The Good Place
At the beginning of The Good Place, Eleanor Shellstrop finds herself in the afterlife. She’s welcomed by the mysterious Michael, who explains her demise and proceeds to show her around the Good Place while answering her many questions about what’s happening and who was right about the whole heaven and hell thing. And while the show goes on for four excellent seasons, it never really leaves this moment behind, the moment of wonder about what happens when we die?
More than the guiding question to a TV show, this is a question that all of us wrestle with at some point in life. What happens when we die? In fact, it’s completely normal to ponder what happens to us after our deaths. What is death like? Where do we go? Who’s going to be there? Is there a Good Place? Is there a Bad Place? How do we get to the Good Place while avoiding the Bad Place?
These are just some of the questions that we ask about life after death, questions that people from a variety of religious backgrounds and commitments have sought to answer for thousands of years, and questions that people today continue to wrestle with in media and storytelling and life in general. These are also questions that I’m going to consider over my next several articles here at Conciliar Post, where I’ll be reflecting on what Scripture says about heaven, hell, and the afterlife. While many people today assume that we’ll all end up in the Good Place, Scripture offers a slightly different picture of what our afterlife might look like.
And as I kick off this series, I’ve got a couple of things that I want to foreground.
First, it’s completely normal to have questions about the afterlife—and it’s also completely normal to have some level of fear about death and what follows. There’s nothing wrong with having the confidence that Jesus will save you and some fear of all the unknown that accompanies death. Facing the death is scary stuff, no matter who you are. People often say that death is a part of life and descriptively, that’s true. People die all the time for many different reasons. Death is an unshakeable reality that is all around us (and sometimes more prevalent around us than at other times).
But it’s also true that human beings weren’t made for death—death remains unnatural and foreign to us. It’s like sand in your shoes when you go to the beach—just because it’s always there doesn’t make it any less troublesome. Death is never something we should be completely comfortable with because it’s a perversion of the way in which the world was created to work. So, we need to keep death in proper perspective. Because, as the Story of Jesus makes clear, death is not the end. There’s more to existence than just the life that we’re living now. And so we must be careful to not let our fear of death overwhelm us or drive us to overreaction.
Second, I want to foreground that I’ll be taking my customary mere Christian approach to this conversation. This isn’t my attempt to give you the final word on heaven, hell, and the afterlife; these are some ruminations on a complex and contested subject. There are just too many places where faithful followers of Jesus disagree with one another for me to tell you, “This is the one way to understand this.”
And a big reason for that is the third issue that I want us to keep in mind: Christians don’t agree on what Scripture says about the afterlife. For thousands of years, Christians have tried to make sense of the numerous references to heaven, hell, and the afterlife that appear in Scripture. But so far, we’ve been unsuccessful in all getting on the same page. Let me further explain.
Disagreements about the Afterlife
You need only to Google “heaven” and spend 5 minutes looking at the articles, pictures, and explanations to see that there are all kinds of ideas out there about heaven, even among Christians. But all-in-all, Scripture says relatively little about what the Good Place will look like. The word heaven (in Greek, οὐρανὸς) shows up about 300 times in the New Testament. But a lot of the time it just means heavens as in sky—you know, the big blue thing above you? And many other things it just means the place where God is. You don’t get a whole lot of detail about what heaven looks like.
When Jesus talks about heaven, He talks about it being where God resides (as in the Lord’s Prayer: “My Father, the one in the heavens.”), as the lasting place of the righteous (where “the righteous go to eternal life”), and as a pleasant place He will be (“today, you will be with me in paradise”). That all sounds good, but it’s not very descriptive. And lest you think that the book of Revelation is any clearer, no one agrees on anything that Revelation says, least of all its picture of the heavens. Getting Christians to agree on Revelation is like herding cats: it can’t be done. So while Christians throughout the ages have some Scriptural tethers for what the Good Place is like, most of what we say about heaven is speculative—it’s us trying to fill in the gaps.
As a second example of disagreement about the afterlife among Christians, let’s think about the Bad Place. There are three words in the New Testament that sometimes get translated as the most common name for the Bad Place, hell: Hades, Gehenna, and Tartarus. In a vacuum, that’s all normal: there are plenty of instances in the Bible where different words are used to convey a similar idea. But the issue here is that on their own, none of these words means hell in the way that many Christians think of hell.
Hades, for example, is a very specific term that references the Greek place of the dead. If you’ve seen Disney’s Hercules or The Clash of Titans, that’s what the word hades means: the place of the dead, where all dead people go, whether good or bad. In reflection of this fact, most modern Bible translations don’t translate this word as hell anymore—they just use the word hades, as in Acts 2:7, which says, “For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, nor let your Holy One see corruption.”
Likewise, Gehenna is a reference to a specific place—a valley outside of Jerusalem where people in Jesus’s day seem to have thrown garbage. It wasn’t a place of torment or torture or anything like that—it was a literal garbage dump. In fact, you can still see Gehenna today online. In fact, one of my favorite pictures comes from the winter of 2021, when there was snow in Jerusalem and you can see the valley of Gehenna frozen over. The term Gehenna is still sometimes translated as hell in modern Bibles, but more and more are simply transliterating this word too.
