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Death and the Afterlife: Things Evangelical Preachers Say That Aren’t in the Bible 

heaven and hell

One thing Christians have in common with non-believers is the fact that they will someday die. Death is the great equalizer. No matter our wealth and status, or lack thereof, there will come a day when each of us will draw his or her last breath. No second chances, no do-overs. All of us, at one time or the other, have pondered our mortality. The older we get, the more we think about death. As my health continues to decline, I have thought about my end. The last few days, in particular, have been difficult and challenging. I’ve found myself thinking, “do I want to do this anymore”? So much pain, so much nausea, and vomiting, so much fatigue . . . Death becomes, in my mind, a release from suffering.

It should come as no surprise then that most people turn to religion to find answers about death and the possibility of an afterlife. All the major religions of the world teach that there is life after death, be it in a resurrected or reincarnated form. Being the rational creatures we are, we can’t bear thoughts of no longer existing. Countless Evangelicals have asked me, surely you believe that there is SOMETHING after this life? Other Evangelicals have told me that they would have no reason to live if there weren’t life after death.

Sunday after Sunday, tens of millions of Americans gather in church buildings to worship a God that purportedly not only forgives their sins but gives them eternal life in Heaven after they die. If religious belief was only of value in this life and paid out no after-death benefits, I suspect many of the people pledging fealty and devotion to the Christian God on Sundays would instead spend the first day of the week engaging in recreation, working in their yards, or relaxing. Remove sin, fear, judgment, and eternal life from the script and I have no doubt that most churches would find themselves not only without congregants, but without preachers too.

Generally, the orthodox Christian belief about the afterlife goes something like this: each of us dies, physically remains in the grave until Judgment Day, at which time God will bodily resurrect the just and unjust from the dead, judge them, and either send them to God’s eternal kingdom (Heaven) or the Lake of Fire (Hell) for eternity. The former is a blissful place where there is no sin, pain, suffering, or death, whereas the latter is a dark place where its inhabitants face horrific pain and suffering. Both the just (saved) and unjust (lost) will be fitted with new bodies (creations) that never die, and for those cast in the Lake of Fire, their bodies will be able to withstand never-ending torment.

Now, seek out one hundred Evangelicals and ask them about death and the afterlife, and they will tell you something like this: after death, Christians go to Heaven, and non-Christians go to Hell.  Does what I have written here remotely sound like what I wrote in the previous paragraph? Nope. Most Christians believe that the moment after they close their eyes in death, they will awake in Heaven and be in the presence of God. The Bible, supposedly the final authority on all matters pertaining to life, death, and the afterlife, does not teach that Christians go to Heaven the moment they die. Neither does it teach that non-Christians go to Hell immediately after death. Instead, every person who has ever died presently lies rotting in the grave, awaiting the resurrection of the dead.

It’s not so sexy to tell people that their reserved rooms in Heaven and Hell will remain empty until Resurrection Day.  Peter? James? Judas? Moses? David? Abraham? Isaac? Jacob? Adam? Eve? John, Paul, George, and Ringo? Your parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles? None of them is or will be in Heaven or Hell until the trumpet of God sounds and Jesus returns to earth to judge the living and the dead.

Yet, every Sunday, Christian preachers remind congregants of what awaits them after death: Heaven for the saved, and Hell for the lost. Unsaved people are implored to get saved lest they die and split Hell wide open. Christians are encouraged to work hard for Jesus and promised great rewards in Heaven if they do so. Preachers tell wonderful stories about Heaven and horrific stories about Hell, reminding people that the sum of life is knowing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

Attend Christian funerals and you will often hear preachers outright lie about the afterlife. I have yet to hear a preacher say that the dearly departed went to Hell. In every instance, preachers found some sliver of faith/belief to hang on to, thus justifying their preaching the subject of their funeral sermon into Heaven. Worse yet, preachers and family members will speak of Granny running around Heaven or Mom, Dad, and Rover looking down from Heaven watching their loved ones. I have heard countless Christians say that some close family member of theirs was “with them” as they did this or that. None of these hopeful ideas is supported by the teachings of the Bible. Granny isn’t running around in Heaven. Her body lies in the grave, awaiting the Resurrection. As nice as it sounds, and the warm, fuzzy feelings such thoughts give, no one is watching us from Pearly Gates.

