[Not] Going to Heaven, Part III

Having performed countless funerals over 30 years, I can say that the idea of not going to heaven is one that rarely occurs to most people anymore. Most Americans think that all we have to do to go to heaven is to expire. The idea that accountability for sin, absent repentance, extends beyond this life is becoming rare. In the Bible, however, it is clear:

“Each of us will give an account of himself to God.”
(Paul, Romans 14:12).

The Christian Doctrine of Hell:

It is hard to distinguish what the Bible teaches about hell from the plethora of pagan and extra-biblical sources that lead many astray. Greek myths tell of an underworld and a purging place for the dead. Medieval artists terrified church-goers with graphic demon-filled portrayals of hell. Poets like Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) and John Milton(1608-1674) profoundly shaped Christendom’s ideas about hell. Preachers like Jonathan Edwards illustrated hell as a fiery oven in which after millions of ages, “your torment would be no nearer to an end than ever it was.” We may value great art and literature but we must form our understanding of hell purely from Scripture.

Gustave Doré

The New Testament Greek word for hell (gehenna) comes from the name of the Valley of Hinnon just outside Jerusalem (featured image). It was an ancient battle scene, a place of pagan (child) sacrifices and a place where the dead were tossed. Later, it served as a garbage dump. Many burnings took place there to get rid of the stench. I have been there and I managed to escape alive.

Gehenna comes from the lips of Jesus more than from any other NT figure (it occurs once outside the synoptic gospels) but he did not use it to describe a literal city dump. For him, gehenna was God’s judgment (Matthew 23:33) and the final destiny of the lost. To Jesus, the reality of hell was something to fear: “Fear him who after the killing of the body, has the power to throw you into hell.” (Jesus, Luke 12:5). So, it is worse than mere death and there is no escaping alive.

Reconstructing hell or defining the nature of one’s experience or existence (or not) in hell are questions subject to ongoing debate. Reasonable Bible students can differ on how to interpret the parabolic and figurative speech used in the NT for hell. But the moral meaning of hell is unmistakably clear. Jesus referred to “hell” to warn not only against murder but against murderous anger and mean-spirited name-calling (Matthew 5:21-22). He thought it better to lose an eye or arm than to have your whole body thrown into hell (Matthew 5:29-30). In his parable of the sheep and goats, he told the goats, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matthew 25:41). He cited the moral shortfall of the goats who selfishly neglected the needy, and added, “Then they will go away to eternal punishment.” (vs. 46).

Judgment Day:

The Christian doctrine of hell is rooted in the biblical conviction that God holds sinners accountable, sooner or later. Jesus promised that “men will have to give account on the day of judgment” for careless words.” (Matthew 12:36). Peter spoke of God holding the unrighteous “for the day of judgment” (2 Peter 2:9). Paul called it a “day of wrath” (Romans 2:5) and John encouraged “confidence on the day of judgment” for those in whom love is made complete (1 John 4:17).

God’s judgment will be “righteous (Romans 2:5), deserved (13:2), universal (14:10-12) and it will begin with the family of God (1 Peter 4:17). God’s judgment is every man’s destiny regardless of when or how we live or die: “Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). That sin must be punished testifies to the justice, honor and integrity of God. That He sent His own Son to pay our sin debt testifies to God’s mercy. How the sin-cleansing blood of Christ is applied (and to whom) is up to God who alone sees the whole hearts of men.

In a world where unrepentant sinners teach children to lie, torture or rape them (then rub their deeds in the faces of crushed parents), kill babies, enslave people, commit genocide, mow down civilians and behead innocents, hell makes good sense. God is not bound by our theories about hell but we are bound by His judgments.

A Serious Though!

One of the greatest orators to serve in the US senate, Daniel Webster, was once asked, “What do you consider the most serious thought that has ever entered your mind?” He replied, “The most solemn thought that has ever entered my mind is my accountability to my Maker.” In an age when politicians and people from all walks of life are easily corrupted and bought, we need more Daniel Websters.

Photo Credits:

Daniel Webster
Gustave Doré

Going to Heaven, Part II

The same professor who told me it is egocentric to want to go to heaven when you die (see Going to Heaven, Part I) proceeded to ask me where heaven is—not that he wanted to go, mind you. It’s not often a man asks for directions, so I opened up my “map” to help me reply. The thoughts below are adapted from my response.

