets caught, he dies, and that’s it. There has to be a sense of an afterlife where that person will have a rude awakening that the crimes he may have gotten away with in this world would be punishable in the afterlife. If this were not the case why then doesn’t everyone commit crimes against humanity, hide out in a remote location and simply wait until they die. With the belief in a Heaven and a Hell the concept of an afterlife and the judgment of ones actions while here in the flesh now carry an eternal price. A bad person can now be punished for his/her crimes while a good person can be rewarded for good deeds.
To authenticate the notion of a Just God there must be some place for the unjust. Certainly they can not reside in the domains of the just. And what about those who have no belief at all in religion, a God, a Heaven or a Hell – where do they stand on the subject? People like atheists/agnostics who remarkably represent more than six million people worldwide. The population in Japan alone is approximately 60-70% Atheist while 95% of the population of China have no Christian or religious beliefs whatsoever. Would this population be affected by Heaven or Hell whether they did good or not – or does Heaven and Hell apply to believers only?
This notion offers two critical set of consequences of error, both worth serious consideration as they will have an impact now and in the afterlife. Consequences of error for the believers are that the person rejects the idea that Heaven and Hell do not exist and conclude that Heaven and Hell do exits. In reality, it does not exist. The consequences of error is that the person lives life as if Heaven and Hell existed, thereby depriving themselves of certain opportunities in this life in an effort to live according to what they believes is more likely to keep them out of Hell and get them into Heaven. However, he does not actually get to enter Heaven and did not really need to worry about going to Hell. A non believer would consider this a wasted life.
The second consequence of error would be for the non believer who operates as if Heaven and Hell did not exist when in reality they do exist. The consequences of error for the non believer is that they live life as if Heaven and Hell did not exist, and thus may choose to engage in certain behaviors that they would have avoided, and vice versa, if they believed Heaven or Hell actually existed. However, it turns out that Heaven and Hell do exist and they most likely go to Hell because they did not meet the criteria for entrance into Heaven. This error has the worse consequences; therefore a prudent person operates to limit the probability of such an error.
Whatever ones belief or disbelief in the notion of a Heaven or Hell may be, it appear to be irrelevant in the larger scheme of things as few have been affected by the thousands of years of teachings on the subject. However, while there is no scientific evidence of a Heaven or Hell, most people believe that we continue to live on in one form or another after we die. What will that form be and in which domain would it reside - and do we really want to know now what will happen then? Or, is it perhaps better to continue to live not with scientific evidence but by faith? Non believers could care less, but for comfort regarding this troubling unknown, believers hold onto the book of 2nd Corinthians 5:7 as it suggests;
“We Walk By Faith, Not By Sight”