Of course, as an atheist, I am firmly persuaded that death is the end-all. To misquote Hebrews 9:27And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this . . . nothing. I have one life to live and it is quickly passing by. It seems like yesterday that my wife and I, ages nineteen and twenty-one, were standing at the front of the Newark Baptist Temple altar, reciting our wedding vows to one another. Youthful in body and ready to take on the world, we had no thoughts of growing old. Yet, here we are, soon celebrating our 44th wedding anniversary, and in June I will turn sixty-five. Now our thoughts turn to end-of-life matters: retirement, healthcare, and what to do with the few years we have left.  My older readers know exactly what I am talking about. Who among us hasn’t lain in bed listening to the beat of our heart or the ticking of the clock? We know that each beat and each tick take us one moment closer to our last day among the living.

Bruce, if you don’t think there is life after death, why then did you spend most of this post talking about what Christians believe about death and the afterlife? This post is a plea to preachers to tell people the truth about life after death. First, preachers should tell people that they cannot know for certain whether there is life after death; that all that Christians have to go on is what is written in the Bible; that the belief that people live on after death is solely a matter of faith; that there is no evidence for claims that people live on in eternity after they die. Second, preachers should stop telling people lies about what happens the moment after someone dies. Stop with the whimsical stories about what dead people are doing in Heaven. Tell the truth: Granny lies rotting in the grave until Jesus comes to get her. If preachers are going to tell mythical stories about the afterlife, the least they can do is accurately state what the Bible says on the matter. Of course, doing so might cause people to lose hope, but Christians need to know that there is NOT an immediate payoff after death.

Let me conclude this post with an excerpt from a Time Magazine interview of Christian theologian N.T. Wright:

TIME: At one point you call the common view of heaven a “distortion and serious diminution of Christian hope.”

Wright: It really is. I’ve often heard people say, “I’m going to heaven soon, and I won’t need this stupid body there, thank goodness.’ That’s a very damaging distortion, all the more so for being unintentional.

TIME: How so? It seems like a typical sentiment.

Wright: There are several important respects in which it’s unsupported by the New Testament. First, the timing. In the Bible we are told that you die, and enter an intermediate state. St. Paul is very clear that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead already, but that nobody else has yet. Secondly, our physical state. The New Testament says that when Christ does return, the dead will experience a whole new life: not just our soul, but our bodies. And finally, the location. At no point do the resurrection narratives in the four Gospels say, “Jesus has been raised, therefore we are all going to heaven.” It says that Christ is coming here, to join together the heavens and the Earth in an act of new creation.

TIME: Is there anything more in the Bible about the period between death and the resurrection of the dead?

Wright: We know that we will be with God and with Christ, resting and being refreshed. Paul writes that it will be conscious, but compared with being bodily alive, it will be like being asleep. The Wisdom of Solomon, a Jewish text from about the same time as Jesus, says “the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,” and that seems like a poetic way to put the Christian understanding, as well.

TIME: But it’s not where the real action is, so to speak?

Wright: No. Our culture is very interested in life after death, but the New Testament is much more interested in what I’ve called the life after life after death — in the ultimate resurrection into the new heavens and the new Earth. Jesus’ resurrection marks the beginning of a restoration that he will complete upon his return. Part of this will be the resurrection of all the dead, who will “awake,” be embodied and participate in the renewal. John Polkinghorne, a physicist and a priest, has put it this way: “God will download our software onto his hardware until the time he gives us new hardware to run the software again for ourselves.” That gets to two things nicely: that the period after death is a period when we are in God’s presence but not active in our own bodies, and also that the more important transformation will be when we are again embodied and administering Christ’s kingdom.

Wright: Never at any point do the Gospels or Paul say Jesus has been raised, therefore we are we are all going to heaven. They all say, Jesus is raised, therefore the new creation has begun, and we have a job to do.

TIME: That sounds a lot like… work.

Wright: It’s more exciting than hanging around listening to nice music. In Revelation and Paul’s letters we are told that God’s people will actually be running the new world on God’s behalf. The idea of our participation in the new creation goes back to Genesis, when humans are supposed to be running the Garden and looking after the animals. If you transpose that all the way through, it’s a picture like the one that you get at the end of Revelation.

TIME: And it ties into what you’ve written about this all having a moral dimension.

Wright: Both that, and the idea of bodily resurrection that people deny when they talk about their “souls going to Heaven.” If people think “my physical body doesn’t matter very much,” then who cares what I do with it? And if people think that our world, our cosmos, doesn’t matter much, who cares what we do with that? Much of “traditional” Christianity gives the impression that God has these rather arbitrary rules about how you have to behave, and if you disobey them you go to hell, rather than to heaven. What the New Testament really says is God wants you to be a renewed human being helping him to renew his creation, and his resurrection was the opening bell. And when he returns to fulfil the plan, you won’t be going up there to him, he’ll be coming down here.