Finally, there’s the term Tartarus, which is only used in 2 Peter 2:4, where Peter continues a conversation about judgment with the words, For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to Tartarus, putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment…. Tartarus is the name for the Greek underworld, but it’s the term in the New Testament that most obviously and closely conveys the popular concept of hell.
Much like the conversation about the Good Place, the point I want you to see here is that while we have some Scriptural tethers for the idea of the Bad Place, we ultimately have to do some interpretation and fill in the gaps to paint a coherent picture of what the Bad Place looks like.
The Duration of the Bad Place
Moving beyond the specific words of Scripture for a moment, let’s think about one more example of why Christians disagree about the afterlife: what Scripture says about the duration of the Bad Place.
Here’s Matthew 25.41: Then [God] will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Here, it sounds like those sent to the Bad Place are separated from God and punished with eternal fire. This sounds like an eternity of torment.
But then listen to Matthew 10.28: Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in [Gehenna]. Well, wait a minute. What’s this language of destroying the soul and body all about? Maybe the Bad Place doesn’t last forever—maybe it ends in destruction.
Lastly, here’s 1 Timothy 4.10: We have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe. This is even more different. How can God be the Savior of all people if some are going to end up in the Bad Place? Maybe people don’t stay in the Bad Place forever.
What does Scripture say about the duration of the Bad Place? Christians disagree. And Christians point to different passages of Scripture—like these three and many, many more—to form and defend their answers.
Now, my point with these examples about the Good Place, the Bad Place, and the duration of the Bad Place is not that we can’t know anything about heaven, hell, and the afterlife. Rather, I want you to see what Scripture says about the afterlife is open to multiple emphases and interpretations. Faithful followers of Jesus have disagreed with one another for hundreds of years about the specific interpretations of these passages; so the reality is that we’re not going to figure this all out in a few articles. But even though we’re not going to find all the answers, we can, I think, talk about principles and possibilities surrounding heaven, hell, and the afterlife. There are some key ideas to tether your understanding of the afterlife to, and then some faithful, biblically-based options for figuring out the rest of this stuff. And that’s really what I intend to explore in this series.
A First Principle for Thinking about the Afterlife
The first principle I want to us think about is one that I’ve already mentioned, but it’s really this: human existence does not end with physical death. This life is not all there is—there’s more, there’s life after death. Someday, we’re all going to experience a moment like Eleanor did at the beginning of The Good Place: we’re going to open our eyes and find ourselves somewhere other than planet earth. There is an afterlife. And you need to be ready for it.
This is a message that’s repeated throughout Scripture, but it’s made really clear by Jesus. And in Matthew 25.31-46, Jesus says this:
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. 34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ 37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ 40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ 41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ 44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ 45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ 46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (NIV)
Understanding the Parable
Strong words here from Jesus. This is what’s known as the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, and its overall message is clear: at the end of time, we’re all going to be held responsible for how we’ve treated the least of these and end up in eternity. Verse 46 makes this point most clearly: you’re going to end up somewhere, either the place of eternal punishment or the place of eternal life. You’re going to be somewhere after your death—where is it going to be? Your existence doesn’t end with your physical death. There’s more in the future. There is an afterlife. And Jesus wants you to be ready for it. That’s the foundation on which we begin this series: there is an afterlife. Human existence does not end with physical death. There’s more.
Now, this isn’t an idea in a vacuum—there are some implications to this idea. The idea that human existence doesn’t end with physical death means, for example, that you’re more than just a meatbag. You’re more than just a random collection of chaos and chance. You’re not just some atoms that have randomly gathered together into sentience. You’re more than just your physical body, just as your existence is more than just your physical life. There’s something non-physical about you.
The reality of an afterlife also means that this life matters. There’s purpose and meaning for your life for many reasons, but at the very least this life matters because you’re going somewhere because of how you lived this life. You’ve got to make this life matter because what happens in this life, Jesus makes clear in the Parable, echoes into eternity. You’ve got to pay attention to what’s going on in this life because it matters.
Finally, the idea that human existence does not end with physical death also means you’re going to end up somewhere: the Good Place, the Bad Place, some place. This is what we’re going to be looking at in depth in this series. The next couple of articles will look at what Scripture and various Christians say about the Bad Place: what hell is (or isn’t), who goes there, and what happens. Then, we’ll look at the Medium Place, ideas about purgatory, limbo, reincarnation, and other ideas about the afterlife that sometimes get thrown around in the Church. We’ll also talk about the actual Good Place, and then wrap things up by talking about judgment day and beyond.
The End of the Beginning
But as we begin to work our way through this series, let me leave you with this challenge: you need to live like this stuff matters. This isn’t just abstract theology—we’re talking about human destiny here. What you believe about heaven and hell and the afterlife matters, not only for your own sake, but also for the sake of all those around you. You might be committed to a certain perspective about what happens to people when they die—and that’s fine. But are you living like that’s true?
If, for example, you don’t think everyone is going to end up in the Good Place someday, are you doing everything in your power to keep people from ending up in the Bad Place? If not, why not? Don’t just think of this as speculation or abstraction: you need to live like what you believe about heaven, hell, and the afterlife matters. Because it does. So I invite you to think deeply with us in these next few articles as we think about what happens after death for all of us. Because human existence doesn’t end with physical death. There’s more for you. The question is: are you ready for it?
Image courtesy of Wikimedia