Heaven and Hell in the New Testament – an analogy

I regularly make to my students this claim: according to the NT, “salvation” is not exclusively or even mainly about going to heaven when you die and avoiding hell. It is a holistic concept about redeeming all of life, all of the person, in the here and now as well as in the there and then.

So, one might ask, why does the NT talk about heaven so much (and hell on some occasions)?

I have spent some time lately thinking about this and, it is true, heaven comes up a lot, esp in the Gospels. My thinking about this was spurred on by N.T. Wright’s comment that, for Jesus (in the Gospels), Heaven is not an otherworldly destination for the saved. It has importance now because it is like a “control room” from which God watches and works on our behalf. Thus, Wright regularly refers to information in the Lord’s prayer:

Our Father in Heaven – he is not just out there, far away in heaven. He is somewhere that counts for how we live now.

Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. We do not want to flee earth and go to heaven. The church has a mission of working towards redeeming the earth to make it just like heaven. (Just like good Roman Philippians tried to make Philippi a micro-Rome, so Wright often reminds us!)

I like this analogy, but I think I have another helpful one.

Think about life in the world like a big football game (I know some folks that are already loving this analogy!). There are teams (good and evil, respectively). They are in a contest of power and there is a home team and an away team. Each team has colors, a mascot, a logo, and the hometown name emblazoned on t-shirts, jersies, helmets, and other paraphernalia. So, a team shirt might say “New England Patriots.” Why wear a t-shirt that says where you are from? It is not advertising, it is association. You wear your “home” colors and name and town because you identify with it. Whether you are a player or fan at the game, you don’t wear the home city (or region) name proudly so you can say to your buddy next to you, “I can’t wait to go home. I love our town.”

You wear your team’s identifying symbols because you are involved in the contest and you must take sides! You may be excited to finally go home once the game is over. Your team and hometown has a reputation, an ethos, an identity that you want to finally rule the day. As you cheer or play, you keep in mind how your decisions affect your hometown’s reputation. When it comes to sportsmanship and ethics, in the midst of the game (for both players and fans!) its easy to want to give in to anger, jealousy, revenge, and malice (especially when playing rivals), but wearing the name of your team/hometown reminds you of the high standards of your origin community (ideally, right?).

So, it is with heaven. Claiming to be a citizen of heaven means that you live on earth, but your identity is wrapped up with your origin or identifying community. You sojourn, for a time, on earth, in a contest of power and will. You butt heads all the time with “citizens of earth,” but this is why Paul refers to thinking about “above things” not “earthly things.” The “above things” are not angels and clouds and golden streets. It is about remembering the virtue and ethos of the hometown that has sent you.

The NT, by analogy, is very interested in Heaven and sometimes brings up Hell because these are two primal regions with competing ideologies and earth is like an arena. Thanks to “sin and death,” the earth has become “home” for members of the team that rivals Heaven. So, when believers struggle in this world, as visitors, it is easy to start to try to feel at home and blend in with the crowd. Reminding ourselves of Heaven is not simply wishing for a place of bliss  – not a bad idea, but does not seem to be the point of many NT passages. It is about identity – a “Heaven” player always acts like a “Heaven” citizen, even when the other team fights dirty or encourages retaliation.

Certainly some NT “Heaven” texts focus on soteriology, but when it comes to the Kingdom of Heaven, it is about the values of Heaven as much as the place of the kingdom.

What do you think???



2 thoughts on “Heaven and Hell in the New Testament – an analogy

  1. If you were to point a curious student to some texts or a bibliography to read on these ideas, what would suggest? Thanks for this post.

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