Picturing Heaven

Sometimes, the Bible uses fixed terms for heaven (a place with “pillars”, “foundations”, “gates”, “windows” and “golden streets”). Jesus told his disciples, “I go to prepare a place for you.” and called that place his “Father’s house” (John 14:2). He also described heaven as God’s “throne” (Matthew 5:34). The apostle John also envisioned heaven with a throne surrounded by twenty-four thrones, a crystal sea, angels, a scroll, harps, trumpets, a temple and much more. He also envisioned heaven and earth passing away, to be replaced with “a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1); two different realms, one temporary and the other eternal.

Such tangible terms, however, do not mean heaven can be found on a map or captured in a camera. According to the apostle Paul; “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him. (1 Corinthians 2:9). He used metaphors like a twinkling eye and a trumpet to explain heaven more as a transformation than a destination (see 1 Corinthians 15:51-52). The Hebrew author wrote figuratively of a “greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation.” (Hebrews 9:11).

If God exists beyond the realms of space and time, would he reside in a place bound by human sensibilities? Why look for God somewhere in the universe when, in reality, He fills it? Through Jeremiah, God asked, “‘Am I only a God nearby . . . and not a God far away?” (Jeremiah 23:23). “Do not I fill the heavens and the earth?” (vs. 24).

Heaven is Personal

Sometimes, Jesus used the word “heaven” as a synonym for God Himself. To swear by heaven, Jesus taught, is to swear by God (see Matthew 23:22). The prodigal son confessed to his father that he had “sinned against heaven…” (Luke 15:21). Such passages tend to personalize rather than localize heaven.

The kingdom of heaven cannot be captured with mere words, but if any word could do it, it would be the preposition in the following promise: “And so we will be with the Lord forever.” (1 Thessalonians 4:17). In context, Paul was envisioning Jesus coming “like a thief in the night”, “from heaven”, with a “loud command” and a “trumpet call.” The faithful would be “caught up together” in the clouds to meet him. He would came not to stay on earth but to take us home to be “with” God. His purpose is personal.

Like God, heaven is both transcendent and accessible. It’s where God dwells and where the redeemed are destined to live forever. Asking where heaven is a bit like asking where God is. If being with God is not your desire, you may not like heaven.

Dual Citizenship

After painting a fiery picture of the apocalypse, the apostle Peter asked a practical question: “Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be?” (2 Peter 3:11). His answer: “You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.” Living a holy life on earth is not the agent of our eternal salvation but the product of our trust and hope in a merciful God, not in our navigational skills.

Paul saw saints as dual citizens of earth and heaven. For him, “to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21), but to live on in the body meant “fruitful labor” (vs. 22). He believed we were made to be “clothed with our heavenly dwelling,” and “so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life” (2 Corinthians 5:4-5). And this heavenly hope empowers us to live better lives here and now.

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963)

Christians care deeply about human events. But no matter what happens here, God is still on His throne in heaven where our real citizenship remains. We identify with C.S. Lewis who said, “Perhaps civilization will never be safe until we care for something else more than we care for it.” (God in the Dock, 1942). In other words, the less we care for God and heaven, the less safe we are on earth.

Photo Credits:

Featured Image


C.S. Lewis

Going to Heaven, Part I

This came to me in a personal e-mail from a Stanford University professor:

    I view the focus on going to heaven as a selfish aspect of Christian faith that I refuse to embrace…l I’m not convinced that what matters MOST is going to heaven, not if that leads to hell on earth.

POW returning home
Is it selfish for a prisoner of war to want to go home and see his family? Is it egocentric for a wayward son yearning for pig food to want to return to his father’s house? Jesus called it “coming to his senses.” (Luke 15:17)

Desire is not synonymous with selfishness. Jesus appealed to our best desire when he said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8). It is no vice to desire that for which we were made–eternity with our Maker.

