Heaven and Hell

Some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that ‘if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no child, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother.’ There were seven brothers; the first married and, when he died, left no children; and the second married her and died, leaving no children; and the third likewise; none of the seven left children. Last of all the woman herself died. In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her.”

Jesus said to them, “Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.”

Our second reading today is from a classic, written by Howard Thurman — one of the great civil rights leaders of the last century, a good friend of Martin Luther King Jr.’s father and a profound influence on King the civil rights leader.  

Our readings begins announcing a solution to a problem that he earlier identifies:  the people of Israel lived under an occupation by a large imperial army.  With such a huge difference in power between the Jews and the Romans — getting rid of the occupier through nonviolent resistance was not going to work, and violent resistance would only be crushed.  The solution grew on the recognition that anyone who permits another to determine the quality of his or her inner life gives into the hands of the oppressor the keys to life. This paragraph lays bare the way this solution later became a religion — or really two religions.

The solution which Jesus found for himself and for Israel, as they faced the hostility of the Greco-Roman world, becomes the word and the work of redemption for all the cast-down people in every generation and in every age. I mean this quite literally. I do not ignore the theological and metaphysical interpretation of the Christian doctrine of salvation. But the underprivileged everywhere have long since abandoned any hope that this type of salvation deals with the crucial issues by which their days are turned into despair without consolation. The basic fact is that Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed. That it became through the intervening years, a religion of the powerful and dominant, used sometimes as an instrument of oppression, must not tempt us into believing that it was thus in the mind and life of Jesus. . . Wherever his spirit appears, the oppressed gather fresh courage; for he announced the good news that fear, hypocrisy, and hatred, the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited, need have no dominion over them. – Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited

I want to thank Steve and John for providing the music this morning.  It was Steve’s interest in playing some old folk tunes about heaven and two recent funerals that spurred me to offer some reflections on the subject.  And I thank him for that.  Just like we should avoid relegating conversations about money to stewardship Sunday, so I think we should not relegate conversations about heaven to funerals.  In both cases, we end up with a distorted view.  Money becomes a source of anxiety and contention if it we fail to see it as in important a part of our spiritual lives and heaven becomes a fairy-tale with no hook in our everyday lives if we only speak of it at funerals.

In other words, I want to ask how the idea of heaven might be important to our every day lives.  If it’s to be more than a fairytale, what is it?


Heaven is clearly a Christian idea.  Heaven is not an exclusively Christian idea –it’s found in other religions ancient and modern — but definitely a part of mainstream American Christian belief.  A recent poll suggests that 60 percent of Americans believe in heaven as blessed afterlife.

Let’s back up though, first and try to take our bearings from Jesus.  A quick word search in any of the various online search engines will reveal something quite curious.  The vast majority of the 141 hits for the word heaven cannot be construed as having anything to do with an afterlife at all. A few speak of rewards in heaven, with no clear sense given of what or where or when, and a few, like our reading this morning, use the word heaven to point out that it is not what we think.  Like our reading this morning, many of the references to heaven speak of it as a possible present reality.

There are no “father’s celestial shores” up in the sky in the Gospels.  They are present in our folk music, to be sure and in our popular cultural language, but not in the first stories about Jesus.

So, why, if it’s not part of Jesus’ program, has it become part of the larger Christian program?

Here’s one idea. It’s due to a failure of imagination from our pulpits.  Let me explain what I mean:

Back in the 1940’s a German theologian, named Rudolf Bultmann wrote a short little essay called  New Testament and Mythology, in which he called on the Christian world to be imaginative.  This short 20 page essay caused more than 20 years of furor.  And yet his proposal, seems quite modest and obvious.

It was this:

After studying libraries worth of the histories of ancient cultures and reading their stories of creation and the origin of religion, Bultmann had to face the fact that ancient cultures — and I’m talking from the early middle ages back — were all similar in that, despite being scientific they shared a love for explaining how we got here, and our place in the vast (or not so vast) cosmos.  He begins the essay by describing this ancient world view.  It is straightforward and quite helpful.

“The cosmology of the New Testament is essentially mythical in character.  The world is viewed as a three-storied structure, with the earth in its centre, the heaven above, and the underworld beneath.  Heaven is the abode of God and of celestial beings — the angels.  The underworld is hell, a place of torment.  Even the earth is more than the scene of natural everyday events, of the trivial round and common task.  It is the scene of the supernatural activity of God and his angels on the one hand, and of Satan and his daemons on the other.  These supernatural forces intervene in the course of nature and in all that men think and will and do.  Miracles are by no means rare.  Man is not in control of his own life. . . “.etc, etc.

Bultmann concludes by stating his thesis, that since all of this is the language of mythology, themes of which can be easily traced back to other cultures, we who want to take the Gospel of Jesus seriously must undertake to “demythologize.”  that is to understand the point of the use of the myth.

