Most forms of Protestant Christianity seem to say that there are only two outcomes after death: heaven or hell. The idea is that all people are born under "original sin" and are not good enough to enter heaven. To enter heaven, one needs to be perfect, and the only way to do that for a human is to somehow "accept Jesus" and be saved. Some people say "believe on Jesus" but I don't understand what exactly this means in modern English.
The word translated as hell is "gehinnom", which is portrayed differently in Orthodox Judaism. This Jewish point of view may have developed around 300BC - 300AD. It says that people's souls get purified for a finite amount of time, where they pay for their sins, and then they go to heaven. The souls of the very wicked may be annihilated, basically what the atheists expect to happen anyway.
It seems to me that a binary outcome of heaven & hell presents many problems. I will list 5 and I hope your answers can address them:
1) Moral problems:
Either one needs Jesus to be saved or not. That is why many missionaries yell "REPENT YE WHILE YOU STILL CAN" and why the inquisition considered it better to torture people holding heretical views in this life than let them die in their unbelief. We have in Acts 4:12:
"Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved."
However, if one needs the name of Jesus to be saved, then clearly salvation would not be available to those who never heard about Jesus. That would mean millions of people were created with absolutely no chance to get into heaven:
- Chinese people in the year 50AD
- Any people outside the "cone" of the gospel
- Any people who heard the gospel preached but not convincingly enough
- Any mentally disabled people
- Any children who died by the age of 5
2) Logical problems:
However, the Bible also teaches that individuals who don't hear about Jesus would be saved:
Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these."
Also it is clear that righteous people in the Old Testament were going to have a good afterlife. And yet they didn't know about Jesus. In early Church teaching there was this concept: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harrowing_of_Hell but it is not being referenced much these days.
So it seems that in fact there is a way to get saved without knowing the name of Jesus. It is not clear how the deal changed for those people after Jesus died on the cross and resurrected on the third day. Is the new deal that anyone who hears the gospel is now under a new covenant? In that case, aren't the missionaries actually reducing people's chances by preaching - at least before they heard about it, they had the ordinary chance of finite payment for finite sins.
3) Marketing problems.
Instead of being a message of hope, Protestant Christianity actually seems to say that most people in history have actually wound up not going to heaven. And I guess I don't have to spell out the alternative. While it may not be Dante's inferno, the imagery is here:
42“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea. 43If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. b 45And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. c 47And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, 48where
“ ‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’d 49Everyone will be salted with fire.
50“Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”
OK I have no idea what's with the sudden veering into talking about salt. But the words above echo Isaiah 66:24:
And they shall go forth, and look upon the dead bodies of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh.
Isaiah seems to be describing the dead bodies and not hell, but his words have been used in the NT to describe a far worse situation. Now I don't think the above verses are very literal -- they talk about plucking one's eye out, they talk about people in God's Kingdom hypothetically missing an eye -- it just doesn't sound like a straight solid description of something.
Protestants indeed try to sugar coat all this and say that it's the humans who are "rejecting" God's Son and that being in hell basically means being away from God. Regardless, they admit it is eternal and extremely unpleasant. Why couldn't people have a chance to accept Jesus and be saved AFTER they die and learn the truth? Maybe they can, if we interpret this passage a certain way:
Peter 4:6 For this is the reason the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead, so that they might be judged according to human standards in regard to the body, but live according to God in regard to the spirit.
4) Problems in Definition of Sin
First of all what is sin? According to the Judaism of the time of Jesus, Gentiles did NOT have to follow Jewish Law. Instead, they had to follow the 7 Noahide Laws only:
Many gentiles were able to follow these laws perfectly, even without knowing about them. What is the definition of sin for these people? Why would Paul say that the purpose of the Law of Moses was to give us an impossible standard to live up to when that law was only for the Jews?
The OFFICIAL CHURCH THAT JESUS ESTABLISHED wrote an official letter which is quoted in Acts 15, which seems to affirm the Noahide laws only for Gentiles:
“This letter is from the apostles and elders, your brothers in Jerusalem. It is written to the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia. Greetings!
24 “We understand that some men from here have troubled you and upset you with their teaching, but we did not send them! 25 So we decided, having come to complete agreement, to send you official representatives, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, 26 who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 We are sending Judas and Silas to confirm what we have decided concerning your question.
28 “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay no greater burden on you than these few requirements: 29 You must abstain from eating food offered to idols, from consuming blood or the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality. If you do this, you will do well. Farewell.”
Elsewhere in the book of Acts, Paul is told to pay for mens' purification rites to show that "there is no truth in these reports about you" that he was teaching Jews not to follow the law. So it seems that the Jews had to continue to follow the law, and the gentiles never had to. So how does the doctrine of original sin even make sense in this framework? It seems the ideas of the Church established by Jesus were very different than what we find in Paul's epistles.
In any event, if we are no longer under the Law, and the law is powerless to save, it's not clear to me who decides what is sin and what is not sin. Once a person accepts Jesus why is it ok to get a tattoo or to eat pork but not ok to engage in homosexual sex or premarital sex -- when both come from the Law of Moses to the Israelites? How did Christians decide to separate the Law into "moral" and "ceremonial" and if the basis for moral vs ceremonial is harming others, then why is consensual sex outside of marriage considered "moral"?
5) Finally, problems in definition of heaven
Where is heaven, is it in space? Is it the same as the Kingdom of God, or different? Where are the souls of people who die before the Judgment day? They haven't been judged yet?
John 3:13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.
2 Kings 2:11 They were walking along, talking, when suddenly a fiery chariot and fiery horses appeared and separated the two of them. Then Elijah went to heaven in a windstorm.
Acts 1:9 Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. 10 And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, 11 who also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.”