C.S. Lewis (1898 – 1963) answered this objection with a similar point, saying, “Marriage is the proper reward for the real lover and he is not mercenary for desiring it.” (from. The Weight of Glory, a sermon delivered at Oxford, England on June 8, 1941). Lewis went further, noting that God actually finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. In the same sermon, he wrote:

    We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

I also question the professor’s suggestion that longing for heaven leads to hell on earth. Completely unlike Lewis, Adolf Hitler held the desire for heaven in great disdain. He thought it took the people’s minds off of seeking supremacy here and now. Hitler loved to tell a story about the fruitful garden he tended compared with a nearby weed patch which he neglected and called “God’s garden.” His point was that reliance upon God diminishes our focus on being productive on earth. Hitler preached, “We don’t want people who keep one eye on the life in the hereafter. We need free men who feel and know that God is in themselves.” (quoted by Hermann Rauschning in Hitler Speaks, 1939).

Harz National Park
When it comes to tending gardens, I’ll take God over Hitler any day. Behold the gorgeous Rhineland, the Swiss Alps, Yosemite (California), Harz National Park (Germany) or the Isle of Skye in Scotland. Not bad, eh? Moreover, it was actually Hitler’s unheavenly focus that, in his case at least, led to a lot of hell on earth.

C.S. Lewis again affirmed the desire for heaven in his classic, Mere Christianity:

    A continual looking forward to the eternal world is not a form of escapism or wishful thinking… If you read history, you will find that the Christians who did the most for the present world were just those who thought the most of the next. (Book III, Chapter 10, ‘Hope’)

Lewis comfortably carried his desire to be with God in heaven alongside his desire to live well here on earth. In Mere Christianity, he advised, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in.’ Aim at earth and you will get neither.”


The professor cited above proceeded to ask me where I thought heaven was; a question I plan to take up in part II. .


Photo Credits:

Featured Image

Harz National Park

POW Returning Home

America’s First Lady!

She was born in Louisville, Kentucky, to a riverboat engineer and his musician wife in 1898. She learned to love music and wanted to teach it. In 1918, a voice contest intercepted her and sent her on an amazing journey through Chicago, New York, and Hollywood.

Near the end of her journey, in 1985, Irene Marie Dunne (1898 – 1990) was awarded the highest possible honor bestowed upon a performing artist for her contributions to the arts and humanities: The Kennedy Center Award. At the White House reception for the honorees, President Ronald Reagan aptly said, “You have enhanced life—you have moved us and made us laugh, made us cheer and made our souls soar.”

Dunne grew up with the Mississippi riverboat culture. She later recalled, “No triumph of either my stage or screen career has ever rivaled the excitement of trips down the Mississippi on the river boats with my father.” This changed when her father died in 1909 and the family moved to Madison, Indiana, where she was remembered by a neighbor as “a friendly and happy girl.” Well-grounded in her Catholic faith, in patriotism and in Hoosier values, Irene grew up to became one of the greatest screen performers of all time, excelling in serious drama, screwball comedy and musicals.

In 1928, Irene met and married Frank Griffin, a New York dentist, to whom she remained devoted until his death in 1965. She never removed her wedding ring as an actress, regardless of the part. They adopted a baby girl in 1936.

Always a gracious, elegant and dignified professional, she invariably elevated her audience’s notion of American womanhood like no celebrity in our history. She soon became known as The First Lady of Hollywood.

When the screwball comedy genre surfaced in Hollywood, exciting new rolls opened up for women. In some cases, leading men were reduced to puppets under the sway of a headstrong independent woman complicating his life. For others, it was a ditzy blonde or a hot bombshell causing him fits. However, Irene Dunne topped this genre with a one-foot-in-reality approach that combined a quick wit with a rich dignity.

In all her roles, she depicted emotionally stable and strong women who do not take that strength at the expense of men. Leading men didn’t get the best of her but they got the best of themselves from being with her. Her strength was not limited to her acting roles. In one case when she was subjected to disgusting and disrespectful harassment from a major co-star, she stood up to the nonsense and threatened to walk off the project. She w was no milquetoast victim.

Dunne’s off-screen life was above reproach. Following her film career, she turned to Republican politics, business and flourished in philanthropic and charitable efforts for her church, the American Red Cross, American Cancer Society, Boy Scouts of America and many other causes on behalf of the underfed, underprivileged and disinherited. Her highest charitable priority was St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, California. She raised more than $20 million as President and then supporter of the St. John’s Hospital Foundation. In 1963, she harnessed all the biggest names in Hollywood to help make the classic western How the West Was Won and to donate proceeds to St. John’s. The Irene Dunne Guild is instrumental to this day in supporting St. John’s.