Afraid perhaps of change, this basic proposal was met with stiff resistance and no small amount of fear.  As if to study it and learn from it and embark on the imaginative path it prescribes would be to forswear one’s faith, or to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

As a result we have today, what the popular biblical scholar, Marcus Borg calls, a  heaven-and-hell Christianity, a framework, which anyone who grew up in the west understands. The answer to the question, “What is Christianity about?” could be given in a single sentence, and even though you might not espouse it, you know it:   “We have been bad and deserve to be punished, even to the extent of eternal torment in hell.  But God sent Jesus to die for us, so that if we believe in him, we can be saved and go to heaven.”

There are of course variations on that framework — but they’re essentially the same: “This world is a trail of tears and heaven is a reward for suffering through it,” is another way of saying, with a different nuance, that we’ve been bad and need to be saved.

I think that we would like to break from this — we sense that there is something more, something that affects us know and gives us courage in the struggle for justice, that Jesus offers a profound freedom of the present that has nothing to do with this heaven-and-hell Christianity. As Thurman so beautifully put it,  “Wherever his spirit appears, the oppressed gather fresh courage; for he announced the good news that fear, hypocrisy, and hatred, the three hounds of hell that track the trail of the disinherited, need have no dominion over them.”


I just finished suggesting that I think we’d all like a break from this heaven-hell Christianity — no matter what you think about the afterlife.

In the spirit of encouraging thought and dissent, and in the spirit of openness, I will tell you what I think about it — because it’s easy to do.  I am agnostic about it.  I simply do not know.

Back in March 2010 I was, as you know, suddenly taken sick and spent several days in the intensive care unit before I was given only a few more hours of life if the final intervention did not do as they hoped it would.  Now, perhaps a few hours from death does not count as a Near Death Experience. It was as close, however, as I wish to be until it actually happens.  I did not experience a near death experience.  I find the information on near-death experiences fascinating and frustrating, at the same time.  Some is so clearly carved out of an ancient cosmology that it just has to be made up.  Some is clearly different.  The fact of the matter is that I still do not know.  My only experience with squirrels, growing up, was with a puny black variety.  I did not conclude from that that all squirrels are black. My one experience with Near Death does not permit me to conclude that the near death experience with lights and voices and the works is a fiction.  I do not know.

If there is a blessed afterlife — it is impossible for me to say.  Perhaps some have received information that I have not, but historically such revelation is no more accurate or helpful than the various predictions we’ve been hearing lately about the end of the world.


So, if the solution Jesus discovered is not about afterlife — what is it about?

I chose to read Howard Thurman today because he is clear — there is no consolation in the theological and metaphysical interpretation of the Christian doctrine of salvation for those who daily hope for release from sham and drudgery, pain and oppression.  The history of this path can be traced back to what I said about the heaven hell framework — all of that calls for “belief” in Jesus  as, fill in the blank — son of God, Christ, Resurrected one, Redeemer.  But for the underprivileged who have found hope in the Way of Jesus, they have experienced something different from doctrines — they have experienced love — love that cannot be squelched by fear or power, love that cannot be taken away with a whipping, love that holds a family together even when the forces of economics tear it apart.  The Christian faith is a technique of survival based on an experience of love.

What about for us who do not face daily threats to our bodies or to our families?  What about for us who are not the disinherited, but the powerful and the dominant?

Two small suggestions for us to ponder as we take leave from this place of worship.

First, we must be absolutely aware that we who are powerful have a long history of using religion as an instrument of oppression — as Thurman suggests.

Perhaps we can avoid this trap by retreating from the word “religion.”  Despite it’s perfect credentials, the word has been co-opted by some who use it to make the world according to their image of it. Instead let us embrace the spirit of the way of Jesus who never seemed to use that word either and did perfectly well.  Instead let us talk about justice and about love, about the spirit and about

Secondly,  let us demythologize the word “heaven” so that when we hear it we don’t think about who’s in and who’s out of this place of glory, like the Sadducees, but instead hear Jesus saying — this salvation thing is a living thing — it’s about being in relation, and so about being gracious and compassionate, as well as being tough minded in the pursuit of justice and liberty for all.

To the question, what is salvation, John Wesley answers that it is not what is frequently understood by that word: the going to heaven, eternal happiness.  It is not the soul’s going to paradise.  It is not a blessing which lies on the other side of death; . . . It is not something at a distance.  It is a present thing.”

I’ve suggested what I don’t know.  Here’s what I think I do know.  In the face of the three hounds of hell, Fear, Hate and Deception — real, and present troubles — Jesus offers the rewards of heaven — the real gift of love in the present moment — love that lifts up and gives courage where there was once timidity, a love that returns hate, not with hatred  but with life, a love that faces deception with sincerity.



One thought on “Heaven and Hell

  1. Laurie Emery says:

    I missed this sermon/worship, and I appreciate being able to read it online. I think it’s right on the money. Who actually knows whether there is a heaven or not given that we haven’t been there yet? However, I can relate to love and courage and sincerity and working on being a better person. Thank you, Peter!

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