Judgment, Heaven, Hell and What Happens “In Between” According to Mainstream Christianity
Where is a person between his/her death and the resurrection? The Catholic view is that at least part of the time is spent in purgatory, a cleansing fire where sins are purified. Reformers thought this invalidated Christ’s crucifixion as the payment of ALL sins and thus abandoned the thought. Henriksen writes of the “in between” as an existence beyond time and space, where the souls of the dead dwell in a kind of sleep until the time they are awoken by Christ for resurrection. It is to this space that Jesus is said to have gone to preaching to the spirits while His body was lying in the tomb waiting for the third day. (McGrath 459f, Henriksen 271f)
Judgment is about separating – in Biblical language: the weeds from the crop, the wheat from the chaff, the sheep from the goats. On the day of judgment God takes to Himself in heaven those who want to be His, and leave those who don’t want to, to fend for themselves (or go to hell, same difference really). This is not some kind of revenge but God’s refusal to force Himself upon anyone. (Henriksen 276f)
God is ever and totally present in the space known as heaven. When Christians die they go there to live together an eternal life free from all sins. (McGrath 461f) (More about this in a later post.)
The idea that being firmly opposed to God has serious consequences is Biblical. But the imagery of anguished souls writhing in flames of varied intensity is of medieval origin. The very idea of hell has faced criticism for being contradictory to a loving God with the power to conquer evil. Nowadays, especially in evangelistic circles, threatening people with hell has given way to preaching about God’s love. Nevertheless, something must happen to those who, even after their death and resurrection, deny God. Thus some kind of place/existence where God’s love is forever absent is needed to accommodate them. An alternative to hell is if that particular person ceases to exist because, without the sustenance of God’s love, nothing keeps him or her alive. (McGrath 457-459, Henriksen 280-282)Sources: Henriksen, Jan-Olav. Guds virkelighet: Kristen dogmatikk (God’s Reality: Christian Dogmatics), Oslo: Luther Forlag 1994. McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology – An Introduction, Oxford: Blackwell 2011.