Dunne received three honorary doctorate degrees in recognition of her work in music, cancer research and for her fidelity to the principles of her faith in public and private life. She once said, “Trying to build the brotherhood of man without the Fatherhood of God is like having the spokes of a wheel without the hub.” She obliterated any pseudo distinction between being good and being nice. Unable to disparage her decency, the best that the more prurient side of Hollywood could do was ignore her. Thus, her memory has been poorly kept. As one hungry tabloid journalist said of her, “She is bad copy but a delight to know.”

Film Highlights:

  • 1931 – Cimarron earned Irene the first of five Academy Award nominations.
  • 1936 – Showboat featured her exceptional singing talents and built her confidence for trying romantic comedy.
  • 1937 – The Awful Truth displayed a stellar comedic chemistry between Dunne and costar Cary Grant.
  • 1939 – Love Affair teamed her with the debonair Charles Boyer and is one of the most engaging romances ever filmed. It garnered six Academy Award nominations in the most competitive year in the history of the Academy.
  • 1941 – Penny Serenade portrayed how parenthood can challenge a marriage. It also dealt with the joys and struggles of adoption, something with which Dunne identified closely. Also in 1941, she sold war bonds and became a founding member of The Hollywood Victory Committee, organizing efforts to entertain and encourage troops. She also appeared with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and performed with the Philadelphia Symphony.
  • 1944 – The White Cliffs of Dover was a war-time salute to our British allies. Dunne said, “I don’t think it smacks of propaganda, but if it does then I am glad.”
  • 1948 – I Remember Mama is my favorite. Irene plays the pennywise matriarch of an immigrant Norwegian family in 1910. Never has motherhood been more elevated on film than by Dunne in this down-to-earth “philosopher mom” role.
  • Her Legacy in Charitable and Civic Causes.

  • 1949 –Notre Dame presented Irene Dunne with The Laetare Medal, the highest honor bestowed upon a Catholic layperson. She was also named vice-chairman for the American Red Cross.
  • 1951 – Presented with the Lateran Cross.
  • 1953 – Received the Award of Merit from the Sister Elizabeth Kenny Foundation for raising funds to fight polio.
  • 1957 – Appointed by President Eisenhower as a special US delegate to the United Nations. She addressed the General Assembly on October 4, 1957 on behalf of refugee relief efforts.
  • 1958 – Named Indiana Woman of the Year.
  • 1965 – First woman elected to Technicolor’s board of directors. She was also the first woman to receive the Bellarmine College Medal for her contribution to the arts.
  • 1967 – Governor Ronald Reagan appointed her to the board of the California Arts Commission. Her 3-year tenure elevated the arts in many realms, especially for the handicapped–as seen in her efforts supporting sculpture for the blind.
  • 1968 – Named one of Colorado’s Women of achievement.
  • Her Legacy in Quotes:

  • “Audiences grew to know exactly what to expect from a film star. Joan Crawford would more than likely be a fallen woman; Garbo, a woman of mystery; Irene Dunne, a charming well-bred always loveable lady.” ~ Katherine Hepburn, actress.
  • “The sweetest woman with whom I have ever acted. She is an actress to her fingertips and radiates a charm I have never found in all my 25 years of acting.” ~ Maria Ouspenskaya (1876 – 1949).
  • “Her quality, refinement, gorgeous sense of humor, lovely singing voice… we could always pint to her outstanding example as a woman and a star… always the lady, charming and fun.” ~ Joan Leslie, actress.
  • “Her womanly charms will endure through the ages.” ~ Andrew Sarris, film professor.
  • “A beloved public figure, not in the fantasy sense but as a poised, intelligent and gracious vision of American womanhood.” ~ Walter James, 1990.
  • “She is the best, up there in a class by herself.” Jimmy Stewart, actor.
  • “Losing her is like losing a member of the family. She is a special lady who will live in our hearts forever.” President Ronald Reagan, 1990.
  • “She spoke of having a sense of purpose greater than herself; of living life ‘in a state of grace’ as though she could live as an instrument by which other’s lives might be improved… She was, bar none, the finest example of character I have ever known.” ~ Mark Shinnick, grandson.
  • “If Irene Dunne isn’t the First Lady of Hollywood, then she’s the last one.” ~ Gregory LaCava, Director.
  • All in all, she was a class act.


    Photo Credits

    Irene in The Awful Truth

    Irene Dunne