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The afterlife:

Current beliefs about the life after death by
two groups: conservative and liberal Protestants

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Beliefs of conservative Protestant faith groups

Most conservative Protestants believe that:

bullet The descriptions of the afterlife throughout the Bible are consistent. This belief is supported by the King James Version of the Bible in which some very different destinations after death are all translated into English as "Hell."

bullet Every person has eternal life.

bullet God has created two locations (Heaven and Hell). Everyone will spend eternity in one of these places after death and judgment.

bullet Heaven:
bullet It is a glorious location where there is an absence of pain, disease, sexual activity, depression, anxiety, etc.

bullet People live there in new spiritual bodies, in the presence of Jesus Christ and God.

bullet Hell:
bullet According to a growing number of religious conservatives, Hell is a place where one is simply isolated from God.

bullet According to many fundamentalist Christians, it is a place where people will be intensely tortured without any hope of relief, for eternity.

bullet Some religious conservatives believe in conditionalism or annihilationism: that those in Hell will be punished for an interval proportional to their sins on earth, and then totally annihilated so that they exist no more in any form.

bullet More details on the conservative positions on Hell.

bullet How one's destination is determined:
bullet Those who have repented of their sins and have trusted Jesus as Lord and Savior are "saved." They will go to heaven. This represents a minority among those North Americans who identify themselves as Christians.

bullet Those who have heard the Gospel and have not been saved will be tortured without relief in Hell after they die. Most North American Christians will share this fate; all non-Christians will as well..

bullet There is a debate over the fate of people who have never been learned about Jesus, been aware of Christianity or exposed to the gospel message. Thus, they have not been able to either reject or accept it. This group probably represents the majority of the human race, since about 2 out of 3 humans follow either no religion or a non-Christian faith group. In the past, they were all believed to be destined to live for eternity in Hell. Recently, there has been a softening of this position among some conservatives, as they have sarted to move towards the ancient Universalist heresy. This topic is covered in detail in another essay: "Salvation: can non-Christians be saved?"

bullet The Southern Baptist Convention Home Mission Board conducted a study in 1993 which estimated how many Americans have had been born-again. They concluded that 70% of adult Americans have not been "saved" and thus are going to Hell. 9 During the last decade of the 20th century, the number of Americans affiliated with Christian churches has dropped significantly, and the number of Americans who do not follow a religion, have rapidly increased. Thus, if the SBC were to repeat the study today, the number of Americans that the Convention feels are destined to Hell would certainly increase.

bullet Nobody can earn their way to heaven by doing good deeds. Our behavior during our lifetime does not influence in any way God's decision whether we will go to heaven or hell; only our beliefs matter. Hell is, in essence, a punishment for a thought crime; for holding the wrong beliefs about the nature of Jesus. It is the ultimate form of religious intolerance.

bullet Good deeds are a natural consequence of being saved, but have no bearing on a person's salvation status.

bullet Even if a person has been saved, they will not have eternal life in heaven if they engage in certain forbidden activities without later sincerely asking for forgiveness. Of the many such forbidden behaviors that are referred to in the Bible, the only one that is commonly mentioned in church is a homosexual act

bullet People who have been saved and make it to heaven will not necessarily all be treated equally. There are passages in the Bible which mention that believers can lay up treasures in Heaven during their life on earth. Some conservative Protestants interpret these passages as implying that believers who have done many good deeds will be rewarded more in heaven; believers who have led an evil life will be rewarded less. For example, Mother Theresa and Albert Schweitzer, perhaps the most remarkable Christian humanitarians of the 20th century, would be generously rewarded in Heaven, if they had been saved on earth. A mass-murderer who was saved while living on earth would also be welcomed into heaven, but would receive fewer rewards. (Actually, we are aware of no evidence that either Mother Teresa, a Roman Catholic, and Albert Schweitzer, a Unitarian, were saved. Thus their eternal destiny may well be Hell, according to many conservative Protestants.)