TIME: That’s very different from, say, the vision put out in the Left Behind books.

Wright: Yes. If there’s going to be an Armageddon, and we’ll all be in heaven already or raptured up just in time, it really doesn’t matter if you have acid rain or greenhouse gases prior to that. Or, for that matter, whether you bombed civilians in Iraq. All that really matters is saving souls for that disembodied heaven.

TIME: Has anyone you’ve talked to expressed disappointment at the loss of the old view?

Wright: Yes, you might get disappointment in the case where somebody has recently gone through the death of somebody they love and they are wanting simply to be with them. And I’d say that’s understandable. But the end of Revelation describes a marvelous human participation in God’s plan. And in almost all cases, when I’ve explained this to people, there’s a sense of excitement and a sense of, “Why haven’t we been told this before?”

What are some of the other things that Christians say about death, Heaven, and Hell that either aren’t in the Bible or are distorted by preachers? Please share them in the comment section.

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Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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11 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Steve Ruis

    So, according to the Christian voices I read, they are expecting to “go to Heaven” when they die. I wonder what is actually meant by this. One approach that came to me was to look at hymns, especially those they teach to children, as part of their indoctrinations to their faiths.

    One thing that is clear, they all gonna be rich when they get to Heaven. There are myriad (and I mean myriad—originally myriad meant ten thousand, but now means uncountable; since I am “old school,” it means ten thousand to me) hymns promising each new denizen a mansion. Here is one example (just a few verses as these things are repetitious and, well, boring):

    Mansion Over the Hilltop (Partial)
    I’m satisfied with just a cottage below
    A little silver and little gold
    But in that city where the ransomed will shine
    I want a gold one that’s silver lined

    I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop
    In that bright land where we’ll never grow old
    And some day yonder we’ll never more wander
    But walk on streets that are purest gold

    And there will be gold and silver and jewels everywhere (which makes them not so precious, no?), for example:

    Oh, Them Golden Slippers
    (Chorus Only)
    Oh, dem golden slippers
    Oh, dem golden slippers
    Golden slippers I’se goin’ to wear
    Because they look so neat
    Oh, dem golden slippers
    Oh, dem golden slippers
    Golden slippers I’se goin’ to wear
    To walk the golden street

    All this talk of “we all gonna be rich when we get to Heaven” is understandable. In its early days Christianity was criticized for recruiting women, slaves, and the poor, in other words, the powerless of society. None of these people tended toward wealth, so a “pie in the sky” spiel was appropriate to attract new customers/believers. (The phrase “pie in the sky” was a parody of Christian promises in songs.)

    Now, let’s look at this in more detail. So, we all get mansions and gold and silver. So, I have a few questions. #1 Do we eat food in Heaven? The answer had better be “no,” because there would be a hard sell as to how that food is produced, transported, prepared, served, and cleaned up after. (Remember Real Christians™ believe that magic is the tool of the Devil, so it can’t be involved in Heaven.) #2 So, is their drink (wine, schnapps, beer, etc.) in Heaven? Again, the answer must be “no” because of the same production problems associated with there being food in Heaven. #3 will there be books and magazines, etc. in Heaven? Something to read would be nice way to pass the time, but again, production and distribution problems would be huge. (I can’t see angels working like Amazon delivery persons, can you?)

    So, most of the things that give me pleasure (food, drink, learning/reading, etc.) would no longer be available, making Heaven a pretty dull place. I also assume no Internet, computers, etc, for much the same reasons (No magic! remember?)

    Now, #4, who would dust all the rooms in your mansion, there being no servants or slaves, etc. Why, you say, there would be no dust in heaven? I beg to differ human beings are dust factories. Out skin flakes continuously, we drool and sneeze and spit liquids which evaporate and the dissolved materials left behind become, well, dust. (I don’t imagine the angels being pleased at having their feathers plucked to make dusters, do you?) #5 Who launders your clothes? Oh, there will be no clothes in Heaven? Ack, I don’t know about you but I have seen a few human bodies that looked heavenly, but the vast majority just don’t bear looking at, no? And certainly your bed sheets and towels and whatnot need laundering. Who does those? And, #6, since there would be no waterworks, hot water on demand, soap for sale, etc. I assume bathing will not be common, no?

