Between Now and Eternity

by frankbeswick

Heaven and Hell might be the final destinations for souls, but the Christian theological imagination has extended to other places and states.

Death, the undiscovered country from which no traveller returns. Well, maybe not. But when dealing with what happens when we die we don't have much detail to work on.We have the word of religious teachers, but even Jesus is not recorded as having given much detail,though he did make promises, so humans have been left to use their imaginations to resolve the grand question of what happens when we die. Heaven and Hell are the easy bits.

Image courtesy of oo11o, of Pixabay

Heaven and Hell

Some Christian denominations work on two settings: either you are saved or you fry. God or Devil, make your choice, and what happens to you at death, the place where you go, is your destiny for all eternity.But this view is a peculiarly western view for the Orthodox church sees things differently.They believe that heaven and hell are states of the soul,for the soul that is well-prepared for the vision of God upon  death will experience God as light, whereas the evildoer may experience God as consuming fire. This view is becoming more common among western Christians, with whom it is known as the final choice theory, which holds that we must at death choose the light or the darkness.

But did Jesus teach an eternal Hell? The parable of the rich man and Lazarus [Luke's Gospel] seems to depict no way out of a fiery hell for the oppressor of the poor, and the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew's Gospel seems to imply the same. But the parable of the Unforgiving Debtor has the unforgiving man told that he will not get out until he has paid the last penny. The word until implies a temporary penalty. This is more in keeping with the Catholic doctrine of purgatory than it is with Hell.

Moreover, we must remember that Jesus was a Jew, a member of a nation characterised by a culture of high intellectual vitality. Jews argue about religion, and  Jesus, a rabbi, would have been at the heart of the national religious conversation. At no point in the gospels does Jesus tell his fellow Jews that they should cease their discussion of religion, and he was fully at home within the wide diversity of views held within the Jewish community and its love of vigorous discussion. Part of this diversity concerned the afterlife, for Jews hold a variety of opinions about what happens after death. Many do not believe in an eternal hell. This leads us to ask did Jesus teach an eternal hell for every sinner, or was his teaching more complex?

There is also the Christian teaching of the Harrowing of Hell.The Apostles' Creed declares, "He descended into Hell." Early Christians believed that between his death and resurrection Jesus triumphantly entered the abode of the  dead to save those souls confined there through sharing in Adam's sin. There are arguments about  the correct translation of the word hell, which might be better translated as abode of the dead, where all  deceased virtuous people prior to Jesus' saving act were confined. These souls were led to heaven. But some icons show Jesus' snatching souls from the flames,so this suggests that even the less imperfect ones were seen as savable.First Peter 3:19-20 has Jesus preaching to souls who had refused to believe prior to Noah, but this passage is unclear and some exegetes think that Jesus announced forgiveness, but others think that he brought judgment. I interpret this passage in the light of the goodness of God, so I opt for believing that Jesus brought mercy.

Intermediate States.

Christians have accepted several other conditions between Heaven and Hell, some of them taught officially, others not. Some mediaeval Christians believed that there was an intermediate place for  pagans and mediocre Christians,  Elfheim. This was seen as the abode of the Fairies, and Sir Walter Scott, writing in The Lady of the Lake,calls it "The joyless Elfin Bower." This folk belief, a relic of paganism, was common in Northern Europe,but was never accepted by the church. But folk beliefs of this kind lingered on for centuries until people ceased believing in fairies.

One view which was taught to me in school was limbo. This was thought up under the influence of  St Augustine, who was an exponent of infant baptism. His   support for infant baptism led him to the hardlne conclusion that unbaptised babies go to Hell, as they share in Adam's sin.But many Christians disliked this view and accepted that limbo was a less unpleasant state of Hell. Later ones thought it a lower state of heaven where innocents who were  not baptized, be they  infant or adult,  went and enjoyed a state of natural  happiness below that of the supernatural bliss of heaven. It was thought to be the condition of good people who died before Christ came, such as the patriarchs and the prophets.These people were taken to Heaven at Jesus 'resurrection.

Limbo caused me some difficulty as a child. Six years old was not a good age for me.My infant teacher told us that at the end of the world there would only be Heaven and Hell, and we don't know what will happen to those  souls in Limbo."Miss, God takes them to heaven!" I interjected. "God can't do that"she replied.I said nothing, but knew that she was wrong. Don't get me wrong, I loved Miss Mcleish, who told my mother that I was a dreamer. But in that year my brother lived only a very short time after birth and died unchristened. That preyed on my mother's mind for many a year and ultimately led me to reject Limbo, as it preyed on my mind too.

Another intermediate state was purgatory. Catholics believe that some people, such as martyrs, go straight to Heaven, but those who have led sinful lives and repent on their death beds, as some Nazis did,have some justifiable making up to do. This is done in a place or a state called Purgatory.Views on Purgatory differ. Some regard it as a time of punishment,but others think iit a period of learning and maturation.A sinner's encounter with God on death can be a kind of purging pain. Catholics believe that souls in Purgatory are saved, but can be helped by the prayers of living Christians, which is why Catholics pray for the dead.Some Catholics pray for those who have no on to pray for them. I do this.

