Is “Heaven and Hell” Biblical?
The answer is surprisingly, “No.”
Are you skeptical about that claim? Please hear me out for a moment….
If you were to do a search, in your Bible, to try to find the words “heaven” and “hell,” used in the same verse together, you might be shocked to realize something: the number of occurrences would be ZERO (Try it for yourself here, online). However, if you look for the words “heaven” and “earth” paired together in the same verse, you might discover about 200 occurrences in the Bible (Try it here, online).
For example, according to the King James Version, when Jesus teaches the disciples, “the Lord’s prayer,” we have, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.” Despite popular opinion, the terminology of “heaven and hell” is not found together in Holy Scripture. But “heaven and earth” quite frequently is.
So, why is that?
Joshua Ryan Butler, a pastor in Portland, Oregon, has written a thoughtful book, The Skeleton’s in God’s Closet, where he addresses some of the thorniest questions people have about God and the Bible, that focus on three central issues: Hell, Judgment and Holy War.
Butler makes the case that Christians often toss around lingo like “heaven and hell,” without really thinking about how the Bible actually addresses these topics. According to Butler, “we get hell wrong because we get heaven and earth wrong.”
Typically, we think that the Bible is constantly contrasting “heaven” and “hell,” when in reality, the Bible’s primary concern is the disruption between “heaven” and “earth,” resulting from human sin, that breaks down God’s good creation into horribly dysfunctional patterns of relationships. We tend to think of “hell” as this vast, underground torture chamber, but we miss the point, as “earth” gets completely left out of the story.
You know what I mean. We have all heard it before.
We are here on earth. We die. And then we go to one of two places: heaven or hell. End of story.
But earth is totally left out of the picture, by the end of the story.
Butler makes the case, in the one-time Patheos blog of Preston Sprinkle (another young theologian/pastor with a bright mind), that, “heaven and earth are destined for reconciliation. God wants to bring creation back together from the things that tear it apart. God is on a mission to get the hell out of earth: to redeem his world from the destructive power of sin, death and hell.”
Have you ever thought of that before?
I have had Joshua Ryan Butler’s book on my “too-be-read” list for way too long. But his message is so thought-changing, that I thought it better to let Butler tell the story of the Bible himself, regarding heaven, hell, and earth, in this 3-minute video below, and then if it interests you, to encourage you to get the book. I would love to interact with someone about the book, and figure out, how in the world, he ever combs his hair.
Butler’s book also addresses other thorny issues, that strike a nerve in today’s culture, such as the whole idea of God’s judgment (“I thought God was a loving God?“) and the concept of holy war in the Old Testament (“So what makes the warfare in the Old Testament any different than what ISIS has been doing in Syria, for the past several years?“). Butler argues that we often have a caricature about God in the Bible, that leads many people to believe that the God of the Bible really is not that good after all, nor worthy of our trust.
Okay….Do you want to dive in more? Well, this gives me an opportunity tell you about a video podcast that I sometimes turn to, by Phil Vischer, the creator of Veggie Tales. The Phil Vischer Podcast is funny, a bit goofy, and at times will step on some toes, but Vischer and friends interview some fascinating authors, like Joshua Ryan Butler (One of Vischer’s cohosts is another young, smart theologian and writer, Skye Jethani … check out Jethani’s video on, “Why You Are Sick of Church.”)
The Phil Vischer video podcast interview with Butler was done a year ago, in January, 2017 (are we already in 2018??). If you want to get the meat of the interview, fast forward the YouTube video to the 10-minute mark. It will reframe how you think about heaven, hell, and earth, and help you in your discussions with friends, coworkers, family members on these difficult topics….. And, now for the extended story, from Joshua Ryan Butler, on the Phil Vischer Podcast…..
January 15th, 2018 at 6:26 pm
What do you think of this: http://www.thechristadelphian.com/heaven_and_hell_online.htm
January 15th, 2018 at 10:38 pm
Sarah, I took a brief look at the Christadelphian article.
There are a lot things going on there. Leaving aside some of the exegetical issues (e.g. the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus as a parable?? If so, what is it teaching?… there is not a clear consensus on this… I would need to study it more before arriving at some conclusion), I could not quite tell if the article was making an argument for classic annihilationalism, or not. That is just a huge topic that I am not prepared to get into right now…. though it is on my list. I have a copy of _Four Views on Hell_, edited by Preston Sprinkle, that is sitting on my shelf, unread.
I read John Stott’s tentative acceptance of annihilationalism, against the traditional doctrine of hell as conscious eternal torment, a few years back. He made a good case for it, so I do not think annihilationalism is unorthodox. Nevertheless, I was not completely persuaded at the time. I have since read Robert Peterson’s, _Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment_, and he made a good argument, too.
What Butler is trying to do is more modest. He is interested in bringing back a type of C.S. Lewis’ view of hell, articulated in _The Great Divorce_, and make it more accessible to a younger audience, and also making a stronger appeal to Scripture. Butler does not appear to be interested in the debate over the immortality of the soul in this book. It isn’t essential to his argument regarding the restoration of heaven and earth.
My deeper concern with Christadelphian teaching is the rejection of the Trinity. There again, I have not done that much reading on the Trinity in recent years. Though it is on my list, too. I spent quite a bit of time, twenty years ago, reading Thomas Torrance on the Trinity, and I found his argument quite compelling, as to the Scriptural backing for the doctrine, as well as its essential connection to the Gospel.
You have spurred me on to return to those topics, but it will take me awhile to get as deep as the Christadelphians are trying to do.
July 10th, 2021 at 5:19 pm
Joshua Ryan Butler preaches on “heaven” and “hell”: