Passing of Heaven and Hell

For many centuries, it has been very widely believed that at death man passed either to everlasting bliss in heaven or to everlasting torment in hell. Of recent years, observers of religious opinion have noticed an increasingly general tendency to abandon these beliefs, particularly the less pleasant of the two. In this article it is intended to treat firstly of the establishment and maintenance of these doctrines of heaven and hell which are in process of passing away; secondly to consider what has supplanted them; thirdly (and this will be the most important part), an attempt will be made to discover the reasons for their passing; finally a very brief” enunciation will be given of the Truth of God, which never passes away.

The belief that the soul at death went either to eternal happiness in the presence of God, or to torture unending in some lower region of fiery tumult called hell, had been established on an unscriptural foundation—the belief that man possessed an immortal soul capable of surviving the death of the body. Without that foundation it could never have existed. Together with that doctrine it was taken over by certain of the Early Fathers of the Church from Babylonian, Egyptian and Grecian sources, and read into the Holy Writ by these same seekers after an attempted reconciliation between nan’s philosophy and Christian truth. Doubtless these earnest thinkers acted in all good faith and were blind to the fact that in attempting such a reconciliation, they were trying to establish an agreement between the revealed will of God and the times of ignorance He had “winked at”.¹ The Gnostics, those mystics who claimed some kind of supernatural ability to deal with such subjects, rejected the truly Christian eschatology.

Origen and Clement of Alexandria followed, developing their own peculiar varieties of theories as to the destiny of man. Since they believed that man had an immortal soul, they were bound to provide for it some place of abode when the body had died. Further, as Voltaire very characteristically pointed out in a reference to an earlier period, “So soon as men began to perceive that some of their enemies flourished as the green bay tree in this life, they had to cater for them after death”. Hence the Platonic idea of the reversal of fortunes in the next world. To men steeped in such ideas it was a very easy matter to develop from the Bible similar ideas of heaven and hell. The belief that the righteous would be rewarded in heaven can be read into the Scriptures more easily than its companion doctrine. The promises of eternal association with God, Matthew’s record of our Lord’s preaching the “Kingdom of Heaven,” John chapter fourteen, and many other passages, could easily lead, if wrongly interpreted, to the adoption of such a belief. Once adopted it needed little to maintain it. It admitted of fewer variations than the belief in hell-torment. The monastic system owed its uprise in some degree to the attractiveness of this heavenly reward, but in the Middle Ages the terrifying emphasis laid on the dire punishments of hell allowed of little attention being paid to the brighter prospect. Indeed, one might almost say that heaven for the mediaeval believer was more the escape from hell than some positive prize to be gained I With the establishment of the capitalist system there came to be applied to the belief in a future of heavenly bliss, an external political buttress.² From the sixteenth century onwards that belief has been exploited by the rich oppressors of the poor, more or less vigorously, according as the conditions of life amongst the workers were in greater or lesser need of amelioration. It was expedient that the oppressed should be taught to endure hardship here with some hope of a reward, of a rectification of wrongs, in the world to come. As Burke said of the oppressed French workmen in the days just preceding the French Revolution, “They must be taught to obtain what by labour can be obtained, and when they find as they commonly do, the success disproportioned to the endeavour, they must be taught their consolation is in the final proportion of eternal justice”. Backed up by such external influences, and—what is probably more important—by its intrinsic charm, this belief in the heavenly reward of the righteous, being the result of peculiarly selfish, subjective wish-fulfilment, withstood with little difficulty (until very recently) the attacks of men like Voltaire.

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Author: H. A. Twelves

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Bible reference(s): Genesis 3:19, Deut. 32:22, 2 Sam. 22:6, Job 11:8, Job 26:6, Ps. 9:17, Ps. 16:10, Ps. 18:5, Ps. 55:15, Ps. 86:13, Ps. 116:3, Ps. 139:8, Prov. 5:5, Prov. 7:27, Prov. 9:18, Prov. 15:11, Prov. 15:24, Prov. 23:14, Prov. 27:20, Isa. 5:14, Isa. 14:9, Isa. 14:15, Isa. 28:15, Isa. 28:18, Isa 33:14, Isa. 57:9, Isa 66:24, Ezek. 31:16, Ezek. 31:17, Ezek. 32:21, Ezek. 32:27, Amos 9:2, Jon. 2:2, Hab. 2:5, Matt. 5:22, Matt. 5:29, Matt. 5:30, Matt. 10:28, Matt. 11:23, Matt. 16:18, Matt. 18:8-9, Matt. 23:15, Matt. 23:33, Mat. 25:41, Mk. 9:43-47, Lk. 10:15, Lk. 12:5, Luke 12:20, Lk. 16:22-23, Acts 2:27, Acts 2:31, Jas. 3:6, Jude 1:7, 2 Pet. 2:4, Rev. 1:18, Rev. 6:8, Rev. 20:13, Rev. 20:14, 2 Esdras 2:29, 2 Esdras 4:7, 2 Esdras 4:8, 2 Esdras 7:36, 2 Esdras 8:53

Source: “Passing of Heaven and Hell?,” The Testimony, Vol. 8, No. 90, June 1938, pp. 256-62. Used with permission.

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