The rich man and Lazarus
A rich man ignored the desperate needs of a beggar called Lazarus and so was sent to hell and tormented while Lazarus went to heaven. The rich man asked Abraham for comfort, which was denied and then to at least be able to warn his family not to sin, but Abraham refused, claimed if his family did not listen to the prophets then nothing else could convince them.
The rich man was in hell before his family, indicating (particular) judgement took place immediately after death, not at the end of time.
Heaven/Hell are portrayed as eternal physical places, since the rich man couldn’t leave wanted to dip his finger in water to cool down, wanted to talk to his family (indicating a voice) and that there was a chasm between him and Lazarus which indicates a physical landscape and barrier, also implying an eternal afterlife.
The story is not actually about heaven or hell, it is about Sheol. The story only mentions the beggar being carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham. According to Jewish theology there are separate places in Sheol/Hades. The righteous go to be with Abraham and the wicked are in an unhappy place. Lazarus went to the former, the rich man to the latter. Therefore, the story is not about Heaven.
Similarly, the bible says the rich man went to Hades. Many argue that Sheol/Hades is not correctly translated as Hell since when Jesus spoke of the place of fire, he used the word Gehenna. Therefore, the story is not about Hell.
Luther: The story is not about heaven and or hell because it is just a parable, not to be taken literally. Martin Luther argued it was just a parable which symbolizes the state of the conscience after we do good or bad. The torment mentioned is a symbol for the rich man’s conscience.
Although Hell is depicted as a physical place due to the rich man talking to Lazarus and wanting Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool the rich man’s tongue, Luther claims it should be read as symbolizing the conscience’s satisfaction or torment. Luther claims this is because the physical bodies of the rich man and Lazarus were ‘both lying in their graves’ so ‘it could not have been a conversation with the natural voice … likewise as little was it the natural tongue that complained of being tormented … nor was it natural fingers and natural water that were desired from Lazarus. Therefore, this all must be in the conscience’. The resurrection doesn’t take place until the end of time. Jesus’ body disappeared when he was resurrected. So there is no way to make sense of this story as a literal event.
But the rich man wanted to warn his family, which he should be able to do if the torment is just a symbol for tormented conscience on earth. This suggests the Shoel interpretation is more correct than soul sleep.
Literal readings of the story as an actual event point to the key detail that a personal name (Lazarus) was mentioned. Other parables just refer to generic types of people e.g. ‘the good Samaritan’. This suggests it was a real story about heaven and hell and so shouldn’t be taken as a symbolic parable.
N. T. Wright responds that the story is similar to other parables however in that it involves the reversal of fortunes and concern for the poor.
The afterlife as a physical reality
This view has been the most popular view throughout most of Christian history. It became especially pronounced culturally during the medieval period. Dante’s long poem The Divine Comedy inspired the popular imagination with its vivid descriptions of hell, heaven and purgatory. A physical view of the afterlife also reflected extreme versions of medieval life on earth, where torture (Hell) and feasting (Heaven) was common.
Physical resurrection: St Paul and Augustine on resurrection of the flesh
Resurrection of the flesh is the position that the afterlife is physical because it involves our resurrection and that resurrection is physical, i.e. of our bodies. Spiritual resurrection is an opposing view, that our resurrection is non-physical and thus the afterlife is non-physical.
Paul calls the resurrection of Jesus “the firstfruits”, indicating that it was the first resurrection after which ours will follow. Paul claims that Jesus saved us from our sinful state which Adam caused “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive”.
When we are raised from the dead, we will have a different and improved body. This seems to be what happened to Jesus. When he rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples, they did not recognize him at first. The Gospels also emphasise that the risen Jesus had the power to appear and disappear. Paul differentiates the earthly body from the resurrected body thus: “The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body”. The resurrected bodies will not be mere flesh and blood, since “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God … we will all be changed”. Paul made an analogy that mortal ‘natural’ bodies are like tents which are a heavy burden but when Jesus returns God will resurrect the dead and give them immortal ‘spiritual’ bodies. Immortality implies heaven and hell are eternal.
Our earthly bodies are so associated with sin and earthliness that some found it hard to believe that they could be raised in a form that would be heavenly. However, Augustine points out that our earthly body being raised in the flesh in an exalted form is far more believable than that our spirit could be joined with those sinful earthly bodies in the first place, which no one doubts.