bullet Conservative Christians believe that the natural tendency of every human is to reject the Gospel and thus be destined to spend eternity in Hell. However God grants his grace to a small percentage of the human race so that they are receptive to the Christian message. God chooses who will receive this gift using unknown criteria. It cannot be race, or God would be a racist; it cannot be gender because then God would be a sexist. Whether God is homophobic and thus does not extend grace to lesbians and gays, or is transphobic and does not extend grace to transgender persons and transsexuals is unknown. The role of other life factors is also unknown.
bullet Timothy George, dean of the Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala. commented:
"Historically, hell has been portrayed in evangelical sermons as fire and brimstone. The most we should say is that hell is a place of unexplainable mystery. The reality is probably far worse than our most vivid imaginations can conjure up. The reality of both heaven and hell are both greater than we can express...While it's very important to teach and preach about the reality of hell, it should be done only with evangelical tears. There is sometimes a kind of gloating that people are broiling in hell. I don't think that honors God or reflects the love of Jesus. We should shed tears over those who are perishing. Sometimes that's been missing...Heavenly happiness offers a better approach to evangelism than how hot it is in hell. We ought to focus on heaven and not lose sight in focusing on what the temperature is in hell. We ought to not lose sight of the alternative, which is eternity with God in heaven." 9

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Beliefs of liberal/progressive Christians

Many liberal and progressive Christians recognize that the writers of the Bible held a variety of beliefs concerning Heaven and Hell. The earliest books of the Bible described Sheol: an underground cavern where all people, good and bad, spent eternity after death, leading a thirsty, shadowy, energy-less existence isolated from God. Borrowing some ideas from the Zoroastrian religion, some later Jewish writers saw the faithful being resurrected and living many years in a purified earth before dying a second time. After the Greek invasion, some Jewish parties picked up the Hellenistic concept that some individuals will go to Heaven for eternal reward, while the rest go to Hell for eternal punishment. The book of Daniel, which most liberals believe was written by an anonymous author in the early 2nd century BCE, and the Christian Scriptures from the 1st and 2nd century CE describe this Hell. It is pictured as either a place of annihilation, where people simply cease to exist, or as a place of eternal punishment with worms, flogging, unbearable heat, unbearable thirst, and no hope of mercy or an end of the pain. Although they recognize the gradual shift in the Bible authors's understanding of the afterlife, liberal and progressive Christians do not necessarily fully accept the authors' beliefs.

Generally speaking, religious liberals:

bullet Reject the reality of Sheol.

bullet Reject the reality of Hell as either a place of annihilation or eternal punishment.

bullet Most look upon Hell as a concept, not as a place of punishment. Some suggest that people experience Hell while alive on Earth.

bullet They view the various concepts of Hell in the Bible as myths. Although the writers of the Bible sincerely believed in Sheol and Hell, most liberals believe that it does not exist.

bullet The concept of an eternal punishment for a single oversight, error, thought crime or sin during life is unjust and unworthy of a loving God.

bullet Punishment of an individual because she/he had never heard the Gospel is irrational, unjust, and unworthy of a loving God.

bullet Punishment of a person because they hold different religious beliefs is unjust, or because they have not been "saved". Believing that God is capable of behaving in this way is blasphemy.
 
bullet They feel that a loving God would be incapable of creating a Hell. Even if He did, the concept of an infinite sentence is incompatible with elementary justice.  They would view such a deity as profoundly immoral, uncaring and intolerant.

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Site navigation:

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References:

  1. Greg Garrison, "Heated debate: Do hell's fires still burn? Theologians argue over nature, definition of Bible's destination for the wicked," The Holland Sentinel Archives, at:  http://www.hollandsentinel.com/
  2. The Adventist Christian Club describes the Seventh-Day Adventist's position on heaven and hell at: http://www.findjesus.com/adventist/Question57.html 
  3. "The three eternal destinies of Man: Proving that God is fair to everyone," at: http://www.twelvetribes.com/
  4. A.K. Turner, "The History of Hell", Harcourt Brace, New York, NY, (1993), Page 40-45.
  5. "Contemporary preachers not so hot about Hell?" Charisma News Service, 2000-FEB-25, at: http://www.mcjonline.com/news/00/20000225e.htm 
  6. "What the Hell is Hell?" is a web site that delves into the intricacies of Hell. See: http://what-the-hell-is-hell.com

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Copyright © 1998 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Author: B.A. Robinson
Latest update: 2011-JUN-04

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