The Forgotten Doctrine

It is not widely known that some early Christians believed in reincarnation, for they thought  that prior  to sharing in Jesus' resurrection the virtuous might be reborn. Sinners might reincarnate to have another chance. Some Jews of Jesus' time accepted the doctrine of reincarnation, as some accept it now. Jesus would have been aware that many Jews accepted reincarnation.Some thought him the reincarnated prophet Jeremiah. Others thought that John the Baptist was the prophet Elijah reborn. Jesus would have known of reincarnation, but is not recorded as having affirmed or denied it.

Some people  think that John 9:1, when the disciples ask whether the man was born blind was due to his own or his parents' sins, implies that Jesus and the disciples were discussing reincarnation.They probably were discussing it. This was Jesus' opportunity to deny reincarnation, but he didn't. At no point in the gospels does Jesus affirm or deny reincarnation. 

Some  early Christian fathers, notably Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Synesius believed in reincarnation. Synesius thought that souls descend from heaven  and must quickly return, else they wander long in the nether regions in a series of births ere they return to God. It is notable that these thinkers were Egyptians, but what significance we can draw from this fact is unclear. Alexandria was an intellectual powerhouse where many cultural influences met, including some from India, where belief in reincarnation is common.Greek thought, however, was independently familiar with reincarnation through the works of Plato and Pythagoras.

Reincarnation fell out of favour at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553,  which condemned belief in the pre-existence of the soul, a foundation on which reincarnation rests.This condemnation was part of the condemnation of the Origenists, who believed that after a series of incarnations a person might become equal to Christ, a belief that no Christian could hold. Yet scholars now recognize that the condemnation of the Origenists does not apply to Origen himself,and it has been wrongly taught that the council condemned Origen.

Furthermore, many scholars are doubtful over whether Constantinople 2 was a valid ecumenical council of the church.It was called by the Emperor Justinian [who interfered in church matters]  against the wishes of the pope, who though in Constantinople, refused to attend.There was nothing like a quorum of bishops, and bishops from Western Europe were hardly represented. Justinian dominated proceedings throughout. It is hard to think that this ecclesiastical charade has any claim to authority at all.  As a Catholic I will not accept any council called against the will of the pope.

In recent years some Christian thinkers have revisited reincarnation, notably the Episcopalian theologian Geddes Macgregor. The Catholic Church has made no pronouncements on the issue and does not regard it as an issue of concern.


Human life can be likened to sitting around a campfire on a dark night. A small area is illumined by the flames, but there is an enveloping darkness.This represents before birth and after death.In Christ Christians have  a guide, but no detailed map.There is much that awaits personal discovery. In the meantime we must be guided by our imaginations, but within the constraints of biblical revelation and rational  thought.

Updated: 06/16/2020, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 11/06/2020

Very observant, Derdriu. Fitting resurrection and reincarnation into one coherent system has not proved easy, but I think that a super-intelligent being would not close off any of his options.

DerdriuMarriner on 11/05/2020

frankbeswick, Thank you for the practical information and the product line.
The Hungarian composer Bela Bartok believed that we go through life with baggage that ideally we sort before dying. He bemoaned his perception in the last month of his life that he had bags yet to unpack and sort. If that's an accurate perception, is what's undone important or not important, relevant or not relevant?
Some have interpreted post-resurrection Jesus not being recognized until he spoke as supportive of reincarnation. It's interesting to think that reincarnation keeps the voice or the way of speaking but not the physical appearance.

frankbeswick on 06/18/2020

Thanks for this wise comment. God is loving and will not lose any soul if possible.My lost brother was a much wanted child, so my mother was traumatised by the loss, and I suffered much as well.Even after sixty four years the memory stays with me.

I reject fundamentalism,as you do, for fundamentalists have simplistic thoughts about profound and complex matters. They have the certainty of the mediocre.

Speaking of baptism, I have a story to tell.My mother's uncle, a Franciscan priest, was preparing a man for baptism, but two weeks before the ceremony the man dropped dead. My uncle asked the bishop whether he could treat the man as a case of baptism of desire and give the man a Catholic funeral. Permission was granted.However, two women complained to the bishop that an unbaptised man had been buried according to Catholic rites. The bishop responded by severely telling them off!

blackspanielgallery on 06/17/2020

One thing I was taught is that there are three forms of Baptism, the normal method of water, the Baptism of Blood which is the martyrs, and Baptism of Desire. The third is wishing to be Baptized, although there is no opportunity. One of my teachers suggested we know not the will of God, and He may allow babies, and even others, to desire Baptism at the time of death. An awareness right before death might allow this. Indeed, even if the embryonic level of development has a soul, an awareness prior to brain development can be granted by God at the instance of the soul leaving the body.

One complexity is time itself. Does time exist for spirits? How long did souls wait for Jesus, perhaps in the spirit world it was an instance? Time in science requires matter to exist. Do spirits have a version of time, do they observe time passing, or is time meaningless to them other than sequencing events?

Sorry to hear of your brother. I learned late in life than one of my brothers would have been a twin, but the other died before birth. So, we knew nothing of the baby, not even the gender. In cases such as this prayer is still valid. I recall in religion class having the question brought up about praying for the dead. The reply of the teacher was God knows all that will happen, so He has the ability to apply prayers not yet offered, knowing fully that they will be.

You have brought up much, and fundamentalists may take issue with some ideas. I am a Catholic like you, so I am not a fundamentalist.

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