St Augustine further argued that our resurrected body must be physical since Christ’s resurrection was of a physical body and since that represented the hope for all Christians that they would be resurrected.
Spiritual resurrection is argued to make more sense of Jesus’ post-mortem appearances. Jesus appeared to his disciples after he rose from the dead, he appeared to be able to disappear and reappear at will, which proponents of spiritual resurrection interpret as indicating a non-physical form. It could also make sense of the fact that he wasn’t initially recognised. This could suggest that our resurrection will be non-physical too, and thus the after life is a non-physical state. St Paul even called our future resurrected bodies ‘spiritual’ bodies.
What about the empty tomb? Jesus’ physical body had disappeared upon his resurrection, which seems to show that he was raised physically. It suggests it was his physical body that was resurrected in a physical but perfected form.
Furthermore, it might seem that Paul’s description of the resurrected body as “spiritual” and his distinguishing of spiritual from “earthly” suggests that the resurrected body is non-physical. However, in Paul’s time, the idea of spirit was not necessarily contrasted with physical in the way it is today. In fact a belief in Paul’s time was that ‘spirit’ was a kind of material thing, but a refined and perfected form of matter not subject to decay or death.
The cannibal problem for physical resurrection. What happens to our earthly body seems incompatible with physical resurrection. It rots away in the grave or is destroyed by fire in cremation, upon which its elements are returned to nature. What if one person cannibalised another person so that their dead body became part of the cannibal’s body? Such cases generate the puzzle of how both bodies, that of the cannibal and the cannibalised, could possibly both be raised, if there are parts of one which belong to both? The issue is far more extensive when you consider that many people are cannibals in a more indirect way. Decomposing bodies are used as nutrients for plants, which might then be eaten by another person, or by an animal who dies and is then eaten by a person. This issue was much debated in the 2nd century.
God’s omnipotence could be argued to solve this. “With God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).
However, it might be logically impossible for God to resurrect two people from the diffused parts of their earthly body if some parts of each of their bodies belong to both of them. It is logically impossible for one part that belonged to two bodies to be used in the resurrection of more than one body.
The afterlife as a spiritual reality and spiritual resurrection
The popularity of the belief in physical resurrection has lessened amongst Christians in modern times. For some this was due to the issues raised by physical resurrection. For others it was due to rejecting resurrection altogether. Some had a concern about what happens to our soul after we die but before resurrection. For Christians who reject Physical resurrection but still believe in an actual afterlife, it is a spiritual state of the soul where bliss is experienced eternally. It is not a physical place.
St Paul on a presence with Christ after death
Some have interpreted St Paul’s letter to the Philippians as suggesting that something happens to us before resurrection at the end of time.
Paul says that “to die is gain” but continuing to live “in the body” will mean “fruitful labour”. Paul says this is a difficult choice and he is “torn between the two … I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ … yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake” Paul is saying it is better to die and be with Christ, but the “more necessary” task is to keep living in order to help spread Christianity. (Philippians 1:21-24).
Paul seems to indicate here that immediately after death there will be a presence with Christ (particular judgement). This influenced the commonly believed Christian idea today that immediately after death there is particular judgement and then a non-physical existence in Heaven (as a state, since he won’t be in the flesh anymore).
However, St Paul spoke so clearly of the resurrection of the dead that arguably here he is not trying to replace general judgement with particular judgement, but just suggesting that there is particular judgement in addition to general judgement.
N. T. Wright argues that the New Testament is “largely uninterested” in the question of what happens to us after death but before the resurrection. He accepts that there are passages like this one in Philippians, the many dwelling-places of John 14 and the “with me in paradise” of Luke 23.43, but points out that “in none of these passages is there any mention of the psyche [soul]).” Wright concludes that if the early Christians had wanted to teach that what they mean by ‘soul’ is the “part of us which survives death and carries our real selves until the day of resurrection, they could have said so”. So, Wright is arguing that deriving the current popular understanding of the soul from these passages is unwarranted. He thinks that western Christian culture has been too heavily influenced by Plato’s view of the soul despite it having been rejected by Jewish tradition. This Platonic influence has caused Christians to misunderstand what the soul means in Christianity which causes the popular belief that our souls go to heaven/hell straight after death, which Wright points out has the unfortunate effect of eclipsing belief in the resurrection of the dead at the end of time.