    Now, the big question: Allah promises his martyrs a posse of virgin women in his version of Heaven, so I expect that sex will be allowed in Heaven (Your mansion or mine, my dear?). So, we have a bunch of dusty, smelly, naked humans wandering around grabbing quickies whenever they have a chance. That seems to be about it.

    Doesn’t sound like a Christian heaven to me. And besides, gold is a lousy paving material. Only an idiot would pave a street with gold, even if it were free.

  2. Avatar
    Brocken

    https://www.gracegems.org/2019/06/There%20are%20more%20lies%20told%20at%20funerals.html There are some pastors who believe that it is a mistake to tell the assembled at a funeral that their loved one is in heaven. This pastor making this comment is one of them. The author of this blog could cite this comment to some preachers who tell people their loved one is in Heaven despite his or her being a sexual abuser, wife-beater, Drug addict. Adulterer, etc. OF course I know the author of this blog doesn’t believe there is a Heaven or a Hell, but he could use or show that weblink to some pastors who tried to preach some of his less positive relatives into Heaven at their funeral.

  3. Avatar
    BJW

    I was at the death of my nephew early 2008, and he had just turned 29. The worst part of the funeral was the preacher who spent more time trying to get people saved. I’m sure his father picked the church and preacher, as my nephew was religious at all. It was offensive the way the preacher co opted Don’s funeral. I don’t even remember the sermon, just that I was offended. Fortunately, the parts of the service put on by my nephew’s best friends made the funeral bearable.

    So the preacher must have said Don was in heaven. It may have comforted my sister, and that is what mattered to me.

  4. Avatar
    Matilda

    Bruce, this was one of several big dissonances I had for decades but it was hidden in a very deep dark place in my brain and I was scared to confront it Did we go straight to heaven or stay dead till judgement day? It was all mixed up with being converted at 13yo and my non-xtian dad suddenly dying in the street when I was. 15yo. He was a great dad, but I now was supposed to believe he was In hell, though a good man. Wouldn’t God take that into account and let us meet again? Any loving deity would surely allow that, but I never dared ask older xtians about it.

  5. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    Steve Ruis, we’ll said. Who are the servants in heaven? If we are corporeal, it must be a different type of body than the one that produces mucous, excrement, urine, dust, etc….otherwise, either we are cleaning up after ourselves (which isn’t very heavenly) or there’s a designed or designated underclass doing the cleanup and serving. Maybe that underclass are the “unsaved” and that’s hell – to serve in heaven for eternity with no chance of advancement.

    I learned that everyone and everything in heaven is perfect. I remember learning about our resurrection and judgment, but it was murky about when that was. And what about the rapture – did those caught up to heaven go to a rush judgment just fir that group? What about those who died already, or those still living? There are just too many questions.

  6. Avatar
    Emersonian

    A couple years ago I got tapped by the religious ed director of my UU church to help facilitate our Coming of Age program for kids 14-17. Through a series of unfortunate events I was the only facilitator there on the day when we discussed the topic “What Happens When We Die?” (The answer, of course, as a good Unitarian, is “we have no effing clue.”) The point of the discussion is to talk about what other religions believe, and that we as UUs are charged with forming our own individual understanding of the meaning of life and death. So we watched a clip from Robin Williams’ What Dreams May Come, and a clip from Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters and we talked a little about what the kids in the class thought and whether believing in an afterlife is helpful or necessary… and then we still had time left over and I felt like I had to fill it so I pulled up the “Death” clip from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life and showed them that, completely forgetting it contains an F bomb. Oops.

  7. Avatar
    MJ LIsbeth

    Check out Letter II of Mark Twain’s “Letters From The Earth.” (https://www.sacred-texts.com/aor/twain/letearth.htm) He tallks about the absurdity of people’s notions about Heaven. If people can be so irrational about what Heaven is (or whether it exists at all), it’s no wonder that preachers can promulgate–and people will believe–nonsensical notions about what happens to us when we die–to the point of contradicting the very Bible they claim to believe.

  8. Avatar
    Steve Taylor

    About the sickest thing I ever heard, was at the funeral of a colleague’s wife, that I attended to support our friend, where the preacher immediately launched into describing how my colleagues much loved wife was now married to fucking Jesus, all the years of love that my colleague had enjoyed were now nothing, because fucking Jesus was reaping the benefits. And all this to choruses of Amen and alleluya. It was what triggered my journey into becoming an open atheist.

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Bruce Gerencser