Death and the afterlife – Evaluate different Christian views on heaven, hell and purgatory. (40 marks)

Colour code: 

  • Blue – Your argument  
  • Red – Argument against
  • Orange – Critical analysis
  • Purple – Scholars

Christianity has a wide range of views on eschatology, the doctrine of last things and the afterlife due to the nature of the topic and range of sources that are used as evidence.  Biblically heaven, hell are mentioned in parables and quotes from Jesus and St.Paul, however, many ideas have also developed through Christian history, doctrine and tradition.

Purgatory is one example of an idea that has developed through the influential theologians of Origen in the 2nd Century and Saint Gregory in the 4th Century, particularly within Catholicism. Origen suggests purgatory is comparable to a probationary school which is a time of correction and change. He stated it was a place where you can purify yourself before heaven and used the words of Jesus in Matthew 12 to support his views “Everybody either in this age or the age to come we will be forgiven”.  In this manor he argued the whole of creation can enter heaven and it represents the redemption of all creation.  In support of Origen’s idea on purgatory one could argue a prime moral principle of Christianity is forgiveness and purgatory allows Christians to experience a cleansing of their sins before heaven.  To support this Karl Rahner developed the idea of purgatory, not as a horrible place of pain, but as a place of repentance and grace. Criticisms of the concept of purgatory are wide-ranging. Firstly that this concept is not based largely on Biblical evidence, second purgatory has been used by the Catholic Church historically as a way of pressurising people into believing in God through teaching about fear and finally purgatory goes against the Christian teaching of forgiveness of all sins at death; “Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin.” Hebrews 10:18, thereby demonstrating that purgatory is not a widely held belief or teaching amongst most Christians today.

Ideas for heaven come from a wide variety of sources, from well-known examples such as the Lord’s Prayer ‘Our Father who art in heaven’ through to the visual representation of heaven in the book of Revelation. Some Christians believe heaven is a physical place, where their body goes after death, others, perhaps most Christians today believe that is their soul that lives on immortally.  A strength of the concept of heaven traditionally lies with Saint Augustine showing that humans are created sinful via original sin, therefore through following God’s laws and commandments Christians can enter heaven. To support this the Sheep and Goats parable in Matthew 25 refers to the metaphor of the sheep that enter into heaven as people who have followed Jesus treatment of the poor and lost; Jesus says “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” meaning that whoever looks after his neighbour and others is doing it for God.   This is further backed up by scholars such as Thomas Aquinas, a hugely influential 12th Century philosopher and theologian who describes heaven as a beautific vision where people can live eternally in the presence of God if they follow his will.  However, a criticism levelled against Aquinas comes Bernard Williams who raised the idea of whether heaven would really be desirable, the idea of sheer bliss and perfection, he argued could become dull and boring if it was experienced for an eternal period of time.  Scholars such as Richard Dawkins would point to a lack of empirical evidence for a physical place such a heaven, thereby rendering any early concepts of heaven as physical as obsolete, leaving only room for figurative or more metaphorical ideas.

The Bible is even less specific about hell. Some Christians believe that hell is a place of suffering, and of separation from God and sometimes a state of unimaginable pain and horror.  Some of the more literal ideas for hell originate with the 16th Century writer Dante, influenced by Aristotle, who tells a story of 9 pits of hell where people who have committed sins from which there is no return.  Paul Tillich, a modern 20th Century theologian, argues there is no place for Dante’s version of hell in a modern society as it is immoral to exclude some of his creatures from heaven.  Others, perhaps most Christians today, believe that hell is a spiritual state of being separated from God for eternity, Origen supports this and argues it is a place of absence of God’s grace. By contrast, David Hume, the famous empiricist and atheist challenges these claims and proposes the idea of hell is flawed and philosophically incoherent.  He raises the question ‘surely a finite sin cannot be deserving of infinite punishment with no chance of parole or escape?’  By this he is questioning if it is fair when we commit a sin which is limited here to earth would it produce the consequence of giving us eternal punishment.  Hume’s point inherently challenges the assumptions made by Christians about the nature of God and the power of his forgiveness.

In conclusion, often ideas of heaven, hell and purgatory depend not only on the literary genre and way in which the Bible or doctrine is interpreted by scholars, but further by the individual reading the text or tradition and their own worldview. Part of the difficulty some theologians would argue, is there is no clear or absolute teaching in the Bible.  Despite this, there are three broad Christian approaches towards this topic: First, some people argue for a more exclusivist view of the Bible that only a few Christians will be saved and the rest go to hell, St.Augustine held this view which is associated with the term ‘limited election’.  Second, ‘unlimited election’ is the view that all people are called to salvation but not all are saved, this more inclusivist, Karl Barth adopted this view.  Finally a universalist belief, that all people will be saved, which is more akin to John Hicks pluralist theology that hell is not compatible with a belief in a God of love. Ultimately, most Christians believe in individual Judgement and Judgement Day and would argue it is only God who is the judge of who might end up in heaven or hell, as supported by the Nicene Creed ‘God will come to judge the living and dead’.

Word count: 1062

Author: Chris Giles

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