N. T. Wright argues that when Paul and the gospels do use the word ‘soul’, the meaning is much closer to the Hebrew word ‘nephesh’, meaning living God-breathed creature than it is to the dualist notion of soul found in Plato.
Proponents of spiritual resurrection deny that Jesus’ resurrected body was physical, and they therefore deny that our future resurrected bodies will be physical. They typically claim instead that resurrected bodies are non-physical, or simply just souls with a physical appearance. Spiritual verses physical resurrection was debated by the early Christians. Physical resurrection came to be the dominant view.
Docetism is an example of a Christian sect which believed that Jesus was spiritually resurrected in a non-physical body which only had the appearance of being physical. Docetism was influenced by Gnosticism, a philosophical tradition which blended various schools of thought including Christianity and Platonism. Their influence from Plato was to believe that pure mentality is spiritually higher and closer to perfected being than physical matter. They therefore didn’t accept that a divine being could have a physical human body. Docetism is antitrinitarian, since although they thought Jesus was fully divine, they denied that Jesus was human. This solved some of the philosophical problems associated with the incarnation.
However, Docetism was considered a heresy as it goes against the Bible “the word was made flesh” (John) and undermines the meaning of Jesus’ sacrifice during the crucifixion if the human suffering wasn’t real but just an appearance.
The afterlife as a symbolic or psychological reality
This view is that there is no literal afterlife. The concepts of heaven, hell and purgatory are only symbols for human psychology of happiness, suffering and repentance. The stories in the Bible about them are just about how to be happy, avoid suffering and when to repent.
Heaven, hell and purgatory are only eternal if they are places or states. If they are symbolic, they are not eternal as they don’t exist in time.
One common reason a Christian might take this view is because they have a liberal view of Biblical inspiration. The liberal approach to the Bible views it as a product of the human mind, not the perfect word of God. It began during the enlightenment period where scientific, historical and literary critique began of the Bible. The Bible was shown to contain scientific and historical errors as well as literary evidence of the human author’s influence on the text.
This suggests that the scriptures were written by witnesses of God’s divine events in history like the incarnation, or times when God communicated or revealed himself. What came to be written down as a result however was merely what those people took away from such events, or from hearing about such events from the testimony of those who witnessed them. The words of the Bible are therefore just human interpretations of what the authors felt and understood of God’s revelation. The Bible is a human record of divine events.
In the case of the afterlife, this means that the depictions of an afterlife in the bible are symbolic or metaphorical rather than literal. The descriptions of an afterlife in the Bible should just be interpreted as reflecting psychological realities that people can experience in their life. During our life, if we behave badly, our life becomes worse and our psychology is negatively affected. On the psychological reality view, this is the meaning of hell. Stories about hell in the bible are just intended as parables to encourage good behaviour by warning that our life will become hellish if we don’t. Similarly, if you behave well your life becomes better and that is the meaning of the idea of heaven, on this view. Purgatory represents the idea that you should be penitent if you sin.
The liberal view of inspiration leads to a crisis of authority and interpretation. Liberal theologians who take the psychological view of the afterlife face the same kinds of issues as the liberal approach to the Bible: The problem with liberal views of inspiration is that it’s difficult to see how it could grant authority to the Bible if it derives from human minds. Furthermore, it opens up the Bible to interpretation and every person will have their own interpretation. This cannot provide the kind of stable consistent theology that a religion needs for it to persist. This is why traditional Christians criticise liberal Christianity for allowing people too much freedom to believe whatever feels right to them and their opinion, which results in the disunified chaos of everyone believing in their own God and the interpretation of the Bible which suits them.
Purgatory is the Latin word for ‘to purge’ or ‘to make clean’. The Catholic Church teaches that it is a place of temporary punishment for those who have died after committing venial sins (meaning sins that do not deprive a soul of grace) but had not confessed them to receive forgiveness before dying. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that purgatory is “the state of those who die in God’s friendship, assured of their eternal salvation, but who still have need of purification to enter into the happiness of heaven.”
It also claims that we can help the souls being purified in purgatory by praying for them or giving indulgences.
Biblical basis of purgatory. The word ‘Purgatory’ is not in the Bible. There is some biblical support for it though: “it is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from their sins.” 2 Maccabees 12:46. It makes no sense to pray for those in heaven or hell since one can never leave them. This seems to indicate that there is an aspect of the afterlife where prayer can make a difference, therefore.
Biblical evidence against purgatory:
The parable of the sheep and the goats is biblical evidence against purgatory. In the story people are divided into the good (sheep) and the bad (goats). There is no middle ground third option for those who are somewhere inbetween good and bad.
1 John 1:7 “But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin”. If Jesus’s blood cleansed us from all sin, why would purgatory be needed?
Ecclesiastes 9:5 “For the living know that they will die; But the dead know nothing.” How are the dead to pay off their sins in purgatory if they know nothing?
2 Timothy 4:1 says “I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom”. This suggests that judgement occurs at the end of time. This means purgatory makes no sense as a person cannot have a debt for their sins before being judged by God.
The moral argument for purgatory
It seems unjust for someone to be condemned to hell for a minor venial sin, yet it also seems to conflict with God’s justice that he allow into heaven someone who dies in a state of sin, even if minor. Therefore, a place like purgatory where those venial sins are purged from a person before being admitted into heaven seems to be the best moral and just solution to the problem of dying in a state of venial sin.
The Catholic Church’s corrupt sale of indulgences. There have been many crimes perpetrated by the Church such as the paedophile priest scandals and allegiance with fascism, especially Hitler. Protestants suggest that the Church is therefore corrupt. They arguably don’t act like they are guided by the Holy Spirit.
The sale of indulgences was the policy of the Catholic Church to accept money in return for forgiveness of sins. Purgatory was an important part of this – if you gave the Church money, the priests would pray for your recently dead relative, claiming to get them out of purgatory faster. Luther claimed Purgatory was ‘fabricated by goblins’ and wrote a 95 thesis critique of the practice of the sale of indulgencies. Here are some of them:
81. “preaching of pardons makes it no easy matter, even for learned men, to rescue the reverence due to the pope from slander, or even from the shrewd questionings of the laity?
84.“What is this new piety of God and the pope, that for money they allow a man who is impious and their enemy to buy out of purgatory the pious soul of a friend of God, and do not rather, because of that pious and beloved soul’s own need, free it for pure love’s sake?”
86. “Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build this one basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?”
Ultimately, the invention of purgatory for use in the sale of indulgencies looks like the Church is abusing its power to invent false doctrines purely for the sake of making money. It is corrupt.
Arguably Luther’s critique of purgatory depends on its connection to the sale of indulgences. If the doctrine were separated from the practice of taking money then it could be defended on the basis of its morality, though it’s biblical basis is still debatable.
Hick’s view of purgatory
Hick believed in a type of purgatory – that after death, people could continue existing in a ‘resurrection’ world whereby they would continue to have a chance to redeem themselves and become better (soul-making). This is part of Hick’s universalism, the view that all people will be saved. An omnibenevolent God would not damn anyone to Hell. It cannot be justice for any person, no matter how much evil they have done, to be given an eternal punishment.
The idea of terrible people like Hitler going to heaven doesn’t seem right to many people, even if it takes a long time.
However, Hick’s argument can be justified by Hume’s reasoning that sending someone to Hell cannot ever be justice since as a punishment it is always disproportionate. No matter the degree of immorality a person’s actions have, they are finite. Proportionality is the view that true justice requires punishment to be proportional to the crime. For example, it is not justice to imprison someone for life for a minor offense such as parking their car in the wrong place. Hume argues it cannot be justice for God to give an infinite punishment for a finite crime. So, even though Hitler’s actions were immoral and on a massive scale, their immorality was finite. It can’t be justice for Hitler to receive an infinite punishment for his finite crimes – that is not proportional. Eternal punishment in Hell can never be proportional and thus never just. Hell is incompatible with omnibenevolence.
So for Hick, the idea of purgatory follows from universalism and his soul-making theodicy.
Hick’s universalism is often criticised for making moral action purposeless because you will go to heaven regardless of how you act.
However, Hick’s soul-making theodicy attempts to address this by claiming that good moral behaviour is needed to be saved but everyone has limitless ‘chances’ to become virtuous. Very immoral people like Hitler would thus not instantly go to heaven, and it might take him a very long time to improve morally enough to go there!